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How Full-time Ebook Author Nathan Lowell Got Start with Podiobooks

| Posted in Interviews / Success Stories |

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Nathan Lowell first came onto my radar last month when I was looking for new Kindle science fiction releases for a post on my other blog. I saw his two ebooks selling extremely well and did a little writeup on the latest. Then a couple weeks ago, a Nathan Lowell left a review for one of my novels, The Emperor’s Edge, at Amazon and followed me on Twitter. Same guy! Little did he know I’d wrangle him into answering a bunch of questions for my blog….

He’s followed a unique path to full-time ebook author (full-time with only two ebooks out in his series thus far, mind you), and he’s selling well even though he’s priced his work at $4.95 (lots of folks argue for pricing at $2.99 or even $0.99 if you’re a new author). Of course, he already had a big audience, thanks to starting out podcasting his novels. If this is something you’ve considered (and even if it’s only mildly of interest), you’ll definitely want to read this interview.

Before I get to mention it, you can find Nathan on the web at his Trader’s Diary and access his audiobooks there. You can grab his first two ebooks at Amazon (Quarter Share, Half Share), Barnes & Noble (Quarter Share, Half Share), and Smashwords (Quarter Share), among other places.

First off, can you tell us how you got into self-publishing? Though you only have two kindle titles up as I write, you have a number of books out there, and you’ve built a huge following with your blog. What’s your road been like?

My “self-publishing” started at podiobooks.com in 2007. I discovered podcast fiction in 2005 and by 2007 I knew I wanted to play along at home. In those days, there weren’t that many podcasters, and the idea that I wouldn’t have to deal with agents, slush piles, or long waits while people passed judgment on my work had a lot of appeal. All I needed was a book, a way to record my voice, and the willingness to stick it through.

So it started in January, 2007, when I finished my first novel length work and recorded it on a cheap mp3 recorder in the front seat of my car. (It was the quietest place I could find.)

My goal was to see if I could pick up a couple hundred listeners and to have a little fun.

Eight books later, with 15,000 listeners and over 2.5 million downloads, I think I can say I’ve had a LOT of fun.

In 2009 I began to seriously consider text publication. I had played with the idea before, and even talked to some small presses about publication. The contract terms were unattractive so I never followed through with any of them.

By 2009 (with a fan base of about 10,000 people) I got really tired of one particular email. Several times a week (often two or three times a day) somebody would write to ask where they could get my books in print format to share with a friend or family member who didn’t listen to audio. I started the agent search early in the year and had some significant success in a relatively short time.

Before I signed a deal, though, I sat down and had a little talk with myself about what I wanted from my writing and determined that a successful agent hunt would – at best – yield me a “debut author” contract with a Major. I’d seen what those contracts are like — long delays between signing and availability, encumbering related works without any commitment to produce them later, and advances that are impossible to earn back in a timely manner with the royalty rates they offer debut authors. I decided that if that was the *best* I could expect, I really didn’t want any part of it.

I started pursuing self-publication, and along the road I was discovered by Ridan Publishing — an indie publisher in Virginia — and after a couple of weeks of back and forth negotiation, I was convinced that together we could do something better than what I might be able to do on my own and I signed with them in January 2010, almost three years to the day after I started the book they signed.

That book came out in text in May and chugged along pretty well. My second book was due in October, but delays on my part in getting edits back to them in time delayed it until December. It released the week before Christmas.

Sales have been astonishing.

Full Share is due out in April, Double in October. Ridan and I have an agreement to produce 10 titles in text including my Trader’s Tales series, the spin off titles, and also my fantasy line of Tanyth Fairport Adventures.

Since then I’ve published the last of the six-volume Trader’s Tales series at Podiobooks and on iTunes. Almost 10,000 people have downloaded all 30 episodes since I began releasing it on Christmas eve.

The voyage so far has been breathtaking.

Do you want to tell us about your flagship series? Trader’s Tales? Will you have the rest available for Kindle readers soon?

The Trader’s Tales of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper is a six book cycle following the main character – Ishmael Horatio Wang – on his journey up through the ranks, from a lowly Quarter Share crewman to earning his Owner’s Share.

The universe is based on the idea that humankind explores the universe with an airline rather than an air force. I got tired of reading the “save the universe by blowing up the bugs” books and wanted to explore the idea that trade, rather than war, might make a viable raison d’etre for expansion.

The first two books are out now, two more will come out this year, and the final two are scheduled for 2012. That’s as fast as we can produce them and still have great cover art, do the editing to convert them from podcast to text, and create the kind of reader experience we want.

Anybody familiar with the “one book every other year” phenomenon from the Majors knows that two novels a year is a pretty aggressive schedule.  The people who are waiting anxiously for the next volume aren’t terribly happy with it.

I saw you mention on the Kindleboards that you’re able to write full time now, and I can tell just from your Amazon ranking and the number of reviews you have that you’re selling a lot of books. When were you able to make the shift to writing full time?

I made the shift last July when my DayJob went away. I worked for a federally funded (US) non-profit. Our mission (supporting educational efforts for children who are blind, deaf, or who had significant support needs) was deemed “pork” and funding was zeroed by Congress.

By then the first book was out, but had not yet gained any velocity. Starting in October, I was selling 1000 units a month with the one title. That went to 3000 a month with the release of my second book in December, and I sold almost 6500 in January. February is moving nicely, but I’m a little nervous that the bubble might burst.

For a point of reference, 2500 units worth of sales matches my old salary as a PhD for the national center.

Can you tell us more about the podiobooks? It’s interesting that you chose to start there rather than with print. And it’s doubtless the fanbase you built there played a huge role in your success when it came to ebooks.

As I said in the earlier question, that’s where I started. It’s where I built my fanbase and honed my craft. Looking back over the last (almost) million words and eight books, I’ve learned a lot about writing. Those lessons are going into the print works as they come out now.

I viewed writing the podcast as an end unto itself. Based on a donation model rather than sales or subscriptions, I was able to test my work against the market in an environment where there was not quite so much competition for attention – and in a medium where the rules are still being developed. There’s also no stigma attached to self publishing in podcast because it’s not that kind of market (yet).

In a very real sense, this is where I developed what today’s market would call “my platform” although we just called it “finding an audience.” When my first book came out, it sold into a fanbase of 10,000 people who already knew my work and were asking for it in print. I figured I had a lock on about 500 sales coming out of the gate. That number went by in the first five weeks and I’m selling twice that number every week now.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming indie authors who are hoping to be able to make a living as writers one day?

Podcast. Give them away. Build your platform.

The pool for good writing is still largely untapped in the podcast space. Millions upon millions of people have mp3 players now and the demand is huge. Geared toward daily workouts, long commutes, and even household chores, podcast fiction is gaining ground at an astonishing rate. With a very modest investment in time and a lot less equipment than you think, a new author with a book or two already written can find an audience in audio without jeopardizing print rights and can test their stories against a market of eager ears.

Obscurity is a bigger obstacle than quality. I’m not sure who first said that but it’s certainly true today and podcasting is a way to break out of obscurity.

It doesn’t work for everybody. Nothing does. But as a way to break in, a way to differentiate yourself in a saturated marketplace, I believe this is the kind of thing that can set a new writer above the pack and give them a huge leg up.

Do you have any recommendations for authors who want to turn a book into a podiobook? Equipment, setup, editing, or anything else?

The biggest expense is equipment. I did my first book with what I had laying around the house — and listening to it now, it shows. Knowing what I know now? I’d have set aside $200 and spent half on a recorder (Zoom H1) and half on a decent pair of “full coverage” headphones. That’s if you’re not sure you want to do this or not — or if you need to ‘ease into it’ for budget reasons.

You *can* spend a few bucks ($50 or $60) and put a mic on your computer if you must, but the technical obstacles of getting a clean sound that way are not trivial.

Software is free and the set up is relatively easy — especially if you happen to have a walk in closet (I don’t).

For writers who want to try this, don’t let the cost of equipment be a barrier to entry. Go to http://community.podiobooks.com and create an account. Join the “Mentorship” group. There are a lot of resources available there including authors in all stages of production expertise.

Where does one upload podiobooks and how does one go about promotion?

You can create a podcast on your own server easily enough with a WordPress blog and appropriate podcasting plugins. A hosted solution is readily available on services like Bluehost and Dreamhost.

I only publish my books through Podiobooks.com and my blog (which is separate) is where I talk with my audience. It’s handy as a place to point listeners to in the closing credits so they can learn more about you and your work.

By publishing on Podiobooks, you join a community already established with 75,000+ members who are looking for your content. The works are automatically pushed up to iTunes and made available thru the iTunes Music Store. It’s sorta like the Kindle store – where people are coming to find the kind of media you’re providing and are pre-disposed to look at new stuff.

The community helps promote new works and – if you can find an audience – it does so enthusiastically.

Podiobooks works on a donation model, which is perfect for a new author. Lots of people will take a chance on a free audio, especially grabbing the first episode to see if they like it. People do donate, and I’ve been very fortunate in that regard over the years.

There are a lot more tips and trick, but as in the previous question, if you’re serious about it, join the podiobooks community and get active in the mentorship community there.

That’s it. Thanks for all the great information, Nathan!

Don’t forget to visit Nathan at Trader’s Diary.

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Comments (10)

It’s nice that everything has worked out well for him. I’d guess it’d be harder to build up an audience with podiobooks today. Like with everything, probably a lot of people doing it now.

It’s great to see Nathan doing so well.
To answer your question Jen as a consumer of podcast novels my impression is that as more books are published in podcast form there are many more consumers coming in to listen. The phenomenon is still in it’s infancy and growing fairly rapidly, the quality productions (good quality recordings of good novels) rapidly gain followers who are more than happy to spread the word about their new “find”.

Excellent interview. Mr. Lowell is such a fascinating and intelligent guy.

Nathan, you are indeed the man! A great interview with some helpful advice. So happy for the success you’ve been having with your books. Way to go!

That line about how easy it was for him to find an agent is really telling. I’ve read Quarter Share and I liked it but I don’t think it’s something that would have gotten picked out of a slush pile strictly on its own merits. The 10,000 strong audience surely makes a huge difference.

Jen – there are still under 500 authors on podiobooks and a membership that just topped 76,000. Like any place, many of those are inactive. I probably should note that 60% of my listenership comes from iTunes. Podiobooks is a catalog and community that can serve as a lever on the market.

Thanks – Dilwyn 🙂

Jenny and James – thanks – you both have successful podcasting efforts of your own and that’s got to be helping with your sales as you roll out into the print world.

Morgan – you’re absolutely right. I had some success but no contracts. The complaint – not surprisingly – was that the book has pacing problems and was “not sufficiently commercial.” It’s very understandable when you consider that the agents are trained by the publishers to move only those properties that match what the publisher already publishes. Quarter Share doesn’t come close. It’s a long way from a “great book” but it nails down a unique story and perspective. Those two things right there are enough to scotch the standard contract.

Congrats to Nathan! I followed him (I think) onto podiobooks several years ago and can readily affirm what he says about it being a supportive, helpful environment. Both of my novels built good followings there (and on iTunes) and I consider the podiobooks podcast an important part of my marketing efforts for my new business book series, too.

I actually use podcast production as the last step in my editing process. I’ve always read aloud everything I publish before I submit it. With the Dynamic Manager Guides, I just took that a step further and recorded each chapter as I went. It’s time consuming, but really helps the finished product.

This was great.

Almost too great.

Great interview. Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Nathan.

Fascinating stuff. I read Nathan’s comments on Konrath’s blog was intrigued.

Glad to know more of the story.

Continued success, Nathan! 🙂

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