Do The Write Thing

“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” 
― Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was truly a man ahead of his time. Never in history has it been easier to get a book published, and never has it been so difficult to get your book read.

With three books now published (four, if you count an Ecuador Itinerary book I wrote for International Living) I’ve become familiar with the pot holes on the road to becoming a Best Selling Author – or even a Barely Selling Author.

In fact, I’m reminded of the big Gold Rush that started in 1848. Over a few short years, 300,000 people flooded into what would become the state of California, ready to make their fortunes and strike it rich mining the gold in them thar hills.

But who was it who actually managed to make money? The people who sold supplies to the prospectors. Turns out there was more gold in pick axes and shovels than in the hills.

The current self-publishing boom is very similar. Good statistics are hard to find, partly because Amazon is not incredibly forth-coming with data, but it is a fact that there are now more than four million books available on their site. They have admitted that over the past five years, only 40 authors sold a million copies or more. The vast majority of writers earn less than $1000 a year, and an estimated 90% earn less than $500.

Scribe Media says that the average self-published e-book will sell between 250-300 copies over its entire history. Published books generally don’t do a lot better, averaging only 3,000 copies. Hence, it is difficult for a new author to get a publisher (more on that later).

There are of course exceptions when the lightening strikes. 50 Shades of Gray started in 2011 as a self-published e-book with on-demand printing, and went on to be a worldwide best seller and even paid off in movie rights. Andy Weir first published The Martian as a free serial on his website. To accommodate reader’s requests, he published it on Amazon and sold it for 99 cents. Sales took off, and Crown Publishing made him an offer that brought him to the NYTimes Bestsellers list, and his own movie money.

If it is that difficult to make money, why is self-publishing so popular?

First, because it is easy. Anyone who can use Microsoft Word can generate an e-book. Print versions take a little extra formatting, since you have to allow for binding space on the right side of even numbered pages and left side of odd numbered, make sure chapters start on odd pages, etc. They also are easier to get uploaded and approved as pdf files, but again, not too tough. If you don’t have Word, you can even download Kindle Create from KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and start typing.

You can get up to 70% royalties direct deposited to your bank each month, and if you join Kindle Select (no charge) your book can be offered as “Free to Read” for Kindle Unlimited members. You get paid each month based on the number of pages read (re-reading doesn’t count).

Second, the alternatives to self-publishing have formidable obstacles for the new writer. For instance, you can choose to find your own publisher. This involves first researching which publishing house might be interested in your particular genre. According to Publishers Global, there are currently 2,824 publishers in the US. Once you have narrowed the list to the ones you think will be salivating for the chance to sign you up and send you a fat advance check, it is time to write a good Pitch Letter. You need to give your credentials and at least describe your book and why people will want to read it. Many publishers will want either the first few chapters or even the entire manuscript to review. It is also common for them to want to know what market research you have done to determine there is an audience for your book, and to list five or so similar books already on the market that have sold well.

Do this a few hundred times, mail or email them all out, and then wait three to six months to be rejected.

Actually, some will not reject you outright. Instead they will reply that your book has merit, but they can only help you as a “hybrid publisher”. Hybrid publisher is the fancy new name for what used to be called back in Oscar Wilde’s time “vanity publisher”. For example, I have had three different publishers praise my work and offer me their services. I have been offered deals where they will format the book for both traditional and e-publishing, make it available to Amazon, provide me with a couple of dozen author’s copies, and my favorite empty promise “let bookstores know it is available for bulk purchase”. They do NOT offer to promote or market at all, presumably they just send out an email or press release.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention the fat advance check. Offers were from $3,000 to $6,000, only I write the check and send it to them. Yes, if I pay them enough in advance they will do basically everything I can do myself via KDP, and then merely take a small percentage of my sales when (if) I have earned back my initial payment.

What if you decide to skip all the little guys and go direct to the top five or ten publishers, like Simon & Schuster or Random House? Well, it turns out most of the big boys do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, they work only with agents. If you want to aim for the fences, you have to face that other alternative – find a Literary Agent.

At first glance, this sounds great! I get an agent, and she does all the work! She’ll contact the big boys, and fight to get me published! After all, she gets a commission based on my sales, so that’s got to be the way to go.

Not so fast. While not quite as numerous as publishers, there are upwards of 1,000 literary agents in the US right now. Even worse, you are right back where you were with the publishers, fighting to get picked up. Agents also require a pitch letter, and they want to know much the same things as the publishers. Not every agent represents every type of book, so again you need to find the ones that serve your genre. Once again, you are spending hours preparing and distributing packets, and waiting three to six months to hear they love your work but it is a competitive business and you are not already a best selling author, so they will have to pass.

That is why in the Literary Gold Rush, so many of us go the self-publishing route and start panning for gold.

So who are the pick and shovel sellers of the writing world? There’s quite a list, some worthwhile, and some less so.

EDITORS: First up are editors, which I would classify as a worthwhile expense. For my first two books. The Galápagos Islands: On Your Own and On a Budget and An Uphill Climb: Survivor’s Guilt and the Inca Trail I went cheap. I went over the manuscripts painstakingly, looking for grammar errors, poorly turned phrases, incorrect punctuation and spelling errors. Rita then went over them as well. Despite our efforts, after publication I was still finding errors every time I took another look. Thank goodness for print on demand – I’ve uploaded no less than four corrected versions.

Contrast that with my experience with the latest, Living Abroad: Challenging the Myths of Expat Life. I sent my carefully self-edited manuscript to a company called Elite Authors for two rounds of editing. The first pass is called a Line Edit, where an editor not only flagged errors, but gave an assessment of the structure, tone, style, and the main objective of the book. His comments and suggestions were extremely useful, and frankly a good sop to my ego. Although I had nightmares of the report coming back as something like, “What an incredible piece of shite! I suggest you never write again, unless it is a suicide note!”, instead this was the opening paragraph:

This is an excellently written manuscript that was a joy to read. It offers a balanced, well-informed look at expat life while challenging many common myths about that experience. You build your credibility by stating your purpose right off the bat (i.e., not to persuade the reader either way but to offer an honest view of the topic) and then supporting your claims throughout with sound reasoning and anecdotes drawn from your own time in Ecuador and elsewhere. Though it’s not strictly a how-to book, I think this would be tremendously valuable for prospective expats, not just in helping them think through whether that life choice is right for them, but also in encouraging them to approach the process with a healthy mindset more likely to result in a positive experience. Well done!

After I went through the edits and comments, accepting most and rejecting very few changes (the editor did not understand a Beyoncé reference. Imagine!), it was time to send it off for the more traditional Copy Edit. This focuses just on following the two pillars of the editing world, the Chicago Manual of Style and Mirriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I learned such details as when to use “might” instead of “may”, and the difference between “further” and “farther”. Once again, this came with an Editorial Letter that included such praise I used it in the Amazon description of the book.

After both edits, on a final review before publication I found only one minor error to correct, a phrase where I had inadvertently used the word “had” twice where only one was needed.

Editing is not cheap. Depending on the number of words in your manuscript, you could pay $1500 – $2500 for the services described above.

A clean copy is so important however, that any guide you look at for self-publishing recommends you pony up the money if you want to succeed. It is considered by most an essential service, along with the next expense:

Cover Design: It is said “never judge a book by its cover”, but of course in the publishing world 99% of your potential readers are going to do just that. An attractive, eye-catching cover has been shown to be quite effective in selling your book. No matter how well written, no one will know that until they get past the cover. I used the same company for cover design as for editing, and they ended up using one of the photos I provided to create professional covers for both the e-book and the print version. You can expect to spend $300 and up for this service.

Advertising: This is the big money-suck. There are hundreds of people out there offering to help market your book, or to sell you their book on the sure-fire way to get yours to go viral. You can go as cheaply as boosting a Facebook post (if you have an author’s Facebook page), or spend several thousand on a dedicated mailing list blast. Amazon has paid ads, as well as Google. What they have in common, is that they are almost guaranteed NOT to result in enough sales to cover the expense.

Let’s look at the numbers involved. A typical book sale on Amazon nets the author between $2-$5, since the goal is to keep the sale price low enough to entice shoppers. Let’s split it and say you are getting $3 per book. That means for every three dollars you spend on advertising, you need to sell at least one book to break even. I have yet to find an advertising method that comes close to those results.

Getting Reviews: The more positive reviews you have, the more likely people are to buy your book. You will also find your book ranked higher on Amazon, and therefor get more attention and potentially more sales. Once you’ve sent copies to family and friends and begged them to write reviews, what else can you do?

Well, there are give away programs like the one offered by GoodReads. You can have a promotion where you are going to give away a bunch of e-books in a given time period, say 100 copies over two days. People can sign up to be one of the lucky 100 people, which can put you on hundred of “Want to read” lists. After a certain time, GoodReads sends an email to those 100 readers, asking them to write a review. You do not earn royalties on the free books of course, but you also are not charged for them. However, GoodReads does charge $119 for this service.

The time I tried this for An Uphill Climb I did end up on a lot of lists. It is hard to say how many copies were sold as a result, but as far as reviews I only netted 3 out of 100.

There are also plenty of businesses that will offer to send your book to reviewers who are guaranteed to write a review after they have read the book. This is first of all a little shady, as you cannot pay someone for a review. They dance around this by having you agree that you will accept the review regardless of the rating, and that their reviewers are volunteers who purchase the book. Their fee is merely for being the middle man in the exchange.

I have not used these because the fees are so high ($200 and up, plus you pay for the copy of the book) and it seems a little unethical.

Press Releases: I’m kind of on the middle ground on Press Release services. Sending a PR is going to cost at least $100. However, they get sent out to an incredibly large audience, potentially 4 million people or more. And they do sometimes get noticed. I’ve been contacted by legitimate book reviewers and did a video interview for Y’all.Com. I’ve got a video interview scheduled for later this week with another outlet, and while I was writing this blog I received an email about an interview for the Knoxville Ledger, with sister publications in Chattanooga and Nashville.

The bottom line is that if all the pick and shovel people had their way, you could easily spend over $5,000 dollars preparing, publishing, and marketing your masterpiece and still only hit that “average sales” figure of 250-300 books.

But who knows? Most authors say you need to just keep publishing, that once you have four or five books out there, they start feeding off each other and your audience will grow. It is true that since publishing Living Abroad this month, my other two books have also seen an increase in sales. Maybe slow and steady really does win the race.

Of course, most of us don’t do this for the money anyway. We write because we like the idea of reaching out and touching other lives. If I hit the lottery I won’t complain of course, but for me there is nothing to compare to that feeling I get when I know that I have connected with someone I’ve never met (or never will meet) and made them smile, laugh, cry, or just think a little.

On the other hand, Mr. Wilde also said “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I am old, I know that it is.”

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13 Comments

  • David Booker says:

    Greeting Jim,
    Don’t be discouraged but keep sharing nuggets to encourage readers to wring a bit more living out of their life. And bear in mind of those 40 top selling authors many are just former politicians who’ve spent years hiding who they really are to get elected and now get multi-million dollar advances to perhaps unveil a nugget of truth about who they really are.

    I’d love to hear more about your roving retirement plans and maybe how you’ve had to tweak it given our 2020 COVID curveball. My wife and I met you and spoke with you several times when you were featured at the Atlanta International Living Conference in 2017 (?). We have semi-retired and have been doing the roving program ourselves the last 2 years, working 4 months a year in Alaska (my wife is a nurse) and traveling 8 months enjoying the mobile expat lifestyle. Perhaps we don’t even meet that classic definition but regardless we look forward to renewing this rhythm as thing reopen. That said, Ecuador is open and on our list. I visited Salinas, Cuenca and Banos 2 years ago. Considering Quito and Cotacochi in June but I think my wife might really like Salinas after a winter in Alaska. If you had any quick suggestions, cautions and best of all, a possible contact who perhaps could direct me to a 1-2 month furnished rental I’d be grateful. We’ve had great finds in Malaysia and Thailand but thinking Ecuador is next, and you are Ecuador to us.

    I hope all is well for you and grateful in advance for any insight you share. Stay safe,
    David

    • Jim Santos says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I haven’t given up, I’ve been creating some series of shorter items I can publish in the 0.99-2.99/ range. One on short tales, another on “travels with Jim and Rita”, and soon I’ll start publishing some “Could I live In…?” shorts about various places in Ecuador. As for your travel – first of all, I’m sure even Quito and Cotacachi would be warmer than winter in Alaska. As for Salinas, I would suggest contacting Kim Kagan at http://ieiecuador.net/ for a short term rental. Should be plenty available that time of the year. Enjoy, and let me know how it goes.

      • David says:

        Thank you for your quick reply – I will initiate contact with her today. I enjoy and appreciate your creative expression on these travel topics and given the polarization and seemingly increasing intensity of it the thoughts of travel are most encouraging. And it’s more tempting than ever to travel and say you’re Canadian 😉 if I could only master the accent. Good day, ayy.

        • Jim Santos says:

          Thanks! I was just writing about an incident in Italy, where I accidentally order cafe “au lait” instead of “con latte”. The shop keeper assumed I was either French or French Canadian, and was wonderfully nice to me.

          • David says:

            That’s funny – at least you weren’t in a Starbucks 😉 a dead giveaway you’re a Yank. I wanted to ask about your roving retirement plans that was part of your departure from Ecuador. Of course everything is being re-evaluated and tweaked from the virus and uneven recovery. But what was your plan when you returned to the States, had 2020 not happened as it did?

          • Jim Santos says:

            Well, we wanted to keep our Ecuador residency valid, so at least once every 18 months we would have spent anywhere from a day to three months somewhere in Ecuador. We wanted to spend a month or so in Buenos Aires, then work our way through a few other places in Argentina, ending up hiking in Patagonia. While we were “in the area”, maybe some more time in Uruguay too. Colombia and Panama were on our list, and maybe the Arequipa area of Peru. There is also a program we discovered where you can fly into Paris and purchase a new car on your credit card, with a guaranteed buy-back price set for 30 or more days later. We could then drive around France, Portugal, and Spain for several months, returning the car in Paris. British Isles, Croatia, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands were all on the list too. Main problem would have been deciding which to do first.

          • David says:

            Were you planning to do this with a home base in the US and traveling out of the States? Is your Ecuadorian residency at risk due to the lockdowns or are you keeping it in place despite it all? Our youngest daughter lives in Paris so we do get there to see her – my wife loves France, I go because I love me daughter. Spain is really a gem too but expect sticker-shock anywhere in Western Europe after Ecuador. Most of your South American list is on ours as well but it may be several years before anyone is roaming as freely as we did in 2019 – forcing us all to reset strategies and expectations. What is your next trip, and length of stay?

          • Jim Santos says:

            Yes, we have four adult children and nine grandchildren between us, so the idea was to spend 3 months or so a year in the states visiting, and the rest traveling. As for our residency, we have now been out of the country for more than 18 months (we had planned on returning after Christmas last year), which in theory breaks the conditions of our residency. We’ve been in touch with our attorney, who says they will be making decisions on a case by case basis due to the pandemic. So it just depends on how soon we feel it is safe to travel internationally. Right now, we are only planning some domestic travel – haven’t seen the kids for over a year now.

          • David says:

            We feel you – we haven’t seen our youngest in France for 2 years now. We have a married daughter with our 3 grandsons in Spokane, WA and we do see them regularly when we’re not working in Alaska, as well as our son in the same city, so nice they’re all together. Our daughter and son have both had Covid and recovered thankfully. We are both vaccinated since my wife is in health care and Alaska has been way ahead of the curve on vaccinations and we are trying to live somewhat normally. We don’t have any high risk factors, we are diligent on spacing, masks in public, etc. so hopefully headed to Quito in late June. We may need to limit our movement within Ecuador as public transport and lack of vaccinations are considerations. But we thought if we holed up in Cotacachi or Salinas for a couple months we’d be as safe as Hawaii or Mexico and we’re just ready for a break from the nonsense of the polarized USA. We also lost my mom this last year, unexpectedly, so that’s been a huge negative in nearly all aspects of that from hospital access, to funeral limitations to dealing with financial institutions that are limiting appointments, etc.

            I’m guessing Ecuador would like to keep you in the fold, but trying to guess the thought processes of governments is not a productive hobby. Hopefully your in-country assets are minimal.

            Stay safe, stay smart, and hopefully soon you can enjoy grandkids again. Finally, I hope you’re not finding this back and forth taxing, I am appreciating your insights greatly. All the best,
            David

          • Jim Santos says:

            If you end up in Cotacachi, stop by the Hotel La Cuadra about a block from the central park on Av. Modesto Peñaherrara for coffee. Say hello to the owners, Jairo and Carmen for us. Tell them Jim and Rita Santos miss them and their kids. BTW, they could probably tell you about any places for short term rent, so staying there your first few nights might be a good idea. Locals and expats come through their coffee shop.

            Happy travels!

          • David says:

            I just sent them an email of inquiry and passed along your greetings as I think staying a night or two there is a great idea to get a feeling for the city. And of course they could really be a great source of advice in finding a rental, thank you. If you have any Quito recommendations that would be great as well – seems a day or two there would be worthwhile too. Gracias

          • Jim Santos says:

            We love Quito. We usually try to stay somewhere around the Parque Carolina. The Mall de Jardin is at one end, Quicentro Shopping at the other, and the park is a beautiful place to walk. Short cab ride to the historic district and other sites. I also always recommend Sebatian Cordero for legal/real estate help, he’s based in Quito. Usually, we try to strike up a conversation with the cab driver on the way in from the airport, and can usually arrange to have them take a day to drive us around sightseeing for $8-10/hour plus their meal. We like to stay at the Reina Isabel, which is south of the park on the edge of Plaza Foch – a great place to see too, lots of restaurants and bars, and there’s an arsenal market. Generally $50-60/night, and includes an excellent breakfast buffet. If you want to treat your self, the Dann Carlton or the Suissotel are very nice, but rooms $100 and up.

          • David says:

            Thanks Jim, I’ll dig into these tips as we continue to aim in this general direction. I’m retired Alaska Airlines so we can fly down standby to Quito and then if our travels take us to Salinas we can depart from Guayaquil. There’s just so much to see in country but I know my wife will not savor too much bus time – so we’ll need to prioritize. You’ve been a huge help, I hope I’ve not driven you nuts with questions. You truly are a great resource, I owe you. David

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