Category Archives: obituarist

The Obituarist – Inbox Zero

One short story this month wasn’t enough.

Two short stories this month wasn’t enough.

No, this is a THREE-STORY MONTH – and what better way to hit the trifecta than with a sequel to The Obituarist?

‘Inbox Zero’ is a short story set a while after The Obituarist, in which social media undertaker Kendall Barber is working for a new client, a publisher of customised Bibles. When settling accounts for his recently deceased client, Kendall comes across a Deathswitch email – a message the dead man wanted sent to his family after he passed away. What’s in the email – and why is Kendall’s client so eager to see it?

‘Inbox Zero’ is available for download right now at Smashwords, and it’s completely free – which, unfortunately, means I can’t offer it through Amazon. But it’s available in Kindle-friendly MOBI format, as well as EPUB and PDF, and I’ll be offering a slightly nicer PDF through my Downloads page a bit later in the week (once I find the time to put one together). It should also propagate out to other stores, such as Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore, over the next few weeks.

For those readers who’ve been clamouring over the last few months for an Obituarist sequel, ‘Inbox Zero’ is not it. I mean, it is a sequel, but it’s not the sequel; Obituarist 2 (Electric Boogaloo) is on my to-do list and will probably come out in about six months. This story is more of a quick diversion, a stand-alone story that doesn’t require you to have read The Obituarist already (although it couldn’t hurt) and that will hopefully tide you over until the real deal is ready.

A key element of this story is Deathswitch, a real service that lets you set up an email to be sent after your death. The folks there were kind enough to read my first draft and check the accuracy of the piece, which was very kind of them. As part of my research I set up an account for myself, then failed to respond to my emails, and soon got my email to notify me that I was dead. That was… well, a little odd, but I do whatever is necessary for the verisimilitude of my work.

Because this story is free, I highly recommend sharing the absolute shit out of it. Email it to everyone you know! Put it on torrent sites! Read it aloud on public transport! If it can find some readers and drive them back to The Obituarist, I’ll be happy. Heck, I’ll be happy even if it doesn’t. I have lots to be happy about. Although if you want to make me extra happy, you could leave a comment to tell me you liked the story. And/or a review on Smashwords.

And with that, I’m done with short fiction for a bit. Time to get my head back into YA fantasy and Raven’s Blood.

(And maybe Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Just a little.)

Little print shop of horrors



Yes, the super-limited print run (ie I could only afford to print ten) of The Obituarist arrived yesterday from Blurb, and a lovely little set of books it is too. I’m really happy with the way it came out – the cover looks good in print and the book came to a short-but-not-too-short 100 pages, perfect for pocket storage and convenient reading.

Would I recommend Blurb to others? Yes, definitely, although you’ll need to fine-tune your book files and be prepared to fiddle around for longer than you’d like with their software. But nothing good in this world comes without a bit of effort, and it was worth it in the end.

So now I have ten copies of my little book! One goes on the shelf for reference, and I think two more have already been earmarked for friends, leaving seven to take around some local bookshops to see if they’ll accept it on consignment. If you’d like to trouser one of them first, shoot me a line or leave a comment. I think I’m selling them for, umm… $15? $13? Still not sure how much I should charge, but that’s about the right level to make a sensible profit on them. Anyway, hit me up if you’re interested.

If I sell all of them, I may look at doing another short run – or a small run of Hotel Flamingo, which people still ask about. On that note, the giveaway of that and Godheads ends this weekend, so if you know someone who might like them, send them here to find the details.

And with that short post, I must away – N. and I are going to Fiji tomorrow night, and we have to tidy and pack! This means no blog posts for two weeks; please, try to control your misery. Eventually I will return with holiday snaps and more book talk.

Until then, I’ll be drunk on a beach somewhere with Irish people. Pray for me.

The other Obituarist

Hey guys! Let’s talk about The Obituarist! You know, that ebook about the obituary writer who teams up with a slightly-mad WWII veteran and goes around interviewing his old squadmates just before they all conveniently wind up dead!

…wait, what?

A few weeks after publishing The Obituarist, I got a heads-up from someone – sorry, I’ve forgotten who, but you know who you are – that someone else has just published a ebook with the exact same name via the same channels!

What are the odds? I mean, seriously, what are the odds? Does anyone have some data on that?

Of course I went and checked the book out, in case it was some strange Nigerian-scam copy of mine or something. But it wasn’t. Instead, in a bizarre case of parallel evolution, author Paul Waters and I had both picked the same slightly archaic old term to use as the title of our novellas. And frankly, he’d used it more properly, whereas I’d made up a whole new meaning to suit my idea.

So what to do? Just ignore it? Well, that seemed a bit rude, so I sent Paul an email to say hello. In it, I said:

This isn’t a ‘cease or desist’ or any nonsense like that; it’s a good title and there’s plenty of room for people to use it. And, to be honest, you use it more accurately than I do; I kept the term but changed the meaning to suit my own purposes.

I’m just writing because it’s a funny coincidence and I thought you might be amused too. If I get any customers who buy my book by mistake instead of yours, I’ll point them back at you; I hope you’ll do the same for me.

He came back with:

I admit that I was gutted to see your title after I published mine. Though as you say, and I hope you’re right, it’s a good title. And your story is definitely different.

I’m looking at it as a funny coincidence too.

And since then we’ve been having a bit of a chat about epublishing and writing and the cor-blimey-strike-a-light-it’s-a-funny-old-world of it all. Culminating in today, when he’s written a blog post about the whole thing, and I’m doing the same. Because recursion is awesome.

I like Paul; he’s charming and pleasant and he appears to be some kind of pirate DJ donkey from his blog avatar, which I cannot help but admire. So if you get a chance, go check out his Obituarist at Smashwords or Amazon; it’s a short tongue-in-cheek thriller packed with shaggy dog stories in the best British tradition. And honour obliges me to note that his book is 24 cents cheaper than mine (although mine is longer).

So we’ve gone from a world short of obituarists to one crammed with them, but that’s okay. It’s not like there are a shortage of books from different authors with the same titles, as this LibraryThing article can attest. (And a quick Amazon check shows plenty of other books called Raven’s Blood and Arcadia, but such is life.) I think we can live with the occasional moment of confusion.

And hey, at least I know what not to call the next book in order to stay on Paul’s good side, because in his email he also said:

Blackwatertown is the title of a longer book I’m still trying to get published via more traditional routes. Please don’t tell me you have one with the same name up your sleeve.

And I could only reply with the truth:

As it happens I lived for a time in a town called Blackwater – but I was about one year old at the time, so I have no plans to write about that!

100% true.

Of course, Townwaterblack is still unclaimed…

Dead reckoning

It’s been a long and very busy May for me, what with a new book to sell and promote, and… wait, what? It’s already June? Like nearly two weeks into June? Well, shit. That just shows how deep in the self-publishing K-hole I’ve been these last 5-6 weeks.

‘Self-publishing K-hole’, by the way, is a phrase you will never see used in Amazon’s publicity for KDP Select.

Anyway, it’s been close to six weeks since The Obituarist came out, and I’ve tried to abide by my promise not to talk incessantly about it here and become a boring spammy snake-oil merchant. But I also promised, back when I started this blog, to be as open as possible about the process of not just writing but creating, promoting and selling my ebooks, in the hope that any data I can share might help someone else with their own efforts.

So it’s in that spirit of sharing, rather than shilling, that I’m here to pick apart the numbers of how The Obituarist is going so far, where it might go next, what conclusions we might draw from the ebb and flow of sales and whether I’m ever going to make enough money from it to justify writing the sequel I’ve already started plotting out.

(If that sounds boring, you have my permission to skip this weekend’s update. There’ll be new flash fiction later in the week – come back for that, it should be fun!)

As of today, I have sold 94 copies of The Obituarist, netting me a pre-tax royalty of something like $160. It’s hard to know exactly how much, because Smashwords and Amazon both work in US dollars (or in pounds for the three copies that sold through Amazon UK). Let’s assume that the currency conversion and the 5% that the IRS will retain more or less cancel each other out and stick with $160 for argument’s sake.

In case you’re wondering, THIS IS GREAT.

94 copies in about five weeks? I’m really goddamn happy about that! That’s more than double the number of copies of Godheads I’ve sold in a year, and not that much less than what I’ve sold of Hotel Flamingo in 18 months. And $160 is about a dollar more than what I’ve made from Flamingo‘s sales to date (thanks to dropping the price to 99c back in January). Right now this means that I’ve made a little more than half my expenses back, and I can assume that if I sell another 90 books I’ll be in the black and can start writing the sequel everyone keeps asking about.

It has a badger in it.

Of course, this is the initial sales point, and it’ll either slow down markedly or dramatically surge as I become SUPER FAMOUS WRITING DUDE. Which is more likely? Well, let’s look at the Amazon sales graph.

First thought – man, Amazon sales rankings make no fucking sense. They measure something like books sold in a specific period of time as compared to other books in the same category, which leads to things like The Obituarist having its highest ranking (about #22 000) the day after it was published, because it had sold half-a-dozen copies overnight, but being 50 000 spots lower a month later after selling a bunch more copies. I get the concept, but it’s weird.

Second thought – I can map the spikes and jumps to specific times I’ve promoted or talked about the book. For instance, the big jump on May 23 is when I was on Byte Into It to talk about the concept and the book. That gigantic jump – from #200 000 to #63 000 – is only four sales, but that’s just Amazon weirdness. So what I should do is confirm what gets the attention for those spikes and keep doing it, and I’ll talk about that below.

Third thought – I haven’t sold a single copy yet this month. Which isn’t good. For all that I get more money from Smashword sales, Amazon sales rankings are really important because they can increase a book’s visibility and improve the chances that someone discovers the book on their own rather than because I’m pushing it on them. So I need to turn this around soon.

And speaking of Smashwords, here’s a set of graphs from them:

Do they line up with the Amazon graph? Hmm. Kinda. You see some spikes and peaks in the same areas – like, obviously, the launch day – but not in others. That Byte Into It spike isn’t there, for instance – well, it might be, but it’s a sale of one copy if it is. Does that mean people who hear/read about the book are more likely to head to Amazon? Probably, and that’s something to take into account.

The next thing to note is how page views translate into sales and samples – or how they don’t. Again, lots of spikes at the start of the process, and lots of downloads to match, but later the page views fall faster and further than the downloads. This might mean people check it out when it hits the SW front page right after launch while not buying it; it might mean later interest comes from a smaller group of non-browsing customers who want this specific book; hell, it might mean that all the data-mining bots swarmed on it to gather data right away and now only boring humans care. There’s information there, but it’s hard to translate.

The good news is that I’m still selling copies on Smashwords in June while Amazon is quiet. The bad news is that I’ve sold like three copies – and yes, that’s better than zero, but I’m not setting fire to my underwear with joy about the difference.

In any event, it’s clear that May was an excellent month for me, but also that it was a launch month when the book’s visibility was high and when I was all over the internet talking about it. The last week has seen less of that and more of me talking about it in real space, such as at the EWF and Continuum, and that’s not been as effective. That’s not surprising – the best way to sell a book you find on the internet is to market and promote it on the internet. And I don’t regret that period, because it’s been good to tell people about it face-to-face – and, indeed, to talk to people full stop. People are cool.

But if I’m going to stop that slow spiral down to the bottom, I need to pull out a few more stops. And I have some ideas about what to do next.

Exciting new forms

The Obituarist is an ebook not because DIGITAL RULES DEADTREE DROOLS but because it’s hard to make a print novella commercially viable – but not impossible. I picked up a couple of discount vouchers for custom-publishing outfit Blurb during the EWF and I’m looking into the costs and possibilities of doing a small print run of physical copies. The tricky part will be working out whether the return will be worth the cost – not just of printing the book but of distributing it to customers and to local bookstores – and how much I’d need to charge to get that return. But it’s definitely something worth trying, even if in the end I only print 50 books; if nothing else I can give them away as Christmas presents to people I want to make feel guilty for not buying it already.

But that’s not all! I’m in discussion with awesome voice actor (and BFF) Ben McKenzie about doing an audiobook version! Ben actually read the first chapter aloud to the very, very small audience we had for our reading session at Continuum yesterday and he sounded amazing. We’re working out the costs, practical difficulties and potential for distribution and hopefully can come up with a plan in the next week or two. Believe me, when it comes together, I’ll be on here talking the hell out of it. You won’t miss out on Ben’s melodious voice and the charming, almost-but-not-quite-British inflection he brings to my book where people say ‘fuck’ a lot.

Make Goodreads my bitch

Goodreads is shaping up as one of the most important social media sites for books and readers, and I want to explore it much further to see what I can get out of it – and, just as important, what I can bring to it to make it more worthwhile for its users.

Obviously The Obituarist already has a page on the site, and people have been leaving reviews and putting it on their to-read lists, which is great – but I need to see what else I can do. One option is advertising; Goodreads has a number of pay-per-click advertising packages for authors. I will admit that I rarely – okay, pretty much never – bother clicking on ads on the site (or indeed many others), but that doesn’t mean that others don’t or that those ads can’t be useful as well as annoying. So I’m going to check those out and maybe give them a limited try to see how it all works.

Goodreads also has a large number of discussion groups dedicated to crime, ebooks, Australian fiction and more, and I’m going to start checking those out and maybe joining a few. However, I’m not going to just join and then dump a HEY DOODZ BUY MY BOOK IT’S GREAT SEE YA post, because that’s just spammy bullshit. The thing I keep telling people who ask about ebook promotion – other than that they should really ask someone more qualified – is that it’s about being genuine and about being honestly interested in your book, your genre, your themes and your readers (or at least how they engage with those things). So joining those Goodreads groups – and for that matter similar groups elsewhere – needs to be a genuine attempt to be part of those communities. Which can be time-consuming, but it can also be rewarding, and not just in the Amazon-sales-spike fashion.

And hey, if you are on Goodreads and have read or are thinking of reading The Obituarist, it’d be pretty goddamn sweet if you could add it to your list or leave a review. Every bit helps. If you’re super keen you could recommend it to others, too, but obviously I’d never ask that of you. NEVER.

More interviews

The thing I’ve gleaned from the graphs above is that the most effective things I’ve done are the various interviews I’ve done about the book on other people’s blogs and on RRR. And that’s not surprising, because interviews and discussions are a chance to not sell the book but to talk about its themes and ideas, the whole digital afterlife concept, my take on Chandlerian crime and other topics – in other words, a chance to talk about and be enthusiastic about writing rather than just this one thing I’ve written. Enthusiasm is infectious, after all, and interviews are a chance to share the love without being a (say it with me) boring spammy snake-oil merchant. They’re also just plain fun to do.

I’ve had a ball doing the ones from last month, and I’m hoping more opportunities come up soon, especially with crime-focused blogs/podcasts or those based outside Australia. I’m working on that, but if you have such a blog, podcast or platform and would be interested in having me pop in for a while to rabbit on about death and Facebook, give me a holler.

Hang on, let me check the wordcount on this post OH HOLY FUCK.

Man, I could go on about this, but if you’ve stuck around for the last 1900 words then I don’t want to punish you by making you endure a thousand more. Let’s bring it back to the core concept – I’ve sold some books, I’m really happy, but I’m going to try to sell more without being any more boring about it than I am already.

Jesus, I could have just said that two hours ago and then gone to bed. The long weekend has left me verbose; we should all be grateful that the day job usually leaves me too exhausted to do much more than type a few paragraphs and dump in a LOLcat.

If any of this has been useful to you, I am a) shocked and b) glad. And if you think my ideas have gaps or holes, or that I really should learn to edit them down, then speak up! Please, help turn this blog’s comment function into more than a spam-trap and leave me your thoughts.


On the radio-oh-oh

Hello my little droogies,

Just a couple of quick things tonight, as it’s been a hectic week that’s heading into a hectic weekend.

First, as threatened, I popped up on 3RRR’s Byte Into It program last night to talk about The Obituarist and the ‘social media undertaker’ concept – which, as it turns out, is more properly called the ‘digital afterlife industry’. Who knew? It was really fun appearing on the show and talking about those ideas and what I was trying to look at with the novella, and I’m really grateful to Sarah and the BII team for giving me the opportunity.

The show went out last night and is now available to download here. I come in at about the 15 minute mark, making inappropriate comments about Scientology and sounding like I’ve swallowed the microphone. But check out the whole program if possible – it’s well worth a listen!

Secondly, I just got home from the gala opening of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, which was terrific! I got to hang out with my friend Ben, catch up with a variety of people I knew either in person or online – it’s great to finally put names and voices to email addresses – and enjoy an evening of comedy, poetry and speeches about the Festival.

I still have to get my butt into gear to book the panels I want to attend over the weekend, but I have been doing my best to help organise the online Rabbit Hole team. We have a Facebook group and nearly 20 eager and slightly nervous participants ready to do their best to write 30 000 words over a weekend. I’m trying to keep them motivated and focused with encouragement, blog posts and occasional prizes, but in the end they’re going to do the work and I’ll be very proud of them.

In fact, I’m kinda thinking about joining them, if only to lead by example. I know people are clamouring for a second Obituarist story, and that’ll probably happen at some point, but if I go down the Rabbit Hole I’d like to try something different again and to finally get into a genre I’ve read but never written – high fantasy.

Specifically, high fantasy about D&D Batman fighting ringwraiths in pseudo-Elizabethan-London.



He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere

On Sunday I said that I wouldn’t spend so much time talking here about The Obituarist, and by God I meant it.

So instead, I’m gonna talk about all the other places where I have been (or will be) talking about The Obituarist.


…man, I have really got to get out of this sudden all-caps habit.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been doing this week:

Can I just say that this whole interview thing is AWESOME FUN? Because it is. It’s like getting drunk and talking about writing except that you’re sober (bad) and no-one interrupts you (good!).

I should have a couple of more interviews coming up in the next couple of weeks; I’ll keep you posted as they come together. One that I’m UNBELIEVABLY EXCITED  about isn’t in print – I should (fingers crossed) be on 3RRR Radio’s Byte Into It program on May the 23rd. How incredibly fucking cool is that! I promise to talk excitedly and largely incoherently about social media and identity theft and not spend too much time plugging my book.

And lest we forget, the other major activity on the horizon is the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and my involvement as the coach/cheerleader/chief bully for the online team at the Rabbit Hole writing boot camp event. I’m getting my ducks in a row for that and will be writing more on the topic this coming weekend.

(I also hope to get a slot at the EWF Open Mic on the 3rd of June to do a quick reading from The Obituarist, but that’s first-in-best-dressed and I can’t promise I’ll get in. But show up anyway, just in case!)

So yeah. May. It’s been a pretty AMAZEBALLS month, and shows no signs of letting up soon.

Five days later

So it’s been a pretty exhausting week, guys. I don’t know whether it’s my workload at the day job, the usual mild case of seasonal affective disorder I get during the Melbourne winter, or the effort of publishing and promoting a new novella that’s done it, but I’m plumb tuckered out.

…yeah. Let’s be honest, it’s mostly that last one.

The Obituarist has been out in the wild for five days, and I’m pretty damn happy with how things are going. I’ve sold 30 copies so far through Amazon and Smashwords, which is a pretty good launch. More importantly, the feedback I’m getting from readers is uniformly positive – people are reading it and they are liking it a hell of a lot. Two thumbs up.

For my part, the last few days have been all about the book pimping. I’ve sent out emails and free copies, contacted readers and writers, updated the cover art (now much more effective in greyscale) and tweeted like my life depended on it. Which, hmm, could be an interesting plot point for a future sequel to the novella.

That’s been the other recurring theme in the feedback – readers want to see more of Kendall Barber and his adventures. Well, I’ve got the ideas, I just need to justify the work – if I sell enough copies, a sequel could be on the cards. Ah, who am I kidding – I’ve already plotted out half the book! It has [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] and Kendall is hired to [CENSORED] but has his [CENSORED] [CENSORED] in the process. It’s a pretty hardcore scene, that one!

Anyway, book promotion. I’ve been pretty lackadaisical with this in the past, and the sales of Hotel Flamingo and Godheads are testimony to that. I had a bit of a psychological hangup with those books, because they were largely written years before they were published – in my head they were old news, and promoting them seemed too much like reading the same edition of the newspaper over and over again, trapped in some kind of bookpimp Groundhog Day.

But not this time – this is all new and I am charged up! To the point where I know it’s going to be tiring and eventually irritating to my regular readers to see me constantly flogging the bloody book. So I’m not going to make any more posts like this one – when I talk about The Obituarist here again it’ll be to discuss ideas, process, new developments and stuff that’s actually interesting, rather than just snake oil.

That said, if I can squeeze in a little more snake oil (tastes great, less filling!), I just need to reiterate that I need your help if the book is going to succeed. Recommend it to your friends, family and colleagues (if you think they’d like it) and on any online forums you frequent. Leave reviews at Amazon, Smashwords or Goodreads, or better yet all three. Tell me about places that I can send review copies, or other crime writers that might like to check it out. And above all else, talk about it on social media, The Obituarist’s natural habitat.

Pimp me. Pimp my book.

Okay, you know what? I’m retiring the word ‘pimp’ now as well.

So. Let’s move on.

Next week – something different! I don’t know what! Blogging without a net or pants!

Now on sale – The Obituarist

Friends, fans, old readers and new, the 1st of May 2012 is a pretty big day for me.

Because today I’m pleased beyond all measure to announce that my new e-novella, The Obituarist, is not only finished but published and available to purchase!

Kendall Barber calls himself an obituarist – a social media undertaker who settles accounts for the dead. If you need your loved one’s Facebook account closed down or one last tweet to be made, he’ll take care of it, while also making sure that identity thieves can’t access forgotten personal data. It’s his way of making amends for his past, a path that has seen him return to the seedy city of Port Virtue after years in exile.

But now his past is reaching out to catch up with him, just as he gets in over his head with a beautiful new client whose dead brother may have been murdered – if he’s even dead at all. If Kendall doesn’t play his cards right, he could wind up just as deceased as the usual subjects of his work.

On the other hand, Kendall may know more about what cards to play than anyone else realises…

It’s been six months since I announced the concept and started work on this book, two months since I rolled up my sleeves and started it in earnest. It’s been drafted and redrafted, edited and altered, changed and changed back again and now it’s as ready as it’ll ever be.

And I have to say that I had an absolute ball writing this book. Once I really got into it it was a hoot to sit down every night and lay down another chapter of weird crime antics, chase scenes, thoughts about death and identity and occasional jokes. That joy is a bit unusual for me – too often I find writing a chore – and I really hope this isn’t the last time I feel it. Or the last time I write about these characters.

I’d like to thank my wife Nichole for her thoughts and support, my Alpha Readers (Cam Rogers, Josh Kinal and Lyndal McIlwaine) for their feedback and suggestions, Fiona Regan for editing the manuscript and Carla McKee for her great cover. And I’d like to thank you guys, my readers, for responding positively to the idea and telling me you wanted to see more. Here it is – hope you like it.

The Obituarist can be purchased as a $2.99 ebook from the following sites:

  • The Amazon Kindle Store has the Kindle version
  • Smashwords has ePub, Kindle, PDF, HTML and Word versions
  • Other sites (Barnes and Noble, iBooks etc) will have it eventually, and I’ll update as the links go live

All sites should have a sample of the novella that you can read for free.

As part of the launch, I’ve also made some changes to this site, specifically breaking out my ebooks into their own separate pages – so if you want to tell your friends about The Obituarist, link to this page right here. (I’ve also made new pages for Hotel Flamingo and Godheads if you want to spread the love.)

And speaking of telling your friends…

Folks, if you want to help me get the word out about The Obituarist, that would be fantastic. Amazing. Vitally necessary, in fact. I’m going to do everything I can to promote the book, but I need all the help I can get and you can provide some with very little effort. Here’s what you can do:

  • Buy it. Buy it from whatever site and in whatever format you prefer. Even if you’re not really into crime stories, it’s still worth picking it up – it’s offbeat enough that I think anyone who likes my other work will dig this too.
  • Read it right away. You know how sometimes you buy an ebook and it languishes unread for ages? Jump in and read this one as soon as possible, so that you can then…
  • Talk about it. Recommend it to your friends, family or anyone that might like it. Mention it on social media. Tweet that you’re halfway through it. Show people the cover on Facebook. Mention it at work when someone asks what you’re reading. Use jungle drums, anything.
  • Write a review. Give it some love on Amazon, Smashwords, Goodreads, any other review site you frequent. Give it stars if that’s a thing, but if you can write a few words about it that would be much better. And be honest – I’d rather see a genuine 3-star review than a fake 5-star review. Mind you, I’d especially rather see genuine 5-star reviews if they’re available.
  • Pass on the signal. I’ll be promoting this as best I can wherever I can – Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, anywhere else. If you see any of that promotion, pass it along – retweet it, link it, like it, +1 it or whatever. And if you see other people talking about the book, throw up a flag for that too, if only so that I hear about it.
  • Give me a soapbox. If you’re got a blog, a column, a podcast or some other project of your own, I would love to be on it and have a chance to talk about the novella. I can talk about other stuff too – I’m a charming guest and I bring enough beer for everyone. Try me!

Above all else, tell me what you think of it. I want to hear if you liked it and what you liked about it, and whether you’d be interested in reading a sequel. Because I have ideas for more stories about Kendall and Port Virtue, but if no-one wants to read them then I’ll put them aside and work on something else. And I also want to hear from you if you didn’t like The Obituarist, because I’d like to know why and I’d like the next book to be better.

I always want the next book to be better. That’s how I know I’m not dead yet.

Alright, that’s enough out of me. Time to get off the stage and let the book do the talking for a while.

Happy May 1st, gang. Here’s hoping it’s a good month.


A very short blog update

I finished the draft of The Obituarist.

I feel that this gives me the right to slack off, hang out and play Mass Effect 3 for the rest of the day, rather than writing any more about anything.

Will be back in a few days.

Big Numbers part 3: Costing the zeroes and ones

So far this month we’ve mostly been talking about the costs of developing and printing physical books, whether textbooks or novels, using the costing numbers and estimates I work with in my day job. Some of it’s been hard and fast, some of it’s been a bit squishy around the edges, none of it’s been universally applicable but all of it’s been honest.

Is everyone still with me? Because now we sail off into the land of conjecture and guesswork – which is a lot like Narnia but with fewer talking mice and feline Jesuses – to talk about the work and considerations that might (emphasis on might) go into making an ebook and how that affects the final cost.

But before we go on, let’s split the discussion in half, because when we say ‘produce an ebook’ we’re talking about two different things – making an ebook version of an existing print book and creating an ebook from scratch (a manuscript). There are other options beyond those two, of course, but let’s keep this simple.

The ebook version

Let’s say that we have our bestselling novel My Dinner With Batman already produced and published, as per last week’s post. It’s costed to be profitable, the books are in the warehouse, all the production fees have been paid… it’s done. So does that mean that it costs nothing to turn the pre-press files into an ebook, that any ebook sales are just a bonus, and that we should just charge 99 cents for the e-version?

…long-time readers probably realise that the answers to my rhetorical questions are almost always ‘no’.

For a start, it’s going to take some work to turn the pre-press file of the novel (probably a PDF) into a MOBI or EPUB file. You can’t just push a button and have a computer do all the work; you can push a button and have a computer do most of the work, but you still need someone to check it, fine-tune it and make sure it displays well on all the potential readers. But having said that, this could potentially be an internal cost for the publisher, and we’ve been handwaving those away so far, so let’s do the same here.

More pertinent is that the ebook sales aren’t just free money, because they potentially reduce sales of the print book. Obviously it’s not a zero-sum game, and there’s a market that just wants physical books and a market that just wants ebooks – but there’s also a market that will be happy with either, and the cheaper the ebook the more likely the readers in that market will buy it instead. You’ve already spent $19 607 printing books with the expectation of selling 4818 of them at $22.95 and making $68 271 in revenue – and of paying the author $8192 in royalties – and the last thing you want is to reduce your bottom line (and short-change the author) by pricing the ebook too low and cannibalising your print sales.

So what do you charge? Well, this is where the hard numbers aren’t much help any more. We can use things like our target gross margin (59%), our expected revenue, the unit cost of the physical books (each book cost $3.38 to develop, print and ship) and the rest of our data to give us some ideas, but what we can’t really estimate is the size of the overlap between the print and ebook markets and how it will respond to different price points. All we can really do is work on instinct and occasional math.

Well, we know one thing for a start – whatever we charge, we’ll only get 70% of it, because Amazon will take a 30% cut. That’s assuming we do all our sales through the Kindle Store, which is obviously untrue, but that’s probably a solid averaging of the cut the various e-distributors receive. It’d be great to sell direct, and you can do that, but right now you need the various digital bookstores. (This also assumes that you’re selling all your books into countries where you get the full 70% from Amazon; sell an ebook to an Australian reader and you only get 35%, which is something that’s great for Aussie authors like me with mostly Aussie readers. Just great.) Then we’ll also need to pay the author a 12% royalty from our 70% share, so that in the end we only get 61.6% of our asking price per sale.

I mentioned that unit cost of $3.38 per book above. Well, we probably don’t want to make less than that for each ebook sale, because if the e-sales do end up cannibalising print sales, we don’t want to actually lose money on each sale, right? That would mean – and stand back, I’m going to use algebra – that 61.6% of our asking price should be $3.38 or higher:

.616x = 3.38

         x = 3.38 / .616


So we could charge $5.48 – or $5.99 for convenience – for our ebook version? Is that ‘fair’? Well, probably not, because that assumes that the ebook sales entirely cannibalise the market for print sales, rather than cannibalising some of it but also creating a new market, and we know by now that that’s not the case. It could be cheaper and still make money without damaging print sales too much. If 20% of buyers only ever want ebooks, we could then tailor the price to cover the 80% of sales that risk cannibalising print sales, so that’s $5.99 * 0.8 = $4.79, which we can again round up to $4.99. And that’s not an unusual price for an ebook.

But at the same time, it could be more expensive and still be fair; we’ve number-crunched a lower boundary where we don’t lose money on the ebook, but we’d actually like to make some worthwhile profits and give the author a decent royalty. Looking on Amazon, it seems like many of the books that would retail offline for around the $20-$25 mark (US, but whatever) have Kindle editions coming in around eight dollars or so. (That’s from a skim, and I’m sure there are many exceptions, but let’s just go with it.) That suggests that we could go a few dollars higher – let’s say $6.99 – and still be pricing our book in a market-appropriate fashion. While we only get $4.30 for each sale (and the author gets just 59 cents), we can hope that the sales volume will make up for it and that we still end up selling all the print copies we had planned to over the three-year sales period.

…or not. It’s guesswork. But it’s guesswork that publishers have to make to create non-hypothetical ebooks, and everyone’s going to come to a different answer. It’s going to depend on the costs of the print book, the market you’re selling to, the additional resources required to produce and market the ebook, the danger of cannibalising print sales, the potential of long-term sales long after the physical books are all sold… Dump some numbers in a hat and pull one out. Or look at the numbers other publishers have pulled from the hat and do the same thing. Or charge two bucks and go all in. Let it ride.

But still. Maybe we can look at this and say when a publisher charges $4.99 for the ebook version of a $22.95 novel, it may not be from greed or lack of awareness of the market; it may be because that’s what the spreadsheet demands. For now.

Original ebooks

And finally let’s talk about independent, author-created ebooks. This is a very different ballgame because we step away from the requirements and costs of a publishing company and a print book, but we also step away from the production infrastructure and larger budgets to DIY it. But we can still look at the costs from the previous examples and see what’s applicable. And hell, I’ve made a couple of these, so I can share the fruits of my minimal experience.

Let’s assume we’re going to produce a novel of about 200 pages – well, no, because ebooks repaginate themselves based on the device and the user’s preference. We’re probably better off thinking in terms of wordcount. Let’s say this new book… You know what? Let’s actually talk about my novella-in-progress, The Obituarist, and use it as an example here; if nothing else it’ll help me work out how much to charge for it when it’s done.

My target for The Obituarist is 20 000 words; it won’t be exactly that, but it’s close enough for disco. So if we think back to last time, what are my costs?

Manufacturing costs – zero. That was easy. It means my mother will never read the book, but I can live with that.

Editing – page rates aren’t appropriate, so we’re either paying by the hour or by the word. Looking online, I can see rates of around 2-4 cents a word being offered by editors. While I could get something at the low-end without much trouble, let’s assume I pay the middle rate of 3 cents a word, which would cost me $600.

Proofreading – a page rate is again hard to calculate. It’s also difficult in a situation like this to distinguish cleanly between an editor’s role and a proofreader’s role. Probably the simplest thing is to bump up the page rate for the editor so that it covers proofreading as well; another half-cent a page will cost $100. In a perfect world it’d be good to have a separate proofreader to catch mistakes the editor misses, but little is perfect on this bastard planet.

Typesetting – none, because we’re not laying out final pre-press files in a stable format; we’re taking a text/Word file and converting it to EPUB or MOBI. Which in theory is pushing a button, but like I said above, it’ll probably require tweaking and fine-tuning. If I was going to pay someone to do it for me, I’d expect it to take about an hour, so I’d probably pay that person (which would probably be the editor) $50; since it’s not difficult, so I’ll do it myself for nothing.

Text design – there almost isn’t such a thing with ebooks, although you still want to start the process with an idea of how things will look at the other end. Still, fonts and layouts are morphable things and mostly up to the reader, not the writer. We can fold this into the typesetting cost, which is nothing.

Cover design – this is the place where a lot of ebook authors try to save money and do it themselves. Stuff that. I think that a strong, professional cover is pretty much your third priority when making an ebook, after writing a damn good book and making sure it’s been edited. It doesn’t have to be spectacular, it doesn’t have to be 100% original, but it needs to be polished and it needs to show readers that you take this shit seriously. The covers of Hotel Flamingo and Godheads were created by a Melbourne designer (Design Junkies, who are great) and cost me about $220 each. I might not use the same design concept for The Obituarist, or indeed the same designer – it’s good to mix things up occasionally – but I figure that I’ll pay something similar. Let’s call it $250.

Other costs – no, not really.

So there’s a total cost of $950, which is a lot for a dude like me to fork out. In practice, I’ll probably be able to get the editing and proofreading done by friends in return for doing the same for them in the future, or as payback for help I’ve already given them. I’m lucky there in that I have friends who are writers and editors and who can help me out. But if they can’t, then I’ll have to wear that cost.

So what should I charge for the novella?

Well, if it’s more than 99 cents, I can demand the full 70% royalty from Amazon – but as pointed out above, I’ll only get 35% for Australian sales, which will be most of them. I’ll get a more consistent royalty from Smashwords (between 66% and 75% for direct sales, less about 15% for affiliate sales) but generally expect fewer sales from them. Without really good stats about who’s buying and from where, all I can really do is assume the median value, which is going to be around 55%.

Let’s say I charge $2.99 for The Obituarist, which is what I was charging for my other, shorter ebooks before I pulled them down to 99 cents at the start of 2012. That means I can expect about an average of $1.65 for each sale. So if I can make a deal-in-kind on the editing and proofreading, I only need to pay the $250 for the cover, which I’ll do after selling 152 books. If I have to pay the entire $950, I’ll need to sell 576 books just to break even, and previous experience tells me that that is not very likely. If I charged $3.99, I’d get $2.20 per book and would break even after 114/432 sales. Better, but the market isn’t likely to respond positively to that price for an indie book. And if I go lower than $2.99 I’m cutting my own throat, because the royalty rate would also drop; at $1.99 I’d probably only get around 45% and it would take more than 220 sales just to make up for the cover costs.

So is $2.99 a fair price for a novella like The Obituarist? I don’t know if that’s the right question, because ‘fair’ is going to have a different meaning for the reader than it does for me. What I can say is that, assuming that I can work out the editing costs in trade and pay with my time rather than my money, and assuming that I can devote more time to promoting and marketing the book in useful places, and assuming that I can maintain that price for a decent period without the need to discount, I’ve got a pretty good chance of paying off my costs eventually, or at least defraying them to the point where I don’t feel like I’ve pissed $250 up against a wall. Which is not exactly comforting, but the game is what it is.

But I’m not really trying to justify charging whatever I eventually charge for a book I haven’t finished writing yet. What I’m hopefully doing is showing you, the reader of this here post, that even the humblest DIY ebook operation has costs, and that it’s worth working those out ahead of time so that you’re not surprised by them or left shocked by how much work is still required to make it all come together. Because what I’ve learned in my day job is the value of planning and costing a project ahead of time – and, sometimes, to look at the poor projections and say fuck it, let’s do it anyway.

Don Quixote is my spirit animal.

2500 words on this today, and I could keep going. But I think the point has been made by now about what it might cost to make a book, physical or otherwise, and if it hasn’t then I probably can’t make it even with another 2500 words. So let’s call it a night.

In the aftermath of these three posts I’m going to be a bit quieter on PODcom through March, because I want to finish The Obituarist – and get it edited, and pay for a cover, and etc – and publish it online before the start of April. And time spent writing mammoth blog posts is time not spent writing about Kendall Barber getting beaten up by bikers.

Which doesn’t mean I’m closing up shop. I’m still aiming for 1-2 posts a week, and will be offering up some flash fiction next week as a relief from all the number crunching. But they’ll be shorter, faster posts that don’t require sitting in a hot office for four hours to get them done.

Until next time, true believers.