At first glance, Brian S. Pratt of Boswell, Oklahoma, doesn't fit the stereotypical profile of a best-selling author. Yet he, and other indie ebooks authors like him, represent the future of book publishing.
Pratt began publishing with Smashwords (the ebook publishing and distribution platform I run) in early 2009. His first quarterly royalty payment was $7.82. While most authors would find that number discouraging, Pratt was encouraged. It was a start.
In the quarters since, Pratt's earnings have grown, and in recent quarters he's become a breakout success by any measure. Last quarter, he earned over $18,000 from sales across the Smashwords retail distribution network. This quarter, with three weeks to go, he's on track to break $25,000. At his current rate, he could earn $200,000 in 2011 when he includes his sales at Amazon. Not one to count his eggs before they're hatched, though, he's fast at work on his next series.
The road to here was anything but easy. At age 43, he's held a number of eclectic jobs, ranging from a U.S. Air Force avionics technician to a taxi driver. Until recently, as he shares in the interview below, he was living below poverty level.
He writes fast-paced, can't-put-it-down fantasy. Pratt started writing because the series authors he enjoyed reading weren't completing their series fast enough. So he started writing books he'd like to read himself. Unlike some ebook series writers who take shortcuts and carve up a single full-length books into short serialized chunks, Pratt's books are full-length, with most clocking in around 150,000 words. Most of his books are priced at $5.99, for which he nets about $3.50 per copy.
His writing style is completely his own, and most New York editors would bristle at the rules Brian breaks. His most popular series, The Morcyth Saga, is written in the present tense (though he changed to past tense for subsequent series). It's no wonder that after years trying to land an agent and a publisher, he faced unanimous rejection from publishing experts.
Yet readers had other plans for Pratt, as we learn in this interview.
Lacking a traditional outlet for his work, Pratt self published in 2005, first in print and later ebooks. Today, his ebook sales far outpace his print sales by a factor of more than 100:1.
His Morcyth Saga, a seven-book fantasy adventure series, is by far his most popular collection.
Below in this exclusive interview, Brian S. Pratt recounts the long road to his overnight breakout success.
[Mark Coker] Brian, tell us about your books
[Brian S. Pratt] I have 17 books completed spread across several series. Most are full length, epic fantasy type novels, each anywhere from 120,000-190,000 words. I have a few I call my mini's that are just plain fun and get the reader into the adventure from the get-go. These range from 60,000-90,000 words.
[MC] How did you get started as a writer?
[BSP] Back in 2005, I found myself waiting for several of the main authors to get around to finishing their next novel. The biggest one that annoyed me was The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved the series up to around book 6; then it lost me. Action grew infrequent and far between. It got bogged down in mundane details. Jordan wasn't the only one I was impatiently waiting for. So, on March 1, 2005, I sat down at my computer and decided to write The Morcyth Saga. Figured I could do a good job and write the kind of book I wanted to read. One that had action in every chapter, you followed the main character throughout, and descriptions were down to a minimum. That is exactly what you get in The Unsuspecting Mage; Book One of The Morcyth Saga.
[MC] What training do you have as a writer?
[BSP] Training??? Not a bit. All I started with was the drive to write a story and everything else followed. I ended up writing a seven book series in present tense, rife with errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Most of the errors have been fixed in subsequent editions. My word usage was not what one would find in the traditionally produced books, some said it was too simple. I don't know about that, but at least you don't need a dictionary at hand when you read my books. Some have liked it, others less so. My books feel different than others for that reason.
[MC] Tell us about some of the first customer reviews you received, and how you reacted?
[BSP] Reviews, yes there have been some dillies. Here's the first one-star I ever received. It was at Amazon.com less than a month after I first published The Unsuspecting Mage.
1.0 out of 5 stars - January 15, 2006
Present tense is an amateurish way to write ... and this book reads like it was written for a high school English class. Worst book I've read in a long time. I like lots of books, especially ones written by Robin Hobb, George Martin, and Stephen Donaldson to name but three. These books were well written. This one was not. Just wondering - how many of you are still in high school yourselves?
The last line was directed at the other reviewers who said they liked my book.
Needless to say, this devastated me and I stopped writing for a few weeks. Of course, I've had much worse ones since. But then my books kept selling. And I always told myself that as long as my books keep selling, even if it is marginally, then it would be worth it to continue. I've come to realize that there will always be those that do not like my books, and so what? They simply are not in my target audience. And my target audience is me. I write what I would like to read. And it looks like there are many "me's" out there for I've sold lots of books. If you want to see what may be in your future, check out The Unsuspecting Mage at Amazon.
[MC] You joined Smashwords March 27, 2009. Can you take us back to that moment in time, and recall what was going through your mind?
[BSP] Let's see. I was a single dad living with three kids and boy, was I poor (under the poverty level). Up until then, I hadn't really thought much about eBooks. I tried Mobipocket for a while and had great sales for three months, then it died off. Sales for my paperbacks, which I had published through iUniverse had fallen off dramatically. Where I had been breaking 4 figures a quarter, I was now less than 600 per quarter and bleeding red. I typed in "self publishing" and saw a quirky little site called Smashwords. It said, Your eBook, Your way. Didn't cost a thing so what did I have to lose? First quarter sales at Smashwords were dismal, 2009-04-07 -- $7.92 As it happened, April 7th is my birthday. That was cool. But I wasn't deterred. Books were selling. Sometimes, one or two a week, but they sold. I stayed with it and refused to allow all the naysayers (and there were those by the droves) to stifle my dream. Sales gradually improved and, well, here we are. Can't give up on your dream, EVER!
[MC] Your first quarter at Smashwords you earned $7.92. I've seen some new Smashwords authors jump for glee over a number like that, and others have unpublished their books and quit Smashwords in disgust. What was your reaction?
[BSP] My reaction was, "I'm ahead, $7.92." By this time I had been published for a little over 3 years and had seen sales go up and down. Can't make any kind of decision based on just one quarter. Plus, I was getting the hang of how to make Smashwords work for me. You can't just publish your book, sit back and think, "Okay, the money is going to roll in now." It ain't gonna happen. The industry is stacked against anyone who is just starting out. You have to get out there and grab readers by the collar and shout, "Here I am!" They won't find you or care about you until you do.
[MC] Your sales started small but then grew steadily, and in more recent months you've broken out into the best-seller lists at some of our retailers. What was the secret?
[BSP] After receiving my second royalty check which was only $183.60, I figured I needed to get busy and get creative. So I first looked around for a good place to advertise and found Project Wonderful. They suited my needs perfectly; ads would run on websites for pennies a day. I then created a coupon code that would discount my first book for free. I then created a series of ads stating that a free copy was available, all they had to do was copy down the code and go to Smashwords for their free copy. Well, that bombed and bombed badly. Came to realize that I was asking way too much of customer. In order to get my book, they had to go to Smashwords, create an account, put in the code, then download.
People are inherently lazy about shopping, especially in this world where everything is a click away. I pondered on the lack of success with my coupon code, then realized that if I just made the book free, they would only have to click the link in the ad, then download a free copy. Simple. (Keep it simple-stupid) I made it so easy for people to download my book, that downloads jumped. Subsequently, sales for books 2-7 jumped as well.
If it's free and downloading is just a click away, people will do it. Very few can walk away from a free deal. Unknown authors are risky to readers and few wish to risk money, or time, to try a book they are not sure they will even like.
When Smashwords signed the deal with Barnes and Noble, my sales jumped 300% that quarter. Barnes and Noble have one of the best "Free eBook" sections and now people could find my book without having to see a small ad. Without Smashwords' free copy of book one at Barnes and Noble, I would hardly be doing the sales I am today. That was the one act that set into motion sales the likes I never thought possible for an Indie without agent, editor, or publisher.
[MC] Prior to publishing at Smashwords, multiple agents and publishers rejected you. Tell us about your most memorable rejections.
[BSP] No one wanted me. All the rejection letters were worded very politely, but you can't help but adding phrases to them like "You suck as a writer" or "Your book would be good to keep my table level but as for making money, it has a better chance to spontaneously combust." When I published it through iUniverse, I opted for an editorial review ($300 at the time). They basically said the manuscript would need a serious overhaul before it would become commercially viable. And oh, by the way, we do have many such services available... for a price. At the time I thought it was a complete waste of time. But now looking back with five years experience under my belt, many of their comments had merit. Although one must keep in mind, had I continued working with my first book to get it right, I'd still be working on it to this day and all subsequent ones never having seen publication. There comes a point when a writer has to say, "It's ready. Good or bad, let's see what happens." What happened in this case was that there were many people out there who enjoy a good adventure and have since traveled with James through 8 books and are patiently (impatiently might be a better word) waiting for the second installment of the follow-up series, Travail of The Dark Mage.
[MC] What does it mean to you to be described as a self-published author, or an Indie author?
[BSP] The biggest worry a writer had back in 2005 was whether or not they wanted to be stigmatized as "self-published." Once stigmatized, I was told, never again would a traditional publisher take you on. Unless you sold over 50,000 copies. But then, I thought, if I sold 50,000 copies, what would I need a publisher for?
Now, I think of it as a badge of pride. My success is mine, no one else's. Everything that comes from my books, comes because of the hard work I, and I alone, put into it. Others have helped, but I spearheaded it and got it done. Even if today I was to get a publisher, from what I've heard of other author's experiences, they still do most of their own publicity and get tied into restrictive contracts and unrealistic demands. Case in point, the movie Back to the Future. The head of the studio sent the producers a memo in which he stated that "Frogman from Mars" would be a better title. What a nightmare to have to deal with that. As a self-published author I don't have to worry about another's "taste" or "ideas."
Of course, if you fail, again you have no one else to blame. But the only failure you will have, is if you quit. Try new ideas, talk to those who have succeeded, most of all don't give up.
[MC] What's your view of the future of indie authorship, and where do you think traditional publishers fit into your plans, if at all?
[BSP] Indie authorship is here to stay and the traditional publishing houses better get used to it. They also better not discount the effectiveness of its appeal or they're going to regret it. I think they are going to wake up one morning and wonder where all their profits have gone. The better authors will do it themselves because they are going to make more money at it. Also, as the indie revolution continues, more and more authors being sought by publishers will be taking hard looks at their contracts. True, if you only have a single book, traditional publishers may be the best route. I make money because I have a series, a completed series, and give the first one away free. Can't beat free for advertising.
As of today, I no longer send query letters (what a waste of time that was) to agents. No longer submit to publishers or even enter contests. My books are not award winners. They are merely fun books. I've tracked winners in the past and they don't always do well.
What would happen if I got an email from a publisher asking for publishing rights? I'd listen to what they have to say. I'd carefully scrutinize any contract for how future books would be affected and so forth. I feel the restriction and demands made by them would far outweigh any increased royalties. But I could be wrong. Never say never to anything where money is concerned.
[MC] Where does print fit into your publishing strategy going forward?
[BSP] Print goes hand in hand with eBooks. You have to have a print copy of your book. I sell maybe 2 or 3 books per 1000 eBooks. Not much, right? Keep this in mind. eBook readers tell their book reader friends about your books. If you want them to buy it, it needs to be available. My biggest hurdle with print has always been pricing. Not much you can do about that, self-publishing print books is expensive no matter where you do it. I'd suggest Lightning Source Inc. -- they're the best and will put your books before the most customers.
[MC] Imagine you're mentoring a new author today. What three secrets to success would you share, and why?
[BSP] Actually, I've already helped over a dozen authors with getting started. I take the time to answer questions and give advice freely.
- First thing I advise is to be approachable. Have an email address solely for those contacting you as an author and post it everywhere. If someone sees your book, that email address had better be there, too. And remove the spam filter. About a year after I published my first book, I happened to check my spam folder and found 3 emails from readers. Made me mad. Also made me wonder how many others couldn't get hold of me due to my (censored) spam filter. There was this one author, forgot who, but I saw his profile on Amazon. It basically said that he didn't want to be bothered with questions from readers, nor did he want to hear from other authors. And oh, by the way, won't you buy my book? Not word for word, but that was the gist of it. Needless to say, I didn't even look as his book and have since forgotten the guy. I've earned many steadfast fans simply because I responded to them in a personal and friendly manner.
- Get a website. They're pretty cheap and are absolutely invaluable. Your readers need a place they can go to learn more about the books, and about you.
- Listen to your heart, not reviewers. If you can't stand criticism, find something else to do. Also, when you get your book first published, friends and family always like to post reviews. Well, there are certain things you need to explain to these reviewers before they post. A. One line reviews are worthless. Saying, "This is greatest book I've ever read!!!" is a waste of time. It means nothing to no one. B. Tell potential customers about the book. Why is it great? Why did you love it? Why should they spend time and money to read it? Give an example from the book. If you use an example, it gives your review more weight for it lends credence that you actually read the book. C. Don't talk about just the good. Pick something negative and write about that too. A balanced review is more helpful, and more believable than one that just gushes praise. No matter the book, there has to be something that bugged them. If the book is self-published, there will be something to criticize. I received an email from one reader that said he read a review in which a previous customer complained that my book read like a D&D game transcript. The reader, a gamer by the way, checked it out on that basis alone and ended up buying the entire series. So never assume that a negative review will be negative to all readers.
- Here's the biggie. Write. Seems simple doesn't it? You'd be surprised how often we come up with excuses why we can't write. If you're a writer, then you better be writing. Finished a book? When's the next one going to be published? Don't stand still and see if the first one sells well before starting the second. Do you believe in what you are doing? Then for heaven's sake, write. Set a goal. In the beginning, my goal was 20,000 words a week, or an equivalent time editing. I met that and in fact wrote Shepherd's Quest, a 130,000 word book in 5 weeks. I was on roll.
- Don't go to your family with your manuscript and ask, "How is it?" If you want an honest answer, go to Fanstory.com and join. You'll find out fast just how good/bad your manuscript is. Friends and family are biased and will have a hard time seeing your work for what it truly is. If you ask for an opinion from someone who knows you, the person answering you knows that they'll have to deal with you afterward so will say "it's great" or give some other affirmative response. They don't want to crush your spirit. I watched this one show once where a guy wore this t-shirt that said, "My mom thinks I'm cool." Enough said.
- I have posted lots of useful info for self-published authors, or those thinking of going that route on my website. If you're interested, check out my site, Brian Pratt Books. It's a year old, but most of the info should still be fairly current. It will definitely give you some things to think about.
- We're all in this together. Email me should you have questions or anything.
[MC] Every author must compete against hundreds of thousands of other books. What's the secret to breaking out?
[BSP] Write, keep writing, and when your fingers are sore, write some more. The more books you have out, available through the most channels, the better your exposure. Never cancel a channel unless you know another will fill the void. Best channels right now are Smashwords and Kindle. Neither costs you anything but time. From the first sale, you're making a profit. If you give up, it's over. Until then, anything can happen. I'm a prime example of that.
Find ways to get your book in front of people. Don't expect glowing reviews to sell your book. After all, if readers don't find your book in the first place, no amount of "good" reviews will help.
[MC] Now that you've achieved success as a writer, how might your writing change, if at all?
[BSP] I now understand why some authors take a long time in getting out the next book. The more books you have, the more time ends up being devoted to previous titles and other things (this Q&A is a prime example). Editing has always been a sore point with [my] readers, or rather, the lack of it. My books have never seen a professional editor and could use a touch of polishing. I'll be looking into that with the new year.
[MC] Now that you're able to devote full time to your writing, what's your typical day like. What's your process?
[BSP] I spend far too much time on the internet checking sales, answering emails (I love that part) and seeing what's going on in the world of publishing. Smashwords is usually the first page I visit in the hopes that sales have posted. Most days, I'm disappointed. There have been times when I thought, "What the heck is going on? Where are my sales?" But you know, they all come in before the quarter payout, and I've never had a problem with getting my money from Smashwords. [Note from MC: We hear you Brian! Faster reporting is one of our top priorities for 2011]
After that, I try to get some editing done on my newer works, then an hour or so of computer gaming. I write some, check emails again, and so forth. The longer a series goes, the more complex it becomes. You need to take into account all that has gone before, keep your characters consistent, and make it all seem flawless.
[MC] What's coming next?
[BSP] Finish Travail of The Dark Mage. I'm on book 2 and figure the series will be around 5 books. Never know for sure until I'm done. The initial plan for The Morcyth Saga was 10 books. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had contracted for 10 books with a publisher and instead came through with 7? Love being an Indie.
I do have ideas for another 2 series after Travail, as well as off-shoots like The Improbable Adventures of Scar and Potbelly, a series of short adventure books based on the duo from the series. One thing I do know for sure. I will not release another series unless I have it already completed. I hate making readers wait.
[MC] Thanks for sharing, Brian!
To sample or purchase the ebooks of Brian S. Pratt, visit his Smashwords author page or any major ebook retailer.
Follow Mark Coker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markcoker