Volume Matters

This is a post for the fiction writers, so if you’re not a fiction writer it may not be of interest.

I’m supposed to be starting on a new novel today. I have eleven days between now and my house inspection after which I’ll be (hopefully) desperately packing to move. But of course me and starting a new novel means me and doing anything but starting a new novel most times.

And today that meant looking at numbers. 2021 has been my best year profit-wise so far with my writing and I like to know where that’s coming from. Which lead to the title of this post: volume matters.

For 2021 as of the end of April I had sales across 101 different titles and seven pen names. That included 14 titles I released this year. (I just released four more in May but those haven’t hit my reports yet. It’s been a busy year.)

Obviously some of those 100+ titles sold far more than others. The 80/20 rule very much applies to this business.

And four titles actually lost me money when you take into account advertising. But three of those were first in series and the overall series was profitable. (The other lost me 35 cents because I can’t help but try every once in a while with a dead title to revive it.)

I believe that a large part of what has gotten me to the point I am with my writing income is the volume of titles I’ve published.

There’s the “try until you find something that works” aspect. There’s the increased visibility that more titles can give. There’s the little streams adding up to bigger streams idea. There’s the idea that the more writing you do the more you theoretically improve. It all ties in there.

But there’s also the base fact, at least in fiction, that more titles means more room to play with advertising. (Assuming you have sellthrough. If you don’t have sellthrough you have a genre expectation, reader engagement, or writing quality issue.)

My YA fantasy and cozy mystery series are a perfect example of how this can play out.

The YA fantasy series has three books in it which are currently priced at $3.99/$5.99/$5.99 but for most of the year were at $4.99 each. The cozy mystery series has seven books in it each priced at $3.99.

Both series have received similar promotions by me because I’m lazy so I tend to say something like, “Let me make all my first in series fiction titles free this month and then sign up for X, Y, and Z ads for all of them.”

Here’s where the volume thing comes into play:

Of these two series for 2021 the cozy mystery series has been more profitable. Even though the 2nd and 3rd titles in the fantasy series are individually more profitable than the 2nd and 3rd titles in the cozy mystery series.

Having the four additional books for readers to move to with the cozies has meant that even though they are priced lower and have worse sellthrough, I make more on that series than I do on the fantasy series. Which makes sense because if someone ends up liking the series they spend $28 on my books versus $15 for the fantasy series.

A few years back I dug into which authors were in the top 100 authors for the SFF genre on Amazon and my unscientific gut result was that it took about a dozen novels to get there. Sure, there were authors who were on there with one or two titles, but those were the exceptions.

It was the authors who had enough titles to benefit the most from advertising and to get enough visibility and were productive enough to stay visible who did well.

Now, just like the review myth, volume is obviously not enough. You also need writing that appeals to readers in that genre and enough readers that like your writing that it’s sustainable.

And it’s easier if you’re writing about subjects that interest those readers. Dragons will always do better in fantasy than shape-shifting millipedes. The more off-center you are from a genre the harder it is to get a toehold.

(Again, not saying it can’t happen, but just saying that being on the outside or fringes of your genre increases the difficulty.)

Also volume isn’t everything. If you write a bunch of useless crap to achieve volume that’s not gonna work. You still have to write what readers want.

But if you have a good book and you’re feeling frustrated about your sales the answer may very well be to write more. Don’t double-down and promote that book for five years at the expense of writing. Don’t give up and walk away. Write the next in the series.

Such a Tragedy…

Perhaps that’s not the best word to use in these here times when there are significant tragedies that people are facing, but that’s the phrase that came to mind.

I often find new authors to read via my own fantasy novel also-boughts. Most recently that led me to ordering the first couple of books in a series by author Michelle West. I liked those first couple of books enough to order two more and then one more and then five more and then six more.

Today I ordered ELEVEN books by that author. I’m hoping they are good. I suspect they will be. Due to the somewhat convoluted way the three series storylines intersect I’ve now read three in the author’s most recent series and one from what I think is the oldest of the three intertwined series.

Here’s where the tragedy comes into play. Seven of the books I ordered? Used copies. I loved this author and am happy to pay for their books, but because their publisher, for whatever stupid reason, seems to have decided to no longer publish some of their books in a mass market paperback size the author isn’t going to receive a penny for those seven books. And the publisher won’t know how much money they’re leaving on the table either.

Sure, there are ebook versions available. And even at a reasonable price. But I’m not an ebook reader. I download ebooks and they molder away on my computer sight unseen.

I am a physical book reader. And more importantly I am a mass market paperback reader for the most part. I might, might try a trade paperback size for an author I know I like, but if I have the choice I will always go for the mass market paperback. In this case I could pay (used) $25 for an entire six-book series in mass market paperback or I could pay $22 for the trade paperback version. I would’ve happily paid $60 for the books new in mass market paperback but I was not going to pay $120+ for them in trade paperback.

Which is the tragedy for that author. People are reading and loving their books but they’re not getting paid for it. All because their publisher won’t keep their books available in a mass market paperback size.

(And I should add that for the new books I bought they weren’t even available on B&N, I had to go to Amazon. Like how do you expect new readers to find and love a series when the full series isn’t even available to purchase easily? Come on.)

Microsoft Office 2019 Beginner Now Available

And to cap everything off for Office 2019, Microsoft Office 2019 Beginner is now (or will soon be) available at all fine retailers. Easiest way to find it is through the universal link here.

It includes Word 2019 Beginner, Excel 2019 Beginner, and PowerPoint 2019 Beginner and would make a great desktop resource for a new grad or someone with their first office job. (If I do say so myself.)

Ah, Choices

It’s interesting thinking about a “normal” job versus publishing (or really any entrepreneurial venture) because a normal job doesn’t really involve the same number of branching paths as publishing. And I’d say to a certain extent the biggest challenge of publishing is in that freedom to choose so many paths.

Which is not to say that a normal job doesn’t involve choices, especially a “professional” job like the one I had right out of college. There were any number of times during the almost decade that I worked for that first company where I had to decide whether to apply for different positions. Did I want to be a manager? Did I want to move to Dallas? Or to DC? Did I want my career to progress or was I good where I was? Should I stay within my department or try to move to a different one? Would getting an MBA help me move up? Should I do that even if it took away from my current job performance?

But the reality is I could’ve not made any choices and still coasted along just fine for years at that company. Once I was hired, all I really had to do was show up and be competent at my job. As a matter of fact, had I been less driven to make choices and want improvement it’s possible I could still be very happily putting along working at that company, still in the office I started out in, earning the type of salary that lets a person have a nice middle-income life with a house, a golden retriever, and 2.2 kids.

(Of course, I’m not that type of person, unfortunately.)

Which leads to publishing where you can be competent at the writing but still fail because you took Path A when Path B was the path to success.

And the reality is that the path to success is not Path A or Path B, it’s Path A-1-c-(2)-f-4.-z. It’s not just one little choice you make once and BOOM success. It’s like ten choices that all have to be made right and then you’re good for a day or a month or a year and if you don’t make the next choice right, well, back to square one.

Like:

Did you write something that will sell?

Did you pick the right path to reach your readers? Trade versus self-pub, KU versus wide.

Did you make the right choices along that path you chose? Good publisher/bad publisher, genre-appropriate cover and pricing, advertising.

Did you pivot when you should have? Did you not pivot and stay the course when you should have?

Did you trust the right people?

Every single one of those is a branch along the path. And every single one can lead to a dead end.

And, sure, you can reverse course. I know fiction authors who tried self-pub and failed and then signed six-figure trade pub deals. I know authors who tried one genre and failed and then tried another and found tremendous success. I know authors who started wide and then went into KU and did very well (to the tune of $50K a month).

But while they were finding that path and backing up and starting over and trying again, no one was paying their bills. Because that’s how entrepreneurship works. All the glory if you succeed, but all the failure and sleepless nights on the way there, too.

I currently find myself living in some sort of fractured reality where publishing comes into play because for at least the first four months of the year, things have been good overall. Really good. I have some series that are doing quite nicely.

And yet at the same time I find myself looking at a couple of my series and thinking, “How did I f you up that bad? And how do I fix it now?” And then thinking, “Ugh, KU. Fricking Amazon and their fricking exclusivity b.s. and distortion of the entire ebook fiction market with their thumb on the ranking scale in favor of their own damned books so that we’ll all cave and go exlucusive with them so they can then burn us down in fire five years from now.”

But, ya know, that’s just me. Haha. Sigh.

Ah, choices.

Vaccinated

Five hours ago I received my second COVID vaccine shot. I’m very happy to have that out of the way even though I won’t be surprised if I have to get a booster at some point down the road.

As glad as I am to see the U.S. finally turning some sort of corner on this, I know that large portions of the world have a very long way to go. Right now it’s Brazil, India, and Ontario facing big outbreaks, but I doubt they’ll be the last ones. And, as we’ve seen, the more people who get sick with this thing the more chances for the virus to mutate and create a variant. The more variants over time the more likely one is to escape the vaccines.

So, there’s hope, but we’re not in the clear by a long shot. I’m loosening up some but even vaccinated I probably won’t go “back to normal” for quite a while yet.

(Not that I was a raging socialite before this, but I’m sure I’ll still be asking myself, “Do you really need to run up to the store for THAT?” for quite a while yet. I’m one of the fortunate ones that doesn’t really crave human contact so it’s not a hardship for me to play it safe for a while longer.)

Unfortunately at this point at least in the U.S. I think we’ll see a lot of people get sick or die that really truly did not have to. I hope it won’t be people I love, but there are people I love who aren’t getting the vaccine, which means that selfishly I want everyone else to get the vaccine so that those people I love are protected from their own bad choices. But, well, not gonna happen is it?

(My A/C guy came by last week and was all about how this whole thing is a giant hoax and the vaccines will give you cancer and all sorts of other crazy shit that makes me realize that we do in fact live in different realities. When the threats are nebulous and just over the horizon it’s amazing how differently people can perceive them.)

Anyway. All I can do is my part. And remind others to do theirs. So, get vaccinated and try not to share air droplets with a bunch of strangers until you do.

And…Done

Yesterday I published PowerPoint 2019 Beginner and PowerPoint 2019 Intermediate which means I am now done with the Office 2019 versions of all of the Office essentials series. 300,000 words, 10 books total.

It was a lot.

The original versions of all of those books were written over the course of three years. I layered them on as it occurred to me to write them. But this time through it was all at once and added up to months of continuous effort.

It turns out that even though the originals were there to work from it didn’t take any less time to write the revised versions. I think part of that is simply down to the fact that books like these take a lot of time to format and prepare the screenshots and that has to all be done new for each version.

But, anyway. Done. Available for purchase. Print versions may take a little longer to filter through to all the sites.

As I’ve mentioned with the other books, if you already own the prior versions you don’t need to buy these as well. Either the original versions or the 2019 versions should teach you to use the applicable program. They make changes with each release (like moving where the Help function is for some reason), but the core of how things work remains pretty consistent.

I will point out that the 2019 versions use a larger font size. They’re not large print, but they are all written in a 14 point font which is just below large print size and will make it easier for readers of all ages to read the text.

That also means that they’re slightly longer which means that if having spine text on your books matters, the 2019 versions are the ones you want because some of the original series weren’t long enough to have spine text if bought through Amazon.

But other than that, pick your poison, they all work. Enjoy!

It’s Kinda Funny…

That the better I do at this writing thing the more inclined I am to quit altogether.

Sometime in March I passed a big milestone revenue-wise and probably hit one profit-wise and also came within spitting distance of a new monthly milestone, too.

And for the last few years I’ve earned enough from writing that it would pay a reasonable person’s bills if they lived in a reasonable area and weren’t too extravagant and hadn’t been stuck paying for their own MBA because their former employer pulled a bait and switch on them. (Thanks, George.)

In short, I’m doing better than most and making progress year-on-year.

Not near as well as some, that’s for sure. I think I’ve mentioned before that I know of some authors who are seven-figure-a-year authors and I personally know more than one that makes mid-ten-figures a month and I’m definitely not close to that.

But I’ve been steadily doing better each year. Enough to have some glimmer of hope. Some years are years that “pop” and suddenly I see an 8-fold increase from one year to the next. Others are more steady-risers that increase about 10% or so. But things have trended upward year-on-year as I add more product and figure out what I do that people want to pay for. And I’m doing it at a sustainable pace, too, so it’s not like I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my god, if I don’t work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, this all goes away tomorrow” like some I know.

And yet…

The better I do with my writing, the less optimistic I am about my potential to get to where I ultimately want to go.

I think that’s because when you first start out you think to yourself, “Wow, there are people who make seven figures a year at this. I could be one of those people. All I have to do is try and work hard at it.”

But then you try. And maybe you do work hard at it. But…you don’t make seven figures. Or six. Or five. or four. Or three.

Or you’re like me and you find that you just don’t want to work as hard at it as those other people did. One of the seven-figure authors I know of says she sits down and writes/edits for eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, every week of the year.

Me? I average 10 hours a week. I’m putting in a fourth of the time that woman is. Which is why she publishes 24 novels a year and I published three last year.

Or maybe you do work hard at it. Maybe you do put in those sixteen hour days. But then you put your book out there and…crickets. Or, worse, bad reviews. Or, you get, “Eh, okay, that was sort of good.” Your family and friends pat you on the back and say they enjoyed it. But they never ask for more. Neither do any of the strangers who bought it.

So you find that you’re not one of the crack-cocaine writers. You’re not addictive. People don’t crave what you write. They like it alright, maybe. But they don’t LOVE it. They don’t demand that everyone else read it. They don’t make absurd, unrealistic requests that you get the next book out NOW.

They just, you know, maybe will pick up the next one if it’s there and they can’t find something else they love more.

Those characters and those ideas that were so interesting and fascinating to you aren’t interesting and fascinating to anyone else. Or maybe they would be if your writing were better. You think maybe they would be. But that means that you’re writing isn’t that good right now? And who wants to think that? Especially if you’re a “that one story I’ve wanted to tell forever” writer.

Or maybe you do find fans. And you do work hard enough so you’re putting out enough books that it should work, but then you find out that there’s more to all of this than just writing books. There are so many other people who have written books, too, that you’re lost in the clutter. No one is finding your little adventure novel. No one is taking a taste and getting addicted.

You find out that it isn’t all about writing. You have to learn marketing. And cover design. And how to write ad copy.

Or maybe you have to pay for those things because you’re just not very good at those things. You can write a novel, but not a two-sentence zinger that gets someone to one-click.

And suddenly this thing that was going to make you a good living is costing you money instead. And you get bitter because wasn’t that cover beautiful enough? It if was, why didn’t anyone buy the book? Or why can’t you sell that book for more than 99 cents? Or $2.99? People spend more than that everyday on a cup of overpriced coffee that tastes bitter just to be cool and yet they won’t spend $2.99 on this novel that took you months to write?

And why does THAT book in your genre sell well when it’s so…not yours.

You start out all shiny and new and hopeful and optimistic that you’ll make it to the top. But then…life. And reality. Not everyone makes it to the top. Some barely get started. Some get stuck halfway. Some go up and then come crashing back down.

And the real kicker of it all is that it’s hard to know if you’ve reached the limit of your potential or if this is just a setback.

Is this moment, “Hey, you tried and you gave it your all, but this is as good as it gets.” Or is this the lull before you make that next leap up.

Maybe all you’ll ever be is that so-so writer that people don’t mind but don’t love. Or maybe you’ll turn the dial just a bit, try that next genre or that next idea or that next style of writing or reach that next reader who loves you so much they tell the world to read you, and it’ll all finally fall into place.

The further along you get the more it can start to feel like maybe there’s nothing left to turn.

Sure, you could write more, except…you know you’re not going to write more. You haven’t written more in five years.

Or you could write with more action and less emotion, except…that’s not the writer you are. If you want to do something that isn’t you there’s a nice comfy corporate job that comes with health insurance that’s a lot easier to do and doesn’t result in strangers on the internet making conjectures about your childhood.

You could write shorter. Or write longer. Switch genres. Learn how to be likeable online. Except…That’s not you. You know that maybe that’s how others succeeded, but…you aren’t them.

So then what do you do?

Do you try one more time? Or do you call it? Turn the dial or walk away? Because, really, life doesn’t have to be this hard. Does it?

Focusing On the Right Goal

This is a writing-related post, so if you’re not interested in that, now’s the time to bail.

When I first started self-publishing there was a lot of talk about two things: how many copies someone had sold (a million copies!) and whether they’d hit six-figures.

Which are both great and wonderful things to talk about, but as I discuss in detail in Data Analysis for Self-Publishers, can be the wrong metrics to focus on. You can sell a million copies and not make a living from your writing. You can also have six-figures a year in revenue and not making a living from your writing.

The number of copies sold ignores what those copies were sold for, and selling a million copies at 99 cents is going to have a vastly different outcome from selling them at $4.99. And, of course, if you pay too much for advertising then all the sales in the world aren’t going to make a difference if you lose money on each one.

(Which is not to say I don’t believe in advertising. I absolutely do. I just believe in advertising for a profit. If you can’t advertise and be profitable then you need to change your ad strategy, change up the cover etc on what you’re advertising to make it more desirable, or write something new that you will be able to advertise at a profit.)

But that’s not what prompted me to write this post today. I’m currently in a Facebook group that is focused on selling books everywhere, not just Amazon. And there was a recent product release of a sales tracker that provides these pretty little circular graphs with each store in a different color. Members of this group LOVE to post those photos and talk about how “isn’t it great that Amazon is only 40% of my sales?”

Every single time I see one of those posts, I wince. Because it’s focusing on the wrong metric. One of the ones I saw this week, the person was proud to have Amazon as only 50% of their revenue but they’d also only made $70 on Amazon. You can’t live on $140 a month.

To be clear, I am a strong advocate for being wide because as I told someone a few months ago I have no desire to contribute to the collapse of the self-publishing ecosystem by placing all of the power in Amazon’s hands. As soon as they can they will fuck us all over. So if I want to be able to self-publish five years from now or ten and make any sort of money from it, I need to be part of there being viable competition for Amazon.

But the reality is that Amazon, especially in the U.S., is the single biggest sales platform for self-published authors. We don’t get into bookstores that often. So our sales are coming from Amazon, Kobo, Nook, Google, and Apple primarily. And for U.S. sales, Amazon is probably 75% or more of that market.

So even being wide, I expect Amazon to be a big chunk of my revenue. That’s why every single time I see one of those posts in that group I wince. Because the goal should not be to replace Amazon with the other stores. It should be to keep or grow your Amazon revenue while ADDING the other stores on top of that.

What I want to see is bar graphs or line graphs of increasing revenue. “I went wide and my income went from $1,000 a month to $1,500 a month.” That’s being successful wide.

(And, let me tell you, that’s probably not what most could say. Again, I am all for being wide, but the reality is that Amazon is set up to advantage exclusive authors in about a dozen ways so most authors who go wide take a financial hit. And those who start wide have no idea what they’ve sacrificed by being wide.)

Look, this is a hard business. You have to take every win you can find to keep yourself going. I celebrate the units sold. I celebrate the revenue. I celebrate the good months on each platform. (Thank you, Apple, for what I suspect was a recent feature of a free run I did on my fantasy series.)

But at the end of the day what I have to ultimately focus on is the things that pay my rent. That bottom line number of profit and loss. That’s what will let me keep doing this long-term. None of the rest of it will. It’s part of it, but if the bottom line isn’t good enough? The rest doesn’t matter.

So, please, don’t let yourself be distracted by pretty graphs.

And 2 More New Releases

Yet again I am a little behind on announcing new releases. (I impulsively decided to sell my house this month and it required this thing called cleaning that it turns out takes time to do.)

Anyway. The 2019 versions of the Access books are now out, Access 2019 Beginner and Access 2019 Intermediate.

I prioritized these over the PowerPoint updates because it turns out they made one “major” change in Access 2019 compared to Access 2013 that throws me every time I have to use the program and that’s in the import section for External Data.

Now when I want to import an Excel file I actually have to go to the New Data Source dropdown menu, then choose From File, and then I can finally choose Excel from the seconday dropdown. For a new user to Access I thought that was a big enough change that I wanted to get the updated guides out sooner rather than later.

Other than that, though, as with the other guides you’re pretty much fine using either Access for Beginners and Intermediate Access or Access 2019 Beginner and Access 2019 Intermediate. The base knowledge on all of these programs doesn’t change so drastically between versions that you need to relearn it.

(At least not since that lovely 2007 release.)

An Interesting Excel Question

Today I received an interesting Excel question from a user and thought I’d share the solution I came up with here.

Here was the question: In excel, what is the formula for taking a cost times a 30% margin then rounding it up to the next $x.x5 or $x.x9     (example: $3.45 x 30% margin = $4.93, roundup to $4.95) or (example: $3.48 x 30% margin = $4.97, roundup to $4.99)

At first, I thought, there’s no easy way to do this. And there isn’t. A quick search for functions that would do this specific task resulted in nothing.

But then I remembered that I’d covered the CHOOSE function in Excel 2019 Formulas & Functions and that it could be used for this. As it turns out, it still wasn’t easy to do, but it is doable.

(And there may very well be a much simpler solution to the problem, but this seemed to work for me, so it’s what I went with.)

Here’s what I ultimately came up with:

=ROUND(A1/0.7,2)+IF(TRUNC(A1/0.7)-A1/0.7=0,0.05,IF(ROUND(A1/0.7,1)-ROUND(A1/0.7,2)=0,0.05,CHOOSE(RIGHT(ROUND(A1/0.7,2)),0.04,0.03,0.02,0.01,0,0.03,0.02,0.01,0)))

The first part of that formula, =ROUND(A1/0.7,2) is calculating the marked-up price on a value in Cell A1. That gives the $4.93 or the $4.97 value.

The second part of that formula is where it gets interesting. Let’s drop out the IF functions for now and look at the CHOOSE function:

CHOOSE(RIGHT(ROUND(A1/0.7,2)),0.04,0.03,0.02,0.01,0,0.03,0.02,0.01,0)))

It’s best to work from the inside out.

So we start with the (ROUND(A1/0.7,2) portion which is just giving us the number we’re working with.

Next is the RIGHT function. What that’s doing is taking the right-most digit of our number. So in the examples above that would either be the 3 of $4.93 or the 7 of $4.97.

Finally, we have the CHOOSE function which basically provides a different result depending on the value you give it. So in this case a 1 returns a value of .04. A 2 returns a value of .03, etc. Once we cross the 5 mark we have to switch things up a bit so that 6, 7, 8, and 9 will result in values that end in a 9 instead of values that end in a 5.

That value gets added to our original calculated value to create a result that ends in either a 5 or a 9.

But because I used the RIGHT function we have a problem. Any value that’s a whole number, like $9.00, isn’t going to calculate properly because RIGHT will pull in a value of 9 not 0. And any value like $7.30, $8.20, etc. will also not work properly because RIGHT will pull a 3 or a 2 or whatever the next actual digit is instead of the zero.

We can solve that, though, with IF functions. Namely,

IF(TRUNC(A1/0.7)-A1/0.7=0,0.05,

and

IF(ROUND(A1/0.7,1)-ROUND(A1/0.7,2)=0,0.05,

IF(TRUNC(A1/0.7)-A1/0.7=0,0.05 basically says that if it’s a whole number then add .05 to it. And IF(ROUND(A1/0.7,1)-ROUND(A1/0.7,2)=0,0.05 says that if the rounded value with one digit is the same as the rounded value with two digits, then also add .05.

A little messy, but it solves those two issues.

And I think all of it taken together answers solves the issue.