I thought about titling this post, "My Advice to Writers 2014 - 150,000 Books Later," but it'd be disingenuous. I'm not speaking to all writers here. There are plenty of advice guides/blog posts for basic writers, for the hobbyist, for the person who wants to get their book queried and submitted, etc, etc.
I'm not really an expert in any of those fields, so why spend my day off writing a blog post about it? (Why spend my day off writing a blog post at all, honestly? Fuck if I know. I should be on the couch partaking of the last day of the Titanfall beta or rewatching a few of the Harry Potter movies on Blu-ray. Instead, I'm doing this. I must be mental.) Anyway, I'm writing this because I want to speak to a certain segment of the writing population, and that's the person who wants to make a living as an indie author.
This is the first in a sporadic series of posts examining the publishing market, specifically as it relates to self-publishing. To start things off, I want to look at pricing, and present an ass-backwards case: that it may make more sense to price your oldest, least popular books the highest—and your new books the lowest.
Since early 2012, I've been using beta readers and have learned a lot. This is long, so if you're interested in the process, you might find something here useful.
Firstly, some genres are easier to find beta readers for than others. I wouldn't recommend friends or family unless they are avid readers, particularly in your genre. Even then, I would caution. I personally don't like to involve my family/friends in my business.
Before Harry Potter, before Twilight, before the hundreds of thousands of vampire , wizard, demon, zombie, angel, fairy and just-plain-strange books that proliferate the marketplace today, I wrote a book about werewolves. It wasn’t, in my humble opinion, just an ordinary book, and these were not ordinary werewolves. It was at that time the best book I had ever written. Believe it or not, I wasn’t the only one who thought it was pretty good. The Passion (and its sequel, The Promise) sold after a ten–day auction for a phenomenal amount of money (to be strictly accurate, it was not quite one million, but by the time sub-rights were sold the difference was negligible, to me, at least). Within the week, offers for audio, foreign, and large print rights were pouring in. James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg were both interested in film rights. And then it all went to hell.
For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, the publisher abandoned the book. Possibly it was caught up in inter-company politics; possibly the publisher genuinely did not know how to publish it. While logic would suggest that no publisher wants to lose money on a book, the only way this publisher could have lost more money on this book would have been not to publish it at all. I remember screaming at my agent at one point, A million dollars is not worth an entire career! –which turned out to be eerily prophetic. In a desperate effort to save the project, I personally invested a disastrous amount on promotions, which resulted in the development of a small cult following (thank you, readers!) But in terms of the commercial sensation The Devoncroix Dynasty books were meant to be, the project was a monumental failure.
Robin (aka Janet here at the blog) wrote a paper which was presented this past spring’s PCA conference. The core of her paper is the reason that readers have different responses to forced seduction is based on the reader's grant of consent to the act. In essence, the reader is acting as proxy for the heroine in either withholding consent (rape) or granting consent (seduction). It's a more nuanced argument than this, but ever since I read her paper, I began to think about the reader and consent in books.
All readers come from a different place because none of us have had the same upbringing and same life experiences. These experiences and biases affect our ability to grant consent or go along with where the author is leading us. It's the old "It's not you, it's me" refrain.
By my count, half of the top 10 bestselling science fiction authors on Amazon right now are self-published or published with Amazon. Leading the pack is A.G. Riddle, who has been killing it the past few months with two novels that hang around in the top 50 overall on the paid Kindle store. B.V. Larson has been among the top sellers for two years. What’s important to note about these rankings is that it reflects overall sales across all titles in that particular genre. Since Amazon is the #1 bookstore in the land, it’s a great way to do some guestimating. Without transparent data, it’s all we can really do.
What really strikes me about the top 10 is the absence of any new traditionally published science fiction author. I’ve read some great books this past year by Ted Kosmatka, Max Barry, and the like. I also adore some recent debut authors (past few years) like Ernest Cline, who wrote Ready Player One. But what I’m seeing above is extremely established authors with massive backlists (Card, Atwood, Weber) and indies.
This means something, I’m just not sure what. I think it means that a sustained and profitable career as a science fiction author is more likely, these days, to have its origin in self-publishing. I don’t think traditional publishers can foster the sort of release schedule an author needs to really break out in a big way in the popular genres. It should be noted that an author can rank on this list with a single bestselling title, as with Rysa Walker, who has a title in the top 25. So a massive new release could crack this list. Right now, we aren’t seeing that from the big houses.
Part of the problem is that the major publishers ignore the genres that sell the best. This is a head-scratcher, and it nearly caused a bald spot when I was working in a bookstore. I knew where the demand was, and I wasn’t seeing it in the catalogs. Readers wanted romance, science fiction, mystery/thrillers, and young adult. We had catalogs full of literary fiction. Just the sort of thing acquiring editors are looking for and hoping people will read more of, but not what customers were asking me for.
Occasional lurker, rare poster here. I saw Old Ben's 2013 post a few days ago. After mulling it over for a while, I steeled myself against the inevitable stage fright, emerged from under my pile of safety blankets, and decided to write a similar post of my own.
I want to do two things in this post. First, some shameless bragging about my year's milestones, because I'm an author and, d*mn it, we live for shameless bragging. But mostly, I'd like to share some thoughts on what worked for me in 2013. I'm not an authority, and I'm not a superstar bestseller, but hopefully this might interest (or even help) some of the newer authors here.
* Stage fright kicking in... must resist urge to hide under blankets again... *
Ok... SHAMELESS BRAGGING MODE... ON:
In 2013, I hit some personal milestones. Four of my books hit the overall Amazon Top 100 paid list (one managed to crack the Top 20, hitting #18). I sold 111,000 ebooks in 2013 (compared to 108,000 in 2012), hitting lifetime sales of 260,000. It's been a great year. I'm not a sensation like Hugh and the other giants, but I feel that I've had a solid midlist year. I'm very grateful for it.
SHAMELESS BRAGGING MODE... OFF.
Okay, now that that's out of my system... here are some things that I've learned this year. This is all just what has worked/failed for me personally. Your mileage may vary.
1) Write what you love. I'm sometimes tempted to chase trends. Some days, I feel like I should put aside fantasy and switch to a bigger genre, such as thrillers or romance. I'd have access to a wider audience, I tell myself. I often look at the number of readers per genre (listed at BookBub and other places) and want to switch to the big boys. But ultimately, I think that we need to write what we're passionate about, even if it's a smaller genre. I love writing epic fantasy, which is something of a niche (albeit one of the bigger ones), but if you love what you do, I think it's possible to succeed within a niche too.
2) I believe that the key to ongoing success is a dependable, loyal group of fans. Many of my readers have followed me from book to book. They're the reason I can keep writing. An active Facebook page, website, and mailing list are musts. I try to do more than just announce releases but also interact with my readers -- answer questions, talk about what I'm working on, and just hang out.
3) This might be a no-brainer, but the best place to find NEW readers is on popular newsletters such as BookBub, ENT, BookBlast, and Kindle Books and Tips. Guest blog posts / blog reviews have sold a few copies for me, but I've had far more success finding readers on popular newsletters.
4) Convert new readers into fans. With freebies, BookBub promos, and every other method I use to reach new readers, I try to keep these readers around. My books all include links at the end to my Facebook, Twitter, and mailing list. I'm rarely just looking to sell an individual book; I'm primarily looking for long-term readers. When I'm promoting a book, I'm not just thinking, "I want to sell X number of copies." I'm thinking, "I want to find X number of new loyal readers."
5) Series are usually easier to sell, at least in my genre. To this day, my standalone novels don't sell much. The bulk of my sales are from my series.
6) The long tail. Unless I have a major promo or new release, I don't always have individual books with amazing ranks. On many days, it's just a few books hovering around ranks of 10,000 or so. But I have twenty books in the Kindle store. It adds up. A large backlist helps me.
7) This is about long-term thinking. In August this year, I was incredibly fortunate. I was chosen for the Kindle Daily Deal. I'm insanely grateful for this opportunity, which I know is so rare. But a week after my KDD, sales were back to normal. It's fantastic to have a one-hit-wonder. But even better is slowly building a steady career. I try not to focus too much on short-term successes or failures--the "bleeps" on the graph--but rather on cultivating a readership that will, hopefully, stick around for years.
8 ) In 2013, I released a new novel every two months on average. For me at least (and YMMV), regularly releasing new books has been key. After about two or three months without a new release, my sales significantly slow down. A new book is a new boost. This is a tough pace--I often write for 70-80 hours a week--but I think it's helped me.
9) It's all about the readers. As socially awkward as I am (D&D nerd here), I try to network with other authors and industry professionals. I learn a lot from them. But every day, I'm primarily thinking about my readers. I write for them. I'm not trying to impress critics, agents, editors, or other authors (at least I tell myself I'm not). I'm here for my readers first and foremost. Everything else follows.
10) The best prices that have worked for me are (not surprisingly) $2.99 and $3.99. It's true that $0.99 might sell more copies. But while $2.99-$3.99 might mean fewer sales short-term, it means MORE sales long-term. First of all, some people (at least with my books) will just grab a $0.99 book and never read it. A reader buying a $2.99 book is more likely to read that book and, if he/she enjoyed it, buy more of my work. Also, the money a $2.99-$3.99 title earns can fund future books--editing costs, hiring cover artists, or just paying the bills while I sit at home writing. Finally, a regular price of $2.99-$3.99 lets me post occasional $0.99 promos for a chance at a BookBub or ENT slot.
BONUS TIP: Long walks are great. I try to go for a long walk every day. I walk in the snow. I walk with an umbrella when it rains. I walk when it's hot and curse the heat. When I walk, I don't think about my books. I try to focus on the birds, the trees, and clearing my mind. Taking some time each day AWAY from writing--especially for a full time writer (which I am)--helps me maintain a tiny shred of sanity. (And yes, like Old Ben, I have a treadmill desk!)
These are the main important things I've learned. This is what, I believe, has worked for me. I'm not an expert, and what worked for me might be different for you. Really, most of the above are not big secrets. These are things that have been discussed on Kindleboards many times. I hope that, even if this post isn't saying anything new, it was interesting to read. And if it wasn't interesting either, well, at least I got to slip in my paragraph of shameless bragging.
Thanks for reading this! * Back to hiding under blankets. *
“In prison, people like them usually get shanked.” – Robert Stanek, speaking about his critics.
Who is Robert Stanek?
Robert Stanek is an award-winning, internationally bestselling author of over 100 books for young children and adults. His book, The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches, is a “#1 Fiction Bestseller” and a “Top 50 All Time Bestseller”. The companion novel, Keeper Martin’s Tale, was the #1 Fantasy of the Year in 2002, spent 26 weeks on Amazon’s SciFi Top 50, and was “Voted Top 10 Fantasy 2004”.
Using the wonderful words of acclaimed writer, actor and allround know it all (I mean that in the best of ways) Stephen Fry I have created this kinetic typography animation. If you like what you hear you can download the rest of the audio file from Mr. Fry's website. stephenfry.com and then go to the audio and video section at the top of the page and look for the file entitled language. You can also find the file on iTunes by searching the name 'Stephen Fry's Podgrams'.
The list of rules that the sociopath/narcissist expects his /her target to live by…
1. I can say anything I like. You are not allowed to say anything unless you are sure it will not offend me. (Hint: Praise/compliments).
2. I can do anything I want. You are not allowed to do anything unless you are sure I will like it.
3. You must call me regularly to see how I am and give me attention. I never have to call you, unless I need something.
4. You have to respect me. I do not have to respect you. And I don’t.
5. I am allowed to lie about you. You are not allowed to tell the truth about me.
6. I am allowed to lie about you, to make you look bad. You MUST lie about me, to make me look GOOD.
7. I am the only one allowed to get angry. You are not allowed to get angry.
8. I am the only one allowed to have “hurt feelings.” You are not allowed to have hurt feelings.
9. I am the only one allowed to feel “insulted.” You are not allowed to feel insulted.
10. I can falsely accuse you of doing things you never did, and you are not allowed to make a liar out of me by defending yourself.
11. You are not allowed to expose me and reveal the things I really DID do. You must cover up what I do and say and keep it a secret.
12. You are never allowed to complain. That’s MY job.
13. You are never allowed to confront me. I’m the only one who is allowed to confront anybody.
14. I can make faces at you, scowl, roll my eyes, and sneer, but you’d better not look at me “funny,” or even smile at me.
15. I can stop speaking to you, but you are not allowed to stop speaking to me.
16. I can disown you, but you do not have the right to walk away from me.
17. When I’m ready to un-disown you, you have to take me back and start talking to me again, with no further discussion of whatever caused our “rift.” You have no choice in the matter. I am the only one who has a choice.
18. I can “vent” to other people about you, but you must suffer in silence.
19. I can tell everybody the things you “did to” me, but you are not allowed to tell anybody the things I did to you.
20. You are not allowed to have any opinion that differs from mine.
21. You must agree with everything I say, but I am allowed to criticize and degrade the things you say.
22. I have no sense of humor when it comes to me. You must take me very seriously, but I am allowed to mock you and even laugh in your face.
23. If you don’t know why I’m mad, you better figure it out, because I’m not going to tell you.
24. If another person upsets me, you’d BETTER take my side and confront and shun them. If another person upsets YOU, good for them. You deserve it.
25. I know everything, you know nothing.
26. You are weak and inferior. I am a superior being, and you must always acknowledge that and never forget your place.
27. You have no freedom to even think independently. I have all the freedom.
28. Your job is to take care of my needs and feelings. You are not allowed to have needs or feelings. If you do, then take care of them yourself and don’t expect anything from me.
29. You have no rights. I have all the rights.
30. You are here to do for me, I am not here to do for you. You are only here for my convenience. When you are no longer useful or become too much trouble, I will kick you to the curb. Until I want something from you again.
Okay, a lot of new stuff has happened on Facebook in recent months, but I think one of the coolest ones is the ability for pages to now put “Call to Action” buttons on your posts. And I’m talking about your regular old posts not just ad posts. To me, that’s an amazing new development.
Editing is one of the most important parts of writing, but it's hard to know where to start sometimes. Hemingway is a web app that highlights hard to read sentences, adverbs, complicated phrases, and passive voice so you can make your writing more clear.
A few years ago I wrote a post about the reader’s consent. Essentially the argument I made is that authors have to win over the readers’ consent to move on to the next stage in a story. Most debates over books arise because readers have different limits on when they’ll withhold consent. One of the most robust discussions I remember from the All About Romance site was over the Jo Beverly book “An Unwilling Bride.” In the story the hero, Lucien, strikes the heroine.
The debate is whether Lucien can ever be redeemed from that moment sufficient for the reader to buy into the idea that he can be a partner for the heroine and one who isn’t going to haul off and smack her every time he believes she’s stepped out of line.
Readers on the side of Lucien believe that the text shows his remorse and a change in his ways. Readers on the other side believe he’s an abuser and worse, enjoying this book elevates abuse as acceptable behavior.
For some readers, a hero striking a heroine is a hard limit, meaning that its intolerable in every situation from when Jamie in “The Outlander” beats Claire because it’s expected by his clan to when Lucien slaps Beth in “Unwilling Bride”.
For other readers, whether the act of a male protagonist striking a female is acceptable depends on the situation. More realistically, it depends on how much the reader enjoys the book because the same reader who excuses Jamie’s behavior may not excuse Lucien’s.
A much lauded book within romance readers is “To Have and To Hold.” Sebastian the main protagonist is a sadistic rapist who buys a criminal condemned to death with the sole purpose of toying with her emotionally and physically in ways that humiliate her to the point that she wishes she was dead. After he rapes her, he has an epiphany and spends the last half of the book turning his character around.
The same reader who enjoys this book may have problems with the current slate of motorcycle club books with the overly misogynistic tones or even “The Last Hour of Gann” (although the hero’s “rape” is not considered to be rape in his culture and he does not ever rape the female protagonist).
So what gives?
Reader’s limits come less from the trope or acts than the execution skills of the authors and the reader’s own bias.
There’s a calculation I’ve been breaking out dozens of times in the last month or so–in innumerable conversations at RWA, in e-mails back and forth with several people asking me for advice. I mentioned it in my talk to the Golden Network, and mentioned it again at the PRO retreat at RWA’s national conference. Usually the question that has been asked of me looks like this: “I got an offer from my publisher for $3,500 for my next book,” someone says. “Should I take it or self-publish?” (Note: I’ve seen similar numbers from five different people in the last month, so if you think I’m talking about you, I’m not–I picked the advance that was the aggregate offered.)
I never answer that question. I can’t know what your circumstances are or what you should or shouldn’t take, or what you value and what you need or where you are in your career.
What I can do is tell people how to think about money earned over time in a semi-rational fashion.
Happy New Year to everyone. Here's hoping there will be continued success in 2014 for indies.
So, as usual, the landscape is changing year to year. A recent change is that a lot of trad publishers are lowering prices to compete in the market place. This is good for readers, not so good for indies. In fact, I've been hearing a lot of doom and gloom about this point. "How will indies compete?" "We've lost our advantage." "This is the END!"
Before we follow in Virginia Woolf's footsteps, let's analyse the situation a little deeper.
Most independent authors and content creators aren’t thinking in terms of building product funnels when they write their books and stories.
That is a mistake.
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, smart writers who know how to build their catalog around funnels will always make more money directly with their words than writers who publish their work using the old “hope and pray” business plan.
This is the end of the third calendar year in self-publishing. Now that we're about a weekish from the end of 2013, I took a look at my sales and realized... Wow, d*mn, I've seen some INSANE growth in 2013 relative to my modest first year.
I've always found it really helpful when others share the things that have made their business grow (*insert list of notable, helpful KBers here*), so I thought I'd share the stuff that's been helpful for me too. I don't have any profound ideas about the business or art, but I'm going to toss some numbers and thoughts out there that you guys might find interesting. Or not. I'll let you decide.
ABOUT MY NICHE I primarily write urban fantasy mystery novels. This genre was super popular about, oh, ten years ago now. Think early Anita Blake (before it turned into erotica) or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though many readers still enjoy these kinds of books, it's considered by industry professionals to be a dead genre. Publishers and agents almost universally no longer acquire it. Most bloggers and tour companies don't handle non-romance UF for adults, either.
I wouldn't be able to publish these books traditionally if I wanted to, yet I'm earning pretty good money off of them. Which is very neat.
Maybe it's better to call urban fantasy a zombie genre rather than a dead genre.
ABOUT MY BOOKS I have four series now, all of which exist in the same universe. You can start with any series and jump around to the others as desired. That means that once a reader gets into my back list, they can be led through four series' worth of books if they like them enough.
I track the sales/downloads of about twenty-five titles. Eighteen of them are full-length novels. Others are shorts or compilations. As you can see by comparing the number of titles to the number of sales, the performance of my individual books are not earth-shattering. Only three of my titles have sold more than 20,000 copies total. Most of them are slow but steady earners. I don't explode on launch, but every new book is rather like adding a brick to an increasingly sturdy wall.
I'm not a good judge of quality of my own writing, but sell-through is awesome. By the second paid title in a series, 95% of readers will end up buying the last title, too. So a significant number of my almost 300,000 sales are a relatively small cluster of readers working through everything I've ever published, since all of the books are related to each other.
The three paragraphs above are probably more important than any other part of this post.
ABOUT MY WORKFLOW I write 2-5000 words per day when I'm not editing. A book typically takes a month to draft depending on how much I'm dragging my feet and whining at Spousal Unit Zappa.
Then I edit for one to two weeks - first a macro edit, and then a nitpick edit. I play a lot of video games and argue with people who dare to be wrong on the internet during edits, too. (This part is critical, natch.)
My copy editor gets the book after that, and then a few reliable, eagle-eyed proofreaders hunt down the remaining typos with harpoons. These two phases take less than two weeks. I get the rough draft of the next book well underway while my crack genius team works to make me sound less stupid.
Once I get the upcoming release back from proofreaders, I format it, publish the book, notify my mailing list, and work on my next book.
ABOUT MY STRATEGY In 2013, I published a new novel every 6-8 weeks. I finished two ongoing series and focused on one new series exclusively. Faster, contiguous releases significantly improved my sales across all of that series.
Because I have so many d*mn books in my back list, I made a lot of them (almost half) permafree. Readers can consume many of my books without opening their wallets. If they're happy with just the free books, it's a satisfying experience to read all of them without buying a single title; if they're REALLY happy with the free books, they can (and often do) continue to buy the others. I initially decided to go permafree crazy because writing's never really been about money for me - I just like sharing stories with readers - but the fact is that I do earn more money with tons of books free, and that doesn't suck.
Equally as important, I funnel my readers toward a mailing list. (More about that at length here.) I have close relationships with many of my readers (who I adore) and go out of my way to connect with them. They help me launch my books much higher in the stores than an author of my meager reach should be able to, and they're endlessly delightful people to boot. I adore them.
Toward the end of 2013, I also began collaborating with other authors on group box sets. It's been a fun way to share audiences and expand our mutual reach. As with most of my "business" decisions, it's been more about what I enjoy doing than what I think I'll make money doing. Luckily, it's turned out to be both socially pleasant and financially pleasant to collaborate.
MARKETING Lol, yeah, I don't really do that. Interviews and guest posts and stuff? Nope.
I buy a BookBub ad once a month or so. That's…pretty much it.
SOME GENERAL THOUGHTS
I published 650,000 words across eight novels in 2013.Every month this year, I sold at least 10,000 copies. That's more than I sold in my first twelve months of publishing total.It's often possible to write what you enjoy and still be successful through sheer stubbornness.TREADMILL DESK. GET ONE. <-- Life and waist saver, trust me.Making business decisions that benefit the readers will generally end up benefiting the author, too.You can sell enough books to take your toddler to Disneyland three times in six months and still never have an agent or publisher approach you. It's like being invisible! ~*MAGIC IS REAL*~
NEXT YEAR I expect things will drop in 2014. I don't really have any "boom goes the dynamite" ideas left. My permafrees will fade in the rankings, as these things tend to do, and my back list will slide as a consequence. I'll also probably release fewer books so I can focus on spending more time with my family, which I'm a-okay with.
That said, I'm expecting to wrap up my current series-in-progress in Q3 2014, at which point I will have exhausted all of the "books I need to write before I die" ideas. After that, I'll start writing to the market rather than to my whims. I think I can probably hold things fairly steady by picking my projects strategically. Work smarter, not harder. (Or is it work drunker, not sober?)
I'll be making my final mortgage payment in the next few weeks. Even if my royalties drop off A LOT, I won't need much money to sustain my lifestyle - which means my husband and I both staying at home with our son, playing a lot of fetch with the dog, and rubbing our faces on irritated kitties, while occasionally also writing books about sword fights. Professionally.
It's pretty sweet.
I wrote a lot of books that are all connected, made about half of them free, and kept in close contact with my readers via a mailing list.
I've had an incredible year. I'm ridiculously grateful. I hope that something I've shared in this post will help you have an incredible year, too.