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9 Jul 2019, by

Taking a Break

After eight years of turning out roughly 8-9 novels a year, about April of 2019 I hit a kind of wall. Moving to a new place, dealing with personal issues, working with several new investments, designing homes, traveling…

After sixty-something novels, it seems the universe is telling me it’s okay to take a break.

So I am. I’m chipping away at the new DAN – Nemesis, but not at the 5-6K a day rate I’m accustomed to. More like 1000-1500 words a day. So it’s taking what for me seems like forever. If I’m lucky I’ll be done by the end of July for an August release.

Which has created an insane level of guilt in me, as I feel like I’m totally slacking. I know that’s nuts, but it’s the way I’m wired. And of course, there’s the fear that I’ll never be able to write decently, much less prolifically, again. Irrational, but it’s there like the fear that mole is something more than an annoyance.

My production schedule this year called for five novels: 2 JETs, 2 DANs, and 1 Ramsey’s. At this rate I can see perhaps the 2 JETs, and possibly either a Ramsey’s or another DAN in addition to the current WIP, but doubtful I’ll achieve both.

The truth is that my income is up by almost triple from where it was a couple years ago, entirely due to AMS advertising, so the pressure to publish every 5-6 weeks is minimal from a revenue standpoint. And there’s no fucking way I’m ever going to use a ghostwriter – it’s not that I’m opposed to the practice if the market doesn’t mind, it’s that it seems like it turns a labor of love into a manufacturing scheme, and that’s not my thing – I have enough business interests so that I don’t feel the need to turn my writing into another one.

This is all a long way of saying I’ve made the decision to take it easy this year, recharge my batteries, and only write when I want, so it’s not like it’s a job. Part of the problem in turning what you love into a job is you can lose the passion for it – it becomes work. And being shiftless and lazy, I’ve always despised actual work.

I would rather take a hiatus than hate what I’m doing. So I’m slowing to what I consider next to nothing, and taking it day-by-day.

For everyone who was eagerly awaiting a new DAN at the end of July, I apologize. For those who expected a new Ramsey’s, well, it could still happen in 2019. I’m not saying it won’t. I’m just saying that right now, the beach and margaritas and swaying palms and long siestas soothed by balmy breezes sounds better than 12 hours in front of a monitor.

Hope you bear with me.

I’m not gone. Just…resting.

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I just got done doing a podcast with one of the top indie publishing gurus that will air in the next couple of weeks, and it seemed as good as any an excuse to summarize some of the discussion here, in the second part of my State of the Ad Union rant.

I was joined by Mike Beverly, who runs AMSAdwerks, and who exclusively specializes in Amazon advertising. Disclosure: I’m invested in the company, as well as being a longtime client (almost a year!).

One of the points I drove home is that Amazon advertising doesn’t sell books – it creates visibility for books. The sole function is to get more traffic to your product page. It’s your product page that sells the book, via the blurb, the look inside, the reviews, and to a lesser extent, the cover (the cover is key in the ad, but once the reader’s at the product page it’s kind of done its job unless want of a larger version is what was causing purchase hesitation in the prospect).

This is confusing for many authors, because they think, hey, I spent $100 on amazon ads yesterday, but I only sold $75 of the book, so the ad must suck, or the person running it does. The problem being that they aren’t taking into account the long tail of buyers who read book 1 and go to book 2 and then 3, and so on, or the number who then go on to read another series by the same author. But be that as it may, the ACOS on an ad can be daunting, especially when Zon’s sales reporting can be off by days, or weeks, depending upon who you speak to. So you may have determined a program was a failure after a week and a half and stop it, and then your sales will continue coming in for days or weeks after, making it profitable. But too late. You stopped it, so it’s back to the end of the line for you on the program, which may not gain the same traction the second time around.

What I’m seeing is a rapidly changing landscape where the cost to gain visibility is increasing in the popular genres, but even so, it’s not just a matter of out-bidding the other thousand authors vying for the first page carousel – it’s a function of how many volumes your series has, and how much total revenue a book 1 purchase will ultimately earn Amazon – because it knows exactly how many on average convert to book 2 buyers, and how many of those will go on to read book 3, 4, 5, etc. So you may be bidding in the clouds, and still not get shown, because why would Zon sell you that space when it can make $10 more over time if it sells another author with a longer and better read series the space, even if it’s cheaper than your bid? They wouldn’t. It would be bad business.

This creates an environment where success breeds more success, and shorter series with lesser read-through get worse treatment. At least that’ s how it appears to me. Nobody knows for sure how Zon actually tunes their algos, so some of this is the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, but it’s a pretty educated guess.

So what is a beginning author to do, much less someone who’s been at it for years, but still can’t seem to make serious money?

My answer is focus on quality. Product quality will win out if visibility can be had. Visibility on a shoddy product won’t result in a deluge of sales, but on something worth reading that satisfies reader expectations for the genre, it means a lot. It’s no guarantee, of course, which is why tens of thousands of new titles are released by trad publishers every year, the majority of which are well written and competently edited, and yet only a slim percentage earn out, much less are blockbusters.

I was eaten alive by many when I wrote blogs back in 2013 and 2014 pointing out that in the arts, there are 10,000 aspiring artists for every one who earns a good living. It’s a truism, if unfair. Everyone thinks they’re different and special, and maybe they are, but the market determines who gets paid and who doesn’t to produce content. If you’re uncomfortable with the long odds, get a day job, or do something else as a hobby, because the odds say you’ll never make a living as an author, just as the odds say you’ll never make a living as a ballet dancer or a painter or a singer or a guitarist. It’s a sad truth that seems to have been forgotten during the gold rush early days of publishing, but the market’s now mature, and in mature markets most content simply doesn’t get bought.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be exceptions, or that you’re not one of them. It means that you need to work with your eyes wide open, and not buy into the “anyone can do this!” mantra that encourages quantity and genre chasing and ghost writing as a “sure thing.” Nothing in life is sure but death, and it’s misleading to say otherwise.

I write because I enjoy doing so. It’s a fluke that I’ve been able to have an 8 year career as a bestselling author, and I realize it – a combination of timing, willingness to work 14 hours a day seven days a week for years on end, being able to invest in pro editing and covers and proofreading, having an active imagination, being a lifelong avid reader, and possessing sufficient talent to get decent at the craft in a fairly short period. If any one of those things hadn’t aligned I wouldn’t have made a dent. Probably if I launched my first book now, I’d be ignored and largely forgotten by anyone but friends and family. I get that, and I’m grateful I got the chance to sit at the big table. But I don’t take it for granted, and I’m deeply suspicious of survivor bias that seems to be at play in many cases.

Can you advertise your way to fame and fortune? Sure. Want to make a million writing books? Start with three. Is it easy or assured? Nope. But what I can say is that my original advice to authors all those years ago – write series, generate quality content fast so the pipeline’s always full, create a distinctive enough voice and product so readers can’t get it anywhere else, be willing to work twice as hard as your competition, pay for quality pro covers and editing, choose genres that can support you if you do moderately well in them and don’t genre hop – holds true, and I wouldn’t modify any of it. I would add that if you’re able to genre blend in a unique way and hit at just the right time you can carve out an original niche, but that’s rare enough so I can count on one hand the number of authors who’ve done it.

That’s my summary. Think of advertising as an investment in two ways: building name recognition while you generate sufficient content so it can support you if readers respond well to it, and as a visibility multiplier where you’re effectively paying to fill your potential sales funnel. On Amazon, at least, it isn’t a way to sell books in a direct A to B manner. The book still needs to sell itself, and other than the blurb and reviews and cover, it will come down to what’s on the page, which is the sole thing you truly have total control over as you sit down to write.

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June, 2011, I released my first novel, Fatal Exchange.

Now, eight years later, with sixty-something novels out, it’s hard for me to believe how quickly the time flies.

I just reread a draft of one of my first blogs, from January, 2012, wherein I was celebrating the fact that I’d hit my first four figure month. My tone was hesitant, and I stated that I was taking nothing for granted, as the mighty could fall as quickly as they rose. Wise counsel, and it applies to this day. I’ve always felt a cautious optimism when it comes to this craft, consistent with my observation of other branches of the arts, where the vast majority toil away for starvation wages while a few bright lights make fortunes and are well publicized.

Looking at the bestseller ranks in romance, for example, I see some of the biggest names from 2012-2015 languishing with rankings that say they’re making considerably less than during their heyday – some, fractions of their prior earnings. This isn’t surprising. Anyone who’s followed pop music, for instance, understands the phenomenon of the fad curve, where you’re super hot for X number of months or years, and then, suddenly, nobody cares. That’s just how it is in pop culture, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

I’ve been fortunate, in that my readership seems stable to growing, and seems to have an unending appetite for my work. 2013-2015 were huge income years, and even the so-so ones that have followed were sufficient to afford me my bad habits. 2018 and 2019 have trended considerably higher, entirely due to advertising, and even after paying the ad costs and associated maintenance, 2019 looks like it will be one of my better years. That’s reassuring, because I haven’t released a book since end of February, and won’t release Day After Never #9 until end of July – an almost impossible to imagine hiatus during which I caught up with life and life caught up with me. And yet sales continue to climb. This proves that Amazon ads, which I openly mocked two years ago, can not only rejuvenate, but can sustain a career during lulls.

Every year I threaten to slow my production to 5 or so novels. 2019 is the year it happens, and ironically, it will be in my top 50% of income years. I’m grateful that the market still consumes my content, and am optimistic for the future given my investments in infrastructure companies like AMSAdwerks.com and Bestsellerblurb.com, which focus on author solutions to increase visibility and sales.

So, does the prediction that books are like opera still ring true? Kind of. Books have never had more competition from other forms of entertainment – TV, Netflix, social media, YouTube, blogs, Reddit, etc. etc. There aren’t sufficient hours in the day to keep up with it all, and with shorter attention spans as a byproduct of an increasingly connected world, books face a tough uphill climb. Does this mean reading is dead, or that it’s impossible to make a living writing novels? Not at all. Will it get harder moving forward? Sure. Welcome to all businesses everywhere as they mature. Can new talents find an audience and break big? They always have, and always will.

But the good old days are long gone, and even the new new things like ghost writing pulp to market and churning out content at rates that boggle even my mind are stumbling and seem to have hit their ceiling. Self-publishing is no longer the gold rush it was, the get rich quick scheme that those who’ve never succeeded at much could dive into with a reasonable expectation of success (even if illusory for the vast majority). That’s fine. The market will continue to evolve and mature, and smart authors will adapt as necessary.

It’s never been easy to be a writer. But it’s also never been easier, given the complete lack of barriers to publishing one’s work. The only difference now is that expectations are coming back to ground, and most understand that it’s a difficult road to travel, and an even more difficult career, where nothing’s assured, and today’s lightning strike can become tomorrow’s footnote.

I’m still loving every minute of it, and hope it continues.

So far, so good.

Now back to writing the next one.

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As readers of my blog know by now, I recently took a minority shareholder stake in AMSAdwerks.com, an ad agency that specializes in Amazon advertisements for authors. That’s gone well, and the company is expanding in a sustainable manner, adding clients as it ads staff. The challenges are few, other than that with Amazon’s current scheme not all authors are good candidates, as its algorithms favor those with a deep series to advertise, with good conversion from book 1 through the rest, and with the environment extremely competitive it’s almost impossible for an author whose covers are marginal or whose blurbs are mediocre to convert well enough to justify the effort.

Because the cover is basically the ad, if it isn’t stunning you can get all the impressions you like, but it won’t translate to clicks to go to the product page – and after Amazon has seen that the impressions aren’t translating, it will stop giving impressions, instead favoring those that do convert.

The purpose of an ad is solely to get a prospective reader to the product page. From there, it’s up to the blurb to convince them to buy.

Of course, if a book has a crappy review score the best blurb in the world won’t help, and if the Look Inside is riddled with grammar errors or is poorly written the blurb won’t convince a reader to overlook those red flags and buy the book anyway. But the blurb is largely the selling copy that urges the reader to give the book a whirl.

Given the importance of the blurb, I convinced my friend Dave Falk to allow me to invest in his company, Bestsellerblurb.com – they’ve written a number of my bestselling novel blurbs, and I’ve A/B tested them and seen a significant increase in sales with their verbiage, so I’m sold.

It becomes pretty obvious when a blurb is evaluated in light of conversions from clicks, to sales. A mediocre blurb will deliver mediocre results (assuming the book’s competently written and doesn’t have scores of lousy reviews), whereas a really compelling, well written one will see an increase in conversions, which can totally change the profitability of an ad campaign – the more sales per 100 clicks, the more profitable the campaign.

After immersing myself in the ad business and learning enough to be dangerous, it became clear that taking a stake in a blurb writing business would be a naturally synergistic step – between the ad agency and the blurb writing biz, two of the most important aspects of book marketing are covered, the third being cover generation, but there are many competent cover designers, so I see no point in getting involved in that side of the business.

I’m excited, because BestsellerBlurb.com does a great job at a reasonable price, and delivers results. Their approach is to treat the product description as ad copy whose sole purpose is to get the sale, rather than to describe the story, characters, plot, etc. It’s an approach that resonates with me and I’ve seen the difference in my own sales, so I can endorse it without hesitation, which made it a natural for me to invest in.

Since many authors are like me, and either hate writing blurbs, or worse, have no idea how to generate a great one versus something middling, I view it as a business with a bright future. If your blurb isn’t firing on all cylinders, might want to give them a whirl. I know they’ve written blurbs for a host of bestselling authors besides me, so they must be doing something right, and they offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee, so there’s no real risk.

Anyhow, that’s one of the things I’ve been busy with, for those interested in how I’ve been taking positions in indie author infrastructure businesses. It’s been eye opening, and has certainly made me more aware of the challenges facing authors moving forward.

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A few months ago, a woman I’d never heard of contacted me via Facebook, offering her services to run my Facebook ads. I didn’t know her, but she came on confident and strong. The average returns she represented as relatively simple to achieve were impressive: 50% or greater ROI, per month. She billed herself as a “Facebook expert,” which you’ll soon see was akin to someone who’d started taking tap dancing classes last week billing themselves as a dance instructor and star of stage and screen.

At the time, using AMSAdwerks for my Amazon ads, I was seeing north of 100% monthly ROI on a five figure monthly spend, so the thought of being able to pull even half that from a platform I’d left for dead a while ago was appealing.

Her fee schedule was steep and scaled higher as a spend increased, but if she could perform, I reasoned it would be worth it.

I paid her base fee up front ($1600 USD), which she requested given the level of spend I authorized ($50 a day to start), and she “went to work.” Which it turns out consisted of generating a few ads, slapping them up, and then doing nothing.

After two weeks of my tech guru watching the non-performance on $531 of spend, which literally resulted in not a single additional sale, we pulled the plug. There was zero communication from her after the fee had changed hands, and no explanation for what amounted to maybe an hour’s worth of work for her fee.

We requested half the money back, since it was obvious she wasn’t doing anything. She refused. We told her that if that was the case, she could expect me to write about my experience with her. We never heard anything more.

The woman’s name is Kerry Gardiner, and it turns out I’m not the only one who’s been taken by her. Since I posted a FB rant about this last week, I’ve received quite a few PMs and emails, as well as public posts, from other authors who’ve been stung as well – everything from using quotes from luminaries who’ve repeatedly told her to take them down as they didn’t endorse her and didn’t want their names associated with her, to folks who paid for courses that never manifested or were garbage, to shady dealings on bundles she was involved with. You name it, I’ve got ’em, and they’re still pouring in.

Perhaps the most notable is million selling author and internet marketing guru (vs. purported “expert”) Mark Dawson. I’ll post a brief summary that appeared on his SPF site at the end of this blog. It leaves little to the imagination. I could also reprint the rest of the correspondence I’ve received describing various forms of fuckery, but then this post would be novel length. Take my word for it, though, there are numerous authors who got snowed in one way or another.

You may be asking yourself why anyone in their right mind, who was running a scam, would elect to solicit one of the top selling indies on Amazon, and also put the pork to someone with as much visibility as Mark Dawson. I have two theories. First is that she’s become emboldened due to having successfully taken numerous others who didn’t speak out, presumably out of concern of a nuisance suit, and figured she could just keep up the con with impunity. Second is that she’s insane or delusional or desperate to pay the light bill this month (or all three), and figured I would just write it off given what a pittance I’d paid.

Which shows that she didn’t do her research, or mistook her delusion that she could fly for the actual ability to do so.

I’ve been told that she’s blaming her non-performance on everything from “his covers suck” (which ignores that those same covers have shifted several million copies and are generating 75-125% ROI on Amazon all through this period, to this day) to “illness caused me to be unable to perform” – the ever favorite “blame the customer” converting to “I’m a victim.” Which is tantamount to taking $100 to mow my lawn, and then not mowing it and blaming the type of grass or that she hurt her arm – and ignores that I paid to have my lawn mowed, not a sob story or a string of excuses.

I was baffled by all this until I read Mark’s post, which illuminated what I was actually dealing with: someone who saw an opportunity to falsely bill themselves as an expert, in violation of their legal agreement not to compete by creating FB courses (based almost entirely on his material or publicly available content) or by soliciting his customers. In other words, a scammer.

A few of her “satisfied clients” have rushed to her defense, which of course ignores both my experience, and Mark’s partner’s disclosure. How many are genuine authors and not sock puppets is unknowable, and frankly I’m uninterested in finding out. If you’re going to take people’s money and fail to perform, you can expect a bright light to be shined on your methods, and the chips to fall where they may.

If anyone thinks that two of the most visible indie authors on Amazon are inventing all this to persecute some poor victim, I’d advise you to consider long and hard how plausible that is, versus that this is exactly what it looks and sounds like.

Here’s the post from SPF:

“We (SPF) have sat on this issue for some time. We’ve been reluctant to post about it, because we did not want to make an unhappy situation even worse.

However, in light of the comments in this thread and the ambiguity about Kerry’s relationship with SPF, I think it is time to put this on the record.

Please note that Russell Blake and Joseph Alexander are friends of SPF, they are both very experienced and successful in the world of self-publishing and we take what both of them say seriously.

This is our own experience.

Kerry started working for SPF in 2016. She signed a standard contract with us that contains clauses that prevent her from competing with us and a duty to respect confidential information. These are standard terms.

She worked with us until earlier this year. We paid her to help moderate our Facebook groups and make sure they continue to be drama-free and safe places. Mark introduced her to Facebook Messenger bots and she became good at them, so much so that we paid her to produce a module for Ads for Authors. As far as we know, she had never used Facebook ads before; we believe that Mark taught her how to implement them.

Over the course of the last two and a bit years, Kerry asked for and received a lot of help and support. Mark helped her as she tried to build a business teaching others how to build bots (we had no interest in this ourselves, and so there was no grounds for competition); we promoted a webinar for her; we introduced her to other industry figures who might be able to help her. We’ve provided advice and acted as a sounding board for other problems that she’s had, of which there’s no need to get into here. She used her connection with us to introduce herself to the agency responsible for running the Facebook ads for SPF and, despite feeling a little awkward about it, we vouched for her when they asked for a reference.

Basically – we always treated her as a friend.

And then we found out that she has her own Facebook ads course. We were alerted to this by some students, who she seems to have been in dispute with, who told us that Kerry had set up a competing course.

Here are some of the issues we have:

– Kerry signed a contract that prevented her from competing with SPF. We produce a well known and popular Facebook ads course. We believe that setting up this course puts her in breach of her contract.

– Some of the students who have contacted us have assumed – since she was an admin and clearly associated with SPF – that we must have approved or endorsed her course. We’ve seen those sentiments in this thread. Their dissatisfaction with what they have received from her has caused us reputational damage.

– We’ve seen screengrabs of Facebook messages where Kerry has encouraged her students to post testimonials for her course into the SPF Facebook groups while working as a moderator in those groups. Some messages have requested that the posters do not mention that she asked them to make those posts because we try very hard to stop self-promotion. One of Kerry’s jobs as a moderator had been to prevent this type of conduct.

– Further, we’ve seen private messages where Kerry has spoken badly of Mark and SPF, often while extolling the virtues of her own offerings over ours.

– She’s shared information that we consider to be confidential. In one exchange, she gloats that the reason she continued to work for us was to stay on the “inside” so that she knew what we were doing.

It’s me – James – who is posting this because it’s easy to associate SPF with Mark. That’s understandable since his face is plastered everywhere, of course! What’s easy to miss is that the company includes me and John as directors. We left our previous businesses and took a huge risk to help Mark build the company. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and worked hard, often seven days a week. We are certainly not complaining about that. It’s been an amazing experience.

We’ve made a successful business and community by being super-honest and open about what we do. We don’t take people’s money and hide; you can reach out to any of us and we’ll respond – normally within hours, and sometime minutes. When you buy one of our courses, you get it for life – with free updates. If you request a refund for one of our courses inside of thirty days, we don’t ask questions or make you jump through hoops, we just refund the money. We have a support team that works 24-7 and (almost) 365 days a year because we genuinely care about our students. If there’s a problem, we want to know about it – and help.

It’s therefore all the more upsetting that a trusted person who we’ve worked closely over the years should act in this way. It’s deeply hurtful. It is damaging to the open and honest community we’ve built; we don’t want our students to be compromised in any way whilst utilising our groups or support network.

SPF is how John and I support our families. We have a newly-appointed full-time contractor and other virtual assistants around the world, all of whom depend on the work that we are able to put their way to pay their bills.

Like other entrepreneurs who’ve built something from the ground up, we’re fiercely proud and protective of what we’ve achieved not only as a business but also of the community of thousands of indie authors who have become our students (and some close friends). We see that as being most definitely worth fighting for.

Given that this matter is the subject of an ongoing legal dispute, we will not be making any further statements at this stage and we have, on advice, closed comments on this thread.”

The opinions expressed herein are entirely my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my publisher or any of my associates.

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In the last blog, I covered how to tell whether you’ve got a problem with either your cover or your blurb. To briefly recap, the job of an ad is to get prospects to the product page, and on Amazon, since it’s basically your book cover, if you’re getting plenty of impressions but paltry clicks, it’s the cover. If you’re getting a good ratio of clicks, but few conversions to sales, it’s likely the blurb’s fault, and then, in descending order, reviews, and finally, the Look Inside chapter.

So let’s discuss the content, which is part of that Look Inside.

If you’re selling the first book in decent quantities, but the conversion to sales of books 2 through whatever is poor, it’s time to take a hard and honest look at what’s between the covers. Because the ad worked and got the reader to consider the book, and the blurb worked and got them to buy.

If they didn’t buy, and your conversions from clicks to sales is bad, chances are very good your Look Inside chapter isn’t very good – assuming your blurb rocks. I’d first look at the blurb. If it’s a winner, then I’d look at your reviews and confirm there isn’t a bunch of terrible stuff saying never buy the book. If the reviews are fine, then the only thing left is the Look Inside.

Going back to my original philosophy of “the job of the first sentence of the product description is to get the reader to the second, and the job of the second is to get them to the third, and the job of the rest is to lead them to the inevitable conclusion that they need to buy”, you can view the job of the first book in a series as that of getting them to buy the second. Job of the second book is to get them to buy the third. And so on.

If your first book isn’t seeing good conversion to book two, it probably isn’t an angry God who hates you or the unfairness of life.

It’s the content.

Which means either the story isn’t particularly compelling or good, or the characters aren’t, or the pacing isn’t, or (most likely) the writing isn’t up to competitive levels, and you need a serious editor who can polish it up and point out the deficiencies so you become a better writer.

Nobody wants to hear they have an ugly baby, but as indie authors we have to pay attention to the feedback that the market’s giving us. If you’re seeing plenty of impressions and good click through, your cover is rocking it, and if a good percentage of the clicks result in a sale, then your blurb is doing what it should. But if after book one the reader doesn’t feel compelled to move to book two, the entire effort will have failed, because while you were able to fill your funnel (book 1) the end result of it amounted to nothing.

If that’s the case, you’d be well advised to hire a competent editor, because the universe is telling you that what’s in the tin is disappointing readers, and you’re going to have a hell of a time building a career.

That’s it for this week. As always, show your support for me by buying my crap, and be nice to each other, or barring that, at least snarky and amusing.

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A quick blog on how I think of my covers and my product descriptions. Hopefully this might change the way you view yours, and help you sell more books. If not, you’re entitled to a full refund for my advice.

Let’s start with covers.

A cover is a visual identification of your product’s genre, and should be both as eye catching as possible, as well as consistent with other bestsellers in your space. It also needs to be professional. Gone are the days where you could screw around with photoshop and hope for a win. That’s so 2012. Don’t kid yourself – the market has never been more competitive, and if you hamstring your product with an amateurish or clunky cover, you’re going to suck exhaust.

The cover is also extremely important in your ads, as in Amazon ads it’s basically got to sell the reader sufficiently so they’ll click on the ad to see the product page. The worse the cover, the fewer conversions from impressions to clicks. That simple.

Which segues to blurbs.

Your product description ain’t what you think it is. It’s not a synopsis of the story, or a way to introduce characters or story arcs.

So what is it?

It’s ad copy, plain and simple. Words that will convince the reader that they need to buy the book. The fewer words used to achieve that, the better the copy.

Ads can get the reader to your product page, but the blurb intrigues them enough to where they need to buy the book in order to satisfy their curiosity. The purpose of the blurb is to sell the book. Nothing else.

An awesome blurb will sell more books, and can be measured in ad effectiveness, specifically in cost per click related to conversion into a sale. The better the blurb, the more clicks will convert into a purchase. The worse the blurb, the less they will convert.

I use Bestsellerblurb.com for the first books in my series, and have them working on the later books. The results have been stellar so far – marginal ad campaigns have turned strongly positive after changing the blurb, so this isn’t theory.

That’s all I have time for today. Hope it helps.

If not, I recommend tequila.

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As most know by now, I invested in the company that’s been dealing with my Amazon ads for the last 9 months. Obviously, I’m pretty happy with how they’ve done, as I don’t invest willy nilly. But they needed the capital to grow, and I had a few shekels to throw at the problem, so a marriage made in heaven.

As I did my due diligence on their model, I learned more than I ever cared to about the current state of the Amazon ad world, and came away somewhat surprised.

First off, I believe that over the next year or two, it’s going to get harder and harder to get organic visibility of any sort from Zon. Why? Because they have people lined up around the block to pay for the vis. So why give away what you can sell? That would be dumb.

Where that leaves most authors is a rock and a hard place. The indie business is now becoming very much like if you started a soda company. You’d have to pay to get your soda into the stores, and pay more for an end cap or a prominent area. That’s classic retail. Just the way it works. It’s lucrative for the store owner, but sucks for the vendors, especially if they don’t have really deep pockets and sufficient margin to take the hit.

What I’ve discovered isn’t that surprising. First, Zon appears to favor series that have good read and sell through. That makes sense – why would they push a series where people only read the first book or two, and then quit? So writing quality and story wind up being a determinant in that area, but not the sole one. Depth of the series is another – Zon wants to maximize their earnings off an impression and a click, and the best way to do that is to favor series where there are a bunch of books to read, not a few.

The next thing I learned is that covers really, really matter. Why? Because you can have your ad shown to a million people (impressions), but the quality of the cover will factor into how many decide to click on the ad to go to the product page. Crappier the cover, lower the click through. Very simple. So that one you’re in love with your niece designed, or that you spent hours tinkering with on photoshop, ain’t gonna cut it up against a current, hot, professionally executed cover. This ain’t 2012, and homemade or five years out of step with the genre will cost you huge on click through rates – and Zon will stop showing the ads pretty quick if they have low click through, because they want the high click through to increase the likelihood of a sale.

In that way, their interests are aligned with yours. In most other ways, not so much. They are in the profit business, and they’ve figured out getting vendors to pay for vis on their virtual shelves beats the hell out of just about all other possible businesses.

The next thing the data showed me was that blurb quality is a huge factor in sell through. What do I mean? The ad can get the reader to your product page. That’s its sole function. But once there, the quality of the blurb will determine how likely they are to click buy. Blurb, reviews, and Look Inside determine how well you’ll sell. The ad can’t sell your book. It can only get the reader to the product page. The rest is up to the blurb and the sample chapter and the reviews (if you have a bunch of “this crap sucks ass” testimonials, you’re probably not going to sell regardless of how good your blurb is).

The combination of cover quality and blurb quality determines how profitable it will be to advertise. Pretty straightforward. That, and the depth of your series. More books equals more revenue downstream on the “long tail.” Less equals less, both for you, and for Amazon, so not only are you likely going to be unable to compete on bids for clicks, but Zon will likely favor someone with a longer series with higher conversion-to-sales if readers decide not to buy once they get to your page, or if you simply don’t have enough books to justify showing your ad. So if you have fewer books you can’t compete as well on price per click, and Zon is going to favor someone who converts better or generates more revenue given the sheer volume of product. They might still sell you space, but you’ll be on page two or three of the carousel, which is dead money.

In truth, the most surprising thing I learned is there is no secret sauce. There’s no extra special clandestine stealth strategy. There’s A/B testing, there’s staying current on the virtually weekly changes Zon makes to the platform, there’s evaluating your clicks and sales numbers, there’s bidding decisions, and that’s about it. If your time is worth more than Adwerks charges and you don’t want to dick with ads, the agency is a winner, provided your product fits the criteria Zon uses to favor as described above. If not, you’re better off doing them yourself, although the chances of getting them to scale to more than lunch money is pretty slim for the reasons I just mentioned.

So that’s the first part of my evolving knowledge of the ad side of things. As most know, I only started focusing on advertising last July. Since then, my sales have tripled. There’s only one possible reason: I wasn’t being seen, and you can’t buy my crap if you don’t know it exists.

For the record, AMSAdwerks is the name of the agency, and while their client list is confidential, I can say that they rep some of the top 50 authors on Amazon, so they have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. You can reach them at [email protected] if you want more info. They typically won’t take you on if they don’t think they can help, and have a waiting list for slots, so they’re not pushing snake oil just to make a buck. Some they’ve taken on can’t be helped due to the above Zon algo gods deciding their series is too short or doesn’t convert adequately, and if that becomes apparent after a couple of months, they’ll level with you. Also, some genres are crazy expensive, and you can expect to bleed money competing with Nora Roberts for clicks. Just market forces at play.

The biggest surprise for me aside from no secret sauce is the amount of time it takes to stay current on what works and what doesn’t, and how many authors Zon ads simply won’t work for beyond a $10 or $20 a day spend. While you’d think they’d gladly take as much of your dough as they can, that isn’t how it works, and one of the biggest frustrations is how difficult it is to scale campaigns and retain anything resembling reasonable ROI.

I expect the market to get far tougher over the next twelve months. I also expect keeping current on what’s working to become far more time consuming. Being lazy and uninterested in the minutiae of ads vs. writing and drinking tequila, outsourcing the whole mess was the obvious call for me. Glad I did.

Full disclosure, I invested in Adwerks so they can scale, and I obviously am impressed, but as with most things, YMMV, so it may or may not be something that can work for you.

I’ll publish part two of my commentary in the next week or two.

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If I’ve seemed quiet, it’s because I’ve been involved in a few other projects.

First, I’m delighted to announce that I’m now a minority investor in AMSAdwerks, which is the agency that’s been handling my AMS advertising since July. They needed cash to scale the business, and I was able to convince them to take some of mine so they can add personnel and streamline their systems. I’m excited, because I believe that the market is only going to get more competitive as we move forward, and thus the demand for a group that has years of historical understanding and an area of specialty that’s growing will continue to be strong.

AMSAdwerks usually has a waiting list that spans months, so perhaps this will enable them to cut that down to something more reasonable. We’ll see. I’m not going to be active in the company, but more in a chairman of the board role offering counsel on big picture strategy and expansion guidance.

One of the frustrations looking at their biz is how capricious AMS ads can seem, with Zon changing things up seemingly monthly, and what worked yesterday failing spectacularly tomorrow. But I do believe there will be a requirement for a reasonably priced agency that can handle everything so authors can do what they do best – write – and not break the bank. My rankings are nothing to complain about, so I’m a believer, even if the road’s anything but consistently smooth. As with all things, YMMV, but I wouldn’t be getting involved if I wasn’t sure there was something there. You want to touch base with them, email [email protected].com and tell Michael that Russell sent you.

On another front, the guy who’s written many of my book blurbs with me is hanging out a shingle, at BestsellerBlurb.com – so if you like my product descriptions, you know who to contact. I’ve found him to be good, fast, and relatively cheap, and as with ads, something I’m not thrilled with doing…so anytime I can pass the buck and have someone else do the work, I’m thrilled. The end result seems to convert really well and pays my bar tab, so no complaints, even though I whine like a newborn kitten half the time.

In other news, I’m getting ready to start The Day After Never #9, so won’t be around much between that and a couple weeks in Italy and Spain in May.

Nothing else of note to report other than I’m richer, thinner, and younger than ever. And if you believe that, I’ve got a very nice bridge available at a giveaway price, only slightly used, finest kind…

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I’m delighted to announce that the fifteenth novel in the JET series (OK, 17th if you count the two prequels), JET – Sahara, is now live on Amazon and available for your consideration.

In this volume, Jet proves that no good deed goes unpunished when she agrees to a final mission into one of the most dangerous, war-torn regions on the planet in order to facilitate an extraction.

It’s filled with the usual roller coaster ride of action, intrigue, treachery, betrayal, and twists, and fans of the series won’t be disappointed.

So if you’re looking for something to read while shoveling snow or basking on faraway beaches or however you’re spending your time, you could do worse than picking up JET – Sahara and giving it a gander.

Which is my more refined attempt at saying, “buy my crap.”

Hopefully it works. Gotta pay the bar tab.

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