In some ways, Jeremy Laszlo owes much of his career as a novelist to an intern in New York whom he’s never met before. Back in 2012, after speaking to literary agents and conducting research on the publishing industry, Laszlo submitted some of his manuscripts to several large book publishers. And then one day soon after, he received a reply in his email inbox. “It was supposed to be an interoffice email from the publishing house I had submitted to,” Laszlo told me in a phone interview. “And it was a couple of their interns joking back and forth. One of them said, ‘I just batch-rejected 600 authors.’ But they accidentally hit reply all and all the authors were included. They were joking about how they weren’t even reading any of the submissions. At that point, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to bother with that anymore.’”
Though Laszlo had written off traditional publishing, he was still determined to see his work in print. He briefly considered vanity publishing, in which an author pays to have a large number of copies of his self-published book printed, but quickly dismissed the notion. “An author should never have to pay to publish,” he explained, noting that there’s a large stigma attached to vanity publishing. But then he began reading stories about Amazon’s self-publishing tool on Kindle, and how some independent authors were seeing considerable success on the platform. Eventually, he released several books in a dark fantasy series he’d written, and, after playing around with various pricing points, he at one point began pulling in between $5,000 and $6,000 a month in revenue.
But Laszlo soon discovered, as have many within in the publishing industry, that just as Amazon giveth, Amazon also taketh away. Without even telling him, the company deleted the category his books were listed under, and virtually overnight it became nearly impossible to find them. “I’ve always been a huge fan of fantasy, and that was my plan all along to write fantasy books,” he said. “And then Amazon started changed things and I realized that I needed to diversify, and to do that I figured I would move into other popular categories, like zombies.”
I was first clued in to the zombie phenomenon on Kindle a few months ago while visiting family in Texas. My aunt mentioned she was addicted to reading zombie ebooks. I asked her which ones. “I just do a search for the word ‘zombie’ and start downloading them,” she said. She mentioned that most of the authors she read didn’t have a publisher. Intrigued, when I returned home I did a search on the Kindle store, and, sure enough, I found an array of zombie ebooks, nearly all by self-published authors, and many with hundreds of customer reviews (an indication that a title has sold well).
Why do zombie novels do so well? “Zombie fiction is a strange beast,” said Al K Line, author of an ongoing series called Zombie Botnet. “At first glance you may think it is just about the blood and the guts, but it goes far beyond that … The undead are the perfect platform for social commentary, to write stories about friendship, love, the human spirit and how people react under extreme duress.” With Walking Dead taking the throne as the most-watched cable show and a proliferation of zombie-themed movies in recent years, it seems sparkly vampires have been replaced by their more grotesque genre brethren.
The success of self-published ebooks has been well-documented in the press. Self-published authors used to be the laughing stock of the publishing industry; they were viewed as naive, talentless writers who couldn’t break into real publishing. Many of those rejected authors claimed that the game was rigged, that agents and New York publishers didn’t even bother reading the manuscripts of unknown writers before tossing them onto the rejection pile. The industry catered to a cabal governed by cocktail parties and prestigious MBA programs, some believed, and trying to break in based on merit was a waste of the time. At the same time, many midlist authors who did manage to get books published complained that their publishers treated books by non-bestselling authors like a lottery, blasting them out into the ether with the hope that a few of them would stick. They would openly wonder why they had to carry the burden of marketing and promoting the book for only a 10 percent cut of all sales.
The stigma of self publishing began to fall away, of course, with the debut of the Amazon Kindle and the vast ebook marketplace that opened up as a result. Suddenly, publishing your work was only a few clicks away, and Amazon was incentivized to promote these titles because it received between 30 and 70 percent of the revenue while also serving up a higher cut of sales to the authors. Soon, we began hearing of successful Kindle authors like Amanda Hocking who, after receiving more than 50 rejections from literary agents, eventually went on to sell hundreds of thousands of her self-published ebooks on Amazon. In 2012, Amazon announced its top 10 bestsellers for the year, and, as Gigaom’s Laura Hazard Owen noted, “four of the authors on Amazon’s 2012 adult top-ten list — which counts Kindle and print copies together — either originally self-published their books or published through very small publishers.”
One of those successful authors, Hugh Howey, has been collecting data on 120,000 of the most popular ebooks on the Kindle store. In a report published this year, he found that indie-published books comprised 25 percent of these bestselling titles. Books put out by the big five New York publishers made up 16 percent. He also discovered that genre fiction — genre meaning non-traditional categories like romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror — did particularly well. Of the bestselling romance novels sold on Amazon, 66 percent were by indie authors, and 56 percent of science fiction and fantasy bestsellers were self-published. Some industry watchers believe that the Kindle allows readers to engage in the guilty pleasure of consuming genre fiction in public without having to worry about the judgemental stares of others who would otherwise be able to see the covers of print versions.
Whatever the reason, horror fiction is thriving on Kindle, and a sizable portion of ebook readers are drawn to the zombie subgenre. What’s more, most of the authors I interviewed for this story stumbled into their success, navigating by trial and error until they suddenly found themselves with thousands of ravenous fans, eager to consume the next books in their series. Bobby Adair first got the idea to try out writing in the genre from his wife. “I was reading a zombie book that I didn’t like,” he recalled. “The ebook was rated fairly well on Amazon, and I was like, ‘This isn’t very good,’ and I was complaining to her about it when we were driving on the road. I think I might have said, ‘I can write better than this,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you?’ She kind of put me on the spot. I thought, ‘Well why not?’”
[LIKE THIS ARTICLE SO FAR? THEN YOU’LL REALLY WANT TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER. IT’S DELIVERED ONCE A WEEK AND PACKED WITH MY TECH AND MEDIA ANALYSIS, STUFF YOU WON’T FIND ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE WEB. SUBSCRIBE OVER HERE]
His first zombie novel, Slow Burn: Zero Day, took him about six weeks to write. While finishing the book, Adair also began combing through how-to articles on ebook publishing for tips on how to market his work so that it would stand out among the millions of titles available on Kindle. Two common pieces of advice he encountered repeatedly for genre fiction writers: Write an ongoing series and release the first book for free. The idea is that if you can entice a reader with a free download and he becomes hooked, then he will buy virtually every subsequent book of the series and be willing to pay an ever-increasing amount to obtain them. “It’s crack dealer marketing,” Adair joked.
Amazon currently doesn’t offer a “free” option for pricing, in fact the lowest you can price an ebook is 99 cents. But it will price match any competitor, so writers will exploit this loophole by listing their books as free on another platform — usually Smashwords — which will result in a free listing on the Kindle Store about a week later. “I was probably selling 20 books a day for 99 cents,” Adair said. “Once it flipped to free, I had 1,200 downloads on the first day.” There are also a number of websites that specialize in alerting readers to free or discounted books, the most popular of which, Bookbub, has millions of email subscribers. For a set advertising fee, you can have a link to your free ebook blasted out to this entire list and by doing so entice a prodigious number of readers into trying out your book. In its first month after being released for free, Adair’s book received 38,000 downloads.
From there, it was just a matter of writing the second book in his series. He published it a few months later, priced at 99 cents (he would raise the price with each subsequent book, eventually settling at $2.99). In the first month, he sold 3,800 copies, and every month after that his sales would fluctuate between 2,700 and 4,500. Of those who downloaded the first book, 45 percent purchased the second, and then for each book after that the conversion rate was around 95 percent.
Obviously, this model only works if you’re willing to write a series, and, more important, write it quickly. If you were to release a free book and not follow up with a sequel until a year later, by then most of those readers will have forgotten you. This means pumping out a new book every two or three months. Many of the authors I spoke to said they’ll often have at least three books in a series completed before releasing the first one. Often, all three will be published on the same day, allowing the writers to hyperlink to the sequel at the end of each ebook.
As their sales increase and they have more disposable income to invest in their careers, writers will often begin outsourcing the publishing and production work, in essence launching operations similar to what you’ll find in a traditional publishing company. Kyle West, author of the Wasteland Chronicles zombie series, realized pretty quickly that he needed to hire professional copy editors to review his work. “I started reading some negative reviews [of my book] about grammar and stuff,” he told me. “I thought I was good at editing but apparently I’m not.” It’s not uncommon for them to hire professional cover artists or third-party companies to handle the entire production side of the equation, allowing the author to focus solely on writing.
These authors all have to handle their own marketing as well, and over the years they’ve gotten better at providing ways for fans to subscribe to alerts for when new books in their series are released. Adair, for instance, began by erecting a Facebook page, and has done everything from running regular contests to paying money for ads. He now has over 3,700 fans. “Every time I release a book, a large number of those people will go out and buy it over the next few days, and that turns into a lot of visibility on Amazon” — books gain momentum when they make it onto Amazon bestseller lists — “which results in more sales.” A few months after he launched the Facebook page he had been listening to a publishing podcast where authors mentioned that their most important marketing tool was their email newsletter. “I was like, holy crap, I don’t even have one of those. We set up a subscribe page on my website right around the time my third book in the series came out, and then probably over the first six weeks we got a thousand subscribers to the email list.”
Nearly all the authors I spoke to eventually began to sell so many books that they are now able to sustain themselves with just their writing. West, who only just graduated from college in 2010, began to focus full time on writing starting in April. Adair, who had been working as a software developer, quit his job in August. But what struck me most about their success was that it was achieved so far outside of the traditional publishing apparatus that the New York publishers don’t even seem to know they exist. Adair’s books regularly make it to the top 100 bestsellers list on Amazon — at one point he made it into the top 10 bestselling horror writers, his name right next to Stephen King and Dean Koontz — and he told me that he’s never been approached by a publisher or literary agent. “There are a lot of people who are just quietly making money under the radar by just having a small fan base,” said West. “It’s kind of amazing because five years ago this wasn’t possible.”
Not all of the zombie novelists have chosen to quit their non-writing jobs, however. Jeremy Laszlo has been working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Marine Corps before that, and though he now produces up to 20 novels a year that sell thousands of copies each (“I pretty much gave up sleep,” he replied when I asked how he managed to work a full time job and complete so many books), he told me that he has no plans to leave his federal government career behind. Why? It all goes back to the lesson he learned when Amazon changed its algorithm without telling him. “The last time they made major changes, I went from $4,000 to $5,000 a month to a couple hundred dollars a month, at least until I could adapt and figure out new strategies to market and promote my work. You’re investing a lot on an entity that you have very little control over.” And with Amazon grabbing as much as 70 percent of ebook market share, many independent authors have realized that even though they’ve overcome the barriers long held in place by traditional New York publishers, they’re still beholden to a corporate behemoth that may not always have their best interests at heart. While the Kindle introduced the capacity for scaling self-publishing ventures, it’s also a potential choking point, one that may not always take kindly to the growing list of authors dependent on it to make their living.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.