Revision's First Week

Over at Chuck Wendig's place, last week I wrote a piece about how great it is to work with a small press. But there are two more benefits to my relationship with Fireside that didn't make it into that piece. They are: sales numbers more or less on request; and the freedom to share those numbers if I so choose. So let's you and me talk about Revision's first week in the wild.

Let's set the stage. Remember, I got a star in Publisher's Weekly. A great review in NPR Books. I've been on Rocket Talk, and several other reviewers and bloggers have said kind and thoughtful things. (A running list of reviews are linked from here.)  Now that the book is out, I have seven reviews averaging 4.7 stars on Amazon, and 19 ratings averaging 3.79 on Goodreads. (Wow, that... took a dive overnight, it was 4.16 yesterday. Easy come, easy go, I guess.) By and large, critical reception has been superb, far better than I could possibly have expected.

But what does all of that actually mean in cash money and books sold?

In total, we've sold 292 copies of Revision. Of that, 70 books were preorders on Amazon, and 3 were preorders on iTunes. Wait, let's make a nice visual for this:

Note Amazon's total domination of the market. Note how Kobo basically sucks, more's the pity. For my part, I'm amazed at how many people went all-in for the print version, since it costs so much more money. But the allure of paper is still strong, I guess. (And on Amazon, if you buy the print edition, you get the book for free through the Matchbook program, which is a nice draw.)

Remember back when I posted sales projections? I figured my baseline number of sales was... about 300, as that's about the combined number of people who will buy a copy because they are related to me, have a collegial professional relationship with me, are super good friends with me, or who really love my prior work. Actually, I suspect a majority of that 300 fall into more than one of those categories. It looks like that guess was spot on. I hadn't put a time frame on it, but I suppose it's "copies sold until the book more or less stops selling entirely," whether that takes a week, a month, a year.

The real question, is what happens from here?

So this is an overview of the print version of Revision's sales rank history over on Amazon. There are a few early spikes because the print edition was actually available for a week or so ahead of launch, and then on May 5, it hit a new high and sort of stayed there for a few days. And now it's starting to gradually drop.

The ebook edition's curve looks very similar, with more and bigger preorder spikes. The Kindle edition even hovered in the mid-5000s sales ranks for a while, which in my case works out to mean we were moving, mmm, 30 or so copies in a day.

I have a little more publicity lined up, so that high plateau may well continue for another week or two. But if the book were going to debut big and get onto an Amazon Top-100 or even Top-1000 list, that would've happened last week. I won't lie, I'm a little disappointed the book didn't go so high and get the sales boost that comes with that. From past experience, daily sales from here will continue to slide until they settle into either a modest few books sold in a typical week, or bupkis. The book will probably continue to see some modest sales spikes around signings, talks, and panels. Our chance to game the system for added visibility, however, is pretty much over.

Unless, unless. This is the point where we've done basically everything we can do for the book. It's in the hands of the readers now. And maybe some good word of mouth will kick in, who can say. Hugh Howey released Wool in July of 2011, and didn't break 1000 sales in a month until October. Not to say the Hugh Howey trajectory is where I'm headed, but it does mean it's at least possible that sales will remain stable or maybe even climb over an extended period... if the book is good enough, if it strikes enough people in the right way in the right moment, if people tell their friends, if people leave reviews.  

We've had a good, solid start. I'd hazard a guess that there are books even from major houses that have had worse first weeks than this; Kameron Hurley has been painfully honest about God's War selling 300 UK copies over several months. I figure lack of brick and mortar distribution on my end and UK-only numbers on hers make it a decent comparison, if you squint a little.

But will Revision have a tail from here? I don't know. I can't know. I think it's a good book and a lot of people seem to like it, so maybe it'll have legs. Maybe I will sell my benchmark of 1500 copies in the coming weeks or months. Maybe I'll even go full Hugh Howey, hey, you never know. But it's equally possible that this book is just about tapped and we're already on the last hill of the roller coaster.

Guess we'll find out, huh?

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Revision Sales Projections

When I embark on any big, new undertaking, I like to do a little bit of expectation management. Some of that is outward -- it's important to describe to your audience what the thing is you're about to do, so the people who won't enjoy it know they can safely ignore it, and so the people who will enjoy it know the intended tone and boundaries of your experience and start out on the right foot.

But it's just as important to look inside yourself and establish what your expected and desired outcomes are. If you don't set a benchmark for success or failure, you'll move your goalposts around so much that it becomes difficult to tell what's working and what isn't. And I consider it a mitzvah to tell you, too. There's a lot of speculation going on regarding sales and money, but very little hard public data about specific, real books and authors. And it's better for all of us who write or want to write to have a clear-eyed and brutally honest view of what to expect. So I'm here to share what I expect in sales for Revision and why. 

I figure my baseline floor is about 300 copies; anything less than this would be a shocking and humiliating failure. This is based on my experience with the Lucy Smokeheart Kickstarter. Lucy had roughly 250 backers, and I've made a lot of new friends since then, some of whom are likely book buyers. So I squint my eyes and think 300 is what I'll get in vegetable sales: copies moved because people like me personally, because they want to support my work, or because they've liked past work enough to take a chance on this next one, not because they think they'll like this one.

My royalty rate should give me roughly $2.45 per ebook sold, so that means I'm expecting to walk away with no less than $735 in my pocket, unless something truly catastrophic happens. This is not money to sneeze at; that means a trip to a con, or groceries for a few weeks, or a few car payments. That's not bad, but it also works out to a lousy hourly, because I promise you I've spent more than 100 hours working on this book. Hell, I'll probably spend more time than that just promoting it.

So I'm hoping to do better than that. I'm hoping the book doesn't stay hidden, known only among the circle of people who already know and like me well enough; that it is recommended, that word is passed on, that people read it and actually like it. So the most-reasonable forecast for books sold if the book does well but still doesn't quite light the world on fire is, say, 1,000 to 2,000 copies. We'll call it 1,500 for our purposes, which would earn me $3,675. That's a family vacation to Disney world, several months of car payments, and -- perhaps dearest to my heart -- a number that qualifies for SFWA membership. Not bad! Nothing to live on, and the hourly is still extremely unfavorable, but... not bad.

And if it does catch on and sell like hotcakes, what then? Let's cast aside the illusion of Hugh Howey numbers, here, or JK Rowling figures. Let's not think about numbers in the millions; we're just trying to make a living, not a killing. In my dearest possible imaginings, the book sells, mmm, let's call it 30,000 copies. That would net me $73,500, a princely sum with which I could remodel my bathrooms, cruise the Mediterranean, buy an Apple Watch, and still have money left over to pay the mortgage. And wouldn't that be lovely?

It's not impossible I'd sell that much, but if it happens, it'll be the result of a lot of things I have little control over: luck in striking readers the right way at the right moment; word of mouth based on that good impression; and nothing more important coming along and devouring my potential audience and their pocket change in the few weeks the book will be top of mind.

But my work here is almost done. I've written the book. I'll spend the next few months telling people it's there to buy, if they're so inclined. And as for the rest of it... well, it's out of my hands now. So we'll see how my predictions pan out, and you can count on me to let you know how it goes.

And while I'm at it... if you want to preorder, the links are right there in the sidebar. Out May 5. Maybe you'll like it?

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Self-Publishing 101

This introduction to self-publishing originated as an email to a friend wanting to step into the self-pub ocean. But I think other people might enjoy it, too!

So: Self-publishing is hard, in that it involves a lot of tiny details to manage, and all of those details actually matter. But it's not hard in that you don't need to be a rocket scientist to work your way through it, just... a lot of diligence.

Let's assume you've already written what you want to publish, so your first step is quality control -- getting the material edited. If you're reasonably literate you might be able to skip this step, but it's always best practice to get another set of eyes on the material. I've been a professional editor and I still hire someone else to read behind me, because you can't always see your own mistakes.

Then you need a cover. Cover art is your #1 most important marketing tool, so you're going to need something that looks great, has a feeling in keeping with the genre of book you're putting out there, and is legible and eye-catching even at thumbnail size. Here's some cover design advice ...but unless you are yourself a designer already, you're best off shelling out some money to someone else to make one for you. Find one through your friends or through a service like Bibliocrunch.

Next comes figuring out how to get that into an ebook format. All you need these days is an .epub file. Kindle sells .mobi, but you upload to them as .epub. Apple have their own proprietary format, but if you work with an aggregator like Smashwords or Draft2Digital, you provide them with an epub and they'll do the conversion. Epub is all you need.

There are a bunch of ways to convert. Pay attention to formatting paragraphs and chapter headings the way you want them to look, but less formatting is better than more. You CAN insert art as custom scene breaks and so on, but images make the file size bigger, and Amazon in particular sometimes charges you bandwidth fees for image-heavy books. Including art or photography inside your book is advanced stuff and not recommended.

Remember to put in a cover page, copyright notice, a dedication if you want one, a table of contents, an about-the-author section, and links to anything you'd like to cross promote (website, social media, mailing list, other work). 

I like to use Scrivener to export my epubs, because it's easy and mostly foolproof. Instructions on how to do that are here. You can also Google around to find instructions for MS Word and so on. But Scrivener is rad and you should give it a try anyway.

Next, you choose where you want to publish and your pricing strategy. You have to be on KDP, which is Kindle Direct Publishing, which is Amazon. The lion's share of self-publishing sales come from there. There are other stores, too, most notably B&N, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play. There are also a few genre-specific publishers, though the only ones I'm aware of are for romance and erotica. 

If you want, you can open an account and publish to each of these stores directly, but that becomes a huge pain in the neck to manage. You can also use an aggregator like Smashwords or Draft2Digital and manage everything from one account. Smashwords has very onerous formatting requirements for their books and I've never been able to figure them out, so I use Draft2Digital and have been very happy with the service. Note that an aggregator takes a small percentage of your royalties, above and beyond what the store takes as their share. Decide if it's worth your time to make those extra couple of cents per sale by setting up multiple distribution accounts. Lots of people split the difference by having an account on Amazon for KDP only and then an aggregator elsewhere.

It's ALSO a good idea to provide a venue for readers to buy from you directly. There are a number of services that let you do this, like Gumroad and Payhip. The benefit here is you keep a much higher proportion of the money that you would through any store. Some writers I know actually do the bulk of their sales direct-to-reader in this way.

You should also know about KDP Select. This is a program Amazon runs for publishers who promise them exclusivity. In return, you get the ability to run a couple of kinds of promotions -- like putting your book up for free or at a discount for a few days each quarter. This used to be GREAT for producing a sales spike but isn't really worth it anymore; Amazon has changed its ranking algorithm, so free book offers tend to result in less-flattering reviews and no additional sales. And the opportunity cost for the sales you're not making through other channels is too high.

On the other hand, there's Kindle Lending. This is something you can opt into or out of. It's a very, very good idea; the royalty you get from a borrowed copy is historically much higher than the royalty you get from a direct sale, so it's a win all around. Opt into that like whoa.

On to pricing strategy! Many of the ebook stores require you to give them the lowest available price, so it's best practice to just use the same price everywhere. But what should that price be? Note that Amazon gives you a 70% royalty on books above $2.99, but only a 30% royalty for lower price points. So $2.99 for a full-length book is probably your basement. On the other hand, $7.99 should probably be your ceiling; I'd probably price a full-length book at $5.99 to split the difference. (On the other hand, novellas and short stories can do booming business at .99 and 1.99). 

Cheaper is not necessarily better for sales, believe it or not! Readers have become very cautious of poor-quality, cheap ebooks. Be confident in your pricing strategy!

Once you send everything up live, be sure to get your friends and family to leave reviews for your work! The biggest obstacle to sales is obscurity, and the more reviews and sales a book has, the more visible it's going to be on Amazon.

There are other issues you need to also be aware of, or at least look into: marketing and promotion, making and selling physical books, and if you're lucky enough to sell well, self-employment taxes. But each of these is an enormous topic in its own right, annnnnnd I think that's about enough for one day. Good luck to you, and many happy sales to come!

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I'm on Patreon!

I'm trying another new thing!

In the spirit of relentless and bold experimentation, I've started up a Patreon. "Wait, what?" you ask. "What's that? And why do I care?" I will tell you!

I'm posting my very first story to Patreon late this evening on April 1; likely around 8pm Eastern time, child obligations permitting. (I know, I know, but no foolin'). If you'd like to read that first story, chip in your dollar while the gettin' is good. Not so sure? Let me give you a piece of the first story. A taste test, if you will, so you know if you're getting broccoli or pie.

For one shining moment on her two hundred seventy eighth birthday, Neria Ciao was the most important person in the world. That was the day her level-500 Seelie Huntress ascended into the Keep of Eternal Silence to do battle with Zirnitra, the Black Dragon of Sorcery. 

It was a difficult fight; she used every hard-won trick and trophy she'd ever earned, spent all her potions and salves, used up her last precious Wish and cracked her lone Egg of Eritanus. Her heart beat faster; her muscles burned; sweat trickled down her ribs from beneath her breasts. She nearly died four times, saved only by luck, timing, and an incredibly rich supply of Sacred Essence of Golden Lotus.

In the end, it was all worth it. Zirnitra went down thrashing and wailing. It fluttered its wings once, twice, struggled back onto its hind legs. It collapsed again. Spears of light pierced through the spaces between its scales and then consumed its husk from the inside out.

Neria Ciao was the first to ever defeat it.

She posted the video of the fight before the dragon could even respawn. Predictably, her views and comments went wild. "Incredible!" "Great work!" "Never thought I'd see someone take down old Zirny!"

She even got a personal congratulations from The Vanished Lands dev team in Finland, who, it turned out, had checked in to watch her battle as soon as Zirnitra's health dropped below thirty percent. That had only happened twice before. 

By the time she went out to treat herself to birthday cake, she'd received three hundred million views, forty thousand messages and comments, nine hundred interview requests, and alerts that her name had appeared in four hundred news articles.

Not all of this feedback was positive, of course. Usually her systems would filter out the worst of it — the vitriol for its own sake, the jealous rage, the troublemakers looking for any soft target. 

One, from a stranger, slipped through her filters because it wasn't offensive. Not… exactly. It troubled her all the same. "You have all eternity before you," it said, "and this is how you choose to spend it?"

I'd be super thrilled if you decided to support my Patreon. Thanks so much for your time!

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Apples, Oranges, and Author Earnings

I mentioned on Twitter last week that a recent update on Author Earnings comparing extrapolated Amazon data to Bookscan numbers is actively misleading. I thought it might bear unpacking that a little bit by way of analogy.

Imagine there is a grocery store selling both apples and oranges, and you need to figure out how many of each fruit is sold in a week (or at least which sells more than the other.) So you camp out in the store for an hour, and count how many of each fruit the customers buy. 

You're probably going to get some useful information from that, to be sure -- whether the ratio between apples and oranges is roughly comparable, for example. You can even extrapolate from that hour -- multiply by how many hours the store is open, and you might get a ballpark number for how much fruit is sold. But that number risks being wildly inaccurate, because you're relying on that single sample hour to be perfectly typical. But a store has busy hours and slow hours -- some hours nobody's buying. Some hours, maybe someone's buying fruit for a world-record-size fruit salad. Some hours, you get a run of people allergic to citrus. All you can get is a very rough idea.

You can also ask a couple of orchard owners how much they get, look at the prices in circulars, and try to work out how much money the grocery store is making off fruit. But it would be a terrible mistake to try to, say, calculate the orchards' operating income from that loose guess of yours. The picture is a lot bigger than that one hour at one store, and is influenced by a lot of other factors.

Now let's say you get your hands on another source of information -- maybe the inventory records of a competing grocery store showing how many oranges it sold that same week. That's hard data, and it's great -- you can learn a little more about the size of the orange market in town from that.

But you can't then combine those two kinds of information as if they were the same to make conclusions about, say, whether Grocery Store A sells more oranges than Grocery Store B, and certainly not about whether Sunny Orange Productions is making more money than Crisp Apple Growers.

One of them is a cobbled-together piece of data and guesswork; one is hard data, but for only part of the equation. Each one of them tells some interesting stories, to be sure, but it's just as important to know what information the data can't tell you.

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