Friday 31 October 2014

Wake-up call

I started that full-time writing thing with a dose of optimism. Return on Investment did much better than expected (about 500 sold copies since July and more than that lent via Kindle Unlimited), although it's now much slower and sells about one copy a day on average. Sales and lowering the price did nothing to boost sales, but considering how weird and uncommercial that book is, I'm still happy with how it's done. I'll call it a modest success.

I didn't walk out of that job without a "business plan". I did projections based on about 12 months of sales data, built a model based on average yield per book (aka, how much do I make per month per book). For yield, I went with the sales of "backlist" titles - not the ones that are just out and might sell a thousand copies or so in their first month, but the few dribs-and-drabs sales I get on titles that are "older" (= older than six months).

Based on that, I averaged out yield and then assumed that future books would sell about the same. I was hoping that the front list sales spike and maybe even growing readership would mean I was low-balling, but I didn't count on either of those. Basically, I was running what I thought was a worst-worst case scenario.

So when I got my royalty payment for last month, I thought there was a mistake, but I went through the statement and ran the numbers, and it's pretty alarming. Almost half (40%) my royalties are from one front list title that's rapidly fading. It had a very good three months, but the money from that title is falling at a rate of 50% a month. And worse: My strongest, long-term sellers sold a good 50% less than they had for the last 1.5 years.

Overall, my backlist (the books I rely on to pay my bills), are over 40% down, and once that strong front list title hits sales hell in a couple months, and assuming my back list doesn't recover by some miracle, I won't be able to pay my bills/fixed costs in about 2-3 months. If the sales trend continues, I'm going from "below minimum wage" to officially "poverty line" in the same timeframe. It's the kind of crash that makes me look at my monthly outgoings and ponder which one I can/should cut. Do I really need regular haircuts? (And yeah, it's made worse by living near one of the most expensive cities on the planet - not really a choice as long as my partner works there.)

(I don't mean to be whining. I have the best readers, and I'm grateful for every book they bought in September - or earlier, in the case of the retailers. I'm speaking quite candidly because it might be helpful for other writers. If any of you have seen the same sales drop, you're definitely not alone.)

I'm not sure what a viable strategy is for the future. I clearly over-relied on my backlist and my worst-worst case scenario was about 50% too optimistic. Which means I quit my day job about 3-4 years too soon. I knew I'd be scraping by for a few years and hoped I'd write my way out of there, but this month really claw-hammered that confidence.

I'm not good at writing the kind of book that sells inside this genre. And I don't see that changing.

And just the explicit/gay/bisexual content means a somewhat limited audience - that material doesn't get into the mainstream. I'm currently pretty much aiming at a sub-group of a sub-group of a sub-group, and apparently that niche audience is too small to sustain me.

One part of me is completely freaked out. (And freaked-out writer = too freaked-out to write, so this isn't even a productive frame of mind, much as I'd prefer to call it a "kick in the pants".) I prefer to have a rough idea where things are going, how much money I can expect, because I want to intervene on time and steer against it.

This might have been a freak month, and gods give that it is, but I have to act pretty much now to be prepared if this is the shape of things to come. (Smoke, fire, the works.) Anything I write now and publish via a small press will still take 9 months at least to earn me money (At least 6 months of production time for a publisher, plus 3 months until Amazon pays out), and it's closer to 12.

Self-publishing is closer to 6 months - three months of production time (editing, layout, cover, etc), plus 3 months until Amazon pays out. I can't do much until mid-December (as I won't be here, and I'm still working on the Birds book), but from mid-December, I really need to act.

Going the traditional route (getting an agent, getting a big publisher) is now literally something I can't afford. I can't wait 4 years or more to get paid. I'm entering crisis/survival mode now.

What it'll mean above all is: 1) I will self-publish some things fairly quickly. 2) I need to write faster, and even a LOT faster. 3) I have to diversify in terms of genre. 4) I will very likely re-join the workforce in early 2015.

Number 3) means I'll likely launch a second pen name and write speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy,  historical) under a different name. For that, I'll likely revive my old German pseudonym, but it's not yet decided. I think a new name would be good to leave some expectations at the door (read, no more disclaimers that the current book "isn't a romance" - there won't be romance expectations attached to it. This might prove to be tremendously liberating.)

It'll also mean I'll be writing from a different angle. My characters might still be gay or bisexual, but there won't be any explicit content on the page (this will likely affect my urban fantasy series I've been planning as well as my historical thriller). There might still be a romance sub-plot, but it won't be the main focus of the story. I'm also very likely going to write a few books with a female lead. Which will be brilliant, I think. I have at least two books that focus on women, and only one of them is bisexual.

Above all, it means re-shuffling my release/writing schedule. I knew that writing fantasy and historicals was a financially risky idea, but now I have the actual numbers to see just how fucking stupid it is to write either and more than maybe one a year.

I will still indulge myself and finish the Bird Book, because I've already almost lost this book twice, and if I stop now and desert it again, I fear it'll just wither and die off - gods know when I get into the position again where I can devote several months to it. Yes, it's a luxury I can't afford, but screw it, I'm 70-75% done with it now.

I'm putting the other five WWII novels and any further gay fantasy novels on hold for the time being. I literally can't afford to write them, and I'm sorry for that, but the bank wants the mortgage money every month, and I like eating.

In mid-December, I'll start on my straight-up historical with a main character who's most definitely bisexual, but will only be courting women. My partner has been requesting that book for the last 3 years, and it's time I write a book I can sell to mainstream readers without having to "warn" about the gay sex. It'll mean a screeching halt on my WWII stuff and pushing hard into the crusades research, which is not what I was aiming to do, but hopefully more sustainable. It'll also mean that what WWII research I've done will go into a book told from a hetero/female POV.

Overall, and as weird as it might sound, I'm still optimistic. What I consider crisis mode now might lead to some amazing books/experiences/growth. And I'm all for that.

So, yeah. This is my Halloween/Samhain post. The irony doesn't escape me. This is as "horror" as I can muster, and it all comes back to one of my main fears: fear of change, fear or loss of control. I'll get over it. This is most likely a good thing when seen from a couple years' distance.


  1. This is why I have a great deal of respect for 'genre' authors! Even those 'mainstream' authors who write in Fantasy, SF, or PNR must have some worries about a 'new' series, even though they may have built a following with their back-list.

    But (nearly) every article I've ever read about writing and how to make money, has always mentioned the day-paying job. Living off one's royalties seems to be a fairy-tale (apart from those stock, popular writers); and it seems that TV or film options are what pay the most. Very few achieve that notoriety :)

    Unfortunately, "Respect" doesn't pay the bills, which is why I try to buy e-books (especially) at full price so the author gains as much as possible. That's all I can do, apart from urging someone like you NOT to give up!!

    So, PLEASE keep on writing! Let us know your "new" names, so peeps like me will STILL buy! and please don't give up. {{Hugs}}

    1. The trade-off between traditional publishing (which for m/m at least doesn't exist) and small-press publishing is that you make roughly 5-8 times more per book in small-press. In this case, m/m is is so small, and my appeal within m/m so niche, that even the improved payscale doesn't compensate for it. I either have to write "sellers" in this genre (which I can't), or self-published books outside the genre that have a chance to sell more than 800 copies.

      The day-job thing - yes. The received wisdom is that your backlist (old titles) needs to make you enough to pay all your bills. In traditional publishing (and based on really awful royalties and contract terms), you could achieve that in about 10-15 years if you were prolific. I've had that chat with a couple big German literary agents. I was roughly at that point, but last month has cut those backlist earnings by 40%.

      There are quite a few writers who make a living in m/m, but they do contemporaries, and lots of them.

      And thanks for your support. Both those really help in terms of royalties.

      Regarding giving up: I've put everything on have on this card. I can't stop for financial reasons, at least until I've secured a decent day job again.

  2. As said by Carole-Ann do let your current fans (like me) know any other pen names. We will be the first to buy your books.
    I am sorry to hear it is such a struggle for you. Especially you as an established author with good backlist.
    I'm not sure about the strategy of writing straight F/M romance. Although there is a bigger audience your book will have far more competition so will enough new reader actually find it? Whereas with gay romance you already have an established reputation and when new readers discover such books they will be interesting in your backlist.
    Something bisexual might be good - from a commercial POV. And, of course, I don't need to say that increasingly women more women are starting to read M/M romance so that is a growing market that you are established in.
    You've gone over all that - if only there was a crystal ball.

    You know your figures for your actually books, ass a reader (who also is a self employed and shares your anxiety in my own life) I would have thought it would be commercially expedient to write short books like the Tristen/Jared Market Garden series. I read each one in next to no time and instantly bought the next because I wanted to know where their relationship was going. I was not at all worried that the first two were only 10/11k words. I have bought similar series (of short ish book) from other authors too.
    I don't know if I am a typical buyer though, perhaps more people prefer longer books that take longer to write.
    Sorry for waffling... x

    1. Hi Helen - Thank you. I'll see what I'll do about the pen name. Sometimes I feel a clean break might be good (no expectations), but I don't want to cut ties with the readers I do have. It's difficult at the moment.

      And no, of all things, I will most definitely NOT be writing straight romance. I'm already chafing against "the rules" in m/m romance, and from what I observe, those rules are worse in m/f. If anything, I might do a couple love stories, but mostly, I want to do speculative fiction without any of those constraints or expectations. I know the money is in romance, but I can't do justice to the genre or the expectations of its readers.

      I would have agreed that the genre is growing and the rising tide lifts all boats, but my tide just went down 40%. Whichever books the new people are reading, they aren't mine. And they are most definitely not fantasy, historicals or sci-fi.

      And regarding sales of the three Market Garden shorts. We're looking at vastly diminishing returns - sales numbers are down 30-40% from one book to the next. Plus all the negative reviews about how asking $2.99 is "way too much" for "just porn", I'll do my damned best to not write short stories anymore (not that I can help it). Novels are doing much, much better. People even seem to start disliking novellas. I sometimes get the idea that the ideal book is one million words for completely free. Oh, wait, done it. Still have to worry about my mortgage payment.

      And no, not waffling. I'm turning around and around in this trap I've set for myself and can't find a way out either...

  3. I have found myself pulling away from romance themed novels as of late. Not sure the reason but am so damn glad that my reading interests are pretty eclectic. I cannot fathom what it would be like to try and guess (educated or not) what I would be bringing home month to month. I DO certainly know what it is to live check to check but my checks come bi-weekly and average about the same each time. The genre I started with and keep coming back to is scifi/fantasy. I love me some myth and magic!! I am always on the lookout for strong women in the books I read so the fact that you are working on some is just a double bonus to me ;)

    As always, I am up for finding plot holes or just looking at something with a set of fresh eyes.

    Looking forward to seeing more of your work luv!


    1. Thanks! Right now I'll be licking my wounds and finishing a book that has very little chance of selling. And after that, I'll have to seriously work on a strategy that'll keep me housed and fed.

  4. I've also been scrutinizing my royalty statement this quarter and wondering how come it's a whole order of magnitude off! You're not alone.
    According to the Gospel of St. Dean, it takes a backlist of about 40 books for the feed-back loop to kick in, where the word will start spreading and new readers will start discovering your backlist and recommending you onward. You're closer to that goal than I am, but I'd agree that diversifying genre is a good idea.
    This being said, I'd say keep the name. Screw what anyone else thinks. Your sci-fi readers will read sci-fi. They may or may not read m/m, and vice versa, but if there's no connection, you're sort of killing the feedback loop, I think.
    If you need the freedom of a pen name and it will help you be more productive, that's a different reason. I'm told pen names are really no longer important (although I do have one for PWPs :-).
    I'm taking a "Productivity" workshop starting Wednesday with DWS, so let's see if that can help me get up to speed and do my intended 8 books a year, plus some short stories.
    Speaking of short stories, a friend of mine has written a bunch of pan-sexual PWP short stories that earned her more cash on ARe than she's seen from serious, high-quality m/m novels published both through small press and through her own imprint.
    It spurs the imagination some, doesn't it? Both financially and in terms of material. Just sayin'.
    Hang in there. We can do this thing.

    1. Hi Kate - sorry to hear your sales are down, too. And DWS speaks a lot of sense - though at least romance readers disagree violently on pricing with him. ($2.99 for short stories - though that's really Amazon's fault.) And good luck on the workshop - I'd be really interested to see how that goes for you.

      Re: porny shorts - that's interesting. I might give it a whirl.

      Good luck to you!

    2. My porny m/m shorts (at $2.99) make me enough money to pay some bills. Interestingly enough my m/m shorts sell better than my m/f shorts.
      The advantage is that they are quick to write and don't require the extensive research/plotting/editing that a novel does.
      Right now I'm doing about one or two a week and my sales and borrows (especially the borrows) are continuously moving up and that without any kind of marketing. But, it is a short-lived market that constantly requires new material.

    3. ETA: Shorts should be kinky though. BDSM sells well for me. Others have good success with dubcon, pseudo-incest, or monster-erotica. Pure Vanilla doesn't sell nearly as well.
      Historical stuff also works well (Vikings kidnapping pretty virgins are very popular right now). Think bodice-ripper without the romance plot.

  5. Pretty much all the writers I know are commenting on reduced sales this year, so it seems to be an across-the-board phenomenon. Doesn't help though. I wonder if the e-market has reached saturation point? If books are so cheap that people are stockpiling, but not actually reading, then they will not seek out the backlist.

    I'm as keen as you to figure out a solution. Hang on in there!

    * hugs *

    1. Sofia - It's absolutely possible people are reading what they just one-clicked over the last year or two. Financial crisis dragging on even further doesn't help, of course. Some people are beyond the financial breaking point, and many romance readers read a LOT. Ah, well. Looks like we are, on a lesser scale, finally sharing the fate of our traditionally published colleagues.

  6. Hi there, I just bought two of ur backlist that I missed!! I hope sales pick up soon, and that you can come up with a plan that keeps you happy and paying the bills!

    xxoo from MO

  7. Thanks for your honesty. I'm starting that living-from-writing situation too, as you know, but with substantially lower sales expectations than yours, even on new releases. That's not a moan, just a statement :).

    I'm not sure that the "tide rises/all boats lift" theory still holds true, at least not at the moment. All I can see is that a small number of titles/authors do extremely well - as always, and not always for reasons I can identify, though I don't begrudge them AT ALL - while the rest of us share out what's left. I can't believe people don't read as much any more - and that there aren't new readers joining the pool all the time! But maybe the balance is out of kilter for a time.

    I've made a deliberate strategy decision for the next year (at least) to write contemporary romance, novella length, as prolifically as I can manage, and to market the bejasus out of it. I'm interested to know where that takes me.

    And, unfortunately for me, I'm also looking at some extrenal work to subsidise me in the meantime. *sigh*

    1. Hi Clare - Yep, I think that makes sense. I'm curious to see how it all pans out in the end, but meanwhile, I'll be over here, frantically building my life raft. :)

  8. Guess I'm out of sync with the market because I love novels, the longer the better. My biggest complaint with short stories and novellas is that they so often feel dashed off, with little thought to character development or a satisfying narrative arc.

  9. Have you thought about trying Patreon for people to support you with a payment every month? Some artists use it to support ongoing projects. I must admit I don't know much about it, though. I hope your situation improves...