Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Numbers Game

On August 26th, too long after midnight, the “Go!” button was pushed and Aggadeh Chronicles Book 1: Nobody was released and went live on the ebook markets.
My timing of the release could not have been worse.
It was just before the holiday weekend—when people would be heading for picnics and barbecues instead of sitting at their computers looking for something to read. My primary audience was either moving into college or moving their kids into college. With the summer ending, people are switching from vacation/holiday mode to school/work mode. Activities and organizations that were shuttered during the summer months restarted. There is a lot of scurrying around as people try to get themselves back onto the schedule. Recreational reading takes a backseat during the month of September.
Still, sales have been steady and the feedback has been excellent. Readers who posted their review on Nobody: The Pirate Arc have read the full version now and updated their reviews to show their satisfaction. (Thank you!)
Overall, I’d say the prospects are looking very good for Nobody. Satisfaction is high among those who have bought it and there is a good deal of interest in the story among those who haven’t. It’s simply a matter for me to convince those who haven’t to do so.
How well will it do?  I really can’t predict that. I’m betting—hoping—it will do well enough that I can make a living at this.
Friends have sent me interviews of highly successful, self-published authors and in those interviews where they talked about the actual sales numbers, my book is doing better than theirs were at the same time scale. That’s very encouraging. It’s easy to get excited reading and listening to those interviews.
Hugh Howey’s Wool was first published in 2010 and it wasn’t until October 2011 that readers took notice of it. In that time, according to Howey, Wool went from selling a dozen per month to a thousand per month, then three thousand in November and finally ten thousand in December. I hope to sell ten thousand copies of Nobody in a year. To do that in a month would be incredible.
That is the sad truth of reality: the majority of self-published books that finally hit it big took years to reach that point of success. Most authors in this category comment how they put out their books and then went about their lives. I remember one made the comment she was surprised one day when she looked at her bank account balance and discovered several thousand more dollars than should have been there. This was how she discovered that a few months before, her book became a hit—almost two years after she published it. It is unusual for a book from an unknown, self-publishing author to take off right away.
What does it take to get a book to surge in sales?
The obvious answer is people must start buying it. But that isn’t the complete answer. People not only have to buy it, but they have to enjoy reading the story. Then they must tell other people about it. Word of mouth is the best way to sell a book.
The surge that every author prays to see depends on the numbers.
Twice, Amazon put Nobody in their promotional emails and twice, I saw sudden jumps in sales that corresponded with those promotions. In fact, I noticed the sudden, odd jump in sales and suspected there had been a promotion before I went to email and confirmed it. That also resulted in a huge jump in Amazon’s ranking system, and that caused Nobody to be featured a second time. The first promo happened before the weekend and that resulted in four times the books sold than normal. The second promo occurred a few days later in the middle of the week and so didn’t have quite the impact, yet still sold more than twice the normal rate.
What does it take to get your ebook to be promoted in one of the mailings? Sales. More to the point, sales velocity, the rate at which a title is selling.
Nobody has had a very steady sales rate over the past month. That keeps it fairly steady in the rankings. But if sales began to increase to a higher number each day, then the sales velocity is increasing. This is a sign that a book is a hit. If a book is becoming a hit, then the distributor is going to want to push it in order to sell more and thereby make a faster profit. It is a feedback loop. The more the book sells, the more the seller wants to sell it in order to make more money. The more the seller promotes it, the more it sells.
At the same time, the more the book is being pushed and more people buy it, the higher the number of people that read it will like it. Therefore, more people are likely to leave a personal and positive review on the book’s sales page. This in turn, encourages more people to take the plunge and buy the book to see what all the buzz is about.
When charted, this is where the line showing sales begins to suddenly curve upward at an ever steeper angle. This is when a book becomes a hit.
What triggers this surge? Luck is a large part of it. Timing is another, where you get the book to market just at the right time when people are looking for something new to read. The hard work of the author trying to promote his book is another other part of it. Getting the local paper to write an article about you and your book or getting on the local radio station would let you reach a few thousand people in a very short time. From this, you could get a couple hundred people interested in your story, and that could result in sales.
Just a few dozen sales over a day or two can push a new book very high on the ratings list. If the velocity keeps up for a few days, the rank goes higher, and more people will see the book in the promotions. This, as said above, results in more sales and a greater sales velocity.
Every successful, self-published author comments how the sales of their book surged suddenly and exponentially.
At the same time, the book is competing against thousands of other books. Like a stampeding herd of buffalo, each one is vying to get ahead of the other. So a book’s ranking on the bestsellers list at any given time tends to swing wildly.
Any bestsellers list is not important to a reader. All the reader wants is a good book. Readers don’t care how a book ranks so long as they enjoy the story. So what makes the bestsellers list so important to a writer?
The answer is visibility.
Steven King, Nora Roberts, R.K. Rowling—they all have millions of readers. If they put anything out, it is a guaranteed hit and a big moneymaker. Publishers and distributors will advertise months in advance about the release of any new book from such authors. Fans can’t wait and other readers may have their curiosity piqued at the premise of an upcoming story release. Writing is a business and when there is a guaranteed windfall the businesses are going to jump at it.
By contrast, an unknown writer may have created his or her first novel and pushed it up through the current self-publishing networks. It could be the most groundbreaking, thought-provoking, society-changing literary masterpiece to come along in centuries. Yet, it might languish for years because no one has noticed it.
When a book moves up on the bestsellers lists, it begins to get attention from distributors looking to make a bigger profit. As such, they will put this where it can be seen by the most customers who might be interested in buying it. That means greater opportunity for sales and this directly affects how many digits are on the royalty check received months later by the author.
So I watch these numbers. The direct numbers of copies sold and the rank my book has reached. Together, they give me a rough projection of how things will go in the near future. One shouldn’t obsess about these numbers, but these numbers cannot be ignored either. When running a business that sells a product, one has to pay attention to whether the product is selling or is a complete flop. A writer has to pay attention to how a book is selling. If it isn’t selling well, then money is going to run out before long.
Here’s the hard part: when and how do you determine that your book is a flop? This is particularly hard when considering what I said above that it could take a couple years for a book to catch on. Harder than that is to ask, “Why?”
On this, I don’t have enough experience to comment authoritatively. But I can at least put forward my own opinion.
First, sales slowing to a trickle is a pretty good indication that a book has run its course. When you go from three copies per day to three copies per month, it’s a pretty good indication that the market for that book has been saturated. Over time I’ve noticed the shelf life for most books seems to be around three years before publishers stop printing them. A title might still have legs for years, with slow sales continuing without letting up. But often, the market moves on to newer titles.
If sales on a book just never really get off the ground before things come to a stop, then that book might be considered a flop. 
A smart author will have their second book ready to go by the time the first book begins to cool off.
Second is reader reaction to the book. When complete strangers are telling you they enjoyed your story, that is the greatest indicator of success. If sales aren’t going all that well and yet people you meet tell you they loved your book, that indicates the failure to sell is due to lack of visibility and you need to work harder promoting your book.
If reader reaction is fairly cool or non-existent, then that’s pretty much the end of it.
For me, the most gratifying reviews of Nobody came from readers who had written reviews for the original excerpt and then came back to update their reviews for the full version. (Mr. McDonald and RWB, that meant a lot that you felt compelled enough to come back and say something more. Yes, I’m working hard on books two and three, with more to come!)
Negative reviews don’t actually affect the sales of a book, unless the vast majority of reviews are negative. In truth, bad reviews can often spur sales, as other readers want to see if it is really as bad as people say. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Most potential customers ignore negative reviewers as being trolls, especially when the reviewer seems to attack the author directly.
Positive reviews do affect sales. One, when a potential reader sees a large number of positive reviews, they are more likely to go along with the crowd and buy it to see how it measures up to the hype. Second, if a lot of people are loving a given title, then the distributors are going to start promoting it in order to cash in on more sales potential. A book loved by a large number of people is more likely to have greater success and sales if more people hear about it.
Just how important are good reviews?
Imagine someone going to their local book club and talking about your book. If that person told the other members how enjoyable your book was, that could be a dozen sales in one evening when the others go home and jump online to buy your book. The sudden surge in sales can increase a book’s ranking in the bestsellers lists which in turn results in an increase in sales velocity. 
The worst kind of review? None at all. The best way to kill off a book is to let it die on the vine unnoticed by anyone. Imagine that same book club member saying nothing about your book. No one knows about it, therefore no one will buy it. THIS is what ultimately kills a book.

Selling a book is much like lighting a fire. It takes a lot of effort to get a good fire lit, but once it catches it just flares up and goes. Only then can you sit back and enjoy the warmth and glow of the fire. Getting a book to sell requires that you have to promote the book to let people know it exists. Once you get enough people curious about your book that it begins to sell quickly, the process becomes self-sufficient. The numbers of sales and rankings become the warmth and glow of your career as a writer. Remember, like a fire, if you want to keep up those sales, you have to keep adding fuel to it. More stories and more promotion.