Self-Publishing: An Interview with Scott Nicholson
by Jim C. Hines
I met Scott Nicholson in 1999. We were both first place Writers of the Future winners that year, but Scott snatched the grand prize with his tale of a vampire shortstop. Scott was also the first of our WotF group to “make it big,” landing a deal with Kensington for his novel The Red Church [Amazon | B&N]. Yes, I had much envy
These days, Scott has switched over to self-publishing, where he’s been quite successful. He and I may not agree on everything, but he’s certainly made it work for himself. I invited him to share some of his thoughts and experiences, and he was kind enough to accept. (Translation: I conned him into doing the real work for one of my blog posts while I was out doing a few school visits. Heh…
Welcome, Scott! I wanted to start with a comment you left on my blog: “I don’t make the case for indie or trad because I don’t know what’s best for anyone else.” Why did you personally make the choice to self-publish your work, and have you been happy with that choice?
I’m ecstatic. Despite working with respected agents, I wasn’t seeing any decent prospects and I had wandered afield a bit into comics, where almost everything is self-published outside of the top few companies. So that made the “do-it-yourself” ethic cool, because there is no stigma in comics like there is in fiction publishing. I had received the rights back to The Red Church, my first novel, and I had explored various ways of getting it back into print, but ordering up a print run and investing thousands of bucks only to begin a distribution struggle just didn’t sound like a productive way to spend time. I’d been watching the Kindle a bit, but from failed dabbling in e-books seven or eight years back via Fictionwise, I’d concluded that there was no market.
I hedged my bets a little by figuring, “Well, this novel has already been published, so it’s vetted, even if I am self-publishing.” See, I was foolishly being guided by ego decisions and what I “thought I knew,” instead of what was really happening—just as I’d clung to the erroneous idea that “nobody reads e-books.” I published it on New Year’s Day, 2010, along with an out-of-print novella. It immediately found readers, just a few at first, and then more and more, and I realized there was an entirely new audience waiting that the book had missed by being dead for six years. I then began collating all my old short stories into collections—all stuff that had been professionally published. Somewhere during the summer, when I got the latest “I can’t sell this” from an agent, I realized, “You can’t, but I can.” I have not looked back since. Eventually the dinky little check I was getting every month became the little check that paid my mortgage, and by the end of last year, with multiple titles, my day-job check was the dinky little check in comparison, and that’s when I realized it was time to go for it without a net.
So what does it take to succeed with self-published e-books? And what kind of promotion do you do for your work?
I do everything I used to do when I had paper books, only I do it cheaply, better, and with more return on investment. It doesn’t make sense to buy ads when you’re earning 8 percent of sale price. Why should you spend your money to make the other 92 percent richer? Same with book signings in stores—I did hundreds, and selling 20 books was a major feat. So, counting the drive, that would be an average of six to eight hours, plus $20 in gas, only to eventually get back $8, assuming your book earned out. All under the threat that “You will be dropped if your numbers decline.” Really, that Amway model is unworkable and unfair.
When I get 70 percent, then buying ads is not only smart, it’s the way you run a real business. I dedicate 5 to 10 percent of my revenue on ads, giveaways, and those kinds of fun promotions, and it’s also a way to say “Thanks” to my friends.
I enjoy social media and I am figuring out how to be part of communities in a way I hadn’t before, since I’m basically a recluse who’d rather be gardening. Your readers become your friends who like to see you succeed, and they become part of that success.
It’s pretty simple, really. Figure out who you are, ask why other people should care, and then be who you are everywhere you go.
I’ve seen some very strong reactions to the term “indie” when it comes to e-publishing. Any thoughts there?
It’s purely an ego label, but I guess it serves as well as any other. I suspect some use it to denote defiance and rebellion, sometimes with an undertone of “sticking it to the Man.” I don’t care if you call it “vanity publishing,” “self-publishing,” “loser publishing,” or whatever, because your label (not you specifically, Jim, but anyone applying the label) is all about your own ego.
Think about “stigma.” Whose stigma is it, and who defines it? The one applying the stigma, that’s who. It’s never about the other guy. It arises from the fear of other writers, who, frankly, are often overzealous in the defense of a system that historically has never served most writers well at all. Now when writers have the power in their hands, they want to demean it, because it’s scary, because now they are less likely to fail but they probably will anyway.
Look, I figured out early on that writing is about failure. Almost 100 percent guaranteed failure. You’ll never write it as well as you want, you will always fall short of perfection, a typo will always slip in, rejection is more certain than death and taxes, and, if you are lucky enough to get published, a horde is waiting to happily rake you over the coals. After a while, you build up great layers of scar tissue. At this point, I don’t care what anyone thinks except my readers, who are my only customers. And, in a way, they are among my closest, most intimate friends. So why should I care if some scared writer tries to apply a stigma? If you’re a writer, you should be scared, but if you go around worrying about other writers, you have your eyes on the wrong prize.
Listen to readers. They rarely apply stigma. The only labels they care about are “good” and “crap.”
How do you think your background in commercial/traditional publishing impacted your experience with self-publishing?
The aforementioned scar tissue, plus I can better understand the advantages now, which made it easier to fully commit to self-publishing. I have worked in media for 15 years, so I understand marketing, but I am still learning my audience—and there are multiple audiences, not one single audience. I also learned about professional comportment and all the ancillary skills-editing, proofing, graphic design, accounting, branding. My goals for a flawless book are as high as anything in New York. “Indie” doesn’t give you permission to be less professional, though I see no problem with semi-pro or amateur works, even if it seems to clog the pipeline for “real writers.” The market will sort itself out.
To me, the biggest question writers will be asking is “Where the hell was all that money going before?”
Speaking of all that money, you wrote a guest post where you suggested agents “will be the first casualties of the digital era, for the precise reason that they add the least and take the most for a product where they are increasingly not even needed… As an agented author myself, I have a different opinion, but I’m curious: do you see any benefits or advantages to authors trying to get an agent?
I actually have two agents now. If they sell something, great, but I can’t wait 18 or 30 months to get paid, plus, with my track record, it would really take some creative advocacy, because nobody looks at the book anymore, they look at the pitch and the P & L statement.
I don’t want my comments to seem like an anti-agent rant. Good agents are well worth their 15 percent and probably more. But in an era where supply is increasing and demand is decreasing, why fight upstream? Selling a book in a bookstore has always been the most costly and most troublesome way to meet a reader, with many fingers in between taking money from both readers and writers. E-books have reduced that intermediary to one or two—Amazon, BN.com, Apple, etc. That means more money for writers and lower prices for readers. The only “losers” are the people in the structure who add the least when the product is nothing but content instead of an artifact that must be built and then shipped somewhere.
Obviously, agents can serve as filters of quality, but I’d have to ask, why are they picking up indie bestsellers, the same books they passed on before? It’s because you can’t sell a book on perceived quality alone. An agent has a few dozen customers, and that number is declining. An indie author has 10 million and that number is growing. If you’re an investor, where do you put your chips?
To put it another way, by June, I will have sold as many copies in 18 months as I did in a six-year mass-market career, plus I will have made far more money. That’s the only data I need.
What are you most sick of hearing people say when it comes to e-books and self-publishing?
The main things I try to avoid are predictions delivered with any air of certainty. This is unknown territory, and no one in 2009 predicted 20 million e-readers by 2011. The only thing I’ll bank on is that it will change, and change rapidly. I’m ready to flow in whichever direction is best for my business, hopefully avoiding ego decisions.
If a new writer came to you today with a finished manuscript, what would your advice be?
Publish it as soon as it has been edited by a professional (whether that’s another writer, a group of writers, or a pro editor). Trade or pay for any skill you need, but never settle for less than professional quality. E-books can last forever, even if the market changes, so think of your product as a “durable good” worth the investment. After all, it’s your name on the cover. As soon as it’s up, write another. If you want to look for an agent, do that, although your odds seem to be better these days by selling lots of books yourself than plodding through the paper slush. More and more agents will look at writers who are publishing independently, and the smart people in any industry are the ones who remain flexible and open to change. And those would be the people you’d want to work with, of course.
What expectations should that new writer should have, realistically, for their first self-published work?
You’re likely to be disappointed if all you focus on are numbers, or comparing to other writers. The Amazon rank is a tempting measure of “worth,” but the key is to connect with your specific readers, not the millions of total readers. It will be hard to find them at first, but they are likely to be in the worlds in which you already move. The good news is you have the rest of your life to build your career, and the best promotion is to write that next great book.
Wild card question: anything else you’d like to add?
I’m living every dream and writing goal I ever had. That’s all I ever worked toward, and it’s all I ever wanted. I suspect it gets better, but even if this opportunity only lasts a year, I did it. If someone else gets to live that same dream, that’s really cool.
Scott Nicholson is author of 13 mystery, suspense, and paranormal thrillers, including the #1 Kindle bestsellers Speed Dating with the Dead, Liquid Fear, Disintegration, and The Red Church. He’s also written seven story collections, six screenplays, four comics series, and three children’s books. He was a Writers of the Future winner in 1999. His website is Haunted Computer.
Jim C. Hines’ latest book is Red Hood’s Revenge, the third of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie’s Angels twist. He’s also the author of the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies. Online, he can be found at http://www.jimchines.com, which is where this interview originally appeared.