The Path to a Writer’s Life: Your Sales Sheet as a Report Card

This post is inspired by Stephannie Beman’s post titled The Path to a Writer’s Life.

Checking through our goals as a writer every couple months is a great idea.  I never thought of sitting down and doing that.  I’ve been going through and writing books, planning when I can have a new book out, and trying to decide which book to write next.  The problem was, I hadn’t carefully thought out a strategy on why I should write a certain book.

I think as we think of writing as a business, we need to carefully look at what we are writing and why.  It’s one thing to say, “Write what we’re passionate about.” I agree that you should be interested in what you write.  But there is a distinction between writing a book you love that will sell and writing a book you love that won’t sell.  Sales have to be a determining factor as you decide which book to put your energy and time into.

I like to think of my sales sheet as a report card.  This is why I’ve been studying my sales on Amazon and B&N.  (I recently published two books on PubIt so now I can track what is happening over there.)  After a careful study of how my books have been selling for the past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that some type of books have to go.  When I say “has to go”, I mean that I have to discontinue some series I had planned in favor of the ones that are doing better.  This isn’t something that makes all of my readers happy, but you can’t run a business if you’re not focusing on books that will yield enough profit to reach your goals.

So this is how I look at my sales sheet as a report card:

The highest selling type of book is an A.

The second to highest selling type of book is a B.

The book that sell in the middle (neither high nor low) is a C.

The book that rarely sells anything is a D or F.

By looking at my sales as a report card, I am getting rid of the inclination to be romantic about the business side of writing.  Writing as a business requires the ability to make hard decisions, and a hard decision is telling your readers that a particular book won’t be written and published.  But the reality is, you can’t pay bills or make a living writing C-F books.  You might enjoy them, but they won’t reach your business goals.

Please note: if writing is done purely for enjoyment, then you have no need to think of making a profit.  And I am all for writers writing as a hobby.  I don’t believe every single book that is published must be written with the intention of selling it.  I have some pleasure-only books out there that are for me only, so I understand why a writer would pursue that avenue.

But this post is for writers who want to write books they love and make a profit from it.  If you want to make a profit, you need to be logical in your approach.  I do think you need to write what you enjoy, but if you’re like me, you have several interests.  I like thrillers, fantasies, science fiction, end-times Christian fiction, erotic romances, non-fiction (esp. when it comes to publishing and marketing).  But I can’t write all of those and make a profit.  I also like contemporary romances, but I’ve come to realize those are D-F books.  Even a couple of my historical western romances are C books.  Fortunately, my historical western romances featuring the Nebraska “collection” and my Regencies (which I just got started on) are A and B books.  When I look at my sales, I see that two main genres (historical westerns and Regencies) do the best for me.

A and B books tell you where the demand is.  It tells you what readers want and helps you fine-tune your author platform.  It’s hard to get a handle on your author platform when you begin, but as you publish books, you start to notice which books are resonating with your readers, and from there, you begin to understand why readers keep buying your books.  You want to focus on that audience.

I realize to some degree, it sounds cold to say focus on sales when figuring out what to write next, but it’s the truth if you want to be able to spend more time writing.  I’m not saying that making a living at your writing and doing it all day is easy because it’s not.  There’s a lot of stress involved, like there is with any job.  But every business needs to look at a profit and see if they’re moving in the right direction.  You also can’t write a book you enjoy as much as getting a root canal at the dentist’s.  So passion needs to be in the mix.  Just look at your report card to determine how you can blend the two.  :D

(Plus, as an added bonus, when you write A and B books, you will be adding new books to the list you already have, and after studying marketing books since 2008, I’ve come to believe that nothing markets your books as well as a new book.  So why not make the new marketing tool in your arsenal–a new book–have maximum impact by writing an A or B book?)

Categories: Author Platform & Branding, Business Plan, Writing as a Business

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12 thoughts on “The Path to a Writer’s Life: Your Sales Sheet as a Report Card

  1. I’ve been facing this same aspect of writing–what to write next and whether there is a market for it. It’s why I will continue the Starfire Angels series into the expanded series now–the books have an audience who will buy them. Good post!

    • Yes, having an audience who will buy them makes a huge difference. When you’re starting out, you have the luxury of experimenting, but once you figure out what stories resonate with readers, it becomes easier (and more difficult since you have to tell a few readers you won’t be writing a certain book they want to read) to pinpoint where to go next.

  2. Hi Ruth,
    You made some interesting points in this post.
    Here are a few of my own thoughts on the matter.
    If a person needs to write and make money, possibly they can write one of those books they really love to write but that doesn’t make money every third or fourth book. Over time their sales may pick up with those books, anyway, because they will be building up a series, and as you say people will respond quicker to these than individual books. The other thing is, because you are concentrating more on your sellers, your fan base will grow from these, and one day some of these fans may decide to try your lesser selling books and possibly some of them will like and recommend them, and that fan base may grow, too. This is a compromise, of course. But it may satisfy both the business minded and the artist.
    One other point to bear in mind, of course, is that you may be a better writer with your better selling books because you have a more commercial attitude toward them, and so you write them with a more critical eye, for example. Your lesser selling books, if they are the ones you really prefer writing, you may not write with as critical an eye. You can always ask someone whose opinion you trust to give you feedback on this angle.
    Just some thoughts.
    What does anyone think?

    • You could do that. The lesser selling books will always sell some copies, and there will always be a demand from someone who wants to read another book from a series that doesn’t sell well. But I guess what it amounts to is how quickly you can write a book and how much you want to make during the year. It’s a lot easier to pick a lesser selling book to write if you have enough income already coming in from other avenues. I think every writer’s ability to write or not write a certain book will differ.

      I will say the books that tend to sell better are those in a series or same world where the same characters in other books pop up. You do enough of those books and readers get attached to that world. But the good news is that having started the world out of love for the ideas (because when you start out, you have no idea which book or series will be popular), you are still writing what you love. You’re just choosing not to write as much of something else that you also love. I wouldn’t write a book that I didn’t like, no matter how popular the trend is. Paranormals might be popular, but I have no desire to write one. :D

      But yeah, if your budget allows for it, you’re not tied to a publisher, and you want to write a different type of book every third or fourth book, I say go for it. I have written a few of those and am glad I wrote them. I will probably be doing less of that in the future since I want to build up an emergency fund.

      I can see how the level of interest we expect from an audience could play into how critical we are when we write a book. I sure didn’t bother with my very early books that were with vanity presses because I thought I’d be the only person reading them. Then when I realized I was selling books I uploaded to KDP and Smashwords, I started being a lot more careful in what I was doing. My only regret is that I can’t take those vanity press books and polish them up. Any attempts to do so have been paid for and not done by the vanity press. *sigh*

  3. This is something I’ve believed all along. Yes, we are artists, but we are also business people. I view this as a business because I would like to do this full time someday. And if you ever figure out why some books sell better than others, please let me know. I have earlier books that I know aren’t as well written as some later ones, but the earlier ones still sell better. I’m a little more flexible because I don’t usually write series (except for one). I don’t know why your Nebraska series sells better than other series unless there are just more of them and readers are so loyal to characters. But I agree with you…if a series is an A, that’s where you should concentrate most of your effort. :)

    • A reader did explain why the Nebraska series does better, but no one can explain why the Regency does better than the Nebraska books. The difference between the Regency and Nebraska books are huge, like thousands of dollars in difference. My guess is that Regencies are more popular as a genre and attracts a wider audience. But with the Nebraska books, a reader said she feels like she’s connected with the characters and wants to read more about them. I’ve done nine books in that series, so I can see why they’re a focal point. But I do have a very early book that I wrote in 2008 that still outsells the Nebraska books. Why? I have no idea, esp. since I average 3-stars on it and know it’s not historically accurate. I guess some books are talked about enough through social sites between readers where they get more interest. Sadly, we have no control over it.

      You know the posts I’ve been doing on my blog to alert my readers that I won’t be doing any more contemporaries. I know I upset a few of them, and that was hard to do. I also couldn’t come out and explain I am lucky to make $20-$30 a month off a contemporary while I can make a $200 to $300 on a historical western instead. That’s a big difference. I can support my family much better off a $200-$300 book than I can a $20 – $30 one. I know that making a living isn’t their focus, so I won’t mention it, but over here on SPAL where we’re looking at the numbers, I figure I can share. I don’t want to spend 1.5 months writing another $20 to $30 a month book when I could write one that makes a couple hundred instead. I know it sounds cold and selfish, but what business wouldn’t take the more profitable avenue?

      • You’re already making thousands on the one regency??? Maybe I should change my genre. I’m so jealous! LOL

        • Try one and see if you like it. The difference between the Regency and historical western is unbelievable. I thought I’d do as well as a Nebraska book, but even with all my Nebraska books combined, I can’t make as much in a month. Who knows what a Regency might sell like if you wrote one? It sounds like you have an interest in it since you like reading them. That also gives you a head start since you are more familiar with that world than I was when I started. :D

  4. Aaron Niz

    Hi Ruth, Speaking of business and writing, I took a look just now at your titles on Amazon. Granted, I know you publish on multiple platforms so you probably have your reasons for this–but my opinion is you’re selling most of your books too cheaply.

    You have SO SO SO many free books, and SO many 99 cent books. My recommendation would be to just have one or two free books at any given time, and then just another one or two books at the 99 cent price point. EVERYTHING else should be 2.99 or more.

    (Personally I have everything at 2.99 or more with my stuff, except for perhaps 2 books at 99 cents. And a lot of mine are novellas at under 25k words–I still make more money.)

    I’ve looked this over with my own books. I have over 100 titles available now across various pen names, and 2.99 almost always makes more money. Like, 99.5 percent of the time (the exception being if your book is in the top 100 at B&N or Amazon).

    With the sheer number of books you have and how high some of them are ranked, you’re leaving a TON of money on the table with so many free books and 99 cent books. I’d go so far as to say you’re probably losing something on the order of $1,000-$5,000 dollars a month alone on Amazon from the number of books I saw at 99 cents that could earn much more at 2.99.

    You say to be dispassionate about the business side of writing, and pricing is a key component. You are selling yourself short with so many cheap books.

    Try what I’m saying for a few weeks and look at the returns…

    Best,

    • In theory, that would work, but I’ve tried that twice. Once in late 2010 and again in 2011. Both times, my sales ranking tanked on every book, I lost exposure, and I made less money. Every time I write a short story, I end up getting slammed with 1-star reviews for it being too short, even if it’s free. For novellas, I also get complaints (esp. in emails) since they’re not long enough. My readers have come to expect me to be a full-length novelist. They are disappointed when I don’t produce a book of at least 65,000 words. I price all of my new books at $2.99. My old ones stay at $0.99.

      I did recently mark down two books to free because one was only making $60 a month at $0.99, and it was the first of a trilogy with two books after it priced at $2.99. Those books weren’t doing very well compared to my Nebraska books. They were dropping in sales for the last six months, so I’m hoping by making the first one free, I can boost it up. Before I made book 1 of the Native American Romance Series free, it made me about $30 a month at $0.99 and book 2 made $80 to $100 at $2.99. After making book 1 free, I have been averaging $300 to $400 a month off book 2. I’m hoping the same will happen with my trilogy and its two $2.99 books. I also made a contemporary free because I never made more than $30 a month off of it for a year. I’d rather have people read it and gain more exposure than for it to trudge along like that.

      As for a higher price on future books, I wouldn’t dare try it on my Nebraska books. Those don’t sell enough at $2.99 to make it work. Those have been my bestselling books in the longterm, and given that my ranking isn’t very well with the $2.99 books, I can’t afford the loss at $3.99. For me, $300 – $400 a month off of those books is actually the best it’s going to do. Like I said, every time I did $2.99 on my old books, it failed miserably. Overall, I lost about $1000.

      Now the Regency is another matter, but I just got into writing that genre. Compared to the Nebraska books (my B books), I have made thousands of dollars in just two months on Amazon and B&N with the Regency. I can’t make that with a Nebraska book or any other genre I’ve done. The Regency is the only genre I can see where there’s a possibility of moving to $3.99, but I’m not going to do it with book 1 or 2. I am writing books 2 and 3 for the Regencies right now. Book 2 will be $2.99. Book 3 will be $3.99. I’ll see how that goes.

      And holy cow! You have 100 stories out there? I thought having 26 romances was a lot. LOL Talk about being prolific. :D

  5. Nice! I like the idea of keeping a score card of what works and pays and what doesn’t. For those writer’s who do this as a business, making a profit goes hand in hand with the writing for pleasure. Sometimes though, writing for pleasure is impractical because the creative process doesn’t always pay.

    • That’s very true. There are stories I’ve turned down because I knew they would never sell, and I don’t feel like giving a new story away for free. I wish more readers would understand that writing is more than sitting down and having a good time. It’s a lot of work, and when looking at what to write, part of the equation has to be if a certain story is worth putting in all that work. Why put hard work into a story that won’t sell when you can write one that will?

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