Thursday, April 22, 2010

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The Story Of How Ellen Fisher’s NEVER LOVE A STRANGER Ended Up On The Kindle

Ellen Fisher, author of thirteen novels and novellas, wrote the time travel science fiction romance NEVER LOVE A STRANGER. When she contacted me about it, I was immediately intrigued. As you know, I often blog about the various ways readers can connect with science fiction romance stories. We can’t rely on just print books to satisfy our need. Digital alternatives are de rigueur these days.

Therefore, I was fascinated to learn that Ellen Fisher made NEVER LOVE A STRANGER available on the Kindle on April 14, 2010 (this book is technically a re-release; learn more at her announcement post). Since then, she’s established a baseline for sales: 16 copies as of 4/19/10. Lest you think cost is an issue, NEVER LOVE A STRANGER can be yours for the low, low price of $.99. In a recent post, Ms. Fisher noted that

Never Love a Stranger has made it to #33 on the Kindle time travel romance list, and #2 on the "hot new releases" list for that category. And yet its overall sales rank is only around 5200.

Together, I think we can help boost sales for this title. Assuming sales don’t suddenly come from any other source, we can track the impact of our collective effort as I’ll be checking back in with Ms. Fisher to see how sales progress.

Here are a few ideas:

*If you’re an SFR fan with a Kindle, you can purchase NEVER LOVE A STRANGER at Amazon for just $.99 cents. This price may not last long, so take advantage of this great bargain while you can.

*If, like me, you don’t have a Kindle, you can still read the book by downloading a free Kindle app for your PC.

*Hand sell this title to Kindle owners you know if they like SFR or are willing to give it a try (and $.99 is quite the financial incentive).

*We can blog and tweet about it.

*We can help other readers discover this book by tagging it at Amazon. The four main recommended tags are “science fiction romance,” “sfr,” “sci-fi romance,” and “paranormal romance.” And yes, I already tagged it.

*Over at the SFR Brigade, we’re pondering ways to amp up Amazon’s science fiction romance community. With the entire SFR subgenre at stake, no time like the present, eh?

Of course, it also helps to know a little about the book! I invited Ellen Fisher to participate in an interview both to learn more about the story as well as her experience with “Kindling” her book. First, here’s the story premise:

A hero like no other...

One seemingly ordinary evening, Annie Simpson finds an extremely gorgeous (and totally nude) man in her kitchen. When James tells her he’s an escaped criminal from the future, she figures he’s crazy. Before long Annie and James are running for their lives, and Annie’s falling for James in a big way. But now they have to find a way to change the future before fifty million people die...

You can read the excerpt here.

I usually skip or just skim reviews to avoid spoilers, but this one by Mrs. Giggles, excerpted on the author’s site, caught my eye:

"I have a good time reading this book… Ms Fisher surprises me. And I like being surprised, especially when the surprise is in the form of a story that is well-written, mostly well thought-out, has a credible science-fiction feel to it, and fun to boot." - Mrs. Giggles

And now for my interview with Ellen Fisher:

The Galaxy Express: Tell us about the inspiration behind NEVER LOVE A STRANGER.

Ellen Fisher: I actually can’t tell you too much about the inspiration behind it without giving away a huuuuuge spoiler. In fact, there’s an acknowledgement to a certain author in the book, but I had to put it at the end for the same reason. I was greatly influenced by that author, as well as a certain TV show, but if I tell you which ones you’ll know the big spoiler for my book. Let’s just say I had the idea of writing about a particular sort of hero, one that is quite a bit different from the ordinary romance hero. That was the main idea of the book, and everything else flowed from that.

I will say that STRANGER was a big departure for me. I started out my writing career as a historical romance novelist. I then tried my hand at contemporary romance with a lot of humor. Eventually I decided it would be fun to take my love for sci-fi and write a science fiction romance. I wanted to write something really unusual, and I hope I succeeded. STRANGER doesn’t fit too well into any category—its time travel occurs via time machine, so it’s not a typical time travel romance. Also, the characters don’t make it into the future until the second half of the book, so it’s not a typical futuristic, either.

TGE: What was the path to publication like?

EF: Not all that complicated, actually. My first romance, a historical set in colonial Virginia, was published by Bantam, but after that Bantam merged with Dell and cut some of its authors, which sadly included me. I spent several frustrating years trying to get New York to let me get back in. I shopped around a historical romance, and then a contemporary, with no success. But once I sold them to a small e-publisher, I sat down and wrote STRANGER.

I never seriously considered trying to sell it to a major publisher—not only was I pretty burned out on trying to sell to New York by that point, but I had heard that the few major publishers who would purchase time travel romances didn’t care for plotlines involving time machines. In fact, Dorchester actually had that in their submission guidelines, and still does: No time machines, please. If Dorchester, which handles a lot of futuristic and paranormal romance, didn’t want time machines in their romances, I figured I wasn’t going to sell this one to New York. So I sent it to my small press editor, and they accepted it. It was issued first as an ebook, and then as a paperback, although sadly it was one of their early paperbacks, and never got a lot of distribution in the stores.

TGE: Please describe what readers can expect from the story’s SF and romantic elements, but in the form of a recipe.

EF: Hee… that’s a tough one. Well, we have a time machine, agents from the future, a hero running for his life, and a failed revolution that resulted in the deaths of fifty million people. We have a heroine who falls for the hero before she finds out all his secrets-- and when she does discover those secrets, she’s pretty darn ticked off. We have lots of action, and several hot love scenes. So:

One extra-large hero who isn’t quite what he seems
One medium sized heroine
Two agents from the future
One best friend with baby and cat in tow
One time machine
Two trips through time

Stir, place it into the oven, and watch it explode... literally.

TGE: When James isn’t running around nude, what’s his outfit of choice?

EF: Jeans and a collared shirt. When he arrives, Annie attires him in her deceased husband’s clothes, but they don’t fit well, because James is a big guy and her husband was relatively short. The two of them go off to the mall, where they have their first encounter with the agent from the future who’s determined to kill James. But they still manage to get James clothes that fit!

TGE: Without going into spoilers, can you tell us a bit more about your heroine, Annie Simpson?

EF: Annie’s a widow. Her husband passed away a year before, and she’s still coming to terms with losing him. She’s backed away from her circle of friends, isolating herself, and only has one really close friend left, her college roommate Kay. Annie’s lonely and a little lost, and so perhaps a little more sympathetic to James’ plight than someone else might be. But as she tries to defend James from the people who want to kill him, she begins to realize she’s on the path to healing, and James helps her along that path. In fact, she and James help each other overcome past scars and move on.

TGE: You’ve recently re-released NEVER LOVE A STRANGER on the Kindle. What prompted you to pursue an alternative publishing model? What did that process entail?

EF: I got back the rights on STRANGER (and all my other books with that publisher) over a year ago, but at first I wasn’t terribly inclined to do much with them. I’ve been dealing with my own grieving process since my husband died a few years ago, as well as struggling with some health problems, but this year I finally decided to get my writing career back on track.

Unfortunately, no major publisher is likely to seriously consider previously issued romances, and even the e-publisher I’m still working with, Samhain, didn’t want to take a look at it—they’ve just got too much great new stuff to publish! I got my Kindle about six months ago, and I’d taken to hanging out on the Amazon boards, where I discovered “indie” publishing. It’s basically self-publishing, but unlike vanity publishing, Amazon charges nothing to upload your book, so it’s more or less risk free. I noticed that some authors were selling quite well, and decided it made sense to try uploading my backlist there.

It isn’t a complicated process. You upload an HTML document and a cover. I do email the document to myself on my Kindle first, thus converting it to Kindle format so I can check it for errors, and I always download and check the Kindle edition before I start promoting it. I’ve seen some indie books, and quite a few New York books, with strange and irritating formatting errors, but so far I haven’t had any problems with my own, thankfully. I make my own covers with stock photos (authors need to be aware that you have to pay for the license to use those photos) and Photoshop.

TGE: Would you release a book on the Kindle again? Do you have any advice for authors who might be considering “Kindling” their book(s)?

EF: I definitely would do this again. I’ve published four books on Kindle since February, and my sales have really surprised me. In two cases I’ve already sold many more copies than I did with the previous publisher—and that’s not a knock against that publisher; it’s simply that ebooks are really finally coming into their own, and there is a growing audience eager for good ebooks out there.

However, it’s not just a case of “slap your books up on Amazon and they will sell.” There are plenty of indie books on Amazon that don’t sell at all. Based on what I’ve read and observed, there seem to be three components of a good seller: Good cover, good sample, and low price.

My covers are of course not New York quality, or even as good as a nice small press would produce. But they are eye-catching and look good as thumbnails. This helps get readers to take a look. Once they go look at your description and any reviews you might have, hopefully they’ll download a sample. Amazon allows readers to download a fairly extensive sample of your book free of charge. It’s easy to tell within a page or two if a book is egregiously poor (some indie books are atrocious, while others are brilliant). A good sample sells; a bad sample does not encourage readers to download the full book.

And then there’s the price. If you’re an unknown, you are unlikely to sell if you charge mass market paperback prices. Most successful indies seem to price their books at $2.99 or below. My books are selling well at 99 cents. This isn’t a lot, of course, and I probably won’t get rich that way (not that I’ve ever gotten rich as an author!). But it does add up if you sell enough copies. Other indies have done well at $1.99 or $2.99. You just have to experiment till you find what works well for you and your genre. Also, once a book gets on the bestseller list for the genre, its sales tend to improve, because people are finding it just by surfing Amazon, so you’re visible to a bigger audience.

But it’s most important to have a good product. That’s key. You can put anything at all up on Amazon, from Pulitzer-quality writing to gibberish, but if it has a terrible cover and is poorly written, it’s just not going to sell. My books are selling pretty well, which I take as an indication that my covers and writing are strong enough to get people interested. The feedback from readers has generally been pretty positive, too.

TGE: Did the sales start happening immediately? Is there any Kindle-specific promotion involved or that you are going to consider? Or would you promote it like any other book, whether digital or print?

EF: The sales did not start happening immediately, no. In my first month, I sold a mere 27 downloads. That wasn’t surprising; I’d been out of publishing for three years or so, and I was far from a household name to begin with. But in the second month, my books were mentioned on a blog that features indie authors, and sales took off as readers noticed me. They haven’t really slowed down since, and I’m hoping they’ll grow as I get more books out there.

The interesting thing about indie publishing is that the sales curve isn’t like traditional publishing, or even small press publishing. Typically in traditional publishing, you get most of your sales up front, and within a few months they slow down, and eventually trickle off entirely. In indie publishing, the sales tend to start slowly, but then increase as word of mouth spreads. Once your sales rise, they often seem to remain fairly steady for a long time, too.

There are a gazillion books on Amazon, so it’s necessary to make yourself known to Kindle readers. There are Amazon forums where you can chat with Kindle readers and make yourself known to them. There are also the Kindleboard forums. You do want to be careful not to overpromote, however; the posters on the Amazon forums in particular are very sensitive about “spamming.” Subtlety is key. If you’re interested in Kindling, I suggest going to the Amazon boards and carefully studying them for a week or so before you post. Too many posts, or posts in the wrong places, can alienate readers.

TGE: What are your favorite science fiction romance books, films, and/or television shows?

EF: In books, I love Heinlein, Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zenna Henderson, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Philip K. Dick... My favorite TV shows are Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and I’ve read a lot of novel tie-ins with those series. I enjoyed earlier Smallville, though calling it science fiction is perhaps being a bit generous. I love Supernatural and Merlin (which are more paranormal/fantasy, I suppose), and I like Kyle XY. In movies, I love most of the Star Trek movies, the originalStar Wars trilogy, Wall-E, District 9, and superhero flicks like Spiderman and X-Men.

TGE: Do you have news of any future projects that readers can look forward to?

EF: On the sci-fi romance front, in May I’ll be re-releasing my science fiction romance spoof, Farthest Space: The Wrath of Jan. I’m excited about this one because I got a professional artist to do the cover, and her pencil sketch for it is just amazing. I can’t wait to see the completed cover! I’m working on a Farthest Space sequel, too, which I hope I’ll have done in a couple of months.

[FARTHEST SPACE: THE WRATH OF JAN cover art by P.L. Nunn of BishonenWorks]

Ellen Fisher also described her return to publishing at Kristie Leigh Maguire’s blog.

Edited to add: Ms. Fisher's Kindle endeavor is mentioned in the article Riding The Ebook Train.

Ms. Fisher, thanks for your time, and for your art.

Dear passengers, if you have any ideas about how to help spread the word about NEVER LOVE A STRANGER, please leave a comment. Then go forth and driveth sales. Thank you!

Joyfully yours,