This wasn’t supposed to happen to George Berger, especially when he was this close to throwing in the towel. You see, George made a (rather public) vow after two years of tepid sales – he would give it one more shot, and, if his latest story was also universally ignored, he would hang up his quill, for good.
His next release wasn’t overflowing with obvious commercial potential. It was, after all, a coming-of-age story about a goat. On top of that, it was a defiantly literary story – and fans of same have been relatively slow to switch to digital. And, being a 12,000 word novella, only an e-book edition was planned.
Undeterred, and with his vow to quit fresh in his mind, George decided to make a real go of his final attempt. He commissioned a talented artist to draw a striking cover. He workshopped the blurb with several other writers until it really sang. And then George sprang Midnight’s Tale upon an unsuspected world.
Around the same time, George decided to query Amazon’s Kindle Singles program. While not in the strictest sense one of the Amazon Publishing imprints, Kindle Singles is a curated list of shorter work and one must query Amazon for acceptance.
The program is particularly coveted by writers because they hold onto their rights, get paid 70% royalties at prices below $2.99 (standard is 35% for cheaper work), and, most importantly of all, benefit from considerable exposure from the visibility of being selected and the promotion Amazon puts behind Kindle Singles.
This was George’s query letter (reprinted with his permission):
With considerably more hubris and chutzpah than actual hope, I’d like to submit Midnight’s Tale, ASIN B0084V2MW6, to the Kindle Singles program. It’s a literary tale of life, love, and self-discovery in the vein of sundry well-received works by famous and talented people I would never dare try to compare myself to.
While that query letter sat in Amazon’s slush-pile, something strange started to happen. People started buying George’s little story about a goat. Lots of people. Threads began appearing on reader sites such as Kindle Boards, praising the book. And George sold more copies of Midnight’s Tale in a week than his six previous books did in all of 2011.
George couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Midnight’s Tale raced up the charts. He was appearing on bestseller lists for short fiction, he was topping the Hot New Releases chart for shorter work. But what happened the following week was even more unbelievable.
Midnight’s Tale was accepted into the exclusive (and often lucrative) Kindle Singles club.
Here’s George to tell us more:
The Little Goat That Could
I’ve been hanging around the indie publishing world for two years now, and ever since Kindle Singles was announced back in January 2011, right from the beginning it was clear that they were not particularly interested in publishing fiction. From day one, Singles has been described as for “long-form journalism”, which is pretty unambiguous, really. And while they do accept fiction, obviously, it accounts for about fifteen percent of titles, with literary fiction being around a third of that. Right now there’s one romance and one fantasy title. Two whole science fiction titles, and one of ’em is by Ray Bradbury.
I honestly have no idea why I submitted Midnight’s Tale to them. It’s my tenth e-book, my eighth piece of short fiction, and the first, the only, one I’ve ever submitted to Kindle Singles. Meant as something of a swansong to my less-than-successful fiction-writing career, I’ve never harbored any illusion that it’s particularly great, but it is — if you can overlook the fact that it’s about a goat — the book of mine with the greatest chance of popular success, I think. I probably figured it was the only title that had even the tiniest hope of acceptance, so I submitted it late one night on something of a whim. I had no real expectation that it’d be accepted, as I think my query letter rather clearly shows.
Two weeks later, I got an incredibly short and to-the-point email from someone at Amazon; the editor of Kindle Singles had read Midnight’s Tale, really liked it, and wanted to include it in the program, if that was okay with me. I didn’t have to think long about my answer, and almost exactly a week later, it became the 203rd Kindle Single on Amazon… and the only one about a goat.
The whole thing has been completely surreal. I’ve heard so many stories from writers who are a hundred times better than I, who submitted titles for consideration and then never even heard back from Amazon at all. People who’ve written bestsellers, people with serious name recognition, people who write full-time with deathly seriousness don’t get accepted, and some acerbic putz nobody has ever heard of makes it in on his first try, with a book about a freaking goat? I can’t help but feel I’ve gone through the looking-glass, or down the wrong leg of the Trousers of Time, or something. Amazon Tweet’d about Midnight’s Tale, and mentioned it in an email they sent who-knows-how-many people, and I just have to smile and shake my head; do they not realize it’s a book about a goat, in which nothing much happens? Man… There’s also this very strange bittersweet element to the whole thing, not just because it was supposed to be my last fiction e-book, but because it’s the only piece of even remotely literary fiction I’ve ever written and published, and people who enjoy it are very, very unlikely to enjoy any of my other books. Out there are thousands of writers, much better than I am, who’d love to have a title accepted as a Kindle Single because of the exposure it’d give them, the new readers it’d bring them, and who gets accepted? Yours truly, who now cringes with fear every time anyone buys any of his other titles, expecting subsequent returns or two-star reviews. (I’m not kidding, either. Literally while typing this note, I received an email from a reader complaining about the grammar in another book… and one of my better titles, at that. Probably.)
Still, it’s a good motivational tale for writers of short fiction, I guess. There’s clearly a healthy demand for (what people inexplicably think is) quality short fiction, regardless of subject, and if a hack like me can get a title accepted as a Kindle Single, pretty much anyone with minimal skills at writing can. On a broader, less cynical note, I think it’s also an encouraging example of how writing outside your primary genre or style can be rewarding. Leave your comfort zone, your usual style and setting, and see what happens. Who knows? You could be (snicker!) the next George Berger, right?
Born in a hospital on his birthday, to his parents, George Berger came from a quiet and unassuming background nobody cares about to produce a succession of quiet and unassuming books nobody cares about. His books are characterized by instantly-forgettable titles, vivid and realistic dialogue, an eclectic assortment of subjects, pervasive but slightly warped humor, and consistently poor sales.
When not writing, Mr. Berger dabbles in electronics, tinkers with his antique bicycle, administers computers, thwarts crime, and invents interesting but completely untrue things to add to his biography.
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A huge thank you goes to George for sharing this heart-warming story. I bought and read Midnight’s Tale yesterday. It’s fantastic, and I think George is going to have to change the sales part of that bio pretty soon.
So, what’s the lesson here? The optimists in this brave new world always say that cream eventually rises to the top, and that while luck plays some role, you can increase your chances of getting lucky by doing all the right things: writing great stories, pricing them competitively, getting a striking cover, and writing enticing blurbs.
While George was planning to walk away from writing if Midnight’s Tale was a failure, he still gave it every chance to be successful by shelling out for great art and working really hard on that blurb.
He also wrote a great story, of course. And while there are lots of great stories from great writers who haven’t gotten noticed yet, I hope they take heart from George’s tale. He could have given up already. The universe seemed to be telling him that he wasn’t good enough. But he stuck at it for two tough years, and then got lucky.
Seriously, it’s only 99c. Go, scoot.