The Ark: A Kindle Success Story

Cover_theark_large  On Joe Konrath's blog, author Boyd Morrison shares the amazing story of how he turned his Kindle ebooks into a four-book print deal, kicking off with the launch today of THE ARK. His story is unusual, and inspiring, but newbie writers should read it carefully before thinking they can easily replicate his success. 

One thing he didn't do was go to a print-on-demand vanity press, and for reasons beyond just the outrageous, and unreasonably, high cost and false promises:

I decided to put all three books on the Kindle store just to see what happened. Irene (Goodman, his agent) was fully supportive of the plan. I had nothing to lose.

What I didn’t do was self-publish in print because I would have something to lose. From the beginning, my goal was to get a traditional publishing deal (remember this was in early 2009, which seems not so long ago, but the ebook market was still in its infancy, and making a living from self-published ebooks seemed like a pipe dream). If I had published print books, not only would it be a hassle I didn’t want to deal with, but it would also mean my novels would need ISBNs.

ISBNs are international standard book numbers that can be tracked by publishers. If my sales were low, publishers would be able to see that and might not even want to look at my next book. But with ebooks on the Kindle, you don’t need an ISBN. If my sales were bad, no one would ever have to know. And if they were good, I could use that data as evidence that readers were interested in my books.

[…]Would I recommend self-publishing ebooks? It depends what your goals are. If you want to see your book in print, as I did, I wouldn’t choose that path as your first option. I was in a unique limbo because I had an agent and blurbs from bestselling authors, but I couldn’t get a publisher. Once my sales jumped, my agent was able to act on it immediately. If I had to start the agent search from scratch at that point, it would have been much more difficult.

Good luck doing that if you, unlike Boyd, don't already have power-house representation. But the e-book market has changed. It's actually possible to make good money on an ebook. So why go thhe print route at all? Here's Boyd's take:

My goal was always to be traditionally published. I wanted to get my books in front of as many readers as possible, and while ebooks are the fastest growing part of the market, they still represent only 3-5% of all books sold. If I wanted to reach a broad market, I’d have to be in print, and the only way to get into most bookstores is through a traditional publisher. Plus, foreign rights, which represent a surprisingly large segment of the market, would have been virtually impossible to sell without a deal with a traditional publisher. And as much as I love ebooks, there’s still no substitute for holding a print book in your hands to make you feel like a real author.

I agree and am not ready myself to forsake print for the digital publication. 

But the publishing world is changing very fast. If you'd told me a year ago that I could actually make $18,000-a-year off my out-of-print work on the Kindle (or potentially $55,000 with the new royalty rate), I would never have believed it. 

So some of my attitudes are changing as a result. I am beginning to rethink the advice that I've always given aspiring writers not to self-publish their novels. I still believe that going the vanity press route is a huge mistake…but posting on the Kindle cuts the print-on-demand scammers entirely out of the equation and all the risk of getting swindled (you DON'T need Lulu or Authorhouse or any other vanity press to get your book on the Kindle or iPad, no matter what they those self-publishers may tell you). So why not do it?

On the plus side, Kindle/ebook publishing can be cost-free and, if your book is really good, and you are very lucky, you could make some real money…and, perhaps, attract the attention of a major publisher. 

But if your book is awful, and truly "not ready for prime time," you can embarrass yourself, create negative word-of-mouth, and potentially seriously harm the reputation you are seeking to build. 

I am still thinking it all through. That said, there's no question that these are very interesting, potentially game-changing times in the publishing business. I am very interested to see how Joe's two new horror novels, published for the first time on the Kindle, sell and whether the royalties match what he could  have earned with a print contract.

23 thoughts on “The Ark: A Kindle Success Story”

  1. I guess the whole thing of it is, can you get a print contract? It’s hard to do, but for me, I’m not willing to go this route without said powerhouse agent, or any agent. Without that sanction and backup an author is really out on a limb. If you do it though, best make sure it’s ready for primetime. The problem there is knowing when it is without professional feedback. Everyone thinks a work needs something different.

  2. “you DON’T need Lulu or Authorhouse or any other vanity press to get your book on the Kindle or iPad, no matter what they those self-publishers may tell you”
    Check your facts, Lee. Lulu has never made such a claim.
    In addition, publishing with Lulu (unlike Authorhouse) requires no up-front payments. Lumping the two together in that sentence is doing Lulu a disservice.

  3. What a time of chaos, excitement and opportunity for those who craft–or attempt to craft–the written word.
    After 40 years of as a journalist, editor, freelance etc., last December I despaired for the journalism and writing students at my two almae mater–Penn State and American U. Why train for a defunct profession? The readers had become the writers, too, and pros seemed needed only by the several handfuls.
    Then came 2010, Amazon’s opening up the Kindle Store to multiple devices and nations, Apple’s iPAD, upward revised royalty rates, Long Tail Economics, breakthrough examples of hot books breaking old traditions. Namely:
    1–The Lost Symbol, a megahit and new yardstick to measure ebook sales vs. print sales of the title, a direct comparison.
    2–The Shack, William Young’s pre-ebook miracle of a non-writer taking a title to the top of the NT Times bestseller list, at No. 1 for 52 straight weeks.
    3–Boyd Morrison’s Ark, ignored until its Kindle ebook sales proved its commercial viability.
    I now think this is the best time since Gutenberg to be a writer. And you don’t even have to be a “good writer” by the old definitions.
    Brown’s not thought by critics to be a “good writer” by the old yardsticks, but he had a great idea and readers loved it.
    Young didn’t even pretend to be a writer of any kind, good or bad. He just wanted to explain something via metaphor to his kids, made a few copies of his tale at Office Max, and things got out of hand. Readers loved it.
    Morrison is, by contrast, and extraordinary writer. I love the Ark, but no one can say the plot is an astounding departure (you can say that about his Rogue Wave/Palmyra Impact future release). But his execution is marvelous and the book is a great read.
    Like you, Lee, I am thinking about it and wondering what it means, especially to an old dog like me now writing and publishing via Amazon.
    One thing I think is this: “Good writers” will be defined not by the usual minions–publishers, agents, etc–exclusively. The writers can now set free their artistic hearts if they dare, and see if among the masses they find an audience.
    What does it mean, practically? It’s open ended. But I ‘ll bet a nickle the first US bestseller written in Ebonics has a shot at it now. And so does a book written in instant message “style” if you can call it that…omg and lol…
    What an exciting time for new writers to give it a shot, for the established older writers to try a de-commercialized, unbastardized expression of the book they always wanted to write….and so much more.
    Welcome to the Renaissance of the Word.
    Tom Dulaney

  4. I wrote about this the other day, wondering if we’re really coming to a point where the market truly decides what writers develop an audience. Yes, there will be some terrific writers and books that get lost in the deluge of titles–Smashwords notes they’ve published something in excess of 253 million titles (gulp!)–but it has the potential to eliminate agents and editors as gatekeepers.
    I want to do both, at least at the moment. I’ve got the Derek Stillwater novels being published by a traditional method–i.e., in paper, although they also put out an e-version. And yet, there are projects I have that didn’t find a home that I feel like making available to readers. Why leave money on the table? Why leave it on my hard drive? (Unless it’s crap. And there are some earlier books I’ve decided I don’t want out in the market, no matter how much I liked them at the time I wrote them).
    Times are changing.

  5. Lee, you’re right that the publishing business is changing fast. When I put my books up on the Kindle last year, I thought I’d make a few bucks and get a few new readers. Who knew a year later that writers like you and Joe would be making so much money on one single ebook platform? I agree with Tom that it’s a great time to be a writer.

  6. It will be interesting indeed, Lee, to see how it all shakes out. I have a novel coming out in print in a few months through a traditional publisher, but I’m going to put up one of my unpublished novels onto Kindle and see how it does. It will have a compelling description and an attractive cover, and of course a good price.
    I feel like I’m stepping through a gauzy curtain into an unknown dimension, dark and confusing, but still navigable. It’s a brave new world, and we all have to be ready for it when it closes in over our heads.

  7. Okay, let’s see if I’ve got the big picture right:
    In the 70’s, and especially the 80’s and 90’s, retail stores keep raising their prices, and publishers follow suit. As prices rise, the number of book-buyers decreases. This, in turn, cuts down on the number of writers who get published. What ensues is that only a few writers, who are commercial enough, get published. New-comers get increasingly shut out.
    On the plus side, agents and pubishers get to know which books will succeed in the greatly diminished market. On the negative side, writers appealing to niche markets, and some niche markets can be very large, get shut out.
    Blockbusters become the name of the game.
    Along comes Kindle, ebooks and iPad. Suddenly book prices plummet. This brings in
    millions of new potential book-buyers. Also it fragments the market. Writers can publish without agents or publishers and create their own hits. And ebook hits can become a way to mainstream success with conventional agents and book publishers.
    I think I see a huge new model that frees writers from having to please agent and publishers who only, basically, know what works in the restricted marketplace.
    As they said in film, “Hooray for Hollywood,” it’s good to be a writer!

  8. I’m aware of the services they offer at extra cost, but I can tell you from direct experience they aren’t required (nor does Lulu actively try to sell them to you). They are simply available and most savvy authors who’ve done their homework know they have other options.
    Plus, in reading the link about e-publishing, I see nothing in there that says you “need” (your word) to use Lulu’s service to publish on Amazon.

  9. I’m also struggling with how to advise authors. I’ve spent years telling authors not to self-publish. But it’s getting hard to justify the “find an agent” route.
    I still believe agents are necessary–mine is constantly earning her keep by selling foreign rights and vetting contracts. But selling erights for anything less than a lot of money is a mistake. It’s like indentured servitude. A publisher gives you an advance, then they pretty much own the rights forever.
    And guess what? Publishers are proving, time and again, how poorly they exploit those rights once they have them.
    The erights my print publisher controls are overpriced, unavailable on many platforms and in many countries, contain DRM, and are essentially an epic fail compared to the ebooks I’ve self-pubbed. Sure, I got advances, and decent distribution, but the concessions I made to get those perks were many, the main two being no control over my career and low royalties.
    With 70% going to the author on new ebook models, and complete control over how my books are packaged, I truly feel my own efforts can make a difference in sales. And if they don’t, I only have myself to blame.

  10. Dan:
    You make three significant errors:
    1. Bookstores don’t determine the price of books, publishers do. The price is printed on the dj or on the paperback’s cover.
    2. More books have been published every year than in the previous year.
    3. The Kindle hasn’t affected the price of traditionally published books, just self-published ones. Amazon pays traditional publishers the same amount for a Kindle edition as they do a printed edition. If Amazon then prices the Kindle edition at $9.99, they are knowingly eating the loss.

  11. No, Peter, you didn’t get it.
    1. It doesn’t matter to the reasoning if publishers set the price, and/or if bookstores are involved, the point is that book prices have gone up and up, thereby pricing a lot of people out of the market. If Robert B. Parker’s paperbacks cost sixty cents, a lot more will be sold than if they cost $25 dollars each. Therefore, I would argue, a lot, a LOT more persons can now afford your books as ebooks, and will buy them like iPod downloads, making the writer more money than through traditional books sales — that’s the ebook possible promise.
    2. More books are published each year, but what kind of books? Non-fiction and school text books, for a start, but not more first-novels by aspiring writers. Not the backlist of midlist writers. Now, you can publish all these and make a lot of money you never could before — that’s another ebook possible promise.
    3. The Kindle, iPad, ebook readers haven’t YET affected the price publishers set, BUT they will — that’s also the point. Why pay $15.00 for a printed book when you can get it for, say, under $5 dollars as an ebook? People will switch. Even text-books will come down vastly in price. Here at the unversity in Guelph some texts cost over a hundred dollars — why? As an ebook they should cost .99 cents!
    Therefore, because the comsumer list is expanding due to prices dropping, it’s a great time to be a writer.

  12. It’s a terrible time to break in, especially in fiction. Those three examples are black swans. You can’t make a theory built on exceptions that are few and far between by definition.

  13. The take home lesson in Boyd’s story is that he essentially won a traditional book contract. That’s the idea and it’s harder to come by all the time. I wouldn’t call that happy times are here again.

  14. What caught my attention is this:
    “ISBNs are international standard book numbers that can be tracked by publishers. If my sales were low, publishers would be able to see that and might not even want to look at my next book. But with ebooks on the Kindle, you don’t need an ISBN. If my sales were bad, no one would ever have to know.”
    If a book doesn’t have an ISBN number it isn’t traceable, it goes unrecognized by the “system” and therefore it doesn’t go on record as a published work. I checked Wikipedia and it turns out (I never knew this) that an ISBN number can be acquired at a later stage. In other words, if a self-published author decides not to get an ISBN number he or she can always decide to do so later. If he/she sees fit. That sounds to me reasonable.
    Perhaps it’s prudent for someone who is self-publishing an e-book on Kindle to keep a low profile and not get an ISBN number. If the venture is a success and sales are respectable he or she can always decide to get an ISBN number later. If the book is a miserable failure it will simply disappear without a trace.
    But this tells me that self-publishing an e-book on Kindle is a kind of gray area, publishing-wise. Basically it’s akin to printing out your poetry (or whatever) and stapling the pages together and then setting out to sell your product on street corners and in cafés. No middle man. Except technology makes it possible for DIY authors to reach huge audiences. And so they have a chance of success if the book is any good.

  15. Lee, the iPad/iStore is not under discussion. The author you quote at great length points out that with e-books on Kindle you don’t need an ISBN number (something I had never thought about but then I don’t have a Kindle). He feels it was to his advantage not to get an ISBN number for his book, at least not at that particular point in his career. I found his reasoning interesting and that’s why I responded.

  16. Anna,
    I wasn’t criticizing you or contradicting you. I was just pointing out that not every ebook retailer is allowing self-published authors to avoid using ISBNs. And the iPad could become as big a player as the Kindle. There’s also no guarantee that Amazon won’t decide, for whatever reason, that self-published ebooks need to have ISBNs as well.

  17. As a guy with books out there earning every month, I can tell you that most sites generate a code to track the transactions on your book if you do not have an ISBN.
    That is still no reason not to chase a print deal. The ease of publishing digitally should change the way writers look at conventional contracts. Digital publishing is a bet on the future.

  18. Mr. Williams: I’m not sure that book prices have risen at all when inflation is factored in. A $10 book in 1970 would cost over $55 in today’s U. S. dollars. A $3 book in 1950 would cost over $26 in today’s dollars. The price of mass-market paperbacks may have risen relative to inflation, but that is largely because authors, working with their agents, won increased royalties: from the original 2 percent to the standard 8 percent today. By other measures, such as household income, books have dropped in price and are very cheap compared to what they once were.

  19. So how exactly does the unpublished entry on Kindle find an audience? Readers find it by accident? If you look at the home page, everything on there is published by reputable houses in print too, or is an AmazonEncore selection. I don’t see how a book self-published in this way is any different from any vanity press pod or ebook. Essentially, nothing happens, or will.

  20. No, Richard, you can’t look at it that way. Inflation is a factor in rising prices, but productivity gains have to be factored in as well.
    Say you have a farm in 1850 of 600 acres. It takes 500 guys to work it. In 1900, you buy a tractor and other machinery and now only 2 guys are needed. So you save 498 salaries. Yes, the cost of seed has gone up a bit with inflation, so these extra costs mean you only save 490 salaries paid in 1850. The question is, do you charge less for your produce? Or the same? Or even more?–telling the consumer that there’s inflation! Even if you lower prices by 50% you are still making much more money–saving paying 490 salaries, but giving to the consumer the equivalent of 240 salaries, and putting 250 salaries in your pocket. Relative to productivity gains, this farmer is way ahead and prices are too high. Same with publishing.
    When the printing press came along, you could print a thousand books a week, whereas you could only produce one per month by coping it longhand. Production costs were lowered so much, persons started their own libraries, as you know, and so many more books were sold that writers started making good money. But not all the productivity gains were passed along, so prices were too high. Competition tends to lower prices, right, but when an industry consolidates as publishing has down, prices keep going up to make the CEO’s bottom line look better each year, and so what if the consumers don’t like it?
    Now ebooks come along. Prices drop. Zillions more persons will buy them. At .99 cents per book, you make pennies per book, but volume more than offsets it.
    If publishers don’t bring down the prices of printed books, my guess is that the industry will wither away. Or, they could limit themselves, more and more, to only printing the ebook that are successes.
    Okay, Richard? Am I making sense?


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