It All Started With Pivot Tables

The other day I went to check my book page for some reason and saw this:

Excel for Beginners now has 1,000 ratings on Amazon. That’s not reviews mind you, just ratings, but still a pretty nice little milestone to reach.

So in honor of that event, I’ve decided to put the ebook versions of Pivot Tables and Excel 2019 Pivot Tables to free until the end of September. (Amazon, as usual, is going to not be free just yet, but the other stores are and Amazon will catch up in a day or two.)

I also figured I’d share my little origin story on these books.


Five years ago I sat down to write a book on using pivot tables in Microsoft Excel. This was back in the day when it was not at all easy to know how many copies of a book you had sold through Amazon. There were graphs you could see, by country, but no pretty summary numbers like we have today.

You could see sales for a country for that day for that format by holding your mouse over the graph bars, but to get one bottom-line number required exporting a spreadsheet and then applying a pivot table. (Or summing the data if you only had one title.)

I told people about how they could use pivot tables to do this more than once on Kboards, but usually the response was “I don’t know how to use those.”

My thought was, “You could try Googling it?”, but eventually I got tired of hearing authors say they couldn’t tell you how many sales they’d had that month when using pivot tables was so easy. Two minutes of effort and they’d have their answer.

So I figured I would write a book about exactly how to do it. With screenshots and everything. Push this button, go here, there you go. That would give me something to point people to and if they were still clueless at that point it was on them for not wanting to follow the step-by-step instructions in the book.

And it was a unique angle on using Excel that I hadn’t seen covered yet so it made sense to put it out there because no one else had.

I sat down to write the book. A quick little title. Just knock it out.

But then I realized I had a problem. I didn’t want to walk people through Excel from absolute beginner to using pivot tables just for this one task. That was a lot.

(I sort of had done a walkthrough from start to basic math with the Juggling Your Finances Basic Excel Primer book that was a companion to Budgeting for Beginners but I thought my audience for this book was going to be those people who already knew Excel some.)

So I had a dilemma. Do I go from “this is Excel” all the way to “this is how you download this specific report on Amazon and apply a pivot table to it?”

Or did I need to split the material up into separate books? That way people could join in on the learning process wherever they were in their own personal knowledge without bogging down in things they didn’t need to learn.

Luckily for me, I decided to split the material up.

Ultimately, I ended up publishing four separate titles in September 2017: Excel for Beginners (for anyone brand new to Excel), Intermediate Excel (for those who knew the basics of Excel but didn’t know things like pivot tables and conditional formatting), Excel for Writers (which covered things I’d done with Excel that were writing-related but not self-publishing-related), and then Excel for Self-Publishers. (which was the book I’d actually set out to write and which at the end of the day also included a lot of AMS-related uses of Excel as well, that are also no longer needed today thanks to advancements in reporting by Amazon).

At that point I had what may or may not have been a lucky break.

I’m not sure how much it did or didn’t contribute to sales, but I think it maybe helped a little. It certainly didn’t hurt.

Basically, one of the groups I was in had an open call for any material that might work for a NaNoWriMo bundle, and I mentioned the two books on Excel for writers and self-publishers.

The books were included in the bundle which ran in October and November 2017.

(I say that’s luck, because, yes, I did have the books ready and had done the work that put me in the path of hearing about that invitation. But the fact that someone made that open call and that they included little no-name me, was pure luck.)

Maybe a few of those folks circled back to the Excel for Beginners and/or Intermediate Excel titles and gave them a little boost.

Maybe they didn’t. I’d also started some AMS ads. Those could’ve been the reason the titles gained traction.

Whatever the cause, first month sales of Excel for Beginners were 24 copies. Second month, 47 copies. Third month, 69. Fourth, 122. And so on.

Sales eventually hit their level. They can’t double each month forever.

End result, between September 2017 and August 2018 I had a four-fold increase in sales and an eight-fold increase in profit, largely driven by those Excel titles.

And they’ve held relatively steady for me ever since. I have to work harder for those sales now than I did in 2018, but they’re still there.

All because I had a niche little area of expertise and was annoyed enough that other people didn’t know about it to write a book. And because I luckily ended up in the process writing a book that was more universally accessible than the subject that originally started me down that road.

Other than that bundle, Excel for Self-Publishers, the title that I originally set out to write, only ever sold 50 copies. And it’s now only available on Payhip because so much has changed with the data that’s now available to self-publishers that you don’t need to jump through so many hoops so I unpublished it from the major stores.

(I leave it on Payhip because it has how to calculate an average customer value and series sellthrough which are still useful. But I replaced it with Data Analysis for Self-Publishers which talks about the thoughts behind those kinds of calculations but doesn’t do the step-by-step thing that the original book did.)


It would have never occurred to me to write a beginner-level book on Excel otherwise.

But I did. And I’m happy I did. Because 1,000 reviews on Amazon later, that little title still chugs along and hangs out in the top 100 for its category most days.

Now, would I have the same result if I did that today?


AMS has changed drastically since then, so those ads would not work near as well for who I was then if I published that same title today.

Also, because I mentioned having success with my Excel books a lot of others jumped in there, too, starting sometime in 2018. So there are far more titles competing in that space now than there were when I first started out with those books.

When I first published them the trade publishers weren’t even using AMS to advertise their books. Now they are.

And there was only maybe one or two self-publishers in the space. So a $12.95 paperback stood out as a good, affordable alternative to the $40+ versions from the trade publishers.

Now…Not so much.

So the lesson to take is not, “write a book about Excel for beginners.” The lesson is, “find a personal pain point where you can share knowledge”, “find your own angle on that pain point that no one else has covered yet”, and then “try to leverage off of that to find something more universal or broadly applicable.” It may just work.

And, please, if you have access to Excel and don’t know how to use pivot tables and you work with data that needs to be summed up, go download one of the two pivot tables books and learn it. Please. For my sanity.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is an author who has been published under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at]

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