Mark Terry

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


December 27, 2011
I've been thinking about "sustainability" a lot recently. Particularly in terms of the so-called e-book revolution. A number of writers have been touting how traditional publishing is dead and the future is self-publishing e-books and they've been showing how much money they've been making doing so. I think everyone reading this will recognize the names: Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, Scott Nicholson, Lee Goldberg, Blake Crouch, etc.

My point here isn't to criticize any of them. I've met Joe and Barry and like them both. I have a lot of respect for what they're doing, and when they speak, I listen. I've never met Lee although we've occasionally had reason to email back and forth and I've been an active participant on his blog for years. I don't know Scott or Blake. I think one reason these folks get mentioned here and in other places is they have been the loudest (and occasionally shrillest) advocates of e-book self-publishing.

And you know what? I'm not one to talk. I currently have these books available as self-published e-books:

The Devil's Pitchfork (which was originally published in paper by a legacy publisher)
The Serpent's Kiss (also originally published in paper by a legacy publisher)
Hot Money
The Battle for Atlantis
Monster Seeker
The Fortress of Diamonds
Freelance Writing For A Living
Deadly By The Dozen

I've also got a few books out that were traditionally published, are only available in paper, and two that are available in both through the legacy publisher (The Fallen and The Valley of Shadows).

If you went back about a year to 18 months, most of the above-mentioned writers were rolling in money, reporting $50,000 and $80,000 and $300,000 a year sales on their e-books. Awesome!

That's like a license to print money.

Except what I noticed was that a few months ago Joe, Scott and Lee all mentioned that their sales had dipped ... dramatically.

It's entirely possible that this dip is just that, a dip. They'll come out with new books and the numbers will increase. And as they (and I, for that matter, though far more quietly) say, the shelf-life of an e-book is infinite (I might argue with that actually, but another day), and forever is a long time, so over time the sales will be greater than they would if they had gone out of print in paper. Also, it has been pointed out, because the books are out there, they can gain an audience at any time.

Both are true, I think. I know that paper books get returned pretty damn fast from bookstores and although they're generally available for some time through online retailers. Therefore, even if an ebook sells modestly (how modestly, he wonders?), if it continues to sell modestly for 5 years, it will sell far more than it would have in 6 weeks in a bookstore. My only caveat to that is the "how modestly?" question. Some of the folks who are the biggest advocates of e-book self-publishing have been selling hundreds and thousands of copies of their e-books each month. They envision that continuing.

Those of us who have had e-books that sold 4 copies a month can envision that continuing, too, but so what? That's desirable? Even with the $2 royalty on a $2.99 copy, it'll take me 2 or 3 years just to get into the black from the modest expenses for cover art and layout. And believe me on this, a LOT of people's e-books sell like that.

This month, for me, has been quite good. I've probably sold a total of 800 or 900 e-books total. The two top sellers are The Devil's Pitchfork and The Serpent's Kiss, each of which have both sold over 300 copies to-date in December. But it's worth pointing out that some of the others have sold 3 or 4 or 5 or 20 or 30.

Hey, I'd be totally amped if Pitchfork and Serpent continued to sell over 300 copies a month for an indefinite period of time. But having been on the other end, the 3 or 4 copies, then the 8 or 9 copies, then the 12 or 15, then 20 or 25 copies end of things, I'll wait to crow about how sustainable it is.

As for being able to gain an audience at any time, yeah, I agree with that. My December sales are ALMOST completely directly related to my legacy publisher offering THE FALLEN for free for the month of December. It worked. (And recently a relative asked me if Amazon was paying me for those free books. Um... no.)

That said, my sales had picked up in November before that happened and I'm not sure why. I suspect that my online publication of DIRE STRAITS helped. But I don't really know.

I would point out that the primary difference I see between the sustainability of an e-book self-publishing career and a career writing books with legacy and/or traditional publishers seems to be control. A legacy publisher can (and will) dump you with very little reason and with precious little explanation. They have short attention spans, and even if a book makes a modest profit, they may still dump you. Most writers who've been around for any length of time have had it happen to them. Bad sales, not a surprise. Slow sales that still make a profit ... well, that happened all the time. A publisher would look at an authors' body of work and say, "Well, after the initial big push was over, sales have continued to increase by 2% each book. But we want it to be 10%, so we're dropping the writer."

That's business. Too much supply, not enough demand. Finite resources on the part of publishers.

You can read far more into it than that, but that's really what it comes down to. A publisher has finite resources and if sales don't grow the way they want or expect, well, there's always other writers to try. If the e-book self-publishing trend has proven anything, it's that there's a hell of a lot of "product" out there, - thousands and thousands of people who write books. I'm not going to even go into quality.


No conclusions other than sustaining a writing career is hard. It was hard before and it's hard now. The writer has more options now - good - and more control - very good - but is anything guaranteed? If you write the book and put it out on Amazon/B&N/Smashwords/iBooks et al., will they come? Will readers find it, read it, recommend it, will sales grow?

My answer: not necessarily.

But who knows?

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