All you have to do is glance at Amazon's top 100 kindle books to notice Michael Prescott's presence. He's all over the place. Including the top 10 for quite some time. His publishing story is conventional, yet the way he became an Indie writer is unique. The theme which run through his story is very familiar. You'll notice a resemblance to other writer's stories, which means there may be a common thread to success. I can guarantee, however, talent and a lot of hard work is still your best bet. Fortunately for Michael he has both, tremendous talent and a good work ethic.
1- What convinced you to convert your titles to e-books and was it a scary leap?
I started out by self-publishing a thriller called Riptide, which had failed to find a traditional publisher. Basically I just wanted to get the book into print in some form, as a vanity project. I was focused mainly on the print-on-demand edition, which I put out through CreateSpace. The Kindle edition was an afterthought. I figured as long as I'd gone to all the trouble of revising the book, formatting it, creating a cover, and so forth, I might as well make it available in ebook form. As it turned out, the ebook edition ultimately sold much, much better than the POD edition.
Still, sales were pretty small at first. I put out a couple of my backlist titles as ebooks just to get them back into print. I thought maybe if I was lucky I could generate a few hundred dollars a year in royalties, and of course I would be keeping the books alive, since the print editions were long since defunct.
Then a friend of mine, J. Carson Black, who writes suspense novels, experimented with dropping the prices of her ebooks to only $0.99. Her sales took off in a big way. After some trepidation, I decided to follow suit and see if I could have the same kind of success. It was really the change to $0.99 that got the ball rolling. Before that, sales were slow, but once the price dropped to that level, sales started to grow and eventually snowballed. There is a whole subset of ebook fans who look for bargain-priced books, and there are discussion boards hosted by Amazon that focus on such books and invite authors to promote their work.
2- Stealing Faces was the best selling e-book in the US way back in 1999. Do you remember how many copies you sold that year to accomplish that feat?
I don't remember how many copies it was, but I'm sure it was a very small number, probably less than 1,000. At the time, the main ebook reader was something called the Rocket eBook, a neat little device with a backlit monochromatic screen. It was expensive, about $500, and had limited functionality, but the design was ergonomic and it was possible to download a lot of free books from Project Gutenberg and other sources. I used my Rocket eBook for years and caught up on a lot of classics that I should have read earlier. I remember particularly enjoying Robinson Crusoe.
My publisher, Penguin Books, decided to put out Stealing Faces as an ebook before the print edition was released. It was the first time a major publisher had done that. It was a publicity stunt, and it worked pretty well, generating good sales for Stealing Faces and creating a little bit of media buzz. The book ended up selling very well in mass-market paperback, but the ebook market was too small at that time to amount to much.
3- Tell us what occurred which caused you to change your author name from Brian Harper to Michael Prescott, and is it sometimes an advantage to be a lesser known commodity?
Both names are pseudonyms, and I changed from one to the other because after doing six books as Brian Harper, my sales figures had slumped. Retailers were reluctant to continue ordering my books in large quantities. You really are only as good as your last book, so once you have even one flop, it affects your ability to get your next book into the stores. This becomes a vicious spiral, because each subsequent book gets a smaller and smaller order from the retailers and inevitably sells worse and worse. It's really a pretty stupid system, and it's one reason I'm not sorry to see traditional publishing and brick-and-mortar stores go away.
The only way around this problem was to reinvent myself under a new name. Since the retailers didn't know that Michael Prescott was really Brian Harper, they had no track record of sales to deter them from ordering my book. So I was able to get my titles back into the stores, and sales were generally good, though later on they declined when the entire mass-market paperback end of the book industry started going through a crisis. Pocket-sized paperbacks are definitely on the way out now. The industry has failed to keep them viable, and sooner or later they'll be replaced by trade paperbacks and ebooks, in my opinion.
4- Do you have a recurring protagonist running through any of your books or are they all stand alone thrillers?
For a long time I resisted the idea of doing a series or even a sequel, because I thought it was more creative to come up with new characters for each book. But then my editor at the time, Doug Grad, suggested that since I had written a number of books about strong female characters, and since they mostly lived in Los Angeles, it might be interesting to put two or three of them together in one novel. At first I was going to have three characters meet up, but that got too complicated, so I simplified it to only two–Tess McCallum, who starred in my novel Next Victim, and Abby Sinclair, who starred in The Shadow Hunter. They worked well together because they were opposites. Their first meeting was in Dangerous Games, and I was happy enough with the way it turned out that I wrote two more books featuring the duo–Mortal Faults and Final Sins. I discovered that I'd been wrong about a series being less creative. In some ways, reusing the same characters forces you to be more creative by coming up with new ways of exploring their issues, backgrounds, and personalities.
5- What advice would you give a new author if they asked you whether they should go the traditional route to publication, or start out as an Indie writer?
Well, I'm biased because I've been doing very well in the independent ebook market, while I found my years in traditional publishing to be quite frustrating at times. If you long for the opportunity to see your book in print and on display in stores, then it makes sense to go the traditional route, though it's getting harder to do that. As for me, I don't really care about print editions or bookstore displays anymore, so I'm perfectly happy to release the books in digital editions, even without a print counterpart.
One advantage of traditional publishing is that you may pair up with an excellent editor who can give you valuable guidance and improve your skills. Certainly I benefited from some very good editing throughout my career, particularly in the earlier years, when I needed it the most. On the other hand, it's extremely difficult even to obtain a literary agent, let alone to get a book deal with a major publisher, and even if you do get a deal, it probably won't be for much money, and there will probably be a long and frustrating delay before the book is released. Everything moves very, very slowly in traditional publishing–it's almost a glacial pace. It took more than two years for my publisher to bring out my very first novel, and by the time it came out, the genre that it belonged to had fallen out of fashion and the book didn't do well.
So it's really a mixed bag, but for me personally, I'd say that self-publishing my books in ebook editions has worked out so well that I would not want to return to traditional publishing. And honestly, I don't know how much longer traditional publishing will even be a viable option for most writers. Though I doubt that traditional publishing will become completely extinct, I do think there will be fewer books appearing in print, if only because there are fewer bookstores in existence. The future belongs to digital technology, so in that sense I guess I would advise someone who's just starting out to focus on the future, not the past.