This Bestselling E-Book Author ‘Can’t Afford’ Traditional Publishing Deals

'I'd decided my dream was dead. I would have loved to be a writer, but it's not happening.'

Douglas E. Richards. (Courtesy photo)
Douglas E. Richards. (Courtesy photo)

Douglas E. Richards turns down the big publishers with every new novel, yet he wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you have never heard of him.

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Mr. Richards is the first to admit that he only really has a name among fans of e-books on Amazon (AMZN)’s Kindle, yet he ranks as the 30th bestselling science fiction author on Amazon as of this writing. His breakout book, Wired, has 3,400 reviews on Amazon. It also got him on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.

The former biotech professional writes techno-thrillers set in the near future, built around technology we either have or that we are getting very close to. He goes out of his way to ground his books as heavily as possible in known science and technology.

This is The Observer’s second conversation with a bestselling e-book author, following our first with Kristen Ashley, a genre blending author of romantic stories.

Mr. Richards had already sold books to a traditional publisher before making the switch to e-books. He’d had success, but not enough to justify remaining outside his old career in biotech. Then, even after his first e-book blew up, he returned to a traditional publisher and tried it again with his next novel, but it still wasn’t nearly as lucrative as selling books on his own.

He told the Observer that he still dreams of having the household name and the hardcover bestseller in all the bookstores, but he also fears that those days may be gone.

We had a very freewheeling conversation about a wide array of publishing and technological topics. One quick note about the following: Mr. Richards likes to use exaggeration as a rhetorical device when making a point, though we think all the instances of that are very clear.

The following phone conversation has been edited and condensed:

Big picture: what’s your take on the world of publishing right now?

Technology is changing. Paradigms are changing faster than they have ever done, making it really hard to predict what’s next. You’ve got Amazon and others teaching the reading public that books should be free. Before, when there were only bookstores, there was no backlist. Maybe you could order a few that publishers kept in stock, but now you’ve got this library of every book that’s ever been written at your fingertips.

So if you want 50 science fiction books from the 1950s for a penny—and I’m barely exaggerating—you can get that. And then there’s all these free promotions, which I run myself, but really, it’s alarming how readers have really been taught that books should be free. And I agree that they shouldn’t pay what they were paying, such as $25 for a hardcover.

(Image: Courtesy of Mr. Richards)
(Image: Courtesy of Mr. Richards)

It’s been fascinating for me to see the price sensitivity of the industry now.  So I price my e-books at $6.99. At that price, they do really well. The latest book that I wrote called Split Second was at the top 100 on Amazon for almost 3 months. I sold many, many thousands at that price. What’s fascinating to me is I also publish with a traditional publisher, MacMillan, the Tor Forge imprint of Macmillan, and we published a hardcover and it was beautiful. They did a beautiful job with it. And so they charged $9.99, on Amazon. The drop off between the sales I get on my $6.99 books and the $9.99 book are just unbelievably dramatic.

And which one did you make more money with?

Oh, absolutely. The $6.99 books.

What’s wild to me is I even got reviews and emails sent to me: people were really mad that it was $9.99, but I sold the rights to this book. Once you go with a traditional publisher, they price it.

I think there was a couple one star reviews on Amazon that were like, “I love this author, I am a huge fan, but I will not pay $9.99.”

And I’m thinking to myself, wow, how the world has changed. I mean, you have to pay that to go to a movie. If I have a favorite author, and his book is $9.99, versus $6.99, that’s not going to give me any pause. So I was astonished to see how truly price sensitive the industry’s become, and I think it’s going to get even more so. I’m not saying you should gouge them, but hopefully they recognize that there’s some value in what you’re doing.

I can’t afford to publish traditional publishing any more. There’s almost no way that they can offer me enough. 

It’s great with Amazon’s Kindle and all the other e-book platforms that you don’t have the traditional gatekeepers. You don’t have the traditional publishers saying “no, you’re not good enough.” And so many people have proven themselves; they’ve gotten rejected and then they became huge hits on their own.

You let the world decide rather than the New York literati. And that’s great and everything, but now it’s become so easy that you’re getting like 300,000 or 400,000 new books per year, so I think it’s getting even tougher to stand out than it used to be, because there’s just so much content out there.

‘Nothing I ever do other than giving away a bunch of free books ever moves the needle’

Your publishing story actually starts before e-books, is that right? 

It’s kind of a complicated story. So basically I did publish with a small house, my first kids, middle grade book called The Prometheus Project: Trapped. And that got huge accolades. I was in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. It had a lot of accurate science in it, so science teacher organizations around the country were praising it.

The California Department of Education called it “recommended literature.” I became an invited guest to speak at Comic-Con in San Diego, the big one. I’d go into auditoriums with 500 fifth graders and I was a rock star. The teachers all told me, “I’m doing this as a read aloud, and they’ve never loved a book more. They won’t go to recess.”

I thought, maybe I’m delusional but why isn’t this going to the next level? Why am I not the next Harry Potter or even the one tenth of that? Because the kids seem to love these books, and yet I could never make it where you could really make a living out of it.

I also found that sales were not at all tied to publicity. I get a glowing review in Asimov’s and it wouldn’t really move the needle at all.

So then I finally said, “This isn’t working out.” It was maddening because people seemed to love the books. And I know that authors tend to be delusional. People have an over-estimation of their capabilities. It’s Lake Wobegon, where everybody’s above average. But it just wasn’t working.

(Image: Courtesy of Mr. Richards)
(Image: Courtesy of Mr. Richards)

So I wrote this thriller Wired, which is kind of a Michael Crichton kind of thing, a techno thriller. It’s set in the near future, with a lot of thriller elements but also science fiction elements.

I almost got it published by Simon & Schuster. There was an editor there who loved it, but it’s getting harder and harder, if you don’t already have a name. I finally gave up. I said, I’m going back into biotech. Then a few months after I did, I got wind of this e-book thing, and I realized that it’s not that difficult to throw the book out there.

Just like magic—I don’t exactly know what happened—to this day I’m not sure what happened, but within two or three months, I was on the New York Times bestseller list.

This thing called Librarything allowed you to give books away free to the membership. And at that time they didn’t limit how many e-books you could give away. For the first month, I gave away maybe three or four hundred copies. I had priced the book at $.99, and gave a way a bunch of copies.

My feeling was my only chance in this cluttered world, I have no name, so my only chance to get anybody to read this is word of mouth. People have to love it, and they have to tell a lot of other people about it. That’s the only prayer.

I was already back into biotech. I had already written this thing off. I’d decided my dream was dead. I would have loved to be a writer, but it’s not happening. 

So I put it out there and then it went viral. By the end it was selling two or three thousand copies a day. It was a wild ride and the next thing I know my sister sent me a framed NYT bestseller page with my book on it. Right next to The Help. 

And you probably made more money than The Help‘s author did, right? Because you get to keep so much of the sales price?  

Well, at the time it was only $0.99, but my sense was I needed to get an audience. Whatever I had to do, so it wasn’t about the money. Though, even at $0.99 if you’re selling two or three thousand books a day, the money isn’t too bad. 

So I became a NYT and USA Today bestseller and I figured no matter what happens from here they can’t take that away from me. So then I started writing more books, and my third one I went with a traditional publisher. I got the six figure advance, and they were lovely people. They did a beautiful job. They were a pleasure to work with, but it’s an antiquated system. It takes—I’m maybe exaggerating by a little bit—but 150 years to go from when they say “OK here’s the offer” to when the book hits the bookstores. You could die of old age. 

They do a beautiful job, but it’s so much harder at $25 a book, and while I had a name for e-books, I didn’t have a name in bookstores. It was somewhat successful. I did all kinds of radio. They put a full page ad in Scientific American.

‘The best thing you can do is write another one and then another one and then another one’

Was this the book you did about psychopaths?

That’s right. I’m glad that I did it. I still go back to traditional publishers with every novel, to give them a little bit of a shot, but I had an offer recently that wasn’t even close. I tell them I will accept less than I know I can make on my own to try to reach the paperback world, the print world, because that’s a whole big audience that I’m not really reaching very well, but I can’t take one fifth of what I could make.

Can you talk to me about your revenue streams? 

My agent has been able to get my books’ foreign rights sold. I have three books in Chinese, and I have them in Russian, Italian, Czech and probably German. So I make a little bit abroad. 

All the books have Audible editions, and I get a little advance. I get some royalties from there. I’ve got Createspace. I might have sold three or four hundred paperbacks last month. But in the scheme of things, it’s 90 percent Amazon e-books.

Is the best use of your time always just writing the next book? Do you do anything like writing workshops or speaking gigs or teaching community college classes?

Yes, absolutely, it is writing. After Wired, I quit biotech again. Now I’ve been doing it full time for a long time. That’s all I do.

You know, I’m a dinosaur when it comes to social media. I have a Facebook page and I love it. I have a Twitter account that I don’t really use, and my web page, though recently improved, is still horrible.

It’s funny because when The Cure came out and I did all that radio. I did three hours on a program that gets millions of listeners, and it didn’t move the needle. 

What I found was, over the years, the effort I spent on advertising or radios or great reviews or big write-ups, none of that really helped. Nothing I ever do other than giving away a bunch of free books ever moves the needle. 

The best advice to anybody which I give all the time is, you know, you kill yourself trying to market a book. I think, especially with the first one, until it takes off, you do want to try to get it out there, but the best thing you can do is write another one and then another one and then another one. 

And it really sucks if you haven’t caught fire because that takes a lot of commitment, but the beautiful thing about the whole situation is, it all leverages. It all synergizes. You have a backlist. 

It’s almost like: do you remember Dan Brown? He wrote three novels that got nowhere. The rumors in the industry were: why are they even publishing this guy? He’s like selling nothing. And then The Da Vinci Code came out, and then the other three books that he wrote that got nowhere were all on The New York Times bestseller list together. 

The point is, the best thing you can do is keep writing.  But you also have to hope you get lucky. I wish I could tell you that there’s some kind of magic. I got lucky. I’m the first to admit it.  

You look at Stephen King. The very famous story that he put out books by Stephen King and then, because he was so prolific, he put out books by Richard Bachman. The Richard Bachman books sold a tenth of what the Stephen King books did. He just randomly chose to put them out by one name or another. J.K. Rowling tried a similar experiment with similar results. 

How do you know you have to be unbelievably lucky? Because even people who are superstars can’t sell as many books if they use a different name.

‘What’s really starting to bug me is how these authors who have succeeded have now become a brand of their own. They are no longer an author; they’re a brand.’

Have you ever done any experiments with technology and books, such as incorporating multimedia, etc?

I’ve heard this is something that people are trying to make happen. I actually feel the opposite. In fact, I had somebody want to do that for my books. 

(Image: Courtesy of Mr. Richards)
(Image: Courtesy of Mr. Richards)

So I have a book called Mind’s Eye. It’s a technothriller about a guy who wakes up without a memory and it turns out that electronics have been implanted in his brain, and he can suddenly surf the web with his thoughts and read minds. 

And Intel has actually been working on that. What if you could just think about it and inside your mind’s eye, tied into your visual and auditory centers, it’s just floating in your mind’s eye, the video or the audio or the screenshot of what you are searching for. 

Because of that I did a ton of research on the Internet. I read The Shallows, on what the Internet is doing to your mind. I wrote a sequel to this book, too, and I wanted to put a lot about the Internet and how addicting it would really become. All of this stuff. In my research what I found was that it’s really tougher and tougher to get an immersive experience in our world. 

So they tell me, hey, we can put links in your book. So, if you mention Kansas City, Missouri, they can get information about Kansas City, Missouri. 

Well, I don’t want them to get information right then. I want them to have an immersive experience with my books. Maybe I’m just a dinosaur and there’s no fighting the way the world is going to go, but I kind of like it old fashioned where there’s no links while you’reading. 

There’s a certain irony in that considering your subject matter.

No, no, exactly.

Are there problems in your business that you are looking for a solution to?

No, not really. I wish someone would come up with the plots for me.

You know, what’s really sad about the industry? Traditional publishing is dying out in so many ways. The midlist is getting harder and harder to get on, unless you’re already a known author. What’s really starting to bug me is how these authors who have succeeded have now become a brand of their own. They are no longer an author; they’re a brand.

There’s so many good authors trying to break in, but they can’t get there. The people already there like James Patterson or like Clive Cussler and people like that who are now brand names, they put out a book a month. But, they are not writing them. What they do is: it’ll say “James Patterson” and underneath it in tiny little print it will say, “with Joe Schmoe.” 

I know this from personal experience, because I got a call from an agent and they were talking to me about giving me $300,000 to write a novel with one of these guys. You know, if it was really successful, it goes up from there. Plus, I’d have my tiny little name underneath their giant name. So it’s like you’re an indentured servant. And look, it’s not like the money is bad. 

The only temptation would be, could it really get me into bookstores? But the answer is no. Nobody sees your little tiny name under the big superstar’s name. The rich keep on getting richer. It makes it even harder for talented writers to break in when publishers are encouraging these superstars to become a brand. 

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This Bestselling E-Book Author ‘Can’t Afford’ Traditional Publishing Deals