From September 2013 to September 2014, I’ll be taking a year out from my dayjob in order to go freelance as a writer. This is a series of blogs tracking that, which (as long as I have things to say) I’ll be adding to every Friday. This week, a bit of looking forward by looking back.
If you’re following along at home, you already know that publishing a proportion of what I write myself is a big part of my plan for working as a freelance fiction writer. it’s the part of the equation I can control. I can’t make people buy my books, but I can make sure that some of them get published. That’s puts me in the same position as a lot of business start-ups. They have a thing they’re going to do, and people who might pay them to do it, and nothing in between. There are no guarantees, of course. People might not pay them to do it after all, which would be bad, but at least I can definitely put some of the things I make in front of people on my own schedule, without having to run a lengthy gauntlet of agents and publishers first.
I’m also in the happy position of having two years worth of hard data about things I’ve already published to look back on and assess.
That means spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are cool.
Until last week, I didn’t track very much information about Cuckoo and Thy Fearful Symmetry (and His Work To See, though that’s a free download).The data was always there to be had. Amazon provides fantastic daily and monthly sales data – I can see a sale of a Kindle book within an hour of the sale being made, and there’s a summary statement ready for me to download each month. Smashwords, through which I’ve published ebooks that get distributed to all the other retailers, isn’t as fast, because it has to wait for those retailers to report sales back, but it all gets here.
So, almost twenty-four months of information about when things sold. Until now, I’ve pretty much ignored it. Because writing isn’t my dayjob, and doesn’t pay the bills, the urge to pick the data apart hasn’t been there. All I really wanted to know was whether I’d broken even on each book. Had I made back what I spent publishing them? I wanted to know that fairly urgently while I was getting comfortable with the notion of self-publishing. If the answer had been no then I was ready to abort. When both novels quickly covered their startup costs, I stopped looking at the numbers. Money arrives in my account occasionally, and I nod with quiet satisfaction.
I know. You can’t run a business that way.
Now that I’m looking to work out how this is going to someday pay the bills, I need to be a bit more serious about things. Information is gold, and I have lots of it. I spent a few days last week rearranging all the data into spreadsheets I threw together to do the maths for me (spreadsheets are really, really cool), and now know exactly what has sold, in what quantity, at what time, through what retailer.
The results come as a bit of a surprise. Things I thought I knew are wrong. Spreadsheets aren’t just cool. Spreadsheets are my god.
For a start, I didn’t know which of my novels was my bestselling title. At the moment, I only have two novels available, which goes to show how wrong it is possible to be about these things. I was sure that Thy Fearful Symmetry had sold more copies than Cuckoo, despite being the newer book. I was wrong. Cuckoo has sold more than twice as many copies as Thy Fearful Symmetry.
How could I be that wrong? Well, I haven’t watched the data, obviously. I’ve let myself be led by what I think and feel is happening, not by the actual facts of the matter. For a start, Thy Fearful Symmetry is the book I’ve been most focussed on, just because it’s newest and getting all the attention. Poor old Cuckoo. I’ve barely been glancing its way, yet it’s been loyally doing its very best to please me. I’ve also been swayed by the free downloads. I didn’t do big free download days with Cuckoo, but did with TFS, to the tune of several thousand copies. More people own a copy of TFS, but it’s not currently the better seller.
It would be easy to conclude that Cuckoo has sold twice as much because it’s been available for twice as long, right? Drilling down doesn’t bear that out. In 2011, Cuckoo had a burst of sales on release that covered its startup costs and put it in profit. Then it all but stopped selling. Occasional copies here and there in the following months, but not enough to get excited about. People weren’t finding it, weren’t trying it, and so on. It was, for a while, a lonely little book.
In many ways, it was living the life that a small traditionally published book might have expected ten years ago. Released into book stores with little or no fanfare, bought a few times while it was shiny and new, then unless lightning struck, forgotten about. In the old days of course, it would be out of print soon after because the publisher stopped making money off it and had newer books to ship, store, and promote.
I digress. We’re still in the first year for Thy Fearful Symmetry, but it went strong out the gate, and is catching up on sales. I promoted it through a few good sites, and ran free download days via Amazon (during which almost 7000 copies were downloaded). Comparing the first year for both books, TFS is streets ahead.
So where did the Cuckoo sales all come from, that put it in the front? They’re a gift from Thy Fearful Symmetry, as far as I can see. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that free download days don’t create lost sales. The people taking a chance on a book because it’s free are mostly those who never would have heard of it otherwise. They wouldn’t have bought it, so no sale is lost. At the same time, they push the book up the charts (see image above), and make other people look twice at it. Some of that interest turns into sales later on. There are other reasons why giving things away under controlled conditions is a good thing, and having done my research I expected them to help TFS in the long term.
I hadn’t really expected the knock on effect I can see with Cuckoo though. You can guess when sales started to creep up on that novel, can’t you? That’s right. About a week and a half after the first free download day I ran for TFS. Far from losing sales, the giveaway almost immediately generated them by the back door. – but for the other novel. Sure, some of those sales might be from people who paid for TFS in the first place, but given that Cuckoo outsold TFS over the last year that can’t account for it. There were no big reviews of Cuckoo during the period either, and my efforts were mostly being directed into the new book.
I’m sure there are people who read nothing but books they can get for free, and power to them. There are also plenty of people who’ll try a free book, and if they enjoy it go looking for something else by the same author. That’s why Cuckoo outsold TFS. Some people tried one, and bought the other.
That’s pleasing. I’ll be keeping a close eye in both books when I release Craven Place later this summer, to see what happens to their sales. If both books creep up in the same way… well, from a business perspective that’s perfect. Let’s assume that some people enjoyed TFS, went and looked at Cuckoo, and decided it was less likely to be their sort of thing. They didn’t buy it. That’s fair enough, they’re very different books. This year, if the same thing happens with Craven Place, they’ll have two different previous titles to choose from. Some might try one, others might go for the second.
When I publish new things in 2014, there will be three backlist titles. All different. All new things to try.
I hope I’m right about this, because it means the income generated from publishing independently can only rise from here on in. The more I’m earning from projects I have complete control of, the less I have to stress about other more speculative work. Other authors seem to have found a similar effect on their backlists, but I won’t count on it until I see it.
There are a lot of ifs and buts in there, but none of it suggests that I’m doing anything wrong, which is nice. If anything, I need to be doing more of it. Despite the new routes to publication and the effect on the market, success is still dictated by the same first laws.
That’s all writers have ever tried to do, when it comes down to it.
But what about the rest of my writing, the stuff I don’t intend to publish myself? Is there any point approaching publishers at all, if self-publishing is something I have a good chance of developing successfully. What about short stories for magazines and anthologies – do they make any business sense at all if I’m going to do this?
That’s what I’m thinking about over the next seven days. I’ll report back on Friday, but if you’ve any thoughts of you’re own I’d love to hear them.