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.)

 

Why You Wait

In a blog post earlier this year I mentioned that some advice had been given at a conference to not even advertise until you have at least three books out. And I objected to that advice. Because in this climate just publishing a book and not advertising it means selling that book to your friends and family only (which will mess with your also-boughts, assuming those continue to exist) and then not seeing any sales until you do finally advertise. And with the Amazon cliffs at 30/60/90 days, that means an uphill battle to get sales and movement when you do start to advertise.

(If you’re going to do that, might as well hold back the books and publish all three within a very short period of time. Either all at once or a few weeks apart with clear pre-orders up.)

My argument was that putting out a book that doesn’t sell is soul-crushing and will lead to feelings of failure that make it that much harder to keep going. And I do still stand by that.

I have also said more than once that I think I am a good enough writer that people will keep reading the rest of my books if they’re there and available, but not such a good writer that people will wait for me for years and come back when my next book is out.

Which means that the more sales I get early on, the worse that is for my long-term success. Because if I get 1,000 sales on Book 1 before Book 2 is out that’s at least 500 and maybe more readers that never buy Book 2. And if I get 1,000 sales on Book 2 before Book 3 is out that’s 750 or more readers that never read Book 3.

So it’s a fine tension you have to live with. Do I get sales now to feel good about myself and stay motivated to keep writing? Or do I wait and get sales later when I have a better chance of sell-through and converting a casual reader to a fan? Not an easy choice to make.

I did this chart yesterday of Book 2 and Book 3 sales on my fantasy series to illustrate this point. It’s just Amazon US and nothing from KU, but representative of my book sales.

Riders Rescue to Riders Resolve Sales

If you look at September onward you can see that things fall into a pretty consistent pattern where if people buy book 2 they also buy book 3. But that I never make up for all those people who bought book 2 before book 3 was out.

Something to think about…

(I’ll still advertise before a series is complete because I need that validation as I go along, but it’s worth reminding myself that it’s best to save the biggest push for when the whole series is ready to go.)

Let’s Talk Categories

I was having a conversation in a private group yesterday that touched on categories. In this particular case the question was about what constitutes YA and what you do with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. This comes up a bit in Achieve Writing Success, too, because a lot of early novels aren’t targeted to existing categories. And if you self-publish you will soon find yourself asking, “Well, where the heck do I put this?”

So let’s break this down. Categories are a kind of short-hand that indicates to readers that they’ll get a certain emotional experience or a certain type of story.

So romance, which is one of the ones where these discussions happen often, tells the reader you’re going to read about the journey two people take to find their happily ever after together. If you put a book in romance and it isn’t about that journey, you will have disappointed readers.

Mystery says there’s going to be something that is solved, most often a murder.

Science fiction says it’s going to involve things in the future.

Fantasy says it’s going to involve things that aren’t real or possible. So magic.

YA is about a coming of age journey focused on a teen protagonist who is generally around 16 years of age.

Those are all general guidelines, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Categories exist so that I can walk into Barnes & Noble and find the three shelves worth of books I’m interested in without having to dig through all the rest. That’s all they are. A selling tool.

And so if you can write books that fit into existing categories it will be easier to sell those books. One, people who are looking for the type of book you’ve written will be able to find it easily. And, two, people who buy books in that category will get the emotional reading experience they’re looking for.

But not all of us do that. My YA fantasy series is YA (although I prefer to think of it as coming of age fantasy which is a separate category) but it doesn’t fit into any of the provided subcategories on Amazon. It’s not sword & sorcery. It’s not really epic. It’s just a little lost.

Which is why I love AMS so much. Because I can say, “I don’t what category you want to call it, but people who like Mercedes Lacky, Kate Elliott, and Anne McCaffrey are going to like this.” And then I can target them with my ads, put that cover in front of them, with a blurb about what the story covers and let that sell the book. Do I get the people browsing categories? No. But I do get the people who like those authors and might like me, too.

In an ideal world,¬† you write to an existing category. But if you’re life isn’t ideal, like most aren’t, then you find other ways of getting your book to the right readers. CPC ads (Bookbub CPC, Facebook, AMS) are probably the best way to do that.

Achieve Writing Success Now Live

Remember that book I wasn’t planning on writing but realized how to write while walking my dog? I published it today. It has the oh-so-pretentious title of Achieve Writing Success. (Somehow Thoughts on Self-Publishing or Thoughts on Writing seemed a little too…eh.)

Interestingly, this is a book I have been trying to write in some form or another for a couple of years now. Originally it was going to be Self-Publishing 101. Except I didn’t really want to write a self-publishing 101 book. I know how I do things and I really didn’t want to cover the nitty gritty of all the different options. For example, I formatted my ebooks in Word for the first four years and then switched to Vellum. I had no interest in discussing Cailbre or Sigil or hand-coded HTML. But I felt I would have to if I did a how-to on self-publishing.

So every time I tried to write that book I stopped at about the 10K word mark. Because what I really wanted to share was some thoughts on self-publishing and, as it turns out, publishing in general.

Some of the things I’ve shared here already. Like why self-publishing shouldn’t be considered your Plan B when you fail at trade publishing. Or about how you shouldn’t let someone else control your dreams if it means that much to you to see your book out in the world.

And some I’ve discussed with folks along the way. Like the fact that it’s an error to focus solely on print books if you self-publish or to think in terms of print runs instead of POD.

I originally thought it was going to be for self-publishers but ended up gearing it towards any writer who has at least a novel under their belt, because I think some of the lessons are ones that those still on the trade publishing path really need to consider, too.

Anyway. It’s done now. Phew. No more stopping every six months to try to write a book that isn’t what I really wanted to write but that I feel needs to exist. (The bane of my existence that bad habit of mine of writing books I don’t think will sell but do think should exist.)

The Different Levels of Writing Ability

In a post the other day I mentioned that there are different levels of writing ability.

I honestly haven’t worked this one out entirely myself and I suspect there are levels I can’t see right now. As a reader I just know I like a book or I don’t. But as a writer I’ve been trying to understand why that happens. So here goes my poorly-developed theory on different levels of writing ability.

Level 1: Writing Comprehensible Sentences

The most basic level of writing ability is the ability to write well enough that someone else can understand you. Even though it’s the first level of writing ability it is also a tremendous area of knowledge that probably none of us will ever master.

At its core being a writer requires being able to convey your story (or for non-fiction, your knowledge) to another person, the reader.

That’s where things like punctuation come in. (Although it seems that punctuation and even capitalization can be optional, but let’s ignore those outliers, shall we?)

I’d put in this category sentence-level, paragraph-level, and even chapter-level skills.

I’d also argue that this is where most people focus their efforts when they think about learning how to write.

But I’d also argue that most really successful writers are not successful because of their skills in this area. Once you get to the level where others understand the story you’re trying to tell, you’re good enough in this area.

(Yes, I hear all those howls of outrage. I’m going to ignore them.)

Level 2: Telling a Cohesive and Satisfying Story

The next level involves taking all those sentences and paragraphs that work on their own and weaving them together to tell a cohesive story.

This is a huge area as well. And one where I’d say most writers that are one to two years into this fall down. They learn how to put together “well-written” sentences, but those sentences when strung together don’t lead the reader anywhere.

This is the romance novel that doesn’t end with the love interests getting together. (Guilty.) Or the adventure novel that ends with a council meeting. (Also guilty.)

(I’ll note that I fixed those issues in both of those books before I hit publish on them, though.)

It’s also the novel that wanders too far from the central theme so that the reader gets lost and finds themselves asking what story the writer was trying to tell them.

And it’s the novel that leaves five plot threads dangling at the end.

I’d argue that most authors who are trade published and most self-published authors who have a dedicated audience have mastered these skills. They tell a good story that meets reader expectations. But that when you branch out in a new direction you can fall down in this area. So a romance writer who moves into non-romantic post-apocalyptic fiction, for example, can find themselves no longer writing a satisfying, cohesive story.

It’s the one I think is most likely to require constant monitoring.

Level 3: Emotional Resonance

This is where things get murky and I can’t articulate them well. I know this one when I see it. Or more the case, when I don’t see it.

When I read a book I am trusting the author to deliver a story that is, for lack of a better term, emotionally resonant for me. It doesn’t mean people have to all be good or that everything has to turn out perfectly, but it means that the story has to be emotionally true.

This one is hard to explain without calling out specific authors who have caused reader-me rage, but I’ll try to give a few anonymized examples.

The first was a book I picked up at the airport a year or so ago. It had all the elements I should have liked. Magic, coming of age, etc. But about 3/4 of the way through that book I had literally come to hate the author for subjecting me to that book. Because underlying the entire book was an oily view of the world. A pessimistic, nihilistic worldview. And I resented that this person had shared that view of the world with me and that I’d spent two hundred pages with them and their characters before I realized it.

The sentences worked. It was well-written. Things happened like they were supposed to for that type of book. But underlying it all was this nasty take on the world that I absolutely hated. (Someone who I spoke to about the book and who also did not like it suggested that maybe this was because the writer was a literary writer writing fantasy and that there was a sneer behind all of it because the writer felt above the genre.)

Whatever the reason, the book was not emotionally resonant for me. I actively fought against the view of the world that this writer had and will never read another book by them because of that.

The second book is still so raw for me I can barely talk about it without getting angry that I had to read it. It was the second book in a series so came at a time when I felt that I knew the characters. But the characters as I knew them would not have reacted to the story situation they reacted to in the way the author had them react.

The author had one character kill another. And did it off-page so you could spend a scene wondering if that was really what had happened or not. It was flat-out manipulation of the reader, which I did not appreciate. It also deprived the reader (and the character) of the emotionally-charged scene we needed to understand why that action had to occur.

The fact that the author handled that scene that way tells me that the author did not understand the emotional side of their story or their characters.

Once more, well-written. All the sentences worked. I could argue the author had failed in some respects with the story elements as well, but it was the emotional resonance aspect  that lost me.

I think this third level is where the long-term great authors are made. Both of the examples I just gave are currently very successful authors. But I suspect as time goes on and they continue to miss at that level that less and less readers will come back to them.

I still am not articulating this as well as I would like, but I know that the authors I buy more of and go back to over and over again are the ones that can deliver on all three levels.

This is why there can be millions of books available and yet readers can feel like there’s nothing for them to read. Because it’s about more than stringing well-written sentences together.

(And I suspect there’s another level that involves themes, but I haven’t worked that one out just yet…)

 

This I Know…

Right now I’m trying to decide what the next new project should be. Those three or four more Excel titles I could write? That new romance novel? That new fantasy series? Maybe a MG fantasy that I’d sub to trade publishers? A domestic suspense thriller? (Because you can never have too many names, right? Ha!)

Each has its pluses and minuses. Write more to market and maybe see much higher sales. Write something you know will sell but at a more modest level and you’ve added one more brick in the wall of steady long-term success.

Which do you choose? The guaranteed $10 payout or the 10% chance at a $100 payout?

I don’t know. Which is why I’m sitting here doing nothing. (Although I did just hit publish on a mini video course about an hour ago, so not nothing nothing. Just a little bit of nothing now that that’s pending approval.)

And what if it’s a choice between a $10 payout and a 50% chance at a $50 payout or a 50% chance at a $5,000 payout? Do I really know what the odds and payouts even are in all those different choices?

(No.)

This is what I know: If I do nothing, nothing will happen. Zero action means zero payout. So it’s better to pick a direction and go in it than to sit still and do nothing because I can’t decide.

So enough. Time to act. Maybe I’ll just break out the old D&D dice and roll the six-sided one. That’s always a healthy way to make life choices isn’t it?