Who are they and why should you pay attention to what they say?
REBECCA CANTRELL is a New York Times bestselling thriller author. Her novels include the Order of Sanguines series, starting with The Blood Gospel; the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series, starting with A Trace of Smoke; and her Joe Tesla thrillers, starting with The World Beneath. She, her husband, and son left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Berlin.
Sean: We first met at Thrillerfest in 2009 where we were both fresh-faced debut authors. Tor were publishing the first in your Hannah Vogel series, A Trace of Smoke, and Transworld in the UK had just published the first in my Ryan Lock series, Lockdown, which I now self publish in the US. Now here we are in 2014, and we have both recently self-published a new title that will likely be part of a new series. It’s less than five years, but it feels like an age. As the old Chinese curse goes, we have both lived in interesting times, and my sense is that far from settling down the real upheavals in publishing are only really starting.
To kick us off, what have been the highlights of being traditionally published for you? It’s easy for authors to dwell on the negative things, such as a bad review, but pick three highlights from your traditionally published experience, and then I’ll give you mine.
- When I first saw a book with my name on it in the local bookstore.
- When I won the Bruce Alexander Award for A TRACE OF SMOKE and walked speechless to the stage.
- When I saw my name on the New York Times bestseller list.
Sean: Pretty impressive. That sounds like many authors’ dream right there. Seeing your book in stores, winning an award, and hitting the NYT list. Mine wouldn’t be that different. Seeing a whole front window display in stores, the whole auction experience of having publishers battle it out with six figure offers over my debut, and hitting the bestseller list in the UK were all pretty exciting for me.
But of course it begs a very obvious question, which is why turn to self publishing? My three reasons would be:
1. Higher royalties
2. Control (especially over pricing and promotions)
3. Time to market
You don’t have to do a top three, but apart from my nagging you, why did you decide to self publish The World Beneath? What was the impetus? And what has the experience been like?
Becky: Your nagging did play a big role, as did CJ’s (and Joanna Penn’s—it takes a village!). I’d say my big three are actually the same as yours.
1) I was tired of waiting months and years for my books to be accepted and published. I wanted them in my readers’ hands faster. (Time to market)
2) I wanted to know what was going on with my books. What actions really connect with readers and drive sales? What cover do readers like? If something went wrong, I wanted to know it right away, and to be able to fix it myself. (Control)
3) I wanted to be paid for my work, fairly and quickly. I don’t live on art and air–I need food and shelter and money to pay for them. (Higher royalties)
The experience has been wonderful. Since we’re doing top 3s, here are my top three highlights:
1) Happy readers. The World Beneath is connecting with readers at a much higher rate. I’ve sold more ebooks of that title in six weeks than I did of my previous solo series in four years. I’m getting more Amazon reviews, and they’re more positive. I’ve had more sign ups for my newsletter to find out about new works than ever before, too.
2) Happy author. I loved the experience of putting the book out. I was able to shop around until I found an editor and a cover designer I love to work with, people who work hard to make my books better.
3) Happy bank account. I get paid monthly, instead of twice a year. This makes budgeting a lot easier. I always feel guilty when I talk about trying to make a living as a writer, because it’s been drummed into me a thousand times that it should be all about the art. I work hard to write the very best books I can, to be true to the art of writing, but I also need to eat to write. And I don’t think writers, or any other artists, should be ashamed about wanting to earn a living from their work.
Sean: And, of course, being indie means we can sell our books for peanuts. I mean we only sell because we price so low, right? That seems to be one of the recurring themes recently, so putting aside my sarcasm, can we put that one to bed. How have your priced your new book and what have sales been like?
Becky: I priced it at $4.99. I did a three day $0.99 sale combined with a BookBub promotion to help the book take off, and I did a three day $3.99 sale as a special favor for the subscribers of CJ Lyons’ newsletter. Other than that, the book has been sitting at $4.99 and doing quite well there.
Sean: I’ve gone for a similar pricing model of $4.99 with my new thriller POST, although my biggest earning title in the US, where I also self-publish the Ryan Lock series, sells best at $7.99. Go figure.
In the UK I’m being a lot more aggressive and selling it at £0.99. If you look at the UK Kindle bestseller chart you’ll see that regular publishers are giving key authors a huge push by bargain basement pricing. It’s a clever strategy.
So now we have dealt with pricing, how does the actual experience differ? In terms of the writing, it doesn’t, does it? It’s still the same slog and then you have edits. I still use the exact same brilliant copy editor that I worked with before when I was trad published. She’s old school and awesome. Have you noticed a big change editorially?
Becky: The process of putting words on the page and tinkering with them until they are just right hasn’t changed. Most of my developmental editing has always come from my brilliant and ruthless writing group. I’ve had various copy editors, and the one I use for the self pubbed stuff has also worked for the Big 5, so that quality is there.
One thing I love is that if something slips by the various levels of quality control (which happens for both my traditionally published and my self published books), I can fix the error in my source files and re-release the book the next day. I’m a stickler for accuracy, so this matters a great deal to me.
Sean: That’s a good point because we’re both also releasing our books in print and you have just released yours in audio, which hasn’t always been the case for your work. You used ACX. How was that experience?
Becky: Loved ACX. Loved it. I put up a book description and sample pages on their site and had several audition tapes within a few days. My author heart loved hearing the book performed by some very talented producers. I picked Jeffrey Kafer because his voice is very similar to the voice that Joe Tesla has in my head and Kafer had very good credits. About a month and a half later I have a fantastic audio version up at Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. It was simple, straightforward, and a helluva lot of fun.
Sean: That’s great to hear. I have done eight titles through ACX, including a couple of foreign editions, and it really is an amazing company. The other thing I love about this new world is that with the push of a button I can reach readers around the world. That’s amazing to me. I have a kid’s book called Extolziby Gruff and the 39th College that is free to kids in developing countries via a charity called Worldreader who have a reading app for phones. How cool is that? And because it’s self-published there is no agonizing negotiation about making it available. I own all the rights it’s my call. Again, control of rights is something powerful that goes beyond dollars and cents.
Okay, so being indie, or rather hybrid has been a positive experience for both of us. You also write the Order of the Sanguines series with James Rollins, which I know you have enjoyed tremendously, so it’s not a question of either or anymore. I wouldn’t rule out working a publisher again, in fact I plan on it, but there are tensions right now because of this huge upheaval.
If you could see traditional publishers make three changes to improve or build upon their relationship with authors what would they be?
Becky: Right now I’m happy writing in lots of worlds: traditionally, with other authors, and self publishing.
Three bits of advice for publishers?
- Pay regularly. Most industries pay monthly, not twice a year. And certainly not twice a year, six months in arrears with many of the sales held back as reserves against returns.
- Regularly tell your authors how their books are doing. Now that I can get daily sales figures from Amazon, I’d like something similar on my other books (maybe monthly?). This isn’t just for my ego. This is so I can see what I can do to sell my books so we can all make more money. We need to know which of my efforts (and yours) work.
- Don’t expect me to sign any non-compete clauses. The best way for all of us to sell more of my books is for me to write more books. All of my books do better when I release a new book–books in every series, not just whatever series the new book is in. My books don’t compete against each other. They help each other.
Sean: Those are three great pieces of advice. Thanks, Becky. I would add that holding rights in perpetuity by using a reversion of rights model that was about paper and not e-book has to change. We absolutely need to move to fixed term licensing as we already do with foreign editions. A publishing deal should not be about surrendering rights for all time.