Yesterday I dropped two fat manila envelopes off at the post office for the first time in over a year. Yes, I’m back at it: mailing manuscript pages to editors in the desperate hope that one of them will publish my book. (I’ve done plenty of short-story submissions in the meantime, but not a book, and not on paper.)
Things are a little different this time around. The main difference is that self-publishing is a live option, meaning that I’m so confident in this book that if no publisher takes an interest in it, I’m just going to self-publish. The self-publishing marketplace has matured quite a bit, and I have some practice from last time—so I’m pretty sure that I can make things work if I need to.
The major implication of this is that I’m skipping the agent round. I can get an agent after I have an offer from a big publisher, since it turns out that lots of people get their agents that way, and I don’t feel a big imperative to go through the gatekeepers-before-the-gatekeepers this time. I am subbing directly to all of the houses that accept direct author submissions (and some of the ones that don’t), and I’ll wait around for them to get back to me.
The other major implication is that I’m vetting the small presses that I sub to very carefully. My previous experience with a small e-press, while not exactly a negative experience, has made me realize that there’s not a lot which many small presses can do for me which I can’t do for myself. So I’m very carefully going through the small press candidates and weeding out the ones which don’t offer one or more of:
High-quality professional covers
Help with promotion
A non-trivial advance (where “non-trivial” is ~$1000)
These are roughly in order of importance. #1 is absolutely non-negotiable, since a big majority of self-pub and small press covers are terrible. I can pay Streetlight Graphics or a similar outfit to do a professional-quality cover for me, so why should I put up with the garbage that most small presses put out? At least half of the small presses that I’ve looked at have been disqualified with the note “Bad covers”.
A print edition is not something that I’d willing to pay for myself (even using the number of high-quality POD services), but it’s something that I consider a positive if a small press offers it. Promotion likewise is something that I can do by myself, but about which I’m largely clueless, and I’ll take all the help that I can get.
And of course, an advance is something which is by definition impossible under self-publishing, which is why I consider it the least important and least significant element of choosing a publisher.
In any case, I’ve time-boxed this process to take no more than a year. Even the slowest of the traditional publishers should have gotten back to me by that point, and if I haven’t gotten an offer by then, to self-pub I will go.
I previously blogged about an experiment in Facebook advertising that I undertook. The gist of the experiment was to see if I could generate an appreciable bump in sales of my e-book The Taint by doing a Facebook ad campaign, and if so, whether that bump was big enough to cause the campaign to pay for itself. And now that we’ve reached the middle of June, the campaign is long over, the sales numbers are in, and I can offer some data and some conclusions.
Facebook offers you a pretty wide variety of options for how you set up your ad campaign. I went with the defaults for pretty much everything. Most importantly, I chose the automatic bidding strategy, which means that I let FB choose how it was going to spend the money I allocated for the campaign. FB, like Google, allocates ads based on a “bidding” metaphor in which different ads indicate via a virtual “bid” how badly they want to appear in a particular slot. As I understand it, this means that every time FB wants to show you an ad, it goes through all of the active ad campaigns that match something in your profile and asks them how much they’re willing to spend to be shown at that moment. Based on some algorithm that looks at the advertising budget and the target user’s profile, FB decides how much that particular ad slot is “worth” to your ad, and the ad that wants to be shown the most wins.
However, with FB you only pay for clicks, not impressions. An impression is when someone merely sees your ad, while a click is when they actually click on it (duh) and see whatever you linked to.
A standard FB ad (which you’ve seen hundreds of if you’ve ever been on FB) consists of a thumbnail-sized image with a few lines of text next to it. I originally was just going to use my book cover as the thumbnail, but it turned into a mushy gray blob when it was scaled down to the proper size. Instead, I cropped out just the title and used that. My finished ad looked like this:
Here’s the raw numbers:
First thoughts were, “Wow, that’s a lot of reach,” followed by, “Wow, that’s not very many clicks.” In FB lingo, “Reach” is the number of distinct people who saw the ad, “Frequency” is the average number of times the ad was shown to each person that saw it, and “Clicks” is the actual number of clicks generated because of this. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people saw the ad, even with my very modest bid. If my campaign were the sort of thing where merely getting the word out and increasing awareness helped, I’d consider that a good sign.
But as you can see, the “Click-Through Rate” (CTR) was awful. Or was it? I really have no idea what a realistic CTR is, and whether my ad did better or worse than the average. What is clear is that you need a lot of views to get even a modest number of clicks–which makes since, since I very rarely click on internet advertising, and I don’t expect that a lot of other people do differently.
So I spent $30 to get 21 people to click on my ad, meaning that I spent $1.42 per click. This is not a very good rate. When I’m spending that much per click, my “conversion rate” (the number of clicks that turn into actual sales) would have to be close to 100% in order to break even. Which leads me to my next point.
Effect on sales
I had to wait until the middle of June to get my royalty statement for the month of May, which showed exactly how many books I sold. Since clicking the ad brought you to the main Lyrical Press site, I took the number of sales directly from Lyrical as an indication of the number of sales resulting from the ad. Lyrical’s ebooks are available in a large number of venues, but most likely anyone who bought the book as a result of the ad also bought it directly from Lyrical, since that’s where the ad pointed to. So how many books did I sell directly from the Lyrical site in May?
(I did sell books through other storefronts, though.)
This is not terribly surprising, given the numbers above. Based on what I’ve heard on the nets, ad conversion rates vary from 1%-5%, so getting zero conversions from only 21 clicks is possible, even likely. So while this report is kind of glum, we have to accept it as the consequence of our overall ad performance.
The primary question that I wanted to answer by doing this experiment was whether a Facebook ad campaign could create an appreciable spike in sales of an e-book at a low price point. And the answer to that is a resounding no. My small initial outlay did not pay for itself in terms of increased royalties. It would not have paid for itself even if I were self-published and getting 100% of receipts. At the price level I set, there was no perceptible bump in sales at all.
Nonetheless, I consider the experiment a success because it did furnish a clear and unambiguous answer to the question I posed at the beginning. The benefit derived from a low-cost ad campaign doesn’t pay for the ad, and so makes no financial sense for a small-press author such as myself.
There are a few ways I could tweak the experiment which could give different (more profitable) results. Sometime in the future I may try to repeat this experiment varying the parameters below.
Spend more money. It’s possible that my ad budget was so low that I was outbid for all of the high-performing ad slots (in terms of page placement, appropriateness to the user, etc.), and got only the dregs. If this is the case, then spending, say, $100 or $1000 might get me exponentially more results. This would mean that there’s a minimum amount that you have to spend to get an appreciable result from advertising, and that spending any amount below that threshold is simply wasted. In support of this theory, I note that FB told me that there were about 6 million potential viewers of my ad, but I actually hit less than 1% of those.
Get a better ad. I’m pretty happy with what I came up with for my first try, but I’m sure there are ways I could make it more effective. With a little reading on ad design and a little practice, I could probably come up with something more enticing.
Don’t send people to Lyrical. I might get better results if I had the ad point to the book’s Amazon page, since most people will already have an account on Amazon, and anything that removes the barriers to a sale would be a benefit. Furthermore, Amazon owns the currently dominant e-reader, and streamlining sales to the Kindle would be a huge win.
Hopefully this was interesting and helpful to anybody else who is published with small presses or self-published, and who may be contemplating such a move in the future.
So all this talk about self-publishing has gotten me curious about alternate publishing models. As I see it, the main thing that traditional publishing still offers that self-publishing and vanity publishing lack is quality control. A book from a traditional publishing house will have been professionally edited for both content (plot, character, etc.) and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, etc.) It’ll have a professional cover and professional typesetting. The book that emerges from a traditional publisher may not be earth-shaking literature, but at least it will look good and be free of the grossest errors.
Self-published books, on the other hand, are stereotypically full of bad prose and grammatical errors stuffed inside a hideous cover made in MS Paint. Not all self-pubs fit this description, of course, but enough of them do to give the entire model a bad name.
So I says to myself: couldn’t you do both? And I dreamed up a kind of writer’s collective that would try to get the best of both worlds:
Writers pay the collective for most of the cost of producing their book up front.
The writers’ collective ensures that certain standards of quality are met. It requires that all books are professionally edited and fitted with a professional cover design.
The collective acts as the nominal publisher for the book, but under terms that give most of the rights to the author.
The collective takes a small portion of the receipts and uses it to pay for things like distribution and publicity for the entire company, things that cost more money than any one author is likely to be able to afford individually.
I brainstormed/daydreamed a few different ways of paying for this, including a “reverse advance” (the writer pays 100% of costs up front, and gets 100% of receipts until they recoup their costs, after which it’s 85/15) or a milder split costs model (writer pays 50% up front and splits receipts 50/50 until costs are recouped, etc.) There are a variety of possible problems with this, but really, it seems like it should work, right?
And lo and behold Google tells me that it’s been done, and with a certain level of success. The Writer’s Collective linked here has a higher price point than I was imagining—they say that an author could expect to pay $18,000 over the course of the year their book is in production, which is, um, steep—but the basic model is the same. And they do say that they began with a low-cost model similar to what I was imagining, but had to scale up to the higher-cost, high-return model that they use now. Perhaps I’ll contact then to discover the particular reasons for that. Nonetheless, a glance at their books on offer suggests that they’re hitting a much higher level of quality than most e-book publishers, and way higher than most self-pubbed books.
I have no intention to act on any of this in the near future, as I have neither the money nor the time to pursue it right now. But it’s a strange new world in publishing, and who knows what will happen in another 5 years?
This was originally posted as part of a discussion of e-books and the publishing industry over at The OWW-SFF Writing Group. I’m cross-posting it here, since parts of it may be of general interest.
Let me outline a possible future for the publishing industry. This is based on what we already see in the music industry, plus a little bit of optimistic speculation. My basic conclusion is that the coming changes in the publishing industry are likely to be good for unpublished and newly-published authors, but it may be bad for some other segments of the industry.
First, what do we have right now? If you’ve written a book, there are three possible outcomes:
1) You don’t sell it. Nobody reads it except for your mom, and you get zero dollars.
2) You sell it to a small press, which puts it out as POD, e-book, or (maybe) paperback. You get somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars.
3) You sell it to a major publisher, who puts it out as a mass-market paperback or a hardcover. You get somewhere between a few thousand and a billion dollars.
An important feature of the current market is that there’s a steep cut-off between the small presses and e-publishers, which pay very little, and the big publishers, which pay 2-3 times what you’re likely to make at a small press even at the lower end of the payscale. Plus, at the big publishers you get an advance, which often aren’t paid at all by small presses.
Now, let’s think about the future. E-readers become common and affordable, and the price of e-books drops below $5. People who are avid readers move mostly to e-books for price and convenience, and because the price has dropped they buy more of those than they would have bought paper books. Sales of physical books drop as readers move to digital formats. Casual readers, the sort who buy books for the beach or the airplane, mostly stick with physical books, since it’s not worth their time to get an e-reader that they rarely use.
The result? The market for e-books expands, while the market for physical books drops. Paper books become restricted to best-sellers and specialty items, like signed limited editions. Some of the big publishers go out of business or merge, while the number of e-publishers goes up to take advantage of the bigger market. Some midlisters are pushed out to the e-publishing market. As e-publishing loses its stigma, the accepted career path becomes to move up through the small presses building an audience, and to make the jump to paper after years of publishing, if ever. The big publishers have already delegated the slush to the agents; agents start delegating the slush to the small-press editors, and work by poaching the top 1% of small-press writers and selling them up to the big leagues.
Now, why would you like this as a writer?
1) You get something rather than nothing. The e-publishing houses have more niches, more opportunities, and more ability to take risks, so your chances of getting published are better. You’ll get hardly any money at first—but right now the most common outcome is getting no money at all.
2) Your back-catalog always works for you. As mentioned by others, you can’t sell used e-books—but when a new e-book costs the same as a used paperback, why not buy it new? And you get the royalties from those sales, forever.
3) You have a clear ladder towards fame and fortune. It used to be that writers were expected to make their name in short stories, then sell a novel on the basis of that reputation. With the collapse of the short fiction markets, that’s much less the case these days, so writers have to sell their novels to a public that’s never heard of them, via publishers that are understandably hesitant about taking these risks. The e-publishing model gives you years to build an audience in lower-risk venues before trying to move up.
It may be that it’s harder to actually make a living as a writer in this world—but how many of us are making money, anyway? I, for one, would be happy to release my books as e-books and sell a few hundred copies for the present time. It’d be a lot more than I’m making from my writing now.