Interview with Courtney Milan: Self Publishing Her Next Novel

Courtney Milan's UnlockedYesterday when I was formatting my review for Courtney Milan’s Unlocked, I put the author’s name in both the “author” and “publisher” field. I have a feeling I will be doing that more and more often, and I know I’ll be doing it again for Milan. Read on for an interview (as usual, a nosy one) about Milan’s decision to self publish the third book in her trilogy.

So what’s the story? You’ve shared why you’re choosing this option: Your readership, your fans, and your dislike of the digital royalty rate. What you think a publisher could have offered to bring you a print contract you’d be interested in?

I would very much like to discuss your point of view and reasoning however you’d like to share it publicly.

Milan: The digital royalty rate (8% of digital cover price for Harlequin) was a sticking point. And under the terms of the contract and the current market, this would have given them the rights to my backlist for the rest of my working life. You can see people break down the math elsewhere as to how that works out in the long term, with more favorable royalty rates. Most current contracts were written in a time period when a book had a very short commercial lifespan, and the industry is suffering growing pains as it tries to figure out what fair value is now that this time has broadened.

Beyond the financial aspects, there are some creative components of my decision that are exciting and freeing. Under traditional publishing, every one of an author’s books needs to be at or around the same level of commercial viability. That means there’s pressure on authors to write to the largest segment of the market—and once they’ve captured that market, they have to keep writing towards it.

So far, that pressure hasn’t hampered my creative output. I have tons of ideas, and so I’ve selectively developed stories that are about the British aristocracy. Even so, I had to work to keep some plot points. For instance, I had to push to keep Mark, the hero of my upcoming Unclaimed, as a virgin.

If I self-publish, the range of stories I can write widens. It’s okay if not all my books aim for an audience of 100,000. For instance, I’d love to write a belowstairs romance, like what you see developing between Anna and Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey. I don’t think a traditional publisher would touch that, but I do think that there is a subset of historical romance readers who would love it. I want to be able to mix it up.

But I am not at all averse to traditional publishing. Like I said before, some of my ideas are very commercial, and I think they would do well in any form of publication. I don’t think traditional publishers are evil, misguided, or even ignorant. I don’t agree with everything they do, but they don’t agree with everything I do, so that makes us even.

So I could see myself choosing traditional publication again. But there are four requirements that would have to be met first:

1. The publisher would need to be dedicated to wide distribution of my books in print format.
2. I would have to get a fair digital royalty rate under a contract that protected the commercial value to me of my backlist titles.
3. The publisher would either have to commit to simultaneous worldwide electronic distribution of the English language version, or take only North American rights so I could handle the simultaneous aspect myself.
and
4. I would want to be able to self-publish other works while still under contract.

I don’t think these conditions are unreasonable or unworkable. The explanation for why authors are economically better off if they self publish hinges on the fact that an author’s backlist titles are now worth more to the author than they are to the publisher. Fix that and you stem the impetus to self-publish. I can think of five workable solutions off the top of my head.

Finally, I want to emphasize that this is a business decision on my part, not a manifesto. When I say, “I’m not going to work with a publisher on this book” I’m not declaring all publishers unfit for all purposes. I’m just saying that at this point in time, I didn’t feel it was the right decision for me to make. If you want to know how I feel about traditional publishers, this is from the acknowledgments for Unlocked, the self-published novella I’m releasing:

I know it’s the fad to dis traditional publishers, but I’ve never been one of the cool kids. I want to thank HQN Books and Margo Lipschultz for all that they have done for me. I learned a great deal about how to produce a professional product by working with the entire team there. I would not be where I was today without them.

So, fair warning: I’m not going to be a good poster child for any movement.

 

You’re not going to be a poster child for any movement? Well, crap, where’s the fun in that? Why not be the poster child for Hot Sexxay Belowstairs Romance? Just think of the potential tag lines….

Milan: I could do that, but then people would be mad if I wrote a romance about a duke! If someone really needs a poster child, I volunteer my dog. I don’t know what he’d be a poster child for, but he’s a very cute dog and he’d do an excellent job.

[Not sure about poster dog child? Check this video Courtney made for the 2011 DABWAHA]

So moving on.

What professionals or professional skills, freelance and otherwise, are you planning to use as you prepare your novel for publication?

I am a huge believer in hiring freelance editing. You really can’t see some aspects of the story yourself, and I know by lengthy personal experience that no matter how many times I read a story, there are just some mistakes I will never see. But many of the professionals who control quality for traditional publishing are freelancers. I can hire the exact same people, and so I have.

I thought long and hard about doing my cover myself. But I found myself nitpicking the design of every cover designer in my price range. Give any one of those graphic designers 2 hours and she would absolutely come up with a better cover than I can in the same amount of time. (For reference purposes: one of my many, many former jobs was in graphic design. I haven’t logged the 10,000 hours necessary to be an expert, but I’m probably at 3,000 hours.) But since this is my cover, I spent close to 60 hours fussing with little details.

I won’t put my product up against some of the better cover designers in the business—for instance, I have serious cover envy for Tessa Dare’s upcoming A NIGHT TO SURRENDER. I could fuss for 1,000 hours and never get there. But I can’t afford them.

What I am not is a photographer or a serious photomanipulator. So I bought nonexclusive rights to an image by Claudia McKinney at Phatpuppyart.

For formatting: I priced out formatting from a handful of leading names. I also read a handful of formatting guides, and discovered that the trick to proper ebook formatting is starting with a clean HTML file. So I ended up doing it myself—more because the really talented people all have a fairly long back log, and formatting is important enough that I wouldn’t want anyone but the most talented. (Again: if I do it and screw it up, I will fuss until it’s right. If I underpay someone else and they screw it up, that’s it.)

Finally, I couldn’t have done this without my agent, Kristin Nelson. She negotiated a contract for me that gave me a lot of flexibility to walk and continue the series on my own. She has been absolutely supportive.

I know a lot of agents would choke if a client said they were walking on a very nice deal to self-publish, but Kristin didn’t blink an eye. There is a lot of flux in an agent’s role today. Some of the news I hear absolutely sticks in my craw. But I’ve talked with my agent about all of this and I have been consistently impressed with her intelligence, ethics, and dedication.

Have you thought about what price point you may use?

Milan: I’m pretty unemotional about price. A price is a price, not a barometer of my self-respect. Unlocked, the novella I’m releasing, is priced at 99 cents. I don’t believe that’s a revenue maximizing price. I think the revenue maximizing price for the novella would be $2.99. I’m looking for an audience maximizing price, not a revenue maximizing price.

For a full-length front list title, I’m probably going to start at $4.99. Maybe $3.99. I’m not sure. I go back and forth with myself.

I know you plot your books mathematically. Do you have a worksheet for this project as well? Can we see it? :)

Milan: Yeah, I plot my books mathematically—I use a nonlinear stochastic process. ;)

I have the mother of all spreadsheets. I tried to do exactly what a publishing house would do by setting up a profit/loss statement for my book. I made a comprehensive list of every expense I would have and got quotes for all of them. Every time I spend money, I put it on the spreadsheet. I tried to figure out how many copies I would sell. To do that, I did what you’d do in the publishing industry—looked for comparable books.

Except there were no comparable books. The closest you could get was my own book, and the pricing would be different and I don’t know if a self published book would sell at the level of a traditionally published book, and so even that wasn’t comparable. So instead I projected scenarios—best (believable) case, medium case, and worst (believable) case.

At some point, I’ll probably post a stripped-down version of my spreadsheet for projection purposes, but if you saw the full thing it would make you think I was neurotic.
 
More neurotic, I mean.

What part of the project excites you most? Gives you the fearsome jibblies?

Milan: he part that scares me is the same part that excites me: If this doesn’t work out, I have nobody to blame but myself. That’s scary. Super scary. But on the other hand, it means that if the cover art isn’t working, I can change it. If the cover copy isn’t drawing people in, I can change it. If the pricing is wrong, I can fix it in a single click.

Here’s the other scary thing: When I first started this endeavor, I thought, “No author will ever need to fear being dropped by her publishing house again!” That was naive. I *do* still fear being dropped. It’s just that I’m the publishing house now. And because this is a business, I will have to do that if I don’t turn a reasonable profit. I’ll have to look myself in the eye and say, “It’s not personal. It’s business.”

That being said, my do-or-die number is realistic enough that I only fear that I’ll miss it in the dark of night when I wake up cold and irrational. Still, it’s sobering—and it makes me feel for every editor who has ever had to drop an author that she personally loves.

1. With the news of Barry Eisler and Connie Brockway signing with Amazon Publishing and the establishment of Montlake, the Amazon Publishing romance imprint, have you looked at them as an option?

Milan: I’m not going to foreclose any possibility. I already said what would bring me to a traditional deal: I want an assurance of wide distribution, reasonable royalties, and reasonable reversion clauses. If Amazon can provide that, I’m willing to listen. Amazon is generally smart and savvy, and boy, do they have a lot of data.

That being said, that “distribution” stuff is pretty crucial to me. My understanding is publishing with Amazon means exclusivity. Amazon is a great marketplace for books. I hope in the future that it will be one of many, and not one of one.


I personally think this represents an amazing opportunity for Milan, and for many authors. Each day I hear about another author self-publishing backlist novels, novellas, and previously unpublished works, but I think this represents another bend in the increasingly curvy road of discovery and publishing in the romance community.

I wish you total badass success on the road ahead, Courtney.

 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    Great interview! Thanks for sharing the information. I LOVED Unlocked and am greatly looking forward to more.

  2. 2
    Alina says:

    I can’t believe I’m saying this (as a consumer, shouldn’t I want to pay the lowest price possible?), but… Ms. Milan should go with 4.99. When it comes to money, people think in increments of 5, they won’t think, “I want a book under four dollars,” they’ll think, “I want a book under five.”

    I read Unlocked just yesterday and really enjoyed it! Thank you both SB for bringing it to my attention and Courtney Milan for writing it in the first place. I thought 99 cents was the perfect price for a novella – as a consumer, I expect to pay a nominal price for a less-than-novel-length work, but am also happy to pay it for an introduction to the writer’s work. The available of such an introduction plays a big part in my decision to pay full prices for novel-length works.

  3. 3
    Jen says:

    Courtney, I’ll be buying your books however you sell them and no matter what your covers look like. I’ve already downloaded Unlockedand can’t wait to read it! Good luck :)

  4. 4

    Thanks, Alina. I’ve heard $4.99 before.

    Here’s a question for people: would you be offended by moving price points?

    One option I’m considering is something like, $4.99 for 6 months, $3.99 for 6 months after that, and then $2.99 as a back list book.

    As a reader, would you be hugely offended if you bought a book and the author later dropped the price? I actually think that the ability to dynamically price books is something exciting, but I don’t want to do it if readers think it’s objectionable, or they think I’m just trying to milk people for money.

  5. 5
    Laurel says:

    @ Courtney: I’m excited to see you do this. I hope these kinds of decisions by established authors will drive boilerplate contracts to more reasonable royalties on digital sales. The people who write the books should get more than 8% of the sale, IMHO.

    Regarding the fluctuating price points, that would not bother me at all. I don’t know how that will pan out across different generations, though. I grew up during the $25 hardback, six months later comes the $8-$12 paperback for bestsellers era. I’m trained to think you pay more if you can’t cool your jets for a few months. Younger readers growing up on digital may feel differently. But my feeling is most people would be fine as long as you follow a pattern. 4 months at initial price, then drop, etc. So nobody gets taken by surprise.

    Good luck! I’m excited to see this succeed!

  6. 6
    Kiersten says:

    Congratulations Courtney on your ballsy new venture! Anything that rewards authors for their hard work while continuing to get great material into readers’ hands is a win on all sides – except possibly the discarded publisher. I think it’s a gutsy move and am thrilled you’re having such a fun time doing it! May that joy and fulfillment continue for you.

    I would think a fluctuating price point would be akin to books going on sale in a bricks and mortar store as time goes by. Seems perfectly legit to me.

  7. 7
    PK says:

    Thanks to Sarah and Courtney for the interview.  I wish Courtney much success in her new venture.  I’m sure it was a decision not made lightly and I applaud you for your efforts to do what is best for you while still considering your readership. 

    As far as the sliding price point, I’m all for it.  The closest analogy I have is in apparel or retail items.  I expect to pay the premium price to get the item at first offering but then once time has passed, other competitors enter with a similar item, or before a new upgrade bows, then the price scale adjusts itself accordingly.  I’m not opposed to your plan and think that you’re one smart cookie.

  8. 8
    Suzannah says:

    I wouldn’t be *offended* by a drop in price, but equally if I knew a lower price was coming, I probably wouldn’t buy it at the start. (This goes for any book – I’ve never been a hardback buyer either). I tend to buy things and not read them immediately, so I would be annoyed (with myself) if I bought something and didn’t get around to reading it until it was cheaper, if you see what I mean.  (One exception to not reading things immediately is your novella, which I bought this morning and have already read half of – thank you so much for making it available in the UK!)

  9. 9

    I’m a huge fan of Courtney’s, and we share the same fabulous agent, so I’m very interested to see what transpires with an author as smart as she is (spreadsheets, my lord) and her approach to a new tradition!

  10. 10

    Excellent interview, Courtney! Thank you so much for your candor and sharing your journey in the self-pubbed realm.

  11. 11

    Thanks for this interview, some good points to consider. I see no problem with fluctuating price points. As Kiersten said, it’s no different from books dropping their prices after they’ve been out for a while in bookstores.

    Suzannah has a point too about people waiting for the price to drop. Luckily, however, (in this case anyway!) there are always people who ‘can’t’ wait and have to have it now :)

  12. 12
    Anne says:

    I’m definitely going to check out “Unlocked” now and I probably wouldn’t have before just because I prefer that you get more time with characters in longer novels.

    What sold me was the discussion of less than mainstream plots. I think what tires me out most in historicals are the Casanova and the Virgin story lines so I love the idea of the guy being a virgin in your future novel. It’s not that I hate the former as a concept. It’s just that I get tired that 99% fall into this scenario.

    So if you’re going on to explore different types of plots and even may give us some downstairs action where the heroine is not the secret lost daughter of a Duke who was kidnapped at a young age but but who fortunately has the unique candlestick birthmark that will allow her to claim her heritage and put down her lady’s maid hair brush just in time to marry the important title of whereever land, I will definitely check it out.

  13. 13
    Alina says:

    I can see a two-price-point system working (regular price and backlist price), but I think if I knew a book was going to drop in price in just a few months, I’d wait to buy it. If I were setting the prices, I’d probably opt for a two-price system plus occasional promotions.

  14. 14
    Minx Malone says:

    Well said! You did a great job with Unlocked.  In regards to pricing, I’ve seen lots of books start off at an introductory price of 99c and then increase later. I don’t think it’s weird at all. Most readers understand that 99c is usually a limited time thing. Writers need to eat too!

  15. 15
    Las says:

    I’d sell my mother for a historical below-stairs romance. The only ones I’ve heard of are inspirationals, and I won’t read that genre.

    Please get on that!

  16. 16
    Lynn S. says:

    As long as I get a book with a train engine on the cover, everything is good for me.  Seriously though, this is a fascinating time in publishing and I think the creative possibilities available to self-publishing authors is one of best aspects and love the idea of less traditional heroes and heroines.

    I’m probably not the best to give pricing advice as I don’t grumble much about pricing for a new book as long as it doesn’t go over $7.99, but at $4.99 I wouldn’t hesitate at all.  The 99¢ price seems a great way to pick up new readers but $1.99 for a novella seems perfectly reasonable to me. A sliding scale sounds like a good idea to me but I would think a year at top price and then dropping to a backlist price might be better as, if I knew the price would drop at the six month point, I might wait it out.  I do think the current traditional publishing industry pricing of backlist titles in ebook format is absurd; while out hunting and pecking I saw a 2005 Catherine Coulter going for $9.99.  My question would be is there anyone buying it and, if no one is buying, what is the benefit of elite pricing besides elitism.

    Good luck to you and all the writers out there and thanks for sharing.  There is also an interesting discussion going on over at Dear Author for anyone else who is work adverse today.

  17. 17

    Inspiring and impressive! Thanks for leading the way so superbly, Courtney (and thanks for the great interview, Sarah)~

  18. 18
    Anne says:

    And as a follow-up, I just went to Amazon intending to purchase both Unlocked and Kiss of Snow. Saw Unlocked for a buck and it was purchased. Saw Kiss of Snow and found out it was priced at 13 bucks, so I closed that window, logged into my library website, and put myself on their wait list. It will probably be a couple of weeks but I can wait that out rather than pay 13 bucks for a digital book. I wish the publisher understood just how much money they are losing for themselves and their authors by pricing so high.

    And for the official record, I would have instantly purchased Kiss of Snow if it was under 10 bucks and, I’ve got no issues with variable declining pricing. In fact I kind of expect it, but it needs to stay reasonable. And I also don’t see a purchasing difference for me between 4 or 5 dollars. In fact if I just ran across a book that I didn’t know much about, I might be more interested in a 5 dollar book because I’ll admit to being susceptible to falling for higher pricing equaling higher value.

    Man, figuring out that sweet spot must be complicated. Too high? Not worth it and will get somewhere else. Too low? Not worth it because it might be low in quality. Glad I don’t have to figure this out.

  19. 19
    Kristi says:

    Congrats!! I’m so happy for you!!!

    Being in Marketing, I think moving price points is such a ‘duh’ moment. We get MASSES of sales when we put on expiration date on something. Sale ending 5/31? Whoosh, sales flood in.

    As for going the other way, that works like the hard-backed version as well. If it were me…. I would really play the price point with the older books. If you have a new book coming out, have that come out as $4.99 and then have your older books at 3.99 or 2.99 but send an email to your newsletter once month later to tell them that your older books are moving up in price at a certain date. Then, keep them that way for 3 months, and move them back down. It’s your prerogative to move the prices anyway you want. And everytime you come out with a new book, you are going to gain new readers who are going to dive through your back list.

    I do have to say… the cover of Unlocked looks self-made. I’m not sure if that is a bad thing or not. I feel like publisher books are all very crisp and clean, where self-pubbed books have a haze of ‘blur’ on them. It is a very nice cover though but very different than a Big 6 book.

  20. 20
    Erica Anderson says:

    1) I just bought Unlocked—can’t wait to read it!
    2) I would definitely buy a ‘belowstairs’ romance.
    3) I think moving price points are reasonable—if you really want it, you pay a higher price; if you can wait six months, it might be a dollar or two cheaper.
    4) Thanks for sharing your decision-making process. And Good Luck!

  21. 21

    So if you’re going on to explore different types of plots and even may give us some downstairs action where the heroine is not the secret lost daughter of a Duke who was kidnapped at a young age but but who fortunately has the unique candlestick birthmark that will allow her to claim her heritage and put down her lady’s maid hair brush just in time to marry the important title of whereever land, I will definitely check it out.

    No. None of that.

    The argument I always hear about the prevalence of dukes usually has to do with financial stability. Which makes no sense. There was a lovely, vibrant middle class in Victorian times! They weren’t eating coal and freezing to death.

  22. 22
    Anna says:

    Does this mean you’ll be open to reviewing other self-published romances in the future?  I’ve read some very good ones lately.

  23. 23

    I think having three prices is a little excessive, unless you wait longer to drop it down to the last price. 

    Although if it were a “I’ve come out with a new book so I’m dropping prices on the others so you can read more of my stuff” kind of thing, that would make sense to me.  So I guess it makes more sense to me (and this may only be because I’m crazy) that you would backlist price your books if you were planning on releasing more in the same format. 

    Also, I am so in on a belowstairs type romance.

  24. 24
    JBHunt says:

    @Anna, I am curious, too, about whether self-published authors have a difficult time getting their books reviewed on romance blogs.

    I don’t have a clue what the trend is. I’d love to hear from those with more information about this. What’s the scoop?

  25. 25
    Elisa says:

    See, all that work is why the idea of self-publishing is a scary prospect. The writing, re-writing, edits, etc. are nerve-wracking enough. I can’t imagine having responsibility for all fo it! You’re a very brave and savvy woman, Courtney!

    The sliding price point could be very effective, especially if you released the next book at $4.99, then dropped it to $3.99 in honor of the release of the following book. I really like the idea of a less expensive backlist item, though how long would you wait before it was considered “backlist?”

    I suppose it all depends on the book release timing, but I am in favor of the sliding price point. eBooks are already sliding around price-wise, though the dips are generally promotional. Still, it would be yet another effective way to keep your work on reader’s minds (besides the great writing, of course).

  26. 26
    meoskop says:

    Price wise – I’d give up on the 99 and go for $4.69. Aside from amusing me, because I am 12, a slightly unconventional price gets people’s attention, where as a price they consider ‘too cheap’ devalues the product. That’s my retail exp/ People, they are weird.

    Scaling the price, tricky there too. If they know the price i going to drop, many people won’t buy at all. People don’t mind sales, that’s a short term event. A full price drop makes them feel they were suckers and should have waited. On the other hand, a price drop after a considerable amount of time can scoop up stray bottom priced readers. Picking the interval would be key and I would suggest the interval not be predictable or transparent, but based on market demand, number of titles out, etc OR be based only on periodic short term price drops of a week or less.

    Giving away Grace Burrows “The Heir” hasn’t stopped her from selling well now that it isn’t free. (I missed it as a freebie) which I think proves my sale point. Pricing is crazy intricate and a deferred sale is often a lost sale as new shiny things approach.

    Lastly, remember Judith Ivory’s Rat catcher? Bring on the middle classes.

  27. 27

    Courtney,
    I’m very proud of you given your great sense of respect for your craft and your business.  Your writing is what will bring readers to you, not how you publish it.  You nailed every point of what every author deserves and needs.  Though I know you aren’t looking to be a poster child (and your dog is perfect for the job!), you are actually stepping beyond the poster.  You’re making it real for YOURSELF as a writer.  As an artist, it’s all about respecting yourself and your art.

  28. 28

    Okay, I am back after a few hours on the road (moving from one in law’s house to the other). I’ll try to answer things in a non-haphazard fashion.

    Price wise – I’d give up on the 99 and go for $4.69. Aside from amusing me, because I am 12, a slightly unconventional price gets people’s attention, where as a price they consider ‘too cheap’ devalues the product. That’s my retail exp/ People, they are weird.

    I actually considered this. I had this point where I was looking up psychology of numbers and lots of stuff that lets me procrastinate doing real work and instead learn stuff that I don’t need, but it was all for naught because if I want my books to be on Apple’s iBooks (and I do), because Apple makes you end your prices in 0.99, and everyone else insists on price matching (and I already feel awful that Goodreads won’t let me charge 0.99, over one penny—I would feel terrible if I made iBooks users pay a whole 30 cents more!).

    I’m really enjoying the discussion on dynamic pricing. You’re all giving me some really good food for thought.

    What do you guys think of what Konrath does—pricing a backlist book to 99 cents for a month, and then kicking it back up to $2.99? Yay? Nay?

  29. 29
    Kristi says:

    I’m all for the 99 cents and then kicking it back up.

  30. 30
    elaine mueller says:

    a question regarding backlist and the comment about the publisher holding onto backlist titles (effectively) forever—

    is there anything an author can do if a publisher refuses to give the rights back to the author?  say the book has been oop for 10 years, rights revert “on written request” after 5 years, can the publisher refuse to surrender them?  if so why and how and what’s the author’s recourse?  sue ‘em??

    elaine

    green96—may you see lots and lots of green for the next 96 years!

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