In all the years I’ve been published, it’s been considered unacceptable for authors to talk about the money they make from their work – particularly if authors are comparing their earnings. We still do it, so I’ve always referred to these discussions about money as “talking dirty”. I thought this week, I’d talk dirty and share some data that will help you to see why I (and a lot of authors like me) love indie publishing.
Once upon a time, I sold a trilogy of medieval romances called the Bride Quest to Dell Publishing (The Princess, The Damsel, The Heiress). I later sold a second medieval trilogy to them, called the Bride Quest II (The Countess, The Beauty, The Temptress). Because I had my fabulous agent for the second trilogy, the contract terms were much better – and the rights to those three books have reverted to me.
These books provided an education for me in publishing realities in a number of ways. First of all, they were my first books sold to a single title publisher – before that, all of my books had been sold to Harlequin Historicals. The process of publishing, the expectations of the house and the way the house did business were all completely different and eye-opening in terms of how publishing works. The house was so much behind this series that the first book, The Princess, landed at #93 on the USA Today list for its first week on sale. That showed me what a big publisher can do for a book, if they choose.
Secondly, the first five books sold roughly the same number of units in mass market, at roughly the same speed. Only the fifth book, however, made the NY Times List of Bestselling Books. My editor at the time said it was great that they were “aware” of me. There was a lesson about how bestseller lists worked.
Thirdly, sales for the sixth book were much lower than for the first five, teaching me about another publishing reality. Dell had become Bantam/Dell by the time I did my second deal and the team that had first acquired my books were no longer working there. After delivering the sixth book, the house and I parted ways: I sold my next medieval trilogy to Warner Books. Because The Temptress had not yet been printed when this transition occurred, the house pulled all marketing support on my last title with them. This was to save money and to keep the focus on the authors they were continuing to publish, and is pretty standard practice (even if it surprised me!) They also ran that title without a step-back, which all of the other books had had. (Reprinted editions of the mass market versions of all six books do not have step-backs.) Another lesson learned in the price of changing houses.
The fourth lesson learned by these books was how small the publishing pond is. I knew this theoretically, but it was proven to me with this series. The editor who acquired the Bride Quest at Dell was the same editor who, as an assistant, found my very first medieval romance in the slush pile at Harlequin Historicals and recommended the changes that convinced the house to buy it. The editor who bought my subsequent series at Warner Books had been at Bantam/Dell until the week before, and knew my sales numbers very well. I was her first acquisition in her new job, and she bought my work at auction. The editor she hired to edit my books at Warner had been my last editor at Harlequin Historicals. And the editor who bought my Dragonfire series years later at NAL had been my last editor at Bantam/Dell. NY publishing is a teeny tiny pond with all the same fishies swimming around and around.
Overall, Dell was a wonderful house to work with. That was probably the best publishing relationship I have had in over twenty years in this business. That’s not to say it was perfect, but they did more promotional support for their midlist titles than other houses even at that time, their sales team were totally into marketing romance, my editors were excellent and the covers were beautiful. This relationship was as good as it got.
Fast-forward ten years and the Bride Quest is still teaching me more about publishing. This time, it’s about sales in the new digital world. Because the second BQ trilogy had reverted to me, I republished those titles in December 2011, January 2012 and February 2012. I also produced a digital boxed set which became available in March 2012. Random House (the parent of Bantam/Dell) produced a digital boxed set of the first three Bride Quest titles in June 2012.
These two series are ideal to compare. My last traditionally published medieval romance as as Claire Delacroix was published in 2005 – there hadn’t been a new historical under that brand until The Renegade’s Heart was published last May. While I have some established readership, there are lots of newer readers who are unfamiliar with my historical romances. Also, the historical romance market is less robust than was once the case, and medievals are less popular than Regency-set romances. No one is doing any marketing or publicity for these titles. These are both linked trilogies, having the same tone and a similar premise. In fact, there’s a connection between the series, so you’d expect sales to be similar – yet the results between sales for the two digital bundles are different. Let’s have a look. If anything, I thought that most readers would begin with the first BQ trilogy, to start at the beginning, so expected sales would skew in favour of the books still held by RH.
I’m simplifying this discussion because there are all sorts of levels and variations in royalty rates, based on territory and other variables. I have signed a contract amendment with RH which vastly improved upon the original contract terms for digital books, and that’s reflected here. Generally, the best royalty rate in any contract with a US publisher is for the US edition sold to a US-resident customer through a US portal. Other territories (like Canada, the UK and Australia) pay out at lower royalty rates and there are tons of other variables as well.
The house is acknowledging the following digital book sales for 2012:
The Princess – 175 units
The Damsel – 145 units
The Heiress – 150 units
The BQ boxed set – 547 units
This is, btw, a huge spike in sales for the titles managed by RH. From December 2009 (when the digital edition was first released) through June of 2012, RH sold about 700 units of The Princess in digital. That’s spread over two and a half years. Counting the boxed set along with the individual books sold (because that’s the way RH counts it) means that The Princess sold (175+547) 722 units in the second half of 2012 alone.
The individual titles are priced at $6.99 in digital. Because I sell well in non-US English territories, I earn an average of $1.25 on each unit sold. The boxed set is priced at $14.99 and I earn roughly $2.70 per unit sold. My revenue for these sales through RH was around $2,700 – and it was paid in April 2013.
Now, let’s look at my indie-pubbed editions. In 2012, I made the following digital sales:
The Countess – 1510 units
The Beauty – 2170 units
The Temptress – 1160 units
The BQII Boxed Set – 900 units
The individual titles were priced at $2.99 last year. Again, royalty rates are a bit of a mare’s nest – they range from 30% to 70% (and even for a few months last year were 80% through KOBO), depending upon the portal and its terms, as well as the location of the customer. They also change: for example, until December 2012, Kindle sales to readers in Canada purchased through Amazon.com earned a royalty of 35%. In December, when Amazon.ca launched, Kindle sales to readers in Canada who used the new portal earned a royalty of 70%. The 70% royalty rate from Amazon also incurs a transmission charge which is subtracted from the royalty payment, and on it goes. Again, these portals are primarily based in the US and the best rate is on books sold to readers resident in the US—and I sell well in non-US English markets. I could calculate it precisely, but let’s eyeball the split between territories and call it $1.75 a unit on individual books. The BQII Boxed Set was $5.99 for most of last year, earning me $3 a unit on average. (Notice that even though the price point for consumers is much lower on my digital editions, I’m earning more on each transaction. This is the magic of indie publishing.) My income from indie-pubbing this trilogy was roughly $11,200—and it was paid within 90 days of being earned.
The difference in the revenue is striking, even though these are not stupendous digital sales numbers. Historical romances don’t sell as well as contemporary romances, and these books are more than ten years old which means they’re not as hot as current historical romances. There are certainly indie-pubbed authors selling far better than this and I have other historical romance series that sell better than this one. (This is my Cinderella series – it’s still sitting in the ashes, dreaming of the prince who will come!) But look at the revenue difference even so – not only did I earn four times the money, but it was paid more quickly to me. Even with no promotional effort on my part, this backlist trilogy is selling better under my management than its sister series does under that of a traditional publishing house. There are thousands of used mass market copies of the original editions of all six of these books available (even for one cent each) but that’s not enough of a variable to keep these digital unit sales from adding up. I’m also selling trade paperback copies in POD of the new editions, but then, they are really pretty. Best of all, this series is earning revenue for me again, even at this modest sales level—after ten years of only very small income generated from these six books, last year they earned me nearly $14,000. That’s a nice change!
The difference in the number of units sold is also interesting. At lower prices, I’m selling far more books. The immediate conclusion might be that the historical romance market is more price sensitive than publishers believe, and I do think that’s the case. A great many romance readers are voracious readers, and my suspicion is that historical romance readers might be the quickest readers of all. Budget makes them conscious of price.
On the other hand, there appears to have been less resistance to a higher price on the boxed set, at least at the on-sale date. The difference in our respective sales numbers doesn’t really echo the big disparity in prices. What you can’t see is that over 10% of RH’s bundle sales were from libraries, at a $71.21 price point. I haven’t distributed any of my boxed sets to libraries because I assumed the large file would be unwieldy for them, but now am reconsidering that choice. (There goes BQ, teaching me more about publishing again.)
Before receiving this statement, I had increased the prices on my indie books this year – this series and the boxed set is selling more quickly than they did last year. 2013 sales numbers have or will soon exceed the 2012 numbers for all of my titles, including BQII. This is the algorithm at work.
The truth is that there are many, many variables at work simultaneously, and that the mix keeps changing. Even so, digital book sales patterns defy much of the conventional wisdom about publishing books that I’ve been taught over the past twenty years. What’s even more intriguing to me—and something I never realized until I did this comparison—is that sales patterns are not the same for digital books released from traditional publishing houses and those pubbed by indie-authors. Not only is BQII selling better under my administration, it’s selling differently.
Next week, we’ll continue our game of compare-and-contrast, and talk more about that.