Indie Interview: Nick Earls

Nick Earls is a traditionally published Australian author who went with indie press Exciting Press, run by author Will Entrekin, to crack the US ebook market. He’s joining us today to talk about his experience, especially the differences between traditional and indie publishing (hint: fewer meeting hurdles).

Tell us a little about your indie book or books, for readers who aren’t familiar with your work. 

Reviewers have compared my work to that of JD Salinger, Martin Amis, Jeffrey Eugenides, VS Naipaul, Woody Allen, Raymond Carver and, most often, Nick Hornby. Perhaps that just shows I’ve been reviewed a lot, since I don’t think I can draw the Venn diagram where all those writers intersect. I’m interested in people and how they work, so that’s what I write about. Comedy often finds its way in there, one way or another.

As far as my indie e-books go, we’ve started by releasing a novel, a couple of novellas and some short stories, and I think they give some idea of my range, from carefully observed small moments in regular lives to slapstick involving body parts to one story featuring a unicorn. There will be more to come in the months ahead (more e-books, probably not more unicorns).

Monica Bloom is the novel, and the one that’s had the Salinger and Eugenides comparisons. It’s about a sixteen-year-old falling in love for the first time with a girl who, due to circumstances, he meets only five times. It’s set thirty years ago, because it couldn’t work the same way in a world full of Facebook and cellphones. And because I know what it was like to be sixteen thirty years ago. Matt, the central character, is a recent arrival at school and doesn’t fit in, but he feels things intensely, even if he never lets them out. The novel puts the reader in his head, probably years later.

I can’t deny that the story line featuring Monica has some connection with my life back then, even if the rest of my life (school and family) was very different to Matt’s. My Monica-equivalent ended up in the US, I think. I keep wondering if this story will find its way to her. (My next thought, of course, is that she shared none of my feelings back then, will find the whole idea of the book unspeakably weird and the first thing I know of her reading it is a court order requiring me to stay at least 150 yards away from her. So let me be clear: it’s totally fiction.)

When you explained to your blog readers why you were going indie, you cited the speed of change in the industry. Do you think that speed is here to stay, or is it just part of a transitional phase? 

Can I get away with saying I think it’s a little of both? In one sense it’s a quantum leap. Humans have always been storytellers, and will keep being storytellers, but there have only been a handful of times in human history when we’ve seen a change in the vessel in which the story comes. A few thousand years ago, stories moved from being only oral to also appearing in written form. Around 1450, the invention of moveable type led to the price of books plummeting, availability skyrocketing and beginnings of mass literacy. Five and a half centuries later, e-books are the next vessel change. They are hugely significant because their set-up cost is low, their unit cost is zero and they lend themselves to distribution mechanisms that defy those put in place by 20th century publishing. They are a big, big deal.

We’ll keep having change, but most of the time it won’t be seismic. The introduction of, say, the iPad as a reading platform is some kind of change, but it’s just a new development down the e-book track. We’ll see a lot more changes in gadgets – just as we did with printing presses between 1450 and now, though probably at higher speed – but most will just be better, slicker ways of doing what we do, rather than anything requiring an entire rethink of how an industry works.

For now, though, we’re in the middle of the quantum leap, and perhaps starting to get some sense of where we might land.

How has your indie experience differed from your traditional publishing experience? Which do you prefer?

So far, I’m not aware of one decision that had to wait for a meeting.

I’ve appreciated the directness, responsiveness and agility that indie publishing can offer. It’s been an entirely positive experience bringing these books to market.

As far as big traditional publishing companies go, I’ve appreciated the money they’ve given me, the money they’ve put behind pushing my books and the chance to get some leverage from their brands. I would say I’ve also benefited from quality editorial input and smart marketing and promotional campaigns – because I have at times – but indie publishing can offer those too.

What I wanted for my e-books was someone who was going all-in – someone who was embracing the publishing and selling of e-books as their core business, rather than semi-reluctantly bolting it on as a sideline for fear of missing out. And someone who saw my backlist as a plus and who wanted to sell short stories and novellas as well as novels, and knew how to do it. Indie publishing offered that.

What steps did you take before publishing to get feedback on the quality of the story? 

Almost all of these stories have been through rigorous editing processes (with publishing houses or magazine/journal editors) in order to be published in Australia. As time goes on, I could see myself putting out more material as e-book originals (the novella, Grass Valley, is my first) and I know editors I can call upon to give me input.

How did you find an editor to work with for the project? What tips would you offer for others who are looking for an editor? 

I’ve been lucky that publishing companies have found some great editors for me. When it came to being e-published, Will Entrekin from Exciting Press found me. He was already a reader of my books and saw a frustrated tweet of mine one day about something to do with e-books – it may have been the uncompetitive price of my e-books in Australia, or yet another person in the US asking why my books weren’t available there.

Anyway, Will tweeted back. We talked at some length over a period of months and at the end of it I was convinced – and my agent was convinced – that this was the direction for me. I’m with Exciting Press because of some features I think writers should look for in a publishing partner. I want to work with someone who prioritises authors in what they say and do, and in their contracts. I want someone who connects with my work and has an understanding of who my readership might be and how to reach them. I want someone who knows how to set up an e-book and create a look for it, and for an author. I want someone who will put more time and effort into understanding Amazon etc than I ever want to, leaving me free to create the content. I want to work with experts rather than to have to be the expert. I want to tell stories.

If you find an expert who gets you, they’re worth their slice of the pie.

What were the biggest surprises you had before publication? After? 

I was surprised how quick and easy it was. We’re only just reaching ‘after’ now, so I’m yet to be surprised here yet. And hoping any surprises will be good ones.

What’s been the most challenging part of the process? Is that different from your experience with traditional publishing?

I’m expecting the selling of the books to be the big challenge. The Kindle Store has 1.6 million titles for sale (so far). Six of them are my e-books. They’re easy to find if you go looking for them, but they need to be highly discoverable as well. To be blunt about it, you need your work to be on the screens and in the faces of millions of people who have never heard of you, in the hope that many thousands of them will think ‘That could be for me.’ Then you need to hope they liked it, and that good old-fashioned word of mouth (including in its new guises, such as five-star reviews on Amazon) kicks in. You can’t really control that, but the challenge is starting the momentum in the first place.

Traditional publishing – before internet book-selling as well as before e-books – saw your book competing with a few thousand others in each bookshop rather than 1.6 million. And people found books differently. If your publisher had acquired some real estate for you at the front of the shop, convinced the owner to take enough copies that they’d be noticeable and lined up media coverage across your first month, you had a chance of building a platform before standing back and hoping for word of mouth.

Typing that now and reading it back, it starts to feel like bookselling in the 1890s rather than the 1990s. What you need for your e-books is a publisher who understands the things that take the place of each bit of that old way of selling books. I still want to sell paper books in terrestrial bookshops but, if people are buying fewer of them, I can’t afford not to think in new ways too.

One significant difference between indie and traditional publishers is the way the money moves. With traditional publishing, there’s an advance – and sometimes a sizeable one – up front. That gives you money to live on, and it gives the publisher a financial incentive to make your book sell. Indie e-book publishing doesn’t have that, but even with a traditional publisher you don’t want their only incentive to be that you cost them a lot of money that they now need to earn back. You want someone to be driven to sell your work because they’re passionate about it, and about getting it to as many of its natural readers as possible. That’s the case either way, but with a traditional publisher there’s maybe more risk of your editor’s passion being diluted as your work passes through many other hands and ends with a travel-weary sales rep flicking through a powerpoint for a time-poor bookseller (or a buyer from a major chain who might take 0 or 20,000 copies depending on a whole bunch of rational and irrational factors which an author will never become aware of).

Either way, in the end you need to sell books to make a living. Traditional publishers don’t keep signing you up for big advances forever if you aren’t selling books.

What advice would you offer for currently unpublished writers considering the indie route? How about for traditionally published authors considering switching?

Think through what you want from the experience and make a checklist of the things you’d be looking for in anyone you’d work with. Do you simply want to be published, so that friends and family can appreciate your work in an easy-to-read format? Do you want to make it your career, or a part of it? Those are two very different things, requiring very different solutions.

I’ve mentioned above some of the things on my checklist. In the end maybe it gets down to working out the areas in which you are or want to be the expert, acquiring any necessary skills you don’t have and partnering wisely to outsource the rest.

The most important thing has never changed: keep working to turn out the best writing you can. Then play your role – whatever you and your team have decided that will be – in bringing it to market. Then don’t get stressed about the things you can’t control. Stop sitting on Amazon hitting the refresh button to see if your ranking has climbed from 1.4 million to 1.3 million, and get back to the writing. (If you’re closing in on the top ten, someone will tell you and you are then entitled to some time working the refresh button – success does need to be savoured, after all.)

For traditionally published authors, I’d say weigh up the deal. See what’s on offer for you on each side of the fence. But get into the game, because you need to be there. Don’t let your publishers treat e-books as a sideline. Amazon sold a million Kindles each week in December, and your work needs to be on as many of them as possible. And on iPads and Nooks and a whole bunch of devices I’ve never heard of or seen.

If a traditional publisher is offering you an insane amount of money up front then, sure, go ahead and take it, but at the very least you owe it to yourself to pretend to hold out for a while until they pitch a considered e-book strategy to you.

Is there any indie “conventional wisdom” you disagree with? Why? 

I’m not a fan of the 99c novel pricepoint. For a start, if you make it all about price, what’s next after 99c? The 89c novel? The 49c novel? The 9c novel? Just because set-up costs are low and unit costs zero doesn’t mean we should put such a low price on our work.

Good novels absorb me for hours. I’m not looking to pay 99c for that. A good novel is way, way better than 99c. Coffee is $3 or more per cup here, and the best cup of coffee in my life has not satisfied me as much or for as long as a great novel.

I also think 99c looks desperate. It risks looking as though you thought it couldn’t sell for over a dollar.

And I believe writers deserve a return for their hard work. Writing’s my job. People who make tables or suits or burgers don’t as a matter of routine go close to giving them away.

I’m not against occasional giveaways or discounts as a strategy and I actually want my books to be affordable – no one is more troubled by expensive books than the author – but I think we should believe in ourselves enough to set higher pricepoints than the 99c novel.

For now, I’m working on $4.99 for a novel, $2.99 for a novella and 99c for a short story. That novel price is cheaper than any I’ve seen for (non-remaindered) paper books in Australia in my life as a consumer, but it still earns me something, as it should.

If a novel is worth reading, $4.99 is a bargain. If it’s not worth reading, 99c isn’t.

The big discussion point lately has been KDP Select and Amazon’s demand for exclusivity in exchange for participation. What are your thoughts on the tradeoffs? 

This is mostly one of those areas where I’ve outsourced and am relying on the expertise of others (in my case, Will Entrekin at Exciting Press and my agent).

I guess, like anything else, it’s worth doing a cost/benefit analysis. Amazon has a massive share of the market, so it’s not like doing an exclusive deal with someone with a very small market share. If Amazon sets the price, and it’s a heavily discounted price, what are you getting in return? A higher percentage? A lot more sales? A much bigger readership for your next book? Some people seem to be saying yes to at least the second and third.

It could be particularly beneficial for people with a big backlist, or with a lot of new titles ready to publish.

One of the challenges for indie authors has been the large volume of work out there that isn’t ready for publication, especially 

since readers have limited tools to search through the pile for the quality books. Do you think this will always be a problem, or is it just a phase in the evolution of epublishing? 

That’s a good question, and I guess we’ll see in the years ahead. I think the system and each of us will develop new sets of filters and quality control mechanisms to work like those we’ve used when browsing in physical bookstores. We’ll need to. Soon enough, there will be 10 million stories in the Kindle Store and that’s way too deep a pool to wade in. Maybe we won’t browse at all. Maybe we’ll become even more influenced by recommendations and promotions, just to cut out some of the noise.

Nick Earls is the author of twelve novels and two collections of short stories. His books have won awards and appeared on bestseller lists in Australia and the UK. Two of his novels have been adapted into feature films and five into plays. He studied medicine and subsequently worked as a doctor before becoming a full-time writer in the late 1990s. He lives in Brisbane, Australia.

One Comment on “Indie Interview: Nick Earls”

  1. An update on my feelings on KDP Select: we’ve taken my most Valentine’s-ready short story, enrolled it and it’s currently set to free. Day One and it’s #80 in ‘Humour’ …

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