Long-Term Thinking in a Short-Term World

I’ve been playing around with my Access database today. It’s where I track all of my book sales across different platforms and I needed to update my reports to link the multiple paperback versions of the Excel guides so they wouldn’t appear on separate lines in my consolidated reports.

Anyway. Long story short, I created a “Net Profit and Loss by Series” report out of all of it that incorporates my advertising spend as well as what I’ve spent on covers.

Good news is out of 25 “series”, all but two are net profitable.

Bad news is that one of the series that’s still a net loss is my fantasy trilogy.

Why? Primarily because of the cost of the absolutely gorgeous covers.

Seeing that negative number on the report almost two years after book 1 launched makes my gut clench.

I feel this compelling need to second-guess all my decisions and hard work and where I’ve focused my efforts.

My top series in terms of net profits? That damned sort of kind of written-to-market billionaire romance series. My number two? My two romance novels that are standalone but related. Conclusion? Write more romance. But…

It’s not that simple.

Because I’m trying to play the long game here.

And part of my strategy meant not pushing too hard on promoting the series until it was done. I launched book 1 of the fantasy series at a price of $4.99.

Sure, I threw some advertising at it, but if my focus had been on getting as many sales as possible as soon as possible, I would’ve priced at 99 cents.

But that would’ve been penny-wise and pound foolish in my opinion. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I think I’m a good enough author people will read through my entire series if they enjoy book 1, but not so good that they’ll wait me out like they do Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin.

If my books aren’t there to buy they won’t be bought. And I don’t write these novels in a few weeks or even a few months.

I knew book 1 was going to be hanging out there by itself for a while and that most of the readers I attracted to book 1 wouldn’t hang around for book 3 whenever it was out. So every reader that bought book 1 before the series was done was probably a long-term loss.

I’m weak, though. I’ve run AMS ads on the books for over a year now, because I just couldn’t stand to see them not selling at all.

And I weakened further in January when I applied for a Bookbub. I got it. (International-only in a small category, thankfully.)

AMS and applying for that Bookbub didn’t fit my long-term strategy of waiting for the series to be complete, but I just needed to know the series could sell.

Because it’s hard to delay that gratification that long. To see other authors talking about the thousands of copies they’re selling and see their great book ranks.

So after succumbing to the temptation of a Bookbub in January I reminded myself  repeatedly that I had a long-term plan.

When I launched book 3 in June and was less than impressed with the results of the promo, there was a huge temptation to drop the price on all of the books and scramble for more sales. To do something that would make me feel like I was good at this writing thing.

But I had a plan.

And doing that would’ve ruined it.

So I kept the price high, waited for my KU period to end, and applied for another Bookbub. A bigger one.

And I got it.

International-only still. But in a bigger category with the hope of a U.S. deal in the future.

(Thanks I’m sure in large part to those expensive covers.)

It’s killing me to watch my book ranks right now. To know that I’m not getting page reads through KU anymore.

But I have a plan.

I have to remind myself, it’s not about my Amazon U.S. ranking today. It’s about that Bookbub next month. And it’s about the series I’m going to write after this. And the one after that.

Twelve books. Four trilogies. That’s the goal. That’s when I’ll know.

I have  to remember that I have a strategy. One that requires white-knuckling it through the between times and having an oversized ego to believe for that long.

I know I’ll stumble along the way. The high of a sales spike is too tempting to resist forever. But I have a plan. A goal. A strategy. One that involves higher prices and slow but steady releases.

One book at a time, like bricks in a wall, I’m going to get there. Building up my catalog until together those books make something strong and powerful and lasting.

Or at least that’s the theory…

It’s True Until It Isn’t

Long before I got into this writing thing, I was considered a national expert in a little niche area of securities regulation. Well, not too niche, but niche enough. Part of my job at the time was working with a very small group to decide how serious various violations of those regulations were.

Now what made this really fun is that we weren’t the final authority. We had our own regulators who sometimes informed us of their view of the seriousness of those violations that we then had to follow and convey to our staff.

And, of course, the rules and guidance changed over time, too. What wasn’t a violation one year was the next.

Which all meant that I could tell someone something on Monday and by the next Monday the answer could be different. (Not often, fortunately, but it happened.)

I learned then that what I told people was true at that moment for that situation, but that it could change.

It makes putting yourself out there as an expert on anything a bit fraught. You give the advice you know as you know it at the time, but no one ever knows anything 100%. Ever. And if they do, only for that moment.

Why am I on about this today?

Well, first, after writing a book about CreateSpace just a month or two ago and saying in there that publishing a book in color is cost prohibitive, I just published three books in color.

And I do stand by it being cost prohibitive for a full-length novel. You’d have to list a novel at about $36 to publish it in color while using expanded distribution.

And it was still enough of a bump in cost that I also did black and white versions. (I went with $17.95 for each of the color versions of the books instead of the $12.95 for the paperbacks. And even then one is not going to be available on expanded distribution because it would’ve had to be $21.95 before I was at a point where I didn’t have to pay CreateSpace for each sale.)

But still. It makes me twitch that I made that statement and then turned around and did the opposite.

The fact of the matter is you almost never have time to discuss all the ins and outs and nuance of a question in such finite detail that you’ve covered all your bases. Especially if you want to give people a level of information that they can use without burying them in what they don’t need.

I’ve been thinking about this with respect to AMS recently too. I hope in the book I wrote on AMS that I set forth the mechanics of the ads, how I use them and why, and made it clear that they’re a constantly shifting target and that what works today may not work tomorrow or that what works for me may not work for others.

But still it’s in the back of my mind all the time that I put that book out there. And because of that people will look at my books and their U.S. Amazon ranks and judge what I say in that book based on that.

Even when AMS isn’t the strategy I’m using on my books at the time.

When I was knee-deep in the Excel guides, I actually turned off almost all of my AMS ads. I had been experimenting with a low-bid strategy on a lot of them since that’s been the topic of discussion lately, but I decided the experiments were a failure. I didn’t have time to get new ads up and running, so I shut down the old ones.

But no one would know that. They’d just see the book ranks and think, why listen to that idiot? Which, fair enough. It’s why I tried to spend as much time on mechanics and thought process as I did on what to do. So readers would still have that base of knowledge to work from for their own ads.

Now I’m just rambling. So let me bring this home.

No matter who the expert is. No matter what they say. You need to weigh that against the current environment and their current level of knowledge on that subject.

Especially in publishing where things are changing at lightning speed. Remember that any advice someone gives is very likely true at the time they give it and given what they know in that moment, but it may not be true later or if they had other facts. Your best bet is to learn the fundamentals, find the most up-to-date knowledge you can, and apply that to the fundamentals.

(I know, easier said than done.)

The Flaws of AMS

It’s Friday, so time to talk AMS.  And writing. And life.

A few things happened this week that have me thinking. (Nothing new there. If my mind isn’t off on about ten tracks at once I don’t know what to do with myself.)

First, I almost wrote a post called “Maybe Indie Writing Isn’t For You” after seeing one too many authors losing their shit over stuff you can’t control. Namely, reviews. Oh, and going back a couple weeks, price matching. (This does tie back to AMS, just give me a minute.)

Second, this week Amazon issued a credit to some users of AMS for over-reporting estimated sales on certain Product Display ads. I’m pretty sure my credit related to ads I ran in 2015 and 2016 and estimated sales isn’t how I judge ad performance anyway so I was quite happy to take my $50 and continue doing what I’m doing.

Third, someone made a comment in a thread on Kboards about how people claim to be doing well with AMS and then you go and look at their book ranking and they’re only selling a couple books a day.

So, let’s start with that third point first.

I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Kboards. Every once in a while I pick up some little bit of information there that helps me move my writing one step further along the path, so there’s value in being there for me.

But I get heartily sick of the “if you’re not selling thousands of books a day you’re not worth listening to” mindset that pervades the place. I know far more self-published writers who would be happy with a sale or two a day than I do authors who sell thousands of copies. And, quite frankly, a lot of what those who sell thousands of copies a day have to say doesn’t apply to newer writers.

This summer I listened to a presentation by someone who is full-time self-published and their advice was that you could write a book a year and do well. All you had to do was launch it with a Bookbub on the first in series, which had happened for them every single time they published.

Oh, is that all? Yeah, okay. I’ll get right on giving away 25,000 copies of my novel so people read the rest of the series and I gain a lot of new fans.

Before that little pep talk I ‘d read another post about “how I launched my book into the top 1000 of the Amazon store.” Step one, mail your 15,000-person mailing list and tell them the book is out.

Oh, right. Okay. I just need a 15,000-person mailing list of people who like my books. I’ll get right on that.

(Neither of these were on Kboards, by the way.)

I appreciate that someone who is selling hundreds of books a day and wants to get to selling thousands of books a day isn’t going to view the information of someone selling a handful of books each day as worth listening to.

And because of that I can even go farther and say that AMS won’t have as much value for them.

AMS does not scale well for most people or for most ads. I have the one romance ad that was willing to spend up to $50 a day a while back. I’ve dialed it back some so now it’s willing to spend up to $30 a day.  Which for me is big money.  That’s $900 a month on one book. That’s plenty for me to spend, thanks.  But for a heavy hitter who wants to spend $10,000 a month it’s a waste of their time to try to get AMS to scale to that level.

I have twenty-plus ads running at any given time and only one or two of them perform like that. For someone trying to generate hundreds of sales, yeah, my advice won’t help.

For someone where I was a year ago who just wants to see steady sales? AMS are great.

Also, because of the horrid reporting, AMS are a much better tool for someone going from basically nothing to having sales as a result of AMS. Before I started running the ads a lot of my books were only selling maybe a copy a week. Which makes me comfortable attributing all of my paperback and ebook sales to the ads while they’re running.  For someone further along than me, that wouldn’t work.

(It’s like when I was in KU a while back and I could say that most people read my novels in about two days. A more successful author wouldn’t be able to say that. I could at the time because I would see one borrow and a full-read and then nothing for a few days. We are not all seeing or experiencing things the same way and that’s too often forgotten. Fortunately? My page reads are now to steady for that.)

There was some discussion when those credits were issued this week about how horrible Amazon is and how we can’t trust them.  And, it being the 15th of the month, I’m sure there’ll be a nice juicy thread about KU and page reads today that says similar things.

But here’s the deal. The way I judge AMS has nothing to do with what that dashboard says about sales. I ask, “What did I spend on an ad on that book for this period of time?” And then I ask, “What did I earn on that book for the same period of time for ebook sales, KU page reads, and paperback sales?”  If what I earned is more than what I spent, who gives a *bleep* about the rest of it?

I get really analytical at the keyword level for AMS ads because I’m trying to refine them the best I can.  But in terms of keeping an ad going? What did I spend?  What did I make?  For me, I get to make those calculations about every ten days when I get billed by AMS.  Everyone can make those judgements monthly if they’re running the ads.

Is Amazon flawed? Sure. Absolutely. KU is a cluster half the time. AMS reporting is shit. But at the end of the day, it’s very simple. Are you making more participating than it’s costing you? If so, continue. If not, bail. Find another solution. Accept that it’s a flawed system and judge by the outcome alone.

At least that’s what I do. And sorry this was a bit blathery. I’m still recovering from writing and publishing those Excel guides.

Bottom-line: Accept the system as it is and judge whether you can work within it, no matter how flawed. Also, know that what works for someone at one level may not work for someone at another level so factor that into who you listen to and what weight you give what they say.

 

It’s Done When You Hate It

A lot of times newer writers ask when you know something is done and ready to publish. Often the answer is some variation of “when you’re so sick of looking at it that you need to get it out the door before you light it on fire.”

So true.

Last night I hit publish on four Excel guides. I literally wrote a novel’s worth of words about Microsoft Excel.

Why? Because I’m weird and I actually find solving problems with Excel fun.

And I have fiction writers’ block at the moment because I’m not sure what novel to write next, so while my back brain works on solving that problem I had to do something to keep busy. (Last year I wrote a random cookbook when this happened.)

It was fun writing the guides at first. Asking myself things like how do you teach someone about pivot tables?  Or how do you calculate a factor for AMS that accounts for KU borrows? Or how would you build an advertising tracker that calculates whether an ad was profitable or not? (Something I’d been doing manually up to that point.)

But by the time I had to redo all of the images in all of the files because I decided they were too blurry. And by the time I finish formatting each of them in Vellum, trying to decide which annoyed me more–an extra space above an image or an indented paragraph after an image. And by the time I decided that in the ebook form I really needed to split out sub-headings for some of the chapters into their own chapter so users could easily find those sections…

Yeah. By then I hated the guides. I’d seen those words so many times.

So so many times.

I was done. Get it away from me before I take a sledge hammer to it.

I get like that with novels, too. When I’m at the point where I think I’d rather poke sharp knives into my eyes than read the darned thing one more time, I know it’s ready to go.

(By then the creation part has long since passed and it’s just little fiddly bits and finding those last five typos that you swear weren’t there the day before.)

Of course, I’m actually not done just yet. I still have to do the paperbacks…

Sigh.

And publish to Kobo and Nook. And set up on AMS on the books. And…

Yeah.

Good news is I’ll be ready for a brand new project come Friday.  And it won’t involve Excel. Yay!

Bad news is I have to grit my teeth and push through today. (After I take the pup in for x-rays and have lunch with my grandma whose brother just died. Because some things matter more than the writing.)

Miss Priss Mondays (and an AMS Ads for Authors Note)

It’s been one of those days. While dealing with something that required the use of copious amounts of  bleach, I dropped my phone in said bleach, so then had to run it under water to get the bleach off before it did any damage. Now my phone is soaking in rice while it hopefully dries out so it can start working again.

If it does die it’s not the end of the world. I have an iPhone so small that people comment on it, that’s how old it is. But I really didn’t need to buy a new phone right now, so fingers-crossed water and rice save it from the bleach.

In the meantime, have a puppy who really didn’t want to leave the dog park. This was at Glencarlyn in DC where they had a great river for the dogs to swim in.

Sad Faced Pup

And, two quick announcements. AMS Ads for Authors is now available on pretty much every retailer except Google. (If someone really wants me to put it on Google I can, I just don’t seem to sell non-fiction on there and don’t particularly like their preview options, especially when it comes to non-fiction.)

Also, the Rider’s series is rolling out of KU this week. If anyone was in the midst of reading those books through KU, be sure to borrow them before September 8th. You don’t have to read them before then, just borrow them. So, fair warning.

AMS and The Mystery of the Also-Boughts

One of the things I do with my own AMS ads, and that I recommend others do, is list the authors in their also-boughts as keywords.  Makes sense, right? Enough people who bought your book also bought books by this other author so it seems like a good place to target your advertising.

Except…

AMS ads don’t work on a pure bid-based process.  You can’t just bid the most and be placed on a book’s page. There’s some Amazon algorithm at work that decides how relevant your keywords are for that particular author, book, or search. And if Amazon decides you aren’t relevant, almost no amount of money will get your ad on that page.

You’d think that Amazon would see that an author in your also-boughts is a good match for your advertisement. But in my experience it’s just not the case.

I spent most of today consolidating impressions, clicks, spend, and sales on my Rider’s books across about 18 different ads I’ve run over the last 18 months. When it was all combined I had 5.7 million impressions and 1,567 keywords. (80 with a paid sale, 447 with at least one click, for those who were interested.)

Right now, for the top author in my also-boughts I’ve only managed to rack up 3,124 impressions using their name.

For the next author I only have 5,479 impressions.

Compare that to 370,000 impressions for my most popular author name.

So what gives? Why can’t I get more impressions on those authors who are in my also-boughts?

Is it because they aren’t popular enough so there just aren’t that many impressions to be had?  Well, no. After Rachel E. Carter’s books dominated my also-boughts in January I tried my darnedest to use her as a keyword but had almost no results. And she was in the top 50 paid in the store at the time.

Maybe those authors are just really expensive to use as keywords and I’m not bidding high enough? That could be some of it. Many of them are in the top 100 authors for the genre, and one of those authors did cost me about 75 cents when I managed to get a click using their name.

The other thing I always wonder is, how did these authors end up in my also-boughts int the first place?

Granted, about 20% of my impressions and clicks are from generic genre-driven keywords.  So that could explain that…

I kind of like that you don’t know exactly what’s happening with AMS. It makes them a fun challenge. (Although the last few days they seem to be a fun challenge that has stopped working well…Last time that happened was in April and it hurt. A lot.)

Anyway. Back to drafting a whole new set of keywords because the Rider’s books are rolling out of KU in a week and I don’t want to target lower-priced or KU-dominant titles when I won’t be in KU and will be selling at $6.99. Good times.

Too Much Focus on Earnings, Too Little on Expenses

Self-publishing is a business. You’re selling a product to people for money. And, unless you have some independent source of wealth, at some point you need to make more than you spend to keep doing it.  And yet…

What do self-publishers focus on 90% of the time? (I think the exception would be some of the promotions threads I’ve seen where people break down what they spent and what they earned from a promo.) They focus on earnings. Or how many books they’ve sold.

We talk about six-figure authors and how impressive they are without ever asking how much they spent to earn those six figures.  And we take their advice over the advice of others even if it’s possible that they’re worse business owners than someone who makes fifty thousand a year. If someone spends $90,000 to make $100,000 they’re actually doing worse than someone who spends $10,000 to make $50,000.  At least from a long-term sustainable business point of view.

(Now, we could argue about whether that person making $100,000 will be better off in the long run because they’re building a bigger customer base for all their subsequent books, but if you’re not in fast-build mode that 90/100 ratio is not going to be sustainable unless you can scale the hell out of it. And if the only way you’re bringing in those readers is with heavy advertising and they aren’t staying once you get them…Well…That’s not good either.)

So why am I talking about this? I’m not at either level.

Well, because I needed a reality check on this myself.  I was so proud in June to have my first $1,000+ month. And to repeat that in July and now August. I thought, finally, I’m getting some traction with this. I envisioned a $30,000 year maybe. And that was exciting to me.

And then I added advertising costs into the mix.

Revenue-wise, year four was more than four times year two. But when you account for advertising?  Year four was only 1.25 times better.

I made thousands more, but I also spent thousands more to get there. And even though I’m still net ahead year four vs. year two, it’s not by near as much as I thought it was. And my best month when you account for advertising expenses? The month I released my written to market billionaire romance short story. My second best month? When I completed the other stories in that series and ran a free promo on the first in series.

Good news is that since I started running AMS heavily in July of last year my months have been more profitable than before. But that sure shows me the power of writing to market, because when you do that customers are looking for you. You don’t have to pay to find them.