Thursday, September 2, 2010


by CJ Lyons

The publishing industry is in an era of upheaval, forcing many authors to flex their entrepreneur muscles, searching for new avenues of income and ways to keep their books in the public's eye.

One way of doing this is to self e-publish your backlist or other books that you hold the rights to.  With more and more readers embracing e-books and e-books becoming the fastest growing segment of publishing, the idea of cutting out the middle-men and keeping profits for ourselves is tempting.

Here are a few things to think about before walking the path of electronic self-publication:

Why self e-publish?
Like many authors, once I was firmly established with NYC publishers, I never thought about e-publishing or self-publishing, much less doing both!

But I found myself with four manuscripts that were all previously in the hands of NYC publishers but that for a variety of reasons never made it to publication. Then I saw a blog by multi-published thriller author J.A. Konrath discussing his own experiment with electronic self-publishing.  His argument was logical, the numbers impressive, but I was still skeptical.

I wanted these books to find an audience but I didn't want to tie them to contracts I might later regret, especially as these four novels were all romantic suspense/thrillers and my career has moved to more mainstream suspense/thriller.  So, I decided to perform my own self-publishing experiment.

I realized that I could use these books as promotional products as well as money-makers.  Since I was in control of when they were released, how long they were available, and what their price was, I had a greater freedom than I do with my traditionally published works.

This turned out to be an unexpected bonus as by the time I had them formatted and ready for publication it was December, 2009.  Then a few weeks later the earthquake in Haiti hit.  Since I'm a pediatric ER doctor as well as a thriller novelist, I wanted to raise money for Doctors Without Borders.

What better way than using my experimental self e-pubbed books?

I sent out a newsletter and posted on my website and a few blogs that I was donating the proceeds of my Kindle sales for the month of February to DWB.  I chose the Kindle format simply because it is exceptionally easy to track Kindle sales on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis through my Amazon's DTP (digital text platform) account.

What I discovered was: Kindle readers read....a lot!  I ended up raising over $1600 for DWB, which translated to almost 1700 books sold in one month on Kindle.

Possible Pitfalls
Anyone deciding to self-publish should have a good grasp of their target audience.  You want to build an audience who will stay with you and help spread the word of your books--and that means making a promise to always deliver a high quality read.

Konrath agrees.  “E-books are a perfect place to experiment and try new things, and since you own your rights, you aren't tied down to any particular genre, and you can always delete something that isn't working.

But whatever you put on Kindle should be perfect. No errors, well-edited, great covers, perfectly formatted. This should be your best work, presented in the best way possible.”

In other words, just as in mainstream publishing, self e-publishing is still all about the reader. 

It's not about clearing your closet of dusty manuscripts just because you can.  Unless you plan on giving your work away for free, your goal is to attract paying customers.  Which means the books you self e-publish need to be just as good as any book a NYC publisher is selling.

If you have a backlist that you own the rights to, they've already been professionally edited,  you're good to go.  Do be aware that publishers own the cover art, so you'll need to create a new cover for your e-book.

If you're planning to publish a book that hasn't been previously published, make certain it is professionally edited.  The four books I chose for my experiment were all edited prior to my self-publication--three by NYC editors (before their road to publication went astray) and one by a professional freelance editor.  Do not rely solely on your critique partners or your Great Aunt Martha who gushes to her bridge club about your writing! 

Remember, not only are you competing against NYT bestsellers, you're also selling a product to a consumer.  If you expect to win their hard earned money--and more importantly, their time, attention, and future sales loyalty--then you need to create a worthy product.

When using a previously unpublished book, you'll want to register a copyright (I did all four in one electronic batch using the US Copyright office's online registration) and include a copyright notice in the front of your book.  You may also want to purchase an ISBN number (this will allow you to better track your sales).  More on this in Part Two.

One pitfall I hadn't totally realized prior to publishing these books was their impact on my branding. 

These books were all romantic thrillers while my traditionally published novels are medical suspense (although with some romantic elements).  Since the romance community had praised and embraced my medical suspense novels, I thought readers would assume these books were a logical extension of my writing, although in the romance genre.

Most readers have enjoyed these books—after publishing them, I received dozens of letters from fans asking if there would be more, telling me how much they enjoyed these books.

BUT, the first few customer reviews on Amazon were not good.  Since Amazon allows you to track sales on a daily basis, it was easy to see sales plummet after these reviews.  They were still good, about 40 books a day, but lower than before the reviews when they'd averaged 50+ a day.

Since then I've had some good reviews from readers leading to increased sales that have remained steady.  But I still struggle with the knowledge that it's clear some readers were disappointed by my foray into another genre.

Questions I asked myself were: should I keep the books up with poor reviews? Should I change the author on them to a penname so I didn't "contaminate" my CJ Lyons brand?

I decided to leave them up under my own name.  It might not be the right marketing decision, but I stand by these books and it didn't feel right to make money off them and then "disown" them.

However, I did revise their descriptions to more strongly advertise them as romance, so my mainstream readers won't be surprised.  I also offer a large excerpt for free, so readers can easily try them before they buy them.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two: The Nuts and Bolts of Self E-pubbing

Thanks for reading!
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about.  In addition to being an award-winning medical suspense author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker. 

Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller.  Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Angels of Mercy series (LIFELINES, WARNING SIGNS, and URGENT CARE) is available now and the series finale, CRITICAL CONDITION, hits stores November, 2010.  Her newest project is as co-author of a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich.  To learn more about CJ and her work, go to


E. B. Davis said...

CJ, I so glad you decided to keep your name on the book instead of creating a pseudonym for the other genre. I've been a fan to both Katy Munger and Kathy Trocheck. Both started writing other genres in other names. I didn't know of their new work and totally lost track of them, even thought they may have died. Authors lose their fan base when they change their names. I don't understand why they do it, especially when they already have a following. This whole concept of "brand" baffles me. Does the industry think readers are so narrow they only enjoy one genre? If so, they've totally underestimated readers.

Joyce said...

Thanks, CJ! I've been wondering how all this worked.

Maybe someday I'll actually have a backlist to give it a try!

CJ Lyons said...

Great question, EB! When I kindled my romantic thrillers (all vetted by NYC editors) I assumed the same thing--that since they were clearly marked "romantic thrillers" my mainstream readers would realize it was still me, just a different "side of CJ"

Most readers, based on my fanmail, did just that--and enjoyed them.

A few didn't. They were disappointed and it showed in the reviews they posted (interesting that the few who didn't like these books posted public reviews but I have yet to receive one email from anyone not liking them).

My concern was, oh no, will this now have a negative impact on my traditionally published book sales?

But, as you said, I didn't want to "disown" my own work or make it difficult for my fans to find them (since it seems many do like them) so I kept them under my name/brand.

I agree, readers are smarter than the industry would have us believe!!!

CJ Lyons said...

I'm glad you're thinking that way!!!

And I think you are very wise to see this as an opportunity to build *after* you have some name recognition.

There are some authors who have "made it big" after self-publishing on kindle, but it's hard, hard work. If you're a born marketer, go for it and have fun, but if not, I'd focus on the writing first.

Nancy Martin said...

Great info, CJ. (I only wish I had the rights back to my back list!)

Never before in this business have I seen so many reasons why it's smart for writers to hire a freelance editor. Even after 50 books, I still need another pair of eyes, another person to evaluate my storytelling. A wise investment, if you ask this old broad.

Nancy M said...

The whole name-changing strategy is often used to fool the buyers, fool the distributors' computers. When a writer who's written a string of midlist mysteries tries to make the leap into mainstream fiction (and the much bigger sales numbers) buyers and distributors want to order only the number of books that author has sold in the past. So it's really hard to make the leap from, say, a twenty- or thirty-thousand print run to the hundreds of thousands. Buyers and distributors don't trust authors any farther than their last sales. So . . . by changing the author's name, it's a fresh start. Seems idiotic, but there you have it.

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Nancy!

One thing I've been very grateful to my agent for is the way she's been very careful about the contract clause regarding when my books are officially out of print--it's very narrow.

She also keeps an eagle eye out for when to enforce that clause so we can grab those rights back at the earliest possible time.

A pain, but well worth it!

Thanks for stopping by!

Ramona said...

While I certainly have a vested interest in commenting here, I'd like to point out that hiring a professional editor to review a manuscript is an investment of your writing dollars, just like attending a conference or signing on for an online course.

Independent editors (like me) teach as well as edit, so the writer gets a polished manuscript as well as some useful instruction about craft.

CJ Lyons said...

Excellent point, Nancy--our careers now rest in the hands of computer chips running algorithms....sigh....

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this thoughtful, intelligent post. My excellent (former) agent shopped my last ms, but in the end, the ms didn't sell. I've toyed with the idea of Kindling it, but at this point, I'm not sure I want to take that path.

For one, I think my writing has improved in the last couple of years since I finished that book. Two, my dream is to be published with a major publisher, (although I may have to change my dream at some point). Three, the novel was intended to be the first in a mystery series, and as much as I still love that book and my characters, my true love is psychological suspense.

My general impression is that Kindling is wonderful for established authors with a following who have an out-of-print backlist and/or novels, like yours CJ, that didn't get picked up for marketing reasons. I also think authors need to have more than one book on Kindle to see more than a handful of sales.

I'm not sure I want my first "published" book to be a ms that no one else wanted. And I'm not sure I want to put time, money (for editing) and promotional effort into a book that I view as a failure.

According to a lot of Kindle/indy authors, the train is leaving the station without me. But my heart just isn't there yet.

I would love to hear from others who might feel as I do--or who disagree completely!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: hold onto that manuscript. You may want to cannibalize it for a future work, or in time, a reworked version of it may find a home with a big publisher. I've experienced both of those scenarios.

Hang on. This is a tough market and things are changing fast.

Keep writing!

CJ Lyons said...

I think your approach is the way to go, Anonymous....think how much more improved those early manuscripts might be if you look at them in a few years after you've sold?

This is one of those, no one can tell you right or wrong, you have to trust your gut scenarios and your gut seems to be saying better to wait than to risk it...which makes sense to me, after all you only have one debut book (unless you cultivate a penname)

Hope that helps!

CJ Lyons said...

What Lorraine said!!!

(she's always so smart and wise!)

Anonymous said...

LOL. Don't I wish, CJ!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the input, Lorraine and CJ. I do believe I'm better off following my gut and my heart for now!