Volume Matters

This is a post for the fiction writers, so if you’re not a fiction writer it may not be of interest.

I’m supposed to be starting on a new novel today. I have eleven days between now and my house inspection after which I’ll be (hopefully) desperately packing to move. But of course me and starting a new novel means me and doing anything but starting a new novel most times.

And today that meant looking at numbers. 2021 has been my best year profit-wise so far with my writing and I like to know where that’s coming from. Which lead to the title of this post: volume matters.

For 2021 as of the end of April I had sales across 101 different titles and seven pen names. That included 14 titles I released this year. (I just released four more in May but those haven’t hit my reports yet. It’s been a busy year.)

Obviously some of those 100+ titles sold far more than others. The 80/20 rule very much applies to this business.

And four titles actually lost me money when you take into account advertising. But three of those were first in series and the overall series was profitable. (The other lost me 35 cents because I can’t help but try every once in a while with a dead title to revive it.)

I believe that a large part of what has gotten me to the point I am with my writing income is the volume of titles I’ve published.

There’s the “try until you find something that works” aspect. There’s the increased visibility that more titles can give. There’s the little streams adding up to bigger streams idea. There’s the idea that the more writing you do the more you theoretically improve. It all ties in there.

But there’s also the base fact, at least in fiction, that more titles means more room to play with advertising. (Assuming you have sellthrough. If you don’t have sellthrough you have a genre expectation, reader engagement, or writing quality issue.)

My YA fantasy and cozy mystery series are a perfect example of how this can play out.

The YA fantasy series has three books in it which are currently priced at $3.99/$5.99/$5.99 but for most of the year were at $4.99 each. The cozy mystery series has seven books in it each priced at $3.99.

Both series have received similar promotions by me because I’m lazy so I tend to say something like, “Let me make all my first in series fiction titles free this month and then sign up for X, Y, and Z ads for all of them.”

Here’s where the volume thing comes into play:

Of these two series for 2021 the cozy mystery series has been more profitable. Even though the 2nd and 3rd titles in the fantasy series are individually more profitable than the 2nd and 3rd titles in the cozy mystery series.

Having the four additional books for readers to move to with the cozies has meant that even though they are priced lower and have worse sellthrough, I make more on that series than I do on the fantasy series. Which makes sense because if someone ends up liking the series they spend $28 on my books versus $15 for the fantasy series.

A few years back I dug into which authors were in the top 100 authors for the SFF genre on Amazon and my unscientific gut result was that it took about a dozen novels to get there. Sure, there were authors who were on there with one or two titles, but those were the exceptions.

It was the authors who had enough titles to benefit the most from advertising and to get enough visibility and were productive enough to stay visible who did well.

Now, just like the review myth, volume is obviously not enough. You also need writing that appeals to readers in that genre and enough readers that like your writing that it’s sustainable.

And it’s easier if you’re writing about subjects that interest those readers. Dragons will always do better in fantasy than shape-shifting millipedes. The more off-center you are from a genre the harder it is to get a toehold.

(Again, not saying it can’t happen, but just saying that being on the outside or fringes of your genre increases the difficulty.)

Also volume isn’t everything. If you write a bunch of useless crap to achieve volume that’s not gonna work. You still have to write what readers want.

But if you have a good book and you’re feeling frustrated about your sales the answer may very well be to write more. Don’t double-down and promote that book for five years at the expense of writing. Don’t give up and walk away. Write the next in the series.

It’s Kinda Funny…

That the better I do at this writing thing the more inclined I am to quit altogether.

Sometime in March I passed a big milestone revenue-wise and probably hit one profit-wise and also came within spitting distance of a new monthly milestone, too.

And for the last few years I’ve earned enough from writing that it would pay a reasonable person’s bills if they lived in a reasonable area and weren’t too extravagant and hadn’t been stuck paying for their own MBA because their former employer pulled a bait and switch on them. (Thanks, George.)

In short, I’m doing better than most and making progress year-on-year.

Not near as well as some, that’s for sure. I think I’ve mentioned before that I know of some authors who are seven-figure-a-year authors and I personally know more than one that makes mid-ten-figures a month and I’m definitely not close to that.

But I’ve been steadily doing better each year. Enough to have some glimmer of hope. Some years are years that “pop” and suddenly I see an 8-fold increase from one year to the next. Others are more steady-risers that increase about 10% or so. But things have trended upward year-on-year as I add more product and figure out what I do that people want to pay for. And I’m doing it at a sustainable pace, too, so it’s not like I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my god, if I don’t work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, this all goes away tomorrow” like some I know.

And yet…

The better I do with my writing, the less optimistic I am about my potential to get to where I ultimately want to go.

I think that’s because when you first start out you think to yourself, “Wow, there are people who make seven figures a year at this. I could be one of those people. All I have to do is try and work hard at it.”

But then you try. And maybe you do work hard at it. But…you don’t make seven figures. Or six. Or five. or four. Or three.

Or you’re like me and you find that you just don’t want to work as hard at it as those other people did. One of the seven-figure authors I know of says she sits down and writes/edits for eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, every week of the year.

Me? I average 10 hours a week. I’m putting in a fourth of the time that woman is. Which is why she publishes 24 novels a year and I published three last year.

Or maybe you do work hard at it. Maybe you do put in those sixteen hour days. But then you put your book out there and…crickets. Or, worse, bad reviews. Or, you get, “Eh, okay, that was sort of good.” Your family and friends pat you on the back and say they enjoyed it. But they never ask for more. Neither do any of the strangers who bought it.

So you find that you’re not one of the crack-cocaine writers. You’re not addictive. People don’t crave what you write. They like it alright, maybe. But they don’t LOVE it. They don’t demand that everyone else read it. They don’t make absurd, unrealistic requests that you get the next book out NOW.

They just, you know, maybe will pick up the next one if it’s there and they can’t find something else they love more.

Those characters and those ideas that were so interesting and fascinating to you aren’t interesting and fascinating to anyone else. Or maybe they would be if your writing were better. You think maybe they would be. But that means that you’re writing isn’t that good right now? And who wants to think that? Especially if you’re a “that one story I’ve wanted to tell forever” writer.

Or maybe you do find fans. And you do work hard enough so you’re putting out enough books that it should work, but then you find out that there’s more to all of this than just writing books. There are so many other people who have written books, too, that you’re lost in the clutter. No one is finding your little adventure novel. No one is taking a taste and getting addicted.

You find out that it isn’t all about writing. You have to learn marketing. And cover design. And how to write ad copy.

Or maybe you have to pay for those things because you’re just not very good at those things. You can write a novel, but not a two-sentence zinger that gets someone to one-click.

And suddenly this thing that was going to make you a good living is costing you money instead. And you get bitter because wasn’t that cover beautiful enough? It if was, why didn’t anyone buy the book? Or why can’t you sell that book for more than 99 cents? Or $2.99? People spend more than that everyday on a cup of overpriced coffee that tastes bitter just to be cool and yet they won’t spend $2.99 on this novel that took you months to write?

And why does THAT book in your genre sell well when it’s so…not yours.

You start out all shiny and new and hopeful and optimistic that you’ll make it to the top. But then…life. And reality. Not everyone makes it to the top. Some barely get started. Some get stuck halfway. Some go up and then come crashing back down.

And the real kicker of it all is that it’s hard to know if you’ve reached the limit of your potential or if this is just a setback.

Is this moment, “Hey, you tried and you gave it your all, but this is as good as it gets.” Or is this the lull before you make that next leap up.

Maybe all you’ll ever be is that so-so writer that people don’t mind but don’t love. Or maybe you’ll turn the dial just a bit, try that next genre or that next idea or that next style of writing or reach that next reader who loves you so much they tell the world to read you, and it’ll all finally fall into place.

The further along you get the more it can start to feel like maybe there’s nothing left to turn.

Sure, you could write more, except…you know you’re not going to write more. You haven’t written more in five years.

Or you could write with more action and less emotion, except…that’s not the writer you are. If you want to do something that isn’t you there’s a nice comfy corporate job that comes with health insurance that’s a lot easier to do and doesn’t result in strangers on the internet making conjectures about your childhood.

You could write shorter. Or write longer. Switch genres. Learn how to be likeable online. Except…That’s not you. You know that maybe that’s how others succeeded, but…you aren’t them.

So then what do you do?

Do you try one more time? Or do you call it? Turn the dial or walk away? Because, really, life doesn’t have to be this hard. Does it?

Ah, Life

I think one of the biggest challenges to this whole writing journey has been managing my ego. It’s one of the awful little side effects of having gone to really great schools (Stanford and Wharton). You’re puttering along in your life doing your thing and suddenly one of your classmates is appointed CEO of Yahoo! or wins a SAG award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe for their incredible acting. (Both went to Stanford at the same time I did.)

Or another classmate casually mentions that they sold their firm with $10 billion in assets under management and are now taking a sabbatical to travel the world. (A Wharton classmate. And, ironically, that description may be too generic for you to even identify a specific individual.)

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that their paths are not ones that would interest me. I don’t look at them and say “that could’ve been me”. (Although I do think it would be fun to act. That’s one of those paths not taken for me.)

I know I’m not playing the same game they are. But when your peers have net worths in the hundreds of millions it can make it really, really hard to take pride in your own efforts. Especially when you know that you could be much more financially successful doing something other than what you’re doing.

A couple months ago a classmate at Wharton reached out and asked if I’d submit a class note about my writing. I almost said no.

One, because what I’m doing probably makes me the poster child for how not to use your Wharton degree. (You make your millions first, then you take up skydiving and writing novels. You don’t walk away from a good career without having paid off all your student loans to do those things, which is what I did.)

And, two, because as much as I’ve accomplished with my writing, I don’t view it as a success. Most of those class notes are people who’ve done something worth bragging about and for some reason I don’t feel what I’ve done is something to brag about.

Which is somewhat absurd. I have written ten novels and who knows how many non-fiction titles. And I’ve made a profit on them, which is actually saying something.

There was recently a thread on one of the writing forums where people were saying you should never expect to make $5,000 a month from writing. By that standard I’m a raging success.

(I think it’s a horrible mindset those people have when there are authors out there making $100,000 a month, but that’s another post altogether.)

But the problem is, I don’t apply the normal person in the normal world standard to my efforts. I don’t apply the “average writer” standard. Fuck average.

I apply the Stanford/Wharton standard. I look to my “peers” to judge my worth.

(And then I quickly look away, because holy shit.)

But that’s the thing. The people who’ve made it are in the news or in the class notes. No one writes in and says, “Since we all graduated I lost my job, declared bankruptcy, got divorced, and spent three months in a clinic for substance abuse issues. But now I’m living in a halfway house and getting by day-by-day.” Or, “Well, I got married, put all my dreams on hold, quit my six-figure job to raise kids I’m not sure I even like, and am now self-medicating with wine and Facebook while my husband spends inordinate amounts of time with his secretary.”

I have to remind myself that there are probably just as many people like that in my peer group as the superstars. Not that it helps. Because ego. I still think I should do well at whatever I do. Well being top 2%.

So, anyway. I submitted the note. With a good dose of humor included. And now it will forever sit there next to my classmate’s note about his very successful venture. Really, I think that combination pretty much says it all.

Oh, and for any Wharton classmates who find their way here, the skydiving comment was not in fact a joke. This is me doing a sit-fly over Taupo, New Zealand back in the day.

6- Me 2

It Ain’t The Road That Kills You…

It’s the paper walls.

That’s from a song I happen to love by Marc Cohn:

The portion of the song where he says that doesn’t actually occur until the end. (At 3:39 on that video.) If you listen to it you may be asking yourself what on earth that song has to do with anything except people making really strange choices about who they hook up with and when, but stay with me for a moment.

Because, as always, I take something completely different away from that song than probably anyone else would. See, I hear that line “It ain’t the road that kills you…” and I think that the song is about how it isn’t being alone that’s the problem, it’s knowing that others aren’t and being able to hear (in this case) what you’re missing and how knowing what you’re missing is the real issue.

Now to bring this back to writing.

I ran a promo on Rider’s Revenge this weekend. It ends today. And, good news, I sold at least 374 copies of book 1 and 24 copies each of books 2 and 3. The promo isn’t even over yet and it’s already been profitable and sell-through to books 2 and 3 over the long-term will make it more so.

Fantastic, right?

Except I kind of felt like crap about it the last two days. Because part of the promo was an international-only Bookbub. And according to their site, the average number of sales from this particular list should be 550, but I’m only at about 300 off of the Bookbub.

It paid for itself. And I think I’m still missing Google sales and maybe even some iTunes sales. But I’m not going to hit 550. Which bummed me out.

I had a successful promo. I made a profit. I hopefully have a couple hundred new fans. And yet…knowing that others have done better running the same promo spoiled it for me.

It’s like we’re all trying to hike a mountain here. And I know that as long as I keep going and putting one foot in front of the other that I’ll get there eventually. But it’s harder when someone breezes by like there’s nothing to it or the person you started the trail with leaves you behind because you’re going so much slower.

(Real life experience: I hiked Mt. Quandary, a 14er, years ago with a couple co-workers. They were both in excellent shape and left me behind after the first hour or so. But I made it to the top. Eventually. Just in time for them to be ready to turn around and head back down…)

It’s easy to always be looking to others and feel constantly dissatisfied.  Because there will always be someone selling more, getting more reviews or better reviews, or signing high-profile deals. But you can’t do that. It’ll kill you.

Step back and remind yourself what you have done.  See how far you’ve come. Embrace the positives.

(I say as I continue to sit here and sulk.)

Remember, it isn’t the journey that will kill you, it’s comparing yourself to others and letting their successes (or how you feel about them) defeat you.