Thursday, October 30, 2014

Indie Publishing with Alexandra Sokoloff

James O. Born
Today we have a special guest, Alexandra Sokoloff.  I’ve known Alex for many years and think she is a terrific writer.  She’s also a smart business person and in this blog you’ll see why.  It is so good the second part will be on Thursday next week.

Alexandra Sokoloff 

Jim asked me here today to talk a bit about my indie publishing experience. Always happy to hang with naked authors. I mean, the Naked Authors.

So here’s the story. In the summer of 2012 I made the leap: I decided not to go for a traditional publishing deal for my thriller, Huntress Moon.  I put it out as an e book instead. I made more money in the first month of release than I’d ever made for a traditional advance, and the book was nominated for a Thriller Award in the ITW’s brand new Best E Book Original Novel category.

Many factors went into that decision for me. First of all, I’ve made my living solely from my writing since I was twenty-five years old. Making writing pay is not optional for me. And a huge component of making a living as a professional writer is paying attention to changes in the business. Looking back over my career, I can see that every five or ten years I have moved from one medium to another, always incorporating what I’ve learned from each previous incarnation.

I started out in theater but quickly realized that if I wanted to make a living as a writer, playwriting was not the most viable way to do that. Then I did eleven years as a professional screenwriter before I snapped and wrote my first novel. People thought I was insane to start writing books when I was making a good living as a screenwriter. That’s everyone’s dream anyway, right?  But I saw the film business model changing before my eyes, studios squeezing writers for more and more script drafts for less and less money, and as bad as I am at math, I could see that in a few years I wouldn’t be able to sustain a living simply because of the work time added without compensation.  Add to this the fact that I’m a woman. In a good year women get a whopping 20% of the writing jobs in Hollywood.  I had to do something else.

So I wrote a book, and I sold it to a Big Six publisher, and then sold the next, and the advances were not enough to live on, but the foreign sales and some film options made it doable. Barely.

In the meantime, though, I was learning the book business. And it wasn’t looking good.

I was lucky, because early on Joe Konrath, well-known (or infamous) as a self-publishing guru, lectured me on bookstore co-op. And on e books, too, back before anyone was talking about e books, but it was Joe’s rants on co-op that really got me thinking. I didn’t particularly want to hear it, but you can’t unhear something like that.  Co-op means that in publishing, the odds are stacked against everyone but the bestsellers.  The publishers pay bookstores for placement to improve on the success of their biggest cash cows, at the expense of all the rest of us. The chances of breaking out of that hierarchy are astronomical.  I was working my… brains off at promotion, getting nominated for major mystery, thriller and horror awards, but I was quickly learning none of that meant anything to my publisher. By my fourth book I was done with being crippled by someone else’s mediocre expectations. And by then, there was the option of indie publishing. A scary option, but a real option.

So when I started to write Huntress Moon, I also started studying e publishing. What authors did and didn’t do. What Amazon and Barnes & Noble did or didn’t do. I read Konrath’s blog. I read the Kindleboards. I watched friends who were self-publishing, like Blake Crouch, Barry Eisler, CJ Lyons, Scott Nicholson, Ann Voss Peterson, Elle Lothlorien, Brett Battles, Rob Gregory Browne, JD Rhoades, LJ Sellers, Diane Chamberlain and Sarah Shaber.

Because of them, I knew e publishing for a living was not only doable, it was becoming potentially a far more viable option for me than traditional publishing. So I studied, and I wrote, and I put out a non-fiction e workbook based on my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors blog,

 which taught me all the technical things I needed to know about self-publishing.  By the time I had finished writing Huntress Moon, I was already hearing things like “It’s too late.” “That e publishing ship has sailed.” But that wasn’t what I was seeing, from people who were doing it right.  I took all I’d learned and put out the book as an e book original. And prayed.

In the first three months Huntress Moon was out, I made enough money on that one book, just in e-format, to live comfortably for a year. I got flooded with e mail from new readers who had never heard of me but who loved the book and were now buying all my others. My Facebook followers jumped from 500 to 20,000 and kept growing —going on 110,000 at this writing. 

That chunk of money and the steady income stream that followed has given me plenty of stress-free time to write the second and third books in the series. Every book means more royalties, at seventy percent per book sold. The royalties keep coming every month.  I know exactly what I’m making. I know when I have to adjust, when I have to do a promo.  I know by when I have to make another lump sum to carry me through the next fiscal year. The clarity, compared to traditional publisher royalty statements, is breathtaking.

No longer do authors have to hold to the glacial timetables of their publishers, or worry about the possibility of the publisher deciding not to publish at all (which has happened to several of my friends, recently).

I know that if I work hard, I can put out two books out this year, with a guaranteed income. What that income will ultimately be, well, I don't know, but traditional advances are way down and, much worse than that, most publishers are demanding e rights in perpetuity in traditional contracts, which seems to me an insane thing for authors to give up in the current climate. That alone pushed me in the e publishing direction.

And Amazon is constantly innovating and presenting new ways for authors to make money by self-publishing. I just finished an audiobook of Huntress Moon with Amazon’s ACX program, and added a really nice income stream to my monthly earnings.

Sounds good, right? But you have to ask yourself:


Find out the answer next week.


  1. Thanks, Alex! This is great information. I hope you're going to tell us about marketing and how you built your brand, because I knew a few people who have gone the Indie route but aren't making much moolah.

    1. Hey Patty! Yes, more on marketing next week, but it's such a huge subject that I hope people will ask me specific questions. I'll do my best to answer. See you at Bouchercon, I hope!!

    2. How about a looooong series of articles? And yes, I'll be at Bcon and hope to see you there.

  2. James O. Born10/30/2014 12:22 PM

    Alex, this really is good info and important. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for the invite! I miss you guys. Seems like forever.

  3. As a playwright turned TV writer turned mystery novelist, I followed this with great interest. My fear with e-books is one by an unknown falling into the abyss. Alex, do you think it helped that you had name recognition? Also, Huntress Moon sounds like a different genre than mystery. Do you think romance, sci fi and fantasy e-books sell better than, say, cozy mysteries?

    1. Some great questions, Nelly. In order...

      - It's a lot more difficult to promote a single book than a series, and a lot of successful indie authors would tell you not to self-publish until you have three books to put out. Three seems to be the magic number. And a series lends itself to the kinds of promotions that sell the most e books. Standalones generally don't get as much traction.

      - I get that "name recognition" question all the time. Sure, it helps, but from what I've been able to track, the vast majority of people who have bought, read and loved Huntress Moon had never heard of me or read any of my books before. And I know plenty of indie authors who never had a traditionally published book out who are making a lot more money and sales than I am. There are specific techniques to indie marketing that work, whether or not you've been traditionally published. Novices are sometimes better at it than more experienced authors.

      - You're right, the Huntress books aren't traditional mysteries. You could call them thrillers, or psychological suspense, and some people call them paranormal, although I think that's exaggerating the slight possibility of something mystical that runs through the series.

      - Romance outsells everything, in the indie world and traditional publishing (it makes me crazy...) I don't know how well sci fi and fantasy sells, comparatively. I have indie friends who are doing well with cozy mysteries. I think you need to look at some books that are like your own book in genre and tone and learn how the successful ones in that genre are being marketed.

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  5. Great advice, Alex. I'm looking forward to next week's posting.

    1. Thanks, Stephen! I'm going to be traveling but I'll try to be here to respond!