At this point I have four non-fiction titles and four short stories that I narrated myself that are out in audio on at least one site, so I’ve added a new Audiobooks page. That also includes two of my non-fiction titles that were narrated by other narrators many years ago (Budgeting for Beginners and Writing for Beginners, both which were out under different titles for most of that time so may still show up under those other titles when you click through).
Teachable turned out to be a bust for me. There’s a pretty hefty fee to use that site per year and I just didn’t bring enough traffic there on my own to justify it. So I’ve updated the video course page to remove those links.
The Affinity courses are still up on Udemy for anyone who needs them. If you signed up through Teachable and lose access there, which I don’t think you should, reach out to me and I’ll give you a free code for Udemy so you still have access to the material. I have the list of student names so not too hard to see who was impacted.
Sorry about that. I tried. But sometimes in this business you try, fail, and cut your losses.
I’m currently waiting on feedback comments for an AML compliance book so hoping to have that one out next month. One set of comments are already in and just a few minor tweaks to make so I expect it won’t be an issue to get it out on time.
I also want to do the audio of that one so that it’s out there from close to the start, so expect that, too. It’s dry material that is more interesting when narrated. Still dry, but less so.
I’m still toying with the idea of a YouTube channel. But I have commitment issues and know to do it right I’d have to post regularly there. So I may half-ass it and just put up the short stories and an intro video. I expect that seeing videos of my middle-aged writer self who doesn’t feel inspired to look good for the camera may be a limiting factor on that one.
I am vain enough to want to look good, but too lazy to do what would be required. Story of my life. (Haha. Sigh.)
I don’t know about anyone else but August was an ugly sales month for me. Partially because of AMS.
If you aren’t checking search terms on your ads, definitely do so, especially in the UK. I don’t know if this is a change on Amazon’s end or if people have just gotten sick of seeing ads for irrelevant books, but I noticed with some newer ads I tried to start that the search terms people were clicking on for some of my ads were wildly off base.
A book on Microsoft Access that used access as a keyword was getting clicks for things like “accessibility aids”. I always try to anticipate those things with negative keyword phrases, but some just had not crossed my mind.
And unfortunately AMS does not show you search terms people use where they don’t click. (Please do that instead of all the other weirdness you keep doing developer folks? Just top 50 maybe? Or ones with more than 500 impressions?)
That means there’s no way usually to know those wildly inappropriate matches are happening.
But it seems in the UK at least last month folks were clicking on those ads, so I was able to get a lot of new negative keywords for some of my ads from looking at those search terms.
At a cost, of course. Those clicks that gave me that info were not free.
What else? I recently went from a 12 GB RAM laptop to a 32 GB RAM laptop for my work computer, and wow what a difference. With 12 GB RAM every time they want to do updates it just kills my computer. So when you think new computer next time around, I’d say think increased RAM. A lot of what drove my decision was graphics because of ads/covers, etc. but that slowdown issue was part of it, too.
Also, hugs to everyone out there. I have a friend I’ve known for over 30 years who I saw this last week and who was at the breaking point because of life.
This is a person who did their med school residency while helping run the family business and was just fine for that (other than general exhaustion), so not someone who breaks easily.
But I think the past few years have just been a lot for a lot of people.
Understaffing, illness, life stressors…
So if you’re one of those folks who just feels knocked sideways these days, you’re not alone. Even the strong ones are breaking.
I know it doesn’t solve anything to say that, whatever troubles you’re facing are still there, but know it’s not just you. Be kind to yourself.
I’m putting this here mostly for me because after recording four non-fiction titles and six short stories I’m about to go dive in on a writing project. (Also, if anyone “listens” to books on YouTube can you drop a comment and let me know. I’m thinking I’ll put the short stories up there at least, but just not sure how much to prioritize doing so. Right now it’s a backburner project because even though I expect people to just listen even though they’re videos I want the closed captions accurate and that takes a surprising amount of time.)
Anyway. In case this helps anyone else, this is not a perfect process but it’s what I’ve come up with to get a product I’m happy with but not bog down too much too early.
Before each session, record a “testing, testing, testing” bit to make sure that my audio is set to the right input device, that I’ve turned on the audio interface, and that I’m hitting between -10 and -20 db. (All issues I had at one time or another.)
Record audio using Audacity with no headphones on. Save file using Raw, chapter number (if applicable), and project name. (e.g., Raw 1 Introduction)
In Audacity, edit file to remove long gaps, repeats, and re-dos. Do not wear headphones. Save file as First Pass, chapter number, and then file name. (e.g., First Pass 1 Introduction)
Export as .wav file.
Import .wav file into Reaper. Apply pre-set FX Chain which includes Waves NS1 Mono, ReaEQ, ReaComp, iZotope De-Click, JS: De-Esser, and iZotope De-Clip.
Listen to audio and adjust the threshold setting for ReaComp until I’m compressing somewhere between -4 and -6 for most of the audio.
Save as Reaper, chapter number, and then file name. (e.g., Reaper 1 Introduction)
Render mono version of .wav file. (If there’s a way to make this the default in settings, I haven’t figured it out yet so I always have to change from stereo to mono.)
Open .wav file in Audacity, select all or 20 minutes for longer clips, and run ACX Check (under Analyze). Look at RMS level and figure out amount to adjust to get to -23 and then add .5 to that amount.
Go to Tools, Macros and change the value for the Limiter to that amount in the macro I have that applies a Limiter and Normalizes the clip to -3.1 peak level.
Apply that macro to the whole clip.
Run ACX Check again to make sure it worked.
Save file as Final, chapter number, file name. (e.g., Final 1 Introduction)
Export as MP3 file. Make sure file name is what I want the chapter called when loaded to Authors Republic. (e.g., 1 Introduction) (ACX will import chapter names from your ebook file, but Authors Republic uses the name of the file you provide them. Be sure to keep numbering in there so that files are listed in order on Authors Republic.)
Listen to file with really good headphones on and read along in book to confirm text. Note timestamp for any issues that need fixed like sounds that need to be removed, duplicate text that wasn’t caught, or words that were wrong.
Re-record if needed. Go to First Pass version in Audacity if text needs removed. If multiple cuts need to be made work from the end of the file backwards.
Otherwise go to Reaper version and click on trim envelope and select Volume (Pre-FX). Find each spot where a noise was noted that needed removed and use ctrl + mouse to manually draw it down until no longer audible.
Export from Reaper as .wav and reprocess with Limiter and Normalization in Audacity. Re-export as .mp3 file and listen to make sure all changes worked.
For the file edits above, save over old versions as needed. With the final Audacity file, that will need to be deleted first and then a new file with the same name saved.
This is probably not the most efficient process. I could likely figure out how to do everything in Reaper, but I’m much more comfortable cutting sections in Audacity. Reaper and I have time selection with a mouse issues.
Also, I like the ACX Check in Audacity even though it is not perfect and told me I was fine a few times when I was in fact off by .3 or less.
It was taking me a lot longer to process files early on because I was getting caught up with mouth or background noises during my first pass edits. That’s why I don’t wear the headphones at that stage, because I get distracted and want to start fixing things that the software will fix for me if I just let it go.
I also at one point was manually fixing clipping in my audio track by bringing the pre-processed sound down at those points but finally add the de-clipping tool in there to do that for me. It was fine when I clipped once or twice, but I then had one with 55 clips in it and that was not going to be fun to fix.
(Also, as I get better at not hitting first words in chapters or sections too hard that becomes less of an issue.)
I also think I could have for new recordings adjusted my settings for the microphone input to get rid of any clipping, but I think that would’ve also meant a higher adjustment when I used the Limiter. (I think, don’t quote me on that.) So I’ve struck a balance there.
As you can see above, I did decide to go with paid software and paid tools after trying the free route first. I was able to get the de-clip and de-click software a few versions back from the current one off their website at a decent discount so it seemed worth it. All told I think it was about $150 for all the software I’m using.
Also, doing a good recording is essential. It saves so much time if you get that right up front.
I’ve been lucky to catch a lot of issues as I record, so I just re-do a line right then rather than have to catch it at the end of the whole process. I am not, however, comfortable enough to not listen through during that first pass stage. I do know of experienced folks who will just make some sort of loud noise at any point where they re-do a line so they don’t have to listen through the entire thing in the first pass stage. I’m just not there yet. But I can see maybe getting there when I try to do the cozies which are 9x as long as each of the short stories I’ve done so far.
As for prep, my current process involves taking a decongestant before I start, chewing some gum, and then having water with apple cider vinegar that I drink while recording. (My dog freaks out and needs to go sit outside in the grass for half an hour before she’ll let me record, so it works out.)
As I record I also really try to pay attention to any gumminess in my mouth or any spit bubbles (gross, I know) I notice so I can just re-do that line immediately.
I also have to be careful that there isn’t something really loud that suddenly starts up in the background. I have a pretty good little space set up right now and a very forgiving microphone that doesn’t pick up everything around me, but I had to redo about five minutes of one recording that sounded like static in the background. I think because someone was mowing right outside and I didn’t catch it. I wasted a ton of time trying to get rid of that with processing when it ultimately was easier to just go re-record the clip.
Alright. Off to do some writing before I circle back to audio again in a week or so.
Surprisingly, I actually have some listens already according to the ACX dashboard. We’ll see if they last since ACX takes back sales sometimes. (If you listen to a title and liked it and are one of those people who return your audiobooks, please wait a week on Audible before doing so.)
But, regardless, that was a nice surprise that people had found the books and were listening to them already without any promotion by me.
Especially the data one that I’ve always thought had good information in it but just never found its audience.
I also recorded Data Analysis for Self-Publishers and Sell That Book on the non-fiction side but haven’t submitted those yet. Probably today.
This week I started to work on some fiction titles and that was interesting. Because I had a bit of an epiphany.
A long time ago I took a craft course and the instructor said that the power of writing is that it lets you be inside the character’s head. TV and movies are external. You hear the character and you see them, but you don’t get that internal thought process. (Usually. Some shows are set up to provide that, but mostly we watch from the outside when we watch movies or TV shows.)
But with writing, you can see what someone really thinks or feels, not just what they show the world. (Now, I could argue that what you’re actually getting is the narrator’s or character’s spin on things, but let’s not go there.)
The problem with writing is that the reader has to be the one that layers on the emotions and interprets the words.
Each reader brings their own world view to the page. So something I as a writer might think is sad or angry or tragic or ironic may not land that way with the reader if their life experience doesn’t mirror mine.
This week I’ve been doing short stories I wrote almost a decade ago. The first one I tackled was called The Price We Pay.
This story was very personal to me. It was born out of my dad’s struggles with having a terminal illness and how uncaring the world is about people like him. And about struggling financially. And how hard it is to be there for your family when you’re barely making it through each day. And about having a complicated marriage with someone you desperately love but who might leave you given the chance.
I have friends who wouldn’t connect to any of that. They’ve never been seriously ill or known anyone who was. They’ve never struggled financially. They’ve never loved someone in that complicated, messy, painful way.
So for that person reading that story, there’s no emotion to the words. There’s no resonance to the experience of the character for them to draw on.
(Interestingly, I think now with COVID it’s probably a story far more readers can connect to than before.)
The other story I did this week was Death Answered My Call about a woman who is essentially using prayer to keep her husband alive even as it becomes more and more clear that she needs to let go. (In the story it’s a magical red leather bag and a repeated mantra, but basically it’s prayer.)
I still remember with that story having a beta reader who didn’t understand the story at all. That beta reader was religious and fully believed that we go on to somewhere better than this so didn’t understand not wanting to lose someone and trying to keep them here.
Whereas for me, I wrote that story because even though I am not a religious person I prayed for my dad every single time he was hospitalized when I was growing up. He was religious and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask his god to help him out. I prayed for him right up until that last time…
(I also had a friend who thought the character got what he deserved because he was a skydiver so had no sympathy for either character. Sometimes having people beta for you reveals really interesting things.)
Getting back to the point.
For me, reading that story, all the emotion is there. I know what it’s like to want to keep someone and to finally have to let them go because they’re suffering too much.
Which is what made narrating those stories such a great experience. Because I was in control of the emotion behind the words, not the reader. I could deliver not just the words, but the emotions that go with them.
The Price We Pay was perfect for audio for that reason. It has a lot of internal thoughts and feelings–the story is probably half just thoughts– so it wouldn’t make a good television episode, for example, but being able to narrate it also let me give the story all the emotion that you can get from acting that maybe readers wouldn’t be able to bring with them.
I don’t think I realized until recording that story for the second time (I cried during the first recording–I hadn’t read that story in probably five years) that this unique combination of written word and performance makes audiobooks their own unique performance medium.
I had always up until that moment viewed audiobooks as just a spoken version of a story that was convenient for people to listen to while driving around or doing the dishes or whatever.
And who knows, maybe that’s what people actually want in their audiobooks and they’ll hate these recordings. Maybe they just want that straight delivery and not actual acting.
Plus, I could suck as an actor. I mean, really, my acting experience is a middle school radio skit, a drama class I dropped in high school, and a freshman play in college, so it’s possible they’re horrible and overacted.
(If so, I’ll figure that out about two years from now when my mind finally finishes processing whatever it’s always processing in the background and makes me circle back to these and cringe. That’s life as I know it.)
But I also think my own personal writing style lends itself to audio.
I tend to write short, choppy sentences and paragraphs. Because everything I write I’m reading out loud in my head. And line breaks for me are a longer pause than a period. I see a long paragraph and I think, “Didn’t you take a breath in there, man? Geez.”
So maybe audio is just my natural medium but wouldn’t work for others?
I will say though that it is a level of difficulty or ten beyond just writing a story.
There’s the recording environment. The proper equipment. The sound processing. The actual vocal performance which can be impacted by energy levels and what you ate for breakfast and whether it’s allergy season and whether your stupid stompy neighbor is home and whether your dog is going to be okay with you disappearing behind a moving blanket to make weird noises.
And that all on top of having good words to work from in the first place.
A ton of things need to come together for a good audiobook recording.
I have no idea if I’ve brought those together. I think what I’ve done sounds good. But, you don’t know what you don’t know.
(As an aside. The audio I recorded for my course videos in the past, the issue there was that I didn’t notice there was a “distance” to the vocals. It’s like I’m across the room, not right there. They’re still workable for delivering that knowledge, they’re just not “polished.” Then again, that’s kind of the story of my life. So, what’s new?)
Alright. Anyway. Time to wrap this up and do some covers and then submit some audio files. I’d like to do all of the short stories in my M.H. Lee short story collection, but I don’t know if I can actually pull off narrating all of them. It’s going to be interesting to try.
I just finished spending about an hour recording audio for one of my books. I have two I’ve finished and submitted for approval and two more non-fiction I want to do before tackling any fiction.
One of things I was thinking about today is that audio and writing are very different in one key aspect.
With writing you can be having a bad day, feel tired, feel out of sorts, have a head cold, what-have-you. And you can still sit down in front of your computer and put new words down. Maybe they don’t flow as well as normal. Maybe they need heavier revision when you come back to them.
But you make progress. Even if all the words are junk and you went in the wrong direction, it will often help you figure out where you do want to go with the story.
So on the writing side, pushing through is what you do. Butt in chair, right? We don’t always come to the keyboard full of joy. Some days we just know we have to keep going.
Audio is the exact opposite when it comes to this. Because if you record while tired or with a bad head cold or while too distracted to deliver any emotion to what you’re reading, it’s there in your voice. And you can’t edit that.
A flat performance or one full of stomach noises can’t be fixed. It needs to be re-recorded.
At least if you want a solid performance.
So with audio it is in fact possible to waste time on bad work.
I suspect this is one of those things where the more you do it, the less bad takes you record, but just starting out know that’s an issue you’ll be facing.
And if you have a bad take? Admit it early, throw it out, and redo it. Because five minutes of audio recorded poorly costs ten minutes of time at most. But if you edit it and process it and all that? That’s more like thirty minutes spent on something you’ll still have to redo in the end.
The other day I went to check my book page for some reason and saw this:
Excel for Beginners now has 1,000 ratings on Amazon. That’s not reviews mind you, just ratings, but still a pretty nice little milestone to reach.
So in honor of that event, I’ve decided to put the ebook versions of Pivot Tables and Excel 2019 Pivot Tables to free until the end of September. (Amazon, as usual, is going to not be free just yet, but the other stores are and Amazon will catch up in a day or two.)
I also figured I’d share my little origin story on these books.
Five years ago I sat down to write a book on using pivot tables in Microsoft Excel. This was back in the day when it was not at all easy to know how many copies of a book you had sold through Amazon. There were graphs you could see, by country, but no pretty summary numbers like we have today.
You could see sales for a country for that day for that format by holding your mouse over the graph bars, but to get one bottom-line number required exporting a spreadsheet and then applying a pivot table. (Or summing the data if you only had one title.)
I told people about how they could use pivot tables to do this more than once on Kboards, but usually the response was “I don’t know how to use those.”
My thought was, “You could try Googling it?”, but eventually I got tired of hearing authors say they couldn’t tell you how many sales they’d had that month when using pivot tables was so easy. Two minutes of effort and they’d have their answer.
So I figured I would write a book about exactly how to do it. With screenshots and everything. Push this button, go here, there you go. That would give me something to point people to and if they were still clueless at that point it was on them for not wanting to follow the step-by-step instructions in the book.
And it was a unique angle on using Excel that I hadn’t seen covered yet so it made sense to put it out there because no one else had.
I sat down to write the book. A quick little title. Just knock it out.
But then I realized I had a problem. I didn’t want to walk people through Excel from absolute beginner to using pivot tables just for this one task. That was a lot.
(I sort of had done a walkthrough from start to basic math with the Juggling Your Finances Basic Excel Primer book that was a companion to Budgeting for Beginners but I thought my audience for this book was going to be those people who already knew Excel some.)
So I had a dilemma. Do I go from “this is Excel” all the way to “this is how you download this specific report on Amazon and apply a pivot table to it?”
Or did I need to split the material up into separate books? That way people could join in on the learning process wherever they were in their own personal knowledge without bogging down in things they didn’t need to learn.
Luckily for me, I decided to split the material up.
Ultimately, I ended up publishing four separate titles in September 2017: Excel for Beginners (for anyone brand new to Excel), Intermediate Excel (for those who knew the basics of Excel but didn’t know things like pivot tables and conditional formatting), Excel for Writers (which covered things I’d done with Excel that were writing-related but not self-publishing-related), and then Excel for Self-Publishers. (which was the book I’d actually set out to write and which at the end of the day also included a lot of AMS-related uses of Excel as well, that are also no longer needed today thanks to advancements in reporting by Amazon).
At that point I had what may or may not have been a lucky break.
I’m not sure how much it did or didn’t contribute to sales, but I think it maybe helped a little. It certainly didn’t hurt.
Basically, one of the groups I was in had an open call for any material that might work for a NaNoWriMo bundle, and I mentioned the two books on Excel for writers and self-publishers.
The books were included in the bundle which ran in October and November 2017.
(I say that’s luck, because, yes, I did have the books ready and had done the work that put me in the path of hearing about that invitation. But the fact that someone made that open call and that they included little no-name me, was pure luck.)
Maybe a few of those folks circled back to the Excel for Beginners and/or Intermediate Excel titles and gave them a little boost.
Maybe they didn’t. I’d also started some AMS ads. Those could’ve been the reason the titles gained traction.
Whatever the cause, first month sales of Excel for Beginners were 24 copies. Second month, 47 copies. Third month, 69. Fourth, 122. And so on.
Sales eventually hit their level. They can’t double each month forever.
End result, between September 2017 and August 2018 I had a four-fold increase in sales and an eight-fold increase in profit, largely driven by those Excel titles.
And they’ve held relatively steady for me ever since. I have to work harder for those sales now than I did in 2018, but they’re still there.
All because I had a niche little area of expertise and was annoyed enough that other people didn’t know about it to write a book. And because I luckily ended up in the process writing a book that was more universally accessible than the subject that originally started me down that road.
Other than that bundle, Excel for Self-Publishers, the title that I originally set out to write, only ever sold 50 copies. And it’s now only available on Payhip because so much has changed with the data that’s now available to self-publishers that you don’t need to jump through so many hoops so I unpublished it from the major stores.
(I leave it on Payhip because it has how to calculate an average customer value and series sellthrough which are still useful. But I replaced it with Data Analysis for Self-Publishers which talks about the thoughts behind those kinds of calculations but doesn’t do the step-by-step thing that the original book did.)
It would have never occurred to me to write a beginner-level book on Excel otherwise.
But I did. And I’m happy I did. Because 1,000 reviews on Amazon later, that little title still chugs along and hangs out in the top 100 for its category most days.
Now, would I have the same result if I did that today?
AMS has changed drastically since then, so those ads would not work near as well for who I was then if I published that same title today.
Also, because I mentioned having success with my Excel books a lot of others jumped in there, too, starting sometime in 2018. So there are far more titles competing in that space now than there were when I first started out with those books.
When I first published them the trade publishers weren’t even using AMS to advertise their books. Now they are.
And there was only maybe one or two self-publishers in the space. So a $12.95 paperback stood out as a good, affordable alternative to the $40+ versions from the trade publishers.
Now…Not so much.
So the lesson to take is not, “write a book about Excel for beginners.” The lesson is, “find a personal pain point where you can share knowledge”, “find your own angle on that pain point that no one else has covered yet”, and then “try to leverage off of that to find something more universal or broadly applicable.” It may just work.
And, please, if you have access to Excel and don’t know how to use pivot tables and you work with data that needs to be summed up, go download one of the two pivot tables books and learn it. Please. For my sanity.
I think I finally ran into the IngramSpark/Amazon publishing order conflict today.
I’ve always published my paperbacks to Amazon first because I like to use their previewer to walk through my book and look at my cover. I find it far easier to use than the PDF preview that IS provides.
So I usually go there and publish and then go straight to IngramSpark and publish. Same day for both. And I’ve never had an issue doing it that way.
But today I was going to publish a book on IngramSpark that I’d previously published on Amazon and hadn’t signed up for expanded distribution. (At least it isn’t now and I don’t remember doing so before.)
And…it wouldn’t let me. Said the ISBN was already in use. I assume because enough time had passed between when I published on Amazon (in April) and now. So that error so many people had run into that I hadn’t when publishing over 100 books, I now have run into.
(But just realized I didn’t run into that issue with three other books earlier this month so maybe this was a D2D/IS conflict for a title I started and never finished when I thought I was going to start using them…)
Now I get to decide whether to request management of the ISBN or just use another ISBN for the IS version or just not do anything at all because it’s not that big a seller for me.
At least I finally can use my codes on IS again. It’s quite possible I was able to do so back in May which would have been my anniversary date with IS but I didn’t bother trying until today because I was kind of fed up with them.
Which actually worked out well, because I decided to redo the Budgeting for Beginners covers yet again. I redid them in April, but decided this week I didn’t like them so changed them up again.
Sometimes I do something and think “Yep, that did it” and sometimes I do something and think it’ll work and then come back to it a month or two later and go, “Hmmm…No, not there yet” and have to try again. It is what it is.
I often wonder if all the failing in public that comes with self-pub is healthy for me or not. It should be humbling, which would probably be a good thing, and yet somehow I still manage to be an arrogant little shit most of the time despite it.
But it does at least keep me from thinking I’ve got this all figured out which keeps me engaged enough to keep going, so there’s that.
Although I’m not entirely sure carrying around a little voice in your head that tells you that internet strangers are going to think X or Y about you is necessarily a healthy thing even if you do ignore it most of the time.
(Then again, I get that with my mom anyway. The caustic things she said about Anne Heche and that car accident – geez. Seriously.)
Interestingly enough I decided to retake the CliftonStrengths test recently and my Empathy had moved from mid-teens to top 10 and I wonder if part of that isn’t just the bruising you take being out in public.
I mean I’ve always been pretty good at being sympathetic because I’m a Strategic-Relator-Learner so when I interact with people I’m trying to deepen that connection and adjusting my understanding of them on the fly the more they share with me. The better I understand someone, the better the interaction.
But I always figured I was like, “Nope, you’re emotions stop with you, buddy. I’m not carrying that. I got enough of my own.”
Maybe it’s just ongoing cultural crisis impacting how I viewed those questions. Whatever the cause, it was interesting to see.
Also, I’m currently reading an excellent book for writers, The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. (That’s an affiliate link, btw, in case anyone was planning to buy a boat or something through Amazon. Can you even do that? I don’t know. Probably. If so and you’re going to, why not use the link.)
The book’s not about writing craft so much as writing personalities from someone who worked with a large number of writers over their career as both an editor and agent. I will say I think she skews to the literary side of things with her experience and examples, but still a good read. I’ve done lots of underlining.
One of the things she touches on in there is that balance between ego and insecurity that seems to be part of so many authors. (Me included.)
And it’s funny because this week I was thinking about the fact that there are maybe a dozen people who read this blog. But then sometimes I’ll say something on here and see what it seems might be echos of what I said here and wonder if maybe that number is higher than I think it is.
I mean I know I certainly don’t subscribe to the blogs I read. And I’m pretty sure my subscriber number doesn’t include people who’ve signed up for an RSS feed or whatever that is. So, maybe?
But then I think that’s just ego talking and how those echos are more likely part of the ongoing mass conversation that’s always happening where it turns out a good dozen people have the same “original” idea at the same time because all of the material for that idea was out there in the mass consciousness and those dozen people picked up on it in the same way around the same time.
Like, for example, I made a point here about something a couple weeks ago and then one of the hated ones on Twitter made a similar point around the same time. We don’t know each other, but we both said similar things at a similar time. And so if people who live to hate that person subtweeted their point and I hadn’t seen their post, it would be easy to wonder if somehow I was the one being subtweeted not them.
But likely not.
We all want to think we’re the star of the story, but we’re usually in the audience, not even in the supporting cast.
Just in case, though. For anyone who hasn’t figure this out, I’m just another rando on the internet spouting crap that’s probably 60% outright useful, 30% interesting enough to use to refine your own viewpoint, and 10% absolute misinformation or misunderstanding or only applicable to me.
And with that said…I think it’s time to start uploading some audio files for approval so people can hear me being very authoritative and opinionated on obscure business topics. Good times!
A few things that have crossed my timeline recently that I figured were worth mentioning.
For anyone looking towards trade pub and bookstore placement, I think this was a really good summary of the current state of affairs with Barnes & Noble.
I hadn’t realized they’d gotten rid of their co-op placement and that’s actually a really nice thing that means I may drop by my local B&N just to see what they have in there. I used to love walking through bookstores to browse the shelves and find something new to me, but recently the books that were getting a lot of attention in my genres were ones I didn’t want to read.
Which also reminds me that one of the drawbacks of becoming a writer is sometimes you get to know other writers and then you can’t remove that impression of them from your judgement of their books.
There was a recent big release by someone who annoyed the hell out of me at a conference by talking through all of the presentations, being generally arrogant, and flipping their hair around way too much and it means I won’t check out their book even though it might’ve been something I would’ve enjoyed.
(On the flip side, you meet a ton of great writers you would’ve never known otherwise and get to check out books that may not have even been on your radar, so it cuts both ways.)
Getting back to that Barnes & Noble thread.
I think something that wasn’t strongly highlighted in that thread and maybe because trade does work differently since books will literally go out of print, is that since B&N focuses so much on backlist sales that means there’s a chance for a book to get shelf space later if it follows the slow build, steady sales over years path.
(And honestly I’d rather not be on their shelves for a year and then be there for ten than be there for a month and never be carried by them again. Of course, trade pub doesn’t actually reward that pattern, but still.)
Anyway. There are a ton of options out there that come along later and maybe aren’t immediately available at release.
Bookbub, for example, rarely if ever (at least last time I checked) takes new releases in its promo emails. They want to see a nice track record of reviews first.
My first BB deal I think the book had been out for two years at that point?
So that midlist title that isn’t stocked at Barnes & Noble, eh, who cares? I mean, yeah, you care because you want to walk into that store and see YOUR book on the shelf.
But if you can create buzz elsewhere those people will order from Amazon or through the Barnes & Noble website or through any of a number of other places.
You do miss a random discoverability sale (which for kids’ books may matter more, since my mom would take us to the bookstore to pick out a book once a week when I was eight), but if people want that book they can still get it.
And if you get those steady sales so that you stay in print and people are continuously asking for your books, eventually maybe you do become one of those backlist titles they stock.
That does come back though to the need for authors to promote themselves somehow. There are so many ways to do that, but most take a lot of time and effort.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have a Twitter account but I do go there and read tweets by about a dozen different authors most mornings.
And you know what? The people I read are people who tweet every single day. Multiple times a day.
They aren’t necessarily the people saying the most interesting things, or the people I would like the most if we met IRL, but they’re the people who are there and delivering content when I’m bored and want something new to see.
Tweeting multiple times a day though is a lot of time sunk into one website that you have no control over.
Because the people I follow don’t just schedule tweets and go about their day. These are people seeing things while they’re on there reading other people’s tweets and sharing and reacting.
I wouldn’t be surprised if each of the people I follow is on there at least an hour a day. Probably more.
That may be fine for them because it’s where they hang out with other writer friends so it’s like lunch break. But don’t think that isn’t time spent. And that it isn’t something you have to dedicate yourself to for weeks or months or years to even get to the point of being visible enough that others share you and help you build an audience.
And at the end of the day…I’m not sure how many new readers it brings in.
I have a friend who killed it with social media. And who gets paid a nice little sum for some of the things they do as a result of building that audience.
But…That didn’t guarantee success when their books came out.
I do think it helped them get a few of their trade publishing contracts. It definitely helped with their first. And may be a factor in being kept on with their current publisher because they’re also very good at promoting other authors.
But social media followers don’t necessarily become dedicated readers.
Eventually I buy at least one book from someone I follow on social media. But I’m trying to think of one of those authors who I then became a regular reader-fan of. And I can’t. I bought that one book. Maybe two. And…that was it.
Because social media is different from novels. And just because someone likes a tweet you sent doesn’t mean they’ll like how you told a 90,000-word story.
Ironically for me most of my favorite authors suck at social media. They either have a snarly out-dated Q&A about the books arriving when they’ll arrive or they have a blog that gets updated maybe five times a year with things I don’t care about or…Yeah, they’re not savvy media types.
So building up a social media following that’s not based on people who are fans of your books is likely not going to drive significant sales of those books.
It might raise the tide enough, though, to get to the people who really would be your readers…But those numbers need to be large enough for that to work.
One of the early self-pub success stories was someone who kept leaving out the part of their story where they released three books almost immediately and then had a Bookbub on the first title for free that moved 40,000 copies at a time when people actually read the freebies they downloaded.
I think if any of us had 25,000 people read one of our books and were a competent storyteller we’d find our way to that core audience of 1,000 that you need to build from. Especially if it happened in a very short period of time when Amazon’s algorithms could see and react as those people bought books 2 and 3.
But for most it’s a much slower grind so there is no algo-love.
I still think of the excellent presentation Courtney Milan gave years ago about being that little paper airplane and trying to get the lift to get it up that initial cliff of discoverability.
And sometimes it seems to me that social media followings are a side quest. You climb a mountain and it is an accomplishment, but it’s not necessarily one that will help you climb the cliff of steady book sales.
Anyway. With that bad analogy, I am done for the day. I have some audio to process and then some groceries to pick up so pup and I can go have lunch with family.
I mentioned the other day that this had come up during the DOJ trial related to the PRH/S&S merger. This idea that a publisher invests in 10 debut authors, maybe two do really well, two or three completely bomb, and the other five or six do alright but not amazing.
This is the approach VCs use to investing as well. (At least that’s what I was told during our MBA program by some VCs that came to talk to us.) They hope for the home run, but they know that only a small percentage of their investments are going to be home runs and that they’ll lose or be disappointed or meh about the others.
Well, it occurred to me this morning that this can also apply to self-publishing, too. And maybe this is more an example of the 80/20 rule in effect. (Where 80% of performance comes from 20% of the pool, in this case, of authors.)
Let me walk you through it.
About five years ago I joined a group of authors that occasionally touch base with one another and share information or commiserate or cheer one another on.
At the time we all wrote in a common genre or at least had written in that genre. And we all had a baseline level of sales. (It was a low baseline IMO but still I barely managed to qualify at the time.)
The idea behind the original group was that we had all done well enough with self-publishing that we took it seriously and had seen some traction with our writing and that we could benefit from sharing our experiences.
The group did not turn out to be what the founder wanted it to be, but a core group of about six of us hung in there. We now write in very different genres, but we’re still there to lend support and commiserate and just touch base.
Our little core group that’s left sort of follows this same VC pattern.
Two of the members are killing it in KU in two completely different genres. One has had a history of success but is at a pivot point. One went through one of those phases where you can’t seem to write anything new but really wants to get back to it and is maybe starting to do so after a couple years of struggle. One got frustrated enough with the whole thing that they’ve focused in on their day job for now with maybe the occasional promo or work on a new book. And then there’s me who is doing okay enough to be full-time for now but not killing it.
I think our group is pretty typical for what you’d see if you took a cohort of say ten serious about it self-publishers and tracked them for five years. Some would start high or go up and stay there. Some would find their way up but not be able to sustain it. Some would putz along in the middle never going up but never dropping to nothing. Some would never quite get off the ground. And some would leave for other opportunities no matter where they were performance-wise.
And what’s really challenging is finding a way to keep going when you’re one of the 8 out of 10 that aren’t at the top.
We have this myth in self-pub that if you just work hard enough or smart enough that you can be that 2 out of 10. Anyone can do it, right? I had someone say that in another group I’m in just the other day. That anyone can be a six-figure author if they just write a well-targeted, well-branded six-book series.
Oh, right. Okay, let me just go knock that out. Be right back in…two years? When the market has shifted again and now it’s ten books I need in a series to be a six-figure author. And maybe my series is no longer well-targeted. Oh, and somewhere in there I need to either figure out what “well-branded” means or somehow find someone who knows that even though it’s hard to judge someone’s credibility when you don’t know something yourself.
Sure. Okay. Let me get right on that.
And, to be clear, that person probably wasn’t wrong. An author who can write a well-branded six-book series in six months and get it out there has a good shot at building an audience.
But most authors can’t do that.
Some absolutely can. One of the two members of my group who is killing it in KU puts out a well-written full-length novel every six weeks or so. It can be done and is done. Just not by most authors.
And not by most new authors. That friend of mine has published something like 80 novels at this point under various pen names.
So, knowing this, what do you do? If you’re one of those authors who isn’t at the top, what does knowing this do you? (Other than make you want to cry.)
It very much depends on you and what matters to you and what you want.
If you must be at the top, you must win, you either floor it and give it everything you’ve got or you go and find something that’s easier to win at. There are absolutely corporate careers where if you put your head down and do the work for a decade you will move up and be making a very good salary.
But what if you don’t have to be the winner, you just want to keep going?
For me, I have to repeatedly accept that I personally don’t want to give what it takes to be at the top (and might not even be able to if I tried) and that while some will see me as a failure because of that, that I’m getting what I need out of this and that’s what counts.
Every single time I look at a friend’s life and think, “Oh no, I would not want that life” I have to remind myself that the only person allowed to judge someone’s life is that person. They are the one who has to get up every morning and live their life and if they’re happy in that choice then it’s no business of mine that I wouldn’t want to live like them.
I also turn that around and I remind myself that I am the one that has to live my life for the next 24 hours, 7 days, 52 weeks, however many years. And it doesn’t matter what others think of the path I’ve taken, it matters how I feel about the path I’ve taken.
It’s not easy to shut out those outside voices and judgements. Society exists to make us conform to a set of standards that benefit the whole over the individual and we are wired to hear those messages.
But it’s essential to do that if you’re going to walk a path that isn’t the norm. Especially if you could walk a path that’s the norm and you’ve just chosen not to.
Anyway. Just some more random writing thoughts. I’m off to record more audio. I think I finally have things dialed in on the non-fiction side at least so will be getting two of those books out in audio soon. They’ll probably sell five copies, but you never know. And I get to learn something new while doing it, which is the part I enjoy the most. So…Onward.
I was refreshing a bunch of my AMS ads yesterday and noticed that I’d hit the $100K in ad spend milestone.
Now, a few things first. That sales number looks more impressive than it is because that’s retail price not what I receive. Also, though, that number doesn’t include all the KU page reads I had on my books before AMS started reporting KENP on the dashboard, so my direct results from AMS ads are better than this.
Also, while that number I’ve spent can seem big–and given to someone in one lump sum it would be–my total AMS ad spend is much lower than the big hitters spend. There are authors out there who probably spend $50K or more per month on AMS.
So, as with most of what I write on this blog, my target audience is those trying to get a foothold not those who already have one. So the folks spending $50K on AMS per month, I’ve got nothing for you. Same with the so amazingly wonderful writers whose books just sell without effort.
Back in the day when we still got a physical paper everyday there was a cartoon called Pluggers. That’s who this is for. The ones sort of trudging along making progress even though it seems like they’re stuck in the mud half the time.
So…Let’s see what we can learn from my experience with AMS ads. First some context.
I was lucky to run my first AMS ads back in May 2016 before they really caught on. There was a glorious period of time when all the heavy-hitters on Kboards who’d beta’ed the ads were talking about how horrible they were and I started running some ads and…they worked for me.
The beauty of not having a lot of competition. Clicks were cheap then! Ah, it was a beautiful time.
But then people started sharing their success stories. And a few really big ad courses came out on how to use AMS. And things started to shift.
At one point I had a book out on using AMS ads, that I updated once, but I pulled those books because it seemed like every time I published one of those books the good folks at Amazon would completely change the interface or the available options or remove an ad type or add an ad type and the book would become obsolete.
Since I pulled that second book they’ve added columns for orders and KENP and top of impression share and I think moved how you access half the options.
And, thank god, they also added the ability to see information for just a select time period. (To see some of the fun hoops I used to have to jump through to use AMS, you could always check out another title I pulled, Excel for Self-Publishers. Half of the items I covered in that book were workarounds for things AMS didn’t have at the time but now does, like a way to guesstimate your KENP you were getting from your ads.)
So things have changed. And that number you see in ad spend happened over a period of six years.
Which I think is the first lesson here.
DO NOT THROW A BUNCH OF MONEY AT THE WALL
I did not start out spending large amounts of money on AMS ads. In 2016 I spent a grand total of $1,143 on AMS ads.
I don’t know how to describe this, but it’s true for the titles you publish as well as advertising spend. Some just show more signs of life.
I still remember when I published my first billionaire romance short story. Copies sold before I even knew it was live. (Note, this was also back in the days of less competition when that could happen.)
I hadn’t had that happen before. That was a sign of life. It meant, lean into this. There’s promise here. (I didn’t but that’s another story. I seem to learn the hard way.)
So with AMS, every book I publish I try to run some AMS ads on. Some of those books, the ads just don’t work. I publish a weird variety of titles, some of which probably have an audience of one, me. But I give them a shot with an AMS ad just to see.
And then, if I’m seeing clicks and sales, I keep it going. I cut what didn’t work and boost what did and try to refine that ad into something that can run long-term.
So, for example, my books on Affinity Publisher, I tried targeting some self-publishing keywords, but they really didn’t work so I trimmed those out. But there were some others that did, so I kept those and have an ad or two running for a couple of the Affinity Publisher books that deliver low-level sales results.
Full disclosure here before I say this next book, I have not taken any of the other AMS ad classes or read any of the other AMS books. There was a little too much snake oil feel to things at one point so I avoid it all.
But occasionally someone will mention here or there the advice they’ve been given on AMS ads from one of those courses or books. And sometimes the advice is that you have to be willing to lose $500 bucks to master AMS. And maybe that works. But no way in hell I’m flushing $500 on ads that aren’t working. Which brings us to our next point.
AMS ads are not necessarily the best choice of ad for a book. The more in the center of a genre a book is the more I think the list-based ad options are a better choice. Things like Freebooksy or Bookbub.
But for a full-price, cold audience looking for X book on any given day, AMS ads can be great. That means someone who comes to Amazon looking for a book on X, with no intention to buy my particular book.
You want to learn Excel and not bog down in a bunch of bullshit about the history of the program and every little thing you’ll never use? I gotcha covered. Since 2017 I have been able to successfully run AMS ads on that book at full price because it meets that need of people who come to Amazon looking for an Excel book.
But some of my fiction? Not so much.
I don’t write to the center of genres. My romances are on the edge of being women’s fiction. My cozy mysteries are probably small town family sagas that happen to involve murder. My YA fantasy has a romance subplot that doesn’t appeal to fantasy romance readers. My fiction is a harder sell.
It’s part of the challenge of learning to be a writer to figure out how to hit the bullseye of a genre, and fourteen published novels in, I know it conceptually but can’t do it yet.
So it’s harder to advertise my fiction.
Early on when there wasn’t a lot of competition I could take 25 clicks to sell a book and still make a profit. Nowadays with bids where they are I need to be at 10 or even less, depending on the title and genre.
Also, in my experience, based on how I run AMS ads, the ads only run well on full-priced books. I have tried to run them on freebies or cheap books or while I was doing a promo and the ads just slowed to a crawl.
Other techniques for running the ads may have different results, but for me it has to be full-price and something that will appeal to a cold audience.
WHAT THE COMPETITION IS DOING MATTERS
When you run AMS ads (or FB ads or Bookbub click ads) you are in a blind auction against an unknown number of other participants employing unknown bidding strategies.
How they choose to set up their AMS ads is going to impact how yours perform.
What they bid, what keywords they use, how successful their books already are, how new their books are, and how new their ads are will all impact whether you win that ad slot or they do.
The more sophisticated the competition becomes about using AMS ads the more challenging they become to run profitably.
Back in the day an author mentioned how they’d bid $9 for some keywords during a launch period because that put them at the top of ad placement, but that they didn’t actually have to spend that because no one else was bidding that at the time.
Well, others thought that was a good idea and started doing the same. And when you have multiple authors using that strategy, suddenly everyone is paying really high click costs.
So in a certain sense AMS ads are not set it and forget it ads. You do have to tend them and keep an eye out for changes and then figure out how to adjust.
DON’T GET PULLED OUT OF POSITION
Which brings up another issue. It’s very easy to react to every little change. A keyword goes from performing well one day to having 20 clicks and no sales the next and it’s tempting to turn that keyword off.
But the problem is doing so can sometimes pull you out of position. In my little Excel niche this is often driven by fake clicks on the ads. And if I turn off that keyword that day whoever is behind that gets the real clicks on that keyword and those sales for as long as everyone else is away from that keyword. If it was a good one that can be a big part of your ad performance.
Same with when someone comes through with really high bids. If you try to match them and continue to dominate the space, they’ve pulled you out of a profitable little pocket.
Which is why I do monitor my ads but I try to not be too drastic about the things I do with them. Because I want to react to long-term changes in the ad landscape, but not be jerked around by every little hiccup.
(I should not here, though, that when you’ve established ads it’s much easier to hold that line than when you’re learning and trying to figure out what really does work and what really doesn’t.)
SLOW AND STEADY
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I am fairly productive (not massively productive, but I get 300K words published a year or something like that), but I am also not driven to be at the top.
I write because I like to hang out with my dog and avoid office politics. As long as I think I can do that for another six months, I’m good.
So I do want to make a profit so I can keep going, but I don’t have to “win”.
Which means I do not spend a lot of time narrowing in and optimizing my ads. Nor do I adopt some of the strategies that probably are more successful but take more time and effort. That seems an exhausting way to live for me.
So I try to have ads that I set and forget. My biggest AMS ad at the moment is closing in on $30K in sales. My two second biggest have hit $25K in sales.
I know that there are others who run AMS ads who do the exact opposite. They wake up every day and they started a hundred new ads and burn through them like wildfire. Which works for them. And they probably make more from that strategy than I do from mine.
But I like my way because I get to set up one ad that runs for three years with some careful tending. So there is room with AMS ads to take the slow, steady, distracted approach and still make some profit. Not as big a profit probably as the optimizers, but enough of one.
Which I guess brings me to the second-to-last point. I would never have spent the amount of money I have on ads if they didn’t make me a profit. If they didn’t return more than I put out there immediately.
Self-publishing is a weird space because there are very vocal people in this industry who will make you feel like shit if you have to advertise your books to sell them.
They’ll either imply that your books aren’t good enough if you have to advertise (even though they write to a very hungry market segment and you don’t so the sales dynamics are completely different).
Or they’ll imply that you’re not a real writer or your some sort of impatient sellout if you aren’t willing to write nine books before you even think of advertising. (Actually I think I saw someone say 20 the other day and I laughed and laughed and laughed and then went and checked my AMS ads.)
That second one strikes me as the self-pub equivalent of “you should spend ten years querying agents if you want to get published” or “you shouldn’t write a novel until you have a dozen pro short story sales” that trade pub sometimes throws out there.
I would not be writing right now if I hadn’t started advertising my books, because they will not sell on their own. If I didn’t advertise the Excel books, people would happily buy Excel for Dummies and get on with their lives. If I didn’t advertise my fiction there are plenty of fiction titles out there that they would buy instead.
I am my publisher. And as a publisher I have an obligation to get my work in front of potential readers. Advertising is a very good way to do that on a daily basis. Sure, this website gives people links to my books, but they’re not just gonna stumble across it. Something has to pull people here.
Putting a book up and then thinking the world will find it is a good way to be disappointed. And being disappointed is a good way to quit something you might have actually been good at.
BUT ADVERTISING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK
I currently have a list of sixteen titles that I wrote down where I’d run AMS ads on them at some point this year, but the ads just weren’t doing well enough and I turned them off.
I have another ten that I wrote down where the ad was okay-ish, but I wanted to redo the ad because I thought it could be better and I didn’t think tweaking the existing ad was going to cut it.
(This in addition to the twenty ads I do have running right now that I think are doing alright.)
The reality is that sometimes advertising doesn’t work for a book. Maybe it’s the cover or the blurb or something else that can be redone to make it hit better. But sometimes…a book just isn’t going to appeal. Maybe forever, maybe just right now.
And that’s tough. It sucks.
But if you write enough books you will find that some do better than others and it’s not a matter of packaging or of getting the right description, it’s just that some books don’t appeal as much as others do.
Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of having enough books for those ads to work. On the fiction side I tend to lose money on book one, make it all up with sales of book two, and then have profit from book three onward.
Well, if all you have is book one…that’s not gonna work.
Or if people don’t read through to book two or three, that’s not gonna work.
So sometimes it is a matter of getting better at your craft. Or of writing enough books to make the ads profitable.
With AMS, even though I know that pattern exists for my fiction, I still tend to want an individual book to be profitable when I advertise it. I want that ACOS number to be under 55%. But sometimes that does not happen. And I have to let go, for now, of that book.
Look, people write for all kinds of reasons. For the love, for the exploration, etc.
But sometimes they write for the money. And if you’re writing for the money, you have to let go of the ones that don’t work. Learn what you can from that experience and move on to the next.
IT ALL CHANGES
One final thought.
I’ve been writing towards publication for a little over a decade and self-publishing for about nine years at this point.
What I can say with certainty is that things will be significantly different in another ten years. I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certain they will be. Maybe that change will happen at the industry level, maybe it will happen at the national level, maybe it will be international. But overall there will be significant change.
Over the last ten years self-pub has significantly evolved. What worked for people in 2013 when I was putzing around not doing anything I should have been is not what works for people who start today.
(Heck, KU didn’t exist when I got started and that was a game-changer. If Amazon opens KU up to all authors or splits out pop lists by KU versus other or does any of a number of other things they may be forced to do to not be considered anti-competitive, that’ll be significant for many authors.)
So knowing that, I will say that the single most important skill you need to develop as a self-published author is the ability to see that things have changed and to adjust.
I can sit down with someone today and walk through the mechanics of using AMS and tell them how I approach the ads. And that may benefit them for the next year.
But if that person can’t take the higher-level principles and let got of the details, they’re going to get stuck at some point trying to rely on what used to work.
So my best advice with AMS and self-pub is to stay flexible. Build up slowly and steadily. Don’t flush money away but do take some risks to see what’s possible. Accept failure. Follow-up on success. And adapt as needed.
(Oh, and if you want to see all the books I’ve written about writing and self-publishing they’re all on this page. I tend to write them for myself to cement my knowledge, but I do think they have some valuable discussion, too. And what kind of self-publisher would I be if I didn’t at least mention that they exist?)
First, let me get this out there right away, I think that doing your own audio (even though I am going to) is a huge time suck and waste of effort for most authors. You’d be far better off writing the next book.
But, there is something I have learned about myself through this whole self-publishing journey and that’s that I like to learn new things. If I ever get this to the point where I’ve learned everything and it’s just a matter of rinse and repeat, that will probably be the day I walk away.
Because I can tell myself stories in my head. I do it all the time. I have like five partial novels that rotate in my head these days with little bits getting added to them all the time. I don’t have to write to create those stories.
So, for me, I do this because it’s a challenge and I get to learn new things. And this year the new thing I’ve decided to learn is audio.
Now, I’ve dabbled in audio before. Back in 2013 I asked about it on Kboards and got some advice and bought a Blue Yeti microphone and set up my walk-in closet and recorded part of a short story. (And then got distracted by a six-month consulting project and didn’t come back to it for a year.)
That first recording? Too fast. Way too fast. I listened to it again after I’d hired about five narrators to do various projects for me and, yeah, it was…bad. Just too fast.
After that I did some video courses for Excel. And then a couple years after that I did some video courses for Affinity. And then I did a couple of my really short short stories as an audiobook.
And…Let’s just say I was still learning. There were mistakes made.
I can listen to those files on my computer speakers and be like, “Oh, that’s fine. It works well enough.” But put on fancy headphones and…mmm, things could be improved.
(And likely will once I iron out all the details on processing audio files which I’m about 80% on at this point. I can reprocess the audio files with what I know now and regenerate and upload the files. Of course, with video files they take the same amount of time to reprocess as they are long. So that’s 20+ hours of just reprocessing time? Not including the editing part? And most people don’t have fancy headphones to notice the issues? So it will probably happen, but not immediately.)
Anyway. What have I learned that I can pass on to someone foolish like me? (Note, some of the links below are affiliate links to Amazon but you can find these elsewhere. For example, I was going to buy on Sweetwater but they were out of one of the microphones I wanted and I have no patience.)
1. Buy some good over-the-ear headphones so you can really hear things. I bought AKG Acoustics k240 studio headphones and wow, what a difference those made in what I could hear. And they weren’t too spendy either.
But if you are going to do that, watch out for sinus issues. For me those headphones hit right at the jaw joint on my left ear and after a couple days of heavy use I needed an extra hot shower and some decongestant because it messed my ear up.
2. Recording environment is king. You can do a lot after the fact, but getting a clean space to record in up front will help so much. My videos and those short stories were recorded in an untreated space and I can hear that echo with the good headphones.
3. How you prep and enunciate and speak is also very important. Again, I found some solutions that can handle “mouth noise” and “clicks”, but not making them in the first place is even better. I still need to work on tricks in that area, like eating slices of tart green apples or chewing gum or a dash of apple cider vinegar in some water. But, yeah, the cleaner you can record the less time it’ll take to have a good finished file.
4. There are eight million ways to process a file after the fact. I dove deep on how to handle sibilance over the weekend and found a good half-dozen options for how to handle it. And I think I know four different ways to handle background noise at this point. The exact combination to use is probably a very personal one based on what software, microphone, and type of voice and recording issues someone has.
5. It’s time-consuming. I recorded one short story (about 5K words) yesterday. It took 45 minutes to record. It was 30 minutes after I edited out repeats and pauses and things like that. With all of the processing, editing, listen-back it was 3 hours to create that half hour.
With better recording technique and more faith in the final product (so that I didn’t do a full listen-back at the beginning and the end) I could probably drop that down at least an hour, but I won’t be there anytime soon.
6. In terms of processing the file. My first time I listened through to a file I wanted to clip out every little noise I heard, but that is going to waste a lot of time. Go through the file, clip out any of the big stuff you don’t want in the final, like long pauses to yell at your dog (or is that just me) or repeated takes on a specific line. Don’t try to fix every little noise. Run your effects/processing on the file next. And then, if you still have some issues, fix them then. But that processing, especially like de-clicking the file, will really help with a lot of that.
7. Fiction is obviously harder than non-fiction because of the number of voices involved and the emotion required. My non-fiction does have some personality to it, but it’s a whole different level when you’re trying to have a three-way conversation and make each character sound unique enough to be distinguishable.
8. Each person who does audio or voice over is going to have a certain sweet spot where they do better. I am not an announcer voice. I also don’t have some deep, rich voice that charms and soothes. That is simply not me.
So sometimes even if you can narrate something yourself, you may not be the best choice for it.
Right now I’m working on this because I have a nine-book series where the voice is first-person and the main character is very much like me, so I can get away with narrating that.
And if I get everything dialed in it will cost me my time instead of the $10K plus it would cost to pay for a narrator on that series.
My hope is that I’ll get this to the point where I can do it for commercials or that sort of thing. But if I get there it won’t be “I can do all audio”. It will be “I can do your middle-aged neighbor who recommends that you try this product.”
9. Finally, not a tip so much as an observation: I know when I’m writing fiction that there is emotion on the page, but it amazes me how much of that emotion surfaces when I’m reading something I wrote as a narrator instead of in my head.
Narration adds a level of nuance to my stories that floors me every single time I read a new fiction piece I wrote. It takes those stories up a level and really fleshes things out. It’s almost worth it for just that experience alone. (Almost.)
So, yeah. I’m sure I’ll come up with more later. But that’s a start.
Right now as I write this I decided that using a Scarlett Solo interface and Audio-Technica AT875R microphone worked best for my set-up. I tried a Rode NT1 and I couldn’t get a low enough noise floor with my current arrangement which involves a folding table, a closet, some creative use of curtain rods, and heavy moving blankets. I also had a Heil boom arm to mount the microphone on.
I did consider a WhisperRoom but decided against it because it was too permanent a set-up for my current space. (And is far more costly, too. Not something to be done lightly.)
I may circle back to the Rode at some point and see if I can’t handle the noise issue with processing. It’s supposed to be a richer sound. But then I’ll have to deal more with plosives if I go that route, too.
Also, I started out in Audacity but right now I’m trialing Reaper and think I’ll go with it and some additional plug-ins, some of which are free, some of which aren’t. Not sure I need the plug-ins if I were better versed in Reaper (for example, I could use ReaFir for noise suppression), but for now I think the plug-ins work better for me.
We’ll see where I am on this in six months. Should be interesting for me if nothing else. (Although I so need to write the next fantasy novel! And some non-fiction that’s on deck! But hey, if I’m not enjoying my days, what’s the point, right? Sure, that’s the story…)