Here’s the big news: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has acquired the print and ebook rights to The Spaceship Next Door!
Their edition, which you can already find available for preorder online, will be released on September 4th, 2018. The current editions will remain available until that time, and since I’m retaining audio rights, there will be no change in the Steve Carlson-narrated version of the book.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s an unnecessarily lengthy rumination on the publishing industry.
(Aside: I apologize in advance for the length of what follows; I’ve had three months to think about what I was going to say, and it turns out that means saying entirely too much.)
I’m surprised too
There are going to be two kinds of reactions to this news. The people who know me well as an indie-published author and who are also involved in the self-publishing industry, will say, “but why would you do this?” Everyone else will say, “of course, why wouldn’t you do this?”
Most of what I have to talk about next will be directed primarily at the first group, because I’ve been writing about self-publishing for a little while now, but the rest of you are welcome to read along since this is sort of interesting.
The first thing I want you to understand is that when this offer initially came through—in December, about three months ago—I turned it down.
What I countered with was print-only. I knew it could be done, because one of the imprint’s biggest names is Hugh Howey, and that’s more or less the deal he has. (The imprint is John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books.)
When the offer came, I was about ten days away from two important things taking place in the same week. First, I had a Bookbub promo coming up for The Spaceship Next Door, and second, right after the promo the sequel to TSND—The Frequency of Aliens—was going to be released. This is the kind of convergence of events an indie author waits a lifetime for. Add to that the subsequent release of the audio edition of the sequel, and I was looking at a very good couple of months when their offer showed up in my email box.
This is why I asked for print-only when HMH asked for print-and-ebook, and why I was prepared to walk away if I didn’t get it.
A closer look
Then I started to look a little more closely at my own numbers. (Spoiler: They aren’t Hugh Howey-level numbers, which is the short version of why I don’t have the same deal.)
I don’t ordinarily break down my sales by title, because unit sales mean far less to me than aggregate earnings, which I do track rather carefully. But when I went back and counted the numbers for just The Spaceship Next Door, I discovered something interesting: my audio sales, by unit, were nearly equal to my ebook sales. The audio sales weren’t the surprise; I thought I was selling more ebooks than I actually was.
I already knew the numbers were going to be weird, because the audio edition had visited the top 100 on Audible multiple times, and spent more than a day at #1. But I didn’t know they were that weird.
I can’t speak for them, but I’m pretty sure HMH was seeing the same thing I was: I should be selling a lot more ebooks than I am. Using some admittedly anecdotal numbers, the average indie title’s audio sales should be roughly 10% of ebook sales. If that’s true, TSND should be selling about 10x as much as it actually is.
So why isn’t it?
I have been deeply involved in the ups and downs of the indie book industry for a few years now, and I can tell you with some measure of authority that as far as The Spaceship Next Door (and really, my entire career) is concerned, I haven’t been doing anything right:
- TSND was written and sold as a standalone book, which is an enormous indie no-no, because standalone books are not supposed to work for us and series books are the way to go. (Yes it has a sequel now, but the vast majority of readers bought it knowing there was no second book.)
- It wasn’t written with a genre market in mind. (There is a whole conversation underneath that sentence that uses the phrase “write to market”, which I’m not going to get into here.)
- It doesn’t meet any genre expectations in terms of story.
- That story is essentially a two-act structure, which outside of Chekhov’s plays and maybe Dune, you just don’t see.
- Parts of it are in omniscient third person, which nobody writes in any more.
- It has a sixteen year old main character and isn’t marketed as young adult, although it could be.
- It’s priced about $2 too high, according to most charts.
If you’re looking for my missing ebook sales, the answer could be somewhere above, but allow me this one caveat: it’s only true if looking at the indie ebook marketplace as a separate thing, that caters to a subset of readers. Success with those readers can be lucrative, but that doesn’t mean it’s the whole marketplace.
I think what has happened here is that The Spaceship Next Door peaked as an ebook, but only in the indie corner of the market. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t successful in it, only that I don’t have any more upward mobility in that market, as far as this title is concerned.
If you’ll forgive the fact that this sounds a bit arrogant, the indie marketplace isn’t really great at dealing with a sui generis product, and that’s what The Spaceship Next Door is. That it has still succeeded speaks, I think, to the book’s potential for wider appeal. So far the only market where it’s reached that potential has been on Audible.
The continued importance of print
Meanwhile, as far as print goes, it definitely hasn’t reached its potential.
I have a print edition for sale right now, through Createspace. It’s a perfectly good edition, nicely formatted through Vellum and all that. You can buy a copy of it online any time. There are just two problems.
- Because it’s a print-on-demand (POD) edition in an industry where allowance for returns exists, brick-and-mortar bookstores won’t carry the book. This has to do with warehousing and the fact that you can’t unprint a print-on-demand copy and a few other things. It’s complicated and annoying, and I could go on about what is essentially an antiquated merchandising arrangement between publishers and bookstores, but this is not the time and it wouldn’t change the facts anyway.
- The higher per-unit costs of a POD book means that I have to price the book higher than the industry standard for a book of this kind in order to make a net profit.
The second point is more than a little ironic. I can price my ebooks at considerably less than the traditional publishing industry standard, because I’m not splitting the net with anybody. (And also because I’m sane enough to recognize that the value of something is whatever a lot of people are willing to pay. This is a different conversation.) In other words, my ebook prices are lower than a publisher’s ebook prices. However, since traditional publishers own the means of mass production for print books, their per-unit costs are lower than mine, which means they can offer a print edition for less than I can.
The first point is more important, though: a publisher can get the book into bookstores, and I can’t.
Here is where some of the indie authors reading this are saying “but print is dead/dying, bookstores are dead/dying, and traditional publishing is dead/dying so why do you want to do this?”
I know they’re saying this because I’ve said it myself. I just no longer think it’s true.
Nine markets walk into a bar
So the marketplace for indie print is—to put it generously—extremely small, while the US print market as a whole happens to be huge, and almost completely dominated by traditional publishing. (It also remains much larger than the ebook market, which is one reason I believe predictions of its demise are woefully premature.) The other print markets are international English language, and international translations.
There may be two audio markets: Audible exclusive and non-exclusive wide. The latter is not all that strong right now, but in another year I’m going to have to make a tough decision.
As for ebook markets, I think there are at least three, each relying on different strategies to reach different customers. There is the indie market I’ve discussed above, which prices ebooks low on a variety of platforms, and there is the traditionally published market, which prices ebooks higher and generally treats the ebooks as a product that is secondary to the print edition.
There’s some customer crossover between these markets, but not as much as one might think. Some readers simply won’t pay more than X for an ebook because they don’t like the price point; others refuse to pay as little as X for an ebook because of a presumption of quality.
The third ebook market is subscription, which for this discussion means Kindle Unlimited. I have seen it argued (both from the indie side and the traditional side) that KU cannibalizes sales from the paying ebook markets. I think it’s healthier to think of it as a different marketplace entirely: if someone reads books only in KU, they aren’t going to pay for my book, and if my book isn’t in KU they aren’t going to read my book.
I’d like to get into that market, but right now the only way for me to do that is to be exclusive to Amazon, which I’m not willing to do. However, one of the things that appealed to me about the HMH contract was that they can get into KU while still distributed wide. (As an example, you can get The Handmaid’s Tale in KU.)
It’s possible to succeed wildly by selling well in any one of these markets, and it’s possible to be successful while only in one, which is why the Kindle Unlimited vs. Wide debate in indie publishing is eternal and endless. The Spaceship Next Door succeeded as much as I could in one of the ebook markets, not at all in the print market, and very much in the audiobook market.
I think the future for this book at this time is the deal I just signed, and I think that because:
- It’s a way into the print market
- It may be a way into the KU market
- I keep audio
- I’m trading the indie ebook market (which I think the book has peaked in) for the trad pub ebook market
Also, if you’re curious, yes I really did put this much thought into it. Like I said, I had three months to work it out.
The next thing the indie authors reading this are thinking is, but what about that contract? I’m not going to provide contract details here beyond what’s already been said, but if anyone would like to reach out privately, I can share a little.
And stay tuned for updates. This is going to be an interesting ride.
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