Blue Moon Aurora, LLC was started on March 1st, 2011 and thus today we’re looking back over the last year. Here are some of the main lessons we’ve learned this last year:
1) Learning Curves. We really knew very little about the process of self-publishing or really e-books when we started last year. I would say we’ve gone from knowing about 3% to maybe 15% after our first year. We’ve found that people are pretty patient and will happily explain things if you ask questions. The real trick is parsing out what you can do and what you can’t do. There are people out there who can do anything you need but it’s all a balancing act between time, money, and how much control you want over the process. We’re still trying to figure this out and constantly fiddling with thing. In fact, right now we’re in the middle of reorganizing some things and preparing for our second year.
2) Copies Sold. We’ve sold about a hundred copies of West Pacific Supers: Rising Tide. Interestingly, this last February has been our best month as we sold 54 copies. We made predictions at the start how many copies we would have sold by now. Michelle had predicted 50 and I had gone widely optimistic at 500. We never expected significant sales until we had a sequel or two out so we’re performing about where we expected. As a reference we probably need to sell 10,000 copies at our current $0.99 price to recoup our financial investments into Rising Tide, which doesn’t count our time writing the book. If we can maintain the rate of 50 copies a month then we’ll hit that mark in 17 years…don’t worry we fully expect sales to pick up considerably after we release Victory at Any Cost. We also have a few other books in varying stages of development that should generate more sales but breaking even is very unlikely until a few more years down the road.
3) E-Book Pricing. We started at $2.99 and I think that is a fair price for an e-book the size and quality of West Pacific Supers: Rising Tide, but the problem is there is a glut of $0.99 and free e-books. There is a lot of garbage at the bottom but it has the effect of pulling down the price that people are willing to pay for an e-book. Finally, in December after months of wrestling with this decision we dropped the price of Rising Tide to $0.99 and that will be our price for future e-books as well. Dropping the price has increased sales but the way Amazon is set up we need to sell seven books at $0.99 to make the same amount as we did from selling a single book at $2.99.
4) Reviews. Simply put: your reviews on Amazon determine if people will buy your e-book or not. We’ve struggled to get reviews of any sort. We’ve sent copies to numerous reviewers and have gotten a meek response, this isn’t surprising as there is a huge glut of e-books out there and reviewers are swamped. This means if you want reviews right at the beginning you have to pay for them or beg. Later, as your book sells, you may actually get genuine reader reviews, but you can’t count on those for many months. Out of the gate we had a 3-star review and a 4-star review which put us at 3.5 stars which isn’t what you need. Now we have 4.0 stars and that combined with a lower price has helped generate sales. Reviews are what makes or breaks an e-book. In other words, if you liked West Pacific Supers enough to give it a 4-star or miracles of miracles a 5-star review then please do so. There are ways to rig Amazon reviews but we won’t ever be taking that route and so are relying upon the readers of our books to express themselves for better or worse.
5) Advertising, Marketing, and Promotion. We ran some ads in various mediums and the results were the same in all situations: nothing. Some generated a few sales but the amount we paid for the ads dwarfed the revenue generated. I suspect if we had better reviews and a lower price earlier on the ads might have had a little more potency, but I seriously doubt it would have been enough to justify it. Generally, when it comes to advertising if you want results you have to go big or have some edge on your product. I knew this going in but figured it was worth a little experimentation. Facebook, twitter, forums dedicated to e-books, and focused websites like Goodreads and LibraryThing are all good venues to communicate about your products but really it’s the question of efficiency. For the most part, I have excised these venues from my schedule and replaced it with more time writing. The last part of our experimentation is various indie book competitions we submitted Rising Tide to and in the coming months we’ll see how that pans out. We haven’t given up on this area just putting it on the back burner while we focus more on getting out product, which is more important than anything.
6) Commissioning Art. This accounted for 57% of our budget in 2011 and thus we spent near $6000. A piece of art cost us from $10 to $1000 with my favorites often being the ones in the $300 to $600 range and those between $75 and $150 representing most of the art we commissioned. In all honesty, this was probably our favorite aspect of running the company last year. We worked with various artists and they were all a delight to work with. The main trick when working with artists is to find them. There are a lot of artists out there and what we wanted was to find good artists we could afford. That took a lot of leg work by Michelle visiting various sites where artists put up their work to drum up business. Michelle assembled a list of artists whose work she liked and that was the master list we worked from. Our approach was to contact an artist whose style fit what we were trying to do and offered then a commission by describing what we wanted and offering a price. It is better for all concerned for you to be upfront in what you are willing to pay. We pretty much always began with our best offer. In no time at all we acquired a group of good artists who were willing to work for us at the rates we offered.
We encountered two types of artists. The first are those who make art. The second are those who make a living by art. Unquestionably, we preferred dealing with the latter. You offer them a contract which would include all rights going to BMA. They accept. Contract gets signed. They provide preliminary sketches always well ahead of the deadline. You make critiques and suggestions. They adjust. You approve the sketches and make your first payment, usually by PayPal. They produce the final product. You smile as it’s almost always fantastic. You pay them their final payment right then and everyone is happy. If you have more work that fits the artist then you ask if they are available for another assignment. Then you repeat the process. The folks making art squabble about ownership of rights and lots of minor issues as they really don’t want to make art for you but loan out their art to you. I certainly understand their position, it’s why we went into self-publishing but for us it doesn’t really work. Fortunately, there are lots of artists who want work and will do it on our terms.
7) Legal Stuff. It cost us $1500 to set up our LLC and almost all of that was fees for a lawyer to review our operating agreement, contracts, and advise us on some intellectual property issues. I have gone back and forth on whether the lawyer’s fees were a judicious expenditure or not. I went to law school but I never studied intellectual property law. So what I knew about it was from self-study on findlaw.com and other sources. The good news was that my understanding was pretty much spot on and that’s worth something. With the operating agreement and contracts I will say our lawyer did really help us produce better documents. However, the contract our lawyer wanted us to use for freelancers would have been huge and filled with legalese. We made a decision to go for a more streamlined contract to parse out legalese and use understandable language. I think it was a good call to consult with a lawyer at the beginning of the process but we have decided to handle legal matters from here on out ourselves, unless something serious comes up.
8) Failed Serials. One idea we had to jumpstart sales was to produce serials to support West Pacific Supers. We picked Camille and Blue Star and wrote a story to begin those serials. We even offered them for free on Smashwords.com. We decided that if we got any positive review or response we would continue the serials. The end result: hundreds of downloads but no response. The only response was a 2-star review with no comments for the first Camille story. We’ve pulled the serials from all venues except Smashwords and will likely pull them from there when we release Victory at Any Cost. I don’t regret the experiment but this was one instance where I think our efforts didn’t help and might have hurt. We may revisit the serials at some point, we had the next few installments outlined for both serials, but with only a negative response there was no reason to continue. We’re probably going to put these serials up on westpacificsupers.com as bonus material and maybe revisit them down the road but for now they are dead projects.
9) Websites & Forums. I had fairly ambitious plans for reworking and adding more material to our various websites but this hasn’t materialized though we’ve made some small improvements and additions here and there. One success has been my blog getusedtodisappointment.com which has been a nice outlet for me and a good venue for my ideas, but in general our efforts in the Internet are less than I would like but product is as always more important.
10) Writing. Last March we had one book finished and that was all we had. We founded the company on the assumption we’d be able to produce more books. We have nearly finished the sequel to Rising Tide and have several other books in development. This is the crux of the whole operation: we need to write and we need to write well. Real life distractions and the like have sapped my energy and time this last year so that my productivity hasn’t been near where I would like it to be. That said we have a number of projects I’ve enjoying working on and hopefully we can add a few more books to our inventory which will help in all ways.
One minor snafu was with our Duet Sagas line which I expected to release this last year as we commissioned the art early on and I had done a bit of writing for it. The problem was that our sequel was a priority and for various reasons the vast majority of the writing for that project fell on my shoulders. I’m actually quite happy with Victory at Any Cost but it sidelined a project, Duet Sagas, I really wanted to finish. Another problem is that if I have time to think about something I’m very likely to want to make significant changes. So far such changes has always been for the better but it’s never good for me to sit too long on a project. I made some significant changes in what I want to do with the Duet Saga line and that requires a significant rewrite. This includes developing our own rules for the system and that is a slow tedious process as I only have little bits of time to dedicate to it. Hopefully, we’ll get Duet Sagas out there by the end of the year, but we’ll see.
So I guess that brings us to the question: what would we have done differently? I think starting off at $0.99 and paying for more reviews would have been smart. I also think waiting until we had Rising Tide and Victory at Any Cost finished would have been smart as we could have released one and then the sequel a few months later to build more momentum. I would have spent less on marketing and picked up a few more pieces of art for future projects just to have material to work with. We still might do this but just an idea at the moment. Otherwise I think we did pretty well all things considered but definitely Blue Moon Aurora is a work in progress.
As always, thanks for reading,