Five Years in Print: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

A Cat Among Dragons hit the electronic stands in the fall of 2012. Since then I’ve released three* other series, four if you count the Alexi stories as a series, and several stand-alone works, plus series-related short stories. I’ve not been as successful as I’d like, but that’s mostly my fault.

So, what have I learned and what has changed? A great deal.

First, when I started, five titles was the magic number of Amazon, and wide release was key. So I released on B&N and Kobo as well as Amazon, and put out more Cat books as fast as I could afford. And the goal posts changed to 10 titles. So I took a deep breath and kept going. And then Amazon KDP came along, and wide release seemed a mixed blessing. After looking at cost and value and where my sales came from, I became Amazon exclusive. It did not help that Kobo had fouled up Christmas distribution one year by giving people less than five days notice that they would be shutting down new-title approvals and launches from mid December to early January for administrative changes and site maintenance. Add in the great pron-purge, which went too far (at one point, having a model on the cover wearing a pearl necklace and either showing too much neck, or not enough neck [it changed at least once] was enough to get the book removed) and Kobo stopped looking so good for my marketing efforts as compared to Kindle Select.

I passed ten titles and the magic boost did not appear. Now it was ten titles in a series, or several series that totaled ten titles. And Amazon reworked their search system, cleaned out reviews (Round One) and no one quite knew what the magic number or phrase was.

The Cat series was joined by the Colplatschki Chronicles, which have become my best long-term seller. And in 2014-15 the power of the Long Tail in sales became glaringly apparent to a lot of indie writers, self included. Those years I also wrote the three Powers books, and the first of the Alexi stories. And Language of the Land just because I wanted to try steampunk and needed a hydraulic outlet, so to speak.

2016… yeah. In terms of sales it stank compared to 2015. Election jitters, ACA health insurance woes, major dental work in July and August… those were the downers. Writing a new series was an up, as was LibertyCon. I had very high hopes for 2017.

Thus far 2017 has been a mix. Sales have not been what I wanted, in part because I suspect readers are tired of Colplatschki and the Cat series. What sold were new things, like the Familiar Tails and Shikari. The merchant story went very well, in terms of writing, but I hit a wall with the Chinese fantasy novel, in part because the characters are… not the kind of people I usually write. But progress is being made. And several story problems in other books got fixed, including the third Powers novel.

What have I learned? To beware of repeated words, such as “utterly” and “very.” That I need dialogue tags. That covers make or break book sales, be they e-books or print. That marketing is my bane and the lack of marketing is why my books do not sell as fast as I’d like. That readers get series fatigue. That taking seven months to finish writing a novel is not a mortal sin, but I do need to quit moping about not getting it written and write it. That there is no magic number for sales – five books, ten books, ten books in a series, three series under the same name… None of them unlocked the vaults at Gringrots. Work, producing books on a regular basis, and marketing those books are what lead to sales. I also learned that Vellum software is a wonderful, delightful, magical tool that can still be messed up by the operator if attention is not paid to details.

What comes next? In 2018, if all goes well, the Cat and Colplatschki series will draw to a close at ten books each. The Powers will also end, just not quite the way I’d originally planned, and more Shikari will appear. At the moment I have the Chinese book to finish, a sequel to Of Merchant and Magic, perhaps more Familiar stories, the Leigh Kendall/Powers stories to compile and publish, and then? I have no idea. Every time I start worrying about running out of ideas, I get sandbagged by ideas.

*Colplatschki Chronicles, Shikari, the Powers, and the Alexi stories, although those can be purchased as a single volume omnibus.


10 thoughts on “Five Years in Print: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

  1. Good luck in the next year. Series fatigue is a thing, but only sometimes. (How many Honor Harrington books are there? Dresden Files?)

    * Warning – unsolicited advice ahead – read at your own peril * The Cat stories started out fun, but they’ve gotten dark and depressing. Yes, it makes sense for the character, given what’s happened to her – but it’s not as entertaining as military/adventure/world building. The Colplatschki books started out as the Elizabeth books, and her story is finished. I’m really enjoying the Russia stories, and have no idea why you’re not selling volume 3. There is room on Colplatschki for more stories, but a series has to have continuity, not just be set in the same world. We keep reading to find out what happens next to the (a noun is a person, place or thing) that we care about. Russian dynasties have a certain continuity, or at least share a care for the land and its people. And we get to see the slow changes, for better or worse, as the Czar makes decisions. The other books set in Colplatschki, while individually well written (especially Blackbird), don’t really have continuity, and it’s hard to be emotionally invested in a series of relatively unrelated stories. (1632 tackles this by introducing an enormous cast of characters, and making the setting a character. Then the stories branch forth from the origin story, and we follow these separate branches as they grow and sprout fruit. It also gives us a choice of exploring interesting twigs and offshoots along the way, if we feel like it. The different main branches also intertwine and influence each other in both obvious and subtle ways. “Well, that was interesting. But what happens next? And what are his friends over here up to now?”)

    I have enormous hopes for the Shikari series. There are tales to be told about this girl, and her family, and her friends, and even her enemies, honorable or otherwise. Not to mention an entire world to build – a world with a hidden (deliberately obscured?) past. This setting is like John Carter’s Mars, or more appropriately, Kipling’s India. (Kipling’s Barsoom?) The land itself is a character, but tells its stories through the actions of its people.

    • I agree – the cat books started interesting, but they got dark and I lost interest when the storylines/ plot got hard to follow; some of the elements got pushed too hard and became awkward.

  2. Thanks for the honest appraisal, your ‘problems’ mimic what most of us are seeing. Not going to get rich off them, but I have fun writing my series. Hang in there lady! And yes, the Shikari series is starting off very interesting!!! 😉

  3. First, thank you for your candor and this explanation to your readers. This makes some of the odd or poor series I partially read on Amazon make more sense, to understand that the markets were shifting faster than writers’ reaction. My impression is a baseball analogy; you win by either writing home runs, or stringing together a lot of singles and doubles in series. Please excuse the following “system engineering” outburst, but this is part of what I do for a living (asking the correct and necessary questions).

    Question: do you the other North Texas writers have ties to artists, or some two-person links to art schools? Maybe find a student or graduate who wants to make side money on covers, and build their portfolio with sold art.
    Question: for artists’ benefit, can you give them a 1-2 page summary of the main actions in the novel, so they can use an important scene or action for inspiration?
    Question: What are the trope cover designs used to get attention and sell books in a genre?
    Point: The Powers caught my attention, and got me to your blog, where I read more about the other series. New reader brought in and successfully directed to other works. You write a good mixture of space opera, military related SF, and romance. Use your strengths and market to common or reinforcing themes.
    Question: do you have an idea journal and sketchbook for Shivaki? I get onto interesting analysis and research topics by going back to the book periodically. Writing out the whimsical or odd ides can build the backstories or concepts.

    I’m on the same lines as McChuck, with one exception – don’t write your main character into Herself, The McGuffin. Thanks for limiting Elizabeth to four novels, and stopping when she was made an Imperial Princess. The Honor Harrington novels needed to cut off about three books earlier. When the main character achieves the same rank and impact as her supporting character sovereigns, stop! You’re out of useful story to tell. The Honorverse approach gave a lot of space and time to develop minor and new characters in the same milieu, and allowed the chance meetings and brief crossovers that reinforce the larger tapestry of action. As a character, however, Honor needed to be retired.

    I’m in agreement with Shikari as an entire new tapestry of action, characters, and wonders. Use the land as a major character, even in background of stories. Kipling’s stories of the Raj have a richer feel because of the background and details of land, animals, and peoples. That makes a decent to good story into a classic. “Kim” would not be the same without the Tibetan lama’s amazement with the Hindu ladies, Jain priests, and others. Nor would it work without the title character being a boy literally straddling two worlds, becoming at home in details of both both but truly home in neither. Kipling wrote India-based novels, novellas, short stories and poems for decades. There are for worse tributes than writing Shikari in detail as the board, background, and player in the Great Game.

    After I get my reading backlog and some other personal work done, I’ll start on the Shikari series next. Unless Old NFO releases Gray Man #5 first. 🙂

    • For your first question, no, we all go our own way on art, because of having different styles, genres, and publishers (or being indie). Second question, yes, I do that for my artists. Third: It varies and it is changing. I’d have to go over to MGC and to Amazon to see what has been recent and what is the latest in styles and patterns. Four: Thanks! Five: I have a series bible, broken by book. I don’t have a set idea notebook per se, although I do have two small Moleskein books with ideas from various series and stand-alones.

      I tend to write until the story feels done. The exception is Rada Ni Drako. I actually have material for two more books, plus the forthcoming one, but I think readers will be happier to end on a very up note than to follow her to the end of her life.

  4. Thanks for the update, and good luck in 2018. I’m hoping to get more reading done next year, and you’re one of the writers whose work I want to read more of.

  5. I’m still very interested in the Colplatschki world, but funds have been lacking. And I seem to have missed the releases of several of your Colplatschki and Cat books. This can be nice for me, as I end up reading a bunch at once, but it’s not so nice for you.

  6. While I liked the Cat books, I agree they are winding to a close, and the Colplatschki books are my favorite. I don’t see that they are really full up as a series, because as McChuck points out, they aren’t a series so much as simply a “universe”. Blackbird, which was basically a standalone set in the “Colplatverse” is my favorite and has been reread several times. We are familiar with the setting, sort of like we would be familiar with the setting in a western novel, but I’m not worn out and bored with the series, nor do I think it is running out of feasible places to go (like Rada’s story) obviously by your sales numbers though, I’m not the majority.

    • Looking back, if I did Colplatschki over as a planned series, I would have put far more emphasis on Sarm and how Elizabeth von Sarmas actually connects all but the last two books and the first one (coming out this spring).

      Maybe I’ll re-work them for the 50th anniversary boxed set. 🙂

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