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.

Mindset

I wanted to be an astronaut when I was growing up. Enough that I went to an engineering-focused college my freshman year, declared myself a physics and electrical engineering major, and signed up for a special tour of NASA in Houston. I even had a whole folder of articles on the space program that I’d cut out of the paper. My college essay was about going to space.

But I’m not an astronaut.

Because I didn’t have the mindset to get there. When I heard that you had to have perfect vision to be an astronaut, I gave up. And I soon switched to majoring in psychology.

Compare that to a man who actually became an astronaut, Chris Hadfield. I watched his masterclass last week and in the last video he was talking about how he became an astronaut.

He decided he wanted to be one when he lived in a country that didn’t even have a space program at the time. And then he spent over a decade-plus working towards that goal, becoming a test pilot, getting a masters, etc. all while that goal was not even something anyone else would have thought was possible. Because of that, when his country finally put an ad in the paper for astronauts he was there and ready to act.

He believed that impossible things happen. And because he did, he succeeded where I failed. He had the mindset to succeed.

I’ve always considered myself a fairly successful person, but I realize looking at what he did that I’ve often chosen the easier path instead of persevering when I faced a setback. (My moving to New Zealand is a perfect example. I do not live there today because I let their rejection of my residency application stop me when there were other options. Just not the convenient options I wanted, so I gave up.)

Fact is, most of us don’t have the vision and resilience to work towards a goal like becoming an astronaut in a country that doesn’t have a space program. Or becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Or a professional athlete. Or anything else that takes years of hard work, focus, and effort.

But I think a lot of us could at least reassess our mindset to achieve greater success.

(The rest of this is writer-specific, but if you’re not a writer think how this could apply to your circumstances instead.)

There’s a writers’ forum I frequent. (The new one, not the old one.) And I have to say…

I am horrified by what I see as the predominant attitude at that place.

There was an entire discussion there a while back about how it’s not possible to make a living at writing and how no one should bother trying because they’ll just be disappointed. And another one there last week by people boasting how they don’t track their sales because that’s a waste of time and effort. And now there’s one about how AMS ads don’t work or maybe only for those who spend five figures on ads because someone tried them and didn’t get them to work for themselves, so clearly they are a sham.

All of which is…bullshit.

And an example of how a poor mindset can sabotage you.

If you tell yourself that no one can do this, including yourself, do you think you’ll succeed? Do you honestly think you’ll push through when things get tough? No.

If you don’t even try to figure out what contributes to your success and what holds you back, do you think you’ll succeed? Maybe. By luck. But who wants to stake their dreams on luck?

If you try something and fail once and then decide that it must not work, do you think you’ll succeed? Not likely. Most people fail at least once on the way to success.

I mean, sure, some people will succeed while saying you can’t, paying no attention to what helps someone succeed, and giving up and changing direction every time they hit a wall. But most won’t.

So if you want to succeed? Aim high. Believe that even if no one else can do it, you can. When you run into a setback, reassess. Pay enough attention to what works and what doesn’t so you can learn and adjust and adapt.

Does that mean you will succeed? No, of course not. The harder the goal the less likely you’ll achieve it no matter what you do. But having the right mindset certainly makes it a helluva lot more likely.

 

Finding a Way Forward

One of the most challenging things in this business is trying to figure out what to do next. And it’s something that happens to authors at all levels. There is no point in time where an author becomes immune to those questions.

Unless they’re number 1 in all the stores all the time. Maybe then it’s not an issue. But even then I think that author would wonder or doubt or question. “Do I keep writing what got me here? How long will I stay here if I do? What if I don’t enjoy it anymore? What if the readers don’t enjoy it anymore? What if I’m out of ideas?”

And when you’re not where you want to be, it becomes even trickier. You wonder, have I just not given it enough time? Or am I making a mistake here? Am I writing the wrong thing? Or do I need to improve my craft?

Back when I started publishing, the common advice for fiction writers was that it took three books for a series to take off. Some might take off before then but there were many, many authors saying that they suddenly saw a jump in sales at book three. So often authors were told to just keep writing until they had those three books out and then think about what to do next.

I’ve even seen the advice to not even try to advertise until those three books are out. (Advice I hate. If you’re going to do that, then hold all three books back and publish them close together.)

The last year or so that advice has shifted so that now people say that it takes four or five books in a series to take off.

But…

The problem is sometimes you’re not actually hitting reader expectations and so no amount of books are going to get you there.

If you’re headed in the wrong direction, continuing down that path just makes it worse. Especially when writing in a series because most times the next book will sell less copies than the one before. (Unless the whole series suddenly takes off a la JK Rowling.)

The problem with the “wait three books or four or five” advice is that authors don’t stop to question the presentation or quality of their books when they really should.

A while ago on one of the author forums I saw an author tell another author something along the lines of, “I’m so glad to see how successful you are because it lets me know that if I keep going with this, I’ll be successful, too.”

But I looked at that author’s reviews because I was going to make a marketing suggestion to them (apply for a Bookbub because they had gorgeous covers) and I realized that in their case their problem was quality. There were consistent remarks in the reviews indicating that this particular author needed to stop publishing what they were publishing and probably take some craft classes or pay for an in depth critique.

(I should note here that there’s a difference between negative reviews that say “OMG, I read this book in a day and it was awesome but someone please get this person an editor” which actually indicates someone’s doing something right and should keep going and will probably do even better if they get that editor as long as the editor doesn’t destroy their voice, and “I had to quit halfway through because I got so sick and tired of the pages and pages of characters telling each other what had already happened” comment which indicates a craft issue.)

(By the way, this is not someone I know other than seeing them post online, so no one who knows me think this is about them.¬† I actually try not to look at my friends’ books unless they tell me they’re doing really well for this reason. I even avoid the books of people who comment here regularly.)

I think it’s healthy to stop and think about what you’re seeing in your own books. Not what the general trend is, but what you’re seeing. What are your reviews? What are your sales? Are things trending up? Are they trending down? Do you get fan mail?

And I think, too, that sometimes even when you’re doing well it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new. I know more than one author who has moved away from their initial genre to much greater success in a new genre.

There’s value to picking a direction and going in it (if I had done so earlier today I’d be writing the next thing already instead of this blog post), but there’s also value to stopping and adjusting and reassessing, too…

 

Timing Issues

I’m on book four of a NYT-best selling YA fantasy series. I’ve devoured the series. Each book is about six hundred pages long and I’ve probably read the last three in less than a week. But an issue I noticed during book one is making it really hard to finish book four, so I thought I’d write about it here for any authors looking for non-obvious ways to improve their writing.

This author is great at characterization. Look at the 25,000+ reviews that each book has and you’ll see that readers love how fleshed out the characters are and how real they are.

But the author has issues with timing.

In book one there were some obvious ones. For example, in one chapter we’re told it’s been two weeks since an event happened and two chapters later we’re told it’s only been two days. This happened twice that I can remember. They were little hiccups that were somewhat annoying but not enough to keep me from immediately ordering the rest of the books in the series.

Now I’m up to book four and the finale is upon us. There’s someone trapped in a dungeon, another character under siege in a castle, others have fled the invading army, etc. And now all of a sudden all of those timing issues are getting painful. Someone takes¬† a day to follow a trail one direction and an hour to go back down the same trail. Earlier in the book weeks passed, possibly months, for something that should have been incredibly urgent. And a council whose first meeting was supposed to be in a week or two somehow didn’t meet for perhaps months.

All the timeframes are muddied and conflict with each other. Character A goes off to do something and it takes five days. Character B does their thing and it takes two weeks. Then they intersect as if they both took the same amount of time.

I’ve already complained elsewhere about a series where two main characters became so out of synch in how their storylines were presented that they were months apart in alternating chapters. To the point that a minor character was in back to back chapters in completely different parts of the world.

This is worse than that because it’s clear the author didn’t have a good handle on how long anything in the book took to happen. And because they didn’t have that firmly established for themselves, the timing of events slips and slides around in the story that made it onto the page, too.

It’s worse with this book because of the multiple points of view. But this can still be a problem even with single POV novels.

You send someone off to do X, does it make sense that they would take as long as they did to do it?

Or, for example, with my cozies I have to account for the fact that the character actually has a job to show up for six days a week. She can’t just be off solving a crime for three days straight without there being a consequence for that. Right? Or take off for hours every day to investigate clues. At least not during work hours.

So watch for this one. With my multiple POV novel I actually had an Excel spreadsheet with a timeline for all of my main characters and where they were and when to make sure it matched up. But it can be as simple as reading through the novel once with an eye to timing if the focus of the novel is tight enough.

Anyway. Something to think about when you’re not worrying about plot, pacing, characterization, tense, point of view, or genre expectations.

 

 

Let’s Talk Luck

One of my coaching calls this last week was with an extremely successful author. Multiple six-figures and for multiple years. And during part of that conversation the author said, “I’m just lucky, that’s all.” Or something along those lines.

My response was very immediate and very adamant. “No. You were not lucky to be where you are. Sure, maybe the genre you chose and when you published factor into things and that can be about luck. But the ability to produce novels on a consistent basis that meet your readers’ needs has nothing to do with luck. That is all you and your hard work and talent.”

It was an interesting conversation because I’ve never been a fan of the other side of that argument where people who’ve done extremely well say that there was nothing lucky about their success. That it all comes down to how hard they work. I always think that’s a bunch of bullshit, to be honest.

To me it’s always a balance of the two with the hard work taking more than its share but serendipity playing a part as well.

Let me give an example that has nothing to do with writing.

My very first job out of college we were each assigned to a mentor who taught us how to conduct securities examinations. We worked side-by-side with our mentor for about a year. We also had to study for and take a series of tests in that first year, but the bulk of the learning occurred on the job.

I started within about a week of another individual in our office who was extremely intelligent. Fully capable.

But I was assigned to a first-class mentor. Probably the best examiner in our office. And that other person was assigned to one of the worst examiners in our office. It was luck that I was assigned to who I was and that they were assigned to who they were.

And as a result I was provided an environment in which I could flourish and they were not. Luck.

But the hard work I put in to then take advantage of that opportunity was all me. I was the one going after opportunities and eager to learn. I was the one asking questions and working hard to get up to speed.

As a result, I was quickly promoted and this other individual was not. It made a significant difference in our career paths.

And, sure, I can point to how much effort I put in to make that happen.But the fact of the matters is that all that hard work and drive would’ve been wasted if my mentor had been someone else.

So when I think about writing, I always look back on that situation. And I acknowledge that it’s about luck and effort.

Luck happens when the right reader sees your book and helps it go viral. Or you write something that it turns out is in demand with a large number of readers. Or you catch the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time in just the right way.

Effort happens the rest of the time. When you’re writing those books and getting them out there for readers to discover. When you’re learning from your early mistakes and adjusting your plan to account for what you’ve learned about readers or your writing or the market. When you acknowledge what you don’t know and take steps to learn it.

Yeah, maybe it takes luck to make half a million a year as a writer. But most of the authors I know who are very successful in this business (consistent six-figures) also work very hard and very smart. They consistently produce good books that their audience devours.

To do that year in and year out requires more than luck. It requires talent and dedication. So if you’re one of those people, don’t sell yourself short.

Unreliable Narrators

I did something interesting this morning. I read through my diaries from twenty-five years ago. It was fascinating to see what I wrote about versus what I remembered. And it was fascinating too to see what I wrote about and didn’t know I was writing about.

Often in writing we hear about the unreliable narrator. The person who is telling you a story and maybe not telling the whole story or telling the story their way instead of telling the truth. And there’s always this idea that maybe that’s deliberate.

But the funny thing about reading those diary entries was that eighteen-year-old me was telling the truth as I saw it at the time and completely missing some things that were right there on the page. I wasn’t trying to be unreliable. Who tries to be unreliable in their diary? But I was being.

Even more interesting is that I went reading back through those entries because I’d started to wonder if a close friend of mine had maybe been not so close and if I’d just failed to see it at the time. (They ended up dating both someone I’d had a complicated situation with and my best friend which prompted the question all these years later. Coincidence? Or something more?)

And what I realized after doing so is that when you hold memories in your mind and have no record of them when they happened that they grow and shift and take on different forms than they actually had at the time.

Turns out we’re all unreliable narrators. (And more so, whether real or not, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened in the past are more important than what actually happened because the stories we tell ourselves are what we let shape our future.)