Tag Archives: problems for self publishers

Flops, Failure and Learning Experiences

So, about a month later than usual, I’ve finally gotten around to starting my taxes for 2017. Which gives an opportunity to reflect on my situation as it pertains to my writing.

2017 was the year I released my most recent book, namely this one:

It was also the first year since 2011 – when I first started publishing – in which I have not made money from my writing, in fact I racked up a financial loss large enough to be uncomfortable if bearable. The reason for the loss is on the face of it simple, Out of Era flopped. Completely and utterly. A bit of a pisser but there we are; it reviewed well but it didn’t sell beyond a handful. You hope that somewhere down the line it will pick up but really that’s grasping at straws, if it doesn’t kick off pretty much straight away it’s not going to.

So where did it go wrong?

So from here on we’re going firmly into the realm of anecdotal evidence. The last of my successful Nameless War series was released in September 2014, Out of Era came out in October 2017. That’s a big gap. In fact to be brutally honest it was probably too big a gap. I never stopped writing during that time but there were other priorities – I started dating a woman who I’m please to say has recently become my wife, I moved house into what was a bit of a fixer-upper and changed the day job for the first time in over fourteen years. The time slot for writing and its attendant activities basically took one hit after another. Meanwhile the world moved on and I suspect, most of the people that read and enjoyed the Nameless War forgot me enough that the name Edmond Barrett, stopped triggering any kind of mental response when looking at Amazon for something to read. Years ago, before I started publishing I heard another writer claim that to make a living at it you needed to put out at least one book a year. I always found that extremely believable but I never came even close. To manage it I would have had to give up the day job, which when you have a mortgage and are the sole source of income to your household, isn’t really a runner unless you’re prepared to really live up to the starving artist cliche.

The next factor which compounded the first was that I changed genre. My name and reputation as a writer was made in military science fiction; Out of Era is time travel. If you aren’t into science fiction that distinction might sound wafer thin but in fact is a significant gap. I’m not a known name in time travel stories so Out of Era had to go it alone. Had there been less of a gap between books, meaning had it come out while the final book of the Nameless War – the Last Charge was still selling in significant numbers there would have been a better chance of readers following me into the new genre. Which in turn would have boosted my visibility to potential readers who never heard tell of me. So Out of Era just got lost in the crowd. I did try some advertising but the problem there is you can burn a lot of money very quickly for very little return.

Another fact is that to my mind self publishing in 2017 isn’t what it was back in 2011. I know e-readers have been around since well before then but in 2011 they were the new must have gadget. Since there is nothing as useless as a e-reader with no books, people were looking for content and when Amazon opened its system to the self publishers there was suddenly a lot of cheap content. There’s no doubt a lot of it was bad but there was also some real gold and I had the good fortune to be a part of the first wave of e-book self publishers. There were a lot predictions that self publishing and e-books were going to kill publishing and paper books stone dead. That hasn’t worked out. What I think has happened is that e-books found their level. They aren’t going to go away but equally that first great rush came to an end.

My run with writing has been a pretty privileged one. I got to make money in reasonably significant amounts straight off the bat which certainly did a lot to justify the time spent on it. I knew the figure weren’t going to be good but it’s another to look at the cold hard numbers. I’m still going to write, it is and always has been as much a pass time as a profession but have had to re-think my expectations.

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Problems of Self Publishing – Currency Exchange

At the start of this year I had hoped would putting out by now my next book; due to various changes in personal circumstances that basically isn’t going to happen. The amount of time I got to commit to all thing writing related took a hit and I decided to concentrate what little I got on the writing part of writing as opposed to the business part of writing, however with the benefit of hindsight that might have been for the best. As followers of this blog are no doubt aware I live in Dublin, Ireland, which is part of the Eurozone. What you might be less aware of, is that over half my book sales to date have been through Amazon.UK, which is priced and pays me in sterling. At the moment that’s not such a good thing.

Brexit

On the 23rd of June of this year Britain voted to leave the European Union, since then the Pound exchange rate against the Euro has done this:

pound-to-eur-jun-to-oct

And in October it has got especially exciting:

pound-to-eur-oct

The source for these can be found HERE

At time of writing (morning of 12th October 2016) one pound sterling is worth one euro and eleven cents – less exchange costs. So let us crunch some very basic numbers.

My first book – The Nameless War – is currently for sale on Amazon.UK for £2.90 for the ebook version, so the breakdown is as follows:

£2.90 selling price, 30% of which goes to Amazon, leaving £2.03. Multiply this by 1.42 (£ to € rate on 19th Nov 2015) equals €2.88.

Do the same calculation again at today’s rate and:

£2.90 selling price, 30% of which goes to Amazon, leaving £2.03. Multiply this by today’s rate of 1.11 equals €2.25.

This is a drop of €0.63 or nearly 22%.

Now obviously this is a little bit artificial, it doesn’t include various fees, like bank fees and I don’t get to chose which day Amazon send payment for the month, so the arrival of funds in my account will probably not coincide with the absolute peak or trough of exchange movements. Also to complicate matters Amazon pays two months in arrears, I won’t see the money from a book sale today until the tail end of December but this example nonetheless gives a sense of the issue.

At the moment I personally can take a relatively calm view of this. My last book was published two years ago and while I am still getting sales in the UK, they are at a fairly low level so the reduction in the value of those sales is fairly modest. That however is for books that were released two and five years ago. In my experience the bulk of a new book’s sales are made in the first couple months, with an accompanying knock on to my other books. This means that payment comes in a few large lumps, rather than spread evenly over the course of the year. So while the reduction on say ten sales is only €6.3, on a thousand it is more than €600, which becomes harder to swallow. So if after months or years of writing those big paydays coincide with a slump in the source currencies value, then you are left to take the hit.

So what can I do?

The answer isn’t quite nothing but where I’m standing, the options are limited and all carry at least some downsides.

1. Sit on any planned new releases.

This is probably the simplest option. Keep your powder dry, wait out the fluctuation until at the very least things have stabilized. The downside of this is that your work isn’t earning if it is stuck in your desk draw. If you are with a publisher, contractually it might not even possible. If you are writing a series readers will not wait forever, they’ll either forget about you or get irritated, either way hard earned goodwill starts to drain away and with it your potential sales.

2. Peg the book’s price against a currency that is stable relative to your own.

This one is tricky and very dependent on the system you’re using. With Amazon self publishing it is possible to peg the price of book in other regions against the US$. Now Sterling is currently on the slide against the US$ so the very obvious downside of this is that the book’s price is going to start rising. In all likelihood some of the writers I would be competing with for sales are based in the UK, their price could remain static while mine rose. Their prices in other areas could fall or remain as is and they would receive more per sale when it got converted to their home currency – the upside of currency fluctuation. Either way the risk would be that you could be priced out.

3. Park the foreign currency.

While this one is even trickier. That means parking the foreign currency within that territory or in a foreign denominated account. Depending on regulations or cost this might be unworkable, either way this is delaying the inevitable, at some point you have to change it into the currency of the country you are in, especially if your writing income is you main income.

There are also other financial instruments for mitigating against foreign currency movements, but I don’t know enough about these to speak about and I suspect that many may not be suitable for relatively small amounts. The other thing I don’t claim knowledge or is what things were like back in the days before electronic self publishing, the answer probably depended on the contract between writer and publisher. Also in the old days books were not generally subject to global release. In the age of Amazon, a book can be available to anywhere on planet Earth with an internet connection and with that availability comes exposure to currency movements. If you are based inside the country where you make you main sales, then it is less of an issue but it is something that the modern writer needs to be aware or and ready for.

So any thoughts, comments or observations?

CORRECTION: A commenter points out I have failed to account for vat – value added tax – so my back of the envelope calculations in fact lean towards optimistic. Thank you and I will make the correction when I can – currently attending Octocon in Dublin.

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You can’t go back

A friend of mine, one who bounced ideas off for years, is currently hard at work on his first novel and now when our paths cross it’s his turn to bounce ideas off me – what comes around goes around. I won’t say anything about the nature of his work because that’s entirely his to introduce. What I will talk about it a sentence from him that started with: “I’m thinking about going back and-”

No

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes from mixing up character and place names to wacky typos to find and replace errors. All of which pale in comparison against the cardinal sin of writing that I have committed. Namely going back and tinkering. Now I will add a qualification. What I refer to is going back while writing the first draft. Yes, you will have to go back and make repeated passes through it if you have any sort of notion of putting the work forward for publication, because gods know, the chance of it being perfect on the first pass is about the same as the metaphorical thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters producing the works of Shakespeare.

Writing is by its nature a learning experience where to be honest I think the only way to stop learning is to stop writing but your first serious attempt is the one where you’ll learn the most the quickest. When I start a story I have one or two characters, some basics for the setting and maybe a couple of scenes. As you go a long things get fleshed out, gaps start to get filled in, you start to get a handle on the process, the words are starting to pour out of you. Then you look back.

That section or chapter you thought was great now seems clumsy or you’ve come up with a something that really needs to be put in a few chapter earlier. So you go back, you tinker.

You stop making forward progress.

A story, be it novel, novella or even short story, needs to have a start, a middle and an end. No matter how cracking the first line, paragraph or chapter is, it isn’t a story because it isn’t complete. Going back becomes a cycle. You go back to make a change and that change cause knock on changes so you end up working your way up through the existing text making more changes. By the time you get back to where you left off you’ve learned a few more things, had a few more ideas and you go back again and the cycle continues. All the while the story doesn’t get really any closer to actually being finished but does get closer to being abandoned.

The Nameless War was my slowest book to write, several years, because during the first and second draft I kept going back. The Last Charge was done in less than two because I was more disciplined, yes I did change my mind about details as I wrote but didn’t go back to change them straight away. In fact when I finished each chapter I tended to mutter to myself “That needs a lot of work.” then open a new file for the next chapter.

I’m currently writing a time travel story which as you might imagine does involve a lot of double checking but I’m not going back to change anything. Not yet. As I said before writing is a learning experience which makes going back a false economy. Changes while it is all work in progress could and likely will be changed again. With first drafts don’t be afraid of changes in writing style as you go, you’re learning. Once you have the full text, then you can apply all the things you have learned. If you are afraid of forgetting to make a change to an earlier chapter, then add a footnote to it.

But above all else, keep going forwards.

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Writing for a living

Over the weekend I attended a house warming barbeque and I got talking to cousin I haven’t spoken to in a while. They were telling me about an in-law who has recently moved back to Ireland and has yet to get a job and start supporting themselves. One of their alternatives to employment my cousin told me, was to instead write a book. I was not supportive. In fact I was even less supportive of the idea than my cousin is.

Hard information on how the average writer does in financial terms from their work is hard to come by. Based on the occasional article I’ve read and other anecdotal information, I believe this is where I fall on the old bell curve.

Bell curve

I published my first work in July of 2011 and since then I have sold a combined total of twenty seven and a half thousand copies. Of this twelve and a half thousand are the Nameless War, a little under eight thousand the Landfall Campaign, five and a half the Last Charge, with the balance covered by the Job Offer novella and the two tech manuals. What has this amount to financially? Well in three years after expenses and taxes I’ve made about the equivalent of one year of the take home pay from my day job. As a supplement, that’s really good. As an actual primary income, not so good.

In fact the situation is worse than that. The Last Charge was about my most efficient book; it took two years and about a thousand man hours to get it from the first word to the finished product. I have no idea how many man hours the Nameless War took but to say many, many thousands is probably no word of a lie. Of course all the expenses from living costs, editing, cover art, etc are all front loaded. You will have to pay these out months or years before you can hope to see a penny come back.

Okay but that’s self publishing, what about traditional publishing? I have never gone down the traditionally published road so what follows is deeply anecdotal.

Assuming you’re first time writer, based on what I’ve read, advances on a first book are likely at best single digit thousands, with little likelihood that there will be anything beyond that*. This is to be expected, there aren’t many lines of work out there where you immediately walk into the top job, you have to prove yourself and writing is no different. Also once again even with traditional publishing, that first book is going to have to be written before you approach a publisher, so you’re front loading the living costs while you write.

Does this mean I’m saying you shouldn’t even try? No, definitely not. What I am saying is that even you’re a really good writer with a compelling story to tell, writing is difficult way to earn money and if you get to the point where you earn minimum wage through writing, you are doing very well. Certainly for several years something else is going to have to meet the bills. It is worth remembering that even the boys and girls who’ve made it big in publishing were often several books in before they started to see major money.

So in conclusion writing as a means of earning a living. Possible? Yes. Easy? No. Fast? Definitely no.

 

 

* If any readers can offer better information I would certainly welcome hearing from you.

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Pay attention to the man behind the curtain

Okay, so at the start of the month the final book of the Nameless War Trilogy hit the digital shelves and since then I’ve been pretty quiet here. I’m sure publicity types would say this is exactly when I should be trying the drum up every ounce of publicity but after ten years of effort and six months of frantic effort my brain was fried and I needed to step after from the keyboard. Since then I’ve been engaging in a bit of DIY, gardening, miniature painting and general re-engagement with planet Earth.

While I’ve been doing that though I’ve been thinking about what my next writing project should be, or to be more precise, what my next three should be.

First off there is going to be a second Ships of the Fleet book. I’m not sure on a time frame but provisionally Spring of next year. Subject is going to be the early cruisers of the fleet, so the likes of Hood and the rest of Geriatrics.  This is mostly because it will be easier to establish a consistent look if I start from the beginning.

Number two a stand a lone science fiction story, not related to the Battle Fleet setting. It was something I started as part of a writing group but had to set to one side when time started to press. Whether it will be a novel or novella, time will tell.

The third item which definitely in the slot marked ‘longer term planing’ is a return to the Battle Fleet setting and that is the one which I’m still pondering on. The question is forward or back?

To go forwards meaning going into the post Nameless War period. Beyond a few idle notions on ship design and probably about a postcard’s worth of rough ideas I haven’t got a lot to work with. Not necessarily a bad thing at this stage, but from experience I know that I need a starting point and where I’m finishing; the the stuff in the middle, that I can work out as I go a long.

The other alternative is backwards and that means the Contact War.  Quite a while back I talked about my lost book, the one that fell foul of a hard drive failure, the one I was sure I was never going to go back to. Like the forward option next to nothing is currently written down. However there is a lot of the history of the Contact War rattling around in my brain, not just background and world building but younger versions of some of the main characters from the Nameless War and the moments that shaped them. Also when I started writing the text for the first of the Ships of the Fleet books I found myself starting to fill in some of the gaps.

There is however one glaring problem – The Contact War would fall firmly into the category of prequel and – to put it mildly – prequels don’t have a great track record.

You don't say

You don’t say

The prequel as a concept has some pretty glaring problems built in. With the end point effectively known then the writer’s options are considerably limited, particularly in terms of physical danger (something close to my writing heart). It is hard to get any dramatic tension going, it doesn’t matter how big the bus the writer has gleefully thrown the character under is, if the reader knows that character X was still around thirty years later. There is also the question of fine details and avoiding inconsistencies. Details that were handwaved before now have to be filled it and that might be problematic. The earlier work might have had a throw away line about two characters having know each since a given time or event, so now you are going have have to make sure that actually happens. All of which means a prequel has to jump a lot more hurdles to be considered ‘good’

So as I say pondering is being done.

Whatever direction I do go in the important thing is that it widen and enrich the setting. As said when announced the release date of the Last Charge I am proud of my work and anything that gets attached to it be it sequels, prequels or attachments must also be something I’m proud of because if I’m not proud of it, then why bother that all?

ahem...

ahem…

Well yes apart from that.

Until next time.

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Onward and upward

I’ve finished the last draft of book three. I now have to do the last major adjustment to the text –  basically drop the whole thing into Notepad to strip out all the formatting, along with any nonsense MS Word has seen fit to add and then reformat from start to finish. If you are wondering why I would want to do such a thing, a friend recently also publish a book, one based around Napoleon’s 1812 campaign in Russia. He tried dropping his work directly from Word into the upload program. Somehow it bollixed up the word ‘Cossack’ – which in anything to do with 1812 is going be a word used at least three times per page. So, no avoiding it. Ah well, onwards and upwards.

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The winning typo of Book Three (I hope)

Typos: the bane and torment of the self publishers. Book Three has now gone through, multiple edits by me, plus through two test readers, a professional editor, one final proofreader who hadn’t seen any of it before and still the on one creeps through.

This week I think I’ve found the winning typo for book three (at least I hope I have). There’s a line where a character is drifting off to sleep and it is supposed to read ‘his eyes flickered shut’ except the U from shut was an I.

Whoops. That character might want to see a doctor about that!

 

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