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.

Defensive AMS Ads

Most of the AMS ads I’ve run over the past eighteen months or so have been for one purpose: to make money. I’ve run those ads as long as what I was earning on the books exceeded what I was spending for the ads, regardless of what the AMS dashboard might actually reflect at any given moment.

(I take the ad spend for a period and compare it to ebook and paperback sales as well as page reads for the time period to see if I’m net positive or net negative. And, yes, that’s a flawed approach because the page reads might be for a book that was borrowed six months before that, but you do what you can do and let go of the rest.)

Anyway.

That’s been my standard approach.

But I noticed a while back that Amazon was doing something very annoying and unpleasant. And that was placing one or more Sponsored Product ads above the actual search results on the Amazon page. Here’s a search I just did for CreateSpace:

Amazon CS search

See how the entry that’s showing is a Sponsored Product ad? You have to scroll down to see actual search results based on the term CreateSpace.

Note that that’s my ad and quite intentionally so. I had actually turned off AMS ads on that particular book because I was spending just a little bit more to run that ad than I was receiving back in sales and it’s not a big seller to start with.

But last week I told someone about this book and when they tried to find it on Amazon, they couldn’t. They used the title “CreateSpace for Beginners” and they used the author name “M.L. Humphrey.” Neither search brought up that book. I tested it, too, and same thing. I could not find a combination of book title and author name that brought the book up in a search result.

That’s the ugly truth of Amazon. They don’t provide a word-for-word search result. If you have a low selling title and you try to search for it by title and/or author, it won’t come up. Sometimes they’ll display no search results at all rather than display the book in question.

Which means that if you tell a friend about your book that isn’t selling well and they go to Amazon to find it, it’s quite possible they won’t. (This is not an issue with Barnes & Noble, by the way. Search there and this book comes right up.)

This is where running defensive AMS ads comes into play. You run an ad not to make a profit, but to at least have minimal visibility. Now, I don’t know that it will work all the time, but it did at least work this time. I now have ads running on all of my non-fiction titles even if those ads only have a handful of active keywords. And for each of those ads I have my book title as one of those keywords so that, hopefully, even if Amazon refuses to display my book as a search result they’ll still display it as an ad.

Sad, I know, that I have to do something like that just to get my book to show in a search result. But that’s the way it goes sometimes. (As I type this I’m thinking that I really need to make a more significant effort to direct traffic to any site other than Amazon, because, seriously, what a shit thing to do on their part.)

The other reason to run defensive AMS ads is because of that top spot on search results being an ad. One of my titles is selling very well right now and if you search for relevant keywords it’s number one or two in the search results. But there’s an ad that appears first. So even though people might see my listing and click on it, I want to have that top spot, too, so they don’t see someone else’s book in that first spot and buy it instead. Makes selling that book more expensive, but that’s the way it goes.

So, bottom line: If you have lower-selling books on Amazon it may be worth running an AMS ad to at least make sure that anyone who comes looking for your book will find it. And if you have a well-selling book on Amazon it may be worth running an AMS ad to own that top search result.

(And if you’re wide it may be worth putting in some serious effort to drive sales to other platforms that won’t screw you over this way.)

Playing 3D Chess While Juggling Chainsaws

I was trying to think of a good analogy for what self-publishing feels like to me and that’s what I came up with. It’s like trying to play three-dimensional chess while simultaneously juggling chainsaws.

I suspect that’s not the case for every author. If you write under one pen name and in one series, it’s probably much more straight forward. But I currently have seven active pen names and multiple lines under some of those. For example, M.L. Humphrey has the Excel books, but also books on Word, self-publishing, writing in general, and personal finances.

Thanks to AMS ads, I can keep most of those moving at least a bit every day once a title is published.

But where to focus efforts and energy is where it gets interesting. Write another fantasy series because I’m pretty sure I’ll need twelve novels before I can really judge how that pen name will do long-term? Write another romance novel because just two romance novels under that one name have done well for me and another might cause another leap upward in terms of sales? Find a way to expand on the non-fiction titles? Master Google AdWords so I can find a steady way to promote my books on non-Amazon platforms?

There’s just me and just so many hours in the day. I have to pick one and do it.

And I’m not operating in a vacuum here. Every other self-publisher is making their own choices right now. Choices that will impact me. So are traditional publishers. And other entertainment providers. And the government. And social media platforms. And consumers for that matter.

All of it has an impact. For some of it there’s nothing to be done. Not yet. I either can’t see it or can’t do anything to change it or react to it.

And for the rest of it, even if there is something that can be done, the better answer is probably “produce more content regardless of what that content is.” Because without product to sell it really doesn’t matter what the market is doing or what the competition is doing.

Which is why I should stop writing this post and starting working on the next thing. (Whatever that’s going to be, which is the problem after all…)

Giving Advice

This week I had a friend of a friend who’s a new author reach out for some writing advice. And of course there are always folks finding their way to the various forums who want advice as well.

And it’s tricky.

Because I’ve found my path and how I want to approach this. (Subject to change, of course.) But it isn’t how I started out and I don’t know that telling someone to do things the way I do them is necessarily appropriate.

Especially since this industry is changing so much and so fast.

For example, one of the folks who was looking for advice on self-publishing was looking for advice on how to get their first novel into print. Now, I could have a lengthy discussion with that person about whether print is the best choice. And point out to them that a large majority of their sales will (likely) be in ebook if they self-publish and talk about how once you put that book out in print that listing will be on Amazon probably longer than they’re alive and that maybe that’s something worth considering when you’re new and not yet good at figuring out your book’s title and cover, etc. and are probably going to publish it under your real name.

Or…

I could just point them to CreateSpace instead of having them pay a few grand for something that should cost less than $500 and could actually be done for free if they want to put in the effort.

If that’s all that person wants–to see their book in print–who am I to try to turn them into a full-blown self-publishing business looking to make a profit? Will they later start to learn more about self-publishing? Maybe. Or maybe all they ever wanted was physical copies of their book to give to friends and family.

So be it.

Same with the newer writer who approached me. Right now that writer wants to go the trade publishing route. So I told them how to do it and that money should flow to the writer in that case. Could I have launched into a lengthy discussion about contract terms from the Big 5 and agent pitfalls, etc, etc.? And maybe even suggested that self-publishing was the better option for that novel given what they’d told me about it?

Sure.

But that’s not where that author is mentally. And I don’t think it’s my place to drag them down that path. Hopefully they’ll learn and either adapt to fit into the path they do want to take or choose a different path, one better suited to what they’ve already written. That’s up to them, not me. All I can do is give them that starter bit of knowledge that will let them decide.

Or so I think.

Hopefully I’m right.

 

Make The Voices Stop!

I’m 15,000 words into the first novel of a new series and I’ve hit that point in the writing process where the story is starting to take shape, which also means that point in the process where all of the outside voices start clamoring for attention.

Like the one that says that standard Medieval European fantasy settings are so knee-jerk easy to use and cliched and why would you use that when you have your entire imagination to work with.

Or the one that says you can’t possibly sell that series as a fantasy romance if both of the love interests are going to die in the end, even if the main character does in fact love both of them and struggle around finding happiness with them.

Or the one that says if you’re going to use that legend as the jumping off point for this series then you need to be true to x, y, and z portions of that legend or the readers will hate you forever.

There are other voices, too. Those three are just the loudest today. With each novel I find I have to go through this at some point. I usually take a few days, consider what those voices have to say, and maybe adjust course slightly (like having this series be inspired by that legend but not using those actual names or places). But at the end of the day I have to write the story that works for me. Because if I keep listening to all the voices I’ll never get the words down on the page and certainly never publish them once they’re there.

Poor Promo Choices

When you first start self-publishing, all you want is to see your books sell. At least that was the case for me. I mean, I’d put all this effort into writing something and I’d put it out into the world and now I wanted people to actually buy it and, hopefully, enjoy it or find value in it.

So any promo I could get, I took. (At least, successful ones. I wasn’t trying to throw money down the drain.) Pay $5 for a BKnights free promo and see four hundred people download my book? Yes, please. Get a Bookbub on my fantasy novel. Hells yeah.

But here’s the thing. Not every promo, even a successful one, is a good choice.

I applied for my first Bookbub when my fantasy trilogy was incomplete. I had two books out but not the third when I was accepted for that first one. And I was thrilled to get it. Yay, new fans.

But at the same time, I was kicking myself for my impatience. Because, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, I think I’m a good enough writer that a decent percentage of people will read and enjoy my books and go on to buy the next one if it’s available. But I’m not such an amazing writer that they’ll wait around breathlessly for my next one. I don’t have the issues GRRM or Patrick Rothfuss have. I don’t post or tweet and have someone reply, “Stop posting and write.”

So if I promo a book before a series is complete, chances are there’s a certain percentage of readers who will read the books that are available, like them, but then go on with their lives and never think about me or my books again. Which means that, for me, the longer I can wait to promo, the better. Don’t promo book one when it comes out, promo the series when it’s done.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Because I always want to hope I’m that “oh my god, I love you” author and you can’t tell if you are until you get sales. And money is nice. I tend to run profitable promos, so each promo, even the ill-advised ones, means income.

Another mistake I make with promo (which I made today which is what prompted this post) is that I promote books to an audience I’m not going to be able to satisfy long-term. I have a book in the top 50 in the free store today because of a promo. But it’s a title I have no intention of following up on and all of the other titles under that name aren’t going to appeal to those readers.

If they want more of that they’re not going to get it from me.

So why did I do it? Why waste that time and energy? Why catch and release?

Money. Probably. It’s a KU title so a free run can often pay for itself with page reads. And I think I can use AMS to sustain the momentum the free run will give it. But there’s nowhere for those readers to go. Not with me. They’ll read it and move on and that’ll be it.

And if they do love it? If I do get, “oh my god, write more” emails? That’s gonna be a problem. Because I have no intention of writing more of that right now. Or ever.

Which means that promo, even if profitable, was a mistake. To pursue fans you can’t satisfy. To promo for short-term gain when it does nothing for long-term stability. Wasted effort.

(And, really, writing that title was all part of the same sort of mistake. It felt good to see those sales when I originally released it, but there was no long-term strategy involved. I was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick.)

Ideally, everything you do as a writer works together. You write titles that feed into one another. Same world, same genre, same whatever it is so that readers who find you want everything you’ve written. (This is much more the case with fiction than non-fiction, by the way. At least the type of non-fiction I write.)

So you write works that lead to one another. And then you promo those titles to build your author brand so that the release-promo-release-promo cycle all moves together and with each promo and each release you see a bigger impact than the one before until it becomes like a rock rolling downhill and all you have to do is release, release, release with just enough promo to let people know something new is out.

That should be the goal. That’s how you do good promo.

(But you know me. I’ll keep up with this poor promo approach, because I’m strange that way. Don’t be me, kids.)

Wide Vs. KU

One of the most difficult decisions a self-published author has to make is whether to be wide (list on all of the vendors they can) or whether to throw in with Amazon only so they can be in Kindle Unlimited.

And as we move forward with this whole self-publishing thing it seems to me that the voices on both sides of the argument get more and more vocal. The Smashwords year-end round up was basically a “don’t blame me when you can’t support yourself with your writing five years from now because you gave Amazon all the power and helped force their competitors out of business” post.

And there may be some merit to what he’s saying. If too many authors are in KU thereby depriving other platforms of content and helping to drive down the price a reader is willing to pay for an individual title, that will have long-term consequences that aren’t pretty.

At the same time I know of authors who are making $200K up to a million a year because they’re in KU. How do you tell someone to walk away from a million dollars to support the long-term viability of the ebook market?

I in principle support being wide, but I just moved all of my romance titles into KU.

(1) I can’t get a Bookbub promo for those titles (some are too short, others just aren’t competitive enough in a highly competitive genre).

(2) Most other promo sites have minimal reach outside of Amazon. (Even when I run promos on wide titles I get 90% Amazon sales.)

(3) The promo sites with a wider reach are overpriced for what they deliver so running those promos is a losing proposition.

(4) I’m not a big enough name to get merchandising opportunities at places like Nook or Apple.

That means that those romance titles sold a few copies based on free downloads that led to a sale of a collection (1:100 for me) or as part of a Kobo promo. But other than that, they were dead in the water.

I can put those same titles into KU, run AMS ads against them, and see sales most days along with page reads.

So for me for those titles the decision became stay wide and earn basically nothing on them versus go into KU and earn something. And, yes, that something may one day become nothing as Amazon gains power and sucks us all dry (which I don’t doubt will happen), but when the alternative is nothing, what do you do?

Now, on the flip side of that, I do have my fantasy series wide at the moment. It’s taken a hit by being wide. Instead of ranking in the 30K range on Amazon and selling steadily most days at $6.99, it’s now selling every few days at $4.99. But that title does get Bookbubs. And each one I get seems to help a little bit more with organic sales on other platforms. So I’m letting it stay wide until the next series is released. Short-term, I’m taking a hit with lower sales. Long-term, I have the potential for steadier sales at higher sales.

I also have all of my non-fiction wide and pretty much always have. (I did run most of them through KU in 2016 when you had to be in KU to start a Sponsored Product ad.)

One reason is you just don’t earn a lot for page reads on non-fiction even if someone reads the whole book, at least not compared to paid sales. And if people are interested in the subject, about half will probably just buy the book if it’s not in KU. Plus, having been in the StoryBundle with two of my Excel, I’m committed to keeping all of the M.L. Humphrey titles wide in case anyone reads those books and wants to read more of those titles. I don’t want to force them to go to Amazon for that.

So that’s where I’ve fallen out on things as of January 2018: romance in KU, fantasy that isn’t written to market wide, non-fiction wide.

Will that change? Probably.

The woman who runs the Write Better Faster class asked all of us what our touchstone word for this year is. At the time I didn’t have one. I just had a lot of “so many directions to go in, which do I choose” anxiety that I didn’t give an answer. But I’ve decided my word for this year is: ADAPT.

Honestly, I think that’s the word that every self-publisher (or writer) should embrace every day of every year that they’re trying to make money from their writing.