Some Random Advertising Thoughts

Once a month I load all my sales reports into an Access database and then proceed to generate a bunch of different reports and graphs to see where I am. For me that’s as fun as the writing so it’s never something I have to force myself to do, but I do think some sort of analysis is important to anyone working to run a writing business. (As opposed to just writing books and seeing what happens.)

So a few thoughts from the most recent analysis.

One of the metrics I was looking at this time around was the percent of revenues that was spent on ads for each series.

So let’s say I have a series that earned $10,000. And I spent $3,000 to make that amount. Then my ad spend would be 30%. That to me is an acceptable cost of doing business.

But I had a few that were higher than that. When that happens I think it’s important to dig in deeper and ask why, because understanding that why is going to drive what needs to happen to fix it.

In one case, it’s increased competition which means I can either hang in there and take the additional costs and know I’ll earn less on each sale of that series or I can step back and let the big spenders take part of my share of that market. Which way I choose to go will depend on how committed I am to that series and how committed I think those competitors are to entering that market.

In another case though, it’s because the series simply isn’t developed enough yet. The more books that readers can go to after an initial purchase, the more effective the ad spend.

For example, if I spend 75 cents to make $1 on the sale of a book and that book is all I have then my ad cost is 75% of the money I receive, which is higher than I ideally want. (If I could scale that sufficiently it’s doable, but the question is how much you can scale.)

But if I spend that same 75 cents and make $1 on that book sale plus $2 on two other book sales then my ad cost for the same ad spend and same initial transaction is only 15%. Much better.

Which means that often what seems like “I should abandon this and move on because I can’t make money at this” is actually “I need to write more books in this series so I can properly recoup my ad costs.”

Of course, there’s another option which is that something is off about the book that needs to be fixed to make it sell better.

Let me give a concrete example. I published a cookbook a while back and being too clever for my own good I called it “You Can’t Eat the Pretty” because it wasn’t about fancy cooking it was about cooking for yourself without burning down your kitchen.

But advertising that book was like pulling teeth. Every sale was a struggle. I thought the cover was good. I thought the content was good. But it barely broke even. Ad cost was probably 90% of money received.

So I changed the title. It’s now called “Quick & Easy Cooking for One”. I made one edit to one line of text in the introduction and changed the title but kept everything else the same. This year ad cost is 26% of money received.

That’s not the only time I’ve retitled a book and seen significant improvement in sales.

It isn’t always going to be the title. It could be price. It could be the cover. It could be the blurb. It could be the category. It could be who you’re advertising to. All of those deserve a hard look if you’re spending too much to sell your book.

And then you have to decide if you’re willing to make that change. Sometimes you won’t be. My YA fantasy books are currently at $7.99 each in ebook. I could probably sell more at a lower price point, but I’m okay with where they are at the moment. I can drop those prices when I finally release a new book under that name.

The key I think is to make these choices deliberately instead of just letting things ride and hoping for the best. Especially as we enter a maturing market.

I saw a flare up recently of “oh Amazon hates us and pits us against each other” when in reality it’s just that this is a maturing industry. Ironically we are trending back towards publishing houses even on the indie side. Because that’s an effective model for running a publishing business. And people are going to be less open about what works because there’s enough supply now to meet demand and we are in fact competing with one another for customer attention and customer funds.

Which leads me to another discussion that recently happened on one of the author forums that I wanted to address here.

Someone shared AMS numbers where their ad dashboard showed let’s say $90K in sales and $45K in ad spend. And someone else on that board somehow extrapolated that spend to the person running their business with a 90% ad cost, which was horribly inaccurate.

I wanted to walk through why that is. So let’s talk about what happens when you advertise.

One, your product is seen by new people. Someone becomes aware of your product even if they don’t buy it right then. That means an ad today results in a purchase a year from now.

Two, there’s direct sales. So in the case of AMS and how those are reported a $5 ebook sale means $3.50 received and $5 in sales showing on the ad dashboard.

Three, there’s follow-on sales. So if you run an ad on book 1 then (hopefully) a certain number of people will either immediately or eventually go on to buy other books from you. The more other books you have that are related to that first book and the more people like that first book, the more you will earn in follow-on sales. This is key. It’s what determines the winners from the losers probably 95% of the time.

Four, there’s another form of increased visibility if as a result of your ads your books do well enough to make a top 100 list somewhere or to be recommended by Amazon in one of their emails. These aren’t direct sales that will be reported on your AMS dashboard nor are they likely to be seen during a promotional period, but they are sales that resulted from that ad.

Five, specific to books advertised via AMS that are in KU, there’s the fact that the dashboard doesn’t show KU borrow revenue so each sale that’s seen on the dashboard can represent much more revenue. For example, my romance books tend to be 75% borrow revenue when they’re in KU.

So let’s work through this a little.

Say I pay $2.50 to get that first sale that’s worth $3.50 to me. That looks on the surface like I spent 71% of the money I received on advertising.

But if that book is in KU and 75% of its revenue comes from borrows then that $3.50 on the dashboard may represent $14 in revenue. In that case, then only 18% of money received was spent on ads.

What if the book isn’t in KU but is part of a five book series? And what if one purchase of book 1 means an additional $7.50 earned on sales of the other books in the series? Then in that case the ad spend is only 23% of money received.

Someone who looks at AMS dashboard numbers and doesn’t understand the impact of KU borrow revenue or follow-on sales is going to significantly overestimate the cost of those AMS ads to the user. Not to mention the visibility-driven sales which are almost impossible to quantify.

Which brings me back to the need to look at your numbers on a regular basis.

I look at total money received (which I call revenue for my purposes but technically isn’t since all the platforms take their cut before they send me a check) versus ad costs for each period for each title. I also do that by series and author because sometimes a loss leader first-in-series title can look horrible on its own even though it’s driving great sales for a series.

I also look at total profit and loss for each title, series, and author which incorporates cover cost, editing, etc. And I take that profit and loss number and calculate per hour and per word rates as well. (And when I get really bored I do a per hour or per word rate per day since the book was released since the longer a title is out the higher the total per hour and per word rate should be so you have to find a way to account for that difference between a title released this year and one released five years ago.)

But you can’t stop there. You have to put business knowledge on top of all of that. You have to ask why the difference between different titles. What can look bad today may actually be trending well. And what looks good today may not continue to look so good long-term. So you have to interpret the numbers properly.

You do all that and then you hope for the best.

There are no certain answers in this business (or in any business really.). All you can do is reassess after a bit, adjust, move forward again, and hope for improvement each time. If that happens, eventually you’ll get there.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is 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 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

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