This Week in Self-Publishing: Let’s Get Serious About Sales and Money

Money earned (total): $6,909

Money spent (total): $425

Money earned (this week): $0

Money spent (this week): $275

February is going to be a really interesting month for me, self-publishing-wise. It’s the month in which I’m going to lay down most of the money required to self-publish The Biographies of Ordinary People:

We offer one-week sponsorships, where we publish a full chapter from your work, with clear links to purchase it. We put a very noticeable, attractive ad on every content page in our site. Every review, every note. You will be noticed.

There will also be some costs involved in setting up the print copy of the book, but the $1,545 I spend this month will represent the bulk of my self-publishing expenses. (Until we get to the book tour, but that’s a whole different subject.)

You could say that, since I received $6,909 from Patreon supporters during the 18 months it took me to draft both volumes of The Biographies of Ordinary People, I am still coming out ahead—and yes, if we’re counting money in terms of “are readers paying to read this” vs. “am I paying to publish this,” I absolutely am.

As of this point in the book’s story, more readers have paid to support and read The Biographies of Ordinary People than I have paid—or will pay—to publish it. I am occasionally overwhelmed by that thought. Once again: thank you, Patreon supporters.

But you could also say that the $1,545 I plan to spend this month represents a debt that I’ll need to earn back in terms of book pre-orders and sales, and those are the numbers I want to look at this week.

Because, in addition to February being the month in which I’ll spend a bunch of money, February will also be the month in which I’ll start earning money from Biographies pre-orders. ❤

Pre-order date: February 14

The Biographies of Ordinary People: Vol. 1: 1989–2000 will begin its pre-order on Tuesday, February 14. (I KNOW, RIGHT? I’M SO EXCITED.)

I chose this date for about five different reasons:

  • February 14 is about celebrating love, and Biographies is all about love. Family love. Friend love. Sisterly love. Romantic love. Love of art. Love of work. Love of creation. Love of life.
  • Plus, there’s the whole part where I love this thing I’ve made and I think you will love it too.
  • For those of you who did subscribe to the Patreon and got to read draft chapters of both volumes, you know that Biographies does not subscribe to the heteronormative happily-ever-after that still predominates in both our culture and in the majority of Valentine’s Day cards. There is a lot of happiness in this book, but I deliberately subvert a lot of the standard tropes, including the one that claims you need a romantic partner to live a fulfilling life. (How did that trope even get started?)
  • Valentine’s Day can be a garbage barge of feelings for a lot of us—it’s, like, right up there with NYE and Prom—so here’s something we can be happy about together.
  • On the subject of garbage barges: We don’t know what the news will bring on any given day, and I’m guessing February 14 will feel a lot like every day has felt since January 20—but the day is also about love and because of that I don’t mind claiming a small part of it for this story. (I can call my reps and make donations and attend protests and send a book into the world. It’s all important. It’s all love, standing up against hate.)

So the pre-order date will be Tuesday, February 14, which means the book should release in mid-May, early June at the latest. (I want to give you an exact date, but I also don’t want to disappoint you if the print process takes a week longer than expected or something.)

Pre-order predictions and best-case scenarios

Now that I’ve described my book as something that I love very much (which is true) that I hope you will love as well (also true) I am going to transition into discussing money—which might seem like the antithesis of love, like I should just fling words into the sky without any dream of long-term financial stability, but… that’s not how it works.

I wrote Biographies because I loved the story and the characters and thought it was an important story to tell right now. (More important than I realized, as it turns out. Remember that the second volume ends in November 2016.)

I’m putting the effort and the cash into publishing and marketing Biographies because I think readers will want to buy it.

Before you say “but what about putting it online for free?” I actually tried that with several chapters, and took careful notes on what happened. The chapters got a small number of readers, many of whom responded positively, but the chapters themselves never picked up any momentum. I wasn’t putting any effort into marketing, and my small group of readers weren’t doing my marketing “for me,” e.g. reblogs and so on. (My dreams of becoming the next The Martian were dashed.)

Then I announced that I was no longer doing free chapters and would only be publishing the novel through my Patreon—which had been running simultaneously all this time—and Patreon enrollment jumped, assumedly from people who had previously been reading for free and now wanted to pay $1 per month (or more) to see what happened next.

So yeah, I do think people (including perhaps you) will want to buy The Biographies of Ordinary People.

Let’s see what might happen if I’m right.

As I wrote last week, I’m distributing Biographies through Pronoun, which will sell the ebook via Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and Kobo at a cost of $3.99 (to you) and a profit of $2.79 (to me).

I’m just going to look at ebook numbers right now, because I still don’t have profit/cost numbers on the print copy. (That’ll be April.)

At $2.79 per copy, I’d need to sell 554 ebooks to make up the $1,545 I’m going to spend this month on publishing and review costs.

Technically, I’ll need to sell more like 749 copies to earn back my $1,545, because that $2.79 is pretax money and so 25 percent of it gets set aside for taxes. Federal and business, but not state since I live in WA—and not sales, right? That comes out at the point of purchase? The $1,545 is a tax deduction, though… which is why I have a CPA and won’t be figuring all of this out myself.

Can I sell 749 copies? On the one hand, it seems totally achievable; on the other hand, it seems ridiculously impossible. I know that I do not currently have enough Tiny Letter subscribers, for example, to cover the 749 sales required. I have 13,500 Medium followers, 3,298 Twitter followers, and 1,291 Tumblr followers, all of whom will hear plenty about Biographies, but if I want to make this book a success I have to reach outside of my “platform,” as it were.

Which is what I’m going to be doing over the next four months. Probably the next six months, since marketing doesn’t end after the book launches (thank goodness).

But let’s go back to that 749 figure. One of Pronoun’s unique features is its “track any book” feature, which literally lets you track any book sold on Amazon. I dropped Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth into the tracker, because it’s a recently-released novel about a family saga, and because I want to see how the whole Amazon sales rank thing works for an established author writing in this particular genre.

I won’t get tracking data until next week, but that’s okay—I was already doing this kind of research myself, by looking up “comparative titles” and checking both their sales rank and the number of Amazon reviews they’ve received.

Commonwealth, for example, has a 185 sales ranking in the Amazon Kindle Store (as in, of all the books sold on Kindle, Commonwealth is currently the 185th best seller) and has received 1,448 reviews.

That’s not going to be my experience, I’m guessing. (Not saying that it couldn’t. Just saying that it probably won’t.)

So let’s look at a different title, one that might more accurately reflect my experience: Marcella Serrano’s Ten Womenwhich I’m also tracking on Pronoun. This book is another similar-genre (and similar-cover) story, published through the AmazonCrossing imprint. Currently, Ten Women has a 16,697 Kindle Store ranking—although its sales ranking gets into the double digits once you look at Kindle subcategories—and 48 reviews.

(Interestingly—and this is a sidebar here—both Patchett and Serrano are writing for an audience slightly older than mine. Plenty of people aged 27–37ish will read Commonwealth, of course, I read everything Ann Patchett writes, but it’s also not about our generation in the way that Biographies is. It’s really hard for me to think of a comp title for Biographies because of that, and if you know books I’m overlooking, drop ’em in the comments.)

So this is the kind of best-case scenario I’m hoping I can create for Biographies. I probably won’t be an overall bestseller, but it would be interesting to be the 50th book in a specific subcategory and to get about 50 Amazon reviews, one month after launch. (Again, this is the kind of thing that feels both totally achievable and completely presumptuous at the same time.)

The real question is how that translates into sales.

If I had to give an off-the-top-of-my-researched-gut estimate, I’d predict that 40 of you will pre-order Biographies on February 14, and another 30 of you will order the book over the next week. These numbers are based on the number of people who have already taken an action towards supporting Biographies, such as signing up for the TinyLetter or adding the book as “want to read” on Goodreads—and if I sound calculating right now I will remind you that I am, in fact, calculating. (I am not a horrible person for carefully thinking about how many copies my book could sell. I keep telling myself that.)

I’d also predict that, with the marketing plan I have in mind, I could get another 200 pre-orders before the launch. At that point, I’ll also start selling paperback copies—and I am well aware that several of you are holding out for the paperback—so that number will jump up a little more, maybe another 50–100 purchases on the day of launch itself, and a handful of stragglers over the next few days.

After that, it starts being about momentum. Yes, I’ll still be doing marketing and media outreach, plus a short tour, but much of Biographies’ success will theoretically depend on how many reviews it gets and where it shows up on Amazon’s algorithm and whether it gets chosen for specific promotions. (At least, that’s how I think it works. I don’t know, because I’ve never done it before.)

Which means that I won’t have made those 749 sales by launch day; I’ll have more likely made closer to 300–400 sales. It’s at this point where the numbers feel a bit more like they’re coming out of my butt instead of my gut, but I think I’ve made my point.

I have a book that I know readers have already loved, and that I predict other readers will also love.

All I have to do is figure out how to tell them about it. ❤

 

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