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.

How To Split A Cell Diagonally In Excel

Someone reached out to me today because they’d been reading one of my Excel guides and were wondering how you could split a cell diagonally in Excel and still be able to enter information into each section.

Short answer is, you really can’t. At least, not that I’m aware of.

A quick internet search turned up a couple approaches that basically involve creating the appearance of a split cell, but the problem with that approach is that if you want to do anything with the values you’ve split, you really can’t.

For two different ways to do that approach,  see here and here.

It bugged me that you couldn’t do anything with the values with these approaches, so I came up with another way to do it. (Which may already be out there, but it wasn’t the first five or six of the search results I found and I told the person who emailed me I’d put it up here with screenshots for them.)

This approach involves using four cells to basically create the appearance of one split cell. Here are the steps.

  1. Select four cells, two in one row and the two directly below them. Fill those cells with white and put a border around them.Excel Create Horizontal 1
  2. Pick two opposite cells. So in this case A and D or B and C and choose Format Cells, Border and then add a diagonal border to create a continuous line across the selected cells. Here I’ve chosen A and D so I want line slanted left to right.Excel Create Horizontal 2
  3. Enter your values into the other pair of cells. So in this case that would be B and C. Middle Align and Center the values in those cells and then change the height of the columns and width of the rows involved to get the appearance you want.Excel Create Horizontal 3
  4. The issue you now have is that for that diagonal box there are two rows and two columns around it. If you wanted to create just one row to the right of the box or just one column below the box, you’d need to use merge cells. Here I’ve used Merge & Center on cells H6 and H7 and on cells F8 and G8. I then used the Format Painter to merge and center the remaining cells. (You have to do it one row or column at a time or you’ll end up with one giant merged cell, which you don’t want.)Excel Create Horizontal4

And there you have it. A way to create a diagonal across a “cell” and still be able to manipulate the values in that cell if you need to.

(For more Excel resources, click here: https://mlhumphrey.com/microsoft-excel-resources/)

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.

 

AMS and Also a Vellum Shoutout

First, let’s talk Vellum real quick. I switched all my files over to Vellum this summer. Me being me I just sort of stumbled my way through how to use it and had to learn a lot on my own through trial and error that wasn’t covered in any of the FAQs. (I was doing a lot of non-fiction formatting.)

But turns out there’s now a pretty good guide to the basics of Vellum available. (You know where? Can you guess? You got it. In the NaNo StoryBundle. After that’s gone if you stumble across this post and want it, look for The Author’s Guide to Vellum by Chuck Heintzelman.)

The guides includes a few of the workarounds I had figured out, like how to have my Also By listing before my title page, and using Vellum Styles before you import from Word. So if you’re new to Vellum or shaky on using it, check it out. It’s a good resource.

(On a side note: After I did it, I honestly wasn’t entirely sure it was worth it for me to have moved all my files over to Vellum. It took a lot of time, I didn’t see any drastic change in sales, and it added an extra step every time I wanted to make a change to a file. But moving to Vellum did make all of my non-fiction titles eligible for Overdrive, which has brought me money, and it also made it incredibly easy for me to participate in the StoryBundle. So for those reasons alone it ended up being worth it. But on a list of things to do, buy Vellum and make all your files pretty probably isn’t where I’d recommend you start.)

Now. On to AMS.

I am not happy with Amazon at the moment.

The other day, I noticed something a little odd when I went to look up one of my romance titles. The first entry I saw in my search results was a Sponsored Product ad for the book followed by the normal, organic search result for the same book.

I almost clicked on the ad and I know better.

So here’s Amazon, taking anyone who comes looking for my book in particular, and charging me money for it by having them click on my ad instead of returning an organic search result first. How tacky is that?

Here’s another example that’s even worse. I have a book under the name Cassie Leigh that is called Puppy Parenting in an Apartment. It’s not a big seller, but I can run AMS on it and generate a few sales here or there. This is what I see when I go to Amazon and search for it:

AMS sponsored ad

The ONLY result is my ad. My actual book with that actual title isn’t shown at all. And, because someone asked, I don’t have the book’s title in my keywords for that ad. So Amazon knows damned well what they’re doing and could actually display my book in their search results, but they’re not.

They’re trying to suck every last penny they can out of their authors instead.

Does this mean abandon AMS?

No. No more than any of the crap they pull means stop selling on Amazon. They’re too damned big and dominate the market too much for it to be feasible for most people to not sell their books on Amazon. (Which is why they can pull things like this…)

Fact is, AMS have become too much of a driver of traffic on Amazon US to ignore without likely taking a hit to your income.

What this tells me is that Amazon is slowly tightening the noose and that authors are going to have to spend even more money to get every single sale on their platform.

I’m grateful to AMS. They let me move from low three figures a month to low four figures a month. But I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket and neither should you.  I have some list-based promos I’m running this month as well as a Kobo promo and I’m playing with FB and Google CPC ads, too.

AMS should just be one part of getting attention for your books. It can’t be everything. Amazon is too prone to pulling the rug out from under authors to rely on them that heavily.

Time to NaNo

And I have to say that Patricia C. Wrede’s post for the day, Looking for Perfection, is a must-read for any writer really, but especially anyone doing NaNo who isn’t quite sure of the ground under their feet.

Remember, with writing, there are no wasted words or bad directions, there’s just learning what works and what doesn’t and constantly improving one little step at a time.

(And, since it is the start of NaNo and you just knew I had to do it, a little reminder that the NaNoWriMo StoryBundle is still available and full of lots of wonderful writerly advice, some that will work for you and some that might not, but all of it worth considering.)

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.