The Beauty and Danger of Publishing

One of the things that appeals to me most about publishing is that something I created long ago can continue to pay me money. I have titles I published in 2013 that continue to sell today. (Not many copies because those are all dead pen names that I don’t do much to promote, but sales are sales and that effort was done and dusted long ago.)

But most titles won’t continue to sell forever without continued effort to release more material under that name or promote them. So the same thing that appeals to me about publishing (long-term income from a project I finished long ago) is also what I have to guard against.

So far today I’ve sold 36 books on Amazon, which is great and will help pay my rent. But book sales are a lagging indicator. They happen after all the work has been done. After all the words have been put on the page, all the editing and formatting has been done, after the cover and title have been chosen, and after the publishing and promoting have been done.

It can be easy to focus on the sales number and forget about the months of effort that were required to get those sales. And because sales of most titles do trail off over time that means you can be headed for a fall off a cliff and not realize it. And when you do realize it you can be months behind where you should be to get things back on track.

So far today I haven’t written any words. I could probably continue to do that for six months without seeing any sort of huge impact on my income. It would probably require more promotional effort over time, but I could keep pretty steady for a while. But if I did that for a year? Or two? I’d definitely feel the pinch.

That’s why it’s important to track leading indicators as well. My big one, of course, is words written. (And to some extent, titles published. Writing words is meaningless for what I’m talking about here if those words aren’t going to lead to publishable titles.) The words I write are always the first step in the process. Without those, I have no new material.

The other one for me–that I also make into a New Year’s resolution–is ad spend. I target a certain amount of ad spend per month with the expectation that ad spend leads to sales.

So while it’s nice to see those sales and it helps take a little of the pressure off to know that money is coming in two months from now, it’s not safe to focus on just that sales number. I need to instead focus on production and building a base of material because it is far too easy to get lulled into a sense of false security with publishing.

 

Revise or Remove

When writing non-fiction you sometimes have to make a decision whether to revise a title or remove it. Or at least I do.

Case in point, Easy AMS Ads. When I first published that book it was current as of the date of publication but then Amazon made a lot of changes that made the material outdated. They removed an entire ad type, for example. So two years later I updated the book.

It ended up being an almost complete re-write by the time I was done because so much had changed in the two years since I’d published the original. And then within months of my publishing the updated version, Amazon made even more changes. They moved where billing info was located, they opened up additional stores, they changed where keywords were displayed, etc.

Which brings us to today. I had a decision to make with respect to that book (and the rest of the books in the Self-Publishing Essentials series.) I could try to update it again and hope that the pace of change had slowed enough for AMS that the book remained useful for a couple of years.

Or I could unpublish it and step aside from writing on that subject anymore. I’ve chosen to unpublish and step aside. Making money off of selling books about how to use AMS is not my focus as an author.

As of today my dashboard tells me I’ve sold over $113K worth of books using AMS ads, so I absolutely believe in the power of those ads. (That’s retail price, not what I actually was paid, FYI.) But I don’t want to have a product out there that isn’t up to date and I don’t want to have to keep updating that book every six months.

I’ve also unpublished the rest of that series which covered Excel for Self-Publishers, ACX for Beginners, and Print Books for Beginners. Excel for Self-Publishers had also become outdated. (It covered how to see your ad performance for a period of time but the AMS dashboard now lets you do that yourself.) And I haven’t done audio books recently enough to even know whether the ACX book is outdated. Print Books was probably fine, but without the rest of the books it didn’t make sense to continue to publish it.

I don’t expect that I’ll be publishing more books for self-publishers in the future. I’ve never directly had anyone say it to my face but I have most certainly noticed the number of times when authors make snide remarks about authors who publish books on self-publishing to “make a buck off of their fellow authors” especially when those authors don’t think that those publishing the books are successful enough by their standards to do so.

I published my books because self-publishing can be confusing and overwhelming and I saw misunderstandings and miscommunications in those particular areas over and over again. It was easier to put what I knew into a book format than to try to counter all the misinformation one forum post at a time. And because I’d put time and effort into creating those books, I felt I deserved to be paid for that time and effort and so sold those books instead of giving them away.

I hope those of you who bought the books found value in them. And I wish you all luck in the future. And, as always, I’m available via email if someone has a question or gets stuck. (Just have done your homework first or you’re likely to have me point you to one of the writers’ forums with instructions to read up a bit.)

A Good Post on Writing Scams To Watch Out For

One of the hardest aspects of getting published, either traditionally or by self-publishing, is knowing what’s legitimate and what’s a scam. And there are people out there who make a very good living by taking advantage of the ignorance and hopes of aspiring authors.

Anne R. Allen had an excellent post on her blog this week outlining ten current publishing scams to look out for.

My one quibble with what she said is that for non-fiction I think print is a much bigger part of sales than it is for fiction, even for self-publishers.

But still. Don’t go paying for a box full of books to sell out of your garage unless you are already established as a speaker with an audience you can sell them to. Print on demand (through KDP Print or IngramSpark) is the best option for print for self-publishing, IMO, unless you’ve pre-sold a large number of books already, like, for example, through a Kickstarter project and can justify the cost of a print run.

(And those scams targeting teens have been around for ages. I once “won” placement in a lovely gold-embossed book of poetry which was only $50 to buy. Fortunately, I was not so excited to see my poems in print that I paid it.)

Writing Speed

One of the conversations that often happens around writing is how much can a writer feasibly write in a day or a week or a month or a year.

Often people will discuss how many words per minute they can type and try to extrapolate that to some number of words they could write if they just had the time. “Oh, I write 50 words per minute, so if I have sixty minutes that gives me 3,000 words which means if I quit my day job and write for six hours a day I can write 18,000 words a day. That means I could write the first draft of a 70,000-word novel a week.”

Now most people aren’t that extreme about it. But there are definitely people out there who argue that it’s easy enough to write 5,000-10,000 words per day. And that doing so for five days a week gives you 40,000 words in a week which gives you a novel a month easily.

What got me thinking about this is that I started the next cozy mystery this morning. And in the space of about an hour I wrote the first 2,400 words of the cozy, which for me was two chapters, each written in a thirty-minute chunk.

It’s only eight-thirty in the morning right now. I have a call in half an hour and need to feed the dog and spend time with her, but I have at least four more hours I could write in this afternoon. Which makes it look like I could easily hit 5,000 words for the day. And if I can do that today, why not tomorrow and the day after and the day after.

But it turns out that, at least for me, how many words I can write has nothing to do with my typing speed. It has to do with my idea-generation and refilling-the-well speed. I wrote 2,400 words this morning but none the past three days. And I’ve been pondering the way into this story and the plot for the story for months now. (The general idea–a cold case–was actually going to be the idea I used one or two cozies ago, so I’ve been trying to come up with a good cold case idea for months now. Which, because it’s a cozy, also has to be a bit light-hearted, too.)

It’s quite possible I’ll be able to sit down this afternoon and write the next chapter or two. But it’s equally possible that I’ll sit down to write that next chapter or two and not quite be ready for them yet. Or that I’ll write them and then need to go back after five or six chapters and smooth things out and ramp things up to keep the story momentum where I want it.

After many years of this I’ve found that for me the steady writing pace that helps me keep moving with a novel and not burn out averages around 2,000 words a day. (Non-fiction averages closer to 3,000 words a day and requires less downtime between drafts.)

And that’s still a higher number of expected words than I actually produce in a year because I need downtime between projects where my mind is working on the ideas and turning them this way and that and imagining scenes or dialogue I might include but I’m not writing.

Others work differently. Some people are binge writers. They just dive in and write for hours on end until they’re ready to collapse. Some people extensively outline so that when it comes time to write they can also put words on the page for hours at a time. Some are so high in Ideation that the ideas are always there and they don’t need that pause.

And some have to achieve perfection the first time they type a sentence so only get down 250 words an hour.

The key is to learn what’s reasonable for you and to plan accordingly. Don’t push yourself to be something you’re not. Find that steady pace that you can hit comfortably and work from there.

And also understand that others work differently and so will have different results than you do. Which means you shouldn’t tell someone they’re not capable of writing faster than you do just because you can’t do it. But it also means you shouldn’t tell someone who writes at a slower pace that they’re just not trying hard enough.

We all work at our own unique pace.  The key is finding what works for you and is sustainable for you.

 

New Release Checklist

I’m always forgetting at least one thing I’m supposed to do for each new release, so I figured I’d try to put together a checklist to use for the next release and I’d share it here for anyone who needs one themselves.

Keep in mind that I am wide with most of my books and that I usually publish in print at the same time I release in ebook so there will be far more on my list than on some.

PB=Paperback, EB=Ebook

1. Upload PB to Amazon and proof with previewer. Make changes until final.

2. Upload EB to Amazon and proof with previewer. Make changes until final.

3. Upload PB to IngramSpark and submit.

4. (Next day) Proof and approve PB on IngramSpark.

5. Publish PB and EB on Amazon. (Write down foreign currency prices for use with other sites.)

6. Upload and publish EB on other sites. (D2D, Kobo, Nook, G+, Apple)

7. When published on Amazon, claim EB and PB versions on Author Central.

8. Create listing for book on Goodreads. (This prevents the book from being listed incorrectly under authors with the same name.)

9. Update Books2Read link when all major retailers are in. Give custom name to URL and review Author page for positioning of new title.

10. If there are followers for that name add book to BookBub profile to qualify for new release email.

11. Announce new release on website.

12. Announce new release to mailing list.

13. Update Also By section for EB of any related books with links to new title. Upload to sites.

14. Update Also By section for PB of any related books with new title. Upload to sites.

15. Update EB files for new release with links to new title. (If applicable.) Upload to sites.

16. Wait two days and if EB and PB versions are not linked on Amazon, request that they be linked via Author Central.

17. Add listing for new title on website.

18. Post to FB or other social media about new release, if applicable.

19. Start an AMS ad on new title in US and, if warranted, UK.

 

 

Some Days I Can’t Even…

There is a writer’s forum that I refuse to post on anymore after I watched a discussion of a fairly controversial topic where information was provided from more than one source on a topic most people aren’t well-informed about and then two posters basically said, “I chose not to read that information that was provided but here’s my outdated, uninformed, insensitive opinion on the matter.” I’m simply done with helping people who don’t want to be helped.

But I still drop by and read the posts.

And today…

Oh my.

There was a discussion on there about how a trade published author that someone hadn’t heard of (who has been a highly successful author with two to three trade pub releases per year for the last thirty-plus years and sold at least 20 million copies) must not be very successful because of their Amazon US rank. The individual making this claim said that he was just as successful as this author because their most recent releases were basically ranked the same on Amazon US.

First, I’m not sure what the commenter was comparing, but when I looked at the latest release by the self-pub author and the trade pub author, this is what I saw.

Trade pub author with a rank of 26K for an ebook priced at $13.99.

Self-pub author with a rank of 49K for an ebook priced at $4.99 and in KU.

Let’s just stop right there for a second. Because if a book is in KU and it is borrowed, Amazon gives that book a rank boost equivalent to a sale. Someone can open that book, decide it is pure drivel, return it, and that book will still get the benefit of the rank boost.

So to claim that a book that is ranked purely based on paid sales and a book that is ranked based on paid sales and KU borrows are equivalent in terms of their performance is absurd.

Also, setting aside the borrow issue, look at the price paid for each sale. One is selling at $4.99. One is selling at $13.99. More than double. And I do not believe that the one selling at $4.99 could continue to sell if it were priced at $13.99.

But there’s more.

Because the self-published title in KU doesn’t even have a paperback version. So all sales of that title are happening on Amazon in ebook.

Compare that to the trade pub author who is published in print. And well-established enough and popular enough to be carried in pretty much every single physical bookstore. And in libraries. Something that will not show on an Amazon US ranking.

The number varies widely for different genres and authors, but the most recent estimates I’ve seen thrown around were that print is about 65% of the overall book market.

This is the part that so many indies miss. Because most indies publish POD which comes with higher costs and therefore higher price points, we tend to miss the print market.

I can hit it with my non-fiction but not my fiction. That’s because my $15.95 YA fantasy has to compete with $10.99 YA fantasies or, worse, $7.99 mass market fantasies.

Print is an incredibly big part of the pie and especially in fiction it’s a part of the pie that most indies don’t get.

Sure, some indies make a lot of money. But it’s mostly in ebook or in audio. Dismissing print is like the authors making money in KU dismissing everything else. They’re making good money but it’s in a relatively small section of the overall market that actually exists.

Because indies don’t compete effectively in other portions of the market they forget that those portions of the market exist or they dismiss them as small because their ability to reach that part of the market is so limited that they assume it must be small.

Anyway. Bottom line. Honey, you ain’t anywhere close to touching the level of success of that particular author. But nice try, thanks for playing.

What Does It Cost to Self-Publish A Book

I tend to ignore the conversations where people discuss what’s required to self-publish a book. A few years back someone who’d done very well with self-publishing who I know and like posted a list of everything a new self-publisher should take care of before they publish and I remember staring at that list in horror and thinking I’d never have self-published if I’d thought it required all of that.

I always figure it comes down to a difference in philosophy. I long ago accepted that I will never be perfect and that the level of effort to reach perfection far outweighs any benefit I’ll receive from it. In school being perfect would’ve meant I couldn’t take all the courses I wanted to, play the sports I loved, and do the extracurriculars I enjoyed all at the same time. It seemed oddly limiting to me to spend all that time on one thing so I could get an A+ or up my shooting percentage in basketball when I could get an A- and still start varsity with a lot less effort.

I also long ago learned that arguing with the perfectionists is exhausting and a waste of my time and energy. And in self-pub especially where everyone thinks they can see and judge your performance it’s an even more obnoxious experience. Because, since of course I’m not perfect, if I say, “you can do it for free” then someone will call out my writing or my covers or my blurbs or my book rank.

But here’s the thing: You can do it for free. Or at least close to it. It just takes time.

I’ve published two books so far this year. One non-fiction title in an area of expertise I have. One cozy mystery.

I used GIMP (a free software) to create the covers myself. Will they win awards? No. Do they achieve their purpose? I like to think so.

The non-fiction cover had one stock image, the cozy cover had three. I’m still working through a DepositPhotos package I bought that came with something like 100 images for $50. So, let’s say one cover cost me 50 cents. The other cost me $1.50. And time. It maybe took me an hour, probably less, to create each cover.

(Keep in mind at this point I’ve created well over a hundred covers in GIMP. Probably more than triple that if we start counting paperback covers as separate.)

I also self-edit.

Yes, that means that there are people out there who will read one of my stories and tell me it could’ve been better. But every story can always be better. Every single one ever published. And no story will appeal to all readers. Ever. But the stories I publish are me. They are consistently mine. People may not like what my characters do or what they value or the level of action/emotion/exposition/etc. in my novels, but for those who do like my worldview they know they’ll get a novel that delivers what they like.

I did have three subject matter experts read the non-fiction title to make sure I wasn’t saying anything dramatically controversial but at the end of the day that was my take on a field where I have twenty years of expertise. It was delivered in my voice and with my opinions based on my experience.

And, sure, maybe I could pay a few hundred dollars and have someone find five extra typos, but I don’t think it’s worth the expense. It’s certainly not worth it on the fiction side to find someone who may not know any more about writing than I do to tell me what they think is wrong with my story.

I format my own files as well.

Nowadays I use Vellum for ebooks and for fiction print books. But before I purchased Vellum a well-formatted Word file worked just fine. (Styles are your friend.) I still use Word to format my non-fiction print books using the free template from Amazon. I’m not trying to deliver the most beautifully formatted book out there. I’m just trying to deliver my words in a way that lets the reader absorb them easily and without distraction.

I also upload the files myself.

And write my own blurbs.

(Again, my blurbs may not be the best blurbs that could possibly be written for each book, but they’re mine so they fit perfectly with what someone will actually get when they buy the book.)

Because of all of that I was able to write, prepare, and publish two books for $2.

And my time.

The reason you might pay someone to do these things for you instead is because there’s a learning curve. My first-ever cover was absolutely horrid. I did not know how bad it was. I thought I’d done a good job with it.

But that’s the beauty of self-publishing. A cover can be changed out in a day. It will only live on on Goodreads if you were unfortunate enough for it to make it there. (Which for that book I was not.)

As a new writer I had that time. And really, honestly, if I’d paid for those services back then I would’ve been throwing my money away because I didn’t know enough to judge what I was paying for.

I have no doubt there are “formatters” out there right now charging a couple hundred bucks to run a file through Vellum because there are authors out there who don’t know better and will pay them for that.

Now, of course, in any discussion about this someone will inevitably come along and argue that six-figure authors don’t do it all themselves and give that as proof for why new authors should pay for all of this, too.

But that’s a fallacy.

Because the decision a six-figure author is making is very different from the decision a new author is making.

My most successful title has made me a profit of $725 per hour it took to write. If I knew that every title I wrote would be that successful then I’d be a fool to do everything myself.

Better at that point to pay someone $250 for a cover than spend an hour (which is worth $725) creating my own.

This is why a number of the very successful authors I know pay for editors. Not because they can’t do it well enough themselves, but because that time they’d spend on editing can be better spent writing the next book. They can publish a couple more books a year by using an editor.

They have the ideas and the audience for that to make sense.

But for a new writer? It doesn’t.

The sad truth is that for most new writers that first book will not be a resounding success no matter how much money you spend on it. You can get the best edits, the most beautiful formatting, the perfect cover. You can even spend on blog tours and hire a publicist (which, really, honestly does not make sense for 99% of self-publishers). And you can put thousands into ads and develop a launch strategy and all of that.

But at the end of the day that book will still not sell.

Because most first efforts are simply not that good.

And what they generally do have going for them are the things that extensive inappropriate editing can destroy. (Voice, a unique perspective, etc.)

So remember: You really can publish for free. And if you’re new, that may really be the best choice to make.

Take the time, learn how it’s done. Get that first title out there. See what happens. Rinse. Repeat.

(And if that title does have legs, if you’re one of the rare early successes, then use your profits to buy a prettier cover or some paid ads. Just be sure you know by then what will work for the type of book you published.)

 

A Reality Check Moment

I recently had a conversation with an author privately that prompted me to write this post. Now, first I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to call out this author and if they read this post I hope they won’t feel that way. But what they were saying was out of sync enough with what I think the reality of publishing is that I wanted to post about it publicly.

Essentially we were talking about submitting a book to a trade publisher. And the comment this author made to me was that because any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing that they would not be willing to accept any advance that wasn’t seven figures.

Now part of my problem with discussing something like this with another author is that I am constantly scanning for information from a number of sources, but I don’t tend to bookmark or index those sources so that I can refer back to them and pass them along as needed. For me, knowledge is one big mulch pile and I take what I suck in and process it in ways that get me to conclusions that I probably can’t tick and tie for another to follow.

But I’m going to make some sort of attempt to do so here, because I want this post to be educational not just opinionated.

So let’s unpack that person’s belief starting with the belief that “any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing.”

Yeah, no.

But this belief is out there. And I think it exists for a couple of reasons.

First, I avoid these conversations myself because I know it’s just an invitation to be criticized. As soon as I say, well, no, that’s not really true someone will respond with “Oh, well you didn’t do it because your cover sucks, your writing sucks, you’re in a bad subgenre, you don’t know how to market, etc.”

No book is perfect. Every book has flaws. So when someone is trying to win this argument they will find those flaws and poke at them to prove their point. And I’d add here that a writing style that works perfectly fine for a majority of readers (cough, cough, Dan Brown) may not work for a picky group of writers debating quality.

So no one tends to push back on these statements that are made because they don’t want to be publicly called a loser.

And, two, generally only the people who do really well talk about how they’re doing to any great extent. I remember at one point posting about how thrilled I was to have 500 audiobook sales and having some very successful author come along in that thread and say, well I have 50,000. Gee, thanks, way to crush me. Maybe they didn’t mean to do it, but the message was sit down and shut up. Which many authors do.

I still talk about numbers here on occasion because I want people to see how the journey looks for someone who wasn’t an instant success but is making steady progress, but I almost never post numbers on that forum or discuss them there in any way for those reasons.

So over time authors get a really good glimpse of the lower end of the high range (because the really high end of the high range tend not to hang out and talk publicly about their numbers) and the lower end of the low range (where things are going so badly they’re begging for help). Everyone else in the range between those two groups tends towards silence, which can create a really skewed view of the realities of the situation and lead to someone believing the sort of thing I quoted above.

So let’s try to walk through this and see what we can actually determine.

In my opinion the Author Earnings Report was flawed in a number of ways and, of course, no longer exists. But it gets us some sort of ballpark to start with. The June 2016 report, which is discussed in this post (https://publishingperspectives.com/2016/06/author-earnings-more-data-profitable-authors/ ) estimated that there were 1,340 authors earning more than $100,000 from Amazon sales at that time.

That was trade published and self-published. All authors. 1,340 of them earning more than $100,000. Total.

Now understand that number is gross earnings. It doesn’t account for covers, editing, or advertising, all of which are costs on the self-publishing side. Also, some of those author names were the same individuals writing under more than one name, but that’s probably balanced by the authors who weren’t listed but could have hit that level across pen names. And it was just Amazon, not wide, but for most authors Amazon does still dominate their sales even when they’re wide so that probably offsets the costs that aren’t account for.

Compare that number, and this is a bit of apples to oranges comparison, to the current membership on Facebook of the 20BooksTo50K group which is at 36K. Or Self-Publishing Formula, Mark Dawson’s group, which is at 45K. Presumably these are people who want to make money from their self-publishing efforts.

Okay, so flawed as the number is, right there we have that only about 4% of “serious” self-publishers are hitting six figures.

(Now we pause while I question all of my life choices….)

(Okay. Done. Let’s resume.)

So getting to six figures at all is not a given. But let’s break down another part of that statement above, the notion that it can be done with one book.

Here is a survey that Written Word Media published earlier this year. It’s not a perfect article (is it really that hard to list right up front your sample size and the percent for each category), but it’s a start: https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/author-income-how-to-make-a-living-from-your-writing/

And what I want to point out is that first graph that shows that the median number of books published by an author grossing six figures or more is 28.

These authors are in the six figure range based on sales of all of their titles. Not one title. ALL of them.

(Now here’s where I pull a number out of my ass.)

Let’s assume that the median net income for those over-six-figure authors is $280,000. I think that’s probably way too high but it’s nice math and no one is going to yell at me for being too stingy with the number.

Okay, then. So if the median net income is $280,000 and the median number of titles published is 28, that’s $10,000 per title on average in a year.

Sure, a new release might take up the bulk of that, but the few six-figure authors I’ve heard throw around actual numbers for new releases talk about earning $30,000 with each new release or having about 7,000 sales at release.

So, $30K to each new book. Three or four books per year released. That’s $120K if it’s four books. The other $160K for the remaining 24 books in the backlist.

And, honestly, that’s not even how it works. The 80/20 rule is alive and well with publishing. Most authors are going to see that only 20% of their titles really perform well and that those titles make up 80% of their income.

So in a given year an author with 28 titles earning $280K will have five of those titles that account for $225K of that income. Note: still not six figures for an individual title.

And it’s not like the $30K/7,000 sales on release are numbers that author saw with their first release. Most authors only get those kinds of numbers when they’ve built up a sufficient audience and backlist. (I looked at the top 100 authors in my genre on Amazon at one point in time and want to say that the ones who were on there long-term had at least a dozen novels out.)

There are exceptions, sure. I know an author who sold something like 5,000 copies on the first day their first novel published. But thinking that anyone can self-publish one book and make six figures on it is not accurate thinking. Especially depending on the price involved.

Assuming a title needs 20% spent on advertising to sell, how many copies would an author need to sell to make $100,000 net on that one title?

At 99 cents they’d need to sell a little over 360,000 copies.

At $2.99 they’d need to sell about 60,000 copies.

At $4.99 they’d need to sell almost 36,000 copies.

Those are not small numbers. Bookbub which is the god of mailing list promos, has an average of about 3,600 sales for its biggest category. So if Bookbub can get you 3,600 sales at 99 cents where do the other 357,000 sales come from to hit six figures?

Also, I doubt this number is true anymore because of so many authors selling at lower price points, but the number I used to hear thrown around was that the average published book could expect to sell 200 copies.

Compare that 200 (which I think was a trade-pub number) to 36,000 copies. That’s a lot of difference.

And if that 200 number was accurate and was derived from trade publishing that’s for a well-packaged product (in general) that was written to a standard that passed muster with multiple levels of professionals. That’s a product that is supposed to sell.

So. Summarizing point one: Yes, there are authors who make six-figures. And they may even do so on a single novel over the lifetime of that novel. But most authors at that level have many novels to their credit and are making money across their entire catalog as opposed to from one single title. Also, the number of those authors as a percent of all authors trying to self-publish is probably far smaller than most people want to believe it is.

On to our second point. The myth of the seven-figure advance. I don’t even know where to go for this information. I tried. And I found an article on one YA series that attracted a seven-figure offer. And another article on some literary novels that had done so as well. And one on an established fantasy author whose books have been made into movies who was given one on their latest series. So those offers do happen. And if I were willing to pay for a subscription to Publishers Weekly I’d probably find more.

But they don’t happen often.

I am pretty sure that some of the self-published authors who did really well with self-publishing have been offered that much, but it was after doing really well with self-publishing already. To the point where the offer probably seemed like less than they could do for themselves financially and they only considered it for exposure to a new audience or access to markets they couldn’t readily access themselves.

But for a new author going the trade publishing route to expect seven figures? Oh no. Last I checked average advances for new authors were somewhere in the $5,000 to $10,000 range and maybe heading lower. And that’s for the publishers that even pay that kind of advance. A friend of mine signed with a smaller publisher and I think their advance was under $1,000.

(Now that’s where you say, I’d be better off self-publishing, thanks.)

So, summarizing point two: A seven-figure advance is going to be very rare. It is not something to expect in any way, shape, or form. It is certainly not a reason for turning down a six-figure offer.

And a further note here. There are many paths to publication. Trade pub is one. Self-pub is another. There are definitely authors who have done well as hybrid authors. Ilona Andrews is one who comes to mind. But when starting out it is best to pick one and pursue it exclusively.

The two paths are different beasts that have different rules and different challenges. And in a sense different tastes and expectations. At least on the fiction side. I like to say, and maybe it’s not 100% true, that on the trade side they’re always looking for “same but different”. They’re asking, “How is this book different from the hundred others I’ve been shown this year? Why would someone get excited about this particular novel?”

On the self-pub side a lot of the readers want more of X. They don’t need an author to change things up or advance the genre in some way. They liked X, they want more of X. (Not always, yada yada, but there’s certainly a component of readers that self-publishers “feed” by giving them more of the same.)

Which means a book that could make an author good money on the self-publishing side at 99 cents and in KU quite possibly would attract no interest at all on the trade publishing side.

So wrapping this up. I think one of the biggest challenges to being a writer is to learn enough to have realistic expectations. I certainly failed at this early on and it’s probably why I’m still here. But the other challenge of being a writer is remaining confident despite knowing enough to have realistic expectations.

There’s no harm in hoping or aiming for that seven-figure advance. Or that title that just breaks out and sells more copies than you could’ve ever dreamed it would.

Just try not to let it ruin you if the reality is closer to the norm than you’d wanted.

Learning To Put Up A Wall

I just responded to a post on another blog that was asking for some how-to-write book recommendations and earlier today I had a Strengths coaching call (I’ve stepped back from coaching for WBF, but I still do private coaching), and I realized that one of the essential skills I’ve had to learn and am still learning as a writer is how to put up a wall against well-meaning advice that doesn’t fit me.

One of the key benefits for me of taking the initial Write Better-Faster class with Becca Syme was that it walked me through how I was a specific type of writer (an almost complete pantser) and how other writers were not.

That let me put up a wall against advice that would work for a plotter but not a pantser.

So, for example, the presentation I watched where an author pulled out their two-inch-thick, three-ring binder that they spend six months preparing before they ever write word one, was not a presentation for me. I was able to put up a mental wall and let that just flow right on by.

But for someone else, that could be an absolutely great approach.

Same with advertising advice.

I’m a huge advocate of using AMS ads. It fits my Strategic Strength and makes my anti-social Relator happy. But it’s become clear to me that there are some people who are not well-suited to using AMS ads. Just like I am not well-suited to throwing book birthday blog blasts or (shudder) live-posting a video in a Facebook group.

I’m convinced that part of the journey of finding your successful writer path is learning how to put up a wall against the bad advice that isn’t going to work for you.

The author I was coaching today can write a novel a month without breaking a sweat. And those novels are good enough to sell tens of thousands of copies upon release. So that author needs to put up the wall against the “you can’t write fast AND good” crowd.

But other authors I’ve coached need lots of time to ruminate on their plot and polish it until it’s a shiny jewel before they ever start writing, so they need to put up a wall against the “just sit down and write and the story will come” crowd.

There is no one true way to do this. And sure there can be room for improvement here or there, but honestly the biggest struggle I’ve seen in my coaching is the author who is working against themselves because they can’t put up that well against well-meaning but bad (for them) advice.

So find who you are and then build your walls and move forward doing what works for you. (Unless you’re high in Woo or Connectedness and the idea of building a wall to keep others out is horrifying. Then don’t. See how that works?)

 

 

Almost 2020 – Ten Lessons I Learned

I keep trying to write a post about how it’s almost 2020 and a decade has passed since I left my last full-time job but those posts keep getting way too deep for what I wanted to put up here.

So let’s try this again, with just a focus on the writing and some numbers. That should be safe enough.

A decade ago I hadn’t even written my first novel. But in 2011 I finally did. And then in 2013 I wrote a non-fiction book I knew I’d never query traditionally, so I self-published. There were some interruptions in there, like a seven-month consulting project when I didn’t write at all, but six years after that first self-published title…

I currently have two romance novels, four cozy mysteries, and a YA fantasy trilogy published as well as a series of billionaire romance short stories that continue to sell despite my efforts to ignore them. That’s on the fiction side.

On the non-fiction side I have way too many books about Microsoft Excel as well as books about Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. I also have a book on budgeting, a cookbook, a series of books on dating, another on puppy parenting, and a handful of books on self-publishing and/or writing. There’s also a book on data principles that probably needs to be renamed but won’t be.

I had also published but have mostly unpublished at this point a large number of short stories and a book on grief.

Maybe not surprisingly given my background, my most profitable titles have been on the non-fiction side. Six of my top ten most profitable titles are non-fiction. But there are two fantasy novels and a romance novel and those damned billionaires rounding out the top ten.

I didn’t do any of this right. I spent far too much time writing short stories when I should’ve just gone for novels. I had way too many pen names to be sustainable. I didn’t try advertising to any real extent until I was four years into this journey and when advertising would have been far more effective if I’d tried it in year two or three. I didn’t focus in one genre let alone one niche in one genre. I didn’t follow-up on my successes the way I should’ve. I changed direction too often.

But after all that mess I’ve found some small success the last couple of years. I just hit 45,000 units sold as of November and $50,000 in profit. (Which if you do the math is not a full-time living even when concentrated in the last couple of years, but we won’t go there. I should clarify that that’s not enough for me. Some people would be happy to earn $25K a year. I’m not one of them.)

But it taught me a few interesting lessons along the way.

One, you don’t have to write in the biggest market to make money. My romance sells, but it costs a lot more to sell than other titles because of the level of competition which means either rapid release or low profit margins.

Two, writing to a hot market or hot genre will get you more organic sales. I don’t advertise those billionaire stories, but the collection still hit my top twenty-five most-profitable titles this year, and when the first one released (in 2014) it really did sell itself.

Three, I believe in advertising. Others may not have to (although why you’d see initial success without advertising and not find a way to exponentially increase that success by advertising is beyond me), but for me advertising is essential. It gets my books in front of their potential audience.

Four, I personally can’t write what doesn’t interest me. I wrote that first billionaire story as a lark. Wrote and published it in a day. But it was like pulling teeth to get myself to write the next one. And when I did write the rest of that series, I didn’t follow the tropes. My girl from the wrong side of the tracks went and started her own business so that when she finally got together with her billionaire they were on an equal-ish footing.

(I’ve recently come to believe this might have something to do with archetypes. I think the billionaire romance scenario often, but not always, is exploring the orphan archetype and I think I’m more in line with the warrior archetype or the seeker or sage archetypes. So adventure fantasy? Yes, please.)

Five, while being laser-focused helps–I’ve certainly seen more authors find success by writing in a series or in a specific niche–it’s also worth trying something else. I wrote the first Excel books because I was annoyed that authors didn’t know how to use pivot tables and I was tired of hearing people say they couldn’t figure out how many books they’d sold on Amazon. I expected the generic books about Excel to sell less than the one for self-publishers. But that series has been ten times as profitable for me as any other series even though it turns out not many authors bought the book that was written for them.

I’ve also seen a number of authors level up by switching to a new genre. I can count at least three that I know of that did it this year.

Six, when you write in a smaller niche competition can destroy your profits. I was so happy to see the success I had with the Excel titles that I blogged about it. Within a year at least three other “authors” had entered that same small space. They didn’t find the success I had initially. They just took some of a very small pie for themselves and drove up advertising costs so that every single sale was less profitable than before.

Seven, whatever you write you have to satisfy that readership. And what each readership wants is different. For non-fiction my books satisfy readers when they meet them at their current knowledge level and move them forward. Those who don’t know enough yet will be dissatisfied because the book starts too far ahead for them. Those who already know most of what I’m sharing will also be dissatisfied. With fiction it depends on what genre you’re writing. Cozy mystery readers are more concerned about getting the facts right than contemporary romance readers, for example.

Eight, you have to focus on your readers. It’s easy to see a negative review and think you should change the book to satisfy that reader. But often doing so loses you the readers you already have. Obviously, if a book only has negative reviews and they all say the same thing, there’s probably a craft issue there that needs to be addressed. But if ten readers say they loved the X in the book and one says they hated it, don’t change that. Not every book is for every reader.

And keep in mind that there is a very vocal minority in some genres that make it seem like everyone cares about X. They don’t. The average reader is just out there buying the books they like and keeping their opinion to themselves or sharing it with people they know in real life.

Nine, attitude matters. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I triple-majored at Stanford while working full-time. And got an MBA from Wharton while working more than full-time. Not to mention growing up with a terminally-ill parent. It’s not like I haven’t faced challenges before. But writing almost seems designed to erode your self-confidence. You have people very publicly commenting on everything you do.  (If you’re lucky enough to do it well enough for someone to care at all.)

As an author you’re struggling for one of a very limited number of spots at the table. Most writers do not sell. Actually, most writers do not even finish their first novel. Those who do and get it published in one way or another, generally don’t sell all that well once they do. And even for those who do sell and do sell well, you’re never certain it’ll last. And even for those who get to the point where it will last or where they’ve done so well the mortgage is covered for life, well that just opens you up to a whole new level of criticism where people say you can’t write or are biased or complain about what you chose to write about or didn’t choose to write about.

Some days the only thing that is going to save you and keep you moving forward is your attitude. So make sure that you surround yourself with those who believe this is possible. Not probable, you don’t need Pollyannas around you, but possible. If you are struggling and those around you all say, “Well, it’s not like you could honestly expect to make a living at this,” that’s the wrong group of people to listen to. You want the ones who say, “Well, you knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but people do it every day. So what can you change?” Or maybe, “You’re closer than you think, just keep going.”

Ten, because I already have nine, so why not make it ten. This is a marathon. You have to find a sustainable pace for yourself. What you can handle day in and day out. There’s nothing wrong with sprinting to get started, because backlist is powerful and so building up ten novels fast is going to really help you, but at some point if you’re operating in the red you are in trouble. Don’t sacrifice your marriage or your relationship with your kids or your friendships or your sanity for your writing. And do not jeopardize your health for it.

Yes, for some writing is a passion they can’t imagine not having in their lives. But really, it’s not enough in and of itself. You need more. Make it a priority, but don’t make it everything.


So there you have it. Onward to 2020 and the decade it brings with it. I expect change of some sort or other. Then again, I always expect change. It’s the one constant in life.