Business Musings: Inventory
We are at the tailend of what I like to call the messy middle of the Diving Universe Kickstarter. Every Kickstarter has a pattern. It goes well in the beginning—almost a straight upward trajectory if you’re graphing it. And then it plateaus. If you’re lucky, the Kickstarter has another growth spurt before funding. And if you’re really lucky, there’s another growth spurt at the very end.
Bear with me: this is not strictly another Kickstarter post like last week. But it is Kickstarter that led to the center of this post.
The messy middle of a Kickstarter is like the middle of a long hike. You know you’re getting somewhere, but it’s not going as fast as you want it to.
Not every Kickstarter works that way, but most do. And people who run Kickstarters try all kinds of methods to get through that mid-Kickstarter slog.
Some people shorten their Kickstarters, so that the messy middle lasts only a day or two. Others use stretch goals to get through that messy middle.
That’s what we do at WMG. We do a lot of stretch goals.
I participate in a lot of Kickstarters that are not WMG run. I contribute stories to anthologies that are being Kickstarted, mostly, usually as one of the marquee names. Sometimes I give out books or some kind of signed reward.
I also back Kickstarters, when I see them, and if they interest me. Sometimes I don’t take any rewards, and sometimes I glom onto something really cool. (My favorite non-writing or genre-related Kickstarter [okay, besides the Veronica Mars movie years ago] are the Kickstarters run by Leaf Lundgren for StandStand. I bought all incarnations of their standing desks and find that I use the laptop StandStand and the StandStand Angle the most [In fact, I use the Angle every day.])
What I’ve noticed is that most Kickstarters struggle to find stretch goals. When I participate in other people’s Kickstarters, often the person running the Kickstarter asks me to contribute something to the original rewards or as a stretch goal.
We did that for one Fiction River Kickstarter, and it was the toughest Kickstarter we ever did. We needed to coordinate with everyone who supplied the extras. Many of the extras were in paper form, not ebook, so we had extra shipping costs. We also spent a lot of employee time with the coordination, shipping, and communications. It wasn’t that easy, and surprisingly, parts of it didn’t work.
Not everyone’s fan base, for example, will support a Kickstarter, especially a Kickstarter with only one reward from that particular writer, or a Kickstarter that’s about an anthology (or magazine) in a genre (or genres) that the fan doesn’t much like.
It’s tough, and so from that Kickstarter forward, we decided we would only use rewards that were published or produced by WMG Publishing.
That makes the Kickstarter a lot easier for us, because we have a lot of product. As we’re doing this Kickstarter, I’m also prepping for the Las Vegas Licensing Expo. Dean and I representing ourselves, and because of an emergency at WMG, we’re also representing WMG.
I’m writing all the profile information for the expo, and the sentence I write the most is for WMG. The sentence goes like this: We have over 1,000 pieces of intellectual property available for various licenses.
If I really looked at the pieces of intellectual property and talked about the parts that were available to license, the number would be in the hundreds of thousands. (With all the branch licenses and possible products that could be made from our work. If you don’t understand this, look at Dean’s Magic Bakery posts. If you still don’t understand, get the Copyright Handbook.)
I didn’t really count or promote the nonfiction, and I certainly didn’t deal with the lectures or workshops that we also produce. I was only looking at fiction IP. One-thousand pieces (meaning novels, stories, novellas, and the like), and that’s an underestimate.
I got a bit freaked out by that, if I’m being honest.
But that freak-out was tempered by the Kickstarter. Because we offer great stretch goals in our Kickstarters.
On the night I write this, the Friday before this post goes live, we just posted the fourth stretch goal. If we hit $12,500 on the Kickstarter, every backer who chooses a reward will get that reward, three extra ebook novellas, seven extra ebook short stories, one $50 writing lecture, one $150 classic writing workshop, and one $250 business lecture bundle.
We have more great things planned if we hit $15,000, and even more if we go higher.
One of the rules we made internally for Kickstarter was that we wouldn’t offer rewards that were hard to fulfill. So in order to give the Kickstarter backers these rewards, we’re dipping into inventory.
The book that started the Kickstarter, my new Diving novel, The Renegat, is already finished, as are the two books of extras that include unfinished bits of the Diving series, as well as essays about those extras. I finished those in February. WMG is doing the final edits on everything now.
A lot of writers do Kickstarters and other projects like Patreon as an impetus to write or finish a project. We did that with our first Kickstarter for Fiction River to see if there was an audience for the anthology magazine. (Spoiler alert! There was.)
But because of my own peculiar psychology, I don’t want to other people inside my writing office. Instead of having my readers choose what I’ll work on next, I want to choose it. If no one is interested in buying it, oh, well. At least I had fun writing it.
So, when I’m doing Patreon or a Kickstarter, I don’t have to promise to write something. I don’t have to worry about not fulfilling any part of my Kickstarter. All the pieces of the Kickstarter are already done. Or, in the case of the hardcover Diving books, are 75% done. (We just have to take the existing files and put them through the hardcover process. I’m sure everyone at WMG has now shuddered because I used the word “just.”)
The benefits of a vast inventory is that it gives us a lot of choice.
The rewards for this Kickstarter, for example, are either science fiction (or sf-related) materials or they’re specials for writers. We can throw in an ebook or a classic workshop because they not only already exist, they’re relatively easy to distribute. We just need someone’s email address, which Kickstarter requires, and then we send the Book Funnel link or the coupon code for the material on Teachable.com.
There’s going to be employee time, sure, and there will be a lot of organization. I don’t want to minimize that. But there’s no coordination with other suppliers of the rewards, very little waiting for rewards to be completed (just a bit on those hardcovers or because of other contractual deadlines), and no double shipping costs (paying to have something shipped to WMG, which WMG must then ship elsewhere).
We’re really lucky. The inventory gives us a lot of options, not just on something like Kickstarter, but with projects like Storybundle. We have books in many different bundles because we have so many books. Each is a possible gateway to gaining a new reader.
With such a large inventory, we can also experiment—and often do. We see which series handle first free better. We’re finding that our cozy mysteries do the best with that, while sf readers seem to prefer a discount, not something free. We’re experimenting with different promotions, sometimes using books with very poor sales, to see if the promotions boost the sales.
Having a lot of inventory makes it possible for me to do Free Fiction Monday. In the first four years of doing FFM, I never repeated a story. I had that many pieces of short fiction. Since, I try not to repeat the same story for at least two or three years, unless the story is a fan favorite and appropriate to various holidays.
We also do some giveaways for charitable purposes, and a few on newsletters. We’re constantly shifting things around, trying to see what works and what doesn’t, using already existing materials.
If we stopped producing brand-new fiction tomorrow, the employees of WMG would still have a lot to do. They could start rebranding old series, and by the time they finished, they’d be a few years out, and it would be time to start rebranding all over again.
The large inventory gives us a lot of opportunities, and it also hurts our ability to exploit those opportunities.
A writer with only ten novels or a handful of short fiction works would be able to do a small catalog for the Las Vegas Licensing Expo, and possible licensees would see everything that writer does.
We can’t do that. We had to pick four series, and focus on presenting those properly for the fair. Even then, we haven’t used all of the material on the series. And I’m hoping to be mentally fresh and wide awake as we have conversations, because I’ve had free-range conversations with licensees in the past. Sometimes they ask about other inventory. They’ll express an interest in, say, stories about gaming, and unless I’m on my toes (or Dean is) we might say we have nothing, when that’s not true.
Being able to do a pitch on a decades’ old story will be tough, but we’ll try.
Having this vast inventory is one of the problems that big traditional publishers have. One reason they don’t explicitly market the licensing rights to all the properties they control is time and knowledge. Those publishers don’t really know what’s in their back catalogs.
Dean and I know what’s in ours, and we know what WMG controls. Trying to call up 1,000 pieces of IP from the mental Rolodex, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. And even if we bring iPads with links to our bibliographies and catalogs, that still won’t help with the pitch line or the conversation. We’ll have to work off our memory at some point. We’re going to do our best to be up to the task.
That’s a problem to trade up for, though. Because it’s better to have too much inventory than too little.
You want to be in the position that a colleague of mine is in at the moment. One of the projects he has developed for television just got greenlit. The company that greenlit the project is hungry for more content, and they want to work with people they know and like. They know and like him. (He told me the other day that he’s their favorite child at the moment.) So they want to see everything he’s got.
He is whittling “everything” down to “everything that he can envision as a TV show.” He’s scrambling to get all of that done before someone else becomes the company’s favorite child.
These feeding frenzies, as another friend of mine calls it, happen all the time with film and TV rights. Either a company wants everything one writer has in a particular genre or that writer’s big sale hits the trades (like Variety) and suddenly every company in town wants a piece of that writer.
One of my writer friends let his agents handle the feeding frenzy. He didn’t make a lot of money off it. Another friend handled the frenzy himself, with a big assist from his lawyer, and he made a small fortune.
That’s one of the benefits of knowing what you have and knowing what you’ll license. Also, of knowing what you’ll say no to.
I’m very comfortable heading into the Las Vegas Licensing Expo on one aspect of it all: I know I can easily walk away. If I make no deals there (or because I went there), I will be no worse off than I am right now. If I make some good deals, I’ll be better off. The key for me is making sure I don’t make bad deals, because those are worse than no deals.
The other fascinating piece about inventory is how it can be refreshed. As I mentioned above, rebranding and rethinking the inventory refreshes it. But there are other ways.
Writing a new book in a series gives that series new life. That new book also brings reflection: do you like the way the series looks? Does it look like something current or is the packaging dated? Has the material gone through the latest, greatest marketing trend? Is it ripe for development in some new field of endeavor or some new promotional tool (like a Storybundle)?
There are as many ways to refresh and grow the inventory as there are licenses that you can get for the inventory. You can bundle books together by series or by genre. You can do so by year of publication. You can compile short story collections. Or you can market reprints of your short stories to the various reprint markets. Or try for overseas translations. Or, or, or…
Each of those things not only refreshes the old parts of the inventory (and provides some fresh income), but they also grow the inventory. Each new collection is a new piece of inventory. Each three-book bundle is also a new piece of inventory.
Right now, I’m just happy the inventory is there. It allows us to offer really great stretch goals for the Kickstarter, goals I’m proud to offer. It also allows us even consider doing projects like the Kickstarter. We try to make things as easy as possible on ourselves while offering the best value we can for the stretch goals and for the readers who support us.
It’s fun, particularly when I know that we’re not taxing our employees too badly. (Certainly not like we did on that one Fiction River Kickstarter. We made too much work for them that time.)
When we hired Allyson Longuiera at WMG Publishing back in 2012, she made her first order of business refreshing and organizing the inventory. It was a very smart decision on her part. She got to know what we had already published and that familiarity helped grow the business further. She’s hired team members at WMG and had them do similar things. They now know the inventory as well as Dean and I do (maybe better in some ways).
Inventory is like money in the bank. The inventory won’t grow on its own (like money in an interest bearing account will), but if you handle the inventory properly it will bring in added revenue. The inventory won’t go away even if you neglect parts of it for a few years. It’ll remain part of what you have, and it will provide a good foundation for your future.
Inventory is also fun for your readers. If you think about this from a reader’s perspective, you’ll understand it. It’s exciting to read a good book and then figure out that the writer has written other books as well. Suddenly the reader has a long list of books that he will probably enjoy.
Conversely, there’s that little moment of disappointment—for me at least—when I finish a good book, and look up the author, only to realize I have read a first novel. Then I have to figure out a way to remember to search for the author’s work a year or so down the road. If the author is indie, I might end up with two or three more books; if the author is traditional, I might end up with one new one.
Writers ask me over and over again what the best thing they can do for their career is. I tell them that the best thing they can do is write the next book. And the next and the next and the next. Make sure those books get published, and then make sure you have (at the very least) a static website that lists the available books. Your good writing will bring readers forward, because you never know how the reader will find you.
Just the other day, I finished reading an anthology of mystery stories published in 2006. The anthology contained stories by writers new to me, writers whose stories I liked. Some of those writers made it easy for me: in their bios, they told me what books they had out through 2006. Others told me that they lived with their cats in the wilds of Schenectady. I have no idea if those writers have published more than one short story. If I remember when I’m away from that book, I might actually look.
That anthology was a gateway for me the reader to find some new writers whose work I enjoy. Those writers will never know that I discovered them 13 years later because of something they might not even have thought about in the past five years.
It doesn’t matter. If they’re good and prolific writers, I’ll be enjoying their inventory for some time to come. And that’s fun.
The idea behind this is pretty simple: we have to trust our writing enough to believe that once someone samples it, they’ll want more.
Selling your fiction isn’t about hype. The fiction itself has to live up to the hype. Selling fiction is all about writing the best stories you possibly can and getting them out there for readers to find—maybe as much as 13 years later.
That’s what we’re all going for—using our inventory to provide gateways into our work. We can’t always measure how one of the entry points will work. We won’t always see the results.
But if we have the work out there, we give ourselves—and our writing—the opportunity to grow.
The more work we have, the more growth opportunities will reach us.
And that’s pretty dang cool.
Weirdly enough, these blogs are part of my complete inventory. They sometimes provide a gateway into my fiction as writers try to judge if my advice is worth their time. Free Fiction Monday helps with that too, by giving them something free to read as they check out my fiction.
I do my best to repurpose the blogs, when I have the time. Which is part of the reward structure on my Patreon page. Patreon supporters at a certain reward level got Writing With Chronic Illness, my latest nonfiction book, which I wrote in part weekly on this blog. Writing With Chronic Illness was also a centerpiece of a Storybundle last month. Inventory creating opportunity creating more inventory.
Yes, sometimes it makes my head spin.
But one thing that doesn’t make my head spin is the support this weekly blog receives. Thank you to everyone who supports it by sharing it, commenting on it, or sending in a few dollars to keep it going.
If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.
If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Inventory,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.