Essential Writing Skills

This post is for those authors who want to make money at their publishing someday whether that be via a traditional publisher or self-publishing. If your core interest is in getting your stories down on paper, then carry on.

But for those who want to make money at this somehow, there are some essential skills you’re going to need to have and it’s important to work on them alongside the writing.

First, you need to be resilient and adaptable. This industry, on both the self and trade publishing sides, changes constantly. Today there’s talk that maybe Amazon shifted how it treats borrows from KU for book ranking. (If so, it’s about frickin’ time IMO because someone borrowing a book for free is not and never has been the equivalent of them paying money for a book.)

Sometime earlier this week AMS randomly decided to add Ad Groups to ads which changed where you see your list of target keywords. That was after adding two new markets and then removing the links for those markets from one primary location and changing where billing and other items are found on the page.

A few weeks back a publisher with a decent reputation stepped in it when they took on an author who had been banned from publishing direct on Amazon. And just this week at least one big-name editor was abruptly let go, impacting every single one of their authors.

No matter what path you choose, things will constantly be shifting under your feet. You need to understand that and prepare for it and not be knocked out of commission when it happens.

Second, you need to understand business and numbers and contracts. In a group I’m in where some trade published authors post there was mention of how an author was screwed over by a basket accounting clause in their contract. If you’re going with a publisher and you don’t know what that is, you need to learn. That and all the rest of it.

A while back a publisher contacted me about potentially distributing some of my titles. Sounded great until they sent me a publishing contract that paid no advance and would’ve taken all my foreign language rights for free. If you as an author can’t see a situation like that for what it is and push back, you will get screwed.

And if you aren’t paying attention to profits and are only focused on number of units sold or nice reviews, you won’t last long-term.

I don’t expect authors to take things to the extent I do. (Yesterday I got bored and performed a multi-variate regression analysis to see which ad options I was using were actually driving sales and realized that two of them I was using and thought had been doing well for me weren’t.) But you do need to have some sort of a clue about how this industry works and what is happening with your own business.

Finally, you need perseverance. Sure, some authors hit it out of the park with their first book. And it’s all shiny happy times from that point forward. But not most authors. If you need an example, look at George RR Martin’s career. He left novel and short story writing for a while to work in television. He switched genres. This massive success he’s seeing now? Took decades to achieve. And required him to dust himself off more than once along the way.

I’m sure there are other traits authors need to succeed at writing that have nothing to do with the story or how it’s written (including a good bullshit detector), but these were the ones that were on my mind this morning. So there you have it. The writing is just what you need to play the game. You need far more than that to stay in and succeed.

 

Holding a Fork Is Hard When You’re 2

I visited one of my best friends this weekend and she has a two-year-old. It was fascinating to watch the kid try to eat some sausages on his plate using a real fork. He was very determined to do it himself, but the experience or the motor coordination or whatever it is that someone needs to actually use a fork wasn’t quite there yet.

He tried everything. He put the fork tines-down into the sausage and tried to pull it apart that way. He put the fork sideways to the sausage and then used his fingers on the tines to push down from both sides. He was determined.

But he just wasn’t there yet. Finally his mother rescued him with ten seconds of effort with a fork and knife, making it look so so easy to cut up that sausage.

I tell you this story because it’s an important reminder that we don’t all come into this world fully-formed and capable of doing anything we want or anything anyone else can do. Often we have to try and fail and try some more and fail some more and keep trying even when someone else makes it look incredibly easy.

Writing is one of those tasks that works that way. There are so many moving parts to writing a good book that it’s almost impossible to list them all out. You think you have the list and then someone mentions another aspect of a good book and you have to add it on to the end of the list. And just knowing what’s required doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.

When I first started this writing journey I figured I’d have it nailed down in five years. Most people I saw talk about their timelines took ten to fifteen years to get that first publishing contract, but of course I’d done really well in other aspects of my life so why wouldn’t I do really well in writing, too?

Well…

Eight years in and I’m finally willing to admit that it will probably take me a couple more years to really get to where I want to be to make this work. (I’m currently where I was in my first post-college job, net, but I expect more from myself these days than that.)

But every time I start to feel frustrated I’m just going to think about a little boy with a fork trying to figure out how to eat a sausage and remind myself that most skills in life require dedication and time to master. The key is to keep trying until you get there.

A Brilliant Business Presentation for Creatives

DesignCuts is having a free online conference this week which has some fantastic deals on font and design bundles as well as some really interesting presentations. A lot of them are design-oriented, but there was one I watched today that I think is a must-watch for anyone trying to launch any sort of business quite frankly.

It’s basic business principle in the context of earning money as a creative. I’d highly recommend watching at least the first thirty minutes. The video is available here and it’s called Making Money as a Creative by Tom Ross.

 

AMS SP Ads for Authors in Germany and UK

As of sometime yesterday or this morning Amazon announced that authors can now access Sponsored Product ads in the UK and Germany. I’ve been running ads in the UK using an Amazon Advantage account which has a few more options than this, but it’s still a nice development for those authors who hadn’t managed to set up an Advantage account.

Keep in mind that each market is different and they’re going to respond to different bids and different keywords than the U.S. market. Think spelling differences, for example.

Also, in both accounts I had to fix my payment information. They had my credit card on file but I had to provide my address and legal name before I could run an ad. For those not in the EU, I just skipped the VAT field and checkbox at the bottom.

And in the German version it originally came up in German. Click on the top right corner dropdown just like you would for .com to change the language to English.

I’m not sure of the reporting delays in those markets. I had a German sale today that is probably from my AMS ad that I started there this morning but when I checked the dashboard it wasn’t even showing impressions yet let alone a sale.

As with everything this is good and bad. For those of us already advertising in the UK it’s going to hurt some. But it also levels the playing field a bit more which I think Amazon needs to do more of.

Also, those who are willing to poke around and figure things out on their own will do better initially as they get up and running first, but that’ll level out as information percolates down.

Expect click costs to go up over the next couple months. If you don’t stay on top of that expect impressions to drop significantly as more people enter the market.

Enjoy.

 

Sadly, I Am No J.D. Robb

A lot of the reading I’ve been doing this year is of the In Death series by J.D. Robb (probably better known as Nora Roberts). I’m almost done. That’s close to fifty books.

And I find myself as an author in awe of her ability to stay true to the demands of her genre. Every single one of those books I’ve read so far is firmly structured as a mystery.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that the opening is about the murder. And the focus of the story is on solving that murder. Those books are definitely character-driven. They would not be the same books without Mavis, Peabody, Roarke, Feeney, McNab, and all the other relationships. And they’re not necessarily the types of murder mysteries where you’re given the clues to solve the murder yourself. You as a reader are along for the ride with characters you’ve come to like.

Despite the fact that they’re character-driven mysteries she still manages to keep the murder and the solving of that murder the frame of each and every single book. I have yet to see her stumble on that point after forty-plus books.

Now, there are some authors who would see that as problematic. They think it’s too predictable. But what those authors fail to see is that that’s how you meet the expectations of readers of a certain genre.

You show them on page 1 that this is the type of story they’re going to get. This is a murder mystery. Someone is dead. And now someone will solve that murder. And then, within that framework, you play with the characters and the story.

It seems easy to do that, right?

But I’ll tell you, I personally do not find it easy to do. I’ve now written four cozy mysteries and finding that balance between the mystery and the personal lives of the characters is the biggest challenge I have in writing those books.

And just today I published a short story set in that world that doesn’t even have a mystery! That’s how much I struggle with it.

Trust me. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to explain through your marketing that this book isn’t what readers have come to expect from you.

So I really, really admire J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts for her ability to consistently and continuously work within the frame of her genre and yet create unique and believable characters at the same time. She’s truly a master of her craft. Someday I hope to be half the writer she is.

 

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.

We All Have Different Reasons

I recently wrapped up the third round of Advanced Strengths for Writers coaching with Becca Syme and it had me thinking a lot in the last few days about motivation and goals. (Next session is in late October for anyone interested: https://betterfasteracademy.com/strengths-for-writers/)

What I found interesting about the sessions I did this time around was that the “answer” for each person was vastly different.

I had one person I coached where we discussed their dissatisfaction in only hitting six figures a year self-publishing and how they didn’t see why they shouldn’t strive for more than that. Given their Strengths my answer for them was that there was no reason at all they shouldn’t strive for more, the only question was how to do so in a way that played to their Strengths instead of trying to emulate an author who I suspect is high Discipline.

With another person we ended up discussing whether any form of publication made sense. They have a day job they love that feeds their Strengths in a way that fiction writing probably never will, so full-time writing has the potential to actually be unsatisfying for them because they will lose something vital if they give that day job up.

I also had more than one discussion about which path made more sense: trade publishing or self-publishing and how each person’s Strengths played into that decision.

So often these days writing conversations are based on the idea that you must get published and you must earn as much money as possible from that publishing. (One I tend to personally follow, admittedly, as seen in my post on mindset.)

But I’ve come to realize that’s not what drives every writer.

Some writers just want to indulge their creative side. They want to imagine worlds and people that don’t exist and flesh them out until they could be real, but that’s all they want.

Some want to be part of a community of creators. They want to interact with people who are imagining these new worlds and to be part of that community they feel they too must create.

Some love to tell stories and even to share those stories but they have no desire whatsoever to commercialize their writing. They just want to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

Some do want to sell their stories. They want to master the business side of writing as much as the creative side. But maybe they don’t care about maximizing profits. They want sales, yes, but will choose to write something less desirable if it scratches an itch for them.

And some would love to spend the rest of their writing career in the #1 slot of every bookstore on the planet and won’t be satisfied until they make that happen.

Any of those options is fine.

We each have to find our own path.

I think a lot of the stress or dissatisfaction I see in the writing community comes from writers in one category trying to discuss how to do things with writers in those other categories.

The key is to figure out where you fall and then surround yourself with the people who support that view.

Ask yourself why you do this. What do you want from it? What do you need from it?

Once you have that answer, don’t let anyone knock you off your path. Your choice is just as valid as theirs is.