This is the seventh in a series of interviews with authors about their experiences dipping their toes into the epublishing pool.
Spinetingler Magazine: When did you write Bye Bye Baby?
Allan Guthrie: I pitched the idea to an editor at a local publishing house in July 2009. She loved it, only problem was she needed the manuscript by the end of October and I was extremely busy. But we signed a contract and somehow I managed to deliver it on time.
What led to the decision to e-publish Bye Bye Baby?
Well, remember that manuscript I had to deliver by the end of October? That was so the publisher could get it in their catalogue with the intention of publishing in July 2010. Unfortunately market conditions caused a rethink on the schedule and they pruned their list way back. Bye Bye Baby was delayed until July 2011. And a few months later, it was delayed even further. As things stand at the moment, we’re looking at a provisional release date of 2013. Since I’d been telling people it was going to be available in 2010, I felt I had to do something to fill in the gap, so Barrington Stoke, the publisher, very kindly released the digital rights to me so I could e-publish it myself.
How did you decide on the price point?
I started off with the notion that a new eBook, even a short one like mine, should be priced at $2.99. First two months it was on sale saw very few readers prepared to pay that amount. I’m very grateful to them, too, but I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if I’d priced the book at $0.99. So at the start of December I gave the lower price a shot, and it was an eye-opener. You can see the difference it made from the sales figures I’ve supplied in answer to the next question.
I’ve discovered of late that it’s very hard to maintain a consistent price across all formats though. If you charge $0.99 at Amazon, for instance, they’ll convert that to around 72p. However, if you charge $0.99 with Apple, then Smashwords — who act as the Apple distributor for self-publishers — will price it at 49p. So I’ve had to rejig things a bit to try and make it fair across the board. At the moment, it isn’t, so pricing is a work in progress.
Would you like to share and or talk about the sales results so far?
Absolutely. I love transparency.
Kindle UK sales:
Oct 2010: 6
Nov 2010: 5
Dec 2010: 209
Jan 2011: 2021
Feb so far: 1851
As of the time of writing, Bye Bye Baby is #10 in the overall UK Kindle Store chart.
Kindle US sales total 80. I don’t have any reliable figures yet for other formats but the figures I do have are not significant, around 50 across various formats, although it’s not stocked at the iBookstore yet.
Any feedback from readers?
Interestingly, a lot of naysayers claim that cheap e-books are bought en masse and without much thought simply to fill up newly purchased eReaders. I’d politely suggest that that’s bollocks. As of this moment, I have seven 5-star customer reviews on Amazon for Bye Bye Baby. Which is one more than I’ve had for my entire print backlist of five novels and two novellas in six years! And I’ve had some great responses from readers to a couple of threads I started on the UK forums.
Is this something you will consider doing again?
In fact I’ve already e-published a digital version of another novella, Killing Mum, which was first published in paperback in 2009. Kindle sales in the UK in January were 639, but already 680 this month. And yes, no question I’ll be doing this again. Repeatedly, I expect.
What were your hopes and expectations?
Hopes? I had hoped to sell a couple of hundred copies of Bye Bye Baby over a month or two and then maybe one or two copies a day after that. Since Killing Mum wasn’t an original title, I didn’t have much in the way of hopes at all. Couple of dozens copies, maybe. Expectations? None. Those just lead to heartache.
Any consideration to e publishing a novel?
Definitely. Serious consideration.
You recently started a blog called ebooks That Sell. What are the goals of the blog?
Very simple: to showcase ebooks that sell and bring them to the attention of a wider audience. I love the indie spirit and as an agent I know there are an awful lot of excellent novels that never going to find a home in traditional publishing these days. Not that eBooks That Sell is designed to promote indie authors specifically. They just happen to write a lot of eBooks that sell! I’m planning on a crime e-book blog too, which will be, unsurprisingly, about e-published crime fiction.
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.
Yes, but it’s also opened the door for books that are deemed ‘too small’ for the major publishers to find their audience. And as the print market shrinks and publishers become ever more risk-averse, that’s an increasing number of books that aren’t going to find a traditional home. On balance, I’d say readers would rather have the choice. I know I would. I like the kind of fiction that I’m repeatedly told is a hard sell. I’d love to see more of it reach a wider audience. As for the ease of e-publishing deterring readers from buying self-published works, possibly. But the chances of really bad books coming to your attention without the backing of publishers … well, I don’t think that’s hugely likely. Perversely, it needs a publisher to create serious attention for a really bad book. You don’t have to look far to find examples of that. And of course with ebooks, you can always sample what you’re buying first.
This raises an obvious question. For writers starting out today, with few or no substantial publishing credits to their name, what should they do?
There’s no simple answer to that since each case is unique. But one thing I’d say is that if you don’t have any credits to your name, shame on you. Go get some. Print or ebook, publisher or indie, makes no difference in that regard.
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?
Not only likely but happening right now. Amanda Hocking’s selling in six figures. 100,000 in December alone. And I heard last week that she’d topped 500,000 in total. Karen McQuestion’s A Scattered Life has sold over 100,000 copies as well — before AmazonEncore picked her up, I believe. It’s only a matter of time before someone hits seven figures.
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?
I don’t see it, no, not for fiction. Hardcover, paperback, ebook, doesn’t really matter. It’s just you, the words on the page, and your imagination, and that’s the draw of reading for me. Sound effects would be a huge irritation. If I want sound effects, I’d far rather listen to radio drama. I may well be atypical, of course.
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?
Bottom line: if authors find that publishers are continuing to offer a valuable service for a fair price, there shouldn’t be any problem.
Are the traditional publishers really as far behind as they seem to be?
It depends on the publisher. Some have embraced it, seen it as an opportunity. I heard Jenny Todd from Canongate talk on a marketing panel a couple of weeks ago, and she had her finger right on the digital pulse. She was making some very interesting comments about the evidence they’d found to support the idea that readers frequently buy books in multiple formats when there’s a choice — paper, audio, electronic — particularly when they’re bundled together as a package. Some publishers are indeed a little behind the curve. But publishing does tend to be a slow-moving industry. Most of the time, I like that about it. Gives you time to reflect and consider. But sometimes it’s helpful to get a good kick up the arse.
Do you think that publishers are going to change their percentages and dealings with authors to avoid losing writers?
Some will, some won’t. The thing is: despite self-publishing being an easier option than ever before, a lot of authors are going to hate the idea. It’s still a lot of work and many authors would rather write than organize covers and format text files. I sympathise, believe me. And then there’s the upfront costs and lack of advances associated with self-publishing, plus editorial and possible publicity expenses. Very significant variables in the overall equation.
What do you think the publishers have to do to remain competitive and retain their talent over the next few years?
They need to continue to provide a service that excels. We hear a lot that publishing is a business. Well, so is writing. If an author can sell more books and make more money by self-publishing, those are usually going to be the determining factors. There are other considerations, of course. But by and large, authors want readers and they want to buy time to write. If publishers are able to continue to make those things happen, great. If not, a lot of authors will try to do it themselves. One other observation: self-publishing gives authors the opportunity to publish books that their primary print publisher might not be well-positioned to publish. So it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. We could find publishing and self-publishing running side by side in a kind of digital symbiosis.
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.
There’s no need to make demands. According to their website, Amazon will give you a refund within seven days of purchase if you’re unhappy with your ebook. Refunds show up pretty frequently on most of the sales screens I’ve seen, so there’s definitely a procedure in place.
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?
If a book sounds interesting, read it and review it. Why not? Its provenance shouldn’t matter. And if the book turns out to be good, definitely consider it for the awards. Readers want to hear about good books. They like variety. They like choice. They like to discover new books, new authors, different voices. With regard to ebooks, my guess is that most publishers will be creating e-only imprints very soon, if they haven’t already, so the option to review paper books only might not be a viable long-term strategy. As a writer, I’d like to see a level playing field. I don’t believe that because a book is endorsed by New York or London that it’s intrinsically better than one which isn’t. As an agent, I’ve read an awful lot of extremely good books that have never found a home. In many cases it’s not because of the quality of the book, but due to publishers’ inability to see how to market it successfully in the current climate. Now indie authors have the opportunity to show publishers the way. And in many cases they’re doing it in some style.
What are your thoughts on the e-publishing experiment so far?
I’m a little stunned. The print market is shrinking, there’s little doubt of that. 6% in the UK since 2007, I just saw. But the extent to which the ebook market is expanding to compensate is mind-boggling. In fact it’s way beyond compensation. This is a massive, massive market expansion. It reminds me of the pulps, or the paperback originals of the ’50s. I sold over 2000 ebooks last week. That’s insane. Somebody call the men in white coats for me.
What is the book about and why should Spinetingler readers go buy it now?
Bye Bye Baby is a police thriller in which an inexperienced cop becomes embroiled in an extremely unusual kidnapping. Spinetingler readers should go buy it because they’re astute, discerning readers of immaculate taste and extreme wisdom. And they’re beautiful too. Every single last one of them.
Allan Guthrie is an award-winning crime novelist and literary agent who lives in Edinburgh. His work includes Slammer, Savage Night, Hard Man, Kiss Her Goodbye, Two-Way Split, Bye Bye Baby, Killing Mum and Kill Clock.