By L.J. Sellers
I spent 20 years looking for a publisher, and by time I found one, the industry had changed so much, I soon realized I no longer needed one. At the beginning of last year, I had two books in a detective series in print, but only one was on Kindle. I was patiently waiting for my publisher to upload the second novel. Overall, my books weren’t selling well enough to justify the money I spent every month mailing out promotional material and review copies. I seriously considered giving up the series, even though hundreds of readers had contacted me with rave reviews asking for more.
In March, everything changed. My husband and I were both laid off our jobs, and I decided I had to stop wasting time and money on things that weren’t working and focus on things that were. What wasn’t working for me was my small publisher, which couldn’t get my books into bookstores. What was working for a lot of authors was to self-publish their backlists on Kindle.
I thought about the two standalone thrillers I had written before I started the Jackson series. I’d once had a big-name agent who came close to selling them, so I knew they were publishable. The only risk was the money I needed to spend on editing and cover design. I decided it was an investment I was willing to make, with the idea that the books would begin to produce a steady income. So I raided my little retirement account and considered it a small-business loan to myself.
I set aside the new series novel I was working on and rewrote both thrillers to update them and include a cameo for my detective. My publisher had offered a contract for one of the thrillers, but I hadn’t signed it yet because the book wasn’t scheduled to be released until late 2012. That seemed like an eternal and foolish wait. I had a mortgage to pay immediately. So I let my publisher know I was withdrawing my standalone to self-publish it.
When the standalones came back from the editor, I ended up spending money on a formatter too, after deciding the learning curve was too steep. I wanted professional e-books and I wanted them done quickly, so I hired Booknook.biz. In August, I published the two thrillers (The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect) on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. At that point, I had one foot in each world. I had two self-published books on Kindle and two series books from my publisher (The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For)…none of which were selling that well.
I committed to spending at least two hours a day in promotional efforts to see if I could gain traction. I got more active on Goodreads and I also did back-to-back book giveaways on the site just for the exposure. I wrote a bunch of guest blogs and posted everywhere I could. More important, I started participating in several e-reader forums simply by commenting in conversations. It was an indirect form of promotion, with my books in my signature line, but it was effective.
My sales jumped significantly and readers posted great reviews. I started thinking about how much money I could make if my publisher wasn’t keeping most of the profits from my series.
In September, my third Jackson book (Thrilled to Death) faced the same difficulty getting into bookstores. After having to cancel several book signings, I decided to withdraw from my press. It took a while to make the call because the idea of giving up another publishing contract seemed antithetical to what I had worked toward for two decades. I knew that once I took back my series, I’d lose the stamp of approval that comes with having a publisher, but I felt I had no choice. For many writers, this is what it comes down to: Do I want to make money or do I want to have a publisher?
With no job and little freelance work, I needed to make a living. So I called my publisher and begged to be released. We had signed a contract for the fourth Jackson story (Passions of the Dead), but the manuscript had not been edited, so no time or money had been invested. My publisher was not happy, but granted my requests. (The one advantage to having a small press is the flexibility.)
That was a difficult decision (and conversation), and I’m still experiencing some fallout professionally as well. International Thriller Writers won’t announce my new releases, and I’m not likely to ever do another bookstore signing. But I decided I could live with that.
Next, I sent my three Jackson files to be converted to e-books, then uploaded my versions to Amazon, as my publisher took hers down. At that point, I had five books selling on Kindle, and my numbers were getting better every month—because I kept my commitment to promote for two hours every day. While the fourth book, still in manuscript form, was out for editing and cover design, I bought an inexpensive ad on the Kindle Nation newsletter and sales took a huge leap.
In October, when I released the fourth Jackson story on Kindle, I dropped the price of the first book in the series to $.99 and promoted the price change everywhere. I also turned down freelance work for two weeks so I could promote full time. It was a financial risk, but sales for the first book skyrocketed, and a week later, sales for the follow-up stories nearly doubled.
In November, Mystery Scene magazine gave my series a terrific review that pushed both e-book and print sales. (As info: I’ve also made all my books available in print through CreateSpace.)
It’s interesting to note that for the fourth Jackson book, I made more money from Kindle sales in the first two weeks than I had made from my publisher in two years. If I had stayed with that contract, the book would not have been released until this summer. Life is too short to wait for someone else’s publishing schedule.
At this point, I have six e-books on the market, with all the royalties coming to me. The Sex Club consistently ranks in one of the top three spots on Kindle’s police procedural list, and the three other Jackson books are almost always in the top 20 or 25 on the same list. I’m selling on the UK Kindle as well, and in January, I sold more than 12,000 copies in the combined markets.
I’m excited to report that I have a fifth Detective Jackson story (Dying for Justice) coming out in April, and for the first time in 20 years, I’m finally making a living as a novelist.
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series: The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, Thrilled to Death, Passions of the Dead, and Dying for Justice. Her novels have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler magazines, and all four are on Amazon Kindle’s bestselling police procedural list. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers: The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect. When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.