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Everything You Wanted to Know About Digital Publishing But Were Afraid...

Prefatory Matter:  Maya Banks sat on a panel at RWA regarding digital publishing.  She came because others requested her to speak and Maya agreed to be frank about her numbers.  No one asked any questions.  On Twitter, Maya suggested that she would still be willing to field questions and I said I would host it.  The purpose of this is to help authors understand what options might be out there for them and to help readers benefit from the authors’ wide variety of publishing choices.  Maya said she’ll check in during the afternoon/evening to answer any follow up questions.  If you are an author and would like to participate in a Q&A like this, let me know (jane at


Maya BanksThe sole reason I agreed to do this Q & A is that I always hear that authors want this blunt, up front information and yet in the two panels I’ve given where participants were encouraged to ask candid questions, no one ever did. People were more likely to approach me privately or ask in a roundabout manner.

I’m not supplying this information to be coy, egotistical or braggity. There’s nothing to brag about anyway. I’m just giving straight facts and answering questions. When I was starting out, I was desperate for information. The kind that no one ever asks publicly or relates publicly. And I’ll always be grateful to authors who were kind enough to supply me information that I needed in order to make informed decisions about my career. This is simply my way of paying it forward and hopefully helping someone as I was once helped by authors who didn’t know me from Adam.

So with that said, please do take the information in the spirit in which it is given. Also please realize that my responses are indicative of MY experience only and aren’t meant to translate to any other author’s publishing experience. If there is one thing I’ve learned in publishing is that no two paths are alike. The only common denominator I’ve found in successful authors is that they’ve all worked their asses off.

On to the Q&A

What year did you begin publishing? How many books/stories did you put out the first year and how much did you earn?

I sold to Samhain and to Berkley in 2006 but Samhain was much faster to market. By the time my first story with Berkley was published (Sept 2007) I had already published 5 stories with Samhain. The very first book I pubbed with Samhain was Seducing Simon, a straight category typecontemporary story, friends to lovers, and it sold 301 copies the first month. It hit #1 on the Samhain bestseller list so this says a lot about how many copies it took back in the day when Samhain was just opening. This was before there was Amazon Kindle, Nook, and before Samhain sold through third party retailers like Fictionwise, Mobi and ARE.

How many books/stories do you feel like you have to write now to earn a living as a writer?

This actually isn’t as easy a question to answer as you’d think. If I stopped writing tomorrow, my backlist sales from Samhain and my monthly income would sustain me a very comfortable living wage for some time to come. My income has doubledevery year for the last four years so really “earn a living” is a very relative term. I could stop writing now and make a comfortable living off of backlist royalties for several years. However, I think to maintain what I’m currently earning, I need to put out at least one digital title a year and I’d be comfortable with two RS titles and two historical titles.

What are the sales numbers for your most recent NY published mass market paperback, when was that book first published, and what is the cover price of that book?

I don’t have definitive sales numbers for my most recent and I’ll explain why. Digital sales are usually reported three months behind the release date. “Net” sales are calculated after returns which can come in anytime from say a month after the release to over a year later.

But an interesting thing to note is that rankings on bestseller lists do not always tell an accurate story of a book’s success or lack thereof. Of the three KGI titles I’ve published so far, my second title, No Place to Run, sold more copies at #18 on the list than the third title, Hidden Away,#11 on the list. Hidden Away may have caught up in the meantime because it did sell well and has had multiple reprints. My print run wasn’t as high for Hidden Away because I had the misfortune of releasing just two weeks after Borders “officially” declared bankruptcy and I lost a huge print order from them. Walmart had also declined to carry the third title because at the time they did the sell in for the series, and before those first two hit lists, Walmart already had all the mass market titles they wanted/needed for that release month.So there were fewer print books on the shelves and available for purchase. Many readers were forced to buy digital or had to look harder to find the print book. It went back to press very quickly, so some of my disappointment over the Borders and Walmart issues was alleviated.And I sold really well in digital (But then my audience has always been used to buying me in digital and I’ve always had a strong presence in electronic format)

My mass market books are priced at 7.99.

What are the sales numbers for your most recent book published by Samhain, when was that book first published, and what is the cover price of that book?

My most recent Samhain title, Colters’ Daughter, released in February, and again, I don’t have UP TO THE MINUTE sales figures because the third party distributors report three months behind. The cover price was 5.50. So far I only have one month’s total (Feb) from BN and two months (Feb and March) from Amazon and of course the sales from the Samhain store, so for the reported numbers “so far” I’ve sold and received royalties for roughly 30k copies. In the royalty statement I’ll receive this month, I’ll see BN totals for March (basically five months ago) and Amazon totals for April, so as you can see, sales reporting is behind and inaccurate simply because it’s now July and I have no idea what I’ve sold for March through July at BN and April through July at BN or for the other third party vendors after March.

What is your highest selling digital book? And what is your lowest selling title?

Colters’ Woman by far. I’ve sold over 100k copies, digital and print combined. My lowest selling titles were by far the Sharon Long historicals *g* My lowest selling Maya Banks title I believe is Into the Mist with about 10k digital copies but it’s sold about that many in print so I’ve sold about 20k overall.

Pick one book. Can you share ebook sales in Jan 09 vs Jan 10 vs Jan 11? to show how much increase happened overall?

I used June, simply because Jan tends to be atypical of sales for the rest of the year for me. So I pulled my most recent royalty statement from last month. It’s important to remember though that a whole lot of factors play into sales from month to month. Whether you release another book, another book in a series, whether you have a NY book release. So I just picked three years in June and I’ll report income for Colters’ Woman.

For persepective since Colters’ Woman is my best selling title, I also included numbers for Brazen and Stay With Me. Just random choices:

June 2011: Colters’ Woman: 15,000.00 Brazen 2400.00 Stay With Me 2030.00
June 2010: Colters’ Woman: 3500.00 Brazen 1500.00 Stay With Me 2500.00*
June 2009: Colters’ Woman: 1200.00 Brazen 800.00 Stay With Me 600.00

* (lower priced book so I make 1.80 per copy of this title as opposed to the 2.20 for Brazen and Colters’ Woman)

Also important to note, in older royalty statements we only received third party sales on a quarterly basis so in a lot of cases these were just reported sales from the Samhain store. It’s hard to paint any kind of accurate picture over time without dragging out countless royalty statements and spending hours to put numbers where they belong.

What kind of advance did you get for your first NY published book?

$7500.00 a book

Have advances dropped in NY? or not for you since you’re a best seller?Have print runs dropped? Do you make sellout? (is that the right word?)

I’m hearing a lot that advances are either flatlining or that they’refalling. So far mine haven’t, but then I didn’t start out lighting the world on fire with my advances. But yes, I’ve had excellent sell through for all my books. For my KGI series, the last time I got numbers, I had at least 95 % sell through. The third, since the print run was lower, I know has been reprinted. Not sure how many times. Print runs are going down everywhere. It’s a reality of the market. It doesn’t mean fewer books are being sold. It just means that readers are seeking books in different formats. My sales have increased with each book both in print and electronic format so I consider myself fortunate that I’m growing in both markets. For my trade books, I’ve lost count of reprints. My backlist continues to sell well in both print and digital format.

What kind of advance did you get for your most recently NY published book?

I won’t cite specifics here simply because I have no idea how my publishers would feel about it and really, advances are on a case by case basis and is based on a whole lot of factors individual to authors their sales and track record. However, I can give you what IS public knowledge or at least reported publicly and give you the “range” as reported in Publisher’s Marketplace.

  • My last HEAT deal I signed two years ago (or thereabouts) was a “Good” deal, which has the range of 100-250k
  • My last Sensation deal which I signed a little over a year ago was reported as a “Good deal” also 100-250k
  • My last historical deal with Ballantine was reported as a “significant deal” which has a range of 250-500k

What are your royalty rates in your most recent contracts with Berkley and Bantam?

Industry standard mass market, trade and digital

What are your sales numbers for the ebook version of your most recent NY published book?

I don’t have them yet. I haven’t asked and as the book released in March, my publisher would likely just have received them last month.

How many books do you write in a year?

Absolutely depends on deadlines and contracted books. So far this year, I’ve written a 100k historical, two 50kish Desires, a 40k novella, a 110k RS and I’m now working on another 100k HEAT. I have two more Desires, another RS and a novella to close out the year.

Last year I wrote in the 8-10 range. Next year I’ve only scheduled 5.

What is your daily wordcount?

Absolutely depends. I like to get at least 5k in. Sometimes itisa lot more. Sometimes it’s less. I find it takes me longer to write the first half to 2/3rds of a book and then I may write the entire second half or last third in a week. When I’m excited and in the zone, I’ll write until my eyes literally roll back in my head. But it’s my job and I’m extremely linear. I can only work on one project at a time. I can only think about one book at a time and that’s the way I write. One at a time. Finish one, start another. Wash, rinse and repeat.

But I write. Every day. I take my career very seriously and “art” never enters the picture for me. My family depends on me. I’m very hard on myself and I’m very demanding *g*

In terms of your writing. What things do you NOT do anymore to allow you to stay productive? Or what things do you do to stay productive?

I cut way back on internet. It’s full of crazy anyway. I don’t get involved in author loop discussions for the most part. Maybe once a year I might pipe in. Those kinds of things just make me crazy. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is “right” Everyone thinks that everyone else should do what they think is best, correct etc etc

I don’t read reviews. I don’t haunt places like goodreads, amazon, nor do I have google alerts (I have no idea whose bright idea that ever was).

Are you a plotter? How much time does it take to write versus revise a book. Ie, do you write pretty clean? In that 5k you write a day, how much more work does it need to get to to point you submit?

I’m usually a one draft writer. I edit as I go and I start each writing session by first reading whatever I wrote in the last session. This gives me a chance to tweak, revise or edit but it also puts me back into the story before I start on new words. When I reach the end, there is no writing three more drafts. The mere idea gives me hives. I’m not a huge plotter. If I know every single thing that happens in a book, I get bored and I no longer have any desire to write it. I write a book like I read a book. Each page is a discovery and sometimes I’m surprised, which excites me and makes me write faster to see what happens,

I was at the Money Talks workshop, where Maya stated that she got more from Samhain than she did from all three of her traditional publishers combined. How does that break down? Also, I then spoke to Maya after the workshop, and she said she was leaving both Samhain and Harlequin after the next book due to contract language. What in those contracts made her walk? What options are going to make up the income she’s walking away from, and does she feel that she can do that because her brand name is already so well established?

It is absolutely true that last year I made more in digital publishing than I did with Harlequin, Berkley and Ballantine combined. (and the year before too) I think I nudged out thethree publishers by about 20k. I grossed about 600k so you can do the math there.

I’ve already made as much this year in digital publishing than I did my entire year last year and I only had one new release last year (Colters’ Lady) and so far I’ve only had one this year (Colters’ Daughter.) Backlist is king. I have 16 or sobacklist titles.

January is always my absolute lowest digital royalty check of the entire year and from there they jump up for the rest of the year so I can always tell how the year will go based on that January check. This year that January check was 27k and has been my lowest check from digital publishing. My highest check has been 85k. These are monthly checks, usually paid out between the 15thand 20thof every month.

As for walking, it’s absolutely business. And I’ll answer more about that in the question below so I’m not repeating myself.

What made you decide to start self-publishing? Will you move away from “traditional” publishing to a completely self publishing format?

The truth of the matter is I do not want to self publish. I know a lot of authors who do and are wonderful at it. They are savvy businesswomen and will have wonderful, lucrative careers in self publishing. I have the contacts. I have the know how. I have the business sense. But at the end of the day, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t self publish.If I had a publisher I trusted, was familiar with and would paythe royalty rate I would be satisfied with, I’d be happy not to self publish at all.

I decided to self publish simply because my current digital publisher was no longer interested in keeping the contract terms that had been previously established in place and I would have to take a 25 percent cut in pay to continue publishing with them. I wasn’t willing to agree to those terms. We both had different wants and goalsand we couldn’t find common ground. This happens in business all the time.

I have no plans to move away from traditional publishing to a completely self publishing format. Right now I only have plans to self publish the one or two titles that I would have published through a digital publisher and I’ll continue to publish my other series through my NY publishers.

I have a firm belief that I should not cut myself off from any publishing format and go exclusively to a print or exclusively to a digital form of publishing. I’m currently publishing in mass market, trade paperback and digital. I have readers who buy and read me in all three formats. I want to make my readers happy and be available in any and all the formats that they prefer to buy andread in. Shutting myself out of one or the other markets only hurts me as an author and alienates a portion of my readership.

I want readers to be able to find my books in WHATEVER their preferred format is and I want to make it as easy for them as possible.

Is it realistic to expect to be able to earn a living (as in being financially independent, self-sufficient) as a novelist?

I think it depends on whomyou talk to. Some authors seem deeply offended that any author would actually want to make a living and draw a paycheck. That’s the whole “art of writing” argument that makes me grit my teeth.

I think if you’re willing to put in the time, study the market, be persistent, don’t screw around orbe wishy washy, then yes, it’s realistic to be self-sufficient as a writer. Others will disagree, but here’s the thing. No one waved a magic wand and “gave” the most successful authors their careers on a silver platter. I don’t know of a single successful author who didn’t work their ass off to get where they are. No one gave me anything. I’m not a special cupcake. If I can do it, anyone can. I came up with a business plan, stuck to it, and worked my ass off on a daily basis and still do. And above all, you can’t take this stuff personally. It’s business. There is no room to be making emotional decisions when it comes to publishing.

Much is said about the backlist but in the past backlists were out of print for many authors. Now with everything being digitized, backlists are getting a new life. Are you seeing this with your ebooks? Do you continue to see good sales for older titles and what do you consider “good” numbers for titles that are several years old?

I came in with digital so I don’t have any out of print stuff that I’m now digitizing. My entire backlist is still available both in print and digital format. But yes, I have good backlist sales every month. I mentioned above that when Seducing Simon came out in 2006, I sold 301 copies the first month through the Samhain website. I sell over a thousand digital copies of that title every month. Often more but I sell at LEAST a thousand copies five years later.

I am paid 2.20 for each copy so for that one title I earn 2200 a month. Multiply that by say sixteen backlist titles and you’re looking at at least 35k a month just for backlist and in many instances I sell far more than one thousand copies of some of my backlist titles.

If you stopped writing now, what would your income numbers look like?

I’d still make 30-40k a month not counting “new releases” at least for a little while. For how long? Who knows. That is the big mystery. But this is just for my digital income. Since I’m only paid twice a year for my NY titles, it’s a little harder to have that clear of a picture when it comes to backlist sales etc.

The backlist sales grow every year. As I stated previously I’ve only had one release out a year for the last two years and yet my income has doubled from year to year for four consecutive years. The question is at what point does it peak? I’ve been talking to a few other authors whose earnings are similar to mine and we keep thinking it has to stop at some point but then each month our checks keep going up.

Is there one subgenre that sells best for you? (menage, straight m/f, D/s, etc.)

Thereare some menage stories that have sold better but that isn’t the case across the board. It’s a book by book scenario. One of my better selling HEAT titles for Berkley is Sweet Persuasion which is a BDSM book.

MyKGI series sells far more than any of my erotic titles (except Colters’ Woman, which is my best selling title to date but it’s also my oldest and earliest published story with the exception of Seducing Simon)

A question I have is, since you work for many different publishing houses, what perks do they give you, negotiated or not? How do they back you/support your releases. How much promo do you get from them? (I know you do a lot of promo yourself!)

This varies from publisher to publisher. I’ve always said that publisher support is way more important than the amount of the advance. An advance doesn’t mean much if your publisher isn’t behind you and invested in selling copies and building your career.

Harlequin has done some neat things. My September Desire will be excerpted in all of the August category books across the lines, not just the Desire books. They’re also working on a promo, digital post card type thing to send to my newsletter subscribers.

Berkley and Ballantine have both been fantastic about printing ARCs for my titles and being generous in providing me copies to send to an extensive mailing list of contacts. Berkley has done a lot of advertising around the internet and in print publications. They also buy co-op but most importantly, the sales teams are enthusiastic about my books and promote me to their buyers, which is important for those retailer preorders.(as opposed to the pre orders readers make)

What’s the bottom line? i.e. What can (and I stress “can” because I know it doesn’t mean most will) a premiere author make in digital-first publishing in a year’s time?

That absolutely depends on how many releases you can manage. Most importantly is putting out a good product that will bring readers BACK after that first book. I say this all the time but it’s important to put your best foot forward. You only get one chance to make a first impression with a reader. It takes TIME to build that income in digital publishing, I made a few thousand my first year. Then I went to like thirty thousand. Then it was eighty. Then it was over a hundred. Then it jumped to almost 300. This year it will be close to 600k

But it takes commitment and the ability to put out 3-4 titles a year in the beginning. I’m not saying you can’t get up there only doing 1-2 books a year. I’m just saying it might take you longer to get there than someone who is consistently putting out more titles.

I know in some of the Samhain workshops or when they give out information in generalities of what they consider top earning, midlist and low end, they’ve left out their super earners or the very top earners because there have been complaints in the past that it “skews” numbers. But the fact is, most people want to know what is POSSIBLE. Hell, I would. When I startedwriting, I wantedto know what I COULD make. No way to know what I WILL make, but hey, if somebody else has done it, my motto is why can’t I?

So for the purposes of this Q & A, I asked at least one other top earner whose earnings are typically left out of the mix and her income last year was roughly 125k in digital publishing and she’s on track to double that this year.

I also know authors who haven’t put out a book in a couple of years and they may only have 5-6 titles with a digital publisher but that author’s checks are a very nice range of 8-12k per month.

What would you consider reasonable expectations for a new author publishing a book through a digital-first publisher (like Samhain or EC) versus a print publisher? I’ve seen some numbers on advances for print publishers, but it’s the overall income that really interests me.

There are so many what ifs in this scenario that I can’t even begin to address them all. You’ll definitely see money “sooner” with a digital publisher. You’ll likely see the book published sooner but then I’m hearing of some really REALLY long wait time on submissions right now for digital publishers and some longer wait times for even established authors to get onto the schedule, so I’d say it’s not as fast as it used to be in digital publishing. I have absolutely no experience with EC so I can’t speak to that.

Will you sell MORE through a digital publisher than with a NY publisher? That’s hard to say. You might. Price point is usually (and I say usually) lower with a digital publisher, so you could very well sell more copies. But you really have to ask your publisher what they’re going to do for you. If they have a marketing plan. If they have marketing people who are competent and who will do what they promise to do.

If your prospective digital publisher isn’t really going to do that much for you as far as marketing and their only answer to “what will you do for me” is offer free reads, then you’re probably better off self pubbing or finding an alternate publishing route.

For your anthology stories: how do the sales/royalty compare to regular books and do you consider them worthwhile from a monetary POV – or are they mostly promotional tools?

I wouldn’t say they are mostly promotional tools. I mean I’m in this to make money so if I wasn’t going to make decent money doing it, I just wouldn’t. My anthologies do not sell as well as my single titles. But you have to take many things into consideration. Who are the participating authors? Do they bring a different readership to the table? Etc.

And going for the gold: how much do you make as a writer – the whole enchilada? And how much do you spend in a year on your author expenses (website, conferences, assistants, etc)?

Last year as I said I came in around 600k. Business expenses, travel, promotion, etc was probably a third of that. This year I’m on track to make close to 900k but my expenses won’t be as much as last year. I really try to pare down on what works and what doesn’t because I’m not a fan of throwing money away.

What’s your number one promotional tool?

Writing a good book and hoping like hell people like it enough to talk about it.

How much money did you spend on promoting your books when you were starting out? How did you spend it? (ex: buy online ads, RT ads, swag items, giveaways, etc.) How much do you spend now? How do you spend it?

Not much! I didn’t have the money to spend so I was constantly looking for cheap, effective ways to promote; however, I found that the most successful (and free!) form of promotion was simply to get out there and talk to readers. It’s still what I find to be the most effective.

I’ve only ever done group ads in RT. They aren’t my favorite form of promo but I’ve done a few with other authors and split costs. I find bookmarks to be utterly useless and a waste of paper. The only thing I’ve done with any consistency is excerpt booklets because it actually gets my writing in front of a potential reader.

These days I spend my advertising dollars (and I’m still stingy) on online advertising and I send ARCs to a list of contacts because those are the people who order my book and handsell them to readers. Most of what I still prefer to do and find most effective are free :)

Have you found that promoting your books was worth the effort? If not, why not?

This is impossible to quantify. I personally find promotion exhausting and so I only do what I’m comfortable doing and what doesn’t stress me out because at the end of the day all the promotion in the world won’t help a badly written book and so my focus is on writing a book that I hope won’t disappoint my readers.

Did being a NY-published author allow you to negotiate better terms from epublishers? How about being NYT with ebook AND print?

Ha! I’d say it was quite the opposite. I think being so successful in digital publishing has helped me negotiate better terms and higher advances in NY publishing. I was doing very well in digital publishing long before I ever hit the NYT. As for negotiating better terms with a digital publisher, I wanted to negotiate a different contract. Well, I say different, but the truth is I never asked my digital publisher to do anything other than uphold the terms of the original contract I signed with them in 2006. Which until last fall, they were willing to do. My negotiations fell through with my digital publisher before I ever hit the NYT, so no, it had nothing at all to do with anything in that regard. Just a mutual business decision on both our parts.

Hitting the NYT with a digital only release was very satisfying simply because it reaffirmed what I and so many other digital only published authors knew. We already knew that it was possible to make a very good living in digital publishing. We didn’t need validation from the USA Today or the NYT but when they finally started acknowledging how well digital books sold, it was a nod to just how successful that market had become.

I’ve always said and still do, that I don’t need validation from other people. My validation comes in the form of my paycheck every month, thank you very much. So yeah, it’s nice for the digital market to be recognized but at the end of the day, those lists aren’t telling digital authors anything we didn’t already know.

I’d like to know if the numbers for her ebooks are comparable to her print sales when she made the NYT list, since she’s made the list for both. I realize she may not know, since her statements probably don’t break down by weekly sales, but I am curious.

Unfortunately I don’t have a break down by week. I sold 25kish (estimating here) copies of Colters’ Daughter in the first month. The bulk of any first month’s sales (for me) are usually in the first week.

I can guesstimate fairly closely with the KGI seriesprint books and say in the 15k range print and digital combined if I extrapolate bookscan numbers, digital sales, etc., though admittedly, bookscan is not entirely accurate.

I did ask Courtney Milan if she would mind sharing her numbers since I figured it would take more sales to hit the lists now than it did even a few months ago when I hit with the digital only release. She related that the week she hit #6 on the NYT ebook list and #36 on the USA Today, she sold 19k copies. And the second week on the lists, she sold 13k copies. So there’s some food for thought and comparison.

Ebook that hit NYTimes. How many sales at Amazon/vs B&N?

In Samhain’s panel they still report that Amazon sales are still significantly higher than BN. For me this is no longer true. For the past year they’ve been very close and with my Feb release that hit the USA Today and the NYT, my sales in the first month were actually 30 percent HIGHER at BN than at Amazon. My overall sales continue to increase at Amazon. It’s not like they went lower at one place because readers moved to a different reader. I reached #2 overall ranking at BN and peaked in the 40s at Amazon.

Also, when she sells a series (like her KGI) one. Is she guaranteed a set number of books with an option for more, or can they cancel the contract after any book or before any are even published?

I contract a certain number of books when I reach an agreement with my publisher for a new deal but nothing is ever guaranteed. They can absolutely tell me they aren’t going to publish say book 6 after I’ve written and turned in books 4 and 5 of a series. What usually happens in that instance is that I keep any advance monies already received and I just don’t write or turn in that last book and I won’t receive any further advance.

You can read more about Maya’s books at her website:  We’ve reviewed her books (and given a variety of grades) here.


Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


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