Sunday, June 29, 2014

The "Long Tail" and You

I ran across Chris Anderson's Book "The Long Tail" and just noticed the sub-title. "Why the future of Business is Selling Less of More." I was going over some of the notes from the book that people had highlighted and remembering a lot of the discussion. Without getting into the math and statistical basis, one of the conclusions is that digital businesses make it possible to shift focus away from the Head of the tail (high sales producers) to the tail itself.

For those unfamiliar with the basic theory (and this is overly simplified) the Long tail is a distribution
curve applicable to many areas of life but frequently applied to business and sales. A few products tend to sell extremely well, everything else sells fewer units. In publishing this is clear. Pick the genre and there are a dozen names that are insanely popular and everyone else is splitting up what is left over.

In brick and mortar retailing, this presents a dilemma. Do you stock as many products as possible giving your customer a huge selection, but end up with some of those products sitting on your shelf for months or years. Or do you focus only on the top sellers. I knew a Christian bookstore owner who used the terms Narrow and Deep vs Broad and Shallow. He felt his success was based on the Broad and shallow approach. He bought a few copies of a lot of different books. Other bookstores, most, in fact, went narrow and deep. They bought lots of copies of the best sellers and few if any copies of anything else.

The change comes with digital retailing where you don't have to worry about shelf space in the store. Amazon can sell literally every book published that any publisher wants to sell through their store. Aside from issues of legality, rights, potential for libel, etc, basically, they turn no one down. This is what Anderson calls The Economics of Abundance. Digital publishing makes it even easier because you don't even need a warehouse, just a single copy of the book on a server (well probably a few back up copies as well).

Lets go back to that long tail curve. If you add up everything in the tail, it's a lot of stuff. As much, if not more, sometimes than in the head. So, you can sell fewer units of each title but make as much money or more than on those few top performers.

This can work for or against you depending on where you are in the curve. If you are in the head or short neck, it could mean less attention and more competition because you are in the same store with those in the tail, which you never were before. My book can show up right next to a book by James  Patterson in a search for mystery novels. Not that Patterson has anything to worry about from me. His marketing machine is massive, but the point is, when someone sees his book, just a glance to the right or left could bring up my book or some B level trad pub or someone who is writing a debut novel. And in all likelihood, our prices are going to be less than half of his. So, it expands the competition base.

But the other thing is that Amazon isn't going to stop carrying, say, steampunk novels, because they aren't trendy this season and sales have dropped. This means the author can have a longer shelf life.

However, the other side of this long tail theory also applies not only to the retailer, but to the producer. Trad pub writers have often been punished for taking risks and writing books that had only a niche appeal or books that were different from their normal "brand." An agent wouldn't represent a science fiction novel from someone they had promoted as a romance writer. A publisher wouldn't publish a book that might only sell a couple of thousand copies in the first  year. And if it did hit print and didn't sell in the first three months, it just goes out of print.

The indie can take more chances because even if the book isn't in the head of their own personal long tail, it can still make money for years even if it comes in only a few dollars at a time.

But a few dollars at a time even if it goes on for years doesn't amount to much right? This is where selling Less of More comes into play. Many writers, in fact most of us, have that dream of that one breakaway bestseller that will make us a household name and a ton of money. Then we can write a book a year and each one another best seller.

Well, the economics of the long tail favor the more prolific writer. Success in this model is selling a few units each of a lot of titles. We've all heard the old saying about how to make a million dollars. There are two ways to make a million dollars: find one person who will give you a million dollars or find a million people who will give you one dollar. You can write one book that sells a thousand copies a month or write a hundred books that sell 10 copies a month. The old economics of scarcity says the road to success is the first. The economics of the long tail say it is the second.

Now, you may like that or not. You may feel that quantity destroys quality. I don't believe that has to be the case. But I'm afraid that this provides both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is that you don't have to be dependent upon a single book or series of books for your success. The challenge is that writers are going to have to be more efficient and produce more content in order to be competitive. But it also means that I can experiment more and take more risks because even if it flops, it can still be part of my own long tail of finances.

But whether it is to our advantage or not (and there are compelling arguments that say it isn't) the Long Tail is with us an in that economic climate, turning out content consistently is going to be the key to economic security.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Understanding the New Kindle Dashboard

I have to say I'm loving Kindle's new dashboard feature. It gives me a wonderful snapshot of how my books are selling. However, there are a few idiosyncrasies. So, here's a short tutorial about this new feature.

When you first log in you get this screen:

This will show your sales, borrowed books and free books. The red line represents sales. The blue line is books borrowed through the Kindle Owners Lending Library.

If all you got was this, it would be great, but you have a great deal of control, for instance, you can choose a preset time frame by clicking on this button:

The system defaults to the last 30 days, but you can set it to month to date, week to date, or last 90 days. You can also set a specific time range by clicking on the boxes next to that button and choosing a date range.

Likewise  you can check the performance of a specific book. For instance, I had let some people talk me into raising the price on one of my books from 99 cents to $2.99 so I could make more profit. Sometimes a single picture says it all. Here's a 90 day snap shot, can you tell when I returned my pricing to 99 cents?

Hmm… I wonder about Those "profits" in that big empty middle section.

This is great for measuring the effectiveness of a promotion as well.
You can also check royalties. Right under the chart, you have your royalties reported out by market place here:

And by clicking the yellow button you can generate an up to date spread sheet with the sales for each book.

There are a few idiosyncrasies, though. The graph can sometimes be a little bit ahead of or behind the itemized month to date figures you find by clicking that link in "Reports." Also the royalties do not reflect your earnings on borrowed books, which averages out to about $2.00 per borrow, but varies slightly from month to month.

Also, you might think you lost some royalties if you are not careful. When you open the page, it defaults, as we said before, to the last 30 days. However, that means if you open it on June 30 you get June 1-30. On July 1 you get June 2-July 1. Some people forgetting that wonder why their royalties may have dropped. Well, any royalties on June 1 are no longer reflected. So unless your royalties have gone up on July 1, the number could go down. It is best for you to always set your date range to the specific range you want a report on.

So, that's the new dashboard. I hope this will help you understand it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Taco Truck Method

Down the road from me there's a highway interchange. A number of travel-related businesses, gas stations, etc. have sprung up there.  

About 15 years ago, sitting in a vacant lot next to a gas station for a few hours a day was a Taco Truck. It served tacos and burritos for 99 cents. It only stayed during the lunch hours at the various industrial places
in the area. Over time, they extended their hours and added a few new things to the menu. Then one day, I saw they added tables and chairs. A few months later, they put up an awning. A year or two later, they built the awning permanently on the spot and created a place for the truck to pull in behind a take out window. Then about five years ago, they built a restaurant on the site.  

Inside, you can get a nice sit down Mexican dinner. It's not 99 cents anymore, but you can get the fast food at a take out window on the side.  

Restaurants in that general location don't last very long. However, he's been there five years and is doing well. Now, if he had started by taking out a bunch of loans and building a restaurant, he might have gone out of business before he could have seen one penny of profit. After all, he was an unknown quantity. There were some big chain outfits nearby, an AM/PM, a Bobby Salazar's, a Denny's down the road. He had to have an edge, and he had to control costs. His edge was shaved meat (not ground beef) tacos at a low price that those other restaurants couldn't match with rent, wages, utility costs and other aspects of overhead. After he had a thriving clientele, he upgraded.  

Too many writers want to set up a full-service restaurant on their first book. They need a taco truck instead. There are many authors who have great books, well written ready to go, but they can't afford $500 for a cover design they want or they think they have to hire three editors at $1000+ a pop before they can publish. 

And they have laudable motives in this. They want to produce a good quality product. What they forget is that quality is not in linen napkins and fine china. Quality is in the taco. In the writer's case the taco is the story or the nonfiction book. It's not in a wonderful cover or even a perfect proofreading job. I have traditionally published books with blah covers and not that great proofreading that still hit the bestseller lists and some are even considered classics now.

That guy with the taco truck could have said, "I want my customers to get a quality product. So, I'm not going to sell a single taco until I have a full-service restaurant." If he had done that, he probably would never have built a successful restaurant.

As a one-man operation, he could give his customers a break on the price while keeping the quality of his ingredients and cooking high. That built a "fan base" of regular customers. Sure there were food snobs that drove past his taco truck and probably called it names like "Roach Coach" or "Tomaine Tommies," but he just kept serving tacos while the Bobby Salizar's down the street went out of business. 

Many will say things about indies. They may assume that if you do your own cover or your own editing that it will be poor. They may degrade the DIY indie even claiming people like them give indies a bad name because the cover was done on a Kindle cover creator or used a premade template instead of being custom designed. That there was a comma splice in one chapter or a misspelled word somewhere in the book.

The taco truck had a few dings in the fender. But the food was good. And as the business improved, he added stuff.

I do my own covers and most of my own editing. Are they as good as if I spent thousands of dollars on them? Maybe, Maybe not. But they are published. They are selling. Royalties are coming in. Maybe fewer sales than if I had fancier covers, but a lot more sales than I would get waiting around for the money to pay for a fancier cover and much more in profit than I would get with an expensive cover.

DIY does not have to be shoddy workmanship. Modern cover design software, stockphoto sites, easy to use photo manipulation programs can create good workable professional looking covers. They won't win awards, but they won't look bad. Using good software will also help with editing. And, if you got decent grades in your high school English class, you have the knowledge to edit your own stuff. It mostly takes patience and an ability to look at your own work objectively and that's just a matter of mental discipline. You might miss some problems, but hey, if you do ebooks (like me) when you or someone else spots them, you can correct the problem. First editions are usually identified as such by errors caught in later editions.

Learn the lesson of the taco truck. Start simple and grow. Don't get over extended so that you show a profit on your first book within a couple of months. Then use your proceeds to start working on your next book.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

. . . And I got a one star review

Earlier this week I got a one star review. Yeah, I was bummed out a bit. How could this happen to someone as wonderful as me about a book as wonderful as that? I need to work through this (chocolate and pizza  usually helps but not at the same time). What a horrible disaster. What worse could happen?

Well. . . .

In Afghanistan, only 12 percent of adult women can read and write
Photo By vishwaant avk

. . . And I got a one-star review

In Turkmenistan the state closed all libraries and expelled foreign journalists

. . . And I got a one-star review

In Eretria 15 journalists have been jailed and held in secret detention centers

. . . And I got a one-star review

Libyan opposition writer Abdel Razek al-Mansouri  was jailed and Dayf al-Ghazal al-Shuhaibi was murdered

. . . And I got a one-star review

Seventy-Seven Journalists were killed while reporting the news last year

. . . And I got a one-star review

Watchman Nee had to smuggle his books out of a Chinese Prision

. . . And I got a one-star review

Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught a seminary "on the run" during WWII in Nazi Germany and wrote his last book while in jail awaiting his execution.

. . . And I got a one-star review

Tyndale, John Bunyan, Martin Luther King, The Apostle Paul and thousands of other were imprisoned and killed because they put pen to paper and dared to write

. . . And I got a one-star review

. . . And I got a one-star review

Writing is not safe. It was never intended to be.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why I sell books for 99 Cents on Kindle

I've had a number of people suggest that I am naïve or maybe just plain crazy to sell everything from a 30 page Bible study to a 600 page three-novel bundle for just 99 cents. While I do have some sound business reasons for setting that price point, I also have an underlying philosophy that makes me determined to keep that price as long as it is economically possible for me to do so.

To understand a bit about this, I would like you to go back in time with me to when I was in junior high. When I went to the grocery store right after payday, I'd make a beeline
 My Amazon Author Page
for the paperback book rack. It was filled with wonderful stories of mystery and suspense and the future. They derisively called it "pulp fiction" because of the low quality paper the stories were printed on. Admittedly, this was not great literature. These were wonderfully light adventures whose sole purpose was to entertain the reader and lift her out of the sometimes difficult life of being part of a class we would today call the "working poor." Out of my $3.00 every two-week allowance, I couldn't afford much, especially since that also had to take care of lunches at school on "turkey days." But for just 35 to 50 cents I could fly to Mars with Edgar Rice Burroughs or work out the Three Laws of Robotics with Isaac Asimov or be on the case with Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.

For those hours with those friends, I didn't have to think about having to save the tea bag for the next meal or the fact that we could only afford soda once a week. For the price of a loaf of bread, I could escape my troubles for a few hours.

Today, bread has gone up from 35 cents a loaf to $3.50 and the price of "pulp fiction" is close to $10 a book. Reading is no longer a treat available even to someone on a low income. It is fast becoming a luxury. At least in the print world.

Online, though, the cost of production is low. Admittedly, authors and publishers need to be compensated for their time, but still the cost of production is low enough that those of us who publish direct to the reader can bring back prices that make reading a treat and not a luxury.

As one of those who do not depend on a publisher to edit, format and publish my books, I can offer a price point, and still show a reasonable profit on each sale, of 99 Cents. Many other authors are doing the same. We may not be big names, but I doubt our writing is 10x worse than that of those authors offering their ebooks at $9.95 or more.

I don't pretend to any greatness. I write "pulp fiction." I don't pretend that my stories will change anyone's life, inspire them to greatness or achieve critical acclaim. I don't write for that. I write that people may be entertained and like that child scanning the grocery store rack for a new adventure, maybe just help someone escape their own problems for a few hours without having to figure out how they are going to afford to do so. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Branding. It's not about Genre

The other night as I was about to fall asleep I was thinking about branding. Hey, I'm not married. There's not much else for me to think about in bed. (I know too edgy for CBA, but we're wild and crazy indies). Seriously, odd things pop into my brain right before I fall asleep.

I figured out what bothered me about the small press/indie/agent view of branding. They tend to tie the brand to product and not positioning. Let me explain a bit. What we hear about branding is that you
Photo by Rob and Stephanie Levy
need to produce similar products over and over again. Stick to one genre, write only fiction or only nonfiction, always do sweet or always do edgy, make your covers bear a similar theme. These are all marketing concerns and we can debate how valid each of them are, but they do not address the quintessential essence of branding in the Marketplace and that is Positioning.

Think about brand names. If you are my age (61 soon to be 62) no matter  how upscale Penny's have become, in your mind it was good, but not great clothes at a low price. A J.C. Penny suit or dress was more like Sears or Family Fashion or TJ Maxx. I know, most of my clothes when I was growing up came from Penny's. Compare that with Macy's or Neiman Marcus. Those brands say, "a fool and his money..." ooops sorry. They say "We've got good stuff but you are going to pay for it. Be sure to bring your gold card or don't even expect to breathe the air in here."

Neither of those are good or bad images, but they are definitely different. Playboy and GQ are both mens magazines, but quite different brands. The Same for Cosmopolitan and McCalls and Ms for Women's magazines.

Positioning then refers to image, but more specifically the image that is unique about your business. Not about your books specifically, but about your line of books. What makes your mystery novel different than what Agatha Christie or Lillian Jackson Braun wrote? How is your romance series different than Love Inspired or Harlequin___ romances?

It's like that terrible question you always had to answer when preparing a proposal for a publisher. How is your book different from what is already on the market? I hated the question. Now, I totally understand it. I'm working on revamping my brands to address that question. I've got some ideas, and I'll let you know later.

It's not about how many products you have or how different they are. It's what image people have of your brand regardless of the product you make. Mercedes Benz builds cars and trucks, but the image is alway quality, luxury and durability. Honda does the same and the image is economical, dependable.

I'm asking myself what is my uniqueness. And I'm building from there. What about you?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reality Based Planning

Everyone says you should have goals. Annual, weekly, daily goals. Some even go so far as to say you need an action plan for those goals. For instance, write 700 words a day or spend an hour a day on marketing. Yet, I would say most of the goals people set for themselves are unrealistic and they doom the person to failing to meet those goals. Consequently, they feel guilty. A better approach is reality-based goal setting.

You will recognize parts of this because I've been talking about my own brush with this type of planning. Your implementation of this approach might vary, but I strongly advise that you consider the principles behind this approach as you make plans for the second half of the year.

A Time-Based Approach

Too often people choose goals based on the projects they want to complete without considering the time it will take to complete those projects. No matter how motivated you are, if your project will take four hours a day every day to complete and you work 8 hours a day, sleep 8 hours and spend 5 hours a day on essential chores, you are not going to complete that project in a year. As Scotty would say, "I cinna rewrite the laws of physics Cap'n."

So,  your first step is estimating the time each project will take to complete.

Estimating Times

If you don't know how much time each project or part of your project takes, then you a flying blind trying to set meaningful goals. Before you get into a lather about how you can't make predictions about creative processes, etc., I will affirm that is true for any one project. However, creativity is not a mysterious, fragile, and unpredictable thing. It is a skill developed through years of practice and training. That means it develops a type of regularity over the long run. While I can't say with any precision how long it will take to write one novel, I can be fairly accurate in my estimates of how long it will take to write three novels and be even more accurate with estimates of time to write 10, 20 or 30. 

We are talking about averages here. If I know that on average I write at a rate of 20 words a minute or 1200 words an hour and an average novel for me is 75,000 words, then I know that it will take about 65 hours to write a first draft of my novel. It may be a few hours more or a few hours less, but it will be very close to that. I can figure the same for the other stages of novel development, plotting, developing characters, editing, etc.

Look over your previous projects make an estimate of how much time each took and work out an average. It won't be precise, but it will be good enough for planning purposes.

Make a List of Projects and Activities

Start with a list of things you want to complete within a certain time frame. We are close to the beginning of June. That leaves six months until the end of the year. It is a good time to do some mid-year planning.

So, what do you want to accomplish between now and December 31.

This can be specific like specific novels or nonfiction books. Or they can be specific but less defined like "three novels" instead of three specific novels. 

My goals are to write three new novels, edit two completed novels and edit one of my new novels by the end of the year.

Your goals may be more or less ambitious than mine depending on your circumstances. I'm guessing I can do these things in the time I have available. But my advice is to think big, then you can trim it down later.

Add it Up

Now, take each of those projects and figure out how many hours each will take. This will give you a lump sum for each project.

So, I might have

Write two novels 75 hours each for a total of 150 hours
Edit Three novels 50 hours each for a total of  150 hours

And so on.

Check your Calendar

Now comes the reality part of this. It's great to know how much time your plans will take, now we need to find out what that means on a daily basis.

First, if you want to take weekends off, eliminate them. Then eliminate holidays you will be spending with family. Next consider personal holidays. Birthdays, Anniversaries, is someone having a wedding this year, is someone having a baby? Add in days for Baby showers, wedding showers, rehearsal dinners, etc. Do the same with planned vacations, family reunions, etc. Anything that would eliminate the day.

If it is something that would just eliminate half a day then just add it as .5 day.

When I did this, I ended up with 161 days. So writing two novels is 150 hours. I simply divide the number of hours by the number of days. That is .93 hours or about 55 minutes per available day. About the same for the novel editing. So that's close to 2 hours a day. I might not be able to do that in one setting, but I might be able to do it in two or maybe four 30 minute segments.

When you get all your numbers, take a good hard look at them. Odds are you are going to have more projects than time available to complete them. So, you can cut down on either the number of projects or the number of days you took off. Maybe you took off little league soccer practice. Well, you might just decide your writing is more important than being the third assistant coach mostly in charge of inflating the soccer balls. Or you might decide that book club every thursday night might be something you could drop.

Odds are, you are going to have to do a little of each. But finally you figure out how much time on average you can spend a day and how much that will accomplish. Now, you have reality based goals. If I write 55 minutes a day and edit for the same amount of time, I will complete my goals. That gives me as much predictability as I can have.