Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Jamie McGuire Returned to Self Publishing

Jamie McGuire photo for Smashwords interview
Writer Jamie McGuire joined Smashwords on July 31, 2011. That same fateful day, she became a published author when she uploaded three novels to Smashwords.

The first two were Providence and Requiem, books one and two in her three-book Providence series of paranormal romance.

She also uploaded a contemporary romance titled Beautiful Disaster. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Beautiful Disaster went on to become a massive worldwide bestseller and is regarded today as one of the most influential books in New Adult romance.

Beautiful Disaster was later acquired by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, which republished it along with a follow-on title, Walking Disaster. Both novels landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Throughout this time, her Providence series remained self-published on Smashwords.

Jamie’s contract with Atria ended July 2014. Afterward, she decided to return to her roots as an indie  author. She now has eleven books on Smashwords, which we distribute to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Oyster, OverDrive, and Baker & Taylor.

Last month on January 27, she released and distributed Beautiful Redemption via Smashwords, and it shot to the top of The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.

I thought it would be fun to check in with Jamie to learn why she returned to self-publishing.

[Mark Coker] Welcome, Jamie. First off, why don’t you tell us what led you to Smashwords and self-publishing back in 2011? Those were the early days of the indie ebook revolution! Had you previously tried to get a traditional deal prior to publishing at Smashwords?

[Jamie McGuire]: Hi, Mark! I was drowning in query letter hell and received my first round of rejection letters for Providence. I didn’t try to get a publishing deal because I couldn’t get past the real gatekeepers back then—agents. I’m impatient, and waiting for someone else to tell me I was ready to publish just didn’t sit well with me. Author J.R. Rain introduced me to ebooks and self-publishing and told me where to find more information. Internet research led me to Smashwords. The moment I learned about self-publishing, I knew it was the right path for me.

[Mark Coker]: Tell me about your initial reaction when sales for Beautiful Disaster started taking off in 2011. I’d imagine it was a life-changing surprise.

shows a butterfly held inside a glass jar
[Jamie McGuire]: Beautiful Disaster sold less than a hundred books the first month it was available. I was a single mom then, and I just told my children they would have to use their backpacks from the previous year because we barely had money to buy school supplies. The second month, it sold more than 30,000 copies. It wasn’t just a life-changing surprise. It was life-changing money. I lost sleep over how much to put into college savings and which bills to pay off because I thought it would never happen again, but my sales only continued to grow. Almost a year later, author Jessica Park called to congratulate me on making The New York Times bestseller list. I hadn’t even known to look at the rankings because I didn’t think it was possible for a self-published author to hit a bestseller list.

[Mark Coker]: Like many successful indies, you became a hybrid author when Atria acquired the rights to Beautiful Disaster and its follow-on, Walking Disaster. What factors did you consider when weighing options?

[Jamie McGuire]: It wasn’t an easy decision, but I was in a good position to negotiate. Beautiful Disaster had been out for over a year at that point. It had already made The New York Times, and I knew its earning potential. I remember weighing what Atria could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself—at the time, that was putting books on shelves—and what value I placed on handing over my most successful manuscript to a publisher forever.

[Mark Coker]: From our prior conversations, I recall your experience with traditional publishing was generally positive. For other successful Smashwords authors considering the potential pros and cons of selling their rights to a large New York publisher, can you comment on your experience with Atria? 

[Jamie McGuire]: The industry is so different [today] from what it was just two years ago. I was lucky that I knew exactly what income Beautiful Disaster was capable of producing, so it was easier to negotiate an advance. Authors are getting picked up by publishers early on, so they might not have that luxury. I’ve done both, and I have no regrets.

I felt like a partner at Atria. I learned a lot more about how publishing and marketing work, about making deadlines, and how to compromise. I gained a broader readership from those who saw my titles on the shelves at stores. I still worked very hard to market my books and help the various departments (US, Canada, and UK print and audio while also pushing the various retailer promotions) market my books. Instead of working for myself, I had an entire company behind me, but they were also relying on me, and that is an incredible motivator. My favorite moments with Atria will always be the indie tours they put together. Atria’s publicity and marketing departments put so much effort into making large signings—sometimes twice a day—run seamlessly, and it showed.

If an author has a chance to sign with a publisher for a fair price, it’s a great learning opportunity. For some, it’s also validation. How else can you know which avenue you prefer? It’s a fair assumption though that successful self-published authors are happily autonomous. Authors facing the question of whether to sign or not sign with a publisher should take a moment to evaluate where on the personality spectrum they fall and if they are truly comfortable with handing over the reins. If you sign up to be a partner and show up behaving like the boss, it won’t be a positive experience for either side.

[Mark Coker]: Congrats on hitting The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists with your release of Beautiful Redemption last month! Given your track record as an international bestseller, I imagine publishers would have fallen over each other to acquire this.  Yet you decided to self-publish it. Why?

[Jamie McGuire]: Thank you so much! It was really important to me to see this particular title do well. Hitting the USA Today bestseller list with Happenstance, my first self-published work after signing with a publisher, and then again with Beautiful Redemption was an incredible validation.

As with all big decisions, there was no single reason. The deciding factor though was realizing that I had signed foreign book deals for five to seven years on average, and my domestic deals were indefinite.  That made sense before ebooks, but because the overhead for digital books is negligible, publishers can make them available indefinitely. Before, authors might have once been able to see rights returned to find new ways to revive their backlists, but now, signing is permanent. Going forward, I knew I could potentially make more money holding on to my digital rights because ebooks are forever. Writing is an art form. Publishing is a business. Successful authors must be good at both.

Another point I took into consideration was seeing a shift in print sales across the board. Paperbacks weren’t moving like they had before, and I wasn’t seeing my books on shelves, even during a release week. My original reason for signing with a publisher didn't make as much sense anymore, but Atria Books was family. It was one of the toughest decisions I've made thus far.

[MC]: Even though you had a positive experience working with a traditional publisher, you decided to reorient your publishing strategy going forward by returning to self-publishing. What drew you back to self-publishing?

[JM]: Going back to the Smashwords dashboard and changing the description, cover, and prices of my Providence series, I recalled how much I loved having that kind of control. I’d forgotten what it was like to release an excerpt or teaser without needing permission or to have the freedom to choose and change my own price point based on what was fair to my readers, not the booksellers.

Although nothing about self-publishing is easy or simple, I am the captain of my own ship. Whether a title sinks or sails is on me. I am the sole steward of my failures and victories—and there will be both. Not every writer is comfortable with that responsibility. Not every writer prefers it. Writing and then packaging my own manuscript is less stressful for me, and I’ve found my creativity thrives in that environment. 

[MC]: What advice do you have for traditionally published authors considering dipping their feet into the indie waters? Can you arm them with some realistic expectations? Is self publishing easier or more difficult than a traditionally published author might think?

[JM]: I chat often with traditionally published authors about going indie. Self-publishing was once a dirty word, but because we’ve seen so much success and streamlining of the process, making it  easier than ever, being indie is a positive label, and in many cases, it’s preferable. Self-publishing really boils down to independence, and that is exceptionally appealing to an author who knows the ropes and is considering taking a new direction that their publisher might not be excited about.

Most traditionally published authors have this idea that self-publishing is complicated when it’s really very simple, even more so for an established author. It can be as easy as asking a colleague for recommendations for freelancers for editing, formatting, and cover design and creating an account with the main platforms. With a description, genre choice, author bio, you can click publish, and your novel is live. Writing is the hard part—okay, that’s a lie. We all know editing is the worst.

I think the hardest concept about self-publishing is that it might feel permanent. Once traditional authors release a self-published book, they might feel they’re no longer welcome in the world of the Big Five. The beauty about being a hybrid author is, while not every book is right for a publisher, there is a potential audience for everything you’ve written.

[MC]: You’ve got an ambitious publishing schedule planned with five new indie releases for 2015, five in 2016, and four in 2017. Can you talk about your process, discipline and time management to produce at such a level while still balancing a busy family life?

[JM]: After I put my children to bed, I write until it’s time to wake them up for school. I play with the baby for a couple of hours, and then I sleep until the older children get home from school. We talk about their day, and the husband and I catch up on daily items. We have dinner and bath time, and then it starts all over again. My family is patient and very supportive. They know we’re enjoying the fruits of my dream job, and if that means Mom is in her pajamas when a friend pops over after school, that is a small sacrifice to make.

[MC]: Although you have the freedom to upload your books direct to several retailers, you distribute almost everywhere, except for Amazon, via Smashwords. How do you see Smashwords fitting into your publishing strategy?

[JM]:  There are many digital retailers, and although streamlined, uploading to each one is a process. Smashwords saves me valuable time because it manages multiple platforms with a one-time input of the metadata and a single upload. I watch as each format is converted, and then it’s done. Now, there is a preorder option as well. Keeping track of sales from the centralized dashboard is also a huge timesaver.

The most important factor for me turning to Smashwords as opposed to other distribution sites is the personal investment the Smashwords staff has shown me throughout my writing career. As a debut author and now as a hybrid author, Smashwords has been consistently respectful and eager to watch my success grow.

[MC] Thanks, Jamie!

Connect with Jamie McGuire:
Jamie McGuire at Smashwords
Jamie McGuire official Website
Jamie McGuire on Facebook
Jamie McGuire on Twitter

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Smashwords Daily Charts Updated to 90 Days

This week we released a minor but extremely useful update to our Daily Sales charts tool in your Smashwords Dashboard. 

You can now view your multi-retailer sales reports going back 90 days.  Previously, it displayed only the last 30 days.  In a couple months we'll improve it further by extending the time period to 180 days (6 months).

Our daily charts provide you a wealth of useful insight to help you track the performance of multiple titles across multiple retailers. 

For example, you can use our daily sales reports to learn at-a-glance how readers are responding to promotional campaigns, or learn how new releases, preorder releases, price changes, free series starters, cover changes, book description updates or category updates affect the sales of your other titles.  You can slice, dice and filter sales summaries by retailer, by series, and by author if you are a publisher.

The reports aggregate same-day sales from the Smashwords store and Barnes & Noble, and next-day sales from iBooks, OverDrive and Kobo.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Ebook as Annuity

As a self-published author, your book is your asset.  It’s something of value you own and control.

Like the orange tree pictured at left that bears fruit year round, your ebook promises to yield you, your family and your heirs benefit for many years to come.

In this post, I’ll share a framework that might help you view the financial value of your books in a new light.  As I’ll present below, self-published ebooks share common characteristics with annuities.

In the old world of print publishing, a publisher would pay you a lump sum advance to acquire rights to your book.  If you were lucky, the book would sell well, earn out its advance and begin paying royalties on an ongoing basis.  Unfortunately, most traditionally published books go out of print before they sell enough to earn the author more than the initial advance.  Once the book is out of print, the potential royalty stream evaporates and that asset – the book – yields no additional income for the author unless the rights revert and the author republishes the book.

This means that prior to the advent of ebook self-publishing, for many traditionally published authors that first lump sum advance was all they earned from their book.

One reason traditionally published books went out of print so quickly and with such regularity is due to how print distribution and retailing works.  Brick and mortar book stores have limited shelf space.  Even though your local Barnes & Noble (or WH Smith or Indigo or name your local store) would love to carry millions of books on the showroom floor, the economics of unlimited inventory are simply impossible for physical stores.  Instead, physical stores are forced to limit their in-store inventory to books that sell well.  So if a book doesn't start selling well within a few weeks of hitting shelves, the store will return the book to the publisher (for a full refund) to make room for other, newer books.

As most authors can appreciate, a few weeks is not enough time for a book to find an audience, which means many high-quality print books are forced out of print too early.  Even if the book had the potential to sell continually, if those sales aren't high enough to justify continued shelf space, the books were returned to make room for better-selling books, and as books lost distribution they were forced out of print.

In the new world of ebook self-publishing, there are no advances, but your book never goes out of print either.  Thanks to the scalability and efficiency of online retailing, the digital bits and bytes that comprise your ebook can happily occupy an online retailer’s shelf forever if you let it.   Your book is immortal.  You always have another day to find your next readers.  You harvest your income over time as the book sells.

This life cycle of the immortal ebook changes the dynamics of how you can model and measure the income stream from your book.  In many ways, the income stream from an immortal ebook is more closely akin to an annuity, and specifically a variable annuity.

If you’re not familiar with annuities, here’s a quick introduction:  Annuities are financial investments usually sold by insurance companies, and often purchased by individuals for the purpose of retirement planning or income diversification.  The individual puts forth cash (an asset) to purchase the annuity, and then the insurance company in turn pools this cash with the cash from other investors and invests the money on your behalf in underlying assets that might include agricultural property, hotels, office buildings, bonds or any other bundle of income-producing investments.  The insurance company then promises to pay the individual a steady stream of income for many years, or for the rest of their life.  A fixed annuity pays a fixed monthly or annual amount.  A variable annuity pays a variable amount based on the performance of the underlying asset.

So this means your book, which is an asset you control 100%, shares some similarities with variable annuities with the exception that you (not the insurance company) control the asset, and you are the sole beneficiary of that asset’s performance over time.  Your book-as-an-annuity will very likely produce some level of income for you for the rest of your life.  All you need to do is keep the book in stores.

This variable annuity dynamic of self-published ebooks also changes how an author can measure the financial value of their asset.  For example, let’s say your book or your full catalog of books is earning you $200 a month, month after month.  What's the value of this income stream to you for the next five or 30 years?  Luckily, there are free calculators for this (click here for one such calculator).

To use the calculator, enter your expected monthly or annual income, and also enter an alternative interest rate. The interest rate can reflect a rate you’d be able to earn if you invested cash into some safe interest-bearing investment for the same period of time.  By entering the going interest rate, you’re better able to calculate the present value of your income stream.  In the example at left, I chose a 30-year period so I entered an interest rate of a 30 year US government bond, which today earns 2.58%.

In this example, a book that earns $200 a month for 30 years has a present value of just over $50,000.

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict future levels of income with precision. The longer the time frame you calculate, the greater the odds that your numbers are off by a significant margin. Your actual earnings might be higher or lower.  Nevertheless, this model for measuring the financial value of your asset is useful, especially if you’re approached by a publisher who offers you a lump sum amount of money (AKA an advance) to acquire your rights.  By analyzing the present value of the expected annuity stream of income, you’ll be better prepared to negotiate a fair price for your book, or you’ll have the confidence you need to reject the offer and walk away without regrets.

Here’s an even simpler, more practical example of annuity thinking:  A few months ago, a Smashwords author told me she was offered a contract for her book by a traditional publisher.  She rejected the offer because she realized that based on her current monthly sales, she'd earn more in the next three months self-publishing than she'd earn from the publisher's advance.

Ebook self-publishing changes the dynamics of the earnings stream for authors. Whereas most traditionally published print authors will earn the bulk of their book’s income from the advance, or from the first few month’s sales, self-published ebook authors are likely to earn the bulk of their income spread out over many months and years. This is especially true for fiction writers since great stories are evergreen.

When you run the numbers on your book as an annuity, even for shorter time frames of three to five years, you might discover your book is more financially successful than you realized.