Spy thriller author Ethan Jones started his publishing career with Amazon’s Kindle Select Program, but eventually took his books wide across all e-tailers. Now he earns more from Kobo than from Amazon, and makes “a four-figure income every single month.”This week, I chat with Ethan about how he’s built his writing business and why he decided to take his books wide.
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Ethan wrote his first book Arctic Wargame of his popular espionage thriller Justin Hall series in 2008 and 2009. After a long period of submitting it to publishers and agents with no luck, a friend suggested he try self-publishing it. So in May of 2012, he did, releasing his book on Amazon under the KDP Select Program, using the five free days he was allowed under the program to give away 50,000 copies, riding the then-generous algorithms from those free days to sell another thousand copies. It was just the boost he needed, and three to four months later, he released the second book in the series, which he had been working on while he had been shopping the first book.
Since then, Ethan has written six more books in his Justin Hall series, with at least two more planned, as well as started a spin-off series (Carrie Chronicles) and a romantic suspense series (Jennifer Morgan), all while working full-time as an attorney and balancing family life. Last year alone, he released three full-length books, and he expects to release three more this year. His books are no longer exclusive to Amazon and are available widely across all platforms, earning him a four-figure income each month.
How is he fitting it all in?
Although Ethan has a family and works full-time, he’s dedicated to getting his 1,000 to 1,500 words in each day, Monday through Friday (he takes the weekends off from writing), and makes the writing process a priority by fitting it into his day whenever he can. His daily two-hour commute by bus has become dedicated writing time. Sometimes he gets up a little early to fit in writing before work. Sometimes he writes during lunch hour and while waiting for appointments. Just recently, he worked on a battle scene complete with RPGs and car chases while waiting for his dad, who was undergoing cataract surgery!
Marketing is vital for an author’s career, Ethan says; however, he reserves promotional activity for the weekends and evenings afterhe’s met his daily word goal. He uses both free and paid promos, as well as Facebook ads and promotional opportunities offered by his publishing platforms.
Diversification Strategy: Building a Catalog
Ethan’s original intent with his spin-off series was to give his character Carrie O’Connor the attention he felt her story deserved. She’s an important player in his original Justin Hall series, and Ethan wanted to give her the space to resolve the mystery surrounding her father’s disappearance. In addition to the obvious benefit of having more good books available for his readers to find, Ethan reports the added bonus of having readers cross over from one series to the other in both directions.
Writing a spin-off series can be great for building a brand, Ethan says, but he cautions authors to “wait until you have three, four, five books in the series,” and make sure the series is going well before investing the time and energy into a second series.
He also admits he’s ignored his own advice with his third series, Jennifer Morgan, which falls into an entirely different genre: romantic suspense. He says his decision was not so much calculated as part of his business plan, and more just a fun and challenging project he wanted to try to give himself a break from blowing up things in his spy thrillers. Ethan says that romantic suspense is a great genre to write in — the readers are loyal and voracious — and although The Secret Affair (Jennifer Morgan #1) hasn’t done as well as his other books, even without yet investing marketing efforts, he’s still recouped his costs in producing the book.
Although he started out in Kindle Select, Ethan decided that he wanted to build his brand outside of the Amazon ecosystem to both diversify and increase his number of revenue streams. Instead of pulling his entire catalog out of Select all at once, however, he started with just one book to test the waters. He published it to Kobo and to Smashwords, which distributed the title to both BN and iTunes, then gave it a few months. After a while, he says, his balance of income started to tip away from Amazon in favor of the other retailers, demonstrating to him that going wide would be a good move for him. So he took his entire catalog out of KDP and went wide, and now he earns more money each month from Kobo than Amazon.
Ethan does point out that his success with Kobo hasn’t been accidental. When Kobo sends out promotional offers for authors, he takes advantage of them, offering his books at two-for-one or a set percentage off, whatever the promotion happens to be. He says in most cases, he makes the money back with extra sales or Kobo takes the cut and gives full royalities. He’s also approached editors at Kobo Writing Life to share his experiences at Kobo with his article, “Going Wide? Absolutely!”
The Next Big Thing
Ethan is currently working on the second book of the Carrie Chronicles; he’s got a BookBub ad scheduled soon for his Justin Hall series (you can get Arctic Wargames (Justin Hall #1) free on Kindle for a limited time); and he’s looking forward to publishing three more books this year.
On Facebook ads: “[Facebook ads] require a lot of tweaking with a lot of the variables to find the right ones, and one needs to be patient in that you need to invest the time to learn what you’re doing and also to give the ads some traction.”
On the resistance against ebooks and self-published titles: “There’s always a pushback from the established industry no matter what the new disruptive trade is. You can see it with Uber and the taxis. You can see it with pretty much all new technologies that rock the establishment.”
On marketing: “Mailing list is vital.”
- Set up your mailing list and put the sign-up link everywhere. Ethan regrets not having his mailing list sign-up link in the front and back of his first book when he gave away 50,000 digital copies at the beginning. “Mailing list is vital,” he says.
- Make writing your No. 1, most important activity of the day. Although marketing is vital, Ethan doesn’t make it his primary activity. Instead, he saves marketing and promotional activity for the evenings after he’s met his 1,000-1,500-word daily quota, and on weekends.
- Test before you leap! Before Ethan pulled his catalog from KDP/KU to go wide, he tested the other retail platforms with a single title for a few months before he was satisfied that moving out of an exclusive relationship with Amazon would be a good move for him. For authors interested in doing the same thing, he advises patience — give it a few months, not a few weeks — and go wide. Put your book on every e-tailer that you can, not just one or two.
Authors, are you exclusive to Amazon or wide, and how does it fit into your long-term business strategy?
Episode #135 – Going Wide with Spy Thriller Author Ethan Jones
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