Publishing 2012 – A Year in Review

I debated posting this. Strange as it seems, I’ve had pushback from sharing some of the details of my publishing journey. The reasons are many, and I won’t bore you with them. And yet, when I first started out, I really appreciated other writers sharing information. It helped me make informed decisions. To see what was happening out there. It took the fear of the unknown away.

So, in the end, I decided to share. Sorry, new readers of my fiction, but you may want to skip this one. For all you fellow writers, by all means read on.

I now have full tracking spreadsheets of 2011 and 2012. These spreadsheets bring together reports from all the retailers, organize that information, reference it to my own database of my work, and allow me to create many informative pivot tables to view the information in different ways. Each of those pivot tables allow me to see different types of trends.

As the information began piling up, I started noticing several interesting things, which ultimately resulted in this post.

First, I am not a writer who has hit it lucky with a bestseller. I think I’m one of those silent-majority average selling writers (As Hugh Howey says, “The outliers are not the self-publishing story. Itโ€™s the midlisters.”). We always hear about those who strike it rich or emerge as outliers. This is a post by someone who is a slow-build so-called ‘mid-lister’, and who is happy about that. I’m considered a prolific writer. I have a lot of books on the way, and many already out there, that might get lucky. The more published, the more chance I have of having a book hit it big.

Considering what I just said, it’s interesting to see the slow upward trend in sales. I attribute this to continuing to write and release new work. At this point in my career, I view that as the best marketing and promotion I can do. I’m doing all I can to increase backlist. (Great article by Kris Rusch: “The Business Rusch: Writing Like Itโ€™s 2009”)

But, let’s get to a few numbers.

Unit sales for 2011 (with 10 1/2 months of publishing): 718
Unit sales for 2012: 1359

Oh yeah. I like that upward trend. 89% increase in 2012. Imagine what I could have done if I could have kept the momentum going in the last half of 2012! (More on that later)

In April and May of 2012 I moved to a different pricing structure. I moved almost all of my work to $2.99 and up, as well as raising the longest novels up to $7.99. Aw, heck. Here are the current pricing tiers in case they help anyone else:

Fiction (10,000-15,000 words) & eDoubles $2.99
Fiction (15,000 to 25,000 words) $3.49
Fiction (25,000 to 40,000 words) $3.99
Fiction (40,000 to 55,000 words) $4.99
Fiction (55,000 to 70,000 words) $5.99
Fiction (70,000 to 85,000 words) $6.99
Fiction (85,000 words and up) $7.99

(Other ideas here at Dean Wesley Smith’s blog (read the comments!). The above numbers were decided on for multiple reasons, including the pricing survey I did here)

A lot of writers would scream doing such a thing would kill sales. Raise prices? Was I nuts?

But, did it kill sales?

Before this raise, the longest book was priced at a maximum of $4.99 (and that was from before when the novels were at $2.99. And sitting there barely selling. Raising them to $4.99 increased both unit sales and net revenue). Raising them to price points of the tier above increased the net revenue again, with unit sales staying the same, increasing, and once in a while dropping a little.

To be more specific: from March to April, overall units sold dropped 21.2%. However, income increased by 8.6%. So, yes, fewer unit sales, but my income went up.

And in May it went up even further, achieving my best month of that year. Not in units. January has the distinction of the most units moved in 2012. In fact, units dropped 7.9% from January’s total compared to May’s total. No, I’m talking about increasing in revenue. And how much did income increase compared to January?

A whopping 21%.

Think about that. Units went down 7.9%, but take-home pay went up 21 PERCENT compared to my highest-unit month. That’s huge!

Writing is my job. Units pushed is not everything, not by a long shot. Revenue taken home is a big factor. That’s what makes the difference between eating or not.

Some people have had success with cheaper prices. I tried that for well over a year, which was ironically during the time when this strategy was supposed to work better than it does in today’s publishing environment. Well, it didn’t help me.

What did help me? Raising the prices, and then leaving them there. Not panicking when the fall slump hit (I’ve known of the phenomena for some times, so why panic if this is a normal thing?). Not panicking when a month came out a little slow. (Kris Rusch has an excellent post on this here. Basic advice: stop obsessing.) There are so many things that can cause sales fluctuations, and 2012 had a lot of them (hint: don’t think of only the book industry. What other big things happened in 2012?).

In June and through the summer of 2012 I took classes and redid almost all the book descriptions and covers. Those upgrades plus the new pricing tiers resulted in 2012 whomping 2011 out of the park.

Then came the fall and winter. I won’t go into details, but lets just say that life hit from multiple directions at once . The plans I had in place of what works I would release in each month disappeared in a poof of dust. I hardly had any new releases in the last six months of 2012. If I hadn’t had such a productive first 6 months, I would have never reached my yearly writing goal. Writing for almost 6 months was minimal.

Because the new releases are my main form of promotion, I expected a hit (and not in a good way). Did I get one?

Yes.

And yet the titles still out there continued to sell. With the higher retail prices, it meant each month of the fall of 2012 still beat anything in 2011. By a wide margin.

Now we are moving into 2013. I’m still building up speed after getting back on the writing-train. Life is still hitting, but I’m starting to polish up new work and getting it released (Salmon Run book 6 is finally out!). The sales of the first two months of 2013 are reflecting this. I’m still climbing out from the maintenance level of sales from the fall and winter of 2012, but both units and revenue are trending upwards.

For the sake of the amount of food in the pantry, this is a good thing. ๐Ÿ˜›

Observations

Value yourself. Get good first readers. If they are liking your stories, then it’s time to start valuing yourself. Price accordingly. Big publishers don’t bring out a new writer automatically at a lower price point just because they are new. They price them the same as their big sellers. Get your self-esteem issues out of this basic business decision. If you price lower (as I am now with one of my books) have a backlist in place first, (which I do, with 35+ works), and have it for a specific marketing reason. Such as the lead-in of a series.

When you make a big change such as details like pricing, cover, and/or book description, leave it! (Unless there is a very obvious problem) Don’t panic the moment sales drop for a week or a month or even two months. You may be reacting to the wrong thing. I know I would have been. This last year had many circumstances impacting sales, things out of control of any publisher, but a writer may not know or be aware of all of them. Give the changes a minimum of 6 months. Longer would be better, as it gives you a good baseline without all the short-period spikes and valleys distracting you. Then you can judge if the changes are working, or if you need to tweak things again.

Yes, sales slowly ramp up by themselves if you have a good book, without you going nuts with promotion. I talked about the last six months of 2012. Yes, sales dropped when I couldn’t get more work out. But, something very very interesting happened. The first month sales dropped drastically… and then for Each. And. Every. Single. Month after that sales in units increased. Out of those 6 months, only one month did not increase in revenue, but even then the shortage was not much. I figure that one month happened just because of the mix of books bought. Read what I just said before. To me, this was a huge deal. Everything left alone, and not only did books continue to sell, but they slowly started increasing again! Lord, I love this new publishing world.

The mix of books that sell month to month changes. Once I did a pivot table of titles by month, this really jumped out. One month one title will be your best seller. Another month, a different one. Having a backlist helps balance out the overall sales and revenue.

Diversify sales channels. Yes, I know. That sets the people who are doing well in KDP Select foaming at the mouth. The thing is, not everyone does well with it. Looking at my spreadsheets, I’m seeing Amazon accounting for 66-87%. Which means the other sales channels are ranging between 13-33% of my income. I need that income, and I welcome the readers who bring it in. In total, Amazon was 70% for the year, and other income streams settling in at 30%. (One of these days I’ll figure out the percentage of US buyers compared to other countries. Sorry, I don’t have the time right now, but it is increasing. Especially through Kobo and Apple. Not so much with Amazon.)

Increase control by going direct. When Kobo’s Writing Life opened in the summer of 2012, I jumped at the chance to go direct despite their high payment threshold. The ability to format a book description was huge. Before, by going through Smashwords, the descriptions came out in one big ugly lump. I don’t blame readers for passing right by. Also, by going direct, I could custom set prices according to currency. Did going direct help? My sales at Kobo increased 95% compared to the 6 months before. Suddenly I had sales! So, yes, it did help.

Plans for 2013

Release more in the ongoing series. Series are where I make a majority of my sales. Heck, I may even start writing new series! (Oh, and for you String Weaver fans, yes the next books are coming!)

Do my best to release regularly. Almost every month I release something new, even if it’s a short story or a novelette, sales push upwards. One strange observation is that the increase in sales does not always come from the new release. Instead, it comes from the other backlist. Readers seeing the new release on the “New Releases” lists and then clicking through backlist and buying those instead? In any case, I need to keep the new release momentum going if at all possible.

I wanted to go direct with Apple, but they also have a high payment threshold and right now, looking at the numbers, it doesn’t make sense. So, I’m reluctantly staying with Smashwords for that distribution as right now description formatting is making it over to Apple. Also, I figured out how to use Scrivener to create Smashwords-compatible .doc files (no more extra hours-plus formatting time!). Good thing, as Word does not inhabit my current computer and never will. I will review this decision as the backlist and sales increase.

Apply what I learned from Dean Wesley Smith’s “Pitches and Blurbs” online workshop. I can now see why some of my books were selling more. I had fumbled around and accidentally found a few good working description without realizing it. Now that I consciously know the elements that go into a good sales-pitch, it’s time to get the other books up to snuff!

Have lots of fun writing new work!

That last one is important. I want to have fun writing this year, and learning more about the craft. Give the readers fun stories, with each of them improving on the last. Write, learn, write more, release. Rinse. Repeat.

As a writer, and a reader, I can’t think of anything better!

____________________

J.A. Marlow

Aurora Equinox (Salmon Run – Book 6)

Welcome to Salmon Run, Alaska! A place of wild animals, wild land, and wild inhabitantsโ€ฆoh, and native legends come alive and an inter-planetary alien conflict at their backdoor.

With the equinox come the aurora and the itch of springโ€ฆ

Good moods are scarce in Salmon Run these days. Zach Callahan’s lingering foul mood even manages to drive off Sasha. His concerned father insist on a check-up visit to the local spaceship just as Zach discovers a threat worthy of true worry:

The return of a threat from the south.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords

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18 comments on “Publishing 2012 – A Year in Review
  1. Great post JA, I bookmarked it for future reference.

  2. Very helpful post, JA. Thank you.

    I may be inspired to publish similar analyses of my non-fiction sales. So far, my fiction hasn’t risen to the point of statistical significance.

    • JA Marlow says:

      Thank you, Gerald! I would love to see an analysis of non-fiction. In so many ways non-fiction is a different publishing world.

  3. S.E. Batt says:

    Fantastic post! Great to see you got so many sales this year, and on such a good improvement on last year! Even the rough spell at the end of 2012 proved not to do too harsh a dent.

    • JA Marlow says:

      I didn’t suffer as much as I expected in the last six months. Thank goodness. Still, I can’t help but wonder where I would be now if I had been able to keep it up (I know, stop the guilt trips. It’s just human nature. ๐Ÿ˜› ) Trust me, the books sold per month for the last 6 months really did show the downturn. ๐Ÿ˜›

  4. D J Mills says:

    Like you, I agree that building back list is the best advertising for published stories. I too am hit with life problems, but continue to write daily to build my back list.
    As soon as I get my POD books up and prices, I will also follow with eBook prices similar to your list of prices. Thanks for the confirmation. ๐Ÿ™‚
    And well done on your sales. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • JA Marlow says:

      Hey, nice to see you again, DJ! I’m glad to hear that you are still puttering along with your own backlist. I hope you are able to get your POD books up soon.

  5. Kaz Augustin says:

    Thanks for sharing both the figures and your observations. I was one of those who panicked! ๐Ÿ™‚ I put my novels up to $6.99, saw sales drop off a cliff and, five months later, pulled them back down to $4.99. Now, however, we’re — Sandal Press, that is — planning to release the novels in print, so I think it would be a good time to put them back up and keep ’em there. Next to a $17.99 print edition, $6.99 digital looks pretty good!

    Congrats on your numbers too. They’re solid figures and I’m sure will only get better with time.

    • JA Marlow says:

      You’re welcome. I’m glad the information helped.

      And yes, if you have a print edition out for $17.99, then a higher price point looks great in contrast. That’s one part I forgot to add to my review. In the summer of 2012 I was able to get most of the ebooks out in print and hooked up to the ebook version on Amazon, even the short work. That also could have helped my backlist look good to ebook buyers during my lost 6 months.

  6. Barb says:

    I did a similar count in December regarding only 2012 โ€“ sales, counted as units sold with a price on (i.e. not counting free downloads โ€“ either for sales, review copies, complimentary copies or free titles). This year I counted every unit that brought in some form of payment (usually cents, not dollars, but whatever). As of end of November I had 49 sales on Smashwords, 47 on Kindle and 8 on other retailers.
    I haven’t raised the prices yet (in spite of what Dean said) because I didn’t do many print editions – my books are short and I had to bundle them for print! But I see your point of raising the price compared to a printed edition! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll try that this year when I do the print edition of my ongoing Star Minds series…
    Oh, I also got my first 1042-s from Smashwords this year… and I’m waiting for that Amazon check (reached the minimum this January). So, for earning grand totals: 2011=0$, 2012=100$ and 2013 has already 100$ coming, so it can only end with more income! ๐Ÿ™‚ I know, I won’t be able to quit my Dayjob yet, but it’s definitely rising!
    Great post and happy writing!

    • JA Marlow says:

      Congrats on your numbers! By the way, none of the numbers above include any freebies. I keep them out of these types of analysis unless for a specific reason.

      As for short books, if you keep to only Amazon distribution, it is possible to do shorter POD print editions. I have done it for edoubles and novelettes and price them at $4.99, which is then hooked into the $2.99 ebook edition. I was hoping to make the ebook versions look better, but I’ve been nicely surprised that they occasionally sell! It seems odd to me, but hey, so long as the reader is happy!

      Have fun with your future writing!

  7. Thanks for the great post. It’s slightly different for Germany, but I expect that prices will go up some more in the next year or two. I’m currently keeping my prices about $1-$2 lower than yours and they start to sell in Germany as well as in the US. I will raise the prices as soon as I’ve got some momentum going.

    Good luck with your catching up, and I’m looking forward to reading some more of your String Weavers series.

    • JA Marlow says:

      Yeah, the UK is at a different level, too. But then, the market is also about 12-18 months behind the US. I don’t know what Germany is considered. I’m glad to hear that the price difference is working for you in the German market. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Suzan Harden says:

    I clicked over from The Passive Voice. It’s great that you have a plan! And you’re so right about not panicking. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • JA Marlow says:

      Welcome to my little corner of the internet, Suzan! I’m glad you found the year in review helpful. Panicking? Oh yeah. Need to keep that out of the business decisions! ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Sam Austin says:

    Great post. I’ve taken a note of the prices. It’s always difficult to work out how to price a work, and I subscribe to dean’s view of not underselling yourself.

    Great job with the sales and I hope things keep getting better.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Publishing 2012 – A Year in Review"
  1. […] An author I know details her sales experience to help other writers who choose to self-publish. Some interesting information there. http://jamarlow.com/2013/03/publishing-2012-a-year-in-review/ […]

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