A Different Indie Success Story, or: Exciting Press By (and Beyond) the Numbers

I started this post as another press release in the same style and tone as the ones announcing when Exciting Press has signed authors, but I realized as I wrote it that it required a different approach. I need to tell a story, here, because while “self-publishing success stories” have become a common enough meme in publishing, I see fewer and fewer people pause to consider what success means, and I think I need to.

Exciting Press is, for me, a deeply personal investment and enterprise. After a solid decade spent chasing the golden publishing ring of agent representation and ginormous bookdeals but generally finding nothing but (then-deserved) rejection, I became rather bitter. Now, candidly, it was then-deserved; a lot of the time I spent querying I focused on a novel that might be fun in its way but isn’t very good, and looking back I’m relieved it never saw the light of day. I’m relieved no paperback version of that story exists with my name on its spine. But for a long time I didn’t feel that way. For a long time all I felt was frustration and resentment.

This became particularly bad immediately after I earned a master’s degree in fiction and screenwriting from USC, at least partly because I knew, very deeply, that I’d gone to USC and become a better writer. I had a degree conferred by one of the top schools in the world. And I knew, looking at my prose, it wasn’t just competent; I’m a lot more confident in my style. It’s not to everyone’s liking–what is?–but I knew what I was producing was good.

And yet I was still getting rejections. The rejections were different, then; there were fewer forms, and more notes that my writing was good but there was uncertainty in the market. The market that supported Snooki and Twilight.

This isn’t about those.

This is about the moment I got a Kindle 3G, the one with the keyboard. This is about the moment I opened that simple cardboard box and held that new gadget in my hands and understood, at a visceral level, that suddenly everything I’d ever wanted was completely different than I’d ever realized. It was a moment when I realized I was studying business and marketing for a reason I hadn’t previously understood. I remember standing in my Jersey City apartment–so many of my life epiphanies regarding writing seem to have occurred in Jersey City apartments–and I started up my new Kindle, and I admired it, and then I went to my then-roommate–a girl who was then also my editrix and is now both my wife and Exciting Press’ executive editor–and I said, “I think–I think I can do this. I think I can make an ebook and sell it.”

And she said seven simple words: “Not before I read it you’re not.”

*

By then I’d already published a collection of short fiction, but it was more an experimental thing. The market for short fiction is crap; most of the time, short fiction is more about getting publication credits in some literary journal or other than about getting stories to readers. I never cared about publication credits, which was why, back in 2007, there wasn’t much risk involved in my publishing my self-titled debut collection on Lulu. It was a collection of short stories, fiction, and poetry; it was not work I was hoping to get representation for or sell. It was more of a calling card than anything.

Meets Girl was not. Meets Girl was a risk. It was a novel, and publishing it meant that I burned through first-publication rights. There was a time most agents and publishing professionals held that no publishers would touch a book after that. They’ve since been demonstrated completely wrong, but that wasn’t the case then.

Then, there was a risk, but it was a calculated risk and I was willing to take it. I could only have one debut novel, even if I’d already had a debut book, but then I realized I wasn’t interested in the debut idea. I’d always wanted a career, and I decided that publishing Meets Girl on Kindle would be a good next step.

This isn’t your usual success story. I published Meets Girl in November 2010.

Pretty much nothing happened.

I sold out of a limited-edition print pre-sale, but it was very, very limited. I serialized it here on this site and then published it on the Kindle store just after Thanksgiving.

It sold several hands full of copies.

I admit, there is a part of me that wishes here my story were different. Here is where my story could have gone all Locke-ian or Hocking-esque. I published a novel that did exceedingly well and made thousands of dollars straightaway.

My success story isn’t like that. But I’m realizing more and more that it is one nonetheless.

*

Meets Girl didn’t sell spectacularly well at first, but it did sell. It started out with some great support for which I’m grateful.

For a lot of authors, the big indie-to-corporate success story begins a few months after their work was published on Kindle; some agent or editor sees it high atop the lists, asks for a copy, sells it to Simon & Schuster.

A few months after I published Meets Girl, mine diverged when I published a review of Nick Earls’ Perfect Skin on my website. I included a mention to bring it to his attention when I tweeted the link.

And Nick and I got to chatting. Nick’s been one of my favorite authors since I read Perfect Skin in 2001. His work is funny and warm and real, and I read everything I could find. This was back before the days of Kindle; I perused ABE and other sites, searching for old paperbacks and editions published only in foreign lands. Some I still couldn’t find. I’d noticed Nick’s work wasn’t on Kindle, and I told him I might be able to help with that. I’d published a few things on Kindle already, and I was comfortable enough with the process I thought I could be of service.

A few days later, I was talking to Nick’s agent, the wonderful Pippa Masson at Curtis Brown Australia.

It was surreal to be talking to an agent about publishing an author’s work. I’d always been the author in question. And I still was an author, but I’d started publishing and could help her client, and we made arrangements for me to do exactly that. It took some legal legwork, lots of filing of paperwork, and then suddenly I had a company, Exciting Endeavors LLC, of which Exciting Press was a subsidiary, and I collaborated with an intellectual property lawyer on a license agreement that completely changed the publishing paradigm, and I brought that agreement to Nick and Pippa, and they suggested a few changes, and I suggested a few possibilities, and together we revised it and signed it and digitally shook hands and suddenly I was Nick Earls’ digital publisher in every region except Australia and New Zealand, where he already had a close relationship with a publisher.

Perfect Skin was included in those agreements.

I was ecstatic.

*

Exciting Press published half a dozen of Nick’s titles that December of 2011. We’d also published The Prodigal Hour that summer, and I published a handful of stories and essays, as well as an academic piece I wrote in college concerning Arthur Conan Doyle and William Carlos Williams.

That was 2011. We ended that year with Nick signed and a plan to build out a backlist. We had maybe a dozen titles.

By the end of 2012, we had nearly 40, and we’d signed James Brown, Darren Groth, Miya Kressin, Martin Lastrapes, and Kurt Wenzel. I’m talking right now to a fabulous and talented writer about signing her work and need to put together a publishing plan for her, and I’m looking forward to announcing that deal soon. We’ve got a lot of stories, novellas, novels, and essays available, with more to come.

Last year, our books combined for nearly 50,000 downloads and 5000 sales. Our revenue grew by several thousand percent, and I expect it will keep doing so. Of course, if you work that math out, you won’t be incorrect to point out that that averages out to not much more than 125 sales per title, but the caveat is that a lot of titles–e.g., the academic essay I published–sell pretty much no copies at all. Some are the very definition of niche titles and have limited appeal, but let’s be honest; even the business model used by corporations factors in that some books will sell very few copies while some very few others will sell a bunch. People note all the time that the vast success of one or two titles allows a big corporation to support a smaller title that won’t sell in numbers so high, and that’s no different here. A couple of our titles sold several hundred copies each. A couple of our titles were bought only once or twice over the course of the entire year.

We now have Nick’s story “Welcome to Normal” live on both iOS and Kindle for free, always (in most territories). We’re hoping “All Those Ways of Leaving” will soon join it.

By the end of last year, Nick’s Perfect Skin reached the top 100 paid chart, which was huge for us. For an hour at least, Perfect Skin was the number 100 bestselling novel on all of Amazon. It slipped, perhaps, but we can’t underestimate how many new readers are finding the work. We’re already expanding to the iBookstore and will continue to do so.

We’re not putting up numbers like Konrath or Howey, but we are gaining numbers every day. Readers downloaded our books nearly 50,000 times during 2012; it’s only April of 2013 and already we’ve managed half that many. We’re on pace to surpass it. We’re also on pace to surpass both individual and overall sales; we already are, year over year, and I anticipate that growing into the iBooks market will only help that along.

Even more important, however, and one of the reasons I wanted to write this and share this story, is that it’s not all about sales. Exciting Press, even as a whole, doesn’t have numbers like Konrath or Locke, but we don’t write books like that, either. It’s frustrating to see so much of the narrative regarding independent publishing—often called “self-publishing”—revolve solely around sales, because there’s so much more to reading and books than bestsellers. We’re playing a longer game—one that doesn’t consider shelf life or print runs in its strategy but rather overall quality of experience and engagement. Don’t take me wrong that we don’t ultimately hope to reach countless readers, but our priorities here and now are great stories and great writing at great prices.

Along the way, we’ve completely up-ended the business model of publishing. In the old corporate system, authors found agents, who negotiated with big publishers regarding the sale of rights, which publishers purchased by offering an advance against royalties. Meaning that an author who received a $5000 advance (which is fairly common) would not see a dime of royalty until after the novel in question had made that much in royalties—not in revenue, or profit, but actually in royalties. After the $5000 in royalties had been earned, authors might receive something like 10% or 15% of sales, so long as the publisher retained the rights, which publishers generally did until those rights reverted back to the author. Some authors had to pay for that to happen.

Further, in the previous model, publishers sent books to bookstores, who could display books for sale for a certain period of time (say, three months), and then return any unsold copies to publishers without having to pay for them. Those returns counted against income/royalties.

Or something close to. Because honestly, I think it barely makes sense even if you know the system. Publishing contracts are huge long documents, pages after pages of legalese, with publishers doing everything they can to exploit the work as much as they can but pay as little as they can to do so.

And I think it’s crap.

Maybe because I started as an author. Maybe because I became an author mainly so that I could read the books I wanted to read that didn’t exist yet (so I had to write them). Everything I do as an author serves my desires as a reader, and everything I do as a publisher serves what I want as an author.

If I were an author, I’d want to keep my rights. All of them. Advances are nice, but I always said that I wanted to get a huge advance just so I could reinvest the money in publicity, promotions, and marketing, because from everything I’d ever heard—and now everything I ever see—publishers’ marketing strategies could be far more effective. And especially now, when digital and social media are both becoming so important.

And I started to think about what I’d want. I wouldn’t want to give up my rights, but I’d license them. I’d want to focus on digital—after getting a Kindle, I haven’t set foot in a bookstore in years. An advance would be nice, but I’d be happy enough to have higher royalties.

Most of all, as an author, I’d want to participate. I wouldn’t want to just hand in a manuscript and hope for the best. I’d want to be involved in cover design and even developing marketing strategy. I’d want my book in the hands of a good editor—and one who was trained as such, and studied writing and stories and fiction, not simply managed to land a good internship and stick around.

And so that’s what I decided to build.

Exciting Press uses a license agreement; as publisher, Exciting Press licenses as-exclusive-as-I-can get global digital rights from each author signed, and after launch year, that license lasts seven years. In exchange for that seven-year license, we give authors 70% of all net revenue from every sale. We focused on Kindle initially, and what that meant was that for every novel we sold at $4.99, Amazon took 30%, and we took 30% of what was left, and everything else went to the author. In addition, we do all editing, coding, formatting, and designing. And so far as marketing, we do the best we can with what we’ve got. All of the money we’ve taken in so far has gone either right back to the author or to advertising opportunities we’ve found.

You might notice neither advances nor returns factor into that business model. We’re pretty happy about that.

We’re an equal partner, and what we aim to do is sign only those books we believe so deeply in we want to be part of their development and growth out there in the world. So far, the authors we’ve signed have come mainly from either invitation or referral; we’re too focused on our authors to read submissions. And our authors are equal partners; many offer cover suggestions and design tweaks, and all are proactive about getting work out there and engaging with readers.

Because that’s the thing, and why I had to tell this story rather than write another press release. Publishing is a button. Amazon has ensured that getting work out there requires nothing more than a laptop, some software, and an Internet connection. What matters, then, is not getting books published but rather writing great stories and then developing a relationship with readers—which we all are. It’s not just throwing as many titles as one can up onto the platform of one’s choice and hoping readers find them; it’s about knowing authors and listening to them and their readers and enhancing the relationship between the two. We don’t want to be a middle-man; we want to be a facilitator. We want to strengthen and deepen authors’ relationship with their readers, however we can.

So far, we think it’s working. We’re Exciting Press. We’re independent, digital literature, and we want to be your favorite publisher by introducing you to your next favorite author. And we have some stories we’d like you to meet . . .