Dungeons and Data


Today we’d like to welcome a special guest, writer James Maxey, author of the fantasy trilogy, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and over a dozen anthologies, most recently appearing in the superhero anthology Masked. His ghost story “Silent as Dust” was reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, 2009. In 2008, James taught at the Odyssey Fantasy Writer’s Workshop as a guest lecturer. In addition to fiction, James writes a book review column for Intergalactic Medicine Show, and blogs regularly at jamesmaxey.blogspot.com.  Take it away, James!


Here’s how my day begins: The alarm on my android phone goes off at 5:30am. I grab it, sit up, silence the alarm, and hit the browser button. My eyes still blurred with sleep, I groggily check my email and a few news sites. By 5:40, I feel awake enough to get out of bed, but before I close out the browser, I always click on the Amazon Digital Text Platform bookmark and take a peek at how many ebooks I sold the previous day. Usually, not many. Sometimes I go a few days without selling a single title. Other mornings I discover I sold a dozen copies in 24 hours. It’s good to get out of bed on a morning when I’ve sold some books.

This isn’t mainly about money. I’ve got my titles at the Kindle store set pretty low, $2.99. This means I make a little over $2 for every book I sell. The 24 bucks I make on a good day is hardly going to let me quit my day job. On the flip side, this is income I’m making off of books that have already run their life span in book stores. It’s barely been five years since I signed the contracts for my fantasy trilogy of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed. Then, ebooks were such a tiny share of the market that my publisher let me keep the rights without any fuss. The print editions of the books were released starting in 2007. The first book of the series, Bitterwood, is in it’s fourth printing and long since earned out its advance, but sales are dropping off. Paperback books have a lifespan not much longer than a lab rat. 18 months after the release of the last novel in the trilogy, it’s pretty rare for me to walk into a store and find a copy.

So, since the print revenue was dying off, converting them to ebooks and self-releasing these titles on Kindle was a no-brainer. I wouldn’t be cannibalizing my print sales, and any money I earn at this point is just a nice bonus. It’s even possible, with the long tail effect, that eventually I’ll make as much money from the ebooks as I did from the traditional publishing path, though I suspect that will take a long, long time.

The one thing that traditional publishers can do that I can’t do effectively is sell my book to total strangers. I go to conventions and bookstores to promote my book, and thanks to my hard efforts, I’m guessing I may personally have sold several hundred copies. Yet, my various titles sold tens of thousands of copies. The vast majority of these sales came because my publisher hired an artist to design top notch covers then placed my novels into thousands of bookstores where those covers would catch the eyes of strangers. If you want to be a professional novelist, nothing you can do personally to promote your book has the same impact of having a publisher who knows what a good cover is and how to place your book into wide distribution.

Because they have this power, publishers hold the upper hand in dealings with most authors. If you are a new author, or an author who’s sold a few books but never become a bestseller, then you need your publisher far more than your publisher needs you. This imbalance of power has created an unfortunate situation that may ultimately hurt everyone involved.

The stunning thing about my morning ritual of checking my daily ebook numbers is that, under the traditional publishing model, writers are kept in the dark as long as possible about their sales. The first week your book is out, you won’t be told what your sales were. After a month, you’ll have recieve no clue as to your actual numbers. Three months later, your publisher will still have you locked in a dungeon of ignorance. Eventually you’ll come upon one of the semi-annual reporting periods and you’ll finally find out what you’ve sold… three months later. When you do get this sales data nine months after your book hits the shelf, it’s just one lump figure. You’ll see how many wholesale copies of your book were sold, period. You don’t have data how many of those wholesale copies went on to sell in actual bookstores. You don’t know what percentage you’re selling at Amazon versus Barnes and Noble. You have no clue if your biggest reader base is in North Carolina or Washington State. Since your sales number cover six months, you have no clue if you sold more copies at Christmas than you did at Halloween.

This opacity was understandable thirty years ago. Today, there could be systems in place that would gather data on every transaction where a bar code gets scanned. If the CEO of McDonald’s wants to know how many Big Mac’s were sold yesterday in Sioux City, I promise he can have that data with a few clicks of his mouse. He can probably even tell how many were sold with cheese. But suppose you’re a writer who goes to DragonCon in Atlanta, appears on half a dozen panels, and passes out a few thousand fliers. Call your publisher a week later and ask, “Did the con appearance move any books? Was there a spike in sales?” They won’t know. All your marketing efforts take place in a vacuum. Half a year after you went to Dragoncon, you’ll get a lump wholesale number and be left to puzzle whether or not your efforts made an impact.

The sane reaction for most authors is to shrug off the opacity of the business and just keep doing what you’re doing. This is the way publishing works, always has been. But, just imagine how a writer might change his or her marketing efforts if sales data were truly transparent. Suppose that you could see that in the month of October, you sold 200 copies in New Orleans but 2000 copies in Richmond, Virginia. You have no idea why your book is a hit is doing well in Richmond; maybe you just have one very enthusiastic fan there who won’t shut up about the book. But, if you knew your book was selling well in Richmond, you’d have a good excuse to make a phone call to a Barnes and Noble there and arrange a signing in time for Christmas.

The sales data I get from Amazon isn’t quite so fine tuned that I know how I’m selling in individual cities. But, it is up to the moment enough that I can have some idea if the effort of printing up a lot of fliers to distribute at cons is improving my sales. (So far, not really.) I haven’t yet stumbled onto the activity that changes my ebook sales from an occasional dozen a day to an occasional hundred a day. But, if I ever do discover that activity, I’ll know what I did the day before to make the impact. Amazon strongly benefits by giving me the data I need to judge the effectiveness of my actions; if I sell more books, they sell more books.

I hope that, one day, traditional publishers will also see the benefit in collecting such data and making it available to authors. Industries that don’t adopt the information gathering technologies available at the start of the twenty-first century are industries unlikely to be around at the beginning of the twenty-second. And it would be especially ironic if publishers of science fiction went out of business because they were slow to see the benefits of new technology.


6 comments to Dungeons and Data

  • Great post and I’m always fascinated by the question of how much an author can influence their sales through their own efforts. Just the other day Amazon started providing authors with access to their past four weeks of bookscan numbers through their Author Central portal. I’ve been lucky enough to get my bookscan numbers every week since my book came out but never before have had the chance to really drill down the markets and see where the highest sales were (which Amazon allows you to do). I’m really curious to see how access to this information affects how authors approach marketing and self-promotion.

  • Intriguing stuff, James. For waht it’s worth, plublished authors can also get information on their Amazon rankings through http://www.metricjunkie.com though these numbers don’t translate clearly into actual sales figures. The overall opacity of the business is, as you say, a killer. Here’s hoping it changes real soon. Like, before my next release 🙂

  • Great to see you here, James. Very interesting post, one that makes me wonder if I should do something similar with my first series. The paperbacks have long since run their course, and at least one of the three is currently OP. Something for me to think about. Thanks!

  • Like Carrie and AJ, I’ve been on both Metric Junkie (for over a year) and Amazon’s Author Central portal (for a few weeks). For the first time in a 20+ year career, I have access to which of my books are selling, where my books are selling, in what format they are selling, and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to have that data! FINALLY!

  • I’ve never heard of Metric Junkie. I’ll check it out. I just learned this week that Author Central is giving writer’s access to sales data, and plan to enroll in that as well. The main reason I haven’t already is I spent most of past week working on a new novel, which, in a perfect world, is what authors should do. I shouldn’t need to worry about going out and gathering my own sales data because a publisher would already be collecting that data for me. It would seem that publishers would have a strong financial incentive in making sure that writers stay focused on writing. Maybe they think that hiding the sales data, they help focus the writers. In my case, it causes me to waste time staring the tea leaves of Amazon rankings and other voodoo data.

    Publisher’s either gather the detailed sales data or they don’t. If they do, it would take rather minimal effort to set up a google spreadsheet that an author could check whenever they wanted to for the most current data. If they don’t, then no wonder the publishing industry is in trouble. It’s one thing to be selling an analog product in a digital age. It’s another thing to still be clinging to analog business practices in a digital age.

  • James, you are so right, but, sadly, I’ve found that the publishing world changes far more slowly than other businesses.

    Good for you for actually writing! I *should* be writing… But instead I’m finding ways to discover my publisher’s sales secrets! You have taken the higher road.