Data Analysis For Self-Publishers Now Live

I published a book yesterday. One I actually didn’t set out to write. What I wanted to do was quickly update the screenshots and text in Excel for Self-Publishers since I’d just gone through 600+ screenshot updates with my other books and I figured why not do it real quick and get it back out there.

Instead I ended up realizing that what I actually wanted out there was something more high-level that just dealt with the concepts of what data to look at as a self-publisher and how I use that data myself. (This is all in the introduction, by the way.)

Publishing this book shows that I don’t listen to my own analysis as often as I should. But this is my way of dealing with writer’s block. I get stuck on one idea so I do something else rather than just sit there and wait for inspiration to strike. Hence, the absurd number of non-fiction titles I have out at this point.

Anyway. The book is in KU and only $2.99 ebook instead of the normal $4.99 I’d charge. And the paperback whenever Amazon actually decides to show it as genuinely available will be $7.99.

So if this is something you need, enjoy. I will say that I published it yesterday and was already having mental debates with myself today about one of the things I said in there, so it’s not gospel truth, just one way of approaching things.

Also, I made the self-publishing/writing books I’d unpublished from the wide channels available on Payhip for anyone who comes looking for them because I ended up mentioning two of them in the book. You can go to https://payhip.com/mlhumphrey and then click on “Titles Removed from Wide Distribution” to find them.

Data Analysis for SP 20200522

A Few Random Thoughts

We’ll start with writing.

I’m taking a course on FB ads right now (by Skye Warren) that looks pretty good so far. It was hard to decide to spend that kind of money ($600 or so) but I figured I’m about at the point where I need to expand beyond using mostly AMS ads and I’ve been impressed by what she has to say over the last couple of years. Our mindset aligns on a lot of this.

But making the decision to spend that money is  part of one of the trickiest things you have to deal with in this business, which is knowing who to trust and when a big money spend makes sense.

There are a lot of people out there who charge a lot and don’t deliver. They may rank high but they’re doing so by buying that rank and you really don’t know up front that that’s what’s happening. (I took another class recently that wasn’t as expensive but where I suspect that was the case.)

I see so many people who’ve taken expensive classes later blame themselves for not being able to make it work when sometimes it was the instructor that was the actual problem. Maybe not deliberately, but sometimes they think they have it worked out when they don’t.

(I say this as I’m about to release a new book for self-publishers….Ah, irony. In so many respects.)

So I’m always nervous about a big spend like that, but sometimes you have to spend that big money to get to where you want to go. (This goes for covers and maybe editing, too, not just courses.) It’s a calculated risk.

One thing writing the new book and taking this class have reminded me of, though, is that at the end of the day what we have available to sell is what it is, which is very likely a flawed product in some respect.

(For newer writers it can be flawed in many respects. Maybe the writing isn’t there yet or it’s a genre mash-up that’s hard to advertise effectively or the cover isn’t what it needs to be or the blurb or the editing or…all of it. My first attempt at a romance novel the couple agreed at the end that they were better off as friends. Talk about violating genre expectations.)

So we can learn all these lessons about packaging and marketing and see that others had great results, but at the end of the day the book we wrote just can’t perform the way we need it to. We can bring readers in, but if the book doesn’t satisfy them then all that effort and expense is wasted.

Sometimes you can fix the book, but often you have to just let a project go and move on and do better the next time. Or lower your expectations. Know that this project isn’t going to be a top 100 title or a premium title or one that people shout about to their friends, but it may still be profitable for you…It may still pay those bills and have a loyal following.

Something to think about…


In non-writing news, I picked up my grandma yesterday and took her to see my mom. In these times something so simple is fraught with worry because they’re both at risk if they get this.

I’d been home except to walk the dog for ten days, my mom had been home for three weeks, my stepdad had been home for six days, and my grandma had been home for two months but with people dropping in probably more often than I’d like.

So there was risk. Ideally given what we know about disease spread none of us would’ve gone anywhere for fifteen days before we all got together. But it seemed like a manageable level of risk. And it was good to hug one another and share a meal.

But I do worry that my grandma took this as some weird sign that it’s now safe and okay to have people over or go to people’s houses. And that my mom and stepdad are now getting out more than they were before because somehow our state moving to a “safer at home” mode has changed things. (Nothing has changed, though. I think our governor just decided he couldn’t keep people at home much longer so he’d lighten restrictions rather than face insurrection.)

Hopefully we’ll see a seasonal dropoff with this thing and they will be relatively safe, but I suspect a lot of people will get caught out by this loosening of restrictions thinking that somehow the fundamental facts of the situation have changed. But as long as we have free movement across the country, and across the world to some degree, that’s not the case. It only takes one or two uncontrolled introduction events for things to flare right back up.

I’m lucky to work from home, but I worry about those who can’t. And I worry about some of the ridiculously stupid shit I see people say. (Nextdoor is a vision to behold in my area. Not to mention what I’ve seen elsewhere.) You’d think we could all agree on a set of objective facts, but it turns out that we actually believe different facts and I don’t know how you solve that when people don’t trust the methods used to determine those facts.

Anway. Life is weird right now.

For anyone looking for a good overview of the current understanding of SARS-CoV-2, Johns Hopkins has a Coursera course on contact tracing. The first week takes about an hour and is all about what’s known about the illness. (https://www.coursera.org/learn/covid-19-contact-tracing?edocomorp=covid-19-contact-tracing) You can take it for free and get a certificate, too. I thought it was worth the time.

And now back to editing…

50,000 Paid Sales

I realized just now that sometime in April I passed the 50,000 paid sales mark. It’s a lot less than a lot of people have hit, but it’s a helluva lot better than the 53 books I sold my first year of publishing.

So what changed? How did I go from just over 50 books sold in an entire year back when things were supposedly easier to almost 20,000 last year? And not at 99 cent price points either. Last year I averaged about $3 in revenue per unit sold.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again and again and again: What you’re publishing matters. All titles are not created the same. The market size isn’t the same, the price points aren’t the same, and your personal ability to deliver to that market is not going to be the same.

My first year of publishing I put out a handful of short stories and a couple non-fiction titles in an area where I had no established expertise.

With rare exceptions, short stories just do not sell as well or for as much as novels. If I were still only publishing short stories I do not think I’d have increased my sales all that much. It let me practice publishing, but if you’re writing short stories, and especially in SFF, you are much better off submitting to the SFF magazines and getting published that way.

I honestly am not even sure short stories as a lead magnet are all that worth it. I remember a few years back an author who got the rights back to a series and republished it and did really well doing so. I read their first book and enjoyed it, but when I then went and picked up their lead magnet I did not. If I had been a reader who found the lead magnet first I would’ve never read that series.

Personally I believe that short stories and novels are two different forms that require different skills and I’d argue that readers prefer one over the other most times and that most writers tend to do well at one given length but not at any length.

(I do think that can vary across genres. My mysteries naturally come in at 45K words, my fantasies come in around 90K, and my romances around 75K.)

What else changed?

I also learned more about marketing and covers.

My first covers were horrible. One might argue that my current covers aren’t amazing works of art, but I do think they get the job done. Those first covers…did not.

But I kept trying until I got something that did work. I didn’t just quit right away. Or leave it as is.

It’s also scary to look back and realize that I didn’t spend any money on advertising until fifteen months after I’d published my first title. Maybe that was a good thing because, like I mentioned, the covers weren’t where they needed to be. So I may have been throwing money away if I’d tried to advertise early on.

Then again, back then there was a lot less expectation of quality covers.

When I did finally start to spend on advertising, I would argue I didn’t initially spend my money on “good” advertising. Some options, like AMS, simply didn’t exist back then. But I was also cheap. So the list-based advertisers I used were not the best. When you are only willing to pay $5-$20 for a promo you’re going to get what you pay for and it’s not going to be a whole lot of anything.

These days I primarily spend on AMS because I can advertise full-price books that way. But if I can get a Bookbub feature or a Kobo promotion I’m all for that, too. With a Bookbub feature I’ll add in Facebook and Bookbub click ads. I’ll also run the occasional other promo with a well-regarded advertiser like Freebooksy/Bargainbooksy.

There are still many flaws in how I approach all of this. And I pay for those flaws. I am not doing as well as I could be. I know enough now to know what I do wrong (for the most part, there’s probably more I don’t know I do wrong yet) but I’ve had to accept that I am not going to be that perfect book-producing machine.

The way to maximize your performance is to test things out until you find what you’re good at or good enough at and then to keep producing in that one area.

And ideally to find something you’re good at that can support that continuous production. That’s why genre fiction is such a good choice. Fantasy, mystery, romance. Any of those will work if you’re giving the readers what they want. Do so consistently and frequently enough and back it up with promotion and good packaging and you’re on your way.

I do think it’s the rare author that can actually do all of that, though. They’re out there, don’t get me wrong. There are hundreds of authors making six figures each year who manage to do that. Who produce a product people want, do so on a good consistent schedule, get it in front of that audience so they know it exists, and package it in a way that appeals to that audience.

But there are probably tens of thousands of authors who don’t do that and never will. And I probably fall on the upper end of that group of tens of thousands.

So am I pleased with where I am?

Yes and no.

I’m glad I’ve improved as much as I have. (I wouldn’t still be doing this if I hadn’t. There’s a difference between having faith in yourself and being blindly foolish about something. I’ve put in enough time and effort to expect improvement year over year.)

And my profit per month is now at a point where I could live on it if I weren’t extravagant in how I chose to live or if I lived somewhere cheap. But I want to be a little extravagant, so I’m not where I personally want to be yet.

(I don’t really want to get back to my consulting-level income, though. I don’t honestly need that kind of income and it creates weird barriers with the people in my life who matter to me. Plus, it’s easy to become a jackass when you’re making a lot of money or maybe that’s just me.)

Also, it frustrates my ego that I’m not doing better on the fiction side. I get good reviews but I haven’t cracked the launch and marketing combination to get the sales I want on that side of things.

I may never crack it, honestly. I have a love/hate relationship with getting attention for my work and I don’t think there’s a way to get to where I want to with sales that doesn’t involve developing a fan base which comes with headaches I really don’t want.

So, anyway. That’s me. Big milestone-yay. Not where I want to be yet-boo. Still going to carry on for the time being because working at home with my dog and not having to deal with office politics is my personal idea of bliss.

 

 

 

 

Random Publishing Thoughts

For any of the writers/publishers who follow this blog I imagine that my focus on other issues recently has been a bit disappointing, so let me see if I can share some writing and publishing thoughts that may be of help to someone else.

I spent the last month(?) updating my print book covers as well as my interior files that had screenshots. It was one of those situations of you don’t know what you don’t know and when you figure out what you didn’t know feeling compelled to fix it. In this case there were at least four different issues I needed to figure out and the cover and interior issues were not the same ones.

Of course, knowing it in the first place would’ve saved a lot of effort, but that’s the journey of self-publishing. You try your best, you learn that your best isn’t the best possible, you level-up, try your best again, learn that it still isn’t the best possible, and so on and so on forever. And most of what you realize wasn’t the best is stuff that the average person on the street won’t even have noticed or if they did notice won’t have been able to actually describe to you.


For me personally there was a month there where I saw a big dip in sales/revenues because of Amazon and how they chose to handle print books. That seems to have resolved itself although IngramSpark is now reporting printing delays of up to two weeks. And turns out with IS if there’s a pending print order for a book of yours you can’t update it, which is annoying since I submitted updated files for each series at the same time but some books are through and approved with new files and others still are not after almost two weeks. But what are you gonna do? Old processes, new situations, they don’t always work well together.


In the world of AMS ads, I’m pretty pleased. I can’t check AMS spend from a year ago but I’d say that I’m probably spending less on ads right now than I was then but getting a better return on them. Also I think cost per click is down for me from a year ago. Keep in mind that’s very much dependent on what you’re advertising so that may not be true in genres like romance. But it seems to me there was a lot of stupid money in the ads last year that has since gone elsewhere. (Probably Bookbub ads or it seems a lot of folks have circled back to FB ads if public comments are any indicator.)

I have two ads that have generated more than $20K each in sales, so I’m still a big proponent of getting a good ad going and then keeping it alive as long as I possibly can.


David Gaughran posted on his blog recently that there’s now a portal for Apple for uploading books via a PC so you no longer need a Mac to go direct. I used the portal today to update three books and it looks like it worked. No idea why Apple didn’t tell anyone about it yet, but that’s how it goes it seems. Nice thing is that it makes it clear you have to provide your cover with each update even if it’s not changing which I didn’t realize the first time I updated an interior file on Apple.

The last page of the update process acts a little weird if you didn’t have an ISBN, but clicking on the help icon for that field seemed to address the issue for me. And there was no clear easy way to update a second book without going through the whole navigation process again but I assume they’ll smooth out the bugs over time. It was nice to not have to go break out the Mac just to upload those files. (I still need it for Vellum, though.)


A friend in another group recently mentioned the power of backlist. They have a pen name they abandoned years ago that still makes a few hundred a month for them. And I think it’s important to remember that a new reader doesn’t really care when a book was written (unless it’s dated somehow). All they care is that it’s a good read. So don’t give up on old titles just because they’re older.

Having said that I’m definitely an unpublisher. Sometimes it’s because information becomes outdated (for non-fiction) and sometimes it’s because those stories aren’t a good fit for who I am as a writer now. And sometimes it’s just because I want to reclaim the mental space I was giving to that title.

But if you still like a story and still think it will appeal to readers then give it another chance. New covers, new blurb, some ads. I definitely have titles that made more money in their third or fourth year of publication than their first. Often publishing more under a name helps tremendously. You have a new title boost and if you’ve learned better packaging and marketing that can flow back to the first title.


What else? I think the current situation is probably stressing different people in different ways and I’ve seen a lot of talk about how it’s harder to be creative right now than before. I suspect Strengths play into this so that’s not true for everyone. And maybe where you fall on DISC as well.

For me I’ve been working more hours than usual but what I’ve been doing is very rote as opposed to creative. I just finished recreating probably 600+ screenshots and putting them into documents. But since I’d already worked out what those should look like it was moderately mindless work. Detail work, but not in the same way as writing something new.

So if you’re stuck right now, finding tasks like that might help. I had other ideas on my to-do list like checking all of my pricing and streamlining it. With currency exchange rates changing over time my Canadian and Australian prices were out of whack. I like to at least be consistent across a series if nothing else. (And pay attention to the suggested prices from Amazon because those are way off in a few of the listed currencies.)

Or you could spend time checking your book categories. Your blurbs. Your links on your website. The paragraph spacing of your book descriptions on each site. (Paperback on Amazon is a notorious issue. HTML tags are a must.) Basically just all that housekeeping that needs to happen. I’ve let my ad spend tracking fall by the wayside and need to enter all of that. Submit for a Bookbub feature deal or a Kobo promo. Run a few list-based promos. Finally figure out how to list direct on some sites rather than through a distributor. Etc. etc.


I don’t think this whole situation is going away anytime soon. Even if you’re in a country that has it relatively under control if you’re a writer/publisher then the U.S. is probably a big part of your sales and we’re going to be dealing with this for I’d say at least the next year. In terms of ebooks and audio things are probably pretty good although I wouldn’t be surprised by slower response times if you have an issue and perhaps more publishign delays. If you sell heavily in print I’d expect further disruptions due to staffing and supply. And if you’re POD perhaps more quality issues. (My last batch of books from IS that I ordered to check the cover changes clearly showed someone wasn’t being as careful about things as normal.)

All we can do is continue on as best as possible and adjust as needed. As always.

How to Write a Novel

Patricia C. Wrede has a good post up on her blog this morning, Getting Started, that I think is well worth reading for anyone who wants to write a novel.

At this point I’ve written thirteen novels. One multiple viewpoint fantasy, a YA fantasy trilogy, three romance novels, and six cozy mysteries.

And I’ve pretty much pantsed every single one. Meaning that I had an idea of what I wanted to write and I started writing. Now maybe some would quibble and say that because I’d jotted down four or five plot points that I was really plotting, but no. I don’t do beats or story arcs or have a list of what should happen in chapter ten.

Which is not to say that I don’t end up with beats and arcs and rising and falling action. I’ve been a voracious reader for over forty years. Story structure is in my blood by this point. Stopping to map that out would ruin it for me.

It’s like trying to think about driving a car. If you don’t make me think about it, I know how to shift and which pedal is the brake. (I drive a stick.) But make me stop and think that through consciously and I’m in trouble. I’ll put my foot on the gas instead of the brake because it’s not something that I do at a conscious level.

Same with typing. I’m a seven-finger typer. I think. I use the three fingers on my left hand and the three fingers and thumb on my right hand. Maybe. I’m trying to type this and figure it out without actually paying enough attention to myself that I stop typing and it’s very hard to do.

But make me stop and try to figure out how I type the way I do, because it involves having different fingers type a specific letter depending on the letter that came before it, and I’d fall apart.

Some part of my brain has a spatial map of the keyboard. (Which is why ergonomic keyboards are a flat out nope for me.) But it’s not a conscious place. It’s not something I can deliberately tap into.

That for me is how a pantser works. It’s not that they aren’t looking at story structure, it’s that they’re not doing it at a conscious level.

So how do you write a novel? In whatever way works for you and lets you eventually get those words down.

For some that will mean staring off into space for a week while they think about the story before they ever write a word.

For others it will involve creating a three-inch binder of all of the information they need to create their story.

Others will want a one-sentence-per-chapter outline.

Still others will want a chapter-level outline that’s as detailed as some others’ first draft.

Do what works for you.

For me, I start with (1) story genre (mystery, romance, fantasy with a certain type of conflict), (2) story length (short story versus novel), (3) basic story issue (this can be a theme or a source of conflict or an event like finding a dead body), (4) basic setting (city vs. country, general type of society and technology) and (4) character (who is the main person in this story).

And then I go. If it’s contemporary and real world that pretty much sets up everything I need because the character and setting will drive the rest of the story for me.

If it’s fantasy then about six chapters in I have to sit down and have a little chat with myself about how this world works. What kind of magic does it have? Who has power? Are there magical beasts? Etc.

But usually I only do that enough to keep going and I often have surprises that pop up later. Because no one knows everything about their own world. They often only learn something new when they get out and explore or face a situation that requires them to learn. So I’m there with my character learning along the way.

My last mystery I didn’t even know who the killer was until the chapter before the reveal. I knew who the main suspects were and why each of them could be the killer. But the story world was completely under my control so I could make the killer any of those suspects I wanted to just by choosing which evidence to make real and which to make the red herring.

For me this is why my second draft is just as important as my first draft. Because once I’ve reached the end of the story and understand all the rules and all the players then I can go back through and smooth out rough spots or add foreshadowing or a little more of a reveal earlier on. Although, surprisingly, it doesn’t require as much as you’d think it would. Mostly just a sentence here or there.

(I am also an under-writer on a first draft so I have to add place and people descriptions and actions during dialogue which does increase wordcount by about 25%. But that’s not the main story that’s being fleshed out, that’s just bringing the reader deeper into the story.)

So anyway. There is no ONE WAY to write a novel.  You do you and don’t let other people tell you you’re wrong if the way you do things works for you.

Writing During Wrenching Times

It’s weird. I’m about to dive into the third and final draft of my sixth cozy mystery. I only finished the first draft on March 2nd and the second draft on the 13th and yet I know going back to it will be odd.

Because it’s a contemporary series and this story ends on the first day of spring, which is basically right now. And I know, for example, that there’s a little back and forth scene in there where my hero and heroine (because there’s a romance subplot) are bantering back and forth about all the places where they could go for a weekend getaway. My heroine suggests Iceland or Argentina or Guatemala. My hero is all for San Diego.

It’s a conversation that I could’ve seen happening when I wrote it a month ago. But now…

Not so much. I’m still going to finish it up as if it wasn’t happening in this world and this spring. But something that should’ve passed by as a nothing scene will have a different resonance for readers now.

My thought had been that I’d turn to a fantasy novel next. I’ve had three of them percolating away in the background of my mind, but in the last couple weeks it’s like those three novels just dried up and disappeared. Maybe because in my fantasy I like to wrestle with big ideas and I’m not sure what ideas I can safely wrestle with right now.

(I had a post I’d written yesterday that I chose not to publish about all the dark things I’ve thought about as part of this whole thing. Those squiggly little thoughts that were well hidden under a rock but are starting to see the light as people reveal themselves through their actions. But who wants to write about that when it’s playing out right here, right now?)

It’s a challenge. To write at all. To figure out what to write. To keep going and keep focused rather than watch the chaos and try to figure out what’s coming next or how bad it’ll get. To not take the anger and anxiety and amplify and spread it further, either in person or through my writing, but to at the same time make sure that people understand what’s coming.

But what’s the other choice? Do you write about happy fluffy bunnies when the world is on fire? People do need them, but wow that’s a tough one to pull off.

And I know the wrenching change isn’t done happening just yet either. So what seems good to write today may not seem so great in six weeks when that first draft is done…But if you want to keep moving forward you have to do it regardless.

 

Reading is My Refuge

My last two years at Stanford were two of the hardest years of my life. I had decided to triple major–which included a major I didn’t even start until my junior year–and I was also working more than full time to pay for room and board. So 19 or 20 units each quarter plus 50 hours of work a week. Oh, and I was commuting from Sunnyvale my junior year so add in a real drive each day as well.

It may seem strange, but what got me through it was reading. Mostly fiction books, but some non-fiction too. (That was when Guns, Germs, and Steel came out and I absolutely loved that book.) That first finals week I think I read three fantasy novels while studying for and taking all of my exams.

I was lucky to work in a bookstore and so have free access to books. (It was a company program, I wasn’t cheating in any way.) But even if I hadn’t, I would’ve worked an extra hour a week to be able to buy books, they were that important to me.

Which is why yesterday I dropped the ebook prices on about a dozen different titles. Since I know there are people like me out there who are desperately in need of a distraction right now, I thought I’d help out a bit.

We’re all going to need to get away and disconnect to make it through this. For some that will be video games or TV shows or movies. For others it will be books.

So…If you’re a book person, here’s what I’ve put on sale. It’s a very eclectic mix as you’ll see. Hopefully there’s something in there for everyone:

Just click on the image to be taken to the Books2Read page which should have links for all retailers. Or you can just go to your favorite retailer and look the titles up. All except for Erelia are available everywhere and most libraries should also be able to get them.

Non-Fiction ($2.99 USD each)

Excel for Beginners open sans boldv2

Excel for Beginners: A guide to Microsoft Excel for those who need to master the basics.

 

 

Budgeting for Beginners open sans

Budgeting for Beginners: A book that will teach you how to figure out where you are financially, judge what that means, and give tips for how to improve. Especially helpful right now for those who are finding themselves without a steady paycheck, because it covers how to approach irregular income like that. (Also available in audio as the Juggling Your Finances Starter Kit.)

Quick--Easy-Cooking-for-One-KindleQuick & Easy Cooking for One: Exactly what it says. A guide to cooking for yourself for the absolute beginner. More concept-based than step-by-step, but it does include recipes.

 

 

Writing for Beginners open sans

Writing for Beginners: An overview of what a beginning writer should know to get started. Includes discussions of point of view, tense, as well as agents and publishing paths. (Also available in audio under the title The Beginning Writer’s Guide to What You Should Know.)

 

Dont Be a Douchebag PC version 20160803v10Don’t Be a Douchebag: Online Dating Advice I Wish Men Would Take: A snarky guide to online dating for men who aren’t doing so well at it. (Also available in audio. Some retailers may have a different cover.)

 

 

Fiction:

Riders-Revenge-The-Complete-Trilogy-GenericThe Rider’s Revenge Trilogy: ($4.99 USD) A feminist YA fantasy adventure trilogy about a young girl who sets out to avenge her father and finds herself caught up in much bigger issues.

 

 

Erelia blue flame 20151222v5Erelia: (Available on Amazon Only, $2.99 USD and in KU) A dystopian utopia. Life seems perfect on the surface, but the reader sees just what horrible actions create that perfection. Also has a pandemic subplot. (I had unpublished this one just because I thought it needed a sequel and I wasn’t sure when I’d write that sequel, so be forewarned.)

 

A-Dead-Man-and-Doggie-Delights-KindleA Dead Man and Doggie Delights: (99 cents) First in what will soon be a six-book cozy mystery series set in the Colorado mountains. For lovers of Newfoundland dogs, Colorado, and quirky characters who like a little murder on the side. (Book 2, A Crazy Cat Lady and Canine Crunchies is also reduced to $2.99 USD.)

 

Something-Worth-Having-KindleSomething Worth Having ($2.99 USD): Contemporary romance bordering on women’s fiction. About a woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis who goes on a road trip with a man she is absolutely not allowed to fall in love with. (A related but standalone title, Something Gained, is also just $2.99 right now.

 

Effective Communication is Key

Don’t worry my writer followers, although this touches on coronavirus (again) it is also geared towards writers at the end, so hang in there with me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending what is probably too much time trying to figure out what was headed my way and how to prepare for it when it comes to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus outbreak. (When my grandma asked me yesterday if I’d stocked up for this thing, I said “Yes, five weeks ago” and I was not kidding. Better to be prepared and not need it than not prepare in my opinion.)

At the end of the day the best resources I found were on Twitter. Most of those resources have been very good about simplifying highly technical medical discussions so that someone like me–an interested layperson with no medical training–can understand what they were saying. (Flatten the curve, social distancing, etc.)

(I have bookmarks right now to @JeremyKonyndyk, @CT_Bergstrom, @ScottGottliebMD, and @juliettekayyem among others if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole yourself.)

But I’ve been thinking a lot about a thread I saw last week by what was probably a highly-educated researcher summarizing very important research. (I want to say it was about IGG antibodies, but don’t quote me on that because I am not a medical researcher and I can’t find the thread to verify.)

I ran across this particular thread because one of the people I was following had shared it and it was supposed to contain some sort of good news with respect to the virus. But by the time I finished the thread I had no clue what it was saying. None.

What they provided was a series of technical facts that made perfect sense to them. Something along the lines of “At 2 days, XYZ levels are .213% but by 5 days they have dropped to .013% but FGH levels have risen to 3%.”

Anyone in their field would’ve probably read that summary and said, “Oh, wow. Great news. Thanks for sharing.”

But for those of us who didn’t know what those abbreviations meant or what the percent values represented, we were completely lost. That researcher needed one or two tweets more to say, “And this is what that means.”

The reason I bring it up here is because at the very bottom of the thread someone had actually responded something along the lines of “Could you please simply that for us non-technical types?” and the author of the thread replied, “I did.”

I laughed, because, well, no. They did not.

They were so caught up in their area of expertise that they couldn’t step back from it to make what they were saying accessible to a non-technical audience. Which is absolutely crucial when dealing with an issue like we’re dealing with right now. The scientists and doctors can see what’s happening in their area of expertise, but then they need to pass that information on to others to get them to act.

Someone needs to translate R-nought values and CFRs into something my grandma can understand.

It’s not enough to know something or to personally understand it. If you want others to learn or to take action based upon what you know, you have to be able to translate what you know in such a way that others can also understand and act upon it.

As most of you who follow this blog know, I write a lot of non-fiction, some of it on more technical topics like Microsoft Excel and regulatory compliance. One of the consistent challenges in writing those books is determining who my audience is, because it can’t be everyone. I have to choose a target knowledge level for my audience and then present that audience with enough information to further their understanding but not so much information that I lose them and not at such a simple level that they disconnect and move on because they already know everything I’m saying.

That means I can’t stop in the middle of a book on regulatory compliance fundamentals and have a ten-page debate with myself about the optimal regulatory structure for the financial services industry. I may be able to write those ten pages, but that book is not the place to do it.

You have to know your audience and gear your message to that audience.

I’ve seen this issue play out often with those who have technical training. They want to be absolutely 100% precise about what they’re saying because they know all the nuance. But being absolutely 100% precise only works if your audience is full of experts. If they’re not, you will lose them by being too precise.

The best discussion I ever saw of this issue was in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to teach or persuade others because it does a tremendous job of walking through how to meet your audience where they are right now and move them forward from that point. It truly is a masterclass in rhetoric.

So bringing this back to writing and being a writer and the lesson we can all learn from this. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction it’s important to step outside of your viewpoint and ask what your audience is going to perceive. Have you given them enough information to understand what you’re telling them? Are you making assumptions about their level of knowledge that you shouldn’t be? Whether it’s explaining the relationship between two characters, describing the room they’re sitting in, or letting your readers know what XYZ stands for and what a level of .125% means, it’s all the same issue.

You can’t bring others along with you and get them to where you want them to be if you can’t communicate effectively.

 

The Beauty and Danger of Publishing

One of the things that appeals to me most about publishing is that something I created long ago can continue to pay me money. I have titles I published in 2013 that continue to sell today. (Not many copies because those are all dead pen names that I don’t do much to promote, but sales are sales and that effort was done and dusted long ago.)

But most titles won’t continue to sell forever without continued effort to release more material under that name or promote them. So the same thing that appeals to me about publishing (long-term income from a project I finished long ago) is also what I have to guard against.

So far today I’ve sold 36 books on Amazon, which is great and will help pay my rent. But book sales are a lagging indicator. They happen after all the work has been done. After all the words have been put on the page, all the editing and formatting has been done, after the cover and title have been chosen, and after the publishing and promoting have been done.

It can be easy to focus on the sales number and forget about the months of effort that were required to get those sales. And because sales of most titles do trail off over time that means you can be headed for a fall off a cliff and not realize it. And when you do realize it you can be months behind where you should be to get things back on track.

So far today I haven’t written any words. I could probably continue to do that for six months without seeing any sort of huge impact on my income. It would probably require more promotional effort over time, but I could keep pretty steady for a while. But if I did that for a year? Or two? I’d definitely feel the pinch.

That’s why it’s important to track leading indicators as well. My big one, of course, is words written. (And to some extent, titles published. Writing words is meaningless for what I’m talking about here if those words aren’t going to lead to publishable titles.) The words I write are always the first step in the process. Without those, I have no new material.

The other one for me–that I also make into a New Year’s resolution–is ad spend. I target a certain amount of ad spend per month with the expectation that ad spend leads to sales.

So while it’s nice to see those sales and it helps take a little of the pressure off to know that money is coming in two months from now, it’s not safe to focus on just that sales number. I need to instead focus on production and building a base of material because it is far too easy to get lulled into a sense of false security with publishing.

 

A Good Post on Writing Scams To Watch Out For

One of the hardest aspects of getting published, either traditionally or by self-publishing, is knowing what’s legitimate and what’s a scam. And there are people out there who make a very good living by taking advantage of the ignorance and hopes of aspiring authors.

Anne R. Allen had an excellent post on her blog this week outlining ten current publishing scams to look out for.

My one quibble with what she said is that for non-fiction I think print is a much bigger part of sales than it is for fiction, even for self-publishers.

But still. Don’t go paying for a box full of books to sell out of your garage unless you are already established as a speaker with an audience you can sell them to. Print on demand (through KDP Print or IngramSpark) is the best option for print for self-publishing, IMO, unless you’ve pre-sold a large number of books already, like, for example, through a Kickstarter project and can justify the cost of a print run.

(And those scams targeting teens have been around for ages. I once “won” placement in a lovely gold-embossed book of poetry which was only $50 to buy. Fortunately, I was not so excited to see my poems in print that I paid it.)