Pouring Cold Water on the Kindle-ing – by guest James Maxey


After James’s last visit to Magical Words and his post about publishing ebooks, a few folks asked some follow-up questions that lead to this follow-up piece. Take it away, James:


The image above is a screen shot from Amazon’s author central showing the March 6th 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And yet, I’m writing this blog post to say, if you are an unpublished author thinking of self-publishing your novel to Kindle, my current advice would be: Don’t.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.


22 comments to Pouring Cold Water on the Kindle-ing – by guest James Maxey

  • Thanks for this post, James. There is a lot of noise out there right now about people earning tens of thousands of dollars from Kindle sales, and there seems to be an assumption that “Well, they did it. So can I.” These are the success stories, the ringing bells in the far corner of the Casino that keep the rest of us feeding our quarters into the slot machines. It’s helpful and edifying to have a dose of reality from someone with hands-on experience in the Kindle world. Hope your sales continue to grow. And, as always, it’s great to see you here at MW.

  • Hi James, Thank you for being here today, and for addressing this issue. Is it possible to make a bundle on Kindle, and break into traditional print with a 7 figure deal? Yep. It happened this week. But according to what I’ve learned, it takes more than just dumping a novel to Kindle and waiting to see the money and success happen. The people who made a success of it spent a *lot* of time on the Internet, offering coupons, releasing the books on one format then another, with carefully orchestrated price changes, so that when it finally appeared on Kindle, there was a firestorm of interest. Building those careers was a full time job, and it took a lot more time, effort, and Internet know-how than it ever appears.

    That said, if I had a book in the wings with no publisher I might … Wait. I do. Hmmm. Never mind (said the gambler). Forget all I’ve said. I’ll weigh back in on this subject in a few months. 😀

  • Thanks for the Reality Check, James!
    I completely agree that there’s no feeling like looking at my bookshelve and seeing (in my case) the magazines and anthologies my words appear in. They are tangible proof that I’m a writer.
    I have a novel I want to have published and read, but I’m not ready to try self-publishing – I *want* that real, tangible book with my name on the cover on the shelf next to those others. Right now, that’s more important than the money!

  • I agree. It’s easy to put your books up for the kindle, harder to get the attention you want for your books. One of the key things I notice in common is that the more books you have available,the easier it seems to be to get traction to them.

  • Well said, James. Seems to me that self-publishing e-books is delivering the same results as self-publishing always has. If you have a name, a niche, a platform of some kind, then it’s possible to make some money doing this, but for the average person who is either trying to avoid dealing with traditional publishers or is being rejected by traditional publishers, self-publishing is self-publishing no matter what form the product takes.

  • Sarah

    To add to the data James is providing, I just got my first PayPal royalty check this week. (Tingly feeling all over just writing that!) It was a whopping $6.86 and represents my share of current royalties for an e-book anthology titled Extinct is Not Forever from Dare to Dream Press. (Yes, this is a shameless plug. Buy the book. It’s good! It’s on B&N online and Amazon.)

    *Ahem* To get to my point, so far I have made less money off this e-book published short story than I would have if I had sold it to Flash Fiction Online or some other magazine for a flat rate. I’m actually in the hole for $20, because I decided to really push the self-promotion thing and have postcards printed at my own expense.

    I’m neither surprised nor disappointed at this state of affairs because I’m taking the attitude that this sale is not a money maker in itself, but a stepping stone. It’s a sale I can mention in my letters to agents and editors. However, I only submitted my story to this anthology because it’s not a self-published work, but a small press publication. There was a submission process, we do have an editor, and Dare to Dream is an actual press, albeit an small one. As James said, you might make money off a self-published work and still be turned away by more traditional publishers. Or even online publishing companies.

    My goal is not to make money on one venture, but to become a well established author with a presence in the market. I’m not above making money – I’m just taking a long term view. And I want to be a good, professional writer too. This anthology is a bit of a gamble on my part – I don’t know yet if if will help, hurt or do nothing for my over all goal. (Any thoughts on that guys? I’m open to hearing critique on my business decisions as much as my work.)

  • Razziecat

    This is interesting because there’s so much glamour attached to new technologies, and yet to my mind nothing beats the solid feel of a book in your hand. And I do own a Kindle, but I’m not going to stop buying print books yet. Traditional publishing still carries more weight; I don’t think I’d be taken seriously as a writer if I self-published to Kindle. It’s like a direct-to-DVD movie: You kind of wonder about the quality of the work. The near future may change all of this, but for now I’m still going to try to be published the “old-fashioned way” because print is NOT dead yet.

  • Traditional publishing carries more prestige, but self-e-publishing gives the author more control. Of course, more control means more responsibility, and more time devoted to writing related stuff that isn’t actually writing. But, when I was negotiating my latest publishing contract (for the Dragon Apocolypse series, hitting bookstores next year from Solaris Books), I felt a brand new sense of power in having a viable option available if I had decided to walk away from the offer. Fortunately, Solaris kept improving their offers and I didn’t walk away. But, knowing that if I’d said “No,” I could have had Greatshadow, the first book, uploaded to Kindle in a matter of days gave me a sense that I was finally on equal footing in these negotiations. Also, some of the frustrations I’ve had in the past with books going out of print at peak sales times are completely negated by the constant availability of ebooks. Still, it really is nice to go to a con and actually sign a few books. I don’t know how you get that feeling of satisfaction if your book is only on Kindle.

  • mudepoz

    *Blush* A friend of mine writes erotica. Let’s call him Porno Pete. Well, okay, he calls himself that. PP is doing extremely well on Kindle. His first book was near 3 figures. He isn’t even sure how that happened. The biggest issue he’s had is piracy. I didn’t think you could pirate via Kindle (heck, I can’t even figure out how to lend my eBooks). A friend of his finally just told him to consider it advertising. It sure didn’t hurt him. 🙂 I’d be willing to bet people are a lot more comfortable buying risque (gee, that’s what they were called when I was knee high to a pumpkin) books over the internet and downloaded via the magic of satellite instead of brick and mortar or even the mail.

    I think that people are overlooking one other main player, Audiobooks. Now those have the expense of hiring voices, but the acting school has worked with them. Interesting stuff.

  • I spent so long trying to get good at the craft that I feel like I’d be selling myself short or not trusting in my ability if I went directly into self-pub. I’ve waited this long to feel ready enough to take the leap. A little longer won’t hurt. Still got a couple agent queries out from the first batch of queries and haven’t heard back yet. I’m still considering that a good thing and not just a lost email query in spamland… Besides, I’ve gotta make this spiffy new chair I got for my birthday worth buying. 😉

  • This is a great dose of reality, James. Stories of authors like Amanda Hocking and John Locke get everyone salivating. But as you say, you don’t hear about the other 95% of self-pubbed authors who are lucky to sell a book a week.

    The other thing a lot of people fail to take into consideration is the amount of work the poster children dedicated to writing, honing their craft and their book production, and then marketing their books. It’s a lot of work, and you have to do it all yourself (or pay to have it done). Not all authors are interested in learning how to become an expert in every phase of book publishing. Writers want to write!

    If you do decide to take the self-pub path, it’s good to keep in mind the Konrath 4:

    1. Write a great book.
    2. Write a great description.
    3. Get a great cover.
    4. Price it low.

    In addition to those recommendations, your success can also hinge on two other big factors:

    1. How many titles you have (thanks for bringing that up, James).
    2. Luck (although by working hard you can make your own luck to some degree).

    And don’t forget you can do print just about as easily as e-books. For some reason, people are starting to equate “self-publishing” with e-books, but that’s wrong. If you insist on having a dead-tree version of your book to set on your shelf and admire, it’s not hard to do.

    I personally have no interest in waiting a couple of years after my book is done to finally see it published (if I’m very lucky and get an agent and a deal) and then remaindered after six weeks on the bookstore shelves. I honestly think my odds of becoming a successful self-published author are far better than they are of getting a traditional publishing deal.

  • Mudepoz, with erotica a lot of people write under pen names and may not want to be prominently displaying their book covers on their living room shelves. Also, consumers of porn have a proven track record of adopting new technology well in advance of the rest of the population. So, a person wanting to bang out an erotic novel (if you’ll pardon the expression) in order to make a quick buck on Kindle might actually be onto something.

    Daniel, the time you spend waiting to hear back from queries is golden. It’s a time when you have a nice glow of hope to sustain you as you continue to work on other projects. And, one thing I fear self-pubbers will lose is the incremental improvements that take place when you submit a book to six different agents sequentially, a few months apart each time, and each time you make just one more pass to tweak and fine tune, until the book you’re shopping two years later is really a much better work than the one you started your journey with.

  • We’ve all seen what happens when the big name authors get SO big they bypass the editorial process. The result is always inferior work and unhappy fans. A new author joining the ranks of the unedited is only asking for trouble and/or disappointment.

  • The half million kindle titles that don’t sell 4 copies a month can easily be equated to the many titles that get rejected by agents and publishers each week. I think the e-book route is not that different from trad pubbing in that you still need a good book (or six), you still need to do a lot of work getting it noticed in the right places and a healthy dose of luck to make anything of it.
    However the flip side is that if you well 4 copies a month from a self published e-book, that’s 4 copies a month being read that would otherwise never have been.

    I read a big blog by John Locke on J.A. Konrath’s site. He said he’d written and self published 5 books before he started getting any sales. He was asked why bother writing books 3, 4 and 5 when the first 2 weren’t selling. His reply was that when his marketing efforts finally paid off and people started finding his work. they’d find 5 books to buy instead of just 2. He also acknowledged the role luck played in the fabulous sales numbers he was getting.

    The problem with the idea of self publishing on Kindle is that it is easy to forget that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you want to earn $100,000 you need to put in more or less the same effort regardless the source of that money. EG: Go to uni, spend ten years in the workforce directing your career toward a specialization or management and then going to interviews etc. Or writing novels, getting them edited (properly edited, not just looked over by your mum), getting cover designs (proper designs, not just a powerpoint slide with fancy font) and promoting the heck out of them. Unless you win the lottery you really have to work for money, that’s what money is (abstract representation of applicable resources).

  • To play Devil’s Advocate for a minute….

    As Scion said, the percentage of book success stories seems to be near the same for traditional publication (about 3% get past Agents’ Slush and then only a small percentage of those 3% reach any type of success) and Kindle ebook (1-2%). So is there really such an advantage to either route?

  • wookiee

    The problem with self publishing to the kindle store is that there is no gatekeeper.

    As a consumer looking to find a new ebook to read there’s a lot of chaff to sift through, and right now there is no vetting of authors beyond other consumer reviews; and you can be assured the first five or six glowing 5-star reviews are from the author’s buddy and not indicative of that actual quality of the book. So I basically won’t try anything new from the ebook store. I’ll buy something from an established author or someone I’ve read before (like Maxey) but I won’t pick something random off the virtual shelf like I’d do at an actual bookstore (the fact that a book made it to print from a publisher like Tor means it’s been vouched for to a higher degree).

    So as a writer looking to have success in the Kindle store your primary problem has to be how to stand out in the crowd. A well crafted cover, blurb, and accompanying author website are the first steps. As others have mentioned, other books available show you’re not in that large group of people trying to strike it rich off their first novel. Some actual reviews help too – contrary to your personal economic beliefs, if it’s your first novel, I think it’s to your advantage to offer it up free long enough to get enough readers that you have a word-of-mouth base and at least a dozen or two reviews, regardless of how many stars those reviews may be.

  • Edmund: I completely agree that “joining the ranks of the unedited” is a bad idea. However, assuming that all self-published work is unedited is incorrect. Joanna Penn recently self-published her book Pentecost and had 2 editors and 7 proofreaders go over it. Amanda Hocking has hired multiple editors for her work. In my mind, getting your book professionally edited is not optional: it is part of the cost of doing business. Same with a pro cover design.

    Wookie: We don’t need no stinkin’ gatekeeper! No, seriously, I’m with you on the review situation. I believe that ALL 5-star and 1-star reviews are politically motivated for one reason or another. You are more likely to get an honest assessment of a book’s strong and weak points from a 2- to 4-star reviewer, IMO. I also agree on the thought of releasing the first book of a series for free, or at most $0.99. I plan to do exactly that.

    As for “vetting,” what you like to read is completely a matter of taste. Having a big publisher’s stamp on a book has zero impact on how likely you are to enjoy it, as far as I’ve been able to tell. Reading an excerpt is really the only way to get a feel for whether or not you like the writing.

  • Mark: Using your own figures, 3% of 3% is only 0.09%. Yes, 1-2% does look better to me. About 22 times better! 😉

  • D.R. — I’m not suggesting that every single self-published book is unedited. However, the truth is that the vast, vast majority of them are not edited. How is a reader to know which have been through a genuine editing process and which have been carefully vetted by “mom and my best friend’s cousin, who’s really good at this stuff”?

  • Edmund: You are right that the vast majority of self-published books are virtually unedited. And there’s no way to know ahead of time that the writing is poor quality unless you read an excerpt or see reviews that complain about it.

    It’s sad, really, because those authors are potentially ruining their chances in the marketplace. Once the word gets out that your writing sucks (and word WILL get out), it is hard to get readers to give you another try, even if you correct your mistakes.

    But one thing to keep in mind is that readers don’t normally even see the crappy books. The books never get any traction, so they are shown at the bottom of search results and they never appear in the “readers who bought this also bought” lists.

    When it comes to buying books online, the systems are largely self-correcting. Readers are turning to online communities like Goodreads to find new reading material, and in that situation, it’s all about reader recommendations. Bad books don’t get recommended.

    I’m sure there are tens or hundreds of thousands of crappy books floating around out there, but they rarely show up on my radar. I’ve had no trouble finding good new reading material, whether traditional or self published. The only list that you have to cull heavily is the “most recently published” list, because there is no “Social QA” associated with it.

    Besides, it’s possible that your mom and your best friend’s cousin are great editors!

  • As to editing, I can think of several instances where my work has been improved by working with an editor. Ed Schubert, for instance, kept poking me with a sharp stick until I revised my opening scenes to the short story “To Know All Things That Are In the Earth.” I had some time jumping going on to bring the most suspenseful moment to the first 500 words, followed by a flashback scene leading up to it then replaying the moment from a more informed perspective. Ed didn’t like the redundancy, but the story had won first place in a Codexwriter’s contest where one of the main judging criteria was the effectiveness of the opening, so I thought I shouldn’t tinker with it. But, I finally took a step back and saw how to blend all the elements of my curious double opening into a single opening that now makes me wonder why I ever liked the first one. I had similar experiences with Keith Olexa when he edited Nobody Gets the Girl, and Christian Dunn while working on my dragon novels.

    That said, one need only read many of the works being released from mainstream publishers to get a sense that these books aren’t getting top notch editing either. We’ve all read clunky books with gaping plot holes that for some reason become best sellers. The correlation between editing and economic success is thin.

    My thoughts on the merits of self-publishing evolve hour to hour, day by day. My dragon novels, at their current sales rates, would take many, many years of kindle sales to equal the money I received when my agent sold the books to Solaris, then turned around and sold French and German rights as well. And, I had a lot more readers than I’m getting on Kindle. On the other hand, Nobody Gets the Girl is performing much better as an ebook than it ever did in print. Why? It’s not price; Nobody is priced higher than the dragon novels as an ebook. Cover? Nobody’s cover is nice, but I don’t think my Bitterwood covers have been worse than some of the ebook successes I’ve seen. And are covers driving sales when they are the size of postage stamps when you’re browsing on Amazon? A better opening in the preview chapters? What?

    Of course, the same questions apply to print books as well.

    Sigh. I swear, one day I’m going to figure this industry out.

  • James: Perhaps the answer to everything is in those sharpened poking-sticks. (How’s THAT for a kenning?)