The Dirty Little Secret of Self-Publishing

I’m sure there’s actually more than one, but the one I’m thinking about today is this:

How many copies you sell is meaningless.

It’s what so many people talk about and you see it used in advertising all the time, but at the end of the day no author is going to be able to do this full-time, even if they’re selling millions of copies, unless they’re actually making a profit on those sales.

Self-publishing is horribly myopic in this respect. Rarely do I see someone report “I made $X profit.” Instead it’s “I sold X copies” or “I’ve sold $X worth of books.”

And I get it. The gross numbers certainly look a lot better for everyone than the net number. It’s far more exciting to say “I sold a million copies” than “I sold a million copies but it cost me so much that I’m now in the hole $10,000…”

And in this business you gotta celebrate every little victory no matter what. (And perception matters, too. People want to read what other people read. They want to associate themselves with success.)

Anyway.

What prompted this thought is that I realized yesterday that my first-in-series fantasy novel sold it’s 2500th copy sometime in April. Which is a big milestone for me. I had no idea I’d sold that many copies of that title until I stopped and looked at my reports.

Woohoo! Right?

But.

Here’s the interesting thing about that title and that series: it’s my least profitable series. I actually consider it a failure.

It’s only one of three “series” (out of 26) I have that are in the red. And the only one that’s more than $50 in the red. (It’s the cost of those damned covers that I love so much…)

Interestingly, my most profitable series has sold only half as many copies but grossed more because it’s never been on sale and been significantly more profitable because it’s easier to advertise.

It’ll never get a Bookbub. (I can’t even apply for one because it’s under their page count threshold.) I don’t get fan mail for it . I barely get reviews on it.

And yet…

That’s where the money is. Not in the one that’s sold a lot of copies and had three Bookbubs. But in the little workhorse title that just chugs along day after day racking up sales rain or shine.

So if you want to do this full-time. If what matters to you is being able to work for yourself and from home, don’t focus on how many copies you’ve sold. Focus on profitability. Focus on making more in sales than you spend to get those sales. And on leveraging every sale the best way you can. (By writing in series, for example.)

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…