John Locke on the Big Problem (Still) Facing Indies

IndieReader recently asked indie author John Locke some questions about how things were going with his unprecedented deal with Simon & Schuster (details to follow).  Being the very nice man that he is, he agreed to answer them.

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with John and his books, a bit of background:

* New York Times best-selling author

* 8th member of the KINDLE MILLION SALES CLUB, following Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Charlaine Harris, Lee Child, Suzanne Collins and Michael Connelly

* First self-published author to hit Kindle Million Sales Club

* First self-published author to hit #1 on Amazon/Kindle

* Sold 1,100,000 eBooks in 5 months by word of mouth

* Has had four of the top 10 eBooks on Amazon/Kindle at the same time, including #1 and #2; has also had six of the top 20, and eight of the top 43…at the same time!

* Every eBook John Locke has written and published has become a best-seller (find his latest, Bad Doctor, on IR’s best seller list)

Amy Edelman: Thanks John, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.  First up, can you give IR’s readers a short synopsis of the details of your arrangement with S&S?

John Locke: I published my books, Wish List and Saving Rachel in mass market paperback under my imprint, John Locke Books, and paid Simon & Schuster a fee to distribute the books into stores and retail outlets. S&S also helped me with warehousing, shipping, collecting, reporting, and gave me valuable advice along the way.

AHE: Now that you have some first hand experience, can you tell us what do you think is the biggest problem(s) facing indies should they be able to get their books in-store?

JL: Customer recognition and product placement.

AHE: There are many indie authors (most notably, you) who are selling many thousands of books online. It would seem like this could be a great source of income for struggling bookstores, both indies and B&N. What do you think is the glitch?

JL: At present, there are two types of book buyers: those who buy online and those who buy from bricks-and-mortar establishments. eBook buyers know indie authors because Kindle gives us the opportunity to be seen. But Wal-Mart book buyers have to rely on traditional media, such as TV talk shows, newspaper and magazine articles and reviews. Since these forms of media won’t recognize or promote books written by indie authors, the bricks and mortar crowd doesn’t know who we are. Bookstore shelf space is limited. It makes sense for retailers to display books written by authors who are familiar to their customers.

AHE: Can you explain why traditional (print) media refuses to cover and/or review indie books?

JL: For one thing, there’s a natural bias by reporters and editors that indie books don’t measure up. For another, I’ve been told (unofficially) that if newspapers review one indie book it would open the floodgates. “Next thing you know, a million indies will call, demanding us to review their books!” Also, traditional publishers’ ads are a huge source of revenue for print media, and traditional authors are a staple for TV talk show interviews. Where traditional media is concerned, indies and traditional authors are adversaries. To put it another way, if you’ve got a popular blog, and Coke pays you a million a year to advertise on it, would you post a positive story about a wonderful new Pepsi product?

AHE: There was a time when The New York Times wouldn’t even include an indie book on their bestseller list. What do you think happened to change that?

It became clear to most people in the industry that a number of indies were outselling the s0-called best-sellers. If your newspaper or magazine is known for printing accurate stories, shouldn’t your best seller list be accurate as well? I think these publications were forced to print accurate best-seller lists because doing otherwise might hurt their credibility in other areas.

AHE: While discussing the success of the self-pubbed 50 Shades of Grey you said, “We’re still living in a world where self-published books aren’t allowed to be discussed in polite society until the gatekeepers buy the rights.” Can you explain that further?

JL: E.L. James has done a fantastic job! She’s dominating the charts, and will likely break some of the all-time publishing records. My comment referred to the subject of this interview, the hesitancy of TV and print media to publicize or review indie books. Ms. James self-published her book in May, 2011, and worked her way up the charts utilizing the indie author’s best friends: social media and word of mouth. But was she interviewed on TV? Were her books discussed by talk show hosts or reviewed by newspapers and magazines? Not to my knowledge. But in March, 2012, public awareness of 50 Shades exploded! Within days you couldn’t turn on the TV or open a newspaper without hearing about E.L. or her books. They were mentioned and discussed on every TV talk show, in every newspaper and magazine you can name. Six weeks after Random House purchased the rights to her books, E.L. James was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World! Would all this have happened if 50 Shades had remained an indie book? I like to think so, but my gut tells me no.

AHE: You also said that your goal, “is not to lead a charge in the ‘us against them’ war, but rather to build a bridge between Indie and Trad publishing.” You very eloquently added that you don’t think that’s happened with your deal with S&S (“I thought I was doing it with my distribution deal, but I was naive. There was a toll booth on that bridge.”). Can you think of another way in which it might work?

JL: Before entering into my distribution deal with Simon & Schuster, I knew that TV and print media was the exclusive domain of traditionally-published authors. I knew as an indie author it was unlikely I would ever be interviewed on TV, or have my paperback, Wish List, reviewed in print media. So I knew there was an exclusive club. But I thought my distribution deal made me a member, or at the very least, an honorary member. Boy, was I wrong! I hired a publicist and offered myself up…and quickly learned I was not part of the club! Not one media outlet would talk to me or review my book.  Even the little papers in the towns where I grew up and went to high school and college refused to do a story on me!

AHE: You’ve said many times you are very grateful for the doors that have been opened to you by Kindle, Nook, and the other electronic platforms, and that you are not personally upset about the state of the industry. You believe traditional publishers and indies can work together, but have said that “despite the enormous progress indies have made, we’re still being cock-blocked by traditional media!” What will it take to change that?

JL: My deal with Simon & Schuster proved indies and traditional publishers can work together in a mutually-beneficial relationship. Now all we’ve got to do is find a way to get traditional media on board, so retail buyers will know who these upstart indie authors are! The TV audiences, newspaper and magazine readers, and retail buyers would have loved E.L. James just as much—possibly even more—had she remained indie. It seems absurd that traditional media refused to break the story until she was considered legitimate. Were her books and personal story the slightest bit different the day after she signed with Random House? Of course not! So why does the media need to be told it’s okay to let her in the club? The short answer is because that’s the way it’s always been. But this, too, will change. In time.

We at IndieReader join you in saying…we hope so!

  • Thanks so much for sharing your story, John! I particularly love your thinking in terms of building a bridge. Writing and publishing shouldn’t be an us against them proposition. While I understand the media’s reluctance to review indie books – they very well might be inundated with requests – but questions of legitimacy are absurd, particularly for authors like you who outsell the majority of traditionally published authors. Today, readers – not traditional media or publishers – decide which books are worth buying, reading, and recommending. So in essence, ostracizing indies is a disservice to them.

    Thank you again for your insights. You are a wonderful role model for all of us!

    All the best,

    Terri

  • My Dear John:
    I believe Amy told you this but I was catching up over dinner with an old friend from Florida…we both love burnt lamb chops, fruity martini’s and have always agreed on favorite authors. Imagine my joy in discovering that YOU were our favorite author. “Bad Doctor” is at the top of her “books to read” since we met. Hurry, Hurry…need to see what’s next!! Always enjoy your interviews with Indie Reader and somehow we, the public, will always find the best books out there….we have our own network.
    Hugs,
    Merle

  • I think what frustrates me the most about the actions of the traditional publishers is the fact they are trying to hold on to the barriers. I think there’s a place for both, and even a place where we can work together. Thanks for posting this, maybe it will help to crack the walls around the castle of the traditional publishers.

  • Thank you for another great interview with John. He is not only a great writer, but one of the most generous & selfless people I have had the pleasure of being connected with. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it – Thanks John for helping to pave the way across that bridge!

  • Chuck D.

    Thanks to you both for bringing this interview out!

    John, great job. Keep it up.

    Amy, you rock.

    • Amy Edelman

      Thanks 🙂

  • This is a very interesting post. E.L. James is the talk of the book world, to be sure. Just as you have been. Both of you have had amazing success. Congratulations!

  • Thank you for sharing this. I think things will change eventually too, and feel it is exciting to be riding this wave of Indie publishing. Clearing the way for future writers.

  • Indie authors will only be taken seriously once a literary novel has made it through those barriers. It will take a gem of a novel and a motivated readership spreading the word to open those gates. When the publishing industry and media come to realise that self-published authors can actually convey a a deeper message and that they can produce professional work that adds to our culture in a meaningful, timeless way, then it will be simply impossible to ignore the whole movement. Sales figures alone are not prestigious enough, so much is obvious.

  • Please don’t publish this comment but as I can’t see where to contact you: In your header there is no space between self-published and books. “The essential consumer guide to self-publishedbooks and the people who read them”
    Unless it’s on purpose? xx 🙂
    (I made a mistake in my comment above but can’t edit it : convey a a deeper message, ouch)

  • John,
    Thank you for offering such a realistic and well-informed perspective. So many people are either quick to denounce self-publishing or eager to jump on the indie-pub train. Hopefully, they’ll read this and understand both the positive aspects and the challenges.

  • Change takes time and change in perception takes time as well. In the near future I believe a critical mass will develop, of readers who have discovered an indie writer, of indies popping up on lists, of bookstores getting requests to find an exciting indie writer, and of media outlets realizing it is in their best interest to finally cover the indie phenomenon. Then the story will be: Wow, publishing is now wide open and some amazing new writing is out there.

  • Great job, John. Clearly, you are a visionary and ahead of your time, but time is on your side. With the e-book and digital revolution exploding all around us, more and more people with be leaping over the roadblocks erected by traditional publishing and media to decide for themselves. Indie-publishing has become the “elephant in the room”, hard to ignore and harder still to hold back.

    Best to you……Cat

  • Great blog. I was surprised to learn even after the big book deal, he still wasn’t getting love from the media. Old habits are hard to die, it appears.

  • I love learning new things about the Indie publishing world.

    I think what surprised me the most about this interview was the section whee John talked about not getting interviewed by print media, even after his huge sales and even after having his distribution deal.

    ” I thought my distribution deal made me a member. Boy, was I wrong! I hired a publicist and offered myself up…and quickly learned I was not part of the club! Not one media outlet would talk to me or review my book.”

    This seemed really shocking to me. I had no idea the exclusivity ran so deep. On the hand it, it’s kind of scary, but on the other hand, it’s really exciting.

    I’ll tell you why…

    I honestly believe within in the next few years, authors like John and Terri Long Giuliano and a host of others will break that glass ceiling. Even more so, perhaps the traditional markets will soon be coming to the indie markets to get a seat at their table.

    Who knows…great piece, though. Very informative.

  • Great interview. This man’s books have changed my life and allowed me to become a full-time author. Don’t worry John, I will lead the charge in a war of “us against them”.

  • Danielle

    E.L. James has not done well, not as an author or as an Indie representative, in fact, she plays into the hands of the “indie as adversary crowd”. Indie’s biggest problem moving into traditional media is still the perception that indie books are of low quality and THAT is what the media interest in 50 Shades was – not a building up of Indie cred, but “proof” that “indie quality” (which is still considered below even the worst traditionally published work, true or not) was entering the traditional publishing world.

    The only way to convince the world that Indie does not equal poor quality is for Indie authors to be rigorous about their craft – and not to laud anyone who sells a bunch of books, regardless of quality.

  • Maybe contests are one path into traditional media. I am working with the SELTI (Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative – which is working to bring tourism and literature together. Winning their short story content has opened up opportunities to talk to traditional media.

    But not real comforting knowing that even the top dogs are getting no attention 🙁

    Just a thought.

  • Excellent perspective. However, Indie authors should never have a “settle for” attitude. We must sell our books out of the trunks of our cars, on the street corner, in the malls, kiosks, whatever works. We have the flexibility and ingenuity to break through the traditional wholesaler mindset and reach into retail venues that no famous PR person can reach…mass marketing like Mrs. Fields cookies (“free samples), one buyer at a time!

    • If we (Indie authors) keep driving traditional book stores and publishers out of business, they will come around to talking to us.