The Business Rusch: Comparisons
The Business Rusch: Comparisons
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I have spent a lot of time with other writers in the past three months, and I have seen this scenario over and over and over again:
Writers are talking about indie publishing e-books at a dinner or a lunch or over drinks. A newer writer, maybe one with little or no name recognition, mentions that his e-books are selling anywhere from one to ten per day on just one e-book site, like Kindle. Professional writers glare, cross their arms, or turn away.
Some of the professionals will say later, bitterly, that they’re not putting much effort into the indie e-book market because “it doesn’t pay off for them” or because their readers “don’t buy e-books.”
“The only writers who succeed,” one established writer of long-standing said to me a few weeks back, “are the ones who go out there and flog their stuff on the internet. This wave will pass. It always does.”
“I don’t see the point of trying,” said another established writer a few days later. “I have a book up there, and no one is buying it at all.”
I have a book “up there,” as well, and no one is buying it. In fact, I have several that aren’t being bought—so far as I can tell, anyway. And those books which aren’t being bought this month did get bought the month before, or maybe the month before that. But the pace isn’t that one to ten books a day. Nor are any of my individual titles selling at Amanda Hocking numbers even though, when her books started selling like that, I had more name recognition than she did.
Did that make me angry? Nope. Did it make me disparage Ms. Hocking? Not at all. Did I believe that she was out there, flogging her books all over the internet to get sales? I had no clue. I don’t read all over the internet, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know that promotion gets you a small blip in sales and little more.
What I did do when I heard that Amanda Hocking’s books were selling well was download a free sample to see why. And I discovered that she has major storytelling chops. Critics loathe folks who can tell stories but whose prose isn’t English-major perfect. Once Hocking got her deal with St. Martins, the literary critics all downloaded a copy of her e-books then came out guns blazing, calling St. Martins stupid for buying such a seriously bad writer.
As usual, the major literary critics—the same folks who dismiss James Patterson and Nora Roberts as hacks—fail to understand what readers read for. We don’t read for beautiful language (well, some of us do some of the time.) We read to be entertained. We read to get lost in a good story. We read to forget about the plunge in the Dow and the European Debt Crisis and the war in Afghanistan and the Somali famine. We read so that we can relax after a long day of searching for a job, or trying to figure out which bill to pay, or taking care of our ill parents. We read to go somewhere else.
Hocking takes us there. So does Patterson. So does Nora Roberts. Some do it with better prose than others. But they all take us out of our lives for the time we’re inside the book.
The writers who, year after year, continue to sell books through indie publishing or traditional publishing tell great stories. Bottom line: those writers aren’t really writers. They’re storytellers.
And as I’ve said before, the storytellers are the ones who stick with us. Charles Dickens wrote a lot, and he’s best known for his stories, not for his somewhat turgid 19th century prose. William Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into every language in the world, so it’s clearly not his poetic prose that has brought the audience to those plays century after century. It’s the stories.
I didn’t realize until I went to Germany last September that Goethe wrote the same kind of poetic prose—in German, of course—that Shakespeare write in English. Because I’d only heard Goethe’s stories. In English. Without the poetry.
And gosh, those stories are memorable.
So you’d think logically, then, that a writer with a long career whose ability to tell a story is well established would sell more e-books than any newcomer, no matter how good. And generally, that’s true.
After all, the two main things that sell books are:
1. Author reputation
2. Recommendation from a trusted friend/source
Not advertising, not self-promotion, not price. (For more on this complete with statistics, see my essay on promotion.)
So what’s going on here?
Impatience, that’s what’s going on. Most of the new writers I hear who are talking about selling at five to ten copies per month on one site are not talking five to ten copies per title. They’re talking five to ten copies over all of their titles. The handful of new writers who sell better than that started out doing heavy online promotions, particularly with the Kindle boards.
The Kindle boards work like a vicious circle—I’ll buy your book if you buy mine—and they’re not the only place that does this. Our own network of writers who’ve been to our workshops over the past 14 years use our internal list in much the same way. They kick off each other’s sales.
Those sales, then, are artificially inflated for the first month or two, and that’s usually what you hear the new writer quoting. They might have sold 100 copies of a single title in May, but only 10 copies of the same title in July. When sitting around with a group of other writers, which number is the new writer going to quote? May’s or July’s? Both are accurate, and both are inaccurate.
But there are other factors at play here as well. The newer writers don’t have long-term contracts with publishers, so these writers have a lot more material that they can indie publish (generally speaking). In other words, they have something that sells more books than anything else: A wide availability of titles. When one reader finishes book A and wants to find another book by the same author, she can easily do so. Then she reads book B, and so on.
This is probably happening with the long-established writer as well, but if those writers are like most of my friends, their e-books are published through a wide variety of sources—from six or eight or ten different traditional publishers to their own indie published titles. And readers don’t generally discriminate. If they want a book by Author A, they’ll buy that book any way they can get it—either as an e-book, put out by the traditional publisher, as a used book or as a brand new book. If Author A only has three indie published titles among her twenty e-books, how does she know how well she’s selling in comparison to the new writer?
The new writer has all his data in one place—coming through his own indie publishing company. The long-term professional has data coming through a dozen publishers, including the two or three books she’s managed to indie publish herself.
And far too many long-term writers expect their two or three indie published e-books to sell as well or better than their traditional titles. These writers certainly expect the two or three indie published e-books to sell much better than any brand new writer.
And sadly, that isn’t how it works.
Not every title sells equally. Over the past year, WMG has published more than 100 titles out of my backlist. Some of these e-books are short stories, some are novellas, some are novels. Several are series books. And a bunch have appeared under my many pen names.
I have published sf/f under Kristine Kathryn Rusch for more than twenty years now, and not all of my KKR books are selling at the same level. The series books sell best, which is a good thing. That means readers read the first book and then work their way through the series. In other words, I’m doing something right.
But the other books sell haphazardly at best. I would’ve thought my vampire novel, Sins of the Blood, would sell a lot of copies. After all, it’s a vampire novel, and vampires are hot right now. It has a kick-ass heroine. And the book is a cult favorite—people were always searching for it when it was out of print.
It does sell, but not at great numbers. And if I was comparing it to a newcomer with only a few books behind her like…um…Stephanie Meyer, I’d be disappointed.
But I have never compared myself to other writers. Not like that. I’m enough of a reader to know that taste is a factor in all book buying decisions. Just because I love mysteries doesn’t mean I love every single mystery book ever published. Other factors go into my mystery purchases.
No, what got me going on all of this was another vampire e-book of mine. It’s called The Last Vampire, and I published it under my Kristine Grayson pen name. I wrote the story for a Tekno Books anthology about time travel years ago. I had a Rusch story in the same volume, and the Grayson was a goofy afterthought of 2,000 words—shorter than this column.
That goofy afterthought is one of my bestselling titles, under any name. Yes, it sells for 99 cents. But the folks who are trolling for bargains at 99 cents get mad when they come across short stories, and so far, that story hasn’t made anyone mad.
People aren’t buying it because of price. They’re buying it because…ah, hell, I don’t know. Just like I don’t know why my short story The Moorhead House sells better than my other mystery shorts. I look at the cover, and shrug. I look at the blurb, and shrug. It’s under my name, just like the others are, and yet it sells better than they do.
I could go on and on like this, but ultimately it’s all inexplicable. If I judged the viability of my indie publishing career based solely on Sins of the Blood, I would think that there’s no way I could ever make a living at this. Yet my series books are selling five to ten times what Sins is selling. And Sins sells better than Heart Readers or did until this month. Now they’re about equal.
What’s the difference? Well, in the spring, WMG reprinted Sacrifice, the first book in my Fey series. Then the second book, Changeling, came out. Both books are fantasy. The third book isn’t out yet, so fans of fantasy, having read those two, are now looking at my other fantasy titles while they wait for the reissue of the third book, Rival.
I’m not known for writing horror, which Sins of the Blood is. Or rather, I’m not any more. I published a lot of horror fifteen years ago, including several books in Dell’s Abyss line. Maybe when there are other horror novels to support it, Sins’s sales will increase.
The Last Vampire, on the other hand, is funny. And that’s what I write under Kristine Grayson. I write funny paranormal romance novels. Well, there’s no romance in The Last Vampire, but there is a vampire and a some mention of romance novels, and humor. So readers are willing to give it a go.
I know all of this because I have access to data through WMG. I have a lot of indie-published product out there. But how well is Wickedly Charming, the title I just published as Kristine Grayson from Sourcebooks, doing? I don’t know. I’ll have to wait for the royalty statement. And how well is my Diving series doing? Again, I’ll have to wait for the royalty statements. Right now, I can only guess based on those weird Amazon hourly statistics.
So when an established writer with a dozen books out there only has one or two indie e-books up, and that writer bitches that her indie books aren’t selling very well, I tend to discount it. Because that long-term writer is basing her information on next to nothing. And with the problems in e-book royalty reporting through traditional publishers (see my post on that here), traditionally published writers don’t know what their numbers are on their traditionally published e-books either.
What bothers me the most about those faces and bitter comments that the long-term established writers make is this: it smacks of professional jealousy. I wrote quite a bit about jealousy in the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, but the relevant post is here. Professional jealousy is an extremely destructive emotion. It serves an excuse for the jealous person to avoid learning something new or taking a hard look at herself and figuring out what she’s doing wrong. It can devolve into something much uglier than that, which I explore in that earlier post.
Generally speaking, what is the established writer missing when she compares herself with the new writer? A ton of information, for one thing. Again, in conversation, people tend to exaggerate their successes or chose the item that puts themselves in the best light.
Several of the newer writers talk about sales of all their titles as if those titles are one single title. If I talk about all of my e-book sales under all of my pen names in one month that I know about, I make more than a thousand sales. If I talk about individual titles, the sales figures vary from zero to 100 in any given month. And it doesn’t stay the same. The first month that Buried Deep, my fourth Retrieval Artist novel, got reissued, it sold fifty copies in one week in just one e-bookstore. But there was pent-up demand for that book. The sales decreased the following month, and have been slowly growing every since. But they haven’t returned to that 50 book number yet on that single site.
The other thing the newer writers tend to ignore is time. Yeah, you can goose your sales by getting on Amazon or B&N bestseller lists with the help of friends on the Kindle boards or in various writing circles. But the key is long-term sales.
I knew that this whole e-book thing was going to work when the only two things I had up as an e-book—and on only one site—sold fifteen copies each in February of 2010. Those two things had terrible covers and had no promotion at all. That’s about a book per day—and those two items, with better covers, surrounded by all my other e-books, sell better than that now.
But I would have been encouraged by five sales that month or even three. The fact that someone had found the books surprised and pleased me. The fact that that same someone invested some hard-earned dollars into my books really pleased me.
I don’t look at the short term. Honestly, anyone can goose the sales of their books artificially with the right kind of promotion. The key isn’t selling 100 copies in the month of June. The key is watching slowly growing sales figures over the course of a year. Sure, you might have one sale in January on a single title— and that’s counting all e-book sites. But by July, you might have five, and by the following January, fifteen. Over the course of a decade, you’ll make quite a bit of money on that book, especially if you have other books out there under that same name.
My husband Dean Wesley Smith has a lovely post on this vary topic, about the way long-term math now works in indie publishing. If you’re have trouble with “small” numbers, I suggest you take a look.
If you’re an established writer, with a lot of published books under your belt and a fan base, and your work still isn’t selling when looked at over a year (not a day or a month), then there might be another problem.
I’ve seen some pretty suckoid cover blurbs from established writers. (And some of those blurbs, I must confess, are mine.) But more than that, I’ve seen covers so awful that the book screams self-published even when it’s not.
The Passive Guy who writes The Passive Voice Blog has an example of a traditionally published book with a terrible cover, and the lovely cover the author designed when she published the book herself. I have my own examples.
Look at this cover for Sacrifice: The First Book of the Fey:
That’s the cover Bantam Books did in 1995. It sucks so badly that the publisher apologized to me. They didn’t have the budget to commission a new cover, however, so they tried to minimize the damage with those goofy arrows.
Now look at the new cover that WMG has done. I found the artist, Dirk Berger. He’s given the book the cover it deserves.
But here’s the neat thing about the new electronic publishing world. If the book isn’t selling, and you think it should, change the cover.
We did that just recently with my Kristine Grayson short story, Knowing Jack. It bothered me that this story wasn’t selling—often not even one copy in a month. I wondered if it was the cover. Even though it accurately illustrates the story, it didn’t look anything like a cover for modern Western Romances.
So WMG replaced the cover with something that looks like a traditionally published Western Romance. And lo and behold, Knowing Jack now sells as well as that damn Last Vampire e-book.
We saw the change almost immediately. Of course, we’ve changed out some of the early covers on other e-books, and the sales have remained flat. Does that mean the new covers aren’t working? Probably not.
Right now, figuring out what sales is exactly what it has always been in the entire history of publishing—a bit of this, a bit of that, an educated guess here, a close-your-eyes-and-point there. In other words, as William Goldman so famously said about Hollywood: Nobody knows nothing.
And that’s really true about e-books right now.
So if you have the track record, if you’ve been selling books for years traditionally, then you know you can tell a story. That’s half the battle.
Stop watching your e-book numbers and get more of your backlist published. And for god’s sake stop being jealous of all the other writers with sales figures higher than yours. There will always be writers who sell better than you do. And there will be writers who sell worse.
Do your job and write the next book. Make sure your fans have a way to find that book—whether indie-published or through a traditional publisher. And once you’ve done that, do it all over again.
Stop comparing yourself to others. That way lies madness.
The best thing you can do is write, publish, and repeat. Over and over and over again.
If you get anything out of the blog, I’d appreciate a forward or a comment or, better yet, some financial support that will continue to fund my nonfiction efforts. As you’ll note, I have a lot of free fiction on the site, but I put a donate button with the nonfiction blog. That’s because I make my living on fiction elsewhere, but the only thing that sustains this nonfiction blog is y’all. So please hit the tip jar on the way out. Thanks!
“The Business Rusch: Comparisons” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Very timely for me, thanks, Kris. As a wise woman once wrote to me, “Writers are always comparing to each other, even though it’s like comparing apples and broccoli.” Yes, that was you.
I was inspired to write about covers on my blog, where pictures are included:
I’m not a graphic designer, nor do I play one on TV, but I do have some cover tips for writers entering the wild and woolly world of indie publishing.
1. Start with a good image.
I look at free sites (http://www.sxc.hu/, http://morguefile.com/), but I also pay for images. First of all, they’re artists who deserve to be compensated; secondly, they do a better job than me; and thirdly, at this point, it’s not worth my time to keep looking around or trying to shoot photos myself.
2. Convey the information: the title and author name.
a) It must be clear, even as a thumb-sized image.
b) Avoid pitfalls. Kindle puts a logo in the bottom right hand corner, so don’t let them cover up your information. Having just gotten a Kindle myself, I see how different covers look in black-and-white and now I’m doing high-contrast covers for the Kindle alone (which is worth it for me, since I sell much better on that platform right now).
c) Play with the fonts. I use dafont.com and I adore it (again, I am willing to pay if need be). So much of the spirit of your book is transmitted by the font, which is really part of the art.
3. Play around in general.
Get a good graphic software (I’m using Mac’s GraphicConverter, but it doesn’t do layers or transparency for me, so I’ll try to figure out another one. Gimp seems too hard. I’m open to suggestions). Then just move stuff around and see what you think. Save multiple versions and ask for feedback.
One beginner error I notice in myself and others is the fear of running text over the image.
Now I look at how graphic designers break that rule, but do it right.
Since I am still a beginner myself, without much free time, I search for images where I can add text without messing around too much.
4. Train your eye.
I look at books to see not only what’s done right, but wrong. I sometimes pick up (sorry) small press Canadian books and say, “Hmm. This looks bad. Why?” and try to analyze it.
I also found myself paging through magazine ads, which I used to consciously ignore, but they are masters of conveying information with a strong graphic. Bored panda is a guru.
5. Keep it simple and focused on the visual.
6. Keep a list of the pertinent info.
As the very intelligent Annie Reed pointed out, you should maintain a log of where you got the image, do you need to give credit, what font(s) you used, so if you do a series, you can maintain continuity.
Excellent post, Melissa. Thank you!
[…] more wisdom, check the comments on Kris Rusch’s latest post here, where Carolyn Nicita gives a great rundown, as well as offers cover links on her own […]
Another problem: book sales both industry-wide and for individual authors tend to be a Zipf distribution, which means they’re hard to budge and prone to weirdness and with a large range of suck. If you’re an obsessive sales-following writer (I think there might be one or two around here) AND you like and/or dig math, I blogged about that recently:
Cover thoughts: when making digital covers, don’t forget to look at them in the “thumbnail” size. If it’s too dark and the title is unreadable (due to fancy font), you’re not doing yourself any favors. I blogged a bit about that yesterday. I’m no art director, so I was just tossing out my observations as a customer. Food for thought.
Great point, Jenni. Exactly.
I love the blog, and read anything new you put up here. I thought it might interest you to know that that cover for THE FEY made a cracked.com list:
Thanks, John. That’s soooo not a surprise. 🙂 Hadn’t seen that. 🙂
I’ve been following discussions on book covers in writer’s mailing lists and on yours and Dean’s blogs. I’d like to share two opinions which I hope will help authors as they learn how to do their own book covers, which I think we should do.
1. The “critique my book cover please” posts I see in the mailing lists read suspiciously like those critique groups that we shouldn’t belong to; the ones where the stories get homogenized and, yeah, those kind. I’m reading a lot of “this is good, this is bad” opined by people who are trying to give their gut feeling on the piece (which is good) but don’t have a conscious grasp of visual grammar (which is bad).
Just as in writing, we need to learn the basic principles and THEN happily experiment with breaking those rules to make our book covers even better.
(Oh noes, I hear, I just went through the pain of learning about epub NCX files and Smashwords Meat Grinder and now she wants me to learn something else?)
It’s not that hard.
2. Here’s what you need to learn and practice while composing your book covers. Here’s your visual grammar primer:
Just learn it a bit at a time and practice on the book covers. Do this before jumping into the Photoshop Secrets or the Deviantart tutorials or anything else.
If you’ve studied music, filmmaking, interior decorating, yes even writing, you will find some common concepts that will make this much easier.
Rhythm. Contrast. Motif. Texture. Where the lines go, either melodic lines or dialog lines.
Next time you watch a movie, watch how the shots are composed, with the Rule of Thirds in mind. See how much space the DP gives the frame when an actor is in profile, looking at something offscreen. Notice that in closeups the eyes are not dead-center in the frame.
Watch how the actors are lit.
While filming Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg entertained Laura Dern during the hurricane blackout by putting a flashlight over his head, shining downward, and saying “Romance movie” and then shining it upward from under his chin and saying “Horror movie.” Pay attention to lighting.
Watch the typography on the credits. Listen to the pauses (white space) in the music.
Go to Home Depot and look at all the color swatches, and learn complementary coloring works. How do you use an accent color? How is landscape balanced?
Just as you’ve read all your life and picked up storytelling subconsciously, you’ve used your eyes all your life and have picked up the visual storytelling subconsciously.
As you advise “Read outside the genre” the same advice goes for book covers–“Watch outside the genre.”
So, I hope this helps. Good luck!
And thanks for all you do.
Carolyn, this is a spectacular post. Thank you. And if you put it on a blog (after next week) I will link to it. Thank you.
Re promotion, I just want to add a small note. Right after following the link above to Kris’s post on promotion, I received payment for an e-book. That wouldn’t have been news except that that particular e-book was the PDF version of a business book I self-published in 1995. It isn’t on Kindle or any download site (the formatting is too complex to be easily converted) and sells only on an obscure web site I run entirely through word of mouth, but even so it keeps selling a copy here and there because people still recommend it in online discussions.
So yes, indie publishing does indeed run on a very different schedule from Big 6 publishing.
Thank you so much, Jenny. It’s good to see actual long-term numbers here. Much appreciated.
I *heart* Lawrence Block. I saw he had a blog and he’s got new writing books out, and so I went shopping and now they’re on my e-reader as a reward to read each night if I do my work.
And Sarah, I agree with you. This is a wonderful time to be a writer since there are so many choices and so many ways to experiment. It’s like being a toddler again learning to walk–so many cool things to grab onto as I stumble around. And then I fall down, but it’s not so bad, and then I’m up again and chasing after the cat’s fluffy tail…and then fall down…and then up again and pulling the tablecloth off the table so that Dad’s keys and sunglasses fall to the floor for me to play with…and fall down again…and on to something else exciting… 😀
oooh, I love that analogy, Lisa. Perfect. Yeah, my Kindle is full of Lawrence Block these days too. 🙂
@ John: Check out Photoshop Top Secret. I tried a lot of sites on the internet to try and figure out the whole cover design thing and got frustrated because they either: a) assumed I had knowledge that I didn’t b) didn’t explain things very well, often skipping steps in the process or c) what they taught only applied to one specific situation.
I like Photoshop Top Secret-even though the name is incredibly cheesy-because he starts at a very basic level and goes from there. In each of the tutorials he tells you step-by-step what to do, never assuming anything, and I’ve never felt lost. Which is saying a lot. Also, while you’re working towards a specific goal with each of the tutorials, what you learn has broader applications. There have been muliple occasions where I’ve seen a New York published cover and sat down and figured out how to reproduce what they did and I’ve been pleased with the results.
Anyway, the site is at:
Check it out. The coolness of what’s up there may seem a little intimidating but it all really is pretty simple, even for a non-techy guy like me.
(As an aside, I don’t get any sort of kickback or anything for recommending the site. I really just like the dvds and they alleviated a great deal of frustrtation for me, so I recommend them to anyone who is similarly furstrated.)
Thanks, Steve. Dean is also getting a lot of information from lynda.com (linda.com?) connected to Photoshop.
Beyond a certain point, I don’t give a damn how well or poorly my books sell. Any time I’m tempted to complain, I remind myself that the stories are OUT THERE. The only thing I ever really wanted was for people to read my stories. Now they can do that. No one in New York or any other publishing capital can stop me. It’s a tremendously liberating feeling, worth more to me now than any few dollars I might have made. I don’t know that I will ever make back the money I’ve spent (not much) on indie publishing. I don’t really care. The books are launched, and they will find their audience or they won’t. I can move on to the next without worrying about agents, editors, bad covers, dishonest accounting, or the rest of it. You said it Kris: This is a great time to be a writer.
Perfect, Sarah! Exactly. 🙂
This came at just the right time for me too. I can have plenty of material and I can do the formatting now; the thing that snags me is the covers. I do my own short story covers and they’re passable, but when I go to Createspace and get the book in print I like something exceptional. So far a relative who’s a graphics artist has been helping me but she can’t keep up with my demand. I am forced to try to do it myself and lack confidence. One thing I did though is put the books up electronically with temporary covers, knowing I can change them later. This cover business is still a dilemma for me. One thing I noticed though, studying cover after cover trying to get a handle on it all. Many paperback covers, even those of bestsellers and awards winners, are ridiculously simple, often consisting of a blank color with just the book title and author name, or an abstract pattern that has little or nothing to do with the story. I don’t have an answer here. I’d like to learn more. Does anyone have any links to sites that teach such things?
I don’t, but I’m sure folks do. Dean might mention it on his blog as well in the Think Like a Publisher sections. Does anyone else know?
Kristine: it’s your artist friend, Brian, back again to comment. I am still amazed at how awful that first Fey cover is. It angers me too, mainly because I loved the book, and I was a young illustrator trying to make it in the publishing biz back in 1995. I had my portfolio sitting on the art-director’s desk at Bantam as that cover was being produced (they shoulda chose me!). And had they wanted to re-do the cover for you I woulda done it for free (how could they have not afforded that?) and I’m pretty damn good (not to toot my own horn or nothin). There are thousands of great artists out there now, and there were thousands of great artists even back in 1995. There is just no excuse for such a bad cover (specially from a big NY publisher). There are just far too many great illustrators. Okay, so that was my two cents worth. Sour grapes from my early days as an illustrator. Tis why I do strictly gallery work now. Cheers, Brian. Love your Blog!
Thanks, Brian. How sad. I wish I would have known. They probably spent more trying to “save” that cover than they ever would have commissioning a new one. Such is the strangeness of publishing. While it didn’t kill the series, it sure didn’t help it. But we can commiserate about NY Publishing for days, and never hit the bottom. Thanks for your kind words.
I totally agree with you on Dickens. He also was a lot better in his early years. Ditto for Goethe’s good pal Schiller. A lot of his early works are great stories (The Robbers, Intrigue and Love, The Hostage), the latter ones not so much.
I always find it interesting to look at both bestseller lists and major award winners of decades past. The list of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners from the early part of the 20th century are full of forgotten writers. Of the seven German writers ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, three are remembered only by scholars these days.
On the bestseller lists, you’ll also find a lot of books you have either never heard of or that you only know because they were on your mother’s or grandmother’s bookshelf (Wow, you mean someone aside from my Mom read that?). All of these books, both bestsellers and award winners, obviously spoke to someone at some point, but they still didn’t last.
Seeing Goethe referred to as a great storyteller made me smile, because Goethe was actually one of the more literary writers of his time. Meanwhile, the big bestsellers, the late 18th/early 19th century equivalents to James Patterson and Nora Roberts, were Christian August Vulpius, Goethe’s brother-in-law who wrote romantic potboilers about noble and dashing highwaymen, and August von Kotzebue, who wrote over 200 theatre plays, mostly comedies, one of which had the distinction of being referred to by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park. Nowadays, however, it’s Goethe and Schiller who are remembered rather than Vulpius and Kotzebue.
Though you’re right that Goethe’s storytelling abilities are a large part of the reason why he became the literary titan he is today. It’s also telling that Faust I, which is a great story, basically an early paranormal romance, is a lot more popular than Faust II, which has a lot of philosophizing and not so much story. Or why The Sorrows of Young Werther, a tragic love story which actually was a bestseller and notorious for causing a wave of suicide, is far more frequently read than something like Die Wahlverwandschaften.
As for indie sales numbers, I agree with you and Dean that patience is the key. I launched my first indie book a little over a month ago and now have 5 e-books up, all backlist short stories and novelettes. I sold 15 books in July and I already sold 4 in August across all platforms. And I also have one story that is selling much better than the others and it’s not one I would have expected. Indeed, that particular story is the only one that wasn’t previously published, because there was no market. On the other hand, I also have a story that has never sold a single copy at all.
Same with Dickens, Cora. Some of his later stuff is just posturing and believing the hype, and we don’t read it any more. Faust 1 is a great story. You can’t say that Shakespeare wasn’t literary, but if the work survives in translation, then the story has be be really good. Thanks for the update on the other stuff of his. Just because you write potboilers doesn’t mean you’ll live on. YOu also need to hit something universal that will survive the centuries. This is why we don’t read most of the bestsellers from their time periods–the books don’t make it five decades, let alone five centuries. But they’re still good stories. Just not ones we want to read any longer.
Thanks for the numbers. Isn’t it interesting that we never know what will sell best? Just like NY publishing…
No, not all good books sell, for sure. But in contemporary fantasy, where I live, 10 sales a day will put you nicely onto the hot new releases list. If you can sustain that for a week (my closed loop circle is my reader email list), then you see sales that aren’t from your circle as the also boughts and the rest of the amazon artillery kicks in. In my case, sales rose steadily over 3 months, and then the slide started. I just released book two of the series, and that’s carried both books back up again. Maybe in a long term career, 3 months is a blip, and I’m just looking at this as a newbie… But if you can sell a lot of books in the three months, I think it’s a worthwhile effort to make. I am fortunate – I think any writer making a living from their writing is. But I ain’t all that special, either :).
I’ve been at this more than 30 years, Debora. Sadly, three months is a blip from that perspective. The fact that you’ve sustained this over more than a few weeks is good. And your other statistics are still good, however, because your second book sells to repeat customers. Which means that you can tell a story. And once readers realize you can tell a story, then they’ll follow you anywhere.
Glad you brought up the “storytelling” point. It seems that every time I go to some writers conference or gathering, there are always a bunch of writers ripping Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, etc. as being a bunch of hacks who got lucky. Those people are more concerned with having a manuscript that doesn’t get flagged by Grammatik than telling a good tale.
As for your original Fey Sacrifice cover, it is obvious that it was originally intended for a book titled “Spock grows a ponytail” that was killed due to an editorial decision. They decided not to waste the artwork.
LOL, Randy. You saw right through the marketing decision. 🙂 Yeah, I know on the storytelling. I get slammed on other people’s blogs whenever I mention that because those folks spent years in workshops moving commas around. Commas can be misplaced, and books with good stories will still sell, as Amanda Hocking has shown. Is it better to learn all parts of your craft? Sure. But the most important one is and always will be storytelling.
Forgot to add: Obviously, some traditional author self-publish correctly. People like you and Dean, Michael Stackpole, people who want to master this new skill-set.
Thanks, David. I used to be a publisher, I worked in advertising, I was an editor, so I learned blurbs and sales tools. Most writers–established writers–have no idea. It’s well known in NY that proposals from long-time writers usually suck as sales tools. They simply exist to give an “idea” of the story, and that idea is like panning for gold. Writers never bother to learn that skill. (Dean and I have been teaching it for over ten years to pro writers most of whom had no idea how to do this when they started.)
4.99 hasn’t hurt my novels at all. But we also have books for 2.99 (collections, mostly) and stories for 99 cents. So people can find an entry price point if they want it.
My opinion having seen the results of several traditionally published authors who have self-published a book or two… It’s a different skill set than what they’re used to, and some of them don’t take the time to master it.
I’ve seen some incredibly dull blurbs, and I can’t imagine the author who wrote them sold books to publishers with synopses that dry. Covers are usually okay but may not match the book. Marketing when you’re self-published is different. They tend to price higher. I’m not saying everyone should rush to .99. (In fact, .99 should only be used as a promotional tool.) But $2.99 usually sells better than $4.99, though it differs from book to book and author to author.
Basically, I think they just aren’t used to doing this stuff on their own. And it is daunting. I’ve had an agent and done the submission process. And I’ve now published 2 books of my own through Typing Cat Press, and it takes more work to do it yourself. I had to learn a number of new skills, so I understand.
Well, I’m one of those annoying indies selling a fair number of books, and I think you may overestimate the power of Kindleboards :).
I’m all about the long term, but catching a short-term ride on the amazon algorithms can sell a lot of books, and create an audience for the next one. And that ride lasts longer than a week or two. It doesn’t necessarily take marketing all over the internet to do it, either.
This could be a fun conversation in March :).
For most people, Debora, the sales bump does not continue once the Kindle boards or the group of writer friends or whatever closed circle you’ve advertised to is done getting the book. (In other words, it’s not just the Kindle boards, but any closed-loop group that supports your writing.) Just because you’ve made the Amazon algorithm doesn’t mean the book will continue to sell. Then it’s up to vagaries like the cover, the blurb…and of course, the quality of the writing. But the writing can be very good, and folks won’t download the free sample because the blurb or the cover doesn’t work. And that happens a lot more than you’d think. You’re one of the fortunate ones. The folks I know who do this–and look at their long-term numbers–see a blip, and then a serious decline. Many good writers slowly build back up, but not all of them.
I want you to know, Kris, that reading Destiny while it was free sent me straight to the samples of The Sacrifice and The Changeling, both of which are in my cart to buy as soon as my paycheck comes in. That story DOES set me up for the Fey world.
Great data point, Megan. I figured that story would only work best for folks already familiar with Solanda. So that goes back to the old adage: the writer never knows. 🙂 Thank you.
For some reason, Kris, it all reminds me of that old saying:
“From little acorns come great oaks.”
I’m beginning to think that comparing sales numbers and income levels is hardwired into us. We just can’t seem to stop unless we actively make ourselves stop… 😛
And I think there’s a silver lining to starting out with low sales numbers–the sense of freedom to take risks and make mistakes without feeling like there’s a major danger of screwing up or disappointing people. Mistakes–if learned from–can be an incredible way to learn things or have a breakthrough.
Hadn’t thought of that, L.M., but you’re exactly right. And that freedom is important, as Lawrence Block mentioned on his blog last week: https://lawrenceblock.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/dont-ask/
Kris, once again you nailed it:
“(the major literary critics)fail to understand what readers read for (…) We read to get lost in a good story (…) We read to go somewhere else.”
Gods, yes. It’s that simple and they *just don’t get it.* I love a great stylist, and nice writing is a big plus… but I just want a story that takes me away and, maybe, sticks with me even after I put it down.
Thanks, Dario. Me, too.
Thanks, Kris, for reminding us (again) that this new world requires patience, persistence, and long-tail thinking.
I posted my first ebook (a short story) on Kindle/Nook/Smashwords in Oct. 2010. It got a couple of sales in the first week, and I was happy (I didn’t care that it was my best friend who bought one of the copies – the system worked!). So I keep writing and posting more. I still don’t have a huge inventory up (a handful of short stories, one novelette, and one full-length novel) but something sells somewhere every day (that I know about right away)- and sometimes in places like Australia or Germany or Spain where I don’t know anyone who thinks they have to buy my book out of friendship or in a show of family solidarity. That makes me very, very happy.
One comment re: not reading the free/99-cent ebooks
Once the book is on my iPad, I don’t remember how much I paid for it (pretty much the same with a lot of my paper books, unless there’s a particular story about the acquisition of a certain one that made it memorable). So it surprises me every time I hear people say that they download books, but then don’t read them based on their price. True, my TBR pile of pixels is starting to rival the TBR stack of books on my dresser, but price has nothing to do with it.
I don’t remember how I got it either, Leigh, but I don’t always get to the books I buy, whatever I paid for them. So the result is the same. And there are folks who download all the free stuff, and never get to most of it. Just like any other TBR pile, I guess. 🙂
A very nice post, Kris!
I think there are a couple things to remember here. One, is we’re very early in the new publishing model right now, so the noise hasn’t totally settled out. I suspect some people see someone else sell XX copies in a month and expect that experience to be replicated. But as you so ably point out, sales are not even consistent across multiple titles of a single writer.
But I’m starting to find (in my own limited experience) that 10 or 15 or 20 sales per novel/short novel across all platforms are reasonable numbers. Both you and Dean have pointed out that even these “low” sales levels are enough to build a career on for a consistently productive writer. (Here’s a recent post by Dean that I think makes the point particularly well. http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5113)
I suspect people look at Amanda Hocking or Zoe Winter or John Locke and worry about hitting a home run. I think it’s much more productive to focus on hitting singles, manufacturing walks, or even, on occasion, leaning into a pitch. Just worry about getting on base and the runs will come.
It is an exciting time to be a writer, Michael. I love it.
And Steve, you know I’m a sucker for a baseball analogy, but that’s a good one. Perfect. And we are in early days yet. Most people don’t even have e-readers yet. What’ll happen when some form of e-reader becomes as ubiquitous as the TV?
I’m grateful to you, too. It’s great advice you’re giving, and you really _can’t_ give it too often.
Write, publish, repeat. Wow, I can actually _do_ that now! It’s an exciting time to be a writer…
Great post, Kris (heh, as someone talking about ebook numbers at lunch with you last weekend, I do wonder if I ruffled feathers. If so, that wasn’t my intention. I brought up my July sales mostly out of bafflement that they happened)
It is tough sometimes not to compare but yeah, you are right. No one’s numbers matter in the end but my own. As someone allergic to promotion, I know that it might take me a lot longer to see the kind of sales that a good number of people on places like the Kindleboards report.
But I’ve been e-publishing now for a year and what makes me happiest is seeing that every single month sales are as good or better than the month before. And the biggest boosts I’ve seen were from putting MORE stuff up. No review, mention, or guest post/interview has ever gotten me sales like just finishing new work and getting it available. The only thing I’ve seen that boosted sales other than that was having something free for a couple weeks. It hasn’t boosted sales of anything but itself yet, so we’ll see. I think free things often don’t get read or else they go to the bottom of people’s to-read pile, so I am not counting on seeing the results in the short term.
I think keeping a long-term perspective is the sanest thing to do. But personally, I can’t wait for January. I expect this Holiday season is going to do crazy things for all of our sales. 🙂
Exactly, Annie B. And any time anyone discusses numbers, people get ruffled. I see it every single numbers conversation, with different players. Same expressions.
But your observation is spot-on: the more stuff you put up, the more sales you get on the older stuff. I think it’s nifty. And congrats on increasing sales. Just so, as Captain Picard would say 🙂
I have no idea why some of my indie published titles sell better than others. I guess that kinda puts me on par with traditional publishers. *g* I have been going back and redoing some of my earlier covers now that I’ve learned more about cover design, not to mention that I have a better handle on making the program I use work the way I want it to. Way too early to tell if it’s made a difference in sales, but it has made author me happier with the way publisher me is presenting my product.
As for the rest, would I like Amanda Hocking’s sales numbers? Or James Patterson’s or Nora Roberts? Who wouldn’t? Am I annoyed because I don’t have sales numbers like that? No. The writer me just wants to tell stories. Luckily, publisher me has a long-haul view of this whole e-publishing business. 🙂
I love that, Annie R: “It has made author me happier with the way publisher me is presenting my product.” Exactly. Nicely done. Thanks.
Let me add my voice to those who felt this post was timely. Just yesterday I downloaded and read “Let’s Get Digital.” In the back were these authors I recognized from the Kindle Boards, who were selling so well. Then I remembered that some had been at indie publishing for ebooks for a year to a year and a half. I uploaded my first short story collection last September; the new edition of my first novel in January; and a second collection in March. I’m now on track to putting up two published stories a month well into next year, and I’m about to release a short novel. If I keep at I might be a success, but I won’t be if I let what others are doing discourage me. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Robert. Congrats on getting things up. And yes, this does take time. You’ll be amazed at how fast it goes, though. I’m stunned that I’ve been at this blog more than 2 years. Still feel like that nervous woman just starting out. 🙂
I have been following your Business Rusch posts for several weeks, now. I’m also a fan of your husband’s blog. Of all the sources I read about the publishing industry and craft of writing, your information rings most true with me.
Yes, I’m a newbie to this world of writing, but I am dedicated for the long haul. I’m writing consistently, and I figured out a schedule to improve my productivity. Thanks to you and your hubby for your realistic encouragement.
You’re welcome, M.E. Thanks for the feedback. I greatly appreciate it.
“But I would have been encouraged by five sales that month or even three. The fact that someone had found the books surprised and pleased me. The fact that that same someone invested some hard-earned dollars into my books really pleased me.”
Same here, with even lower numbers. Six short stories in the german Kindle shop since June. Two of them sold thrice in June, no sales in July, a third story sold once this month. Am I disappointed? Not at all! I didn’t do any promotion, yet some people found those stories and thought the cover or the blurb or the sample good enough to give it a try.
I earned 30 cents on each sale and so far I am over two Euros richer than I would be having not sold any story in traditional publishing (short stories being totally dead in Germany). Take into account that Germany is still sceptical concerning e-books and the Kindle (or other e-readers) aren’t very widespread, I’m looking very optimistic into the future…
I really should work on more stories and novels instead of reading your and Dean’s blogs…
Thanks, Frank. That’s exactly how I feel. Someone once dismissed the little bits of money you get in the beginning as “beer & pizza” money. I like beer & pizza. I like little bits of change. It all works out and eventually grows. Congrats on the sales. And yes, write more. 🙂
The self-pubbed authors out there selling only a handful of a single titles per month aren’t likely to boast about it in public. What that does for anyone thinking of self-publishing is skew the figures of what they think they’re going to earn right out of the chute.
I released a book on Apr 1 at 99c (a women’s history heavy on the romance). No promo except for the announcements on my blog (97 followers), FB (50) and twitter (125), so pathetic marketing. I upped my price to $2.99 on July 1, which is when I became active on Kindleboards – no other attributable promo in July. I do have an anthology I edited but didn’t contribute to up, but nothing else. Here are my sales for that single novel, pretty much all of which I have to attribute to Amazon’s own internal sales algorithms and display strategy, as well as price point:
68 – Apr
77 – May
184 – June
68 – July (price change)
16 – as of Aug 9
413 total to date
I also spent an inordinate amount of time compiling some interesting but overall not very helpful anecdotal statistics left in a Kindleboards thread about July sales. At the time I compiled them, I captured 93 responses.
Here are the results as I reported them in my blog last week:
46 respondents provided sales totals for individual titles. 47 respondents did not break sales figures down individually but provided aggregated totals across all the titles they have for sale. Where overall number of titles was not provided, I assumed the number was equal to the count of titles in the author’s sig line. This is not scientific, folks, and it’s not meant to be anything other than a curiosity to ‘hmmmm’ over.
You’ll see a range for number sold first, then the number of people reporting sales within that range. For example, in the first group, 10 people reported they sold between 1 and 10 copies of a single title in July. Another 10 people reported they sold between 11 and 50 copies. Etc.
Sales Numbers For Individual Titles:
1-10 – 10
11-50 – 10
51-100 – 6
100-200 – 7
200-300 – 4
300-1000 – 1
1000-2000 – 1
2000-3000 – 2
3000-4000 – 4
30,000+ – 1
Sales Numbers Across Multiple Titles
1-100 across 2-6 books – 14
101-200 across 2-8 books – 8
201-1000 across 2-5 books – 6
~900 across 17 books – 1
1000-1500 across 5+ books – 4
2500-4000 across 2-7 books – 6
4000-10,000 across 4+ books – 6
12,000 across 8 books – 1
~20,000 across 5 books – 1
I’m partnering with a bestselling romance author who’s recently seen the light and who has a backlist of 60+ titles and a handful of new shorter works she wants to offer online. As we’re setting up a micropress site to be the face of the operation and relying on Amazon, B&N, etc to sell (much as you do), I’m eager to learn the best tactics for marketing a backlist, so your experiences are quite helpful. I’ll be revisiting soon, I’m sure!
Thanks for the numbers, Phoenix. It does help to get them anonymously or in a group, like you did, so you take out the “brag” factor. Good stuff here.
Wow. Talk about a spot-on post. Thanks! From what I’ve seen, there are three things that make a book sell the first time, in no particular order: The cover, the blurb, and the book. If these are good, further sales of other books, particularly if it is a series, will follow.
And every writer should be thinking long-term. The only sales numbers that matter are your own.
Exactly, Teagan. The only sales that matter are yours. Great quote.
(lots of great quotes from y’all this morning.)
Thank you, Kris. I love your columns on Thursday and this is no exception.
Count me in as a new writer who’s happy to have a sale or two a day. Sometimes ten. I’ve got two titles up, only one a full-length novel, and absolutely no history to this name before 2011.
Kindleboards did give me a great launching pad. Sales did hit that magic 100/month early on for my novella. Then dropped. A couple months later, though, my novel (Love Handles, a romantic comedy) is experiencing more of a slow build. Given that it’s at $2.99 instead of 99c, I’m very happy to have it outperform the novella.
And another note to romance writers: I’m easily matching my Kindle sales on Barnes & Noble. So if you’re only at Amazon, get thee to PubIt (though, Lord, couldn’t they have come up with a better name? Anything that would make a seventh grader giggle is best avoided, IMO.)
I also love hearing I don’t have to spend my days promoting online. I’ve gone underground to, you know, actually write–got a new book coming out in October–and I get anxious feeling that I’m neglecting the business end. But the sales continue, even though it’s August. I’m very curious to see what happens this holiday season. $99 Kindles, no Borders, depressing current events that call for great stories.
Thanks again for your blog. (and btw, you’ll get at least one digital sale for Wickedly Charming from me a couple months ago. I particularly loved the age of the characters. Nice in a romance to have grown-ups.)
Thanks, Gretchen, on the comments and the Wickedly Charming sale. 🙂 Glad you liked it. (Glad to hear about the ages, since I’m working on the new one now and my characters are older–again. Always makes me nervous.)
Your point about going to other venues is absolutely right. My nonfiction sells extremely well in Australia through the iBookstore. So if I wasn’t there, I’d be missing out on a lot. And you’re right about romance & Pubit. Also, any pretty book–with a good cover–gets more attention on the color venues, Nook, iBookstore, etc, than it does initially on, say, Kindle. So folks, take Gretchen’s advice and get thee to all the other markets. It really helps.
Thanks too for the reality check on sales. It does move slowly, but it moves. And I’m curious about the holidays as well. I’ll do a post about expectations–I hope–before then.
Thank you so much for this! It is one of the best I’ve read so far about the reality of this business. As a new author and someone just learning the ropes it is easy to get caught up in all the noise out there about marketing and promotion. For many, I think it can prove daunting enough to want to quit. I find it interesting that people think that this business works any differently than all the other businesses out there. You can’t sell a product that isn’t there. And if your product sucks, it won’t sell, no matter how much you market it. You may be able to create a little hype at the beginning, but it will never be sustainable. Thank you for being a voice of reason in this madness!
You’re welcome, Erin. I love your point: “You can’t sell a product that isn’t there.” Yep.
To me, about the only comparison a writer should make with others is: Did I sell anything?
Assuming you’ve actually put it out somewhere so it is available such as Smashwords, you can play with promotion and marketing to your heart’s content.
In the interim between that first launch and your target to outsell Harry Potter, keep writing — a lot. Make each work the best it can be given your career stage.
I’ve got 4 novels. They’re on Smashwords, Lulu, and my on website/blog. I sell a package about once a month. Heck, I’m satisfied with that given the promotion I’ve done. Re-writes are in progress (I didn’t know Jack about Craft when I started), then they’ll go into the Kindle store.
If you write it, they will read — not! Dean and others have pointed out that there is a lot of luck in becoming “successful.” Just keep writing, make them the best you can, and keep promoting. Some will sell, other’s maybe not.
Go write something great.
Thanks, Bruce. Great points. 🙂
(I actually kinda like that first Fey cover — but I have a fine appreciation of cheekbones, so I’m an outlier. And it is awfully static.)
Here’s a question I’m not sure I’ve seen — what percentage of “downloaded the freebie” to “paid for another one” do you think is a healthy one? E.g., should an author be worried if they’re only getting purchases from .01% of the people who checked out their freebies? (Number drawn out of my non-existant hat.) Or, flipping that around, how effective is a loss-leader story?
Beth, my personal opinion on free stories is that if you want them to boost sales, then the stories must be tied to a series or be very, very similar to everything else you do. I only have one free story right now and that’s because I don’t like charging for less than 1000 words (another weird Kris-ism). I have a Fey story and several Retrieval Artist stories, but they’re not similar enough to the series or late in the series or short enough that I’m comfortable giving them away for free. Not because I don’t believe in freebies–I do. It’s because I don’t think they’ll lead the readers back to the books with the proper expectation. Expectation is the key here. The reader should go from free to paid easily, imho.
And the other part of your question, I have no idea on percentages. If you don’t have a lot of work up there, then a free story is just plain silly. And I don’t know about you, but I download a lot of free stuff and never get to it. I think a lot of readers are like that. So free isn’t a guarantee of boosting sales, although the right free thing will. I do know that when Audible gave away free for a week the first books of the Fey & the Retrieval Artist, that really goosed sales. But the goose continued throughout the year as people got to the free book. So patience is required even with free. 🙂
Boy, did I ned to hear this today. Once again, you sent me back to the land of peace. Just write, finish, and publish. Don’t stress about the little things like promotion, formatting, or covers, one of which is mostly a waste of effort and the other two have easy fixes. 99% of my energy needs to go into writing, finishing, and putting it on the market. Just like in the “old” days.
On a personal note, after being an indie writer only this year, I’m beginning to see first hand what you and Dean are talking about regarding thinking long term. I’ve had a story out that didn’t sell much at all the first four months — maybe twice — then suddenly, it took off. I’ve gotten an email about it, had a Facebook exchange about it, and noticed a raving review on Goodreads about it. But back in March and February, I was certain that story was going to die a long, lonely death. So now I know first hand what you’re talking about regarding watching stories grow hot, then cold, then hot again. So weird.
Thanks for everything you do here. It’s much, much appreciated!
All my best,
This post is exactly what I needed to read this morning.
You have a knack for putting things into the right perspective.
Thanks, Kat & Jeff. Glad it helped. And Jeff, yes, there’s no explaining this. Isn’t it weird? And fun?