Success and Shifting Expectations

I was looking at my sales numbers this morning and projecting what I was going to gross for the month as well as net. And I felt depressed by the numbers. Because this time of year my ad costs go up compared to my sales. So I was looking at grossing more than I ever have before but netting less than I did in September or October. And maybe even August.

But then I had to take a step back and give myself a reality check. Because where I am right now, on the 13th of December, for both gross and net is more than last December. I’m not even halfway through the month and I’m past where I was a year ago. That means I’m very likely going to double what I was earning this time a year ago and most likely triple those numbers.

That’s really hard to keep in perspective. Every single time I level up I seem to forget how hard it was to get to where I am now. I remember wanting and wanting and wanting my first $1,000 month. (Gross not net.) I came close a few times in the year before it happened–hitting in the $800’s–but I just could not break through that level. For years. I was in my fourth year of self-publishing before I broke through that level.

And, knock wood, haven’t gone below it since.

But now if I had a $1,000 month I’d be bummed. I’d wonder what on earth I had done wrong to slip that far. Each time you hit a new level, your expectations shift. At least mine do. That’s what keeps me moving forward.

But that makes it hard, too. Because you can never stay satisfied with where you are. And, of course, in indie land there are always people doing better with apparently no effort. “Oh I just write my books and throw them out there and they earn me six-figures a year. Isn’t that what it’s like for everyone?” (No. No it is not.)

Which is why I appreciated something I saw on KKR’s blog this morning. She said:

“A lot of you have told me lately that you’re “failures” even though your books are selling. They might only be selling one copy a week or they might be selling dozens of copies per day. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll find someone who you believe is doing better than you are…

That’s why I wrote today’s blog. Because I want you to celebrate each sale, each reader. Those sales are important. Someone liked your work enough to spend money on it. Be happy about that.

 

And it’s true. Sometimes we need to just take a moment and embrace the fact that we wrote something, put it out there, and other people bought it. Heck, they even liked it. Having that happen once is amazing. Having it happen hundreds of times? Thousands of times? That’s…there are no words if you really stop to think about it. (I’m high enough in Self-Assurance that I expect that to happen, but really, truly? It’s almost a miracle. If miracles are made from sweat, tears, and blood.)

Which is all to say: embrace every milestone. You may never be satisfied with where you are (I probably won’t be), but force yourself to stop every once in a while and appreciate how far you’ve come and what you’ve accomplished.

AMS Ads Revisited

I should be writing (as always), but I only have half an hour until the pup needs fed so I figured it was a good time to revisit AMS ads.

For me they’re still profitable and the bulk of my advertising.

My same basic strategy remains the same: one sponsored product ad per book with strong bids. Not ridiculous bids, but not 20 cents a click either.

This being December my ad spend has been climbing fast. Last month was higher as well. But my overall sales are not climbing. I’m still profitable but not as profitable as I would’ve been with that same ad spend in September. It’s just that time of year when you spend more for less visibility.

It’s also because I turned back on ads for some of my books where I’d had the ads turned off due to mediocre performance. I killed those ads again a couple days ago because the lesson is the same each time: Ads work better on books people want.

Every time I get billed for AMS ads I check my ad performance. I look at what I spent on ads for that time period and compare it to what I earned on those books during the same time period. Since I get billed weekly due to my ad spend, this is really the only time I worry about ad performance. I never bother with ACoS or any of the flawed data on the dashboard. (Since moving to KDP Print I have to wait a few days after the invoice date for all print sales to be reported on the KDP dashboard, but that’s the only change I’ve made recently.)

What I find is that the same five or six ads perform very well each time while the rest are basically breakeven. Those breakeven ads stay in a range of losing me $5 to making me $5 for the time period and rarely move outside of it.

I will on rare occasions have an ad that goes more than $5 negative on me, but usually it’s just one ad. When that happens I decide whether to pause it, adjust its keywords, or adjust its bids. The ads that do that are usually for the same small handful of books.

At the end of the day ad performance comes back to the book being advertised. Books people want to buy are more profitable to advertise than books they don’t. Changing keywords or bids or ad copy helps some, especially if you haven’t aligned your ad copy with your blurb and your cover, but it’s mostly about the book and whether it looks like what people want.

What I’ve found far more successful is changing a book’s title or cover if it’s not selling well with advertising. (I changed up my cookbook’s title recently and it’s now selling much better, for example.)

I also do better with non-fiction ads than fiction right now, but it’s hard to say how much of that is because my fiction is not generally written to market and my non-fiction most definitely hits its market.

My AMS ad for my new cozy, the only fiction I have written to market, was in the negative for the first month of launch when I had deliberately high bids but now that I’ve backed those down to something more reasonable it’s mildly profitable in and of itself. So I’d say someone who writes to market in a genre like romance could make a killing with AMS ads still.

Not at 99 cents, of course. Not unless there’s a huge series behind it with good readthrough. You need to earn enough on a sale to pay for your ads and you’re competing with others who do have enough backlist to bid high for ads.

Being in KU has an advantage, too, because there’s a certain percent of people who click on an ad looking for KU titles who won’t buy if you’re not available in KU. But my best-performing ads are all for wide books. (Again, non-fiction, but no reason it couldn’t hold true if you have a fiction title that hits all of the buttons for a large reader group.)

So my bottom line on AMS as of right now? Still well worth it.

(But if others want to hate them and refuse to use them and say nasty things about them every chance they get? So be it. Less people using them means lower potential ad costs means more profit.)

(And I’d add that for those who haven’t read my book or watched the video course that while Amazon has added some bells and whistles to the ads since those were created that the core advice in both is still valid.)

 

Know Your Timeframe…

My senior year of college I interviewed for a couple of jobs where we ended up discussing various business ideas. This was 1999, so about twenty years ago.

In the first instance I ended up interviewing with the business development group for a television channel. And they were very excited about online content.

My reaction? No, not yet. Here I was, a senior in college, and I’d never even had a computer in my room until that year and the computer I did have was certainly not a fancy one. I was not alone in this. And the internet connectivity to support that kind of thing just wasn’t there yet.

To me that was probably a good decade away from being significant and I said so. (Didn’t get the job. No surprise there.)

Now, did it take people having that belief in 1999 to get to the point where things started to happen in 2005 and really started to pick up in 2008? Probably. But that man I spoke to in 1999 did not think he was nine years from launching his project.

On the other side of the coin I had another job interview that involved a written exercise where we were supposed to evaluate four different business ideas related to plane tickets. I had just flown from San Francisco to Washington DC using an emailed reservation. (Two years prior to that I’d gone to Europe and the only option was a paper ticket and you were screwed if you lost it.)

One of the options in that article was a kiosk that would be placed in large office buildings where business travelers could print off their ticket as they left for their flight. Great idea five years before when the world revolved around having a physical, paper ticket. Obsolete by the time I was traveling for work a year after the interview. Everything was digital by then.

Both were good business ideas for a specific period of time. Someone could’ve made bank with those kiosks if they’d done it five years earlier and managed a rapid rollout. And online streaming content is certainly a money-maker today.

But oftentimes the key to making money in an industry is knowing what’s going to happen when. And how quickly you can react to a situation. And what your personal timeframe is.

Let’s take KU for an example. I know of authors who’ve made millions by being in KU. There’s an author who posted on a certain forum who is all-in with KU who makes six figures a month. For that author and their timeframe, which is short-term, KU is a perfect choice.

Now, the flip side of that is how long KU will last. If you want to be an author making a living at writing in ten years or twenty, then being all in with KU might be a horrible decision. Because KU may not exist by then and when it goes away you will be staring from scratch on all the wide platforms along with every other KU author. You’ll have a backlist but you’ll potentially drown in a sea of new content.

(I should add that part of what prompted this post is a post that KKR just wrote implying that KDP will not exist long-term. In other words, no Amazon sales. Something that has crossed my mind as well once or twice because self-publishers routinely make themselves a complete PITA for Amazon.)

So someone who’s in this for the twenty year timeframe may be best off going wide and staying wide even if that means earning far less money in the short-term.

It’s interesting to look at these things, because I will often miss a good profitable short-term opportunity because I see that long-term it won’t be sustainable.

For example, last spring someone advised me to lean hard into my book on AMS ads. They saw real potential there for an alternative to the data-heavy model advocated by Meeks. (And it’s true that what I preach is far less analytical and labor-intensive than everything I’ve heard about his approach.)

But I said no. Because to me AMS is just one form of advertising that will eventually get glutted by self-publishers and then I’m suddenly a snake oil salesperson either telling people about a method that once worked but no longer does or trying to tell them about a new ad option that I don’t do as well with.

I did not want to build a career on that.

But there’s no denying that Mark Dawson and Brian Meeks have both made significant amounts of money off of their advertising courses. Short-term, telling people how to use Facebook ads or AMS ads is a good play.

Long-term? Let me just say that understanding how one ad platform works does not mean you understand how the next one does and that it can get a little shaky when you’re still looked to as an expert on something you actually no longer have expertise in…

So not something I wanted to do. Because my timeframe was five-plus years. If I’m going to devote time and energy to something I want it to have value five years from now.

Another example of this is writing to trend. You can make a killing writing the latest greatest thing that ravenous readers want. People have done so in LitRPG and reverse harem and step-brother romance. And if you’re timeframe is short, that’s great. Get in, get the money, get out.

The problem arises if you’re thinking that your short-term play has long-term potential. Because when that goes away, you are broken. The guy who raised funds to put kiosks in office buildings to print plane tickets? Sitting there five years later wondering what he does now because those kiosks are worth nothing.

For me, there’s no wrong or right about which timeframe to choose. The key is knowing your own timeframe and then making decisions according to that timeframe. Also, listening to those who share your timeframe and not the others.

I’d also say that you need to pick the timeframe that works for what you are capable of accomplishing. So if you want to be all-in KU and write to trend, you need to be able to write fast. If you want to take advantage of a short-term opportunity that could be worth nothing a year from now, you need to be able to develop and roll out a “good enough” product NOW rather than a perfect product eighteen months from now.

I also do think it’s possible to “ride the waves” and adjust when things change. So you go all in with KU now and write to X trend for however long it lasts, and when that dies you find the next wave and ride it. And when that dies you find the next one and ride it. You may miss a few. You may have down times. You may go from $20,000 a month to $500. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad choice.

It’s just a different choice than the slow and steady build. Both can have the same long-term financial result. Which you choose is very much about what you’d rather have: slow, steady progression upward or peaks and valleys.

The key, though, is knowing the decision you’re making. Know how those patterns play out based on your timeframe. Seek out the opportunities that match that and ignore the rest.

CreateSpace to KDP Migration Additional Comments

So it’s been about three months since I migrated my books from CreateSpace to KDP at Amazon’s insistence.

A few thoughts.

First, if you still haven’t done so, just do it. It’s literally a button push and you’ll make sure that the books end up connected to the right account assuming you follow the pretty simple directions.

Second, if you have migrated and haven’t noticed this yet, you may want to check in with your CreateSpace account for a few months after the migration. I’m still getting expanded distribution sales reported through my CreateSpace account. (And then paid separately as a CreateSpace payment.)

Third, because CreateSpace didn’t have as many keyword slots and only allowed one category, when your books move over they move over with just those five keywords and one category. You can go in and update the book to add more keywords and categories, but you have to go through all three screens to do so. I hesitated to do that because I was worried something wonky would happen with my files (and some people had reported having that be an issue), but I think you’re okay as long as you don’t try to upload new files and just save through the second screen. I updated all of my books this last week and they went through without any issues. Only issue I had was an old title I renamed and the cover didn’t meet their specs when I changed just the title text and uploaded it again.

Fourth, the territories for books that migrate over are not worldwide. I think the boxes that are checked are the ones that Amazon/CreateSpace actually distribute to, but you can, while you’re in there, change it to worldwide availability. (Canada is one that isn’t be default checked, for example.)

Fifth, I will say that for some reason I lost all Euro sales after the move. I was making about 150 Euros per month in paperback sales and have had maybe 10 Euros in sales in the three months since. No idea why. Maybe that worldwide checkbox. We’ll see, but so far I’m not seeing any difference.

Sixth, I’ve uploaded new titles and it’s been pretty simple. A too-wide spine text and that one that didn’t meet their dimensions but in both cases the error message was very clear on what the issue was down to them telling me the exact inch dimensions that one cover needed to be.

And that’s about it. I took a few days’ hit when I first moved over because KDP Print reports when a book ships and I think CreateSpace reported when it was ordered, but now that I’m three months in that’s not an issue anymore. But do be aware that the print sales you see on your KDP dashboard on any given day may have been ordered up to 10 days before that date. (Generate the Excel file and look at the Order Date column to see when the books were actually ordered.)

That delay makes AMS tracking a nightmare for me. I suspect most people won’t have that same issue since most fiction titles sell far better in ebook than print.

Anyway. Yet another change. Wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Had some annoyances of missing books the first week or so, but that’s all sorted as this point. Onward and upward.

Know Your Audience

I was just on Facebook and saw an author mentioning that they’re writing six short stories to serve as an introduction to their main series of novels.

My immediate thought was, that might be a waste of time.

I as a reader am a novel reader. I don’t seek out short stories or novellas. I did recently find myself reading novellas by two authors I like (Kristen Britain and Ilona Andrews) because that’s what they’d released recently and I am constantly starved for more material from what I consider top-tier authors.

They were fine, but if that’s all they ever published again, I’d stop reading them because they wouldn’t be meeting my needs as a reader.

And for a new author? Someone I’ve never read before? I’m not going to buy that 99 cent short story or novella. I won’t even look at it because I’m not a short story or novella reader. Give me a free or 99 cent novel of yours and I might check it out. (Might. I’m weird so rarely buy books on those kinds of sales and still read mostly in print.)

And, yes, there are readers who cross over between stories of all lengths, so writing a short story or novella lead-in to your world might be an effective strategy to bring in a certain percentage of readers. And if you have an opportunity to be in a box set or themed anthology it might make some sense to participate to expand your exposure to new readers.

But, honestly, I would say that if you’re going to commit yourself to writing 50,000 to 100,000 words in a world that you stick to the same general story length and type you’ve already written so that you can pull the readers you attract to one of your titles through your entire series.

As always, YMMV, but something to think about. At the end of the day it all depends on your audience and knowing what they will/will not buy from you.

Hitting Publish

I’m working on the final files for three new titles today and it has me thinking about what it feels like when you’re about to hit publish on a new title. By my count these will be my 136th, 137th, and 138th titles I’ve published.

Now, before you get all impressed with that number a lot of those early titles were short stories and I’ve published collections of other works as well as spun off portions of books into their own series, so on one level that number is not as impressive as it sounds.

But regardless of how long the title is or how much new material it includes the publication stage is always the same for me. There’s a lot of second-guessing. Did I spellcheck? Did I scan through for formatting issues? Am I presenting the information in a way that readers expect and that will work well for them for that format?

And that is, of course, on top of the thoughts about “is this something of value” to my readers? Are they going to get valid information and enough of it out of this non-fiction title? Are they going to enjoy this story or novel? Is what I’m putting out there worth someone paying money for it?

It can be easy to get stuck at this point. Because you don’t want to mess it up. You want to put out a good product that people will like. But I can tell you, no matter how careful you are, no matter how many people look at it, no matter how many times you look at it, things will slip through here or there. Hopefully not big things, but years later you’ll find a paragraph that should be indented here or a missing comma there. It happens.

It annoys me no end every time I later see one of those, but I figure you can’t let pursuit of perfect get in the way of completing a project. In my opinion, perfect isn’t actually possible, so I aim for pretty damned good. (My A- Student Philosophy of Life.)

It works for me. But I’m still going to do one last scan of all these files. Just in case…

Three Years, Four Bookbubs, Finally Profitable

I’ve been fortunate with most of the things I’ve published that they were quickly profitable. But my YA fantasy series has been my constant heartbreak. I sprung for nice covers and paid to launch the first book and then did a free promo on that one when book 3 came out and all the other things you’re supposed to do, but it’s always returned less than all of that cost.

And it wasn’t because the books were bad. In general, the reviews have been good. I’ve received emails from fans about how much they loved it, it got an almost perfect score in the Writer’s Digest contest I entered it in, was a semi-finalist in the SPFBO, and even has a decent review average on Goodreads.

It’s also the only series I have that can get Bookbubs.

With all of that you’d think it would be my most profitable series, right? But no, not at all.

The first book in that series is one of my top five in terms of money grossed and the other two titles in that series are in my top ten, but when you put it all together with the cost of the covers and the cost of advertising, that series has been my worst performing series. The amount I spent on covers and ads has always been more than I earned.

(And that’s only the case with one other “series” of mine. My cookbook which has far too clever a title for its own good.)

Now, the bulk of the expense for the YA fantasy series was the covers. I spent about $2K on those covers, all told. So I had to not only make more from my advertising than I was spending but I had to make enough to cover that $2K in cover costs. Not an easy thing to do.

But I finally did it! It “only” took three years from the publication of book 1 and four Bookbubs (either YA or international-only fantasy so I’ve never gotten the big holy grail U.S. fantasy deal) to make it happen.

It’s not the cover’s fault. I launched book 1 at full price and wide. And I’ve left the books at a higher price point when they’re not in a promotion. (Although that strategy has worked just fine for me with other titles. It just wasn’t a good choice for a YA fantasy series.) I figure when I launch the next series under that name I can always drop the prices on the first series or even permafree book 1 at that point so that there’s somewhere to make that up.

I share this because it’s a good reminder of something I think it’s easy to lose sight of with self-publishing. I expect that this series could sell to new readers for the next twenty years. So if it doesn’t go into the red again due to bad advertising choices, I have twenty years of sales to make a profit on this series. And if I go back to that name and add to those books with another series that’s very likely to boost this first series.

So hope is never lost.

(Although it is hard to keep going when you think you did everything right and it doesn’t work out the way you hoped. That’s probably part of the reason I’ve found it challenging to write another series under that name.)

Anyway. For today I’ll treasure this small victory and remind myself that there’s always hope.