Monthly Archives: February 2014

Further Adventures in Self-Publishing

It’s been a couple of years since I first tackled this topic, and I thought I’d do an update since I have some new data with my most recent release, A Cargo Cult of Memories.

The burning question that I get asked is – how have sales been? Here’s the chart since I published it on January 4, 2014:

Cargo

To put the chart into perspective, I’ve sold a total of 18 copies (one to myself) to date. (Thanks to everyone who purchased a copy! If you haven’t, why not give it a try?) The sawtooth pattern is pretty familiar to me by now, as is the overall downward slope in average rank. As you can see, I haven’t sold a copy yet this month.

Here’s the chart on SYSLOG I, which I published December 12, 2010:

SYSLOG

This is a longer data set, but the trend is pretty clear.

The other titles I’ve published under pseudonyms look about the same.

Even though the rankings and trends aren’t where I want to see them, this is valuable data, as I’ve learned a few things.

Here are my takeaways so far on self-publishing:

  • Getting your sales rank up is hard when you don’t market or advertise your writing. I’ve just used Facebook and Twitter, and have pretty much exhausted my friends and family network. Put another way, you can’t rely on your friends and family network to market your work for you.
  • It doesn’t take that many sales in a short period to bump you up the charts. A single sale can take you from a rank of the deep hundreds of thousands to around 100,000. Based on some promotions and initial sales velocities of these titles, the magic number seems to be about 4-5 copies in a 12 hour period to get you into the top 100 for the genre in which you publish, which increases your exposure and generally lifts you into the overall 30,000 – 40,000 ranking range. Right after launch, when I had the most concentrated sales, Cargo Cult appeared in the “Hot New Releases” sidebar and peaked at #42.
  • Very few authors are making money. This is still a hobby for me and I earn some lunch money here and there. But like other things in the broader world, selling writing is a power-law, path-dependant experience. The top sellers are top sellers because they are top sellers. (See Flappy Bird for a great illustration of these phenomena.) Great writing is only table stakes in this market and is no guarantee of success, so don’t expect to pay your mortgage doing this.
  • Not many people write reviews. So far I have one review and I’m lucky to have it so soon in the cycle. Participation rates in most online experiences usually hovers around 1%. Expect to sell 100 copies or more before you see your first review. Based on experience, a positive review or two will lift your baseline sales per month, a negative review will just about kill a title, and no review is almost as bad as a bad review.
  • Write a series. My pseudonymous titles are part of a series and I cross-sell within the books. Every now and then when I get a new reader, they buy the entire back catalog.
  • Be deliberate about your pricing. After experimenting with pricing and promotions, I’ve found that going out with a high ($4.99/$3.99) price and then dropping by a dollar every three months or so down to $0.99 maximizes my sales margins. I almost always get a sales bump when I lower the price, and for my series pricing, the newest is always the most expensive and the older ones are $0.99.
  • Start small and with small expectations. I purposefully chose to publish short stories so I could learn the tools and the market. I can’t imagine how disappointed I’d be if I’d started with the huge time investment of a novel. Since I am working on my novel, I’m planning to publish one more short story collection to test some marketing ideas I have before publishing the Great American Novel.
  • Keep at it. I’ve been averaging about $30 a month for the past year and have been putting new titles in about every six months or so. While any individual title’s sales are low, the aggregate is beginning to creep up. Also keep in mind that the power-law and path-dependent nature of the market means that success really does depend upon some large measure of luck, and if you have a back catalog when you do get lucky, those are potential future sales that you’ll also be able to pocket.

Good luck to us all!

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Robocop

Art is a creation and a reflection of its times, and the latest Robocop remake relies on the current tropes of first-person shooter video games, moral action at a distance through robotics and drones, jingoism, militarism, the cynical manipulation of public sentiment, and the cardboard cutout emotional response to the void that it all delivers. In other words, business as usual in the United States of America, circa 2014.

But while it hints at all these things, it never delivers.

What struck me the most was the empty response to I had to it all. My friend who invited me along to the preview screening asked afterwards, “What did you think?” and I summed it up with: gratuitous.

Guns, bullets, death, explosions, gore, and digital displays were everywhere and omnipresent to the point of banality. The few scenes that did not include those things felt inauthentic by comparison, as if they were accidentally left in during editing. The familial emotional storyline was as overplayed as the lingering scenes of a deconstructed and squishy Robocop that only an anatomy student would love, and in doing so, all the emotion and suspense were drained out of them.

Where the original never took itself too seriously, the reboot can’t seem to make up it’s mind if it wants to wink at you or engage in social commentary. So it does both. Over and over and over until you start rooting for the plants in the background to do something to surprise you, because the movie sure won’t, as it’s too busy telegraphing what’s going to happen next.

It’s a shame really. The topics it presents to viewers deserve a serious skewering, especially the creeping, Brazil-like data fascism (Gilliam was ahead of his time) that has infected our body politic. Instead, the strongest feeling it arouses is a longing for computer user interfaces that operate as smoothly and quickly in such a glitch-free fashion.

In the end, all the gallons of blood spilled and thousands of shell casings spent may really just have been an attempt to attain an R rating instead of the PG-13 it carries. If anything, you can walk alway with the knotty puzzle that is American cinema ratings, which nicely mirrors our cultural schizophrenia. In that case, Robocop does come through and make you wonder who the bad guys are.

1,000 Words

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We never talked about what we were building.

Most of our communications were pointed tools or hand gestures. By the time the final piece was laid, we had exchanged at the most 1,000 words. When we did talk, it was desultory and brief.

More often than not, we would savor these usually one-sided conversations. These interruptions were mini oases between the barren repetitions of laying brick and mortar and the haunting, silent faces that we observed with grim regard as they shuffled by.

“Need more,” I would grunt while pointing with a gritty hand thrust forward. My companion would stop and look. Then we would both stand and stare at an empty trough of mortar, hoping against hope that we would truly be out, but the guards always brought more. We mixed as slowly as we could without risking their ire and punishment of impression into the never-ending column.

My first companion quit.

When we completed what we thought were garbage incinerators, we both stood proudly admiring our handiwork. The Schutzhaftlagerführer slapped us on the back and commended us for our handiwork as he handed us the plans for our next task. We were all smiles until the ovens were lit and to our horror, the first “waste” was thrown in. It was a naked girl of maybe six with a shaven head.

The next day, he stabbed himself in the neck with a trowel after reporting for work, and I watched as his body was loaded onto a cart and delivered to his previous toils.

I never asked my new companion’s name.

It didn’t matter.

There was nothing to talk about.