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.)


Selling Direct

In this business if you’re not moving and trying new things, you’re dying. So I spent most of the morning uploading files to Payhip so I can sell ebook versions of my books directly from this website.

Now that I’ve done that anyone who wants to should be able to purchase the .epub and .mobi versions of most of my books without having to go to Amazon, Kobo, Nook, or Apple to do so. (I don’t currently list my non-fiction titles on Google because they seem to give away the whole book if you’re search savvy enough.)

They can just go to my Payhip store instead: https://payhip.com/mlhumphrey

There is a way to create direct links straight into Paypal, too, but for now I’ve just set up the Payhip store. It was pretty straight-forward from what I could tell. (I might’ve messed something up and not know it yet.) So I’d say definitely worth taking a little time to set up.

A few things for anyone thinking about doing it:

1. I originally had separate products listed for the .epub and .mobi versions but because there’s no easy separation into product categories on the page it quickly started to look messy doing that, so I had to go back and delete the second version for each title and then upload the second file type to the remaining version for each title. Save yourself that time and just have one product with multiple files for each title instead.

2. They have some nice cross-promo options that are incredibly easy to set up. For example, now if someone buys Excel for Beginners through my Payhip store they can get a 10% discount on Intermediate Excel if they buy it at the same time.

3. I’m not 100% happy with the appearance of the store or book page. I really wish I was a CSS whiz right now so I could customize the heck out of my store, but I’m not, so it is what it is. (I did a quick internet search and no one seems to be selling CSS templates for something like that either if there is someone who is a whizz out there looking for a business idea. My main issue is not being able to have sub-section within the store. I’d love to be able to have an Excel Essentials section and then those three books and then Word Essentials and those three books, etc. rather than have everything all grouped together the way it is right now.

4. They do seem to be actively improving things. I found a blog post from earlier this year that had some wish list items that now exist, so I hold out hope for the future.

5. It’s free to get started if you’re willing to pay 5% of each sale on top of Paypal’s fees. (So figure about 10% total cost per sale). If you’re doing well enough they have two additional plans you can choose that charge a fixed monthly fee and then less per transaction. No getting around Paypal’s fees, though.

6. I didn’t find the support information terribly robust. We’ll see if that’s a problem if and when I get sales and/or if and when I have issues with those sales.

For now, I think it was a few hours well spent. We’ll see where it goes from here.

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.)

Pivot Points

There are moments in life when things change. When the world you know pivots. Sometimes you can force these moments to happen by the choices you make and sometimes you just have to sit back and watch the world change without being able to do anything to control it.

Whether you agree with the result or not, I’d say the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a giant pivot point for the world and many on all sides have been trying to deal with the fallout from that moment ever since.

I’ve been feeling for a bit that I’m approaching a pivot point of my own, one I can maybe direct.

But that pivot point is also being impacted by shifts outside of my control. And one of those is happening right now on kboards. For those who don’t know, the board recently changed ownership. (All you have to do is visit without being logged in and you’ll see the new advertising that’s everywhere, including in the middle of discussion threads.)

Part of the ownership change appears to have involved a change to the terms of service on the site which a few authors noticed and posted about. That conversation quickly grew to a point where a number of people consulted their attorneys and demanded a change to the terms or else deletion of their accounts. At that point there were some big names who were talking about leaving but some that were maybe going to stay and it looked like the board might be diminished but still continue on as a valuable resource on self-publishing.

Well, today a representative of the new ownership (someone who should seriously learn how to use spellcheck before posting to a forum full of writers) posted to that thread and basically dropped a lit match in a dumpster full of explosives.

I would expect given the reactions I’m seeing to that post that this will mark a pivot point for that board and possibly for self-publishing.

I know that there are many who have self-published successfully without access to kboards and that some consider it a drama-fest or a space full of amateurs, but it really has been one of the few highly public places that most authors could go to to get mostly accurate non-scammy guidance on self-publishing.

And while the number of really successful authors who participate regularly has certainly diminished over the years, there were still six- and seven-figure authors  posting there regularly as recently as last week.

Now, though? I’m seeing some pretty big names leaving and some other big names who appear to have gone silent. New users may find their way there, but I think the number of long-time users who are going to leave is going to be significant and that there will never be a forum that rises up to contain that level of information and experience in one location if that happens.

The market has matured to the point where it simply doesn’t make sense for everyone to show their hand about everything. In the early days of self-publishing it was a “we’re all in this together because it doesn’t work without us all being in this together”. That is no longer the case. Now it’s a bit like a game of musical chairs where you have 10,000 people playing and only 1,000 chairs for them to sit in.

That may sound doom and gloom and I apologize for that. It’s not meant to. There is still tremendous potential in self-publishing. But it’s going to get harder from here on out. It already was headed there. This is just going to accelerate that by a factor of ten. IMO. I could be wrong, but I do think this is a pivot point for self-publishing.

It’s certainly not the first and it won’t be the last.

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.

Finding the Why…

In the past few days I stepped back from a handful of groups I’d been participating in. I decided to leave Author Support Network on FB (too much noise to value ratio anymore), I snoozed some other groups I’m part of on FB that had been great places to be but were morphing in a direction I didn’t like, I decided to bow out of the discussion boards around a class I’m taking right now for that same reason, and I am trying to step back from participating on a certain writing forum. That last one after someone decided to accuse me of harassing them when I said I was going to use their book, which is in the same category as mine, as a keyword in an AMS ad for Don’t Be a Douchebag.

(Granted that last one was meant to be a poke at the guy for writing one of those pick-up artist books and then defending some other guy who’d basically said if a drunk woman went home with him he’d sleep with her no matter what. But I wasn’t trying to harass him like he said, and my ad certainly wasn’t going to give him bad reviews, which he also said. His own comments on that thread were going to do that.)

But anyway. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out what I need in terms of online knowledge and interaction. Do I need to blog? Do I need to participate in forums? Do I need to be present to correct people who say stupid shit?

I’ve also been doing a lot of work lately with Strengthsfinder, which has been the single-most useful test I’ve ever found for explaining who I am as a person and why I like what I like and don’t like what I don’t like. (I’m Strategic/Achiever/Relator/Learner/Responsibility/Command/Maximizer by the way.)

So looking at it through that lens I’d say that I originally found online forums because I needed knowledge. In something as fast-moving as self-publishing, books aren’t always the best resource. (Says the person who has published four books on self-publishing. But I should know since I already had to revise one of them and will probably revise another before year-end and both were only written last year.)

I needed those forums and groups to feed my Learner side, which always wants to learn new things. And I needed to give my Strategic side enough information so that it could make good decisions. (It only took five years for that to work…)

But at this point I’m not sure I get that knowledge and information from the forums anymore. I think I spend a lot more of my time going, “No, seriously guys, calm the fuck down and get your facts straight please before you all go into a tizzy.”

That would be my Command coming out to play. Because I can’t just sit on the sidelines and say, “Oh, that’s how you think AMS work? Okay, fine. Stop using them. More for me.” I have to, if I see it, step in and shut down the crazy.

Problem is, I don’t get paid for shutting down the crazy. I get paid for writing books and then selling them. And when I’m stressed out from having to confront some stranger on the internet, I spend mental time and energy on that instead of on my writing.

And, even though I do have seven books out on writing and most of what I post about here is related to my writing, those are not the books that generate my income. So as much time and energy as I put into participating in those forums and trying to keep people from going down the wrong path, I don’t see meaningful financial returns from that.

Which brings me to the last reason to do it, which is probably the Relator side. I live alone. I love my dog, but she’s not exactly good for conversation. So participating in forums lets me interact with humans that aren’t my mother, which is good for me. I suspect this is why I’ve continued to interact on forums and FB groups the last year or so, because I do need some form of human connection.

But, honestly, there has to be a better place to find that. (The real world, perhaps? With living, breathing people you can see and talk to? Or even just smaller, more intimate groups of like-minded individuals instead of these big massive groups of people who are all over the place.)

So I don’t know. I’m also trying to figure out what things look like going forward. How much of my time is going to be writing and how much is going to be something else. Next month I’m going to become a certified Strengths coach and I may really want to dive into that. I really like the idea of helping people who are good already become great or who are great become top performers. It’ll certainly feed that Relator side, too, if I lean into that.

But, then again, I should also be done with the first draft of a new book in a new genre by the end of the month that has been really, really fun to write. And if that does well? Who knows? Maybe I’ll want to lean into that and follow up on my initial success there.

I suspect I’ll never settle in on one thing, ever. It’s just not me. But I do think there’s a shift ahead and right now I’m turtling to figure it all out.

You’ll still see me here, though. At least sometimes…


Print through Barnes & Noble

I still hesitate to make the big leap and buy my own ISBNs and use IngramSpark. It’s $500+ up front for me to do that and I’m just not convinced it would pay for itself because I’m not convinced that enough bookstores would decide to order my books if I did it.

So I tried a little experiment, which was to use NOOK Press to publish a few of my books through Barnes & Noble online rather than let those books reach B&N via Amazon via IngramSpark. B&N also provides free ISBNs so it was just my own time and effort involved.


One thing I do like is that I can put spine text on much skinner books than I can with Amazon. I have a lot of titles in the 80-90 page range that have no spine text through Amazon but can through NOOK Press. So that was an improvement.

The colors in the covers were more washed out looking to me for the four books where I did this.

The paper quality is lower. I could see text through the page on my black and white books and it doesn’t look like I have a choice to use their heavier paper option if I’m just doing black and white interiors.

I had adjusted the outer margin based on their specs, but the inner margin was a little tight. Not so much it warranted going through the whole process again, but enough that I’d adjust inner margins on any books going forward.

They don’t have a handy-dandy cover creator like Amazon’s so I had to make my own. Once I’d done it for each trim size it was pretty straight-forward.

I will now make more on any sales of those four paperbacks that happen through Barnes & Noble. But not as much as I make per book when sold on Amazon. For example, I have ones that sell on Amazon that pay me $5 on Amazon and $1.50 on B&N through Expanded Distribution that will  now pay me $3 for a B&N direct sale.

Expanded distribution sales have never been a significant part of my sales. And if I discount my mother bulk ordering books from B&N, they’re even less. So I’ll also be watching to see if this means more sales on B&N than before. It doesn’t get physical store placement for me. That requires more ebook sales than I’m going to have there probably ever. But I have noticed with each platform that I’ve gone direct with my ebooks that I did see a small bump in sales along with it, so we’ll see if that holds true for print as well.

If not, I probably won’t do more this way, mainly because of the paper. I just don’t like the paper being that thin and not having the option to choose to pay for a heavier paper. It’s just balanced out by the spine text for me. But just.