This year of freelancing wasn’t really supposed to be a self-publishing tryout, but that’s what it turned into in the end. I’ve written several things that you have not yet seen which I hope to place with traditional publishers if they want them, but traditional publishing works at a snail’s pace. If you see these things at all, it won’t be this year. That’s one of the two practical differences** between self-publishing and traditional publishing – control and speed (a lot of the other stuff – editing, marketing, etc – is little different if you’re prepared to pay professionals to work with you).
As a result, the only efforts that are visible right now are the self-published ones. Time to break those down – be warned that this post is full of numbers. If you want to know exactly how my sales break down when I’m self-publishing this might be of interest. If you’re only here for the stories (which I assume most of you are!) then you can cheerfully close this page and come back another day.
When I look at my self-publishing numbers I count things in financial years, working from April to March, because I try my best to treat it like a business. So far this year then, 2014 – 2015, I’ve sold 87 books. That’s actual sales across all formats including paper, so free giveaways don’t count.
Depending on who you are, 87 probably doesn’t seem like a lot, does it? It looks more grim when you drill down by title. Specifically, I’ve sold 5 copies of Cuckoo, 9 of Thy Fearful Symmetry, 20 copies of Craven Place, 2 copies of Hiram Grange & The Nymphs of Krakow, 33 copies of The Flesh Market, and 18 copies of The Flesh Remembers.
87 sales across 6 titles does not a full-time income make, which is why I’m high-tailing back to dayjobbery for a while. The thing is, those numbers are a lot better than many are seeing from self-publishing right now. There are plenty of authors looking at that with envy. As for me? I’m grateful for and pleased with every sale, but looking at the numbers alone I was starting to feel frustrated.
Then this week I drew back, and found a bit of perspective.
Let’s go back a few years…
2009 – 2010
Do you know how many books I sold between April 2009 and March 2010?
None. Not a single book.
There were no books to sell.
I had stories in some very cool multi-author anthologies, but nothing with my name on the cover. At that point I’d been writing fiction as professionally as I’m able to for twelve years.
2010 – 2011
The following year I sold… actually, I don’t know what I sold. Hiram Grange and the Nymphs of Krakow came out in paperback from Shroud Publishing and some people certainly bought it. I don’t have those numbers though. This is a bit of a mystery year when it comes to numbers.
Some numbers happened. Probably quite small ones. After a long, aching drought though, Hiram is what really made me start writing long fiction properly again, so this book is sort of responsible for everything that followed.
2011 – 2012
Around about February 2011 I noticed that my novel Cuckoo (out of print for almost a decade) was still being borrowed from libraries in the UK. At the same time, I saw that various self-publishing options were allowing authors to sell almost direct to readers much more easily and professionally than had been possible before.
I had a novel that was doing nothing, so re-edited the book, paid for a professional cover, and quietly released it. I figured I had little to lose, but have to admit to feeling rather embarrassed about the whole thing. Self-publishing carried a massive stigma at the time. Other authors and publishers were terribly sniffy about it (many still are). I was so worried about that stigma that I didn’t really tell many people about the launch in August 2011.
Which probably accounts for why it sold 4 copies that first month. In September it sold another 10. Over the eight months between launch and the end of March 2012, it sold a total of 81 copies*.
Across 2011 – 2012 that meant I sold an average of .33 books every day from launch.
2012 – 2013
Feeling buoyed by the fact that anybody at all was still interested in buying a book with my name on the cover, I decided to publish something original and see if that sold the same. I finished and re-edited my apocalyptic novel Thy Fearful Symmetry and published it in August 2012.
The new novel sold 16 copies that month, then 39 in September… and it kept on selling pretty consistently with a big spike around Xmas. By the end of March it had moved 406 copies. Compared with Cuckoo the previous year, it was a definite success.
But in the background, across the same twelve months, Cuckoo actually went on to sell a further 908 copies. I sold 1314 books in total that year, all off my own back. That still staggers me a little bit. A spoiler for the next paragraphs – that’s my best year to date. Over 12 months I sold, on average, 3.6 books a day.
2013 – 2014
On the back of more than a thousand books sold the previous year, I decided to try again and released my mystery novel Craven Place in June 2013. The first month’s sales were fantastic – 346 copies. It kept selling over the rest of the year, moving a total of 619 copies by the time March rolled around.
And in the background, while my attention was focussed on that haunted cottage and the mystery surrounding it, Cuckoo quietly sold another 74 copies while Thy Fearful Symmetry managed 174 new sales.
In January, Shroud Publishing handed me permission to self-publish an ebook edition of Hiram Grange and the Nymphs of Krakow (startlingly generous of them, given that they own the character!). It launched rather sluggishly, selling 22 copies over the rest of the year, but who am I to complain? Every sale of that ebook is a free gift from Shroud to me – cheers Tim!
Finally, in February 2014, I released my novel The Flesh Market. After the escalating launches of the previous novels it felt a little anti-climactic that it didn’t do better business. Looking back though, its 150 sales over two months to the end of the financial year feels more satisfying.
All together, my books sold 1039 copies over those twelve months. A drop on the previous period, but still incredibly satisfying to look back on. On average, that’s 2.84 books a day.
2014 – 2015
Which brings us to now. Since I started publishing my own books three and a half years ago I have sold 2521 books. That is a great deal more than I sold over my previous fourteen years as a writer. Only 87 sales have been in the last three and a half months, but looking back makes me realise how desperately foolish it is to have such a narrow view of what’s happening. The year is young, and I’ll only be able to see it for what it is when it ends. Right now though, since I’ve been self-publishing, my novels have sold in the following quantities.
Cuckoo – 1068 sold
Thy Fearful Symmetry – 589
Craven Place – 639
Nymphs of Krakow (ebook only) – 22
The Flesh Market – 183
The Flesh Remembers – 18
2521 books, bought and paid for.
That makes me pretty happy.
I’d quite like to break 3000 before the end of March 2015, but what I’ve learned is that you can’t force these things. What self-publishing allows me to do is make work available when I believe it’s ready, without waiting for the slow grind of a publishing house to kick in. The rest is up to the books themselves.
As far as the finances behind all this go, because I spend a fair bit setting each book up (editing, cover, bit of marketing, etc) my break even point on the full novels is about 500 copies. Individually Cuckoo, Thy Fearful Symmetry, and Craven Place have all earned back their own costs, while The Flesh Market is about a third of the way there. The ebook of the Hiram Grange novella was practically free to set up, as Shroud had already done all the work (including, thanks to Danny Evarts, laying it out for Kindle far more ambitiously than I can manage). The Flesh Remembers is a different kettle of fish, as it’s one part of a trilogy that I’ve budgeted as a single project. I need to sell about 800 books in that trilogy to break it even, and the second and third books aren’t out yet. The first exists to be given away more than sold (in the vague hope that if people read it for free they’ll enjoy it enough to come back and buy the other two) and 1087 free copies have been downloaded to date. I’ll find out over the next few months whether that works out.
I treat each book as a separate project with its own budget to earn back. If you were to look at the whole self-publishing thing since 2011 though, then across all books released I’ve recouped all my costs and am into profit (not including the next two Dexter Lomax tales – but another 300 sales of anything will still put me clear of the red and into the black).
So is self-publishing a road to full time freelancing? That depends on how you look at it, but even without any title breaking out in a big way I’m finding readers I never would have otherwise. If I were to stop with the end of the current trilogy, I think the books I’ve already published will continue to be found over the next few years. Look at Cuckoo, the book I was a bit embarrassed to be self-publishing in 2011. Over a thousand copies sold, and a few more every quarter. I hope that this time next year Craven Place might break the thousand too, and Thy Fearful Symmetry sometime after that. Maybe a bit longer for The Flesh Market, but hey, it’s not going anywhere.
I’m not going to stop after the current trilogy, but my expectations and planning have shifted radically. I’ll talk a bit about what my plan is now that I’m returning to dayjobbery while writing as a sideline over the weekend, but wanted to lay this out first so it makes sense later.
*Which I’ve comfortably exceeded in what I’ve been thinking of as three and a half slow months in 2014. There’s some perspective right there. I was thrilled that 81 people had bought my book back then, but was feeling glum that only 87 have so far bought my books in less than half that time now. I may have been feeling a little over-entitled…
**The second difference is what you’re paid and how.