Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Conversation With Libby Fischer Hellmann

Last May, Libby Fischer Hellmann wrote a guest blog entry for us here at Type M called "To E or Not To E", outlining her plan for a foray into original e-book publishing. She promised to come back and let us know how it went, and today is the day.

Welcome back, Libby. Catch us up on your experience with the first "original" works that you've published strictly on line, NICE GIRL DOES NOIR (Volume 1 and Volume 2), your collection of previously published short stories. Back in May, before the collection came out on Kindle and Smashwords, you said that getting your books published on line wasn't expensive or painful. But was it worth all your effort? What's the verdict?

Hi, Donis, Type M members, and fans. Thanks for inviting me back.

Was it worth it to e-publish a collection of my stories? Yes. Absolutely. Have my sales been over the top? Hardly. In fact, they have been mediocre at best. But I’ve learned that, like the DTB world (DTB = dead tree books, btw), short story collections and anthologies are a hard sell, even if they were previously published in print. I’ve been more successful with my novels EASY INNOCENCE and DOUBL

EBACK. Those sales have been brisk and steady.

I have discovered a few things, though. About a month after I published the collections, I separated the collections into individual stories on Kindle, each priced at 99 cents. Since then I’ve noticed regular downloads of those stories. I suspect they are people who are “trying me” for the first time, and they don’t want to pay more than a dollar. Which is kind of amusing, because the collections are only $2.99 each. But that’s okay. It’s helped spur more sales in general.

Which brings up another point that Joe Konrath (whom I call the “Pied Piper” of e-publishing) makes, and that I have come to believe, too. The more “product” you have online, the more you sell. He makes an analogy to shelf space, and I think it’s valid. The more individual e-books, stories, even collaborations you have online, the more you will sell. To that end I’ve found that since I separated the stories, which bolstered my content by fifteen, sales of all my work have gone up.

Another interesting discovery is price. As I mentioned the first time I blogged for you, I skew towards a lower price range. The minimum you can charge – and still get the Amazon 70% royalty – is $2.99. So I do. And I believe it’s paid off. Further, I think prices for mid-list authors should stay low. The fact is that people will buy a $2.99 ebook, but will

equivocate if it’s over $5.00 – that seems to be the break point. So if you have control over your ebooks, I recommend the $2.99 threshold. At least to start. As I said, I’ve seen steady sales at that price. (Better than my Poisoned Pen ebooks, btw, which are over $5.00.) The publisher of SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE and I talked it over, and although it’s not $2.99, we did keep the price below $5.00, which I think is fair.

What sort of promotion did you do for the collection? Do you think your

strategy was effective?

There’s a lot of ebook promotion that can be done online these days. And it’s mostly free. The catch is that it takes time. And effort. And the right attitude. Results won’t materialize overnight. I’ve been at it for about a year now, and I’m just starting to see some traction. An

yway, here’s what I have done:


Several websites review ebooks, both original and “reprints,” including:

Books on The Knob--

Red Adept--

Daily Cheap Reads--

They don’t review but they do “feature,” and there are criteria you have to meet, but I got a wonderful bump in sales when they featured DOUBLEBACK.

Of course, these are in addition to all the book bloggers/reviewers. I strongly recommend that authors analyze and target review bloggers whose audience will find their book/topic appealing. I use a combination of Google, Alexa, Twitter, and Technorati to categorize and rank blogs. This takes a LOT of time, but it’s worth it. You can tailor your pitch much more carefully.


I’ve done a bit of paid advertising, which has been generally very successful. And very reasonably priced.

Kindle Nation Daily,

is fabulous. It doesn’t cost too much and it has paid for itself in sales.

Kindle Boards Banner ad (see below)

Kindle Boards Book of the Day (see below)

The featured titles are at the top of every page of the Boards for a 24 hour period. Some writers have seen a significant bump in their sales by doing this. I hope I will, too.


As many of you know self-promotion is moving from blogs to Facebook and Twitter. While I don’t think they sell books, at least initially, I do believe they help introduce and establish your presence online. The trick is to interact and not to plug your books too often.

Besides those, there are also a host of discussion boards, and some of them home in on crime fiction. Others on ebooks. Etiquette is important – you can’t toot your own horn, but people do tend to read/buy you if you’re respectful.

The best groups I’ve found are the Kindle Boards -- They have hundreds of threads, and that can be intimidating to a new-comer. However, they are HUGE; they claim to get 80,000 hits a day! For that reason, I’ve taken out a banner ad and a book-of-the-day spot on their boards. (See above). The ads are supposed to run for 24 hours and will appear at the top of ALL their threads. They also have a “Writer’s CafĂ©” which often has valuable information on ebook production and promotion.

There are also the Amazon Discussion Boards, but they’re less structured than the Kindle Forums, and it sometimes seems like the self-published are talking to the self-published. I’ve managed to find and participate in a couple of the mystery discussions, which you can find here:

I need to stress that my participation is more as a reader than a writer. They’re very picky about BSP. But I’ve made several online “friends” and have introduced myself to new readers.

There’s also a new group I just joined. It’s called Backlist (

e-books, and it’s specifically geared to promoting traditionally published authors whose work is having

a second “e” life.

What insights have you gained about the process and promise of e-publishing?

We’re clearly in the throes of a revolution in the way people read and purchase books. At the same time, I don’t think real books are going to disappear. I think of ebooks as the new “mass market” format except that they come out – or should-- at the same time as the hard cover. That has had repercussions. There will always be a market for hardcovers, but as time goes on, it might not be as robust. Bottom line, there’s no avoiding ebooks, and if your books are not already there, they should be.

The difficulty for most of us is keeping the erights for our books. I only have the rights for 4 of my works, and I wish I had more. For example, as the person in charge, I could vary the price, even offer a book for free for a limited time. But most publishers are not willing to relinquish them these days. Barring a sudden change in attitude, I think the most important thing is to agree on a specific definition of what “out of print” means contractually, so that in the event your book does go out of print, you can actually get the rights, including erights, reverted.

Do you have plans to do any more original on-line publication?

If I write material that has not been traditionally published, and I think it’s good enough for publication, of course I will. It’s a great way to keep my name and “product” out there. But I won’t publish any of my early unpublished work – it isn’t what I would consider “professional.”

I will also make sure all my books and stories are available on Kindle as well as Smashwords, which is the portal to the other e-tailers like Barnes & Noble Kobo, Sony, etc.

As you may know, in terms of e-book formats, there are two dominant ones: Kindle and e-pub (which most other etailers use). It’s much like the days of Beta Max vs VHS, and it’s hard to believe they will both survive. It’ll be interesting to see which prevails.

You've been busy since NICE GIRL DOES NOIR. Tell us about your latest

traditionally published novel, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, which is just about to

launch. Why did you decide to do this story as a stand-alone? How did the idea for the tale come to you?

I wrote SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE several years ago, but it’s just seeing the light of day now. (Motto: never give up). I came of age during the Sixties. I remember the era and I’ve always had unresolved feelings about it. But I also love thrillers and wanted to write a “pure” thriller, as opposed to a mystery-thriller, a term that some critics have used to describe my Ellie Foreman books. (incomprehensibly to me, actually).

So I combined a story that, for the most part, takes place in the present. A young woman is being stalked by someone she doesn’t know for a reason she doesn’t understand. That, btw, is probably the most frightening thing I can imagine. As she tries to figure it out, the evidence leads back to her parents, who lived through the Sixties in Chicago. In the process, she discovers her parents were not the people she thought. Essentially, it’s a three act play with Acts One and Three in the present, and Act Two starting at the Democratic Convention in 1968 and continuing through Kent State.

I just produced a video trailer for it, for those of you who are interested. You can find it right HERE

This novel is a stand-alone, a departure from your wonderful series

featuring Georgia Davis and/or Ellie Foreman. But like those books, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE is quintessential Chicago. I read the excerpt you posted on your website, and I must say you certainly got the 1960s slang right, not to mention the zeitgeist. How did you research the events of the late '60s in Chicago?

I was in Washington DC and Philadelphia during most of that time, but the Anti-war Movement was national, not regional. So it wasn’t hard to relive the time. There were certain events that I needed to research, but having lived in Chicago now over 30 years, it wasn’t that difficult. I’m sure I got a detail wrong, here and there, but – hey – it is fiction, right?

You've published seven novels and dozens of short stories. The two forms

require different writing skill sets, and you seem to have mastered both. Do you prefer one form over the other, or do you enjoy mixing it up?

Thanks, Donis.

I love both forms. Short stories are an affair; novels are a marriage. I enjoy taking a break from a novel with a short story, but it’s usually intense and – well – short. For the long haul, I go back to novels.

What's next for you?

I’m writing another historical thriller. It’s probably my most ambitious project to date – spanning three generations and two continents. I’m only about a third of the way through, so we’ll see what happens. I also wrote two short stories this year and am working on another… even as we speak.


Libby's website is

Photo of Libby by Jason Creps


Janice said...

Really great post, Libby! Thanks for sharing all those details about the experience.

peter_may said...

Ditto! Fantastic post, Libby. You really have taken the e-book bull by the horns, done your research, put in the work, and are deservedly seeing the results. More power to your pen.

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks, Janice and Peter... but I fear I'm just skimming the surface here... this could be as much of a black hole as promotion in general. (Long sigh)

Donis Casey said...

This is some of the best and most concise information I've seen. You should write an article. Maybe a book