Thomas DePrima: Over 140,000 Indie Books Sold At A Price That Might Surprise You!
Posted by Diana Layne May 29 2012, 12:01 am in $5.99, 99 cent books, Amazon, free books, indie, sci-fi, space opera, Thomas DePrima
Today I want to welcome Thomas DePrima, an Indie author I met on the Kindle boards. I’ve been on the Kindle boards exactly two times, and this was the first time (which was a much better experience than the second time, but that’s another story). I had gotten my first Kindle Direct Publishing newsletter as an Indie author and saw an interesting link about pricing your book higher and clicked, and I ended up on the board. The things Thomas posted were fascinating and were going against the growing conventional wisdom that less is best—I ain’t talking about editing this time. I’m talking about pricing your Indie book. At the time 99 cents and FREE were all the rage, but I didn’t join the 99 cent bandwagon because it meant I’d only earn roughly 35 cents (rounded up) on each book I sold. And thinking of the decades that I’ve put in on my writing, that idea just didn’t set well with me–not for a permanent price. An occasional freebie or 99 cent special is one thing but as a permanent price? Although the strategy has worked well and launched several authors onto big lists, I couldn’t talk myself into the 99 cent pricing strategy. So I was delighted to discover Thomas DePrima, whose pricing strategy is even more bold than mine. His posts were so fascinating, I tracked him down and asked if I could interview him for the Rubies. For those of you who are Indie pubbing or interested in Indie pubbing, especially if you’ve kept up with the current pricing debates, I think you’ll find him as interesting as I have, especially considering he’s sold over 140,000 of his books! So, welcome to the Rubies, Thomas!
1. How long have you been writing?
I’ve always been a voracious reader. When I was growing up, I would pick up old paperbacks at yard sales and thrift stores for a nickel and deplete an armload every week. It didn’t matter that the pages were yellow and creased or the cover missing, I couldn’t get enough of them. I went through several genres during periods that lasted as long as a decade. The first was sci-fi, then mystery, and lastly I immersed myself in suspense, crime-drama, and adventure books.
The writing bug didn’t bite me until later in life. Like most people, I’d always felt there was a book in me, but I didn’t begin writing until 1997. My life was just too busy. My first completed works went to free fiction sites where readers were encouraged to critique the stories as a form of payment for the stories. The comments were sometimes brutal, but always valuable. From the first I was told I was a good storyteller, but that my grammar skills were weak. Everyone always encouraged me to keep writing, and the honest critiques were of immense help as I worked to develop my writing skills.
The stories I prepared for the free fiction sites were always geared towards whatever genre was dominant on that website, but when it came time to pick a genre for my initial for-pay novel, I selected my first love, scifi. I’d outlined a story on a pile of American Airlines paper napkins while on a flight from L.A. to New York in 1999, and I began work on A GALAXY UNKNOWN the next day. I tried to instill the excitement of the scifi pulp fiction of the fifties with the fun of the Saturday matinee movies that my parents said they’d enjoyed so much when they were young. The book was fashioned after the wonderful Horatio Hornblower series written by C.S. Forester in the 1940s and 50s, but I selected a distaff protagonist and used outer space for my canvas. My goal was to produce a scifi story that would appeal to both male and female readers. I never intended it as series, but being new to writing, I got carried away. The book grew so large that I eventually cut it in half to make it acceptable to publishers who preferred 90,000 word novels from new authors. The first book was still over 130,000 words when complete. Although none of the scifi publishers in the US or Canada expressed the slightest interest in the books, the few friends that I allowed to read them couldn’t get enough and kept begging me to write additional episodes and expand it to a series.
2. What made you decide to go the Indie route?
In 2001 I began searching for a publisher. I’d read in several ‘how to’ books on writing that it was almost impossible for a new writer to land an agent, but that if you interested a publisher in a manuscript, you’d have no difficulty finding an agent who would then only have to perform the contract negotiations to collect their 15%. Unfortunately, none of publishers whom I contacted, some more than once, were interested in AGU. In 2006 I started seeking an agent without having publisher interest. The how-to books were right. I couldn’t get an agent to give me the time of day.
3. When did you first Indie publish?
In 2007 I made a decision to give up my dream of becoming an author and rededicate myself to earning a living with a 9 to 5. But there was still a part of me that wouldn’t quit. I learned of a POD company named Lulu where I could get a book published without the up-front money required by a vanity press, and worked to make two of my books available there. I never promoted them other than through word-of-mouth but I sold a few copies now and then. In 2008 I learned about the Amazon Kindle program. There were a lot of websites back then where you could sell your books on-line and pay just a small fee to the site for handling the sale, but attracting people to your book’s page was a problem. Amazon was only paying 35% royalty at the time, so a $9.99 book earned you $3.49 and Amazon kept $6.50. With one of the small sites, you got to keep $8.99 from each sale.
Being an IT person, I knew the value of having a book on Amazon. Search engines love to spyder Amazon, and then there are all those great affiliate sites where your books are offered. So if anyone performed a search on your name, they’d get thousands of hits. I uploaded the two books I’d put on Lulu to Amazon’s KDP, which was called DTP back then. I intended to also make my books available on several small websites with low fees, but I became busy just trying to make a living and never got it done. I’d had a website set up since 2004, and it helped me sell a few copies every month through Amazon. In April of 2010, Steve Jobs of Apple announced that the iTunes store was going to pay authors 70% royalty for every eBook sale. Amazon was forced to match Apple or see their authors desert the ship. At the same time, the place where I was working began downsizing as they shifted the workforce to another state where they could pay lower salaries.
When I was laid off in June 2010, I had eight completed but unsold books in my computer, and a dozen partials. I decided to see if I could pick up a few extra dollars to supplement my unemployment, so in between searches for a job on the internet and sending out resumes, I uploaded my books to Amazon. In answer to your question, my first steps toward Indie publishing were in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2010 that I made a serious effort to sell books.
4. When we were talking about pricing books on Amazon, you said you priced all your books at 5.99. Since then, I see you’ve lowered the price in the first book of the Unknown Galaxy series to 3.99. Is this because the series is finished now and you’re pricing the first one as a loss leader?
All of my books were priced at $5.99 until two days ago. The only other time I’d listed any of my scifi books for less was when I was trying to make some inroads in the UK market. I lowered the first book’s price to the GBP equivalent of $3.99 for 45 days. Amazon’s distribution of tens of millions of free books since December has had a significant impact on the system. As you would expect, sales are down across the board. It’s difficult to compete with free. The authors who are still using free promo days to give their work away are saying that very few people are taking the free books now, and when the free days are over they’re seeing little or no paid sales. Kindles are bloated with free books. The AGU series is not finished, but I won’t have another new book out for a couple of months, so I decided to lower the first book’s price as a test to see if it spurs some sales. Once people read one of my books, they’re usually hooked, but I need them to buy that first book. A couple of weeks ago I offered this suggested strategy in a post on the KDP General Questions forum.
By the time this appears in your blog, the special might be over and the price restored to $5.99. Like most people, I’m playing it one day at a time right now as we try to determine what’s going to happen in this industry. I’m also working to expand my distribution channels. Amazon has struck a serious blow to Kindle fiction book sales for the immediate future and beyond, so I have to find other outlets for my books.
5. I see you have a lot of reviews on Amazon, what is your secret to get the reviews?
Most people must either love a book, or hate it, to take the time to write a review. I know that some authors pad their reviews, but every single one of the hundreds I have are genuine. When I began writing, I never told family members or friends what I was doing. By the time the word got out, I had completed about four or five books, but I hadn’t had any success getting published so everyone assumed that it was just a hobby and would say things like, “You’re writing? Oh, that’s nice.” I didn’t even tell anyone in the family that I was selling on Amazon until my sales passed 10,000 books because I didn’t want well meaning relatives to plant reviews. When my sales passed 100,000 books last year, family members finally acknowledged that I was a legitimate author. My secret for getting reviews is simple. At the back of every book I ask readers to please leave a review if they enjoyed the book. The ones who hate the book will leave one without having to be asked. Fortunately, they’re in the minority, and my books have an average rating of 4.1 stars or better.
6. Speaking of reviews, do you send any copies out to “reviewers”? How successful have you been at getting those sort of reviews?
I don’t pay attention to reviews from the websites where they prepare reviews for money, so I’ve never felt the urge to buy a favorable review for my books. I do have a few fans from my free fiction days who have become pen pals and I’ve sent them copies. Although I don’t ask them to review the books, I think that one or two from my free fiction days have posted a review.
7. Tell me about your marketing—what have you found is most effective?
My first marketing attempt was to join reader discussion threads on Amazon in June 2010. Once accepted into the conversation I would let it slip that I was an author. If someone asked what I had written, I would provide a link to my books or my website. If no one asked, I never pushed it. No one could complain that I was spamming the thread if someone asked me to provide a link. But too many authors on Amazon abused the system by spamming every thread they could. Amazon finally prohibited authors from even joining the reader threads. I had already moved on by then because I only promoted in that way for a month. That was sufficient to get the talk about my books started. My main marketing strategy was to release one of my seven books every six weeks rather than just dumping them on Amazon all at once. Just as the buzz died down on the most recent book, I’d release a new one and everything would start up again, but louder than ever. The week after I released Book 7, all seven books were on Amazon’s Best Seller list for SciFi. Six were in the top twenty, and one was #24. That wasn’t too shabby for a series that every scifi publisher in North America turned down. I’ve always wondered if other authors resented my taking up so many of the top spots at once, but it was evidence that my marketing strategy had worked, and that the reading public liked my books despite how editors at the Big 6 felt.
Beyond that, I’ve always encouraged interaction with fans. The Amazon Author Central forums are great. Every author has his or her own personal forums where fans can leave messages or engage in discussions, and Amazon will instantly send the author an email copy. The author can then respond via the forum and if the fan is tracking the discussion, they get a copy emailed to them. This is perfect for people who fear sending fan emails because they leave a trail, but I also encourage fans to email any questions they might have to the address I’ve posted on my website (www.deprima.com), and I always do my best to respond. My only other marketing is to send an announcement email to my mail list when I have something significant to report. I’ve never paid for a single ad, never sent review copies, and never done a signing or performed a reading.
8. At the time I met you on Kindle boards, you were not a fan of free or cheap books. (And there’s a debate raging on the Internet whether free books via Amazon’s Select program are hurting authors.) Have you changed your opinion? Is so or if not, why?
From a reader standpoint, cheap and free is great. Who doesn’t want something for nothing? The only better deal is if the author pays you to read their book. Ask any paid reviewing service.
From the serious author’s standpoint, cheap books are a disaster. You practically sweat blood when you write your story. You pour your heart and soul into your work, and then you have to compete with cheap books, many of which are written by people who have never worked to develop author skills and are only trying to cash in on a get-rich-quick idea. That most of the cheap books are awful doesn’t make it hurt any less when you can’t sell your stories for a decent price.
A few authors made a big splash with throwaways, but mostly because their books were decently written and could easily have sold for more. They scored big because they got in early with a novel idea for volume sales. (I call them throwaways because before free books most people didn’t mind throwing away 99 cents when taking a chance on a book that looked interesting.) The story that you rarely hear is how the top 99 cent sellers owe their success mainly to promotional efforts. I read in an interview that Amanda Hocking practically lived on Facebook when she was starting. While John Locke was busy writing his books, one of his sons was spending all his days promoting his father’s work everywhere possible. Darcie Chan posted in the Amazon forum recently about how her success is owed to her incessant on-line promotional work. A lot of authors think that the price tag was solely responsible for the success of the 99 centers. It wasn’t.
Free books are a disaster because many people won’t need to buy books for a long time. New authors think that free is a way to gain name recognition, but by the time the author has a second book ready, the reader will have forgotten the author’s name unless they’ve had their socks knocked off by brilliant writing. AND the thousands of free books the author gave away have helped insure that less people will need to buy books over the next few years. The free book authors have helped diminish their own future prospects. No author should even consider using the ‘free’ gimmick unless they have at least three books to offer readers. If they must use the free book gimmick, they should let it work as a loss-leader for other immediate sales. But if a book is good, you don’t need to give it away. People will beat a path to your door and pay a decent price for a good book. And let us not forget the immortal words of Thomas Paine, a self-pubber who wrote in 1776, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only which gives everything its value.”
9. Any recommends for pricing a book?
That’s the most asked question in the industry, and yields advice that most new authors will never listen to. Newbies simply nod their head and smile, then go do whatever it was they planned on doing before they asked. They not looking for information, they’re looking for support that their inclination is the one they should follow.
Most new authors take a good look at the average price other books in their genre are selling for and price their books accordingly. People have asked why my books aren’t priced that way since most of the Indie novels in the scifi genre are $2.99. The answer is simple. My books are worth $5.99. Other authors may choose to undervalue their books but that does not make it incumbent on me to follow suit. I’ve never been a lemming. I’ve tried to restore some sense of reason to the pricing structure in the Indie community but I’ve failed completely. Most Indie authors seem to be more concerned with sales rank than royalties. Just keep in mind that if you’re selling your book at $2.99 and someone else is getting 99 cents for their book, they must sell six times as many as you to make the same money. They might outsell you three to one and have a better sales rank, but you’ll do better in the long run and can laugh all the way to the bank while they get up and go to their day job at Wal-Mart. Most authors don’t make enough money to work at it full time. I can’t understand why they put up roadblocks to success by continuing to price their books at 99 cents.
10. Any additional recommends for new Indie authors?
Always remember that QUALITY is the most important ingredient in any book. Do everything you can to give the buyer an enjoyable read and they’ll keep coming back to buy your new books.
Every new author thinks that their first book is great. It isn’t. Nobody writes a great book right out of the gate. It might have seemed that way at times with a favorite author, but that’s only because you never saw the first books that author wrote. By about the fifth book, you’re ready to begin thinking about publishing. If you publish a bad book because you’re too eager, people will remember and many will never give you another chance until you appear on Oprah.
Don’t expect overnight success. It doesn’t work that way. It takes time to build a following. Work hard, but be patient. Ignore the gimmicks such as free books. They don’t work over the long term, and if you want to become a respected author you have to be in it for the long haul. People recommending your book to relatives and friends is what sells books and builds your fan base. Don’t price yourself out of the market, but don’t undervalue your work. Readers have begun to associate cheap books with shoddy writing. People are always willing to pay a decent price for a good read.
Thank you, Thomas, for your fascinating, inspiring, and thought-provoking answers. Okay, Ruby readers, now it’s your turn. As readers, as authors: aspiring, indie and trad-what’s your opinion on pricing and how to sell books?
You can find more about Thomas on his website. Presently, his sci-fi books are only available at Amazon and OffTheBookshelf.com, but he has a paranormal book that’s available on Lulu, Amazon, and OTB.com. As a result of the reduced selling opportunities on Amazon, he’s expanding his distribution channels and just inked a non-exclusivity contract with Kobo and will begin uploading his books there soon. His new book: Citizen X will be available in a few months at all of his sales locations.