Thursday, 30 August 2012

Indie publishing ― the bottom line by Zoë Sharp

Writing can be a very isolated occupation. I found that out this week when I came across an item on The Daily Weekly blog, part of the Seattle Weekly Blogs. Not only had I somehow managed to miss this piece when it came out back in April, but the content frankly astounded me.

The blog details an open letter from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in advance of a shareholder meeting held later that month. Or, more particularly, a small section of that letter:

“Kindle Direct Publishing has quickly taken on astonishing scale - more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club. KDP is a big win for authors. Authors who use KDP get to keep their copyrights, keep their derivative rights, get to publish on their schedule - a typical delay in traditional publishing can be a year or more from the time the book is finished - and ... saving the best for last ... KDP authors can get paid royalties of 70%. The largest traditional publishers pay royalties of only 17.5% on ebooks (they pay 25% of 70% of the selling price which works out to be 17.5% of the selling price). The KDP royalty structure is completely transformative for authors. A typical selling price for a KDP book is a reader-friendly $2.99 - authors get approximately $2 of that! With the legacy royalty of 17.5%, the selling price would have to be $11.43 to yield the same $2 per unit royalty. I assure you that authors sell many, many more copies at $2.99 than they would at $11.43.

“Kindle Direct Publishing is good for readers because they get lower prices, but perhaps just as important, readers also get access to more diversity since authors that might have been rejected by establishment publishing channels now get their chance in the marketplace. You can get a pretty good window into this. Take a look at the Kindle best-seller list, and compare it to the New York Times best-seller list - which is more diverse? The Kindle list is chock-full of books from small presses and self-published authors, while the New York Times list is dominated by successful and established authors.”

The part of the letter which most gained my attention is this bit:

“…more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club.”

Looking at the usual rules of marketing-speak, “more than a thousand” means not many more than a thousand, otherwise he would have said “almost eleven hundred” or something similar.

Another way of looking at this is, that of the huge numbers of indie authors using Amazon’s KDP program to achieve their publishing dreams, less than eleven hundred are selling more than a thousand books a month.

That’s quite a sobering thought.

Then in May a survey of 1007 indie authors was carried out by The Guardian newspaper. They discovered that despite the publicity afforded to indie superstars like Amanda Hocking and EL James the vast majority of indie authors do not make enough to live on.

The survey, carried out by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis for Taleist, claims that the average earnings of indies last year was $10,000 (or £6300 at today’s exchange rate). If that still sounds pretty good, those figures were lifted (perhaps artificially) by the small percentage of high-earners ― less than 10% earned more than $100,000/£63,000. In fact, half the writers questioned earned less than $500/£315 and many failed to recover their production costs.

However, those who invested in professional editing and proofreading earned 13% more than average, and pro cover design increased earnings by another 34%. Writing romance, it seems is another good way to up your take-home pay. Romance authors earned 170% more than the $10,000 average (if I’m reading this correctly) while literary fiction authors tended to earn just $200/£126.

The survey also discovered that moving from a conventional publishing background into self-publishing increased the chances for success, with those authors earning 2.5 times more than authors who went straight for the indie option. Oh, and it helped to be female, in your forties, dedicated to writing hard, and educated to degree level.

“It shouldn't have surprised me that 75% of the royalty pie is going to 10% of authors: that's life in many industries. If I'm being honest, though, I'd hoped self-publishing might be a bit more democratic. Someone asked me if I thought this might deter authors from self-publishing, but actors don't stop heading for Hollywood despite the odds against them," Lewis told the Guardian.

There's a clear link, he said, "between earnings and the amount of help, and therefore feedback, that an author is willing to take on board. Authors who engage editors, for instance, end up with more royalties. Readers are excited by having access to new voices, but they've not been waiting for unedited, unproofread and amateurish books. There's more to being a successful author than finding the 'Save and publish' button on Amazon, but there are a lot of authors who haven't realised that yet. In that sense, the low earnings were not surprising.”

Until I read these two reports, months after they were first published, it had not occurred to me how incredibly lucky I am. Apart from the ‘educated’ bit ― I opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve ― I realise that I tick all those boxes mentioned above. (OK, so I don’t write romance, although there is an emotional element to my novels ― does that count?) I just had no idea that the success I’ve achieved by indie-publishing my Charlie Fox backlist puts me in such an elite club.

And, quite frankly, the whole thing has astounded me.

Working in isolation, I’d kind-of assumed that anyone who held the rights to backlist titles lying dormant could put them out there and do as well if not better than I was doing. Yes, I’ve been careful with the presentation, and my cover designer, Jane Hudson at NuDesign, has done a brilliant job, but it’s been a huge learning curve.

I find myself not only honoured and humbled by the response of readers ― ie, they are buying the books and coming back for more ― but also that I am inspired to Get On With It just that little bit harder.

I’m fascinated to hear about the experience of other indies. Has self-publishing been like winning the lottery for you, or merely winning a ticket to another lottery? Do you feel the results of these surveys present an accurate picture of what it’s like out there, or are they further proof that there are ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’?

This week’s Word of the Week is trangem, a worthless article or knick-knack. The origin of the word isn’t clear, but it might have some connection to the Scottish trankum, meaning a trinket.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012


When I wrote ''No Dead Body In Sight" I wanted to do two things....
One. I wanted to write a Noah Milano short story again after the two novelettes I'd written that year.

Two. I wanted it to be a bit ''high concept'' thriller married to a PI story and see how using a high concept would affect sales.

What do I mean with high concept thriller? Well, there are a number of examples in the movie world... Speed, Jurrassic Park, and one that embodies high concept more than any other movie Snakes On A Plane. Why Snakes On A Plane? Well, a high-concept thriller should interest you from the get-go, just by the description. So, for Jurrassic Park: ''what if we could clone dinosaurs". Snakes On A Plane has the high concept described in the title!

In books the high concept thriller is about the same but often a book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For "No Dead Body In Sight'' the high-concept is this: An aging movie star is sure she discovered a dead body on the beach. When the police arrives there's no deady body in sight.

The following makes it a PI story: She hires Noah Milano, son of a mobster and security specialist to prove she's not crazy. Trying to uncover this mystery Noah soon finds himself in grave danger...

Interested by the concept? Don't hesitate... It will only cost you 99 cents to read...

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Just For The Smell Of It by Zoë Sharp

They say travel broadens the mind. I find it calms it. And I’ve been doing quite some travelling over the past few days. I was ashamed to discover that I had spent more time in Japan than I had in the Outer Hebrides of the British Isles. A long-standing invite from friends who moved out there, plus the promise of some interesting research, was all I needed. A five-hour ferry ride from Oban later, and I’m on Benbecula, looking out over the Atlantic towards the Americas.

My trip started last Friday with a spur-of-the-moment detour to west Cumbria, which also involved calling in on fellow crime writer Matt Hilton and his wife, Denise. Then up to just west of Edinburgh via twisty back roads through stunning countryside.

From there it was up to the Aberdeen area to call in on the ever-cheery Stuart MacBride and Fiona — not to mention their fabulous-and-she-knows-it cat, Grendel. Stuart and I spent two days on top of his garage roof doing manly repairing stuff. I have now acquired my own pry-bar set and lump hammer. I wanted to name the lump hammer Sir Stuart in his honour, (as in, “Pass me the mighty Sir Stuart and I shall teach this recalcitrant nail a thing or two …”) but this suggestion was greeted with a certain lack of enthusiasm. Ah well.

From Aberdeen was a long but beautiful drive down to Oban on the west coast of Scotland to catch my ferry for the western isles. Another stunning trip, and although I set off in heavy rain, it wasn’t long before I could stop and put the top down on the car again.

The ferry trip itself was uneventful, apart from getting my car doored by people who, it seems, are incapable of getting back into their own vehicles without ramming their car doors into everything else in sight. Argh! I don’t find that annoying At All. (mutter, mutter, mutter)

Then it was another hour’s drive from the ferry terminal at Lochboisdale up South Uist and across several causeways to Benbecula. I hate to keep using the words ‘beautiful’, or ‘stunning’ but the simple fact is that’s exactly what this place is. Any Brit who wants to travel to exotic climes would do well to explore their own country before doing so.

The nicest thing about travelling by convertible with the top down is the smell. Sounds weird, but unlike sitting inside a pollen-filtered, air-conditioned box of steel and glass, having the roof down means every time I pass a field  of newly mown hay, or a patch of wild garlic, or a house with a wood fire burning, the smell of it hits me right away. OK, so you get less pleasant smells instantly, too, but it all adds to the connection with the land through which you’re passing.

Here on the islands, the overwhelming smell is that of the ocean. Salt and kelp and the clean raw smell of a wind that has failed to pick up anything malodourous for a thousand miles or more. If there’s one overriding memory I shall take home with me from this, it’s the smell of the place.

It reminds me, too, the importance of including smell in my writing. I’m not talking scratch-and-sniff pages, but the description of a scent, a sharp tang, a wisp of something almost intangible, is as important in narrative as the sights and sounds. It is, after all, our biggest memory trigger, good or bad.

For me, some are obvious. The reek of a road-kill skunk in New England, even after a week of heavy snow, is not something I will forget in a hurry. But I also hate the smell of solder and lilies. My favourite smells? Fresh-cut grass, good coffee, new bread, creosote.

So, what are your own memory triggers? What scents do you love, and what do you hate? And why?

This week’s Word of the Week is Karmageddon : It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's, like, a serious bummer…

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Voyage Of Discovery by Zoe Sharp

Voyage of Discovery by

He says, “People like you are the scum of the earth,” and Angel smiles at him.

Yesterday (Wednesday) was not only the start of new month but for me it was also the start of a new project. So far, what you see above is the opening line, but I recognize that by the time I reach the end it may well have changed. In fact, the scene I’ve been writing may not be the opening scene any longer, and even the present-tense narrative may not survive the first draft.

But at the moment I’m still in that excited-but-scared-witless stage I always get at the beginning of a new book. Finding the right jumping-in point to the story, working out how to best get across the characters and their situations without piling on loads of superfluous backstory. And above all trying to craft something that fits with my hopes and expectations for the work. Vague half-formed ideas and snatches of dialogue always seem so much better before you trap them into an orderly narrative.

Maybe this time I’ll manage a little more ‘jump first, worry about the parachute later’ ― much like the main character, Angel.

What makes it a little more daunting is that this book is not part of my ongoing series―of which DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten will be published in Oct (UK) and Jan (US). Instead, I’m striking out with a new character, a new setting for the first of what I very much hope will be a trilogy. (And Angel is a she not a he, in case you were wondering.) I may be branching out on something new, but I’m sticking with a strong female protagonist which, I hope, is one of the reasons people read and enjoy my books.

But here I am now right at the start of my three-leg voyage, with a reasonable idea of my eventual destination and the ports of call along the way. I don’t have a full fixed outline, though, and that in itself is slightly scary. I like to work from a detailed chart. This time I have a few notes and a sextant ― which will tell me where I am, but not necessarily where I’m going!

If things progress even halfway according to plan, it’s going to be a short, sharp and possibly bumpy ride ― think the Southern Ocean rather than the Norfolk Broads. I’ve set myself a deadline of the beginning of October to complete the bones of the tale. Two months. That’s a tough schedule by anyone’s standards. I don’t know yet if I can do it, but sometimes you just have to take the challenge and give it your best shot.

I don’t even have a fixed title, because this time it’s not a case of simply naming one book ― I have to fit that into a set of three. They need to make sense both individually and as a whole, relating to each other as well as the stories that make up the overall arc.

But I do have a firm picture of Angel Cain, who I tried out in the CWA short story anthology, ORIGINAL SINS. She looks at life with a devil-may-care gleam in her eye and a reckless intensity that makes Charlie Fox seem quite restrained by comparison. As a travelling companion, I think she’s going to be a blast ― if she doesn’t get me killed first.

One thing’s for sure, though, I’m sure as hell looking forward to the journey.

Please excuse a bit of BSP, but this week also saw the publication of FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine in UK paperback format, with a stunning new cover. And the opening line?

‘The only thing more terrifying than fighting for your life is fighting for someone else’s.’

This week’s Word of the Week is corbie, a Scots dialect word for a raven or crow. From this is also a corbie messenger which is a messenger who returns too late, or not at all.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Sons Of Spade

Find out what's happening in the world of private eye fiction at Jochem Vandersteen's Sons Of Spade.