Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Future of (self) Publishing

At this moment I have the #1, #6 and #9 bestsellers in erotica on Amazon. That may change in the next moment. They move up and down. But I've been in the top ten for six months and I am making $10,000 a month on Amazon Kindle.

How did that happen?

When I started Excessica in March of 2008, the biggest ebook distributor on the block was a company called "Fictionwise." In order to get into their storefront, you had to be a publisher with 10 or more authors and 25 available (not public domain) titles. I wasn't a publisher, and I didn't have 25 titles, but I did have a lot of online friends who were authors.

So I had an idea...

What if we all got together to form a sort of "co-op" of writers to publish our work on the big ebook distributors? At the time, that was Fictionwise, Mobi, and a newcomer, All Romance Ebooks. That was how Excessica was born, and basically how my career as a real paid writer began.

Granted, at that time, I'd already been "epublished" by a start-up ebook publisher, Stardust Press, who had gone out of business almost as soon as my book hit the virtual shelves. And I'd sort of fallen into that, having entered a contest they sponsored, hoping for the money prize. I didn't win - but they offered me an epublishing contract.

I hesitated. I didn't know anything about epublishing at the time (it's amazing what you can learn in two years) and kind of turned my nose up at it. I didn't want to be "epublished." If I was going to be published at all, I wanted to be published "for real" - to feel the weight of my book in my hands, to see it on shelves in a brick and mortar store.

But as my husband pointed out - why not? A bird in the hand, as they say...

It was that brief foray into epublishing that whet my appetite for more, watching Stardust Press get our books to distributors like Fictionwise. I thought, if they can do it... why can't I?

Nevermind that Stardust had just winked out into nothing in the vast constellation that was epublishing at the time. I wasn't taking on any big time investment - just the cost of creating a domain name and putting in the work of setting up a site for our books. I'd already purchased a hosting package for my own author domain, so that wasn't an issue.

It didn't take long for the authors I knew to climb on board, and we were off and running, applying to Fictionwise, being accepted, and seeing our books find wide distribution. That was exciting, and proved to be lucrative for me personally. I started making enough money per quarter on my books to make it equal to a part time job, which was really my goal when I started: a supplemental income.

The ball rolled along nicely for about a year - and then one day in March 2009, all our titles (about a hundred and fifty of them by then) disappeared from Fictionwise. This was just after Barnes and Noble had acquired Fictionwise. Coincidence? I don't think so.

As I look back on it now, in light of what's happened since with self-publishing, it's almost amusing, but at the time it was devastating. I panicked, emailing the site. I received the response that Fictionwise did not support "author co-ops" and that they were terminating our contract and pulling our books.

Come to find out, after a little digging and back and forth with Fictionwise president, Scott Pendergrast, that a few "support tickets" had been submitted about our "extreme content." Excessica has always been about freedom of speech. We have some boundaries, but I try to let our authors push them as much as possible. We publish things like nonconsent and adult consensual incest - something other erotica publishers wouldn't touch.

Of course, when I inquired about those support tickets, I was told we couldn't get any details about them, even if stripped of identifying information. They wouldn't even tell us the number of support tickets submitted! Finally, we had to give them a list of "possibly offensive titles" after which they would restore our books to the site, minus "the list" - and would only restore those upon review.

Basically, they used our self-publishing status to try to censor our books. Mr. Pendergrast scoffed at the idea of an author having total creative control over their work, creating their own covers, arranging for their own editing, and decided we weren't "a publisher" because of our business model. So what if I was offering 100% payout to my authors? What business of it was his?

Luckily, the first amendment won out. After two months of lost sales, they finally restored the titles on "the list", adding a new "taboo" category to their site.

Then another revolutionary thing happened. Smashwords opened their doors. They looked like another distributor, on the surface of things. The difference was they offered a huge cut to authors (something I was all for - because I didn't take any percentage from Excessica authors' works and only profited from my own). We got to keep 85% of our profits with Smashwords (All Romance Ebooks gave us 60%, Fictionwise gave us 50%, and Mobi gave us a piddly 35%) so I signed up with them immediately. Who knew that they would change the face of self-publishing inside of a year?

Of course, they couldn't have done it without Amazon Kindle's success.

It was like the perfect storm. Smashwords started reaching out and becoming a true distributor, offering individual authors the opportunity to get into places like Fictionwise (and hence Barnes and Noble) where they couldn't tread before. More and more authors jumped on the bandwagon. Kindle themselves opened their own self-publishing platform (although we could, as a publisher, access them through Mobi before that). In places like Sony, and then much later, Apple, the doors were opened wide for individual authors.

Our little co-op had become unnecessary within six months. We didn't need each other to publish books anymore - any single author could go onto Smashwords and reach the same distribution level we had. And they did. Joe Konrath blogged extensively about his success. I watched it all unfold, seeing my own numbers on Amazon start to match his. I was making $10,000 a month on Amazon alone.

Our little venture had, for me, gone far beyond a "supplemental income."

Of course, I was still running Excessica. From the beginning, I'd done the lion's share of the work, formatting everyone's books, putting titles up at distributor sites, sending out royalties. It added a great deal of time to my schedule, but I figured, I was also receiving the lion's share of the profits (even if it was just for my own work) so it seemed, somehow, fair. And I did have some amazing volunteers (the woman who offered to take over the accounting aspect for me saved my life!) But as our roster of authors reached 100+ and our distribution schedule hit four books a week, even I got overwhelmed. And the business model I'd created wasn't quite as self-sustaining as I'd hoped.

I had come up with the idea of releasing quarterly anthologies with donated stories from Excessica authors to pay the basic costs of doing business (web site, postage, etc). But the anthologies weren't coming out fast enough to keep up with costs. Finally, I decided to take 10% of Excessica's proceeds - leaving Excessica authors with 90% profit. And I started "hiring" people to do the work I'd done previously, paying them, as a co-op might, with keeping their 10%, or with free advertising on our site.

So far, this system has worked quite well, and Excessica has kept on rolling. The only other thing I've done is close our doors to submissions from outside authors, except by referral or invitation. We will keep publishing our own authors' work, of course, if they want to stay with us. (Our contracts allow them to leave at any time.)

I knew this was the right decision when My Bookstore and More (Samhain's distribution site) stopped taking outside authors' works. For a while there, ebook publisher storefronts like Ellora's Cave, Samhain, and Bookstrand, opened their doors to not just their own published work, but to outside publishers as well. But as the success of Amazon/Kindle, Apple, Barnes and Noble and Kobo started to appear, they realized where the real money could be found and saw the futility in selling other publisher's books from their own storefronts.

So that's it. That's how I started my journey toward making $10,000 a month on Amazon writing erotic fiction. I don't know how long it will last, of course. This business has proven it can turn on a dime. It's a whole new world in e-publishing. In just a few years, a total shift has taken place. My revolutionary idea has become obsolete. Authors like Joe Konrath can publish their work on their own. He never had to jump through the hoops I did back in 2008.

Makes you wonder what 2012 is going to look like, doesn't it?

-Selena Kitt