I’ve been trying to understand the very negative attitudes towards self-publishing and self-starting a writing career among many so-called “professionals” in the field. (Sarah commented on the views of one such individual earlier this week.) I note, too, that very few of those “professionals” appear to have enjoyed any meaningful success, if one defines “success” as actually making a living out of their writing (as opposed to talking about writing). They may be highly acclaimed in academic circles, or even lauded for preserving the “purity” of their “literary talent”, but they’re sure as hell not earning enough from it to call themselves successful writers. Read more
Posts from the ‘PETER GRANT’ Category
Instead of an article dealing with a single theme, what I’d like to do today is link to several articles that I’ve bookmarked in recent months, all of which affect us as writers to a greater or lesser degree. I invite you to read them in full for yourselves, to assess how the issues they discuss may affect you, your family, and your writing career.
Let’s start with an important issue for writers’ health: our eyes. The New York Times published an article titled ‘Computer Vision Syndrome Affects Millions‘. It’s certainly a very important subject for writers, who use computers more than most.
Studies have indicated 70 percent to 90 percent of people who use computers extensively, whether for work or play, have one or more symptoms of computer vision syndrome. The effects of prolonged computer use are not just vision-related. Complaints include neurological symptoms like chronic headaches and musculoskeletal problems like neck and back pain.
The report’s authors … cited four studies demonstrating that use of a computer for even three hours a day is likely to result in eye symptoms, low back pain, tension headache and psychosocial stress.
Still, the most common computer-related complaint involves the eyes, which can develop blurred or double vision as well as burning, itching, dryness and redness, all of which can interfere with work performance.
I regularly experience this problem. When I’m working flat-out to complete a writing project, I may spend twelve hours or more every day in front of my computer. Dry, itching, irritated eyes are the inevitable result. To stave off more serious problems, I use an eye ointment when I sleep, plus moisturizing eye drops at intervals during the day. If redness or scratchiness results, I add allergy eye drops to the mix.
Next, a couple of useful articles on Amazon algorithms. Self-Publishing Review put out an article titled ‘Mythbusting The Amazon Algorithm – Reviews and Ranking For Authors‘.
MYTH 1 – Nobody knows how the Amazon Algorithm Works
TRUTH – Yes they do.
The Amazon Algorithm is an A9 algorithm, a pretty run-of-the-mill product search engine with a personalization built in. A9 is a company in Palo Alto that creates product algorithms, code that tells Amazon’s website how to sort and load product lists for each customer’s experience. Anyone who wants to read about how this algorithm works has to do nothing more than search for information online and read the manuals, forums, science articles, and a myriad of other documents that tell you EXACTLY how it works. You can even see samples of the code that makes it work if you look!
. . .
MYTH 3 – You can figure out keywords that people will use to find you by typing into the search bar and seeing what is autosuggested.
TRUTH – The search bar is personalized to YOU and YOU ALONE.
The article contains many other very useful and insightful comments about how Amazon searches work. It’s important information for those of us who rely on such searches to help potential readers find our books.
Startup Brothers adds to the mix with an article titled ‘How to Rank Your Products on Amazon – The Ultimate Guide‘. I’m not sure how ‘ultimate’ it is, but it contains some very interesting information. Here’s an excerpt.
These 3 rules are critically important to making the most of this guide, so make sure you read them twice:
- Amazon’s top goal in everything they do is always maximize Revenue Per Customer (RPC)
- Amazon tracks every action that a customer takes on Amazon, right down to where their mouse hovers on the page
- The A9 algorithm exists to connect the data tracked in #2 to the goal stated in #1
From A9’s website and from the information that Amazon makes available to us through their Seller Central (login required), we can group Amazon’s ranking factors into three equally important categories:
Conversion Rate – These are factors that Amazon has found have a statistically relevant effect on conversion rates. Examples of conversion rate factors include customer reviews, quality of images and pricing.
Relevancy – Relevancy factors tell A9 when to consider your product page for a given search term. Relevancy factors include your title and product description.
Customer Satisfaction & Retention – How do you make the most money from a single customer? Make them so happy that they keep coming back. Amazon knows that the secret to max RPC lies in customer retention. It’s a lot harder to get someone to spend $100 once than $10 ten times. Customer Retention factors include seller feedback and Order Defect Rate.
. . .
What you’ll find below are 25 Amazon ranking factors that either Amazon themselves or independent marketers have confirmed the A9 algorithm to use.
I’m taking a good, hard look at those 25 factors, and considering how to use them in marketing my books. There’s a lot of food for thought there.
Bloomberg may be stating the obvious in an article titled ‘It’s a Writer’s Market: Digital platforms have emerged to serve midlist authors‘, but remember, many of those reading it won’t have our exposure to the market. It reminds us that niche organizations are emerging to offer trad-pub alternatives to self-publishing authors.
A new generation of online editorial services and self-publishing platforms … offer skills and services that used to be available only through traditional publishing, plus favorable royalty splits. They also allow authors to retain the copyright to their work. The array of offerings is spurring some writers to leave their publishing houses—particularly midlist authors whose books receive scant marketing support. Some are also using the new services to put out e-book versions of their out-of-print titles.
The always interesting Simon Owens surveys technology, media and marketing issues. I’ve used two of his articles in previous blog posts, here and at Bayou Renaissance Man. I recommend them to your attention. The first, ‘Book publishers are incentivizing midlist authors to abandon them for Amazon‘, is a searing indictment of how mainstream publishers are effectively cutting themselves off from the next generation of writers.
… over the past few decades, what was once a diverse publishing field has consistently coalesced, through acquisitions and mergers, into an industry with only four major publishers. What’s more, these major publishers are owned by even larger, multi-billion dollar media conglomerates.
So when you’re a company that’s dealing with revenues in the billions (with a B), suddenly a product that can only sell a few thousand units and is ultimately “unscalable,” isn’t worthy of investment. So instead they invest in products that have the potential to not only sell millions of units, but also spawn spin-off merchandise and movie deals.
Amazon, with its ecommerce system and now its Kindle publishing platform, has figured out how to scale midlist authors, and is therefore willing to gobble up those writers the big publishers turn away, offering them a bigger cut of their sales in the process.
The second article, ‘Jeff Bezos is busy building moats‘, examines how Amazon is making sure no competitor can horn in on the territory it’s carved out for itself.
By encroaching into the spaces of other industries, Bezos keeps those other industries from finding cracks in the walk with which to encroach on his main cash cows. And once he has firm moats around his main profit castles, he can start increasing the price on those castles, capitalizing on competitor-free profit margins. The more power he holds over the ebook industry, for instance, the more authors he can direct away from traditional New York publishers and into Amazon’s internal publishing platform, where Amazon takes between a 30 and 70 percent commission on all sales.
Seen this way, Bezos is more concerned with future competitors who are nipping at the edge of his margins than traditional retail companies trying to move into his space. He’s cornered the e-retail market, now he’s simply scorching the earth around it.
Simon Owens brings a very valuable business perspective to our outlook as writers and publishers. I’ve subscribed to his newsletter, and I highly recommend it to you too.
Next, I’ve said before that the subscription model of reading books, exemplified by Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, is likely to become dominant, just as it has (and is continuing to do) in the music and video markets. It’s not limited to entertainment, either. It’s now penetrating other sectors of the economy. To take just one example, the Guardian asks, ‘Is the mass sharing of driverless cars about to reshape our suburbs?‘ It’s written in the context of city rather than rural driving, but its points affect far more than just transport.
“Look at something like car parking,” Bondam told me. “It’s so old fashioned in my eyes. The private ownership of a car – that will end in the next 10 to 15 years. I think it’s going to be a combination of shared cars, of city cars, of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.”
This sounded like a rapid timeframe, I told him. Bondam was adamant: “I’m totally convinced about that. Why on earth would you make a big investment that you just leave outside 95% of the time and don’t use?”
Think of this in the context of reading. More and more of our customers are asking themselves, “Why should I pay the full retail price for an item that’s going to sit on my shelves, or as a file on my electronic device, and never – or seldom – be read again? Why not just ‘rent’ it for as long as I need it, then hand it back?” It makes more and more economic sense for readers; so we, as writers, are going to have to adjust our business model to take that into account. We’ll make less on each ‘sale’ (or borrow, or rental, or whatever you want to call it), but at least we’ll make something. This is an unavoidable wave that’s only just begun to affect our industry. We need to be thinking very seriously about its impact on our income stream. It’ll be considerable.
Finally, we need to accept that many of our potential readers are going to have a lot less disposable income to play with, as the ‘new economy’ takes hold and uproots long-established patterns of work and compensation. MarketWatch warns bluntly: ‘Workers will simply try to survive, rather than prosper, as tech takes over the economy‘.
For most people, a secure, well-paid job is the difference between a reasonable life and penury. Today, changes in the structure of the work force driven by globalization and technology make this objective increasingly elusive.
. . .
U.S. median earnings have not increased since 1975 in real terms. Average real Japanese and German household incomes have been stagnant for more than a decade. U.K. factory incomes haven’t risen since the late-1970s, after adjusting for inflation.
. . .
While there are well-paid jobs for a small portion of the workforce with the required skills, the vast majority of new employment is in the low-paid service sector, such as retail, security and health care. Youth unemployment remains high.
A large part of the population are now members of the “precariat,” a shortened version of the term “precarious proletariat” used in Japan to describe workers without job security who now make up over 30% of the country’s workforce as companies cut labor costs.
Changes in the workforce affect the nature of society. In the brave new world, a small elite, say, 5%, enjoy the significant wealth and control of much of its resources. They employ another stratum of people, say, 20%, to administer their affairs as well as control the precariat, 75% of the population.
Connections, beauty and brains will permit upward mobility, though movement between the groups may become more difficult. In the new economy, the precariat survives rather than prospers in an essentially subsistence existence.
We have to understand that a large – perhaps a very large – proportion of our readers are going to fall into the ‘precariat’, as the article puts it. Their discretionary income to spend on luxuries such as entertainment is going to be severely circumscribed. That’s precisely why the ‘sharing’ economic model in general, and the subscription model of entertainment for music, videos and books in particular, are becoming so widespread. They’re all the ‘precariat’ can afford. It’s even happening in luxury goods – for example, Cadillac has just announced a (rather expensive) car sharing scheme. They haven’t done so out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they understand that their traditional ‘buyers’ won’t be able to afford to buy their vehicles in the same numbers as before. They’re adapting to the changing market.
Whether we like it or not, as writers we’d better work hard to understand the wider economy, note what’s going on there, and adjust our income and expenditure plans accordingly. It’s going to be more difficult to make a living in our field in future. Unless we can confidently predict sales in the thousands every month, we’ll probably need to hold on to our day jobs.
Well, there you are. That’s a selection of articles that I’ve found thought-provoking in terms of my writing career and activities over the past few months. I hope they’re just as interesting and useful for you, too.
I was intrigued to read an article in the Economist about independent musicians and groups in Estonia. Here are a few excerpts.
ON A recent day, Helen Sildna was sifting through applications, looking at products, business plans and strategies for market expansion. This may be business as usual for investment managers, but the applicants were artists, not companies. Ms Sildna, the founder and chief executive of Tallinn Music Week, is convinced that musical acts need to operate like start-ups, attracting investors and creating business plans.
. . .
During the one-week festival, which takes place in March and April each year, bands and solo artists perform (free of charge), exchange ideas with each other—and hone their business skills by negotiating with promoters, investors and other potential partners. The festival is essentially a boot camp for musical start-ups. “The artists know that you have to take financial risk,” Ms Sildna says. They have to learn to “find investments and develop efficient teams containing all sorts of expertise from finance to digital media and marketing.”
For the previous Tallinn Music Week Ms Sildna received around 1,000 applications, of which 250—representing 35 countries—were selected. The application round for 2017 runs until the end of November. “It’s easier to start on your own because you’re in charge of your own career,” says Andres Kõpper, an Estonian electro-pop artist performing under the name NOËP. “In Estonia that’s the way artists work now. You don’t stand around waiting for a magic hand to help you.” Mr Kõpper signed a record contract with Sony, after they discovered his music on Spotify. The young artist had, in essence, already done the heavy lifting by building his own audience.
. . .
Waiting to be signed by a major label may no longer be a good idea for artists anywhere. According to a recent survey by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the key 13-to-25 demographic only buys 14% of all CDs sold, while music lovers aged 36 and over buy 58%. The younger demographic accounts for 41% of all music ripping and downloading, while the much larger 36-and-over group only accounts for 40% of that activity. Ms Sildna argues that music fans’ changing buying habits have created more opportunities for enterprising artists. “Today investment and competent teams can be found in innovative formats. There is no such thing as the classic music industry route anymore.”
There’s more at the link. Recommended reading.
I think this is very applicable to our industry – writing and publishing. Of course, we don’t necessarily have to use a publisher at all, just as a music group today doesn’t have to go with an outside producer or distributor. They can do over the Web almost everything that used to be done by music companies, and they can hire professional studios to record their own work (or build their own in the garage or basement of one of their homes, just as we set up our offices – “writing studios” – in our own homes).
However, one aspect I haven’t seen among independent authors is a concentrated effort to market ourselves in conjunction with each other. I haven’t seen an indie “boot camp” along the lines of the Tallinn Music Week. Sure, there’s a certain amount of mingling and discussion at sci-fi conventions and the like, but that’s not the same thing. Should we be trying to set up a more professional, more sales-focused event like that? Would it work for publishing books as well as songs? I don’t know. Tell us your thoughts in a comment, and join the discussion.
I think we should be looking closely at how other areas of the entertainment industry – which, after all, includes books) – are marketing themselves and their artists. If we don’t, they’ll eat our lunch, because the average consumer has only so many dollars (or whatever) to spend on entertainment every month. Those dollars can buy a movie ticket, or a DVD, or music, or a book, or a video game, or anything else that entertains. Our books are just one of many possible purchases. We need to figure out how to make them – and their authors – more attractive to potential consumers.
I was particularly taken by this excerpt from the Economist’s article.
Mr Kõpper signed a record contract with Sony, after they discovered his music on Spotify. The young artist had, in essence, already done the heavy lifting by building his own audience.
That’s exactly how I ended up publishing my most recent book with Castalia House (which is selling very nicely, thank you), and why I’m now under contract with them for several more; and it’s how my friend Lawdog recently parlayed his blog readership and wide network of followers into a publishing contract for two books. Our experience has been identical to Mr. Kõpper’s. If you bring to the table, as an independent artist or author, an established readership, guaranteed to buy your books, in sufficient numbers that the proposition will be profitable for a publisher as well as yourself, you have a lot that will interest them. I think that’s the way most authors are going to ‘make it’ in the more traditional aspects of publishing in future (assuming, of course, that traditional publishers learn to adapt to the market of today, and don’t go the way of the dinosaur). The more we can put on the table, the more the other side is likely to put on the table in return. Both sides have to win – and if we do well as indies, we hold a winning hand.
We’re in a business, whether we like it or not. Art is for the birds.
First, the links, in case you want to go read the source yourself.
The music industry is not the publishing industry, but both are going through digital disruption and one can offer insight into the other. In this, we see that current (published within the last 18 months) album sales have gone from 63% of total sales in 2005 to 49% of sales in 2015.
Also, the total album sales has dropped from 618.9 million to 241.3 million – slightly over a third of what they used to be. (39%)
At first glimpse, this looks like a total collapse in album sales, not just a massive collapse in current frontlist selling. But when you look closer, this is only a slice of the whole. “Total consumption, including sales, streams, and track downloads, was up, fueled by the continued surge of streaming, which nearly doubled last year.”
“Catalog continues to be the biggest share of on-demand streams, with songs over 18 months old accounting for nearly 70% of all streaming volume.”
Catalog is the music equivalent of backlist. So what you’re seeing here is more people accessing music backlist. Some of that is going to be people using streaming services to listen to bands they know and like (and may already possess in hardcopy, but this is more convenient.) Some of that are going to be bands who’ve been out for a while, but are just now being discovered by word of mouth. (Yesterday, an acquaintance on facebook was gushing about the artist they’d just discovered – Lindsey Stirling. She went big in 2012, and it took 4 years for her to reach this particular person, who in turn was enthusiastically recommending her to everyone they knew.)
This, then, is the rise of the long tail. It’s getting harder and harder to be discovered on release – but with unlimited shelf life, when people hear of you, they can find you and try as much as they want. We, personally, are seeing that now. It’s been almost a year since Peter’s last release, Stand Against The Storm. Any fans who bought it because they know Peter’s stuff and were waiting for it to come out have long since bought the book, and are unlikely to rebuy it. But every day, a few sales trickle in across his whole backlist, and every day, people are reading something of his in the Kindle Unlimited library.
I’m very grateful for those readers, who are just now discovering his books, and working their way through them. I’d love to find a way to reach them, but most appear from nowhere trackable – it’s not mentions on blogs, nor con appearances, nor promotion, just steady word of mouth combined with the passive promotional tools (Sidebar on his blog, mentions here and there, and Amazon’s also-boughts). To all of you who’ve helped keep the lights on and pay for medical bills over the last year, thank you! We’re working through assorted medical problem and moving, and the next book, Stoke the Flames Higher, is getting very close to done!
One other very interesting note from the report: not only is the ratio of frontlist to baclist sales falling, but the spread is narrowing on the frontlist: a very few stars are getting most of the release buys. Adele’s new album was only out for 6 weeks last year, and yet it accounted for 3% of the album sales for the year – roughly 6% of the frontlist for the year.
This is not unlike the world legacy pub is aiming for: they’ve been squeezing out the midlisters and hoping to make everything on a few blockbusters. Certainly, indie can’t compete with new release hardcover like Girl on a Train, which took most of the legacy pub sales last year in fiction. However, we’re not relying on legacy pub to get to readers anymore, and we’re not going out of print. This means that no matter the size of your new release boost, you still can sell a heck of a lot of copies over time, as readers find you.
In summary, if publishing continues to mirror music, then streaming will continue to increase, but frontlist sales may continue to fall, and it become harder and harder to get discovered in the initial release period. However, backlist volume is growing, and people are discovering their way through the things that have been out there a while. So, while you can and should do some promotion of your latest release – if it fails to take off, don’t despair. Instead, write the next book, the greatest book you’ve written yet. Sometimes you make your money on the initial release surge, and sometimes, it’ll come in having a lot of things out there all bringing in an unsteady trickle.
As long as you write a great story, and put it in a good cover and catchy blurb that hooks the reader just long enough to look inside – the story is what’ll entertain them, and keep them coming back for more, and telling their friends “You gotta try this!”
If you haven’t tried Peter Grant’s books yet, he has an awesome series of fun Space Opera, starting with Take The Star Road.
Steve Maxwell just wants to get his feet on the star road to find a better homeworld. By facing down Lotus Tong thugs, he earns an opportunity to become a spacer apprentice on a merchant spaceship, leaving the corruption and crime of Earth behind. Sure, he needs to prove himself to an older, tight-knit crew, but how bad can it be?
If you like grittier Military Science Fiction, based not on European wars but on combat in Africa, try War to the Knife.
When the Bactrians invaded their planet, Laredo’s army switched to guerrilla warfare and went underground. For three years they’ve fought like demons to resist the occupiers. They’ve bled the enemy, but at fearful cost. The survivors are running out of weapons, supplies, and places to hide.
Then a young officer, Dave Carson, uncovers news that may change everything. An opportunity is coming to smash the foe harder than they’ve ever done before, both on and off the planet. Success may bring the interplanetary community to their aid – but it’ll take everything they’ve got. Win or lose, many of them will die. Failure will mean that Bactria will at last rule unopposed. That risk won’t stop them.
When you’re fighting a war to the knife, in the end you bet on the blade!
Dorothy and I have been talking at some length about her plans to set up a consultancy service for writers in relation to marketing and author support. Unfortunately, based on market research she’s done so far, it seems that many authors aren’t clear about what assistance they want, don’t know how they want it to be delivered, and aren’t sure whether (and/or how much) they’re willing to pay for it. Accordingly, we decided it would probably be best to lay out the problems here, and ask all our members and readers to respond with their ideas. If we all put our heads together, we might come up with something workable.
Many authors complain that their books don’t achieve the sales success they’d expected or hoped for. The reasons for this often are not clear. In many cases it’s simply because the books are poorly positioned and/or poorly publicized – which is where marketing comes in. Let me give you some examples from my own experience.
- I took a SWAG as to what keywords to use for my first two or three books (essential to help potential readers find them when searching for books in their areas of interest). They sold reasonably well, but could have done much better. This was proved when Dorothy (who understands search engines and optimization very well) analyzed the keywords I was using and pointed out that books on similar subjects were using keywords more closely tailored to the book and to potential readers’ tastes. After she modified my keyword selections, my sales went up by over 25% across the board.
- I was mainly publicizing my books through my blog and through asking friends to mention them on their social media accounts. This had some success, but again, not as much as I would have liked. Dorothy investigated the major marketing services available (e.g. BookBub, etc.) and Amazon’s internal marketing offerings (Kindle Countdown Deals, Free Book Promotions and Advertising for KDP Select). She then used several of these tools and services to publicize my more recent releases, with greatly improved results.
Those are only a couple of the areas in which Dorothy and I have worked together to investigate and analyze options for improved market penetration.
The trouble is, many authors don’t analyze such factors at all – or, if they do, they regard it as a burden on their time compared to the job of writing the books and getting them out there. I’ve seen a lot of advice on the Internet along the lines of “If your latest book doesn’t sell, perseverance is the key! Get stuck into writing the next one!” Unfortunately, while that may be a good creative strategy, it’s a very poor business strategy – and we’re in the business of writing. If we don’t analyze where and how we’re going wrong, marketing-wise, how will we ever put things right? Furthermore, actually conducting that analysis involves giving someone a fair amount of information about what you’re doing – either gathering it ourselves (which may take a fair amount of effort), or giving others access to our Amazon account and/or other outlets’ accounts so that they can gather it for us (which is a security risk if we don’t know the person involved). Many authors don’t want to ‘give away their secrets’, even if that’s the only way to get an objective analysis of where they are and how they can improve their marketing.
So, dear fellow authors – what do you want? We really need your honest, in-depth answers to the following questions.
- What author services and marketing assistance do you, personally, need?
- What author services and marketing assistance are you, personally, willing to pay for?
- How much are you willing to pay? (Think in terms of either an hourly rate, or a ‘package price’ for a marketing support deal for a single book – input on cover design, genre and keyword selection, marketing and publicity, etc.)
- What do you not want in the way of author services and marketing assistance? Are there things you simply insist on doing for yourself, or in which you want to retain a right of veto? (It’s no good paying someone to come up with an idea that you will then reject – neither of you will be satisfied.)
As an example, let me tell you what assistance I’m willing to pay for in terms of author support and marketing:
- Manuscript pre-publication preparation and formatting;
- Cover image selection, layout and design;
- Composition of blurb, selection of cover reviews and advertising copy;
- Genre and keyword positioning;
- Publicity (selection of channels and tools for marketing and advertising);
- Analysis of sales and fine-tuning of market positioning based on performance;
- Ongoing analysis of the genres and markets in which I operate, so as to revisit earlier books and modify their marketing elements as necessary to accommodate changing trends.
To do all that, I’ll happily pay $500 to $1,000 per book, in advance, and regard it as cheap at the price. It’ll pay for itself before long, and my overall sales will be all the greater thanks to such assistance. For the lower figure, I’ll have to deal with some of those areas myself; for the higher sum, I’ll generally expect all of them to be covered by the consultant. In either case I’ll have regular discussions with the person(s) doing the work, including the right to veto elements that I don’t like; but I must, in my turn, respect their professional expertise, and acknowledge that they may know more than I do about what works, or doesn’t work, in particular areas. Therefore, selecting the right person is critical. (I selected the best . . . in fact, I married her!)
What say you? What areas would you like to hand off to a consultant or assistant? How would you prefer to handle market research, positioning, etc.? Please let us know your perspective in Comments.
I thought I’d try something different this morning. Rather than inflict more of my mental machinations on you, here’s the Master himself, J. R. R. Tolkien. These two clips were filmed by the BBC in 1968. I find them fascinating as a glimpse into so creative a mind, and a clue as to how he could take the most ordinary, mundane circumstances, filter them through his prodigous imagination, and transform them into something magically mysterious that’s kept the world entertained for more than half a century.
I suppose that Tolkien was the single most important formative influence on me as a young reader, far more so than classic science fiction authors like Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein (whom I didn’t discover until my late teens). I remain an unabashed fan, and still regard his ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy as the benchmarks against which I measure anything calling itself fantasy.