Archive | September 2012

Becoming a Forecaster

How well am I doing? How well will I do?

I have a background in marketing and business intelligence; I know what I want from sales data on books. What’s worse is, it’s available, just a bit too expensive for me.

What am I trying to do? Firstly, I’m trying to tell from the sales of my book so far, how well it will do eventually. Secondly, how sales will change when the second book in the series is published. Thirdly, how well will the second book do.

This sounds a bit like gazing at a crystal ball, but it’s a science called forecasting. And once you become a forecaster, you often start to refer to it as gazing into the crystal ball. But it’s fun, and never more so than when the subject is close to your heart!

So what do I know that will help me in this task? I know my Amazon and Kobo sales numbers, which I read every day and put into a spreadsheet. And… that’s it for hard data.

I used to be able to look at TitleZ, which gave sales figures for printed books and early ebook sales, exclusively from Amazon. That would be useful, because Amazon handles about 70% of all book sales. It’s less useful now because Amazon stopped allowing TitleZ access to ebook sales, and last time I checked, TitleZ was having difficulty reading anything from Amazon apparently. It’s of limited use anyway, because ebook sales now swamp printed sales, especially in the niche I’m in.

I can look at Amazon itself, which provides rankings of books. However, they adjust these rankings with weighing factors, including how long a book has been available and how many previous sales it has, and they don’t release sales to anyone with a browser. Still, I can track my book sales vs rankings and get a general idea, for example, of how many sales are being made by a title that’s in the ranking I was in last week – i.e. I can say that that title is making approximately the sales I made last week. But for this to be useful, I’d need to have tracked other books over time, and I haven’t.

However, there is a service which tracks book sales. It’s by Nielsen and it’s called BookScan. That’s what I want and can’t afford.

What would I do with it? I would use a method called ‘Launch Analogue’ to predict how well my book will do on the data I have so far. I have two months sales data so far, and the basic concept of a launch analogue is to find the most compatible matches to my sales numbers in an earlier launched book in the same area. Then I can draw charts and say these are the highest and lowest expectation I have based on similar books.

That’s only moderately accurate. There are too many factors coming in to be able to forecast with certainty – internal factors such as advertising, publicity and reviews and external factors such as holiday seasons or JK Rowling inconsiderately launching a book that absorbs 2.5 million * $20 of disposable income on the first day!

What’s much more interesting from launch analogues is that it would show the effect that a second book in the series has on the sales curve of both books.

Given that I have none of that, what can I do with just the hard sales data on my own book?

It’s already in a spreadsheet, so I can forecast future sales on the basis of sales so far. This is based on the concept that if 20 people discovered the book and bought it yesterday, another 20 may do so today, and if 21 people buy it today, then I might predict 22 sales tomorrow. I take averages – the average increase in sales over the last week and apply it forward. None of that is contentious, and the boundaries, i.e. the limits on the number of people who buy books of this sort are a long way off. I’m not ignoring factors such as good or bad reviews, but for an indie author, this is more external than internal – I can’t make people review it and I can’t make them give me good reviews. I could purchase reviews or sock puppet reviews but I will not. But that’s for another post!

Excel is the most widely used spreadsheet by some humongous margin. It’s probably the most widely used basic tool for forecasting because it has a function designed for the job.

This is called (predictably enough) FORECAST. You tell it the series of numbers you would like to base your forecast on and it does. It uses the least square method (look it up). It’s a widely accepted mathematical method of forecasting. And I LOVE it, because on my sales data so far, it predicts sales of my book will have absorbed the entire GNP of the western world by the end of the first year. Yay!

So, reality intrudes and I restrict the forecasts to what I believe are reasonable, and limit myself to the first year of sales.

My milestones are: 10,000 20,000 100,000.

10,000 is what I believe from my own predictions on my own sales data. That’s a pretty damn good result for an indie author’s first book. I’m basing that on sales continuing for the remainder of the year at the rate they have reached after two months. If I don’t make this, I won’t feel I have failed. If I do make it, I won’t feel I have really succeeded. But I will be happy.

20,000 is the number that was casually given to me by an agent as defining a worthwhile book in publisher’s terms. My forecasts reach this if I take the month on month increment as continuing – i.e. I sold 100 books month 1, 500 books month 2, then month 3 will be 900 books. If I make this, I will feel I have succeeded and I will be very happy. This is an optimistic forecast, because month 1 is always going to be low, so the step from month 1 to month 2 is always going to be high.

100,000 will get me on the NYT best selling list. You can imagine my reaction to that!

I have no idea how interesting this is to y’all out there. If you want actual data and mathematical formulae, tell me using the contact form and I’ll do a more detailed update. In any event, I will do a shorter summary of the position at significant points – release of Hidden Trump (book 2 in the series), end of the third, sixth, ninth and twelfth month of sales for Sleight of Hand.

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Sales

As of the 19th September 2012, Sleight of Hand is in the top 100 paid in contemporary fantasy on Amazon’s Kindle Store, in both the UK and the US. Thank you to everyone who has brought and enjoyed the book! To connect with other readers, you can go to the Goodreads Sleight of Hand page here.
Amazon UK Sales

Reviewing Novels 101

This isn’t something I do a lot of, and as often as not, when I say something, it’s because I find a book brain-jarringly bad or incandescently good. In those sort of circumstances, the structure I’ve described sometimes goes out the window.

What, if anything, is going to be achieved by reviewing a novel?

I may learn something. The writer may learn something. Those are by-products. A review is really intended to help potential readers decide whether the book is worth the investment in time to read it. All books are worth the investment in money. Make that almost all books.

So, to help readers decide, what does the reviewer have to do?

She/he must set himself up as the final arbiter of style and evaluator of worth. Not.

A reviewer is giving an opinion, no more no less. And opinions are like … well, you know the rest of the quote … everyone has one. So what can be achieved? Simply put; consistency.

A reviewer who gives a consistent set of reviews, with reasoning, deserves a following of readers who can look at the reviews and say: “Well, he marked that element down in this review, but that’s what he does, and I like this other element and he’s marked that up. I’ll buy this book.”

That’s the aim, and to achieve it, a reviewer can use a structure to work from so that the consistency is built in from the ground up. Or just be brilliant and anarchic.

Here’s my opinion what constitutes a suitable structure.

Plot

A story line at the top level, with sub-plots. Plots are often called arcs, and a novel can be sectioned into mini-arcs, but each is a self-contained story.

For each of them: Do you know where you think you’re going? Do you want to get there? Do you know what will happen if you don’t get there? Does that concern you? Do you know what it cost you to get there? Was that painful? Do you know what your reward is? Is that worthwhile? Finally, did the process of getting there entertain you?

These are the sort of questions you need to be asking each arc or sub-arc. If you answer ‘no’ to the above, the plot will probably be vague or not compelling. Score it down.

Warning – some plots make you think you know where you’re going and switch it. Yes, there are good books that do that, but you still have to be able to say, at the end, that the journey was worth it. Also, books in a series often leave threads uncompleted. That’s also fine, and the question is: do I want to read the next?

Pace

Different genres have different expectations; a light hearted travelogue or a book about making your home abroad expects to be put down at the end of an anecdote. A thriller tries to keep you reading late into the night. Did you feel you had to turn the next page to get to the end of the arc? If you put it down, did you really want to pick it up again?

Action

Action varies by genre, obviously, and has to be the payoff, provide a setback, move the plot forward or develop the characters or the environment. If it is unnecessary, if it doesn’t do any of those, score it down. Trust your instincts on this one. If the car chase doesn’t actually move the plot forward, but you really enjoyed it, don’t score it down – it’s part of the ‘environment’, the sort of thing that has to happen.

Characters

This is an instinct call again. A character must engage you. If they die or fail to get their due reward and you’re thinking, yeah, so what, then score the book down on this aspect.

If you identify with the character’s aspirations – get the guy/girl, climb that mountain, find that treasure, then score the character section up. If you love the good guys & gals and hate the bad ones, score the section up. Ambivalent characters are difficult. Anti-heroes who shouldn’t get the rewards they’re trying to. But you still have to be able to answer the question, do I care?

The dialogue also falls into this category – if it sounds unnatural (unintentionally) then score it down.

Environment

The story must take place in a believable environment. This can be a completely unrealistic environment that you have been seduced into believing by a gradual suspension of disbelief. It’s simple; if you spend time thinking the environment is ridiculous or unbelievable, then the writer hasn’t carried you along.

Scoring

Five out of Five White Rabbits!

Five out of Five White Rabbits!

Well, if this is your own, make it up, marks out of a 100, seven points scale, whatever you feel will give go sufficient differentiation. If you’re posting on Goodreads or some other site with a specific scoring method, run some tests before you post and review each of them. Are you happy that book A is 1 star better than book B, and so on?

Scoring is never going to be an exact science, and you may feel the need to supplement the rating with a comment such as : ‘This was really a 3.75’.

Praise is Writer’s Crack

Praise is writer’s crack. (But all feedback is welcome)

Praise. This is crazy. I almost feel I could live on this. It’s like a layered cake and the top layer gives the sugar high. These comments:

  • This is definitely a “miss your bus stop” book. I couldn’t put it down!
  • This book was a blast! I am very pleased that there will not be a long wait for the next one.
  • I enjoyed Sleight of Hand and it left me wanting more.
  • I’m looking forward now to Amber Farrell number 2.
  • Loved it, loved it, loved it.

They pump me up! They give me energy!

But you cannot live on sugar alone. And the rest of what is being said is worth looking at too:

  • The main character is kick-ass without coming across as invincible.
  • Amber is an unusual character for UF – she used to be in the military.
  • World-building: Good. Lots to sink your teeth into (*pun completely intended*)

This is long burn carbohydrates stuff. This keeps me going on detail. I put a lot of effort into trying to make Amber’s Denver as realistic and believable as possible. Yeah, I know, Urban Fantasy, vampires, etc., but let’s think about it – what does that ‘urban’ mean? It means, IMHO, that we can relate to it. It’s about people who have jobs and live in houses or apartments and drive cars and pay bills and shop at the local stores. It’s not about people who live in castles and ride in horse-drawn carriages. So, if we’re getting real, how real can we make it? Amber can kick ass partly because she spent ten years learning how to kick ass in the military. The paranormals have reason and rationale and … Okay, too much for one post. RTB.

Then there’s the protein. This reinforces my style.

  • It’s a plus that the author didn’t clutter the book with graphic sex but instead relied on great writing and a good story.
  • Amber’s got problems and she deals with them with integrity in a thoughtful and sometimes unexpected manner.

So sex and violence is fine, but not at the expense of story. Even better, work to get the reader to fully identify with the choices Amber makes. Make them positive. Give her integrity. I will keep working at this – good enough is not good enough.

Grains. Yeah, stretching the food groups metaphor here. This is about things that are developing—what are readers interested in:

  • I want to know more about the incident that wiped out pretty much all of her squad.
  • Can’t you make Hacha del Diablo a sort of prologue?
  • Favourite Character: Tie between Amber and Bian.
  • You’ve given Diana real depth.
  • I liked that Amber didn’t jump straight into a romantic relationship, though I think I spy a love triangle coming up.
  • She’s going to do what?

The constraints of time! Yes, Hacha del Diablo (the incident where her squad died) will be a prequel short story for free. Bian’s tale will be a separate book or series of episodes on the web site or Amazon. Amber will have romantic entanglements, and I use the word deliberately. I listen very carefully to what people say. I’m not promising things, and obviously, I’m not writing by committee, but I hear you.

I love that Bian is so popular. She was ‘born’ while I was taking a trip on Denver’s light rail system, and sprang out almost fully formed as an outrageous foil for Amber. And, boy, does she have a tale to tell.

Trace elements:

  • I surprised myself that I got into a book about vampires and werewolves.

A convert! This is almost as good as the sugar high I started with.

Many thanks to everyone who has fed back to me on Amazon, Facebook, Goodreads, or direct contact (on the www.athanate.com web site). I really appreciate all of it.

Thanks also to Edgar A. Guest, for the “good enough” phrase: http://activerain.com/blogsview/1619445/good-enough-isn-t-good-enough