Wide Vs. KU

One of the most difficult decisions a self-published author has to make is whether to be wide (list on all of the vendors they can) or whether to throw in with Amazon only so they can be in Kindle Unlimited.

And as we move forward with this whole self-publishing thing it seems to me that the voices on both sides of the argument get more and more vocal. The Smashwords year-end round up was basically a “don’t blame me when you can’t support yourself with your writing five years from now because you gave Amazon all the power and helped force their competitors out of business” post.

And there may be some merit to what he’s saying. If too many authors are in KU thereby depriving other platforms of content and helping to drive down the price a reader is willing to pay for an individual title, that will have long-term consequences that aren’t pretty.

At the same time I know of authors who are making $200K up to a million a year because they’re in KU. How do you tell someone to walk away from a million dollars to support the long-term viability of the ebook market?

I in principle support being wide, but I just moved all of my romance titles into KU.

(1) I can’t get a Bookbub promo for those titles (some are too short, others just aren’t competitive enough in a highly competitive genre).

(2) Most other promo sites have minimal reach outside of Amazon. (Even when I run promos on wide titles I get 90% Amazon sales.)

(3) The promo sites with a wider reach are overpriced for what they deliver so running those promos is a losing proposition.

(4) I’m not a big enough name to get merchandising opportunities at places like Nook or Apple.

That means that those romance titles sold a few copies based on free downloads that led to a sale of a collection (1:100 for me) or as part of a Kobo promo. But other than that, they were dead in the water.

I can put those same titles into KU, run AMS ads against them, and see sales most days along with page reads.

So for me for those titles the decision became stay wide and earn basically nothing on them versus go into KU and earn something. And, yes, that something may one day become nothing as Amazon gains power and sucks us all dry (which I don’t doubt will happen), but when the alternative is nothing, what do you do?

Now, on the flip side of that, I do have my fantasy series wide at the moment. It’s taken a hit by being wide. Instead of ranking in the 30K range on Amazon and selling steadily most days at $6.99, it’s now selling every few days at $4.99. But that title does get Bookbubs. And each one I get seems to help a little bit more with organic sales on other platforms. So I’m letting it stay wide until the next series is released. Short-term, I’m taking a hit with lower sales. Long-term, I have the potential for steadier sales at higher sales.

I also have all of my non-fiction wide and pretty much always have. (I did run most of them through KU in 2016 when you had to be in KU to start a Sponsored Product ad.)

One reason is you just don’t earn a lot for page reads on non-fiction even if someone reads the whole book, at least not compared to paid sales. And if people are interested in the subject, about half will probably just buy the book if it’s not in KU. Plus, having been in the StoryBundle with two of my Excel, I’m committed to keeping all of the M.L. Humphrey titles wide in case anyone reads those books and wants to read more of those titles. I don’t want to force them to go to Amazon for that.

So that’s where I’ve fallen out on things as of January 2018: romance in KU, fantasy that isn’t written to market wide, non-fiction wide.

Will that change? Probably.

The woman who runs the Write Better Faster class asked all of us what our touchstone word for this year is. At the time I didn’t have one. I just had a lot of “so many directions to go in, which do I choose” anxiety that I didn’t give an answer. But I’ve decided my word for this year is: ADAPT.

Honestly, I think that’s the word that every self-publisher (or writer) should embrace every day of every year that they’re trying to make money from their writing.

A Winding Path to Five Figures A Year

I think I know by now the “best” path to being successful at self-publishing. Write in a popular genre (billionaire romance, LitRPG, reverse harem, space opera, thrillers, etc.). Write in a series. Release frequently. Price competitively.

But after four years at this, I’ve come to realize that knowing something and doing it are two completely different things. And that I am not going to be that person that writes a book a month. (Or if I do write a book a month it’ll be a non-fiction title one month, a romance novel the next, and a fantasy novel the month after that.) And that if I do write to market, I’ll likely lose interest and not continue on that momentum even when it’s obvious that the written to market title performs the best with the least effort and expense. (I’m looking at you billionaire romance serial.)

There are MANY days where I wonder if I’m being a fool for continuing to do this self-publishing thing, because there are other ways for me to make far more money than I do at this. But I like it. I don’t know why. (Having my pup curled up asleep five feet away and not having a boss or co-workers is probably a good part of it…)

It helps that over the last four years I have seen steady progress. Even though I’d love to be in the high five-figures or low six-figures, this year I did manage to break into at least the low five-figures.

So I’m here as proof that it’s possible to write what you want, self-edit, do your own covers, be generally anti-social in terms of group promos and FB and Twitter, and still do alright. It’s not the fast path to success. Let’s be clear about that. But it’s also not the “oh my god, you will forever lose money and suck” path either.

Because I’ve taken such a convoluted path to get to where I am right now, it’s hard to tell someone else how to take that path. So this advice is going to be a little high-level. More strategy than tactics, I guess.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail and Don’t Quit If You Do

The first title I self-published was Don’t Be a Douchebag. At the time I still fully expected that I would go the trade-publishing route with my novels, but I got annoyed with my experiences online dating and decided to write a book about it. I had no interest in building a platform, which is what a publisher would require, so I just put the book up on Amazon.

It had a horrible cover. Horrible. So bad I will not post it here. About the only thing I got right on that cover was the color scheme for dating books for men. It was that bad.

The title barely sold. Following up on the horrible cover I then did a free run on the book. Why? I had nowhere for readers to go. Maybe I thought they’d leave a review. (They didn’t.) But I had no plan or strategy or idea of what I was doing. I just knew other people offered books for free, so I did too.

A few months later I actually unpublished the title for a while. (I thought it was maybe a little harsh and I felt bad about being so mean to men who were just trying to meet someone and generally clueless about how to do so.)

But eventually I republished it and put the book into audio. And, while they’re not impressive numbers for fiction, that title has now sold over 300 copies, mostly in audio, is nicely profitable, and continues to sell every month with no or minimal effort on my part.

That book was a failure. I did everything wrong when I published it. Bad cover, no promo followed by bad promo, and I let my family buy copies which meant the also-boughts were a nightmare. But eventually it found it’s own little niche. (In 2016. It was published in 2013.)

2. A Book Doesn’t Have to Succeed Immediately

Douchebag is an example of this, too, but the first romance novel I published proves the point as well. That book came out in December 2014. It was the second novel I’d ever written and the first I self-published. They say we all have a therapy novel in us–that novel that’s sort of exorcising your demons. This one was mine. I was supposed to be writing an MG fantasy novel while I was living in Prague and instead I ended up writing this thing. (It originally ended with them not getting together because the whole point of writing it was to point out how they shouldn’t get together. Who needs a therapist when you have writing, right?)

Anyway. I wrote this novel even though I had no intention of becoming a romance novelist. So I self-published it. And it sold. It made me something like $400 in the first month. Which for me at the time was a big deal.

But I wasn’t looking to write romance novels and instead of saying to myself, “Aha, I’ve found what sells,” I wrote a series of books about managing your money.

Now, conventional wisdom is that since that book didn’t sell thousands when it was released, that it was dead and not worth following up on. (And I think that may be good advice if you’re writing to market. I have a theory on written-to-market titles versus “evergreen” titles and how the sales curves behave for each one.)

But after a few years I suddenly had the urge to write a follow-up novel featuring a minor character from the first book. So I did. And somehow, between the release of that second book, a free run on book 1, KU, and AMS ads, that novel that I published in 2014 made me close to $3,000 this year. (And probably would’ve made me a lot more if I hadn’t randomly decided to pull it from KU to try for a Bookbub.)

So don’t give up on a title just because it doesn’t go gangbusters right away. Especially if it wasn’t written to a hot market.

3. Experiment

Both of the above examples teach another lesson. And that’s the importance of experimenting. At a time when people were saying that AMS ads were horrible and too expensive, I started to try them out. And they did well for me. I had a product display ad on that romance novel that cost me $8 and led to $100+ in sales. (They’ve since fixed the glitch that made that possible.) And a large part of the sales of that novel this year were also due to AMS.

Will you always succeed with experiments? No. I paid far too much for Early Bird ads this year that were not worth it. But you don’t know if you don’t try.

With Douchebag, putting the title into audio worked. If I hadn’t done that, that title would be doing nothing for me right now.

I also move titles into and out of KU. Some do well wide, some don’t. Some do well in KU for a bit and then die off. Without trying, how do you know? And the “nice” thing about having a low-performing title is that you have nothing to lose by trying something new except maybe a little time and possibly some money. There is no momentum to lose, there are no fans to anger. When you’re small, you have far more flexibility than when you’re big.

4. Sometimes It’s Better to Be Cheap

This one is dicey. And I know I’m going to get kickback on it, which is why I stay out of these discussions on any public forum. But I’m trying to give an alternative view here, so I’m going to talk about this even though I’ll probably regret it.

Conventional wisdom is that you should have a gorgeous cover and professionally edited book. And I get the argument for putting out the best product you can. But I think for a lot of newer writers, including myself, they don’t have the experience to judge a good product from a bad one. I have seen more than one post by an author who said, “why am I getting complaints about how my book needs to be edited? I paid for an editor!” And more than one author who asked why their book wasn’t selling who had an attractive cover that was absolutely not a good fit for their genre.

And even when you do get it right, it takes a lot to earn back those expenses. I have twenty-six “series” that I track. These are groups of books, like Excel Essentials which includes Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel, that I treat as part of the same advertising group. All but five of those groups are profitable when I look at money made from sales versus money spent on advertising, covers, and editing.

Only one series is in the red more than $50, and that’s my Rider’s series. I would argue that the covers for those books are gorgeous and hit their market. But they were expensive covers and I’m still paying for them.

All those other series where I did the covers myself? They’re profitable. The one where I put up the big bucks is not.

Fact of the matter is, most newer writers have an issue that no amount of editing or cover will overcome. And that’s that they wrote a book that isn’t hitting the market and no amount of paid promo, beautiful cover, or perfect implementation of Strunk & White is going to help.

Most authors would be better off spending a small amount of money on their initial book or two, learning the ropes, and then spending big money once they have an idea of what they’re actually doing. (In my opinion. Yes, there will be a handful of authors every year who would’ve taken off if they’d done it all “right” up-front, but there are far, far more who spend money they shouldn’t on a first book. You can always change covers or even re-edit a book later. You can never go back if the launch of that first book breaks your soul and your bank account at the same time.)

5. Rules Schmules

What most writers focus on when judging one another’s writing is not what most readers focus on. A few years back my mom gave me some Nora Roberts books to read. And after I’d done so I asked her what she thought of the head-hopping that occurs in those books. (The ones she gave me were 90% third-person limited but Nora would jump into someone else’s head for a sentence or two when she felt like it.)

My mom hadn’t noticed. She’d probably read a hundred books by the woman and never picked up on the head-hopping.

There was some other author she read who switched between present and past tense in a way that annoyed me, but my mom hadn’t noticed that one either. All my mother, and most readers like her, wants is to be entertained. She wants to lose herself in the story.

Writers get caught up in technical rules that readers don’t care about and they forget that the goal they need to focus on is writing an entertaining story (for fiction) or an informative book (for non-fiction). That’s what readers care about, not whether you use “whom” correctly.

For example, I use alright. Happy to do so. It’s a conscious, deliberate decision I’ve made. When I say, “Alright now, let’s talk about x” that is one word to me, not two. But there are grammar purists out there who would probably be horrified to read anything I write because of that. (Fortunately, those people are not the bulk of readers.)

I went to Stanford, have an MBA from Wharton, worked in high-paying consulting jobs, and have read thousands of books, and the first time I ran across this “all right” issue was when I bought a copy of Strunk & White. Until then I’d always thought it was “alright.” After careful consideration, I still do.

Language evolves. Writing styles evolve. The question is: are you finding the readers who can read what you write in the way you write it and enjoy it? If yes, keep on keeping on. If no, consider a change.

6. We’re All Different

That leads me to my final point or piece of advice. We’re all different. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. What works for one writer (detailed plotting, for example) may not work at all for another. The thought of creating a five-page character profile horrifies me. So does letting people read what I’m writing before I think it’s a polished product. For others that’s their jam.

So if some bit of advice isn’t working for you, don’t listen to it. If you’re looking for solutions to a problem, then absolutely try different approaches or techniques. But don’t let someone else tell you the path to take or the way to do this thing if it doesn’t work for you. I get bored writing the same thing. I know it’s the successful way to do things, but it’s not me. I’ve had to find a non-traditional path to where I am because I couldn’t follow the one everybody swears by.

For me it was a question of doing it my own way and continuing to make forward progress or letting all those other voices into my head and getting nowhere. Find what works for you and what makes you happy. No one else has to get up and live your life everyday. You do. So do what works for you. (Easier said than done, by the way.)

Conclusion

I don’t know if any of that helped. I hope it did. This post wasn’t for those who want to skyrocket up the charts. My approach is not the way to do that. It’s for those who are struggling to get off the ground and want a bit of hope that they can do so even if they don’t follow the “correct” path.

Will I be able to improve on this year next year? I hope so. With writing there seem to be some natural support levels.  I hung out in the $300-$400 a month range for months with an occasional foray into $800 a month before I suddenly popped up to $1500 a month and have held steady above $1000 a month now since June.

But this self-publishing thing is a constantly moving target. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. What’s popular will change, what advertising works will change, and so will price trends. You have to be willing to try new things and to not quit.

(And, honestly, quitting isn’t such a bad thing. Read Seth Godin’s The Dip sometime. For some it’s a matter of pushing through, but for some it’s realizing there’s a better place to focus your efforts. Only you can tell which one you are.)

Anyway. Here’s to 2018, whatever it may bring.

AMS: A Tale of Three Ads

Here is a screenshot of statistics for three of my AMS ads:

December 2017 Top 3

One is a non-fiction title, one is fantasy, one is romance. If you look at the far right-hand column, you can see that the non-fiction title has an ACoS of just 33%, the romance title has an ACoS of 255%, and the fantasy novel is at 123%.

If you were just judging the ads by ACoS you’d probably think “shut down the fantasy and romance ads”, right? I mean, if you assume a 70% payout then anything above that is losing money.

But not so fast…

There are a few things at play here that make the non-fiction ad perhaps not as impressive as it looks and the romance ad actually profitable. (In fact, all three are profitable.)

First, with respect to the non-fiction ad, AMS ads report both paperback and ebook sales. And for this particular title, paperback sales are a large portion of the sales reported. As nice as it would be to get a 70% payout on print sales, that just doesn’t happen. Which means for a title that sells predominantly in print you can’t use 70% as a benchmark. (Same goes for an ebook priced below $2.99.)

Instead, for print, you need to look at the list price of the book compared to your payout and calculate a percentage from that.

Of course, most titles aren’t clean in terms of print versus ebook sales, so ideally you’d then calculate a weighted average that takes into account approximately how much of your sales are print versus how much are ebook. (I give some examples of just how different that ratio can be in CreateSpace for Beginners. For non-fiction, I see a decent amount of print sales. For romance, I see almost none.)

So the first thing to realize about those three ads above is that the non-fiction ad is potentially not the most profitable ad on that list even though it has the lowest ACoS.

Now let’s look at the romance. With an ACoS of 250%+ it looks horrible. It looks like I’m taking a bath on that ad and just handing Amazon my money.

But another thing you have to account for with AMS ads is that they don’t include KU page reads. This particular title had about 500K page reads when it was in KU. When I crunched the numbers I found that I had about 3.3 full reads from KU for every sale. (For those of you who picked up Excel for Self-Publishers, I walk through how to do that calculation in there.)

This title was also part of a series. So when I sold book 1 with an AMS ad, a certain percentage of the time that also lead to a sale of book 2. Between KU reads and sellthrough to book 2 that ad was profitable even though it doesn’t look it.

The third ad, the fantasy ad also benefited from KU reads and sellthrough. In that case, for most of the time I was running this ad the book was the first in a three-book series with each book priced at $6.99. Now, in terms of borrows to buys, it didn’t reach the level of the romance novel. I was closer to 50:50 borrows to buys. If I’d had an ACoS of 250% on this ad I would’ve been losing substantial money. But 125% was still profitable.

Which is all an argument for judging your ads based upon the performance of the individual titles not some arbitrary number that Amazon chooses to display on its AMS dashboard.

Something else that’s not addressed in the AMS ACoS is that I am positive the non-fiction title has had sales due to its increased visibility from my running AMS that are not reflected in those numbers. (AMS are the only ads I’ve run on it on Amazon.)

And, also, I’ve noticed with the fantasy series that readers will often buy all three books at once but AMS will only count the purchase of book 1.

I will add, too, that you don’t need a lot of keywords to have a productive ad, you just need good ones. That non-fiction ad only has 66 keywords and I’ve paused some of those.

So anyway. There you have it. A real-life comparison of three very different titles and how they were each successful with AMS even though they look like they had very different outcomes.

It’s Been A Strange Year

First, for anyone looking for info on AMS ads, it’s one of the categories on this site so just look for posts listed under that category.

Second, I just had a random pleasant surprise. I was doing my usual evening ritual of surfing various websites and dropped by Joanna Penn’s site to see what she had up. It’s an interesting article about what people look at on Amazon book pages that’s well worth a read in and of itself. But the surprise was that the author of the post, Michael Alvear, gave my book AMS Ads for Authors a shout out.

Which brings me to how this has been such a strange year for me. I did far better this year than any previous year, but how I did that is the part that’s so strange. Back in May I was preparing for Taos Toolbox and didn’t want to start on a new novel so decided I’d work on some non-fiction titles instead. I had three presentations planned at RMFW in September and two of them (one on CreateSpace and one on ACX) didn’t tie into anything I’d written yet. So the idea was to write a book about each.

Instead I wrote a book about AMS. I’d been finally seeing consistent long-term sales across titles and I could chalk almost all of that up to the use of AMS and thought I’d learned enough to share it. Little did I expect that that book would actually sell. I mean sure, I used AMS to get it out there and that helped. But what I hadn’t expected was that members of one of the writings forums where I participate would pick it up, too, and that some of those members would share with others how useful they’d found it. (Thank you to all of you who did so either through a review or a forum post or just a private comment.)

That was the first odd outcome of the year. Writing a book on a whim and having people actually like and recommend it.

The second was when an AMS ad I’d had running for almost a year took off in June and stayed hot for close to four months resulting in far more sales of a book I’d released in 2014 than I’d ever expected from that title. I could’ve never predicted going into this year that one of my top revenue producing titles for the year would be one I’d published two and a half years before.

The third was what happened with the Excel guides. I wrote those four books and the whole time I was writing them I thought I was wasting my time. I figured Excel for Writers and Excel for Self-Publishers would each sell maybe a handful of copies. But once I’d started writing them I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to get down on paper how I used Excel for my writing.

And then, even more bizarre than the first two surprise outcomes of the year, I had an opportunity to put those two books into the NaNo StoryBundle. Suddenly, books I’d thought would sell a handful of copies had a chance to sell thousands.

And the more general guides that I wrote because I’d written the other two, Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel, have been doing better and better, giving me my best-ever month for print sales this month.

I’m glad that those passion projects have turned out well. It’s made it a much better year than it would’ve been otherwise. But I have to say it does make trying to figure out what to do next even more confusing. At this point in my career, this is all I know:

This is a constantly changing market. What works today will likely not work tomorrow or not work as well tomorrow. The more product you have out there, the better. (As long as it’s good work that its audience will enjoy.) And for me, personally, it’s better to write eclectic projects that I enjoy and that keep me writing than to try to force myself to write what I think is in demand. (Although if I could write reverse harem or alphahole romance I’d certainly be doing so right now…)

Anyway. It was an interesting year to say the least. Here’s to another one in 2018.

It’s Okay If You’re Not There Yet

We’re about at the end of Nano and some will celebrating their victory of “winning” Nano, while others will be kicking themselves for failing to hit those 55,000 words. And even those who won nano will soon realize (one hopes) that putting those initial words on the page are just step one of a long process. (I think it took me nine drafts to finalize my first novel and the second draft was almost a complete rewrite.)

It’s easy to look around and see what others are doing and think you don’t have what it takes. Or to get defeated when things aren’t happening fast enough. And it’s normal. The key is to keep going. If you keep going AND keep striving, you will improve. You will get better. It will get easier and you will start to see little glimmers of success that pull you forward.

Let me share a little of my own journey on this one.

Often times in the indie world there’s a lot of “oh, well, obviously your problem is…” talk. Covers is one of the top targets of these kind of comments. Those who’ve been around a while can look at a cover and think “NO! That won’t work at all.” But for a newbie, that skill just isn’t there yet.

I had to buy a new computer last week because this current one has developed the habit of just turning itself off, and I figured before I transferred my files I would go through my GIMP files and delete all the many drafts that had led to each of my covers. (I’ll sometimes go through twenty iterations of a cover before I’m satisfied.) What this made me do is look at some of my oldest covers.

And, oh man, were they bad. The initial covers on Douchebag were hideous. I’d done enough research to figure out the basic color scheme for men’s dating books (black, white, red, yellow), but what I then did with those colors? Holy cannoli. Bad.  Bad, bad, bad.

But I didn’t know. I put ’em out there without hesitation. And, surprisingly, a few copies sold. Why, when the covers were that bad, I will never know. Trust me, they were BAD.

But I learned and I experimented and I swapped out the covers more than once and I slowly improved. Is the cover perfect now? No. But it gets the job done. And maybe someday I pay someone who does this for a living to put a really flashy cover on it.

(Doubtful. This class I’m taking now has taught me that I have far more interest in the writing of things than in the marketing of things and that I may always be one of those folks who spend far more time on creating a product or thinking about how it all works than on trying to find my audience.)

Anyway. Back to the point. I didn’t know back then what I didn’t know. And I could’ve had millions of dollars to spend and still not done it “right”, because there was a lot I needed to learn. (Still is, but I think I’m further along now than I was then.)

This is a journey. With a lot of steps. And some of us are starting out in Australia with ten bucks in our pocket, trying to make it all the way to London, or in Idaho trying to make it to Russia.

It’s okay if it takes a while. It’s okay if you go off course for a bit. The key is to keep going and keep improving. And if someday your old covers or your old stories make you cringe? That’s okay, too. It just means you’ve learned enough to see the flaws in your early work.

So chin up and keep moving.

 

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.

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.