Learning to Be an Author
Let me start by saying that I have mixed feelings about Wattpad. It seems like a great idea in terms of building a fanbase, but it comes at the cost of sacrificing being paid for that particular work.
This is the crux of my quandary with Wattpad. I don't want to give away good work for free when I know I could be selling it. I feel like I would be putting the "second string" line of stories up on there. And that comes with a little bit of risk.
On one hand, I could find people really like my also-ran stories and flock to my "good" ones that I'm selling on Amazon. But more likely, I'm not putting out enough quality work on Wattpad to generate interest for anyone to want to pay for the better stuff.
I believe that every artist has an innate sense of when something is truly good versus work that isn't quite as good. Music albums are filled up with mediocre or middling songs spread around the "hits" on the record. I have no doubt that the artist is keenly aware of which songs are likely to be a big hit the minute the song is created. The same thing goes with my work. I know when something is excellent, and I know when it's passable.
And I just can't bring myself to give away anything great.
But I'm at a point where my sales are pretty flat and I have to try some more drastic marketing strategies to get my name out there. There's no point in writing anything great if no one knows about it. I probably have to drop one of my better works out there for free on Wattpad for the sake of trying to gather some more followers.
As with all my ventures, there is a careful balance to be struck in terms of time. I can't afford to spend too much time on things that have no quantifiable way to measure their value. I just don't have much time to spare, and I don't feel like I have much of a guarantee that publishing on Wattpad will pay off the way I'd like it to.
I am going to start off on Wattpad with some stories that I have already published for free on my website. These are not my best work (though some are pretty good). From there, I'm going to progress through an "organic" stage, where I see how much traffic I get just leaving it sit there; then a "promotional" stage, when I'll advertise it a little on Twitter. I'll post back the results in an update in a few weeks.
I'll probably try a few of the integrations as well, putting it out through Smashwords and Goodreads as well, to see what happens. At this point, I don't have much to lose. At least maybe I can help set some expectations for others looking to make the same plunge into the world of giving your work away.
I must admit, I never thought that getting reviews would be the struggle it has been. I thought my friends and family, my biggest supporters, would throw me a bone with some glowing (albeit biased) reviews. I (as of this writing) have four reviews, only one of which came from a person I know personally.
This means that total strangers are more willing to offer something nice to say about my writing than people I know.
Some of you are probably enjoying a laugh at my expense right now. I'm ok with that. I didn't know any better. (Or you may be a person who's struggling with the same problem.)
You'll hear a ton of different excuses: I don't have time, I forgot, I never write reviews, people will know that I know you and I'll get in trouble with Amazon...I could fill this whole post with the different things I've heard.
Those who know me personally have no issue whatsoever telling me in person what they think of my writing, so it's not like they don't have an opinion. But getting them to offer it to the rest of Amazon, well, that's totally out of the question.
I've learned that this really isn't limited to people you know, reviews in general are a rare animal. You have to evoke a strong reaction (in general) to push someone to the point of writing a review. They love it. They hate it and curse the day you were ever born, rue that you learned to write in their native tongue and admonish the world for giving you paper to write on. Those people write reviews.
Occasionally, you get someone who just likes to offer their opinion on something. One of my reviews is from such a person. His review is neither detailed, nor scathing, nor helpful, nor anything, really. I still appreciate it because he at least put in an effort to say something. (Seriously, mom, you can't write a short sentence?)
I've also tried giving away my short stories on Twitter, in the hopes that some of the readers (who are mostly indie writers such as myself) would post a review. No such luck. In their defense, I've never asked. There's something that doesn't feel right about asking people to review your work. I wish it were a common courtesy among writers, but that isn't the case. I don't really have a problem with people getting my work for free and not reviewing, in the end I'm happy that they show enough interest to go out to Amazon and get it.
Lately, I've tried a different tack. I do the reviews. I don't ask for quid pro quo, I think that is a little underhanded in terms of how Amazon wants the system to work. I have noticed people that offer money to get reviews, or offer to write a review for a nominal fee. I don't feel either way does much of a service to the writer. I am certain that it increases the likelihood that you will eventually get a terrible review that calls the paid ones into question. I wouldn't want that sort of thing associated with my work, it is strong enough to generate positive reviews on its own.
So what have I learned about reviews?
It's a numbers game. You have to have a lot of readers to generate one review. It's hard to pin down a ratio for me, in terms of how many readers I have versus the number of reviews, but I would say that it's a safe bet to count on 25 sales at a minimum to get one review. That doesn't guarantee a positive review, just a review in general. The number is probably double that or even triple to say for sure that you'd get at least one 5-star review.
From my own reviewing experience, I've also learned that I am not too inclined to leave terrible reviews if the writing is bad. I've had at least one work that I had to pass on in terms writing a review, because I couldn't find anything in particular to praise about it. I don't want to crush someone's spirit, even though I know not everyone is cut out to be a writer. Even bad writers sell books, some even have fans. There's a market for everything, even terrible writing. Giving a bad review isn't going to accomplish much other than to deflect a sale or two away from someone.
I don't know if I will ever reach a point where I actively go out and ask people to review my work, I feel like it will happen organically as I build an audience, or perhaps a fan base.
I am not an idiot, I do have a basic understanding of how keywords work. Attaining any level of mastery of them has eluded me thus far.
It's true, I can't even get to the top of an Amazon search for my own name. "M.S. Miller" will probably net you a few results on the first page that are mine, but often something else shows up at the top. It's as if Amazon is saying, "Clearly you did not intend to look for this new, independent short story author, so here's what we think you actually meant."
Up to this point, I haven't spent nearly enough time trying to figure out Amazon's algorithm for keywords and searching. I've found that even if you pick a keyword that people use regularly, there's little chance of you getting on the first page of results. Other, better-selling writers will claim the top spots. In the world of search results, if you land on the second page, you may as well not come up in the search results at all.
So now I've come to loathe this part of the publishing process. It's incredibly vital for you to do it perfectly to have even a fighting chance as an independent author who isn't advertising, but I just do not have the time to invest in typing every possible combination into Amazon in order to study and document the results.
There is a tool out there that seemingly does that for you, called KDP Rocket. I only partially understand how it works, so I am not going to get into the specifics on it. I don't understand it well enough to put myself in a position where the software can pay for itself (it's not free). It's a non-starter for me, to invest money into something without having some assurances that it will be money well-invested. (I will pause here to actively solicit your KDP Rocket success stories/offers to help me understand it.)
And yes, I've run Google searches for alternatives and articles to help educate me. I'm still not completely understanding how one can easily find good keywords without devoting several hours of time. My current method just involves guessing, which probably explains my current sales numbers to a large extent. I know I have to get better, but I don't have the time to learn it and no one is offering something quick and easy that meets my budget requirements (free). (Another pause while you offer a free tool that you use that works well.)
Lastly, I understand that keywords are only part of the battle against Amazon's algorithm. Reviews factor into search rankings too. Sounds like a good topic for next week.
I am in a much better place this year (2019) than I was the previous year. I know enough to make me dangerous.
But there is still a long way to go, and I have to decide where to best focus my efforts in the upcoming year to build on the growth from last year. Namely, I want to actually have people spend some money on things I have written.
The first piece of my plan for this coming year is to continue and build upon my review blog. The numbers are clear in the short time that I have done it: it drives an extraordinary amount of traffic to my site. While that alone might not sound like much, those who are coming are staying and looking around. People average four pages on a visit, so they are looking at more than just the reviews.
This is also a natural extension of my personality. I like to help people in any way I can. In this case, I am focused on people who are struggling to have their author voice heard as well. I feel like it is a good way to build my reputation and brand. I always want to be accessible and helpful, regardless of my level of notoriety.
I want to expand the review blog to twice weekly, but the volume is not there yet. I don't have enough stories submitted for review to do that. I don't want to just pick random ones for sale on Amazon, or something for free on Wattpad. I want people to bring them to me for a review. I would need 104 stories lined up for the year, with a running backlog of around 10 at any given time to make it work. Right now, I sort of live paycheck to paycheck on them. I have two queued and nothing else beyond that.
Once word gets out a little more, I suspect this issue will go away and I will have to rethink my strategy on them. If it grows too quickly, I could get crushed by it and have to back off. Right now, that is just a minor concern though, and I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
The second part of my plan is to up my game on Twitter promotion. This would entail a few things, and I have a few concerns.
At the top of my list is building a hashtag for my upcoming collection of short stories. I am not convinced of my own ability to get others into my hashtag, or to have people actively looking for it, but I think it is something I have to do. I have to provide a way to float above the Twitter noise to have people find me. It's easy to get lost on Twitter. I'll need to do a lot of reading up on the right way to build a hashtag so that the efforts pay off.
I also will continue to build upon my Twitter cards, creating graphics for tweets that I want people to look at. This is definitely time-intensive and my skills are still improving (Photoshop and Illustrator are not easy tools to learn). The results have spoken for themselves in terms of engagement. You need pictures to draw attention to yourself on Twitter.
Among my concerns with the graphics piece is how quickly you can devolve into the T-Mobile CEO, where your stuff looks like junk mail and becomes an annoyance in one's feed. Then the whole process would become self-defeating: I would invest huge amounts of time creating things that people ignore. Clearly, time is a finite quantity and I need to use it as wisely as possible. Hopefully, someone clues me in before I reach that point.
Another item that is much lower on my list is branching out to other platforms. I am not yet convinced of the ability of places like Wattpad or Smashwords to generate sales. Perhaps I need an author-specific Facebook page, or an Instagram one. I haven't done enough research on the other social media aspects to understand what they might be able to do that Twitter doesn't. Part of me feels like I need to get a handle on Twitter before I move toward anything else.
Then there is the time investment thing again. Social media takes a lot of time, for better or worse. I don't feel like I want to only be on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook when I am hawking my wares. I want to engage. I think this is the trap many people fall into. You are out there promoting, but you don't give people a reason to be interested in you. You become a set of advertisements and cease to be a real person.
As for the Wattpad and Smashwords things, I am not sure I am ready to take that plunge. I don't yet see a path to convert those "fans" into people who will pay for my writing. The price is actually kind of steep for an author, giving away the "first publish" rights to your work. From all I have read, putting something on Wattpad (or a similar site) dooms it in terms of traditional publishing interest and hurts you with Amazon. Without a fair sense of what kind of conversion rate I would get in terms of paying customers from those platforms, I may steer clear. (Please reply with your compelling arguments for these.)
Lastly, my major marketing goal, the one that might be hardest to achieve, is getting an influencer to promote my new book. There is a large segment of people who will never bother to approach a celebrity or someone with a huge reach to look at their stuff. I am not one of those. I expect to get a lot of non-responses. Perhaps a few "thanks, but no thanks" replies. That's fine. All it takes is one.
I know that if I don't ask, no one is going to volunteer and just do it. It won't happen. I am confident in the writing, yet I understand that traditional publishing would take another year or two before I could find a publisher, if at all. (It's a 35,000-word short story collection, which hits most of the "we're not interested" check boxes.) I know the stories are solid, and I know people will like it. This is just a different path (albeit one with a small chance of success) that I'm trying.
I won't be counting on that one thing to sell my books, I'll be working on tons of my own marketing (I have some Google Ads money to spend, perhaps some Amazon Ads and other things as well). Money isn't the main objective, it's about scoring enough success that subsequent efforts will make money.
I am looking forward to your comments and replies. I could always use constructive criticism or encouragement.
If I went back a little more than a year in time, I was fresh off self-publishing my first story on Amazon. It was thrilling, to have something I'd written "out there".
I posted something on my personal Facebook page urging people to go get copies. I sold a couple to friends and family. It was a novelty factor, honestly. It didn't get me very far at all.
This may sound a little thick, but I didn't completely understand why I hadn't gotten a small but steady stream of sales just by having it available for Kindle. I really did not have the first clue about how to market my story.
This was my first lesson in marketing: your personal circle means well, but they are probably not going to help you sell books. Most of them don't know anything about marketing either.
Some of them were kind enough to share my post to their friends, but I was never able to see whether or not I actually picked up any sales from those efforts. Amazon doesn't give you the fine details on who bought your books, at least as far as I know (which may be another thing I have yet to learn about).
I focused my efforts on building a little library of items for sale on Amazon. Go ahead and chuckle now, at the idea of adding more things for sale when your first item isn't selling. I thought maybe I could increase my presence enough to change my numbers. It was not a formula for success. It dawned on me after a few months that I needed to find ways to reach out to total strangers.
In March, I started a journey on Twitter, a social media platform that I did not at all understand. I always had the thought, as someone older that Twitter and Facebook did the same things essentially. Given that profound lack of understanding, I've been slow in figuring out Twitter. I've just hit 700 followers, after 10 months of being active on the site.
Things like reach, impressions, interactions -- those were all foreign concepts to me, and ones that I learned about the hard way. I would post text posts with one hashtag, promoting my stories. I don't remember getting a single "like", let alone a sale from those.
I went back to writing, and spent some time reflecting on what I was and wasn't doing. I had a very productive period of writing over the summer, but it came at the expense of my things for sale. I put almost no effort at all into my Amazon offerings, and it showed.
During that time, I came across a bit of mentor in a way, though I doubt she would call herself that. Cindy Kolbe responded to my request for a critique partner for my newly-written short stories. I, in turn, started reading her yet-unpublished memoir. (Cindy's book was eventually picked up by a publisher and is due out in a few months.)
Cindy had 18,000 followers (and counting) on Twitter. She had a website devoted to her book. And all of this before attempting to sell her book. She would probably tell you that she did not do anything extraordinary to help me, but she answered my questions and gave me some pointers on building a platform as an author.
So now I have my own website. It has its flaws, but it is showing steady growth. Even on days where I do absolutely nothing related to it (the weekends), I still get a modicum of traffic. These are (hopefully) people that are finding my site and potential "fans", people that might buy things or at least ones that enjoy my writing. It's a start.
I conducted a little test of my Twitter following during December 2018, to find out where I am in terms of progress. I put my items on Amazon (all short stories) for free at different times and built a promo card on Twitter for it.
The results were encouraging. I pretty much doubled my "sales" for the year. I have readers in Australia, the UK, Spain and Brazil. (KDP Beta Reports show market info for free, if you're wondering how I learned that.)
These were some new lessons that I learned going into 2019:
In my next post, I'll take you along for the ride as I talk about my marketing ideas for the year ahead. Perhaps a few of you who know better will be able to help steer me away from things that waste my time and efforts.