A.G. Riddle speaks with the sort of gentle Southern lilt that makes people from that part of the world easy to listen to. Apparently, he is easy to read as well. He’s the 64th author on all of Amazon (AMZN) right now, and he ranks in the top ten in four different e-book genres. He spoke to the Observer over the phone last week about how he has come to understand the business of e-books and Kindle-powered literature.
Mr. Riddle brings the perspective of an entrepreneur to this conversation. He has built technology related products and founded companies, which gives him a way of looking both at the act of writing and the process of turning a word processor document into a book that people will consider buying.
So far in our Titans of Kindle series, we have spoken to one thriller writer, one romance writer and one science fiction and fantasy writer. Mr. Riddle believes that a part of his appeal is that his books could plausibly fall into at least two of those genres and leave a third somewhat interested. With his most recent book he has entered the world of traditional publishing, a subject we’ll explore in the following.
The North Carolina-raised author was a hit from his very first novel, The Atlantis Gene. Though he came out of the box strong, we believe readers following digital publishing as a business opportunity and hopeful writers will be especially interested in what Mr. Riddle expects moving forward.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed:
I saw that you started some Internet companies early on. What kind of companies did you run?
I went to college in 1998, and obviously the Internet was getting going. I started with a childhood friend a company that was doing software development. We didn’t really have any ideas of our own or know what we wanted to do, but we started sophomore year making some money working for clients. I stayed in college and graduated in 2002. Then around ’05 and ’06 we saved up some money and started a series of companies, maybe 10 of them. Eight really went nowhere.
They were mostly consumer facing web apps. We made some money on some personal records stuff. Our last company was a sort of pre-Groupon thing that was one of these sites that made money but didn’t really make the world a better place. I knew I needed to get out. So around 2011, I started to get out and spent a couple years learning about writing.
Big picture: what’s your take on the world of publishing right now?
The approach that I’ve taken, I published my first novel in March 2013. That was for me to test the market to see if there was an audience for my work and if it were something I should pursue. I was financially secure and kind of looking for a second job that was really engaging for me, creatively, that was an outlet, something that I really enjoyed and that I thought made a positive difference in people’s lives.
So my take on the world of publishing is a little different. It depends on what you want out of it. And I think that’s very different for different writers. I think if I was starting up and if I had a wife and two kids (and a mortgage and one kid with braces), I think my perspective on the market might be a little different, and I might approach it a little different. I always say to aspiring writers: you have got to figure out what you want out of this, so you can define success. And don’t let anyone else do it for you.
I guess I would be very resistant to the notion that there is one fixed perspective and one general truth about the market.
What was your first book that really did well?
The Atlantis Gene. That was my first one. That novel sold over a million copies. The trilogy just crossed 1.9 million. It’s going to sell over two million in the next month or so. That’s on Amazon and Audible. In foreign markets, I don’t have those numbers, but it’s been published all over the place. I think there have been eighteen different foreign contracts.
Do you have any sense of what enabled you to crack the public? A blog recommendation? A review?
No. Look, I really didn’t have a marketing plan for this thing. When I put it out I did the cover myself [Note: Not the cover you see above]. My mom who was a former English teacher edited the thing.
When I put out the book, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, she put it on Facebook and told all of her friends to read it. I emailed all the e-book sites. I put it out at $2.99 or $3.99. The first two weeks the book didn’t do much.
But, the first month, I think it sold like 6,000. Then in June it was 26,000. Then after July it sold more than 30,000 copies through the end of the year. Then in December when the second book came out together they sold over 100,000 copies.
It happened pretty quick, but if you ask me why that book succeeded I think there’s a few reasons. I think the biggest reason is curb appeal in the Amazon store. People would see that cover, they would see The Atlantis Gene, and that would imply that this was a book that was about something. I think at that time there were maybe not as many competing books in that general genre of high concept science-mystery-thriller thing, and it really got an audience. From the small audience it got, they really liked it, and they told people.
If you ask me what the magic formula is, it’s write something that someone tells their friends about. Whether they liked it or hated it (I mean you hope they like it), but it needs to cross this threshold of response, where people are provoked and excited. A lot of people hated the book. It’s been ripped to shreds, but I think there were enough people that liked it.
I will also just add that I think that it was helped a great deal by being cross-genre. It’s a thriller and sci-fi and there’s enough romance in there for that audience. It’s not a romance per se, but the romance is not just something that’s just added in either. It is a very big part of the story.
‘For me it’s been very exciting to be part of, frankly, because you kind of feel like … you’re inventing the future’
What do you find is the biggest driver for sales? Sci-fi writer Chris Nuttall put it all on the number of Amazon reviews.
Well, I think that reviews are huge, but I think the whole thing is what does the core audience get out of it? I’ve only written four books and I’ve been writing now for four or five years, and that’s a pretty slow pace compared to a lot of these folks. I think that readers, no matter what they are paying, every time out they want a book to cross this threshold.
Getting people in the door I think is really important, but it’s when they come out the other side that I think is the most important. That’s kind of what I focus on.
You’re interesting because you are actively working with major publishers. Departure is published now by Harper Voyager. That’s interesting. How has that been?
So my first three books are a trilogy. Then my fourth is a standalone, Departure. It came out December 2014.
And you did it as an e-book at first and then it got acquired, is that right? How’s that been?
You know, I think it’s okay. I will say that I never really worked for anyone. I ran my own business right out of college and then I was self published, and I was the guy in charge, for better or worse. It’s been an adjustment, but it’s certainly been a learning experience for me.
There is, I’ll say, a contrast.
One of the big tensions between indies and major publishers that we’ve been writing about is the difference in price for e-books. What do you think the right price point is for e-books? What’s your philosophy on pricing when it’s entirely in your hands?
That is something I didn’t fully appreciate at first. Right now, the way I feel, the place I’m in, I put a lot into these books. It’s a lot of days. It’s very hard. Some days are pretty good, but what I really want is for people to read them. So that’s kind of how I price them.
So with Departure, it sold about 215,000 copies in three months. Then Fox bought the movie rights. Then Harper Collins came.
Do you remember what you had it priced at when it came out?
I think at $4.99. I think that’s about right. I think $3.99 to $5.99 is what I feel comfortable charging for my books, but I wouldn’t put that out there as a suggestion or any kind of judgment for how anyone else prices their books.
And when you say it feels right, what values are you basing that on? It doesn’t sound like you are speaking just to maximizing profit. So is a part of what you are factoring in how it feels to price it at a certain level? Like too low cheapens it?
I think there is a lot of that. I never made any of my books free, right? Though I don’t mind if people steal them if they can’t afford them. I agree with the idea that people assign value to the idea of price. I think you can price too low and hurt yourself. And I think you can price too high and hurt yourself.
I think that once you get to work, you really believe in it. Like, my measure of success has been: Is this the best book I can produce?
My first book, if I was writing it again today, there’s a ton of things I would have done differently, but that was the best book I could produce back then. I was proud of it. I think it’s worth $3.99. If I thought it was worth $1.99, I’d price it at $1.99. If I thought it wasn’t worth anything I’d take it down and rewrite it or de-list it.
But I think when you’re breaking into the market—and I think the psychology has changed—when I first came out in March 2013, people would see a 99-cent book and they weren’t as put off or scared, but I think that the psychology might have changed. But I’m not sure about that. I don’t study and follow the market as much as other folks.
I think it’s important, if you’re pricing low, that you do it as an introductory price.
You’ve got this email list where you send out beta chapters or drafts. What does having beta readers do for you? What itch does that scratch?
I have done it ever since my second book came out. There’s maybe 100 or 150 people on this thing. I usually send it out about 30 days before a release. What I’m looking for is some kind of signal of whether I’ve really screwed the pooch on the thing.
Your beta readers get the entire book?
Yeah. By the time they’ve gotten it. The professional editors have gone through it. The proofreaders have gone through it, and three alpha readers—retired editors who are doing it for fun. I’m looking for typos or any kind of formatting stuff. Or anything that strikes them as weird.
It’s interesting what 100 different people will say. Like, “This confused me” or “This is illogical.” You can learn a lot from reviews, but you learn a ton from beta readers. It can be counterproductive, because you can get too many voices in your head saying “You can’t do that” or “You can’t do that.” But I think right before release it can be very helpful.
And what percentage of them get back to you?
Pretty much all of them. So the beta list is closed. I let them know a book is coming out, what the premise is and ask them to email me back if they want to read it.
I tell them that if they are willing to leave an honest review I’d really appreciate it. When a book first comes out, it’s tough to start from zero. You’ve got some people who will download and read it that night. They’ll stay up the whole night to read it or read it in a day or two. But still for like a week you’re sitting there with low reviews, so, I think for non-core fans, they might wait.
‘I think for voracious readers who have the habit, I think they are moving toward e-books’
Can you talk to me about your revenue streams? How does your income break down?
So I only publish on Amazon in the U.S., in North America. I always have. I’ve never been published anywhere else. We’ve got Amazon, we’ve got Audible, which has been really good. We’ve got foreign royalties. So that’s coming from Asia and Europe and around the world.
The foreign stuff, is that some publisher that bought the rights to sell a translation in those countries?
Exactly. We’ve got a six figure deal for the Atlantis trilogy in Germany. We got a deal in China that was like $75,000. All these things kind of add up, and then you might get royalties after the advance. So foreign rights have really been good to us, and then we have movie rights.
We’re trying to get more into print. One of the things we’ve done is we’ve printed 62,000 books of the Atlantis trilogy. And so we put them in a warehouse and we’ve been shipping them to Amazon’s warehouses and selling those on Amazon as if we were a publisher.
Does Amazon come to you and look for how they can serve the industry better? Is there give and take between Amazon and the Kindle writers?
They may just be reacting to me, but I was in the web development business. So, I just send them stuff that I think of and some of it is probably crazy. They at least humor me.
They also do beta programs. Everything they do roll out they test internally. I’m under NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] for all the beta programs, but they are working on a ton. What’s amazing about Amazon is that they are really committed to innovating and trying stuff. I respect the hell out of that.
For me it’s been very exciting to be part of, frankly, because you kind of feel like you are on the cutting edge of something. Like, in some way you’re inventing the future, which is what I really wanted to do in my Internet startup life, but now I’m part of something much bigger than anything I’ve built.
How do you feel like being a part of this world is contributing to what you think is a better world?
I think that reading is one of the most healthy things we can do in our life. We live in this world where everything seems to get faster. I think reading is this opportunity to disconnect, to go into another world, learn and expand your mind. Even if it’s some made up world, like Harry Potter. I think in human stories are lessons and insights that keep people grounded.
My novels are heavily about science and history. So we’re kind of decoding the world around us, but you can also be entertained. I think there’s something very positive and very good about that.
And what I think Amazon is doing is making reading more widely available and more affordable for more people. I mean sure you can go to the library, but it costs you time, it costs you gas. And the selection isn’t always there, and it might be hard to maintain the habit. But for $10 per month with Kindle Unlimited you can get access to a ton of books.
I think it’s certainly the most meaningful thing professionally I’ve been a part of.
What are problems in your business that you are looking for a solution to?
I think for writers in general, organization and process is very difficult. The dream is just of sitting and typing, but there’s a lot that goes on from words to a book.
So, this is one of the crazier ideas I’ve emailed them. Right now, as a writer, you write the book, but then you hire an editor, freelance. Then you hire a cover artist, freelance. Then you hire a formatter. I’m a code guy so I do my own formatting because I’m kind of a control freak.
But I’d like to see them do a marketplace of editors (and of artists and formatters) where I can review my editor, and I can see what books he’s edited. And there’s a marketplace of cover designers and prices, and I can see those covers and how the books performed.
And I’d love to see integrated within that a system to approve people who are beta readers who come in and say, “I love to read space adventures” or “I love paranormal romance.” I think it’s very tough to find that for the beginning writer.
I think that’s coming in the future, but I think Amazon has kind of had bigger fish to fry. I think we have the best system for getting discovered and breaking out that we’ve ever had, but I think it’s going to get better.
It seems pretty clear that most of the authors doing well in this sector are genre fiction writers. Are e-books going to get beyond genre?
I think it really has to do with the consumer end. I think it’s sort of driven by demand. What you’ve got, in nonfiction in particular, but I imagine that print in nonfiction is disproportionately large.
I think genre readers are a lot more voracious and go through a lot more content. So the writers who are in these genre markets have seen this huge demand in e-books and have shifted over to fill that demand.
I think literary fiction readers are less price sensitive and are more perhaps inclined to buy something in print. It feels like the generalization is correct. Popular fiction has still kind of remained traditional or largely a good balance with e-books, and I think the reason is that books like The Help or something I would call literary fiction. When those things start to have a huge audience, people who aren’t avid readers will pick up a print copy.
My hope long term is we’ve got more people reading books in e-book format. Just for myself, I’m 35 or so now. I find that I like watching TV less and I like reading more and more. I don’t know if I’m getting more boring or what’s happening.
I think it’s a cycle. It starts with the genres, and I think it can continue on from literary to popular fiction. I think for voracious readers who have the habit, I think they are moving toward e-books.
Further reading in the Titans of Kindle series:
- Hugh Howey has no patience for book lovers who don’t read books.
- Kristen Ashley built her own empire after others said no.
- Douglas E. Richards takes deep dives into current technology.
- Christopher Nuttall sees major publishers building a castle on sand.
- Marie Force calls digital publishing ‘blockbuster’ for genre writers.