Reviews at Any Cost?

Most authors who are either self published or are considering that route understand how important reviews are. The right mention in the right place can drive a lot of people to your book. Once a potential customer finds your book page, the quantity and quality of reviews influence the purchasing decision.

It’s also evident that obtaining reviews is not easy. Book blogs are inundated with requests. A low percentage of people who buy a book, or acquire it through giveaways, leave reviews.

Given the above, that reviews are both important and difficult to obtain, it’s no wonder that some authors pursue practices that other authors feel are morally and/or ethically unacceptable.

Let’s start with providing book bloggers, and other legitimate reviewers, with free copies of the book. I doubt that many of us would question this practice, but there is the point of view that you gave something of value to someone in return for a review. In reality, the “value” of the “gift” is in question. Would the reviewer have ever purchased your book anyway? And, what’s the alternative? Saying to the reviewer, “Hey, can you do me the enormous favor of trying to bring attention to my book and, oh, while you’re at it, pay for the privilege of doing so?”

At the other end of the spectrum lies the concept of fake reviews — creating fake accounts to post glowing reviews of your own book. I think most of us would consider this to be abhorrent behavior.

Where, then, is the line?

Let’s consider a generic review rather than one for Amazon or another particular site so as to avoid the issue of adherence to specific guidelines. At the core, which of the following do you agree or disagree with and why?

Review Trading – You ask an author to review your book, and, in return, you do the same for his. While both of you are planning “honest” reviews, there still exists some degree of social pressure not to trash your acquaintance.

Paying for Reviews –
• “Legitimate” sites like Kirkus that charge money for an honest review from someone who actually reads your book.
• Site where, for a small fee, you can get a great number of reviews from people who probably, at best, only skim your book. While there’s no requirement that the reviews be 5-stars, it’s understood the most of them will be.

Asking Family and Friends – Let’s be honest. Great Aunt Mable probably isn’t going to do anything other than say, “This book was great!!! 5 Stars!!!” Is that really an “honest” review? On the other hand, she bought the book. Why shouldn’t she voice her opinion?

I don’t have all the answers here, though I have opinions. I’d like to hear what you have to say on the matter, and I’ll revisit the subject with my thoughts in a future post.

Why I Plan to Ignore My Marketing Advice

At the moment, I think that my marketing activities are proportional. I spend a bit of time here and there doing research, and I blog for about 3 hours a week. Were I to keep up that rate, I’d say it would be a good balance of producing new work to selling activities.

Instead, I plan to spend an entire month doing nothing but marketing — almost no writing at all.

• April – Work on Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion
• Early May – Collect 3rd draft beta reader comments for Power of the Mages and send it to the editor
• June – Finalize Power of the Mages and create review copy (including, ugh, maps)
• July – Besides last minute touches, do marketing
• August – Release Power of the Mages, finish up rough draft of Daniel Darcy 1, and work on compiling blog posts into a nonfiction book

Obviously, this approach does not embrace the balance that I called for in previous posts. Here’s why I made that decision:

1. I fear losing motivation – The vast majority of self published authors sell a few copies to their friends and family, and that’s about it. If I don’t do better than that, I think I’ll get seriously discouraged.

2. The need to swing for the fences is a personal trait – While it’s not likely that a first novel by a self published author is going to be a runaway hit, the possibility exists. I need to give the book that chance of success.

3. It fits my long term plan – Between August 1 of this year and August 1 of 2014, I want to have 5 works on Amazon:

a. Power of the Mages (August 1, 2013)
b. 12 Simple Techniques for Improving Your Fiction Writing: Avoiding the Most Common Mistakes of New Authors (late 2013)
c. Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion (Spring 2014)
d. The Slender Man Massacre (Summer 2014)
e. Novelette/novella that comprises the 2nd part of my Dark Power series (Fall 2014)

4. The most effective marketing efforts take time to build –

a. Followers
b. Email list
c. Spreadsheet of bloggers

I don’t know if my first novel is going to sell one copy or a hundred or a thousand in its first year. From the numbers I’ve seen, if it hits 300, I should be happy. My efforts probably aren’t going to take it past that quantity, but I have to try.

The Two Conflicting Principles of Book Marketing for Self Published Authors

The most important thing you can do to market your book is come up with a comprehensive plan, and doing so requires consideration of two principles. Before we get to those, however, it’s important to understand two concepts:

Concept 1: The key to social media is that it’s social, not selling.

If your idea of using social media for book marketing is to tweet, “Buy My Book #mybookisawesome,” you’re not going to get many sales. In fact, you’re probably going to gain a bad reputation and, perhaps, see a backlash.

Social media is about building relationships with your potential customer base.

If your sole motivation for blogging is to sell your book, nobody is going to read your blog. If your purpose of being on a forum is to sell your book, no one is going to pay attention to your posts. If your main focus of Facebook updates is telling people about your book, you’re not going to get many likes or reach many people.

If, however, you interact with people, all these places can be great sources of both help and potential customers. Find a purpose for your blog. Contribute meaningful content to the forum. Use Facebook to connect with people.

The problem is that using social media correctly takes time. Not only do you have to learn the technical ins and outs, you have to understand the etiquette for each medium.

Concept 2: Cost means more than just literal dollars spent.

When I spend an hour creating a blog post, that’s an hour I didn’t spend writing or editing or even learning more about my craft. This concept is called opportunity cost, and, when I mention dollar figures in this post, that’s what I’m referring to in lieu of actually opening up a wallet.

So, with those ideas out of the way, let’s consider the creation of your marketing plan. The good news is that, in terms of deciding what resources to spend on marketing, there are only two principles you need to consider. The bad news is that those fundamentals are in direct conflict with each other.

Principle 1: The more products you have available as an author, the more cost effective your marketing efforts become.

Let’s consider the opportunity cost of marketing. I spend an hour creating a blog post or going on a forum or researching effective use of Facebook. At least a portion of that hour, I could have been writing or editing or learning more about storytelling or technique. That time I would have spent doing authorly things would have directly resulted in some portion of a product being created.

Envision me surrounded by charts and graphs. Assume I have projections and hard data. Picture a differential equation that I use a numerical method to solve. (Note that I don’t say I actually did any of this stuff, just that I want you to think of me doing it instead of just choosing random numbers.)

If I have a single book out, it costs $10 to generate one sale. Each sale generates $4 of revenue. Therefore, I’m losing $6 per sale.

I add a second book, and the fundamental math changes. I still only sell one copy of the book I’m advertising, but, now, half my customers go and buy my first novel as well. I’m still spending $10, but, instead of generating only $4 of revenue, I’m getting $6. I’m only losing $4 per sale! Whoohoo!

When I add my third book, some of my customers now buy one previous work and some both. My revenue on the same outlay increases to $7.50.

As you can see, eventually I’ll actually start making a profit. Based on anecdotal evidence, this tipping point comes around the 5th or 6th book.

The implication is clear: It makes no sense to market your book when you only have one out. You’re losing money on each hour you spend. Once you have five or six books, start marketing.

Principle 2: Each additional hour you spend on social media marketing increases your efficiency for future efforts.

There are two factors at work behind this principle.

1. There’s an initial outlay of learning the medium, setting up accounts, becoming proficient with the software, understanding the etiquette, etc. Once that learning is out of the way, creating content takes less time.
2. Your influence grows with time. One follower becomes a hundred becomes a thousand. Given a set conversion rate of followers to sales, sending notices to more people generates more sales for the same amount of effort.

In this manner, the longer you’ve been a user of a particular social medium, the more efficient you are at reaching customers. My first experiences tweeting will cost me $10 to make a sale. By the time I’ve been doing it a year, maybe I’m down to only $7 worth of effort for the same result.

The implication of this principle is also quite clear: You need to market as early as possible. Basically, as soon as you think you might become an author, you should start building a platform.

See the problem?

An author needs to:

1. Wait to market until he has 5 to 6 books out.
2. Begin marketing as soon as possible.

What’s the solution?

As with everything in life, the answer is balance. Either extreme is likely to result in failure.

If you do no marketing at all from the start, your book is not going to sell at all. You run the risk of becoming discouraged and giving up. Also, self publishing involves real cost. Editing and cover art adds up quickly. If you’re not selling anything, where does that money come from?

On the other hand, if you spend all your time blogging and on forums and connecting on Facebook, how are you going to ever produce even that first novel, much less five or six?

I think the balance point is different for each person. The important point is to consider each principle carefully and make wise decisions.

How to Become a Successful Author in Today’s Marketplace

When I first hit upon the idea of writing a novel, I imagined a publisher throwing piles of money at me while weeping for joy over the awesomeness of my book.

If that ever was the way of the world, it’s not anymore. Creating your novel is but the first in a long sequence of steps, and I’ve devoted considerable effort in gaining understanding of those steps.

Before I get to that, though, let’s define “successful.”

1. Megawealth – At some point, a book reaches a level where people buy and read it simple because everyone else is buying and reading it. Did I read Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games because I said, “Hey, this looks like a book I will enjoy?” No. I bowed to social pressure. How do you get your book to that level? I have no idea. If you happen to know, please clue me in. Truthfully, it’s unlikely that any of us are going to reach those kinds of levels.
2. Quitting my Day Job – As an engineer, I make a pretty good living. Salary-wise, I have no complaints. That success also makes it harder for me to replace my income. Through hard work and by gaining a better understanding of efficient marketing/promoting, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for me eventually to gain this level.
3. Extra Income – While replacing my salary would be difficult, a couple of extra thousand bucks a month would certainly come in handy, and I think it’s probable, with hard work, for me to attain that level of success.

While I’d love to get to (1) and I’m shooting for (2), I think that (3) is the more realistic, relatively-short-term objective.

So, how do I get there?

Step 1: Write a Good Book

One path to selling a lot of books is to devote a lot of money to marketing. If you have enough books out and enough resources, I think this would, eventually, pay off for you. Frankly, though, it’s risky, and I don’t have the necessary (huge!) resources to devote to it.

Since I have a day job, I also don’t have time both to produce new work and spent hours and hours marketing.

Without money or time to promote my work, the only path to success I see is to turn my readers into salespeople. If each person who reads it tells others, that’s the “force multiplier” I need to turn my meager marketing efforts into something that launches a successful career.

The first step in gaining my readers’ help is to write a book worthy of them recommending.

Step 2: Implore

The simple fact is that someone is much more likely to do something for you if you ask them to do it. Expecting a stranger to buy your book, read it, and spontaneously proclaim its virtues to all their friends on their own initiative is unrealistic.

If, however, you write a letter to your readers saying, “Hey, I’m an indie author. The only way I have to get word out about my book is through people like you. If you can do any of these things for me, it would help so much, and I’d really appreciate it.”

Then, list things like:

• Tell your friends – in person, on Facebook, and on Twitter
• Write a review on Amazon, your blog, B&N, Goodreads, and any other place you can think of to put it
• Add it to any “Best Book You’ve Never Heard of” list that you can find
• Like my Facebook page

A more comprehensive list is the subject of a future post, but you get the idea.

Step 3: Promote, but Not too Much

Each hour you spend marketing and promoting is an opportunity to reach new customers who in turn have the potential to tell their friends about you. At the same time, each hour you spend marketing and promoting is an hour you’re not spending writing.

Step 4: Write Another Book

As you create and market new products, you:

• Give your “fans” another chance to purchase from you
• Have the opportunity to reach new customers
• Create marketing efficiencies

If you spend an hour promoting your first book, you only have the potential of selling that one product. For the second book, you now have the possibility of your marketing campaign reaching back and selling both your books. Efficiency, to a point, increases with more books.

One book simply is unlikely to ever net you much of a profit, much less make you extra income. Keep writing.

Here’s the Wind-up…and the Pitch!

EDITED ON 1/16/13 to include a revised version of the pitch (you’re allowed to update your submission if your genre isn’t full) and a new lesson.

Last night, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest opened for submissions. At great personal sacrifice (Despite having been released almost a week ago, my copy of A Memory of Light lays mostly unread.), I have submitted my entry.

A quick aside – Let’s say you’re a major company trying to get authors to self publish through you. Let’s pick say, Createspace, as an example. Let’s further say that your parent company is a major bookseller, in fact the biggest player in the marketplace. Let’s call that company, just for grins, Amazon. I think having the parent company sponsor a contest that will draw in a load of wannabe authors and force them to create accounts with the self publishing company is a brilliant idea. What’s not so completely brilliant is to have a lot of author’s first experience with your company be a technical glitch that prevents anyone using IE from actually being able to make a submission. What a major screwup!

Back to the post: I have no great confidence that I have any shot of winning. Don’t get me wrong; I think Power of the Mages is a good story and well-written, definitely worthy of publication. Here are the problems with my contest submission:

• 80% of contestants will be knocked out based on the pitch alone. Selling my novel in less than 300 words is not my strong point.
• I’m not yet finished with even my 3rd draft of Power.

As far as the 2nd draft goes, here’s my evaluation:

• Chapters 1 through 6 are weak. The style needed to be tweaked, the writing tightened, scenes rethought, and, most of all, emotion added.
• Chapters 7 and 8 are horrendous and embarrassingly bloated.
• Chapters 9 through 14 need style tweaking, clarification, and more emotion but are, overall, readable.
• Chapters 15 through the end aren’t bad. Parts need major rewriting, but, overall, the last of the book is better written and contains more emotion. It still needs to be gone through, but I’m not embarrassed to have a wide audience look at it (with the understanding that it’s not finished).

When I made the decision to enter the contest, I wasn’t even finished with the 2nd draft. In a short time, I completed that task and made it through a whopping 10 chapters of the 3rd, including the time-consuming 7th and 8th ones. I fixed the worst part of my book, but there are numerous problems with the rest. Besides the revisions noted above, I’ve made subtle character and plot changes in the first third that are not yet reflected in the unrevised sections.

Like I wrote above, I just don’t think this is a recipe for success. I do think that the experience was a net positive for me though. It forced me to get much further on my editing and made me study how to summarize my story.

Though I by no means consider myself an expert or even competent, here’s what I learned about pitches:

• They are not just your back of the book blurb. At first, I was reluctant to include anything that might be considered a spoiler, which left my pitch sounding incomplete. The purpose is to tell publishers what the book is about, not to try to get a reader to buy it. The publisher needs to know more information about your story than the average reader.
• Focus on the character. No one cares about your backstory and your setting; they care about characters. I knew this going in, but it was really reinforced in the comments that I got. In my first few versions (there were many), I had a paragraph that addressed the overall conflict between the mages and the nobles but didn’t mention the protagonist. I got a much better response when I made that conflict personal to the main character.
• Apparently, it’s also a bad, bad idea to include questions in your pitch. A beta reader who has knowledge of such things informs me that many editor blogs advise strenuously against it. Note that this applies to pitches solely, not to blurbs.

Below is the final version that I submitted. If you want to make me feel better, please comment below on how much it makes you want to become a publisher just so you can produce this book.

Xan, a journeyman apothecary, struggles with the realization that he’s falling in love with Ashley. She’s everything he ever wanted and beautiful to match. If only she existed outside his dreams.

Catchers comb the land accusing people of magic use. Xan loathes the practice in the abstract, instead believing birthright alone should not determine which man is put to death, which is allowed to flourish, which rules, and which toils in obscurity. He’s just never had the motivation, or ability, to do anything about it. Things change when a catcher targets him.

Xan must embrace the reality that he is a mage and that Ashley is both real and in desperate need of his help. What began as a quest to save her and keep her father’s duchy from being overrun by the forces of a rival duke becomes a life or death struggle. To live, Xan must usher in a new age of magic tolerance, but, first, he must resist the temptation to become exactly what the world fears — a mage willing to perform the type of mass destruction last seen in the Wizard’s War. If the nobles don’t betray Xan and his friends first, that is.

Power of the Mages is a character-driven epic fantasy that explores power — both its nature and its abuses. The evil done by nobles to maintain their dominion is eclipsed only by the ruthlessness of their would-be usurpers. Through it all, Xan must transition from medieval lab geek to hero and become a man worthy of leadership.

How to Become a Successful Author

This post is the final part of my Analyzing the Behavior of Book Buyers Series.  See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

There’s a lot of bad news if you’re trying to replace your day-job income with your passion for writing:

  • There are millions of books out there, and people just keep writing more!  Would they just stop already?  It’s hard to stand out from the crowd.
  • If someone does happen to find your book page, you have opportunities to lose them with you description, the reviews, your preview section, and the price.

There is, however, one piece of very good news: Book Buyers actively look for books.

I’ll buy somewhere between 20 and 30 novels this year.  There are a lot of Goodreads members who have goals of reading more than 50 a year.  In order to buy that many books, we’re going to have to search them out.  You don’t have to come to us; we’ll be trying to find you.

If you can make it easy enough for a lot of us to find you, you’ll be a success.  How, then, is the best way to do that:

Step 1 – Write a good book.

Step 2 – Repeat Step 1 over and over again.

Fellow Mythic Scribes members Michael Sullivan and Kevin McLaughlin convinced me of this approach, but logic bears them out.  Let’s look at how Book Buyers find books on a macro scale:

  • If they find a single book they really like, they consider every book by that author.
  • They wait for their favorite authors to publish a new book.
  • They get recommendations from Goodreads, people they know, forums, and lists.  They search out these recommendations.
  • They search within their favorite genres for new books.

Three out of four of those methods involve the book being good.  If the reader doesn’t like your writing, they’re not going to look at your other books and certainly not going to wait for you to publish another one.  If readers in general don’t like your writing, they’re not going to recommend them to anyone.  With so many books in the marketplace, you simply cannot rely on driving customers to your book through advertising or any other method; you must have word of mouth working for you.

I’m planning on releasing Power of the Mages later this year.  Let’s explore two possible scenarios on how that release goes:

Scenario 1Power sells only a few hundred copies in the first year, but I get favorable responses back from the people who did read it.  What do I do?

Write a new book.  If people like Power, it means that I need to give them more time and opportunities to find my writing.

Scenario 2Power sells only a few hundred copies in the first year, and the response is generally bad.  What do I do?

Concentrate on getting better at writing.  I obviously wasn’t as ready as I thought I was to publish a book.

As I do for mine, you probably think your writing is good enough to publish.  Let’s face facts:

  1. Most of the self-published stuff out there isn’t all that great.  The odds aren’t in forever in your favor.
  2. You are not the best person to judge the quality of your work.

Take a long, honest look at the feedback you get.  I know it’s painful, but you’re never going to become a success if you bury your head in the sand.  If you want to get better, you have to try to get better.

I’ve heard many times that the only way to get better at writing is to write.  I think that advice is horse manure.

In the absence of feedback on what you’re doing wrong, it’s unlikely that your writing is going to do much improvement at all.  If you need to get better, get opinions from people who know writing.  Take their suggestions seriously.

Analyzing the Behavior of Book Buyers Pt 5 – Price

See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this series.

If a browser reads your sample and likes it, he’s going to buy it, right?  Nope.  You still have one big hurdle to clear — price.  A few thoughts on the subject:

  • Price isn’t necessarily the last thing the browser considers.  It’s a factor that can lose you the sale at any point during the process.  It might even be the first thing the potential buyer examines.
  • Sometimes, setting price is about maximizing profit.  Selling fewer books at a higher margin may bring you more money than selling a lot at a smaller margin.
  • Sometimes, setting price is about exposure.  In the long run, getting a sample of your work into the hands of as many people as possible may outweigh short term profit.
  • A price point that is too low may indicate to the potential customer that your work is substandard.
  • A price point that is too high may provide the potential customer with too little value.
  • It used to be that setting a price of $.99 drove lots of sales.  Changes in the way that Amazon calculates category rankings and a certain stigma attached to low-priced ebooks may have eliminated the advantages of this price point.

Since I discovered indie authors, my behavior towards book buying has changed:

  • Unless the book is part of a series that I absolutely love, like the upcoming A Memory of Light or the latest in John Ringo’s Troy Rising series, I’m going to wait for the price to fall.  I’m not going to pay $12.99 even for Brent Weeks’ latest book.  I simply do not think I’ll enjoy it four times more than a recommended indie authors’ work.
  • I can live with $7.99 for an established author or the continuation of a series that I’m reading.  Even with a strong recommendation, I’m not going to pay that much to try someone new.  Case in point – Terry Ervin recommended Angie Lofthouse’s Defenders of the Covenant, but it’s priced at $7.99.  If the price drops, I’ll buy it, but I’m simply not willing to pay that much at the moment for someone I’ve never read.
  • If a book even halfway sounds interesting, I won’t blink at paying $2.99.

My main takeaway from analyzing pricing is that an author should experiment.  It’s so easy to change your price and see what happens.  If you’re doing well at $2.99, does $3.99 hurt your bottom line?  If not, increase it another dollar.  If so, drop it back down.

Please feel free to share your experiences as either a buyer or a seller in the comments section.  Look for the final part of this series summarizing my analysis next Monday.