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“Marketing Takes Money, so Learn to Budget”
Okay, so I’m assuming you still want to write? That’s good. You’re a crazy person, but, yeah, good for you!
You’ve written your story, or maybe you’ve just planned it out and are looking for time or inspiration to write it (we’ll talk more about that in a future article, by the way). Or maybe you haven’t gotten even that far. Maybe you’re just at the idea stage, and by “idea,” I mean, “I’m thinking about becoming a writer.” Honestly, that’s okay if you’re in one of these early stages. We all start somewhere. It’s probably for the best. But, regardless of where you are in the writing process, there is still one question you need to consider before you go any farther: Are you writing for fun, or are you writing for business?
Let’s assume that you’re writing for business. And, by business, I mean writing with the intention of sharing it with strangers in exchange for free downloads or money. One thing you’ll learn if you dig deep enough into the archives of publishing professionalism is that you’ll need a platform and the ability to market if you want any success.
Wait! Don’t run away yet. You just got here! Sit. It’s okay.
I hate that idea, too: Marketing is a numbers game and platforms are for gasbags. I get it. But, if you think about it, there’s some truth in that statement. If nobody knows who you are or what you can do, then nobody’s going to come looking for you when you finally publish your book. What they all say is true. And by “they,” I mean publishing experts. You need to prepare for your book launch ahead of time (if you’re writing for someone other than yourself, or for something other than fun). Get your audience now, your promotions out now, your mailing list in tip-top shape now. Anyone who has ever been successful at publishing will tell you the same thing: “Start your marketing ten years ago.” Have a website now. A landing page, now! I could go on. Basically everything I have yet to do myself because I’m a writing genius but a marketing idiot.
After having no success at doing things my way, I’m ready to agree with them. But I’m going to add one thing ahead of even the marketing and platforming measures that you need to perform, something far more important than either, and the real decision-maker into whether your book will become a success. Like marketing skill, it’s something I don’t have much of now, but something I know I need more of if I’m to accomplish anything that gets the word success stamped on its face. You (as I do) need money.
Let’s consider the following:
Business takes money, and writing is just another business, like the food industry, the clothing industry, the news industry, etc. It’s just the one business where the operators who make it run, the writers, often forget they need more than writing skills to keep it running. Business success requires marketing, professionalism, and, of course, lots and lots of money, and if writing is a business, then writing needs these things, too. The writer is an artist, though, and we all know that artists don’t have any money. This is why we do all the creatin’ and let the businessfolk do all the moneyin’. Just as nature intended.
In a perfect world, this would be true, for this perfect world would recognize everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and allow each to operate within his or her own range of skills in order to bring maximum excellence to all that is achieved. But we write (fiction and nonfiction alike) because we know it’s an imperfect world with imperfect people who follow through on their imperfect ideas, and imperfect things get in the way of other things that could’ve been perfect, if only—
You get the idea. Nothing’s perfect, hence we write in an effort to right imperfect wrongs. This is why professional chefs don’t just cook for a living. They also blog, build connections, and schmooze with rich people. They build a lifestyle, and people respond. Look at that shirt you’re wearing. Who made it? Okay, who markets it? Check the label. It probably came from an overseas sweat shop, but it didn’t stay in that shop, did it? Somehow, somebody found a way to get it out of the sweat shop and onto your back. The marketing, whether you agree with it or not, worked. Now, even though many industries work with teams and many hands, we can’t always wait for the businesspeople to help us get our acts together. It’s on us, the writers, to become the businesspeople. Especially if we’re independent, but even if we’re not. Our industry may pay like a sweatshop, but it doesn’t run like one. We have to market ourselves, just as the celebrity chefs have to market themselves.
It starts with money.
In May 2015, I took a chance uploading one of my short stories to Smashwords as an e-book. That story, Shell Out, which, out of no sense of irony, is about a desperate man’s quest to earn his financial success any way that he can in a world that wants to take everything from him and give nothing back, is one of my favorites, and the one I thought for sure would give me my best foot forward into the reading public. I even designed a cover for it that I thought would catch people’s eyes. I was proud of what I was about to unleash on the world. As a distribution service, Smashwords sent it to all of the major e-book retailers save Amazon, where anyone could download and read it. The fact that it had gone to Apple and Barnes & Noble made me giddy inside. Everyone would now know my name and know what I can do.
I got a few downloads because it was free, but it wasn’t a hit. No one reviewed it. No one wrote me about it. Within a week, the downloads had waned. Then I released my next story, another coming-of-age tale, this one about breakups, called Eleven Miles from Home, giving it a cover I liked. It ran the same course—some downloads here, a few downloads there, no review, no comments, no money exchanged. Oh, did I mention I had released them for free? It was one of the strategies I had employed in order to gain a readership. Did they read? I don’t know. I didn’t have a mailing list established, just social media links within each book, as well as this website, and nobody was really coming to check any of them out. If they were reading, they weren’t saying so. Amusement, which I released a few days after that, while the momentum from the first two was still hot, had far fewer downloads and couldn’t catch up to the “popularity” of the first two. I was proud of that cover, with its ‘60s-style vector art weirdness, which captured the trippy nature of the story well, and eye-catching color, fitting for a story about cartoon characters facing off against a professionally serious businessman. I can’t say for certain if anyone else was impressed with it. My download frequency says no.
But, even though free books could get downloaded easily (whether by many or a few), it didn’t mean people would read them or respond to them. And as time went on and my research continued, I realized that less than 10 free downloads a day, with fewer than 150 views on launch day, is bad.
My best launch day, which happened with my fourth released short story, When Cellphones Go Crazy, got me 300 views on Day 1, but fewer than 30 free downloads resulting from those views (a whopping low of 10% conversions; I usually pull between 20-25% conversions for each new release). The only book in my bibliography to ever gain over 35 downloads in a single day is Cannonball City: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year One, and only after someone at Barnes & Noble had given it a five-star rating, almost a month after release, not on its launch day. Incidentally, this book also holds the launch day record of 35 downloads, most likely for its epic length and free launch price (it’s $4.99 now).
This poor track record of performance convinced me to pull all of my future books out of preorder and rethink my release strategy. Then I started subscribing to countless free webinars and marketing sites to find out what I was doing wrong. And I learned a lot. But then the experts I was learning from started asking me for money to hear about their really juicy tactics for getting ahead in publishing.
I knew there would be a catch. There always is.
I didn’t jump at any of these opportunities to learn at a premium level in the beginning, but the information I’d constantly get for free was essentially the same: book covers, editing, and all of those marks of quality that readers crave before even considering buying a book would have to be professionally done if I wanted my books to be taken seriously. Never mind the story or its quality of writing. The aesthetics are as important as the substance. Satisfied expectations are more important than reinventing the wheel. If I didn’t have background in any of these secondary necessities, then I would have lackluster, if any, sales. When I’d set prices for several of my novels to break the freebie habit and no one would buy them, I realized there is probably some truth to that.
Seems counterproductive, doesn’t it? We sell books in order to fund the services necessary to make them and our businesses better equipped and running, but it only works if people buy them, and if we can’t pay for the services we need to make them great at the get-go, then no one will buy them. And without the money to fund our platforms, no one will even find them. Don’t we want them to find us and buy our books?
This is exactly why authors are told to never give up their day jobs. But it’s also a wakeup call that we need to learn how to budget because, without a budget, we’re not going to have the money needed to pay for these clearly necessary services. If we try to do everything for free, like I did, we won’t get anywhere with our audience, like me.
Here’s my situation: I’ve acquired significant debt trying to survive in a commercial world. I spend every month trying to pay it down, but it’s hard to make progress, and it takes a long, long time to see results. The problem is that knowledge often costs money, and any time I want to learn something new, I either learn what I can for free and try to fill in the gaps with common sense or cross-referencing, or get myself deeper into debt going for the direct lessons. Then it takes me a long time before I’m able to spend anything on the next great lesson, which may come around only once a year. And, I’ve got nothing left over for the actual marketing. It’s kind of stupid to be in that situation.
My situation is pretty typical, unfortunately. We’ve become a culture of debt. We take out a credit card, run it into the ground, then take out another so that we can keep charging while we tie up our money into paying bills. We often end the month with nothing left to our names. If we have an emergency, we’re screwed. If we’re given an awesome opportunity to better our lives, but the cost involved is just out of our reach, we’re screwed. When I was in my early 20s, I had plenty of money to spend on any opportunity that came my way. Then debt crept in, and now I’m lucky to afford 10 copies of my own book to give to friends and family.
What I’ve learned from The Total Money Makeover, and common sense, is that making more debt is not in anyone’s interest, and if we want to get the most out of life, we need to start planning our money and where it goes better. This means telling our money what to do, not the other way around. This means planning for what we want, and then doing what we can to prepare for it.
In the case of self-publishing, we now know that, unless we’re experts at these individual fields, we’ll need to buy book cover services, editing services, interior design services, ISBNs from Bowker (if we want full control over our books’ identities), printing services, ad space, websites, and so on, not to mention any course or book that teaches us how to manage it all, and all of that can get really expensive really quickly. A new sister site of The Book Designer, called The Book Makers, opened this week, and it looks like the perfect go-to for author services, like cover design, interior design, etc. But the packages begin at $999. Do I have that much money? No. Do you? Probably not. But this is cheap compared to the other services that are out there (given the tremendous quality it boasts), and yet still way more expensive than any of us can handle.
Chances are, in order to make any progress in book publishing without a growing budget, we’ll at best be able to piecemeal our books’ production as money reaches certain thresholds, and maybe within two or three years, we’ll be able to finally afford to give our books an attractive first impression.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to afford book services and the courses that teach me how to do things right the first time now, as the opportunities to acquire them are given.
Budgeting is hard work, and I am in no way a master at it. But I acknowledge its importance, and I’m working to get it under control, and you should, too, if you want to get anywhere in this business, or in any industry for that matter. Everything in life costs money, but you need to decide now where you’re going to send your money. Do you need that new video game or those ten new pairs of shoes? Or do you need to pay off the guy who’s going to make your book cover a contender in the busy, competitive book market? Wisdom and self-control are important components to keeping a budget growing, but again, it’s necessary to have both if you want to succeed.
Before you make any concrete decisions about getting published, get your budget in order first. If you can, save up about $2000 for services you can’t do well yourself (including website and mailing list fees), and another $1000 for training if you need it. These are likely overestimations, but my motto is that it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it, and supplementing that with the age-old saying, you get what you pay for, and I think it is safe to say that you may as well save up for the good stuff. You still need to research anything you’re thinking of giving your money to, as not everyone providing a particular service deserves your money (more on that in a future The Marketing Author 001 article). But if you’re ever pressed for a decision, and you know that the $500 opportunity you’re researching is perfect for you, you won’t have to agonize over it since you’ll already have the money to pay for it.
I’m an advocate for doing as much as you can for as little as possible, as money you put into the system is money you have to get out of it for the investment to be worth anything, but at some point I have to acknowledge the fact that there are people out there who have better skills and better technology at doing the things I need done for my book to shine than I do, so I have to position myself to buy their services, and that means establishing a rigid budget for marketing, that I should’ve been working on years ago, long before May 2015.
I’m starting by setting aside about $50 per pay period, or as much as I can handle up to $50, into a private account and letting that grow accordingly. This same account will get any dollar I earn on my current books, which I can use to further my marketing endeavors. If I do this right, I might be able to give my books the feet-forward they deserve, and maybe I’ll eventually get to that point where I don’t have to partition a large chunk of money I make from my day job in order to fund my side business. If all goes well, my side business could even become my day job.
Isn’t that what you want to happen for yourself, too?
Disclaimers: Much of the information I write about budgeting in this article comes from tips I’ve learned reading The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, who in turn got all of his tips from grandmas the world over. If you really want to get good at money management, make sure you pick up a copy of his book, or check out his website and podcast. Include it in your budget. Practice what you learn today!
If you want to hear more about the new all-purpose designer’s site, The Book Makers, here’s the announcement post at The Book Designer. Looks like something I’ll want to take advantage of myself as soon as possible. I’m not an affiliate, by the way. I just think it looks cool and helpful.
Come back next Wednesday for Part 3, time management.
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