Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pouring Cold Water on the Kindle-ing

The image above is a screen shot from Amazon's author central showing this morning's sales rankings for the Kindle edition of Nobody Gets the Girl. My superhero novel has done very well since coming out on Kindle. Amazon advertises 810,000 titles available in the Kindle store. Sales ranks change hourly, but it just happens that if I average out my sales numbers for a full month, Nobody's average would be very darn close to the number 8,100. This means that Nobody is selling in the top 1% of Kindle books right now. That still doesn't make it a "best-seller." I'm not getting rich off this, but I'm selling enough copies that I'll almost certainly make more money off the ebook this year than I ever did off the print edition.

My dragon books haven't been quite as successful as my superhero novel. I don't think I've yet put the right covers on them, and I also think they face stiffer competition. As a superhero novel, Nobody gets linked to the dozen other standalone superhero novels currently for sale on Amazon, and is almost always on the front page of "customers who bought this also bought this." If you're looking for superheroes, the book is easy to find. If you're looking for dragon based fantasy, my books do show up in the "also bought" streamer, but on page 17 instead of page one. Still, most of my dragon books maintain sales rankings above 81,000, so I feel like I can safely say that they are in about the top 10% of Kindle books, again, not bestsellers, but also nothing to be embarrassed about.

I love having books on Kindle. I love being able to check my actual sales hourly. I like getting sales statements three days after a sales period ends instead of three months. And I definitely have a warm glow when Amazon deposits my royalties into my checking account every month like clockwork. It's the dream of every writer: sales information that is timely, transparent, and accurate.

And yet, I'm writing this blog post to say, if you are an unpublished author thinking of self-publishing your novel to Kindle, my current advice would be: Don't.

I have a fifth title on Amazon, my short story "Final Flight of the Blue Bee." Last month, I sold 4 copies of this title. And, on average, FFBB has a sales ranking somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000. I think I can safely extrapolate from this that the vast majority of Kindle titles, roughly half a million of them, sell fewer than 4 copies a month.

My dragon novels, in upper 10% of sales, sell about 40 copies a month on Kindle. 40 copies is fine for me, since I've already earned a lot of revenue from the print editions of the books, and at this point any further revenue I generate is just free money. My books have already been read by tens of thousands of readers in print, so I feel like I've done my artistic duty in getting the books read. But, if these books had never had print editions, selling 40 books a month wouldn't be something I'd get excited about. 40 copies a month in print would be kind of sad.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Right now, if you google "kindle success stories," you'll find a dozen authors who kept getting turned away from traditional publishers who self-pubbed to ebooks and are now making thousands of dollars a month. It's easy to want to emulate their path to victory. But, the important thing to remember is that the people who put out books and find themselves unexpected bestsellers are of course going to jump on their blogs to write about it. It's easy to talk about success. But the thousands of writers who self-pub their ebooks and sell less than 4 copies a month... they aren't blogging about their failure.

So, if you've written one novel and want to publish it to Kindle, don't. If you've written three novels and are thinking of publishing to Kindle... maybe. If you've written a dozen novels and are positive you're good enough, go for it. One key element of the writers who have been successful in self publishing is that most of them had written a lot of books before they gave up on traditional publishing. They'd honed their craft; quantity does eventually produce quality. Also, the revenue of one ebook selling 20 copies a month might not pay your power bill, but if you have ten titles selling in this range, you'll probably have enough income to cover your mortgage.

One final caveat: The publishing world is changing so swiftly that advice I'm giving today could be completely outdated a month from now. Borders is shedding stores and when I go into Barnes and Noble these days, I can't help but notice that they have less and less store space devoted to books and more and more devoted to toys and games. It's getting tougher to put a book into a book store, so the allure of ebooks is seductive. But, for now, if you are a new novelist, I strongly advise trying to find a traditional publisher. Maybe ebooks will be all your future revenue, but you at least want that first "real" book to be on paper, something you can show your mom and say, "Look! I'm an author!" Something you can put on your bookshelf in your living room so that when visitors come to your house you get to casually nod toward the book as your guests notice it and say, "Oh, that? That's the novel I wrote."

Looking at my sales data on Kindle is pleasant. On days when I've really sold a lot, I'd even describe the experience as euphoric. But gazing at my own bookshelf, with all the various editions of my novels and anthologies I've been in, is a much, much deeper satisfaction. Don't throw away your shot at this. The wait is worth it.


heresolong said...

So can we assume that:

a) You can't use the original covers to the Dragon series because they are owned by the DTB publishing company?

b) Your short story isn't available on the Nook so the two of us who follow your blog and have Nooks can't buy it? You could increase this month's sales by 50% if you tried really hard. :)

PS Your current ebook covers for the Dragon series are quite boring. Sorry, just speaking truth to power. :)

Izgad said...

I just bought Nobody for my kindle. This will be my first of your "non-dragon" books and I am looking forward to it. Of course it will have to wait until I finish a thousand pages of Wiseman's Fear. :P

James Maxey said...

Heresolong, you're correct in assuming I don't own the rights to use the print edition covers. I met an artist at Stellarcon this weekend I'll be talking with further about designing new covers. My feeling was that the highly simplified covers would play well at thumbnail size, but obviously they aren't getting the job done. Luckily, thanks to ebooks, I'm not stuck. I can just put up some new art as soon as I get it.

Finsl Flight of the Blue Bee will be in "There Is No Wheel," at which point I'll remove it from Amazon. I spoke to the person I've hired to edit it and he's almost finished with the novel he's been hired to edit, and "Wheel" will be his next project after that. It will definitely be ready by Ravencon in mid April.

Izgad, thanks for giving Nobody a chance. Hope you like it!

heresolong said...

Cool. Count me in for a copy of the new book as soon as you publish it. Enjoyed Nobody although it was definitely different.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...


Of course, sales of "Blue Bee" might be affected by the fact that it's also available to read free at Daikaijuzine (something I discovered the other day when looking for the Kindle link to pimp it on herogohome.com).

And yes, the sales data can be very discouraging. After being turned down by Hard Case Crime, I self-e-pubbed my very short noir novel Death Wave, only to see very few sales, fewer even than the several acquaintances who said they were anxious to read the whole thing.

But like you with Nobody Gets the Girl, I should get better reaction with the two superhero books I plan to put out by the end of the year--one a collection of the published Digger stories along with some unpublished stories like my pseudo-Maxey story from Codexian Idol a few years ago, and the other, the collected volume of the novel I'm currently serializing for free. We'll see what happens.

James Maxey said...

Tony, thanks for the review of Final Flight. I had kind of forgotten about the free edition of it available out there. I guess nothing ever dies on the internet. On the other hand, the cool thing about the kindle edition is, hey, you can get it on your kindle! The ease of shopping is certainly worth something.

Drop me a line when your superhero novels go live. I'll be glad to help get the word out.

Moses Siregar III said...

Good post, James. I wrote a response over at Lou Anders' FB update about this post :-)

Steven Gould said...

Where are you getting your total kindle books available figure? Is there a place at Amazon where you can get the (ongoing) current total?

Appreciate any direction.

I'm pointing wannabe (not previously published) writers at this post.

Outlier bestseller's aside, it seems that the people who are making decent money self-publishing on kindle are traditionally published authors who are able to put their backlist up.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Moses.

I'm getting my total number of Amazon Kindle titles by going to the Amazon home page, sellecting "Kindle Store" from the dropdown menu for searches, then hitting "go" with nothing in the search field. Down the side of the page under "department" it will show the number of Ebooks available. Right now, it's at 872,002. But I've also seen them advertise the 810,000 figure on the homepage when ads for an actual Kindle pop up, though at this exact second the main Kindle ad on the intro screen doesn't mention any numbers.

Moses Siregar III said...

"Outlier bestseller's aside, it seems that the people who are making decent money self-publishing on kindle are traditionally published authors who are able to put their backlist up."

Steven, that's not quite right. Many of the people doing well with self-published ebooks are people who were traditionally published at one time. Many tried traditional publishing and gave up on it after too many rejections. Many never really gave traditional publishing a considerable chance.

However, the ones I know who are doing the best (I know a lot of them) aren't traditionally published authors who are making their money from sales on their backlist. They're dedicated independent authors, whether they were traditionally published before or not. There are a lot of authors that fall into this category.

Anonymous said...

The book cover illustrations rights are generally only for one edition of a book -- thought this will be up to the contract the artist had with the publisher (and if there's no contract, then the legal assumption is that the agreement was for one edition of the book).

This can be a good thing since a different cover may cut into a slightly different market of potential readers unfamiliar with the author's name. A lot of people really do judge a book by its cover illustration.

Magazine and book illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, ILEX, Fort Ross, Ballistic Publishing, Asimov's Science Fiction, Moonstone Books, ISFiC Press, and many other publishers and self-publishing authors. See my illustrations portfolio: http://DuncanLong.com/art.html

James Maxey said...

Phil, the whole cover thing is an issue I'm still trying to figure out. My Bitterwood novels had great covers through Solaris, but I don't have the rights to them. On the other hand, if you are on Amazon and search for "James Maxey," the first image you see is the Solaris art for Bitterwood. So it seems like I should be getting some of the cover art benefit from my old covers even without using them. Plus, when I shop for books on my actual kindle or droid, the images are so small that there isn't that much cover to judge the book by! Yet, no question, I need to get some better art up on the dragon books. I'm hurt by the fact that I can't make an offer on the zillion peices of generic dragon art already out there, since my dragons aren't firebreathing potbellied hexapods. I need something custom created, but since I'm talking about covers for a trilogy, the price multiplies very quickly.

Moses, I suppose it all comes down to how you and I define "a lot of writers." The success stories you describe have sales rankings above 800, which puts them in the top .1% of sales. This means 1 book in 1000 is likely to reach that level. And, the best selling author you described (on Lou Anders facebook thread) had a sales rank above 80. This means 1 book in 10,000 gets into these sort of numbers.

Right now, based on the data I'm gathering, it seems as if you really need a long run sales ranking above 1000 to make enough money to survive on. But, if you look at the top rankings in any categories, you see a lot of repeat sellers. I don't have actual data, but let me make a semi-informed guess and say that most writers in the top 1000 kindle sales have an average of 4 titles. That means that at most there are 250 indy writers making a living off of one book. But, again, looking through the names, I see a lot of established authors filling these bestseller lists. Let's be generous and say that indy authors get 20% of these top 250 slots. That means, currently, there's a cap of maybe 50indy authors selling enough of a single title to justify quitting their day jobs.

Of course, what is true today is by no means likely to be true tomorrow. As total revenue in ebook sales increases, the threshhold will drop. And, in fairness, it's not as if traditional publishing produces vast legions of thousands of authors doing so well they can quit their day jobs.

jonahknight said...

It's great that Nobody is selling well. It is a great book.

James Maxey said...

Thanks Jonah! I hope your soundtrack album for the book is getting some love as well.

Moses Siregar III said...

Moses, I suppose it all comes down to how you and I define "a lot of writers." The success stories you describe have sales rankings above 800, which puts them in the top .1% of sales. This means 1 book in 1000 is likely to reach that level. And, the best selling author you described (on Lou Anders facebook thread) had a sales rank above 80. This means 1 book in 10,000 gets into these sort of numbers.

I say a lot of writers because maybe half of the indie authors I've seen who actually try to do this find some real success at it. And I observe most of them at places like the Writer's Cafe at Kindleboards.

The 1 in 1000 figure I'll quibble with, though. You're counting every single book in the kindle store and about 75% of them don't sell at all. There is a ton of junk in the kindle store that sells almost nothing at all. Sort of like a massive slush pile.

If you were to then eliminate the remaining books that have poor covers, poor descriptions, and poor editing, you'd be down to an even smaller figure of books that even have a shot of doing well. Then eliminate the authors who do almost nothing when it comes to promotion and the pool of decent books shrinks again.

As I mentioned on Lou's thread, indie authors who do their jobs and do everything right (good book, good editing, good cover, good promotion, low price, targeted genre or audience) have something like a 50% chance of doing really well at this, IME. And those that keep at it and keep writing books will increase those odds significantly.

Teresa D'Amario said...

Covers actually make a huge difference in sales, despite being ebooks. It's funny, because I never look at the ebook cover after it goes on my kindle, yet it seems to play a very important part in actually choosing the book.

So when I put my book, Tigress by the Tail, back out as an ebook only, and self-published, I went to what I felt was the best cover artist in the biz. She did a fantastic job. It's still too early to give numbers, but it's certainly caused a stir here and there.

So while I couldn't use the print version of the cover due to rights, I had one equally as eye catching (if not more so) done for me. There are alot of graphic artists out there making money on ebook covers. So many are scarily talented!

Dana Willhoit said...

"That means, currently, there's a cap of maybe 50indy authors selling enough of a single title to justify quitting their day jobs."

Yeah, but how many authors who went the traditional selling route sell enough of ONE book to support themselves? Even J. A. Konrath, who's now a jillionaire (who says that's not a real number???) from his indie book sales, has books that don't individually sell enough in a month to pay a living wage...but because he has a lot of books for sale, he's doing very well. And he has mentioned many times that each individual book's sales numbers fluctuate - some months they're doing great

Most indie authors who are successful seem to have several books available for sale.

James Maxey said...

Yeah, if you've got a half dozen unpublished novels under your belt, then I think the indy path looks much more viable. But I actually think it would be easier to write those unpublished novels under the traditional path, where manuscripts sit in slush piles for months and years as you work on your next projects, than if you put up the first book you've ever written and spend all your time and energy promoting it.

James Maxey said...

Moses, good luck with your book!

James Maxey said...

Teresa, just popped over to look at your book. The Maxey wizards? How have I not heard of these?

Teresa D'Amario said...

LOL James! I was wondering if you would notice that. You haven't been looking hard enough. LOL. My 3rd great grandmother was a Maxey.

Teresa D'Amario said...

LOL James! I was wondering if you would notice that. You haven't been looking hard enough. LOL. My 3rd great grandmother was a Maxey.

Moses Siregar III said...

Thanks, James! Even though I'm one of those who will only start out as an indie with one book, I plan to either keep adding more novels to my name as an indie, or to seek a publisher for future books (or for the first series, if it does well). It'll be journey!

Moses Siregar III said...

Here's an interesting interview, James. She sold 31 copies in the first few weeks, then immediately after that 25,000 copies in four weeks.

She's a traditionally published author, but self-published this one because her agent couldn't sell it.

Robin Sullivan said...

Currently there are three paths to publishing: self, small press, large press. Of the three, self has the greatest "chance" at producing a "living wage" in the shortest period of time.

I personally know (via online) more than 50 writers that make a living wage with self publishing ($60,000+ and more than a dozen that make six-figures plus) and another 50 that are traditionally published that make only $5,000 - $10,000 a year.

Talk to any midlist traditionally published author who has done "both" and they'll all say that they made in just a few months what their traditional books earned over years.

That being said...not everyone has the desire to "do it all themselves" but if you have the entrepreneur spirit - then self will "get you there" much faster then traditional will.

Robin | Write2Publish | Michael J. Sullivan's Writings

Robin Sullivan said...

Moses...I think you forgot the link?

Moses Siregar III said...

The link is in my previous post, Robin. It's linked from the text for "interview."