A Year in Self-Publishing

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of my entry into the world of self-publishing. I began this journey as an experiment, with low expectations and merely the hope of recouping my own costs. 365 days later, I’m pretty well sold on self-publishing as a good business decision for me, although 2012 will truly be the make or break year for me.

Since I’ve always been pretty open about sales figures and money, though, I thought it was time for a recap, complete with graphs and charts (because yes, I’m a geek) and (gasp!) actual dollar figures.

So, without further ado, here’s a chart of total sales of each book:

A little explanation–the chart runs 1-13 because it covers January 18, 2011 to January 17, 2012. Paying sales of The Reiver came to a virtual standstill when it went free on Amazon US in November. It’s still picking up paying sales from Amazon in other countries (although it is free in Spain and Italy, it is still not free in the UK, Germany, or France–don’t ask!)  as well as a few a day from B&N, where people don’t always seem to notice that there’s a free alternative to the 99-cent one. (I didn’t take the 99-cent one off B&N because that would have taken down the free one at the same time; again, don’t ask!) Obviously, Carnally Ever After and The Lesson Plan have no sales figures prior to the dates on which they were released (in September 2011 and December 2011 respectively). None of these number are quite final yet, since January sales figures aren’t in for any of the retailers I distribute to through Smashwords, but they’re not off by much.

So, what’s the deal with that big spike in sales of The Reiver over the summer? Honestly, I haven’t a clue. I’ve yet to figure out why that story took off the way it did and I’m nowhere close to repeating that kind of success–although The Lesson Plan‘s sales have picked up dramatically over the weekend, so it maybe it’ll take off…but who knows?

Next, let’s do sales by retail outlet, because I know you’re curious about that, too:

Obviously, Amazon US blows all the other retailers out of the water, but if we subtract those two summer months when The Reiver sold like gangbusters, I sell about 5 copies at Amazon for every 1 at B&N and about 10 for every one at All Romance eBooks. Most of my Apple sales have been in the past three months, so it’s difficult to say how the iBookstore will compare to the other retailers going forward, since before then, I sold almost nothing at Amazon (although The Reiver has been free there for quite some time and was–and may still be–in the top 10 list for free historical romance).

Okay, now what you really wanted to know–the money!

Things to notice here–The Lesson Plan has earned almost $1,000 in sales, but it cost me almost $800 to publish it (including my advertising budget). Because The Reiver and Carnally Ever After were rereleases of previously edited/published stories, the only thing I had to pay for was the cover art. I didn’t purchase any ad space for them, either. I also decided not to invest in my own ISBN numbers for rereleases, only for originals, so I didn’t have that expense with either of the first two books. Technically, the ISBN number cost me $250 up front, but since I get a block of 10, only the one used for The Lesson Plan is actually counted in its expenses.

So, how does this compare to what I’ve earned from the books I sold to “major” publishers–those being Kensington and Harlequin? Well, Kensington paid me a $2,500 advance for Behind the Red Door. Since then, I’ve received three additional royalty payments of roughly $800 (I’m guessing, so don’t hold me to that figure), for a grand total of $3,300. And that is over the course of three years (from signing the contract in 2008 through to the end of the last reporting period, which was June 2011). Harlequin paid me $800 each for Grace Under Fire and Taking Liberties. I’ve only received one statement from them so far, and although Grace had sold about 1,500 copies in the first two months it was in release, that was not enough for me to earn out my advance. Both of those advances were paid in 2010.

Long story short, I’ve made more money in one year from my self-published books than from everything I’ve ever sold to major publishing houses since 2008. Even if I were to add in what I’ve earned from my epublished books, my earnings from August 2007 through today would be no better than equal to what I earned in my 2011 from my self-published releases.

Please note that I’m not trying to make any claims here as to the outcomes for the self-publishing for anyone but me. Moreover, my results are fairly modest. Setting aside those huge summer months, my earnings wouldn’t be nearly so impressive. In those two months, I earned about two-fifths of what I made for the whole year. Without that bubble, I’d be closer to my total payout from Behind the Red Door. That would probably still be enough for me to feel I’d been fairly successful at self-publishing and to continue to pursue it, but it might not be the results other authors are looking to achieve. At the same time, I’ve managed these modest results with relatively little expense or promotional effort, and I was hardly a household name before I began and am not all that much closer to being one now.

The number that has really convinced me to keep going, though, is this one:

Total copies sold: 11,907
Total free copies: 25,000+

My main goal isn’t to maximize profit (except to the extent that making enough money from my books might someday allow me to quit my day job so I could write even more of them), but to get to readers. And for the first time, I really feel I’m achieving that latter goal.


Sticking It to the Man

So this is an installment in my ongoing (and sporadic) series on the reasons I’ve chosen to self-publish–and the reasons I haven’t. This one falls into the haven’t category.

So, there’s a certain “I’ll self-publish and show you mean publishers (aka “The Man”) how wrong you are about me/my writing/my book!” mentality out there. I can understand the appeal of it, too. If your book has been rejected over and over again by traditional publishers and you go the self-publishing route and do really well, selling lots of copies and making good money, it’s easy to imagine that the publishers who rejected you are looking at your success and crying bitter tears into their cups. How could they have been so wrong? How could they have missed such an amazing opportunity?

Except, realistically, they’re probably not. In fact, in most cases, they’ve already forgotten about you and your book. I’m not trying to be a buzz-killer here, but honestly, even when editors lose a manuscript they hoped to acquire to another publisher, they don’t spend a whole lot of time bewailing their loss. For every manuscript they buy, there are tens (perhaps hundreds) of others they could have bought instead, and the difference between bought and not often comes down to very small things. If the book a publisher wants to buy is picked up by another house, there are many, many more waiting in the wings, and a lot of them are probably just as good or better than the one they lost. And if yours was one they didn’t even want to buy? Frankly, they’re unlikely to even know you self-published it, let alone spend time watching your Amazon rank go into the stratosphere.

Do some self-published authors do really well and eventually get picked up by New York houses who eventually realize their mistake? Absolutely. But believe me, when they do, it’s because it’s a business decision that makes sense now, not because they regret passing on the author’s books in the past. And if they do regret a past error of judgment, it’s not the main reason they change their minds. Publishers win and lose all the time in this game (hello, publishing houses that passed on Harry Potter and the one that paid $5 million for Audrey Niffenegger’s second book) and compared to those whiffs, missing out on a self-published author who sells a few hundred thousand copies at 99 cents (or even $2.99) apiece is small potatoes.

In short, I don’t view my self-publishing efforts as a way to strike a blow against the oppressors. It’s not Occupy the Big 6. It’s just me doing what I enjoy (writing books) and getting them to readers in the way that makes the most sense to me at this point in time.

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t a Publisher

Before I launch into today’s post, a few quick words. I have been on vacation for almost two weeks. Although I got back early Monday, I’ve been playing catch-up in all aspects of my life (family, household, day job) and thus haven’t had much time for the writerly side. So, hi, here I am, and I’m glad to be back.

Among the things that apparently erupted while I was gone was a brouhaha over whether or not The Knight Agency is establishing a digital publishing arm. (See here for what I think is a comprehensive run-down of the story, albeit from the perspective a one author.) Courtney Milan also posted her thoughts on the question of agents becoming publishers and the potential ethical issues that raises.

I bring these things up not because I’m going to launch into a rant on the reasons I think agents shouldn’t become publishers (I’ve already been there and done that), but because I think it’s important that we define what a publisher actually is. Only when we determine what makes an entity a “publisher” can we decide whether or not any particular agent/agency has actually become one.

Now, maybe you are going to want to argue with my definition, and that’s fine, because I think there are a lot of disagreements over what a publisher is or isn’t (e.g., are “vanity” publishing companies like AuthorHouse “publishers”?), but the bottom line for me when it comes to deciding who “publishes” a book is simple–it’s whoever the retailer/distributor pays first when a copy of the book is sold.

In the case of traditional print publishing, the publishing house is first in line. It then distributes the author’s percentage either to the author (if unagented) or to the agent, who takes his/her 15% off the top and passes the remainder on to the author. The same holds true of digital small presses–they get paid first when copies of the book are sold, then pass the author’s percentage on either through the agent or directly. And when you are self-published, YOU get the money from the retailer/distributor; that’s what makes YOU the publisher.

So, when it comes to whether agents/agencies are publishers or not, the question is–are they first in line? If they are uploading the book to the distributors themselves and in charge of managing the account, and they are the ones who get paid when the distributor cuts the checks/EFT entries each month, then as far as I’m concerned, they are the publisher. It doesn’t matter whether they’re taking a smaller cut of the proceeds than other publishers would. It doesn’t matter that they would have been “before the author” in line if the book had been sold by another publisher. The bottom line is that they have control of the account with and are first in line for payment from the distributor, and that makes them the publisher. But if the author is first in line and pays the agent a cut for services rendered, then the author is the publisher.

I have no idea what The Knight Agency means by “assisted self-publishing.” But if they are not going to be in charge of the accounts and will be paid their cut by the publisher (in this case, also the author), then I have no problems whatsoever with their claims that they aren’t opening a digital publishing arm. Whether or not the services they are offering are worth 15% is entirely up to the authors they contract with to decide.

But if what an agency does when it “assists” an author to self-publish is to open an account with Amazon and the like and upload the books (with full control of pricing, cover art, book formatting, etc.) and then receive payment from Amazon, passing on the author’s percentage after taking its cut, then I say the agency is a publisher and is, in fact, not assisting the author to “self-publish” because in no way, shape, or form does this arrangement resemble the author acting as his or her own publisher.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me about it! (Said in my worst Brooklyn accent.)

Now It Gets Scary

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve decided to follow the self-publishing path for a while and see where it takes me. I am currently writing The Lesson Plan, a novella (about 25,000 words, give or take) that’s related to Grace Under Fire and Taking Liberties, the two stories I sold to Spice Briefs. I’d originally pitched the idea for The Lesson Plan to my editor at Harlequin, but he chose Taking Liberties instead, and I’m rather happy about that because I’m happy to write it free of the pressure to get it in under 15,000 words. Having a little more space to play with is very freeing.

But it’s also SCARY.

When I put out The Reiver, I had literally NO expectations. I hoped to make back the cost of the cover art. That was it. Through a combination of blind luck and the fact that I picked a great cover artist, the story has now outsold anything I’ve ever published–even, I believe, combined print and digital sales of Behind the Red Door, although of course my numbers on that book’s totals are about six months out of date, so it may be closer than I think–and even managed to get me into the Top 20 in Historical Romance on Amazon for the past few days.

So, as I write this new story, I worry. Because now, I have expectations. This is, after all, a brand new, never-before-released novella. It will be several times longer than The Reiver. I paid more for the cover art (and was happy to do so, because it makes me swoony, lol), and I will be paying for professional editing as well as taking much more time with formatting and validation (simply because it’s longer and has chapter breaks, I MUST spend more time). All of this means I will have more invested upfront, which means there will be more pressure to earn it back.

But more than that, I am more emotionally invested in this story doing well than I ever was in The Reiver. That title’s sales seem like proof of concept in some ways, but what if they aren’t? What if they’re a fluke? What if the people who bought that story have no interest in The Lesson Plan and don’t buy it? What if NO ONE buys it?

Gah. /flails in self-doubt

The problem with success of any kind is that it doesn’t always breed more success. Sometimes, it just breeds a more spectacular opportunity for failure.

P.S. My target release date for The Lesson Plan is October 25. If I miss it, it’s all on me. Yikes!

June Sales Data

I know some people are interested in seeing sales trends for self-published work, but if you aren’t interested, please feel free to click away, because this is going to be boring, boring, boring.

Here’s the sales chart for The Reiver through June:

If you’re looking at that line for Amazon sales and thinking “What the hell,” rest assured you’re not alone. I’m thinking the same thing :).

There are a few explanations I can come up with, but once again, none of them is anything that was in my control:

1) Amazon sent out an email plugging six 99-cent books, including Courtney Milan’s Unlocked and Paula Quinn’s Laird of the Mist. Even though The Reiver was not mentioned in the email, it has strong “Also Bought” associations with Quinn’s book and less strong ones with others on the list. That led to a massive bump in sales that day and, although sales dropped off some since then, they are still running at about 100 a day compared to 40-60 a day earlier in the month.

2) The fact that my sales have been consistently steady for the last six weeks or so has kept its overall ranking in the Kindle store very solid (drifting between the high 300s to the high 500s after the boost from the Amazon marketing email), which has also kept it on the second page in the Historical Romance lists (both Kindle and Books) for over a week. Although I think being in a top 100 list is of less value than Also Bought lists in generating sales, I agree with Courtney, who said last month that she thought it depended where you were on the list (the higher up, the better). I also think which list you’re matters. For example, The Reiver has been on the Romance Anthologies list’s  first page for quite some time, but it doesn’t have as much value as being on the second page of the Romance Historicals list, because people are much more likely to pull up the Historicals list than the Anthologies list in the first place.

Finally, yesterday, RT Book Reviews featured The Reiver on its blog in a list of their “favorite” twelve bargain ebooks. Look at that placement! I was shocked (and many thanks to Elyssa Papa for the tweet about it, or I never would have known). So far, I don’t think I’m seeing any effect from this promotion, since their link goes to Smashwords and I haven’t sold a single copy on Smashwords since the first day the book was available for sale. (Twenty-two copies were downloaded using a coupon code, but I don’t count those as actual sales since there was no money involved.) Despite that, I’m thrilled that RT even knows I’m alive :).

So, that’s all the sales news for this month. Things seem to be rolling along so far in July (26 copies at last count, less than 12 hours into the day) and even if they dropped into a black hole at this point, I’d be happier than a pig in slop.

Amazon Marketing and Unintended Consequences

I feel like a real chatty Cathy this week, with posts that are literally all over the place in terms of topics, but yesterday was particularly eventful, and I have musings I must share.

So, as many of you probably know, possibly because you received it, Amazon sent out an email yesterday highlight six 99-cent romance titles that were highly rated and doing well in the Kindle store (among them Courtney Milan’s UNLOCKED and Paula Quinn’s LAIRD OF THE MIST). Immediately after that email blast, those titles started shooting up in their Amazon ranks. Courtney’s novella reached the #2 overall spot and LAIRD OF THE MIST is currently at #11 (and may have peaked higher).

But as the day wore on, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. Suddenly, THE REIVER was selling TONS more copies than it ever had before and climbing the charts rapidly. Other romances ALSO seemed to be gaining in overall ranking in the Kindle store (although not necessarily changing places all that much relative to one another). By the time I went to bed last night, my story had sold a whopping 200 copies in 24 hours (it had never before sold more than about 75 in a single day and was selling about 40-50 on an average day for the last couple of weeks). Its overall ranking in the Kindle store climbed from somewhere in the 1500s or thereabouts to as high as 323, and at its peak, it was #21 in Books | Romance | Historical.

Well, um, wow. I didn’t expect that. And it didn’t dawn on me until I hopped onto the Kindle boards this morning and read a post there on the subject that the reason for all those sales was, paradoxically, an email in which my story wasn’t mentioned at all. It seems that what happened was that people who jumped on that email and bought one or more of those titles also started scrolling through the Also Bought lists for those titles, likely searching for other well-rated romances with low prices. And, by virtue of the fact that THE REIVER was already on the Also Bought lists for several of the books Amazon highlighted, people found it and a fair number of them bought it. I suspect that my sales benefitted most from Paula Quinn’s book, which is also a Scottish historical.

Oddly enough, Courtney’s novella doesn’t appear at all on my Also Bought list. I find it hard to believe that no one who’s bought her novella (and at this point, that has to be a LOT of romance readers) has also bought mine, but for whatever reason, there’s absolutely no link between us (and that’s a shame, because I’d love to be linked to Courtney in anyway possible).

Sales have slowed considerably today as yesterday’s Amazon-induced buying frenzy seems to have slacked off to more typical historical levels (and I’m plenty happy with that!), but I learned something instructive. Amazon can pick and choose to promote certain titles, but when it does so, what it chooses to promote has unintended consequences. Those consequences can be happy for some (in this case, for authors with highly rated romance titles prices at 99 cents that already had decent sales rankings and Also Bought associations) and possibly not so happy for others (anything that wasn’t a romance and lost ground in overall rankings due to the sudden rise of romance titles).

Who’s Published (Are You Listening, RWA?), Part 1

As of this morning, I reached an interesting milestone on sales of my self-published short story. I’ve now earned $1,000 from it. That amount is a net, including the $250 advance I was originally paid by the editor of the anthology it first appeared in, less the cost of the cover art.

The reason this is interesting is because the $1,000 threshold has meaning within Romance Writers of America. An author is considered “published” for the purposes of joining RWA’s Published Author Network (PAN) when he or she has earned a minimum of $1,000 from a single published title. There are a couple of caveats to this. The first is that the work must be novel (40k+) or novella (20k-40k) in length. The second is that it must be published by what RWA terms a non-vanity, non-subsidy publisher.

I met the minimum requirements to join PAN when I sold Behind the Red Door to Kensington for a $2,500 advance back in 2008. (I’ve since earned about $800 more in royalties from that book, mostly thanks to digital sales.) This means RWA considers me published pretty much forever. I never have to sell another book to a publishing house to remain in PAN or stay on the list of published authors on their website or get the “Published Author” moniker on my conference name tags.

But here’s the thing. It has long been a precept of the professional writers’ organizations (not just RWA, but also SFWA, MWA, and, I’m sure, others) that all monies in publishing should flow toward the author. This means that authors are cautioned from signing with agents or publishers who charge any fees (other than, of course, the percentage they take of the book’s earnings or the author’s royalties). For a long time, RWA and other organizations hewed to the notion that it was critical not only for the author not to pay anything upfront to publish a book, but also to receive an advance on royalties, thereby effectively ensuring that author was never paid less than that amount for the work.

Of course, the digital publishing model came along and threw that logic into a cocked hat as authors began to earn good money. Although the sales numbers were lower, the royalties were significantly higher, which led to more money in the author’s pockets. The digital publishers also paid more regularly, sometimes as often as monthly, which meant that although the author didn’t receive any money upfront, the actual payout of royalties beyond the amount that might have been advanced was much quicker. But the recognized digital publishers still followed the primary tenet of writers’ organizations–the author was never charged upfront for cover art, editing, or distribution. All monies still flowed toward the author, albeit at a different point in the publishing process.

Even so, digital publishing was viewed askance for quite a long while in writers’ organizations. Although it seemed some authors made a LOT of money at it, the majority of authors didn’t (and probably still don’t). Moreover, there persisted a persisted a perception of a “quality gap” between ebooks and print books (although that divide between digital and print has narrowed because pretty much every print book issued now has a digital counterpart). Notwithstanding, there’s still a certain “sniff test” factor out there, and I imagine a lot of us still suspect that if you submit to enough digital publishers, eventually you’ll find one that’s willing to publish even the crappiest manuscript.

Now, we have the new age of self-publishing. Digital self-publishing is so cheap and easy1, everyone really can be published. And let’s face it–this fact, that everyone CAN be published, even the worthless hacks–is a huge bone in the craw of professional writers who’ve been at this a long time and feel they’ve “paid their dues” and shouldn’t have to share the status of “published” with authors who haven’t proven themselves through the gatekeeping structure of agents and editors. It just doesn’t seem “fair” somehow.

But it’s time for the writers’ organizations to get real. The fact that authors got published through the gatekeeping structure has never been an objective measure of quality or talent or skill. The fact that an author has earned at least $1,000 from a single title is no guarantee that the work isn’t a worthless piece of trash. The writers’ organizations like RWA have set up a system that is TRYING to control for quality by demanding the existence of a gatekeeper, but the reality is that this has never actually worked. When a relatively unknown author like me (I can’t even call myself midlist) can earn more money by self-publishing a short story than by selling a short story of twice that length to a major publisher (my advance from Harlequin for Grace Under Fire and Taking Liberties was $800 for each manuscript, and I will almost certainly never see another dime from them since the royalty rate is only 8% per copy sold) AND hit the Amazon top 100 with that self-published story, it’s difficult to see any reasonable rationale for steering authors (even previously unpublished ones) away from self-publishing.

Quite simply, RWA and other writers’ organizations have to stop pretending that the PUBLISHER matters. Authors who have published a book and earned the prescribed minimum from its sales should be treated as published authors, regardless of how the book was published. And yes, I’ll go so far as to say that even if there is a vanity/subsidy publisher involved (rather than the author acting as the publisher), that should be the case.2 If there are upfront costs to the author involved in publishing the work, perhaps those figures should be netted from total revenue to ensure that authors aren’t earning $1,000 on a book they paid $5,000 to publish, which isn’t exactly a winning strategy for a career, but that should be the only real difference between the self-published and the publisher-published book.

“But, Jackie,” you’re saying, “what about the Ritas? What about the horrible books that for inexplicable reasons sell thousands and thousands of copies? And ONLY $1,000? Shouldn’t it be more?”

To which I say, read Part 2, which I imagine will be up sometime early next week. (I was going to try to do this all as a single post, but this one is already too damned long!)

1I am not saying it’s easy (or necessarily cheap) to create a high quality product through self-publishing. But if you don’t care about having great cover art and you think your critique parts are editors (hint: they aren’t), you can publish a book for an upfront investment of less than $100. Doing it right is going to cost you a lot more than that–I anticipate spending around $500 to publish The Lesson Plan, which I’m expecting to release toward the end of October. That’s because I paid for a professional cover design (although really, that was very inexpensive) and I expect to pay my content/copy editor a nice chunk of change for her efforts. I won’t put out a book that’s not professionally edited. I just won’t.

2Given that several well-respected epublishers, most notably Ellora’s Cave, started in large part to publish books written by their founders, the distinction between author and publisher becomes even sillier, doesn’t it?

Reasons to Self-Publish…and Reasons NOT to

I said during the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention back in April that, judging from the number of panels on the subject, self-publishing was the new black. And in the two months since then, the pace has only accelerated. Authors who were cut by publishers back in the first midlist publish in 2006 are now resurfacing, my favorite among them being Candice Hern, and many solid midlist authors have recently either begun to self-publish or have announced that this is route they’ll be going (Courtney Milan, Emma Holly).

With the relative success of my first experiment in self-publishing, I’ve decided I can’t see many downsides to going it alone, at least for some of my work. This isn’t to say that I’m shutting the door on publishing houses, but from a business perspective, unless a publisher is going to offer me an advance and strong print distribution, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably not in my best interests to sign away my rights. I need some evidence that the publisher can bring something more to the table than cover art, copy editing, and distribution to the major online retailers that’s actually going to result in significantly more sales than I can achieve on my own.

But this is not to say that self-publishing is the holy grail or something everyone needs to rush to do. (In fact, please DON’T rush to self-publish. More on that later.)

There are some really GOOD reasons to self-publish. Among them:

1. You control the price point of your book. As soon as you give a publisher the rights to your book, you allow them to set the price, which means that if the book is selling poorly because it’s priced to high (or selling well but could probably sustain those sales at a higher price point), you don’t have the right to change it.

2. Your work need not be constrained by word counts or genre limitations. Although it is true that digital-first/only publishers have been offering more flexibility in terms of word count and genre for years, they are still largely focused on the adult romance market and on erotic romance in particular. If you’re writing outside of those genres, there simply aren’t a lot of options for you to place your book with a publisher, even if you wanted to.

3. You have an established fan base that isn’t large enough for a publisher to offer you a print contract (or the terms of the print contract offered you are execrable) and you want/need the flexibility offered by points 1 and 2. In this scenario, it’s possible that a digital publisher is a better option, especially if you don’t want to handle subcontracting the cover art, editorial, and formatting (or doing the formatting yourself–not necessarily HARD, in my experience, but definitely time-consuming to do right).

4. You are willing to put the time, effort, and emotional commitment into producing the best book you possibly can. This should go without saying regardless of who publishes the book, but the bottom line is that self-publishing RIGHT requires an investment from you that other forms of publishing don’t. You’re going to be doing it all yourself–choosing the cover art/artist and approving the design (do you have the eye for that and know what’s marketable/not marketable), finding a content and copy editor and then being tough enough on yourself to take input from them even when you are paying them (are you willing to kill the sacred cows in your writing if you don’t HAVE to?), and so on.

5. You can afford the monetary risk of failure. If you can’t expend a minimum of a few hundred dollars to produce a quality product and not go broke if you never earn that investment back, you shouldn’t self-publish. Period. Because there are no gaurantees.

Those, in my opinion, pretty well sum up good business reasons reasons to self-publish. (Note that “get rich quick” is NOT on that list. )

Also not on that list are my other top reasons NOT to self-publish:

1. It’s quick and easy! You just finished your book yesterday and you can be selling it tomorrow.

2. You can’t be bothered with polishing a book until it’s “good enough” for an agent/editor’s slush pile. Especially not when you can make a quick buck by throwing it up on Amazon.

3. All your friends/family say your book is great, but agents/editors keep sending you form rejections. What do THEY know, though? You KNOW you’re the greatest writer ever, and readers will flock to your book by the thousands once you get it up.

4. Amanda Hocking! HP Mallory! John Locke! Look how EASY it is to be successful in self-publishing!

5. Instant fame and fortune. (Yeah, I know I already mentioned this one. But it bears repeating.)

Right now, the self-publishing boom is a mix of people self-publishing for the right reasons and those self-publishing for the wrong ones. Some of those who are doing it for the wrong reasons do well in spite of themselves. But most won’t.

So before you decide to follow the lemmings off the cliff, ask yourself if you’re doing it for the right reasons or the wrong ones. Because self-publishing, as freeing and motivating as it can be, isn’t for the lazy or the faint of heart.

The Anatomy of Amazon Sales

When I released THE REIVER as a digital short back in January, I had no idea what to expect in terms of sales, but I didn’t really have particularly high hopes. I’m nowhere near a household name, nothing I’ve ever published with any publisher has ever sold more than perhaps a thousand copies in digital format (and the print version of Behind the Red Door hasn’t even sold more than a few thousand copies), so it’s not like there are hordes of readers champing at the bit for the next Jackie Barbosa title. (That’s not an oh-woe-is-me observation, by the way, just the parameters around which I set my expectations.) The story had also been published in a print anthology, which meant that some people who might have been moved to buy it digitally if it had been new content had already bought a copy in print. It’s also only 8500 words long, and I know many people feel that even 99 cents is too much to pay for something that short.

So, with all those factors in mind, I figured if I made back what I’d invested in the cover art within a a year or so, I’d be happy. (That meant I had to sell about 150 copies.) As I’ve mentioned before, things have gone much better than that, and I wound up earning back my investment within the first two months it was out. This isn’t to say that I’m selling all that many copies compared to many folks I know, but I’ve been really surprised by the trends and I also find them very instructive when it comes to the relative value of various marketing strategies (which is, after all, what all writers want to know–how to market our books so readers can find them).

So, without further ado, below is an Excel chart of my sales since I released THE REIVER on January 17th through 4:00 PDT today:

All told, 1,235 copies have sold. In other words, a LOT more than the 150 I’d hoped to maybe sell in a year. It’s not particularly large number of digital books to sell in four and a half months (some folks are probably selling that many in a day), but based on the historical norms of books by Jackie Barbosa, it’s pretty fricken’ fantastic :).

But what’s particularly interesting to me in the data isn’t that I’ve sold a lot more books than I expected. It’s the way the curves for Barnes & Noble and Amazon go in completely different directions. When I first made THE REIVER available for sale, I sold about 10 copies on B&N to every 1 I sold on Amazon. Now, I’m selling about 2 copies on B&N to every 100 I sell on Amazon. To what to attribute this?

Given that I’ve never done much to promote this short story save tweeting and/or Facebooking links to it and mentioning it on my blog and occasionally in discussion on other blogs about what I see happening in digital/self-publishing, it really CAN’T be anything I’m doing. The lovely Jessica at Read, React, Review was kind enough to buy a copy of it as well as my Spice Brief and review them both, but as far as I know, that’s the only standalone review of the story available anywhere, so it’s not like there’s this big rolling buzz behind it or anything. So it must something about the actual sites and the way they’re constructed.

I’ve concluded that the single most important thing that drives sales on Amazon is not the Top 100 category lists–although it certainly doesn’t hurt to get into them–but the “Also Bought” lists that display when you are looking at OTHER books. As sales increase, the number of people who also bought a different but related book goes up, and as that number goes up, the number of books for which your title is in an “Also Bought” title expands as well. This has a cumulative effect, because as the number of “Also Bought” lists your book appears on increases, the number of new sales you goes up as well, which in turn increases the number of “Also Bought” lists, and so on. The more copies you sell overall, the higher in the Also Bought lists your book appears, as well, so the more sales you get that way, the more readers are likely to find your book.

The thing about this observation, though, is that NOTHING I did caused it to happen. The single biggest factor was probably the fact that, back in March, Kobo discounted the book (which it got from Smashwords) to 89 cents. This is something they are not supposed to do, but I’m glad they did, because it led Amazon to price-match and that, in turn, led to people finding it on Amazon, not because they were looking for anything by me in particular or even because they were looking for Scottish historical romances, but because the price was unusual/stood out. My sales spiked when that happened in the last week of March and then everything steamrolled from there, even though the price has since gone back up to 99 cents.

So here’s what I think now regarding promotion and marketing: the best promotion/marketing is to sell a lot of books. Seriously. That’s it. Almost everything else is of limited or unsubstantiatable value.

The Sky Is Not Falling, or Why 99-Cent Books (Probably) Won’t Take Over the World

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing over the 99-cent book. Yesterday, both the Huffington Post and Nathan Bransford waxed eloquent on the problems with the 99 cent price point. Bransford was, in my opinon, considerably closer to the mark than the HuffPo’s writer when it comes to explicating the long-term implications of the 99-cent price trend.

So, here’s the thing. If you put your book up a year ago (or even 6 months ago) and priced it 99 cents, the chances that you would move a LOT of units at that price were very high. It made sense to price in the bargain basement, even if you only made 34 cents per copy, if you could sell ten books at that price point to every one you could sell at $2.99. ($2.99 x 70% = $2.09, while $0.99 x 35% x 10 copies = $3.40).

But, as Bransford rightly notes, there’s now a glut of 99-cent ebooks. There are so many, in fact, that the price point is no longer much of an enticement to readers. Yes, it’s easier to get the casual browser to buy book at 99 cents than at $2.99, but it’s not as much easier as it used to be. When there are so many 99-cent options to choose from, readers become pickier about what they’re willing to pay even 99 cents for.

It used to be that the 99-cent price point helped browsers find you. Now, there are so many books at 99 cents, pricing at that point no longer makes your book stand out. Instead, it just leaves your book swimming in an ever-expanding pool of other books at that same price. So, unless you have something ELSE to distinguish your book from all the others (great cover art, title, concept, and most especially IMO, lots of reviews/ratings), the chances that you are going to make 10x as many sales at 99 cents as at $2.99 are simply not that great. And for the 99-cent price point to make sense financially, at least as a price for a novel-length book, you really have to to sell a lot more copies.

The fact that 99 cents is not a huge incentive for readers anymore was brought home to me by watching sales of my short story, THE REIVER. When I initially released it, I priced it at 99 cents (it’s a very short story, so more than that seemed like price-gouging). Sales were in the neighborhood of 5-6 per day on Barnes & Noble but no more than 1 per day on Amazon. On Amazon, the book was quite simply LOST in the sea of 99 cent slush and people just weren’t finding it. After a couple of months, I decided to raise the price to $1.29 on the theory that the 99 cent point wasn’t bringing me any eyes I wasn’t finding otherwise. Sales dropped precipitously, but then a funny thing happened. Because the Smashwords version hadn’t sold but two copies, I didn’t bother raising its price and Kobo (one of the retailers that gets books from Smashwords) discounted the 99-cent version to 89 cents. Amazon, being all about keeping up with the Joneses, discounted the story on their site from $1.29 to $0.89 and, lo and behold, I very quickly started selling almost 10 copies a day on Amazon.

So, are people really that price sensitive? We’re talking a 10-cent difference between the original price and the discounted price that attracted so many more sales. What are people buying with the 10 cents they’re saving? The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t the prospect of saving an extra 10 cents that boosted sales–it was the fact that the 89-cent price is so unusual that by itself, it made the book stand out in a way it hadn’t before. More eyes FINDING my book led to more sales.

I think the fear of a lot of authors and publishers is that 99 cents is becoming “the price” of a book, the way 99 cents has become the “price” of a song on iTunes (although, in fact, most new/popular songs are now priced at $1.29). I can understand that concern, and I’ve shared it to some degree, but I think in the long run, it’s not going to happen because of the convergence of these three things:

1. 99 cents is no longer a point of differentiation, and…
2. The total number of books you must “differentiate” yourself from to attract readers/buyers is growing exponentially, so…
3. You will have to differentiate your book by something other than price.

It’s #3 that’s the sticky wicket. When 99 cents was a “marketing” point in and of itself, it made a certain amount of sense to price your book there, especially when you initially released it. But now, it’s not enough (if it ever really was, which I doubt). Smart writers and publishers know they have a following and that the market can and will support prices of $2.99 (and more) for ebooks. The key is that, whatever the price point, your book has to be able to find its readers and vice versa. And that is going to cost authors and publishers too much for them to afford to sell their book for 99 cents indefinitely.