Conference Thoughts: Treating Backlist Like Frontlist

Last weekend, I taught a workshop on self-publishing at the Festival of Writing in York. It was quite a large conference, with a few hundred attendees, primarily focused on unpublished writers.

Most attendees were seeking publication via the traditional route, but there was a lively crowd at the workshop, and I was pigeon-holed by many more curious about self-publishing over the weekend.

I had some free time on Saturday and dropped in on a SF/F genre panel. Much of the advice was excellent, but some was quite curious. For starters, writers were urged not to write in a series.

The reason given was that agents and publishers prefer standalone works as the first book may not sell, and then the writer will be left with several unsellable manuscripts. No mention was made of the self-publishing option.

Of course, things are very different once you acknowledge that option. Virtually all of the most successful SF/F self-publishers write in a series.

Another stated justification for avoiding a series was sell-through rates. The figures touted were that the second book in a series will sell approximately 70% of the first book, and the third book will sell approximately 60% of the second book. In other words, if Book #1 has sold 1,000, you will often see a pattern where Book #2 sells 700, and Book #3 sells 400 or so.

While these figures match up with anecdotal reports from my self-publishing, series-writing peers, I believe it misses something crucial. The sales of the lead-in title of the series are not set in stone. As Michael Wallace put it to me, each additional title in the series “widens the pyramid.” So, while those sell-through rates might remain constant, each new release bumps the first title higher (sometimes significantly so) – and that then trickles down through the rest of the books.

As I was sitting there, listening to this advice, I wondered why publishers don’t see the same effect. And then it struck me. By the time the third book in a traditionally published series comes out, at least two years will have passed since the release of the first. At that point, the lead title in the series is backlist – and treated as such by the publisher.

Self-publishers like David Dalglish, Sarah Woodbury, Lindsay Buroker, Amanda Hocking, and Debora Geary never treat the first title in a series as backlist. With each new release, they will market the lead-in title just as hard. They might price it like backlist – with a low (or even free) price – but they market it like frontlist.

While some tail-off between books is unavoidable, if you keep shoving new readers in the ever-widening funnel of that first book, writing in a series can be very profitable indeed. Unless, perhaps, you go the traditional route.

* * *

UK bestselling author Jojo Moyes made an interesting comment during her keynote speech on the Saturday. She is currently selling three e-books for each print copy of her latest release – which is particularly notable for a traditionally published UK author, and a sign where the rest of the market here is headed.

* * *

The second event I participated in was a Sunday morning debate on e-books and self-publishing. It was fun, and I think I held my own against my three interlocutors (all literary agents after a publisher pulled out).

The debate in the UK right now surrounds topics that have (largely) been dealt with in the US – such as whether 99c books demean literature and if self-publishers have any form of quality control – but it was a productive session, and I was happy to get the opportunity to address some myths.

* * *

The best part of the conference, though, was meeting fellow writers. Everyone seemed to be curious about self-publishing, with none of the reticence I expected. It was funny coming back to this conference, as I had attended two years ago as a slush-pile regular hoping to catch the eye of an agent.

I seem to be in a very different place in my life now. Happier, more productive, and lots more confidence in my writing. Over 6,000 sales helps, and coming off my best month ever – 1,200 sales – gave me an added spring in my step.

* * *

I’m finally settled in my new house, and I will be picking up my new writing desk tomorrow. It will be badly needed. I need to finish the final draft of my next historical Bananas for Christmas – which has suffered numerous delays due to all my moving around. What hasn’t helped is that every time I’ve sat down to work on Bananas, I’ve been cheating on it with a dystopian novella – Super Tramp.

Following hot on the heels of both of those will be a quick update to Let’s Get Digital, as well as a sequel – which will cover more in-depth topics for the advanced self-publisher such as discoverability, visibility, crowdfunding, categories, effective back-matter, mailing lists, Amazon algorithms, and much, much more.

More on all that, soon.

About davidgaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in Prague, and author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible and this here blog thing.
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71 Responses to Conference Thoughts: Treating Backlist Like Frontlist

  1. Matthew Iden says:

    Sounds like fun, Dave.

    Any mention of the Stephen Leather/Jeremy Duns dust-up at this conference, or is that yesterday’s news?

    Congrats on the numbers, btw!

    • There was quite a bit of chatter about the various sock-puppet/review issues that have come to light. Indeed, it should be mentioned that the Sunday Times ran a story about a UK publisher who was caught five-starring his own books.

  2. jjtoner says:

    Can’t wait for the sequel to Lets Get Digital. The French title is a hoot! JJ

  3. Steven says:

    A Very interesting update, David. I’m particularly looking forward to the sequel to Let’s Get Digital, which I have found very helpful in my own self-publishing efforts. I’ll be watching this space… Best wishes, Steven

    • I’m looking forward to writing it. I think I can get it done in four weeks and I have a pretty good idea what most of it is going to cover. If someone can get Amazon to stop changing those algorithms for five minutes, I might even start it!

  4. “I seem to be in a very different place in my life now. Happier, more productive, and lots more confidence in my writing. Over 6,000 sales helps, and coming off my best month ever – 1,200 sales – gave me an added spring in my step.”

    I loved reading this because it shows the two worlds where you exist and existed before.

    It struck me that many of those sales you mentioned came from “A Storm Hits Valparaiso,” and yet the folks in the publishing world told you time-after-time that your book wouldn’t sell.

    But, somehow — miraculously, impossibly, magically — you’re now earning dough, speaking at a conference, and are well positioned for your dream career to really take off still higher.

    I wonder if you’d still even be pursuing your dream had you still been trying to go the traditional route? And yet we still hear from those in the publishing world that no one should self-publish.

    • The main reason I got rejected was that publishers couldn’t see a market for the book, or the setting wasn’t commercial enough, or that marketing it would be too difficult. But the economic argument is more compelling to me now. If those same publishers and agents decided they wanted to publish Storm, I wouldn’t let them. I know I can make more on my own, and devote more attention to ensuring the book reaches readers.

      Who knows where I would be if I hadn’t self-published. I had lost faith in myself and my writing. I was trying (and failing) to write another novel. I was depressed, listless, unmotivated. Maybe I would have pushed through, finished that second book, and be querying it now.

      Or maybe I would have given up.

      • “The main reason I got rejected was that publishers couldn’t see a market for the book, or the setting wasn’t commercial enough, or that marketing it would be too difficult.”

        Sorry. That’s what I meant to say. Not that it wasn’t good enough, but that it didn’t fit their ideal, desired expectations.

      • Nooooo! Plenty thought it wasn’t good enough – don’t worry about that! I meant that Storm isn’t a slam-dunk case for “the gatekeepers don’t have a clue” or whatever. The finished version was quite different to what I was querying – it went through another draft, and then my eagle-eyed editor helped tighten it up immensely.

        Although, most agents didn’t like the first three chapters which are pretty damn similar to the published version. So there is that…

        I just didn’t want to offer up my book as proof that the gatekeepers can’t judge effectively as there are far more clear-cut examples out there without my hackneyed prose muddying the waters!

      • Gotcha. We’re on the same page now. Thanks!

      • Michael Ward says:

        Hi David

        Being self-published is a whole different ball game. I’ve been reading your posts since I first self-published back in February of this year. I reached sales of 100 books for the first time in July, made 118 in August and I’ve sold 75 books in the first 13 days of this month so things are going in the right direction.

        Hearing you come out with numbers like 1,200 sales in the month just makes me want to go and write more so thanks for the great motivation. I’ve read every one of your posts since February and it’s really great to see you doing so well.

        My highlight in the last month – two weeks ago I published a short story called “The Beach at the End of Time”. I uploaded it to Amazon at 7pm Saturday night, went out for dinner with my wife and by the time I got back the book already had one sale. There’s no way a traditional publisher will ever be able to match anything like that or the uplift it gives the author to see that happen.

        Keep up the good work David and good luck for the future. I’m looking forward to the time you tell us you did 2,000 or even 3,000 in the month.

        Michael Ward

        Amazon’s Michael Ward Page http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007A550QM

        Website: http://www.sites.google.com/site/michaelwardwriter

      • Michael, it’s nice to see your sales are growing month-by-month. Most self-publishers have a slow enough start but things are shaping up nicely for you heading into the Christmas period.

  5. Joely says:

    Your first comment really struck me hard. I was in the S/SF genre panel as well and was intrigued by the dismissal of series writers. But your point is excellent. The mindset in publishing doesn’t suit series writers. I can only offer my digital experience, but I push the first book, not the second or the third, because the first is the start of the story. I don’t see the first book in any series (mine or any other) as being backlist, but as the starting point, without a “shelf-life” that terminates when the next book comes out.

    That’s perhaps because I’m asked so often “where do I start with your books?” I guess this is something publishers and traditionally published authors don’t face so much because the relationship between writer and reader is subtly different. If my figures fall off between second and third books it’s because there’s a natural weeding out phase where those readers who don’t like the material decide not to read on.

    Also, you definitely held your own on the panel! With three agents all talking about how scared they are by what’s happening lately, you certainly looked like you were riding the wave of the now.

    Ta also for the email and the tip – that’s really helpful. x

    • It’s an out-of-date mindset that views books as something with an expiry date (Dean Wesley Smith astutely calls it The Produce Model). Print books don’t get much chance to sell before they are kicked back to the warehouse. All the traditional marketing done by publishers was prior to release, to their traditional customers – buyers for bookstores. The big pressure was always on to sell as many copies as possible in the first month or so, as the book would have a good chance of getting returned after that.

      All that changes with digital, of course. Amazon doesn’t return e-books to publishers because the virtual shelf-space is infinite.

      However, it seems many in publishing are still caught in that old mindset. Self-publishers often see a very different sales pattern: slow, building growth rather than an explosion at the start followed by a rapid decay. E-books can have nine (or more) lives. I’ve seen sales crash on one title, only to return to the same levels – or go even higher – a month or two later. They seem to ebb and flow, but they are never done. There are any number of ways to breathe life into falling sales. Perhaps publishers have simply too many titles to devote the requisite attention to them.

      P.S. It was lovely to meet you in York…

      • Joely says:

        It was great to meet you, too. It’s really encouraged me that I made the right decision to start self-publishing my work.

        I think publishers just keep publishing new works in waves, abandoning backlist books without thinking about what they can do with them. It is probably a lot to do with time, and shelf-space, and attitude.

        I was wondering if I could pick your brains about print books. I’ve had a certain demand from longtime fans (and a few new readers), and I’d value your advice. I’ll email, if that’s OK.

      • Please do. I was a little slow to get print editions out, which was a big mistake. The first couple of months were slow, but, since May, I’ve been making a solid $350 a month from paperbacks. They are so cheap to produce, that it’s a no-brainer.

        Depending on whether you want to make the time investment or not, you also have the *option* of trying to get your books into physical stores. I’m in about ten now, but, to be brutally honest, it’s quite a time-sink, and I make much more from online sales, and sell more of those too.

        There are other advantages besides money. I wrote about the logic behind print editions here: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/print-editions-mailing-lists-special-offers-donations-ad-spots/

        And I had a post explaining how I’m making money from paperbacks here: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/making-money-from-paperbacks/

        But please feel free to mail with any questions

  6. Interesting post. It shows the clear difference between trad publishing strategic advice to would-be authors (advice which doesn’t seem to have changed) and the advice coming from strong sellers of self-published e-books. Jonathan Gunson made a similar point in his recent bestsellerlabs post, but I think your contrasting of it with the conference advice gets the point over better. A series can live ‘for ever’ as e-books, and new releases will likely generate sales of earlier e-books that, as print, would be already remaindered or pulped for all except big sellers.
    Saxon Andrew, a real big SF indie seller, is one guy who seems to have worked the e-book series effect really well.

    • Every time I release something, I see a bump in all titles – even very unrelated stuff. Obviously, the titles that are closer to the new release get the biggest bump, so I can clearly see how it would work if I had something as tightly knit as a series. It seems that publishers look at those decaying sell-through percentages and see something negative – for ever 100 sales of the first, there will only be 70 of the second and 40 of the third.

      Whereas self-publishers see something positive – for each 100 readers I bring into the start of the series, I’ll sell 210 books. It’s a different mindset.

  7. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the attitude of “you can’t make any money self/e-publishing.” There are just too many advantages to ignore.

  8. mesmered says:

    Interesting thoughts on series. I’m a writer of hist.fantasy and my third book (standalone, part of a Chronicles) has been going gangbusters on and off all year and in particular since winning a silver medal in its genre in the Readers’ Favourite Book Awards 2012 in the States. The flow on to the back titles of the series (a pair that stand alone together, if that makes sense) has been wonderful on both sides of the Atlantic.
    Mind you, they all e-books with print following over the next couple of months.

  9. tannerakane says:

    You said, “The debate in the UK right now surrounds topics that have (largely) been dealt with in the US – such as whether 99c books demean literature and if self-publishers have any form of quality control – but it was a productive session, and I was happy to get the opportunity to address some myths.”

    Can you provide details on self publishing and quality control?

    • Sure. The assumption among many in traditional publishing seems to be that if you self-publish you won’t get properly edited, or that we just throw sub-standard work out the door.

      This assumes that traditional publishers are the sole repository of editorial talent – when there are many, many fine freelance editors out there. Indeed, many publishers outsource things like editing now, using the very same freelancers! There seemed to be some surprise at the idea that self-publishers use beta readers, editors, and proofers. I explained that our name is our brand and that putting out a half-cooked book damages us – and we are aware of that. Penguin might be able to get away with putting out a crappy book, but I can’t.

      I explained that I recently pulled my upcoming novel from publication because it wasn’t ready and needed one more draft. I think they thought self-publishers upload to Amazon seconds after writing The End.

      I also argued that traditionally published books are often poorly formatted, and self-publishers often have higher standards here. The problem stems from the traditional publisher’s workflow. They will proof the printed version thoroughly, then run it through automated conversion software to spit out the e-book. The problem is the software often introduces formatting errors, and many publishers don’t seem to proof the e-book again *after* formatting – which is a huge mistake.

      • tannerakane says:

        I often stress the importance of quality control and writers taking pride in their work. Traditional publishers shouldn’t assume anything. Some of us [writers] do care and spend money on editors, cover designers, proofreaders, etc.- TP certainly hasn’t cornered the market on publishing services. Yes, a few writers do publish a first draft. I’ve argued with two on LinkedIn in the past three years. Both were arrogant to the point where they believed the first draft was perfect with no editing required. Others publish poorly formatted books. These and unedited books tend to give everyone a bad name.

      • And how. I’m currently reading China Mieville’s superb – traditionally published – The City & The City but the formatting errors are irritating to say the least. The book is so good that I can put up with it, but nobody can have proofed it after formatting. Most self-publishers like myself seem to be much more careful!

  10. I hate to show my ignorance, but what is SF/F? Google ignored the forward slash and thinks it might be the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. I thought ‘Science Fiction/Fiction’ but that’s two genres.

  11. annerallen says:

    Very wise. I think the trad publishers will eventually notice that backlists are more valuable than they think. Indie discoveries are shaking them from their unproductive ways. The conference sounds great. Wish I could have been there to hear you and Talli speak!

    • Talli was great to work with – a very smart cookie.

      For everyone else: I co-taught the workshop with Canadian writer Talli Rolland. It was a good combo as she had a successful traditional publishing career – 30k sold – and then self-published and took her career to new heights – 70k self-pubbed books sold! Talli’s blog is here: talliroland.blogspot.co.uk

  12. Pretty baffling that the advice given would be against writing series stuff. Sure a book also needs to stand on its own as a first, but I can only speak about my own experience dealing with publishers and agents directly and through trade conferences for TIPM. They LOVE series stuff – that a writer can present a novel and already have a follow up on THEME is a godsend. Authors are being dropped like bowling pins nowadays because they can’t follow up on an initial sale. The scifi and children’s market is huge for series stuff. I’ll be bold and stick my neck out and say that anyone at that festival in York giving out that advice doesn’t know their ass from a whole in the ground. It’s no wonder writers are so confused!

  13. Becca says:

    Really smart analysis of the series-building thing, David. Thanks for that!

    You know, you’d think traditional publishers would be adapting a bit more quickly to the changing world of publishing. After all, the ebook editions of their first-in-a-series books are also going to be permanently available, now, just like ours. They should be thinking in terms of the ever-widening pyramid, too, especially since brick-and-mortar bookstores are struggling so badly. I can see a world coming where remaindering and going out of print aren’t significant issues for any publisher. It’d be easy enough for traditional publishers to do an initial run of paperbacks or hardbacks and paperbacks, then switch a title over to POD and ebook and just leave it out there forever generating sales. But are they thinking in those terms? Apparently not.

    • I think that’s already happening – to an extent. Some publishers are experimenting with POD and digital-first. However, these developments are not necessarily beneficial to authors – at least the way they are currently being implemented. POD is allowing publishers to keep books “in print” indefinitely with minimal investment (indeed, there is a company here in the UK which specializes in this service). Of course, that means that the author will never get their rights back, even though they aren’t properly being exercised and the publisher is essentially selling nothing (and not trying to either).

      This kind of rights-squatting by publishers is becoming more-and-more common, and will continue to do so until authors (and their agents) get better at fighting for minimum-sale/income clauses (under which rights revert) rather than out-of-print clauses which are meaningless in a POD/digital era.

      As for digital-first, again, the way it is being implemented is troubling. Publishers complain that they can’t afford to pay higher digital royalties. Some authors have indicated that they *might* be willing to forgo some or all of the advance in exchange for higher royalty rates. Most of the digital-first imprints from the large publishers that I’ve seen combine the worst of both worlds – the same crappy e-royalty rates and a low (or no) advance.

      I guess the temptation to screw authors is just too great.

      EDIT: On the face of it, I would be in favor of shifting to a model which abolished or reduced royalties and gave authors a (much) higher royalty rates. However, the advance plays an important role aside from putting money in authors’ pockets. The advance is a signal of intent from the publisher. If they lay down a six-figure advance, you can be reasonably confident they are going to match that with a marketing push. However, if the publisher has invested a minimal amount in your book up front, there is nothing to prevent them shifting those marketing dollars onto another title and leaving you high-and-dry, with your rights signed away, and no option to take the book elsewhere (or self-publish). I suppose, at bottom, it’s an issue of trust – and I wouldn’t have huge reserves of trust when it comes to publishers.

      • Becca says:

        I didn’t realize that some traditional publishers were already going the POD route. You know … here’s the thing: that’s got to be a total win for the publisher, right? They keep the rights forever and can just leave books out there, raking in the income from those few that continue (or begin) to sell and spending nothing on those that don’t. No risk. So why didn’t they all start doing that two years ago? Are they not clued in enough to the current situation to see the opportunity for author-screwage that you’re describing here? It’s weird. I have a hard time believing it’s because they don’t want to mistreat authors. It seems more likely that they’re just not adaptable enough to strike while the iron is hot.

        On replacing advances with higher royalties. You know, when you get into those big numbers — six figures — I can see the attraction of the advance. You’re being guaranteed a big income from your book, even if it turns out to be a bomb. But most of us aren’t in that situation. Given the amounts of most advances — very far from six figures — it seems like a pretty good bet to trade a small guaranteed income for the opportunity of making quite a bit more through higher royalty rates, should your book be a hit. Maybe your book bombs and you don’t end up making what an advance would’ve paid you, but if your book is decent enough to have generated any advance at all, I think there’s at least a reasonable chance you can make the advance amount through 70% royalties. And really, what publisher is going to give us 70% of the sale price? Besides, you’d lose control over your product. And what incentive would that publisher have to give you a good cover, good editing? Not much more incentive than they’d have to give you a big marketing push. As you say, David, they have nothing invested in you. So you’d be giving up control in exchange for a few services that might be poorly completed and are certainly replaceable.

        From my perspective, it’s hard to see a winning position for publishers. If they won’t invest a lot in me, why should I trust them with control over my product? What can they give me that I can’t get for myself? (A few things, certainly, but are those things enough?) In the recent past, authors had to take whatever publishers offered. If only a small advance was forthcoming, well, you took it and just hoped they’d do well by you despite the lack of investment. But now more authors will hold out for big advances because 1) they have an alternative and 2) that alternative is so attractive in its own right. A model in which more and more authors are making that kind of calculation doesn’t sound sustainable for traditional publishers.

  14. Jaye says:

    Welcome “home”, David. Glad to hear you’re doing fun, making trouble and having a grand time.

    I read that bit about the series and can only shake my head. It speaks volumes to me about how very huge the gap is between publishers and readers. Not writers. Publishers aren’t struggling and indie publishing isn’t rising so fast because publishers treat writers poorly. They do. But the real problem is how poorly they understand readers. How poorly they treat readers. I know plenty of readers–myself included–who’ve passed on a series book because they don’t want to get invested and then be unable to find the rest of the books in the series. The struggle right now might look on the surface like a case of trad writers versus indie writers and self-publishers versus trad-publishers, but it’s not. Never has been. If there’s a “war” going on, it’s between publishers and readers. For the first time in a long, long time the readers are finally winning.

  15. Enjoyed this post, David. Glad you are getting settled in. Congratulations on your new writing desk. Always good to have a proper place to work.

    Dean

  16. sandnige says:

    Enjoyed your post, I really wanted to attend the meetings in York (I live there) but the biggest problem has been finances as I a disabled unemployed person with mental health issues, the crowds would also have been a challenge. Saying that I am doing a OU course and hope to be able to be able to finish off some of my stories that I started before the course. I would have loved to have met authors to ask them so many questions but when you suffer with MH issues most places are out of bounds due to crowds, I hope you understand this and maybe you could find ways where smaller numbers could attend so that people like myself could attend. I hope you don’t think that I am looking too much on the negative but this is the truth and I believe we should be able to contribute someway or another Look forward to reading your books and to your reply.

  17. And there’s me thinking you go to these kind of events just for the drinking… :0)

  18. Drew Merten says:

    Great Post David. The part that jumped out at me was the whole discussion about writing a series. I too, have heard the advice not to write a series as a new author, but I never connected the dots to that being just a trad publisher’s issue. My first novel is self published, and my second one is ready for the editor. That particular book is the first of a series. You noted that the first books in a series wind up on the back list. I have noticed a disappearance of first books, especially when I used to go to a book store to look for a new author. I’d often find second books, or thirds, but never the first one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed up discovering an author just because I couldn’t find the first book in a series that sounded good.

  19. Sasha says:

    Excellent post and I’m looking forward to the update of Let’s Get Digital, which I’ve read and found fascinating. I’ve also read Micheal Alvear’s Make a Killing on Kindle and I’d be curious about your views on his approach – he doesn’t think, for the first book at least, that you need to promote your book on social media and otherwise because just having it on Amazon with the correct search terms will automatically make it discoverable (I’m simplifying his message but that’s what I remember of it). I can see that working for non-fiction where people will be using search terms on Amazon, but not for fiction. I’m hoping you will be covering this stuff in your new book!

    I’m writing my first novel, which I intend to be the first of a series, and was amazed to hear about that advice about series at the conference. Crazy – but then, having read your blog and others, I’m intending to go straight to self-publishing.

    • Carmen Grau says:

      You could write the sequel to “Let’s Get Digital” in four weeks! Wow, you are the master of productivity! I can’t wait. I’m so happy that you’re happy! And congratulations on your new house and desk.

      • Well, non-fiction is much much faster for me – especially the topic of self-publishing, which I blog about regularly. Also, the book will likely be shorter than the standard doorstopper historical! Four weeks is about what the first Digital took me. This could take longer, especially as more of this book won’t be directly based on existing blog posts, and will be going into a little more detail on advanced topics.

    • I’m skeptical about that approach. For starters, as you said, it’s not very helpful for fiction. It *might* be a (somewhat) useful strategy for very niche non-fiction, but if there are quite a few books competing in your niche, then appearing in the search results alone won’t do much for you.

      The search results are ordered by Popularity, so if anyone else has your keywords/tags, and is selling stronger than you, then you won’t appear at the top of the search results. If there is enough competition, you may not appear on the first page at all. And, of course, if the search terms used are very general (like most are), you could be pages back – where no readers really go.

      Finally, this approach fails to account for the vast majority of readers who don’t discover books on Amazon by using the search box, and instead depend on browsing Best Seller Lists, Movers & Shakers, sub-genre lists, Hot New Releases, Top Rated, or who get their recommendations from book bloggers, Goodreads, forums, or reader sites like ENT or POI (or from fellow readers via social media).

    • Hynek Palatin says:

      M. Alvear admits in the book that his advice against social media is just a part of his marketing strategy. Here’s a quote: “I took a contrarian viewpoint. Every one of my competitors advises that you build a social media platform. I say it’s the biggest mistake you could make…”

  20. Great post, David. I am on my own journey to self-publishing now and will start with a collection of short stories next year. And it’s all down to your and Talli’s talks at the Festival. SO like you by the time I return to next year’s event, I will be in a very different head space. A much healthier one!

  21. Thank you for sharing David. ;o) I am a self-published author from the US. I believe there are several things that the self-publishing industry is teaching publishing houses (I affectionately refer to them as “the big boys”.) The world is ever changing and evolving. Being and indie author, I don’t much pay attention to what the ‘big boys’ suggest. This isn’t due to arrogance as much as it is ignorance. I’m not a member of their circle and I do believe the rules are different in the indie world. ;o) I do write series novels BUT I keep in mind that each book must be a stand alone book within the series. That can be quite tricky at times! My second book was just released on September 2, 2012, and by day 6 it was on Amazon’s top 100 Best Sellers List. Book one has been there since February. My readers contact me via my blog, FB and twitter and they all ask the same thing: when is the next book out? And the sales, thus far are very good. Perhaps it is true that ignorance is bliss! ;o) I could talk about this subject all day, but I won’t! ;o) Thank you for your insights and thoughts on this subject. I’m looking forward to reading your work! Thank goodness for technology for if it weren’t for technology, I would never have been exposed to such great authors as Carl Purdon, Emery Lee, Katie MacAlister and as you know, the list is endless! ;o) Have a beautiful day!

  22. Oh how well I know that feeling of the backlist first and second book in a series! My first book in my Arthurian Trilogy was snapped up by Heinemann – I even had a slot on London News TV about, interest from the media etc – all the ingredients for an instant best seller. Then Book Two came out and I had very low marketing “We’ll do a big push for book three” – huh. Book Three got even lessand yes, book one was then out of print. They did reprint, but by then book two was OOP. I eventually got dropped. End of career… not so, I went Indie. The books are now beautifully produced by SilverWood Books, I’m about to launch the 4th in another series (the Sea Witch Voyages) and have ideas for other novels. I do have the advantage of also being traditionally published in the US by Sourcebooks – who so far seem to take care of their backlist titles.
    Huzzah for SP though!

    • Letting earlier books in a series go out-of-print when there are newer books available is especially bird-brained, but all too common. Glad to hear your situation has improved, and that Sourcebooks are being a little bit smarter about backlist.

  23. Thanks for this, David. Good to know. I have a 4-book mystery series self-pubbed and I’ve been scratching my head over why the 1st sells sooooooo much better than the rest. What you say makes good sense. *slaps head to desk* Duh.

  24. Bill Peschel says:

    I’m confused. They don’t like series, but not (in your words) “a series of standalone books in the same world.” That seems to apply to a lot of mystery series, in which you don’t have to start with book 1 to enjoy book 10.

    Perhaps they oppose the traditional fantasy trilogy, where you have to read book 1 to understand book 2. That I can understand. I would be very reluctant to read the “Wheel of Time” series starting at book 10.

  25. laurenwaters says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience, David. My series was turned down by an agent when I couldn’t make the first book a stand-alone. She said a true series is almost impossible to sell to a publisher. I went out on my own and published the first two books, and I’m so glad I did! They’ve been getting great reviews and it just shows that people still like a true series even though publishers don’t want to take the chance with them.

    Congratulations on your fantastic sales and I can’t wait to read your sequel!

  26. Pingback: Writing Blog Treasures 9~15 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer

  27. Martin Lake says:

    Very useful reflections on writing series. You are the master of lateral and optomistic thinking. Hope your new desk fits you well.

  28. Dave: Thanks, as usual! You know I love the idea of self-publishers getting connected via conferences, and becoming one of the acknowledged options for making a living as a writer.

    Your recent post encouraging indie writers to get into print was very helpful to me. I have finally gotten my big political thriller out as a paper book, and it’s starting to sell. The price point of $14.95 does make my ebook look like a bargain in comparison! And of course, there are still many folks who want to hold a physical book in their hands.

    Hope you are enjoying your new city, new digs, and new desk. We are lucky to have you here and contributing to the conversation.

  29. Hi David,
    You entirely nailed it about an eBook series where readers seek the first book. So while sales drop, it is the second, third and fourth book which paradoxically ensure the success of the series. The series still makes the big money for the heritage publishers, too, but as you say, in a different manner because of their backlist system. It could even be that the first is the most read in the mainstream too, through the public libraries and people passing on books to friends. This makes sense as people’s reading patterns are going to be similar for mainstream and self-publications.

  30. acflory says:

    I will be taking the indie route, soon I hope, so your posts always cheer me up and reassure me that I’ve made the right decision. Things may change radically in the next 5 to 10 years with publishers changing their business model to keep up with the times but until then [if] it just makes sense to self-publish. :)

  31. Tim Vicary says:

    Hi David,

    Let me attempt a defence of the poor mutt who said ‘don’t write a series.’ (It’s not that great a defence, as you will see)

    A few years ago I wrote a book called A Game of Proof, the first in an intended series about a barrister called Sarah Newby. My agent got me a two-book deal from Constable and Robinson. I was ecstatic and plunged into writing the second book. This was sent in, revised, sent in again and accepted. I eagerly began work on the third. (Each book can be read on its own but the characters develop over time) But as the time for publication of book 2 approached, I began to wonder why I’d seen no proofs. Anxious phone calls revealed the miserable truth that because A Game of Proof had sold little or nothing in the US (not surprising with no discernible publicity and a boring cover) the publisher had decided not to publish the second book after all. They paid me the rest of the advance, but that was it. No book.

    Great! Imagine my delight! There was I, left with books 2 and 3 in the series almost complete, and what was I to do with them? Approach another publisher and say: ‘Book 1 was a failure, would you like books 2 and 3?’ Not the best sales pitch, really. But here, you see, comes my defence of your idiot at the conference. Perhaps he knew that publishers are likely to behave like this and was warning against it!? They’ll publish book 1, wait a whole year, and then change their minds.

    But then – oh frabjious day! Calloo! Callay! – along comes Amazon, riding a white horse, and I discover I can publish the books myself. All three within a month of each other, not years apart. I find my own cover artist who makes MUCH better covers than Constable did, and I put all three books on line. A year later and all three are selling far more than Constable ever managed, I can check my sales figures every day, and reviewers are asking for book 4. Happy ending.

    But without amazon, I’d have two completed books mouldering in a drawer and lots of bitter memories. So perhaps that was what the guy at the conference was warning about. ‘Don’t write a series or you’ll really get screwed! By us. That’s what we do.’

  32. D.L. Shutter says:

    ,,,writing in a series can be very profitable indeed. Unless, perhaps, you go the traditional route

    Hell yeah! Read any of Konrath or Kris Rusch’s posts where they break down how multi-book deals earn out and are are paid against. If and when you get royalties that is. Funny thing is, so many of us probably dreamed about 3 book deals not that long ago, I know I did.

    Traditonals utilizing POD is an intresting concept but is most likely just a much cheaper means for them to retain rights (specifically e-rights) under out to print clauses by keeping 5 copies on a shelf somewhere instead of 500 on a pallet.

    The way traditionals are locking in and grabbing e-rights in perpetuity should scare every newbie out there. Unless crazy money is on the table, which is happening less and less, there’s simply no point in even pursuing a traditional deal let alone signing one.

    …every time I’ve sat down to work on Bananas, I’ve been cheating on it with a dystopian novella

    Um, maybe I was unfaithful this summer too. Remember the book cover you liked on Kindle Boards? Yeah, well, she’s alone on a couch somewhere with ice cream while I’ve been churning out this short novel that just wouldn’t leave me alone. That’s going to be my debut this fall with a new cover I just locked in an artist for.

    Exciting. But…I feel so guilty. Dirty even.

  33. An interesting post about the festival

    I’ve attended Guardian masterclasses in London and met Conville and Walsh Lit agents who are worried about the state of the book market and seem suspicious of e-sales, resistance to technological change however, as history suggests, leads to extinction – I would urge people to have a publisher first and agent as self- publishing can be an exercise in vanity rather than a expression of independence and entrepreneurialism or even talent.

    Benedict Brooks

  34. I am a bit late to this party, David – but I have an excuse. :-)

    I attended the same Festival of Writing two years ago. [Got horribly ill, but that is another story]. Two things that stood out then – the utter negation of the possibility of indie publishing being successful [tied to a failure to see where ebooks were heading], and the totally servile attitude recommended for dealing with agents. [Finger in throat reaction – of course I could have said sickening…].

    Other items – the almost boastful attitude of smaller publishers regarding the size of their slush piles [mine is bigger than yours…], and that they were considering eliminating advances.

    I came away vowing never to attend another Festival of Writing in York.

  35. Thanks for the summary, David! (And for the mention. ;) It definitely seems like many of the folks doing well with self/e-publishing are doing series. And there are a lot of traditionally published series that rock the charts as well. When you get readers to love your characters, subsequent books tend to become an auto-buy (compare this to another book by the same author with different characters — what compelling reason is there for readers to give it a try?)

    I definitely haven’t seen that drop off in sales as my series progresses (five books out now). Naturally, not as many people are going to buy Book 2 as buy Book 1, because that’s where you’ll either connect with folks or not, but you might be doing something wrong if you get a lot of attrition between Books 2, 3, 4, etc. I suspect the truth of the matter is that publishers are just unwilling to take a risk on buying (up front) multi-book series from unknown authors these days, so agents are encouraging authors to write stand-alones.

  36. Thank for this. I do need all the advice I can get, and the reassurance to self-publish.

  37. nbagnara says:

    This is great, very reassuring. I’ve always thought it would be awesome to be a published writer, having my stuff out there, people seeing it, talking to people about it. However the task of getting it published seemed incredibly daunting, having to convince some one to drop an assload of money on my book, having to convince them that it was worth it, and all of the other stuff that I can’t even imagine. Then I realized how perfect the internet is. It’s a no risk, all return market for art. Sites like wordpress and tumblr are perfect for starting writers like me who just want to get their stuff out so people can see it, the plethora of e-book webstores where one could make a profit off their stories without having to convince an agent or a publisher to cough up the dough to print a few thousand books on the off chance people will want to buy them.
    thank you so much for this article as its reassured me in my intentions.

  38. Damian Rucci says:

    Reminds me of when I went to the AWP conference in Chicago last year- very little discussion about self-publishing at all.

  39. Eric says:

    For anyone who is interested, I found a wonderful place that will create Video Book Trailers. They are very professional. Their customer service is top notch, very affordable! Please visit their website for more information or email them. This is an exciting and new way to promote your book. They will even upload the video to Youtube and other video sharing websites.

    http://www.ivideoproductions.com

    info@ivideoproductions.com

    Here is a sample of their work.

  40. Eamon Somers says:

    Let’s Get Digital inspired me (thank you) to attend The Literary Consultancy digital workshops in June of this year. What has been amusing since then is the defensive tones I’ve noticed every time an agent or a publisher speaks about e-publishing. Not that I feel sorry for them. A
    nd hopefully the editors they formerly employed will be happy to work directly with us garret dwelling scribblers, how ever foolish our dreams.

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