Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2012

Column: Notes from the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong: The Sky is (Probably) Not Falling

Have you heard of electronic books? Apparently, they’re this hot new technology that lets you put a gazillion novels in your pocket. Okay, unless you’ve been living on Mars, you know what an e-book is. You’re probably sick of hearing about them. So that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about in this column, proving yet again that I have no marketing skills whatsoever.

The problem with the e-book info deluge is a combination of oversaturation and radically opposed messages. A nonstop bombardment of articles and posts and blogs scream that the book industry is on the brink of extinction. Or it’s undergoing an amazing revolution. Either way, by God, authors had better be prepared. Evolve or die….or don’t bother, because your career is going to implode no matter what you do.

We aren’t accustomed to such radical change in publishing. We were still debating the merits of hardcover versus trade versus mass-market and now, a new format is sweeping the industry, one that requires a whole new way of looking at the book. It really is like glancing up one day and seeing the sky falling. It’s tempting to bury your head and pretend it isn’t happening. Or to run around screaming for divine intervention. But—despite the feeling of imminent doom—the change isn’t happening at the speed of light. There’s time to step back, evaluate and see where authors fit into this new book-world order.

At the risk of driving the point home with a sledgehammer, we can’t over-emphasize the speed factor. Most of us were blind-sided by the e-book revolution. I bought a Sony eReader in spring 2009, which actually makes me an early adopter—yes, I’m a tech geek. Still, while I appreciated the technology for personal use, it wasn’t really an issue for me professionally. I’ve always had an e-book clause in my contracts. I paid little attention to it. Eventually, I started having actual e-books versions. Still, I paid little attention. They accounted for less than 2% of my sales. Then, in the summer of 2010, my agent called to report that my latest Otherworld release had sold as many e-books in the first week as the previous release sold in six months. That’s when I woke up and started paying attention.

One of the first things I learned about being a novelist is that it’s a business. I’d love to declare myself a storyteller, hole up with my laptop and ignore everything else. But I can’t. Not if I want to keep making a living at this. Bringing the creative and the business sides together isn’t easy. I can’t look at a work-in-progress and see a product. I can’t make changes to a story for marketability. But I can step back from the book-as-product view and instead consider a broader me-as-professional-novelist view. The e-book revolution fits perfectly with that. I can study what’s happening and try to take advantage of the opportunities presented.

E-books have opened up the world of the commercial writer in a way we haven’t seen before. Anyone—anyone—can sell their story through all the major e-retailers without a publisher. That’s revolutionary, in ways that many of us are just beginning to realize. Some writers have embraced it, breaking from their publishers and going full-out “do-it-yourself” with all their work. Others are keeping their publishers for their front-list, but self-publishing their out-of-print backlist. Some are keeping their publishers for certain projects, and jettisoning them for others. Then there are those who prefer to leave their publishers in charge of everything. Who’s right? There is no “right.” There’s just “what works,” and that’s different for each author. At some point, the dust in this Wild West will settle and perhaps we’ll see a clear path to e-book success. But for now, it’s an opportunity to explore options.

I meet those who wonder why more bestselling authors don’t go the J.A. Konrath D-I-Y route. To them, having a traditional publisher is for newbies still building an audience. Once you have readers, you should fly the coop and reap the profits. I have no intention of going D-I-Y with my novels. Oh, sure, I have minor issues with my publishers, but in general, I’m happy with all my various relationships. I appreciate what my publishers can do for me, namely taking a big chunk of that “business” off my shoulders, so I can write.

I know I could hire someone to do the editing, the cover art, the distribution, the marketing . . . …But at this point in my career, the author/publisher relationship suits my needs and my personality. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t still see opportunities in the e-book market. I like writing shorter fiction, but the only way I can do that with my main publishers is to contribute to a themed anthology or write enough of it to fill my own. Subterranean Press provides me with an excellent alternative through my limited edition novellas. Yet there’s a large contingent of my readers who can’t afford the limited versions. E-books have provided an excellent alternative for those.

I’ve begun experimenting with direct-to-e-book in other ways. I’ve released a “bonus pack” of supplementary stories for my young adult series. I’m in the midst of polishing a mini-anthology of three short story reprints with a common theme. I’ll be participating in a couple of quartet anthologies with other authors, too. I also considered e-publishing a final book in my neglected Nadia Stafford series.

My brain is buzzing with self-publishing possibilities, as are the brains of many authors. And New York isn’t exactly thrilled about that. My plans to e-publish a third Nadia were not met with cheers of “you go, girl!” We’re now discussing traditional publication instead.

It’s easy to blame New York’s resistance on corporate mentality. They want a piece of all our action. It’s also easy to blame fear. They don’t want us to discover that we can swell books without them. But I think there’s more to it. One problem with self-publishing for established authors is that, in most cases, we own our name. Beyond our option clauses, we can publish other work under it. To a publisher, though, it isn’t just a name—it’s a brand and that’s where we could do some serious damage.

When I first heard the word “brand” applied to authors, I balked. I’m a person, not a commodity. The truth, though, is that “author Kelley Armstrong” is indeed a brand. No matter what I write, it has my indelible stamp on it. The narrators may change. The series may change. Even the genre may change. But it’s still a Kelley Armstrong story.

My publishers have worked hard to build that brand with me. Now, though, I can wield it without their input. Perhaps my daughter’s university tuition bill will arrive and I’ll realize I need cash fast. I could look over my idea list and decide to write my long-threatened werewolf western. I’ll peruse the shelf of research books I’ve accumulated for it, then look at the due date on that tuition bill. Screw research. I’ve watched the whole Deadwood series twice. I’ll just randomly add “cocksucker” twice a page for complete historical accuracy. Onto writing then. I can pump out a 50,000 word novel in three weeks with painkillers. Sure, that’s half the length of my other books, but close enough. Normally, I spend more time editing than writing, but I don’t have time for that now. Just run it through the spell checker and call it a day. I’ll hire my eleven-year-old son to do the cover art—he’s pretty good with Photoshop.  My daughter must have a techie friend who can figure out this formatting stuff for a case of beer (don’t worry—my son will get soda pop . . . …or Red Bull, if I need that cover really fast.) There! One month of work and my werewolf western is done. Up it goes for sale online, where it’ll look just like any other Kelley Armstrong novel. Awesome!

Of course, I’d never do that. I don’t know of an author who would. Somewhere out there, though, it could happen, and that’s what publishers fear—that after all the work they’ve done building our brand, we could destroy it by slinging garbage up on Amazon.

So the publishers are worried. One might think, then, that they’d provide opportunities for authors to sell them those backlist titles and short stories and “odd-ball” novels. In some cases, they do. The problem—yes, I’ll say it again—is the speed at which the e-book market has exploded. Authors are flush with freedom and excitedly trying this and that, and the publishers are left playing catch-up.

One of my publishers expressed an interest in doing short fiction with me. For that, they offered the same royalty rate I get for e-book editions of my novels—25% of net. Now, I don’t think 25% of net is fair for e-book novels, but I won’t bore you with the math and details here. For short fiction, though? It’s jaw-dropping in its unfairness. My short stories and novellas for NY publishers receive minimal editing—I already hire a freelance editor because of this. An e-book original short story isn’t going to need the sales department or the marketing department. It certainly won’t need printing or warehousing. For art, it’ll get a stock photo. So what would the publisher be doing for me? Giving it a quick edit and a cheap cover, formatting it and distributing it. All of which I can do myself for a few hundred bucks. For that they’ll take 75% of net and give me the other 25%. Um, no. Sorry, guys, I love you, but no (and I’m kinda insulted by the offer, if we’re being honest.)

So for now, I’m looking after all my short fiction that doesn’t go to Subterranean Press (which does give a fair royalty rate on e-books.) At this point, though, I don’t see myself dipping much deeper into the e-pool, because I hold out hope that the publishers are just in a state of flux, figuring things out like everyone else, and when the dust settles, they’ll offer a decent enough royalty rate to make self-publishing unattractive for authors like me. Yes, I have a very vivid imagination.

I can see the advantages of self-publishing, but I can also see that it doesn’t suit me. I don’t want that level of control. I definitely don’t want that level of promotional responsibility. I just want to tell the damn stories. I’m hoping that publishing will find a place for me, by offering reasonable royalty rates for direct-to-e-book novels and shorts. In the meantime, I’ll just sit on the edge of the e-pool, with my feet in the water, not ready to jump in, but not ready to back out either. Watching, learning . . . …and waiting.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll even write and e-pub that werewolf western—I suspect it’s unmarketable enough to send New York shrieking in horror. If I do, though, I promise not to have an eleven-year-old do the cover art. He’d be at least thirteen by then.

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