Mary Mackey Talks About E-book Publishing

Mary Mackey is the author of six collections of poetry and thirteen novels, including New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers. Her books have been translated into twelve foreign languages and over a million and a half have been sold in hard copy. This spring, nine of her novels and her latest collection of poetry Sugar Zone were simultaneously re-released as Kindle e-books.  By the end of the summer they will be available on Nook, Kobo, iPad, and Android. We are going to talk to Mary today about how she got these books back into print and what her experience has been.

Andy: Nine of your novels and Sugar Zone, your most recent collection of poetry, were recently published as e-books.  How did this happen?

Mary: The short version is that my agent Barbara Lowenstein first negotiated two deals: one with Amazon.com, which publishes Kindle books, and another with Vook, which publishes e-books in the Epub format on all other platforms. She could only do this because she had retained my electronic rights when the books were originally sold to traditional publishing houses. The moral of this story is that every writer needs a great agent to draw up contracts and make deals with publishers.

Andy: How did you get your books into Kindle and other e-book formats? Did you do it yourself?

Mary: No, thank heavens, I didn’t have to. Barbara’s assistants worked with me for several months to get the files ready, and then Amazon did the actual conversion. I had to proofread everything to catch errors and make sure nothing was left out.

Andy: Were most of these books out of print before they were published as e-books?

Mary: Yes, it was a kind of resurrection. Even A Grand Passion, my novel about ballet which made The New York Times bestseller list had been hard to get. But the strangest experience was having my first novel Immersion available again after being out of print for 38 years. Shameless Hussy Press had published about 1000 copies, but very few were still available and those were so expensive I could rarely afford to buy one for myself. Then, bang. Immersion came out as an e-book, and suddenly people who would never have stumbled on it in a bookstore were buying it.

Andy: How are the books selling?

Mary: Very well. They’ve only been available for a short time, but every month at least a third more units have been sold than in the previous month. The first month Amazon sold over 700 copies. This approaches bestseller status for newly released e-books if you don’t count blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Andy: I understand that when most authors publish e-books, they only sell a few copies. To what do you attribute your success?  How are people finding your books among the more than a million books available on Kindle and the ten million in other e-book formats?

Mary: We think there are several factors. First, I’m a writer with a well-established readership. I already have a reputation—fans, readers who have enjoyed my work in the past and are interested in anything new I might write. Some of my novels, like A Grand Passion or The Year The Horses Came have a cult following Second, I’m a current writer. I’ve had two novels and a collection of poetry published in the last five years. If people have read The Widow’s War (Berkley Books, 2009), they might search for me by name and find my other books all priced at $2.99, and think: “Why not take a chance? I liked her other books, and if for some reason I don’t like this one, it costs me less than a small Frappuccino at Starbucks.” I mention the price because it’s the third factor and vitally important. To sell a lot of e-books you need to set a price low enough that everyone can afford them.

Andy: How can authors who don’t already have an established literary reputation help readers find their e-books?

Mary: The algorithm that Amazon uses to decide which books to recommend to readers is a secret, but certain things seem to help. For example, my books are highly rated. They’ve been given a lot of stars by people who liked them and been reviewed numerous times, mostly quite favorably. In addition, readers have tagged each novel with words they associate with it. For example, A Grand Passion is tagged with the words “ballet,” “bestseller,” “dance,” “historical fiction,” “Russia,” “romance,” “passion,” etc. Getting good reader tags is important because they guide other readers to your books. Anyone publishing on Kindle should also establish and maintain an Amazon Central Author Page. I say this with guilt because I need to find time to update mine. Other things that help are getting both your name and information about your work out there on the web, getting reviewed, establishing an author presence on Facebook, using Twitter, blogging, and so forth.

Andy: Is there anything else an emerging author can do?

Mary: Yes, be patient. Don’t publish your work as an e-book until it’s polished. Readers enjoy good writing. They like to read books by authors who care about craft and structure and who can create crisp, fast-moving plots and interesting characters.  If you’re self-publishing and can afford it, hire an editor. Great editors are like great agents. They’re invaluable. If your book is really good, sooner or later the word will get out.

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14 Responses to “Mary Mackey Talks About E-book Publishing”

  1. William McClung Says:

    Hello Andy —

    Interesting exchange! Can you tell us what the current state of play is for bookstores to be in on the ebook phenomenon?

    Bill McClung
    University Press Books/Berkeley

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Bill, you probably know more about this this than I do. Right now the Amer Booksellers Association has a relationship with Google Books so that most ebooks can be sold by independent stores. It’s in the epub format, so it won’t work on Kindle, but will on most everything else. I buy ebooks from Bookpassage and read them on my I-pad. Apparently Google is going to bail in a few months. I have heard that ABA is close to working something out with somebody else. Can I get e-books from University Press Books?

  2. Renate Stendhal Says:

    This is wonderful news. Congrats to you both, Alan Ross, for your new agency, and Mary for this fabulous publishing move. I have been looking for a long time for A Grand Passion, a book that had even disappeared from the Berkeley Public Library. A longed-for, disappeared book reborn! Finally I will be able to read it.
    Your interview gives me, as a writer, pause. We will all be studying our contracts now… Wondering, of course, what writers can do whose agents were not as clever and caring as Mary’s, protecting her electronic rights.

  3. andyrossagency Says:

    Renate, in most contracts that are being written now, electronic rights are being granted to the publisher. The thing that you need to watch out for is how those rights will revert to the author when the book stops selling. It used to be that when a book goes out of print, the publisher stops selling it and sells off the overstock in the warehouse. With ebooks though, a book need never go out of print as long as the publisher has a digital file.

  4. renatestendhal Says:

    Thanks, Andy. My apologies for the misnomer slip of keys! Are you saying that with the contracts written now, rights will never revert to the author any longer, given that books don’t go out of print any more? As an agent, does that mean that you are trying to guard e-rights for your authors, as Mary’s agennt did? It would be interesting to know how this could be negotiated…

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Mary, I try to negotiate language into a contract that will allow an author to revert rights when sales go below a minimum amount even if it is technically in print in a digital or print on demand edition.

  5. Renate Stendhal Says:

    Thanks, Andy. That’s the perfect strategy — and an excellent lesson for anyone’s next contract.
    As an ex-dancer and dance critic, I enjoyed instantly reading Mary’s “Grand Passion” as an e-book. It’s always touching to see the beginnings of a good writer.
    This little dialogue, by the way, has already made its way into the Google algorithm, placing your youth photo (with the charming dark-rimmed glasses) on my Images page. Interesting discovery what Google picks to compose an author’s “portrait.”

  6. andyrossagency Says:

    Renate, that’s pretty funny. So when ever anybody googles me, they get my high school yearbook photo?

  7. andyrossagency Says:

    Renate, all I can say is that all the girls in 11th grade had that picture propped up on their vanity mirror, so you can too :)

  8. Ali M. Hollis Says:

    I definitely believe e-books are sweeping the publishing market! As a Fantasy writer myself, I wonder if e-publishing is the way to go? All I do know is the millions of coffee I’m soon to drink to promote! promote! promote! No matter which publishing route I take! Looking forward to the long, bumby road :) Thanks for this interview Andy.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thanks Ali. Everybody sure is talking about self publishing ebooks and I’m helping some of my clients put their op books back into print. But there are some challenges as well. Most books are still sold in physical bookstores. Most reviewers only review books from traditional publishers. And you are right. The publishing and promotion burden is all on the writer.

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