Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Books on a Budget: The ROI of Reading

In my career as a senior Information Systems manger, there was an acronym that became the key to nearly every budgetary, marketing, and purchasing decision.  That acronym was ROI, which stands for Return On Investment.  When a management decision was made to expend funds, the very first question was always "What is the expected ROI?"  In industry, ROI breaks down to "What am I getting in return for the money I am spending?"  That could be anything from expected sales generated from marketing or advertising dollars, increased efficiency or security in production or communications, or simply added ability to research and develop new product lines.

So what is with the Business 101 lesson?  I thought this was a Speculative Fiction blog.  Well it is, and this concept has a lot to do with Speculative Fiction from both the perspective of the author as well as the reader.  I will start with the reader perspective, that way any of you who are not authors can feel free to move on once we get to the author-y parts.  But since hopefully every good author is also an avid reader, this first section should be of value to everyone.

So for readers, when we buy books we obviously are not going to see those dollars every again, with the possible exception of whatever the used bookstore might give us back on our dog-eared, cracked-spine copy of the latest and greatest literary adventure.  But we do have an expected return from the money we spend on a Speculative Fiction (or any genre, really) novel.  We expect to be lulled under the spell of the master-author, swept into a state of "willing suspension of disbelief", and spirited off body and mind to the wondrous world of the author's creation.  That is the payoff.  How we feel when we have finished the book is the return on our investment.

Oddly enough, the dynamics of book buying and ROI have changed radically with the surge and relative ease of self-publishing and ebooks.  The cost of a "random read" has dropped considerably, so much of the need for discernment has gone away.  With free book giveaways, bargain basement days, and on-the-web blogs, a reader could theoretically satisfy their appetite without spending a dime on books.  The market has never been better for readers, or has it?

Growing up in a simpler time I learned a few bits of country wisdom that I think play into this question.  "You get what you pay for", "There's no such thing as a free lunch", and "Quality not quantity" are words of wisdom we should consider when bargain hunting for books.  Are we really getting a "bargain"?

Yes, one can go to Amazon and download ten books for $1.99 each instead of spending $19.99 on one book, but are we getting the ROI we are expecting?  Honestly, from my experience, sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I can tell you that the main difference in price tags comes from books that have been put out by a publisher vs books that have been self-published.  Does that mean that a $20 book from a publisher is ten times better than a $1.99 self-published book?  Not necessarily, but sometimes the answer can be a resounding YES! 

So how do we know what our expected ROI is?  Reviews aren't always the answer, because plenty of self-published books can pad their reviews with enough friends, family and fans to make even a real stinker LOOK impressive.  I've bought more than a few of those.  All raving 5-star reviews and after spending my money and reading the book I was wondering what book they all had read.  It certainly wasn't the pig-in-a-poke that I burned a few hours of my life on.  So let's look at a few factors that can help determine how to calculate our ROI before spending money on a more expensive book rather than a slew of cheaper ones.

1) Has the book been decently vetted?  It is a fact of life that not everyone is going to like every book.  People's tastes, preferences, etc are all different, so honest reviews can help us here.  If the only reviews you see of a book are all 5-star, gushing reviews, and yet the book is $1.99 on Amazon, the caution flag should go up.  Books that have been genuinely vetted usually have professional/independent reviews linked through Amazon, from blogs, to review sites, to Goodreads reviews.  Also, truly vetted books are usually going to have a few stinker reviews, just because people's tastes are not all the same.  Finally, if you are reading the 4 and 5 star reviews and the reviewers do point out a few "less than glowing" things in the book, chances are those are more unbiased reviewers and are more reliable than 5 star reviews that simply gush about the flawlessness of a book.  Don't just look at the number and star ratings, but actually read the reviews.  A discerning reader can pretty quickly discern a book that has been genuinely and objectively vetted and reviewed vs those padded with gushing friends and family.

2) Has the book been edited well?  Sometimes collaborative works (with two or more authors names) are generally reviewed more thoroughly than single-author works.  Also, like it or not, most traditionally published books get a more thorough editorial once-over than most self-published books.  Notice, I said MOST not all.  Some self/indie authors do hire outside editors.  For those that do, I STRONGLY encourage you to thank your editor in the acknowledgements or otherwise give readers glancing through a preview that the book has been independently edited.  This is probably the biggest driving factor in the quality difference between books published by an actual publishing house vs self/indie published books.  Often self/indies are on a budget and they will largely self-edit, or will depend on beta-readers (who often are NOT professional editors) to deal with the editing.  As a result, things make it into the final books that might not have gotten past a professional editor at a publishing house.  Note also, this is NOT saying that traditional publishers don't sometimes produce some real stinkers that could have used a good napalming and then a reediting before seeing print, but as a general rule part of the higher price paid for publisher published books vs self/indie books is paying for the extra eyes that go over manuscripts before they hit print.  Again, this is a general guideline and NOT the only factor in determining ROI, but it can be a big one.

3) What is the print quality?  In the world of ebooks, this is becoming less and less of a factor, but for those of us who still like the feel, smell, and experience of paper books, this can be a factor.  Many self/indie published books are printed at mass-market POD (print on demand) printers, so the quality is generally as poor as the printers can get away with for as inexpensively as possible.  Because POD is more expensive, this actually serves to level the playing field somewhat between publisher published books, who generally have their own printers or have bulk-discounted printing services, and self/indie published books.  Where the self/indies really are unbeatable is in the ebooks, because there are no printing costs.  In the print world, generally the publisher books come a lot closer to competing because of the differences in POD and mass print runs.  For those looking for paper books, consider the printing source and whether it is POD or whether you are buying books that have been quality printed.  For the longevity and "shelf-life" of books, that quality printing can go a long way for volumes you want to keep around for years.  If it is a "one-and-done" type reading, then it really makes little difference.  Even the POD printers do a great job at producing readable, useable books, so if longevity and shelf-life are not a factor for you, then this may not be part of your ROI calculations, but if you are building a library you plan to pass on to your kids, quality printed books are a must.

Beyond that, word of mouth, mentions by reading groups online, book-club and/or professional, objective book review site reviews all are part of your investment homework when considering whether or not to buy that more expensive book vs. one of the plethora of bargain-basement buys out there.  The point of this post is not to tell you that one is better than another, but to educate and encourage you to use solid, discerning ROI principles when considering your next read, and don't necessarily let a higher price tag put you off of a particular book.  You might very well find that your emotional and mental ROI for that expensive book far outweighs a series of cheaper but unsatisfying reads.

Okay, so the reader-ly stuff is done, so the next part is for you authors out there.  Your main consideration on ROI is going to be around marketing dollars.  You can write the best book ever and it won't be worth anything if no one ever knows about it to read it.  Now I don't want to spend time rehashing marketing strategies.  I already covered that in another blog post about Successful Authors are Successful Marketers, so I will refer you to that blog for specific marketing strategies.  What this is going to be is about how to evaluate a particular strategy and its ROI for you.

1) What is the potential exposure for the cost?  Before you spend a penny on a particular marketing strategy, you need to have an idea of the exposure numbers.  Exposure also needs to be "quality exposure" not just quantity exposure.  Putting up your book trailer on a TV program with a million "impressions" may not be as effective as say a book giveaway done through a readers site that only reaches a couple thousand people.  Why?  Because on a readers site you are reaching your target demographic, i.e. readers.  For TV ads, radio ads, etc, your broad base exposure is greater, but your targeted exposure is much less.  It doesn't do you any good to advertise your novel to a million people if those million people aren't book buyers or readers.  A much smaller campaign, targeted specifically to readers, or even better if you can target readers of the genre in which you write, could produce exponentially more sales per dollar invested than a broad spectrum approach.  Know the reach of any strategy you try, and more specifically you want to know how much of that reach is going to be the target demographic for your book.

2) What is your demographic?  Perhaps some might think I should have put this first, but most people at least have some idea of who the target demographic is for your book.  Romance novelists probably aren't going to get much of an ROI for marketing which targets a football audience.  Speculative Fiction authors probably aren't going to get a lot of ROI from the Widows Auxiliary club.  Authors of political thrillers probably aren't going to see a satisfactory ROI from marketing to the high school drama club.  You need to know who is reading your books, and your genre, so that you can make the wisest choices when spending those precious marketing dollars.  Focus on campaigns targeting at reaching your target demographic and avoid those which will not reach those who would be interested in your books.  This might seem like common sense, but I have seen ads from authors who got a "great deal" on ad space in a venue completely unsuitable for their genre.  No matter what the price is for a marketing strategy, it isn't a bargain if it misses the target demographic.

3) What is your conversion rate?  Conversion is the term for how many people exposed to your ad actually go out and make a purchase.  You are "converting" that exposure into a sale.  This is probably an area where my business experience runs harshly counter to the "common wisdom" in the industry right now.  I am definitively not a fan of "free days" or "free books".  While in some cases giving away a free book may result in someone loving your writing so much they will go out and buy other things you have written, in general those who are looking for something "free" don't value it.  I spend a great deal of money on books, because I am an avid reader, but I have stacks of "free books" in my library that I have yet to read.  Why?  Because I have nothing invested in that book, I have prioritized the reading of books I have actually bought and paid for.  The freebies are my "reserve tank" for if I get to a point where I have nothing else pressing to read I will pull one out, but honestly I can't say a free book has ever led me to buy another book.  Now even the books I have paid $0.99 for, have some value.  I want to read them, and I have found authors that I went back and bought more books from that I got from a bargain $0.99 day.

When I ran my own company, we did some free giveaways early on and the results were terrible.  But when I even put a minor price on the "giveaway" items, we saw a really nice conversion rate.  Why?  Because if people pay for something, even a little, it has value.  Things freely given are freely discarded.  It is just part of the human mentality.  So I would encourage you, IF you do book giveaways, do something more calculated and know WHY you are doing it.  Something like the Goodreads giveaway of print books exposes you to huge numbers of your targeted demographic, but doesn't flood the market with free copies.  You give away five or ten free copies, but you expose thousands of people to your title and your name, and you put the books in the hands of people who have a high likelihood of reviewing the book.  That is your ROI.  With an unlimited "free day" giveaway on Amazon, yeah you might get hundreds of downloads, but very limited conversions.  If instead you run a bargain $0.99 day on your normally priced $4.99 book, the people who are getting it value it enough to spend something on it, and because you know they are actual "buyers" and not just "freebie hunters", the chance of that converting to sales of your other works is greatly increased.

Okay, this blog post is probably long enough, but for those of you who are not asleep or wandered off by this point, I hope I have shared with you some valuable considerations in considering what your ROI is as both a reader considering purchasing a higher priced book and as an author considering the best way to spend your marketing budget.  I wish you all the success in the world, fulfilling reading, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


David G. Johnson
Author of Fool's Errand and Mystic's Mayhem
Books 1 and 2 of the Chadash Chronicles, now available from www.tatepublishing.com

Friday, December 6, 2013

Successful Authors are Successful Marketers

While I hope much of this new blog to be about fun topics, mind-bending Speculative Fiction discussions, and random Bitstrip comedic insights into the life of an author and the world of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, I also want this blog to be a resource for new authors and those on their way to becoming authors.

I don't want in any way to come off like a fountain of wisdom or anything.  Much of this journey I am still trying to figure out myself.  But I am also a compulsive researcher and I will share not only what nuggets of wisdom I discover from others, but also the lessons I have learned along the way.

Some of these lessons will be drawn from my broader background, but will be applicable to authors looking to break into the industry as well.  At times I look back on my life and feel a bit like Forrest Gump, having traipsed and trod through a myriad of roles, experiences, and opportunities.  Today I want to share some lessons from both my research in the book industry, as well as life lessons from my previous careers (yes, there have been more than one).

For those who don't know my background, I made my way in the world by quickly scrambling up the ranks of the IT industry, with my highest position being VP of Information Systems at a startup company.   I also served as the engineering implementation manager for the outsourcing provider on the largest IT outsourcing contract in the history of the US Navy/Marines.  I have managed huge projects and multi-million dollar budgets.  I also ran my own Real Estate Investment Company (two of them, actually) where I made all the decisions regarding marketing and raising market awareness of our company.

In all of that, and in all my research on the book industry, the conclusion is the same.  Successful entrepreneurs and business leaders understand marketing is the key to success.  Make no mistake, my fellow scrivener, you are an entrepreneur.  If you believe your life is about writing books, I regret to inform you that you are in a mindset headed for failure.  As someone dreaming of being a full-time author, you life is NOT about writing books, your life is about MARKETING books.

The days of a brilliant author pecking away at his or her trusty typewriter in a reclusive hideaway while the publisher is pounding the pavement marketing this brilliance are gone, if indeed they ever existed at all outside the pages of fiction.  The truth is, the most successful authors are the most successful marketers.  Until and unless you get that, be prepared for frustration and disappointment.

Whether it is an IT Company, a Real Estate Company, or a line of books, the principle is the same.  No marketing equals no exposure.  No exposure equals no customers.  No customers equals no sales.  You have to treat your life as an author as a business.  You have various product lines (each book you write) and each product line is it's own separate income stream.  Just like a clothing line, not every style will suit every customer, but you will have customers that will come to recognize and like your brand and will buy every new product that comes out.  Others may like one or two things, but may be hit and miss.  The key to successful products is quality.  If you produce a quality product, and people know about it, you WILL sell them.  I will touch on this point again at the conclusion.

So what should you be looking at doing to get the word out there about your product?

1) Establish a platform - This is the number one differentiator between best-selling, widely known authors who have arrived, and the new authors who are just getting started.  Someone who already has a platform, be it a church pastor, TV star, movie star, radio personality, successful businessman, etc already has a built-in niche audience in which to begin marketing books. People know this person, are interested in them, and will flock to buy books written by (or ghostwritten for) them.  Many new authors, however, are normal people with normal jobs, and have a limited circle of influence.  If that is the case, look at how you can begin to build a platform of built-in potential readers for your books.  Some ideas of where to start are:  1) join a civic organization (Lion's Club, Elk's Lodge, Knights of Columbus, Ladies Auxilliary, etc), 2) be active as a teacher/leader in your neighborhood or church (i.e. Sunday School teacher, community organizer, block captain, join the PTA, etc), 3) start an internet blog.  This needs to be something interesting, engaging and enjoyable that will draw people to want to follow what you have to say rather than just a place to post ads for your books.  Nobody wants to watch a show that is all commercials.  Have something to say that is of interest.  Some ideas might be a movie review site, book reviews, community service announcements, news stories/commentaries, etc.  Give them a reason to go there.  Also, DON'T WAIT until your books are out to start this.  Building a blog following takes time, so start that well in advance of when you plan to put your books out.

2) Widen your name recognition - This can be done online through various groups you interact on, by writing guest blogs for established blog sites, submitting short stories to magazines for publication prior to releasing a novel, look for chances to call in or be guests on radio shows in your area, reach out to schools, libraries, or other venues where you can volunteer to teach, guest speak, or volunteer.  Basically this can be ANYTHING that expands the circle of people who know you and may become interested in who you are, which can translate down the road into wanting to read what you write.

3) Be prepared to invest in marketing - This is the number one area of struggle for many writers.  Most new authors don't have loads of disposable income to put out there for marketing, but if you aren't prepared to invest in promoting your work, why should anyone else be?  Being an author isn't a golden ticket to the easy life, it is rather a lot like vagrancy only sometimes less lucrative (especially at the beginning).  Flyers, ad-space in newspapers, giveaway bookmarks with your books on them, personalized invitations to book signing events, posters, T-Shirts; the sky and your imagination are the limits.  People LIKE free stuff, so if you don't want to give your books away (which is somewhat counter-productive to being profitable), than have OTHER stuff you can give away which will attract people to the books, and provide you with increased exposure.  There is one exception (see point 4) about the book giveaways which I will cover in a moment, but for the most part you are trying to sell your books, not give them away.

4) Reviews and word-of-mouth advertising - While I talked in point 3 about not giving away your books, there are exceptions to this.  Many Independently published authors (i.e. self-published or small press) do "free days" on Amazon or the like to increase the number of people who know about the book.  This approach has a number of advantages and a few disadvantages.  Advantages are: 1) it really doesn't cost anything up front to do this, merely opportunity costs, 2) if online sales are your primary venue, the more people reading your books increases the possibility of them buying other works by you, 3) ideally this will result in more reviews of the book which will increase both the credibility of the author and the exposure in the marketplace.  Disadvantages are: 1) everyone who gets a free copy is one less person to buy a copy.  As someone who writes in a genre that is a small part of the overall book market, this can be a big factor, 2) when you give something away for free, there is a perception that is has no value.  People may not like or agree with that statement, but it is ABSOLUTELY undeniable.  In fact, in several areas of the businesses I have run, we found when we gave away things, they often attracted people who had no real desire to follow-up with anything further, but when we charged, even a small amount, for something, then the people responding valued it and only those interested in following through would come for them.  This is why I personally favor the idea of price reductions above "free days".  If your book is normally say 4.99 or 5.99 (as an Indie author), then having a $0.99 day or weekend can still drive bargain hunters to your books while continuing at least some income stream for them.

Continuing on point 4, the one time where it is normal, and generally acceptable, to give away books is as a market exposure strategy.  For blogs, review sites, newspaper literary critics, and others, from the big boys like NY Times down to the friendly internet blogger with a  few hundred followers who like the genre you write in, giving copies to those with a voice, who can read, review, and increase exposure on the books is a viable and valuable strategy for marketing.

5) Finally, be consistent and persistent - Posting a blurb about your books once or twice on a facebook group, or endlessly spamming the SAME blurb over and over and over, shows laziness, inconsistency, and no real drive to market the books.  You have to be persistent without being redundant.  If you want to post once a month or so in a group to keep your latest work in the minds of potential readers, then at least take the time and care to alter what you post.  Reposting the same blurb again and again just gets people to tune it out and form a negative opinion.  That is the opposite of what you want.  Mix it up.  Do things funny, cute, memorable.  Bitstrips comics I think are a great way to do something memorable, eye-catching and not annoying to draw attention.  Otherwise posting excerpts or links to positive reviews is another way to be persistent without being redundant.  Building a presence in the market is a marathon, not a sprint.  It won't happen overnight, and even once you have a platform and a market presence, KEEP MARKETING!  I mean who doesn't know who McDonald's is, right?  Yet they still spend millions and millions every year to market themselves and refresh their market presence.  Marketing is a lifelong task, not a one-and-done type deal.  The day you stop marketing needs to be the day you stop writing.

Last of all I want to go back to what I said above about quality.  If you don't take care to produce a quality product, all the marketing in the world won't make up for it.  Every author, writer, director, producer, actor, etc turns out the occasional stinker, but your first few works need to be as solid as you can make them, and you can't afford too many stinkers before you will have dug yourself a hole you can't climb out of.  There is no excuse for producing shoddy writing.  If you can't write, why are you wanting to be an author?  If you can write, but need some help to make it crisp and clean, then be prepared to spend the money on a GREAT editor.  If you are a masterful graphic artist, by all means fire away at your covers, but if you are sticking photo-shoppy, hand-drawn, cartoony-looking, amateurish covers on your books, then don't be surprised that random buyers aren't flocking to pick them up regardless of the reviews.  Your cover is your only chance at a first impression, and when potential buyers are online skimming books to buy, if your cover doesn't grab them, they likely will never see the reviews and will pass on by.  I would say almost as important, if not slightly more important, than a GREAT editor is an AWESOME cover designer.  Packaging sells, so don't produce a diamond of a book and then wrap it in old newspaper.  Presentation is critical, so don't skimp on this.

While I don't expect this is the end-all, be-all of marketing advice, hopefully it gives some insights into what I found as key for running my own businesses, and practices I currently am working to employ in the world of being an author.  I hope you find these insightful, encouraging, and helpful in your own journey to literary fame and fortune.  Good luck, authors!


David G. Johnson

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Getting Started

I am just posting a placeholder post to get things started and get my URL RSS and all the other alphabet soup feeds going.  We are in the process of an international move at the moment, but I soon will begin posting actual content.  In the meantime, here is where to find my books on Goodreads, order them from Tate Publishing pre-release, and like my Facebook author page.  See you soon!

Goodreads Links:
My Facebook Author Page
Get my first two novels directly from Tate Publishing prior to the February 4th official release date here:
Fool's Errand

Mystic's Mayhem

By His Grace,

David G. Johnson