Lessons learned from a trilogy, Part 2: the impact on sales of rapid releases, and other factors
A month ago, I published an article titled “Lessons learned from a trilogy: an interim report, and Kindle Unlimited observations“. That was the first part of this article. If you haven’t already read it, please click on that link and do so before continuing with this one. Don’t worry. We’ll wait … what, back already? All right. Here goes.
Dorothy challenged me in December 2017 to complete my latest military SF trilogy, “Cochrane’s Company“, in full, before publishing any part of it. I should then publish the component novels in rapid succession, to maintain reader interest.
She noted that authors in other genres had had good results by doing that. Sales of each successive book in their series had both boosted the sales of those that had gone before it, and been boosted by reader interest aroused by earlier books, meaning that sales for the series as a whole were higher overall.
Dorothy was absolutely correct, although not quite in the way she or I had expected.
The individual books were released at four-week intervals: “The Stones of Silence” on May 14th, 2018; “An Airless Storm” on June 11th; and “The Pride of the Damned” on July 9th. This was to keep them inside a 30-day “launch window” from one volume to the next. (I uploaded each volume a couple of days before the launch date, to make sure Amazon got all their ducks in a row in good time, but only announced the launch on the scheduled day. As usual, Amazon did a very professional job. There were a couple of minor glitches here and there, but they were easily sorted out via e-mail. Kudos to Amazon for that.)
Here’s a graph provided by Kindle Direct Publishing, showing sales (top) and Kindle Unlimited reads (bottom) over the almost three months to date since the first book of the trilogy was launched. Open the image in a new browser tab or window, and if necessary maximize it, for maximum readability. (Please note that the last date’s figures are incomplete, as I had to download the image early to allow for formatting, etc.) I’ve deliberately removed the numbers, as they aren’t important for our purposes here. Focus instead on the visual pattern, the rise of sales and borrows over time as each book was released. The release points are immediately obvious to the naked eye.
You can see at once that sales rose a little per volume after each launch, but not spectacularly so. What did rise very strongly were KU “borrows”. The triple “bounce” is obvious to the naked eye, even without numbers. It seems that, once they were aware of the series, KU readers jumped on it, and read each volume in turn (sometimes “binge-reading” all three within a week). That drove the series’ sales ranks higher, and is still doing so, long after I’d have expected the earlier books’ ranks to drop by much more. As I write these words, all three volumes are still ranked in the top three-tenths of one percent of all books in the Kindle Store. Needless to say, I find that very satisfying.
That bears out something I said in the first part of this article:
Kindle Unlimited has now become a dominant force in the Kindle Store, affecting sales performance and rank to a very great extent. It pays less per completed read than a unit sale, but it has many more subscribers who are potential readers, offering the potential to make up in quantity what’s lacking in the “quality” of a full sale price. A large number of successful indie authors on Amazon, including several who discussed the issue with us at LibertyCon a couple of weeks ago, now estimate that KU “borrows” account for half to three-quarters of their income, dominating “straight” sales by a healthy margin. Since a “borrow” equates to a sale for Amazon’s ranking purposes, that makes their books look much healthier in the Kindle Store rankings, attracting more readers due to its/their “success”. Effectively, a book not entered in the KU program may have to outsell a KU-boosted competitor by three to four times in order to achieve a comparable sales rank in the Kindle Store. That’s a daunting challenge.
For example, Dorothy and I spoke with John van Stry at LibertyCon last month. He told us that KU reads now account for two-thirds to three-quarters of his income – and he’s very successful, making a healthy six figures a year out of his self-published books on Amazon. If he (and other authors) are seeing that sort of contribution from KU to the bottom line, it behooves the rest of us to take careful note.
I also noted that the actual sales, in number terms, of each volume of the trilogy weren’t all that different from each other. For example, in the first 30 days after launch, actual sales for each volume of the trilogy were within 10% of all the other volumes. However, KU reads climbed with each successive volume, driving up the overall sales rank (because Amazon counts each KU “borrow” as a sale for ranking purpose). Before long, KU “whole-book” reads (measured as total daily KENP pages read for each volume, divided by the number of pages Amazon estimated each e-book’s print length to be) overtook daily sales for each volume. They continue to increase their lead over sales to this day. That’s dramatically improved the visibility of all three books, and of the series as a whole, for readers searching for new material in their genre. It’s paid off handsomely.
Having covered sales performance, let’s look at other aspects of writing a trilogy like this in rapid succession, and what it does to the work involved.
First off, I found that I had to edit for the series, rather than for individual books, because the plot was a “trilogy plot” rather than a “volume plot”, if you follow me. Therefore, I couldn’t edit Book One and set it aside, then do the same for Book Two, and finally edit Book Three. At every stage, I had to go back and check the previous volume(s) to ensure that their character arcs, plot development, storyline, etc. dovetailed neatly with the later volume(s), and deal with any errors and omissions. This proved to be a cumulative process, and took me a lot longer than it normally does to edit three individual books. I’d say it increased my editing time by at least 50%, and probably almost doubled it by the time I tackled the third and final volume. It was a major pain in the patootie, and I didn’t enjoy it. I’m looking for ways to streamline and simplify the process.
I’m informed that, in a recent podcast, he said that they spent something like $7,000 per volume on pre-production costs such as cover art and design, editing, layout, formatting, etc. Of course, the duo have reported making in excess of $200,000 last year from their series, which is outstanding performance in anyone’s book (you should pardon the expression). Nevertheless, the only way they were able to put out six novels in the series during a mere seven months last year (!) was to “contract out” a great deal of the “grunt work” of preparing each volume for publication. Their time had to be devoted to creating output, rather than polishing it. That also implies that those six books in 2017 cost them up to $42,000 in “outside” expenses, which had to be deducted from their profits. Fortunately, the latter were more than enough to justify that outlay.
This is an important lesson for all of us wanting to follow the rapid-book-release model. We’re unlikely to have time to do all the preparation that’s needed, over and above writing the next book in the series. I’ve just learned that the hard way. I’ve always done all my own preparation, with the sole exception of cover art and design (for which I’ve paid an average of $250 per volume). That’s about to change. I’m going to have to employ outside editors, and pay them to refine my output while I generate more. If I don’t, I’ll spend so much time editing that I’ll slow down my rate of release. Outside editing will cost more money than I want to pay, but if I can make more money by doing so, it’ll be cost-justifiable. (For the present, I’ll continue to format my own books [particularly since, now that I’ve bought Vellum and found the software so easy to use, I can do that in a matter of hours]; but that may change later, too. We’ll have to see.)
Cole and Anspach’s success is certainly reproducible, if – and only if – we’re prepared to work as hard as they do. Commenting on a Nick Cole podcast, Brian Niemeier noted:
The author as brand is dead. Kindle whales–the voracious readers you need to drive your sales–aren’t primarily loyal to a publisher, or even an author. Instead, they constantly binge on books in their favorite genre. If your next book isn’t there waiting to sate readers’ hunger when they finish your last one, they won’t hesitate to move on to titles by other authors that will scratch their genre itch.
“Scratching the genre itch” is difficult for solo authors such as myself, and even more so for those working a day job in addition to writing. In the past, I’ve aimed for a length of 90,000-100,000 words per novel. I simply can’t produce one of those every 30 to 45 days, even if I write full-time. It’s too much work, not just in the writing, but in the pre-publication processing. I’ll have to drop my target length to 70,000-80,000 words (similar to many of the Cole/Anspach novels, and to John van Stry’s books) if I want a more rapid, sustainable release rate (say, a book every 60 days). I may be able to write a few shorts, to intersperse with the novels. Shorter books will, in turn, mean charging lower prices for them, and other compromises. I also have to see whether my readers will like them, or whether they’re going to hold out for longer novels. If they do, I’m probably not going to be able to maintain a 60-day release cycle. It’s going to be an interesting learning curve, that’s for sure!
That, in turn, may affect where and how we sell our books. There’s a great deal of debate about “going wide” (i.e. selling through multiple vendors across multiple platforms) versus selling on Amazon.com alone (which is also the only way one can get access to the Kindle Unlimited market). The administrative overhead of “going wide” is not inconsiderable. It involves monitoring sales across multiple vendors, planning and running marketing campaigns on each platform, converting currencies, accounting for income and expenditure by platform as well as by book (with all the tax implications involved), etc. The more successful we are, the greater that administrative overhead will become.
As indie authors, running our own small businesses, that’s a significant drain on our time: but, by publishing exclusively with Amazon.com, almost all that drain goes away. One can devote more time to creating rather than managing. As one’s output grows, and “writing time” becomes more important, that bears thinking about very carefully. I note that many successful indie authors have “voted with their feet”, shut down their previously wide distribution, and now publish on Amazon.com alone. I can understand why. Sure, there are potential disadvantages to relying on one vendor. However, if the prospective rewards outweigh those risks… Only time will tell.
He started with the concept of a “minimum viable product“, and applied it to fantasy/SF fiction, working as fast as possible and devoting minimal time to “polishing” his books. He typically wrote and published them within two weeks from start to finish. He was very successful in terms of sales, progressing from zero earnings to over $10,000 in his third month on Amazon.com. His writing and publishing model is unique in my experience, and it’s not necessarily one I’d like to follow – but it worked, and still works, for him. You can read more here. (Do also listen to the interview with him, and read the linked [.PDF format] summary of his “lessons learned”. They contain useful and thought-provoking information.)
I’m not sure most of us would be comfortable with such an approach – I know I’m not, having read several of Mr. Anderle’s books. However, it’s clear from his success that many readers aren’t worried by it. That means we have to cost-justify our approach, rather than simply assume what we’re doing is the right thing. In fact, taking everything above into account, I’m going to have to cost-justify my decision to write each and every book.
For example, right now I’m busy with the third book in my Western Ames Archives series.
It’s a labor of love for me. I enjoy the Western genre, and I think I do a reasonably good job of writing in it… but it’s a less popular, lower-volume genre, with sales per book that don’t come close to successful science fiction or fantasy. To write a good Western takes a lot of research time, as well as travel to and from potential locations, accommodation there, etc., before I write a single word. Is it cost-justifiable to devote so much time and effort to a novel that I know, even before publication, will not sell as many copies as one in a more popular genre? Will I be forced, by sheer economic considerations, to stop writing in a genre I enjoy? That’s a very good question, and one I’m going to have to answer before much longer. Would writing much more simply, following Michael Anderle’s formula, help to alleviate such concerns, bringing a cheaper product to market much faster? That would mean sacrificing quality and originality. I don’t want to do that… but can I afford not to? (Whether or not the market will continue to be receptive to such products over the longer term also remains to be seen, of course.)
I’m applying all the above considerations to potential future series. I have two in mind right now, one military SF/space opera, one fantasy. Both look set to be at least trilogy-length, perhaps more than that. I also have other, ongoing series to continue or complete. Which is likely to produce the greatest return on my investment of time and resources? Should I choose which to work on based on whether I’ll enjoy it more, or because I’ll earn more? I don’t want to have to be so mercenary in my approach… but I also have to make a living. Cold, clear, level-headed thinking is going to be ever more essential as the market becomes more and more competitive.
I’m even debating whether I should follow the Cole/Anspach model by looking for another indie writer with whom to collaborate on a series. I haven’t done that before, and it may be a steep learning curve for both of us. Even so, if I can find someone whose mind works in similar ways to mine, so that our mental and creative gears “mesh” with each other, it might enable both of us to produce (and earn) more together than either of us could on our own. That’s worth thinking about. (Of course, any collaborator would have to be able to devote as much time to writing as I can, and be willing to work as hard, and contribute to pre-publication costs – up front, before we start work – on a share-and-share-alike basis. Any or all of those factors might be deal-killers.)
Well, friends, those are the core lessons Dorothy and I have learned from the launch of my most recent trilogy. I hope going into this much detail has helped you understand the state of the market at present – or, at least, how we found the state of the market. Based on our discussions with other authors at LibertyCon a few weeks ago, we’re fairly sure that our lessons apply to a great many more people than just ourselves. The question is, how should we apply them? I look forward to your suggestions about that in Comments.