Last weekend, I taught a workshop on self-publishing at the Festival of Writing in York. It was quite a large conference, with a few hundred attendees, primarily focused on unpublished writers.
Most attendees were seeking publication via the traditional route, but there was a lively crowd at the workshop, and I was pigeon-holed by many more curious about self-publishing over the weekend.
I had some free time on Saturday and dropped in on a SF/F genre panel. Much of the advice was excellent, but some was quite curious. For starters, writers were urged not to write in a series.
The reason given was that agents and publishers prefer standalone works as the first book may not sell, and then the writer will be left with several unsellable manuscripts. No mention was made of the self-publishing option.
Of course, things are very different once you acknowledge that option. Virtually all of the most successful SF/F self-publishers write in a series.
Another stated justification for avoiding a series was sell-through rates. The figures touted were that the second book in a series will sell approximately 70% of the first book, and the third book will sell approximately 60% of the second book. In other words, if Book #1 has sold 1,000, you will often see a pattern where Book #2 sells 700, and Book #3 sells 400 or so.
While these figures match up with anecdotal reports from my self-publishing, series-writing peers, I believe it misses something crucial. The sales of the lead-in title of the series are not set in stone. As Michael Wallace put it to me, each additional title in the series “widens the pyramid.” So, while those sell-through rates might remain constant, each new release bumps the first title higher (sometimes significantly so) – and that then trickles down through the rest of the books.
As I was sitting there, listening to this advice, I wondered why publishers don’t see the same effect. And then it struck me. By the time the third book in a traditionally published series comes out, at least two years will have passed since the release of the first. At that point, the lead title in the series is backlist – and treated as such by the publisher.
Self-publishers like David Dalglish, Sarah Woodbury, Lindsay Buroker, Amanda Hocking, and Debora Geary never treat the first title in a series as backlist. With each new release, they will market the lead-in title just as hard. They might price it like backlist – with a low (or even free) price – but they market it like frontlist.
While some tail-off between books is unavoidable, if you keep shoving new readers in the ever-widening funnel of that first book, writing in a series can be very profitable indeed. Unless, perhaps, you go the traditional route.
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UK bestselling author Jojo Moyes made an interesting comment during her keynote speech on the Saturday. She is currently selling three e-books for each print copy of her latest release – which is particularly notable for a traditionally published UK author, and a sign where the rest of the market here is headed.
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The second event I participated in was a Sunday morning debate on e-books and self-publishing. It was fun, and I think I held my own against my three interlocutors (all literary agents after a publisher pulled out).
The debate in the UK right now surrounds topics that have (largely) been dealt with in the US – such as whether 99c books demean literature and if self-publishers have any form of quality control – but it was a productive session, and I was happy to get the opportunity to address some myths.
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The best part of the conference, though, was meeting fellow writers. Everyone seemed to be curious about self-publishing, with none of the reticence I expected. It was funny coming back to this conference, as I had attended two years ago as a slush-pile regular hoping to catch the eye of an agent.
I seem to be in a very different place in my life now. Happier, more productive, and lots more confidence in my writing. Over 6,000 sales helps, and coming off my best month ever – 1,200 sales – gave me an added spring in my step.
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I’m finally settled in my new house, and I will be picking up my new writing desk tomorrow. It will be badly needed. I need to finish the final draft of my next historical Bananas for Christmas – which has suffered numerous delays due to all my moving around. What hasn’t helped is that every time I’ve sat down to work on Bananas, I’ve been cheating on it with a dystopian novella – Super Tramp.
Following hot on the heels of both of those will be a quick update to Let’s Get Digital, as well as a sequel – which will cover more in-depth topics for the advanced self-publisher such as discoverability, visibility, crowdfunding, categories, effective back-matter, mailing lists, Amazon algorithms, and much, much more.
More on all that, soon.