I Beg to Differ

One of the challenges of self-publishing is that it’s so broad and so different that it’s almost impossible to see the whole picture and the different possibilities. Which is why I really hate absolutist advice.

I’m probably guilty of it myself from time-to-time, but I try to caveat what I say with “this is my experience” or “this is how things work for me.” And because I have books published across non-fiction, romance, and fantasy I can see that things work differently depending on what you’re publishing, which maybe helps me keep things in check a bit more.

Perhaps.

Anyway. I was at a conference this weekend and there were a few times I wanted to raise my hand and say, “I beg to differ.” I didn’t. I probably made a funny face, though.

So since this my blog, let me have those imaginary arguments here.

Debatable Point #1: You won’t really sell paperback copies as an indie.

I beg to differ. Last month I made over $1,000 on the sale of paperback books. It was almost as much as I made on Amazon US for the month. Now, is that normal? No. Absolutely not. My romance paperback sales are still under twenty copies sold ever.

But for non-fiction (in my case) and middle grade and folks who really work the convention circuit but aren’t good at online sales and for picture books and gift books, it’s quite possible to sell a good amount of paperbacks.

I even want to say I saw a romance writer on Twitter who posted a screencap that showed $30,000+ in paperback sales. (I have no idea what she sells in ebooks to have that number, but I do know my jaw hit the ground.)

So what I would say is: You are more likely to sell ebooks than paperbacks as an indie. In general. But there are definitely categories where print will sell better. And the more you sell overall, the more paperback sales you will have and that amount can add up to a pretty penny. So don’t neglect print. And don’t assume print sales aren’t possible or profitable.

Debatable Point #2: AMS Are Too Complicated and You Shouldn’t Use Them Unless You’re an Analysis Junkie

Once more, I beg to differ. Yes, you can get very analytical with them. In Excel for Self-Publishers I get obscenely analytical with them. But you don’t have to. Most days all I do with my AMS ads is check in a couple times a day to see if any have exceeded their daily budget and up the budget if they have. (I like to start all ads at $5 in spend each morning.)

When I started my last AMS ad for a new title this is what I did: It was non-fiction so I did a search on Amazon for the subject matter and listed the names of the top fifty or so books that came back in my search results plus a bunch of generic search words like the one I’d used. And then I occasionally checked in on the ad. If it wasn’t moving, I upped my bids. If it was and I was getting sales, I upped the bids for those words that were profitable, and pulled back for those that weren’t. I paused keywords with lots of impressions but no clicks and lots of clicks but no purchases.

That’s it. There you go. That’s what you do.

For fiction I would’ve used author names instead of book titles. Otherwise, it’s the same process.

Can you get a lot more in depth with your analysis? Absolutely. And I have. But 90% of the time, what I just described is all it takes. I have 20+ ads running on a daily basis and I maybe spend five minutes on them daily.

(Keep in mind, my approach to AMS is to use a single Sponsored Product ad per title that I try to keep running long-term by tweaking the ad as needed. Other approaches may be more analysis intensive.)

Debatable Point #3: You Should Only Run AMS If You Have Ten or More Books or At Least a Trilogy Completed.

I beg to differ. Look, I get the point. The more books you have for readers to go to, the better off you are and the more profitable an ad will be. A weaker first book can still result in a profitable ad if you have ten books for readers to go to afterwards. And maybe there’s an idea behind this advice that you shouldn’t be wasting your time early on with ads but should instead be building up a product base.

Fair enough. But here’s the deal: Self-publishing can be soul-destroying. You put out a book that you think is well-written. It has a nice cover. People who read it like it. But no one is buying it. Maybe three people a month. You just worked hundreds of hours on something and you think it’s good, but…sales say otherwise.

Do you know how easy it is to give up at that point? To never write that trilogy? To circle back and try to fix your “mistakes” or decide that writing is just going to have to be a hobby for you?

It’s so, so easy. I know a guy who put out a book about four years ago and set it to free because no one seemed to want it. He quit writing because why bother? And then he started running AMS ads on it. And got reviews. And switched it back to paid. And made $25,000 in less than a year on that same novel that no one had bought. Because the issue wasn’t his writing. It was visibility. People can’t read what they can’t find.

So, sure. Best practice is to wait until the last possible moment to advertise because you’ll get that much more of a bang for your buck. But in reality, sometimes those initial sales are what keep you going. And AMS is the best way I know to get long-term full-price sales. So why not try them?

And this idea of needing ten-plus books before you dive into them? Why? Because of the learning curve? It’s not that hard. Trust me.

Yes, I run ads across more than ten books, but I know many authors doing well with the ads with far fewer titles. Does it take some tweaking? Yeah. Does it take some money up front? Yep. You pay now, you get paid two months from now. But why would you not give it a try? It just makes no sense to me.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

I am a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 I have also been a published author who writes under a variety of pen names across non-fiction, fantasy, and romance.

6 thoughts on “I Beg to Differ”

    1. The folks who said it meant well. And one is someone I actually respect a great deal. It’s just that sometimes it’s easy to give advice from where you are and what you see and not realize that someone who is doing things differently might have a very different experience. Or that they have different metrics than you. For me, I was awe-struck to sell so many paperbacks last year, but for someone with a trade background my couple hundred paperback sales could seem negligible.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Seeing “print sales” reminds me of a related question I’ve been trying to unravel. So, I thought I’d seek your thoughts (or inspire a blog post depending on how you’re feeling). Are you aware of any hard data on the benefits of owning the ISBN on one’s books rather than using free ones from distributors?

    I’ve been researching and questioning for a while and there seem to be people who have a strong opinion on there being benefits (which I agree with – it does get you a few things), but no data to back up their assertion that it is/is not worth it. As you’re a data sort of person, I thought you might have something better than “it means anyone could order my paperbacks from any book shop, and any book shop might start stocking them”.

    Obviously, it’s too complex a question to resolve into ‘If you write this genre and attend X conventions a year, then it will increase your profit by N’ but it seems a touch sentimental to buy ISBNs because “proper” books have them and they bring a nebulous benefit rather than because they tend to pay back their cost over Y months/years.

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    1. It’s not something I’ve experimented with because I’m cheap. So if I can publish through CreateSpace for free using their ISBNs then I do.

      I’ve definitely heard all the arguments for using your own ISBN. Like how readers will judge your book as crap because they see that it’s published through CreateSpace. (Something I’m not sure I buy, because even I forget to check the publisher on books before hitting buy and I know enough to check.)

      And it does mean that right now I don’t use Ingram Spark because you have to provide your own ISBNs there. So that means a lower payout on expanded distribution sales. I earn about 1/5 on an ED sale over an Amazon sale per title. But only about 2% of my sales come from expanded distribution right now. So it’s not enough to justify the expense.

      And I honestly don’t believe that where I am right now that anyone is walking into a bookstore and asking for my books. I’m still mostly in that phase where every sale I get is because of a direct advertising effort I made. And if someone does walk into a store and want my book, that bookstore can order it. They’ll just probably make the person pre-pay and it won’t be returnable.

      Now, is it possible I’m missing out on sales because I’m not with IS and am not offering books on a returnable basis so that bookstores can stock them? Eh. Maybe. But I doubt it.

      I have a friend who was a book buyer who said she had a stack of catalogs each season from trade publishers that was as tall as she was. So the odds that someone like that is going to bypass those five feet worth of catalogs to buy my book instead seems ridiculously small. If I were the type of writer who had a thousand fans lined up on day one ready to buy my books then maybe I’d see that differently. But right now? No.

      I think the reason my print titles are selling right now is because I can get them visible to potential customers via AMS. Otherwise, they’d sell nothing. Because that occurs on Amazon’s platform, then the ISBN number only becomes an issue if someone judges a book as not worthy because it came from CreateSpace. In which case, it’s probably best they don’t buy my books because if they’re snooty about that I’m sure they’ll have fits over my casual tone and use of words like “alright” and “okay” and “let’s do this.” And my confusion of straight quotes vs. smart quotes. So maybe using a CS-provided ISBN is actually a help in that case because it keeps people who won’t like my books away from them.

      But I could be guilty of only seeing things from my narrow perspective and absolutely wrong about this. And maybe putting an ISBN on the titles that are doing well would be a game-changer. I suspect though that for most of my titles buying an ISBN would just turn profitable sales into losses.

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      1. Cheers.

        That’s how it shakes out for me too: there are authors who do purchase their own who say I’m missing out on sales, but can’t demonstrate that someone who wants a book badly enough to seek it out by ISBN won’t get it from Amazon if it isn’t available in their local book shop.

        Your thought that anyone who doesn’t like CS imprints wouldn’t like your books anyway amused me; not sure if it holds true for mine as I write in English rather than Upstart Colonial ; )

        I was mildly tempted to see if I could get data on whether it matters to readers, but creating a survey that produces useful correlations and then getting enough responses to have a valid model seems like a greater overall cost to me than just buying ISBNs on spec.

        Liked by 1 person

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