Business Musings: Blip or New Reality?
A lot of times on this blog, I deal with the problems in publishing. Bad problems, like agents embezzling, traditional publishers not paying royalties, income going down, or sales not up to expectations.
In the early days of indie publishing, I would also blog about the problems of success. In our workshops and classes, we call them problems you trade up for.
Just because a person is successful—in any business—doesn’t mean that the problems in their life have gone away. In fact, success brings its own share of problems.
And like all of you, whenever I look at the next rung on the success ladder, I don’t want to hear about the potential problems. I say, Bring ’em on! And I mean it.
But when those problems arrive hand in glove with success, you need to deal with the problems properly to make the success last.
In the past year, a number of writers have had the marvelous difficulty of “sudden” success. And they’ve contacted me about how to handle it.
As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with a lot of change in my life, and it wasn’t until things have settled down these past few weeks that I realized just how many times people have asked about a certain problem in indie publishing that doesn’t appear (in the same obvious way) in traditional publishing.
I got another such inquiry this week, put quite succinctly and clearly, and I realized that the problem the writer was dealing with wasn’t unique to that writer. It happens to a lot of indie writers, and they’ve been talking to me, and I just hadn’t put it together because my focus has been elsewhere.
A little background: the writers who’ve been contacting me listened to me and the other writers who’ve been around a while. These newer writers wrote and wrote and wrote. They wrote in series as well as standalones. They set up their websites and their newsletters, but didn’t do a lot of promotion until they’d had at least ten books published.
Then, something hit. For one person it was a Book Bub that goosed the sales in the entire series. Another writer experienced exponential growth from month to month to month, as more and more readers discovered the series. A third writer saw a huge bump in sales every time a new product (be it short story or novel) in one series got published.
There are a bunch of other variations on this, but you get the idea. These writers have a lot of product, and they’ve been watching sales increase. Then, something—and it varies—hits, and the writers see their sales increase massively.
In one writer’s case, the book sales went from pay-the-electric bill money to three-times-the-paycheck money. In another writer’s case, the book sales went from 10 per day to 100 in every book in the series.
In every single case, the change caused a life-changing increase in income—or it would, if the sales continued.
So after a month or two of these increased sales, the writers contacted me and asked:
Is this a blip or will the sales fall off a cliff?
They want to know if/when they can quit their day jobs, or increase their spending. They want help planning.
Is this a blip or will it all vanish tomorrow?
Gosh, folks, if I knew that, I could manage everyone’s careers, including my own, with ease.
And I know that the writers who asked me this know it as well. But everyone who contacted me, from the spouse of a newly minted bestseller to a writer whose income went from coffee money to five figures per month, were business people. They knew better than to spend the money as fast as it came in, knowing that method destroys businesses and careers.
But they were planners—as all good business people are. And they wanted to know how to plan.
I’ve dealt with this sideways in a bunch of blogs, but as the writer who wrote to me last week pointed out, I’ve never dealt with this problem directly.
And it is a problem: a trade-up-for problem.
So, let’s deal with this one spectacular problem of successful writers. I wish and hope that all of you get to experience this problem in your own writing careers.
First, to answer the question as seriously as I can:
Is this a blip or will the sales fall off a cliff?
Well, essentially, all huge book sales are a blip. Stephen King’s books don’t sell on release what they did in the 1980s; J.K. Rowling’s non-Harry Potter book sales are lower on release than her Potter books which are, by the way, selling steadily, but not at the stratospheric numbers they sold at in the early part of this century.
That stupid old adage what comes up will come down applies here.
But if you think about sales bundled together as a ball tossed into the air, then extend the metaphor. Sometimes that ball catches the wind and goes at the high level for a long long time, only to land somewhere unexpected.
Sometimes the ball lands on a roof, and it takes forever for the ball to fall down (if it ever does).
Sometimes the ball goes straight up, and comes down into the thrower’s hands.
And on and on and on.
That’s how book sales work, and there’s really no predicting it. Sometimes something happens in the culture—we’re hungry for a particular kind of book, perhaps—and that’s catching the wind. And sometimes the right kind of promotion makes that ball land and stay on a roof, which is, essentially, a new and permanent change in the sales figures.
And sometimes what looks like a blip actually is a blip.
The thing is, you can’t know any of that except in hindsight, which makes planners—like all good business people are—crazy, crazy, crazy.
So here’s what you do when you get this kind of success:
- Realize that it will take months to know what kind of pattern your sales have hit.
Blip? Maybe. Your sales might plateau. Or grow. Or the increase might only last a few weeks. Or it might last a few months. There is no way to know in the moment.
- Plan as if this increase is a blip.
Bank the money. Spend only what you would have spent if this increase had not happened. Keep the money separate if you possibly can, so you know how much you’ve earned that’s additional.
I would bank the money for three months before spending any of it. That way, you’ll know a few more things than you knew when the blip started. You’ll know if the sales are increasing or decreasing or staying the same.
If the sales continue to increase, cautiously figure out what you want to do with the added money. Three months is not enough time to decide if you should quit your day job (unless the money is 3 times your annual salary), but it is enough time to cautiously invest the money in some things for your business—a new computer, say, or something that will make the day-to-day easier.
Or just keep banking the money, saving up for whatever is next on your writing bucket list (like quitting the day job).
If the sales have plateaued, then keep banking the money. You don’t know if this is the new normal yet or a long blip. Give it another three months.
And if the sales fell off that cliff, then you can be happy that you did not make any major life changes in response—and you now have some extra cash in the bank. Yay, you!
- Don’t change your writing behavior. Keep your old publishing schedule, the one you developed before the blip. Just do your thing.
If only one of your series is selling well, and the others aren’t, don’t drop everything to write in the “successful” series. Again, just keep doing what you were doing. There’s no way to know if readers will eventually cross over.
But the one thing that I do know is this: If you burn out on a series, it will show, and readers will leave. Keep your writing interesting and fun, and do not make it into work.
Switching your writing plan because of sales is one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make. Writing then goes from want-to to have-to. And have-to leads to defining the writing as work and defining the writing as work leads to burnout.
Don’t do it.
- Don’t try to analyze what you did “right.” What you did right was have a lot of product, so that readers who finished the book that started the increased sales had other books to turn to.
Everything else will be impossible to know, and even more impossible to replicate.
- Don’t let the increased sales into your process—in any way. A lot of writers, even experienced writers, suddenly start playing it safe when they achieve success. These writers let the readers into their process or they let what they imagine the “ideal reader” to be, and suddenly that imaginary “ideal reader” starts dictating what the writer should do.
Or very nice well-meaning readers might write a letter praising this aspect of a book or hating that aspect. Those things get into a writer’s mind, particularly if combined with increased sales.
Letting others into your process, either through the (imaginary) pressure caused by increased sales or through the letters you’ll get because of it or the reviews that will come your way, will destroy your process.
Do what you can to hang onto your creativity.
And that’s it, in the short term, which is kinda sorta what those writers were asking.
But here’s the next step.
After a year, you will see the new pattern in your writing—provided that the “blip” wasn’t a blip at all. If you’ve plateaued at a higher sales level, then that’s the new normal. If the sales continue to increase, then you haven’t hit your plateau yet.
Do your planning based on a number much lower than your highest monthly sales. Don’t even take an average of sales, because that won’t show where you’re at now. Better to go for the median income (the exact middle) or, if you’re truly financially conservative, the lowest number you hit since the blip started. That low number then becomes your newest number for planning purposes.
And now for the big question: Should you quit your day job or increase your spending significantly or do something else major?
Answer that question with your savings, not with your sales. If you’ve banked the money as I told you to do, then figure out what amount of money in the bank will take the pressure off your writing. The worst thing you can do is have to write real fast to keep up with your spending, just because you increased your spending.
Better to have the money set aside and then when it hits your dream number, do that thing you’ve been planning to do.
For example, Dean and I started WMG Publishing in 2010. We knew we needed someone else to handle all of the publishing duties, but we had learned the lesson I mentioned above the hard way (In our previous publishing company, we hired based on monthly income and found ourselves constantly behind). We didn’t hire Allyson Longueira at WMG until we had one year of her salary in the bank. And then, when we offered her the job, we told her we could only guarantee a year.
She joined us anyway, and has been with us for six years now, and runs WMG. That was our goal, and we achieved it, but we did so with money already banked, not money we were trying to make every month.
As those writers who’ve been contacting me know, planning after an unexpected success is just as important as planning when the business is not yet successful. Predicting whether that success will continue is as hard as predicting when (if) success will hit.
Be conservative with your money and your plans. Hope for the best, but plan for a blip.
And celebrate. Even a blip in sales will help your writing career along the way. You will gain new readers, just much more slowly than you had hoped for.
Success is fun—if you let yourself enjoy it, and you don’t put the wrong kind of pressure on it.
To those of you who have asked the question, congrats! And to the rest of you who want to trade up for this problem, just keep writing. You might be one of those writers whose career grows slowly. And that’s good too.
I’ve had a lot of success in my writing, and a lot of blips. In traditional publishing, the blips were harder to deal with. I’d get a big advance and lots of promises that This! This will make you a worldwide bestseller only to have something go wrong in the publishing or my editor leave or the plans get forgotten. I learned to manage blips (usually big advances) and lower my own expectations.
Indie is different: the blips can create plateaus. It’s fun to watch, but distracting. Just remember what I learned in traditional—being a fulltime writer is a gift, one many writers never achieve. A lifetime as a career writer is the biggest success of all.
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“Business Musings: Blip or New Reality,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright Canstock Photo/tirlikk.