Know Your Audience

I was just on Facebook and saw an author mentioning that they’re writing six short stories to serve as an introduction to their main series of novels.

My immediate thought was, that might be a waste of time.

I as a reader am a novel reader. I don’t seek out short stories or novellas. I did recently find myself reading novellas by two authors I like (Kristen Britain and Ilona Andrews) because that’s what they’d released recently and I am constantly starved for more material from what I consider top-tier authors.

They were fine, but if that’s all they ever published again, I’d stop reading them because they wouldn’t be meeting my needs as a reader.

And for a new author? Someone I’ve never read before? I’m not going to buy that 99 cent short story or novella. I won’t even look at it because I’m not a short story or novella reader. Give me a free or 99 cent novel of yours and I might check it out. (Might. I’m weird so rarely buy books on those kinds of sales and still read mostly in print.)

And, yes, there are readers who cross over between stories of all lengths, so writing a short story or novella lead-in to your world might be an effective strategy to bring in a certain percentage of readers. And if you have an opportunity to be in a box set or themed anthology it might make some sense to participate to expand your exposure to new readers.

But, honestly, I would say that if you’re going to commit yourself to writing 50,000 to 100,000 words in a world that you stick to the same general story length and type you’ve already written so that you can pull the readers you attract to one of your titles through your entire series.

As always, YMMV, but something to think about. At the end of the day it all depends on your audience and knowing what they will/will not buy from you.

Hitting Publish

I’m working on the final files for three new titles today and it has me thinking about what it feels like when you’re about to hit publish on a new title. By my count these will be my 136th, 137th, and 138th titles I’ve published.

Now, before you get all impressed with that number a lot of those early titles were short stories and I’ve published collections of other works as well as spun off portions of books into their own series, so on one level that number is not as impressive as it sounds.

But regardless of how long the title is or how much new material it includes the publication stage is always the same for me. There’s a lot of second-guessing. Did I spellcheck? Did I scan through for formatting issues? Am I presenting the information in a way that readers expect and that will work well for them for that format?

And that is, of course, on top of the thoughts about “is this something of value” to my readers? Are they going to get valid information and enough of it out of this non-fiction title? Are they going to enjoy this story or novel? Is what I’m putting out there worth someone paying money for it?

It can be easy to get stuck at this point. Because you don’t want to mess it up. You want to put out a good product that people will like. But I can tell you, no matter how careful you are, no matter how many people look at it, no matter how many times you look at it, things will slip through here or there. Hopefully not big things, but years later you’ll find a paragraph that should be indented here or a missing comma there. It happens.

It annoys me no end every time I later see one of those, but I figure you can’t let pursuit of perfect get in the way of completing a project. In my opinion, perfect isn’t actually possible, so I aim for pretty damned good. (My A- Student Philosophy of Life.)

It works for me. But I’m still going to do one last scan of all these files. Just in case…

Three Years, Four Bookbubs, Finally Profitable

I’ve been fortunate with most of the things I’ve published that they were quickly profitable. But my YA fantasy series has been my constant heartbreak. I sprung for nice covers and paid to launch the first book and then did a free promo on that one when book 3 came out and all the other things you’re supposed to do, but it’s always returned less than all of that cost.

And it wasn’t because the books were bad. In general, the reviews have been good. I’ve received emails from fans about how much they loved it, it got an almost perfect score in the Writer’s Digest contest I entered it in, was a semi-finalist in the SPFBO, and even has a decent review average on Goodreads.

It’s also the only series I have that can get Bookbubs.

With all of that you’d think it would be my most profitable series, right? But no, not at all.

The first book in that series is one of my top five in terms of money grossed and the other two titles in that series are in my top ten, but when you put it all together with the cost of the covers and the cost of advertising, that series has been my worst performing series. The amount I spent on covers and ads has always been more than I earned.

(And that’s only the case with one other “series” of mine. My cookbook which has far too clever a title for its own good.)

Now, the bulk of the expense for the YA fantasy series was the covers. I spent about $2K on those covers, all told. So I had to not only make more from my advertising than I was spending but I had to make enough to cover that $2K in cover costs. Not an easy thing to do.

But I finally did it! It “only” took three years from the publication of book 1 and four Bookbubs (either YA or international-only fantasy so I’ve never gotten the big holy grail U.S. fantasy deal) to make it happen.

It’s not the cover’s fault. I launched book 1 at full price and wide. And I’ve left the books at a higher price point when they’re not in a promotion. (Although that strategy has worked just fine for me with other titles. It just wasn’t a good choice for a YA fantasy series.) I figure when I launch the next series under that name I can always drop the prices on the first series or even permafree book 1 at that point so that there’s somewhere to make that up.

I share this because it’s a good reminder of something I think it’s easy to lose sight of with self-publishing. I expect that this series could sell to new readers for the next twenty years. So if it doesn’t go into the red again due to bad advertising choices, I have twenty years of sales to make a profit on this series. And if I go back to that name and add to those books with another series that’s very likely to boost this first series.

So hope is never lost.

(Although it is hard to keep going when you think you did everything right and it doesn’t work out the way you hoped. That’s probably part of the reason I’ve found it challenging to write another series under that name.)

Anyway. For today I’ll treasure this small victory and remind myself that there’s always hope.

Launching a New Book

I published a novel yesterday. New pen name so new website, etc. And it got me thinking about launches and indie wisdom around book launches.

There’s this almost fanatical belief in indie circles that books start where you launch them and then fall from there. Lots of people are familiar with the idea of the 30 day and 90 day cliffs on Amazon. (The way that works is that basically after 30 days many authors see a sudden and significant drop in sales which gets even worse at 90 days.) A lot of people build their careers around this concept.

This is where the rapid release idea comes from. The reasoning behind it is that you always want to have a book in the 90 day window, if not the 30 day window, because your sales will just crash and burn after that.

If you follow this model you launch at 99 cents, throw as much advertising money as you can at the book early on, and try to get it as high in the rankings as possible and hold there as long as you can. You then switch over to a higher price when the book’s rank starts to drop and hope to make up for all that early ad spend while the book is plummeting back to earth. If you’re lucky, the book gets sticky somewhere up there but never near as high as your highest high.

This model is a bit like a hamster wheel. You have to stay in motion because you have to keep producing books so you’re always in that 90-day window.

It’s a model I don’t do well with. And one I don’t follow. Now, granted, I am not a six-figure author, so keep that in mind. But I am making a living wage at this at this point.

So what model do I follow?

I publish, let people know it’s out there, turn on AMS ads, and see if the book sinks or swims. And by sink or swim I mean, does it earn more from sales than I’m spending on ads? If so, I try to scale those ads. Some books can scale, some can’t.

The books that can scale are the “winners”, the ones that don’t make more than ad spend are the “losers”, and the ones in between are the “forgettable ones”.

Taking this approach means that for a lot of my books I don’t see them hit peak sales for months after release. For example, I published Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel last September. They didn’t peak until March of this year, so six months after release. And, actually, in September of this year they returned to that March level, so they may not have peaked yet. It’s quite possible I will see my best sales income from those titles in a year or two as word of mouth and reputation spread.

And I’m okay with that. Because I’m trying to write “evergreen” books. If I do this right, my fantasy novels should be as readable and appealing to readers five years from today as they are today. Same with my Excel guides.

(You’d think with a guide that’s related to something like Excel that continues to evolve that this wouldn’t be the case, but honestly the basics of Excel have been pretty consistent for twenty years except for the complete change in interface that came with Excel 2007. And even that didn’t change the Ctrl shortcuts or terms that were in use.)

With evergreen books that can still be read years later, you can slowly have word of mouth spread throughout a reading community and bring in sales for you for months or years. Or, like with the Excel guides, if you’re hitting a need you can continue to hit that need for years to come as long as you’re taking steps to make sure new readers know those books exist, like AMS ads.

Now, I will say that one way my approach makes me vulnerable is that, because I don’t seek out reviews early on, if a book does start to do well and doesn’t have a lot of reviews there are people out there who will hit it with a bad review to stop that momentum. I had that happen with one of my romances a few years back. (It was obvious because the review said something that romance readers hate that wasn’t part of the book and it came at a time when that book was climbing the charts.)

So maybe a hybrid launch version is best. Get some early reviews to protect against that sort of thing but then let the book ride on its own momentum.

All I know is that for me doing big launches, which I have tried once or twice, never comes out well. So I far prefer the slow build approach. This is why all of my novels have made more in later years than the year they were launched.

But as with everything, YMMV. Just wanted to share that there can be a different approach and a different sales trajectory.

 

 

A Few Measures of “Success” for a Series

As a writer sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re on the right track. Sometimes it’s obvious. If you have a thousand five-star reviews on a book you can bet that book has found an audience. And if you win awards or see people talking all the time about how wonderful your book is, that’s another one. Obviously, people writing to you and telling you how much they loved your book is also a good sign.

But most books don’t have a thousand reviews, good or bad. And most books aren’t so amazing that they generate buzz. And most readers aren’t going to drop you a line even if they love your book.

So a couple things I look for when it comes to a series of books:

First, I want my top also-boughts to be the rest of the books in that series. The theory is that also-boughts are generated from the list of how many people who have bought Book A have also bought Book B. If your other books aren’t in the top of your also-boughts then that means more people who bought your first book bought someone else’s book rather than your next book in the series.

To me that says that the first book they bought had potential but that it didn’t meet that potential.

This is less true in non-fiction than in fiction, but I do still look for it with my non-fiction titles. Here, for example, are the current also-boughts for Excel for Beginners:

Excel for Beginners Also Boughts 20181029.png

You can see here that there are four other books of mine in the top 7 also-boughts and that the two Excel titles that are in the same series as Excel for Beginners are in the first and second positions.

Even after a big promo I still expect to see this, because I expect people to buy my second in series more then they bought other books promoted on the same day. Here are the also-boughts for Rider’s Revenge in the UK. It had an international Bookbub a couple weeks ago:

Riders Revenge Also Boughts 20181029 in UK.png

A promo might mix up the also-boughts beyond those first few positions, but my books should always hold the top spots.

Second, I want to see that my review average is increasing as the series continues. This is definitely more for fiction series that must be read in order. The theory here is that with book one you’re going to attract readers who are not your reader, especially if you run price promotions that let people sample your work for free or 99 cents.

Those readers might review that first book but then should drop off as the series continues, which means that the people who review the later books in the series are the ones who liked the first books in the series.

If your review average is going down as the series progresses, then you’re somehow not satisfying the readers who did like the first book in the series. Mayeb you gave them the literary equivalent of cotton candy in book one and then offered them mussels in book two. You don’t want to do that. You want to keep the readers you found satisfied.

So, for example, here are the Goodreads ratings for the Rider’s Revenge series.

Goodreads Review Average RR Series 20181029

You’ll see that there are fewer reviews as the series continues, but that the review average went up as the books continued (from 3.75 to 3.94 to 4.25). If instead book 3’s review average was a 3.25, I would known that I’d failed to end the trilogy in a way that satisfied the readers who had stuck with the series to the end.

Now, granted, it’s not a perfect way to measure if you’re doing well with a series. (I actually consider the Rider’s series to have been a bit of a commercial failure. It took until just now to breakeven.) But it is one way to judge a series performance.

And it can tell you other things about your writing.

So, for example, my contemporary romance pen name has two novels and a novella. If I look at the also-boughts for each of the novels the other novel is in that #1 slot, but the novella is not in the #2 slot. It’s in the top 5 of the also-boughts for each novel, so it’s up there, but not right at the top. That’s because not all novel readers are novella readers and so that difference in story type means lower sell-through to the novella.

It’s also not the same characters, which could be another part of it.

That tells me that for that name I’m better off writing another novel than a novella. And perhaps staying in the same story world.

So if you’re seeing that your other works aren’t in the top of your also-boughts, ask yourself why. If it’s a related series, then you’re not hooking readers into continuing somehow. If you’re writing standalone works then it could be a different length or different type of story issue. Figuring out the cause and fixing it can make a significant difference in how well you do going forward.

Just something to think about…

(And note that I chose examples where this was actually the case as opposed to the ones for my books where it isn’t. Trust me, I have ones where this isn’t the case.)

 

Selling Direct

In this business if you’re not moving and trying new things, you’re dying. So I spent most of the morning uploading files to Payhip so I can sell ebook versions of my books directly from this website.

Now that I’ve done that anyone who wants to should be able to purchase the .epub and .mobi versions of most of my books without having to go to Amazon, Kobo, Nook, or Apple to do so. (I don’t currently list my non-fiction titles on Google because they seem to give away the whole book if you’re search savvy enough.)

They can just go to my Payhip store instead: https://payhip.com/mlhumphrey

There is a way to create direct links straight into Paypal, too, but for now I’ve just set up the Payhip store. It was pretty straight-forward from what I could tell. (I might’ve messed something up and not know it yet.) So I’d say definitely worth taking a little time to set up.

A few things for anyone thinking about doing it:

1. I originally had separate products listed for the .epub and .mobi versions but because there’s no easy separation into product categories on the page it quickly started to look messy doing that, so I had to go back and delete the second version for each title and then upload the second file type to the remaining version for each title. Save yourself that time and just have one product with multiple files for each title instead.

2. They have some nice cross-promo options that are incredibly easy to set up. For example, now if someone buys Excel for Beginners through my Payhip store they can get a 10% discount on Intermediate Excel if they buy it at the same time.

3. I’m not 100% happy with the appearance of the store or book page. I really wish I was a CSS whiz right now so I could customize the heck out of my store, but I’m not, so it is what it is. (I did a quick internet search and no one seems to be selling CSS templates for something like that either if there is someone who is a whizz out there looking for a business idea. My main issue is not being able to have sub-section within the store. I’d love to be able to have an Excel Essentials section and then those three books and then Word Essentials and those three books, etc. rather than have everything all grouped together the way it is right now.

4. They do seem to be actively improving things. I found a blog post from earlier this year that had some wish list items that now exist, so I hold out hope for the future.

5. It’s free to get started if you’re willing to pay 5% of each sale on top of Paypal’s fees. (So figure about 10% total cost per sale). If you’re doing well enough they have two additional plans you can choose that charge a fixed monthly fee and then less per transaction. No getting around Paypal’s fees, though.

6. I didn’t find the support information terribly robust. We’ll see if that’s a problem if and when I get sales and/or if and when I have issues with those sales.

For now, I think it was a few hours well spent. We’ll see where it goes from here.

How to Sell More

I sat down a while back and looked at everything I had written to date and asked myself, “How do I sell more? How do I make more from this than I am right now?” The specific list of items I came up with for myself isn’t really relevant to anyone else, but I realized today that the three ways to sell more that I came up with do matter to anyone trying to make these kinds of choices.

So without further ado, these are the three categories I came up with for myself:

Get better at selling what I’ve already written

So, for example, for me this would’ve happened when I started advertising my books after the first year. (I laughed as I wrote that since looking back I can’t believe I didn’t advertise my books at all the first year.)

Later, this would be when I learned how to use AMS ads.

If you have a viable product you’ve already created, then ask yourself, how can I sell this product? What form of advertising will work best for this?

For me, in general, what I’ve decided is that CPC ads work best for non-fiction because I can advertise it at full-price and reach customers who are looking for that topic when they’re actively looking for it. With fiction, price discounts and list-based promotions like Bookbub are equally or even more effective.

Expand on what I’ve already written

This is writing the next book in that series. Or in non-fiction it’s writing a related book. For me this year that involved adding 50 Useful Excel Functions to the Excel Essentials series. Last year it involved writing another romance novel set in the same world as my first romance novel.

I think the key here is to see where you have some glimmers of hope and then add onto that. And it isn’t always going to work. My most successful dating for men book has always been the first one I wrote. The other two I added on after that to target different parts of that market never sold as well as that first book.

If you’ve met your consumer’s entire need in that area with your first book, this isn’t going to do much for you. And if you don’t realize what the need that was met with that first book was, then writing more and missing the point won’t help either. You have to have an audience who wants more and give them more of what they in fact want. (With fiction just giving them the same characters will not be enough if the story also doesn’t meet what they liked about your first story.)

Write something new that’s more marketable

I sort of stumbled into this with some of my titles, but I’ve done it deliberately as well. That holiday-themed billionaire erom short story I wrote was very much an attempt to do this. My current attempt at a cozy mystery is as well.

One issue I found here is that some of my ideas that were more marketable also lent themselves to a trade publishing approach. (Such as MG or picture books.) So I had to decide if that was worth pursuing given timelines and other issues. (For example, I can self-pub a picture book and no one will know or care that I also have published erom stories. A trade publisher might. But if I want to make money on picture books it pretty much has to be done through a trade publisher because of where that market finds its books.)

* * *

Anyway. Just something to think about if any of you are asking yourself that sort of question and trying to figure out where to go next. (And the categories are broad enough I’d say they really work for any product you want to sell, not just books.)