Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How and Why a Series Can Save or Launch Your Writing Career



Most authors have heard the following advice: if you want to make it as a writer, you should write a lot of books, and if you really want success, you should write a series.  It made sense to me from a writer’s point of view because if you write a lot of books, you’re easier to discover, and with a series, once you’ve created characters and situations, stories are easy provided you give the characters room to grow and change.  Then people will keep reading about those characters, and they have more incentive to keep buying the books.

But it goes much deeper than that.  I’ll get there in a roundabout fashion because when I finally had the epiphany moment and I saw the real why for both writer and reader, it really knocked things into focus for me.  I mean, I got it, but I didn’t get it.  It made sense intellectually, and I understood it, but now it’s like a flashing neon sign that I can’t believe I didn’t completely embrace from the start.  If you already get it, this will reinforce it for you.  If you don’t get it yet, by the end of this post, you will.

To get there, we’ll start with my experience as a bookseller seeing what readers bought because understanding those buying habits will give us insight into why the series books work so well to gather and keep readers.  I used to run an online bookstore and most of our business was on eBay.  We sold new and used books.  Our focus was primarily on mass market paperbacks because we had an excellent source for inexpensive books by the truckload.  We sold books as singles and in sets, and we made the most money on series books--especially in lots.

Not all series books are created equal, of course.  Some series books wouldn’t sell very well for us.  Often it was because there were too few books in the series, and more telling than that, sometimes it was something else.  As an example, let me break down the action/adventure genre because so many action books are part of a series, and it’s easier to see why readers follow certain series more than others. 

Look at Mack Bolan, the Executioner.  There are more than 400 books in the main series.  Originally created by Don Pendleton, the books have been ghosted by various authors for many years.  What you have is Mack Bolan, a total badass killing machine who originally hunted down mafia types, and then after thirty-eight books expanded his war to international terrorists.  But Mack Bolan is essentially a cardboard character.  He’s a steel-jawed killer, and while he certainly qualifies as a vigilante, he doesn’t see himself that way and he never questions whether or not he’s right.  He is always right and he always kills the bad guys.  Readers responded to that, of course, and in the original books by Pendleton, the character was after revenge because the mafia had destroyed his family.  With the ghosted novels, the stories are mostly interchangeable, though some are really good books on their own.

By way of comparison, let’s look at The Destroyer series created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir about an assassin in training who works for a secret organization known as CURE.  The first two books were standard action fare, but with the third book, Chinese Puzzle, the authors decided to go their own way.  The characters came to life, and the relationship between Remo and Chiun took center stage so they weren’t just student and master, but more like son and father.  Humor and fantasy elements were injected into the series, and the art of Sinanju grew to become the sun source of all martial arts and the others are merely pale shadows.  Remo wants nothing more than to have a normal life, but he can’t ever have that.  Readers couldn’t get enough of them.  In college, I read more than fifty of these books, and thoroughly enjoyed them.

As a bookseller, whenever Executioner novels came in, I knew they’d mostly collect dust.  When Destroyer novels came in, I knew they’d sell.  Especially in big lots.



For other examples of action, Executioner clones like The Penetrator never had much movement.  Series books like Casca The Eternal Mercenary by Barry Sadler or the Ashes series by William W. Johnstone would always sell, and many of them commanded premium prices both as individual titles and in sets.  It was all about the characters, of course.  People needed to care about what happened to them.  



Let’s move on to bestseller fiction.

The reason every thrift store has so many John Grisham, Scott Turow, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, etc. books is because those books are printed in massive quantities.  As singles, we never sold many of them unless they were either part of a series (especially the early books) or they were the new release.  And if the author didn’t have a series, those books would just take up shelf space.

Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt books sold in big lots at premium prices (for used titles online, premium means more than a buck each in sets, which is great if you’re getting the books for pennies apiece) they needed to be only Dirk Pitt books.  Non-Pitt titles didn’t move.

With Nora Roberts, we could sell the MacGregor books in sets all day long.  We also sold her trilogies in sets.  But stand-alone titles didn’t sell well, so we had to do massive boxes of 80 books for $20 to get rid of them.

John Grisham didn’t have a series, so his books would sell primarily in lots of 20.  We had to do those at $19.99 with free shipping and take offers of $15 to get them going (we listed in quantity because it gave us better visibility on eBay—one listing with 50 sets that we could always add to meant that as each set sold, we showed up higher in the search results, and were soon selling sets every day).

An author we couldn’t give away was Danielle Steel.  We could sell massive lots of 80 books for $4.99 and add shipping, but even at that price they’d just sit there.  No series books.  She did write a couple of series for kids, but we never got those, while we got thousands of her other books.

Another truism was that if an author had only a few books, they wouldn’t sell well.  If an author had a lot of books, we could usually at least sell them in lots.  If an author wrote a popular series, we could sell the books in sets and make good money.  An obvious example is James Patterson with the Alex Cross series, or the Maximum Ride series (which sold like crazy both new and used), or the Women’s Murder Club series.  Mix the series and you kill the prices on lots.  Add in stand alones, you kill the prices on lots.  So while we’d include some Alex Cross books in the bigger sets, those were only included when we didn’t have enough to get a better price on an Alex Cross only set.  People wanted one series or another, and they’d pay extra to get them all at once with none of the other books included.  That was an eye-opener because people fell in love with a series more than just wanting more books by that author.

When each truckload arrived, we sorted by author and then broke them down to series where possible.  We usually put up a few copies as singles to help get the other books moving or to make regular customers happy, but most of the books were done up in bundles by series.  We spent a lot of hours on the Fantastic Fiction website doing research on authors and series.  I was pleased when they put up a page with my books, too.

I’ll cruise through some other genres, but if you have TL:DR syndrome and want to skip ahead because you already get it, that’s fine.  I’ll go all caps, italics, and bold when I finish a genre rundown so you can easily rejoin us.

Science Fiction and Fantasy were harder to get in complete sets because readers love the series books so much they won’t part with them.  So we rarely got complete sets of Game of Thrones even though there were only four books in the series at the time.  We sold them in new sets all the time, of course.  Forgotten Realms trilogies always sold.  The Drizzt series by R.A. Salvatore sold new at least twice a week and used when we could get them.  Big lots of Xanth books by Piers Anthony.  The Pern series by Anne McCaffrey.  The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.  The Lazarus Long series by Robert A. Heinlein.  Roger Zelazny’s Amber books.  Terry Goodkind with the Sword of Truth.  Jim Butcher with the Dresden Files. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series.  Patricia Briggs with the Mercy Thompson books.  Once a series had at least four books, we could sell it.  Fewer than four, unless it was a trilogy, it was hit or miss.  Once a series had seven books, it was a guaranteed sale unless the author jumped away from the main characters in which case the series remained hit or miss.  Lesson learned: choose a set of main characters and always stick with them.  The main characters are the reason readers are buying those books.

Paranormal Romance.  Wow.  In that genre, readers would buy everything.  Some authors sold better than others, of course, but we could always sell paranormals.  Christine Feehan had her Carpathian series (the Dark books), Sherrilyn Kenyon with her Dark Hunter series, Kresley Cole with her Immortals After Dark series.  J. R. Ward with the Black Dagger Brotherhood.  It went on and on.  Romance is the one genre where it was normal to move away from the main characters because people want their happily ever after ending, so the main characters get hitched and the next book can be about side characters who come to the forefront.

Historical Romance gave us authors like Stephanie Laurens with her Bastion Club and Cynster series.  Diana Gabaldon with her Outlander series, which added time travel to the mix.  Mary Balogh with her Bedwyn Family series among others.  Sure, there were a few authors who sold well without series.  Georgette Heyer is a good example.  She did write a trilogy in the romance field, but her other series were in the mystery genre.  That said, her books always sold.

Contemporary Romance gave us the Cedar Cove series by Debbie Macomber, and plenty of Nora Roberts trilogies (Nora also wrote historicals, and paranormals, and as J.D. Robb, she gave us the Eve Dallas In Death series, which sold like crazy).

We could sell Harlequin Romance novels broken out by lines, so all the Harlequin Presents or the Intrigues, or the Desires, or the Blaze (wow, the Blaze books sold fast and easy).  We could also break them out by types, so the sheik books would sell.  Or bundles of books with Billionaires.  The older Harlequins didn’t sell well unless they were by popular authors, so Millionaires need not apply.  As for author lots, Susan Mallery was our bestseller in this type of romance primarily because she wrote in series with her Desert Rogues, plus she went on to write other books like the Marcelli Sisters series.

Mystery/Suspense.  Rex Stout with the Nero Wolfe series flew out as fast as we could get them.  Lee Child with the Jack Reacher series always sold fast.  Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child with the Pendergast series sold, while their stand-alones were hit and miss unless we did them in lots.  Sue Grafton with the Kinsey Millhone series sold well in lots, but not for premium prices (possibly because many readers wanted Kinsey to move to the present day, but that’s just a theory because they’re good books).  David Baldacci with the Sean King/Michelle Maxwell series sold well.  Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot or with Miss Jane Marple.  Kathy Reichs with the Temperance Brennan series.  You get the idea.

Westerns.  While Louis L’Amour always sold well, the difference in price by breaking out lots of just The Sacketts series was amazing.  William W. Johnstone with his Mountain Man series was also a guaranteed sale.  David Robbins with the Wilderness series always sold fast and easy.  J.T. Edson’s Floating Outfit series sold well.  The Wagons West series by Dana Fuller Ross (really James Reasoner for the most part, but there you go) would sell in sets easily.  While we could sell series like The Trailsman, Edge, Lone Star, and others, they weren’t as strong or fast.

Horror.  Anne Rice ruled with the Vampire Chronicles.  Complete sets sold as fast as we could list them.  Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series sold well.  Dean Koontz with Odd Thomas, Stephen King with the Dark Tower (new sets sold at the rate of four or five per week, and remember those are full priced sets), William W. Johnstone with the Devil series about Sam Balon battling evil always sold.  His other horror novels sold, too, of course, and many commanded higher prices.

Young Adult.  L.J. Smith, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, etc.  If it was a series, it sold.  From Hunger Games to Harry Potter, it didn’t matter.  YA series were always strong sellers.  In most cases, these had fantasy elements, by the way.  That said, older series like The Three Investigators were strong sellers when they turned up, too.  And we could sell Sweet Valley High in big sets quickly, but smaller sets weren’t as popular.



IF YOU’VE SKIPPED AHEAD, HERE’S WHERE TO REJOIN US

The lesson, of course, is that if you want to be successful, a series is a great way to go.  If you also want to write stand alone books, use Harlan Coben as a model.  He wrote a few stand alones early (Play Dead and Miracle Cure) but they didn’t sell well, so he launched the Myron Bolitar series.  He wrote seven Myron Bolitar books in a row.  Doing so got him a devoted readership.  They loved those books.  They told their friends.  Those friends saw seven books and shook their heads because they weren’t sure they wanted to spend that much time on one author.  Coben’s next book was Tell No One, a stand alone thriller, and it launched him to the top of the bestseller list.  At that point, a stand alone was the perfect choice: his long-time fans would buy the book because it’s a new Coben book, but the new readers, who weren’t sure about investing in a series yet, could try a single book.  Coben delivered a terrific novel, and readers were hooked.  Now he writes the occasional Bolitar book as well as all the stand alone novels he wants (my favorite is Gone for Good). This used to be called writing your breakout book.

So the real truth is that while I could intellectually understand that a series would draw in readers, I wasn’t feeling it until I looked at it from the point of view of the readers.  I didn’t totally get the commitment readers have to series books until I really looked back at how books sold in our store, and thought about how I buy books, too.  I love Joe R. Lansdale’s books, and I tend to buy and read them when I have time, but if it’s a Hap and Leonard novel, I make time immediately because I love those characters.  There are Lansdale books I haven’t read yet, but I’ve read every Hap and Leonard book.

Readers invest emotionally in series characters.  They want to visit those people over and over again because they’re like close friends.  If you can let the characters grow and change over the course of the series the way Robert Crais does with the Elvis Cole books you’ll win readers.  Even if the characters remain static the way Stephanie Plum does (or did—I admit I read only through book seven, and while I enjoyed them all, they kinda felt like the same book), readers will keep reading.  Outside of the romance genre, you want to stick with one set of characters.  Romance is different, so most authors go with a family or a community (a la Cedar Cove) and each character gets her own book.  Outside of the romance genre, it’s tough to jump to other characters and keep a series going.  Some authors can do that, but many readers want the same characters they already know and love.  I’ve watched friends’ series slow in sales when they moved away from their initial main characters.

With stand alone titles, the reader might like or even love that book, but that doesn’t mean they’ll want to follow you to the next book where they have to meet new people.  They had a relationship with the other people, and they want to continue that friendship. 

In my case, I just got the rights back to five of my books, and I re-released them.  Three of those are part of a series, and I released the brand new fourth book in the series when I reissued the others.  The four Jonathan Shade novels are selling, and while they’re not burning up the charts at this point, they each sell multiple copies every day.  I’m currently working on the fifth novel in the series.  As for my other books, One-Way Ticket to Midnight doesn’t sell much.  Quick Shots, my short story collection, is dead in the water.  Night Marshal is a shared world series, and it sells, but not well.  Pirates of the Outrigger rift is a 47North title, so I’m not in a position to give sales information on it, but I will say I’d happily sell them another novel.

As a general rule, readers like writers who write a lot of books, but readers love writers who give them a strong series with characters they can care about.  So I’ll be writing more Jonathan Shade novels, and until the seventh book comes out, I won’t even think about writing another stand alone.  As it happens, I love writing about Jonathan, Kelly, Esther, Brand and the rest, so I’d want to write the series whether or not they were selling.  And yes, I know some authors don’t write series books and sell quite well, and one of my favorite writers is Kurt Vonnegut, who never wrote a series (though Kilgore Trout appears or is referenced in a number of books).  So you can certainly make it writing stand alone books, and that’s great.  But if you have a series in you, it’s probably easier to connect with readers on that path.  If you make the readers happy and give them what they want, they’ll keep coming back to you.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

My favorite movies for 2013 and for 2014 (so far)

Last year I did a number of posts on Facebook about some of my favorite movies by year.  A few people asked if I could compile a list of those films, and a couple more wanted me to discuss the movies a bit more.  I said, "Sure," but then promptly forgot.  Sometimes my brain is like a colander.

Understand that there are plenty of movies I don't bother seeing.  There are also a lot I'd like to see, but don't have time.  Still, I'll give the lists over the next few days or weeks.  I'm working on Sunset Specters, the fifth Jonathan Shade novel, so I'll do these on days where I've met my word count and still feel like typing.

We'll start with a so-far list for 2014, but I'll do a better post about 2014 after I've caught up on more films.  So far this year, here are my favorites, though the order might change when I compile the final list in a few months, and a few of these won't make the final list:

2014 (so far)

1. Guardians of the Galaxy.  Pure, unadulterated fun.  This was a total delight from the first frame to the end of the extra scene at the end of the credits.  I loved it.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  An outstanding political action thriller.  Think 3 Days of the Condor with super heroes, and you're close, but it's better than that.

3. A Walk Among the Tombstones.  Based on the excellent Matthew Scudder novel by Lawrence Block.  Liam Neeson was born to play Scudder.

4. The Equalizer.  Denzel is outstanding (as always).  I like that the film takes time with the characters before all the violence and mayhem begins.  That way, we care about what happens because we're invested in the people.

5. Snowpiercer.  Okay, the concept of a train running on tracks for years with no maintenance in the snow is a bit silly, but once the movie gets going, you won't be thinking about that.  Chris Evans is amazing in this movie, and the story doesn't flinch.

6. Edge of Tomorrow.  Tom Cruise does a great job in this movie, and it's a flick that even people who hate Tom Cruise can enjoy because he gets killed over and over again.  Fun sf movie, and Emily Blunt shines.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Yes, I like movies based on Marvel comics properties.  I grew up on Marvel comics, and it's too much fun to see these films on the big screen.  No apologies.  This one had a few plot problems, but I still enjoyed it.

8. Cold in July.  Michael C. Hall leaves Dexter behind in this terrific adaptation of the Joe R. Lansdale thriller.  The book is better, of course, so read it.  Still, the movie is well-done and reasonably faithful to the source material.  Don Johnson and Sam Shepard are both excellent in the film, too.

9. John Wick.  Keanu Reeves plays to his strengths in this film, and while there are a lot of plot problems, the biggest being that the bad guys would have killed Reeves when they hit him with the car.  A couple of bullets in the brain and the movie is over.  So the bad guys have to be stupid for it to play.  Still, the action rocked, and it was entertaining.

10. The Giver.  I'm obviously way behind on my movie watching this year because while The Giver was okay, I'd read the book, and the book was brilliant so I felt a bit let down.  Read the novel by Lois Lowry so you can get the true depth of the story.


There are still plenty of movies coming out, and I haven't seen some of the films I wanted to catch, so the above list will definitely change.

2013

The year 2013 was an odd one.  I didn't get to as many movies as I normally do.  That said, let's roll through the list of my favorites.

1. Iron Man 3.  Robert Downey, Jr. was terrific in this one.  The dialogue was outstanding, as you'd expect from Shane Black.  Some people complained that this was more Tony Stark than Iron Man, but I loved it.  Comic book fans also complained about The Mandarin, but they need to get over themselves.  Ben Kingsley was hysterical.  And Rebecca Hall deserves special mention as she was quite good in this one.

2. About Time.  Admission time.  I love romantic comedies, and I think Richard Curtis is a brilliant writer and director.  Rachel McAdams shines, and Domhnall Gleeson nails his performance.  Bill Nighy is a delight as the father who tells his son he can travel in time.  This is a fun movie that a lot of people missed in its theatrical run, so rent it.  You can thank me later.


3. 12 Years a Slave.  I'm a huge fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor.  He really won me over in Serenity, but secured himself in Redbelt.  In 12 Years a Slave, he gets to really show his acting chops.  As good as he was, Lupita Nyong'o stole every scene she was in and went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  This film also won Best Picture.

4. Dallas Buyers Club.  Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in this one, and he really gets to shine in this role.  This was a very well-done movie.

5. 42.  Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson in this excellent movie.  Harrison Ford gets to actually act in this one, too.

6. Now You See Me.  A lot of people thought this was a little too slick with magicians pulling off a heist while on stage, and leading the FBI on a crazy chase.  The third act had issues, but the movie was a lot of fun, and that counts for a lot in my book.

7. Lone Survivor.  Mark Wahlberg stars as a Navy SEAL on a mission with his team to capture or kill a Taliban leader.  The film is based on a true story, and it's intense.  Comedian Bill Maher joked that calling the movie Lone Survivor gives away the ending.  That said, it's hard not to think of the men and women who put themselves in harm's way for their patriotic ideals.  They're true heroes.

8. Chinese Zodiac.  Story-wise, this movie wouldn't make it into the top ten, but it's Jackie Chan in a Hong Kong action flick showing he's still got it in spite of a number of crappy Hollywood movies.  The action and stunts and fun are totally worth it.  Thank you, Jackie.


9. Rush.  Chris Hemsworth is quite good as Formula One racer James Hunt who had an amazing rivalry with another driver, Niki Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl.

10. Gravity.  A number of people complain about the ending, but (SPOILER ALERT) I think Sandra Bullock's character died when she saw George Clooney on the ship, and the rest was a dream as she drew her final breaths.  Science issues aside, this was an intense flick, and Bullock was amazing.



Okay, it looks like 2013 was a year of Based on a True Story movies.

There were other movies I enjoyed in 2013 including Thor: The Dark World, Ender's Game (though the book was better--and I know lots of folks are still pissed at Orson Scott Card for his anti-gay comments, but a lot of people worked hard to bring the movie to life and I saw no reason to boycott the film because of one guy's comments), World War Z, The Internship, The World's End, and a few others.  The movie that I absolutely HATED that year was Man of Steel.  That movie sucked big green donkey dicks.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

How I regained my rights and published my books my way.

First, a few basics.  I sold my first short story way back in 1989.  That story saw print in 1990.  Over the next decade, I learned my craft, wrote some short stories, sold them, wrote some novels, didn't sell them (for good reason--they sucked), and finally wrote a good novel, but couldn't sell that one either.  The rejection letters on One-Way Ticket to Midnight seemed to always run along these lines, "This is a horror novel, and we no longer publish horror or we would have tried to acquire your book.  Sorry."  Didn't matter if I sent it to them as fantasy, they called it horror and said no.

After several years of this, a small press accepted the book, and it saw print in 2002.  The book got good reviews in places like The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Tulsa World, and some small press magazines.  It made the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in First Novel or some such.  The people who read it, liked it or loved it.  Creative people tend to find that the theme resonated with them, and anyone who ever gave up their dreams to be something more can find something in Roy Porter to appreciate.  Total sales: 300, most of those copies hand sold by yours truly before the publisher said the numbers weren't good enough to keep it in print.  Yes, that's three hundred sales, which translated into around $600 or so in my pocket.  Wow, you can make a lot of money writing novels!

I switched to screenplays in 2004 and wrote a bunch of them.  Some were good, some were better.  Two of them ended up getting optioned in Hollywood, but neither went anywhere (as is usually the case in Hollywood). One of those was near and dear to my heart because I wrote it to work out my feelings after my mother died of lung cancer.  Another film I co-wrote went into production locally, but the funding went south, and the movie was never finished.

Writing was looking like a pipe dream.  However, one of the screenplays I wrote in 2004 was a transmogrified version of a novel I'd started in the 90s, which was also the basis for my first attempt at screenwriting.  Back then the book was called Heirlooms, and I didn't finish it because too many people told me publishers wouldn't accept a book that crossed genres the way I was doing it.  So I wrote it as a screenplay called Dangerous Heirlooms, but it didn't go anywhere because I didn't know how to market a script back in the 90s.  When I was cranking out scripts in 2004, I remembered that story, still thought it was cool, but wanted it to be a franchise, so I switched things up, made the protagonist a paranormal investigator, and retitled it Modern Sorcery.  I pitched it to agents and producers, but they all passed saying, "Fantasy doesn't sell."  I said, "I suppose Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings don't count."  And they said those had a preawareness factor built in from the books.  I didn't have that.

Those comments stuck with me, so when I returned to writing novels, Modern Sorcery was first in the queue because I really liked Jonathan Shade, who loves dropping pop culture references in his smart-ass responses.  He was fun to write.  And I loved Kelly Chan, his protector.  I read a lot of mystery/suspense books, and in every series I really enjoyed, the protagonist had a protector--Spenser has Hawk in the Robert B. Parker books.  Elvis Cole has Joe Pike in the Robert Crais novels.  Dennis Lehane gave his duo a guy named Bubba.  Harlan Coben gave Win to Myron Bolitar.  Janet Evanovich gave Ranger and Morrelli to Stephanie Plum.  Jack Reacher is his own protector in the Lee Child books, but there you go.  In any case, all of the protectors were male, so I thought it would be fun to have a female protector and if she were a magically engineered assassin that would be even more cool.  By then, I'd heard about Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I made sure not to read any of them because I didn't want to know what he'd done in case it was too close, and I didn't want to veer away from my original vision for the book.

I did a reading of the first few pages of the novel for Anne Sowards at ROC, and she liked it, so she asked to see the book.  I finished it up, sent it to her, and after a year or so I finally got the rejection saying she enjoyed it, but she didn't love it enough to buy it.  That told me something was off with it, but I didn't have time to look at it because I was working 15 hour days running an online business.

I stayed busy with the business for years.  I made good money, but had no writing time.  Then my father got sick in late 2010.  One Saturday in particular, I dropped him off for a long blood transfusion, and he said I shouldn't just wait there.  I went out to see a movie then spent half an hour browsing in Borders, where I came across Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder.  I loved the first Save the Cat book, so I bought this one and went back to the hospital.  Something in that book triggered me, and I knew what was wrong with Modern Sorcery.  I simply didn't have the time to revise it.

In February 2011, my father died.  Four days later, I got an e-mail from Maggie Bonham.  She and I had talked briefly at a convention the previous October about how she'd released her books as ebooks and was making pretty good money from them.  Several people told me I should put my novel up, and maybe the Hitman short stories.  I didn't have time to think about it.  But Maggie's e-mail changed things because she wanted to buy Modern Sorcery for her new publishing venture, Sky Warrior Books.  She'd heard me read the first chapter at a convention, and it stuck with her for years.  As I didn't know anything about how to go about publishing ebooks and was trying to save my business, which had nose-dived when my father got sick, and was spiraling toward utter destruction, I said yes to what turned out to be a five book contract.  Initially it was a three book contract, but when Maggie learned I had the rights to One-Way Ticket to Midnight, she wanted to publish that one too.  And since she was doing the others, she agreed to take Quick Shots, my short story collection.

One-Way Ticket to Midnight debuted as an ebook in May 2011, followed soon after by Quick Shots.  By then, I'd finished the revision of Modern Sorcery to fix the problem I think kept it from selling before.  That one appeared in September 2011.  It took me longer to write Acheron Highway than I intended, and I've written about that elsewhere.  While I was working on Dragon Gate, 47North accepted Pirates of the Outrigger Rift, which I wrote with Bill D. Allen.  I've told that story before too.  Pirates came out in September 2013, followed by Dragon Gate a month or so later.  My contract with Sky Warrior was complete.

In between all that, I wrote a novella called Night Marshal about a vampire gunslinger in the old west.  I'd been reading blogs by people like Joe Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, David Gaughran, Hugh Howey, and others.  So I had a better idea of how things worked.  I paid a professional editor to edit the novella, and a friend did the cover.  I published Night Marshal in November 2012.  I wasn't happy with the cover.  It looked like a self published book.  But I was in control on Night Marshal, so I checked on The Passive Voice website, found a thread about cover artists, and checked them out.  I really liked Robin Ludwig's work, so I hired her to do the cover for Night Marshal.  I loved that cover.  As soon as I made the switch, the book started selling.  It never took off the way I wanted, but it was one short book in a series I passed off to other writers to continue (and the entries by Glenn R. Sixbury, Rebecca Hodgkins, and James K. Burk are worth your time to read).  It's been a consistent seller, and while I'm not getting rich, it's pulling its weight so I'm not complaining.

I also experimented with short stories.  Some of my own as singles, and some I wrote under a pseudonym.  I made more money on the stories I published under a pseudonym than I made off all my novels with Sky Warrior Books.

Because I could see the effects of the experiments I ran on the titles under my control, I started thinking I really wanted to control my other books too.   

Pirates was selling well, and it has a Chris McGrath cover, and I'd love to sell another book to 47North.  I like advances, and they have great people at that company.  I currently have a novel called Guardians of the Sky--the first in a new series--with them waiting to be read.  If they want it, I'll write more books for them.  If they pass on it, I'll publish it myself.  The thirty day exclusive for their first look has expired, but for now, I think it's good to wait for an answer.  Would I consider going traditional with it?  If the money was good, sure.  But it would need to be more than I think I can make off the book myself.

And that brings us back to the five books I still had with Sky Warrior Books.  They weren't selling well, and I wanted to try some things to get them going.  I had Anubis Nights finished, and off to the editor.  That was going to be my first full-length self published novel.  But I wanted a branded look across my titles.  I couldn't get that without having control.  One of the obvious things to do if a book isn't selling is to change the cover.  As an indie, I can do that.  If a publisher controls the book, I can't.  So I decided I needed to get my rights back.

Over the course of two weeks, I exchanged emails and did some Facebook chats with the publisher.  There were a few deal breakers involved that had to be worked out.  For example,  Sky Warrior still has the audio rights provided they get the audio books produced within the next two years.  I suspect they'll follow through on that as at least one of the books is either in production, or they've signed the voice talent already.  I can live with that.  There are a few percentages owed through the end of the original contracts as the books sell, and that works for me, too.  It was all a matter of keeping the lines of communication open and being willing to compromise on a few things.  My goal was to get the ebook and print rights to the books returned to me, and everything else was negotiable.  It was simple business.

In many ways, I'm fortunate that Maggie and I are good friends, and that we were able to handle this back-and-forth negotiation without damaging that friendship.  That was very important to me.  She got me writing again, and I can't thank her enough for that.  I dedicated Anubis Nights to her.  I'm also pleased that she was willing to negotiate and return the ebook and print rights to me early.

As you can see from the covers along the side of this post, I hired Robin Ludwig to design a branded look across my titles.  I'm fine with Night Marshal remaining as it was because it's a shared-world book now.  And obviously, the book with 47North isn't changing (nor would I want it to--I love that cover).  But the Shade books are all together at last, and they are clearly part of a series, while the collection and One-Way Ticket to Midnight are clearly branded to me, but have a different title size and style to differentiate them from the Shade novels.  If you need covers, Robin Ludwig Designs, Inc. does outstanding work.

And if you need an editor who will keep you honest, know your characters better than you do (her character sheets are amazing!), and who will make sure you don't look like a moron in print I highly recommend Andrea Howe at Blue Falcon Editing.  She doesn't charge extra for commas.  Just don't keep her too busy because I'm going to have another book for her to edit soon.

My indie journey is really just beginning now.  Speaking of which, I need to get back to work on Sunset Specters, the fifth Jonathan Shade novel.

If you're an author and you don't have your rights, your options in this new world of publishing are extremely limited.  If you're with a traditional publisher and you're making a good living, that's awesome.  Congratulations!  I'm not opposed to traditional publishing.  But if you see your sales declining, just know you still have options.  You won't get your rights back from a traditional publisher without incurring legal fees, but you can still move forward with new books.

No matter how you proceed on your journey, I wish you success.