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Category: Just for Writers

The great Amazon reviews drought

Posted in Just for Writers, and Readers

Image of 5 product ratingsIt has seemed to me lately that I'm getting far fewer reviews on Amazon than I used to, considering the number of units I sell. The thought has been nagging at me for some time, and I'm not alone — others seem to be observing the same thing and speculating about causes.

So — you know me. Time to actually crunch a few numbers and try to see if it's true and, if so, why I think it might be happening.

I started running Amazon AMS ads about 15 months ago, and my units sold have shot up gratifyingly. But not my reviews. My ratings are stable and the reviews I get are much the same as they've always been, but there are just fewer of them than I would expect.

First steps — collect the data

I've been meaning to copy my reviews off the retailer sites, especially Amazon, lest they vanish in one of the periodic Amazon purges. So far I've been lucky and haven't lost any, but that can change. It's useful to have them available, not just for ratings on the retail sites, but also as sources of blurb and other publicity text from real readers.

I checked my retailers and confirmed that, yep, I have almost no reviews except on Amazon, and almost all of those on Amazon USA, of course. That made it easy.

I set up a spreadsheet like the one I use for tracking unit sales to track reviews: month/day, source, rating, product, retailer, headline, review text, etc. Then it was off to the races with pivot tables.

Do I have enough data?

I don't make any big push for reviews, just a modest suggestion in the backmatter of the books. I don't have a ton of reviews, but they do keep coming in (slowly), so I'm going to assume there are enough for some valid conclusions. In any case, I don't have any special marketing that might confuse results.

Next — connect the review data to the units sold data

I put a worksheet up with one pivot table for the reviews-by-month, and another with the units-sold-by-month. Then I ran out the data for a comparison from the date my first book came out, in October, 2012.

A model to compare data

The question I wanted to answer was:

Has the percentage of reviews per units sold been declining lately?

Plotters vs Pantsers

Posted in Just for Writers, and Plot

As always, I find it useful to write a post to clarify my own thinking — this time, about the creative process of writing a work of fiction.

Cartoon of outliningI'm 60% of the way through my current work-in-progress (Fragments of Lightning), and I was just rearranging my hints for the remainder of the book, since my subconscious last night was busy working overtime changing my conclusions about what was important about the events in the second half.

I was so delighted with the results that I wanted to take time out to write this post about how I understand the differences between the processes of outlining a book in some detail in order to write it (“plotters”) and not doing so, flying by the seat of your pants (“pantsers”). Your understanding may be different.

This is my 10th novel, so I'm beginning to get some insight into my own psychology and the creative process. That insight has changed over time, naturally. I spent a reasonable amount of my career writing software, which has to be planned from start to finish, and building companies, which requires understanding how systems are put together, so unsurprisingly I started as a plotter and outlined my first book in some detail. Even then, however, I was flexible about how the plot developed, and things I had outlined had a way of… shifting.

For books 2 and 3, the planned outlines got discarded or altered beyond recognition earlier and earlier in the process, until I was barely using an outline at all for book 4. By the time I started my 2nd series, I was a confirmed pantser. Not only did I not know when I started how the book would end, I didn't know how the series would end, even though it had a compelling quest running through the entire thing which would have to be solved in the end (over 4 books).

One thing about writing into the dark (pantsing) — you learn not to be frightened by uncertainty.

Different structural goals

Plotters are focused on control and a desired ending. There may be a structure that is appropriate for the genre (Happily Ever After (HEA) endings for Romance, as an example, or some of the conventions of Thrillers and Mysteries). There may be a need to keep the number of new characters under control in a long-running series. There may be particular goals for certain books in a series, to help keep the series from strangling on dead ends, or a need for a particular ending to entice the reader to the next book in a series. The author may have a theme he's developed that he wants to be illuminated by the choices his characters make.

The plot is a means of getting to the desired end.

Pantsers are focused on highlights, typically emotional ones. They have characters in an initial situation, and there are things they want to happen to those characters (“he's going to meet someone and fall in love”, “her best friend will betray her”, “he'll be left for dead on the battlefield”), but there may or may not be a particular ending in view at the start. In genres like ScienceFiction, the highlights might even be worldbuilding, rather than emotional — demonstrating the ramifications of an exotic setting, for example.

The plot is a means of holding the highlights together in a satisfying way.

Use natural languages for fiction, not artificial ones

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

Image of 2 babies talking
They don't need the Chicago Manual of Style to communicate

We have to distinguish between the dialect of English called the “formal writing style” which is what the style guides act as prescriptions for, and the actual (various) living versions of the English language.

The formal written language that you are taught in school is not a real living language. If you were well-educated, it may seem to be identical with the language you use every day, but it isn't. It's a status marker for “educated” and appropriate for non-fiction which is intended to be formal, but it's not a proper guide to writing fiction which should capture living languages, not artificial ones. It's not a matter of vocabulary choices (though that plays into formal/informal distinctions) — it's a matter of the actual language itself and its grammatical structures.

The formal written language is, um, written down and its rules change slowly and rarely. The natural language continues to evolve constantly and, as writers, it's the natural language we should be concerned with. (Or none of us would end sentences with prepositions or split an infinitive on the once-fashionable theory that Germanic English is somehow Latin.)

Chart of archaic personal pronounsFor example, just as in circa-Elizabethan times we saw the loss of 2nd person singular personal pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) to the expansion of 2nd person plural (you, yours), we are currently living through a similar evolution in the language with regard to gendered 3rd person singular personal pronouns, where (he, she, him, her, his, hers) are being replaced by the ungendered 3rd person plural pronouns (they, them, their, theirs) in gender-neutral situations, as the clumsiness of using the male 3rd person singular as a stand-in for unknown-gender is being eaten away by a disregard of number to solve the problem.

It now sounds perfectly normal even for the well-educated to say something like, “If anyone comes in early, give them a drink.” That wasn't true a few decades ago.

We are drowned in new vocabulary, slang, and idiom constantly, but it's unusual to be able to actually see a grammatical change this large in a human lifetime. We know this isn't proper for the written language, but we're no longer willing to say “him or her” or just “him” in our natural language use in that situation, even though that's what the formal written language still requires.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying use a style guide for guidance in punctuation (it's the written language, after all) and to convey conventional high-status artificial language for formal writing (or your readers won't respect you), but use the living language for fiction and especially for dialogue.

Marketing systems for books

Posted in Just for Writers, and Marketing

Image of marketing chartI often write a blog post to clarify my own thinking, and that's the case for this one. It's meant to be a spur to my own thinking about what works for me in marketing. A recent marketing workshop excerpt from Larissa Reynolds was the catalyst that finally did it for me (see here to subscribe to her newsletter).

Now, when I say “what works”, I don't mean what marketing ideas, out of the vast array available, work for people, or produce the best results. What I mean is what works for me, as in something I can do comfortably and that I can reasonably have a hope of sticking to, that has measurable and useful results.

It's taken years for me to clarify my understanding of how various marketing ideas work, and which ones I, personally, should concentrate on. I've been groping towards this for a long time.

Premises

I have my own goals and standards that define how I want to run my business, and I have personal limitations and enthusiasms to accommodate. Your situation will be different

  1. I want to sell my books at a reasonable full price (with very occasional discounts), because that's the audience I want to cultivate.
  2. I want to sell my books on the basis of quality — good reading experience, indistinguishable in quality from traditional publishers.
  3. I want my books to be available with the widest possible reach (countries, retailers, formats), with no DRM. If people look for my books, they should be able to find them anywhere, for any device, and my career should not be held hostage to any one retailer or country. This includes direct ecommerce.
  4. I'm not really a people person. I like to help and I can tell funny stories, but I'm lousy at jumping into a social situation as an extrovert. I'm more of a high-functioning introvert.
  5. I want to execute semi-automatic systems as much as possible. I'm an old IT career person, and I'm very comfortable with systems. I don't have the discipline to keep doing ad hoc experiments, but I have no problem going through the detailed (obsessive) concentration necessary to set something automated up.

Image of marketing componentsAnalysis

So, what does this mean for me?

For one thing, it rules out a broad variety of interesting marketing ideas that clutter up my thinking:

  • Wanting to price permafree — wrong audience for me to cultivate.
  • Wanting to focus on Amazon KU — wrong reach (not wide), captive retailer.
  • Discounted sales third-party newsletter marketing — wrong audience for me to cultivate, and a huge distraction.
  • Participating in bundles and similar multi-author promotions for free — wrong audience for me to cultivate, and I mostly write long-form, not stories.
  • Marketing/review swaps with other authors. I'd rather cultivate my own audience and not spam them.
  • Widespread social media platforms, pushing my books — not extroverted enough to make that palatable (banging on about my books).

What do I want to do instead?

Book Catalogues

Posted in Just for Writers

Image of a book catalogueIn this day and age, we generally refer interested buyers to our online catalogues, either on our publisher sites or our reader sites. Some potential buyers, however, still want paper catalogues, and we need to learn to accommodate them. They also make nice additions to your table at a book fair, or to have stashed away in case you spawn a commercial opportunity with a distributor or other professional.

Now, if you're trying to contact dozens or hundreds of such outlets — perhaps you're trying to reach every music shop in America — it can make sense to use a commercial service, where for quantities of a few hundred, you can pay a dollar or two for each catalogue (depending on page counts, etc).

For example, the high-quality printers I use for business cards offer catalogues, designed for all kinds of retail needs, not just books. Play around with the pricing options here to get some ideas about the costs for an 5.5×8.5 inch catalogue, on the sort of paper stock that you typically receive from quality clothing retailers.

I don't find this helpful for my needs, myself. For one thing, I haven't got a mass distribution list that I can use for my fiction titles (unless I want to do a mailing directly to indie bookstores). More importantly, my catalogue:

  • Adds new titles frequently, multiple times/year
  • Never closes backlist titles
  • May need to address foreign languages

This means that I can't benefit from the economies of scale inherent in a professional mass print job.

Evaluating your business

Posted in Business, and Just for Writers

Image of financial tools and resultsAs authors and publishers, we hear a lot about new tools intended to improve the performance of our business in areas like marketing, formatting, distribution, outsourcing, and so forth.

What I'd like to see more of is articles about how to evaluate our businesses, to look upon our activity as authors and publishers just as if we were a small factory.

What that means is being able to ask questions like these:

  • Is our business model sound?
  • Is it improving over time?
  • Is it covering all of our costs, including those not specific to individual titles?
  • Are we actually making a profit, and how long should we expect that to take, after starting the business?

It's not just a matter of counting our sales at the end of the year.

What's the point of financial analysis?

An Income Statement isn't just a tedious document that old-style businesses put together — when done right, it's vital and important information to help you direct your spending and efforts.

I've been a Chief Operating Officer and a Chief Financial Officer for several small-medium businesses, both public and private — all of them young (1-10 years old). I'll use accounting terminology from the USA business world, but all countries do similar things though the terms may vary.

I'll focus on three ways to look at our businesses, and the data we need to support that.

1. Gross income — your business model

When we start as indie authors, we generally focus on the creation of work to publish (I'll call that “books” or “titles”, whatever you may be writing), and the delivery of that work to distribution and retail publishing channels.

Over time, many of us develop additional ways to earn income. As an example, I have the following channels today, in various stages of maturity:

  • Creation and sale of 24 titles (my own books)
  • Publication of titles for others (publishing work, several imprints)
  • Consulting work for colleagues
  • Speaking engagements

Each of these is a “line of business”, with its own costs and income. Some are relatively predictable while others are not, but all can be grown by marketing, if that seems like a worthwhile investment.

Using ONIX as an Independent Author

Posted in Just for Writers

Image of computer screen with dataIntroduction

I've learned something about how the systems of traditional publishing work, since I started in 2012. As a career systems technologist, I've paid particular attention to the data systems, standards, and tools that I've been able to learn about.

While it's a truism that traditional authors who have gone hybrid or converted completely to independent publishing have shared a lot about traditional publishing with the indie community, by the nature of things we don't get a lot of conversations from the techies in the book trade, so it's not terribly easy coming up to speed on the technical systems used by traditional publishers.

Why do I care?

Common Problems

I can't help but notice, whenever I compare my own ebook listings at a retailer with a traditional publisher's listings, that theirs are often cleaner and more complete. Combined with the knowledge that they have large catalogues to maintain, I want to know how that's done, so that I can achieve the same effect. My own catalogue is now 24 titles, so it's not just a matter of data quality but also data quantity.

Managing and Updating Metadata for Many Titles

Whenever I have a bright idea about a better way to manage keywords or categorization, or how to adjust pricing or format book descriptions, I often find myself facing my catalogue and shaking my head about 24 titles times all my distributors.

Today my ebooks are widely distributed. I go directly to Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords, and I use PublishDrive and StreetLib for Apple and Google Play, and for dozens of international retailers. That's in effect 6 retailer/distributors, for each of whom I might have to update 24 titles.

It would be so much better to have a single database for all my titles and just use that to update all my trading partners, so that they could update their own trading partners or international sites, wouldn't it? My massive spreadsheet can marshal all the data, perhaps, but that just sits on my computer and doesn't communicate with anyone.