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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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Stick a fork in it; it's done!

Graph from Pacemaker

PARALLAX, book 4 of my Halcyone Space series is done. The first draft came in at a little over 105,000 words, making it the longest of the 4, by a little bit. It represents my 12th full novel written since I started drafting my first (knowing next to nothing about writing a novel!) in 2004.

In the past dozen years, I estimate that I've written over a million words of fiction and over a million words of non-fiction. I can look back and definitely say I have a consistent process and work style that has evolved over time to where I can reliably finish a solid draft of a novel in 4-6 months.

PARALLAX was the first project where I tracked my daily writing. The graph is at the head of this post. While it appears as if the book took 240 days to write, in reality, I didn't start working on the draft in earnest until the very end of July, and that brings the real work to 140 days, or just under 5 months.

I typically start a project with a few trial scenes that help me focus into the world of the characters and some broad-brush outlining. That essential planning happened over the course of a week or so in April, after which I let the draft sit while I was organizing the release of DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE.

There were definitely some added challenges in working on this one: My cast of main characters had increased to seven and with the progressive complexity of the politics in the world, I knew the story had to keep pace. My faithful crew ended up being dispersed in different parts of the cosmos, each of them seeing a part of the conflict from their unique perspectives. My job was to weave all those separate plots back together into a cohesive whole.

Perhaps the hardest part of writing PARALLAX was keeping track of who knew what when. I found myself constantly reading back, only to find that I had given a character knowledge they couldn't have learned. While I'm one of those writers who gleefully breaks the 'no editing during the drafting process' rule, there was a lot more revising and backtracking during the writing of this one.

So what comes next? My 'alpha' readers include my sons and my husband. They are willing to get a story with all sorts of parenthetical notes, like [NEED PLANET NAME HERE] and [CHECK THIS]. They will keep me from inflicting obvious errors on my wonderful beta readers, who will get the first revised manuscript in another few weeks.

Then, when I get their feedback, I do another round of revisions, then a round of basic line editing before it goes to my wonderful editor Karen Conlin in April.

I'm on track to have the book ready for publication in June or July of 2017.

Oh, and here's a draft of the 'elevator pitch':

PARALLAX (Halcyone Space, book 4): Halcyone's crew is drawn into a conspiracy threatening to reignite a galactic war when they discover the hidden power brokers who have been quietly manipulating the Commonwealth for decades.



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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Looking at 1990 from 2016

My father and I dancing at my sister-in-law's wedding

My sister-in-law sent me these photos she'd found just the other day. They were from her first wedding in 1990ish.

I remember laughing because guests kept calling my dad the 'secret service agent' because of the sun glasses. It was an outdoor wedding and by the time the sun set, he realized he'd forgotten his regular prescription glasses. I love this photo of him as the mature man of mystery.

I was so young then. Newly married. In my mid 20s. My folks were in their mid 60s. My dad had retired early and they were traveling the world. They seemed so happy.  I didn't think of them as old, even though they were a generation older than most of my peers' parents, as they had adopted me in their early 40s. 

With both my parents
This was before the dementia that robbed us of my mom appeared. Years before my father's failing kidney function would manifest itself and lead him to years of dialysis.

There are so many things I wish I could tell the person I was that day. Nothing critical. No single, simple piece of advice like 'turn right out of the parking lot in 2007' or 'buy that stock you were taking about.'

No. What I wish I could have said to myself is relax. Breathe. You're going to spend so much of your time and energy worrying about things that won't ever happen, that you'll miss so many things - so many amazing moments - in the process.

Your children will experience heartaches and yes, you will be powerless to prevent them and not much use in helping them heal afterward. These are the painful limitations of parenting. But they will know you love them. Just as you know your parents loved you, despite their flaws. And your children will do the same.

I wish I could have told myself to start writing sooner and not concern myself with whether it was good or not. That there was nothing to do but to get the words down and dedicate myself to craft because no matter how inspired I was, the pixie dust only lasts so long and the habits of consistent work need to take over. It took me another 16 years after these photos were taken to even start to understand that.

That holding grudges takes energy away from living and most of the hurts I would ruminate on, I was also guilty of and never even knew it. As important as it is to cut others slack, we also need to cut ourselves some, too, even as we strive to be and do better.

There were conversations I never got to have with my mother because by the time I was ready to have them, the dementia had already taken hold. I regret leaving so much unsaid. At least it was a lesson I learned well by the time my father had gotten sick. And it's a lesson I try to apply in my daily life.

I wish younger me knew that things in life rarely make sense; it's only that we impose a narrative on them to help us cope. Sometimes shitty things happen that no one deserves. It doesn't make you better or more noble or stronger. Sometimes amazing things happen that you don't especially deserve, even if you make yourself believe otherwise. I know I spent too many years blind to my own privilege. I am proud that my children understood this much sooner than I did.

I was fortunate enough for my father to live to see me publish my first books. My mother, the woman who initiated me into my lifelong love of reading, lost her ability to read to her disease. She used to flip through my first novel, but wasn't able to know much more than her daughter had written it. She was proud of that and so was my father, even if what I wrote was far out of his reading zone.

I'm not sure what the purpose of this blogpost is, other than when I got these photos last night part of me time traveled into the past.

It's also strange to realize that my oldest son is now just a handful of years younger than I was in these photos. Sorry for the melancholy and introspection. I think the shortening days and the oncoming cold and gray are to blame.

But as much as this is about looking back at the past, this weekend, we'll be looking ahead to the future as my husband and I take a brief trip to spend some time with our almost 3 year old twin godsons. (And their lovely parents, of course!)


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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Back to School

"Classroom" Photo by William Creswell, used with attribution, CC BY 2.0

(Cross posted from The Scriptors, a group writing blog)

While I have been a lifelong passionate reader, I didn't much like English classes (or as they are called now, Language Arts) when I was in school. Sure, I would rather have been reading science fiction or fantasy novels than Dickens or Hawthorne or Faulkner, but that wasn't the main reason I disliked class. No, it was the absolute assurance of my teachers that they knew what the author intended in every passage, every single word.

This was in the 1970s and educational philosophies were still very much in the top down/autocratic style.

Anyway, I used to fantasize about becoming a famous author and showing up in a class just as a teacher was set to make some pronouncement about author intent and meaning just so I could stand and tell them they were utterly and helplessly wrong. As I got older, I realized that there had been merit in understanding the context of the writer's world and worldview in digging through layers of meaning in the written word, but I still hold to a philosophy that meaning is made in the intersection of artist and audience and that intent may not be nearly as important as how meaning shifts and evolves with our experience.

I can look back at work I'd written years ago and see layers of meanings and themes I had never consciously intended. Indeed, humans are meaning makers par excellence - consider how we create logic even in the midst of the illogic of our dreams.

Now, all of that is a preamble to the point of this blogpost: There's a curriculum being developed around my Halcyone Space books. Young-Lisa is enjoying her moment of revenge-fantasy from all the boring moments in Jr High and High School having to read Dickens over and over and over again. (Sorry for all you Dickens fans, but for whatever reason, I ended up studying Great Expectations three years in a row. If I never look at the man's work again, it will be too soon.)

A few months ago, I got a message from a woman who is a writer, educator, and fan of my work. She wanted to know if I had any objections to her developing a curriculum for homeschooled High School students based on DERELICT, the first book of my Halcyone Space series. She was concerned that there wasn't enough out there for homeschool educators that was based around diversity and using texts that would appeal to teens.

She shared the draft curriculum she had put together and I was blown away. Each lesson connected to a chapter and contained vocabulary, outside readings, and engaging multi-media activities to enhance learning. Gone were the dry lectures of my own High School career, along with set meanings and spoonfed themes. This was a totally different kind of learning, one that brought the students' own passions and interests into the forefront. One that honored the constructivist mindset that I bring to my work.

Did I have any objections? I was *thrilled*. And I'm not ashamed to say I teared up some. I mean, how cool is it that High School kids will be able to study Language Arts, STEM, creativity, and diversity within the context of a space opera novel! And mine! From the press release:

DERELICT itself features a group of teen friends who unexpectedly blast off into space aboard an old spaceship they were repairing. The story follows the team as they discover their individual and group strengths against an array of challenges. Woven into the mix are LGBT, STEM, Humanities and personal development content. 
[Belinda Y.] Hughes summarized each chapter and pulled out the vocabulary words. She then scoured the web and found engaging educational activities that were relevant to the chapter themes and appropriate to high school-level learners, including content from and Minecraft. “My goal was to bring this book to life in a fun, meaningful, interactive way, as well as lead students to think, and support them in their personal growth at a pivotal point in their young lives,” offers Hughes.

So, yeah, I've just been 'schooled' and in the best way possible.

You can read more about Belinda Y. Hughes and the development of her diversity curricula here, along with finding links to where the curriculum based on DERELICT is available. Her plan is to continue though the series.

I would be grateful if you would you please pass this on to any interested educators and homeschoolers you might know. Thank you.

(Just as an FYI, I have no commercial stake in the sale of Hughes's curriculum. That is her intellectual property.) 



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