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Month:

December, 2018

Branding.

We hear a ton about it. That we need to do it. That our brand is our most important asset. That our branding differentiates us from other authors and offers the reader a clear, instantaneous value statement about what they’re getting when they pick up one of our books.

So what is it? Our cover’s look and feel? Our approach to prose? Our characters and stories? The totality of the reader experience?

The answer is yes. All of that, and more. It is the snapshot that comes to the reader’s mind when they see or hear our name, or the title of one of our books. As an example, James Bond is an incredible brand that instantly conjures up visions of sophisticated super spies, non-stop action, over-the-top plot twists, and malevolent, evil villains. It’s an instant association. That’s the value of the brand – how it immediately informs the consumer of an identifiable cluster of deliverables they can expect.

Once clear on what a brand is, we would do best to examine large corporations that have successfully created and maintained their brands, and how they go about protecting them.

Coca Cola and Pepsi are two classics. Both with eerily similar commodity products, and both mega-corps that have earned billions from their syrupy soft drinks.

They spend many millions each year to keep their logos and names in the public eye. They do this as an expense that must be borne by sales – it’s a necessary part of doing business. Even after a century, they still invest a portion of their revenue into branding, because there are always new customers to be swayed, and people have short memories and a lot of choices.

I got a tremendous amount of response to my last blog about advertising and the shifting sands of the Amazon landscape, which got me thinking about the value of branding. In most industries, you have to pay to brand. It’s that simple. Branding is a sunk cost, a part of the expenses that are required to remain in business. There’s no direct link between the money spent and a rise in sales, nor is there an expectation of one in anything resembling the short term.

But books are different. Or at least, advertising on Zon is different. Here, authors look at ROI on their ads, which is fine (I do). But that misses the big picture. Ads serve two purposes: to drive incremental sales, and to build a brand. The first is where we can measure ROI (return on investment) and tell whether our ads are “working,” but what about the second? Isn’t it curious that we expect that our brand building should post a return when in every other industry it’s a cost, not a revenue source?

My hunch is that our attitude has developed because of two things. First, few authors have real experience operating a business that’s in retail and has any scale. So they have no real context with which to view branding as an ongoing, necessary effort that spans years, and which costs money rather than instantly makes it. Second, they’ve been conditioned to think short term, as in how much did I make this month, rather than looking at the business as a year-over-year marathon where it’s not only about sales, but also defining and strengthening a brand, which will translate into sales and loyalty in the longer term…but not instantaneously.

I suppose my perspective is different, having in a past life worked for a Fortune 500 in marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that I can get a positive ROI on my ad campaigns, because it makes it palatable to spend money on what is necessary to build my brand. But I also recognize how lucky I am to do so, because 99% of all companies don’t expect to see any ROI.

Because of our little niche industry, we’re able to actually turn brand building into a profit center, which is unheard of in most segments. That rocks.

I’ve spent seven and a half years building the Russell Blake brand, and continue to invest in doing so. My goal is to establish it as a quality purveyor of differentiated content, that regardless of the genre, sets a high bar for prose, story, pacing, editing, and look and feel. I think I’ve done that with my readership, but the goal is to now expand my reach – the vast majority of readers have never heard of Russell Blake, so the challenge is to get visibility with that vast audience and slowly but surely get them interested in sampling my wares.

In time, the hope is that I provide an experience they can’t get elsewhere, which translates into brand loyalty, and which they trust will meet their expectations regardless of what genre I’m writing in. Advertising helps with that effort, because I’m now seeing new readers trying my books – readers who otherwise wouldn’t have known I existed. The hope is that by increasing my ad spend over time, even if it eventually becomes a break-even exercise, I will collect a larger and larger audience that will go on to read my backlist after finishing whatever book I snagged them with, which will in turn translate into long term success that builds on itself.

So far, so good.

If I have any words of advice for my fellow authors, it would be to read a marketing textbook and pay particular attention to the chapters on brand building, because if you’re to have a career that lasts longer than a toddler’s temper tantrum, without a brand that readers trust you’ll be interchangeable with a thousand others. If you can make money from your brand building effort, super, but even if you have to pay some to do so, you’re only doing what the most successful companies in the world already know they have to do every day…so don’t whine, and bear in mind that any revenue you see from doing it is icing.

In summary, measuring advertising dollar ROI is important when evaluating whether a campaign is generating directly attributable sales, but misses the point on brand building, where it’s also delivering value that isn’t immediately evident or measurable but should have an accretive impact over the longer term.

My grandmother used to say that quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. A relevant pseudo-corollary is that branding is remembered long after the sale is forgotten. So there’s a short term objective, and a longer range goal that’s more important to a lengthy career than how your last month did. As retail marketers/publishers we have to be sensitive to both, and grin and bear it when we’re not hitting lofty ROI goals but we’ve increased our reach.

Those are my thoughts, such as they are. Everyone have a happy holiday, and if you missed my blog on advertising and my recent revelations as I navigate the Amazon ad waters, refer to my blog from a few weeks back for more info.

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Eggnog, sleigh bells, hobos with cheeks glowing from holiday cheer, Santas on every street corner (often one and the same). That must mean it’s time for another installment in the bestselling The Day After Never series, this one titled, Legion.

What can I say about this one? It picks up where book 7 left off, and plunges Lucas into even more harrowing circumstances as enemies surface at every turn. Nothing and nowhere is safe, and he must battle adversity on every page if he and his crew are to survive.

Fans of the series are sure to be delighted by this one, as it has battles galore, serpentine twists, reversals, new and old characters intertwining, and a breakneck pace that races to its explosive conclusion.

If you haven’t tried The Day After Never series, you’d be well advised to. If you have, you’ll have a very merry Xmas with The Day After Never – Legion in your stocking!

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Time for my year end wrap up, which will consist of two posts – the first, by popular demand, which will cover my take on the state of the market, and the second, on the importance of brand building in this new and harsher environment.

2018 ushered in a time when visibility we used to take for granted on Amazon basically disappeared. The long tail on new releases has been compressed to only weeks, and with the elimination of free books from the also boughts and from the search functions, it’s almost impossible to get any free visibility now on the largest seller of books in the world.

So what’s left?

Paying to play, also known as advertising. The rest of this blog will be devoted to my experience with Zon advertising, and the conclusions I’ve drawn after reluctantly beginning a concentrated effort about mid-year.

Bluntly, Amazon has taken real estate on their product pages and turned it into revenue streams, which is smart. And once they had that revenue generation engine, it would have been dumb for them to offer visibility that doesn’t involved publishers and authors paying Zon for the privilege. Which is what they’ve done.

We are now in a world where advertising isn’t optional – it’s necessary if you’re going to make a living as an author, unless you’re so atypical it’s astonishing, in which case, congrats, but you’re the exception, so enjoy it while it lasts.

What this means is that authors who have been making decent livings over the last five years are going to find their earnings shrinking substantially unless they pony up cash to buy placement, exactly as retailers have required vendors to do for longer than any of us have been alive. You want the visibility of the end cap? Pay up. You want in-store displays? Pay. You want favorable placement? Pay. Be seen in a magazine or newspaper? Pay. Very simple. For years that wasn’t the case with Amazon. Now it is.

The net is that our margins will shrink as we have to devote a portion of our dwindling income to advertising. That’s reality. But they will shrink far faster and further if we don’t, as my experience over the last year or two has taught me. That’s the new market. It is what it is.

I should stress that I hate having to dick with advertising. It’s not my forte. I don’t have 10-20 hours a week to devote to managing campaigns, changing key words, evaluating copy and click rates, monitoring ad results, submitting them and dealing with arbitrary rejection, deciphering the opaque results of the world’s worst reporting, and on and on and on. And I certainly don’t have even more time to devote to keeping up on what’s working and what isn’t as Zon changes their algos seemingly weekly.

I write novels. I’m not a copywriter or an advertising specialist. I hired a group that is, and am thrilled with the results – they advertise only my backlist, and they’ve managed to increase sales of that relatively dead money by a massive amount; so much so that I have been seeing a pretty steady 100-130% monthly ROI after paying the ads and their fee. Others have seen results all over the map, usually due to the depth of their series, whether they’re in KU or not (KU eliminates any buying hesitation once they’ve clicked on the ad to your product page because it’s free to read the book, vs. requiring a buying decision), genre, and a host of other factors, but there’s no question that the right kind of efforts for the right sort of catalog can be a game changer.

I liken doing my own advertising to cleaning toilets. I hate doing it, and if I can hire someone for $20 an hour to scrub when I earn many multiples of that, I’m an idiot if I don’t leverage that for a successful arbitrage, and do what pays me far more with my time while leaving the toilet to the other person. If I spend one of my $100 or $200 or $400 hours doing something that can be outsourced for $20, I’m a fool for failing to grasp the math. Again, simple.

I realize not everyone, or even most, can afford to hire someone competent to run their campaigns, which leaves authors in a bleak position of having to split their time between writing, and becoming ad and copy-writing specialists. That means that if they have little time to write, they will now have even less, because they have to spend the lion’s share of their time being online ad specialists and staying current with all the trends. It’s not ideal, obviously, but it’s reality, and my sense is it’s going to get worse, not better, at least on Amazon.

My frustration with Zon advertising is that it’s very difficult to scale the spend up without killing ROI. I can easily spend $10 a day and poach a few lucky cheap clicks, but that’s not going to make any real money, and if you want to invest more than chicken feed, it’s almost impossible to spend serious amounts without tunneling ROI to where it gets closer to break-even than significant % upside. Fortunately my folks have figured out some tricks to achieve this, but that doesn’t really help the average author, who’s locked into an ugly spiral: either receive no visibility to speak of (so no sales), or spend money to buy vis, but be unable to do so to buy enough to really matter.

The current ad environment is geared towards the big spenders, who can dominate the pages with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars per month, and who probably are fine seeing 10% or 20% monthly ROI, or less. The problem is that’s whose bids you’re competing with when you run your ads, and I guarantee that if you don’t have a deep series in KU, you’re unlikely to be able to make any money throwing large amounts at buying expensive placements – placements that likely will cost much more than you’ll earn on the first, or even first, second, and third books in your series.

So what is there to do?

I wish I knew. I also don’t know what to do if you write stand-alone novels, or only have a few books in a series, other than recommend you write like mad and build significant enough depth to prosper in this brave new world of a mature marketplace where the owner of the store wants to maximize its profits. There’s no point railing against it, anymore than there’s a point to railing against the fact that the grocery store won’t carry your delicious home baked cookies you’re trying to turn into a business – that’s just the way it is, and they’re not going to displace a vendor who spends a fortune with them to feature your offering. In that instance, you simply don’t have a viable business, and would be better served either trying to find alternative outlets, or shelving your dreams of a cookie empire, because you don’t have the juice to make it happen. Sorry.

I resisted advertising for years. Fortunately, I dove in this year, and have seen my sales more than double on my backlist, as well as seen about a 1200% annual return on investment on the money I’ve invested in adverts. There’s no place I can see 1200% return in any market, or even 120%, so I consider it a cost of doing business now in the new marketplace, with a nice sweetener for my trouble – spend $10K on ads a month, see $24K in gross sales, minus the ad spend of $10K, minus the group’s fee, which leaves me with $12K and change for my trouble that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen (above my usual monthly baseline run-rate sales).

That’s not as fun as free money sponsored by Amazon’s free vis like in the good old days, but it’ll have to do. It will never be 2012 or 13 again, no matter how much we wish it were.

As to those who want to or are forced by circumstance to handle their advertising themselves, you have my sympathy. I didn’t sign up to become an author in order to try to become an online advertising specialist or a copywriter, and it should be obvious that I’d rather do pretty much anything else besides spend half my week on that aspect of the job. Then again, I also don’t design my own covers, or try to self edit, or proof my own work, because I follow the same simple philosophy I outlined before: if I can pay an expert far less than I earn per hour to do it, I’m ahead of the game and shouldn’t even think about wasting my valuable time on what I can outsource.

If anyone wants my group’s contact info, feel free to email me at [email protected] and I’ll share it. They’ve become friends of mine, and I recommend them highly, but they’re typically swamped so I’m not going to post their info online lest they drop me for being an asshat.

So that’s my rather bleak assessment of the marketplace on Amazon. As to B&N and Apple and Kobo, they’ve had years to give Zon a real run for their money, and failed, so while I’m philosophically opposed to putting my eggs in one basket, I’m also opposed to investing in failure, which is how it seemed when I had most of my titles wide instead of in KU and watched my sales lag month after month no matter what I did. I still have some of my books wide – the Drake Ramsey’s series, the Assassin series, and so on, but my big money makers are in KU, with an advertising approach that’s turned them from meh money back into woohoo income.

I’m sure there are plenty who’ve had different experiences, and I’m not saying that folks can’t earn a living without advertising or slaving away at it themselves. If they can, hats off to them. I just know myself well enough to know that doing something I hate kills the joy in the entire business for me, which is why I avoided it so long.

And for those who are going to chime in and ask about newsletter swaps, and email blasts, and launch parties, and that sort of thing, sure, by all means do them and give it the college try. But frankly there’s not a lot that can replace a reader seeing your cover on the first page of a book they’re interested in for awakening buying interest, and this comes from a guy with a mailing list over 30K deep. Rather than fight the new environment, I’d suggest you come to grips with it and do whatever you can to thrive in it, because the alternative isn’t good, and as I said before, I believe it’s going to get a lot tougher as the big spenders dominate the pages with ever increasing budgets.

My next blog will be about brand building and the silver lining of ads on Amazon, which in a nutshell will state that it’s possible to generate a positive ROI while investing in brand building, which is a multi-year, ongoing effort (that normally is an expense companies invest 5-15% of sales into with no hope of seeing a return), not a revenue source, so silver linings, if somewhat tarnished ones.

Until then, have a great holiday, and I hope you sell a million – I need more rich friends, and my bar tab doesn’t pay itself.

 

 

 

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