Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post by Robert Swartwood

Joe sez: Robert Swartwood wrote this for me at my request a few weeks ago, and time got away from me (finishing Haunted House and Hit.)

Here's Rob:

The term "bestselling author" is bandied around a lot these days. I've seen a large portion of writers online call themselves bestselling authors. Many of them are self-published. Their books have been ranked on an Amazon Top 100 genre bestseller list, or on a sub genre bestseller list, or even a sub sub genre bestseller list. I've seen writers joyously announce that their latest book is #X on Amazon, which sounds great, but most times it turns out that that particular book is really ranked #X on a genre bestseller list, and some genre bestseller lists are slower than others. It's possible to have an Amazon ranking of over 100,000 and still be ranked on a sub genre list.

I've even seen several writers proclaim themselves #1 Amazon Bestselling Authors, which, quite honestly, is very disingenuous. Sure, it looks nice on the cover of your book, but is it true? Maybe #1 of a genre list, or a sub genre list, but #1 in the entire Amazon store? Hardly. If that were the case, it's a very good chance the book would also have been a New York Times bestseller, and if that's the case, it would make more sense to call yourself a New York Times Bestselling Author, no?

But these are all things we struggle with as writers, no matter if we're traditionally published or self-published. We have to take whatever we can get. We have to make ourselves -- well, our books -- as appealing as possible to potential readers. Because, let's face it, there are a lot of books out there -- a lot -- and we need to do whatever it takes to set our books apart from all the rest.

About a year and a half ago Joe let me ramble on his blog for a bit about why I decided to self-publish. I was doing pretty well then, and I'm doing even better now. But this being publishing, sales are always up and down. My bestselling book last year is far from being my bestselling book this year. Speaking of bestselling, my supernatural thriller The Calling was in the Kindle Top 100 for horror in both the US and UK for several months. It was, by that definition, a bestseller -- hell, an international bestseller -- and yet I just couldn't bring myself to add "bestselling author" to my bio.

 One of the titles I mentioned in that blog post was The Serial Killer's Wife, which is the book that my agent was going to shop around and which I ultimately told him no, don't bother, I want to try it on my own instead. Blake Crouch was instrumental in talking me into self-publishing, and he was even kind enough to contribute a foreword, and so I released the book out into the world on June 12, 2011.

That's nearly two years ago.

And just the other week it became a USA TODAY bestseller.

Now let me backtrack a bit.

In the past two years The Serial Killer's Wife has sold pretty well. Nothing crazy like Joe and Blake are used to, but well enough (along with the rest of my books) that I made enough money last year that I ended up owing the IRS quite a bit of cash. When I first released the book, it had a rather pulpy cover, with a woman holding a gun and some blood-spatter on the corner of the cover. Several months later I decided to make the cover more mainstream and appropriate for the particular genre, so I told my designer -- the ever-awesome Jeroen ten Berge -- what I had in mind and eventually he came up with something perfect.

Anyway, Joe mentioned Bookbub a while back. I've used them three times so far, and have been happy each time. The first two titles I had featured were in the horror and science fiction genres. They sold well, but those particular lists have just over 100,000 subscribers. The biggest list by far is mystery and thriller at over 400,000 subscribers. That one, however, costs quite a bit more to use, but I put it off because I didn't have the extra cash and wanted to see how the other titles did in their respected genres. Finally I bit the bullet and submitted a listing for The Serial Killer's Wife and was lucky enough to get approved.

My deal date was for Wednesday, April 24. I chose to include Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes. I didn't include Kobo because on one of my previous deals when I lowered the price, there was a "glitch" that inadvertently deleted my book from the system. I tried -- quite leery -- to do the same on my second Bookbub deal, and while this time my book wasn't deleted, I only sold maybe a half dozen books from the deal, so I decided not to include Kobo in this promotion. (One of the main reasons, I think, is that while Kobo has been making a push here in the United States, the majority of Kobo readers are in other countries, and Bookbub newsletters are mostly sent to US readers.)

The thing about Bookbub is that, the morning of your promotion, they check all platforms which are supposed to be lowered, and if any price isn't changed, they don't list the book. In the past, I had cut it very close before that I didn't want to take a chance this time, so I lowered the price of The Serial Killer's Wife on Amazon and Barnes & Noble Monday night from $4.99 to 99 cents. (iTunes changes their prices pretty quickly, plus you can schedule when you want to create promos, so I wasn't worried.)

The next day the prices changed and I didn't think much about it -- until later in the day I realized I had begun selling a lot of copies on Kindle. Like, a lot of copies. As I hadn't made any announcement yet about the sale, I did a quick Google search and found that the good people at Pixel of Ink had been kind enough to pick up the book. This was something that I hadn't even sent to them -- they had just noticed a drop in price and decided to list it as one of their deals.

Well, later that night, I had sold over 600 copies and was #1 in the Amazon Top 100 horror list (my author rank in horror was #2, just under Stephen King; it would take another day to dethrone him). By the next morning, my book was ranked #121 in the overall Kindle store. And keep in mind, the Bookbub newsletters hadn't even been sent out yet, so I had a nice head-start.

(When I initially submitted my listing, I wanted to do just one day. I had been watching the titles in the mystery and thriller listings and saw that many reached the Kindle Top 100. That's where I wanted my book to be. But I also noticed that many of these authors then reverted the prices back to regular, causing their books to then quickly drop out of the Top 100. I wanted to try to stay up there as long as possible -- assuming, of course, my book even made it -- and had contacted Bookbub asking them to make a note that my sale would be extended by an extra day. They said no problem.)

And so then Wednesday came and The Serial Killer's Wife was already near the Kindle Top 100. It didn't make it there immediately, but by the evening it had cracked the Top 100 in the Kindle, Nook and iTunes stores. Like any writer running a promotion like this, I was checking the rankings every hour but not keeping very good track of how many copies I sold per day and how high the book got because a) I didn't think it would ever be worth mentioning and b) I certainly didn't anticipate what would eventually happen.

By Thursday, The Serial Killer's Wife was still in the Kindle and Nook and iTunes Top 100 -- but in the Kindle and Nook stores, its ranking had gone up. It went as high as 20-something in the Kindle store, but in the Nook store it was at one time #4 and right above Nora Roberts' latest book. (Yes, yes, my book was priced at 99 cents and hers is at $12.99, but still ... NORA ROBERTS!)

The book was doing so well that I -- as the author and publisher -- decided to extend the 99 cent sale another day to see how long it could stay in the Top 100 of these stores. Could I have reverted the price back to regular and tried to make more money? Certainly. But by this point I was more concerned with selling as many copies as I could -- and, more importantly, reaching as many readers as possible.

So Friday the book kept selling well, and as it started to drop out of the Top 100 stores, I switched the price to $3.99 and it sold well all weekend. In fact, right now it's still selling pretty well. I had read about an author who managed to crack the USA TODAY bestseller list with one of her backlist titles (she, too, had used Bookbub) and had joked with some writer friends that wouldn't it be awesome if I could do the same?

The next week began and it was business as usual. I had a great run for the deal, which sold well over 5,000 copies across all platforms at 99 cents. GalleyCat has a self-published bestseller list that they post weekly and which did not include The Serial Killer's Wife, so I figured oh well, maybe next time. Then, late Thursday night before I went to bed, I for some reason thought about the USA TODAY bestseller list. I remembered a few of the other titles that had been selling well those few days my book was high in the charts and wondered if any of them had managed to make the list. So I opened the browser on my phone and brought up the website and started scrolling through the list ...

And had one of those surreal moments when I spotted The Serial Killer's Wife listed there.

Granted, it was #139, and they had messed up the description a bit (the book never takes place in Maine), but still, it was my friggin book on the USA TODAY bestseller list!

As you can imagine, I was pretty wired and didn't get much sleep that night.

Barry and Joe have talked about how the one major thing traditional publishers still have is print distribution, and it's true. I would never be able to compete with Stephen King and Dean Koontz when it comes to print. But digital? Digital is a level playing field. There's nothing stopping me or anybody else from selling as many copies as Dan Brown (though, admittedly, that would be pretty difficult).

Self-published titles have begun creeping onto major bestseller lists for a while now -- remember back when the New York Times refused to include self-pubbed titles? -- and the novelty has begun to wear off. Before it was shocking to see a self-published author beat out traditionally published authors. Now it's becoming commonplace.

As I told Joe, I believe that The Serial Killer's Wife would not have made the USA TODAY bestseller list had it been traditionally published. Certainly, two years ago, my agent could have shopped it around, and who knows, maybe a publisher would have paid a lot of money for it, enough money that it would have guaranteed me a spot on some bestseller lists. Then again, it's even more likely (and much more probable) that, had we sold the book, it would have received a modest advance and then came out with little fanfare. It maybe could have gotten some decent trade reviews, and maybe have been eligible for awards, but then sales would taper off and the marketing team would move on to the next book (or several hundred books) and the book would wallow away in digital obscurity. Yes, the publisher might include it in a promo one day, and it might sell a lot of copies, but I wouldn't have much control over any of it, would I? Not like here where I chose what book I wanted to promote, what promotional price I wanted to set it at, what date I wanted to pick. Even when my "deal" was to expire, I didn't need anyone's permission but my own to keep the deal going an extra day. And hey, look at the outcome. From now until the day I die I can call myself a USA TODAY bestselling author.

Of course, luck played a major factor, as it does in almost everything else. Had I run the deal a month before, a week before, even a day before, things may not have turned out as well as they did -- or who knows, maybe they would have been better. One thing I do believe, however, is this would not have happened had I had my book in KDP Select. Keep in mind that I'm not disparaging Select (I currently have a few titles in the program, as a matter of fact), but I believe it was having my title high up in the Top 100 lists of multiple platforms that helped get it onto the USA TODAY bestseller list. After all, how do they even compile the list? Amazon is usually pretty hush-hush about numbers, but do they provide sales data to major newspapers? What about Barnes & Noble? If anything, these newspapers base their lists where books are ranked on major sales channels, and had my book only been on Amazon, it would have barely gotten any notice (after all, it never even reached the Kindle Top 20).

Finally, the next day was filled with emails and texts and phone calls from writer friends congratulating me. There was even some emails back and forth between me and my agent. When it was over, though, you know what I did? I went back to work on my latest novel-in-progress. Because in the end, these little victories are great and help boost morale, but they won't keep things going forever. No matter how much we worry about important things like editing and cover art and reviews and silly things like branding and platform, in the end it's the book that matters most. It's the book that readers will ultimately judge us on, and it's best we never forget that.

Just the other day some yahoo wrote an article on Salon how self-publishing is the worst. Apparently he published a few books traditionally in the past and is now doing it on his own and whining because it's hard.

Well, yeah, it's hard.

Nobody ever said it would be easy.

But hey, what do I know? I'm just now a USA TODAY bestselling author thanks to a book I self-published two years ago. An extreme outlier, one person said of me recently. Sure. And before last week, I had thought the same about other authors, who no doubt thought the same about other authors before their books, too, became bestsellers.

That's the thing -- you just never know. You have to keep writing and publishing and hoping for the best.
The publishing world is going through a lot of tumultuous changes right now.

I'm just glad that, when it comes to my books, I'm in control.

Joe sez: First of all, it must be said that The Serial Killer's Wife is a good book. Writing a good book doesn't mean it will find success, but it helps, and Rob has shown it is possible for a book to keep finding readers even years after it was published.

This is a Very Cool Thing.

I stayed a night at Rob's house when I was on my Rusty Nail 500 tour. He was a gracious host, and as we chatted over beer we talked of the someday he would eventually break into the world of publishing. 

Well, he did, editing a fun collection of hint fiction. Then this Kindle thing came along and Rob dove in.

My career path was different. When I was legacy published, I would have eaten my own arm raw in order to get on one of the two big bestseller lists (USA Today or NYT) because that would have ensured my books would have stayed in print, and I'd keep getting new contracts.

Years ago, being a USA Today Bestseller or a NYT Bestseller had a lot of cache with readers and publishers. It meant the book had sold a lot of copies, and was probably worth reading. I spent many book launches with fingers crossed, hoping to sneak onto a list.

It never happened. And it may never. And now, after years of wanting desperately to be a bestseller, I'm okay with not being one.

In the past, being a USA Today bestseller helped your career by allowing you to sell more copies and garner bigger advances from publishers. 

It still has some of that power. Rob got some foreign offers for his bestselling title, and a savvy agent could get Hollywood interest because of it, or parlay it into a legacy deal if that was something Rob wanted.

But I've also have foreign deals and movie options without ever being anything other than an Amazon bestseller and having a smart agent.

I'm not trying to take the wind out of Rob's sails here--I'm very happy for him. It's a very real success story and Rob is an inspiration to self-pubbed authors everywhere. He has shown that it is possible to find mainstream success being an indie author. I've never broken through that glass ceiling, and he has. 

If you want to do as Rob has done, follow his example and publish on all ebook platforms, because these are all weighed and counted when USA Today and the New York Times compile their bestseller lists. And make sure you have an agent who is able to exploit a bestseller announcement by making you more money because of it. 

Also, it's pretty sweet to be able to put A USA TODAY BESTSELLER on your book covers and in your book descriptions. That can't hurt sales. 

My point?

It's one of the same points I've always made. Figure out what your goals are, and adjust your strategy accordingly. Making a bestseller list isn't a goal, because it outside of your control. But you can certainly follow Rob's example and give it a shot. 

Four years ago, it was damn near impossible to become a bestseller without a legacy publisher behind you.

What was once impossible, is now possible. Pretty damn cool.