Kerry Wilkinson was the best-selling ebook author on Amazon for the last quarter of 2011. And, Kerry Wilkinson does not have a publisher.
Let's take a moment to let that process. Kerry Wilkinson is a self-published author. And, in the last quarter of 2011 - that includes Christmas - his digital book downloads outsold James Patterson, Stieg Larsson and Stephen King.
His first book was called "Locked In" and is a mystery about a a body found locked in a house, with seemingly no way in or out of the house. The hero of that book, Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniel, was such a great character that he built a subsequent series around her. To date, there have been three Jessica Daniel books, selling over 250,000 copies - again, self-published.
After news of Kerry Wilkinson's success broke, I contacted him for an interview. We traded some emails and he was very cordial and cooperative. Recently, the Daily Mail (Wilkinson lives in England) did an article on "vanity-publishing" authors - an archaic term that is seldom used anymore now that self-publishing is fast becoming a legitimate endeavor in its own right. The article included Wilkinson as an example of the success of this movement. But, apparently, they did not speak to him directly at all. This did not sit well with him, and he spoke out about their mischaracterizations.
So, let's let the man speak for himself. I asked him about self-publishing, submitting to Amazon, and his writing process in general. In Stephen King's book "On Writing", he discusses his process, where he sits, his plot planning (or lack thereof). His methods work for him and others emulate them. But, let's see how a self-published author with a day job does it.
How long have you been writing?
In terms of fiction - I started in April 2011, so not very long. But I'm a trained, professional journalist so I've been writing in one way or another for at least 15 years. I'm 31, so that's half my life.
What experience do you have in "legacy publishing" (the traditional publishing house route) before your e-publishing efforts?
Tell me about your first e-publishing experience, "Locked In". Did you do the uploading and other work yourself? Was it intimidating or difficult?
I did everything myself. It wasn't intimidating at all because I had no expectations. I didn't write it to be released, I wrote it because I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually create something. If no-one bought it, then so what? I had a good job away from the writing and I now have a better one. I didn't find the conversion or uploading too hard. I don't think too many people would struggle with it.
How successful has e-publishing been for you so far?
It has completely changed my life. Even if I never sold another book, I can always say I've written a number one bestselling book. Not many people can say that. I have made money from the books - not the amounts some might think, but a nice figure.
How long does it take you to write?
The only thing that takes any real time is the plotting. Sometimes that takes weeks, sometimes months. I essentially wrote five books back-to-back in around nine months. They all stemmed from one enormous brainstorm - but I worked hard too. I would get up at 5am, write for an hour, go to work for a 10-hour shift, write on my lunchbreak, drive home, then write until I went to bed.
It's easy to say "you write quickly" - but once I have my plan, I'm just joining the dots. Being able to touch-type helps but I only ever do what works for me. I've since heard from people who aim for 1,000 words a day. Or people who write for three hours, three times a week. I could never work like that. I treat it like a full-time job. The fact I already have a full-time job just means I work harder. I think it's about finding what works for you.
Either way, it's not like working down a mine is it? I get to sit on a sofa and make things up.
Do you outline?
Extensively. The plot outlines can be 5,000 words on their own - but that's what lets me work quickly. The entire book is already written in short form before I start properly. That means that, when I do start writing the actual script, I already know what is happening and when it is happening. It doesn't mean I don't go off on tangents or come up with better ideas as I'm working - but because I know where I'm trying to get to, it means I've never had writer's block.
What kind of routine or procedure do you have for writing?
I pretty much need it to be quiet. At worst I can have some music on but I can never focus if I have the television or radio on - or even if other people are about. Basically, I just get on with it. It's really easy to make excuses, or get distracted but I'm pretty disciplined.
Tell me about your cover art. Do you work with a designer? How important do you think this is to your sales?
No, I've just winged it by myself. I think the simplicity of the cover for Locked In has worked in its favour.
What other writers do you follow or communicate with in the realm of e-publishing?
Very few. A couple have emailed or tweeted me at various points and I offer what I can. I don't really have the time. The more time you spend on message boards, the less time you're writing. Considering I have a full-time job and a wife too, time is precious.
For a reader, how can one quickly differentiate between good stuff and junk in making a decision about what to download?
Perhaps the best way is to download the sample before you buy the book. If the first 10 per cent is good and you like it, then it's probably worth a punt.
Where do you see e-publishing going in the near future?
In America, people have already read about people like John Locke and Amanda Hocking - but it took a bit longer to hit the UK. Now people such as Louise Voss & Mark Edwards - plus myself - have begun to have a degree of success too, getting large coverage in the process.
In the short-term, people will start to bypass agents at the first stage and upload their own work. If it does well, it gives them a platform to either keep going themselves - or then go to an agent/publisher. The "middleman" of agents will either end up being cut out, or they won't be involved until later than might have been traditionally so.
That's not to say agents won't still have a role, because there is so much benefit to having someone help you sell things such as overseas translation rights and audio book rights.
As for publishers, ebooks aren't going anywhere. I think publishers will begin to copy some of the tactics indies use in terms of pricing the first book in a series at a very low price in order to attract readers through the quality of the editing and story. Self-publishers can compete on price and with characters and story - but can never battle when it comes to a professional editing experience. Publishers should play on that. If I were them, that's what I'd be telling people: "Why buy a book with typos when you can buy the real deal?"
But you have to think of the readers too. Cheap doesn't mean a bargain from a self-publisher but, at the same time, expensive doesn't mean good from a traditional publisher either. If someone pays £12 ($19.00 U.S.) or more for a brand-new book which is dreadful, they're not going to worry about wasting £1 on a self-published book which is equally poor.
It's not about price, it's about value. Someone can buy all three of my books for £6 ($9.50 U.S.). Are they perfect in terms of copyflow and editing? Of course not. But, if you're charging £12 for a digital version of one title, then it's not bad value given how many people have enjoyed them. That said, if that £12 book is perfectly edited and gives readers an accurate reflection of what the description claims it is - which doesn't always happen - then that has value too.
Publishers will start to focus on things like the importance of a good sample and so on but the key thing is how long it takes for them to figure that out.
The biggest danger to them won't be self-publishers as such, it will be their own mid-list authors who see people like me selling huge numbers even though I started with no following. They will look at the traffic to their own website and the number of Twitter followers, etc, they have and realize they already have an in-built fanbase. They'll look at the 70% royalties available through Amazon and compare it to their own deals.
Sooner or later a really big-name author will go fully self-published.
Self-publishing used to be the stigma of authors who couldn't find an agent, couldn't get a publisher, just weren't quite ready for prime time. But, that notion is changing fast with the advent of personal e-readers like the Kindle from Amazon and the ease of uploading material to Amazon's website. Authors can now bypass the traditional machinery that stood between them and their readers.
At first, hardly anyone saw any challenge from the e-reader market to the traditional methods of publishing. But, as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and others continued to pump money into the e-reader market, and consumers bought them at staggering rates, the potential audience for e-published authors grew quickly.
And, it's not just dedicated e-readers that spread that possibility. Kindle has apps that allow you to read their books on an iPhone, iPad, Windows phone, Android device, Blackberry, or even within a browser on either Mac or PC. You don't even have to own a Kindle to read Kindle books. Add to that the recent capability of public libraries to now make their e-book titles available to Kindle readers and you have a widespread base of readers who are looking for material.
Onto this ripe field of eager readers steps self-published authors who offer their books at prices far below those of traditional publishing houses, and still make good money at that price. For example, Kerry Wilkinson's first e-book still sells for 99¢. James Patterson's e-books, on the other hand, sell for $12.99. Now, if you just got a Kindle for Christmas and were looking to load up, doesn't 99¢ sound better to a first-time buyer than $12.99?
But, what about quality? Isn't there a great potential for really lousy material to be foisted off on new buyers? Certainly there is. And, it does happen. Some "authors" even plagiarize other material, including online fan fiction, erotic fiction, and even classic books that have passed into public domain. But, there are two huge tools that buyers have that can prevent a lot of misery for them: user reviews, and free samples.
Amazon's user reviews are quick to point out illegal material, or even just e-books that are poorly written, badly formatted, or simply not edited well at all (misspellings, unintentional bad grammar, etc.) The subpar material gets flushed out in full view.
Then there is the ability to download a free sample of any book in the Kindle store. A sample that gives you the entire first chapter of a book usually tells you all you need to know about taking a chance on the book. And, if all else fails and you get a dud (something really badly done, not just contrary to your personal taste), you can return it. If it is an illegitimate work, you can report it to Amazon.
So, with low risk and good tools like that, good self-published authors are wading into the game and sometimes outselling the big guys.
Self-published authors who want to be taken seriously and establish a reputation on Amazon are meticulous about their editing, layout and cover art. This is where some end up spending a bit out of pocket to be sure their material is of professional quality.
The playing field is leveling, much the way mp3s and iTunes is leveling distribution for independent bands. And, given the investment that is being made in new e-reader models, I would say we are on the front edge of a wave that may never recede for self-published authors.