A few months back, I asked my wife to crunch some numbers for me. There was something I had been curious about, and since she does all my bookkeeping (I could NOT do this without her!), I thought she might have access to these reports to give me an idea of how many books I've sold in total. Well, it turned out to be not quite that easy.
When I started publishing back in 2011, I went for the widest distribution possible. I published my books with Amazon of course, but also with Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and a few other places whose names I forget and which may not even exist anymore. One for instance, was a distributor who had contacted me with the idea
of making one of my books free through his service as a loss-leader. I
agreed, and I think it lasted about a year before I pulled it. I
can't even remember who it was. (Terrible, right?)
Anyway, eventually Amazon gave Indie publishers a few tools to promote their books, but in exchange they demanded exclusivity. For a while, I decided going exclusive was the thing to do. I pulled my books from the other distributors and put all my focus on Amazon. After that, I lost track of some of those places. Now, I have no way to retrieve those numbers. But what I do have is a list of Amazon reports through KDP that goes all the way back to December, 2010, when I uploaded my first title and had a whopping TWO sales! (The slow start was for the best; it took a couple months to get the formatting and uploading issues worked out. Ever since, I've been a work in progress)
Back in those days, Indie publishers would talk a LOT about their numbers. It was cool, because we could compare our successes and failures, and learn not just about the publishing business in general, but also the unique aspects of digital publishing that no one had ever studied before. Things were changing fast, and we were all just trying to keep up with the times and understand this new paradigm.
Eventually, the Author Earnings report came along and gave us an even better perspective of what was going on in the business, and how our individual roles were panning out. Because of this, things got more quiet, partly because it wasn't so important to share that info anymore, and partly -I think- because throwing those numbers out got a little old. No one wants any hurt feelings, and I'm sure that played a role. No doubt a few people felt a little embarrassed about their disappointing sales, and others didn't want to come off as boastful. So the subject still comes up, but it's not really the fresh, energetic discussion it used to be.
Well, at the risk of sounding either like a complete loser or an arrogant braggart (depending on where you're coming from) I'd like to share some of my numbers with you: In total, my books have been downloaded on Amazon 251,199 times. That includes daily sales and borrowed book page counts, promos, freebies, and perma-free titles, but it does not include paperbacks, short stories, loaned titles, or any of my sales through other distributors. In other words, the real number is likely rather higher. I probably actually reached the quarter-million mark sometime last year, but unfortunately its impossible to know exactly when. An educated guess would be late summer/ early fall, but that's still just a guess.
It's worth noting that this number is a total number that includes my several perma-free titles that I use as loss leaders. Those free titles account for more than half of my total downloads. In general, I've found that on average, anywhere from 30%-60% of my freebies lead to sales in the rest of the series. For example, about 60% of the people who download The Clockwork God go on to buy the next book in the series. Probably 80% of those go on to finish the series. These numbers are always in flux of course, so it's tricky to tack down a hard percentage on any given title, especially with the wild fluctuations in sales that I've experienced since October. (Some blame this on the election, but it's pretty clear to me that Amazon has done something with their system as well. The churn at the top of the charts is something I haven't seen in a few years, and I can only presume this was intentional.)
Some of my less popular series -the Hank Mossberg books for instance- seem to have the highest follow-through rates. Ironically, my most popular series, The Tinkerer's Daughter, has one of the lowest rates. This is probably due to the relative popularity of the genre, which leads to higher initial downloads, and also the failure on my part to produce books that stick to the confines of that genre. (Let's be honest, the world needs another victorian-steampunk-romance like it needs a thermonuclear war. Amiright?) But that's okay. I went into this knowing that I was writing as much for myself as anything. Formulaic fiction sells better. People like to know more or less what to
expect from a book, and in general, they're reluctant to try something
new. A good example is a recent review I received for Clockwork Legion. The story didn't go in the direction the reader wanted it to, and he found that personally offensive. He gave me a one-star review and essentially said he's no longer and fan and won't be reading any more of my books. The question is, would my book have been better if I had consulted this man first? Should I have written it to his expectations? If I had, would it have been better? Well, I'm sure he thinks so, but I'm not so sure. (Update- this review has since been removed. Although he won't be reading my books anymore, I guess the reviewer still reads this blog. I might have to write a post regarding my thoughts on reviews in general soon.)
The idea of writing to a formula always made my stomach churn. I felt that writing something unique and fresh was the way to write something memorable. I still believe that. (How many famous romance novelists can you name from fifty years ago? I'm not knocking romance writers, I'm just saying it's a highly formulaic genre, and authors who stray from that formula tend do so at their own risk.) Unfortunately, while writing to a formula generally leads to better sales up front, it's also a sure way to make sure you don't stand out from the crowd. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen to H.G. Wells (and a hundred others), no one we look back on as one of the "Greats" was sticking to a formula. They were making new formulas. (It's also worth nothing that for the most part, they didn't do particularly well, financially speaking. That's a very real trade-off that a writer should consider. Can you do both? Maybe, but don't count on it.)
I've added up some other numbers, as well. I was curious to see how many words I've written. In the last five years, I've published about twenty books. I'll have two more out in the next month or two, which averages out to about four novels per year. Not novellas or short stories: I didn't count those. These are full-length novels, mostly ranging from 60k-90k words. Excluding the two upcoming books I haven't published yet, I have 1,344,706 words in print right now. The next two Hank Mossberg books will bring that total up by approximately another 120,000 words.
There are several novels I wrote but never published. Most of those books were early attempts that I knew weren't publishable from the moment I finished them. However, I still occasionally toss a book. The first Hank Mossberg book falls into that category, along with the first He said, She said, and a sequel in the series that I gave up on. I'd have four books in the He said, She said series right now, but it would only be half as good.
Yes, believe it or not, I actually do have a little bit of self-restraint. And you thought my writing couldn't get any worse : )
Anyway, if I add those other titles in as well, I come up with a number of just under 1.8 million words. That still doesn't include the stories I wrote in my youth, or my blog posts and short stories, or other things of that nature. This number is just fiction novels from the last ten to fifteen years.
So what do you think? Over 1.3 million words in print and more than a quarter million downloads, all in the last five years. That's a far cry from Stephen King or James Patterson, but not too bad for an uneducated indie author with a bad attitude. I feel pretty blessed for the fact that I've been given this opportunity -that I've been able not only to write and to make a living at it these last few years, but even to write what I want to write. That's huge. It means more to me than words can say, and I thank God for this blessing, and all of you who've helped make it possible. I can't wait to see where the next five years takes me!