Let’s Talk Free As A Strategy

I currently have seven different titles set to free across all of my pen names. Three are because I’ve basically abandoned those pen names and so having a permafree title that I actually don’t advertise (because they’re short stories) is all the promotion I do for those names.

If I did nothing with those series I would sell nothing. But because I have a free short story under those names it leads to a little bit of a trickle of pure profit. The stories still have to be something people want, of course, which is why one of those names made me $200 last year, another made $75, and the other made basically nothing.

But for no effort and on short stories which generally do not sell well anyway, why not.

Now, the reason I wanted to talk free today is because of my cozy mystery series.

This is a completed nine-book series where readers can either buy each individual book for $3.99 or three books at a time for $9.99 in ebook.

When I released the final book in the series earlier this month I put both Book 1 and Book 4 to free.

Prior to this month I have at various points in time given away 22,000 copies of Book 1, but it has never been permanently free. I did limited-time free runs with it instead. Sometimes as short as a week but last year I think I did the last three months of the year at free.

I had a few reasons for also putting Book 4 to free this time around.

One, because in Book 3 I hurt a dog and in cozy that can be a reason for someone to drop off of the series. But Book 4 is a cute no-murder mystery with a sad little kid who needs someone to find his mom, so it was a good chance to pull back in readers who may have dropped off of Book 3 a while back and give them a chance to restart the series without any monetary risk.

Two, because Book 4 is also a romance. The whole series has an overarching romantic arc for the main character but Book 4 is where she and her love interest finally get together. So if someone reads Book 4 standalone they not only get a mystery that’s cute, they also get a romance. And I figured that might loop some people back around to Book 1 (which is free, so no risk). And if they’re good after two books they’re probably good for the whole series.

Three, it allowed me to advertise a different cover and title. Maybe potential readers who bounced off of the cover or title for Book 1, will be attracted to Book 4.

Four, summer is a slow time for book sales. Different genres are on different cycles and some books are just perennial sellers but most authors will tell you that they sell better at some points in the year than they do at others. So a free run now is a good way to goose sales during a slow period.

(New releases and big promotions can skew this for individual authors so it can sometimes be hard to tell when your slower times of the year are, but for me it always feels like summer is very sluggish.)

Now, because these are novels and I am actively trying to promote them, I did do more than just set the titles to free and walk way.

I had a Freebooksy that did very well on Book 4, Nook promoted Book 4 for me, and I’ve been running some Facebook ads as well for both Book 1 and Book 4.

I find for free that AMS ads cost too much since it’s per click (whereas FB reports your cost per click but they’re calculating that based on clicks per impressions). Also, for me personally Bookbub CPC ads also don’t do well.

So what were my results?

As of today for Book 4 I’ve given away about 8,000 copies in the last few weeks. And I’m pretty sure I’m seeing some people cycling around to Book 1 because on Amazon alone I’ve given away 2,000 copies of that one.

On FB I’ve spent $62 and the Freebooksy was I think $90. The Nook promo was free. So $150 total.

Now, we can’t directly look at results because I had a new release, too, so that’s going to potentially skew things. And my FB ads were evenly split between Book 1 and Book 4. And people are still reading through the series from previous promotions and some people read slower than others.

But what we can do is run some hypothetical numbers.

So let’s just go with 2,000 downloads of Book 1 and treat it like an eight-book series. I’m assuming here, incorrectly, that of the 8,000 people who downloaded Book 4, a quarter of those already read it and circled back to Book 1 and downloaded it, too.

Also, I’m assuming that they are no more likely to go on to Book 2 than a normal person who downloads a first-in-series freebie even though they probably are if they already read Book 4 and liked it.

So. 2,000 people.

If 1% of those people go on to buy Book 2, that’s 20 people. If 2% do that’s 40 people. If 3% do that’s 60.

(And I will note here that as of today Book 2 sales on Amazon are at 18 for the period in question so it looks like we’re already at 1% with room for more in the future.)

I’ve heard of authors who can get as high as 10% for free downloads to next-book purchases, but I am not one of those authors. I do not hit in the center of the genres I write for.

So, 1%. 20 people who buy Book 2 at $3.99. I get 70% of that. That’s $55.

If it’s 2% of people I get $110. If it’s 3% I get $165 and have already made a little profit.

But that was just Book 2. Let’s say half go on to Book 3. That’s another $25, $55, and $85 respectively.

(And right now I’m showing 14 for Book 3 which is 78% but again that could be not all the same people so 50% is a conservative estimate.)

Let’s say about 75% of readers will then go on to Book 4 for this series. And then it’s pretty much 100% from there to Book 6 but we’re leaving out Book 4 this time around. So let’s just say 75% to Book 5, 100% to Book 6.

At that point we’ve got a total of $125, $250, and $375 for 1%, 2%, and 3% sellthrough assuming that 2,000 is what we’re looking at from that Book 1 number. And we still have Books 7, 8, and 9 that aren’t factored in there.

Those three books incorporate the pandemic so maybe not everyone goes on to them. But if half do that brings even the 1% sellthrough up to breakeven.

And I forgot to include the two related short stories which are often the ones people pay for first rather than one of the other novels in the series. So every time I do a free run on this series I will see a bump in sales of the related 99 cent short stories, often before I see a bump in the novel sales.

I assume that is because people got something for free, liked it enough to want more from the author, but are more willing to pay 99 cents for a short story than $3.99 for a novel.

(Which is something I hadn’t anticipated when I was writing the series and sometimes I wonder if those short stories are the best way to further draw people into my writing, but they are what they are and at least it is the same characters.)

So no matter how I slice it, this free run with Book 4 and Book 1 at the same time will be profitable. If in the long-term I get as high as 3% sellthrough then it’s going to triple my money. Not big numbers, but still. Profit is nice.

And that’s assuming some lower sellthrough numbers than I’m seeing in the short-term.

Now, let’s talk through the factors that came into play here.

Genre. Cozy is one of those more voracious genres where people will download freebies more readily and will read them soon after doing so. I find it much harder to get movement when a book is free with YA fantasy than I do with either cozy mystery or romance.

Price. With my cozies I’m asking a reader to go from free to $3.99 which isn’t the easiest jump, but it’s not that extreme. With my YA fantasy I ask them sometimes to go from free to $5.99. That will impact how many people buy the next book after they read the free title. I find that at the higher price point for the YA that my sellthrough percent is almost 100% to Book 3, though, so sometimes keeping it up there actually does make me more. It all depends on how price-sensitive those readers really are.

Series Length. In this case I have a nine-book series. Even in the less ideal scenario of 1% from the free book and then 50% sellthrough to the next followed by 75% sellthrough to the one after that before people get hooked on the series, by the time we get to book 6 we’re still breakeven. But my YA fantasy is only three books which makes a free run a lot trickier because there’s less room to make up the ad spend in. (It does still work, though.)

Sellthrough. Free runs don’t work if people don’t like the free book enough to go pay for more of your books. It’s like giving out rancid cheese samples at the grocery store. If no one wants more of what you gave them, you just wasted your money. And the more people who like it the more you make. In this scenario 1% was breakeven, 3% was tripling our money, 10% would be a 10x return on spend. And that’s before factoring in word of mouth effects which will likely boost the number of books downloaded.

Hookiness. This is one I don’t do particularly well, but I’ve seen recommended and discussed. And that’s how much a book ends with a hook that drives readers on to the next book. If you have five standalones you are going to see less sellthrough than if Book 1 ends with a hook that makes readers need to read Book 2 and so on and so on. (I wrote about cliffhangers at some point on this blog and my general opinion is that they work really well if people were enjoying the story up to that point but that readers will kind of hate you if they weren’t enjoying the story and were just slogging through to the end.)


So. In conclusion. I think free definitely does still work. I do think it is not what it was back in the day when someone could put a book to free and get 90K downloads without promotion. And sometimes people definitely do download books and then the books sit there on their e-readers forever untouched and forgotten.

But there are enough readers who are looking for something new to read that you can in fact make a nice profit from having a book free for either a limited period of time or permanently.

I expect that I will be leaving Book 1 of that series free going forward because the series chugs along with sales when I have some sort of promotion going but falls dormant when I don’t. And for this series I find a small FB ad spend isn’t that hard to maintain.

Also, now that I have nine books in the series keeping one free doesn’t hurt as much as it does with a three-book series.

So there you have it. If you’ve been scared to try a free run but you have a series that should do well with it given the factors above, dip a toe in and give it a shot.

Updating Your Cover on Goodreads

This came up in a group I’m in on FB so I thought I’d just write a quick blog post with screenshots for anyone who needs it. This is for authors who want to update their cover on Goodreads and have it be the cover that shows by default.

First, I’m going to assume that you’ve already set yourself up as an author on Goodreads. If you haven’t you need to submit to them to be listed as an author and go through some sort of process where I think you give them a link to your website.

Once you’re set up as an author, when you log in you should have access to the Author Dashboard. It’s under the dropdown on the right-hand side that usually has your author photo. (I don’t have a photo on my account so it’s just a little circle with a person reading a book for me.)

Click on Author Dashboard. That’s going to take you to a stats page that shows all your books:

If you ever want to manually add one of your books, this is where you can do that. Click on the small “Add A Book” option above the title listing. (I have to do this with every M.L. Humphrey release because there’s another M.L. Humphrey on Goodreads and titles default to that author’s profile instead of mine unless I add them first. My listing actually has two spaces between the L and the Humphrey part of the name since I was the second M.L. Humphrey to be listed on Goodreads.)

If what you want to do instead is update a cover, click on that book’s name to bring up the book page:

Down by the Other Editions section there should be an option to “Add An Alternate Cover Edition”. Click on that.

This will result in a pop up that tells you the identifier information is going to move to the new version. Click OK.

If you get an error message about it not being able to create a new version then click on the other existing thumbnails for that book until you find the one that has the ASIN/ISBN currently assigned to it and try again. (I’ve only run into this once.)

Once you say OK, that should bring up the Edit Book page for that title. On the right-hand side there’s a place to upload the new cover. Click on Browse, find your cover, click on it, and then click on Upload Photo.

You should now see a thumbnail of the updated cover on the right-hand side. Click on “Set This Book As The Primary Edition For This Work” to make that the cover that will show for all users.

Scroll to the bottom and Save Changes.

And that should be it. If you exit Goodreads and just go to the main page and do a search for your book it should come up with your updated book cover as the image.

Word of Mouth and Social Media

Have you ever heard of the band Guster? I hadn’t. I have a lot of music in my iTunes account (over 3,600 songs), but I hadn’t run across them before.

There’s lots of great music out there like that. It makes a creator a living but they’re not someone you’d recognize.

But this morning on Twitter one of the people I follow on there shared a post by the drummer for that band. This one. https://twitter.com/Bowl_of_Worcel/status/1536929339274584064

It’s a good post. About putting in the work and how it can be hard sometimes when you have to get out there and perform when it’s hot and there’s no audience and no one who knows your music. (Or at least not many do.)

(I can’t imagine being a performing artist with a low turnout, at least as a writer I can sit in the comfort of my home and feel sad and question my life choices without having to be on for an audience or have anyone else see just how low those numbers can sometimes be.)

But the thread ends on an upbeat note. Because after the concert he had that one fan who he was able to connect with and be reminded that what he does touches someone. And that lifted him back up.

The tweet thread connected for me as a creator.

But I’m also always on the lookout for new-to-me music that I might like. So I went and checked them out on iTunes. And I liked them enough to buy one of their albums. If I listen to it and like it enough I’ll buy their other albums.

Which also makes this a great example of how being on social media and word of mouth work.

A lot had to happen for that one little sale that will probably earn them $2.

First, this guy had to be on Twitter. And active enough that people follow him. He’s been on there since 2015 and has 8K followers.

Second, he had to say something someone else found worth sharing. Because I don’t follow him, I follow a pediatric palliative care doctor who follows him.

(And I say follow but I don’t have a Twitter account. I just peek at certain accounts on a regular basis while avoiding the Twitter pop-ups that urge me to create an account.)

Third, I had to like what the person I follow shared enough to get curious, click through, and read the thread. The guy I follow called it powerful and beautiful. The tweet he shared started with “crappy night”. So that drew me in. What was powerful and beautiful about a crappy night?

(Why, yes, I am a writer who sucks up human experiences like a vampire.)

Fourth, I had to like what the drummer said enough to think, “these guys deserve some support” and go check out their music.

Fifth, I had to actually like the music.

A few times in the last year I’ve seen an artist make the news in some way where I thought, “I should support them, let me see what they have” but I bounced off the music.

One, for example, was a heavy metal band (?) who stopped a concert because the mosh pit was getting out of control and so the lead singer was like, “that’s not how we do this, guys”. This was shortly after there’d been some trampling deaths at another concert. And I thought, “Yeah, good for you.”

But their music was a little too heavy for me. I listen to a lot of things, but I stay towards the middle in most genres. I did find one song of theirs I liked and I did buy it, but I didn’t buy their album.

Another was someone standing up I think against Spotify maybe? And I checked out their music but it wasn’t for me.

So a lot of things have to fall into place to generate a word of mouth, social media sale. And most are not tweets or posts about “buy my book” (or “buy my song” in this case).

It’s about being present. Being interesting enough to have an audience. Saying something real or interesting that others want to share. And then when someone connects with that, having a product that appeals to that person.

It’s a lot that doesn’t directly result in a sale.

I would argue this is also why it’s good to be genuine across the board. In your social media, in your product descriptions, and in the product itself.

First, that takes less effort. I mean, I guess you could fake it all, but look at this example here, right. Who wants to fake who they are for seven years?

Second, when someone resonates with what you say in one setting you want them to also resonate with what you do in your other settings.

You don’t have to have it that way, you can pay someone to do your social media and pay someone else to do your blurbs and pay someone else to edit your work to the perceived popular style, but you lose oomph if everything doesn’t feed back on itself.

Which can be hard even when you’re doing it all yourself.

It’s why I’m not on Twitter. Because Twitter brought out my angry, snarky side and that’s not what I put in my books. Snark, yes. Commentary, oh yeah. But not the negative, angry, this world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going down thing that Twitter brought out for me.

Hell, even blogging sometimes is a danger zone for me in that respect.

I sometimes liken my personality to a 30-sided dice because I have that many facets to who I am.

For some authors, no matter what they write at the core they are who they are. So their blog posts and mysteries and sci fi and fantasy all have that same personality and appeal.

For others, like myself, it’s more like having six distinct personalities in the room who appeal to very varied groups of readers. It’s why I like pen names.

Anyway. I am now blathering on past the point. So social media. Word of mouth. Out of your control, but it happens. Usually by showing up, putting in the work forever and not worrying about doing anything to “sell” yourself other than be a genuine human being who says things people can connect to.

Oh, Amazon…

Since I just had a new release I’ve been all up in Amazon’s business this week. And figured I’d mention a few things I’d run into while I was there.

First, if you publish in print they’ve added new markets for the Netherlands, Sweden, and Poland. I think the Netherlands one has been there for a bit and was actually announced but the Sweden and Poland were new to me.

I mention this because if you care about pretty-looking prices you’ll probably want to go in and update those prices. If you don’t they default to Amazon’s conversion of your USD price to that currency.

Which, I should note, also occurs with ebook prices where you don’t set the price yourself. Even if it looks pretty when you publish the book, if you want that price to stay fixed, then you need to manually change it so that it is not based on the USD price or it may adjust on you later with no notice.

(I believe. This based on going in a few times and thinking, “where did that price come from” and then realizing that the price was one that was based on my USD price and they must’ve updated their exchange rates.)

This is also a good time to note that the default exchange rate they use for some countries is not a dollar to dollar exchange rate. In India, for example, when they convert your USD price to INR they do it so that it’s much cheaper in INR than a straight conversion rate would give you.

Which, maybe that’s good in that market? Maybe it results in more sales?

For me, I like to keep it close to even across countries. So that someone pays the same here as they would elsewhere and vice versa. Only exception to that is New Zealand where I use the AUD price so price cheaper there.

So today, for example, $4.99 USD is 4.05 GBP which I would list as 3.99 GBP.

Of course, Amazon artificially caps the pricing in Canada and Australia these days if you’re at the upper end of their 70% payout range ($9.99 USD) so at that price point it’s impossible to get them equivalent anyway.

I do what I can and then I remember the serenity prayer and move on.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that I finally saw the Quality Issues Dashboard. I’d heard people mention it, but never seen it before.

This time when I logged into my account there was a little message asking if I wanted to see it. I thought, “Oh no, I have a quality issue” and clicked on the link.

Here’s where it gets absurd.

While I was re-reading the cozies I found a place where I had said “zip code” instead of “area code” and I corrected that mistake when I uploaded my new files.

The quality dashboard showed me that the issue had been resolved.

Never told me it existed in the first place, but told me it was now resolved.

Which means at some point a reader reported that error, Amazon never told me about it, I caught it myself and updated the file, and then Amazon let me see the quality dashboard and the fact that I’d addressed it.

Sigh.

No other quality issues showing. But who knows? Maybe I have to find and correct them and then magically Amazon will reveal to me that they were already reported two years ago? Although it doesn’t actually tell you when the issue was reported, so no way to know how long that was hiding away unbeknownst to me.

Which is why, really, it’s best to shoot an email to the author if you want an error addressed.

Although…Make sure it is an error and not just “I would like you to phrase this my way” which I have heard of authors receiving in the past.

(Also, understand that for trade-published authors it may never get fixed. And for my books published through IngramSpark, unless it’s a life-threatening error of some sort or half the book is missing, those won’t get fixed either.)

This was in fact a legit error that I was happy to correct when I saw it.

I just never knew about it until now. And when I did find it I was like, “Well, no one has pointed it out to me yet, so must not have been that big a deal to anyone.”

Except…They had, I just didn’t know.

Oh well. Better that than the “we will shut down your account if you don’t address this error that’s not an error” message some have received.

The joys.

Wrapping Up A Series

Yesterday I did the final editing pass on the last book in my cozy mystery series. It was book 9 in the series. And while there were individual mysteries to solve in each book, six with murders, three without, there were also overarching personal stories as well.

Which meant that I wasn’t just wrapping up the mystery in that particular book, I also had to give a satisfying ending to the entire series. (I’m pretty sure I also did this with book six which was supposed to be the original end to the series.)

And while it’s true that writing in series can be better than writing standalone novels in terms of reader retention, promotion, and sales, it’s also much harder to do well.

(If you have nine books in a series that all follow the same cast of characters, are in the same setting, and have the same general feel to them putting book 1 to free will get you much better results than putting one of nine unrelated novels with different characters and themes and settings to free.)

This novel required an extra editing pass for me because of that need to nail the landing not just for the current book but for the whole series.

And I should note here that there are certain types of series where the main character never really changes and so there is no evolution of the character that needs to be addressed in the final book.

It’s just Adventurer A has adventures and they have adventures for as many books as the author wants to write. It’s been forty years since I read them, but I’m pretty sure the Oz books were that way after the first one. Kid goes back to Oz, meets cool people, maybe runs into some old friends, and then goes back home.

I, unfortunately, am incapable of writing that sort of series. I’m a very character-driven writer which means my characters react and grow with every personal interaction they have. They aren’t the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. They’re always learning. And, in my case, bringing new people into their w0rld.

And in a series where the character is learning and growing and evolving you have to leave them at a good spot that’s satisfying to the reader at the end of the series.

So each mystery can end with the mystery solved. That’s easy enough. That’s the novel-level denouement. For adventure fantasy you end that leg of the adventure. For romance you give that couple their HEA or HFN.

I should also note here that there are some fantasy series, like GRRM’s, that aren’t meant to be that way. He views his series as one big gigantic story that happens to sprawl across a number of books. The type of series I’m thinking of here for fantasy is more like David Eddings’ Belgariad where each stage of the adventure is covered in one book. (Been a while since I read those, too, but that’s how I seem to remember they worked.)

So.

I’m talking here about series where each book has a predictable way to end it (mystery solved, special object found, couple gets their HEA) but where there’s more to the overall story.

And with a series like that, you have to answer in that last book, “Why did we go on this journey and why does it end here?”

Nora Roberts has fantasy romance trilogies that do this well. Each book ends with one part of the quest finished and one couple getting their HEA, but the whole series ends when the ultimate goal is reached.

I also think you have to give some impression to the reader of where those characters go from that moment and that where they’re headed has to be satisfying for the type of story told.

I personally don’t believe in the “ten years later” sort of ending that one very popular series used. (I saw it in the movies before I read it and was thinking, “Why did they add this crap at the end?”, only to find out later it was in the books.)

So for me personally it has to be an ending that wraps up the big arc of the series, maybe even brings things together in a new way that I couldn’t see until that ending, is satisfying in that moment, and hints at a future for those characters that leaves me satisfied.

Which is a lot.

And you have to weave it around the ending of that particular book. Because there’s also a thing with readers (at least me as a reader) where they only want to stay with you for so long after the big conflict is finished.

As a reader I reach a moment where I’m like, “Hey, we defeated the big baddie like five chapters ago, why are we still here?”

(Which just reminded me why I didn’t like the ending of a very famous fantasy series that I won’t mention because it’s fans will tell me it’s the best series ever written and how dare I criticize it. But that thing dragged at the end.)

Now, you might be wondering why does getting a solid ending to the series matter so much? Readers have bought the books and stuck through to the end, why is how it ends such a big deal?

First, there’s the peak-end rule where people judge the overall experience by the peak moment and the end. So your series will ultimately be judged based on the best or worst moment in the series and by how it felt at the end. End poorly and it won’t matter how well you wrote the rest of the series, readers will be unhappy.

Second, if you want future sales of other books you write, those sales are going to be driven by the experience a reader had with the last book they read by you.

And moving between series is the most likely time to lose a reader. A reader may stick with a so-so series just to see how it ends. But then they’re done.

If you’re offering a reader a new series with new characters and setting and premise, they have to have been satisfied enough with the experience of reading the first series to follow you to the new one.

(You’ll notice that a lot of long-term best-selling authors stick to at least the same world or general type of story. It makes that leap to a new series with new characters easier because at least readers know they already liked the world and the type of story. I’m not going to say that all of them do so deliberately, but I will say that it’s a successful strategy if you can do it deliberately.)

The fact that the end of a series is when you’re most likely to lose readers is why getting that series ending right matters so much.

So how do you make sure it lands well?

I’m not going to claim to be the expert on that. What I did is I wrote my last book in the series, cleaned it up so that it was mostly there as a standalone story, and then I went back and re-read the entire series before continuing on through my final draft of the final book. That let me tease out a final story arc that I hadn’t been quite aware of until that moment.

(Essentially the overall arc to that series is that my MC starts out all alone but is joining a community. Over the first six books she finds personal happiness. Over the next three she finds that she’s built a community and shifts her mindset from being self-focused to group-focused. But I had to see the whole journey in one piece to parse that last little bit out.)

Whether it worked for my series, time will tell. But it is something to keep in mind for anyone coming up on the end of a series.

What Did You Really Write?

I’m about to go through the final draft of the final cozy (book 9) and decided before I do that I should re-read the entire series. I want to end on the right emotional beats and that requires bringing everything together that’s happened over the last eight books and two short stories.

It’s also a good time to make sure that I don’t have any inconsistencies across the books. I re-read for book six as well, so hopefully that won’t be an issue, but you never know when you’re writing a series over a period of years what slipped in your mind during that time.

So I’m re-reading to ramp up to the final draft.

And I just finished book four of the series. (It made me cry, in a good way, because it’s a turning point in the larger character arc for the main character where she decides to stay in the small town she moved to and to actually open herself up to a relationship with the cute cop she’s flirted with for the last four books.)

So far so good.

But it cemented for me something I kind of already knew. Which is that this isn’t really a cozy mystery series.

It has a lot of the elements of a cozy series. For the first four books it was set in a barkery/cafe, there are cute dog characters and quirky side characters, it’s set in a small town, there isn’t graphic violence on the page or sex scenes or cussing. Oh, and there’s a mystery to solve in each book.

But I don’t think it’s as cute and quirky as cozies should be.

And while I do think of all mystery genres there’s the most room in cozy for non-mystery parts to the story, I think what I actually ended up writing is a small town family drama series with equal amounts mystery and romance and a strong cast of canine sidekicks.

What I will do with this knowledge, I don’t know. Unfortunately I’m pretty sure there isn’t an Amazon category for what I actually wrote.

This is where having a publisher would’ve helped. Because they would’ve forced me to better stay in the lane I’d started in.

Of course, the joy of self-publishing is that I can write the story I want to write how I want to write it, so if my cozy mystery series slowly becomes a small town family drama with far more emphasis on the characters and the character arc of the main sleuth, that’s what I get to write.

(It’s just whether the readers stay with you when you do something like that…)

Knowing this, I do think it’s important to ask whether the current category and branding are the best given what I actually wrote.

Would small town/rural be a better category? (maybe) Would romance be a better category? (Probably not, because it’s a very slow burn. If I’d had a couple get together each book, I could’ve done romance. Book 4 standalone is actually a romance structure. But the whole series is not.)

So, yet again, do as I say when writing not what I do.

I’m mentioning it here because I think it can be helpful after you’ve finished a series to give it a little time and then go back and re-read and see what you actually wrote so you can know whether you’ve branded it properly.

Let me give another example.

One of the series ideas I have would be a contemporary fantasy romance trilogy a la Nora Roberts. She’s written about four trilogies like this where six people come together to do something supernatural and over the course of the three books pair off.

One of the characters in the series I want to write would be a shifter character. When I mentioned this series idea to a friend who writes paranormal romance she immediately thought that because of the shifter, contemporary setting, and the romance it would be a paranormal romance series.

And it does have some of those elements.

But it would fail miserably in paranormal romance because it wouldn’t hit the tropes of that subgenre. My shifter is not an alpha, for example.

Where I suspect it belongs is actually romance->fantasy because I think the fantasy elements would be too hand-wavey for fantasy->romance. But I won’t know until I write it and there really isn’t a good box for it to fit in.

Honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t written that series is the lack of a good category for it.

The closer you can hit to the center of an existing, established category the easier it is to sell your books. If you say I have vanilla ice cream for you and then you give someone vanilla ice cream, they are very happy.

It’s trickier when people go looking for vanilla ice cream and what you have to offer is this vanilla ice cream creation that also has pastry dough, hot fudge, and sprinkles.

Could be delicious. They might love it. But it’s not the vanilla ice cream they were looking for.

So, yeah, anyway. Categories matter and sometimes we don’t see what we’ve actually written until we have some time and distance to come back to it and reassess.

(Better to consider these things up front and stick to your target, obviously, but I’d say 1 in 10 authors even know what the target is for a particular genre and only 1 in 100 of those authors can hit that target consistently each and every time they try. I am not one of them.)

It’s Fucking Hard

I have more ideas than I know what to do with. Not just writing, everything. I literally have scrap notes lying around for different social media platform ideas and food business ideas and…everything.

One of those ideas I had recently was doing a podcast called “It’s Fucking Hard” which was basically going to be me talking to a wide variety of people, mostly creatives, but not all, about how hard it is to succeed at things.

Sure, there are a few people out there who have success after success after success and never seem to struggle.

Those tend to be the ones you see in the news and see interviewed everywhere. Because to get to the absolute top of an industry usually takes decades of building upon smaller successes and not failing in any other way that’s highly noticeable.

Especially in the more traditional corporate fields.

Which means that even if that isn’t the full story, when someone is on top there is an incredible incentive to present that sort of “always successful” narrative.

Society rewards success and expects successful people to be successful.

Someone who succeeded after failure is someone who could fail again, right? Oh my gosh, we don’t want that. We only want the people who were lucky enough to get it right the first time and keep getting it right because we pretend that’s about their inherent qualities.

(And don’t get me wrong. Every person I know who is at the top or near the top of their field works hard and is talented and skilled at what they do. And they’ve worked hard at it for years. That is a requirements to reach those levels. But we tend to leave out the fortuitous assignment to the right boss at the right time in someone’s career. Or the friend of a friend who made that key introduction. Or having the funds to push through the rough patch before the success. Or publishing the right kind of story at the right time.)

So I basically wanted to do this podcast with successful people where they opened up about the struggles they faced to get to where they were. Because I thought it was an important message to share with people.

First, that it isn’t always a smooth path to the top. That there are setbacks and struggles and dark moments. That you can go down, too, not just up. But that doesn’t mean you’re down forever.

(At some point early in my life, and I don’t know why I was this foolish and actually maybe it would’ve been true for me if I’d continued on my first corporate career path, I had this notion that you succeed once and that’s it. You’re always successful once you’ve succeeded. You are successful in your career and then you retire and enjoy the fruits of your success. Silly to think of that now as someone pursuing a creative career.)

Second I wanted to share that even at the top people have struggles. I know people successful in their careers who are full of stress and anxiety. Sometimes because they’re trying to stay at the top, but often because there are sacrifices being made in other areas of their life to be that successful.

When I was a consultant I traveled Monday through Friday (and, yes, Friday, because the place I worked for were that kind of people) probably 48 weeks of each year. Maybe more. That takes a toll on your personal relationships. And for many on their mental health.

I did some interviews during my MBA program where I talked to CEOs and other top-level executives and pretty much every person I talked to for that set of interviews had lost relationships or family connections to be where they were.

But I didn’t want it to be a depressing show. I wanted to focus on the fact that you have to decide if you really want it enough to push through the dark moments. To weather the lack of response. To keep going when no one seems to believe in you the way you believe in yourself.

Because if you can do that, you can succeed.

(Maybe. It’s not guaranteed. And it’s never going to be easy. Also, you reach Goal A and you’ll set Goal B and you’ll be right back in it.)

Anyway. I decided not to do that podcast because of the pearl-clutching that happens around the F word and the fact that my advertising options would be limited and I’d probably get taken down if I tried to launch a podcast with that title. But it was fun to think about during some early morning walks with my dog.

I decided to mention it today because I had a friend have one of those dark moments. I hope he works through it. But I figured it was a good time to remind everyone that no matter how successful someone is we all have those down moments and struggles. And when that happens you have to find something inside you that carries you through because the only chance at success is to keep trying.

Ratings and Rankings

I just saw a video clip of Ethan Hawke talking about movies, and the clip ended with a comment that really struck me. In reference to ratings and rankings, etc. he said, “when I was growing up those things didn’t exist and you could just absorb a movie for [what] it meant to you.”

It struck me how true that was and how damaging ratings and rankings and, quite frankly, knowing everyone’s opinion, is.

More than once there has been a book that I enjoyed that I somehow read in a vacuum. I just found the book, and I read the book, and I enjoyed it.

And then…I somehow encountered other people’s opinions about that book.

Sometimes they had read it. Sometimes I suspect they had not.

What was clear was that the book they read was not the book I read. What they saw in those pages was not what I saw in those pages. What the author actually intended, who knows.

But suddenly something I had experienced and enjoyed was tarnished.

And, I’m not even talking “oh that was really -ist” comments either. I’ve had this with movies I went to with friends where they wanted to talk about the movie afterward and it killed the moviegoing experience for me because I’d had two hours of “enjoyment” or “not enjoyment” and they wanted to break it down by cinematography and plot and dialogue and…

Ugh. (Don’t even get me started on The Matrix and what that was like walking out of the theater with one of those people…)

The movie was enjoyable. Leave it alone already.

And, yes, different perspectives on the same work can be instructive. It’s important to know that your viewpoint is not the only viewpoint. And to learn when something really is problematic, why.

But hearing different perspectives on something you simply enjoyed can be frickin’ exhausting. To not be allowed one little thing in this world that you can enjoy without qualification or analysis…

Ugh.

And here’s the thing. Rankings and ratings assume that all people’s opinions are equally valid. That what Person A has to say about this is equal to what Person B has to say.

But in real life we know that’s not true.

If I stick you in a room with twenty people for three months and let those people routinely voice their opinions in front of you, by the end of that three months there are people you will listen to every time they open their mouth and there are people you will ignore or hate every time they open their mouth.

Reviews and rankings don’t take that into account. Amazon will treat a two-star review that says, “the cover was bent” the same as it treats a four-star review of the actual content of the book.

And often people think, “oh, this person has a lot of reviews, they must really be the person to listen to”, but again, we all know that person who has to opine on everything and who you’d like to really shut up already, thank you very much.

But online? That person gets clout because they talk so much, not because they have anything valid to say.

And rankings are usually a reflection of two things.

One, mass popularity, which may not be what an individual consumer wants. Not everyone wants vanilla ice cream. It’s the most popular ice cream flavor-by far-but some of us like other flavors. I personally love peppermint, but it doesn’t even make the top ten. It’s not even in stores year-round.

Or, two, rankings are driven by good advertising. Money makes money even in the arts. And you often get to the point where things are popular because they’re popular.

A good ranking does not equal an enjoyable experience for the consumer. It just means a lot of people are consuming that product.

To live in a world where sales are so driven by rankings and ratings is sort of absurd really. I mean, who cares what anyone else thought if you got value or enjoyment out of that thing you watched or read or did?

I am so glad I grew up and had my formative years pre-internet. (I think it was junior year of college when I first dealt with the internet in any way and it was not a main thing for me even then. I didn’t even have home internet until my 30s.)

It was great, because I didn’t have to worry about others’ perceptions of me or my world or my interests. I could just be me and enjoy what I enjoyed and that was it.

I mean, yeah, there were real-world people with opinions, but not many, honestly. And when they did have opinions I knew them, so I knew who to listen to and who not to listen to. I could look at someone and say, “Do I care what that person thinks?” and know that the answer was “No.”

Which I guess is an argument really for spending less time with strangers’ opinions. In ratings and rankings and tweets and whatever else.

Good for them whatever they thought or felt. But I don’t need to know any of that to forge my own experiences.

Although this does remind me of a tweet I saw the other day about identity formation through exclusion and I think there’s an aspect of that that involves identity formation through inclusion.

Like, as long as you model all of your interests and appearance and everything else on what is the most popular and accepted thing that you’ll be safe somehow?

You don’t need your own opinions as long as you know what everyone else thinks and can adopt that instead?

For that personality I guess ratings and rankings are all there is then.

But, wow, is that person also really easy to manipulate…Which, hm. Yeah. Welcome to 2022.

Numbers and Analysis

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time then you know that I like me some analysis.

Earlier this week I had a great writing day where I wrote 5K words on my latest cozy. Which meant of course that I spent the next day building a new report in my Access database instead of writing more.

(I am not a daily writer. My backbrain usually needs more time to refill with the next scene before I can continue. The only exception for me is non-fiction where it’s all there already and the puzzle is just figuring out the best order to present it in.)

So anyway. The report I put together was sales by title by platform. Even though I am 99% wide with my books, meaning they sell on a variety of platforms, Amazon still dominates my overall numbers. It’s the biggest platform and I use AMS ads a lot which only lead to sales on Amazon.

Which means that when I look at things in the aggregate my best titles are the ones that sell best on Amazon. But when I split things out by store it gets much more interesting.

My YA fantasy series moves up the rankings. It’s #1 or #2 on most other platforms. Whereas on Amazon the first title in that series is #6. (This is just revenue we’re talking about here. Due to cover costs that series is not as profitable as some lower-ranked series.)

I also see variety across platforms because of the platforms themselves.

For example, Hoopla won’t carry two of my best-selling titles, so my top library titles are skewed because of that.

Same with the fact that other platforms don’t sell print or I don’t sell print directly with them, which means my titles that sell best in print aren’t my top sellers on ebook-only platforms.

I can also see the impact of advertising.

For example, I have been burned by both Kobo and Nook when I tried to use links to those stores in my Facebook ads. As in, get your account shut down burned.

So I don’t link to those stores in my ads anymore. But I do sometimes link to Google and Apple. As a result of that, the titles I advertise on FB do better on Google and Apple than they do on Kobo and Nook.

Also, I can see a skew from Bookbubs. That’s why the YA fantasy series has done well off-Amazon, because of Bookbubs. It’s my series that’s had the most Bookbubs.

And first in series free off Amazon has worked to bump one series for me without any additional effort putting it in my top ten on three platforms.

I can also see some word of mouth impact. I really don’t advertise Regulatory Compliance Fundamentals anywhere except for a very low-key AMS ad and yet it’s in my top ten on Google. (Granted, my numbers there are relatively low, so the bar is lower.)

Those patterns are an interesting reminder that the sales data we see today is a result of the choices we’ve made up to this point, which I think can be the hardest thing to understand and adjust for in this business.

That idea that if you use past data to drive all of your future decisions you can be missing out on something crucial that would have a significant impact on your performance.

For example. My Excel books have done really well for me the last five years, but they were not the first Excel books I wrote. I actually wrote one book before that as a companion title to my Budgeting for Beginners book.

It was one of those “being thorough” titles that I sometimes do.

Basically, my goal was to write the budgeting book but I also wanted to give people the foundation they needed if they didn’t know how to use a calculator (that’s the math primer) or Excel (that’s the Excel primer) to do the basic math needed for budgeting.

Because I don’t like it when the information I’m giving someone isn’t accessible to them because they’re missing a foundation to work from.

(That’s how Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel came about as well. I wanted to write a book on how to use Excel for self-publishing, but I didn’t want to leave behind people who didn’t know Excel.)

Anyway.

I noticed after publication of the budgeting titles that the Excel guide often sold on its own. People didn’t buy the budgeting book, but they did buy the Excel guide that went with it. That gave me an inkling that maybe people were open to buying guides to Excel from me.

If I had looked at my numbers and only made a decision based on what had already sold I would have never written another book about Excel. Even with those occasional sales of the primer, the numbers weren’t there to justify that decision.

Luckily for me I was so annoyed by self-publisher’s inability to use a basic pivot table that I went ahead and wrote four books on Excel anyway.

And it paid off.

Doesn’t always happen, though. Sometimes things look like they have possibility and they flop.

I personally try for 80% steady state (what you know works), and 20% risk (something new or an extension of something that hasn’t lived up to its potential).

Which brings me to audio numbers.

I tried audio back when ACX was basically the only option for self-publishers, but after the initial high payouts had gone away. It looks like my first payments were March 2016 so about six years ago.

That first title earned out almost immediately.

It was a short non-fiction title with an audience that probably skewed towards listening on a car ride or at the gym. Six years later it’s returned 5x what it cost me to create. So that was a good choice.

And because it was a shorter title and non-fiction the money risked was low.

But because of that success I figured, okay, let me do this thing, and I put most of the non-fiction I could out in audio as well as one romance novel and one romance short story collection.

And…

Six years later I am still down $295 on an initial spend of $4,732.

I have two series that have paid off, one that is $3 from paying off, and five that have not. I have to look at it by series because collections sell well in audio but all those cost me is $25 to have my narrator record the opening and closing credits for me.

The fact that I’m still unprofitable with my audio has made me hesitant to do more.

Now, granted, there are a lot of reasons I have not done as well with audio as maybe I could.

I really haven’t advertised my audio at all. That’s huge. If I didn’t advertise my books I’d have almost no sales so extrapolate that to audio and it’s a small miracle I’m that close to breakeven.

I am also wide through Authors Republic which means I missed out on Chirp deals. My books are listed there, but I can’t apply for Chip deals because those require going through Findaway.

One Chirp deal would probably make any of those titles that haven’t broken even breakeven.

I also changed the name on two of my titles, but have not done so on the audio versions so they’re currently stuck with old, bad titles.

Also, the titles I put out in audio are ones I wrote six years ago. They may not be my strongest work.

And the narrators I went with were unknowns who didn’t bring their own audience, which can be a big deal in audiobookland.

There was also the whole ACX allowing returns and taking the money back without showing it which means I could have actually had more sales on those titles than I knew and it was just ACX fuckery that kept me from receiving payment. Theoretically that wouldn’t happen today.

So there are reasons to think past performance is not a good indicator of potential future performance with audio. And that putting some of my fiction out in audio could be a good decision, especially the cozies.

At the same time, audio is expensive. Even for my cozies which are only probably five hours of completed audio each, that could be $2,000 per title to produce if I try for a high-end narrator or choose a hands-off option where someone else supervises the production process.

With cozy #9 on the way that’s $20,000 or so to do the whole series. (Then again, compared to current stock market returns…at least I’d be paying for something tangible instead of losing value.)

So I don’t know. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate. If I could pull it off I honestly think I’d rather pay for a mass market print run of the cozies but I just don’t even know where to get started with that and Amazon would want $3.50 for each sale to sell through them. And if I ever were to warehouse books I’d technically have to change from cash accounting to accrual accounting, which ugh. No thank you.

Anyway. What I really need to do? Write some more words. But I have to say, the analysis and looking at these things from different angles is a big part of the fun for me. Now I just need to let my mind stew on all of it at which point you’ll see me publish something completely new and unrelated to anything I’ve done before. Haha. Why not?

Should You Update?

This is a question that comes up on a regular basis in writer forums. You published a book four years ago and now you’re looking at it and wondering if you should update it with what you know now.

There are four general categories of updates that I can think of.

Content/Editing

The first is the actual content of the book. The words on the page. This is the one that comes up probably the most.

A lot of times someone’s first book is not their best book, right? Maybe they didn’t have it edited and that really shows. Or maybe they’ve learned more about story structure and they can now see flaws in that book that they didn’t notice when they initially published. And with non-fiction the material can become outdated.

This one is the most complicated to decide on. I rewrote my first novel after I’d written a million words of other material. I’ve also rewritten one of my short story series and I’ve done second editions or new versions of some of my non-fiction. I also had a second in series book where I did a light editing pass to remove filter words like “she heard” that had snuck in there when I could’ve just said, “the shriek of the banshee filled the air.”

(An example. I have never written a story involving a banshee.)

Based on that experience…

If an early title is a standalone title and you think it is just not that good and are embarrassed to have others read it, unpublish it.

If you can do a light edit, like the one I did where I removed filter words as I was reading book two in preparation for writing book three, go for it. That’s probably just the time it takes to read the book and input the edits.

If you have based your entire writing career so far on a book with a lot of issues and there’s a whole series that comes after that, you probably should rewrite it. But. It will probably take just as long to do so as it would to write a brand new novel. And it’s probably not going to sit well with book two. Your best bet may be to unpublish the entire series and just start new with a brand new series, but chances are you won’t be willing to do that.

If the material for non-fiction has become outdated then it’s down to sales. Because it will likely take you just as long to write the updated book as it did to write the original. For my AMS books it actually took almost twice as long to write the revised edition as it took to write the original and it was also about 30% longer.

So for non-fiction I either update (because I don’t want a book out there with bad information and the book sells well enough to justify it) or I unpublish because I know updating that book will take as long as writing a new one on some other topic and I’d rather do that.

Editing an existing title is usually time intensive and often for fiction the flaws that need fixed are not something that can be fixed at the sentence or paragraph level.

If a fiction title sells well, no matter how much you hate it now, don’t touch it. You may well lose the magic that makes it sell because you wrote something in a raw state and now you think you’ve learned the rules and edits may just take what’s special away. Cash your checks, read your fan mail, and never look at that book again.

Blurbs, Ad Copy, and Categories

The second category of updates is your metadata. That’s your book description, your one-liner tagline, your book categories, your subtitle. All of the things that you have to include when you list a book for sale.

These I say change as often as you want. Experiment. Often times authors don’t know what they’ve written. I’ve even seen people mistake fiction for non-fiction. And if you learn that your book is not a book about X non-fiction topic but is instead a novel that involves that topic as a theme, you should definitely update your targeting and descriptions to reflect that.

My YA fantasy I targeted early on as a romantic fantasy. Readers did not agree, and I would’ve been a fool to keep targeting readers who wanted romantic fantasy when what I’d written was an adventure fantasy with romantic elements.

Your blurb, ad copy, and categories should all work together to target the correct group of readers. Which means they all need updated when you decide to change the audience you’re trying to reach.

That leads to the next category of updates.

Covers

I firmly believe in updating your covers. There are absolutely trends in covers and you don’t want to be left behind and look stale with an old cover design. Also, your eye improves over time. You have a better feel for what sells or what doesn’t if you’re watching your competition over the years.

And sometimes a new cover brings in new readers who didn’t really jive with your old cover but do with the new one.

But…I have also wasted money and time on cover updates. And if you’re buying nice covers that can add up.

Here are my two YA fantasy covers for my first in series:

I had the first image, the girl on the horse from 2015 to 2020. And then I had the second image with the moonstone necklace from 2020 to last month.

I do think going with the new cover refreshed the series, but I ended up switching the covers back to the original cover during a promo in March because I thought the first cover better conveyed adventure fantasy with a female protagonist.

The second cover would’ve worked beautifully if I were a known author. And it did sell, but I think people had to search for more information with the second cover. I can tell fantasy from it, but not YA, female protagonist, horse, etc.

Ideally I would’ve actually moved to a third set of covers for this one, but they’re expensive and they eat up all my profits for a while each time I switch them out so I just went back to the originals for the ebook. And these covers are beyond my ability to create myself, even the one on the right that seems simpler but is not.

Titles

That leads us to the last category of changes, which is the title. For fiction, unless the book just has not sold at all, I’d personally leave the title alone. Because you never know when someone will try to talk about your book to a new reader and tell them the title and then they can’t find it so they can’t buy it.

With my YA fantasy series someone published a very popular biker romance book using the exact same title two years or so after I published my book. But it just didn’t make sense at that point to switch things out even though that other author’s title is always the top search result for my title now. Sometimes it is what it is.

For non-fiction I have definitely changed up titles and been pleased to do so. Writing for Beginners and Budgeting for Beginners both started out with much more complicated titles that didn’t connect with readers and sold better after their title change.

Just recently I changed another one. I had a title, Data Principles for Beginners, and it had sold some copies–more than I realized–but not many.

I still believed in the content but I decided that the title didn’t convey what the book covered. So I went for a more wordy and direct title.

It’s too early to see if it will help, but now that book is How to Gather and Use Data for Business Analysis. I also changed the cover. Better, I think, yeah?

The issue with changes to your title is that Amazon now requires that you publish the book as a new title. It used to be that you could change an ebook and not have to republish, but now they want both ebook and print to be republished as new titles.

So you start over when you do that. And risk confusing readers who had bought the prior title and didn’t know there was a title change and buy it again because of the new ASIN/ISBN.

It’s not something I’d recommend for a best-selling series. But for one that never quite caught on, it can make all the difference.


In summary, I think there are times when making any of the above changes can really move the needle. And since often writing the title is the biggest time commitment a simple blurb or cover tweak can be a way to earn a lot more money out of something you already created.

It is never too late to save something that didn’t sell well originally. That’s why advertising can be a boon, too.

Assuming, of course, that the project wasn’t just fatally flawed, which can be the case. Sometimes there is no real audience for something and no amount of changing things up will fix that. Or the audience range is 50-100 people and you’re trying to change things up to get to an audience of 1000 that doesn’t exist.

So you have to weigh changes like this against spending that time on creating something new using everything you’ve learned.

I tend to alternate between creating something new and then stopping and consolidating and making changes to my old material and then creating more new material, but it will really come down to personality what makes the most sense for you.

In general, I’d say make easy fixes and skip the big ones. If it’s six weeks of re-writes? Write something new instead.

Oh, and just because I hadn’t shared them yet, here are the other new covers I did last week. All of the books were already available except for Sell That Book which used to be Achieve Writing Success.

If nothing else I was able to learn some new tricks for image manipulation. It’s all about the incremental improvement.