Business Musings: The Hybrid Learning Curve
Recently, my husband and writer Dean Wesley Smith ran a series of excellent posts on his blog about following your muse versus writing to market. Whenever one of us writes about this topic, writers come out of the woodwork to tell us that we’re wrong. Those writers, all of whom have been in the business less than five years, state that they understand the market, they have been writing to market, and they make way more money than we do.
They base their assumptions on Amazon sales ranks of a handful of our titles, not realizing that between us, we have over 600 titles in print, and we make money all over the world (and the spectrum) on subsidiary rights. For example, I’ve spent much of the past month (since the election, oddly enough) negotiating four new Hollywood projects, as well as finalizing some details of a movie that’s in development.
None of those projects, all of which started as novels, was written to market. Not a one. They were all written because I was following my muse. And traditional publishing repeatedly told me (back in the day) that one of those projects—the one that has currently earned the most in subsidiary rights, including Hollywood—was completely unmarketable.
Okay. Fine. I’m not going to relitigate Dean’s posts. I’d rather have you read what he wrote. Start here.
The writers who think they out earn us or are more successful than we are compose one aspect of this rabid response to the art versus commerce posts. The other rabid response is also fascinating.
It goes like this:
You’ve already made a name for yourself, so of course, you can write whatever you want. You’re making so much money you don’t have to think about ever making money again.
Dean has always answered this by noting that he spent about ten years writing to market, and it burned him out. He wrote tie-ins and ghostwrote dozens of books, none of which he owned the copyright to. He will always respond to those writers who contact him by telling them the latest royalty amount he made on those books in the past six months.
This time? It was (I believe) $12. Yep. $12, on all of those projects. For six months. Yep, made him rich writing to market did, writes Kris, channeling Yoda. Am I making a lot of money off the single Star Wars book I wrote now that the new movies are out?
Well, I’m making more than I did a few years ago. I think my last six-month total on that book was $50. The contract was atrocious. Believe it or not, the publisher still has a reserve against returns. On the ebook. Which didn’t even exist when the contract was written.
Yeah, I’m making a fortune off those books I wrote to market as well. Not.
The books that earn my living are the ones that I wrote because I wanted to. When this new world of publishing came around, I had a backlog of unpublished novels that my various agents (or I) had been unable to sell. I published them, and I’m very happy about it.
I did have a name to build on when the revolution happened. So did Dean, but his name was connected to media books. He only had one original novel under his own name.
He essentially started from scratch in 2012, and has published…gosh, I don’t know…a hundred? books since. (The man is startlingly prolific.) He writes and writes and writes, and everything is worth reading. (My favorite? His Thunder Mountain series. Talk about unmarketable: westerns, time travel, historical, science fiction, and romantic. In other words, unique to Dean and completely enjoyable.)
His handicap coming into this new world of publishing was pretty clear to us. He had a name, but no material to publish except short stories. His initial goal was to move the tie-in novels off the first page of an Amazon search of his name. Once he did that, his next goal was to bury those books so that it would be hard to turn them up in a search.
He achieved the first goal within a year; the second happened when we weren’t looking.
Weirdly enough, the upshot of all of this was that he was in the same boat all new writers were in after 2009—he could chose what to do with his own career. He zoomed merrily along, writing what he wanted, and its paying off.
A lot of tie-in writers are in his boat. Most of them tried indie publishing and then gave it up, because their indie books made no money out of the gate. Most of those writers didn’t have the patience to build what was essentially a new career. Now, most of them continue to write tie-ins, doing the same work they did twenty years ago for advances that are one-fifth to one-tenth what they were before. (These writers are also fighting for fewer tie-in slots, but that’s another blog—one I’ll probably never write.)
My problem in 2009 seemed obvious to me. I had a backlist—a strong one—and I slowly got most of the rights in that list reverted. I had a lot of books that already had the rights reverted, so we published those, concentrating on the various series that I wanted to continue working on.
I had started so many series, and I loved all of them. Traditional publishing’s stupid business practices stopped me from continuing many of those series so sometimes I had to abandon them. The upshot was that I continued working on the current series, because the older series weren’t in my head as clearly any more.
Plus, new series kept being born—sometimes from short stories, which I write in abundance. (I almost got derailed from this blog by a short story idea. I had to write the opening, just so I could come back here.) I’m not writing as fast as I can because if I did that, I’d burn out. But I am writing as fast as I can and still maintain my sanity.
I also had scattered pen names, some of which I’ve retired. Two had become names in their own right—Kristine Grayson and Kris Nelscott. Those two names go hand in hand for me anyway. Nelscott is hard-boiled at its lightest, and occasionally hits noir. Grayson is incredibly goofy. I often write a Grayson right after writing a Nelscott, just to clear my palate.
In 2010 or so, I saw my task as writing as much as I could in all of my series, while staying refreshed by writing short stories and something new. That’s worked.
Because I had so much backstock, I hadn’t noticed some of the issues other hybrid writers had.
What I heard the most from writers who published traditionally, was that their sales weren’t as good as they expected.
It often took some drilling down to figure out exactly what they meant by that. For most, it had to do with velocity. Traditional publishing is based on velocity. The books that sell the most in their first month or so are considered to be the most successful—even if a slow-moving book ultimately sells more copies.
For example, traditional publishing considers a book that sells 5,000 copies in its first month and only 1,000 copies the rest of the year as much more successful than a book which consistently moved 2,000 copies per month for the entire year. All of traditional publishing (even now) is set up to reward the fast-selling book and ignore the steady sellers.
Most traditional writers have learned that their best sales are in the first month of release. So if that first month of indie release is only 100 sales, as it was with my first title, The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, the writers panic. I sure did. I thought I had made a horrid mistake.
It takes hybrid writers several books to grasp—on a deep level—the idea of slow growth, growth that builds rather than growth that declines.
So usually, when I’m dealing with traditional writers who have newly gone hybrid, I check to see if that’s their problem. For most, it is. But a handful would come to me complaining that expected sales—guaranteed sales, according to them—simply didn’t happen.
Mostly, I blamed bad cover design, bad blurb writing, limited availability (Amazon only), and often the evidence backed me up. Even if the newly hybrid writer hired out her covers that didn’t mean the covers were any good.
Also, as I’ve been explaining through countless blogs, the velocity model doesn’t work any more, not even for traditional publishing. There’s no reason to buy a book in its first week of release unless you plan to read it that week. Because the book will be there a year later. So readers add it to the wish list, and buy it when they’re ready.
The days of losing your opportunity to buy a book by failing to pick it up in the first three months are long over.
Readers have changed their buying habits over this, but writers have yet to change their sales expectations—partly because traditional publishers haven’t yet changed theirs. They still front-load all of their publicity, take the paper books out of print within a year or so, and do nothing once the book is six months old unless the book sells better than expected in the beginning.
In talking to hybrid writers, I did miss something, though. It only concerned a handful of writers, and most of them only wrote one series. These writers would email me after they had indie-released a new book or two in their existing series, and complain that the series wasn’t growing.
When these writers were traditionally published, the series grew well. Each book sold better than the last. Now, even taking into account the year or so of sales, the books sold at the same number of copies or less than the previous volumes had.
I couldn’t figure it out, not that I spent a lot of time on it. I knew that my Retrieval Artist series—15 books strong—has grown exponentially since the rights reverted. I also knew that my Smokey Dalton series, under my Nelscott pen name, has grown dramatically, and would grow more if I just wrote another book or two.
My Grayson series struggled, though, and I figured that had to do with all of the stuff that my traditional publishers told me. Humor doesn’t sell well, they’d say. Mixed genres don’t sell well, they’d say. Readers don’t like fractured fairy tales, they’d say. Or maybe, as the horrendous, terrible, god-awful, worst editor I have ever worked with bar none told me in the conversation that made me pull my books from the company, maybe I just don’t write good romance.
That’s what I was thinking.
I’d get tons of letters on my Diving series, and it was doing fine, particularly outside of the United States. The growth was good, but not as good as the Retrieval Artist. I figured that was my fault again. I’ve been writing a lot of Retrieval Artist books, and haven’t tended to the Diving universe, something I’ve started remedying this year.
So…I got surprised this past week. I announced in Thursday’s blog that I had gotten the rights back to the first three Diving novels. I had only sold U.S. and U.K. rights, so all of the books were under my control in all the other countries, but not in the U.S. or U.K.
We have remedied that. All it took was the click of a few buttons and now the versions of the first three Diving books that you find in ebook are all published by WMG at a good price point.
That wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was the emails I got. Email after email after email from readers of this blog or from fans of my work or from sf readers who had heard about the series who told me, in one way or another, that they didn’t want to pay $9.99 for the first book in the series, so they never started the series. They read a lot of my other books instead.
Now, these readers said, they were going to pick up Diving into The Wreck, the first book.
I am not surprised that price made a difference. I’ve written about price a lot. I understand pricing very well. I’ve owned retail businesses since I was in my twenties and have studied price.
High prices are often a barrier to certain types of readers. That’s why I’m so happy to have these books under my control. Because I’m setting the ebook prices at a much lower price ($5.99) which still allows for discounting and sales and judicious use of an introductory rate. At some point, the first book will have a much lower price point than the others, the way that we’re now selling The Disappeared, the first book in the Retrieval Artist series.
I’m still a writer who “grew up” in the traditional publishing world, though, so when I saw that my Diving books were growing exponentially overseas, but growing very slowly here, I figured, hey! maybe these books appeal to non-Americans more than Americans.
It never occurred to me that the problem was the ebook editions of the first three books. Those books were first priced at $11.99, and did get reduced to $9.99, but they’ve been that price for years, with no sales, no discounts, no bundles, no promotion, no nothing.
The series, at least from the traditional publisher’s point of view, was dead, so why invest any thought into it—even though those books were selling thousands of copies per year.
I was getting readers, but not nearly as many as I could have gotten had the books been properly managed.
Which got me to look at the Grayson books. Initially the traditional publisher (with the world’s worst horrid terrible editor) would run sales on the Grayson titles. That stopped a few years ago, and now the books are stuck in Kindle Unlimited, where I make no money at all on their sales. Not a dime. Because of the way that the publisher interprets the contract—not because of what the contract actually says. (Yes, I plan to fight this.)
Besides that, however, none of my other Grayson books are in Kindle Unlimited. I won’t do it, so there is no growth whatsoever. None. The audiences for Kindle Unlimited and regular Amazon are very, very different.
And when the traditionally published Grayson books weren’t in Kindle Unlimited, they were priced high for romance novels, creating yet another barrier to entry.
(Yeah, yeah. I have to get these books reverted. It just moved up the priority list, since I didn’t have to fight for the Diving books.)
I know, I know. Realizing that both series’ slow-growth had to do with the traditional publishing volumes was a face-palm for me. I knew it with Fantasy Life, because who can ignore the $15.99 ebook? How stupid is that? But the other series problems just didn’t register.
There are ways around those series problems, which a lot of hybrid writers are finding. They’re starting new series with side characters. They’re marketing parts of the other books or doing an omnibus volume. But the growth will never be the same as it was in traditional publishing just because the lack of control in the first few books in the series hampers any effort to grow the series.
Those of you who regularly publish indie know what I mean, but those of you who are newly hybrid might not. There are a ton of strategies to interest people in a series. I’ve used a bunch of them on the Retrieval Artist.
As I mentioned, The Disappeared is cheaper than the other books. It’s $2.99. Why $2.99 and not perma-free? I don’t believe in offering a book on a retail site for free. I can, however, give the book away for free to my readers or on my newsletter or in any other promotion I want.
At $2.99 I can also do a variety of reduced price promotions, like a 99-cent novel sale or a $1.99 sale. I can offer the book as part of a Storybundle or in BundleRabbit, and the buyer will still think my part of the bundle is a good deal.
Heck, speaking of bundles, I can bundle The Disappeared with some of my other books on my own and offer it for a special price. Or I can give it to my mystery readers or do whatever I can think of as a promotion.
I couldn’t do any of that with the Diving series. Not in the States. So that hampered growth as well.
The handful of writers who wrote to me, saying their one and only series wasn’t doing as well, may have had a point that I missed. The point was that it didn’t matter if their cover was good or their blurb worked or that they had a fan base. They couldn’t grow the fan base, and that would have an impact on sales out of the gate.
Because a handful of readers will always wait until they’re ready to read before buying the book. They no longer buy on the velocity method. So the best way to increase your sales out of the gate is to increase your readership.
My readership on Diving has grown inside the U.S. and the U.K. enough that I didn’t really notice a problem, until you folks pointed it out. You can bet I would have noticed had it been my only series.
Which begs the question: why go to traditional publishing to get your series off the ground? I get so many letters from writers who decide to do just that.
Those writers tell me they’ll get higher visibility and more traction if they go traditional with the first book. That used to be true, but is true no longer. You get into more stores if you do it yourself, although (romance writers) you won’t get a mass market edition.
But…let’s pretend that those writers are right. Let’s pretend that they will get a better launch through traditional publishing. The launch will wear off. The contract will remain. You’ll lose control of the book for the first 35 years of the copyright, and you’ll be paid diddly squat (believe me) because publishers will change how they interpret contracts. See the contract series for that (or better yet, buy the book, either on its own or in this bundle which ends on the 22nd).
Worse, though, in my opinion, is that you have lost control of the beginning of your series. I’ve always known that was a problem, but this past week really brought that home to me. I’d been ignoring the first 3 books of the Diving series because I knew I’d have to fight to get them back. I was planning on that fight. So while I was getting ready for that, I focused on my other books in my other series.
The fight didn’t happen, so now I have to revamp my thinking. And I’m happy to do so. I realize just how much I neglected the promotion side of the Diving series because I couldn’t do the really important work of getting people into the series.
And neither can any hybrid writer who traditionally published the first few books in her series. Should she abandon the series? No, but she shouldn’t expect rapid growth on it either.
If she’s a fast writer, she should write books outside of that series, either in a new series or as standalone titles.
Now that I’ve been mentally slapped around again (it seems like the indie world does that to me about once a month), I will add one other thing. Those of you who want to go traditional to give your series a proper launch, don’t.
Think five years or ten years out. What happens when you’re 10 books into the series, and you can’t offer a discount on the first book? You can’t promote it in any way. You can’t even control what the cover looks like or how the interior looks (my traditionally published Diving interiors suuuuuuck). You’ve hamstrung yourself right out of the gate.
There are a million things you can do to keep your half-traditional, half-indie series going. I’ve done a bunch of them with some of my series. I’ll write more about Diving later next year as I settle into a new publishing program.
But there are more things you can do when the entire series is under your control.
I sure feel for those hybrid writers now, though. The ones who went indie thinking their first six months would be paid for by sales equivalent to the sales of their traditional launches. I always tried to warn writers who were going indie for the first time about decreased early sales; I never thought to warn those writers that sales on an existing series would grow much more slowly than sales of a brand-new series.
I shoulda known. But I’m still learning.
Thanks, everyone, for the letters. I love the interactive nature of this blog. You folks rock!
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“Business Musings: The Hybrid Learning Curve,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by © Can Stock Photo / artoptimum