This week I’m back on my soapbox and conversing with the clouds about the importance of writing a competitive product if one wants to have a chance of making money in self-publishing. Once again.
One of the writers I follow, Ron Vitale, posted his “2020 Year-end Wrap Up: Full Sales and Expenses as an Indie Author” post, which you can read in full, here: Blog post And if you are thinking about self-publishing, you should. Along with his other six similar posts covering his experiences in publishing from 2013 on.
Like the vast majority of authors, self-published and otherwise, Ron Vitale has a full time day job that pays the bills. His night gig, or in this case, his early morning gig, is writing and publishing fantasy, SF and self-help books, which he started doing in 2011. He has published 17 books, 13 works of fiction, and 4 non-fiction books over the course of the last nine years. Over this time, I think that he has tried just every tactic and strategy that has been promoted as the key to success in self-publishing – save perhaps the most important one. “But,” as he writes, “when I tally up all the numbers over the last nine years of sales, I’ve still failed as a business.” He goes on to say that “I’ve lost money. I’ve made mistakes… but kept moving forward. Since I started publishing books back in 2011, I’ve built up a nice base for my intellectual property. Each book is a unique product that I can morph into other properties: audiobooks, eBooks, (single or box sets) print, licensing deals, etc. I may not have made a profit yet, but I’m in this for the long haul.”
Fair enough. But let’s look a little deeper. Above is a chart of expenses vs sales for each year. Looking at that chart, it appears that his publishing venture has lost somewhere north of $10,000 over the last nine years. I imagine that there are many people who spend well over $1,000 a year on their hobbies, so in that light, and his long term goals, he didn’t lose an extraordinary amount of money self-publishing his work. And he is growing revenue and shrinking expenses, so things are moving in the right direction, but clearly it is a long haul to making a business out of it.
If you’ve read my previous post, I’ve argued that to sell books these days, self-published authors need to identify both the type of readers, and the type of books they are reading to successfully sell books for folding money. He writes “stories about people who overcome their past trauma to grow and heal. Writing is therapeutic for me.” In other words, he writes what he wants and feels need be written. Which is great. So do I. But is there a market and a business to be built on books with that focus?
Below is the sales chart for fantasy books from Author Earnings’ presentation to the 2018 SFWA Nebula Conference (The complete presentation here: http://authorearnings.com/sfwa2018/ ) The chart breaks down the sales of fantasy books by sub-genre and who is selling them. The vertical lines represent 2 million copies sold. I’ve annotated it to show where Ron Vitale’s fantasy books fall on it.
I should point out that the best selling sub-genre are also the most competitive as well, so that writing in the best selling sub-genre is no guarantee of success, and you can find success in the slower selling genre, if you know and produce the tropes, story beats, blurbs, and covers that the most successful authors have perfected.
He classifies the Witch’s Coven Series as epic fantasy. I’m not a fantasy fan, nor have I read these books, but one of the signs that an author knows what they are doing, is that they know the expected word count for the genre they[re writing in. Both of the Witch’s Coven books come in under 200 pages, in a genre where door stopper books are the norm. The other epic fantasy book, Dorothea’s Song, alternates between a modern day school boy, and his fantasy creation, which I suspect falls outside of the expected norms of epic fantasy.
He classifies Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries as fairy tale retelling. Cinderella is a Disney Princess these days. While I have seen other modern takes on the Cinderella story, a story that destroys the “and they lived happily ever after" fairy tale story beat would seem to be a tough sell.
The Werewhale Saga is a dark fantasy that has the children of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab going off on adventures to dark and dangerous islands. Do they make students read Moby Dick anymore? And do the fans of Moby Dick read self-published fantasy? It seems to be a rather iffy proposition.
The Red Door Diaries is a gaslight fantasy set in a brothel. Well, he doesn’t have a lot of competition in this category. Nor readers.
Below is the science fiction sales chart from the same presentation. Note how much better fantasy sells than science fiction.
His two science fiction books, The Jovian Gate Chronicles, are tied into his Cinderella stories, featuring Cinderella’s time traveling daughter in a space opera were humans are ruled by the Catholic Church and the Confederacy who meet aliens who claim to be prophets of God. The second book is a collection of short stories. In short, they seem all over the map.
My take away from Ron Vitale’s report is that you can do all the right things, but will fail unless your product is spot on the formula of whatever sub-genre you’re targeting. You can write all the artisan books you want, but if you want a chance to build a business on writing, you need to write fast food books – familiar comfort reading delivered fast – every couple of months.
Ron Vitale started publishing in the gold rush boom years, when it was all new, and everyone had a chance to make it big. But those days are history. Tens of thousands of books are released every month. And even if you write to the formula of your sub-genre, you still need to catch their eyes. And these days that takes money – thousand of dollars.
In the next installment, we’ll look at a Cris Fox’s 2020 results. Cris Fox makes a good living self-publishing a variety of fiction and non-fiction books. He also posts and talks about his income and expenses every year. In his report we will see what it takes to make folding money in self-publishing.