This is the second in a series of interviews with authors about their experiences dipping their toes into the epublishing pool.
Chris Holm is the author of the short story collection 8 Pounds
Spinetingler: The short story market as moved over to ebooks pretty quickly. Was there ever any consider to try and shop around 8 Pounds?
Chris Holm: God, no. The fact is, single-author short story collections aren’t exactly in high demand, and a single-author collection from a relative unknown is pretty much a nonstarter. There simply isn’t market enough to justify the print costs. I suspect if I had shopped 8 POUNDS around, I would’ve been laughed out of the room. And yet, as an ebook, 8 Pounds has thrived. Which, as someone who reads ebooks and print books interchangeably, is fascinating to me. There’s a lot of chatter about whether ebooks will replace print books, or whether they’re a passing fad, but my personal experience — as a reader and as a writer — seems to indicate they’re more likely to compliment one another than to compete.
What led to the decision to e-publish 8 Pounds?
Boredom. Hubris. Idle curiosity.
Actually, the truth of it is, I realized I had a pile of stories just gathering dust — all published, and all either out of print or buried in an online archive somewhere. I figured maybe there were some folks out there who’d be interested in reading them, and maybe there weren’t, but the absence of up-front costs to e-publishing made finding out a no-brainer. Lucky for me, it turned out to be the former.
How did you decide on the price point?
I think any author assigning a price-point to their own work needs to do a gut-check, and ask themselves what they’re really looking to get out of their release. In the case of 8 Pounds, I’d been paid for most of those stories once already, and what I really wanted was to expand my audience, to get in front of as many new eyeballs as possible. That meant cheap. So I bit the bullet and priced it at $0.99. That means for each copy sold, I get a whopping $0.35. But it also means an awful lot of people (87%!) who stumble across it wind up buying it, and that ain’t nothing.
Would you like to share and or talk about the sales results so far?
This is the part where I disappoint any readers hoping to get some serious nitty-gritty, ’cause I’m not one to kiss and tell. But I’m happy to talk generally about my experience. 8 Pounds went on sale in mid-October, and if you’d asked me to talk about my sales expectations come the beginning of November, I would’ve said I’d be lucky to sell 200 copies. But every month since its release, my sales have increased exponentially, and they show no signs of slowing down. Now my initial best-case scenario of 200 looks pretty darn quaint.
Any feedback from readers?
The response, I’m delighted to say, has been tremendous. 8 Pounds wound up on seven Best-of-2010 lists, and garnered glowing reviews both on and off of Amazon. It’s introduced my writing to tons of people who’d never heard of me before, many of whom have been incredibly gracious in their championing of me on Twitter and in the blogosphere. 8 Pounds was an experiment of sorts, as well as a labor of love, so it’s both humbling and gratifying to see it so enthusiastically embraced.
Is this something you will consider doing again?
If the circumstances were right, absolutely. But I think it’s telling that I haven’t rushed out and self-published an old trunk novel or anything. Publishing houses are still the gate-keepers, and there’s no substitute for working with a professional editor to really make your work sing. I was fortunate to have a bunch of published stories to draw from in putting together this collection, but I’d be mighty leery about the pitfalls of self-editing.
What are your hopes and expectations? Do you hope to create enough buzz to get a print publisher interested?
Going in, I really didn’t have much in the way of expectations; this was very much a let’s see what happens sort of deal for me. But my hopes, as I mentioned, were to expand my audience, as well as prove to any prospective publishers there’s a market for my fiction. In both regards, I think I’ve been pretty successful.
The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past few years. For you, what’s been the most surprising change? What changes are having the biggest impact?
I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on the publishing industry, but I don’t think you have to be to see brick and mortar bookstores closing left and right, and e-readers transitioning almost overnight from curios to a major chunk of the reading market.
The Kindle seems to be a double-edged sword. It’s simplified self-publishing, and hindered predatory presses that exploit aspiring authors, but it’s also helped open the floodgates to unedited works that could deter readers from purchasing self-published works.
This raises an obvious question. For writers starting out today, with few or no substantial publishing credits to their name, what should they do? Is it likely writers who don’t have the prior approval of established publishing houses can make a name for themselves and achieve the level of success some established authors are presently enjoying?
There’s no doubt self e-publishing will have its success stories — but I suspect they’ll be few and far between. And as you mention, a lot of the stars of Kindle are established authors who’ve brought their fan base with them. But I’m not sure I’m qualified to go dispensing advice to fledgling writers as to how to make a name for themselves; I’m still working it out myself.
We’re getting to the point where print-on-demand can mean producing a book in a pretty short window of time, and ordering stock of items one at a time is a possibility with books. Do you see e-readers as a bridge to a future revolution in storytelling that allows for a whole new type of experience that incorporates reading and viewing and other sense, such as being able to hear the wind through earphones as you’re reading text, or hear music or a specific background sound? Or are the differences in the audiences too great?
My guess is, we readers are too curmudgeonly to take to that sort of thing. At some point, the kind of multimedia experience you’re talking about would simply cease being a book. And my own personal experience with e-readers suggests their success is directly dependent on their ability to disappear — to emulate the experience of reading a paper book.
I’ve often thought that publishing was just a bit of technology away from opening the door to publishing companies started by authors, much like record labels sometimes are. We’ve seen a lot of musicians start with a known label and establish themselves, and then start their own label to enjoy a greater share of the profits and artistic control, but they also sign on other artists and the label produces music by other artists. That seems to be more possible within publishing than ever before. For example, what if Dan Brown or James Patterson started their own publishing companies? Wouldn’t that be an enormous blow to their publishers, who make millions off their books?
Uh, yes. I guess the question is, is that a bad thing? I have no idea.
Of course, the music industry is very different from the publishing industry. If a band puts out their own music, they’re an indie band. There’s no stigma to that at all, and in some circles, there’s a certain cache to it. If an author puts out his or her own book, they’re self-published. Huge stigma. Not sure why that is, and yet, it’s hard to deny even I look at self-published works with a healthy dose of skepticism — skepticism I tend not to have when buying a self-released record.
Are the traditional publishers really as far behind as they seem to be? Do you think that publishers are going to change their percentages and dealings with authors to avoid losing writers? What do you think the publishers have to do to remain competitive and retain their talent over the next few years?
I have no idea. Smarter folks than I can try to tackle those questions; I’m just a guy who likes to make up stories.
I’m sure it’s possible that at some point, complaints and demands for refunds could become enough of a headache for Amazon to do something. Meanwhile, what do we authors do? What about reviewers and organizations? Let’s use Spinetingler as an example. We’re having an on-going dilemma. Should we run reviews of books that are self-published? Should we consider them for the awards? Behind the scenes, the writers behind such works argue their position. We’ve only opened the e-book door to anthologies, because of the realities of the short story market. What advice would you give us about how to proceed? What would you, as a writer, like to see happen?z
Well, first off, I’d recommend Spinetingler review any- and everything I put out, just to be on the safe side.
Seriously, though, I suspect this is one of those gray areas that’s going to have to stay a gray area — and the problem isn’t limited to ebooks. Charles Ardai ran afoul of the MWA’s policy regarding self-publishing back in ’07 with his spectacular Songs of Innocence, which was ineligible for an Edgar on the grounds he owned the imprint that published it. I point that out not because I have a better suggestion for how the rules be written, but simply to illustrate any blanket exclusion of self-published work from consideration for awards and reviews runs the risk of ignoring some truly worthwhile material. And yet obviously, were Spinetingler to throw open the doors to self-published work, the sheer volume would no doubt prove paralyzing. Which is to say I’m glad I’m not the guy who has to figure it all out.
What are your thoughts so far on the e-publishing experiment so far?
Right now, e-publishing is the wild, wild west. Some folks are gonna strike gold. Some folks are gonna starve. And I don’t claim to be wise enough to tell you which are which. But for me, it’s gone well. That’s partly luck, and partly due to reasonable expectations. And I’d like to think working hard to make my collection look and read as professional as any traditional publisher’s ebooks had a little to do with my success as well.
Why should Spinetingler readers go buy it now?
Because you get eight stories — over a hundred print pages — all for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Stories like the Spinetingler-Award-winning “Seven Days of Rain”, and the Derringer-Award finalist “The Big Score.” You get everything from small-town horror to old-school, whiskey-slugging noir, with a touch of coming-of-age adventure thrown in for good measure. And if you act now, you’ll also get my personal how-to video that teaches you to get rich by placing tiny classified ads in papers around the world. (Uh, that last part might not be, strictly speaking, true.)