Sunday, December 16, 2018

Simple tech ain't so simple

My new series is going to be set long after the apocalypse, and the world (or at least continent) as we know it will have fallen back to a 17th or 16th century world. Wheels, for instance, will be carved, wooden, and "tires" will be of salvaged metal strips. Someone has to do the salvage work. Someone has to carve the wheels.

Not that there will be gasoline engines to pull the contraptions the wheels are on, mind you. Horses or people! Or people just drag the plow or ard themselves, roped into it, rather than like this guy who apparently has some deer-dalmation hybrid pulling his. (Egypt. interesting place. 😏)

My book is partly set in a wooden windmill, where grain is ground for the community. I've been educating myself on the history of windmills, and how complex they grew with people adapting them using nothing but quite simple tools. Lubricated by bee's wax, these machines sawed wood, ground grain, made Holland habitable, made paint, and all sorts of other items for use or trade. I enjoyed musing about the innovations, who came up with them, how long it took to get it "right," and the sort of person who could innovate. Honestly, it took me a week of studying them to figure out the basics!

Consider the design of a millstone, carved by a stone carver or millwright by hand. They must have started with just two stones, millennia ago, and came to this point.The more you think about the design--and read up a little on it--you see what an astonishing bit of technology the design is. It grind the grain, it pushes the grain out, and it doesn't pulverize the grain. The stones are further apart near the center and closer at the edge. The design controls the movement of the grain (eventually down into a hopper.) Most rotate about 2 times per second. Here's one design, but most look something like this.

I'm reading widely, not quite knowing what will be of use. And some of this is based on TV shows I watched years ago, like "Life After People," where they explained how the buildings, bridges, and monuments of our culture will fall apart quickly in the absence of our keeping them up (and having the petroleum to do so). Articles I've been bookmarking for over a year might apply--like the "fruit walls of the 16th century" article I found that shows how to grow fruit by using the heat-storing capacity of southern-facing clay or brick walls to create a warmer microclimate that ripens the fruit sooner and allows you to grow figs in Montreal. (I may not need this, but it's the sort of thing I bookmark and may or may not use.)

My writing process is, as I do this research, it starts to come together for me, characters begin to pop into my mind (Who does the windsmith interact with most often? What is her role in the community? What kind of person could carve millstones for a living?) I simultaneously gain the knowledge I need to make details correct and (I hope) vivid and get to know my cast of characters. When it feels ripe I begin to outline a series or book, though I also have self-imposed deadlines, so it darned well better ripen up on time! :D

Jan 1, I plan to type the words "Chapter 1" and get going on the new series. It's a little unusual for indie post-apocalyptic, as the apocalypse will be rather far in the past, but there are similarities in how it's a survival adventure, and new sort of apocalyptic events will spring up for the characters to deal with. As a minor point, climate change may have been nasty for the Oil Apocalypse characters, but when it changes back for their descendants to a colder world, a new kind of climate change will be just as difficult to adapt to. There are other problems they'll face, but I won't spoil it for you. It's coming in 2019.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Gardening -- thoughts and resources

I have become obsessed with vegetable and fruit gardening again. This is not the first time in my life, but it has become a more interesting hobby/obsession lately because of the context of post-apocalyptic thinking.

I have a third of an acre lot, and this is close to how much land one person needs to survive on if using intensive planting techniques. I bought my new house in a tiny village where I'm allowed to have hens (and I looked at homes in the country, where I could have had goats, a milk cow, or raised any animal I wished), and that could add to my ability to survive without visiting a grocery store. With a patch of grain grown for the hens, and discards from the veg garden to supplement what they'd find pecking around the yard, I could keep a healthy half-dozen hens. For now, though, I'm focused on expanding the food-producing area of my yard.

I lived in Oregon's Willamette Valley once, and if you don't know of it, it's a perfect gardening locale. I had grape arbors, an apple tree, and a veg garden behind a chicken-wire fence. There were also local small farms that had inexpensive fresh produce as well and pick-your-own strawberry fields. Wild blackberry bushes were all over the place, and it was easy to get as many as you could want for no money. It was a lush, beautiful place, and it seldom froze or got over 90F there. I didn't realize how lucky I was!

In Arizona, I grew mostly tomatoes in containers, had to wrap them with netting or rabbits would eat the flowers, they were so desperate for food, and grew them from seed (plant seeds around Feb 1, water every day, harvest by May. Voila.)

Where I am now, it's a four-season place, and while with a small hoop row cover, you could harvest greens an extra four months of the year, usually May through October are the months for harvesting (or "cropping," if you're living elsewhere). I'm still fighting rabbits, not to mention the bugs that eat the brassicas, but I'm already growing a wider variety of food: tomatoes, peppers, chard, squash, and bok choi comprised my first spring planting. Next year, there will be a good deal more and seven varieties of tomatoes, not just two. Also, I learned some lessons I'll apply next year. And I've grabbed some trellises at yard sales for a dollar here and there that will help me maximize my use of space.

Right now, I'm making leaf mold and piling up various compostable items I can find on two new raised 8 x 4 beds. The idea is, over the winter, the organic bits will compost some more, and in spring I'll add a mix of top soil, peat (or equivalent), well rotted cow manure, and perhaps a bag of commercial compost to the top of each bed, plant into it, cover it with a final layer of more saved leaves from this autumn that act as both mulch and compost, and grow. Every year for the next several, as that base layer shrinks down with composting and the worms having at it, I'll add more organic material.

Here's a video that shows the sort of thing I'm talking about:

And if you want, you don't even need to build the sides of your no-dig "lasagna" bed (though that's carpentry anyone can manage--four boards, twelve screws, and done), but just do it over your grass lawn or weedy lawn and get to planting. Don't walk on it ever (so keep it fairly narrow, probably 4 feet, so you can reach to the middle), and you have a productive soil from year one that only gets better as you add to it.

One of the great things about this system is the soil is so loose, you don't need anything more than a trowel and your hands to harvest. Watch my current favorite youtube gardener, Patrick at One Yard Revolution, harvest his potatoes for soup this year.

I have a set-up for seed-starting so I can harvest earlier (I should be getting lettuce, bok choi, and spinach by the end of April, weather permitting), and keep accumulating weird containers to start seeds in. (toilet paper tubes for plants that hate to be transplanted, for instance, and I can't go to a potluck but that I'm rescuing the plastic top off the disposable cake dish). Best of all, I'm enjoying the learning, planning,and even the work a lot! Now, talk to me when it's 95 degrees F out there and I have to mow, and I'll complain all day long. But for now, I'm having a fun time, and I'm reading books like this about the science of gardening advice.

I hope to never actually need to survive off my own yard, and I'm not ever going to be willing to shoot strangers over them stealing a few potatoes, but perhaps one day I'll be in such dire financial straits I need the back yard garden in order to eat sufficient food to stay alive. The way the world is going, that doesn't seem like a silly thought any more. I'm getting the system in place, and living through my failures while I have the energy and initial cash to start it up. It's not super-pricey, mind you, but the first heirloom seeds before you begin to save them, the first tools, the bit of lumber, and a few bags of compost before your own pile is large enough to provide all you need will set you back around a dollar per every square gardening foot that first year. After that, if you save seeds, you need to spend almost nothing.

If you don't garden, you may not know what you're missing! Start small, with a 7-gallon container or grow bag for a cherry tomato plant, or new potatoes if you don't like tomatoes, and see if you don't think the small effort was worth what you'll be eating as a result.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Trying to imagine it's 1902

Before my family kills me for being so slow about this, I'm currently working on the finishing touches to a family history novel I wrote originally in 1911, based on the life of my great-grandmother Nellie. I've been promising it to my family for a while, and this holiday season, they will finally get it.

SPOILERS BELOW. If you want to read this book, don't read the blog post.

Nellie was born a bastard, as they said back when, of a 17-year-old girl and the farm worker 18-year-old boy, son of a merchant, who was working the farm kitty-cornered on the plat map to my great-great-grandfather's farm. This boy went on to be a merchant himself, owning a clothing store in Chicago until he died. His last name had come down through oral history, and only a bizarre bit of luck in my genealogical research let me know who his family was: he was recorded twice in a single census, in town and on the farm. (Anyone who does genealogical research will know what an incredible stroke of luck this was!)

not the orphanage...but built at a similar time.

Nellie's mom, Clara, went on to move to Indiana, where an older man married her despite the out-of-wedlock child, and she had two more girls by him, and he died. Her poverty grew dire, and quickly. It was a time of transition for America, when the good farming land was mostly claimed by oldest brothers, when steam engines were harvesting the crops and fewer farm workers were needed, when city factories were calling to displaced children of farms with their hard, filthy, and dangerous jobs, and when the working class was trying to find its place.

With women having no rights, really--not the right to own property in some states or to vote or to ask for equal pay or to divorce a man who beat them--Clara was in a deteriorating situation. While some of her brothers had money, none of them stepped up to help her or her other sisters with money problems. One of them, possibly ill with tuberculosis, visited with her daughter Florence and left her with Clara. I have no idea what their arrangement was--did Clara agree to take on this extra mouth to feed? Or did the sister sneak off in the night? No idea.

But it was the straw that broke Clara. She drove all four of the girls to the local orphanage and signed over her parental rights. It was their only shot at surviving.

Carrie Nation in Ann Arbor 1902. Wikimedia Commons

As always, I researched for this book extensively, and the story on orphanages of the turn of the 19th-20th century is fascinating. Fully half of the children there were like Nellie--not orphaned at all, but arriving on the edge of starvation. Their living parents, fighting for jobs in the shifting economy (from agrarian to industrial) felt they had no other choice. They were lucky there was any social service system, I suppose, for there was no food stamps or governmental assistance. All this fell on the private sector, on benefactors, on good orphanage administration finding ways to get merchant-class citizens to donate.

There were terrible orphanages, ruled by child gangs. There were terrible orphanages, where the children continued to starve and were beaten. And there was the one in Indianapolis (which still survives as a child-aid organization!) which was by all accounts, pretty well done.

Nellie was a pretty girl, with dark hair and strong eyebrows, and she was snatched up by a farm couple from a neighboring county and taken away, as an indentured servant. Again, the experience of orphan indentured servants varied around the turn of the century. Most of them were worked half to death.

Nellie was incredibly fortunate. The couple who picked her out was a lovely pair, with three teenage sons, a well-run farm, and only lacking a girl to help out Ma in keeping everyone fed and clothed. Nellie filled that roll. She was not raped or beaten or starved or forced to sleep in the barn, as many of the indentured orphans may have been. She did not have any need to run away from her indentured life, as many of them did.

an indoor bike track, 1902. Whoda thunk?

But she was under contract, not a slave but still very much controlled under the law. And that's all I tell you (except you can guess she survived, because here I am, writing about her!) The book takes us through her time in the orphanage only, right up to when the farm couple took her out the front door and into an unknown future.

In editing this, I'm appreciative of people who write historical fiction for a living. It's not easy! Just one example: I was editing the book and saw the word "toothbrush." Luckily, I thought to question it. Did people own toothbrushes in 1900, the year this is set?

As it ends up, no. Toothbrushes were not commercially available until the 1930s. People might have used a twig, or they might have used baking soda and a square of cloth to clean their teeth. And it would be said 'clean the teeth,' not 'brush the teeth.'

Heavens knows how many similar errors I've missed! I knew not to have a lot of cars driving around. I've been to historic museums of the Midwest to look at household items like kitchen items, pocketbooks, and clothing. I researched extensively Indianapolis's street car system, fares, and how people bought food. I've read dozens of newspapers from Nellie's childhood years at a historical archive in Indiana. Studying the ads helped put me in mind of what life had been like then. But even though I do all this careful work, it's the little details, like a toothbrush (or not) that are sure to trip me up.

I know a few of my regular readers will like this book, but mostly, it's for my family, my fictional account of what Nellie must have felt like and experienced after her mother dropped her off at the orphanage that spring day. She was 11, the eldest. Children were different then, with more responsibilities in a home or farm. What might she have felt? What comforts would she have clung to? Would she love or hate her mother, or both?

I can't know, but I guessed, as novelists do. The book should be out approximately the end of the year.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

How to Analyze an Amazon Book page - Business for writers

Buckle down, fellow writers, this is a long, long post. But I hope you do read it, for you'll have a skill that will serve you for years to come.

For the savvy writer, other authors’ book pages are a wealth of business information. I’ll take you through an Amazon book page in how it appeared on my laptop/browser in November 2018, and show you what I look at when I’m doing a business analysis of a page.

I began writing this post by digging down (randomly choosing a genre I do not write in) into the Mystery top e-book list and choosing a book around #100 in that broad genre. (I don’t know this author, by the way!)

Let’s start with the first thing I see on that book's page (again, on a browser), the title, author, average rating, and number of reviews.

Wow, over 11,000 reviews? My formula for determining what reviews say about sales: only count verified purchases (ARC reviews are meaningless for this analysis--or really for knowing anything about the book--so you want only real reviews, and therefore you sort reviews for verified purchases). I still subtract 10 from that number, for those first reviews may be from family and pals who bought the book. Here, it’s hardly necessary, the number is so high. But I subtract 10, and there are still over 11,000 real reviews.

Take that number, multiply it times 100 (1 in 100 readers spontaneously reviews a book), and you have a good estimate of how many books this title has sold: 1,100,000 copies. Not bad, eh? And the rating is high--very high! With this many reviews, that’s not fake or inflated (with 20 reviews, it could be inflated by friends/family reviews). It’s real. People do love this book.

I’m talking myself into buying this book to see why it’s so good and successful!

In this next section of the page, the prices are listed, and these prices are what attracted me to analyzing this book, because they screamed “indie book” to me. Though this fact could change next year, most indie books sell for 2.99-4.99. .99 is an indie book on sale. 1.99 is usually an older trade-published book on sale. Trade ebooks at full price are 7.99 to 14.99.

I see it is furthermore on KU, Kindle Unlimited, so he’s exclusive to Amazon; you could not buy this book on Barnes and Noble. To estimate his income, I only need look on Amazon. Easier! If this book was wide--selling at B&N and Apple, I’d compute its income at Amazon, multiply times 1.25, and come close to knowing what kind of money this book was making him.

I scroll down the page and see this section. It's an Amazon Advantage ad. They cost more than I'm willing to spend. And you'll see them more for indie books because a big indie writers' FB group is touting them (and their pile-on will doubtless render them ineffective, because that's how that usually works).

Moving on. Now this is the best bit on any book page, and it tells me a lot. He’s an LLC, which is unsurprising. I could do a FISA search in his state and find out more if he's a C Corp or whatever, but I don’t care to and there's no reason to.

Still in that graphic above, “Sold by: Amazon LLC” confirms what I suspected from other clues, that this is indie, or a self-published book.There isn't actually a small publisher called "Phoenix Flying" that you could submit to--it's just him.

The rankings: this tells me how many books he is selling (or are being borrowed, which in KU has the same effect on ranking) this very day. #256 means a hundred or so per day right now. $2.73 income for each sale, about $1.67 for a full KU read. As I have had books everywhere from #39 in the US store to #1,000,000 (pen names) this autumn, I know this equivalency off the top of my head, but there are calculators all over the internet that are fairly good at estimating what a ranking means for sales. Just Google for them if you're curious.

Publication Date: 2013? Whoa. Very impressive that it can rank like this after five years. Damned few books do. I wonder if there is a reason beyond people liking the book. Typical reasons for a recent surge would be that: 1) this book is a Prime Reading selection read right now or 2) it just had a Bookbub or 3) he just released a new title in this series, driving up sales of the first. I check out the last guess--May 2018 was the release date for the last in series, and that's not in the 90 day meaningful sales-boost window, so no on #3. I go to check 1), Prime Reading. Aha. Not this book, but one of his others is in there, which would attract new readers in KU to all his books, driving up the ranking of all his books, perhaps. I did not search for a Bookbub Featured Deal, but there may be one recently.

Total speculation based in nothing you can see on this page but in my knowing how stuff works in the book business: I’d bet this month’s income (mine, not his, which is a bet I could not afford) that Amazon offered him an Amazon Imprints deal and he said no, thanks and doesn’t regret that answer. In fact, I’d be surprised if the Big Five didn’t tender offers to him--possibly every single one of them. Hmm, looking back over the page, scanning the tabs, I find there is a Mass Market PB that predates the ebook. Aha again! Strike that speculation and replace it. He was trade published before the Kindle came out but must have not sold ebook rights back then (smart move, but then he’s a lawyer), or he bought back all rights on an out-of-print book when he decided to go indie. If I ever take him out to lunch, I’ll ask this story, which I bet you is interesting and possibly full of frustration with trade publishing. He also produced his own audio books, which is a lot of work. He’s super-indie. I’m indie, but I’m not that indie! (My audio books are trade. I don’t have the time to oversee engineering of audio.)

So I look at how many books he’s written by switching to his author page, how well his business seems to be handled based on evidence on this one page, the self-published audio books, and I conclude that this guy is hard-working, a real go-getter. This wasn’t some random lightning strike of luck. He earned and deserves every bit of success he’s had. Yay, fellow writer I’ve never met or spoken with! I applaud you! I admire nothing more than hard work, and his business smarts are just icing on the cake of hard work to me. Quite thick and rich icing, it seems.

Curious, I scroll back up the page to look for more and find this: this book was an Amazon All-Star last month (and I’d not be surprised if he was All-Star as an author over all titles as well). So he got a bonus of $1000 or $500 for having a top KU book. This requires on the order of 3 million pages read of this book in one month. Take 3 million page reads x $.0045 (a common payout per page in KU lately) = $13500 KU income for this book alone last month, + the bonus… so now I want the guy to take me out to lunch next time I’m in his neighborhood, for he could certainly afford it. (and write it off on expenses, though god knows, he has zero to learn from li’l ol’ me! So I’d still need to take him out to lunch. Somewhere nice, too. In my best clothes.)

I read the first couple of reviews to see what people like about his books. (Were I to write legal thrillers, I’d read more reviews. Also, I’d read half the books in the top 100 and analyze their content. Length? Chapter length? Lead character? Allies/enemies? Client/bad guy/good guy? Tone, diction? I’d take what I learned from that deeper research as business advice.)

He tells me here in his bio that he’s told 3 million books, which I 100% believe at this point, and was a WSJ best-seller, which is not a very manipulated list. (NYT is about who you know and other twisted facts, not how many books you sell, but USA Today and WSJ and Amazon’s top 100--except for Amazon imprints, which can fudge their way up to the top numbers--are much closer to reflecting the truth.) Here's his impressive genre rankings at Amazon from his author page:

For heaven’s sake, I’m being wordy!. Stand up, stretch, and take a break. ... Now let’s go on.

I learned a lot about this author, his financials, this book and its sales from just one webpage. If you gave me a day, I could estimate his November income pretty closely by digging through every book's page on the main four English language territories.

But now I’m curious enough to plug the book’s ASIN (Amazon’s ID number, equivalent within Amazon to an ISBN) into Kindle Nation Daily's book ranking tracker, which will give me its whole ranking and price history. I see that for years, he had this book at .99. Years upon years upon years--a loss leader. Pricing it higher the past two years, he runs a countdown deal on it every three months, like clockwork, to .99. It’s often in the top 50 in store. Today’s ranking in store is quite low for the past year. That’s great! Whoot! to this total stranger. High five for your success. He's a millionaire earner, and he deserves it.

Because I've done this many times before, it took me ten minutes at most to glean all this information. (It took me considerably longer to screen cap and write this post.)

That's enough. You're bored. I can feel it seeping back in time and over the internet waves.
Okay, so why do I do all this in the first place? First let me answer a question I can anticipate: “isn’t this rude or intrusive to do it?” Hey, it’s up there. Anyone with the basic knowledge of how to look and interpret can see it and know it. Author Earnings and Amazon and (if they’re smart) big publishers are tracking all top sellers with spiders/automated programs and interpreting what they see exactly as I am. So why not me? I’m not out to hurt him. Without knowing him, I like and admire him. I’m studying the success of the book. Believe me, when Starbucks went public, they researched the food industry as deeply as they could, particularly coffee shops. There are even corporate spies out there trying to ferret out secret information. I’m not a spy; I’m just staring at what is already public information, and the filter of my knowledge of the book industry tells me what it tells me.

On the “rudeness” of writers talking directly about money. Indies talk about money to share the information. Trade publishers don’t want authors to talk about money details because they don’t want them to know more and to use it advantageously in negotiations, so there are even NDAs--non-disclosure agreements--about it. Indie authors are their own publishers, and they do want to know these things, and they tend to be open about money because they understand anyone with the knowledge can detect it anyway from page examinations like the one I just did. And also, politely not talking about income or how it happens seems an upper-class attitude, “politeness” partly meant to hide from working class people how they might make more money. Screw that! I’m all about helping people do better, if they are willing to work for it. If you're poor or without connections, I’m showing you, insofar as I know how, one tool of the successful self-publisher. You don't have to be connected any longer to be successful. You just have to write well and have the skills to study the best-selling authors and their strategies.

Theoretically, why would I examine this particular page beyond nosiness or using it as the example to write this blog post? Let’s say I want to be a very successful indie author. The best way to do that is not to randomly sign up for $500 courses or believe every rumor I hear. (see my post of three weeks ago about who not to listen to). It’s to study what already successful authors have done, a study which costs me nothing but time. Were this my genre, I would also go look at his FB page, his website, and sign up for his mailing list to see exactly how he communicates with fans. If I lived in his area, I would, as I joked above, invite him to lunch and pick his brain. (Indie authors are often very good about that.)

If legal thrillers were my genre, and I wanted to do better, I'd conduct an analysis at least once every few months of the top 10 in the genre, tracking what’s happening in my field and watching the trends and ferreting out facts about the best-selling books and authors. I'd study their blurbs to write my own. And even though this isn’t my genre, will never be my genre, it doesn’t hurt me to glance at this information. What if you totally burn out on writing your genre? There might be another genre you could write, and before making the jump, you could be looking at all sorts of top sellers in various genres and thinking about which genre suited you. Perhaps this is one genre you believe you could write well. Or maybe a different genre’s authors figured out something clever about marketing before people in my genre, and I can get a jump on a trend by not incestuously focusing only on my genre’s book pages, but ranging out to study other genres’ bestsellers.

I also check out book pages when small publishers contact me about wanting to grab my rights and most of my income. (Oh, I’m sorry, I meant “kindly offering to ‘legitimately’ publish my books.” Ahem.) I look at their most recent and top book pages and see how they sell. The answer is always “poorly,” but I go look each time anyway, because maybe it is someone who is killing it as a new publisher, and why not check? But no, with exception of my first audio publisher, whom I knew little about before I researched them, and who was offering to do something for me that I never did on my own, it never reveals good news. The email is only someone wanting my money for doing nothing for me and screwing my readers by doubling the prices of my books. (Ain’t gonna happen.)

But I confess that the reason I do this as often as real business research is to check out authors who are making claims I’m suspicious of.
  • Someone emails me trying to sell me a course on increasing my income. A lot of such people are novelists. So I check their novels’ pages. They never look like this guy’s. NEVER. I give away advice for free still, by the way. It’s the way I came up in writing, and I think it’s tacky when other writers DO charge for that sort of thing when they can’t sell their novels and need other income. Figure out how to write and sell your own novels first before charging for your advice, not in lieu of it, that's my free advice on that topic! And if someone can't sell their own novels, you shouldn't buy their marketing book or course.
  • Someone on a writing forum says some promotions idea worked for them that sounds interesting and easier than what I already do. I hate marketing, so I’m eternally hopeful there’s an easier way to do it, a... a. trick, by golly! I go check their sales. 99 times out of 100 I find their “really worked well for me!” means it elevated their ranking from 2,000,000 to 400,000. Sigh. They sold one book. So I can throw out that appealing-sounding idea as well. (If it sounds too good to be true, unfortunately, it almost always is. Marketing is hard and boring and it sucks, and I know it, but hope springs eternal.)
  • Someone tells me some trade published writer named X who is the cousin of their dentist is doing great, far better than me! Or a writer tells me that trade publishing is the only way to go, as evinced by their success, and that I’m a fool for being an indie. (I have no problem with trade publishing. That's the thing you want to try? Go do it! I wish you the best.) I go look at the books of the allegedly "successful" author. Most of the time, I find a small press book, and the cover is ugly, the reviews don’t break the first 10 verified that I always suspect are from family and friends, the ranking is down in the sub-1,000,000 range, and when I check out their author name at Amazon, there’s only one book, maybe published two to five years ago, and there’s nothing before or since. No audio, no translations. So yeah, those claims about success are almost always fibs, and while I try to suspend judgment when I first hear the claim, even when it comes with that look down the nose at me, the Amazon page tells me the truth within seconds, and a visit to KND will tell me five years of your book's sales history.You can't fib any more about your success. The data is all right there, naked, readable. It wasn't in the year 2002, but it sure is now.
  • Some random writer in a forum or on Twitter claims they’ve just been “published” by a “real publisher” and names a press I’ve never heard of. (I've been in the biz for a while. I had a poetry and litfic career, so I recognize most of the respected small press names.) I check out the book page and almost always find it’s just them, self-publishing, thinking they can hide that fact behind a business name. “SOLD BY: Amazon” tells the tale. Depending on where they live and how public DBA records are there, a Google search might confirm the identity behind the "press" name, and a search of the "publisher" shows only one or two authors. So they're announcing a lie. Once a scammer, always a scammer, I figure, so I avoid them after that, and yes, I've seen this quite a few times. I suppose they think they're the first to think of it. Nope. I only started paying attention to indie publishing in early 2012, and I was seeing it then.
So take from this blog post what you will, fellow writers. You can study some of the pages of your top competitors' books and see what you can learn from them, if you'd like. Or if someone makes a claim that seems too good be true, research their book page/s and see if it is true. Or if someone is trying to sell you a course that promises you wealth as a writer, check their novel (not non-fiction) rankings. Or don't do this ever, and that's okay with me as well! I'm offering a tool--you can leave it in the back of the closet if you wish.

Thanks for following this month of writer-business posts in November, which I time to match NaNoWriMo month. Next month, I’m back to writing for my readers, about apocalypses, disasters, disaster prep, diseases, Nazis, and other similarly cheerful topics.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

How many books to be a full time novelist? Business for writers

A dream for many writers is to be able to make a full-time living at writing novels. Sometimes, beginning writers igore an important principle: A FT earning will not come from one book. It will come from many books. But how many, exactly?

This sort of ranking (for a pen name book of mine today) won't do it, I'm afraid.

Here’s the conclusion that those far smarter than Lou Cadle have reached before me: to be a full-time writer, write hard, and fast, and accumulate many titles. I’ll first focus on indie (or self-published) authors because the figures are easier to interpret for me, and I’ll explain what this might mean for trade-published writers later on.

Fact: The top sixteen (in earnings at Amazon) indie writers as of a few months ago had this many books for sale: 119, 61, 6, 51, 15, 78, 21, 28, 64, 167, 12, 70, 15, 59, 31, and 78. (The higher numbers probably include omnibus editions of series, and a few titles in each case may be short stories or novellas, but for the most part, those are numbers of novels.) The median is therefore 46 book titles. The person with 119 titles for sale was bumping up against earning eight figures per year, while the rest earn a million per year (and some have been doing so for six or seven years in a row). That’s US dollars.

Most writers would be thrilled with a bare six figures! And the good news is that several hundred people do earn that much, 80% of them indie writers. (There’s a whole lesson to be given to readers on how little trade-published writers earn from each book of theirs you buy, and it’d likely shock you. I'll link a couple of articles below.)

This information above, on the numbers of books the top earners have for sale, is echoed by a smaller survey about the qualities/habits of 100K writers by Written Word Media, in which their surveyed writers making that much or more answered that they have an average of 33 books out. 46 books is the median for the millionaire authors, and 33 is the median number for the hundred-thousandaire author in that smaller sample.

But is 33 books a guarantee of a six figure income? Well, no. 33 awful books with amateur-looking covers is not much better than having 3 ugly-looking books. (Though I doubt anyone would still be awful at writing after putting out 33 novels, as practice usually improves our skills.) Let’s then find someone else who charted median number of books against income for a larger sample.

Amelia Smith re-crunched the raw data from a 2015 Author Earnings report to find where spikes occurred in book numbers vs. earnings. At 6 books, there’s an income spike. At 16 books, there’s another income spike. But what she found is that even at 40 books for sale, the median income over all authors was only $48,000 in 2015. Not awful, but in the US, not great either because after your expenses (ads, formatting, covers, proofreading), and after the 15% the federal government takes for Social Security, and then federal and state taxes on the rest, you’ll be darned lucky to keep $30,000 of that in your carpal-tunnel-y hands, and you probably can’t afford health insurance. In a two-income household without kids, or where an author is old enough to have a mortgage paid off and is able to draw on savings in case of a bad few months, that’s certainly enough to justify staying full time. But it’s hardly “retire to an island paradise” money.

“But what about that guy back up in the top-16 list with only 6 books out?” you ask. “Can’t that be me?” That’s AG Riddle, and if you can be him, more power to you. But you won’t be. Sorry to be blunt, but expecting to be the second amazing exception that bucks this trend of mo-books-mo-money--and doing so while starting six years after Riddle started, when indie writing was much less populated and therefore less competitive--is setting yourself up for future disappointment. Pay attention to the median, and work hard to reach the median.

You don’t need a breakout book or series to be full time. Though you do probably need several series. Stand-alones just don’t sell like series, which is sad for me, because I’d rather write stand-alone books, but there you have it. Literary books won’t do it either (there was one exception to this a few years ago in indie, but that person isn't still earning at that level today). It has to be genre books, in popular genres, because it’s genre readers who buy most of the books in this world. Whinge and rail at this reality all you want, but wishing won’t change the appetites of voracious readers willing to spend their hard-earned money on books. Their vote is what counts.

The idea of not needing a breakout book is something it’s worth delving into deeper. Let’s look at some figures.

Summary: if you have a whole bunch of books hanging out at a ranking of #100,000 or thereabouts on Amazon, and one newer series doing a bit better, and one 99-cent sale book every few months doing well for a week or two, you’re in the ballpark of making a bare living with 25 books. To dig deeper, here are some recent numbers of sales that results in X ranking (though it’s more complicated than this, this gets us close enough to being able to run the figures.)

If you’re selling 4,000 copies of a book per day at Amazon US (the biggest vendor and territory for most authors, so we’ll focus there), the book is ranked about #50 at

If you are selling 40 copies of a book per day, the book is ranked about #800 in the store.

If you are selling 2 copies of a book per day, the book is at #50,000 in store.

If you sell 1 copy of a book per day, or actually 35 per month, your book will be at #100,000 in store.

So all you need to do to compute what it would take for you, personally, to be making a living wage is 1) determine what a living gross wage (before expenses and taxes) would be for you, 2) accurately guess where your books will rank in their first month, first year, and thereafter, 3) price your books so that your royalty gets you the wage you determined in the first step (tho you cannot price higher than $4.99 because most readers won’t pay over $5 or an ebook), and 4) write that many books.

I multiplied this out for a Twitter writing friend and came up with “25 books priced mostly at $3.99 should get you to $50K income, assuming you run an ad campaign four times a year + drop a price of a first in series to .99 for the ad + put out a new series of three or four every year that will be ranked higher than #100,000 that first year + sell one book per day per back list title on average.” That would earn you $50,000/year gross.  This is not only possible, it’s achievable with some work and organizational skills, and it’s not uncommon. At Author Central, I recently could see 6,000 writers (including non-fiction, fiction, trade, and indie writers) are making over $50,000/year at Amazon US alone. This is great news. Hundreds of thousands try, but more than 6,000 do it. Long odds…but not impossible ones to beat.

Aha, wait. “4) Write that many books?” I slid right past that #4, but there’s the real trick. Write 25 books, most of them in series, keep writing 3-4 per year, and you have a good shot at making a living wage as an indie. Do you have 25 books written yet? Then why are you hanging out reading this blog post? Get to it! Set a word count quota that is slightly challenging, set a daily time, and hit your quota nearly every day. That’s how it gets done.

Sources and some less-organized rambling: A good deal of the most reliable source material for the above comes from Author Earnings, which (if you’ve never heard of it) was a project done by two best-selling indie authors as a free service to the community. Trade publishing, in one of its smartest moves of the past decade, hired the number-cruncher of AE away from the project, but the old reports are still online, and there is a wealth of information in them. It costs a bundle of money for the computer time to crunch the numbers the spider retrieved (you can read more there on spiders gathering data from web pages, or Google it), so many, many thanks to Data Guy and Hugh Howey for their long service and kind donation to the writers’ community.

The difference between what they found in 2014 and what they and others have found in 2018 is negligible. The biggest difference is this year more indie writers (self-published writers) are making a million dollars per year than ever before--over 30 of them. (And no, yours truly is definitely not one of them! Nor do I wish to be, but that would be another blog post.)

For more reading and handy charts which show graphically what I summarized above: -- various reports
and a big thank you to the community of indie writers who openly share sales figures, costs, and much else. Trade publishing works hard to hide such figures, but indies are open about it and happy to explain how to dig the information out and share it.
Trade-published authors and making a tiny percent of their book’s price is addressed here:

For those of you in the trade publishing world, this is sort of applicable as well, except you’re earning less per paperback by far than indie writers are per typical ebook, so you have to have higher rankings/sell more books from your backlist/have more books in your backlist for this to hold true, and that’s nearly impossible to do because you can’t lower your prices for sales at will to attract new readers the way that indies can. In general, all the trade published writers I personally know of similar skill, experience, and numbers of books are earning far less than their indie equivalents. Their sales are mostly paperback, the trade paperback writer gets perhaps 50 cents of every paperback sale and paperbacks go out of print.

If you chart trade-published ebooks over months, you can see they don’t stick in ranking as self-published books do. (Data Guy pointed that out in his RWA presentation a couple years back, if any of you went to that.) That might be a matter of pricing, or it might be that indies continue to promote their books years after the publication date (while trade publishers forget about their midlist books after 3 months). So it’s hard for a midlist trade-published author to have titles stick at #100,000. I can find you books that were made into a big Hollywood film 5-7 years ago that are now ranked lower than the ones I released 4.5 years ago at Amazon. Mind-boggling.

Therefore most trade-published authors with 25 books in their back list will have to do what they’ve always done to find more income--also write articles, teach courses here and there, edit on the side, ghostwrite on the side, do other work-for-hire, have a spouse earning a nice living and providing (in the US) health insurance, and/or keep their day job. And if you have a day job, writing 25 books is likely to take you 20 years. It sucks, I know, for I've been there.

For indies in many genres, audio books of existing titles can earn as well as another new ebook title--so instead of 25 books, you might only need 15 moderately selling ebooks and that many in audio. Paperbacks, while probably the main income source for a trade-published author are, for indie authors, unlikely to be a meaningful source of income.

And a final caution to midlist indies or those hoping to be that: you can’t afford to take a half a year or even a summer off to travel or write poetry or hang out at writer conferences. Top trade writers can and do, but you can’t. You need to keep putting out three or more books per year, most in your core subgenre.

Work hard. Harder than you ever imagined you could. Anyone who thinks it is easy to write four novels per year for long enough to have a back list of 25 books has, I’d wager, never done that.

Before, in your comments (moderated, btw), you point out any exceptions and say “but what about so-and-so?” Yes. I know there are rare exceptions. It slays me when people bring up Harper Lee to refute my point because guys, Harper Lee’s book was published in 19GD64. Once in every 75 years? Would your bank float you a loan based on that business plan: “I plan to have the luck only one book in the past 75 years has had!”? Remember, the median income for people with 40 books is $48,000. That also means half of authors with 40 or fewer books don’t earn that much. If you want to look at exceptions so hard, look there, on the bad-news side of things. Otherwise, you’re like a working-poor person taking the last $100 they had set aside for their kids’ shoes and blowing it on lottery tickets, clinging to a wild hope and studiously ignoring the odds printed on the back of the lottery ticket. Look at the median, set that as your goal, and work your tail off to hit it.

It is possible. It is. But it's unlikely to come quickly. 25 books. Write today.

Best of luck to you all.