Friday, February 13, 2015

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, Amazon walks into mine.

I've been on one of the most interesting journeys in my publishing career. Many readers of this blog are in the self-publishing business and they might find the details interesting.

First a recap of my self-publishing history.  In 2009, I could not have given you a clear definition of the word "digital."  I probably still can't.  The idea of Lazarus-raising my trad published, out of print books from their dusty graves on my bookshelf and bringing them back to life was not incubating in my brain.  After twenty years as an author, the writing spirit had been leached out of me by the crushing reality of traditional publishing.

Enter Jeff Bezos, the patron saint of writers. Mr. Bezos had set up something called KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing and he was saying to writers.  "Hey, stop crying. I have this nice big space.  Come over and bring your novel or memoir or how-to or short story or cookbook or diary. I won't send you a rejection letter. You can publish your books on KDP for free. Nada, nil, zero. I'll give you good shelf space visible to the millions of eyeballs I command.  You can use my space as long as you want.  Out of print?  Not on my watch.  I'll let you decide the book's cover design. I'll let you decide how much to charge. I'll let you keep most of the money.  If you regret the ending you wrote for that urban romance, I'll let you write a different one, slap it into your book and re-publish.   AND all of this can be done in less than an hour.   WAIT!  WHAT???

One day, some of us (my friend, Sandra Scoppettone and my e-friend, Ruth Harris, are examples), washed our faces, put on our big girl shoes and began an astonishing new chapter in our publishing lives. Jeff Bezos gave us bizzarro publishing, the complete opposite of the punishing paradigm practiced by the big six. The old pubs took the novel you had worked on for two years, waited another year to publish it and then pretended they'd never heard of it. Writers were too dumbstruck to understand and too grateful to complain and too downtrodden to even examine.  Prozac was our friend.  Pubs didn't do this on purpose because that would have taken work and planning and I swear to you, they did not know how to do work or plan.  They knew how to sit at their massive desks (piled with un-read and/or rejected manuscripts) in their high floor offices and they definitely knew how to go to lunch at the Four Seasons or Michaels.  One of the anomalies of the otherwise dismal experience of being trad pubbed was the expensive one-time lunch (the last time you would see your editor.)  Here are some of the celebs I saw or met while at my one-time (per book) lunches.  Lillian Hellman (short and stout); Dwight Gooden (modest); David Letterman (boyish).   

Fast forward to Saint Bezos.  In addition to his global e-store Mr. Bezos gifted us with more astonishing perks, we could sell our e-books 24/7 (yes, while we slept).  Let me repeat that because it bears repeating.  We sold our e-books 24/7. We knew within minutes when we had made a sale BECAUSE we had a real time tabulation of our sales and could check the tabulation page 24/7. If we chose, we could put our books in an off-price sale for a few days or even make them free.  It was all under our control.  The KDP community shared ideas and experiences.  We learned what marketing  ploys worked best.  We read each other's books and put up reviews.

The early glory days of self-publishing have undergone changes.  Other sites besides Amazon have opened.  There's a place called Smashwords that acts as a distributor and broadcasts your titles to other retailers.  In recent years retail sites have made it possible to upload manuscripts on their sites using the Amazon model. 

The big trad publishers after getting off their high horses and realizing they didn't have the e-rights to all those books they neglected and then dumped into remainder bins, finally woke up to what was going on and became upset.  They did not like the renegade quality of what was going on.  There was no role for them.  There were no gatekeepers to keep out the riff raff.  They tightened the contracts, clumsily joined the revolution and even tried to sweet talk naive authors into letting them publish their e-books.  Most writers were savvy enough to do it themselves. 

So let's be realistic. Is there a lot of poorly written junk on KDP?  It depends on your taste.  There seems to be an audience for everything.  There have been dozens of breakout star authors who have made hundreds of thousands of dollars with their self-published books after years of rejection from the trad pubs.  Some of them sign with traditional publishers after initial success but the contracts are more in their favor.

In the early years, you could sell a boatload of e-books by reducing the price to 99 cents.  What you lost in revenue you made up in volume.  There was also a maneuver that gamed the ranking system by making a book available for free and then reaping algorithm induced visibility sales when the book went back to regular price.  Those maneuvers are not as reliable as they once were.  The most reliable marketing device is probably a lot of good reviews from readers.  In recent years, e-mail off-price advertisers like BookBub have had remarkable success selling books.  If they take your book (they have an editorial review process), you are likely to sell hundreds of books within a two or three day period and the glow remains for a few days after.  I used BookBub regularly and that is how my book Daughters received a slew of good reviews and caught the attention of Amazon Publishers.

A few years ago, Jeff Bezos (Amazon) decided to use his own great publishing platform and get into the book publishing business.  Amazon became a PUBLISHER.  They were not like the old publishers.  They knew how to work.  They knew how to market.  They knew how to steer their millions of eyeballs to the books they published. 

Last spring, Amazon approached me and they asked to buy one of my books.  They had NOTICED it because of all the great reviews.  WAIT. WHAT?   There are over a million books in the Kindle Store. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, Amazon walks into mine. No, wait that's from Casablanca.  Of the million plus books in all of the Kindle Store, in all the world, Amazon has noticed mine?  

I knew Amazon was not my father's publishing house.  This was a genius marketing/service juggernaut that knew the emotional make up of the population and how to work it.  Even so, I hesitated.  Two people in my life said to me:  put down the telephone, go to your computer, open the Amazon e-mail and say "yes."

We are still in the honeymoon stage (publication was in late November) but I have not been disappointed.  In another post I will detail the Amazon publishing journey and all of the eye-opening differences from my previous trad pubbed experience.

Three Daughters, by the way, is #46 today in the Kindle 100 bestsellers.  It is also an Amazon special deal on sale for $1.99 (that's for 720 pages!)


  1. Yes! Exactly! :-)

    The smartest thing I did—even though I had no idea it was smart at the time—was to revert my rights. It was way before Jeff Bezos appeared on the scene and I had no idea what I would do with those rights.

    I worked in publishing so I knew the other end and could not understand why none of my publishers (Random House, S&S, etc) exploited my back list of NYT bestsellers. Ergo, I blindly asked for the rights back and they just handed them over to me.

    There they sat peacefully until JeffB and JoeKonrath clued me in. Publishing's needed a revolution for a long time and now it's got one.

  2. Replies
    1. Jeanie, thank you for stopping by. Also, thank you for the compliment. I appreciate it.

  3. So is three daughters exactly like daughters? I am reading three daughters now and suddenly it seems so familiar to me. At first I wondered if I saw a movie of this? But maybe I read the other book. Which is a bummer cause I feel like I wasted my time in this book

    1. Pauline, I'm sympathetic to your message. Amazon bought Daughters and re-issued it with some editing and put a disclaimer on the page. I'm certain they would refund your money if you let them know. If you would like any other of my books (that I control), I would be happy to send you a copy.