Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Selling words - a look at the mechanics.

Four days ago I released a novella called The New World

I self-published it.

Get it in the US

Get it in the UK

Get it on any Amazon.

Throw stars at it &/or read the reviews on Goodreads!

Some things to remember about short fiction:

i) Most readers do not like it.

ii) It's harder to write word for word than long fiction.

Whilst some readers look at the length (or more accurately, the thickness) of The Book That Wouldn't Burn and suck their breath in over their teeth ... "It's so LONG!" assured, the complaints multiply by many orders at the other end of the scale.

Sensible people talk about book length in terms of the number of words. The number of pages tells us very little as doubling the font size can double the page count without changing the story.

If I had a penny for every time someone disparagingly called my Impossible Times books novellas ... I'd have a whole handful of pennies!


I released a novella and I used all the powers of my social media to promote this fact - every platform I own, save my newsletter cos I only do 3 of those a year and have used 2 already in 2023.

I knew in advance that despite being (in my estimation) an excellent novella, currently rocking an average rating of 4.71 on Goodreads, The New World would not sell well, because:

i) People don't like short fiction.

ii) It is essentially a continuation of a story that ended in 2016 and devotees of The Red Queen's War have largely moved on.

iii) It was in the Red Queen's War special edition omnibus, so 1,000 of the most enthusisastic Jalan and Snorri readers already owned it.

iv) I had made it available free to my tier 3+ patrons over on my Patreon.

v) People don't like short fiction.

Let's just address that first and last point again. They really don't. Short stories are really hard to write, and even harder to sell. They gain very few reads in the magazines that offer a home for them. The short stories that sell best are strongly tied to an ongoing series, supplying the fix that readers want while they wait for the next book. This is why Bound sold so well. During the Dance is an anomaly in terms of short stories - but also it has always been free so I've never made a penny from it save for the $25 or so I was paid when it first appeared in Fantasy Magazine.

The New World is actually the first 25,000 words of a Jalan and Snorri novel that I started but put aside in favour of writing Red Sister. It turned out to be pretty self-contained so I used it as a novella in the omnibus. I typically write a book a year and they are typically 100,000 to 150,000 words long. I guess 25,000 words, including thinking time, would generally take me about two or three months. So the amount of $$$ I would need to generate from such an effort in order to make it a sensible investment of time would have to be between 1/4 and 1/6th of my annual income.

If I were hoping, as a successful author who has hit the Sunday Time bestseller list 3 times, to make the UK average annual salary of £27,756 then I would need to make between $8600 and $5800 from the novella. This isn't greed - it's mathematics. To justify the work put in I need to make let's say $7,000 if I want an average salary.

I priced the novella at $4.99  -- who knows if that "penny less" psychology works?

I don't think most readers really care if it's $2 or $4. 

YES, to head off the angry legions starting to hammer at their keyboards: I understand that you personally may care, and you may have financial woes or live in a country where the salaries are very low. But MOST readers, I don't think care that much. They decide what to read based on things other than a fraction of a Starbucks' coffee difference in price.

Also - understand that if a book sells for less than $2.99 then Amazon keep 65% of the sale price rather than 30%.


$2 book --- 35% goes to the author -- $2.00 x 0.35 = $0.70

$4 book --- 70% goes to the author -- $4.00 x 0.70 = $2.80  ... four times as much. 

So it really is in an author's interest to sell at $3 or more.

[Note - this is for self-publishing. Traditionally published authors get FAR LESS of the sale price.]

I wanted a cover for my novella and rather than pay for entirely new art I thought I could save some money and use the cover from the novella. I asked the artist Jason Chan to let me license the art for my novella and he generously let me have it for $200. 

Even more generously my beta reader, Mitriel Faywood (read her book), designed the cover for me for free, changing the colours to reveal the detail in the art and providing lettering.

So, I needed to sell 57 copies to cover the cost of the art. 

Here's how the first 4 days have gone:

The blue shows per-day sales, peaking on day 2, and the column is a cumulative total. On day 2 I started making a profit!

Currently I've made:

185 x $5 x 0.7 - $200 = $447.50

That's out of the $7000 I need to earn average wage across the time invested.

And the sales have peaked.

Continuing to hit my socials will bring diminishing returns, it's not in bookshops, and discovery is through a list on the RQW trilogy on Goodreads, which is hardly a wide net to cast.

I could spend money advertising but that's a gamble which frequent annecdote tells me almost always fails. My target audience is small - novella lovers who have either loved the RQW trilogy or who believe me when I say this is a good introduction to the characters. They are hard to reach through Facebook or Amazon adverts.

I was asked several times "is it on audio"? Or more pointedly, "WHY isn't this on audio?"

Let me tell you why.

Making audiobooks is expensive. If I wanted to come near the quality of the audiobooks people have heard my work on before then I would need to spend a minimum of around $350 per finished hour, potentially significantly more. Even this wouldn't be fire and forget, it would consume more of my time to set up.

The novella would take about 3 hours to read, so let's say $1000 for the audio book. I'll put that on the chart.

Yes, I could charge more for the audio, and yes it might bring new sales in. But really, it's too much trouble, too much of a (bad) gamble. Audio is expensive and reserved for projects that are going to move a significant number of copies.


That's a look at some of the mechanics of self publishing, and how even with my sizeable following on various platforms (Twitter: 35,000 - Facebook: 10,000 - Goodreads: 51,000) I can still only manage to shift 167 copies of what really is an excellent, very funny tale of Jalan and Snorri all at sea!


  1. Doubling font size at least quadruples page length because letters are 2-dimensional, and it’s actually an even higher ratio because of additional line breaks. Otherwise, an interesting and spot-on analysis.

  2. Damn, as a self-pubbed author this is kinda discouraging...

  3. It might have done better if you'd sold it 7 years ago.

  4. I brought it, just as I have all your novellas, and your long ass novels. Loved them all.

  5. I'm going to buy this now after reading about it on your blog, which I check once or twice a year. Social media advertising in action! You're one of my favorite authors and its definitely worth $5 for a new story.