Talion Challenge Update #2: The New Math
If you’ve been reading this blog at all in the last few months, you know I’ve been talking about how digital publishing is really taking off. I mean, if NASA had rockets this good, we’d have colonies on Mars and I’d be spending summers on my asteroid a bit further out. The American Association of Publishers has indicated that in the first quarter of 2011, according to reports from 16 of their members, ebook sales are up 159%. At the same time, Amazon has reported that ebooks are outselling all their other books, hardbacks and paperbacks, combined.
I’ve certainly been watching that explosion. In November, on the Kindle alone, I was averaging 2.5 novels sold per day. By April that number had grown to 13.5 per day. So far in the month of May we’re averaging 18.14 per day. These increases are nothing shy of staggering. These numbers literally change everything having to do with the Talion: Revenant 10,000 copy challenge.
When I decided to issue the challenge, my brain was still stuck halfway between traditional publishing and the new world of publishing. In my defense, a year ago, when I started the challenge, ebook sales were growing, but not at a robust and sustained rate. A year ago I’d check sales figures and would be happy to see a book selling here or there. Now I monitor daily sales, look at the impact of blogging and other things on them, and work to optimize what I’m doing here. And the effort is paying off—though I am well aware that a bull market can make everyone look like a genius; and that the expanding ebook market does the same for those of us selling ebooks.
The reasons I pegged the challenge at 10,000 units were these. That was roughly 20-25% of the paperback sales of the book. Because of the way authors are paid for ebooks, we make between 65 and 95% of the sale price. (The higher number is if you buy directly from my website, the lower is if you go through a retailer like Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Apple’s iBookstore.) I was figuring an average of $3.50 per book, which I would bank, and when I had $35,000 in the bank, I could take the time to write the book.
There were a couple of errors in my thinking. The first was that I’d let myself be seduced by traditional publishing. I came to believe that I needed nine months to a year to write Talion: Nemesis. Somehow I’d forgotten that Talion: Revenant, even back in 1986, when I wrote it, got done in a couple of months. To be open and honest with you, writing had ceased to be fun. Sure, there were short stories that I did that I enjoyed, and they turned out very well. And At the Queen’s Command was a lot of fun to do, but I lost sight of that because of a number of factors that don’t need mentioning here.
And then, earlier this year, as I was going back through work and trying to figure out what I’d be doing with ebooks, I got reminded that when the work was fun, I could actually work very quickly. Moreover, and largely due to the really wonderful things you’ve all had to say about At the Queen’s Command and especially In Hero Years… I’m Dead; I’ve snapped out of the funk that was not allowing me to remember how much fun I was having. The Conan novelization, despite a bone-crushing deadline, was a blast. And Of Limited Loyalty has been cruising right along. I’m back doing things the way I did them fifteen years ago, writing stories I enjoy, with characters who fascinate me. And when I’m not writing, I’m scribbling away madly on a whole mess of new work and worlds I can’t wait to share with you.
So, at roughly the same time when I remember that I could work fast, and discovered that I was actually excited about what I was doing; I got reminded of a second aspect of business that I’d been ignoring. Authors get large advances so we’ll have money to write books. Why? Because publishers dole out royalties only twice a year; and writers never know what they’re going to get. In fact, it’s accepted wisdom within the field that you only count on getting paid your advance; and that any penny you see after that is really a bonus.
What that means, in short, is that authors have zero cash flow under the traditional publishing system. Tradpub dumps a certain amount of money on us to do a project, and we have to hope that this money lasts until our next project pays us. That’s fine when you’re doing two books a year at $30K a clip. Fact is, I’ve watched my per-novel advance drop by 66% since its high in 2005. Imagine being asked to do the same work at your job, but for a third of what you used to be paid. (Funk, anyone? )
But now, with ebooks sales the way they are, authors do have cash flow. As I noted in my last post, ebook sales, if they stay at the May levels, will pay for my mortgage and health insurance—the latter being the equivalent of leasing a pair of Mercedes. Having this cash flow, and realizing that writing Talion: Nemesis isn’t going to take me a year, has caused a major shift in my thinking about the whole project.
So, here’s the deal. In the last year Talion:Revenant has sold 1,573 copies in ebook form. That’s roughly 1/7th of the way to the target of 10,000. But the target of 10,000 is sincerely too high. So, henceforth and heretofore the Challenge will be the Talion: Revenant 10,000/2 copy challenge. If we hit 5,000 sales, things will be good to go. 5,000 copies is very realistic, and I have this gaping hole in my schedule come January. If we can hit 5,000 copies by then, this time next year you’ll have Talion: Nemesis.
You can participate by buying novel from my webstore (in a format suitable for the Nook, iPad, iPhone, late generation iPod Touches, Sony Readers and most everything else), through a click here; and if you’d like to buy the book through Amazon for your Kindle, you can click here.
Please, understand two things:
First, if you’ve bought the book in paper or electronic format, don’t feel you need to buy again. I’d actually prefer you didn’t. Just recommend it to friends and colleagues, or mention it in blogs and on lists where you see folks recommending books. There are more than enough fantasy readers out there who read ebooks and just don’t know about Talion: Revenant to finish off the challenge.
Second, this new age of writing is all about you being able to vote directly, with your recommendations and dollars, to let writers know what it is you want to see us write. In the past, your choices were limited to what editors and book-buyers thought were hot. If you didn’t want sparkly vampires, you were going to get them anyway, even if it meant your preferred reading material was squeezed out. Your desires no longer get filtered through a byzantine web of number crunchers figuring out how much of what they have to sell so they can afford offices in Manhattan.
You literally become patrons of the arts, the same as the folks who paid Shakespeare and Michelangelo. I’ll write fun stories for you—in worlds you know, and new ones. (Still mulling over whether or not “Fluffy, priest-king of Felantis” stories will go over well. I’d have to start him as a novitiate-prince first, I think.) This will be a time of experimentation, but now readers and writers have a ton more freedom to play and enjoy. This means you’ll be getting better stories, and authors will have the flexibility to appeal to larger audiences. With those larger audiences, and a lack of Manhattan overhead, we can keep prices reasonable and everyone benefits.
Again, thank you all for the great support you’ve showed me both down through the years of tradpub, and now in this new age of vertically integrated publishing. Thank you for giving me the ability to do what I want to do: make a living giving you escape and entertainment. As we go forward, in this new age of publishing, I think we’ll both be well served.