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.)

Let’s Talk Categories

I was having a conversation in a private group yesterday that touched on categories. In this particular case the question was about what constitutes YA and what you do with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. This comes up a bit in Achieve Writing Success, too, because a lot of early novels aren’t targeted to existing categories. And if you self-publish you will soon find yourself asking, “Well, where the heck do I put this?”

So let’s break this down. Categories are a kind of short-hand that indicates to readers that they’ll get a certain emotional experience or a certain type of story.

So romance, which is one of the ones where these discussions happen often, tells the reader you’re going to read about the journey two people take to find their happily ever after together. If you put a book in romance and it isn’t about that journey, you will have disappointed readers.

Mystery says there’s going to be something that is solved, most often a murder.

Science fiction says it’s going to involve things in the future.

Fantasy says it’s going to involve things that aren’t real or possible. So magic.

YA is about a coming of age journey focused on a teen protagonist who is generally around 16 years of age.

Those are all general guidelines, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Categories exist so that I can walk into Barnes & Noble and find the three shelves worth of books I’m interested in without having to dig through all the rest. That’s all they are. A selling tool.

And so if you can write books that fit into existing categories it will be easier to sell those books. One, people who are looking for the type of book you’ve written will be able to find it easily. And, two, people who buy books in that category will get the emotional reading experience they’re looking for.

But not all of us do that. My YA fantasy series is YA (although I prefer to think of it as coming of age fantasy which is a separate category) but it doesn’t fit into any of the provided subcategories on Amazon. It’s not sword & sorcery. It’s not really epic. It’s just a little lost.

Which is why I love AMS so much. Because I can say, “I don’t what category you want to call it, but people who like Mercedes Lacky, Kate Elliott, and Anne McCaffrey are going to like this.” And then I can target them with my ads, put that cover in front of them, with a blurb about what the story covers and let that sell the book. Do I get the people browsing categories? No. But I do get the people who like those authors and might like me, too.

In an ideal world,  you write to an existing category. But if you’re life isn’t ideal, like most aren’t, then you find other ways of getting your book to the right readers. CPC ads (Bookbub CPC, Facebook, AMS) are probably the best way to do that.

Achieve Writing Success Now Live

Remember that book I wasn’t planning on writing but realized how to write while walking my dog? I published it today. It has the oh-so-pretentious title of Achieve Writing Success. (Somehow Thoughts on Self-Publishing or Thoughts on Writing seemed a little too…eh.)

Interestingly, this is a book I have been trying to write in some form or another for a couple of years now. Originally it was going to be Self-Publishing 101. Except I didn’t really want to write a self-publishing 101 book. I know how I do things and I really didn’t want to cover the nitty gritty of all the different options. For example, I formatted my ebooks in Word for the first four years and then switched to Vellum. I had no interest in discussing Cailbre or Sigil or hand-coded HTML. But I felt I would have to if I did a how-to on self-publishing.

So every time I tried to write that book I stopped at about the 10K word mark. Because what I really wanted to share was some thoughts on self-publishing and, as it turns out, publishing in general.

Some of the things I’ve shared here already. Like why self-publishing shouldn’t be considered your Plan B when you fail at trade publishing. Or about how you shouldn’t let someone else control your dreams if it means that much to you to see your book out in the world.

And some I’ve discussed with folks along the way. Like the fact that it’s an error to focus solely on print books if you self-publish or to think in terms of print runs instead of POD.

I originally thought it was going to be for self-publishers but ended up gearing it towards any writer who has at least a novel under their belt, because I think some of the lessons are ones that those still on the trade publishing path really need to consider, too.

Anyway. It’s done now. Phew. No more stopping every six months to try to write a book that isn’t what I really wanted to write but that I feel needs to exist. (The bane of my existence that bad habit of mine of writing books I don’t think will sell but do think should exist.)

The Different Levels of Writing Ability

In a post the other day I mentioned that there are different levels of writing ability.

I honestly haven’t worked this one out entirely myself and I suspect there are levels I can’t see right now. As a reader I just know I like a book or I don’t. But as a writer I’ve been trying to understand why that happens. So here goes my poorly-developed theory on different levels of writing ability.

Level 1: Writing Comprehensible Sentences

The most basic level of writing ability is the ability to write well enough that someone else can understand you. Even though it’s the first level of writing ability it is also a tremendous area of knowledge that probably none of us will ever master.

At its core being a writer requires being able to convey your story (or for non-fiction, your knowledge) to another person, the reader.

That’s where things like punctuation come in. (Although it seems that punctuation and even capitalization can be optional, but let’s ignore those outliers, shall we?)

I’d put in this category sentence-level, paragraph-level, and even chapter-level skills.

I’d also argue that this is where most people focus their efforts when they think about learning how to write.

But I’d also argue that most really successful writers are not successful because of their skills in this area. Once you get to the level where others understand the story you’re trying to tell, you’re good enough in this area.

(Yes, I hear all those howls of outrage. I’m going to ignore them.)

Level 2: Telling a Cohesive and Satisfying Story

The next level involves taking all those sentences and paragraphs that work on their own and weaving them together to tell a cohesive story.

This is a huge area as well. And one where I’d say most writers that are one to two years into this fall down. They learn how to put together “well-written” sentences, but those sentences when strung together don’t lead the reader anywhere.

This is the romance novel that doesn’t end with the love interests getting together. (Guilty.) Or the adventure novel that ends with a council meeting. (Also guilty.)

(I’ll note that I fixed those issues in both of those books before I hit publish on them, though.)

It’s also the novel that wanders too far from the central theme so that the reader gets lost and finds themselves asking what story the writer was trying to tell them.

And it’s the novel that leaves five plot threads dangling at the end.

I’d argue that most authors who are trade published and most self-published authors who have a dedicated audience have mastered these skills. They tell a good story that meets reader expectations. But that when you branch out in a new direction you can fall down in this area. So a romance writer who moves into non-romantic post-apocalyptic fiction, for example, can find themselves no longer writing a satisfying, cohesive story.

It’s the one I think is most likely to require constant monitoring.

Level 3: Emotional Resonance

This is where things get murky and I can’t articulate them well. I know this one when I see it. Or more the case, when I don’t see it.

When I read a book I am trusting the author to deliver a story that is, for lack of a better term, emotionally resonant for me. It doesn’t mean people have to all be good or that everything has to turn out perfectly, but it means that the story has to be emotionally true.

This one is hard to explain without calling out specific authors who have caused reader-me rage, but I’ll try to give a few anonymized examples.

The first was a book I picked up at the airport a year or so ago. It had all the elements I should have liked. Magic, coming of age, etc. But about 3/4 of the way through that book I had literally come to hate the author for subjecting me to that book. Because underlying the entire book was an oily view of the world. A pessimistic, nihilistic worldview. And I resented that this person had shared that view of the world with me and that I’d spent two hundred pages with them and their characters before I realized it.

The sentences worked. It was well-written. Things happened like they were supposed to for that type of book. But underlying it all was this nasty take on the world that I absolutely hated. (Someone who I spoke to about the book and who also did not like it suggested that maybe this was because the writer was a literary writer writing fantasy and that there was a sneer behind all of it because the writer felt above the genre.)

Whatever the reason, the book was not emotionally resonant for me. I actively fought against the view of the world that this writer had and will never read another book by them because of that.

The second book is still so raw for me I can barely talk about it without getting angry that I had to read it. It was the second book in a series so came at a time when I felt that I knew the characters. But the characters as I knew them would not have reacted to the story situation they reacted to in the way the author had them react.

The author had one character kill another. And did it off-page so you could spend a scene wondering if that was really what had happened or not. It was flat-out manipulation of the reader, which I did not appreciate. It also deprived the reader (and the character) of the emotionally-charged scene we needed to understand why that action had to occur.

The fact that the author handled that scene that way tells me that the author did not understand the emotional side of their story or their characters.

Once more, well-written. All the sentences worked. I could argue the author had failed in some respects with the story elements as well, but it was the emotional resonance aspect  that lost me.

I think this third level is where the long-term great authors are made. Both of the examples I just gave are currently very successful authors. But I suspect as time goes on and they continue to miss at that level that less and less readers will come back to them.

I still am not articulating this as well as I would like, but I know that the authors I buy more of and go back to over and over again are the ones that can deliver on all three levels.

This is why there can be millions of books available and yet readers can feel like there’s nothing for them to read. Because it’s about more than stringing well-written sentences together.

(And I suspect there’s another level that involves themes, but I haven’t worked that one out just yet…)

 

This I Know…

Right now I’m trying to decide what the next new project should be. Those three or four more Excel titles I could write? That new romance novel? That new fantasy series? Maybe a MG fantasy that I’d sub to trade publishers? A domestic suspense thriller? (Because you can never have too many names, right? Ha!)

Each has its pluses and minuses. Write more to market and maybe see much higher sales. Write something you know will sell but at a more modest level and you’ve added one more brick in the wall of steady long-term success.

Which do you choose? The guaranteed $10 payout or the 10% chance at a $100 payout?

I don’t know. Which is why I’m sitting here doing nothing. (Although I did just hit publish on a mini video course about an hour ago, so not nothing nothing. Just a little bit of nothing now that that’s pending approval.)

And what if it’s a choice between a $10 payout and a 50% chance at a $50 payout or a 50% chance at a $5,000 payout? Do I really know what the odds and payouts even are in all those different choices?

(No.)

This is what I know: If I do nothing, nothing will happen. Zero action means zero payout. So it’s better to pick a direction and go in it than to sit still and do nothing because I can’t decide.

So enough. Time to act. Maybe I’ll just break out the old D&D dice and roll the six-sided one. That’s always a healthy way to make life choices isn’t it?

There Is Hope. Maybe.

So May numbers are in for me. Mostly. Authors Republic is a black hole until the very end of the next month and ACX is just a guesstimate and D2D is also prone to adjustments until they  pay. But I have the ballpark numbers at this point.

And I’m pretty happy.

Because June of last year was the first month I’d ever made $1000 in revenues. That was straight-up sales. I went from my best month being about $800 in sales to my best month being almost $1,700 in sales.

A huge jump but a step back in terms of profits. It was one of my rare months for losing money. (I’ve only had three of those so far and all less than $100 lost per month. That’s just ads versus revenue, though. No production costs included, mostly because mine are usually minimal.)

Anyway.

A year ago I couldn’t crack $1,000 in revenues. Last month I closed out my fifth month straight and sixth month overall of profit over $1,000.

(A few times there I even made more than a local McDonald’s employee can make in a month with a forty-hour workweek…)

(Let’s not talk benefits, though. Those folks are still doing better than me when you factor those in.)

For me that’s a huge jump in one year. So I’m pleased.

Are the numbers where I want them? No.

Do I still think I’m an idiot for not focusing on consulting work instead? Oh yeah. Good thing I have lots of friends with nice couches.

Ironically, the closer I get to where I want to be the less possible reaching that goal seems.

Sure I just made a huge jump, but can I really expect to make another equally sizable jump from here? Because that’s what it’s going to take.

I want to. I want to hope. But…Yikes. I don’t know.

The reason I’m sharing this (since someone recently called out all those horrible folks who share numbers), is to remind people that incomes are seldom linear.

Even when I was in salaried positions this was true.

I remember sitting down after I got my first professional job and calculating how much I would be earning in five years and in ten years based on what I knew about the promotional path at my company (first promotion at 9 months and then every 2 years after that for about three promotions) as well as average raise per promotion (10% or so) and annual cost of living raise (3% or so).

Well…I hit that ten-year amount within the first two years.

Because I couldn’t see the jumps that would happen in my career. I couldn’t see that early promotion or that new bonus program they introduced or that new job I took out of state that jumped me up two more levels.

When I sat down at the beginning and ran those numbers, all I could see was a slow, linear progression.

But that’s not how it works in the working world. (Not always, at least.) And it’s not how it works with publishing. (Definitely not how it works in publishing.)

One title can change your life.

One title did change my income this last year. At least it’s responsible for my current baseline performance. It’s not all of it by any measure, but it’s a significant part of it.

Did I predict that? Oh, hell no. I believe my FB post at the time was about my wasting time and effort on yet another book no one was going to want to buy.

I don’t write to market. I don’t write what I think will sell. The non-fiction I write is driven by what I feel people should know. (I wrote four books because I wanted authors to know how to use pivot tables.) And the fiction I write is driven by the big picture questions I need to work out for myself.

The only thing I’ve ever written with an eye to it possibly selling was my first billionaire short story. (Which did sell, but let’s not go there.)

So what does any of this mean for any of you? This is my result, but who cares? Not like anyone else could duplicate my path even if they wanted to. (And you don’t want to.)

First, don’t give up. You never know when that pop in performance is going to happen. Sure, it’s more likely to happen if you’re aiming at a large, hungry market, but that’s not the only market out there.

Second, do put out brand new material. A new cover or a new version can sometimes help (I’ve done that myself a few times), but usually if the first version didn’t show some signs of life, all the retooling in the world isn’t going to get you the pop that something new could get you. (Do finish a series before you write it off, though. But that’s new material, see?)

Third, there are so many different ways to level up. If one doesn’t work, try another. This last year I benefited from AMS, participating in a Storybundle, and getting two Bookbubs on my fantasy series.

Each little piece helped.

So you can’t get a Bookbub? Try AMS. AMS don’t work for you? Try cross promos. Cross promos don’t work for you? Try first-in-series free. That doesn’t work, try Bookbub CPC ads. Or FB ads. Or ENT. Or Freebooksy. Or work Twitter until your fingers bleed.

Or screw all that and write something new. Forget advertising. Write. Write an entire trilogy. Or at least the first three books in a series. Then go back and worry about sales and profits when that’s done and out there.

The point is, you never know when the change is going to come. Or where it’s going to come from.

But I can tell you when it won’t come. It won’t come if you don’t advertise at all. And if you don’t release anything new.

If you lay down and give up on all of it, yeah, sorry, you’re done. I don’t believe in that kind of miracle. I believe in the kind of miracle that happens when you actually buy the lottery ticket or build the ball field.

So keep trying. You can’t lose this game unless you quit. And if you keep playing (and learning and changing things up), you’ll get there. Eventually.

Conspiracy Theories

The indie self-publishing world needs to take some deep breaths. The blows have been coming fast and hard lately. Kindle Worlds is gone, people lost half their KU page reads for April, RT convention is gone, there was that whole trademark thing…

Everyone wants to understand. They want an explanation. They want it to make sense. And it doesn’t. At least not given what we know.

So then the conspiracy theories start…

Like the one that says that running AMS is why people lost page reads.

Or the one that says that somehow Amazon used Pronoun as some sort of data gathering effort and then turned on Pronoun and merged with Draft2Digital? (By the way, person who said that, that word does not mean what you think it does. A merger is a very different thing from a distribution agreement. VERY. Also, Amazon doesn’t need Pronoun’s data. I think you got that backwards.)

So let’s all take a deep, deep breath. In…..Out…..

Here’s the deal:

Self-publishing is chaotic. It’s one of the only areas in my life where I’ve ever felt the need for the serenity prayer. You know the one that basically says grant me the strength to do what I can and ignore the rest?

If you’re going to stick with self-publishing long-term, you need that. Put it on your wall. And every time one of these situations arises ask yourself: “Is this something I can do anything about?” and “Is this something I should do something about?”

If it’s yes, then act. If it’s no, then move on. Usually the answer to one or both of those questions will be no.

Also, if someone makes some sort of insane claim about what’s going on, step back. Think Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

It’s not some vast conspiracy. There is not some masterplan bent on your personal destruction. Usually what’s happening is the outcome of a lot of people or companies making decisions that are best for them without thinking about the impact on anyone else. It’s that simple.

Yes, there are cutthroat assholes out there. At the individual level and the corporate level. For them it’s rarely personal. They make decisions based on what will earn them the most money. So once you know that about them, act accordingly. Don’t feel betrayed that they acted within their nature. They are what they are.

One more point.

I was about to respond to the umpteenth post I’d seen recently about how everyone who had page reads stripped last month seems to have been running AMS. (Not necessarily true. Just like it wasn’t true that they were all running Bookbubs last year when page reads precipitously dropped for some people.)

I was going to make a comment about how it’s easy to look at a small number of people who had X happen to them, see that they all had Y in common, and conclude that Y was the cause, while failing to see that there are a hundred times as many people who also had Y but where nothing happened to them.

But then I asked myself whether I should be spending my time on the internet trying to convince strangers to calm down and stop seeing conspiracies around every corner.

No, I should not. I should be writing. I have a book I need to finish editing. So I can publish it. And advertise it. With AMS.