Another Five-Figure Year And Yet…

2017 was my first five-figure year self-publishing. It was a huge milestone for me seeing as I’d only had my first $1,000 month that June. And I didn’t cross that mark until the end of October last year.

So to reach that same mark three and a half months into the new year is awesome. And even better, I’ve made more in profit this year than I did all of last year. (It’s nice to write a book people are actually looking for and want…)

I should be ecstatic. And I am. In rare moments.

But I’m not satisfied with it. It’s not enough.

There’s this part of me that fears it will never be enough. Me being me there will always be something that keeps me from just settling in and resting on my laurels, so I’ll always be striving to be better in some respect. And will occasionally throw everything out and start over (like I did when I started writing) just to have that challenge.

With the writing I tell myself I just want to get it to the point where I’m earning enough to pay all my bills, do a few little fun projects or buy a few luxury items, and put some aside enough for the down times.

(Not much to ask for is it? Except for when you actually ask what that number is and then laugh outrageously at what I think it takes to have all that.)

But I wonder if that’s true. Because if I reach that level I want to reach, I won’t be at the top. There will definitely be self-published authors who are doing orders of magnitude better than me. (I could probably reach that level with titles that never crack a ranking of 10,000 on Amazon US.)

I like being self-employed (even the consulting work) more than being an employee because I don’t have to go through all the “but why did Bob get a promotion, too” or “why does Suzie earn that when I earn this” drama. I can set my rate, work my hours, and get paid. Or I can put a book out there at my chosen list price and people will either buy it or they won’t.

But being self-published doesn’t eliminate that ability to compare yourself to others. It’s one of the most bizarrely transparent industries I’ve ever seen when it comes to income. People talk all the time about what they’ve earned. Publicly. (Myself included it seems since I’m doing so right now.) And then there are things like Data Guy’s Author Earnings reports that put it out there even more. (I love those reports, though.)

So there’s no way to live in a vacuum and just write and publish and hit your goal and not know what others are doing. I mean, I guess there is. I could just avoid all author forums, but then I’d miss out on all the industry intelligence that I’ve found so incredibly valuable.

Sigh. I don’t know. I like this industry because it’s so uncertain. And at the same time I hate this industry because it’s so uncertain.

But we have to celebrate our little victories when they occur.

So for just one little moment–I’ll give it ten seconds–I’m going to bask in this accomplishment. 10, 9, 8…

Alright. Time’s up.

Back to the grind.

It’s All About Having Enough Product

Over and over and over again, I come back to this central conclusion: that writing success is all about having enough product. When I look at the authors I know who are really killing it, almost universally they have more than a dozen titles out under one name and those titles feed into one another.

It is incredibly rare (not impossible, but rare) for an author to be making six figures with just one or two books. I know authors who’ve done it. Who published a title and just seemed to connect to the zeitgeist of the moment and took off.

But the ones who steadily earn well year in and year out tend to be ones with a significant body of work. An oeuvre, as they say. (I tried to use that word years ago on the LSAT and could not for the life of me figure out how to spell it…)

Which makes sense, right? When I was doing the videos for AMS Ads for Authors and Excel for Self-Publishers I kept bumping up against this idea. The the more works  you have out there, the more effective and cheaper your advertising per title becomes.

If you have one book to promote, you’re kind of limited in what you can do with it.

Set it to free with nowhere for readers to go and it’s going to fizzle out fast. Not to mention, unless you’re in KU and get page reads, you won’t make anything off of it.

Set it to 99 cents and now you’re making 35 cents a sale which requires some serious volume to make any money worth speaking of. (Again, assuming we’re not talking KU reads to bolster you.)

Plus, then what? So someone reads and likes book 1 and then…That’s it.

They could love you and think you walk on water and are the best author in the world and re-read that book a hundred times and get tattoos on their body inspired by your book, but if there’s nowhere else for them to go, that doesn’t do much for you in terms of paying your bills.

I guess you could do a Patreon or a tip jar, but I like to deliver value for value, you know. So if you’ve just got that one book, you’re very limited in what you can make from it.

We aren’t selling toothpaste here. If you sell toothpaste, you hook a user, you keep your product consistent and your price reasonable, and they’ll buy it for the rest of their lives and you’ll earn $x from that customer every n months from here to eternity on that one product.

But a book sale doesn’t work that way. People usually buy it once. Maybe twice. Maybe three times at most.

Which means you need more product to offer them. You have to keep feeding that hunger.  Produce more to please those who like what you’ve already done. (Or find a way to make your books toothpaste…Calendars anyone?)

ANYWAY. Just a fun thought for a windy Tuesday when I have more ideas than time to implement them in.

Type I vs Type II Errors

Amazon seems to be in the midst of taking care of some scammer activity. There are reports of a number of customer accounts being closed as well as reports on the indie side of KU page reads from March disappearing. And with every Amazon action to clean up the swampy waters comes a discussion of innocent authors who got caught up in the actions.

For example, Amazon identifies a series of accounts as using botting activity to borrow books and read them in KU. It shuts those accounts down and pulls back all of the page reads those accounts generated. Author A who had paid for their books to be botted shrugs and moves on to the next scam. Author B whose books were read by that account to create smoke and confusion, screams bloody murder because they just lost a hundred thousand page reads they were banking on. (About $450 worth of page reads.)

Every time this happens, I think Type I error versus Type II error. Now, it’s possible that I’m misremembering my misspent education, but this is what that means to me from a regulatory and compliance standpoint. (My background.)

If you build a compliance system that is too lax, it will fail to identify all of the compliance issues. You will let through a certain percentage of activity that you shouldn’t.

If you build a compliance system that is too restrictive, it will flag a large amount of activity for review that isn’t a legitimate compliance issue and you run the risk of bogging down your review teams with false positives that they have to clear and let through.

Every company has to make a decision between those two choices. Which type of error is better? Letting through bad activity you shouldn’t? Or preventing good activity from occurring?

In certain settings–hospitals, food production, car manufacturing–you want to err on the side that saves lives, right? So, sterilize that equipment more than you really need to, because it’s better to sterilize the equipment three times than to kill someone or give them HIV.

In other settings, it can be a trickier line to draw.

I have seen companies be overwhelmed by compliance alerts that were too sensitive. Is it better to be nine months behind on your compliance reviews, but catch everything? Eh, well. I don’t know…Violate OFAC and they don’t care why you did it, they’ll fine you. But how much money do you want to spend to find that one Iranian transaction among millions?

It seems to me the approach Amazon takes sometimes is a lazy man’s approach to compliance monitoring. They do nothing until people complain too much. Then they run an automated process to flag all the potentially bad activity. And then, rather than do what the entities I used to work with would do and review all the flagged activity to find the legitimate problems, they just shut everyone down. And then they wait for the people who were innocent (or who are savvy enough to act innocent), to identify themselves with alarmed emails and complaints.

Saves a helluva lot of manpower and money. But sucks if you’re one of the ones caught in one of their purges.

On the other hand, what we normally see with them is a too lax system that allows everything through. So which is better?

Too much or too little?

Do we want the bestseller lists overwhelmed with books that shouldn’t be in those categories? (Classics? Really? That’s what you call that book?) Or do we want the risk of being purged from a legitimate category or being delisted until we can fix whatever issue Amazon has?

We can’t have it both ways. There will always be one type of error or the other.

(And for those of you who think reviewing these kinds of alerts is simple, let me tell you it isn’t. You’d think screening transaction information for something like “Iran” is simple, right? Well, you’d be amazed how many false alerts you can get from something so simple. And even if it only takes a minute to clear a false alert, when you have 10,000 false alerts to every one legitimate alert, that’s a lot of manpower involved.)

Dying is a Tricky Business

Twenty-three years ago today my father passed away. In one respect, there was nothing surprising about it. He’d dialyzed for over twenty years and been hospitalized in each of the two years before that with heart issues. Not to mention the twenty-plus surgeries, the two failed transplants, the quarter of a lung he lost, the two spinal fusions, etc.

But when the time actually came, it was a complete surprise. I’d just seen him a week before during my spring break. And I’d flown back to Houston fully expecting to see him again at the end of the school year.

Looking back now, I can see how ill he was. But he was always ill. For eighteen years of my life he was dying. For eighteen years every hospitalization, every illness, had the potential to be the one that ended things.

And yet he carried on. And he didn’t just carry on, he thrived. He was President of Kiwanis, the team little league coach, competed in chili cookoffs and chess tournaments, attended pretty much every one of my volleyball and basketball games and every one of my brother’s baseball games, went back for his college degree, ran a successful if not thriving business.

He was a good father. And a good man.

But he was always dying. There was never a question about him making it to old age. It was just a question of whether he’d be thirty or forty or fifty when the end finally came.

And now I have a dear friend in a similar situation. Metastatic melanoma. Tumors in his brain, on his lung, on a kidney. The first line treatment failed. They took out two tumors, treated him, and found three more. They’ve run scans, removed the offenders, but are making no efforts right now to stop more tumors from growing.

He is very likely going to die from this. And like my father, he continues to live his life the best he can knowing that dreams of what he’ll do twenty years from now aren’t realistic. That he has to stay close to his doctors and his home. No worldwide trips, no wild adventures.

Like my father, illness has taken from this once vigorous man part of who he was. It’s damaged his body. He can’t do now what he once could.

But it hasn’t stolen his mind. He’s still passionate, still driven. Still has the same wants and needs he did before illness struck.

He’s dying.

But when? Who knows. Could be years still. Years of slow decline, fighting a battle he knows he’ll lose.

I want to say that space between diagnosis and death is like freefall, like you’re untethered and falling towards that inevitable end. But that’s not right at all.

I’ve been in freefall. And that space of time between knowing it’s going to happen and having it happen is nothing like freefall.

It’s more like that moment in a car accident between when it becomes inevitable and when you register the impact. That frozen point in time where everything seems to stop but you know it’s moving violently forward. Or maybe the moment right after impact when you’re in motion and things are breaking and shattering around you but the pain hasn’t yet registered.

That moment between can last months. Even years. A whole lifetime can be lived in that space between diagnosis and death.

Or it can be over in a moment.

You never know.

Because dying is a tricky business.

 

Loved the Idea, Hated the Execution

I just finished watching the first season of a show called Crossing Lines. I remember trying to watch it a year or so ago and noping out of it almost immediately when it opened with some scared woman running through the woods being chased by some killer and then being found naked the next day.

But this time I pushed through and watched it anyway. (I should’ve known…)

I love the premise of the show. An international cast of characters from all over Europe identifying and solving cross-border crimes. That’s exactly the kind of show I can really sink my teeth into. Not only was the team well mixed in terms of geography, they were well mixed in terms of gender, too. I think there were three female main characters and four male main characters on the team in the first episode.

This is a type of show I could watch for years if it were good. And parts of it really were.

But…

SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW

By the end of the first season they’d killed off two of the main female characters. One in the first episode. And they gave that one just enough of a romantic potential to be motivation for one of the other characters. Sort of. Maybe. Not really.

(Everyone seems to have some intense backstory but the emotion really isn’t there except for a few limited scenes here or there and the rest of the time they seem to forget that they have this deep backstory.)

The other female character they just killed for no real good reason. Maybe contract negotiations. But I have to tell you television writer people: there are other ways to have a character leave a series than to kill them. Just sayin’.

So this series that started out with an interesting premise and seemed to have men and women in equal roles had, by the end of the first season, shown itself to be a show that includes female main characters as window dressing instead of legitimate central characters.

(Contrast this with Law & Order: SVU. I watched the first season recently and I don’t think they had a cliched “woman raped and murdered by a man” episode until at least midway through the first season. I want to say the first victim was a man and the second involved a woman as the killer. And Olivia holds her own as a detective, she’s not just there to check a box.)

What’s interesting is that maybe ten years ago I would’ve kept watching Crossing Lines. But maybe it was NCIS killing off at least three female lead characters (Kate, the Director, and Ziva) over the years. Or maybe it’s just heightened awareness of these issues through social media and discussions. But I have no patience anymore for shows that only kill their female main characters.

Life’s too short to support writers who see the world that way. (There are some fiction writers I’ve stopped reading for similar reasons.)

It’s too bad. I’d love to see more shows with an international flair…

Why Aren’t You Making More?

Once  a month I meet up for dinner with folks in my old critique group. I personally hate critique groups because I need to find the story I want to tell and to do it in the way I want to, but I like the people in the group. And once a month they have dinner before critique and I join them.

A lot of them are venturing into the self-publishing or small press publishing waters. And last night one of the members essentially asked me, “you have so many titles out, why aren’t you making more money?”

My first reaction was, “I know. Seriously, right?”

My second was “Oh just wait and see and you’ll start to understand.”

I never actually managed to answer the question because we got distracted, so let me answer it here.

According to my titles tracker, I have published 126 titles total. Some of those were republished under a different name. Some are now unpublished. Some are collections of shorter stuff. And two were free from the date they were published.

So if I just look at what I have published now, it’s 84 titles, 47 of which are short stories or collections of short stories.

There’s the first issue. Apart from erotica or erotic romance, shorts don’t seem to sell. At least not for me.

I have one short story series that has made me a couple thousand dollars, but most of my short stories don’t do much. The next most successful short story series has made me about $700.

That leaves me with 37 published novels or non-fiction titles.

Six are novels, the rest are non-fiction. Now, novels do sell and they’re eligible for more advertising options, which is key for getting visibility. And five of those novels are in my top ten in terms of gross revenue earned.

But they’re split across three pen names. Three novels are under romance pen names, the other three are YA fantasy. So basically it’s the equivalent of having an author with two novels out, an author with one novel out, and an author with three novels out.

Issue there is how frequently I publish a novel. My romance novels were three years apart. My fantasy novels were about a year apart. (And the next fantasy novel will be released more than a year after the last one.)

And the number of titles. I don’t write to market, so people aren’t seeking out my books on their own. Which means I need enough titles to catch in a reader’s mind and to give them chances to find me. I don’t have that with any of those names.

Which leaves us with the non-fiction titles.

Those are spread across three pen names and cover ten topics. Some can overlap. I have guides to Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word, and if you look at the also-boughts you’ll see that people cross over there. But people reading my book about dealing with grief aren’t also reading my cookbook.

So again it’s like having an author with just a few titles out under their name. And with non-fiction there’s only so much you can write about a topic.

I think part of the reason I’m starting to see some traction with this author name (M.L. Humphrey) is because I finally have a decent number of titles out under this name and that they can potentially flow to one another.

I also, especially with non-fiction, tend to write what I feel like writing. I’ve lucked into a few where people actually wanted a book that covered that topic, but I have others that have made me $50 and that’s probably all they’ll ever make me.

Putting out all those titles has been good for me in terms of learning the mechanics of how you do things, which is why I felt comfortable writing the how-to books on ACX and CreateSpace. Put out twenty titles in audio and you learn a few things. Publish over forty paperbacks through CreateSpace and you see a wide range of what can go wrong and how it works.

But having a lot of titles out in the way I do is not the profit-maximizing approach.

If you want that, you focus on one name, in an area where people are going to come looking for your books, stay consistent in what you deliver, deliver on a steady schedule, and promote regularly.

If you can do that, you’ll probably do very well.

I…can’t. Or won’t. I’m not sure which.

Every year I sit myself down and say, “If you want to make good money at this, you need to crank out six books this year under one name in a hot market. Like dragons. Write dragons. Ready, set, go.”

And then I go write something completely different instead.

Despite my inability to do what I know will make me money, it’s slowly adding up. March of last year I grossed $440. Right now for March I’m at $3,500 and my profit for the month is over four times what I grossed last year.

I am incredibly proud of the progress I have made. At the same time I ask myself daily why I’m not making more money doing this. You know, what’s wrong with me that I’m not a six-figure author yet. (See above for the answer. And maybe have a reality check about how common that really is.)

And it’s hard to have knowledge to share that you know will help others but to not be some bright blazing example of success. But it is what it is. And I figure that my true target audience is those who are where I was two years ago. My third full year of self-publishing I grossed $2700. In this my fifth full year of self-publishing I’ve grossed more than that in this one month.

So when that question comes up, that’s what I focus on. Where I started, how far I’ve come, and the fact that my progress may be slow but it’s steady and improving.

 

The Current State of AMS

First, for anyone enrolled in the AMS class who wondered what happened to that bonus video yesterday, it turns out there’s an extra step to publishing a video to a class once it’s live. I have now taken that step and you should be able to see the video. Sorry ’bout that. Lots of learning in this process, which is what makes it fun and aggravating at the same time.

So there’s been a lot of grumbling about AMS lately. Understandably so. It’s not a static system and it does keep moving and not always improving, especially for those who were in there during the easy times.

And I figured it was maybe time for me to crunch some of my own numbers and see what there was to see. I started tracking actual profit and loss numbers from my AMS ads in September, so all I have is September to March and for March I have about $1000 in ad spend to use as a comparison.

What am I seeing?

Between September 2017 and March 2018, I have run AMS ads on 36 separate titles. That ranges from some short stories to short story collections to novels (both fantasy and romance) to non-fiction.

Of those 36 titles, ads on 17 of them were profitable for the entire time period. The most profitable one netted me $3050, the next most profitable $781, the next one after that $237. Of the titles where ads were not profitable for the period, the biggest loser cost me $180 for the period, next biggest loser cost me $66, and next one after that cost me $43.

If I look at the three months in 2017 and compare those to the three months in 2018, 24 titles made more (or lost less) in 2018 as compared to 2017. Six of those were because I stopped running ads on them. Almost all of the ones that continued to be profitable were either non-fiction titles or titles that are in KU. For the titles in KU that was two short story collections and one novel.

Overall, across all of the ads, I made $4,250 more than I spent on the ads. And my best performers for the period were also all titles released within the last six to nine months. And all of the ads I ran on 99 cent short stories didn’t earn back their ad cost.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t tracking numbers on P/L a year ago. I think that would’ve been a very interesting comparison.

What can I conclude from all of this?

  1. I think AMS are far easier and more profitable to run on KU titles right now.
  2. I still think AMS have the ability to deliver increased profits, but it’s not as easy as it once was.
  3. AMS work better (for me) on non-fiction than fiction, even when that non-fiction is wide.
  4. They also work better on higher-priced titles (for me) since there’s more room to make a profit. And they do work on higher-priced titles since most of my profitable ones were $4.99 titles.
  5. AMS do better with newer titles. (Although this may be a general advertising maxim. You do better with new material no one has seen before, assuming they want it.)

As always, YMMV.