Monday, August 27, 2012

How Rachel Higginson Overcame Rejection From Traditional Publishing to Achieve Indie Ebook Success

Independent author Rachel Higginson lives in Nebraska with her husband and four young children. A year ago, she was an unknown, unpublished writer with a growing pile of rejection slips from literary agents.  Undeterred, she decided to self publish in early 2011.

Over the past three quarters at Smashwords, her sales have broken out, growing 25-fold with thousands of copies sold each month. Rachel spoke with David Weir about her journey from unknown writer to someone making a good living while achieving her lifelong goal of becoming a successful writer.

She has published four Young Adult novels in her Star-Crossed Series at Smashwords, and -- as is usually the case with self-published ebook authors -- her sales were slow at first. But Rachel never gave up and eventually found the keys to connecting with readers. Once she did, she's never looked back. 

David Weir: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Did you always want to be a writer?

Rachel Higginson: I have always wanted to be a writer, for as long as I can remember. I think my mom still has a copy of a play I wrote in fourth grade as a sequel to Alice in Wonderland that I made all the neighborhood kids act out in the middle of the street! During high school, I was positive I would pursue journalism and had great pipe dreams of traveling the world. I pictured myself wearing khakis and colorful scarves as a war correspondent covering Pulitzer Prize worthy pieces! However, when it was time to choose a college, I decided it was better to stay close to home. My dad had the first signs of a cancer that would eventually take his life, and so I stayed near family and picked a college that dropped their journalism program the same year I started school. During college I temporarily gave up on my writing dream, but was still able to travel the world by participating in a six month study abroad/internship program in Europe and spending a summer helping with the 2005 Tsunami relief in Sri Lanka. By the time I graduated, I had a BA in Intercultural studies, I had gotten married and my father had passed away. Dreams of writing were very, very far away.

DW: And when did you write your first book?

I wrote my first book in 2007, so just a year after I graduated college. This book still doesn’t have a title and will hopefully, for everyone else’s sake, never be published! But I started writing it and kept writing it as a way to heal over the trauma of the year before. My husband Zach and I were married my senior year of college, and were very young at the time. My dad passed away just four short months after he walked me down the aisle. And a month after I received my college diploma I found out I was pregnant! By the time we had our firstborn I think I was a bit traumatized. I was at the very least emotionally depressed. I started writing a novel as part experiment just to see if I could do it, and part healing process to find myself again through everything I had been through. And that is exactly what happened.  Through writing I was able to heal and remember who I was and what I wanted out of life. Writing also became something I couldn’t live without, something that healed me on a daily basis, that made me healthy and whole. And from all of that I started writing the Star-Crossed Series.

DW: You wrote the first of your four novels in the Star-Crossed Series, Reckless Magic, in 2009 -- did you try the traditional publishing route and, if so, what happened?

RH: I definitely tried the traditional publishing route then. At that time I wasn’t aware of the possibilities through ebook self-publishing. I looked at the traditional publishing industry as my only option and researched the life out of how to get published. I couldn’t even tell you how many query letters I sent to agents or how many times I edited Reckless Magic so that it would be a better version of itself to present to agents. Although, it didn’t really matter how many times I tweaked that first chapter, no agent ever asked to see even the first few pages. Out of the hundreds of rejection letters I received, I began to give up on the idea that I would ever be published. It was definitely a hard couple of years struggling with rejection. On one side I had this manuscript that I believed in with all of my being, and a love for writing that had dug down deep and began to define part of who I was. And on the other side I had letter after letter telling me that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn't writing anything the industry or public would find worth reading and that my dream would not be coming true. I think even to this day I am affected by the dichotomy of those emotions.

DW: When and how did you discover the self-publishing option?

Self-publishing was first presented to me in the fall and winter of 2010 by my husband. Kindle was really making itself known at that time, and as an avid reader I had been very interested in just owning an eReader. But Zach started reading and looking into authors who were being self-published through Kindle and asked me if I would ever consider going that route with Reckless Magic. At first I think I laughed at him; I was convinced self-publishing was just another form of failure. To me, if I didn’t have an agent and publishing house behind me then I could never be successful. But then, in February of 2011 I received my very own Kindle for my birthday and instantly fell in love with the whole e-reading process! I discovered self-published authors, with their discounted prices and started reading their work. It didn’t take me long to realize there was definitely something to this Indie way of publishing. Zach had been persistently encouraging me to look into it for myself and go that route and after seeing the success of indie stars like Amanda Hocking, I couldn’t find valid reasons to put it off any longer. As soon as I published on Kindle, my eyes were opened to the eReader world and I published to Smashwords just days later.

DW: So once you had Reckless Magic up on Amazon and Smashwords, how were your early sales?

I published Reckless Magic in March 2011 and didn’t really know what to expect. Even though self-publishing had worked great for other Indie authors, I knew I had a long, hard road ahead of me. In those first six months of Reckless Magic being live on Kindle and Smashwords I sold about fifty books total. I doubted myself constantly, feeling like more of a failure every day. I was working hard to finish the second book in the series, but self-publishing, at times, became just another form of the rejection I had experienced for two years while trying to get traditionally published. At the same time though, every time I sold a book was a small victory over those fears. And with the support of my family, especially my husband and mom, rejection turned to hope for a career to come, and for a successful future, even if doubts and insecurity nagged at me daily. At one point, I remember asking Zach what he would think of me if I never sold any more books than what I had. He changed my whole way of thinking by reminding me that it didn’t matter if I sold one book or one million books, I was doing what I loved and I was publishing manuscripts that I really believed in and that was what was most important.

DW: The second of the series, Hopeless Magic, came out in August, and then you made a strategic decision the following month -- can you tell us about that and what happened as a result?

RH: During the time Reckless Magic was alone on the market, Zach and I looked at a lot of different models for publicity and marketing. One model that really caught our attention was pricing the first book of a series lower than the subsequent books. This seemed especially appealing to me, knowing I was completely unknown and people were already taking a chance by downloading my book. So when Hopeless Magic came out in August, we made the decision to offer Reckless Magic, as the first book in the series, for free. The price change took about a month to make its way to every retailer, but when it finally happened on September 15th, it changed everything for me. I had been in the habit of checking my sales on a daily basis, cheering for every sale, especially when there were days in between them. I would even call Zach at work, every time I sold a book, just to let him in on my excitement. But September 15th, after dinner I happened to check my sales and I had gone from a month total of 2 downloads to 357 downloads. I immediately screamed at Zach to come look at what I was looking at and tell me what was wrong with the computer! We were both convinced my sales were a computer error, until we saw that Reckless Magic was now being offered for free. In the first week of the price change, I saw over 30,000 downloads of Reckless Magic. We were blown away.

DW: Now you've achieved success, how has that affected the way you approach writing and your life overall?

This is a great question, because it is an issue I am working on daily to define. I am a writer who is blessed enough to make a living by my work, so I have to find a way to make writing a priority in my life. At the same time, I am also a stay at home mom of four beautiful children all under the age of five and they would very much like to keep all of my attention to themselves! Together with my husband, we have made an active effort to give me the time I need to write. Of course, I say that and realize the four hours of writing I had planned to do today were dwindled down to half of that, and in thirty minute spaces of time I snuck in here and there, instead of the big block of time I had planned…. But, we’ll figure it out! What we are learning though is that success takes hard work and sweat and tears at every single level. At the very beginning of this journey, I was convinced I would never work harder than I did to get Reckless Magic out there and selling, but now I can laugh at that. If anything, I am sacrificing more of my time to write. This career will, thankfully, always take hard work and sacrifice and that is just fine by me. As long as I am putting everything I have into it though, and putting out the best work I have in me I will consider myself successful.

DW: Can you share with us some of the makeup of Eden Matthews, the lead character in your series?

What I really wanted with Eden was a strong female teenage heroine. From the very beginning of writing the series, I knew it would be this long, dramatic love story and I was terrified that Eden would get swept up in that and lose who I wanted her to be. So I purposefully set out to make her set in her convictions, which I think translated more stubborn than anything. I also wanted a very genuine and authentic heroine, someone that was really relatable but also imperfect. She makes mistakes, she gets tripped up in her own pride and hard-headedness, but she also loves deeply and means the best. Writing for me is very personal; I said earlier how I use it to heal or stay healthy. Because of that, I couldn’t help but write pieces of myself into Eden’s character. She is definitely a version of myself that at times can be hard to admit since I’ve put her out there for the world to see. But because I put so much honesty and authenticity into her, I would like to believe that she came out as I imagined her: flawed and at times completely oblivious, but also strong, sincere and absolutely authentic.

DW: You've said Eden encounters a world "more make-believe than reality" -- how important is fantasy in the Young Adult Fiction genre?

RH: For me, fantasy is the driving force behind everything I write. Fiction has the rare power to inspire and motivate every kind of person and I find my most motivating factors in the thread of a fantastic beyond-reality storyline. There is something about a hero or heroine facing unrealistic odds and overcoming them that is so absolutely inspiring and life-changing. I can name countless books along the course of my life that have helped shape and develop me into who I am today. But those moments of solid self-reflection that turn into actual action are the result of only the most challenging fictional scenarios. And I don’t think that Young Adults will ever outgrow the pure enjoyment of reading about a peer facing unrealistic odds or adversaries and coming out on top.

DW: Now that the series is finished, what are you writing?

I am working on the first book in a new series that I have dreamt about writing since before Reckless Magic was even daydreamed. The title of the book is called Starbright and I hope to have it out in the early part of September. Starbright is another young adult book set in Nebraska, but this one follows a young Star living on Earth to protect our planet from a great evil. It’s more of an epic good vs. evil story line, but something I am really, really excited to share.

DW: Do you envision sticking with Young Adult Fiction or exploring other genres?

Ah! Great question!! Right now, in my immediate plans I have only Young Adult in the mix. And since my immediate plans include the next three series I want to write, including a few spin-offs of The Star-Crossed Series I should probably say, yes I absolutely plan on sticking with Young Adult Fiction. However, after that it’s hard to say. I don’t have a different genre story in my head right now, but all it takes is that one special thought, or daydream for something to blossom into a full blown story line and then I could be off writing who-knows-what!

DW: Do you have a sense of your core audience and if so who are they?

I write Young Adult Fiction, so you might expect me to say teenagers, ages 13-18. That is the age group I had in mind anyway when I wrote the series. But in reality my core audience are women just like me, who fell in love with the genre just like I did! And I love it! I love connecting with my fans, going through the same struggles of motherhood I am or balancing work and home life and feeling like both are dangerously tipping the scales. As far as audiences go I have one of the best and most supportive and I am really blessed by each and every one of my fans.

DW: What is your writing process -- do you set aside a certain amount of time every day to write?

Every day I set aside a certain amount of time to write. And then every day that amount of time gets divided by three and mixed in with grocery shopping, making dinner and taxiing kids around from some activity to the other. But through all that time being the mom instead of the writer I am a perpetual daydreamer, plotting and planning the next chapter, or conversation or third of the book. Then, when I can finally get to my computer I’m ready to use the little time I have to the fullest.

DW: Do you work with an editor and if so how did you find her?

I do work with an editor now. I definitely didn’t start out that way, and I am still in the process of going back through my first series and cleaning it all up. But I’ve learned a lot along the way and my editor is so extremely valuable to my entire process now. Plus she just makes me sound so much smarter! I have kind of stumbled through this whole process of learning how to self-publish, so when I decided it was time to hire an editor I went about it the easiest way I knew how. I found an indie author that I really respected and enjoyed and that continually put out great works and I emailed her editor! I went to her asking for advice on how to find an editor, but thankfully she was willing to work with me and excited about the series I already had out and the one I’m working on now.

DW: Your story of persistence and overcoming rejection is sure to inspire others -- what advice do you have for others who have not yet achieved success in the indie publishing business?

RH: I just want to encourage every Indie writer. I’ve talked a lot about how I faced rejection and feelings of failure throughout this whole experience, and I wish I could say that at some point those feelings go away, but I am convinced they only get worse! As writers, our work is so impossibly personal and emotional that a negative review by a reader can feel like the deepest cut. That definitely doesn’t change no matter how many books you’ve sold or positive reviews you’ve received. My advice is to push through it all, face it head on and stay true to your work. The most important thing is to write something that makes all of rejection and emotional trauma worth it. If you’re writing something you believe in, something you are passionate about and something you are just down right in love with then you will find success. And I would also say, play around with how you approach marketing. There are countless success stories in this industry and we’ve all taken different paths to get here. If what you’re doing now isn’t working for you, try something different and keep trying and working until something does work for you.

DW: Thank you and good luck!

Smashwords distributes Rachel Higginson to the following retailers:

Apple iBookstore
Barnes & Noble

Friday, August 10, 2012

Author Joseph Lallo on the Keys to His SciFi and Epic Fantasy Success

Indie author Joseph Lallo writes Epic Fantasy and Science Fiction. Like many successful self-published authors at Smashwords, his sales started off slow.  He joined Smashwords in February, 2010, and for the entire year sold only four copies for earnings of about $15.00.  Undeterred, he continued writing, made incremental improvements to his books, and experimented with pricing.  In 2011, his sales started to pick up, and then in early 2012 he experienced a breakout.   In his most recent quarter, he earned $15,600, led by strong US sales at Barnes & Noble, followed by solid international growth at the Apple iBookstore.

Lallo has experimented with different ways to help readers discover his work, including following many of  the best practices we recommend at Smashwords. David Weir interviewed him recently to discover the journey that led to his success.

David Weir: Where do your stories come from? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Joseph Lallo: I suppose my brain has been wired for storytelling from a very young age. When I was little, every year the family would go camping for a whole month in Vermont. We literally slept in a barn, so to get us to go to bed my Mom would tell us stories, which she generally made up as she went along. Sometimes she'd ask us to give her things she should include in the story.

When I got a little older I'd play video games on the old NES. One of them, Dragon Warrior, was popular enough with me and one of my friends that we would act out little adventures in the setting. That's where the seeds of what would be The Book of Deacon Trilogy were planted.

As for whether I've always wanted to be a writer? I didn't really aspire to it at first. Writing down the big, sprawling story that I'd started to knit together was more or less just something to do when I was bored at school. I didn't really expect it to go anywhere. In fact, after initially being open about writing the story, I started to feel ashamed that I'd been at it for so long and became very secretive about it. Even my brothers didn't know I'd never actually stopped writing.

DW: Can you take us through the evolution of The Book of Deacon, and how your friends helped you along the way?

Well, as I said, it started as a sort of verbal fan fiction for a video game. Eventually we lost interest in the game and moved on to other things, but the ideas continued to kick around in my head. I'd daydream, ditching the parts that I thought were silly and adding things I thought would be cool. I was pretty good in school, so up until my late college years there wasn't really a lot of challenge in class. I carried around a spiral notebook and wrote down whatever happened next. It went on like that for years, and then I finally reached a conclusion of sorts. By this time, it filled something on the order of a dozen spiral notebooks and was probably half a million words. (I've still got those books, I took a picture not too long ago.)

After that, the handful of friends I'd let in on the secret that I was still writing a book became my sounding board. One guy in particular, Sean, was and is one of my best friends and lost quite a few hours of sleep thanks to me rambling about plot points while we were roommates in college. Once I'd finished writing the story down in longhand, they convinced me to type it. When it became clear that it was taking forever, they convinced me to learn to touch-type. Then came the proofreading, and the rigid assurance that it wasn't as terrible as I thought it was. Most importantly, though, they were the ones who said, break it up into three chunks. I wrote up a query letter and sent it to a few dozen literary agents. About half of them came back as rejections, mostly form letters, and the rest never even got replies. I was willing to call it a failure, but my friends prodded me into trying out self-publishing. 

DW: How did you discover the independent, self-publishing model?

JL: I think it was my friend Cary who linked me to Amazon's self-publishing platform, what is now KDP. The Kindle had taken root by then, so I knew I wanted to be on there, but I always knew that it was a bad idea to put all of your eggs in one basket. I wanted to see if there was an easy way to get on a lot of different platforms, and a quick search turned up some forums that recommended Smashwords to handle the non-Amazon stuff. Smashwords has probably been the most help in both improving my business and literary skill, since their more stringent formatting requirements and the transparency on the business side really taught me a lot. 

DW: As with most successful authors, your sales started off slow but then ramped over time.  Tell us what that period was like and the steps you took to improve sales?

JL: I think in the first year (2010) I made $15, and I immediately reinvested $10 for a premium ISBN... I'm still not sure why I did that. I started my book at $9.99 and sold one copy. Somehow I got it into my head that the lack of interest was due to the fact that it was 150,000 words, so I whipped up a shorter story, Jade, and put that out. Still nothing. Around the time I released the second book in the trilogy, I dropped Book 1 to $4.99, then $2.99. Nothing seemed to make much of a difference, but I'd already written written a whole trilogy, so I figured I'd at least stick with it until the third book was published. I sent out requests for blogs to do reviews, and even got accepted to one or two, one of which hasn't gotten around to reviewing my first book yet. That first year and a half wasn't exactly a confidence builder.
DW: You've said there were two key changes you made that turned things around -- what were they?

JL: The first one, and probably the most important one, was actually inspired by an article I read here on the Smashwords blog. In a writeup about fellow indie author Brian S. Pratt (click here to read the Brian S. Pratt interview), it was established that he'd had a breakthrough when he made the first book of his series free. I figured, hey, I have a series, and I'm already making no money on the first one. After The Great Convergence, the second book in the trilogy came out, I made The Book of Deacon free. Slowly people started to try it out, and the sequel started get some nibbles, too. Once I started to see positive reviews, I hurried up and got the final book in the trilogy out. Then, on May 17th 2011, after refusing to make my book free for a few weeks, Amazon finally price-matched it to zero. It got picked up on some free book blogs, and things exploded. I think 18,000 people downloaded it that first month, and weirdly, sales spiked on the other platforms at the same time. I guess Nook users read the Kindle lists too.

The sales bonanza didn't last long, but by the time it had calmed down to a slow boil it earned me just shy of $3,000. I decided that I might as well spend that money back on the books, since the money was essentially a windfall. I tracked down an artist, Nick Deligaris, who had caught my eye with his magnificent fantasy art, and commissioned all new covers for the trilogy. I figured that would be the end of it, but within days of updating the covers my sales tripled. People do indeed judge a book by its cover, it seems. Sales have stayed pretty strong since, with the odd dip or spike to spice things up.

DW: It may surprise some readers who are not familiar with your work that the main character in your trilogy is female -- Myranda Celeste -- was that a conscious choice on your part?

Yes and no. Way back when I was first toying with story ideas, I'd come up with this phenomenally cliche story about five descendants of great warriors, four of whom were male. Eventually, I realized it was silly to write about descendants without at least thinking up who it was that they descended from, so I spent some time thinking about that. Since the descendants were mostly male, I decided the ancestors should be mostly female. Myranda was the most interesting, so she became the star, and since I was older and wiser when I dreamed her story up, I decided it was the better choice to start writing. I wish I had a grand, artistic reason for you, but mostly I did it to balance things out.

DW: What sense do you have of your audience and their demographics? Any surprises there?

I don't know of any way to get reliable data like that on actual sales, but when it comes to feedback from readers (and the distribution of likes on the Facebook Fan Page), my fans are overwhelmingly female. I've heard from quite a few guys, but when it comes to emails and comments, women probably outnumber the men three-to-one. Not only that, but women of all ages; everyone from a preteen who sent me fan art to a woman in her seventies who was practically my pen pal for a while. It continues to amaze me that I could have found so strong a following with the opposite sex.

DW: How do you interact with readers, using social media?

JL: I try to make myself available to fans in any way they would like. I started with Twitter (@jrlallo), and quickly after my friend Sean set me up with a dedicated web page,, and an email address. A reader suggested that I set up a Facebook Fan Page, so I did that, and I've tried to get an author account on all relevant sites, including Amazon, GoodReads, Shelfari, and others. Since then fans have inspired me to set up a fan art page, a forum, and a wiki, with varying levels of success. I still try to reply to every email, every tweet, and every comment on my site. I used to comment on customer reviews of my books, but I ended up having to cut down on that for a few reasons.

DW: Do you work with an editor, and if so, how did you find one?

Heh, one of the main reasons I had to quit commenting on my reviews was the psychologically torturous frequency of comments every six months, finding dozens of errors each time. My friends each read the books twice, finding dozens of errors. And fans continued to complain about hundreds of remaining errors despite the revisions. After the new covers, I decided I'd reinvest as much money from the books as I could, and it was clear that finding an editor was a priority. I did some searches for freelance editor who could be trusted. My searches led me to someone named Anna Genoese, who has been a pleasure to work with. I've also had some fans offer to edit for me, but I've noticed that interest starts decline once the enormity of the task becomes apparent. (For the most part, anyway. There's at least one fan who has stuck with it.)

DW: I understand you have a Bulgarian connection -- care to tell us about that?

Ah yes, the Bulgarian Deal. (Every time I say that my brother tells me it sounds like I'm in a Guy Ritchie movie.) Earlier this year, I got a letter from someone from a Bulgarian toy distributor, MBG Toys. He'd apparently read my story and really enjoyed it, and was interested in translation rights for a small publishing label that was associated, MBG Books. I did a lot of research, because my brain would not allow me to accept that such a request could be legit. No red flags popped up, so I decided to take a chance. I contacted a lawyer to get a translation rights contract made up, and took the plunge. Evidently it is almost ready for market. I've gotten some praise from the translator, and I've been sent a copy of the cover. Incidentally, it turns out my middle initial, R, translates to P in the Cyrillic alphabet. Wacky.

DW: And you also have some news about your sci-fi stories, is that right?

JL: Indeed I do. A few months ago I submitted the first of them to a website in development called The idea behind the site is that they would gather submissions from indie authors, choose the cream of the crop, and bundle them together. For a limited time, readers would be able to pick up the bundle for whatever price they choose. I'm proud to say I made it into the inaugural bundle, called The Big Bang Bundle. My book Bypass Gemini is in the main bundle, and if you pay enough, the sequel Unstable Prototypes is a bonus. The bundle is set to run from August 8th to August 28th, I believe.

DW: What is different about writing sci-fi from writing epic fantasy? Do you, as an author, have a preference?

Science Fiction and Fantasy are actually alike in a number of ways. In both cases you're building worlds, either by enhancing reality or inventing entirely new concepts. The main difference to me is that fantasy uses magic and sci-fi uses science, which for all intents and purposes is just magic with numbers to back it up. I once heard it put that Science Fiction is Fantasy but dignified and literary. My dip into sci-fi is more focused on spaceships, explosions, and exploding spaceships. That said, I can't really say that I prefer one over the other. Sci-fi is fun to write, and I've got an engineering background, so I'm pretty good at bluffing with technology. I'm sure my professors would be thrilled to know that I've been using my Master's Degree in Computer Engineering to add realism to a story in which a mad scientist shoots dog doo with a laser. I've had a lot of fun writing both fantasy and science fiction, though.

DW: Will you continue writing in both genres?

JL: I definitely plan to alternate. At the time I started writing the science fiction, the trilogy hadn't really gotten much interest, so I suppose there was a chance I would have stuck with sci-fi if it had caught on first, but now I've got a small legion of fantasy fans who would come after me with torches and pitchforks if I didn't give them a few more books in the Deacon series.

DW: Your current sci-fi series, which isn't named yet, consists of two books so far -- how many books do you envision in this series?

I didn't have an endpoint in mind for that one. The Book of Deacon was a trilogy because initially it was one massive book. (Note: As published the trilogy runs close to 450,000 words in length.) For the science fiction, I wanted to focus on books that were more self-contained. There's a little bit of a sequel hook at the end of each one but for the most part I wanted to avoid things like cliffhangers. For now, the sci-fi is open-ended, with at least two more books plotted out. 

DW: Now that you are gaining so much success, are you considering quitting your day job?

I'm not planning on quitting my job, but it is getting really hard to avoid thinking about it. At some point my brain went from saying, "I can't quit my job to" to saying, "I certainly can't quit my job before this project is done." For now, writing remains a very attractive and very enjoyable Plan B, which at the moment is out-earning Plan A by a fairly wide margin..

DW: What advice do you have for others who may wish to try and emulate your success as an independent author?

Be patient, listen to your fans, and be willing invest back into your books. It takes a tremendous amount of work and more than a little luck to get things rolling, but once it happens, it is absolutely worth the effort.

DW: Thank you Joseph!

Smashwords distributes Joseph Lallo to the following retailers:

Apple iBookstore
Barnes & Noble

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Smashwords Author JD Nixon Breaks out with Mystery & Detective Series

Indie ebook author JD Nixon is the pseudonym used by the author of two series of novels written from her home in the "deep north" of Queensland, Australia. Although classified as detective/mysteries, Nixon's books defy simple categorization because they combine a large number of genres -- in her own words they are "mystery-comedy-drama-action-adventure-romances with a racy twist and a strong dose of relationships, all while taken on a roller coaster of emotions."

Her sales are taking off.  In the month of July, JD Nixon sold over 9,700 copies at just one Smashwords retailer - Barnes & Noble.  Smashwords also distributes her to Amazon, the Apple iBookstore, Diesel, Sony and Kobo.

Nixon spoke with David Weir the other day to share some of her writing and publishing secrets -- though not her real identity!

David Weir: You started writing indie ebooks in 2009. Did you have any previous experience with traditional publishing?

JD Nixon: Apart from co-authoring a non-fiction book released by a major university publisher, the closest I’ve come to traditional publishing is submitting a children’s book to two publishers. One didn’t respond and an editor for the other sent me a lovely personal letter advising me my book wasn’t “edgy” enough for them, but that she just loved my very tongue-in-cheek covering letter. It made me realise that children’s books weren’t for me, but I still might dig it up one day, dust it off and publish it for free. I thought it was a good read (and so did my child)!!

DW: Was there any moment of epiphany, when you just realized it was time to start writing adult fiction?

: In 2009, I started reading a best-selling book that everyone had raved about, but I found it quite uninspiring and put it aside halfway through. I decided then that I was bored of reading other people’s stories – I wanted to write my own. So I did. And because I’d already ruled out children’s books, I naturally started writing adult fiction. 

DW: Can you tell us just a bit about the characters in your Heller series and how you created them?

: The Heller books have a huge cast of characters, some permanent, some transient. My main character, Tilly Chalmers, is a generous, warm, loving, fairly inept young woman who stumbles into a job in a security and surveillance firm run by Heller. Everything she does turns his carefully controlled, business-focused and rather emotionless and promiscuous life upside down. She also has a big impact on Heller’s ‘family’, a group of stray people Heller has gathered around himself, when she moves in with them. Tilly is forever getting herself into scrapes and then getting herself out of them again, sometimes with a little help from Heller and his team of men. And of course, a security and surveillance firm, full of huge handsome men and one trouble-making woman, is a pot of gold when it comes to plot developments!

I enjoy exploring the dynamics of this situation – of how the characters learn about themselves and teach each other. My characters are quite flawed and imperfect and that’s the way I love them! Although Heller is physically beautiful, he has a darkness in his soul, a ruthless streak and a shady past, all of which makes Tilly uncomfortable. And she finds a real strength inside herself without losing her vulnerability and openness. I like to think my characters are quite complex in nature and that they grow throughout the series. Nothing turns me off a book faster than a ‘perfect’ character or a character that never seems to reflect and learn from what has happened to him/her. No thanks!

DW: So you wrote several books in that series before publishing the first one in 2011?

: Yes. I wrote almost five books in a row in that series before setting it aside to start my other series, the Little Town books.

DW: How did you find Smashwords and how easy or hard was it for you to self-publish here?

: I was reading an article in an online newspaper about the demise of Borders and Angus and Robertson books chains here in Australia and in the comment section someone mentioned that he’d used Smashwords to self-publish. He also mentioned that he’d since sold more books through SW than he ever could have hoped for with a traditional publishing deal in Australia. I’d been complaining to my hubby about why couldn’t someone start a business where people could put up their books for the public to judge, so obviously I was thrilled to discover SW!! I really wish I could remember the name of that commenter – I’d like to thank him personally.

Publishing with SW is relatively easy if you carefully follow the Style Guide, but I must admit I still have a nervous flutter in my stomach every time I press the ‘publish’ button in case I’ve done something horribly wrong. But the only error I’ve had so far was when I accidentally put up a cover in the wrong file type and that was easily fixed.

DW: Do you remember your first reviews and interactions with fans and how that felt at the time?

: Do I ever! My first review was a five-star review at Smashwords for “Heller” and I can honestly say, I was a little teary about that. (I was also probably teary over my first one-star review, but I seemed to have fortuitously blocked that from my memory!). I still remember my first reader email too and the thrill it gave me.

When you begin indie publishing, it feels as if you’ve sent your ‘baby’ off into a void, so good reviews and reader contact are very reassuring and maybe even validating.

But I must say that one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn is that not everyone will, or can, enjoy my books. Readers bring an enormous amount of personal background to a book and I’m no different when I pick up a new book. We all filter books through our own past experiences. A reader may dislike a particular aspect of a book because of their own background. There’s no way for an author to anticipate that kind of reaction and no way that an author should. I guess I’m saying that you can’t write to please everyone and bad reviews are just part of the territory.

DW: Along the way, you've launched a second series, Little Town. Can you describe the characters in the series?

: The Little Town books (Blood Ties and Blood SportBlood Feud soon) revolve around the adventures of Senior Constable Tess Fuller and her partner, Sergeant Finn Maguire, a police team working in a small and isolated rural mountain town overrun by the beautiful and lawless Bycraft family. Tess has a lot of history with the Bycrafts, having grown up in the town with them. There’s a long-standing feud between the two families, which doesn’t stop her from dating one of them, causing even more tension between them all. She’s a bit of a renegade cop, balanced by the arrival of Finn in town, as he’s a by-the-books kind of officer. There are lots of other characters in these books, including one of my favourites, Fiona, the unbelievably crude and foul-mouthed senior officer of the district headquarters to which Tess and Finn report.

After writing so many Heller books, I decided I wanted to write something more serious in nature. I tried with the Little Town series, but I still came up with comedy-drama. I’m not sure I can write anything else! 

DW: When we chatted on the phone, you said you caught a bit of flak for the ending in the first title in Blood Ties; can you explain?

: I thought I’d made it obvious in Blood Ties that it was the first of a series, so a number of long-running storylines weren’t resolved, although the ones specific to that book were. Some readers were really annoyed to be left (as they thought) high and dry at the end of the book. I’ve just replaced the covers with wonderful new ones that clearly state the book is number 1 in the series. But I’ve also copped some flak in my books for the bad language, the violence and the sex scenes. I’ve started wondering if books should come with warnings?

DW: You're generally classified in the detective/mystery genre, but how do you view your writing in terms of genres? 

JDN: Detective/mystery books are my favourite genre of all. My personal reading is mostly in this genre, with small forays into horror. However, my own books cross genres so they aren’t traditional mysteries or police procedurals – there are no “body in a locked room” type of puzzles in my books. I think my books are mystery-comedy-drama-action-adventure-romances with a racy twist and a strong dose of relationships, all while taken on a roller coaster of emotions. I don’t know if a genre has been invented for them yet, but there’s something for everyone in my books!!

I do think indie pubbing allows more cross-genre authors to have their work read, though it’s still not easy to categorise.

DW: Do you market your books in any conventional way, or only via social media (Facebook, blog, website)?

: I’m not a big self-promoter, but that’s probably just my personality type. I really only use my own platforms (Facebook, my blog and my website and occasionally Twitter) to self-promote. For a long time I was blogging to nobody but the overseas spammers and had only a handful of friends on Facebook, but things are now really picking up across the board.

DW: You're known for answering every email or comment from readers -- how has this helped your books to sell?

: It amazes me when a reader tells me I’m the first author who has ever answered an email! I think that if someone has taken the time to tell me that they loved my books, I should acknowledge that. It also builds goodwill with readers and that’s a valuable asset, because loyal readers will go into bat for me, particularly in recommending my books to others. I know that from experience.

DW: I understand your sales have really taken off this year; do you have any explanation for why this is, beyond the obvious high quality of the writing?

: Perhaps a lot of people received ereaders for gifts and found my books while trawling through the free ebooks? Perhaps readers are recommending my books to their family and friends and I’m starting to see a snowballing effect from that? I wish I knew for sure!!

DW: What can you tell us about your audience, in terms of demographics, geography, age, gender? Any surprises here?

: Lots of surprises! I’ve been incredibly (and pleasantly) surprised by the number of male readers I have – I never expected that. They probably slightly favour the Little Town books more than the Heller series, and perhaps vice versa for my female readers. But there are equally those who love both series.

Another surprise is the age span of my readers. I’ve had emails from people in their early-teens right up to their eighties. I’m very happy to have written books that appeal to so many demographics.

The bulk of my readers are in the US, which was also a surprise as I wasn’t sure if my sense of humour would translate. I do have Aussie readers but it’s a small market so far. And of course I would love to hit it big in my own country, but I have a lot of fun chatting with my international pals.

Another minor thing I’ve noted is cross-genre readers. I’ve had a few readers tell me they’ve never normally read in my genre, but were attracted by the free books and wanted to read more of my books after reading those. Now, that’s also an honour – especially with the sci-fi readers!

DW: You write under a pseudonym; have any of your friends and family found out about your writing success yet?

: Not really. I put up “Heller” and “Blood Ties” before I even told my husband! I had two main reasons for using a pseudonym: the first reason is my “real” job – it can be incredibly sensitive at times, impacting on people’s lives, and I didn’t want my writing to interfere with that; the second reason is purely egotistical – I wanted to be able to cut and run without embarrassing myself if my books were a complete flop. I might get around to telling more people one day, but it doesn’t really bother me if my family and friends don’t know. My husband is dying to tell people though!

DW: What are some of the keys to success for indie ebooks, in your experience -- concrete things like pricing, distribution, marketing, promotion, design, etc.?

: I’m no good at concrete things! But having a series where the first book is offered for free seems to work for me. As an unknown writer, I thought it only fair to offer readers a good sample of my writing style (ie a whole book) and hopefully get them hooked with my characters and storylines.

After reading Mark’s stats on pricing, I recently bumped up the prices of my non-free books from $1.99 to $2.99. I certainly don’t think that’s an unreasonable amount to ask for books that are all over 100,000 words long.

As for distribution, the more places you offer your books the better. That’s why I love Smashwords. As a non-US author, it really makes it so much easier for me to access big ebook retailers and SW compiling stats and payments is also useful to me.

But really, the most important thing is to have good stories with characters and plots that engage your readers. A good story should always find its own audience, no matter how big or small.

DW: So what's in the pipeline going forward?

: Writing, writing and more writing!!! Life has been so disruptive for me for the past few months and my writing progress has been horribly slow, but I’m still hoping to have a book out in each series by the end of the year.

DW: For those would-be authors who haven't yet tried to write an indie book, what's your advice?

: Have lots of self-belief and don’t wait for someone to give you the green light. You now have the ability to reach readers directly through indie publishing, so there’s never been a better time to give it a try. You finally have control of your writing career so take advantage!

DW: Thank you!

Smashwords distributes JD Nixon to the following retailers:

Apple iBookstore
Barnes & Noble
Diesel eBook Store

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New Library Direct Enables Libraries to Acquire Large Opening Collections of Smashwords Ebooks

Smashwords today announced Library Direct, a new service that allows libraries and library networks to acquire and establish large opening collections of ebooks, direct from Smashwords.

Library Direct is available to libraries that host and manage their own ebook checkout systems, typically using Adobe Content Server, and that are capable of acquiring a large opening collection.

We have already received purchase commitments from three library systems, each of which will acquire some variation of our top 10,000 best-selling titles.  The purchase commitments approach $100,000 in total.

The first delivery is on schedule to occur next week to Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, which will purchase an opening collection drawn from the top 10,000 best-selling titles at Smashwords.  Douglas County, under the leadership of director Jamie LaRue, has been an outspoken proponent of what is becoming known as the "Douglas County Model."  The Douglas County Model aims to replicate for ebooks the process by which libraries have traditionally acquired print books.  The library acquires the book once, owns the book, and manages the checkout systems where they limit the checkout to one copy at a time for each title they own.  Douglas County monitors the number of "holds" on each book (the number of people waiting to check it out), and if the hold count exceeds a certain number of patrons, the library purchases additional copies.

The other two library systems expected to acquire similar-sized collections include Califa and The Internet Archive.

Califa is a California-based network of 220 libraries in California, with participating members in other states.  Califa is creating its own library aggregation service to provide ebooks to participating Califa members.  Our relationship with Califa was first reported by Library Journal.

The third, and perhaps largest expected purchase will come from The Internet Archive, which operates Open Library, a free online library which in the last 28 days have been visited nearly 2 million times.

Previously, most libraries relied upon published reviews to guide their acquisition decisions.  Under the Smashwords model, the curation is crowdsourced based on aggregated retail sales data drawn from across the Smashwords distribution network with includes the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBookstore and others.

Qualifying libraries can select from the top 10,000, 20,000 or any other large number of titles, and can custom-filter the titles by category and price range.

Like all new Smashwords distribution channels, authors and publishers have the option to opt out of Library Direct, if they choose, from the Smashwords Channel Manager.  Later today we'll notify all 45,000 Smashwords authors and publishers of this new channel.

Library Direct complements our existing distribution relationships with leading library aggregators such as Baker & Taylor, 3M Cloud Library, and others in the works.  The true sales potential of Smashwords Direct will be indirect, because the analytic tools we're creating to support Smashwords Direct, such as the sales-curated recommendation lists, will also be provided to our library aggregator partners in the months ahead. This will allow them to offer up myriad recommendation lists their sales teams can then present to the library clients.  Do they want a recommendation list of the top 200 bestselling indie romance ebooks?  No problem.  How about the top 100 fantasy or sci-fi titles?  Our library aggregator partners will be able to do that as well, and they'll be able to accommodate smaller order sizes than Library Direct, for which we'll require much larger minimum orders.

The launch of Library Direct is enabled by our other announcement today, the launch of our new Pricing Manager tool, accessible from the Smashwords Dashboard.  Pricing Manager allows authors and publishers to establish custom library pricing for their titles.  Based on our survey, we expect Smashwords authors and publishers will provide their books to libraries at lower-than-retail prices.  Click here to read our Pricing Manager announcement, and learn why it's a foundational element of the Smashwords library distribution strategy, and why we think it's exciting news for authors, publishers, libraries and library patrons alike.

Smashwords Pricing Manager Tool Enables Custom Library Pricing

Smashwords has released a new tool for authors and publishers that supports custom library pricing and simplified pricing management across titles.

The Pricing Manager feature is accessible from the Smashwords Dashboard.  It allows authors and publishers to view and manage pricing for up to 50 titles per screen.  At-a-glance, authors and publishers can view retail pricing and library pricing side-by-side.

The Pricing Manager, and its support of custom library pricing, is a foundational element of our long term library distribution plans.  I'm excited about the opportunity to help introduce patrons of the world's libraries to the world's largest catalog of indie ebooks published by over 45,000 Smashwords authors and publishers around the world.

I expect the new tool will enable library-friendly pricing that will dramatically increase worldwide library sales for our authors and publishers over the next few years.

Libraries are important discovery engines for books and the authors who write them.  Library patrons are avid book buyers, and like all avid book readers, their passionate word of mouth can amplify the success of an author.  A Pew Research study published in June found that 41% of library card holders who read ebooks purchased their most recently read book. 

When library patrons go to their library to discover their next great read, if your book isn't there, they'll discover some other author.  According to data published by Library Journal's Patron Profiles service, in conjunction with Bowker, 50% of all library users go on to purchase books by authors they first discovered at the library.

At a time when big New York publishers are turning their backs on libraries for fear library ebooks will cannibalize retail sales, we're embracing libraries.  We believe that libraries will not only spur discovery of our authors' books, but we also believe they'll help our authors reach more readers, build platforms faster, and sell more books at our retail partners.

Based on my recent survey of 150 Smashwords authors and publishers, our community agrees.  82% of Smashwords authors and publishers told us they believe libraries will help them sell more books overall.  12% were unsure, and 4.7% thought libraries would harm their overall sales (the data doesn't add up to 100% due to a few non-responsive answers).

24% of our authors and publishers told us they wanted to donate their books for free to any library that wanted them.  The reason?  They believe recognize the platform-building power of libraries.  32% said they wanted to provide their books to libraries at lower prices than they sell their books through retailers.

Here are the full survey results on pricing, based on 150 completed questionnaires:
donate for free (24%)
price lower than retail (32%)
price higher than retail (29%)
price the same as retailers (10%)

Our new library pricing option will allow authors and publishers to control library pricing.  I think this control will give indie authors a strategic advantage over traditionally published authors whose books are handcuffed by the library-unfriendly policies of the large publishers.  The ultra-competitive pricing will also allow libraries to stretch their limited budgets while at the same time enabling them to acquire large collections of indie ebooks.

Earlier this year, Smashwords began distributing to libraries via library aggregators.  Baker & Taylor's Axis360 was the first aggregator to begin distributing our books to libraries, and we have since signed a relationship with 3M's Cloud Library service.  We expect to announce additional library aggregator partnerships in the future.  These library aggregators sell our books to libraries, and then host and manage the checkout systems for libraries.

Previously, the library aggregators sold our books to libraries at the same price the books are sold at retailers.  Starting in the next couple weeks, the new library pricing will flow through to our library aggregator partners.

Concurrent with the new Pricing Manager, this week we also launched a new distribution channel option called Library Direct.  Library Direct allows libraries and library networks to acquire and establish large opening collections of Smashwords ebooks.  The option is available to libraries that host and manage their own ebook checkout systems, typically using Adobe Content Server.  We have already received purchase commitments from three libraries, each of which will acquire some variation of our top 10,000 best-selling titles.  Click here to read my companion announcement about Library Direct.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Future of Ebook Publishing at RWA 2012

I'm smitten with romance, and not just because Smashwords romance authors are ripping up all the bestseller charts.  For years, romance readers and their authors were treated as the oddball stepchildren of the book industry.  Now they're having their day like never before.

Pay attention to romance.  Study it.  Read it.  No other genre does a better job of getting inside the heads of readers, especially female readers.  Even if you write thrillers, mysteries, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy or even horror, your books will probably get better if you study romance.  Romance writers are among some of the finest storytellers of interpersonal relationships.  If you want your readers to care what happens next to your characters, study the masters.

Romance readers are voracious book consumers.  This is where you'll find the book-a-day crowd.  Romance authors were among the first to embrace ebooks, and were some of the first authors to adopt ebook publishing best practices such a series writing, free series starters, low prices, unified and compelling cover design, author branding and reverted-rights publishing.

So it was with great appreciation that I accepted the invitation to speak at the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) 2012 conference in Anaheim last week.  They invited me to give two presentations.  The first presentation was before their Published Authors Network group, and the topic was The Future of Book Publishing.  I've embedded the presentation at the bottom of this post.  The second presentation focused on ebook publishing best practices.

After my first talk, I met Smashwords author Diane Farr, pictured at top and left, the recipient a surprise peck on the cheek by yours truly.  What can I say?  I was overcome.  My wonderful wife wasn't terribly pleased to see this picture on Facebook.  I shared the story with my buddy, bestselling romance author Rebecca Forster, and like a good romance writer she advised me, "tell your wife no worries. You came home to her!"

I met with multiple authors at RWA, and it was cool to see so many of them are already using Smashwords to publish and distribute their books.

My talks would have been considered blasphemy just a couple years ago.  Now things are different.

During one of the luncheons, the keynote speaker spoke about how ebook self-publishing is creating exciting new opportunities for authors.  Sitting beside me was Delle Jacobs, another romance bestseller, long-time RWA member, and Smashwords author for over two years (view Delle's author page here).  Delle was near-giddy with excitement that such pro-indie sentiment was now front and center at RWA.

The hallways were abuzz with the same excited talk about the opportunities presented by ebook self-publishing.  Later I met with Smashwords author Bella Andre (view Bella's author page here), who had just learned several of her titles would would appear in this upcoming week's August 5 edition of the New York Times bestseller list.  If you've ever spent time with Bella, you know her love of romance novels, romance readers and romance e-publishing is infectious.  What you may not know is that she, like many successful romance authors, is a smart business woman.  She graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics.  She studies romance with the analytic precision of a neuroscientist.  If you knew how much she's going to earn this year self-publishing romance ebooks, it would probably blow your mind.  Bella is not alone in her success.

The incoming president-elect of RWA is the incomparable Sylvia Day.  Her Bared to You, published and distributed by Penguin, has been on the New York Times fiction ebook bestseller list for 11 weeks.  Sylvia has also been publishing at Smashwords for over two years (view her Sylvia's author page here). Sylvia is one of a growing number of professional authors who realize the opportunity to operate in both worlds of indie and traditional. 

These worlds are complementary to each other.  Success in one world feeds success in the other.  Authors who participate in both worlds will become more valuable to publishers, but also more expensive to sign.  That's good for authors.

If you think these successful romance authors are random flukes, or the beneficiaries of a passing fad, you're underestimating them.  These authors are the future.  Learn from them.

The indie movement has gone mainstream with romance authors, and it's transforming the lives of writers for the better.  I left the conference with firm conviction that the future of book publishing is brighter than ever for those authors who place themselves on the right side of history.  Authors who delay their embrace of indie publishing will find themselves sidelined by those who have already seen the light.

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