There’s a concept in journalism called a “peg.” Definitions vary, but it’s generally some fact or piece of information that makes a story newsworthy; often it’s an attempt to quantify something. (If you’re doing a story about, say, immigrant families being separated at the border, or firearm deaths in the U.S., you need to know whether 300 families are separated a year, or 3,000; whether 3,300 people die every year from firearms, or 33,000.) A peg is something to hang the story on, something to connect it to reality, something to let you know whether or not it’s a big deal.
We’re putting out our numbers for 2018 because writing and publishing are all too often disconnected from reality. Most people like to present themselves as a bigger deal than they really are. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to admit that that’s not the case. As of the end of February 2019, Tortoise has sold a grand total of 6,508 books since we started in early 2012. Unless you’re really really bad at math, or unless you think we’re somehow making $100 per book, it’s pretty easy to see that we’re not making a living doing this. (We’d love to be, and we’re continuing to explore ways of doing so, but we’re nowhere near the volume of the Big 5 yet; for some of their books, they probably give away as many ARCs—Advanced Review Copies, for those who don’t know—as we sell over the life of a book.) Granted, being small has its advantages: we’re nimble and can take chances bigger publishers can’t take, and we have to save ourselves for books we’re insanely passionate about, rather than just putting out something that’s a flavor-of-the-month, or something we only just kind of like. But we’d like to get a little bigger, so it helps to look at what we’re doing now, and how well it’s working.
So without further ado: the numbers.
There are a few different stories here, so we’ll take a quick walk through each channel, and see how each one compares with the stories we’ve told ourselves.
First off: Ingram. Even with all the returns headaches, it turns out they still net us more revenue than any other channel. Which leads us to a worthwhile point—if you want to make a lot of money, you usually have to have an arrangement that allows other people to make money, too. (Americans fetishize the individual accomplishment, the triumph of the individual ego in hand-to-hand combat with a hostile or indifferent world, and self-publishing preys on that paradigm—but it’s bullshit. Even if you can do absolutely everything yourself, your work is nothing if nobody reads it. And most people can’t do everything well. Besides, numbers-wise, it’s often better to have a small percentage of a huge number than to have a big percentage of a miniscule number.) So Ingram’s our biggest pipeline, even without a formal distribution deal. The indies who are a notch above us, sales-wise, DO have distribution deals; based on conversations with one indie publishing friend, their numbers aren’t always insanely high, but their lowest-selling titles still tend to move 500 units or so, which is nearer the high end of the scale for us. (So far, only our three top titles have sold more than that.) And their highest-selling title has sold about ten times as much as our bestseller. So we want to keep making money in a way that lets other people make money, because that seems best all around.
We knew before we started this exercise that Direct Sales give us much higher per-unit revenue than Ingram. And when we look at the end result for the year and see that we’re earning 2.7 times more per book sold, it’s tempting to just say, “Oh, let’s put all our energy into that, then.” BUT these numbers are just net numbers based on the books themselves—taking the revenue from direct book sales and subtracting the manufacturing and shipping costs of those books. When you factor in additional costs, the math really changes, and sometimes gets fuzzier; there are some sales made at places like Printer’s Row Lit Fest where we’re paying decent table fees, and we might be getting additional opportunities by being there (“The Goodies”), but still it’s quite possible we’re losing money. And time’s an expense, too; we had at 9 days in 2018 that were more or less devoted to direct sales. (Three days at AWP, Evanston Lit Fest, two days at Printers Row Lit Fest, the Indie Press Fest in September, and our two Bookstravaganza days in November.) When you divide $1069.90 by nine days, some of which also took table fees, you realize it’s not lucrative labor—especially since you have to pay royalties on the sales when it’s all said and done. This is an important channel; it’s great to have plenty of regular direct sales opportunities, and sometimes we make sales that directly lead to other opportunities. But we’re never going to get where we’d like to go on direct sales alone.
Createspace and KDP Paperback Sales are decent—not as big of a channel as the two above, but since it doesn’t take a lot of time, it’s well worth our while to set our books up here; if we’d set up everything on Ingram and never bothered with Amazon’s POD service, Ingram would have been the one putting the books up on Amazon. And if we’d let Ingram handle all the Amazon sales, we would have made less than $400 for those sales; instead, it was more than $800. Our indie bookstore friends aren’t nuts about Amazon, and we’d probably feel the same way if we were in their shoes—but we’re in our shoes. People are going to look for our books on Amazon, and when they find them, we’d like to earn as much as we can for them. If we ever do get a distribution deal, we may have to give this channel up—most distributors want to handle all online sales, including on Amazon—but in the meantime, we’ll take it.
It’s interesting to see that the Goodies ended up netting us almost as much as Amazon paperbacks. That was a bit of a surprise. Like it or not, it isn’t all about the books; you need to get your name out there, too, and make money when you can (as long as you’re not screwing anyone over in the process); if it’s between selling books somewhere versus selling books and earning a speaker’s honorarium that’s basically pure profit, well, we’ll take the honorarium too, thanks.
KDP Electronic Sales aren’t as lucrative as we might have thought. We may have high revenues for our average run-of-the-mill retail sales, BUT we end up moving so many units during the discounted sales that it pulls down the average a bit. Still, it’s not a bad channel. It’s nice to have the flexibility to do the cheap ebook promotions; we’ve definitely made sales we wouldn’t have otherwise made. And we’d love to grow this channel, possibly by having a BookBub deal for one of our titles. (If you haven’t signed up for BookBub, it’s well worth doing, unless you’re an absolute die-hard, take-no-prisoners, give-me-paper-books-or-give-me-death type of a person; you get one email every day with a handful of ebooks that are on sale for a buck or two, and some of the books are pretty cool. Some days you get some really amazing deals on books you were going to read eventually anyway; some days there are books you maybe wouldn’t have thought to get, but you realize they’ll be well worth your time.) We’re also going to start tracking this differently this year—so we can split out Kindle Unlimited page turns and see how worthwhile that channel really is.
We’ve split our website sales into author sales and commercial sales, because they’re really two different animals. For standard commercial sales, we’re typically mailing single copies from inventory and shipping them ourselves, but if an author wants to buy ten or fifteen or twenty books at their author discount to handle their own direct sales, or do extra promotional work, we’ll usually just put in a bulk order from KDP or Ingram. (It’s the nature of the book business that we have to give away a decent number of ARCs during the promotional phase, to blurbists and publications and what-not. Being a company of limited means, we have to set a budget for that; we’ll stretch that budget when we can, but if we can’t, we’ll use website sales as a way to help the authors get extra promotional copies out there.) Both are important parts of the business; and since we’ve done some big presales this year for She Said What? and Music to My Eyes, we already know commercial sales will be getting bigger.
Invoiced Sales are low on the totem pole, revenue-wise, but it turns out the margins aren’t bad. And we saw with Adult Teeth that this can be a good channel to help us avoid the large-order/large-return whiplash that sometimes happens with Ingram sales. We’ll probably try to keep this channel where it’s at in 2019—as a good alternative to Ingram that will help us build our relationships with local stores. They’re offering something that can’t be digitized or quantified or replicated online; there’s nothing that sells a book quite as effectively as hearing the excitement in another human’s voice when they talk about it, or seeing the light in their eyes when they pick it up.
Commercial website sales have been low, in part because we only really adopted a retail strategy late this year. These sales take a decent amount of work, but the margins are pretty solid. We’d hoped when we switched our strategy around that this would be a great way to get inventory for all of our titles down to reasonable levels, and that hasn’t necessarily been the case, but we’ve made a few sales this way, and we’ll keep it up. (Also, we already know this channel will look much different when the 2019 numbers are in—this channel is an excellent way to do presales, and we’ve started doing those for She Saud What? and Music to My Eyes. We’ve grossed over $2500 in January and February this way, and while the net will be a bit south of that, 80% of all the website orders we’ve ever done were in those two months, so our run through the 2018 numbers is already a bit outdated.)
Seven years of publishing has given us plenty of time to think about where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going. It’s also given us a few opportunities to look around, to see what others are up to and to see if we measure up.
It’s easy to get jealous, especially when you’re not doing this full-time and you see people who are, or when you thought you’d be back at AWP but you’re not; it’s easy to see others and think you’d be happier in their shoes. And when we got started, that jealousy was probably more prevalent than we realized. Back then, we tended to think in evolutionary terms; the traditional publishers were the dinosaurs, the comet was coming (or had already struck), and we were going to rule the planet once they were gone. But this would make us rats, and we’re not rats.
Now, it’s far less of an us-versus-them mentality; the people in the traditional industry are, after all, a lot like us. We’ve hung out with them and done business with them; they’ve read our books, and blurbed them. We still think we can do a better job than traditional publishers in key areas such as attentiveness and responsiveness, and we’re convinced we can put out books that are as good or better than anything they’re selling. But Lord knows we’ve messed up here and there in those areas, so we’re a little more filled with empathy for everyone else in the industry now. Besides, it’s a big publishing ecosystem; we don’t need anyone else to fail for us to be able to thrive.
And the real competition is always with oneself anyway—it takes work to keep moving forward, to keep looking for opportunities to improve. Some of those results can’t be quantified—one often finds validation in other places, in the enthusiasm of a reader who’s coming back to buy something new, in the satisfaction of an author who comes back to publish a second book. But it is important to quantify things whenever reasonable. And the numbers continue to head in the right direction. Our revenues for 2018 are a little bigger than they were in 2017, and the 2017 numbers were bigger than 2016, and 2016 numbers were bigger than 2015—not by much, but by enough to make us feel like we’re getting somewhere. (Monthly revenues in early 2015 were usually low 3-digits; for the past few months they’ve more often been high-3 or low-4.) We’re tortoises, after all; we’re pretty well armored to survive the rough ecosystem, and more importantly we’re committed to slow and steady progress, to enjoying the effort, and seeing how far we can get.