Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Writing Life at $2.99 a Pop

My brother Michael is a painter.  He lives in Laguna Beach and, for years, maintained a house in Mexico, until it got too crazy down there.  He works every day, just as I do.  He thinks constantly about how to get better, just as I do.  He experiments endlessly with his technique, just as I do.  And any time a new subject occurs to him, he just sits down and executes it.

Just as I don't -- at least, until now.

As a painter, Mike sells his work directly to people who like paintings.  I sell my work to an intermediary, a gatekeeper, a publisher -- a corporate entity in a risky business that has its own ideas about what people do and don't want to read.  Publishers certainly know what they want to buy and what they don't want to buy - and the only thing they want to buy from me (if anything) is a thriller.  For my entire 25 years as a writer, I've effectively been pigeonholed.  I can't put up the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to buy, design, print, and distribute my own books, so that means the publishers -- with the best will in the world -- essentially define what I can and can't write.

And now, if I choose to, I can write anything I want without considering the restrictions of the publishing industry and sell it direct to people who might want to read it.  Why?


About eight weeks ago, as an experiment, I decided to offer e-book editions of two private-eye mysteries I wrote in the 1990s that had been out of print for so long that the rights had reverted to me.  Much to my surprise, they sold - and I mean, in significant numbers.  Sure, they only cost a reader $2.99 each, but I make a flat 70% of that; if I sell a thousand or more copies a month, I'm making some actual money.

There are four more books in that series, which features an over-educated Los Angeles P.I, named Simeon Grist.  The third goes up in 2-3 days, and the fourth will follow in a week or two.  Then there's another series, featuring a burglar named Junior Bender who works as a private eye for crooks.  If you live in a dreary little stucco box in Panorama City and someone steals $500,000 in already-stolen emeralds out of your house, you're not going to go to the cops; you go to Junior. My agent tried to sell this series for a couple of years while I simply continued to write them because they were so much fun.  We got offers, but the sense was that comic mysteries weren't hot, and none of the offers was good enough.  So I'm putting them up on my own.

By the end of the year, what with one thing and another, I'll have nine or ten e-books online, probably all priced at $2.99.  That's very cool for me, because if they sell in the quantities in which the Simeon Grist books are selling, it'll be a very substantial boost to my income.  But what's coolest is that I CAN WRITE ANYTHING I WANT and not have to give a moment's thought to a publisher's "list" or the conventional marketing wisdom of the moment.  Whatever it is; I'll write it, have a cover designed, and put it out there, and people can decide for themselves whether they like it.

I need to make it clear here that I'm not knocking publishers. I actually love publishers; I'm deeply grateful  and somewhat amazed that major publishers have agreed to print and distribute ten books I nursed into being, and publishers have paid my way, or part of my way, for years.  But publishing is a precarious enterprise; all books are expensive to produce and most of them fail.  It's inevitable that the marketing potential of a book is a major factor in the decision whether to publish it.

Nor am I in any way saying that the books I published weren't the best books I could write, or that they weren't books I wanted to write. I wanted deeply to write all of them.  The point is, there were lots of books I didn't write because I knew I couldn't get them to readers.

At the moment, in addition to the next Poke Rafferty thriller, which will be conventionally published, I'm writing two books I don't even plan to try to sell through the usual channels: they'll go direct to readers.  I have a list of a dozen more I want to write.  It feels as though I've been cooped up in a small room for years and the walls suddenly fell down.  There's space to swing my arms.  I don't have to reject exciting ideas because they're not ideas I can sell.

This is a big deal for writers.  Yes, the e-book market will probably be flooded with unpublishable junk -- I may even write some of it.  Yes, it imperils bookstores, and I love bookstores.  But this is the first time in modern history that a writer can put his or her work out to a global audience for a few hundred bucks in startup costs.  This is the beginning of a revolution.  Everyone in the industry is focused on it as an economic revolution, but I think it's primarily a creative revolution.

Writers are now as free as painters to speak directly to the people who might be interested in their work.  We might even make enough money at it to write full-time, which for most writers is a succinct definition of paradise.  Nobody knows how this market will shake out, but right now it's capitalism at its most primitive: put it out and see whether anyone likes it.

It's been some time since I could be even charitably described as a spring chicken, but this literally makes me feel twenty years younger.  Just me and the reader, whoever he or she is.  Instead of tossing those ideas, write them and sink or swim on my own.  At $2.99 a pop.


  1. I love hard copy books and don't own an e-reader. However, I must say I can see one advantage e-books have for readers. You get to experience new authors without breaking your reading budget. Say if I'm going to spend $35 on books this week, I would put that toward several authors I know rather than taking a chance on an author I didn't know. But with e-books at $2.99 a pop I can find new authors and add them to my 'must have' list.

    BTW, your series featuring Junior Bender says quite intriguing I'll have to check that out. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Tim, thanks for putting e-books into a new perspective. It has only been recently that I understood how difficult it is for writers to get published and how it is even more difficult for them to keep getting published if books don't sell.

    It explains, at least for some writers, why good series suddenly disappear. The book I reviewed today is the first of two very good police procedurals set in a fabulous location with a an interesting and likeable protagonist. Maybe the author's contract wasn't renewed for lack of book sales and Alex Cenni died for the publisher's bottom line.

    The sticking point for this beneficiary of Johnson's Great Society is the cost of the

    The first public school in America was established in Boston in 1635. The first public library opened in Peterborough, NH in 1833. The first publicly funded library system began in Boston in 1848. Public education and public libraries were the first two steps on the ladder of success for immigrants and the poor.

    Public education has been corroded and public libraries, now putting more of their resources into e-books, are moving toward serving those who can afford a device that has built into its circuits planned obsolence because that is the American way.

    I may, eventually, be the last e-reader hold-out in the literate world even if it means missing out on some of your books, Tim. I think the thing that annoys me the most is that people can load up their devices with books they will never read. The number of people who pay 2.99 for your books may increase dramatically but that number will be small compared to the number of classics downloaded for free just because they are free.

    E-readers are apparently wonderful and convenient things for people who can afford them. They are status symbols, too. If e-books are going to get you, Tim, and other writers like you, the readership they deserve they are a boon to authors and readers alike. But public libraries are putting more of their limited resources into e-books rather than books with paper pages between covers and and that is going to deprive a segment of society from one of life's greatest joys.


  3. I'm happy for you, but you already have a name. I'm not sure it would work for me.

    Marilynn Larew (not really anonymous, just profile challenged)

  4. I don't want a Kindle, but bought one for ,y mother a few weeks ago. (The ability to enlarge print should help with her macular degeneration.) I've been fooling with it until I get a chance to give it to her, and I'm seeing more potential all the time, not so much as a way to replace physical books in my live, but to supplement them.

    Your Junior Bender series is a perfect example. A writer whose work I enjoy immensely, writing stories that sound like a lot of fun, and no physical publisher will touch them. Perfect for an e-reader.

    I scrounged up a copy of a Simeon Grist book online a few weeks back, but the e-reader has a great convenience and cost advantage there, too. (Not to mention the possibilities for novellas and collections of stories that don;t meet the length requirements of physical publishers.) So now I'm probably going to have to get one.

    Damn it.

  5. Tim,

    You make the best case for e-books I've read, so thank you. I don't have a Kindle but Kindle lets me download its books to my PC, so I can take a look at your PI books. They sound like fun to me!

    May I quote a paragraph or two from your blog on some of the listserves I subscribe to?

    Pat Browning

  6. We've been writing non-fiction, how-to informational ebooks since 2000 - always has been a terrific business and now it is about to expand dramatically with ebook readers taking them mainstream. Lots of potential going forward.

  7. Hi, everyone, and thanks for reading and responding. I should probably preface this response by saying that I think a physical book is one of the very few perfect artifacts ever created. I don't own an e-book reader, although I do read e-books on my PC, having downloaded two free programs that allow me to read practically any format.

    So. Beth -- I understand your reservations about the cost of the e-reader, but books currently cost a LOT of money, and if you buy them, you can amortize the expense of the e-reader in very short order, and from then on, all you're doing is saving money. I personally think $14.99 is high for a trade paperback, when I can get it as an e-book for five or even seven dollars less. There will always be books I buy to keep, and those I'll buy in paper, but I see no reason to keep books I know I'll read only once, and those are perfect e-reads. I've already saved much more on e-books than the new Kindle would have cost me.

    And as for education, I think e-texts are potentially the greatest boon since small class sizes. These days a textbook is obsolete by the time it's been approved and printed. E-texts make constant revision and updating possible, and if they were designed properly, they could also include links that would pull interested students into deeper study in a way that paper texts can't do, while at the same time offering, because of their flexibility and linkability, a different learning experience to different students. Now if the state approval procedures can become more nimble, kids might actually be reading current information.

    Marilynn, being published traditionally might not work for you, either, if what you mean is that the book would get attention and sell copies. Ninety-five percent of all published books sink without a trace, as I can personally attest, and it's worse now than it's ever been. And when your paper book sinks, it's REALLY gone -- it can't be found on shelves anywhere, while an e-book sits there for as long as necessary, waiting for someone to discover it. And you have to get out there and work the book the same way (more or less) we work paper books.

    I have a signing in Pasadena in about 90 minutes, so more later.

  8. Tim, very thought provoking - I've been thinking along similar lines myself, of which I hope to reveal more soon. There exists a real opportunity here - particularly if, like me, things have taken a rather troublesome turn with a publisher. I will always want to write Nigel Barnes stories, even if a publisher thinks they are not 'commercially viable', and now there is a real opportunity to do that. I blogged in the past about ebooks and e-readers, and I have reservations. But if good writers were to produce great stories available only on an ereader or Kindle or Ipad at a reasonable price, then I can see device sales soaring. Right now it suffers in comparison to a printed version - still the best and most tactile 'device' on which to read a story. Yet if a book doesn't exist...I know I'd use mine more if writers I loved produced exclusive material for it.

  9. Good thing there are a growing number of options for the entrepreneurial writer, eh, Tim? Here's another one that may or may not fit into your new business plan; is a POD publisher that's probably worth checking out. While I've never used their services, I've subscribed to their newsletter for the last five or six years with nary a hint that they are anything but an ethical company offering superior services at some of the lowest prices in the industry to writers who choose to self-publish.

    I think Junior Bender would work superbly well for a TV series, or maybe just a made-for-TV movie. Ready to add scriptwriting to your repertoire? Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading Junior, and more of Simeon Grist, and the next Poke Rafferty, and the two books in progress . . ..

  10. Here's an international twist:
    Amazon UK has just opened a Kindle store.
    And they're now selling Kindle books over a 3G network that covers most of Western Europe as well as South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.
    When you, as an author, upload a book to them you can specify the countries in which you retain your rights and permit them to sell your upload only in those countries.
    Example: If you have sold the North American rights, but retained the rights in the UK, then nothing prevents you from putting those same books up in the Kindle U.K. store.
    And to do it at a price that you, the author, determines.
    Meanwhile, your North American publisher will probably be selling the very same books on in the U.S. at a price he/she determines.
    It's bound to complicate relationships with authors and their existing publishers.
    But it can't help but be good for authors in the long run.
    And not the least because, if the books they've put up themselves attract significant readership in countries in which they have yet to be published, they might well be picked up by publishers in those countries.
    To whom the authors can then revert the ebook rights as a sweetener to the deal.
    And to whom the authors can sell future books.

  11. I can't help wondering about some of the long-term ramifications of books going electronic. Some of my fondest memories are opening my grandfather's bookcase (which I now have) and browsing. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." How could one resist reading something that started like that? Or:

    "When chapmen billies leave the street,
    And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
    As market days are wearing late,
    An' folk begin to tak the gate;
    While we sit bousing at the nappy,
    And getting fou and unco happy,
    We think na on the lang Scots miles,
    The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
    That lie between us and our hame,
    Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
    Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
    Nursing her wrath to keep it warm."

    Could Robbie Burns ever imagined the impact that would have on a young boy in Johannesburg? That it created a love of poetry?

    As much as I think there is a major and positive role for ebooks, it worries me that the ability to browse will decline. I always gravitate towards the bookcase in homes I visit. Not only does it tell me something about the owner, but I may also find something I want to read.

    Browsing an ebook is not the same. In my experience, it doesn't even happen. So how am I going to learn about you when I arrive at your house for the first time. Probably there may not even be a bookcase! Certainly a single ereader on a bookcase would look strange! It is different to having its stored books in physical form for all to see.

    How are we going to browse? My people my age will struggle, but today's youth may have no problem. I hope that's the case.


  12. Tim, most public schools cannot afford to provide textbooks for every student. In the lower grades, rather than workbooks, students get worksheets which the teacher has to run off. Most teachers provide their own paper because the amount they are allotted for school supplies doesn't cover pencils.

    If a school system cannot provide a textbook for each student in middle school and high school, the idea of an e-reader per student will happen when Amazon donates a Kindle to every student in America over the age of 11.
    Students don't take text books home because there are usually only enough for each section, about 25 books. The same books are used by all the classes. Homework assignments are on hand-outs; the amount of time teachers have to spend waiting to us a copy machine would leave to tears or a mass walk out if it was calculated.

    You wrote that e-readers are the biggest boon to education since small classes. In the real world of public education, students are as likely to get e-readers as teachers are to get small classes. When my kids were in elementary school the average class size was 18-20. This year it is 30. Teachers have been laid off and some teachers who retired were not replaced.

    Seven of the elementary schools lost their librarians and one of the things kids looked forward to doing the most. The schools in the poorer areas kept their librarians because the school library is the only one they use; parents aren't as likely to take the kids to the main library and the branches are only open four hours a day.

    Eleven crossing guards have been laid off and the city thinks parents should volunteer to do it. What parent would take on the responsibility of getting someone else's children across a city street during morning rush hour? This is a particularly thorny issue because some of the bus routes have been cut.

    E-readers and e-books, not anywhere on the horizon. When local and state governments request special elections so they can implement budget overrides to decrease pupil-teacher ratio, the plan is always defeated. The experts on classroom management and the things really necessary for a positive learning environment are people who haven't been in a classroom since they graduated.

    Teachers keep hats and mittens in their desks for those children who show up day after day in 20F degree weather because they "forgot" their's at home. School nurses keep ample supplies of peanut butter and crackers and cereal in their offices for those kids who start to fade by 10:00 because they haven't had breakfast (everyday).

    Utopia is no closer than it was when Thomas More wrote the book.


  13. Stan, e-readers deprive authors of significant free advertising. Public transportation and the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists have always provided me with sources to investigate. If someone is hanging on to a strap on a rocking train with one hand, holding a book with the other, and turning pages with the chin or the tip of the nose, that has to be a great book.

    Stan,I wish I could hear you read that poem.


  14. 'm back, and the event turned into a replica of this discussion because someone in the bookstore had read this blog. Went on for about 90 minutes. To all who argue that printed books are by definition preferable to electronic ones, I agree with you. On the other hand, my 20-year-old nephew, who is scary smart, says, "I hate paper." The only thing that matters to him is the text. He and I had a bracing discussion of Don Quixote recently, and I can't see that he missed anything Cervantes had in mind because of the format in which he read it. I'll always prefer paper books; younger people may not, although I privately believe that specialty independent community bookstores are the future of paper-book retailing, because they know their customers, they're set up to make browsing easy, and they're environments people like to spend time in. Beth, I did NOT say that e-readers were a boon to education; I said e-texts were, and there's a big difference. E-texts can be read on anything, including home computers -- in fact, one of the advantages is that they don't have to be taken home because they'll be waiting on the Web. And as far as cost is concerned, how much does it cost to buy 200-300 copies of every text needed by a junior high school or high school student? If e-reader prices fell by 50%, which they absolutely will, it would probably be cheaper to let students use them in class, and then those who don't have home computers could take them home for homework, since eventually this nation will have to get back to homework. And the texts can be updated more easily AND they'll engage the students' attention in a way that print on paper doesn't. And yes, there will be some schools and some students that are too economically deprived for any of this, but that's true of every improvement one can suggest, and it's self-defeating to refuse to move forward because not absolutely everyone can move forward together. We need to find fresh ways to look at our educational system -- not simply pouring money into it -- because it's failing nationwide. And I think the greatest failure is that we're not engaging our brightest students. We need those brains in the future. Sorry. Education is something I can ramble on about forever.

  15. I'm feeling exactly the same way — liberated! I can finally bring those stories, that publishers loved but said they couldn't sell, directly to readers. And in the future, I can and will write more of them. It's a great time to be a writer.

  16. Hi Tim! My aunt Nancy Carter gave me the link to your blog entry. Nice to cyber meet you! Nancy speaks very fondly of your writing and I look forward to reading your work. What book would you recommend that I start with?

    I'm happy for you that you will get to write what YOU want! And that's awesome that your ebooks are selling well. I'm on the verge of buying an ereader myself (I'm thinking about a Nook) and it does seem like a convenient, inexpensive way to try out new authors or a variety of genres from favorite authors.

  17. I'm back again, amazed at this response.

    Mason, thanks for the kind words about Junior -- my wife laughed out loud through the reading of both books, and my friends like them better than the Simeon books (but I HAVE to be better by now, don't I?) but the publishing offers were tepid. So they'll be e-book First Editions. And speaking of the $2.99 price lowering the anxiety level of trying the books, Amazon will allow you to return for a FULL REFUND any book you buy, and you can download onto your computer after you install Kindle for Windows (or whatever) for free. So you can try e-bools there, although reading on a computer is no fun. Firefox has a free ePub plug-in that will allow you to DL the other most frequent format, the one used on Barnes & Noble. I've used both, and it's six of one, half a dozen of the other as far as I'm concerned, although I'll eventually get a Kindle since that's going to be the reader of choice for the foreseeable future.

    Dana, THE FOUR LAST THINGS and EVERYTHING BUT THE SQUEAL can already be DL'd for Kindle or Kindle for PC, with SKIN DEEP coming in a few days and THE MAN WITH NO TIME to follow when I can get back to proofing the type (I'm in last-minute edit mode right now on another book). Then I think we'll put up the first Junior, BAD MONEY and a few weeks later the second, LITTLE ELVISES, and then the rest of the Simeons. And if we can't sell PULPED, the new (sort-of) Simeon, to a publisher relatively quickly, that'll go up, too.

    Jennifer, your aunt is a marvelous woman whom my wife loves and respects. Which one to start with depends -- I'm a better writer now so I think the Poke books are better, but people have been e-mailing me for 20 years asking me to start writing Simeon again, so he's got his fans. If you want to read Poke, start with A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, which is 9.99 because it's priced by my publisher; if you want to read Simeon, start with THE FOUR LAST THINGS.

    Hi LJ -- Yeah, it's like they left the door to the candy store open and suddenly we can have all the things our mothers said no to. And I don't know about you, but I can write two or three times as much as I publish under the old system. I think of a book every time I take a shower, but I don't write 90% of them because (a) life is finite, and (b) the publishing model doesn't permit it.

    Phil!! thanks for BookLocker -- the more platforms the better. Amazon is the best for writers because they give you the highest royalty, whereas iTunes not only takes more, but they also insist you come in through an authorized "publisher," which as far as I can see exists only to take part of the writer's money. I'd like to see George Clooney play Junior, because part of the humor of the books comes from the fact that he's in VERY serious situations which he declines to take very seriously. I absolutely love writing him, in a completely different way than the way I love writing Poke and Rose and Miaow.

    Leighton -- the question is what royalty Amazon will pay outside the U.S. At the moment, the 70% deal is available only for U.S. sales, and the rate for international is 30%. That may change. But I hadn't for a moment thought about e-books opening the door to more translations. Jeez, maybe we'll hire our own translators for the big-ticket countries, such as Japan. I might seriously consider that. Work out a royalty split, design a Japanese cover. Why the hell not?

    And finally, PAT -- thank you for taking this piece wide, so to speak. Lots of response, and that's always to the good.

  18. Hi Tim,

    For those of us who love paper books, isn't there an intermediate scenario? I thought the US had "on demand" desk-top publishers who would print, paper-bind, and mail the result? Couldn't one have that as an option? $2.99 + x. Of course I don't know how large x would be for a single book...
    Then the whole issue of e-readers etc becomes moot.

  19. Tim,

    Great post. I'm excited to see great writers like you embracing ebooks and extending what is available. It is incredibly liberating to be able to offer work directly to readers.

    For some of us who have never broken into print because publishers don't find our books marketable for whatever reason, ebooks are a great way for us to find an audience.

    The economics also place the rewards for this effort where they belong. With 70% going to the writer, readers are really sending their support where it belongs (IMHO).

    I'm looking forward to discovering another side of your work.


  20. Michael,

    The problem with print-on-demand is that the cost of the physical book is so much higher than it is for offset printing. A typical POD book will cost around $15. This is a hard sell for an unkown author when s/he is up against bestsellers with books retailing for $9.99.

    On the ebook front, new authors are selling books for $2.99 or less while publishers are offering bestsellers at $9.99. This seems to make more sense for the consumer / new author relationship to flourish.


  21. Hi, Michael and CJ -- I don't know anything about POD -- most importantly, I don't know what the books are like physically. It would be a drag to pay 12-15 bucks and have cheap paper or a spine that splits the first time you open the book wide.

    CJ, the e-book is the greatest thing ever to happen to the unpublished writer, even though the signal-to-noise ratio is tremendous -- tens of thousands of people are putting their books up, and there's severely limited browsing capability, even on a site as well-organized as Amazon. But some previously unpublished writers have done very well, especially in genres such as horror, paranormal, romance, and thrillers. And the question is, I suppose, how much money do we need? If you write a couple that attract a following and up the price on the new books a buck or two, you'll be making 3-4 bucks a book. Ten thousand copies is actual money. I don't know how many writers reach that number in a relatively short period, but some certainly do.

  22. Great post Tim. Makes me think twice about the whole publishing ordeal. And it's good to know that if I can't get an agent for my book, there are other options, perhaps ones that are actually more preferable. I love the idea of there being nobody caught up between the writer and the reader.