Posted in E-publishing | Posted on 01-01-2014|
It’s the beginning of a new year and I just had my three-year self-publishing anniversary, so it seems like the appropriate time for a summing-up/what-I’ve-learned post.
When I started in December of 2010, I published my first novel, The Emperor’s Edge, and a collection of short stories for children, The Goblin Brothers Adventures. I was originally only going to self-publish the children’s stories and look for an agent for EE and Encrypted, the other novel I had finished at the time. But I had stumbled across the blogs of some authors doing well with e-publishing and decided to try the novels too (also, I was dreading the Agent Query Game). I’m glad I decided to publish more than the Goblin Brothers, because I’ve sold fewer copies of those children’s stories than anything else I’ve published, even though the ebook is only 99 cents. Meanwhile, I’ve been making a living from the sales of my other works (the collection has greatly expanded) for the last two years.
Lesson #1: Fiction for middle-grade and younger remains a tough sell in the e-book world.
Nice reviews and early interest in The Emperor’s Edge led me to focus on those characters, creating a series that ended up being seven novels long and which I completed last summer (though I’m working on a new novel with many of the same characters). Having a series that people were invested in is what allowed me to eventually turn this into a full-time job. I published other things in the meantime (my Flash Gold novellas, a sequel to Encrypted, and a handful of short stories), but the EE books were my breadwinners.
Lesson #2: A series with dedicated readers is what leads to reliable income.
Over time, the numbers tell you how many people go on to buy subsequent books after trying the first, so you’ve got a good idea how many buyers you’re going to have each month if you can get X number of new people to pick up the first book. You also get an idea of how many people will buy the next installment before you even start writing it. With unrelated works, things are more hit-and-miss. You might get lucky and attract an all-new audience, but you might also find that fewer of your dedicated readers will try the new characters/new world.
Since I finished my core series this summer, I’ve tried a couple of “pilots,” stories that could be developed into a new series (Torrent, a contemporary fantasy, the Swords & Salt tales, prequels for an epic fantasy trilogy I want to do, and a contemporary mystery/love story that’s coming out later this month). It’s a little scary when your money-making series ends, but you don’t necessarily want to commit to something new until you see if there’s potential. Will people like it? Will they buy it? Will they want to see more from the characters? The nice thing about e-publishing is that you can get this feedback quickly. That said…
Lesson #3: You should give a book time on the market before giving up on it or making hasty decisions regarding series-potential.
Based off early reviews, I almost scrapped Torrent and the notion of doing a subsequent series. At one point, I was going to take it down from the store altogether. The only reason I didn’t was because it was clearly set up as a Book 1 and I felt compelled to write more in the series at some point, so people wouldn’t be left hanging. Because of those early reviews, I did rearrange my writing plans, and instead of immediately going into writing Book 2, I jumped into a new novel in my old world, using most of the characters from the EE series (along with the Encrypted folks).
One of the cool things about writing full-time is that OMG, you get to do this for your day job! But one of the trade-offs is that you have to continue to write things people want to buy, because it doesn’t take long for sales on older novels to drop off.
So what eventually happened with Torrent? I left it up there while I went on to my other stuff, and it’s actually sold well, quite well when you consider that I haven’t mentioned it anywhere since launch weekend back in September. Even for launch, I didn’t do more than announce it to my newsletter, and throw up a post on Facebook and Twitter. I haven’t spent a penny on advertising (I always figured I would wait until I had more books out in the series). I’ve also had some nice emails and comments from readers who enjoyed it and want to see more. In addition, I got an email from someone at Amazon last month, and they may include it in some kind of featured sale in a couple of months (no guarantees, but, hey, they’ve never emailed me about any of my other books). So that brings me to…
Lesson #4: Glowing reviews don’t always make for a best-seller and the book that gets hammered hardest might just sell well.
I should note that I agree with some of the critiques for the book, and I’ll try to address certain points and improve on things as I go forward in the series. However, it’s also worth pointing out that…
Lesson #5: If you publish something in a different genre, you risk displeasing people who prefer the old.
As authors, we sometimes like to jump around and explore new genres and different styles of writing. (Why of course it’s time to try something in first person!) There’s nothing wrong with that, but we have to realize that those people who really liked our old genre and old style of writing may not be excited about the new. I think the next time I jump to a different genre (there’s going to be a space-age SF series eventually, so look out!), I’ll mention it to the mailing list but won’t do the big discount to try and encourage them to try it. If they do and they like it, great, but I’ll go to the book blogs and genre-specific advertisers and try to first put it in front of those who really dig that type of book.
Income, Number of Books out, and International Sales
I used to do reports about how much I was earning from self-publishing and how many books I had sold. Long-time followers of the blog (yes, all three of you) might have noticed that it’s been a while since I did something like that. I don’t mind when others do it, but for myself, I feel there’s a point where it becomes a little weird to talk about money (probably the point where you stop earning less than the average income in your country and start making more than it). That said, in 2013 I earned more than I ever did from my old day job, so I’m enjoying the self-publishing gig and hope to be able to continue.
Interestingly, I sold fewer copies of each title on average in 2013 than in 2012. The increased income is more a result of having more books out than in becoming some huge blockbuster author.
I found that sales and big promos for my Book 1 were less effective in 2013 than they had been in the past. I sold/gave away fewer books in most of these promos and there was less sell-through into the rest of the series. I think part of this is a result of more competition — more books out there in the marketplaces — and also because many of the people on certain lists had already seen and/or tried my Book 1 if they were going to.
Even with fewer new people trying the series each month, as I reached the end, I had some great launches of those final books (IIRC, FiB1 & 2 both debuted in the Top 200 overall in the Kindle Store — not bad for epic fantasy). As I said, there’s a lot of power in a series, and even a slow build-up of readers over months and years can bring notable success in the end. (As some of you may remember, Forged in Blood 1 also made it to the finals for a Goodreads Choice Award in 2013.)
Launches aside, I’m relieved to have reached the point where selling a couple hundred copies a month of Title X, Y, and Z results in a good income. I have quite a bit of work out now. (For those who don’t want to count, I’ve published 10 novels and about that many novellas and short stories as well.) It all adds up, and even though I haven’t had a huge release since this summer (the “pilots” naturally don’t sell as well as the books in the proven series), my income has been fairly solid these last few months. So let’s make that…
Lesson #6: A mid-list author with enough titles out can make a nice income from writing.
There’s a lot of talk about how there’s more competition in the Kindle Store and elsewhere these days — more independent authors publishing and also more Big 6 backlist books being put out in ebook form, but if you can cultivate a fan base that enjoys your work and will try a lot of what you write, then you can do this for a living, providing you’re able to publish regularly and keep getting more stuff out there for readers to consume.
Something else that happened in 2013 for me is that my international sales grew. I started to gain some ground in the Kobo and Apple stores in 2012 (thanks, in large part, to having a perma-free Book 1 out there), and 2013 was the year that my international sales went from pocket-change to hey-that’s-some-nice-money. I just got paid by Amazon for October’s sales, and the earnings from the UK and DE stores each could have paid my rent. A year ago, it was pretty good if I earned more than a couple hundred dollars in each of those spots.
What’s changed? I haven’t done any extra marketing to those stores, so I’ll assume it’s again a matter of having more titles out (people who enjoy my first book have six more they can grab in the series, plus related works) and also of having a perma-free title there (though EE1 has been free in those stores for almost as long as it has been in the U.S.). Interestingly, Torrent has done well in those stores, especially in Germany.
You never know when one of your titles with okay sales in the U.S. might take off in another country. And, even as ebook growth is tapering off in the U.S., it’s just now ramping up in other parts of the world, so that income could become significant.
Lesson #7: Pay attention to foreign markets.
I haven’t yet taken the bite to have any of my works translated into another language (mostly because I’m busy writing new stuff, and that sounds like a lot of extra work!), but even English-language sales in other countries can be big, so I’ll be looking for more opportunities to promote my work in international markets.
I think I’ve rambled on for long enough today, so I’ll stop with that lesson. If you have any wisdom you would like to share, please let us know in the comments section. Thanks for reading!