Getting a Bookbub

This was another one that came up at the conference last weekend where I wanted to raise my hand and say “uh-uh”. And that’s the myth that it takes 50 reviews before you can get a Bookbub.

I just had my third Bookbub on Rider’s Revenge (two internationals–one in fantasy, one in YA–and a U.S. only in the YA category) in January. Right now that book has twelve reviews on Amazon and forty-seven on Goodreads. When it got its first Bookbub last January it had I think 8 on Amazon and maybe 9 on Goodreads.

(Contrast that with my first-in-series romance that I couldn’t get a Bookbub for that had over 100 Goodreads reviews at the time I applied. I also know of box sets that have had Bookbubs even though they had no reviews at all.)

I don’t know exactly why they chose Rider’s Revenge, but I can guess. One, is the cover. It has an incredibly strong cover. Also, I entered it in both the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off in 2016 and in a Writer’s Digest contest, so I have editorial reviews on this book that are both very positive.

Bookbub sent out a handy-dandy checklist today for anyone who wants to apply for an ad with them discussing what they look for. It’s well worth reading (and embedded below):

boost-chances-bookbub-featured-deal

Bottom line: Ignore the myths about what it takes to qualify for a Bookbub and just apply. Worst that happens they say no once a month. Best that happens, you get a Bookbub.

Depending on the category it might not be life-changing. Some people talk about how Bookbub made their career for them. Three Bubs a year and they were six-figure authors as a result. Not so much the case for me. YA is not as big a category as contemporary romance, obviously. But they’re generally profitable ads (all of mine have been profitable within twenty-four hours) and they help chip away at discoverability at a scale that most ads can’t.

Basically, if you don’t get one, it’s not the end of the world. And if you do get one, don’t quit your day job just yet. They’re nice to have and you should definitely apply for them. Because you never know.

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.

Purging FB Friends

That sounds more extreme than it is. But I occasionally will go through my FB friends list and unfriend people.

I’m sure that seems harsh to those who notice it, but I’m also pretty sure that the people I’ve unfriended on there aren’t going to notice. And that’s because there’s a certain type of person who uses Facebook not as a place to form genuine connection with others but more like a social rolodex.

Now, maybe it’s my age. I grew up pre-Facebook. Hell, I didn’t have email access until college. And even then it was within your school unless you found the IP address and looked through the student directory of your friends’ schools.

But I digress.

So this weekend I was at a writing conference. I’d been there the year before. And as part of being there the year before I’d added some new Facebook friends. I’m always happy to do that for someone I’ve had a nice conversation with. Because I figure that’s a way to keep in touch with them and maybe take a good initial connection and broaden it into a friendship.

And throughout the last year I’d seen the posts these folks made. I knew about their ski trips and their new pets and their story publications. I had learned a little more about them.  I’d liked a post here or replied to a post there.

But I realized this weekend that that wasn’t a two-way street. That for the folks I just unfriended I was just part of their audience, not someone they were trying to form a genuine connection with. While I knew more about them, they barely remembered we’d met before.

Partially that’s Facebook’s fault. If you have 600 “friends” you’re not going to see all their posts. Facebook curates what it shows.

But it’s also on those people for forming one-way connections. You want to have 600 FB friends? Fine. But if you want those 600 people to genuinely feel like friends and not just voyeurs of your life, then make a point to visit the personal page of everyone in your friends list on a regular basis. Once a month see what they’ve posted and add a like or make a comment. Do something that shows it’s not all about you.

Now, I know that some are reading this and thinking, huh? Do people really care about these things? And I will admit that many don’t. That’s why when blogs were big you could have hundreds or thousands of blog followers and only ten people who actually read your posts. Because people followed your blog just so you’d follow theirs.

But for the type of person I am (Relator being one of my top five strengths on the Strengthsfinder test), this sort of thing actually matters. And I will shut down a one-way “friendship”. Because it’s not a friendship. It’s not a genuine connection. And those are what actually matter to me.

So, anyway. Just throwing it out there.

What Makes A Story Well-Written?

Over on Twitter someone mentioned that they were starting to “read” (audio version), Nora Robert’s Year One and that reminded me that I’ve been trying to decipher for myself what makes a book well-written.

I normally try not to call out specific books, but that one represents for me exactly the conundrum that this question brings up.

My mother is a huge Nora Roberts fan. She’s currently re-reading all thirty-plus JD Robb books and routinely rereads her Nora Roberts romances. So she loves this woman and her writing in whatever form it takes.

But she was disappointed in Year One.

And I think the reasons why highlight something that I’ve been trying to sort through for myself as a writer.

I think there are two types of good writing. There’s writing that pulls you from page to page through a story. It’s something in that particular writer’s word choice and sentence structure and description and dialogue that keeps you reading. For my mother, Year One had that. She finished the book in two days even though she didn’t really like it.

I did, too.

There’s something about how Nora Roberts writes a story that is easy and enjoyable. Whatever this combination is (and I think it’s unique for each writer that has this skill), it makes reading a pleasurable experience.

But that kind of good writing isn’t guaranteed to make a book an enjoyable read that you want to recommend to others or read again. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have that satisfied feeling that the best books give.

SPOILER ALERT:In this case, part of the issue was that this book isn’t a romance but it also doesn’t do well as what it is. There’s a couple at the beginning of the book and by the end of the book one of those two is dead and the other person is with someone new. And the story is not about moving from that first relationship to a better one. So not a romance. Also, it starts as multiple viewpoint so you’re led to care about numerous people, but then the book skips over a significant part of their personal journeys and ends with us not knowing what happened to all but one character. And not in a cliff-hanger way. In a “the last 100 pages are about one person only and who cares what happened to all those others when they were all attacked” way.

So I keep asking myself what it was this book was missing. Because I read it. Cover to cover in two days. I didn’t set it aside.

It was well-written, but I think perhaps not well-told.

And I think that a truly great story is both. It has writing that engages the reader but it also has believable characters and good conflict and it keeps all the story lines gathered together and resolves all of them in a satisfying manner. There aren’t incongruent scenes. (A problem I had with book 2 by a different author recently.) And you see the key parts on the page. (I happened to think the last Brad Thor book was one of the better ones he’d written recently until the last twenty pages or so when it skipped ahead a couple weeks and summarized how things ended. Like, what? That takes all the satisfaction away, thanks.)

I don’t think there’s one formula here. I can think of a dozen authors I think write well and can carry any story and they’re all different in how they do that. And I can think of another handful who don’t write so well but tell a story so riveting that you just have to keep going.

As a reader my personal dread is the person who writes well but tells horrible stories because I’ll keep reading even as I hate them for making me do so. It’s terrible to want to throw a book away but be drawn forward by the writing. I’d far rather read a good story with messy writing than an awful story with good writing.

Anyway. It’s something I think about and try to learn from although I clearly haven’t puzzled it all out just yet.

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.