A Few Measures of “Success” for a Series

As a writer sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re on the right track. Sometimes it’s obvious. If you have a thousand five-star reviews on a book you can bet that book has found an audience. And if you win awards or see people talking all the time about how wonderful your book is, that’s another one. Obviously, people writing to you and telling you how much they loved your book is also a good sign.

But most books don’t have a thousand reviews, good or bad. And most books aren’t so amazing that they generate buzz. And most readers aren’t going to drop you a line even if they love your book.

So a couple things I look for when it comes to a series of books:

First, I want my top also-boughts to be the rest of the books in that series. The theory is that also-boughts are generated from the list of how many people who have bought Book A have also bought Book B. If your other books aren’t in the top of your also-boughts then that means more people who bought your first book bought someone else’s book rather than your next book in the series.

To me that says that the first book they bought had potential but that it didn’t meet that potential.

This is less true in non-fiction than in fiction, but I do still look for it with my non-fiction titles. Here, for example, are the current also-boughts for Excel for Beginners:

Excel for Beginners Also Boughts 20181029.png

You can see here that there are four other books of mine in the top 7 also-boughts and that the two Excel titles that are in the same series as Excel for Beginners are in the first and second positions.

Even after a big promo I still expect to see this, because I expect people to buy my second in series more then they bought other books promoted on the same day. Here are the also-boughts for Rider’s Revenge in the UK. It had an international Bookbub a couple weeks ago:

Riders Revenge Also Boughts 20181029 in UK.png

A promo might mix up the also-boughts beyond those first few positions, but my books should always hold the top spots.

Second, I want to see that my review average is increasing as the series continues. This is definitely more for fiction series that must be read in order. The theory here is that with book one you’re going to attract readers who are not your reader, especially if you run price promotions that let people sample your work for free or 99 cents.

Those readers might review that first book but then should drop off as the series continues, which means that the people who review the later books in the series are the ones who liked the first books in the series.

If your review average is going down as the series progresses, then you’re somehow not satisfying the readers who did like the first book in the series. Mayeb you gave them the literary equivalent of cotton candy in book one and then offered them mussels in book two. You don’t want to do that. You want to keep the readers you found satisfied.

So, for example, here are the Goodreads ratings for the Rider’s Revenge series.

Goodreads Review Average RR Series 20181029

You’ll see that there are fewer reviews as the series continues, but that the review average went up as the books continued (from 3.75 to 3.94 to 4.25). If instead book 3’s review average was a 3.25, I would known that I’d failed to end the trilogy in a way that satisfied the readers who had stuck with the series to the end.

Now, granted, it’s not a perfect way to measure if you’re doing well with a series. (I actually consider the Rider’s series to have been a bit of a commercial failure. It took until just now to breakeven.) But it is one way to judge a series performance.

And it can tell you other things about your writing.

So, for example, my contemporary romance pen name has two novels and a novella. If I look at the also-boughts for each of the novels the other novel is in that #1 slot, but the novella is not in the #2 slot. It’s in the top 5 of the also-boughts for each novel, so it’s up there, but not right at the top. That’s because not all novel readers are novella readers and so that difference in story type means lower sell-through to the novella.

It’s also not the same characters, which could be another part of it.

That tells me that for that name I’m better off writing another novel than a novella. And perhaps staying in the same story world.

So if you’re seeing that your other works aren’t in the top of your also-boughts, ask yourself why. If it’s a related series, then you’re not hooking readers into continuing somehow. If you’re writing standalone works then it could be a different length or different type of story issue. Figuring out the cause and fixing it can make a significant difference in how well you do going forward.

Just something to think about…

(And note that I chose examples where this was actually the case as opposed to the ones for my books where it isn’t. Trust me, I have ones where this isn’t the case.)

 

That Hurt…

I just put up a post on my Alessandra Clarke blog announcing that I won’t have a new novel out under that name before year end. (Also announcing that Rider’s Revenge is on a 99 cent sale this week and that the box set is just $4.99.)

It hurt to write that, because even though I only have a dozen or so people who probably care, I don’t like not doing what I said I would do. As a matter of fact, if I had made that promise to one specific individual who I knew was waiting for the book I’d probably force myself to work insanely long hours to get that book out just to keep that commitment. (I’m #5 Responsibility on Strengthsfinder. It’s what we do.)

I have always envied those people who had one direction they knew they wanted to go in and who went in that direction without hesitation. With writing if you can be that person and you give readers what they want, it’s a path to tremendous success. (If you don’t give readers what they want, it can be heart-breaking to an extreme because that’s the only direction you want to go.)

But the fact is, I’ve never been that person. In high school I played three sports, enjoyed all of my classes except history, and also did mock trial and other extracurriculars. In college I triple majored and would’ve majored in ten subjects if they’d let me.

And because I’ve never been that person I have to pay the cost of it. Namely, with writing, the slower sales build and the risk of disappointing fans with what I choose to write next.

The good thing about my approach is that I am diversified and can shift direction easily. (Assuming I want to, which is another thing entirely…)

Anyway. Thought I’d share my writerly pain of the day. In good news, I did finish the first draft of that cozy mystery before my Strengths coach training so am hoping to get it edited and published in the next month. (Which will give me a whole new batch of fans to disappoint! Good times! Haha….Sigh.)

How to Sell More

I sat down a while back and looked at everything I had written to date and asked myself, “How do I sell more? How do I make more from this than I am right now?” The specific list of items I came up with for myself isn’t really relevant to anyone else, but I realized today that the three ways to sell more that I came up with do matter to anyone trying to make these kinds of choices.

So without further ado, these are the three categories I came up with for myself:

Get better at selling what I’ve already written

So, for example, for me this would’ve happened when I started advertising my books after the first year. (I laughed as I wrote that since looking back I can’t believe I didn’t advertise my books at all the first year.)

Later, this would be when I learned how to use AMS ads.

If you have a viable product you’ve already created, then ask yourself, how can I sell this product? What form of advertising will work best for this?

For me, in general, what I’ve decided is that CPC ads work best for non-fiction because I can advertise it at full-price and reach customers who are looking for that topic when they’re actively looking for it. With fiction, price discounts and list-based promotions like Bookbub are equally or even more effective.

Expand on what I’ve already written

This is writing the next book in that series. Or in non-fiction it’s writing a related book. For me this year that involved adding 50 Useful Excel Functions to the Excel Essentials series. Last year it involved writing another romance novel set in the same world as my first romance novel.

I think the key here is to see where you have some glimmers of hope and then add onto that. And it isn’t always going to work. My most successful dating for men book has always been the first one I wrote. The other two I added on after that to target different parts of that market never sold as well as that first book.

If you’ve met your consumer’s entire need in that area with your first book, this isn’t going to do much for you. And if you don’t realize what the need that was met with that first book was, then writing more and missing the point won’t help either. You have to have an audience who wants more and give them more of what they in fact want. (With fiction just giving them the same characters will not be enough if the story also doesn’t meet what they liked about your first story.)

Write something new that’s more marketable

I sort of stumbled into this with some of my titles, but I’ve done it deliberately as well. That holiday-themed billionaire erom short story I wrote was very much an attempt to do this. My current attempt at a cozy mystery is as well.

One issue I found here is that some of my ideas that were more marketable also lent themselves to a trade publishing approach. (Such as MG or picture books.) So I had to decide if that was worth pursuing given timelines and other issues. (For example, I can self-pub a picture book and no one will know or care that I also have published erom stories. A trade publisher might. But if I want to make money on picture books it pretty much has to be done through a trade publisher because of where that market finds its books.)

* * *

Anyway. Just something to think about if any of you are asking yourself that sort of question and trying to figure out where to go next. (And the categories are broad enough I’d say they really work for any product you want to sell, not just books.)

It’s Okay to Let Go of What Isn’t Working

I just did a little cleaning and purging and thinking about things. Any of you who’ve read this blog for any length of time know that my biggest problem as a self-publisher is that I write across too many pen names. If I’d written that many words for one author name and in one inter-related area, I’d probably be making twice as much as I am if not more.

(Although I did just hit the $50K mark, so I’m not totally sucking at this.)

But anyway. I’ve decided it really is time to narrow the focus. (Sort of, kind of, as I do.)

Which means of the eight pen names I’ve used to-date, I’m focusing in on only three–the one that does romance novels, the one that does YA fantasy novels, and this one that does non-fiction with respect to finances, Microsoft Office products, and writing. But even there I’m focusing in a little bit more and I don’t expect to publish more books about self-publishing or writing or to further revise the existing ones.

Part of this decision was actually motivated by an opportunity I received to present at a conference about AMS. And it was a pivot point for me. I realized I could do that presentation and build more of a name for myself with respect to AMS and move in the direction of being one of those go-to authorities on self-publishing. And I was going to do that. It was part of why I listed the consulting services option here on the website.

But then Amazon made more changes to AMS. They renamed them, changed the website address, and added new features to new sponsored product ads. And that made me realize that if I wanted to be know for AMS,  that AMS would need to be my focus. It couldn’t be one thing I happened to use for myself and talk about for others.

But AMS is too shaky a foundation to build on.

Don’t get me wrong, those ads are driving a large part of my sales still and I love them and will continue to use them. But being an authority for others is a whole different thing and when it came time to make that leap in that direction I realized it wasn’t the direction I wanted to leap.

So I’m not going to. I’ll leave the book and video course up because they still provide value. I just won’t be revising them or trying to keep them current going forward.

I also turned off all ads for four of my pen names. Again, I’m not unpublishing those books because I think they provide value, but I realized that if one of those books really took off it wouldn’t be a direction I would want to pursue. So best to just leave them to their own devices at this point.

You’ll note that I also pared back the books listed on this site to just the ones under this name. That’s to narrow things down and focus in on what matters going forward. I doubt that most folks who come here for Excel guidance really care about my non-Office and non-finance non-fiction. And I certainly don’t think they care about my YA fantasy series. (The romances were never listed here.)

Of course, at the same time I’m paring back to just the three names that represent 94% of my revenue, I’m likely going to be adding a pen name, too. That for the cozy mystery I’m going to publish later this year.

(I know. After what I just said above. But this is my big write-to-market experiment. And I’ll either see that I’ve learned what that means or that I still have a long ways to go to learn what I need to learn to succeed in this business.)

But just wanted to post this to say that there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that something didn’t work or work as well as you want and letting it go in order to pursue something better. Sometimes that’s the only way to make the leap to get to where you really want to be.

All the Non-Writing Stuff

I haven’t written a single new word since July 27th. Part of it was working on a consulting idea you’ll hear more about soon, but most of it was deciding to re-do all of my covers.

This wasn’t a big design change. I suspect most people won’t even be able to tell the difference. But I decided to get on the up and up with my font usage. See, problem is that GIMP pulls fonts from your Windows folder but those fonts aren’t always available for commercial use.

Now, there’s a question about whether fonts are even copyrighted and it seems that the computer coding that renders a font is copyrighted but the font itself is not. So maybe I was okay. But I get something into my head and there I go.

Initially I was just going to buy a subscription to a font package that included all the fonts I needed. I figured $9.99 a month wasn’t much to pay for peace of mind. Unfortunately, because it’s a subscription and they don’t trust you, the files were hidden somewhere on my computer where GIMP couldn’t access them. So there I was with access to the fonts already but no access to them through my subscription. And could I really be sure that the Bodoni version I was using that was already on my computer was the same as the Bodoni version in the subscription? No.

So, long story short, I tried, it was a miserable failure, I cancelled the subscription, and switched over to free fonts instead. Which meant going through all of the covers I’ve done and checking the font on each one to see if it was a free one for commercial use or not and changing it over if it wasn’t. I also figured I’d update backmatter at the same time.

Now at this point I have about sixty books that are live where I’ve done the covers myself. And almost all of them are wide. And a lot of them are in paperback.

So my August so far has been: check and/or redo ebook covers for all sixty books, check links for all sixty books, regenerate ebook for all sixty books, load to five different sites (Zon, D2D, Kobo, Nook, Google), redo paperback for all sixty books, update also by in paperback for all sixty books, submit paperback for approval to CreateSpace.

It’s an ongoing process. I suspect this will take at least another week. Especially because I’m spacing the CreateSpace submissions out so that all of my books aren’t down at once.

Also, me being me, it’s lead me to redo three covers (but oh my god the CreateSpace for Beginners cover is so much better now) and reformat two paperbacks into a new size.

I’ve also had to angst about which books to list where. My ego hates to have books on Amazon with bad ranks even though I know that at least if those books are there they’ll occasionally sell to those who want them. So I sometimes take books down from Amazon. But then I change my mind. And then I decide to take them down again…

(As of now, five of the M.H. Lee short stories are up on Amazon again. Until the next time I go through this.)

Anyway. Writing is not all sitting in your posh office creating new worlds or puzzling out how to explain a complex topic. Sometimes it’s just hours and hours of uploading files and checking that they look good. At least, that’s the way it is if you self-publish.

On Writerly Differences

I think I mentioned to you before the Write Better-Faster course, which I loved. I’m currently taking a more advanced version of that class and an interesting topic came up in the discussion for the class.

So what I loved about WBF was that it confirmed for me that we are all different and have different strengths and approaches as writers. I’d always done my own thing and just shrugged off what didn’t work for me, but that class gave me the supporting evidence for following my gut the way I always had.

What this new class has brought home for me is how fundamentally different some of our views of the world are. I’m over 40 at this point and coming to grips with the fact that others don’t experience the world the way I do has probably been one of my biggest struggles in life. One I still am working on.

Especially because a lot of things come to me very easily. So when my very intelligent friend in high school just could not get Geometry, I didn’t understand. You just flip the triangle in your mind, right? I mean, it’s not hard. Just mentally line up A with A and B with B. (But it is hard for those who don’t see spatially.)

One of the tests we take in WBF is called the DISC assessment. And one of the components of that assessment is Compliance.

Now Compliance is my highest of the four, so I’m motivated to see things done right, essentially. I will put in the work to make something a good product. That need will drive me to work until the product is good. Not just done, but good.

But I’m not really high in Compliance. So when I noted an extra space at the beginning of an entry in a numbered list during the formatting of my latest ebook and fixed it, I didn’t write that down to make sure I’d also fixed it in the print version. Because it was just one little space and I’d already submitted the file for review.

(Now, turns out I found a few other errors that needed fixing, including a horribly misused word. When that happened then I did update the print file and did actually scan through all hundred pages to find that missing space. Because if I was going to fix those other issues, then I did feel like I should fix the spacing issue, too. It’s just that I would have been willing to let it slide before even though that meant the book wasn’t perfect.)

What’s been interesting in this latest class is seeing how others with different levels of Compliance talk about writing and writers and what a book requires. And also the way our instructor has broadened that discussion to cover readers, too, and to help us understand that some readers are high in Compliance and some are not.

Let me give you an example.

Last month I was at a conference where someone mentioned pulling Patrick Rothfuss aside and giving him the rundown on how he’d messed up in his books by referring to both linen and cotton in his character’s wardrobe. This person could not believe an author would that kind of mistake. (They’re an editor so at least they’re in the right job for their level of compliance.)

At the time I thought, “Seriously? That’s what you got from his books? That he used the wrong kind of fabrics in someone’s clothes? You are so not my reader.” Because even knowing how much that person cared about that fact I knew I would never take the time and energy to learn that much about every detail in my books. Not gonna happen.

But that’s how someone with really high Compliance views the world. And writing. And their fellow writers.

Those very precise details matter to people with high Compliance.

I’d never notice something like that. But if I somehow had acquired that knowledge, then I’d get it right when I used it or be annoyed at myself.

For some writers, even if they knew this issue existed, they wouldn’t care if they got it wrong.

And the key here is to realize that there are readers who fall into all of these categories, too.

For me, high high Compliance readers are “not my reader”. It’s why I’m not writing PhD-level papers on my non-fiction topics. I will never be that precise a person that puts in fifteen footnotes to explain something exactly. 95% is good enough in my book.

But it’s also possible that low low Compliance readers are also not my reader. Because I will want a certain level of logic and coherence and accuracy in what I write and that means there are certain crazy, fun stories that I am incapable of creating. I would have to break too many rules to write a story like that so I literally could not force myself to do so.

A reader with really low Compliance will choose a book with a crazy, fun plot and horrible grammar over my more coherent, more grammatically correct book every day of the week.

For my fellow writers I think the lesson here is that a well-written story is not a singular thing that can be defined and put in a box. If you were to sit all readers down and asked them about their favorite story of all time and their most hated story of all time, the same books would be on both lists. Not because some readers have trash taste (which is what people often think to themselves), but because we are not all the same. So what we each want in a story will also not be the same.

I would add that this is why I really don’t like critique groups, because I have yet to see one where the other participants said, “I see the type of story you’re trying to write here and I’m going to set aside my preferences and help you to make the story you’re trying to write the best story it can be of its type.” Usually those groups act as if there is one correct way to write each sentence and one correct way to tell each story. There isn’t.

But maybe they work that way because it’s not actually possible for us to set aside who we are when we read. I personally can’t read a story that has tense issues. I just can’t do it. But some readers? Don’t even notice. Blow right past the fact that we just went from present to past and back again in two paragraphs.

So I personally will miss what’s great about a story that has tense issues because I can’t set aside my belief that a story with tense issues is poorly written.

What I conclude from all of this is this: Be careful how you tear down your fellow writers over these kinds of things.

I’ve for years had issues with the way people criticize Dan Brown and E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer. Because those criticisms miss the fact that those writers do something very right for their readers.

After learning more about personality types and how different we all are, I’m tripling down on that view. Instead of saying “That really sucks.” Practice saying, “Yeah, that just wasn’t for me.” It might make the world a nicer place.

(And I know those high Compliance types are shaking their heads and saying. “No. There is one right way to do things and they are not doing it that way.” But that’s okay. You be you.)

 

Why You Wait

In a blog post earlier this year I mentioned that some advice had been given at a conference to not even advertise until you have at least three books out. And I objected to that advice. Because in this climate just publishing a book and not advertising it means selling that book to your friends and family only (which will mess with your also-boughts, assuming those continue to exist) and then not seeing any sales until you do finally advertise. And with the Amazon cliffs at 30/60/90 days, that means an uphill battle to get sales and movement when you do start to advertise.

(If you’re going to do that, might as well hold back the books and publish all three within a very short period of time. Either all at once or a few weeks apart with clear pre-orders up.)

My argument was that putting out a book that doesn’t sell is soul-crushing and will lead to feelings of failure that make it that much harder to keep going. And I do still stand by that.

I have also said more than once that I think I am a good enough writer that people will keep reading the rest of my books if they’re there and available, but not such a good writer that people will wait for me for years and come back when my next book is out.

Which means that the more sales I get early on, the worse that is for my long-term success. Because if I get 1,000 sales on Book 1 before Book 2 is out that’s at least 500 and maybe more readers that never buy Book 2. And if I get 1,000 sales on Book 2 before Book 3 is out that’s 750 or more readers that never read Book 3.

So it’s a fine tension you have to live with. Do I get sales now to feel good about myself and stay motivated to keep writing? Or do I wait and get sales later when I have a better chance of sell-through and converting a casual reader to a fan? Not an easy choice to make.

I did this chart yesterday of Book 2 and Book 3 sales on my fantasy series to illustrate this point. It’s just Amazon US and nothing from KU, but representative of my book sales.

Riders Rescue to Riders Resolve Sales

If you look at September onward you can see that things fall into a pretty consistent pattern where if people buy book 2 they also buy book 3. But that I never make up for all those people who bought book 2 before book 3 was out.

Something to think about…

(I’ll still advertise before a series is complete because I need that validation as I go along, but it’s worth reminding myself that it’s best to save the biggest push for when the whole series is ready to go.)