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.

Sadly, I Am No J.D. Robb

A lot of the reading I’ve been doing this year is of the In Death series by J.D. Robb (probably better known as Nora Roberts). I’m almost done. That’s close to fifty books.

And I find myself as an author in awe of her ability to stay true to the demands of her genre. Every single one of those books I’ve read so far is firmly structured as a mystery.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that the opening is about the murder. And the focus of the story is on solving that murder. Those books are definitely character-driven. They would not be the same books without Mavis, Peabody, Roarke, Feeney, McNab, and all the other relationships. And they’re not necessarily the types of murder mysteries where you’re given the clues to solve the murder yourself. You as a reader are along for the ride with characters you’ve come to like.

Despite the fact that they’re character-driven mysteries she still manages to keep the murder and the solving of that murder the frame of each and every single book. I have yet to see her stumble on that point after forty-plus books.

Now, there are some authors who would see that as problematic. They think it’s too predictable. But what those authors fail to see is that that’s how you meet the expectations of readers of a certain genre.

You show them on page 1 that this is the type of story they’re going to get. This is a murder mystery. Someone is dead. And now someone will solve that murder. And then, within that framework, you play with the characters and the story.

It seems easy to do that, right?

But I’ll tell you, I personally do not find it easy to do. I’ve now written four cozy mysteries and finding that balance between the mystery and the personal lives of the characters is the biggest challenge I have in writing those books.

And just today I published a short story set in that world that doesn’t even have a mystery! That’s how much I struggle with it.

Trust me. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to explain through your marketing that this book isn’t what readers have come to expect from you.

So I really, really admire J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts for her ability to consistently and continuously work within the frame of her genre and yet create unique and believable characters at the same time. She’s truly a master of her craft. Someday I hope to be half the writer she is.