the great amazon experiment

Drumroll: The Zombies of Hobbiton: Martian Love Story, an 85-page novella, is now available on Amazon.

At nearly 25,000 words, The Zombies of Hobbiton falls squarely into novella territory. This is another way of saying it’s completely unsalable.

Big book publishers wouldn’t touch a story of that length. Even the shortest genres, category romance and such, is expected to crack 60,000 words or so. A sci-fi or horror novel had better run at least 75K. I suppose it’s possible a traditional publisher would sell a few novellas bundled together, or one inserted among an anthology, but frankly, to sell a story of that length, a story that may well take up 20-25% of the anthology’s total page count, you either have to be extremely good or already well-established.

The same rule of thumb applies over at the genre magazines. Duotrope lists 200 paying horror markets and 227 paying sci-fi markets (there is some overlap here). Of these, two pro-paying magazines (that is, markets that pay at least $0.05/word) accept novellas up to 25K words: Fantasy & Science Fiction, at 25K, and Analog, at an impressive 40K. If you place a 25K story at one of these markets, you’ll do pretty well for yourself: F&SF would shell out $1500 for your story (a little more if you’re established), and Analog would pay $1250 ($1500 if you’re a big name). F&SF buys first North American and foreign serial rights with an option on anthology rights. I’m not sure what Analog asks for, but it’s probably similar, meaning you’d still have a bunch of rights left to sell on down the road.

However, F&SF receives somewhere in the ballpark of 2500+ submissions a year while Analog probably sees around 1000+. These are conservative extrapolations; I expect they receive closer to twice that many.

So if you exhaust both those options, you can turn to lower-paying genre markets. Crossed Genres is a pretty nice little zine, and while they hypothetically accept novellas, they’re currently closed to such submissions. Orb Speculative Fiction takes novellas up to 25K words. If you’re a resident of Australia or New Zealand. If accepted, you’ll be paid $50. (Note: I’m very aware of the difficulties in paying authors high rates for their work, and am not criticizing Orb for their pay rates. Just exploring the novella market.) The Red Penny Papers is an interesting-looking zine that wants gothic, pulpy speculative fiction. They’ll serialize works of up to 25K words, paying $0.005/word (i.e. 10K = $50), capping at $100. (Same disclaimer re: rates applies. I like small markets. Simply making a point.) GigaNotoSaurus, a market specifically for longer stories, takes novellas up to 25K and pays $100, and is newish but pretty well-respected.

In total, I see three other SF/F/H magazine markets that will run novellas, paying $25-40 apiece. Anthologies of various pay rates come and go and will sometimes take long stories.

From there, small presses are a fairly viable medium for novellas. A lot of them sell ebooks, but I’m aware of several that will sell actual print novellas. Small press novella markets still aren’t plentiful–I see 10-12 on Duotrope, and strongly suspect there are significantly more out there–but they exist. Most offer a token advance and royalties. Small presses aren’t normally capable of making you rich, but I have met a couple authors who make a living through them.

So maybe my characterization of novellas as a bastard-length medium that’s utterly unsalable is a little hyperbolic. In truth, you’ve got three options:

1) Try to sell them to a magazine. Between all genres, Duotrope shows seven pro-paying markets for works of 25K words or more, with another ~15 paying at lower rates

2) Sell through a small press. This has the usual small press pros and cons: a stamp of legitimacy, formatting and distribution, and possibly a bigger platform than you can provide yourself vs. splitting revenues. (My experience with small presses is limited, but I’ve enjoyed it)

3) Self-publish through Amazon, B&N, etc.

Given that there is no real traditional route available, 2) is the default option if you want a press backing you. Writing this piece has put them on my radar to explore if/when I write my next novella.

When it comes to 1) and 3), they aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. While some magazines may want permanent e-rights that could conflict with your ability to resell your novella through Amazon etc., many don’t, and some of the ones that do are usually willing to take a story offline after 6-12 months. If I thought I had a chance in hell of placing The Zombies of Hobbiton at Analog or F&SF (I think it’s too slapsticky for them, though I could be wrong), I might have tried them first.

But when I look at media to sell novellas through, I see limited options with serious tradeoffs. Some self-publishing advocates would argue this is no more than a microcosm of all current traditional publishing routes–but if nothing else, it’s even worse for novellas, because you simply have almost nothing to lose. From where I sit, the best path is to publish them yourself and see where it leads.

Uh oh!

A few weeks back, I contacted the amazing M.S. Corley about putting together a piece of cover art for The Roar of the Spheres. Yesterday, I got the results:

I am in love with this. Being more verbal than visual, I hadn’t really thought much about what The Roar of the Spheres‘ cover should look like until Mr. Corley asked me for a few ideas and descriptions. His finished product? Isn’t particularly like any of the ideas I sent him.

It’s much, much better.

For reasons beyond my ken, The Battle for Moscow, Idaho & Other Stories is selling like gangbustered hotcakes over on Amazon UK. For Kindle, it’s the #8th-ranked Anthology; in Science Fiction, it’s #14 among all anthologies, just below a volume of Philip K. Dick’s stories and just above a Star Trek novel.

It didn’t take many sales to push it that high, but you know what, that’s fucking badass: a Philip Dick and Star Trek sandwich with me as the meat. Didn’t see that one coming. Here’s to the splendidly refined taste of the United Kingdom!

I haven’t been updating this because there’s been little to report. I’ve had my ebook, When We Were Mutants & Other Stories, up for about 3 months. Here are the facts:

1) It’s sold about 10 copies. Most of those (somewhere between 6 and all) have been to friends, family, and friends of family.

2) I’ve varied the price from $0.99 to $2.99.

3) I did a small amount of self-promotion.

4) On days it sold a copy, its Amazon rank was in the 30-40,000 range. On days it sold two copies, it cracked 10,000.

Here, then, are the conclusions we can reach:

1) If you don’t have a platform, a built-in audience, your guaranteed sales are essentially zero.

2) A low price doesn’t guarantee sales.

3) I have no doubt advertising and self-promotion helps, but you can’t just introduce yourself at Amazon and on kindleboards and expect results.

4) Most ebooks on Amazon sell a trivial amount of copies that won’t even result in a trivial regular income.

More broadly, I don’t doubt venues like this will result in careers for a minor amount of self-published authors. That’s already been proven true. But in my anecdotal experience, it isn’t easy and it’s far from guaranteed. It takes a lot of work and a lot of talent. Huh, that sounds like exactly what it takes to make it in the regular publishing world.

It’s possible a change in covers, or more books available, would bump me up to a small, self-sustaining sales rate. Even then, there’s no guarantee of greater success than what I’m already experiencing.

In terms of making me money and supporting my writing income, then, releasing this story collection has so far been a failure. But I’m glad I put the effort into it for three reasons: 6 of the 8 stories here have already been published, meaning I sacrificed few rights; there was a possibility it would have turned into a small but regular income source; and lastly, it made me learn the skills to format and publish ebooks on Kindle. That itself has already led to job leads for me.

Ultimately, if you take a chance and put in some work, you never know how far it can take you. But for ebook sales, it seems, like in all other things, you’re no likelier to find overnight success than to win the lottery–yet as a corollary, the more tickets you buy, the more likely you are to win. It’s valuable to know both these things before diving into the fray.

Sales of When We Were Mutants & Other Stories picked up a little last week–and I do mean “a little”; that span saw a grand total of three purchases–and I can explain why: again, word of mouth. Someone I know mentioned it to some of their friends, who surfed over, saw it listed at a negligible price, and ordered away.

Conclusions drawn (usual Small Sample Size Theatre caveats apply): word of mouth from trusted sources is a much, much more powerful force than random advertising. The (admittedly limited) self-promotion I made on and Amazon’s board resulted in zero sales. Someone telling their friends “Hey, this stuff is good, you should check it out” resulted in two.

Again, this dataset is so small it risks meaninglessness, but whatever evidence there is points to “word of mouth = $.” “HAI GUYS BUY MY BOOK = 🙁 “

Thoughts on Pricing

I dropped the price from $1.99 to $0.99 for the last week, but that appeared to make no difference. If the material’s worth anything at all, $2 for a couple hundred pages is a bargain. I could be biased by feeling like a fool when I was selling it at $1, but I have a hard time believing the jump from $1 to $2 is enough to scare off legions of penny-pinching ereaders.

While I’m on the subject, Amazon is doing some brilliant things here. Setting a low-end cap of $0.99 is just plain smart, heading off the inevitable race to the bottom that would have resulted without a lower limit. Without that, people would step all over themselves to sell their novels for a penny. Granted, hundreds (thousands?) of people are just giving their work away for free, but at least this way there’s some limit to the ways people can sell themselves short.

Next month, they’ll provide 70% royalties (instead of 35%) for anyone selling their books at $2.99 and up. More brilliance: while this doesn’t force anyone to up their prices, it creates a strong incentive for a soft cap of $2.99. Given these rates, authors who sell at $0.99 will have to sell six times books to match the profits of one sale at $2.99. I consider it unlikely that readers are six times as likely to buy a $0.99 book as a $2.99 book. (For that matter, let’s have some pride here, people. In restaurants, the most-bought bottle of wine is the second-cheapest bottle on the list. No one who offers a $10 blowjob has a full set of teeth. Treat your work like it’s worth the work you put into it.)

Ranting aside.. I can see pricing one work at $0 or $1 to provide a cheaper entrypoint into your other books. I may experiment with that myself by offering one story from WWWM for free when I up the price on the collection to $2.99.

(Immediate update: I just read indie authors will no longer be able to price books at $0–only publishing houses will be able to price at that rate. Or at any rate, it costs indies something to do so? Dunno the specifics. But I like this, if only because, as is probably clear, people giving their work away for free makes me grumpy.)

On the Market for Short Stories

I’ve been suspicious short stories and collections might not sell as well as novels. A recent thread on Amazon gave words to my fears. Why buy a collection of short stories when there are so many–and so many good ones!–available for free at scores of online magazines? I mean, almost every story I’ve sold is available at no cost wherever it was published.

As for individual short stories, as I said in that thread, I would pay $0.99 as fast as I can open my electronic wallet for a story by Neal Stephenson or Iain M. Banks. For a story from random unknown nobody, pbbt. No dice.

I do think, however, collections are viable. They can have the page bulk of novels, and if I were to read a short story at a magazine I really liked, surfed over to Amazon, and saw they had a low-priced collection, I’d be tempted. I think this is part of the phenomenon J.A. Konrath has pointed to that, even though he has much of his work available for free on his website, people go over to Amazon to pay money for it anyway. Several possible factors: a) people will pay a small sum to get a work in the format they prefer; b) they just overlook the free stuff, assuming a pro like Konrath must only have his work for sale through a professional retailer; c) they want to support an author they like.

Long-Term Predictions for Indie Authors

First off, the term “indie authors” makes me mad for some reason, but it works fine for indie bands and films, doesn’t it? Maybe I’ll get used to it, but right now it smacks of relabeling yourself something less truthful/awful than “dude or dudette who couldn’t sell to a real publisher.” You know, like how people say “HPV” instead of “genital warts.”

Objections of terminology aside, indie authors are currently in a golden age. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to get your work in front of a potentially vast audience that’s currently going mad for ebooks. People with little to no success in traditional publishing are raking in thousands of sales of self-published books.

I think that’s great! Diversity is healthy in any environment, including economic ones. But I wonder if this flourishing of strange, sometimes beautiful small creatures is about to face mass extinction.

E-readers are exploding. Somebody buys a Kindle or an iPad, the first they they want to do is stuff it full of apps and ebooks. Get their money’s worth. I do think we’re still on the exponential growth section of the curve, but eventually, be it next year or in 2525, most people who will ever get an ereader will have got it, and will no longer be buying books at a frantic “Give me MOAR!!!” pace.

Second, for the moment, big publishers fucking suck at getting their new releases and their backlists available at reasonable prices (and I do consider $6-15, depending on what format the physical copy’s currently in, to be reasonable). Nimble, fast-acting indie authors are doing well in part because the professional competition has only begun to lumber onto the scene.

That won’t last. Publishers will get their act together. Quite possibly, more midlist authors like Joe Konrath will begin offering their own professional titles at indie-author rates. There’s really nothing to stop bestsellers from doing this, either, so long as they take the precaution of informing their publishers of this via email rather than by phone, where they’d be deafened by shrieks of dismay.

Sooner or later, this professional competition will arrive. Likely, there will still be two main submarkets: the big pros with the big publishers at the $6-15 range, and the indies, abandoned midlisters, and go-their-own-way pros occupying the $1-5 market. There will still be room for success for authors who’ve never sold one word professionally. But I imagine once the e-equivalent of the danbrownosaurs and stepheniemeyergators stake out their territory, a vast amount of those agile little indie-mammals are going to get devoured wholesale as readers turn to authors they trust at prices comparable to what the unknowns can offer.

Why isn’t this book selling? First, let’s rule out a few variables.

1) The writing blows goats.

As mentioned, I’ve already sold most of these stories somewhere. You know how hard it is to sell a single story, anywhere? Even to a market that pays the princely sum of $10? It’s pretty fucking hard! Even those markets reject 90-99% of the stories they see. They get a lot of material and only buy the stuff they really like. That doesn’t mean what they buy is the awesomest thing since dinosaurs fighting with shotguns, but it does imply a baseline quality. Either the writing or the story or both were enough to hook an editor who reads scores of stories a month. I’m not gonna get all “Kneel before Zod” here, but I’d put the writing in When We Were Mutants & Other Stories up against the average self-pubbed Kindle title no worries.

2) The packaging (title, description, cover art, etc.) is the blowful part.

The price is $1.99. That’s right in line with this market. Still, I’m dropping it to $0.99 to see if that changes anything.

Whatever else you might think of the book, you gotta admit that’s a sweet title.

I’ve written several hundred movie reviews in the last three years. I know how to write a hook. The description may not sell ice to a wampa, but it’s fine.

The cover art’s more subjective–it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill “photograph of a hot chick with some huge sans serif text pasted over it”–but I happen to think it’s pretty damn cool. It’s eye-catching. It’s nontraditional, and maybe that’s turning people off, but I feel like it’s a great representation of the work.

3) I’m not a very talented whore.

I haven’t done a ton of self-promotion. This is true. But the places I’ve promoted it have been the right places. Result: nothing. I should send it out to some review blogs and see what happens there. I’m getting the impression recommendations from trusted sources are a big factor in selling unknown works. That, uh, may not be news to anyone.

Here’s some variables that might make a difference.

1) It’s a short story collection.

Konrath, and nearly all the self-pubbed authors I’ve seen, sell novels. Maybe people hate reading short stories. Maybe short stories threw sand in their faces as children. Maybe, for some reason, customers aren’t interested in buying them when there’s all these actual novels available just a click away. I could address that by listing a previous novel of mine and seeing how that does, but I’m kind of busy with this detailed dissection of a niche subject right now.

2) I’ve only got the one work available.

Konrath writes about success coming from “shelf space,” or having a number of different titles for readers to find, get engaged by, and scoop up the rest of your work. I think this is a really strong point, actually. Single-title self-pubbers may find it much more difficult than people with 3+ books online.

3) My fiction career doesn’t have much of a platform.

I suspect this might be the biggest fly in the ointment of selling your work to strangers. Thing is, if you’ve already got a decent chunk of readers, they’re not really strangers anymore. They’ll pick up your book on your recommendation. Suckers. These suckers, in turn, will recommend it to their friends and communities. Hooray! Sales!

I’ve actually got the opportunity to increase my platform here by a ways, which I intend to do just as soon as I’ve beaten The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess again. Hyrule’s in danger, people.

Conclusions, Week One

Caveat: these are preliminary conclusions based on an initial week of data. That’s very little info, really. At this point, Shit Is Subject To Change.

I’m honestly not disappointed in these results. My expectations were low–people can’t shut up about ebooks these days, and I wanted to see for myself what it’s like to actually try to sell one.

However, it seems to me that ebooks do not, despite all buzz to the contrary, sell themselves. To achieve sales, you need either a preexisting readership or to do a lot of self-promotion. Again, this really isn’t news, but I mean you need that just to sell a copy. So far I could sell more books through bagpiping in the subway than by listing them on Kindle.

My initial suspicion is the amount of time you need to spend self-promoting is not going to be worth it. For authors seeking a career, that time is, in almost all cases, better spent writing, or at least pitching your writing to agents and editors. Because until you reach critical mass, you will have to keep pumping your own work All. The. Time. Self-promotion is a hydratic beast with an empty belly. It demands constant nourishment or it will eat you instead.

Well, possibly not, at least about the eating you part. Again, my opinions could change if the data does. But for now–and Konrath says this himself, to his credit, though possibly he should say it more often–the self-epubbing route is not a game-changer for those of us who aren’t already established. In fact, so far it resembles the bulk of my fiction career: a bushel of effort for a withered cherry of financial gain.

Well, maybe not. But you gotta have a catchy title to draw them in.

Joe Konrath, who writes novels under the name J.A. Konrath, is the leading light of self-publishing electronically. His ebooks are on pace to make him more than $100,000 this year. On Kindle alone. He’s done so well Amazon is publishing his next work. He blogs with great transparency about his sales and methods. Lest there be any confusion about what’s to follow, let the record state I think he’s a cool guy, and that it’s wildly awesome he’s been able to seize such a successful independent career.

I, like dozens, possibly thousands of others, was inspired to follow his lead. Last week, I uploaded a collection of my short stories to the Kindle store. I see it as a very low-risk, high-reward venture: I’ve already sold six of the eight stories here. The seventh was previously self-published as part of a charity event. The eight and titular story’s a strong one, but none of the major markets I submitted it to picked it up.

I probably could have sold that story to a smaller market, so my lost opportunity cost was $10-50. It took a few hours to format the text properly, and several hours more to cajole my sexy talented girlfriend into finishing the cover art. That’s it. I’m still seeking the normal route to publication for my sci-fi novel, The Roar of the Spheres.

You know how many copies of WWWM&OS I’ve sold so far to people I don’t know personally? Zero. None. As our friends south of the border would say, absolutamente nothing!!!

Yet I didn’t just post it and move on, like a fire-and-forget missile made out of words about wizards. I introduced When We Were Mutants & Other Stories on and did some light interaction. I introduced it in the proper section of the Amazon boards. I mentioned it here, and linked to it from the sidebar. Results: nothing.

Not quite the outcome I was expecting after reading up on Konrath’s blog.

Let’s be clear–I wasn’t expecting to be able to fund a wardrobe of gold top hats and sable-fur tighty-grayies off this, either. I would have been happy with $10 a month. Seriously. I hoped to repeat this with other collections down the road and build a small but steady income stream to supplement the other ways I make money, e.g. dancing on the sidewalk for nickels.

One week is not enough data to draw any strong conclusions over. It’s just another production of Small Sample Size Theatre. But so far, my experiment is showing me it’s not as easy as the self-epublishing all-stars make it out to be. I’ll plunge into analysis in my next post.

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