I debated posting this. Strange as it seems, I’ve had pushback from sharing some of the details of my publishing journey. The reasons are many, and I won’t bore you with them. And yet, when I first started out, I really appreciated other writers sharing information. It helped me make informed decisions. To see what was happening out there. It took the fear of the unknown away.
So, in the end, I decided to share. Sorry, new readers of my fiction, but you may want to skip this one. For all you fellow writers, by all means read on.
I now have full tracking spreadsheets of 2011 and 2012. These spreadsheets bring together reports from all the retailers, organize that information, reference it to my own database of my work, and allow me to create many informative pivot tables to view the information in different ways. Each of those pivot tables allow me to see different types of trends.
As the information began piling up, I started noticing several interesting things, which ultimately resulted in this post.
First, I am not a writer who has hit it lucky with a bestseller. I think I’m one of those silent-majority average selling writers (As Hugh Howey says, “The outliers are not the self-publishing story. It’s the midlisters.”). We always hear about those who strike it rich or emerge as outliers. This is a post by someone who is a slow-build so-called ‘mid-lister’, and who is happy about that. I’m considered a prolific writer. I have a lot of books on the way, and many already out there, that might get lucky. The more published, the more chance I have of having a book hit it big.
Considering what I just said, it’s interesting to see the slow upward trend in sales. I attribute this to continuing to write and release new work. At this point in my career, I view that as the best marketing and promotion I can do. I’m doing all I can to increase backlist. (Great article by Kris Rusch: “The Business Rusch: Writing Like It’s 2009”)
But, let’s get to a few numbers.
Unit sales for 2011 (with 10 1/2 months of publishing): 718
Unit sales for 2012: 1359
Oh yeah. I like that upward trend. 89% increase in 2012. Imagine what I could have done if I could have kept the momentum going in the last half of 2012! (More on that later)
In April and May of 2012 I moved to a different pricing structure. I moved almost all of my work to $2.99 and up, as well as raising the longest novels up to $7.99. Aw, heck. Here are the current pricing tiers in case they help anyone else:
Fiction (10,000-15,000 words) & eDoubles $2.99
Fiction (15,000 to 25,000 words) $3.49
Fiction (25,000 to 40,000 words) $3.99
Fiction (40,000 to 55,000 words) $4.99
Fiction (55,000 to 70,000 words) $5.99
Fiction (70,000 to 85,000 words) $6.99
Fiction (85,000 words and up) $7.99
(Other ideas here at Dean Wesley Smith’s blog (read the comments!). The above numbers were decided on for multiple reasons, including the pricing survey I did here)
A lot of writers would scream doing such a thing would kill sales. Raise prices? Was I nuts?
But, did it kill sales?
Before this raise, the longest book was priced at a maximum of $4.99 (and that was from before when the novels were at $2.99. And sitting there barely selling. Raising them to $4.99 increased both unit sales and net revenue). Raising them to price points of the tier above increased the net revenue again, with unit sales staying the same, increasing, and once in a while dropping a little.
To be more specific: from March to April, overall units sold dropped 21.2%. However, income increased by 8.6%. So, yes, fewer unit sales, but my income went up.
And in May it went up even further, achieving my best month of that year. Not in units. January has the distinction of the most units moved in 2012. In fact, units dropped 7.9% from January’s total compared to May’s total. No, I’m talking about increasing in revenue. And how much did income increase compared to January?
A whopping 21%.
Think about that. Units went down 7.9%, but take-home pay went up 21 PERCENT compared to my highest-unit month. That’s huge!
Writing is my job. Units pushed is not everything, not by a long shot. Revenue taken home is a big factor. That’s what makes the difference between eating or not.
Some people have had success with cheaper prices. I tried that for well over a year, which was ironically during the time when this strategy was supposed to work better than it does in today’s publishing environment. Well, it didn’t help me.
What did help me? Raising the prices, and then leaving them there. Not panicking when the fall slump hit (I’ve known of the phenomena for some times, so why panic if this is a normal thing?). Not panicking when a month came out a little slow. (Kris Rusch has an excellent post on this here. Basic advice: stop obsessing.) There are so many things that can cause sales fluctuations, and 2012 had a lot of them (hint: don’t think of only the book industry. What other big things happened in 2012?).
In June and through the summer of 2012 I took classes and redid almost all the book descriptions and covers. Those upgrades plus the new pricing tiers resulted in 2012 whomping 2011 out of the park.
Then came the fall and winter. I won’t go into details, but lets just say that life hit from multiple directions at once . The plans I had in place of what works I would release in each month disappeared in a poof of dust. I hardly had any new releases in the last six months of 2012. If I hadn’t had such a productive first 6 months, I would have never reached my yearly writing goal. Writing for almost 6 months was minimal.
Because the new releases are my main form of promotion, I expected a hit (and not in a good way). Did I get one?
And yet the titles still out there continued to sell. With the higher retail prices, it meant each month of the fall of 2012 still beat anything in 2011. By a wide margin.
Now we are moving into 2013. I’m still building up speed after getting back on the writing-train. Life is still hitting, but I’m starting to polish up new work and getting it released (Salmon Run book 6 is finally out!). The sales of the first two months of 2013 are reflecting this. I’m still climbing out from the maintenance level of sales from the fall and winter of 2012, but both units and revenue are trending upwards.
For the sake of the amount of food in the pantry, this is a good thing. 😛
Value yourself. Get good first readers. If they are liking your stories, then it’s time to start valuing yourself. Price accordingly. Big publishers don’t bring out a new writer automatically at a lower price point just because they are new. They price them the same as their big sellers. Get your self-esteem issues out of this basic business decision. If you price lower (as I am now with one of my books) have a backlist in place first, (which I do, with 35+ works), and have it for a specific marketing reason. Such as the lead-in of a series.
When you make a big change such as details like pricing, cover, and/or book description, leave it! (Unless there is a very obvious problem) Don’t panic the moment sales drop for a week or a month or even two months. You may be reacting to the wrong thing. I know I would have been. This last year had many circumstances impacting sales, things out of control of any publisher, but a writer may not know or be aware of all of them. Give the changes a minimum of 6 months. Longer would be better, as it gives you a good baseline without all the short-period spikes and valleys distracting you. Then you can judge if the changes are working, or if you need to tweak things again.
Yes, sales slowly ramp up by themselves if you have a good book, without you going nuts with promotion. I talked about the last six months of 2012. Yes, sales dropped when I couldn’t get more work out. But, something very very interesting happened. The first month sales dropped drastically… and then for Each. And. Every. Single. Month after that sales in units increased. Out of those 6 months, only one month did not increase in revenue, but even then the shortage was not much. I figure that one month happened just because of the mix of books bought. Read what I just said before. To me, this was a huge deal. Everything left alone, and not only did books continue to sell, but they slowly started increasing again! Lord, I love this new publishing world.
The mix of books that sell month to month changes. Once I did a pivot table of titles by month, this really jumped out. One month one title will be your best seller. Another month, a different one. Having a backlist helps balance out the overall sales and revenue.
Diversify sales channels. Yes, I know. That sets the people who are doing well in KDP Select foaming at the mouth. The thing is, not everyone does well with it. Looking at my spreadsheets, I’m seeing Amazon accounting for 66-87%. Which means the other sales channels are ranging between 13-33% of my income. I need that income, and I welcome the readers who bring it in. In total, Amazon was 70% for the year, and other income streams settling in at 30%. (One of these days I’ll figure out the percentage of US buyers compared to other countries. Sorry, I don’t have the time right now, but it is increasing. Especially through Kobo and Apple. Not so much with Amazon.)
Increase control by going direct. When Kobo’s Writing Life opened in the summer of 2012, I jumped at the chance to go direct despite their high payment threshold. The ability to format a book description was huge. Before, by going through Smashwords, the descriptions came out in one big ugly lump. I don’t blame readers for passing right by. Also, by going direct, I could custom set prices according to currency. Did going direct help? My sales at Kobo increased 95% compared to the 6 months before. Suddenly I had sales! So, yes, it did help.
Plans for 2013
Release more in the ongoing series. Series are where I make a majority of my sales. Heck, I may even start writing new series! (Oh, and for you String Weaver fans, yes the next books are coming!)
Do my best to release regularly. Almost every month I release something new, even if it’s a short story or a novelette, sales push upwards. One strange observation is that the increase in sales does not always come from the new release. Instead, it comes from the other backlist. Readers seeing the new release on the “New Releases” lists and then clicking through backlist and buying those instead? In any case, I need to keep the new release momentum going if at all possible.
I wanted to go direct with Apple, but they also have a high payment threshold and right now, looking at the numbers, it doesn’t make sense. So, I’m reluctantly staying with Smashwords for that distribution as right now description formatting is making it over to Apple. Also, I figured out how to use Scrivener to create Smashwords-compatible .doc files (no more extra hours-plus formatting time!). Good thing, as Word does not inhabit my current computer and never will. I will review this decision as the backlist and sales increase.
Apply what I learned from Dean Wesley Smith’s “Pitches and Blurbs” online workshop. I can now see why some of my books were selling more. I had fumbled around and accidentally found a few good working description without realizing it. Now that I consciously know the elements that go into a good sales-pitch, it’s time to get the other books up to snuff!
Have lots of fun writing new work!
That last one is important. I want to have fun writing this year, and learning more about the craft. Give the readers fun stories, with each of them improving on the last. Write, learn, write more, release. Rinse. Repeat.
As a writer, and a reader, I can’t think of anything better!
Aurora Equinox (Salmon Run – Book 6)
Welcome to Salmon Run, Alaska! A place of wild animals, wild land, and wild inhabitants…oh, and native legends come alive and an inter-planetary alien conflict at their backdoor.
With the equinox come the aurora and the itch of spring…
Good moods are scarce in Salmon Run these days. Zach Callahan’s lingering foul mood even manages to drive off Sasha. His concerned father insist on a check-up visit to the local spaceship just as Zach discovers a threat worthy of true worry:
The return of a threat from the south.