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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