Thursday, June 21, 2018

Walden on Wheels, the photographed edition

In my last post, for the fifth anniversary of my first book, I did a little reflecting on the sales history of Walden on Wheels. This got me thinking about the book and decisions I made when publishing it. If there were two things I could do over, I might have requested a hardback edition and I might have included a photo insert. I never gave a photo insert a thought, perhaps because, back then, I had neither a good camera nor magazine-quality photos of my journey.

But having just gone through my old photo files, I see that I do indeed have a few worthwhile images that would have put faces to names. It's arguable whether photos help or hurt a book (I'm not sure where I stand, though I lean toward featuring photos), but if I did have a photo insert, the following photos would be included. Consider this the "photo insert" that never was:

Chapter Two: Cheechako

Paul and I at beginning of New York to Coldfoot, AK, roadtrip

Life-long dream achieved: Drove to Alaska

Chapter Three: Applicant

Graduating from SUNY at Buffalo with $32K in debt

Chapter Four: Tour Guide 

Tour guide in Coldfoot, rafting down Koyukuk River

Coldfoot Camp trucker's cafe

 Chapter Five: Garbage Picker 

Friend Josh comes up to Alaska for work. Here we are cleaning trash at Yukon River Camp

Josh dominating Twelve-Mile Mountain in the Brooks Mountain Range


 Chapter Six: Night Cook 

Doing some aurora guiding in Wiseman, Alaska. Photo credit: Ed 



 Chapter Seven: Maintenance Worker

1980 Chevy Suburban, home to the James character

Jack Reakoff, Wiseman, Alaska, photo taken a few years later in 2011

 Chapter Eight: Hitchhiker

Coldfoot, AK. Photo credit: Josh Pruyn

Guy who drove me across British Columbia

British Columbian teens

Mexican immigrant who picked me up in Washington state

Oregon to Salt Lake City ride

 Chapter Nine: Voyageur





 Chapter Ten: Corpsmember





 Chapter Eleven: Son

Hitchhiking from Mississippi to NY



D.C. FDR Memorial


  Chapter Twelve: Ranger





 Chapter Fourteen: Purchase

1994 Ford Econoline featured on Craigslist for $1,500



 Chapter Fifteen: Renovation







 Chapter Sixteen: Acclimitization





  Chapter Eighteen: My First Guest

Friend Chuck visits the van

  Chapter Twenty: Ranger

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

  Chapter Twenty-One: Pilgrim

Walden Pond, MA. Photo Credit: Chuck Johnston

  Chapter Twenty-Two: Graduate

Monday, June 18, 2018

"Walden on Wheels" is Five Years Old: A Sales Report


May 15, 2018 marked the five-year anniversary of the publication of Walden on Wheels.

While my career as a writer has had its ups and downs, WoW has been, in my eyes, a complete success. Some stats…
  • It has sold 44,000 copies, not including foreign sales or audio sales. This means it’s probably just under the 50,000 mark. 
  • It’s been translated four times (South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Turkey). 
  • It has 1,180 reviews on Amazon and 5,300 votes on Goodreads (4.5 stars and 4 stars, out of 5, respectively). 
  • At exactly the five-year mark, I paid off my advance, which means I now get to collect monthly royalties. This means I get 35% of each Kindle sold, 10% of each audio, and 7.5% of each paperback. (From these royalties, I will however have to give 15% to my agent, 10% to charity, and about 25% to the federal gov’t, so I won’t be getting rich anytime soon.) But I should be getting a few hundred dollars each month if the book continues to sell. 
A publishing company called New Harvest published WoW. New Harvest, owned by Amazon.com, was the only publisher to offer me a deal so signing with them was a no-brainer. There were a few perks to New Harvest, namely a generous advance (they were just starting up so they were trying to lure authors), and they said I'd have an advantage over non-Amazon authors when it comes to sales on Amazon's site.

Initially, however, there were unanticipated drawbacks. Just before my 2013 publication, Barnes and Noble announced that they would refuse to carry books associated with Amazon-owned publication companies. This would hurt my potential sales because WoW, now, could only be sold over Amazon and in a few indie bookstores. (Several of these indie stores, I’m guessing, also had issues with selling Amazon titles, further hurting sales.) The New Harvest publishing staff (perhaps as a consequence of this setback) underwent a shake up, so I went through a few editors and publicists before the book even came out. It was all very disorienting.

It seemed like my book was coming out just when the publishing company was at its messiest. Bookstores like Borders were going out of business and publishing companies were in turmoil. E-readers were changing how people read books and Amazon was changing how people bought books. Walden on Wheels seemed right in the middle of all of this. I wasn't sure if I'd benefit from these industry-wide changes or if I'd be harmed. I set aside all ethical thoughts over the Amazon vs. brick-and-mortar bookstore debate. I was just starting out as an author and I didn't have much of a choice anyway. I merely hoped there’d be a favorable wave that I’d get to ride.

Despite the Barnes and Noble bookstore ban, WoW got good press and good reviews and it sold well. Sales, over the next couple of years, inevitably dropped, and it seemed that WoW would soon go to book heaven and be gradually forgotten. But Amazon, to their credit, has done an exceptional job featuring it in daily deals and special sales, which have kept WoW selling, sometimes bringing the book into the top-100 best sellers ranking on Amazon.

Walden on Wheels starts off strong in 2013 with over 11,000 sales (in just the second half of 2013). But then sales dip to as low as 3,500 copies two years later in 2015. And then the book, in 2017 and 2018, gets a second life due to special Amazon sales and advertisements. 

This is Walden on Wheels's Kindle sales ranking from roughly 2016 to 2018. You can see how it's gone up and down. (Down to almost the 50,000th most-bought book.) But a few special advertisements and sales have substantially increased sales, like the six-month period from October 2017 to April 2018, when it was routinely in the top 300 most-bought books on Amazon.

I stopped looking at my sales ranking a long time ago, but in the fall of 2017, as a result of a special Amazon advertisement, it started selling well again, and I began excitedly checking the book's sales ranking every day. (This may all sound like I’m obsessed with sales and money, but when it's one of your goals to make "the writing life" pay, you can imagine why I'd be so engrossed with an unexpected sales surge.)

I now see that the major perk of working with Amazon is their ability to sell Kindle editions well, which they’re ideally suited to do. Let’s look at my Kindle vs. paperback sales over Amazon.com for just the first half of the month of June in 2018:

The title of the pie chart should read: "Kindle vs. Paperback when sold over Amazon"

As you can see in the pie chart, over Amazon.com, for the first half of June 2018, I sold 533 copies of Walden on Wheels. 531 copies have been Kindles and two have been paperback.

Sales of paperbacks sold in indie book stores from June 2017 to June 2018
This stat is somewhat misleading because I do in fact sell paperback copies. The pie chart doesn’t include Walden on Wheels copies that have been sold in a handful of indie bookstores (about 311 copies sell in indie bookstores a month), so, when factoring in bookstore sales, my paperback-to-Kindle ratio isn’t nearly as disproportional as the pie chart suggests. 

While indie bookstores have sold a decent amount of Walden on Wheels copies, Amazon has especially helped me pay off my advance. They've helped me to do this because, as a publisher, Amazon offers authors 35% of royalties for every Kindle book sold. This contrasts with a traditional publisher, like my publisher for This Land Is Our Land, which offers me 25% of every Kindle book sold. This means that, for every Walden on Wheels sold for $6 on Amazon, I get $2 in my bank account. Not a bad deal.

The larger consequence of the success of WoW has been that it’s made getting subsequent book deals easier. My second book, Trespassing across America, got offers from three publishers, and This Land Is Our Land was effortlessly sold to Penguin Random House. 

I suppose this is a story of fate and luck. Maybe things would have worked out better if WoW got to be sold in big bookstores. Maybe it would have made a bestsellers list. Or maybe, in the long run, it was the right choice to sign a contract with Amazon because they've figured out novel ways to advertise and sell the Kindle edition over a long period of time. Digital books, of course are not going away anytime soon.

In just the five years since the publication of Walden on Wheels, the book industry has changed in unexpected ways. For one, the use of digital books has plateaued. Print books are experiencing a slight comeback while audios are booming. Barnes and Noble bookstores are on the brink of disaster while the number of indie bookstores has increased by 35% between 2009 and 2015. (Read this Pew article for a general update of book industry trends.)


Perhaps the moral of the story is: You can’t predict how the publishing industry will change and you won't know if those changes will be in your favor; you have little control over the success of your book; the most you can do is write the book as well as you can, take any interview you get, and hope for the best.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Wall Street Journal reviews my book

My book release for This Land Is Our Land has been quiet. I'd gotten positive reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, the Greensboro News and Record, but it's not until recently that I got my first big-time review, this time in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal--a newspaper with a center-right reputation.

The review was not overtly positive, but neither was it at all negative. I can't find one blurbable quote in it. You could say it's perfectly neutral, and I'd argue that a perfectly neutral review is a positive review, or at least a "friendly" review. 

I felt two things upon reading it: 1) validation, and 2) bewilderment. 

1.) I'm not sure what the exact genre of my book is. There are elements of advocacy, a little bit of first-person reflecting, a little bit of philosophy, and a ton of history (mostly from secondary sources, but plenty from primary). Since this is my first real "research" book, I do feel a satisfying sense of validation that the WSJ thought my research was up to snuff enough to feature it on their pages. I'd only get this sense of validation from a handful of writers and papers, and the WSJ is one of them. 

2.) The bewilderment comes from the fact that I got a friendly review in a center-right paper while the rest of the print media (which leans left) has mostly ignored it. One could argue that the right to roam is a socialist proposal (though I wouldn't want to brand it that way). You see where I'm going with this... Where are the reviews from left-leaning places, like Salon and Huff Post? Where are the reviews from far-left places, like Dissent or Jacobin? And why would a center-right publication, of all places, tacitly endorse the book? 

Perhaps it's because the left is entirely focused on Trump and identity politics (perhaps for good reason). Perhaps it's because my proposal has more nonpartisan appeal than I imagined. Or maybe I just got lucky with this review, and my book just isn't in sync with the zeitgeist. 

I tend to my ego's bruises by telling myself that my thinking is twenty years ahead of the rest of the country on the subject of land rights. Or maybe it's a fringe topic that'll never catch on. Regardless, I'll savor this momentary reprieve and enjoy my validation.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Great Plains Trail

I have a piece in Backpacker this month on the "Great Plains Trail." In March 2015, I walked the trail with founder Steve Myers, for 100 miles over seven days. I came away a convert. Steve is a good guy and I hope the trail some day takes off.