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Advertising: you just gotta have it

Posted in Just for Writers, and Marketing

It used to be easier

Oh, for the halcyon days of 2012 and 2013, when your book going up on Amazon attracted eyes, especially since the categories weren't any too large.

I still have my souvenir of being #1 in a niche category.

It spoiled us for a while. We wrote as quickly as we could hoping to outrun the “tsunami of… stuff” rising up behind us. Some of us are still trying that as our primary method of coping.

I'd like to present some more sobering numbers.

Chart of sales over time

Now, I like to think I'm a very ordinary writer. My books are good quality and well-reviewed, but I'm unlikely to ever spark some sort of runaway best-seller or perfect genre hit, and I can't write quickly enough to overwhelm by sheer volume. And no one's ever heard of me.

So I think of myself as a good example of what happens to someone who doesn't want to focus on marketing. The above chart of Author Rank on Amazon covers my entire writing career.

The first series (4 books, some stories) kept ever fewer sales going while I spun my wheels a bit. I was gratified when the second series, written in a shorter period of time, maintained a brief bounce, and then started the same sort of depressing decline.

Finding other things to fix, besides marketing

I had spent all my time up to this point writing, and covering the professional part of other areas of an indie writer's business:

  • Error-free, good-quality presentation
  • Comprehensive metadata
  • Multiple formats
  • Wide distribution
  • Sales tracking & other business systems
  • Platform creation (websites, social media, etc.)

Like many other writers, I was always able to find something else, anything else, I'd rather do than marketing. I'm a systems person — I like seeing how things fit together and making them work. Every time I found another component of the business that needed building, I was right on it, coding away.

But I did know better. I couldn't figure out a way to approach marketing that didn't set my teeth all on edge — too many options, none of them very comfortable. I gritted my teeth and spent the summer of 2017 coming to terms with the pieces I was missing.

The problem wasn't marketing. The problem was my head. I needed to think of marketing differently, as a system, just like the other systems I was fond of. And that did the trick.

Biting the advertising bullet

Take another look at the chart above. You can see the moment that Amazon AMS ads started, At the extreme right, the last couple of months, you can see the impact of my first stumbling Facebook ads. They'll get better. And when they do, I'll have Amazon Associates ads to figure out.

Ads cost money, and they may not be profitable when they start. Even when they're successful, they cut into your earnings. A book that might net you $3.50 without an ad might only earn you $1.50 once the cost of the advertising is factored in.

But there are two other considerations.

The mailing list

First, building a mailing list on steroids is one of the benefits of Facebook ads. There are other ways, of course, but that comes with the process there. Being forced into large mailing list automation and maintenance is a healthy benefit, and there are many longer-term gains to be had from a captive audience for new release announcements and backlist reminders.

A new level of normal

Second, and more importantly….  Look at that chart again. What's the most notable part about the far right, once the ads kick in? It's not the earnings, necessarily — much of that is eaten away by the advertising cost.

No, it's the stability at a new level of unit sales. Stability, and its partner predictability… those are good for business. It's one of the benefits of “volume is its own reward.”

It's up to me to improve and expand upon my use of the advertising platforms and tools, now that I've broken the ice.

The days of just trusting to new releases and word of mouth are gone. We're going to have to behave like any other business and master the art of advertising to keep our products in front of the public's attention, even if our public is just some specialized niche of potential readers, not the devotees of the bestseller lists. The advertising systems can help us find that particular public of ours and turn it into fans.

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  1. Those who can become a business, or our version of a startup (supported by someone else), will survive. The others will come, write for a while, and leave.

    The business aspects are sobering, but if you can’t figure out some way to find your niche readers, you’re not going to make it. The thousand true fans may have to be an even larger cohort – unless you want to merchandise something other than reading: most people could spend a couple hundred dollars, and read all an indie has to offer.

    December 9, 2018
  2. Karen Myers
    Karen Myers

    Yes, but 1000 true fans at, say, $50/each is real money. My initial theory of how to value them puts them at $0.91/yr. While I will no doubt refine that statistic with more data, I can’t help but notice that 10K fans is almost $10K on that basis, and they drive business from non-subscribers via ranking and activity.

    The mechanics of building a mailing list based on Facebook ads is relatively straightforward — I just moved from my old 200 to 1000 in a couple of months (though I need to bring the acquisition cost down and explore additional methods). I plan to grow that list to 10000 and beyond, if I can. Many of the successful authors have mailing lists of many thousands (one hears of, say, 65K) in Romance).

    The activity of the “1000 true fans” causes the books to rise in the rankings in general, and that attracts additional readers who never join my mailing list — and that’s a much larger group.

    I’ve finally gotten over my reluctance to give books away for a subscription, and my output is finally large enough to matter (2 completed series, and the first 3 books of a new series soon to come out). I still won’t give away or discount my books in general, but 1st-book-in-series-free-for-signup does seem to be working for me, and a monthly newsletter (plus new release announcements) seems to be about the right balance for me. (I’ll improve that, too, over time.)

    Overall, I’m encouraged. I over-paid for AMS Ads in November for a couple of weeks and got lots more sales (but unprofitable). When I fixed that, I still got increased sales of the advertised books — something had improved in the ranking to attract strangers. A “new normal”. These effects are very interesting, and I plan to keep cultivating them.

    December 10, 2018

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