Monday, October 17, 2011

Business: Short Stories

Executive Summary: I’m not selling short story singles as eBooks anymore. To avoid ‘juggling too many sea-shells’, all my eBooks will be priced between $2.99 and $9.99, except for some free short stories for promotion. 1500 words. (Yeah, I just HBR’d your collective asses. feel free to comment, bitches.).

Since this is a reversal of my previous sexy business plan, “The Short Story Octopus”, I’ll deploy some arguments to support my new, sexier conclusion. Since this is a business article, most of them will be made with my publishing hat on, but there’re a few more drawn from other hats. There may be pictures. Also, I wish I could come up with an equally awesome nautical name, but I’ve already rejected “Big Mussel Barnacles” for sounding too ocean-porny, and my morale is low.

Background: Amazon pays a 35% royalty on eBooks priced between $0.99 and $200 sold throughout the world, but pays a 70% royalty on eBooks priced between $2.99 to $9.99 sold via, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, Amazon FR (and more coming). The best price for an individual short story is $0.99 (yaknow, like music). Short stories do, indeed, sell. Great! But...

$0.99 @ 35% Royalty = Lame
Everything else in this article is going to build on a “juggling too many sea-shells” metaphor (and not just because it fits the ocean-porny theme.) Every story is a sea-shell, because every sea-shell is different...but most people would rather have one great sea-shell on their mantle than a big pile of good sea-shells. It’s more organized! Likewise, a savvy sea-shell seller’s shelves (say it out loud!) should be filled with those sea-shells that can be sold for the most. Selling ten one dollar sea-shells to get a quarter is not as good as selling a three dollar seashell to get two bucks, because you have to spend about the same amount of time fiddling with the one dollar sea-shells as you do with the three dollar (or the five dollar or the seven dollar or the ten dollar) sea-shells.

I’d rather sell a collection of ten short stories at 70% than 10 single short stories at 35%. Thirty-five cents is lame, esp. when I have to track it (and promote it, and manage it, and, even more basic, remember it.) It’s just better business: The official H2NH price point is “one dollar per ten thousand words plus a buck”. The $1 per 10k is to get the $100/hour I, the publisher, pay myself, the writer, while the extra buck is to pay for the formatting and cover art, whether it’s me doing it or somebody else. I can calculate how many books I’d have to sell to cover those expenses, after which it’s all profit. ‘Getting to Profit’--to bust out the HBR lingo again--takes significantly less time when I, the publisher, am getting 70% of every sale. Under the current Amazon-style royalty system, I’ll not price any eBook below $2.99 or above $9.99 again.

A few extra publishing arguments, to let me expand on the ‘plus a buck’ a bit:
Sexy eBook Formatting
Good formatting takes time, but, if you follow the H2NH workflow (and/or Paul Salvette’s excellent guide) it doesn’t really take all that much more time to do a full book or collection than it does a single short story. You have to make a more robust table of contents, and scroll through longer checking that nothing mysteriously broke in the converted files, but that’s about it. I would say two hours, maximum, if you’re comfortable with your workflow. Average it as an hour, because any less and you probably didn’t do enough checking. (No need to rush, it’ll be on the Internet forever.) Since I’m almost certainly doing it myself, I bill myself, publisher, for two hours and pay myself about a dime per sale from the ‘plus a buck’.

I Like Cover Art
It’s not professional cover art unless it has characters from the book on it, and H2NH is still seeking professionals, but, as usual, I assume ‘professional rate’ is $100/hour. Later on, especially for print books, I’ll need a professional to do my cover art. Something around fifty cents of that ‘plus a buck’ will go to that end, and it’s obvious that a collection of short stories is a more cost-effective use of a professional cover artist than a single story.

For the moment, though, I make my own cover art, and I like it, I enjoy it, and it gets the job done. Some of it is even artsy, and it only takes me about an hour, even counting taking the pictures. So, until I fire myself as cover artist, prepare for such masterpieces as
*almost definitely not by David Barron
So much for business. Let’s talk about me!
It doesn’t really flow as an acronym, but what would I do? I’ve only bought two individual short stories ever, The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke by Lawrence Block and Ur by Stephen King (which, I suppose, is technically a novella...). On the other hand, I’ve brought a whole bunch of anthologies, fiction magazines, and collections. I prefer to have a whole bunch of short stories all in one place, so that I can skip around. In my reading experience, there’re always a couple lame (by which I mean, of course, ‘not to my taste at that time’, not ‘sucky’) stories in any grouping, and buying only one story is an annoying risk of that experience. Anyways, it’s more organized, I don’t want to deal with lots of files on my eBook reading device, and it’s easier to recommend a collection than to recommend a single short story. So...daB would buy a daB collection.

I’m Prolific
I write a fair amount of stories, as you may know. I’ve somewhere around fifty stories for 2011, and I’ll probably get about ten more out in between all these books I should be writing. Some of them are wandering around the pro markets, and the rest are selling on Amazon. Because I don’t remember most of them (for the simple reason that I’m always writing the next one), I’ve completely lost track of them. Just picture what it’ll be like if I had eight-hundred short stories, like certain long-time writers. And I use ‘will’, because it’s just a matter of time. (I write a lot now, and I’m not a full-time writer yet.) So, you know what? For my sanity, I’m only doing collections:

Science Fiction A Future Darkly

Fantasy To Another Shore

The Language of Ice Cubes (i.e. ‘the Alan stories’)

Undoubtedly, I’ll do various ‘themed’ collections (yaknow, like music albums) and, soon enough, I’ll put together a big ‘super-collection’:
Science Fantasy Romance
which will be fifty or so stories (including some of the ones in A Future Darkly and To Another Shore, but obviously not the Alan stories). It’ll be fun? It’s my super-genre, it’s awesome, it’ll be a nice thick print book, and, bonus, I’ll never have to think of another super-collection name again: My next fifty stories will go into “Science Fantasy Romance II”. Just consult the Wikipedia Roman numerals page for each fifty stories after that.

Let’s stick both sides together and see what it looks like! We could call this part “Promotion”, I guess, but we’re doing it Harvard Business Review-style this time. It’s a theme, and you have to respect themes or what, really, is the point?

Pro Sales!
Let’s face it, it’s just a lot more fun to submit stuff to fiction magazines than to put it up on Amazon.. I love rejection letters (not that I bother to read them), because it means I can send the story somewhere else, and when a story is accepted, they give you money and you get to write an About the Author blurb and everybody visits your website and buys one or all of your many books. Then, after that run’s done, you can put the story in a collection. Really, there’s no downside.
I regularly read, often submit to, and have been rejected repeatedly by pretty much every fiction magazine that pays pro rates (according to Duotropes), but the only magazine I’m absolutely obsessed with being in is Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Sorry, all others: it’s focused!

Free is Fun
All that said, I think short stories make great promotions. They’re craft pieces, showing off my awesome writing in a convenient, no-hassle package. Leaving aside the argument against free (hypothesis: many download, few read), I think it’s a good strategy, as well as just being fun. I recently made my steampunk short story “Timpani the Ostrich Rancher” free on Amazon, and, last I checked, more than two-thousand people have picked it up. Since it doesn’t suck, I like to think that’ll lead to sales in the long run. I figure if I make one short story free for each collection, and put links to every other H2NH book and collection in the back of the free eBook, it’s as good a promotion as any. Or, at least, incredibly low-maintenance.

Which is just as good for the busy publisher.

Sexy Conclusion
I’m not selling short story singles as eBooks anymore. To avoid ‘juggling too many sea-shells’, all my eBooks will be priced between $2.99 and $9.99, except for some free short stories for promotion.
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