Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tornado Siren e-book: progress report (2 months)

Tornado Siren has now been an e-book for a little more than two months .  It's been selling some copies, but certainly I'm not putting up anything close to Joe Konrath or Amanda Hocking numbers (not even in the same universe).  No publishers are beating down my door to reprint the novel.  On the other hand, there are people actually reading the book again, and I'm making enough money to buy the family a pizza or two.

So, here are the sales numbers so far, by platform/version:

Kindle:  58 copies so far (22 so far in April)
Smashwords:  6 copies sold
Nook (Barnes & Noble):  2
Sony: 1
Apple:  1

Total:  68 ebooks (plus I sold two paper copies in this time period, too)

What little promo I did mostly was done in February and early March, so it's encouraging, and a little surprising, to see that the ebook is continuing to sell, even though I didn't have time to do any marketing in April. 

I'm still surprised by the absolute dominance of Kindle/Amazon over all other outlets.  I figured there'd be an imbalance, but 30-to-1 over Nook is pretty impressive.

Smashwords gives me numbers on how many people download the free sample (the first 60%) of the book.  So far, 62 people have read sample page.  I'm curious to see if the conversion rate of samples to sales will stay at 10-to-1, or change over time.  I'd love to know how other people do with their books.

John August recently posted sales numbers for his short story, The Variant, on his blog.  He's selling a short story for $0.99, and has sold 4,608 copies through Amazon since March 2009, with most sales coming in the first six months.  He's got a good platform to let people know about the story (he's a very talented screenwriter (author of Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and writes a very useful blog about screenwriting).  He also got his story out there two years ago, when the number of titles available for the Kindle was much smaller, so it was easier to crack the top 100 (which makes the title much easier for a casual user to find).  Nowadays, he's selling 10-45 copies a month, and The Variant seems to have a sales ranking similar to Tornado Siren, in the 30,000 range.

I'm hoping to do some more promo in May, to see if I can boost sales a bit.  But getting to Amanda Hocking numbers (she self-published nine e-books and sold more than a million copies in less than two years.  She just landed a print contract with St. Martin's for $2 million.  Here's the NYT story.) takes some serious time and commitment.  In the article, she says she jumped at the offer, not just because of the money, but because: “I want to be a writer,” she said. “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.” 

When making the decision to publish an ebook, if you want to avoid huge disappointment, I think you need to go into it with the right expectations.  Most people aren't going to sell more than a few copies of their ebooks.  Joe Konrath already had plenty of books in print before he starting selling thousands of ebooks and became one of the big promoters of self-publishing ebooks.  Amanda Hocking has nine titles for sale, and markets like crazy.

However, it seems to me that if you have an out-of-print novel, you don't have much to lose from trying to sell some copies as an ebook.  Before Tornado Siren went out of print, no one was buying it anymore--the only people reading it were in libraries (and not many of those).  After it went out of print, no one was reading it.  But in the past two months, I've picked up 70 new readers.  I write in order to have my stuff read, so at the most basic level, putting Tornado Siren out as an ebook has been worth it.

I might be able to increase sale a little bit with more marketing, but I'm not sure how much.  Probably a bigger boost would come from having more titles, but I don't have anything ready at the moment (I'm still hoping for traditional print contracts on the two novels my agent is shopping).  A little luck would help--if someone reads it and gets enthusiastic and start telling their friends and everyone they know, and they do the same, and then it clicks into the top 100 for a while, that might give a good bump.

I'll let you know what the next few months bring.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Good guidelines for starting a writers' group (at Script)

Chad Gervich over at Script has a good post today with some guidelines for starting a writer's group.  He's talking about a group for screenwriters, but I think his ideas apply whether your making a group for screenwriters, playwrights, or novelists.  (I've been in groups for plays and novels, but have never found the right one for screenwriting.)  I completely agree with his basic guidelines--for a group to work you need: writers of a similar creative/skill level, who share basic professional goals, and who are strongly committed to the group.  And most of, you need personal chemistry--if you don't like each other, the group won't last.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Playwriting Biz: Lag Times

In the past year, I applied to a whole bunch of new play development programs:  Sundance, the O'Neill, Ashland, New Harmony, Lark, PlayPenn, and maybe even a couple others (no luck so far).  I'm fortunate to have two unproduced full-length scripts that could benefit from some serious workshop time.

However, one thing I noticed was that for some of the programs, the lag time between the submission deadline and actual workshop of the play can be very long.  Here is the timing:
  • Sundance Theatre Lab--deadline Oct. 1, announcement Feb 1, workshop March 27.  Lag: 6 months (the shortest!)
  • O'Neill-- deadline--October 22, announcement ??, workshop July.  Lag: ~9 months.
  • Ashland New Plays Festival--deadline January 15, announcement June 15, workshop October 19.  Lag: 10 months
  • New Harmony--deadline Oct. 1 , announcement March, workshop May 22, Lag: ~8 months
  • Lark Playwrights Week--deadline Nov. 15, announcement ??, workshop October.  Lag: 11 months.
  • PlayPenn Conference--deadline Sept. 30, announcement ?? , conference: July 5-25.  Lag: 9 months.
Now I understand that it takes a while to get scripts read and to organize a conference and get people lined up, and all of that.  I don't think anyone expects overnight turnaround.

But there can be a big difference between six months in the life of a script in progress and 11 months.  If I understand correctly, programs like these ideally want a script brimming with possibility, that's in solid shape and ready to have a professional reading and maybe a week of rehearsal.  With long lead times, though, do we end up with scripts that get sort of a developmental whiplash, with odd starts and stops in the process?  How much value is there in momentum, when it comes to breathing life into a new play?

In six months, without additional development, one of my scripts might not change that much.  But in 9-12 months, if I'm smart, I might take a break, but I should also have gotten at least a reading or two in that time period.  If a writer is taking these steps and gets into a high profile developmental program like one of these, he or she wants to participate, of course.  (If Lark calls and asks me to participate, I'm there.)  And might be willing to actually backpedal a step or two in the development process, in order to have the script function in this environment.

For some of these applications, the writer is supposed to write an essay on what he wants to work on in the script at the workshop.  But that essay always seems a bit forced because, to be honest, in 9 months, if I've been diligent on my play, I won't be working on the same things that I am when I apply.  Is the essay merely a test, to make sure the writer can talk coherently about the play and the development process?  A hurdle to cut down the number of applications?  Or does the program really expect that the script (and the writer) won't change much between the time of application and the time of the workshop?

These are all great opportunities for writers and for their material, but I wonder if very long lag times end up being not only less than ideal for a script, but possibly even harmful.  One of the great potential advantages of theatre as an artform, over film and books, is its immediacy, not just in terms of its relationship to the audience, but also in the length of time development can occur, if the right tools are in place.  Right now, the development pathway for most plays that hit professional stages is very long. Some of that is necessary, but are there ways to speed things along that might be especially useful.  I'm not sure.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writer Tools: for playwrights in development--LiveScribe Pen

I'm not an ultra gadget guy--I don't have a smart phone or an iPad, but I have come across a handy high-tech tool that will be especially useful for when I'm developing a new play.  I just bought a LiveScribe Pen, in part because I'm organizing a big assistive technology fair in Brookline for kids with special needs next week (see also: reasons why I'm not getting other stuff done), but also because it will help me take better notes when I'm in meetings with my writers' groups or in talkbacks after readings.

Basically, the LiveScribe pen has both a built in camera and a microphone.  Using special paper, I'm able to write notes on a pad while also recording audio of what's being said.  By tying together the special grid printed on the paper, the camera recording what I write, and the microphone, I can then play back later exactly what was being said while I was writing. 

In fact, in playback mode, I can just tap the tip of my pen to any spot on the page, and it'll give me the audio that was recorded when I was writing that word.  In addition, using a USB cable and small docking port, I can upload what I've written on the notebook, along with the audio.

I used this at my Rhombus writers' group last night, and it was pretty cool.  First the actors read about ten pages of my new play.  I took minimal notes, but made sure to write something whenever a new scene started.  Afterwards, I was able to go back and tap my pen on the page where I'd written the scene heading, and the pen would play back the scene.

I also recorded the comments from the discussion as I took notes. This will be especially helpful for me, because I often work on multiple projects at once.  I won't go back to do more rewrites of the pieces I brought to Rhombus for another few weeks, at least, since I'm wrapped up in the first draft of a new novel.  With my LiveScribe notes, when I'm ready to go back and make changes, I'll be able to hear the reading, and look at my notes and get as much of the discussion as I need to provide full context for revisions.

Here's a sample of my notes (I know my handwriting is embarrassingly bad, but it was written while listening, on my lap, etc.) that I was able to download right from my pen to the computer.  You can't hear the audio, but it's all on my computer.  And on the pen, which can hold up to 200 hours of audio.

If I tap the pen on the page where it says "Sarah/Marlene @ gate" it plays back the audio for that scene.  (For the file on the computer, I just click there with the mouse.)

The version of the pen that I bought (the 2 gig Pulse) cost $100 at Staples (and with a $20 coupon, it only cost me $80).  Not cheap, but for someone like me, who juggles multiple projects that are simultaneously in development, or for which revisions are often delayed, I think it can become an invaluable tool.