It’s Okay If You’re Not There Yet

We’re about at the end of Nano and some will celebrating their victory of “winning” Nano, while others will be kicking themselves for failing to hit those 55,000 words. And even those who won nano will soon realize (one hopes) that putting those initial words on the page are just step one of a long process. (I think it took me nine drafts to finalize my first novel and the second draft was almost a complete rewrite.)

It’s easy to look around and see what others are doing and think you don’t have what it takes. Or to get defeated when things aren’t happening fast enough. And it’s normal. The key is to keep going. If you keep going AND keep striving, you will improve. You will get better. It will get easier and you will start to see little glimmers of success that pull you forward.

Let me share a little of my own journey on this one.

Often times in the indie world there’s a lot of “oh, well, obviously your problem is…” talk. Covers is one of the top targets of these kind of comments. Those who’ve been around a while can look at a cover and think “NO! That won’t work at all.” But for a newbie, that skill just isn’t there yet.

I had to buy a new computer last week because this current one has developed the habit of just turning itself off, and I figured before I transferred my files I would go through my GIMP files and delete all the many drafts that had led to each of my covers. (I’ll sometimes go through twenty iterations of a cover before I’m satisfied.) What this made me do is look at some of my oldest covers.

And, oh man, were they bad. The initial covers on Douchebag were hideous. I’d done enough research to figure out the basic color scheme for men’s dating books (black, white, red, yellow), but what I then did with those colors? Holy cannoli. Bad.  Bad, bad, bad.

But I didn’t know. I put ’em out there without hesitation. And, surprisingly, a few copies sold. Why, when the covers were that bad, I will never know. Trust me, they were BAD.

But I learned and I experimented and I swapped out the covers more than once and I slowly improved. Is the cover perfect now? No. But it gets the job done. And maybe someday I pay someone who does this for a living to put a really flashy cover on it.

(Doubtful. This class I’m taking now has taught me that I have far more interest in the writing of things than in the marketing of things and that I may always be one of those folks who spend far more time on creating a product or thinking about how it all works than on trying to find my audience.)

Anyway. Back to the point. I didn’t know back then what I didn’t know. And I could’ve had millions of dollars to spend and still not done it “right”, because there was a lot I needed to learn. (Still is, but I think I’m further along now than I was then.)

This is a journey. With a lot of steps. And some of us are starting out in Australia with ten bucks in our pocket, trying to make it all the way to London, or in Idaho trying to make it to Russia.

It’s okay if it takes a while. It’s okay if you go off course for a bit. The key is to keep going and keep improving. And if someday your old covers or your old stories make you cringe? That’s okay, too. It just means you’ve learned enough to see the flaws in your early work.

So chin up and keep moving.

 

Number Crunching

I’m in this phase right now where I’ve decided to dive back into all of my notes and books from my MBA program to see how I would apply all of that teaching (I had a concentration in Entrepreneurship after all) to self-publishing.

It’s been interesting, because most of the materials address larger corporations and they assume that people have bigger goals than I actually do. I view writing as a lifestyle business not a scalable enterprise. (Although it could be and rumor has it a lot of the top romance writers have turned it into one.) If I could earn $100K a year without getting out of my pajamas or having to work in a team, I’d be ecstatically happy.

So I’m trying to take materials written for managers and corporate executives or the type of entrepreneurs that might seek outside funding and adapt it to self-publishing. Which means I’ve been looking at my writing from a number of different angles.

To give you some perspective, as of the end of October I had earned income on sixty-seven different titles this year. (That number is higher now.) The titles range from fantasy novels to romance novels to romance short stories to non-fiction books about Excel, finances, raising a puppy, dating, grief, cooking, and who knows what else. So I have a large variety of titles to look at. And my question is, which are my best performers? What should I do more of?

The most basic but incredibly flawed approach is to just look at gross revenue. How much money have I earned on each of those titles? It’s the one I tend to do the most often and the one I really shouldn’t do ever. If you focus on gross revenue you may bring in a lot of money and bankrupt yourself at the same time.

In terms of cash-in-hand, my romance and fantasy novels are at the top by a hefty amount.

The next step would be to look at what I’ve earned after accounting for advertising costs and production costs. My fantasy series has very nice covers that cost a pretty penny. My romance series has covers I made myself. I’ve spent roughly the same amount on advertising both series.

When I account for advertising costs (which I do at a series level not a book level), my romance novels drop to third place and my fantasy novels are the worst performing of all of my titles. The number one spot goes to a written-to-market series of short stories that basically sold themselves.

But I can’t stop there. Because this is a flawed approach, too.

I’m still not properly applying costs to each title, because I’m only thinking about direct costs. Covers, ads, etc. But what about the cost of this blog? Or of other expenses related to writing like conferences or my computer or electricity, etc.? (I haven’t done this yet, but the way to do it would be using activity-based costing, probably based on wordcount or hours spent writing each title.)

Also, I’m comparing titles that were published in 2013 to titles that were published in 2017. It’s a little unfair to say, “that’s the better title because it’s made me more money” when the title has been out for four years longer than the next best title that’s been out six months.

Which is why this week I went through and compared month 1, month 1 & 2, and months 1-6 sales for my titles. When I did that I could see that for months 1 & 2 the first in that written-to-market series dominated the list, but one of my Excel guides also made an appearance and the fantasy and romance novels did, too, particularly the ones that were later in the series.

Another interesting thing to look at was the percentage of sales that occurred in the first two months and first six months versus lifetime sales. That written-to-market series where the title was published three years ago? 71% of its lifetime sales were in the first six months. (It’s now permafree but still gets audio sales.) My first-in-series fantasy novel on the other hand? 10%.

Finally, last night I ran across another way to approach things: profit margin. Now, the number I calculated isn’t actually profit margin because I used what I receive from the distributors, which means this is after I’ve paid the 30-65% that they charge to sell my books. But having said that, I have a series with a 95% margin. For every $50 spent, I’ve earned $1000 on it.

This analysis moves a lot more of the non-fiction up to the top and drops the romance novels down because contemporary romance is so competitive you have to fight for visibility.

Of course, it’s never that simple. Because then you have to look at what you can write. It turns out I suck at writing to market, not because I can’t do it but because I can’t do it consistently. At least not the market I wrote to that did so well.

And the trick with fiction is that most writers (not all) need a sort of critical mass of titles to really start seeing results. (My estimate is twelve novels. I’ve heard five in a series from trade publishers.) So looking at the performance of one novel against three related non-fiction titles may not be a fair comparison. You have to figure that you can expand on a fictional world with much more ease than you can expand on a non-fiction area. I’ve written three books about dating for men. I maybe have one more I could write, but that’s it. Whereas novels? I could write those for eternity.

And I also have to consider how replicable those results are. Being in the NaNo StoryBundle has seriously skewed the numbers for those series and titles so everytime I look at them I have to do so with a big asterisk next to the results or back out the bundle portion of the sales.

Also there’s how much time it takes to write each title. If you’re three times faster at writing X than Y then you need to consider that in terms of what you get back when you sell X and Y.

Anyway. I find it fun to think about these things. But, really, the best thing to do is write the next damned book. Product is key. And we as writers never have enough of it because even if someone loves what you do, they’re only going to pay you for that title once. (Or maybe three times at most? Ebook, print, audio.) You have to give them more so they’ll give you more money.

So quit reading this and go write. Like I’m going to do.

Theoretically.

Halfway Through Nano

So it’s November 15th. Which means we’re halfway through Nano. I have never actually done Nano myself. It’s not something that would work for me. (Although I have written 20,000 words or so so far this month so may actually hit the Nano goal. But when you self-publish, most months are Nano-style months. Or at least you wish they were.)

And I suspect at this point that there are some folks out there that have maybe decided that Nano isn’t for them either. If you’re one of those people, that’s OKAY. One of the joys and frustrations of being a writer is that there’s no clear path that we all need to follow. It’s like a million streams rolling down a hill, each one taking it’s own unique approach. So Nano didn’t do it for you? That’s fine. Just keep writing when you can and at your own pace.

I’m taking a great class right now called Write Better Faster (https://www.margielawson.com/lawson-writers-academy-courses) that delves into how different personality types approach writing and how they encounter different issues with their writing because of it. Today’s lecture reminded me why one of my best writer-friends routinely does all her writing in a bar and why I have to do my writing in a dedicated home office. And why I would probably be miserable trying to write in a bar and she’d be miserable writing at home.

We’re all different. So if one approach isn’t working for you, don’t beat yourself up or think that means you can’t do this. It just means you need to take a different approach– one that works for you. Along those lines, Patricia C. Wrede had a great post up today: Pavement Conditions. As someone who cusses out the California drivers every year the first snow falls in Colorado and who grew up in the mountains, I found her analogy here very apt.

You have to know where you are and what will work under those conditions. And realize that sometimes what worked before isn’t going to work now. The key is to just keep trying and moving forward.

(And if you find that you’re sort of kind of done with Nano at this point but still committed to writing, might I suggest you take a look at the NaNoWriMo StoryBundle. There may just be a book in there that speaks to you…)

Let’s Talk Pricing

So over on FB a fellow author was essentially calling out trade publishers for how they price ebooks. And they’re not the only person who has ever done that. It happens on a fairly frequent basis that someone questions why trade publishers price ebooks so high.

Usually, the argument that’s made is that it doesn’t cost all that much to put out an ebook. There’s no paper or ink or printing process that needs to happen. So the marginal cost of an ebook is negligible.

But what those arguments all fail to account for is that people are willing to pay that much for those books. Lots of people. Right now The Midnight Line by Lee Child is $14.99 in ebook. It’s ranked number 2 in the Kindle US store. That means somewhere around six or seven thousand people were willing to pay that for that book today. And it’s a book that’ll be in the top of the charts for a while so that many people are going to be paying that much for that book each day for weeks.

What benefit is there to the publisher to drop that price? It won’t improve the book’s rank on Amazon. It’s already #2. Where else can it go?

Well, the argument goes, they’ll get more readers if they drop the price. Okay. True.

But they won’t make more money. And ultimately they may capture all of those readers. The problem with a lot of the “price lower” arguments are that they fail to account for long-term pricing strategies like price-pulsing

Let’s walk through some numbers to show you what I’m talking about.

First, we need a set of assumptions. For our fictitious book let’s assume that there are 12,250 people willing to buy this book. 5000 of those people will only buy the book if it’s available at 99 cents. 2500 will buy it for $2.99 or less. 1000 will buy it for $3.99 or less. Another 1000 will buy it for $4.99 or less. 750 each will buy it at $5.99 or $6.99 or less. 1,250 will buy it for $7.99 or less. 750 will pay $8.99 or less. 250 will pay $9.99 or less.

(I did this in Excel. It’s the chart on the left below. That third column is the cumulative number of customers who’d be willing to pay that price. So everyone would pay 99 cents, but only 250 would pay $9.99.)

Pricing Scenario

Let’s start with the ideal world scenario where we somehow manage to sell our book to every buyer at the maximum price they’re willing to pay. We capture the 99 centers at their price, but also get the $9.99 buyers at their price.

In that scenario, we sell 12,250 copies of the book and we gross $42,127.50. But you have to account for the Amazon cut, so we net $27,756.75.

That’s the ideal scenario. It doesn’t happen, because we have to list our book for sale at one price and even if we change prices over time (as we’ll discuss in a minute) there’s no way to ensure that the customers who are willing to spend $9.99 only see our book when it’s at that price. So in reality we’ll end up with a customer who would’ve paid $9.99 paying $4.99 or even 99 cents depending on when they see the book.

Now, a lot of times the argument is made that you should maximum your sales by pricing low. So 99 cents. That captures the most possible customers. You get all 12,250 customers at that price, no doubts about it. So what do you earn with that approach? You gross $12,127.50, but you net $4,244.63. Same number of sales. But because you priced for the lowest-paying customer, you earn $23,500 less than the ideal scenario.

Of course, as we mentioned, the ideal scenario isn’t likely anyway. So let’s compare the 99 cent approach to another alternative, pricing at $4.99. That captures anyone willing to pay $4.99 to $9.99 but loses anyone who would only pay less than $4.99.  Instead of 12,250 sales you only get 3,750. But those 3,750 gross you $18,712.50 and net you $13,098.75. So you lose 70% of your potential customers but you make three times as much.

Now, what about the final option? Price-pulsing. You list at $4.99, so you’re giving away some potential income there, and then, after you’ve captured those buyers, you drop the price to 99 cents to capture the bargain hunters. Under this approach you sell all 12,250 copies. You do worse than the ideal scenario (because your highest price paid is $4.99) but better than the other two scenarios (because you’re capturing some of the higher-paying market by initially pricing at $4.99 as well as the lower-paying market by dropping the price to 99 cents). In this approach, you gross $27,127.50 and you net $16,044.

So, really, price pulsing is the best approach if you’re willing to be patient about when you capture your buyers.

And for trade publishers with established authors who aren’t struggling for visibility, pricing really high initially and then slowly lowering prices over time is the most profit-maximizing decision. That’s the approach that’s most likely to allow them to stay in business long-term and pay all those salaries and overhead costs and find new undiscovered authors who aren’t established and cant command those prices.

Does that mean self-publishers should price that high? No. There are other factors at play when you’re not Lee Child. Key among those Amazon’s algos that reward early success and seem to have a support level that means that ranking high early means better long-term performance. But it does mean that if you’ve chosen to always price at 99 cents that you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.

 

10,000 Copies Sold

Sometime this last month I crossed the 10,000 copies sold mark. Half of that came in the last six months.

I should be thrilled. I should be dancing on the tables, overjoyed that maybe I’m finally starting to get some traction on this whole writing thing and to figure out how to sell what I write.

But I’m not.

While there is a part of me that’s excited about where I am, I know this might not continue on an upward trajectory. I have a color-coded list of income by month and I can look at that list and say, “Hey, there’s December 2014 when I published my first romance novel and a successful romance short and thought I was on my way. My first $500+ month.” And then I can look at July 2015 and see that I only made $56 that month. And that that was followed by August 2015 where I had a $600+ month. And then December 2015 which was again under $100.

So I know better by now. Some folks do great right from the start and just keeping going, but I’d say that for most writers it’s more peaks and valleys.  Good months and then not so good months.

What makes me even more uneasy is where those sales have come from this last six months. In July, almost half of my revenue for the month was from a single romance novel. In October, that novel is next to nothing for revenue, but I had a successful fantasy promo and non-fiction picked up the slack.

On one hand, yay, diversification. When one track slips, another can catch the slack. On the other hand, where do you put your efforts when from month-to-month there’s no good way to predict which titles will do best?

I like to tell my friends entering the corporate world to just get that first job, put your head down, and do the best damn job you can. Even if it isn’t the ideal position for you, you need to focus on where you are to get forward momentum and move up. You want to tell a good story when you’re ready for that next job, you need to commit to the job you have now.

That should be true of writing, too. Pick one path, focus on it, and follow it until you succeed. And I think it is for many. But what path do you choose when you could easily choose any of three paths?

(Me being me, I just wrote a new story on path four that I should just drop already. Someone please smack me upside the head.)

The other killer about that number is that it’s not enough. I know how amazed I would’ve been in year one of self-publishing to sell 10,000 copies. That’s thousands of people I don’t know who paid cash money for something I wrote.

Think about that for a minute.

Let that sink in.

Thousands of people have paid money for something I wrote. How many people can say that?

But then realize that selling 10,000 copies isn’t enough to make this sustainable. For one year, let alone four of them.

I often ask myself why I stick with the self-publishing. There are so many ways I could make money that would be far, far easier in terms of hours spent and money earned. And I think part of the answer is that it’s so damned hard for me. I have some weird, twisted need to fight for what I get or I don’t consider it worth keeping. If I’m not challenged, it doesn’t work for me.

(Also there’s theI get to work alone and from home aspect of it…)

Anyway, yay for me. Pauses to celebrate this milestone. Now time to get back to it.

20K here we come. And sometime this decade, please.

I’m Not Good At This Self-Employment Thing

The last time I held a full-time office job was right about this time in 2009. I think my last day was September 30th. I worked on-site on a project out of town until 10:30 that night helping my team finish up a report, went back to my hotel, and flew home the next day.

I then took off the next three months, something I had never done before since I worked through college, both during the school year and summers and all breaks. I’d take a two-week vacation most years after college, but the rest of the time it was work, work, work. Often sixty hour weeks.

I spent part of that time off traveling around New Zealand. I cannot tell you how amazing those six weeks were. Such a beautiful country, such amazing people, such fun things to do. I wanted more of that and less of the stress and deadlines of full-time work.

So January 1st, 2010 I got back to work as a self-employed consultant who worked from home (which in those early years turned out to be New Zealand a lot of the time). I’ve stayed working as either a self-employed consultant or writer ever since.

Now, you might look at that and think, “Well, you seem to be doing something right since you’ve been self-employed for seven years now. Don’t most businesses fail after five years?”

But I’m not really. It turns out I was so good at being full-time employed that it allowed me to coast into self-employment.

In two ways.

First, almost all of my consulting business has come from people I knew when I was full-time calling me up and offering me work. That’s what happened in December 2009 and it’s continued to happen since. Only one project I’ve worked on in the last seven years came from someone I didn’t know before I started consulting.

Worse, I like to work from home and I know that if I go out to companies and say, “Hey, you have any work for me?” and they say, “Yes. And it’s on-site in this random city” that I’m kind of stuck taking work that involves travel I don’t want. So I have sat back and waited for people to reach out to me and say, “Any chance you’re free?” so I can then say, “As long as I can work from home (and as long as the rate’s good).”

That’s not a way to run a sustainable business. A successful entrepreneur should be out there hustling for new clients or for more business from their existing clients. Instead I do things like decide that the work a client was giving me wasn’t challenging enough and wasn’t using my expertise (even though it was highly lucrative) and move on at the end of the project instead of hanging around for more opportunities.

That’s a horrible way to run a business.

And the only reason I can do that is because of the other thing that being good at full-time employment gave me: savings. I can walk away from a good-paying project because I know I can cover my rent this month one way or the other out of savings.

But you can only do that kind of thing for so long. And the longer you do it for the worse it all gets. The savings go down, the people who remember you become fewer and more far between. Your skills atrophy or your knowledge becomes stale.

It’s amazing how long you can coast without realizing that you’re failing.

I envision it sometimes as my early career was one of those ramps you see at the X games and I’m some motorcycle that has gone flying off the end. The initially trajectory was even higher, but at some point now that I’m off the ramp, I’m going to start coming down.

I think the year that happens is 2018.

Unless I finally get my head out of my ass and get disciplined about being self-employed and start to treat it like a real bona fide business that requires deadlines and focus (for the writing) or actually pursuing work (for the consulting).

(Before you get out the violins, I am in the five-figure range with the writing this year, so it’s not like I’m selling three copies. It’s just that it’s not enough for how I want to live.)

Anyway. As part of that effort to break myself out of this funk, today I read one of the books in the NaNo bundle: Time Management by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Reading it brought home yet again that I don’t treat my writing as a real business. I’m still treating it as a hobby, which I can’t keep doing unless I want to go get one of those day jobs I’m so good at but hate.

So there you have it. Even though I’ve managed to do this for seven years now, I’m not actually good at this self-employment thing. But I’m going to get better at it, damn it.

I swear. (And I’ll get right on that after I waste the rest of this morning on the internet…)

Breathe

For some reason the level of “oh my god, the sky is falling” seems to have ratcheted up in the last few days.

The latest one I’m seeing is the “OMG, CreateSpace” drama because they decided to close their eStore. Now, I realize this does impact some people who used the store for discounts and perhaps sales at conventions, but I never used the eStore. I honestly never understood why it existed in the first place. Not like you could search it or really use it to shop.

So a business discontinued one aspect of its product offerings because it was probably minimally used and required too many resources to maintain.

And now there’s a five page long thread on one of the writing forums of people saying they have to switch to Ingram Spark. Um, why? If you were fine putting your books out on Amazon using CreateSpace before this, that hasn’t changed. That’s not what they’re closing.

Now, if enough people abandon CreateSpace altogether that may just lead them to shut the whole thing down in favor of KDP Print. But we’re not there.

So, breathe.  Remember the whole serenity prayer? Focus on what you can control and stop freaking out about things that aren’t happening.

(This from someone who runs contingency plans in their head non-stop. If X, I’ll do Y, If A, I’ll do B, If C, I’ll do D. Oh, look, E happened.)