cozy mystery, Cozy Mystery Publishing, IWSG, Mollie McGhie Cozy Sailing Mysteries, Romantic Comedy, Smitten with Travel, Writing

2020 in Review: Writing and Publishing Cozy Mysteries & Romantic Comedies | IWSG

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) is a place to share and encourage, where writers can express their doubts and concerns without appearing foolish or weak. It’s a great place to mingle with like minded people each month during IWSG day.

Every month there’s an optional question which may prompt folks to share advice, insights, a personal experience or story. Some folks answer the question in their IWSG blog post or let it inspire them if they’re struggling with what to say.

This month’s question is:

Everyone has a favorite genre(s) to write. But what about your reading preferences? Do you read widely on only within the genre(s) you create stories for? What motivates your reading choices?

Check out how people have answered this month’s question, as well as the other insecurities and writing topics they may have shared by visiting the IWSG sign-up list HERE. Instead of answering this month’s questions, I have my annual year in review post for you below.

It’s that time of year, when I post my annual review of my writing and publishing journey. 2020 was a doozy of a year, but somehow I managed to keep focused on my writing. I think in some ways it helped me to escape to some degree from all that was going on in the world.

Before we dive in . . .

For those of you who are new here, let me give you a little bit of background about me. I published my first book in June 2018, the first in my Mollie McGhie cozy mystery series featuring a reluctant sailor turned amateur sleuth. This series is based in part on my own adventures (and misadventures) living and sailing on boats in New Zealand, the States, and the Bahamas. {You can find out more about my background HERE.}

I published book #2 in that series toward the end of 2018. The following year, I released three more books in the same series (two full-length novels and one prequel novella), along with a box set. From the outset, I’ve been wide, meaning that I distribute my books on all retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple Books, Google Play etc.).

{For more info on my writing and publishing journey check out my 2018 review post and my 2019 review post.}

Stuff that got done in 2020 and plans for 2021

Okay, now that we have the background out of the way, let’s talk about what I accomplished in 2020. In my Mollie McGhie series, I published book #5 – Shooting by the Sea – and a short story – Buried by the Beach.

When I originally planned out my production schedule for 2020, I had a goal to publish two more books in my Mollie McGhie series. But . . . um . . . well . . . I didn’t.

Things don’t always go as planned, especially not during the year we all had. So instead of publishing more cozy mysteries, I decided to launch a sweet romantic comedy series. The Smitten with Travel series features three things I love – travel, food, and happily-ever-afters. I released the first two books – Smitten with Ravioli (set in Italy) and Smitten with Croissants (set in France) during 2020.

Romcoms are so much fun to write! And the genre is a good fit for my goofy sense of humor, so you should expect to see the third book in the series (Smitten with Strudel – set in Germany) come out in 2021, and possibly the fourth book too (Smitten with Baklava – set in Greece). For all those Mollie McGhie fans out there, don’t worry, I’m currently writing book #6 in the series – Overboard on the Ocean – and it will definitely be released later this year.

Okay, enough about that . . . let’s see some charts!

Who here likes numbers?

Don’t worry, we’re not talking about square roots or long division. Trust me, math is not my strong suit. But I do like keeping track of how many books I sell and how much I make. And I find making spreadsheets to be a soothing activity. Yes, I know, totally weird. But the upside for you, dear blog reader, is that I’m able to produce some nifty, colorful charts which you may find interesting.

All right, time for a little disclaimer before we jump in. I’m not going to share actual numbers with you. I know some people are comfortable sharing how many books they’ve sold and how much money they’ve made, but that’s not me. However, I promise there is still some interesting info in the charts below.

Some boring financial terms

The charts you’re going to see below show the peaks and troughs of my sales and revenue.

Note that I used the term revenue, not income. These are pretty boring financial terms, but the distinction is important.

Revenue is how much money has come in from the sales of your books. Income is what’s left over after you deduct expenses. You may see people post their earnings in various Facebook author groups, blogs etc. and be in awe of how much they’re making, but don’t forget that the numbers they’re sharing may be before expenses which means they’re taking home less than you think (in some cases, a lot less).

As an independent author, I have a number of expenses including:

  • editors (one of my biggest expenses, but so worth it to me)
  • ISBNs (these don’t come cheap if you’re based in the States—$575 for 100 of them—which is one reason why not everyone uses these book identification numbers)
  • proof copies of paperbacks and large print editions from Amazon KDP and IngramSpark
  • paid email promotions
  • advertising (I primarily use AMS ads, but I have also dabbled unsuccessfully with Facebook and Bookbub ads)
  • licenses for images used in marketing and book covers (primarily Shutterstock)
  • author website hosting / domain fees
  • other system subscription fees such as BookFunnel (used for ebook distribution to my ARC team and for distribution of my reader magnets) and Mailerlite (used for newsletter)
  • books related to writing craft and marketing
  • membership in the Alliance for Independent Authors (the cost of membership is offset for me by the fact that I don’t have to pay fees for paperback uploads / changes on IngramSpark)

Come on already . . . let’s see a chart!

Are you still with me? Ready for a chart? Here we go – this one shows how many units I sold (the blue bars) and how much income I made (the red bars) each month. I like presenting it this way because I can get caught up in how many books I’ve sold, but that doesn’t always correlate with how much I’m making.

PRICE DROP PROMO (MARCH)

See that big blue spike in March? I dropped the price of my first in series cozy mystery (Murder at the Marina) to 99c / 99p and did a bunch of promos including an international BookBub Featured Deal, Fussy Librarian, Book Adrenaline, Book Sends, Bargain Booksy, and Ereader News Today. I also organized some newsletter swaps.

The result was that I sold a lot of books. But that doesn’t mean I made a lot of money. When you sell a book for 99c / 99p, you only make pennies after the retailers take their cut. But that’s not why I do promos. I do them to gain visibility and attract new readers who hopefully love my writing so much that they go on to buy other full-priced books in the series.

{By the way, “lot” is a relative term. Everyone has their own sales baseline. A lot of sales for one person might be a drop in the bucket for someone else. Comparing yourself to other authors can be a dangerous path to follow. Possibly even the path to despair and too much chocolate.}

BIG UPTICK IN LARGE PRINT SALES (APRIL / MAY)

I’ve always done relatively well in terms of sales of my large print editions, but during April and May, they exploded (my AMS ad spend also exploded which was very scary at first). When the lockdowns started happening, people were looking for books to read. Cozy mysteries are fun and lighthearted, a good way to escape for a time from the stress of the pandemic. I suspect many other cozy mystery authors saw an uptick in their paperback and large print sales during this period.

My large print sales leveled out during the remainder of the year, although I did see a slight increase in December. No surprise there as books make good gifts for the holidays.

Author Central BookScan Chart – shows spike in paperback sales in the US

LAUNCH OF MY ROMCOM SERIES (MAY)

I released book #1 in my Smitten with Travel sweet romantic comedy series in May. I didn’t set the world on fire with this release, but I didn’t expect to either. My strategy is to release three books in a series before I do any serious marketing. To me, it doesn’t make sense to do a price drop, book a bunch of promos, spend a lot on advertising etc., if there aren’t any other books in the series for readers to buy.

{Wondering what I mean by “sweet”? I use it to indicate that my romcoms are on the “clean and wholesome” side of things. As with my cozy mysteries, there aren’t any sex scenes or naughty language in my romcoms.}

COZY MYSTERY ANTHOLOGY RELEASE (JUNE)

I joined in with a group of other authors to put together a collection of cozy mystery short stories. My contribution was Buried by the Beach, a standalone story which takes place between the events of book #3 and book #4 in my Mollie McGhie series. We published the anthology in June, and I thought it was a great success both in terms of attracting new readers to my series and making connections with an awesome group of authors who were a delight to work with.

Our stories were exclusive to the anthology until the end of 2020. I’ve since separately published an expanded version of Buried by the Beach with contains an epilogue and bonus material. The original version is still available in the anthology which the group will continue to collectively promote.

COZY MYSTERY BOOK #5 RELEASE (AUGUST)

August saw the release of book #5 in my Mollie McGhie series – Shooting by the Sea. I had a lot of fun writing this one, especially around the bits about Scooter’s silly celebrity crush on a game show host and Mrs. Moto learning to play the ukulele. (If you’re new to the Mollie McGhie series, Scooter is Mollie’s hubby and Mrs. Moto is their adorable Japanese bobtail cat.)

ROMCOM BOOK #2 RELEASE (DECEMBER)

I somehow managed to squeeze out book #2 in my Smitten with Travel series, publishing the ebook edition of Smitten with Croissants at the end of December. This was a blast to work on because I got to include all sorts of geeky references to Star Wars. I may just be a bit of a Star Wars geek myself.

Psst . . . between you and me, how much did you make?

Sorry, no can do. But, I will tell you this. I actually made money in 2020!!!

There’s a reason for all those exclamation points. That’s because it was the first time in my publishing career that I was in the black. Yep, that’s right, in my first two years of being a published author, I lost money. My expenses were greater than my income.

I know some people turn a profit during their first year, but not me. However, I did stick with it, realizing that it’s a long game. And I’m fortunate enough to have had the money to invest in my books during those first couple of years.

The chart below illustrates the progress I’ve made over the past three years. Notice how 2020 is the first time the yellow income bar is above the zero mark? What had been a very expensive hobby is now making me a little bit of money and I’m now treating this whole author thing more like a business.

Let’s talk formats

As I mentioned earlier, a significant chunk of my sales are paperback and large print books. During 2019, the majority of my sales were ebooks (73%) compared to 21% large print and 5% paperback books.

During 2020, that ratio changed drastically with the majority of my sales being large print (54%) and paperback books (5%). Ebooks only made up 41% of my sales. My guess is that this was a one-off, related to the pandemic lockdowns, and ebook sales will once again surpass my large print and paperback sales.

By the way, I use both Amazon KDP and Ingram Spark print-on-demand services for my large print and paperbacks. I definitely sell most of my large print and paperback books through Amazon than on other retailers, but I have no idea of the exact breakdown. That’s because Ingram Spark doesn’t breakdown sales by retailers. Amazon also outsources printing to Ingram Spark at times, meaning that some sales that show up on my Ingram Spark reports can be attributed to Amazon. But how many that is . . . well, I don’t have a clue.

Ebook sales and revenue by retailer – Wide for the Win!

Let’s break down my ebook sales and revenue by retailer, shall we? No surprise that Amazon has the largest share, but I continued to actively try to grow my sales on other retailers during the past year. I’m all about the “Wide for the Win” mindset – i.e., not wanting to have all my eggs in the old Amazon basket. And it’s worked to some degree – 57% of the ebooks I sold in 2019 were on Amazon, compared to 51% in 2020.

Barnes & Noble continued to be my next strongest retailer (30% of ebooks sold, which is on par with 2019). I’ve been fortunate enough to be accepted into some of their promos which have really boosted visibility and sales on their storefront.

Kobo came in number three accounting for 11% of my ebook sales (up from 8% in 2019). Kobo also has great promo opportunities, especially when it comes to box sets and their romance BOGO deals.

Apple Books trailed behind the other major retailers, but I saw a massive increase in their share of ebook sales, up from 3% in 2019 to 8% in 2020. No idea why, to be honest.

I struggle to make any sales on Google Play except when I’m doing a first in series price drop promo like I did in March. And even then, sell-through to other books in the series is pathetic. Maybe one day I’ll gain traction there. Maybe one day I’ll give up eating chocolate and lose weight. Miracles can happen, right?

There was a new entry on the retailer scene for me in 2020 – Eden Books. This is a small, romance-only storefront which I’m delighted to support. I’m not selling tons of books there, but it’s always good to expand my reach to potential readers.

Before we move on, take a look at the units sold (blue bars) versus the revenue (red bars). See how on Amazon the revenue bar is higher than the units sold bar? When it comes to Barnes & Noble, the situation is reversed. Interesting, huh? Just another reminder not to always focus on how many books you sell on each retailer, but rather on how much money you make.

{If you’re interested in wide distribution, you might want to check out the super informative, supportive, and helpful Wide for the Win Facebook group.}

{How about another parenthetical note? I distribute directly to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play, and I use Draft2Digital to reach Apple Books and other smaller retailers.}

A brief note about sell-through

If you write series, then you definitely want to track your sell-through. Some people call it read-through, others say buy-through. It all means the same thing – what percentage of people who read / buy the first book in your series go on to read / buy subsequent books in the series.

It’s an important metric. If you have a low sell-through, do you want to keep investing your time and money in other books in the series? Are you targeting the right audience? Do you need to make tweaks to your cover, blurb, or even the content? Should you eat more chocolate? These are all important questions, especially the chocolate one.

I only tracked sell-through for my Mollie McGhie series in 2020. I’m happy enough with it, especially considering this series probably isn’t written to market as much as other cozy mystery series are. Cozy mysteries featuring a sailing hook and an amateur sleuth who like investigating UFOs in her spare time? Not your typical draw for the cozy reader crowd. Writing more to market is something I’ll be paying more attention to when I launch my next series.

Anyhoo, approximately 9% of readers went on to buy book #2 in the series. That might seem low, but it reflects the fact that I did a price-drop promo on book #1. Lots of people will pick up a book if it’s only 99c, but then either not read it (ask me how many unread books I have on my ereader) or find that it’s not their cup of tea. However, if folks go on to read book#2, then around 85-90% of them will buy the subsequent books in the series. I can live with that.

Don’t forget about libraries and subscription sales

I used to lump in my library and subscription sales in with my other ebook sales, but I’ve started to break them out into separate categories. Why? Well, because they’re kind of different beasts, wouldn’t you say?

During 2020, I didn’t sell tons in either of these categories. At least, not enough to be bothered to make a separate chart for them. But I didn’t want to lose sight of the importance of these distribution channels, so I’m gonna tell you all about them. Now might be the time to grab a Snickers bar. The peanuts will give you the stamina you’ll need to keep reading.

One of the great things about being wide is that you can distribute ebooks to libraries. If you’re exclusive to Amazon (i.e., enrolled in KDP Select, aka Kindle Unlimited), then you’re out of luck when it comes to libraries.

No can do. I like libraries. Actually, scratch that. I LOVE libraries. My whole family loves libraries. I was practically raised in libraries, and my sister even works in a library. So, the thought of not selling my ebooks to libraries was inconceivable. I use both Kobo and Draft2Digital to reach libraries via Overdrive, Hoopla, and Biblioteca.

{Note: This only applies to ebooks. You can be exclusive to Amazon for your ebooks, but still distribute your paperbacks / large print books to libraries.}

Remember how I mentioned Kindle Unlimited a moment ago? Well, it’s not the only ebook subscription service in town. There are other services which are non-exclusive including Kobo Plus and Scribd. I have my books enrolled in both of them via Kobo and Draft2Digital.

Okay, I think that wraps it up. Anything else you want to know? What are you looking forward to in 2021? What’s your favorite candy bar?

46 thoughts on “2020 in Review: Writing and Publishing Cozy Mysteries & Romantic Comedies | IWSG”

  1. That is amazing. I can’t believe how many large print books you sell. I did a beta with KDP for hard cover books, have one of my titles up that way and ma curious how it will do.

    Great read and thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, it’s crazy what the percentage of large print sales was last year. I’m doing the hardcover beta too. I’m not sure if many people will want it though given the price, especially when they can pick up my paperback large print version instead for a lot less. I wonder if libraries are more interested in hardcover? If so, I’m more likely to reach them via Ingram. Hope it goes well for you. 🙂

      Like

  2. I find spreadsheets soothing as well! Thanks for sharing all of this. I’ve got a few tweaks to make to my own data now – the revenue/income distinction is important but I haven’t done that so far. Someone talked about Airtable (maybe in WftW group) and I’m going to look into it as well.
    Looking forward to Strudel!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it’s great that you offer large print books. Older people like my mom need them if they want to continue with their love of reading. It’s great that you have such a handle on your income, revenue, and costs.

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  4. Wow! You are amazing and inspiring! I’m so happy for you! It’s awesome that you were in the black and you’ve gained a readership. That is so uplifting. And I like your charts too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmmm…were you a bookkeeper in a previous life? The graphs are outstanding and a great way to drive home the importance of tracking expenses to get an actual “read” of your income. The gurus always say to check the read-through of a series when you have a 99 cent promo for the first book. But how do you know, the reader read #1 and then bought #2? I guess an uptick in sales? Congratulations on your success this year!!
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bookkeeper? Hmm…you should see the spreadsheet I have to track our expenses. LOL!

      I think the read through calculation can only be a guesstimate. If you see an uptick, then that’s a good thing. I use more as a barometer as to how my advertising / marketing efforts are working and if people like the series enough to want to read through.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Those charts are awesome! Gotta admit, they overwhelmed but they are amazing! I’m finally (after 16 books) just getting my stuff in an excel sheet. I’m, also finally, getting more serious about Amazon ads, so it’s good to track things. But part of my brain freaks-LOL.

    I am in awe of your tracking!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is so much data to keep a track of, for sure. And it can be very overwhelming. The “business” side of writing uses such a different part of our creative side. All the best for your spreadsheet and your AMS ads.!

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  7. Wow! Thank you for all of the detailed information! I’ve been tracking my numbers closer this year because I used IngramSpark for the first time. Until now, I’ve used Smashwords as my “widespread” ebook place. And, I’ve been looking closely at Draft2Digital – it seems like a good place.
    Thank you for your transparency. I don’t need the $ numbers, but it is good to see that you have worked your way into making revenue. Congrats!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like Draft2Digital. The team there is great and it’s an easy, one-stop way to distribute books widely. Definitely recommend if you don’t want to go direct to retailers.

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  8. Just discovered your blog. Am curious – do you publish your own work? I noticed on Amazon you lists yourself as the Publisher. I’m interested to learn on how to self pub my own books and was thinking of using Lulu. 🙂 Your Rom-Com sounds very interesting – I will need to check out this series in the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m an indie author. I’ve actually written a number of blog posts on my self-publishing journey which might be of interest. You can find them all under this tag – https://ellenjacobsonauthor.com/category/cozy-mystery-publishing/

      If you’re on Facebook, there are a number of writer groups which have been a great help to me in figuring everything out. Wide for the Win and 20Booksto50K are two you might want to check out. And the Insecure Writer’s Support Group is a wonderful resource and an incredible supportive community. Many of its members are self-published.

      Please don’t hesitate to email me if you have any questions or want to touch base. I’m no expert, but happy to share my lessons learned.

      Like

  9. As a numbers girl, I love stuff like this. Thanks for sharing!

    As for anything else I want to know? Yes. What drugs are you taking to make you so productive?

    What are am I looking forward to in 2021? Finding a source for the productive drugs.

    What’s my favorite candy bar? Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark squares. Not technically a candy ‘bar’, but there you have it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You’ve been so productive with your publishing, Ellen! And very productive with tracking volumes of helpful info. Congratulations on making some moulah–tough to do in this biz! Happy writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You know I love spread sheets and charts. I’m creating some now for my year end expense report. I love the thought bubbles and the donut chart instead of a pie!

    I’m so glad you made money this past year. I think you are going to start raking it in. I need to jump on it with the Mollie McGhie fan fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I’ve been working on Overboard on the Ocean, I’ve been thinking about your Mollie McGhie fan fiction ideas. They crack me up! I put in a reference to someone going off to become a camel trainer as a nod to you. It’s not Scooter though – sorry to disappoint. LOL.

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  12. I’m glad you started writing something else instead of just giving up. I love your titles!
    Yay for income.
    And wow, large print really helped you out.
    My local NaNoWriMo group donates books by local authors to libraries that take part in NaNoWriMo activities. That’s not a lot of libraries, but at least it means some of my local ones carry my book, despite the KDP that allows me to offer it free on KU.
    Almond Joy or 5th Avenue, to answer your last question.

    I love reading a wide variety of genres. I posted for IWSG day today. My post includes a new book by a friend, a note about a free book next week, a tweet about a query contest (LGBTQ romance this round), and a quick message about April Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

    J Lenni Dorner~ Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge, Debut Author Interviewer, Reference& Speculative Fiction Author

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  13. Wow, that was quite a post! Thanks for all the information. The charts were fantastic! Who doesn’t like a chart? I joined the Facebook group you suggested. (Shannon @ The Warrior Muse)

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  14. I am way behind the times and not half as organized as you. To be honest, I didn’t even try to sell a darn thing this year and got very little writing done. I didn’t even know they had large print for self publishers LOL. Well done, Ellen!

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  15. Great info there, and some things I can see that I could do to increase my sales. Do you have some special outlet or outreach with the LT books? I have made them for my mysteries, but so far no bites–I really only do it to have copies my mom can put in the library at her retirement home 🙂

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  16. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Thanks for the updates and all the helpful info. At the moment, I’m loving TWIX, but if they made a dark chocolate Mr. Goodbar, I’d be all over it.

    Like

  17. Congrats on all your success. It’s fun to keep track and look at the numbers. Your cover art is terrific!

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  18. I’m impressed by your numbers and that you know your financials so well. Hubs asks me how much I’ve made and I tell him to give me a couple of days to figure it out. LOL

    You wrote: Things don’t always go as planned, Isn’t that the truth! 2020 is a case in point. I’m amazed at writers like you who managed to publish anything last year. I sure didn’t. But then life sprung some surprises on me. Oh, well. 2021 has to be better.

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  19. Oh my gosh, Ellen! Do I need to learn all this when I finally try to publish my college memoir and my YA short story adventures. Seriously, I’m in awe of you for having an understanding about marketing and making money from your books. I simply must take time away from writing to learn this. Thanks for clarifying the difference between “revenue” and “income” from the sale of your books. All the luck with these releases!

    Like

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