It Ain’t The Road That Kills You…

It’s the paper walls.

That’s from a song I happen to love by Marc Cohn:

The portion of the song where he says that doesn’t actually occur until the end. (At 3:39 on that video.) If you listen to it you may be asking yourself what on earth that song has to do with anything except people making really strange choices about who they hook up with and when, but stay with me for a moment.

Because, as always, I take something completely different away from that song than probably anyone else would. See, I hear that line “It ain’t the road that kills you…” and I think that the song is about how it isn’t being alone that’s the problem, it’s knowing that others aren’t and being able to hear (in this case) what you’re missing and how knowing what you’re missing is the real issue.

Now to bring this back to writing.

I ran a promo on Rider’s Revenge this weekend. It ends today. And, good news, I sold at least 374 copies of book 1 and 24 copies each of books 2 and 3. The promo isn’t even over yet and it’s already been profitable and sell-through to books 2 and 3 over the long-term will make it more so.

Fantastic, right?

Except I kind of felt like crap about it the last two days. Because part of the promo was an international-only Bookbub. And according to their site, the average number of sales from this particular list should be 550, but I’m only at about 300 off of the Bookbub.

It paid for itself. And I think I’m still missing Google sales and maybe even some iTunes sales. But I’m not going to hit 550. Which bummed me out.

I had a successful promo. I made a profit. I hopefully have a couple hundred new fans. And yet…knowing that others have done better running the same promo spoiled it for me.

It’s like we’re all trying to hike a mountain here. And I know that as long as I keep going and putting one foot in front of the other that I’ll get there eventually. But it’s harder when someone breezes by like there’s nothing to it or the person you started the trail with leaves you behind because you’re going so much slower.

(Real life experience: I hiked Mt. Quandary, a 14er, years ago with a couple co-workers. They were both in excellent shape and left me behind after the first hour or so. But I made it to the top. Eventually. Just in time for them to be ready to turn around and head back down…)

It’s easy to always be looking to others and feel constantly dissatisfied.  Because there will always be someone selling more, getting more reviews or better reviews, or signing high-profile deals. But you can’t do that. It’ll kill you.

Step back and remind yourself what you have done.  See how far you’ve come. Embrace the positives.

(I say as I continue to sit here and sulk.)

Remember, it isn’t the journey that will kill you, it’s comparing yourself to others and letting their successes (or how you feel about them) defeat you.

Seeing Through the Fog

I’m reading a book right now called Fooled by Randomness.  It’s pretty interesting. And one of the things I’ve taken from it is that we often think that the way things are right now are the way things will always be. Which is seldom true for the long-term.

Life is change. There is no way to create a life that doesn’t involve change over the long-term. (Every single person who grew up in a very small town is looking askance at me right now, but even there things change eventually. The local mine goes bust–like what happened where I grew up–or the old tried and true crops lose popularity or….There is change, albeit glacially slow at times.)

And trying to predict the direction events will take is almost impossible.  And the direction they do take is sometimes counterintuitive.

One of the challenges I constantly face with my self-publishing is what to work on next.  And one of the “mistakes” I make with it is that I rarely work on what I should be working on from a pure numbers standpoint.

I’m good sometimes. I wrote a related book to Don’t Be a Douchebag this year because it’s been a consistent seller for me in audio for over a year now. (The related title doesn’t sell as well, perhaps because of the lack of a half-naked woman on the cover. I should rebrand and see if that changes things.)

But other times, what I choose to do makes no sense from a pure “predict the future” perspective.

In January of this year, 63% of my revenue for the month was tied to my fantasy series. 4% was tied to my romance novel.

If you look at those numbers cold, you’d say, “Write the next fantasy novel.” And I did. But between drafts on the fantasy novel I wrote the next romance novel.  The romance novel released in May, the fantasy novel released in June.

And…

In July 58% of my revenue was from the two romance novels and 26% of my revenue was from the fantasy trilogy. The fantasy series stayed about the same per-title, but the first romance novel caught on with AMS ads. (It was 45% of revenues for the month.)

I couldn’t predict that. No way I’d see such a turnaround for a novel that’s been out close to three years and has done fine when it’s promoted, but not fantastic.

You’d think, of course, that my next course of action while that romance was doing so well would’ve been to write the third in that series. Get it while it’s hot and all.

But I didn’t.

I turned to non-fiction. Partially because I was doing those presentations in September and wanted books out to go with them. But partially because I just wanted to write a couple of the books. They sounded like fun. I enjoy using Microsoft Excel writing those guides let me learn a few new tricks. (Like I could format the fields in a pivot table using Value Field Settings.)

There was a small inkling that the books might sell a bit because the Excel guide in my Juggling Your Finances series is the one that sells the best. But I had no way to predict the other thing that happened because I wrote those books. (Announcement coming soon, probably as Friday’s post.)

So where am I going with this? What are the lessons or conclusions?

I guess I’d say, don’t assume that things will continue as they are. But if you’re well-positioned to take advantage of the current situation and want to, you should do so.  If you aren’t or don’t want to do so, try something new. And don’t ever assume it’s over until it’s literally over and you have no ability to act.

(I’d also say don’t get hung up on making that one thing work for you. Better to try something new than bog down with the old. But maybe that’s more to do with the type of person I am.)

 

Long-Term Thinking in a Short-Term World

I’ve been playing around with my Access database today. It’s where I track all of my book sales across different platforms and I needed to update my reports to link the multiple paperback versions of the Excel guides so they wouldn’t appear on separate lines in my consolidated reports.

Anyway. Long story short, I created a “Net Profit and Loss by Series” report out of all of it that incorporates my advertising spend as well as what I’ve spent on covers.

Good news is out of 25 “series”, all but two are net profitable.

Bad news is that one of the series that’s still a net loss is my fantasy trilogy.

Why? Primarily because of the cost of the absolutely gorgeous covers.

Seeing that negative number on the report almost two years after book 1 launched makes my gut clench.

I feel this compelling need to second-guess all my decisions and hard work and where I’ve focused my efforts.

My top series in terms of net profits? That damned sort of kind of written-to-market billionaire romance series. My number two? My two romance novels that are standalone but related. Conclusion? Write more romance. But…

It’s not that simple.

Because I’m trying to play the long game here.

And part of my strategy meant not pushing too hard on promoting the series until it was done. I launched book 1 of the fantasy series at a price of $4.99.

Sure, I threw some advertising at it, but if my focus had been on getting as many sales as possible as soon as possible, I would’ve priced at 99 cents.

But that would’ve been penny-wise and pound foolish in my opinion. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I think I’m a good enough author people will read through my entire series if they enjoy book 1, but not so good that they’ll wait me out like they do Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin.

If my books aren’t there to buy they won’t be bought. And I don’t write these novels in a few weeks or even a few months.

I knew book 1 was going to be hanging out there by itself for a while and that most of the readers I attracted to book 1 wouldn’t hang around for book 3 whenever it was out. So every reader that bought book 1 before the series was done was probably a long-term loss.

I’m weak, though. I’ve run AMS ads on the books for over a year now, because I just couldn’t stand to see them not selling at all.

And I weakened further in January when I applied for a Bookbub. I got it. (International-only in a small category, thankfully.)

AMS and applying for that Bookbub didn’t fit my long-term strategy of waiting for the series to be complete, but I just needed to know the series could sell.

Because it’s hard to delay that gratification that long. To see other authors talking about the thousands of copies they’re selling and see their great book ranks.

So after succumbing to the temptation of a Bookbub in January I reminded myself  repeatedly that I had a long-term plan.

When I launched book 3 in June and was less than impressed with the results of the promo, there was a huge temptation to drop the price on all of the books and scramble for more sales. To do something that would make me feel like I was good at this writing thing.

But I had a plan.

And doing that would’ve ruined it.

So I kept the price high, waited for my KU period to end, and applied for another Bookbub. A bigger one.

And I got it.

International-only still. But in a bigger category with the hope of a U.S. deal in the future.

(Thanks I’m sure in large part to those expensive covers.)

It’s killing me to watch my book ranks right now. To know that I’m not getting page reads through KU anymore.

But I have a plan.

I have to remind myself, it’s not about my Amazon U.S. ranking today. It’s about that Bookbub next month. And it’s about the series I’m going to write after this. And the one after that.

Twelve books. Four trilogies. That’s the goal. That’s when I’ll know.

I have  to remember that I have a strategy. One that requires white-knuckling it through the between times and having an oversized ego to believe for that long.

I know I’ll stumble along the way. The high of a sales spike is too tempting to resist forever. But I have a plan. A goal. A strategy. One that involves higher prices and slow but steady releases.

One book at a time, like bricks in a wall, I’m going to get there. Building up my catalog until together those books make something strong and powerful and lasting.

Or at least that’s the theory…

It’s True Until It Isn’t

Long before I got into this writing thing, I was considered a national expert in a little niche area of securities regulation. Well, not too niche, but niche enough. Part of my job at the time was working with a very small group to decide how serious various violations of those regulations were.

Now what made this really fun is that we weren’t the final authority. We had our own regulators who sometimes informed us of their view of the seriousness of those violations that we then had to follow and convey to our staff.

And, of course, the rules and guidance changed over time, too. What wasn’t a violation one year was the next.

Which all meant that I could tell someone something on Monday and by the next Monday the answer could be different. (Not often, fortunately, but it happened.)

I learned then that what I told people was true at that moment for that situation, but that it could change.

It makes putting yourself out there as an expert on anything a bit fraught. You give the advice you know as you know it at the time, but no one ever knows anything 100%. Ever. And if they do, only for that moment.

Why am I on about this today?

Well, first, after writing a book about CreateSpace just a month or two ago and saying in there that publishing a book in color is cost prohibitive, I just published three books in color.

And I do stand by it being cost prohibitive for a full-length novel. You’d have to list a novel at about $36 to publish it in color while using expanded distribution.

And it was still enough of a bump in cost that I also did black and white versions. (I went with $17.95 for each of the color versions of the books instead of the $12.95 for the paperbacks. And even then one is not going to be available on expanded distribution because it would’ve had to be $21.95 before I was at a point where I didn’t have to pay CreateSpace for each sale.)

But still. It makes me twitch that I made that statement and then turned around and did the opposite.

The fact of the matter is you almost never have time to discuss all the ins and outs and nuance of a question in such finite detail that you’ve covered all your bases. Especially if you want to give people a level of information that they can use without burying them in what they don’t need.

I’ve been thinking about this with respect to AMS recently too. I hope in the book I wrote on AMS that I set forth the mechanics of the ads, how I use them and why, and made it clear that they’re a constantly shifting target and that what works today may not work tomorrow or that what works for me may not work for others.

But still it’s in the back of my mind all the time that I put that book out there. And because of that people will look at my books and their U.S. Amazon ranks and judge what I say in that book based on that.

Even when AMS isn’t the strategy I’m using on my books at the time.

When I was knee-deep in the Excel guides, I actually turned off almost all of my AMS ads. I had been experimenting with a low-bid strategy on a lot of them since that’s been the topic of discussion lately, but I decided the experiments were a failure. I didn’t have time to get new ads up and running, so I shut down the old ones.

But no one would know that. They’d just see the book ranks and think, why listen to that idiot? Which, fair enough. It’s why I tried to spend as much time on mechanics and thought process as I did on what to do. So readers would still have that base of knowledge to work from for their own ads.

Now I’m just rambling. So let me bring this home.

No matter who the expert is. No matter what they say. You need to weigh that against the current environment and their current level of knowledge on that subject.

Especially in publishing where things are changing at lightning speed. Remember that any advice someone gives is very likely true at the time they give it and given what they know in that moment, but it may not be true later or if they had other facts. Your best bet is to learn the fundamentals, find the most up-to-date knowledge you can, and apply that to the fundamentals.

(I know, easier said than done.)

It’s Done When You Hate It

A lot of times newer writers ask when you know something is done and ready to publish. Often the answer is some variation of “when you’re so sick of looking at it that you need to get it out the door before you light it on fire.”

So true.

Last night I hit publish on four Excel guides. I literally wrote a novel’s worth of words about Microsoft Excel.

Why? Because I’m weird and I actually find solving problems with Excel fun.

And I have fiction writers’ block at the moment because I’m not sure what novel to write next, so while my back brain works on solving that problem I had to do something to keep busy. (Last year I wrote a random cookbook when this happened.)

It was fun writing the guides at first. Asking myself things like how do you teach someone about pivot tables?  Or how do you calculate a factor for AMS that accounts for KU borrows? Or how would you build an advertising tracker that calculates whether an ad was profitable or not? (Something I’d been doing manually up to that point.)

But by the time I had to redo all of the images in all of the files because I decided they were too blurry. And by the time I finish formatting each of them in Vellum, trying to decide which annoyed me more–an extra space above an image or an indented paragraph after an image. And by the time I decided that in the ebook form I really needed to split out sub-headings for some of the chapters into their own chapter so users could easily find those sections…

Yeah. By then I hated the guides. I’d seen those words so many times.

So so many times.

I was done. Get it away from me before I take a sledge hammer to it.

I get like that with novels, too. When I’m at the point where I think I’d rather poke sharp knives into my eyes than read the darned thing one more time, I know it’s ready to go.

(By then the creation part has long since passed and it’s just little fiddly bits and finding those last five typos that you swear weren’t there the day before.)

Of course, I’m actually not done just yet. I still have to do the paperbacks…

Sigh.

And publish to Kobo and Nook. And set up on AMS on the books. And…

Yeah.

Good news is I’ll be ready for a brand new project come Friday.  And it won’t involve Excel. Yay!

Bad news is I have to grit my teeth and push through today. (After I take the pup in for x-rays and have lunch with my grandma whose brother just died. Because some things matter more than the writing.)

A Mini Rant

So yet again I’m seeing James Patterson’s name drug through the mud because supposedly he doesn’t write his novels.  And it annoys me. Not because I read the man’s books, I don’t.  Or at least can’t remember reading any of them.  But more because I find it a symptom of the “they don’t deserve it” -itis that is so common in the writerly community.

Hang around long enough and you’re bound to hear how horrible Stephenie Meyer’s writing is, how E L James’ books are awful, how Dan Brown can’t write his way out of a paper sack, and, of course, how James Patterson doesn’t even write his own books.

It drives me nuts.

One, because so often when this critique is made it’s because writers are focusing on one aspect of writing (the words) and failing to see how plot or emotional engagement are just as important.

And, two, because it comes off sounding like sour grapes. As in, why is that horrible author so successful when I’m so much better?  (Well…perhaps you aren’t.)

And the James Patterson thing annoys me because I took his Masterclass (through masterclass.com–I also did the Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes ones and enjoyed all three) and in there he talks about his co-writing process.  And from that I can assure you that he doesn’t just slap his name on something someone else writes.  He’s heavily involved in the process and in the plotting and polishing of the novel.

And if we go back to this concept of what is writing a story, I would argue that the easiest part of writing is putting together the sentences.  Finding a way to make those sentences work together to create an experience that pulls a reader through the book is the challenge. Having something happen that’s unbelievable yet totally plausible at the same time isn’t easy either.  And coming up with a way to engage with a reader’s emotions so they actually feel something about your characters and what happens to them is maybe the hardest skill of all.

When these criticisms crop up, those skills are never considered.

Anyway. Next time you find yourself wanting to complain about some very successful author and their lack of writing ability, maybe check yourself and try to figure out what they do right instead.  And, no, it isn’t going to be “spends a lot on advertising” because the people we’re talking about here are all people who’ve generated word of mouth beyond their advertising efforts and who I’ve heard readers rave about.

So when that happens, ask yourself why. You might just find a way to improve your own writing.

(And this rant is not directed at anyone that I know reads this blog, so if any of you recently wrote or posted about this, I’m not writing this rant because I saw your post. It most recently came up in a forum discussion about something else, but it was the third time I’d seen someone say something similar this week and figured it was a good choice for a Wednesday random thoughts post.)

Random Thoughts on Wanting It Enough

In a Facebook group I’m a member of, a member recently posted about how guilty they feel because they have the chance to write full-time and yet they don’t.

I’m currently in that boat. I’ve chosen not to pursue any new consulting work and to just focus on writing and, since I have no real life other than hanging with the puppy and spending time with family, I could technically being writing ALL THE TIME.

I could write for ten hours a day!

I could write seven days a week!

But I don’t.

Because, you know what?  I’ve been there, done that.  When I was working full-time I routinely worked sixty-hour weeks and hit eighty hours a week more than once. And when I was younger and in college I had summers where between all my jobs I worked a hundred hours a week. And those last two years of college when I was working full-time and taking a full course load it seems like all I ever did was work or study.

I benefited from all of that work. It did let me earn good money and get ahead in my career.  But I spent years of my life in a working-all-the-time auto-pilot.

And I just don’t want to do that anymore. I want to sit outside after lunch and read a good book while the pup snores under a tree. Or sit on my butt on the couch at night and enjoy someone else’s artistic work. Or go to my 88-year-old grandma’s house for lunch and stay for a couple hours talking to her without stressing over how many words I could be writing instead.

In short, I want to enjoy my life now instead of putting it off to some other day. I don’t want to live to ninety if all of those days between now and then are full of work.  Even creative work like writing.

And, yeah, that may mean I “fail” at this writing thing. Fail meaning having to go back to some other source of paying income. And that will be ironic.  That I didn’t work full-time at my “passion” so had to go back to working full time at something that’s “just a job.”

But if that happens?

Oh well. I’ll have enjoyed the years in between. Skydiving, living in New Zealand and Prague, truly spending time with my puppy and my family and my friends, writing whatever the hell I felt like, sleeping as much as I wanted every day, hiking, reading…I’d rather say I did all those things than that I wrote and wrote and wrote.