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Writers: Making a Living Off of Kindle?

So much media attention has been given to the iPad and to eBooks lately that it made GalleyCat wonder aloud: Is it possible for an author to make a living from selling eBooks?

Author, J.A. Konrath of the Jack Daniels series says, “Yes.” He has successfully built a career and a living wage doing exactly that. In our interview with him, he tells us exactly how he did it, what the advantages and disadvantages are of publishing traditionally and why he says his books are outselling even bestselling authors such as James Patterson.


What is the Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels series about and what is your writing process from story concept to finished novel?

Jack is a forty-seven year old Chicago cop, and she chases serial killers and other assorted loonies. The books are fast paced–lots of action and dialog–with some humor thrown in to break-up the suspense.

Which you do you enjoy more; traditional publishing or independent publishing, and why?

I enjoy writing. Publishing… not so much. I’ve been lucky to work with some very talented people in the publishing world, and the print industry has allowed me to write full time. I’m proud of my books, and I’m pleased to be earning royalties.

Unfortunately, the print world is flawed. The business model–where books can be returned, and where a 50% sell-though is considered acceptable–is archaic and wasteful. Writers get small royalties, little say in how their books are marketed and sold, and simple things like cover and title approval are unheard of unless you’re a huge bestseller.

Self-publishing is a huge pain. It allows for more control, but the workload is doubled. I prefer to write stories, not spend hours formatting HTML.

You seem to have a natural knack for branding. What gave you the idea to do the Jack Daniels series? And how important was branding for success?

I just try to write entertaining books that are easily identifiable. A reader doesn’t need to know my name, my titles, or my characters, and they can still find me by asking a bookseller “Who does those thrillers that are all named after drinks?”

The easier you are to find, and to remember, the more books you’ll sell.

You design your own covers? How much can author expect to pay to design their own covers with the quality that you have?

A friend of mine, Carl Graves, does my indie covers. Carl charges between $300 and $1000 per cover, depending on the amount of work that needs to be done.

Is it really possible to make a living from selling eBooks on Kindle? Could someone actually give up their day job? And if so, how long would it take to do so?

I’m currently selling 180 ebooks a day on Kindle. My ebooks are also available on Nook and iPad through Smashwords, but I don’t have those sales figures yet.

When the royalty rate for Amazon switches to 70%, I’ll be earning $2.04 on a $2.99 ebook. That’s $134,000 a year. I also plan on uploading three more ebooks this month, which I expect will sell well because fans are anticipating them.

How many books have you sold on Kindle total from day one? How long did it take for you to come to the point where you could see yourself making a living?

I’ve sold 40,000 ebooks since last April. At first, I was amused to be paying my mortgage with Kindle earnings. But now it’s turning into serious money.

This all happened by accident. Some Kindle owners emailed me, asking if I could make my early, unpublished books available for them to read. I uploaded them using Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (dtp.amazon.com) and charged $1.99. Readers like low prices. And why wouldn’t they? Two or three bucks is less than a cup of coffee. It’s an impulse purchase, and perfect for intangible, digital content which costs almost nothing to copy and deliver.

What would be the winning formula to stand out from the thousands of other eBooks on Kindle?

I’m not sure you have to stand out. Writers aren’t in competition with one another. It isn’t a zero sum game. If you have a good book, a good cover, a good product description, and a low price, you can sell well.

Currently, on the Police Procedure Bestseller Kindle list, my ebooks occupy ten of the top hundred spots. I’m outselling James Patterson, JD Robb, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Jonathan Kellerman, and many other heavyweights. Simply because I’m cheaper.

Print publishers have said that a low ebook price “devalues” the book. That’s silly. The value of a book isn’t its cover price. The value of a book is how much money it earns. On several of my ebooks, I’ve earned more than the average advance NY gives to a debut novelist. And I’m earning more money on a $1.99 ebook than I earn on a $7.99 paperback.

If you had to it all over again, would you have been published traditionally? What advantages/disadvantages does a new author have when choosing to traditionally publish or independently publish?

Much as I love to write, it’s a job. I go where the money is. Seven years ago, when I got started in this business, the only way to make money was by getting into print. Now I’m making $4k a month selling ebooks that NY rejected.

Ebooks are gold that publishers aren’t doing a good mining. When a single author uploading his own books to Amazon can earn more money than a large NY publisher exploiting both print and erights, there’s something amiss.

My first Jack Daniels novel, Whiskey Sour, has sold 2500 ebooks since 2004, and earned me around $2500. Compare that to the ebooks I’ve self-published. My top five titles are now averaging 800 sales per month, and those numbers are going up. On my top selling ebook, I’ve earned more money in 45 days than Whiskey Sour has earned in 5 years.

Why? Price. My publisher (and all publishers) are pricing ebooks too high.

What did you do to build your writer’s platform and build a fan base large enough to support yourself?

My blog and website offer content in the form of information and entertainment. You can still get the ebooks I’m selling on Kindle for free on my website, and I’ve done over 500 posts about publishing on my blog. I’m active on social networks, and do my best to stay in the public eye.

In real life, I’ve signed at over 1200 bookstores, and have spoken at hundreds of libraries, schools, conventions, and book fairs.

Out of all the things you’ve tried to promote yourself what was a total waste of time and what actually worked to not only build awareness but actually sell eBooks?

I’m not a huge fan of advertising. I’ve never bought a book based on an ad, so I don’t use ads to sell my stuff. I once mailed letters to 7000 libraries, which was an expensive and time-consuming undertaking that didn’t really seem to pay off.

But, honestly, I really haven’t done much promotion for my ebooks. I blog about them, and I occasionally post on a few forums like Kindleboards.com. I’ve been fortunate to get some good reviews, and decent word-of-mouth. People surfing Amazon happen to find my books, either on the bestseller lists or as an Amazon recommendation (Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought), and for $1.99 decide to give them a try. Once they do, some readers order all of my books; something I know happens because I get daily emails from new fans.

My bestselling ebook is called The List–a thriller with a sense of humor.

The List isn’t just outselling all Kindle police procedure ebooks, it’s also outselling all print police procedure novels. I’ve never even come close to doing that with my print books.

Sort of makes you think about where the future of publishing is headed, doesn’t it?

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