Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Life as a Writer: Numbers, Earnings, Analysis

Over the years, I've been very open about how my writing career is going, sharing numbers of books sold, launch earnings, and expenses. Today, I'm going to look back across 5 years of publishing with some more real numbers from an indie author in the trenches.

The graphs are from a service called BookTrakr. (disclosure: this is a referral link for my account.) I started using them when they were in free beta and now I use the  paid service. BookTrakr tracks all my books across all platforms and allows me to run all sorts of reports on the data. (I know there are ways to do this manually, using spreadsheets, but that's not my skillset and it's worth it to me to pay for a service that does it automatically and sends me an update email daily.)

Some background: in early 2012, I dipped my toe into the water of self-publishing with THE BETWEEN, a Fae changeling fantasy novel that had been shopped by my then-agent and had had several close calls that led to glowing rejection letters from the big publishers. The biggest stumbling block to getting a publishing contract for that book in 2011? I was an unknown trying to break in to a crowded YA fantasy market with a book that wasn't one of the 'hot' subgenres at a time when publishers were becoming more and more risk averse. The feedback we received from the editors was literally that the book was good enough to be picked up, but they didn't think they'd make enough money from it.

Because I was technically adept and willing to try new things, I decided to put it out there on my own while I was writing and submitting other work. THE BETWEEN garnered excellent reviews and a very small audience, but I found I enjoyed the creative control indie publishing gave me and after my agent and I parted ways, I continued to publish my own work.

As of the close of 2016, I have 6 published novels:

Science Fiction
The following graphs tell the story of 5 years of my publishing life in real numbers.  

(Note 1 : the graphs include an ebook only short story collection (Stranger Worlds Than These) and 2 anthologies (Pen-Ultimate and Pen-Ultimate II) that I was co-editor on. The earnings of those projects are negligible, and the anthology earnings are donated to the SFWA emergency medical fund.)

(Note 2: these graphs do NOT include the audiobook earnings/sales for DERELICT and ITHAKA RISING through Amazon and ACX. Those earnings add about $1,000/year to the total, starting in 2015.)

Revenue:  all books, by year, 2012 - 2016


On first glance, it's easy to focus on 2014 and wonder several things:
  1. What caused what looks like a 'breakout' year? (hint: luck & timing)
  2. Why was that followed by significantly lower earnings in 2015? (hint: it's actually not so bad)

2012: THE BETWEEN is released. My total earnings from book sales (not including sales through a local bookstore which hosted the release and carried the title): less than $200.

2013: PEN-ULTIMATE (an anthology project) was released. Since those earnings were earmarked for charity, my earnings that year dropped to under $100. Certainly not an auspicious start to a publishing career.

2014: FUTURE TENSE (January) and DERELICT (June) were both released. FUTURE TENSE earned a respectable $600. which was certainly a significant improvement from my first release! 6 months later, I released DERELICT and something utterly unexpected happened: it got promoted by Amazon in its genre-specific newsletters and sold. A lot. Over $25,000 in earnings from one title alone. I was thrilled. I figured I had 'made it.' This was my breakout!

2015: TIME AND TITHE (January) was the sequel to THE BETWEEN. I  knew it would be a low seller, since book 1 had only sold in low numbers, but I had never written anything but a stand alone before and I had always wanted to finish the overarching story of Faerie. I also knew that I wanted DERELICT to be the first of a longer series and needed to be able to understand the logistics of series fiction. It was released to low sales and little fanfare. ITHAKA RISING (June) was the sequel to the successful DERELICT. I had naively assumed that most people who'd read and loved book 1 would buy book 2. I did everything I had done one year before for this release (talk it up on social media, blog posts, email newsletter notifications) and compared with book 1, book 2 did very little. It earned less than a tenth of its predecessor in its first year out. I was crushed. I thought I was a failure. I had no idea how to recreate the magic that had made 2014 so successful. But by then, I had already finished a substantial chunk of book 3.

2016: DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (June) In 6 months, it earned just shy of $4,000. Not a blockbuster or a breakout, but respectable, since it had earned back its production expenses in about 6 weeks. 

What's more interesting than looking at just the numbers, is looking at the pattern. Ignoring the strange (and marvelous) success of DERELICT, I see a more important trend: Year after year, as I add more books to my catalogue, my sales have grown. It's taken me less and less time to earn back a book's production expenses, and as new readers pick up DERELICT, they go on to read books 2 and 3 in significant percentages. Also, my low selling books continue to sell, albeit in smaller volumes.

The Impact of Lending/KU Select

Lending Revenue via KU Select: D, TB, FT
At the very end of 2015, I decided to enroll a few of my books in KU select to see if I could take advantage of the earnings from page reads from their 'all you can eat' reading program. I chose to add my stand alone fantasy title (FUTURE TENSE) and the first books from each of my two series. (THE BETWEEN and DERELICT.)

In 2016, the first full year of enrollment, page reads constituted a little over $2,000 in earnings, accounting for about 1/6 of my yearly earnings. Given that I sell very little of anything in other venues (BN, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, GoogleBooks), it was worth it to me to pull some of my catalogue from wide release to take advantage of Amazon's page reads.

Total number of books sold, by book, per year, all retailers

Number of books - paid AND free, by year, by book, all retailers

Along with the KU page reads, enrollment in Amazon's exclusive program also allows you to set several free and/or sale days per quarter per book. I took advantage of free days, but somewhat haphazardly, for each of the 3 books enrolled. This graph and the one just above compares total numbers of sale with sales plus free. The pattern is essentially the same.

The vast majority of my sales come from my SF series, Halcyone Space: DERELICT, ITHAKA RISING, and DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE. I suspect that's because they are less firmly in the YA genre/camp than they are simply genre fiction. My experience and the research I've done confirms that teens, despite their tech savvy, still get the majority of their books from bookstores and libraries, rather than buy ebooks. The audience for ebooks is still primarily an adult audience and the books that are more YA in nature have less of a crossover audience.

That is not always the case, however: YA books with a strong romance theme do well in the ebook market.

Analysis and Trends

If I examine this final graph and look at broad trends, what I see is a fairly steady growth in my readership and my earnings year by year. Particularly interesting is that while 3 of my 6 novels produce most of my sales, all 6 books sell, making 2016's bar seem more sustainable than 2014's.

Most of this growth in my readership has been organic/word of mouth. I do next to no promotion or advertisement. Partly because it's not really my skill set. Partly because I'm not convinced the return on investment (including my time and my money) is worth it. My experience has been that writing the next book is the best marketing I can do.

If I look at my total sales and my earnings, I definitely sell better than the widely talked-about averages: that the typical book sells less than 100 copies and the typical author earns less than a few thousand dollars a year.

With 6 novels published, I'm still earning less annually than I would in a minimum wage job; however, I've been in this as a business for only 5 years. As small businesses go, this is actually fairly successful.

Looking Forward

My plan is to publish PARALLAX (book 4 of Halycone Space) in June of 2017. I'm also planning to draft both book 5, and an additional book for 2017, with an eye on releasing 3 novels every 2 years moving forward.

I'm still not sure I'll push into the marketing arena any more than the minimum I do now. I will, however, attempt to make more connections with readers at SF&F cons and invite them to sign up for my mailing list. I currently have just over 300 subscribers and know that having access to directly inform your fans about new releases is probably the best marketing an indie author can do.

I hope this was useful and if you enjoy character-based SF&F, please do give my books a try.



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