Monday, January 24, 2011

I Left My Publisher, Gave Up on Bookstores, and Started Making Money

By L.J. Sellers, author of the Detective Jackson mysteries

[Originally published at]

In January of 2010, I had one book on Kindle and sold 31 copies. I had two print books on the market with a small publisher and they weren’t selling much better. In December, I had six books on Kindle and sold over 10,000 copies. To get from point A to point B, I had to make some radical decisions.

Several circumstances came together this year that forced me to rethink everything about my career as a novelist. First, I have to thank Joe Konrath for inspiring me to believe that I too could become a successful e-book author. The other incentive came from a round of layoffs in March for both my husband and myself.

I decided I had to stop wasting time and money on things that weren’t working and focus on things that were. What wasn’t working for me was my small publisher, which couldn’t get my books into bookstores. What was working for a lot of people was the growth of e-book sales.

I set aside the novel I was writing and got busy saving my career. The first step was to rewrite and self-publish on Kindle a standalone thriller I had completed but never sold. I’d once had a big-name agent for it, so I knew it was solid. I also had a second standalone thriller that my publisher had offered a contract for, but I hadn’t signed it yet — because the book wasn’t scheduled to be released until late 2012.

That seemed like an eternal and foolish wait. I had a mortgage to pay immediately. What made sense was to get the two thrillers into the digital world where readers were buying. I took the second major step and let my publisher know I was withdrawing my standalone.

I spent a couple months rewriting and updating the stories, then I paid for editing and cover design. I withdrew the money from my miniscule retirement account and considered it an investment in my future. In August, I published the two thrillers (The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect) on Amazon’s DTP. At that point, I had one foot in each world. I was self-published, but I still had a traditional press for my series.

Next, I rerouted my promotional efforts toward e-book readers. I quit sending marketing material to bookstores and instead joined several Kindle forums, where I participated in discussions. I got more active on Goodreads and did five back-to-back book giveaways just for the exposure. I wrote a dozen guest blogs and sent them all over the Internet.

My sales jumped significantly. By then, my publisher had uploaded the second Detective Jackson story (Secrets to Die For) to Kindle, and I started thinking about how much money I could make if my publisher wasn’t keeping most of my digital profits.

After the third Jackson book (Thrilled to Death) faced the same difficulty getting into bookstores, I decided to withdraw from my press. It took a few weeks to finally make the call. Who willingly gives up a second publishing contract? Taking back my series meant foregoing the industry’s stamp of approval. I hated to let it go, but I felt I had no choice if I wanted to make a living.

I called my publisher and asked for my Kindle rights back. I also asked to be released from the contract for the fourth Jackson story (Passions of the Dead). I knew the manuscript had not been edited, so no time or money had been invested. My publisher was not happy, but graciously granted my requests.

Letting go of that contract was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not only did it mean taking on the “self-published” stigma, it also meant giving up book signings, which I love. But I had looked into the future and determined that bookstores were not where most people would buy their novels in 2012. For once, I wanted to be ahead of the curve.

I sent my Jackson files to be converted to e-books, then uploaded my versions to Amazon, as my publisher took hers down. At that point, I had five books selling on Kindle, and my numbers were getting better every month. While the last manuscript was out for editing and cover design, I bought an inexpensive ad on the Kindle Nation newsletter and increased my online promotional efforts. Sales took another huge leap.

When I released the fourth Jackson story on Kindle, I dropped the price of the first book in the series (The Sex Club), to $.99. Sales for the first book skyrocketed, and a week later, sales for the follow-up stories nearly doubled.

I’m fortunate that Mystery Scene magazine has been supportive, giving all my books great reviews and eventually featuring me as an author. I received another terrific review in its holiday issue and that pushed both e-book and print sales.

I also made all my books available in print through CreateSpace, and I’ve contracted with INgrooves to target all the non-Kindle devices and libraries too.

Interesting note: For the fourth Jackson book, I made more money from Kindle sales in the first two weeks than I had made from my publisher in two years. If I had stayed with the contract, that book would not have been released for another nine months. Life is too short to wait for someone else’s publishing schedule.

Now in December, I have six e-books on the market, with all the royalties coming to me. The Sex Club consistently ranks in one of the top three spots on Kindle’s police procedural list, and the three other Jackson books are almost always in the top 25 on the same list. I’m happily writing a fifth Jackson story and calling myself a full-time novelist.


E. B. Davis said...

Your success inspires. But you had been traditionally published prior to your self-publishing. That wasn't working for you. But the fact that you wrote on a level accepted in the publishing industry before you made the self-publishing decision, for me is a key factor in your success.

Too many times, unpublished authors want to bypass the system and rush to publish. In the long run, it works against them because they haven't pushed their writing to the next level--the standard of the industry.

Glad your decision worked for you. But like Konrath, you'd already paid your dues!

Polly said...

Great Post again, L.J. I went with an e-book publisher, and although the book hasn't come out yet, I made the right decision for me. That's the key. Elaine made a great point about the quality of writing meeting standards. I like that you took charge of your career. More writers are doing that. Good luck to all of us who do and succeed.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi L.J. - I enjoyed reading your post. I am published in ebooks, trade paper and hard cover and my sales are highly variable.

Having a great product and being able to get the world out are intrinsic to sales. You are a shining example of both.

Maggie Toussaint
romance and mystery author

JP - The Mistress of Corgi Manor said...

Definitely enjoyed reading your post. I wish you even more success.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping in.

Yes, I have paid my dues. I've been writing fiction for 20+ years and I've had several agents represent me, and I've had editors at major publishing houses say they loved my novel.

If writers ask me about self-publishing, I always recommend they get professional feedback on their work first, and pay to have it edited.

But for the record, there are many authors with no traditional publishing experience who are doing well with self-published e-books.

The publishing paradigm is changing rapidly, and writers need to keep reassessing their options.

Chester Campbell said...

Your story is indeed an inspiration, L.J. I've read a lot of Konrath's comments, but you bring it down to my level. I need to get myself out there more often to stir those sales.

Peg Brantley said...

It's an interesting time to be looking toward publication.

As an unpublished writer, it's a little difficult for me to let go of the dream I had when I began this process. What I'm coming to understand however, is that my dream can be bigger than I imagined.

And, um . . . making some money would be a very good thing.

L.J. Sellers said...

It's sad, but for many writers, that's what the choice comes down to: Do I want to be traditionally published or do I want to earn a living?

Ellis Vidler said...

Thanks for the straightforward information, LJ. It's a tough decision, but your experience gives us hope that with hard work, it can be done. I know you've put a huge effort into this--it didn't just fall in your lap. You made a good business decision and it's paid. Good for you!

Dana Stabenow said...

Smart and gutsy. Sharing...

Kaye George said...

You're my hero, LJ! A perfect storm conspired to get you into self-pubbing, but it's working great for you.

I haven't read all your books yet, but I intend to. Loved *The Sex Club*.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Thanks for the informative and inspirational post. Many of us will be following in your footsteps.

Helen Ginger said...

Congratulations L.J.! I love hearing success stories and I especially love hearing yours.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks, everyone, for the good wishes. I'm sharing my story because I want to see other authors be successful too. There's never been a better time to be a writer.

Bob Mayer said...

Congratulations. I have one foot in each camp also, but am leaning toward the non-traditional.
I think a key thing you stated though was that you knew your books were solid. You didn't go from unpublished to self-published. You went from published to self-published. A world of difference that we should all keep in mind. All the best with your continued success.

Melissa haffner said...

You are definitly an inspiration, wow. Good work, wow ebooks the way of the future. Love the blog. Arent you glad you took the chance?

L.J. Sellers said...

Melissa: It was the best thing I have ever done for myself.

Debra Lee said...

Great post, L.J. Your story sounds a lot like mine. Although I haven't pulled four of my novels from my small press publisher yet. My publisher has been great to work with so it's going to be tough to pull my books, but I know it is what I have to do to move forward with my career.

Wishing you continued success. Debra

Suzanne said...

Thanks for another great post on going indie, L. J. And while many are focused on the fact that you'd been traditionally published before you went indie, I think a bigger factor in your current success was that you didn't cut corners. You deliver a number of well-edited, well-formatted products with professionally designed covers. If you'd taken the DIY approach and not kept more novels coming, you wouldn't have been as successful.

Suzanne Adair

Lev Raphael said...

This makes so much sense, thank you! But what about authors like me who have books in different genres? I see how ebook along with sales for a series can be successfully promoted, but what about non-series books outside the mystery/thriller genre?

Janice Campbell from NAIWE said...

It's the wave of the future, LJ. I'm glad you caught it and moved forward decisively. For others who are thinking of it, just be certain that your writing is standard publication quality, and that you're willing to do the necessary marketing.

I'm writing mostly non-fiction at the moment, and my book sales keep tilting in favor of e-books. I think they're about 65% of my sales at this point, and I foresee them continuing to grow.

Thanks for sharing your experience!

Barbra Annino said...

Love this post. Writers taking their careers into their own hands is a beautiful thing! Congratulations!

Barb Annino
Author of Opal Fire

Abigail Padgett said...

Excellent, L.J.! While the rest of us sat around in a paralysis of horror at The Stigma (self-publishing causes scalp rot and potentially fatal nasal warts, right?), you broke the conceptual chains and got out there. Until literal weeks ago I languished in the dark about this, but with enormous help from local friend and successful indie author M Louisa Locke and additional nudging from Sandra Scoppettone, I finally get it and am joining the queue. Good post!

helen said...

THANKS SO MUCH FOR THIS POST! I too pulled my books from my publishers and my husband and I put them all online. The latest one being Joe Papp;An American Life ( but I'm just getting my feet wet with promotion.

Jackie King said...

Most informative and inspirational! Thanks for laying out your path to success so clearly.

Lev Raphael said...

Congrats again, LJ! Your blog is inspiring. Ellen Hart sent it to me and I've read it twice now.

Do you think that as mystery authors we have a better chance of selling our ebooks than if we publish in other genres? Our mysteries sell each other, but what about ebooks we publish outside the genre? Is it too soon in the ebook revolution to tell?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, since you've clearly devoted a lot of time to the whole question.

Gwendoline Y. Fortune said...

A number of good writers are taking the indie route. I have three published novels, two with a small, respected publisher. Still haven't worked-off my advances, and I've spent double-plus the advances in promoting. The latest novel is with a small, non-productive publisher. Similar expenditure for promotion-online- with worse results.

I do not write popular genre, but multi-cultural/black historical fiction from a former academic. Good "reads," readers say.

Don't know if I have the energy to try the independent route. I've made myself ill. If I 'recover." maybe.
Thanks for your experience.

Merlina said...

Thanks for sharing so much detail. What a wonderful ascent to success!
Rise' Harrington

J. D. Revelle said...

Very interesting! You also have cleverly priced the Kindle books--ideal impulse purchses! I just bought #1 and have samples of the others ready to go....

Jeanne said...

I think you made the right decision. Recently, I have been mulling over the same issues as you did. My sales and income are suffering from the waiting periods, etc. Thanks for the article, it was an eye-opening read. I began as a self-pubbed author and put up with the issues that go with that title, but honestly, I made much more money and had a good following while in that mode. Now, I'm with a publisher and can't say I am faring as well.