Thoughts for 2019 (Self-Publishing)

It’s almost 2019. For some of you that’ll hit today, for the rest of us that’ll hit tomorrow. And the “what do you foresee for 2019?” posts are popping up here or there on forums so I thought I’d see if I could weigh in here with some thoughts.

First, I think the market for self-publishing/indie publishing has substantially matured over the last year. So where someone might have been able to just throw a book up there, have it take off, make a fortune, and continue to do so consistently without advertising or some effort to capture those readers like a mailing list a year or two ago, I don’t think that’s realistically possible anymore.

Could it happen? Sure. Anything can happen. But it’s certainly not something I would bet a career on.

Which probably means a mind shift for a lot of the indies/self-publishers who came up pre-2015 or so and don’t have a strong audience. It also means some bad advice will continue to float around for newbies who listen to those who did come up in that period and established a strong audience, because they are going to probably, maybe, continue to do just fine without much advertising as long as they release often enough to keep their readers’ attention and continue to put out a product that meets their audience’s need.

If you want advice on establishing yourself now, you need to look to those who have done so recently. And in your genre.

I still think there are two possible paths to take to make money at this. One is what I call the wave approach, which is figuring out what’s hot right now and writing it as much and as fast as you can until it dies. And then moving on to the next trend and doing it all again. (Some folks do well hitting a trend but fail to move on when the readers do and then they crash and burn.)

The other is what I call the brick-by-brick approach, which requires steadily releasing books and building your readership with each new release.

The wave approach is fast and quick but it’s like riding a rollercoaster and there’s no guarantee  you’ll be able to keep up with it long-term. But it can be some incredible money short-term.

The brick-by-brick approach is slow and steady, but it’s not guaranteed either. If the overall audience for what you’re writing isn’t big enough to sustain you, you won’t ever hit a good level of income. And it also requires a quality product that keeps readers coming back for more. If you can do that, four or five years of steady new releases may get you there and keep you there.

But note the words steady and new in that last paragraph.

I discussed this in Achieve Writing Success. It’s something more indies/self-publishers need to embrace: If you want a career out of this it will not be made on one book. Probably not even on one series. You need to steadily produce more material to feed your existing audience and to give you more flexibility when it comes to things like promotion and visibility.

(Yes, there are exceptions, but never plan on being the exception. I am also admittedly bad at this on the fiction side of things but I will say that each new fiction release I’ve done has moved the base-level for that pen name upward.)

What else?

I think the recent changes in audio have been interesting, but that because so many people are locked in with ACX either because of royalty share agreements or that seven-year distribution term they throw in all their contracts that it’s not going to have a significant impact for now. I just hope those new players hold out long enough for people to be able to shift to them.

For me KU is useful when it’s useful and a market I don’t use when it’s not. I will say that I make a steady income on my romance novels in KU even though they are not written to a trend and the last one was published a year and a half ago, so maybe try things for yourself instead of letting the loudest voices decide for you.

I suspect we’ll have a pretty large shakeout next year and lose a lot of authors who just can’t keep up or adjust to the continuing changes, because even though we’re maturing as an industry there is a lot of change that happens all the time and most people aren’t good at handling that long-term. The key when you miss a shift is to not panic and waste time screaming about how the world has changed, but to adjust and find a new normal instead.

For me personally? 2018 was my best year by far and 2019 is looking like it’ll top that. But I did the “let me jump off a cliff and see if I can figure out how to fly before I hit bottom” approach that everyone warns against. (Being high Responsibility it was the only way I would put writing ahead of day-job to give it a fair shot.)

So I’m awful close to being able to fly, but I’m also awful close to hitting the bottom, too.

Which will happen first? That’s the question. I see enough promise right now to continue at least until my birthday in June and then I’ll reassess again. (I really want to have at least made six-figures gross from my writing before I leave, if I leave, and if things continue as they are I’ll have made that mark by then.)

Of course, if an interesting enough opportunity presents itself in the interim, I might take it. (Unfortunately for me all the interesting opportunities that have come my way in the last few years have involved being on-site in Europe or the UK and I won’t take those because of the pup. She’s priority one for me.)

Right now my book income could probably stay steady with just half an hour a day to tend my ads because most of my top-sellers are long-term sellers that have hit steady levels. But I suspect that would fade if I stopped paying attention to shifts on the business side of things. And competition being what it is, that could change at any moment.

Overall I like my life right now and I’m not eager to give it up. So, onward. I have an Excel book to finalize and publish, a good friend to visit next month, and then a cozy or two to write.

And a lot of outside voices to ignore…

Study Success Not Failure

In a recent post, Dean Wesley Smith made an excellent point that I wanted to highlight here as well. And that’s that if you want to improve your writing you don’t study someone else’s failures, you study what they did right.

I recently ran across this same concept with the reading I did around CliftonStrengths. In a book called First, Break All the Rules--which is an excellent book that’s well worth reading IMO–they explore this concept and give a few examples from Gallup’s research.

For example, in that book they talk about the difference between successful and unsuccessful nurses.

Unsuccessful nurses become too emotionally engaged with their patients and are overwhelmed by their emotions and can’t help their patients effectively.

What do you think the best nurses do?

If you studied just the nursing failures you’d probably assume that they keep an emotional distance from their patients to protect themselves. You’d be wrong. That’s what average nurses do.

Successful nurses become emotionally involved with their patients, too, but they use that to help make the patient’s experience the best it can possibly be.

Same with salespeople. Bad salespeople hate to cold-call. And if you just looked at your worst salespeople you might think that what you need are people who don’t have that reluctance to make cold calls. But you’d be wrong. Average salespeople will just go through the motions and not care. Good salespeople will dread making a call, but they’ll persevere and win over the customer despite that.

As the book says,

“[E]xcellence and failure are often surprisingly similar. Average is the anomaly.”

Now apply that back to writing. Think about the best stories you’ve ever read. Or watched. Were they safe? Were they vanilla-flavored? Or were they bold? And different? Did they take risks? Did they choose to be their own unique experience instead of one of a hundred just like it?

And what do you think most writing rules aim to do? They aim to curtail the bold failures. But what makes one book horrid, can make another awesome. It’s sometimes a matter of degree. Maybe a book was just not quite over the top enough to pull it off and the answer is not to dial it back but to ramp it up.

Which is why you can’t look at what made a book bad and try to avoid that. You’ll never get anywhere. You have to look at what made a book great and find a way to leverage that for your own writing.

I’ll tell you that I stopped listening to most writing rules after I read some Stephen King with my “these are the rules” hat on. Because that man? He’s fearless. He writes what he wants and in the way he wants to write it and to hell with anyone and their rules. (He may be one of the few highly successful writers I’ve seen using parenthesis in his fiction writing.)

When I saw that, I thought to myself, “If he can do that and be that successful, then anything is on the table.”

It’s not about how many adjectives or adverbs you use. Or how long your chapters are. Or how long your paragraphs are. Or even whether or not you use info dumps.

It’s about finding a way to tell an engaging story that pulls your reader through from start to finish and makes them want more.

If you want to learn how to do that, how to make the equivalent of book crack cocaine, don’t study the hundreds of people who’ve failed, study the few who’ve succeeded.

(You could also just sit down and try a couple hundred times until you come up with your own unique formulation, too, but that’s a lot of time wasted learning lessons others could teach you in a few minutes or hours.)

Anyway. Something to think about as we head into the new year…Enjoy!

“Pay to Play”

First, Happy Holidays! It’s already the 25th for some of you, so let me get that out there right away. (And sorry for missing other holidays that already occurred this month.) May you all be able to spend time with those you love the most.

Okay.

Now, having said that…

If I hear the phrase “pay to play” one more time I am going to break something. For those of you who don’t know, the phrase “pay to play” with respect to Amazon advertising has spread like wildfire in the last month.

People are up in arms saying that the only way you can sell books on Amazon these days is to advertise them. And that that has created a pay to play system. Some are going so far as to say that this means everyone should go wide. Or better yet, just sell their books off their websites.

At which point I start laughing uncontrollably.

Because, how do people think books sell on those other platforms? And how do they think books sell off of someone’s website?

By…wait for it…the author paying for advertising. And not even good advertising.

Here’s the thing: AMS show when people are on Amazon ready to buy books. They’re right there. Two clicks away from a sale.

What happens when you advertise on Facebook? Someone’s on there looking to see what outrageous thing their Aunt Rita said today and they see a book ad. Now they have to click on that book ad and leave Facebook to go buy that book. Are they going to do that? If they decide to and you send them to a landing page on your website now they have to click off of there to their chosen store. And then they still have to decide to buy your book.

And selling direct off your website? You’re a random stranger on the internet. How many people do you honestly think will buy from you when they don’t know you? Sure, if you’re known to a reader base, they might buy from you. And I do make the occasional direct sale here, but compared to what I sell on Amazon? Peanuts.

The self-publishing market is maturing. Which means that there is sufficient supply to meet demand. Which means that normal market factors are in play now. Five years ago people could throw a title up on Amazon, it could have a horrible cover or not cover at all, they could not do anything with it, and it could sell. That’s because there was a pool of users desperate for good content.

Those days are gone. There might be pockets of high demand like that. But overall? You need to present a good product and then find a way to get that product in front of potential readers. One good way to do that is to advertise your books.

And let me say here, too, that there are very few advertising options in the self-pub space that let you advertise for full price which in my opinion makes AMS a Godsend. But advertising books at full price is a shift in mindset that I think some self-publishers have yet to understand. So, yes, you will lose your shirt advertising a 99 cent book with AMS. Especially if you don’t have a long series with good readthrough to back up that 99 cent book. Which most self-publishers don’t.

So up your game. Write a book that’s worth paying $4 or $5 or $6 for.

Save 99 cents for mailing list promos like Bookbub. Or build up enough books in a successful series for your ads to pay for themselves.

And for all that’s holy, quit calling basic advertising “pay to play” just because some people used to get it for free.

Excel: How to Count TRUE or FALSE Entries in a Range

I’m working on a new Excel title right now and I was going to put a note in there about counting the number of TRUE or FALSE entries returned by the EXACT function, but then I realized that there actually isn’t a SUMA function that would let you do that. At least not in Excel 2013.

So I asked myself, how could I take a column of 10,000 entries and find out how many of those entries were TRUE versus FALSE?

You may be thinking to yourself, why would I even need this? When is that going to happen? The scenario I was looking at was using the EXACT function to compare two columns of text to identify any entries where those two columns aren’t the same value (like I do when I’m looking at AMS ad performance). I generally use an IF function for that so I have blank spaces or ERROR as my values, but if you use EXACT instead you’ll have TRUE and FALSE values. And it’s hard to scan down a list like that to count how many FALSE entries you have, if any.

So what can you do if you have a column of 10,000 entries that read TRUE, FALSE, TRUE, TRUE, TRUE, FALSE, etc. etc. and you want to easily count the number of entries that are TRUE or the number that are FALSE?

There are any number of options. You could filter your data. You could sort it. You could create a pivot table even. But how do you do this with a function?

It turns out that Excel assigns values to TRUE and FALSE. TRUE has a value of 1. FALSE has a value of 0. That’s why I thought there should be a SUMA function to tell Excel to sum your TRUE and FALSE entries. But there isn’t.

What there is is the AVERAGEA function which will average the values across a range, including your TRUE and FALSE values. So if all of your entries in a range are TRUE, you’ll get a value of 1 using AVERAGEA. If they’re all FALSE you’ll get a value of 0. If some are TRUE and some are FALSE you’ll get a decimal value representing the proportion of your entries that are TRUE.

It’s very simple to convert that decimal value to a count of TRUE or FALSE entries as long as you know the total number of values you’re averaging.

For TRUE entries it’s number of total values * AVERAGEA for the range.

For FALSE entries it’s number of total values * (1 minus AVERAGEA for the range).

And if you want to get really fancy because you don’t know the number of values you’re dealing with, you can use COUNTA to get the number of values.

So for Column G, for example, if we wanted the number of TRUE entries we’d use:

=COUNTA(G:G)*AVERAGEA(G:G)

COUNTA will count all entries including those with TRUE or FALSE values and then AVERAGEA will average all values in the range, including TRUE and FALSE entries.

This will only work if the entire range consists of TRUE and FALSE values or blank spaces, but it does work.

Like so:

Counting TRUE and FALSE Entries

Success and Shifting Expectations

I was looking at my sales numbers this morning and projecting what I was going to gross for the month as well as net. And I felt depressed by the numbers. Because this time of year my ad costs go up compared to my sales. So I was looking at grossing more than I ever have before but netting less than I did in September or October. And maybe even August.

But then I had to take a step back and give myself a reality check. Because where I am right now, on the 13th of December, for both gross and net is more than last December. I’m not even halfway through the month and I’m past where I was a year ago. That means I’m very likely going to double what I was earning this time a year ago and most likely triple those numbers.

That’s really hard to keep in perspective. Every single time I level up I seem to forget how hard it was to get to where I am now. I remember wanting and wanting and wanting my first $1,000 month. (Gross not net.) I came close a few times in the year before it happened–hitting in the $800’s–but I just could not break through that level. For years. I was in my fourth year of self-publishing before I broke through that level.

And, knock wood, haven’t gone below it since.

But now if I had a $1,000 month I’d be bummed. I’d wonder what on earth I had done wrong to slip that far. Each time you hit a new level, your expectations shift. At least mine do. That’s what keeps me moving forward.

But that makes it hard, too. Because you can never stay satisfied with where you are. And, of course, in indie land there are always people doing better with apparently no effort. “Oh I just write my books and throw them out there and they earn me six-figures a year. Isn’t that what it’s like for everyone?” (No. No it is not.)

Which is why I appreciated something I saw on KKR’s blog this morning. She said:

“A lot of you have told me lately that you’re “failures” even though your books are selling. They might only be selling one copy a week or they might be selling dozens of copies per day. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll find someone who you believe is doing better than you are…

That’s why I wrote today’s blog. Because I want you to celebrate each sale, each reader. Those sales are important. Someone liked your work enough to spend money on it. Be happy about that.

 

And it’s true. Sometimes we need to just take a moment and embrace the fact that we wrote something, put it out there, and other people bought it. Heck, they even liked it. Having that happen once is amazing. Having it happen hundreds of times? Thousands of times? That’s…there are no words if you really stop to think about it. (I’m high enough in Self-Assurance that I expect that to happen, but really, truly? It’s almost a miracle. If miracles are made from sweat, tears, and blood.)

Which is all to say: embrace every milestone. You may never be satisfied with where you are (I probably won’t be), but force yourself to stop every once in a while and appreciate how far you’ve come and what you’ve accomplished.

AMS Ads Revisited

I should be writing (as always), but I only have half an hour until the pup needs fed so I figured it was a good time to revisit AMS ads.

For me they’re still profitable and the bulk of my advertising.

My same basic strategy remains the same: one sponsored product ad per book with strong bids. Not ridiculous bids, but not 20 cents a click either.

This being December my ad spend has been climbing fast. Last month was higher as well. But my overall sales are not climbing. I’m still profitable but not as profitable as I would’ve been with that same ad spend in September. It’s just that time of year when you spend more for less visibility.

It’s also because I turned back on ads for some of my books where I’d had the ads turned off due to mediocre performance. I killed those ads again a couple days ago because the lesson is the same each time: Ads work better on books people want.

Every time I get billed for AMS ads I check my ad performance. I look at what I spent on ads for that time period and compare it to what I earned on those books during the same time period. Since I get billed weekly due to my ad spend, this is really the only time I worry about ad performance. I never bother with ACoS or any of the flawed data on the dashboard. (Since moving to KDP Print I have to wait a few days after the invoice date for all print sales to be reported on the KDP dashboard, but that’s the only change I’ve made recently.)

What I find is that the same five or six ads perform very well each time while the rest are basically breakeven. Those breakeven ads stay in a range of losing me $5 to making me $5 for the time period and rarely move outside of it.

I will on rare occasions have an ad that goes more than $5 negative on me, but usually it’s just one ad. When that happens I decide whether to pause it, adjust its keywords, or adjust its bids. The ads that do that are usually for the same small handful of books.

At the end of the day ad performance comes back to the book being advertised. Books people want to buy are more profitable to advertise than books they don’t. Changing keywords or bids or ad copy helps some, especially if you haven’t aligned your ad copy with your blurb and your cover, but it’s mostly about the book and whether it looks like what people want.

What I’ve found far more successful is changing a book’s title or cover if it’s not selling well with advertising. (I changed up my cookbook’s title recently and it’s now selling much better, for example.)

I also do better with non-fiction ads than fiction right now, but it’s hard to say how much of that is because my fiction is not generally written to market and my non-fiction most definitely hits its market.

My AMS ad for my new cozy, the only fiction I have written to market, was in the negative for the first month of launch when I had deliberately high bids but now that I’ve backed those down to something more reasonable it’s mildly profitable in and of itself. So I’d say someone who writes to market in a genre like romance could make a killing with AMS ads still.

Not at 99 cents, of course. Not unless there’s a huge series behind it with good readthrough. You need to earn enough on a sale to pay for your ads and you’re competing with others who do have enough backlist to bid high for ads.

Being in KU has an advantage, too, because there’s a certain percent of people who click on an ad looking for KU titles who won’t buy if you’re not available in KU. But my best-performing ads are all for wide books. (Again, non-fiction, but no reason it couldn’t hold true if you have a fiction title that hits all of the buttons for a large reader group.)

So my bottom line on AMS as of right now? Still well worth it.

(But if others want to hate them and refuse to use them and say nasty things about them every chance they get? So be it. Less people using them means lower potential ad costs means more profit.)

(And I’d add that for those who haven’t read my book or watched the video course that while Amazon has added some bells and whistles to the ads since those were created that the core advice in both is still valid.)

 

The Excel PRODUCT Function

I have to confess that the PRODUCT function in Excel is one I’ve generally considered pretty useless. SUMPRODUCT is much more exciting to me. But this morning I was trying to do some projections for sales of my new cozy mystery and I ended up using the PRODUCT function two different times.

And because I’m a nerd and Excel things excite me, I figured I’d share where and how I used it.

This will also be useful to any writers who write in a series or are thinking of doing so and want to extrapolate from sales of a first in series to sales of the whole series.

So here’s the thought process and how the PRODUCT function can come into play:

At its most basic, if I publish a single book then my earnings on that book are equal to the price of the book times the payout percentage. (In reality, if you’re in KU or have a print version it’s more complicated than that because each format has its own value but we’re going to ignore that for now.)

Now, there’s a temptation to say, “If I write ten books in this series, I’ll earn ten times as much.” But that’s not how it works.

Not everyone who reads the first book will go on to read the other books. I have a series of eight related short romance stories and I see a drop off from story 1 to story 2 and then from story 2 to story 3. But from story 4 onward it’s very close to a 100% readthrough.

If I want to calculate the value of a new customer I can’t just take the price of each story times the payout. I also have to factor in how many readers actually make it that far into the series.

So the value of book 8 to me is not price times payout. It’s price times payout times % of readers of book 1 who read it.

This is the first place you can use the PRODUCT function.

Because the calculation you’re doing here is: price times payout times % who read book 2 times % who then read book 3 times % who then read book 4 times % who then read book 5, etc.

(In Excel for Self-Publishers I did a similar sort of calculation but used a different approach that just looked at book 1 to that particular book in the series because I had real data at that point. But this is extrapolating when you don’t have any data yet.)

One way to write that calculation is: =A1*A2*A3*A4*… where each of those values is in a different cell in Column A.

Another way to write it, though, is using PRODUCT. You just write =PRODUCT(A1:A9) assuming your price is in A1, your payout is in A2, and your readthrough rates are in Cells A3 through A9.

Isn’t that nice and simple?

I know, it’s a little hard to visualize. And you’re probably not going to set your data up exactly that way.

But let’s look at a simpler example, which is the second way in which I used PRODUCT.

First I had to calculate the value above. I assumed I had a ten book series with book 1 priced at 99 cents and the rest at $3.99 with a fifty percent readthrough from book 1 to book 2 that then goes up to 80% and then 95%, I calculated that I would earn $7.54 for each new reader.

Currently book 1 is priced at $3.99.

So that’s an increase in overall revenue by a factor of 2.70 just based on having more books out. (7.54 divided by 3.99).

But we also have that price drop factor at play. How many more people will read book 1 if it’s priced at 99 cents than are currently reading it when it’s priced at $3.99? For my purposes I said three times as many.

(This is for cozy mystery. Other genres might see no increase or even a drop. Or readthrough might be severely impacted depending on book 1 and book 2 prices. You have to know what you’re selling or have a guess how it’ll behave to do this.)

Next, we have the series factor. Some people prefer to read series instead of standalones. And more books means more visibility. So how much will having ten, presumably well-reviewed, books in a series impact book 1 sales? In this case I assumed that would double sales although there’s a good chance it could do more than that.

So if I want to take current sales on book 1 and try to figure out what I might earn if I have ten books out in that series what I need to do is take the amount I’m earning each month on that book and multiply it by that readthrough factor and then multiply that by the price drop factor (assuming I’m dropping book 1’s price, otherwise it’s just 1), and then multiply that by the series increase factor.

Which is another place to use PRODUCT. Here’s the Excel worksheet so you can visualize this:

Series Value Estimation

I have the increase factors in Cells C34 through E34, so my formula in Cell F34 is =PRODUCT(C34:E34) to get my overall factor of 16.2.

I can then take that number and multiply it by the amount I expect to earn on the first cozy when things reach a steady state. Let’s say $250. (In the image above that calculation’s done in Cell G34.)

(You can use PRODUCT again here, which is what I did. In that case, the formula is =PRODUCT(B34:E34) because I have Book 1 sales in Cell B34. Or you can just do =B34*F34.)

Based on these calculations I can say that if I have a Book 1 in a series that is earning me $250 a month and I write nine more books in that series and discount the first book to 99 cents while selling all the other titles at $3.99 with my assumed readthrough rates and price drop and series increases that I will earn, on average, $4,000 a month from those ten books.

Understand, though, that there are many many assumptions at play here. If my Book 1 to Book 2 readthrough is 75% instead, that number goes up to $6,000 a month for a ten-book series. If I see a four-fold increase in sales from having a series rather than a two-fold increase then it’s $8,000. If I have 75% readthrough AND a four-fold increase, then it’s $12,000 a month.

On the flip side if there is no series increase and dropping the price only doubles sales then it’s just $2,000 a month for a ten-book series. And if people fall off of the series as it continues (say you have lower and lower readthrough rates after Book 6) then it’s just $1,445 a month for that ten-book series.

(Don’t continue a series like that. Wrap it up as soon as you can. Book 1 to Book 2 you should see drop off. Family and friends will buy Book 1 to support you but not read the whole series, some people will find that the book just isn’t for them, and some will buy and not get around to it for five years. Book 2 to Book 3 may have another drop off because people who were on the fence with Book 1 may try Book 2 and then decide not to continue. But from Book 3 onward, you should really have your core audience.)

(I should also add that there could be a time factor at play here. The longer the series the longer it takes someone to read through that series. On a recent podcast someone mentioned six months for how long it can take to read through a series. For a very long one, I’d agree that might be true. For a trilogy, if you’ve really hooked a reader, I’d say one month at the longest. Of course, that’s from when they start reading it. But once you reach steady state for a series that should disappear in the wash because people should always be reading through your series each month even if they’re at different points in doing so.)

Anyway. You can make all of this insanely complicated if you want, but this was just a basic calculation I wanted to share using PRODUCT which I had so unfairly misjudged. Once you set something like this up, it’s easy enough to play with the numbers and see your full range of values.