Thoughts on this Writing Business

Recently, I came across a year end wrap up by Ron Vital, a writer. Basically, he’s been working at this writing thing pretty hard core. And he’s been doing annual wrap ups, providing detailed breakdowns in terms of his expenses, his sales, his sales breakdowns and his marketing and promotional efforts going back six or seven years.

In some ways, we’re pretty similar. We’ve both been self publishing for about the same length of time. We’ve both kind of had this lead time of the first few years not making very much. We’ve both moved up dramatically in sales in the last few years. We both write and publish a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. We both have a lot of books.

Where Ron differs from me is that he’s much more meticulous about keeping track of what he’s spending and how, what he’s trying, where the money is going, and whether it produces a return. He’s also deliberately investing more and heavily into selling his books.

Now for me, I pretty much do no marketing at all. No bookbub, no book funnel, no amazon ads, facebook ads, no newsletter, etc. etc Certainly not in the methodical and meticulous way that he does it.

So here are the awkwards. He is heavy duty working at marketing, to the point where for most years he went heavily into the red. His last two years, he netted a profit of about $25 and then $500 (mostly by reducing expenses).

But we made about the same amount of money in terms of gross sales and revenue. Actually, I think I’ve consistently done better. Not necessarily by huge gigantic increments. But in terms of grosses, I think I’m about $500 to $1000 ahead.

It’s tricky, because it’s all apples and oranges. Online sales are similar – we both sell in the neighborhood of $1000 to $1500 online. We seem to both be in the ‘slightly above average range’ for self publishers, from what I can tell.

My count was bolstered by direct sales at conventions and book launches which he doesn’t seem to have, and more income from writing related activity.

I do have expenses that he doesn’t report. I paid some money for book covers last year in 2022 for instance. About half my books, I do my own covers, half I commission. I certainly spent a lot more money going to conventions. I’ve experimented with services like online book tours.

But generally, my conclusion has been that as between us, his hard core marketing efforts haven’t actually produced the hoped for results. Here’s what he did:
*Mailerlite for his email list
*Amazon Marketing Services ads (AMS):
*Written Word Media ad
*Bargain Booksy (Written Word Media Newsletter Ad)
*Fussy Librarian
*Facebook ads (Let Go and Be Free)
*Scribe count

The mileage per varied. But looking at his analysis and conclusions, particularly from year to year, a few things came clear:

Ads generally weren’t working. He got some traction with Amazon ads, maybe to a break even point, but it didn’t result in big sales. Facebook ads and similar didn’t work at all. I’ve heard that this year – even people who were sophisticated add buyers like Tao Wong reported no results. The few times I bought adds in the past, no results.

The newsletter wasn’t working. He was doing twice a month, then once a month, then discontinued. But after a few years, what he found consistently through this period was that his newsletter wasn’t producing sales.

Finally, giving away free books was a worthless tactic. In his case, he had book series, he gave away first books in the series in hopes of selling later books. No tangible results. From some of his round ups, it looks like he gave away thousands of books, but that didn’t translate to sales. It didn’t even necessarily translate to reads. What seems to happen is that people are happy to collect reams of free ebooks, in bulk, and then just let them sit there. The amount of personal investment in picking up a free ebook is literally zero.

These things strike me because in this ceaseless barrage of expectations and demands that we, as writers, all must “MARKET, MARKET, MARKET” because they’re the big three. Newsletter, advertising and giveaways are literally the keys to marketing yourself as a writer.

And apparently none of them were working at all for Ron Vitale. Certainly not in the sense of producing a significant return. They were largely a waste of time, money and energy.

That’s significant because time, money and energy are not unlimited commodities. If you’re a writer, you have a day job, you have family, friends, a life. You need to keep a life going, buy food and toilet paper, find time to sleep, shower, shave, pay your bills.

And then on top of that write.

And on top of that all, market?

So this becomes a serious question. If you spend $1000 on Amazon ads, and make $900 on Amazon sales… what the hell are you doing?

If you spend $1000 on Amazon ads and make $1100 on Amazon sales is that a success? Technically.

On the other hand, if I spent $0 on Amazon ads and made $900, 0r $1100 or $1300 on sales… then what’s the lesson there.

It’s one thing to say that marketing is a success if it produces a net positive result – $1000 on ads and $1100 on sales = profit, $100. But if you can get the same sales, or same level of sales without adds… then really, those adds were a giant waste of money.

The real test is not “I did this, and I made more money than I spent.” Rather, I’d propose that there are two tests: “(1) If I do this will I net more money and be further ahead than if I hadn’t done it.” And “(2) If I do this will I make substantially more money than I spend.”

My impression is that a lot of marketing efforts fail those tests. ie –

(1) You would still sell books without the marketing effort, possibly just as many.

(2) The return for most efforts just is not significant enough to justify the investment, even if there is a genuine return. Again, time and money is not unlimited, and a marginal return is simply not worth it.

Now admittedly, the sample size here is two, me and Ron, and that’s not enough to draw conclusions from. But honestly, it does seem to square with what I’ve picked up from other sources.

I suppose to fully and properly test it, we’d have to have two groups of authors writing similar books, similar quality, releasing at similar times over a few years, one doing no marketing at all, and the other marketing its heart out, and seeing how they do respectively. I suspect that the results would be not much difference. I’d hope that the marketing group would have an edge in sales. But even if there was, I’d bet that it wouldn’t be enough of an edge to justify the effort.

The reality out there seems to be that there are roughly three million new books released each year. Average sales for an independent self published book are about 250 copies. Approximately 33% of self published authors earn less than $500 a year. Average earnings for a self published author is about $1000 a year.

That’s the averages. Nothing to do with the quality of the book. That’s just the statistical outcomes.

In professional publishing, it’s not actually much better. There was a big anti-trust lawsuit in the US back in 2022 or 2021, around Penguin and Random Houe, that produced some very distressing information – that most traditionally published books, something like 80% didn’t make back their costs, and the industry was floating on the big sellers. All this institutional structure of Agents, Editors, Publishers, they were all betting on lottery tickets, hoping that somewhere in the titles and authors they were working, there’d be a break out.

Now, the thing is, the big institutional traditional publishers, or even the small presses, have marketing budgets, resources, credibility and institutional knowledge and experience that little self publishers can only dream about. So it’s a challenge.

How do we make money selling our books? Or how do we make more money? That’s tricky. Could come down to writing the right book – Chuck Tingle, I believe, makes out like a bandit writing “I Got a Job Working for a T-Rex and he took Sexual Advantage and Pounded my Ass.”

But it’s intangible – right book, right time, right place, right cover, right title? Not even the professionals have a handle on that. It’s a matter of throwing darts and seeing if something sticks.

Some of the things we do, that we want to do, are probably inherent ‘non-stick’ – If you’re doing a memoir… maybe that won’t sell. Erotica or Romance, better chances. But really, it’s a crap shoot.

Everyone talks marketing for indy self publishers, but I am cynical about the investment of time and money in the usual places with the usual suspects.

Dr. Robert Runte suggests that novelty is a factor. If you can come up with a new marketing gimmick or shtick that works, then you can make a lot of money, sell a lot of books. But the thing is, once everyone starts doing that, then it stops working.

The crap shoot part is that you can never tell what new gimmick or shtick is going to work. It’s throwing darts at the wall and hoping. Your best best is to watch out, see if someone does something that works, and then try and get in on it fast, before everyone else catches on.

Apart from selling online, there are direct sales – conventions etc. I have a friend, R.J. Hore, he does mainly this. Sometimes he does all right, sometimes he doesn’t make the cost of his table back. Even when he does all right, it’s still a day or a weekend, 8 or 16 or 20 hours commitment, lugging stuff back and forth, cost of the table, cost of parking. He enjoys it.

It may be lucrative, I know a handful of people who do this kind of thing regularly – A.P. Fuchs, Chadwich Ginther, S.M. Beiko, I’m assuming that they’re making enough to make it cost effective and worthwhile.

Maybe I’ll give it a sustained try. It’s interesting, but I don’t have a good enough read on the economics.

Thinking generally, the one thing that seems to work is more books. If you’ve got only one book, or a couple, you may not have much of a chance to break out in the marketplace. A dozen, or two dozen? If book selling is just throwing a dart at a wall and hoping it sticks, then having a dozen or two dozen darts increases your chances of something working. If you can get one dart that sticks, maybe that dart will help sell your other books. I’m told a series has a better chance because of that. And prolificacy – chug out a book a month, or at least a few books a year.

This suggests that maybe the single best and most cost effective marketing and promotion effort is to not bother with all the expectations and demands, the advertising, the book bubs, etc. and just write another damned book.

That’s what I plan to do. And as for the rest, I think I’ll go to conventions, sit on panels, try and do interviews and guest on podcasts, get to know other writers, make connections and see where it all goes.

I dunno, just thinking out loud.