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Monday, December 23, 2013

How I Made This Crazy Thing Called Writing a 20-year Career...

2014 will be my 20th year in publishing. I signed my first book contract in 1994 and my first book was published in 1995. The wild success of that book and its sequel made me an international bestselling author. Since those early beginnings, more than 150 of my books have been published and let me tell you it's been one crazy ride.

I've seen other writers sharing about their experiences in their blogs, though mostly from the viewpoint of strictly self-published authors, so I wanted to offer viewpoints on two things: so-called hybrid authors and long tail publishing.

ABOUT MY PATH

The path I've traveled hasn’t been all roses, cavalcades, and unicorns. The publishing business can be an ugly business; the world can be an ugly place. And yet, I’ve never lost belief in my words or my ability to instruct, to entertain, to tell a story. I love the craft.

I’ve not only written in literary genres from action/adventure, mystery and suspense to science fiction and fantasy, in subject areas from computer technology to military memoir, and in children's picture books for toddlers, preschoolers and early elementary school readers--but I’ve been successful in all.

ABOUT MY SALES

From the publication of my first book in 1995 to early 2005, I had sold well over 5,000,000 books. From 2005 to 2015, I am on track to again sell well over 5,000,000 books.

In the past 20 years, I've sold well over $100,000,000 in books and I'm on track to reach $200,000,000+ in sales in 2014. That kind of outsized success isn't something everyone will achieve. That kind of success is something I can't believe I've achieved.

People often have ask me if all the success changed my life and I’d like to think that it has in many ways. But it’s been a long, long road and a road that never started with me trying to get published.

In fact, I wrote novels for years before I ever tried to get published. For me, writing was never about getting published. It was always about doing what I loved. And doing what I love full-time for 20 years has given me great perspective on writing, on success, and on life.

ABOUT GOING FROM PRO TO HYBRID

Being a hybrid author refers to writing both as a professionally published author and as an independent author. For a professionally published author, I think it's a logical transition to the independent marketplace and it's a transition born of simple economics. Economics that work like this:

$200,000,000 at retail x 45% = 90,000,000. Based on a typical 55% discount to bookstores.

20% off the top for returns, other withholdings, etc  = 72,000,000

Average royalties = 10% (I know, I know you hear 12%, 15% numbers but the actual rate varies depending on marketplace sold, whether 3rd party distributed, how packaged, etc).

10% of 72,000,000 = 7,200,000

20% off the top of this for agents, managers, etc. leaves about 5,760,000.

5,760,000 over 20 years is about $288,000 in annual earnings (not including actual expenses like health care, marketing, etc).

Or put another way, at the end of the day, what the professional author actually gets is about 3% of total earnings.

In contrast, indie earnings can be much more substantial as a percentage of total earnings, though significantly less in the total net earnings department. In theory, indie authors can earn as much as 35% - 70% of net sales. But theories don't always hold water. As an indie, my end of the day indie earnings, after top-level expenses, actually amount to about 10% of total earnings.

* The breakout that follows does not include sales data for 2.5 million Robert Stanek, Bugville Learning, Ruin Mist Publications, etc but does include sales data for 7.5 million William Stanek, William R. Stanek, William Robert Stanek, and related titles, etc:
500,000+ sales at $70 & up ($70 x 500,000 = 35,000,000)
2,000,000+ sales at $59.99 to $69.99 ($60 x 2,000,000 = 120,000,000)
3,500,000+ sales at $29.99 to $59.98 ($30 x 3,500,000 = 105,000,000)
1,000,000+ sales at $19.99 to 29.98 ($20 x 1,000,000 = 20,000,000)
500,000+ sales at up to $19.98 ($10 x 500,000 = 5,000,000)

ABOUT GOING FROM INDIE TO HYBRID

As an independent, authors can have total control of their works. However, the indie must wear many hats and perform many tasks, including sales and marketing activities. At some point, as an indie's success increases, an indie may have to make a choice between having time to write and performing all these other activities. At that point, I think trying to transition to a hybrid author model increasingly makes sense.

With pro contracts, agents, or both come things solo flying indies can't get. For example, access to large sales and marketing networks. Also, the ability to network with other authors published by the publisher or working with your agent. It's how a newly minted hybrid indie can make connections to big name authors and suddenly get written about in major magazines and newspapers.

ABOUT MY BOOKS

I wrote for many years before I got publishing, having finished my first full-length novel in 1986. Currently, I have over 150 published works, which vary in length from 654,000 words (the longest, a 1600-page behemoth work) to 300 words (the shortest and one of my illustrated children's books).

Those many works available in many editions, many formats, many languages, and many markets become several thousand live titles. For example, I have over 1,000 English-language titles just in library distribution.

I track the sales of my books across the more than 35 marketplaces where they are sold every few years (usually every other year). That's how I get fun stats like 7.5 million William Stanek books sold, 2.5 million Robert Stanek books sold, etc.

Hundreds of books and thousands of titles is an approach to publishing called long-tail publishing. With long-tail publishing, the author relies on a relative trickle of sales over many years. I say relative trickle as some of my books sell hundreds of copies a year while others sell thousands or tens of thousands of copies a year.

To better understand trickle theory, consider this:

A $350 monthly cell phone bill becomes a $50,000 expense after 12 years. $350 x 12 x 12 = $50,400.

A book that sells 100 copies a month has 24,000 sales after 20 years. 100 x 12 x 20 = 24,000.

Thus, the trickle of sales slowly builds into a mountain.

ABOUT MY WRITING DAY

Counting all my writing (indie, pro and otherwise), I have about 20,000,000 published words, 10 million pro and 10 million indie, give or take. Those ~20 million words written over a period of 30 years (1986 to present) weren't blasted out at a rate of tens of thousands of words a day or week. They were written at the rather sedate pace of about 2,000 words a day, across a 7-day work week--with some days lots of writing done and some days no writing done too.

Of course, my days also are filled with other writing-related tasks. If I’m not writing, I’m probably designing a book cover, doing illustration work, setting type on an illustrated page, sketching out a story line, reviewing printed pages, or any of the dozens of other things that must be done to prepare a book for publication. Why? Because there’s no one else to do that work if I don’t.

I don’t think many people understand how technical writing works and how involving it is. With technology books, writing is only one part of a much larger process that also involves author review and page review. As I write chapters, those chapters go to editorial and also are sent on to technical reviewers. When I get chapters back from editorial, the chapters contain edits and comments from the copy editors, development editors, and others on editorial staff. The chapters also contain comments from technical reviewers. This part of the process is called author review.

During author review, I’m working with the manuscript in Microsoft Word. I must respond to every question and query and a typical chapter may have several hundred of those which may or may not require me to make actual changes in the text. Author review is followed by page review. Page review is the final part of the manuscript review process.

During page review, I’m working with the manuscript in its final form in Adobe Acrobat. The manuscript is marked up with comments that I must address from the formatters, proofreaders, and others on the editorial staff. For pre-release products, there may be several rounds of author review and several rounds of page review.

After all these years of writing, I have a simple formula to determine how much of my time a writing project will require, inclusive of writing, review, and everything else that a book involves. 1 page = 1 hour. Thus, if I’m writing a 700-page book (inclusive of all front matter and back matter), I must plan for the project requiring 700 hours of my time.

With indie fiction, the formula is probably closer to 2 pages = 1 hour, but the actual work required can sometimes be more, as I have to wear many more hats when I do indie work.

ABOUT MY STRATEGY

As you can probably guess, with all the books I've published, writing is my full-time occupation and my full-time hobby and has been for the past 20 years. My strategy for spreading the word about my books is simple.

In the early days I did book tours when I could and traveled a lot. Traveling gets old though and the good news is that once you've established yourself, you don't really need to tour any more. For those reading this who haven't attended book fairs, done readings, or traveled for book tours, I recommend seeing if it's in your best interest to give it a try.

I haven't done the book fair, reading, book tour circuit thing though for the past 15 or so years. These days, I blog when I can, tweet a few things when I can, and post to Facebook and such when I can. And that's my primary marketing. I occasionally do media advertising and press releases, though I always ensure that I never pay retail for advertising.

Why? I want every dollar I spend on advertising to go 10 times as far as it normally would. Planning advertising across longer periods of time helps. For example, from mid-2008 to late 2009, my publisher and I spent $100,000 on advertising. As it was mostly my money, you can be darn sure that I made sure every dime went as far as it could. Large and repeated buys across various marketplaces got us some extremely good rates (we paid about .20 on the dollar, so our advertising at card rates would have been about $500K).

That kind of spending is not something I would recommend. That spending was for a special occasion, leading up to the recent year-long celebration of the book I counted officially as my 150th. (Significant career milestones are fun and important to celebrate.)

The kind of marketing I recommend to indies is this: market where you see the most value. Facebook is one of the places I see a great value these days. With $250 targeted correctly, I can reach 1 million people (or at least get 1 million views). That's extreme value and it's one reason why I've dropped $30K on Facebook advertising in the past 5 years.

ABOUT THE FUTURE

I'm not sure how many writers realize that book sales are more like the ebb and flow of tides than tidal waves coming ashore. Books sales rise and fall over time, and if you're lucky, they keep rising and falling over time. As the book world transitions to an e-marketplace, it's important to remember that ebooks are really only in their infancy. While ebooks are big in the US and a few other countries, the rest of the world is still largely dominated by print. And beyond both print and ebook are tons of additional opportunities, including audio.

I'm tremendously grateful to my readers and my publishers. Currently, I am working to finish an 8-book contract with my publishers. The contract is the largest one I’ve ever signed. The project, which has consumed part of last year, all of this year and will carry me well into next year, entails over 4,000 pages of writing—and I’ve been going at it 7 days a week trying to meet all the timelines.

Four of the eight books have now been published and I am working my way through writing, reviewing, and final work on all the others. I’m very grateful to have this work, especially as the industry is in such flux. Such tremendous flux is not uncommon in the publishing industry. There have been waves of flux in the past and there will be waves of flux in the future.

If all the years of writing have taught me anything, it’s patience. I’m not in a hurry to publish anything. I release my books on my schedule, not anyone else’s. I have so many finished books because I’ve been writing for 30 years--and 20 of those years as a full-time writer.

If you want to be a long-time participant in this crazy game, I hope you'll keep in mind the ebb and flow. The ebb and flow can ruin you or you can embrace it as simply the way things are.

Hope my insights from 20 years in this crazy writing business help you in your writing.

Thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek



4 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing, Robert. This is fantastic! And congratulations on your success - extremely motivating for 'new' authors on the indie scene, like myself. Keep it up :)

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    1. Great to hear that my story is motivating for you and others! It was a long road from my start as a writer in the 80's to my first contract in the 90's to the present, but I think one worth traveling.

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  2. Very informative and inspiring. Thank you for the glimpse into your 30 year writing career (and congrats on the 8-book contract - wow!).

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    1. Thank you, Diane. As I look back, it's hard to believe so much time has passed. Seems just yesterday I was dreaming up ideas for my first book, but that was 30 years ago.

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