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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dark Canyon

I'm headed to southeastern Utah next week to do some research for book #4 of The Righteous series. San Juan County, Utah occupies a huge swath of southeastern Utah, an area bigger than Massachusetts, but with only fifteen thousand people. I've driven through Monticello on my way into Colorado, and spent a lot of time on the northern edges of the county, but have never penetrated the wilderness interior.

The place I'm visiting is called Dark Canyon Primitive Area, a forbidding, mountainous region of about a hundred square miles with no roads and only a few trails. There are still undiscovered cliff dwellings in the area, hidden in seldom-visited canyons. While I'm in the area, I hope to see Goblin Valley and Natural Bridges National Monument, and perhaps even slip quietly through Colorado City.

If you are a member of a conservative polygamist group and are offended by my books, please do not kill me when I pass through your town.

A Conversation With James Scott Bell

I recently sent a rather fan-like letter to Jame Scott Bell, the author of numerous thrillers, as well as the author of one of the best books about writing I've ever read. I told him that some of the techniques in his book had helped me get over the hump as a writer. Because he also has a book with writing advice that he has published as an ebook, only, we had an interesting discussion about my success with ebooks. You might find the exchange helpful.

Bell: Your books did spectacularly back in March. What do you attribute the success to? I know they had to be well written, so that's a given.

As you point out in your ebook, you can't just throw anything online and expect it to be successful. I hadn't had a book contract, but I'd come close on more than one occasion. I'd had agents, gone through multiple rounds of revisions, etc. Editors had a hard time getting my books past the ed board because of the unusual subject matter, but I knew I wasn't deluding myself. In addition, I had a few smaller, but still prestigious sales, including a sale to F&SF and another to The Atlantic. This told me I had developed some level of talent that made the whole endeavor plausible.

It didn't come easily, though. I wrote a dozen novels and over a hundred short stories before I decided to self publish the books.
Bell:. How many books did you have up there then? (I've checked your Amazon page). What was the price point? The John Locke 99¢ strategy seems apt.

I started with State of Siege, The Devil's Deep, The Righteous, and Mighty and Strong (the sequel to The Righteous). All but State of Siege did respectably well, but The Righteous sold about forty thousand copies between March and June, which is when sales started to trail off. I priced it at .99 during its run. Mighty and Strong and Devil's Deep each sold about 5,000 copies at 2.99 during that time period, largely drafting off the success of The Righteous. I also put up a children's fantasy (which is a good book, IMO, but hasn't done anything), and a WWII thriller. I published book #3 of The Righteous series in June and a sequel to The Devil's Deep in August. Those last three books plus State of Siege have combined for several thousand sales, plus I've had several thousand sales of the other books in July, August, and September, although overall sales have declined from a high of 20,000 in April and May to about 1,500 a month now. It's no longer what it was, but it's still a couple thousand bucks a month. I'll be interested to see if these other books catch a second wind when Thomas & Mercer releases their versions of The Righteous series in February.

One other thing to note is that I've had no difference in sales when I've bumped a few of the books to $3.99. 99 cents is a great strategy for introducing readers to a series, but if you've done your job, they're not going to balk at an extra buck or two, in my opinion. Long term, I might even try $4.99, which seems to be a sweet spot between value for the reader and income for the writer. Note that if you can sell 2,000 copies a month at $4.99, you'll make $7,000, which isn't a bad living for a writer. If you sell 2,000 copies a month with SMP or Harpers, they'll decline to pick up your option.
Bell: What did you do to market them?

Not much. I gifted some copies on the Amazon forums before they stopped allowing that. Most of those early reviews of The Devil's Deep and The Righteous came from those gift copies, but when I tried the same thing with The Red Rooster, the tactic had already spent itself thanks to a glut of free books. Beyond that, I've done some limited advertising with Pixel of Ink, Ereader Review, and some Goodreads advertising.

Bell: We're getting to a point of overwhelming content available. Do you think someone can replicate what you did now? 

The marketing? No. I can't even replicate it. I lowered the price of The Righteous to 99 cents and within a couple of weeks it was caught in a virtuous cycle of recommendations on the Amazon algorithms. It spent about six weeks in the top 100 of the overall Kindle store and briefly touched as high as the top 20. I tried the same tactic later with The Devil's Deep, which has the best and most reviews of any of my books and it just didn't happen the same way. Amazon keeps tweaking their algorithms and what caused you to get "lucky" at one point doesn't work the same way anymore. Not that there isn't something that will, I just don't know what that is.

But yes on duplicating my success with the craft. I just kept writing and submitting and improving my writing. It was an unconventional path to success, but I rarely lost faith in myself. I would read other thrillers or suspense novels and know that I was a better writer than some of these people. When I read someone who was better than I was, however, I tried to study their work instead of growing discouraged.