Business Musings: Data Diving
Once a month (more or less), we host a gathering of professional writers on a Friday night. The gathering is open to writers from our writers network, and other professionals we know. Most are from the Pacific Northwest, although folks who are traveling through often stop as well.
We have only one criteria: The writers have to be working hard at the business of writing. You’d be surprised at how many professional writers are ineligible just from that criteria. You’d also be surprised at how many writers who absent themselves from the gathering after attending once. We’re too intimidating, I think.
I mean that sincerely. I don’t think it’s because of the accolades in the room (multiple award-winners, New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, multi-published fiction and nonfiction writers). I think it’s because we’re all working hard at our indie publishing businesses, and we don’t dumb down the meeting.
One extremely prolific traditionally published writer showed up last year, and started asking basic questions (how do you format books?) and everyone shut him down before the meeting even started.
If you don’t know something basic, you can ask someone on a break, and more often than not, you’ll get weird look and a series of links. This is a serious meeting of hardworking, serious professionals who are bootstrapping each other into the ever-evolving new world of publishing.
Writers have bootstrapped each other from time immemorial. I recently finished (and recommended) The Golden Age of Murder, about the Detective Club in London, whose members kept each other informed about the changing British publishing scene. The Bowery Boys podcast recently did a fascinating piece on the Algonquin Round Table, from an angle I hadn’t heard before, and it became abundantly clear to me that those famous New York (and New Yorker) writers had started meeting at lunch because they were bootstrapping. As the podcast stressed over and over again, those meetings started before everyone at the table was famous—and once they became incredibly famous, they no longer had time to meet.
That’s usually what happens to bootstrapping writers groups. Eventually the folks who succeed outgrow the group, because the group remains focused on the beginners.
Dean and I don’t. Not in our normal teaching, our online workshops, or in the groups we form to help us. We work with established writers or extremely driven writers. We let everyone else teach the basics; they don’t interest us. We want to keep learning and growing, and that requires upper level questions, and upper level subject matter.
Still, none of that prepared me for the conversation that evolved in March’s meeting. In the middle hour of our three-hour talk, the conversation went something like this:
…my click-through rate is…
…I received 96,000 impressions…
…at least thirty-percent downloaded my…
Numbers, data, and more numbers. Writer after writer recited facts about their newsletters, their ad campaigns, their book sales, and all of those facts had data to back them up. These writers were often looking at phone screen or their laptop to give accurate information (as if the rest of us would shoot them if they reported wrong), and we were comparing performance, subscribers, money earned, and books sold.
I don’t think anyone mentioned craft except to acknowledge that a certain level of craft is necessary to get readers to return to the fold.
I sat back and absorbed this conversation, letting the words run over me a little, because I was surprised by it. Not by the conversation itself—we’ve had a variation of that conversation off and on for a year now—but by the complete acceptance of it. I was surprised by the way that no one, not even the newcomers to the meeting, seemed to think the conversation was out of the ordinary. We were comparing results of various marketing techniques, trying to figure out our way through the morass of data that’s being flung at us, and—most importantly—sharing what we had learned, what worked for us, and what didn’t.
In sharing what we had learned, we were no different from the writers meetings of the past. A few of us at this month’s meeting have gone to a version of this meeting for more than twenty-five years, and Friday, we were reminiscing about some of the more colorful writers who’ve come and gone out of our lives. We didn’t talk at all about the content of those old meetings.
But I still remember that content vividly. We discussed marketing techniques, but on a much smaller scale: which editor was buying what; which one of us had success with what kind of story at which market; which agents were looking for what kind of writer.
Back then, Dean and I belonged to another exclusive group of writers, most of whom are still in the business, all of whom have had long-term careers. That group shared our contracts and our personal career information (like royalty statements) with each other via snail mail. We had sworn each other to secrecy. Then we agreed to mail a copy of our contracts and business materials to the group leader along with some kind of fee (I can’t remember how much), and he would photocopy everything and then mail this huge package back to each of us.
The reading was fascinating: it was my early education in contract differences and the value of contract negotiation. We were all newly professional writers, so we were at the same level, but we saw how different the contracts could be, based on who negotiated it, how much the advance was, and even on the genre.
At conventions, we writers discussed a variation of the same topics—agents, editors, marketing to the increasingly smaller and smaller subset of publishers, and the best way to handle the problems that came up in our various careers.
Not once did we mention data. We did discuss how to goose book sales, but based on the royalty reports. We tried to figure out how to get rid of our reserves against returns. We often argued about the value of book signings and book tours, but we never had data.
Because our publishers didn’t have data either.
Data is becoming the new religion at traditional publishers, but they’re the proverbial first-year English majors trying to understand an advanced-level Physics course. They don’t have the math skills, mostly, to understand, for example, why Author Earnings really is a good way to look at the entire industry.
(The responses to Data Guy’s presentation at Digital Book World, both live tweeted [live social media-ed?] from the conference and in private, were disbelieving. I’ve heard industry professionals say that the only accurate reports came from Nielsen later in the day. (I searched for someone courageous enough to write that in their blog about the event, and couldn’t find it. I don’t want to out folks who wrote me emails, so I’m afraid I can’t link here.)]
Back in the day, we all sold books based on gut instinct, and I’ll still defend gut instinct as an editing and writing tool. The market for books and entertainment is so vast that we can find someone who will like what we like, which makes publishing whatever you believe in worthwhile. (This should be the topic for a later post.)
When Dean and I teach, when we talk to other writers, we always say write what you want to write. When that project is finished, worry about marketing.
Well, it turned out on Friday night that we writers were all worried about marketing and sales in a totally different way. We have a large enough group that we can experiment with all the new tools coming our way. Some of our number are romance writers, others are mystery writers, still others are non-fiction writers. We all have different networks, and we’re hearing about new and different trends.
We’re jumping in with both feet, and we’re trying new things. Usually the most interested person tries something new, and then reports back on what they’ve discovered.
What they’re discovering can only be communicated in click-throughs, and impressions, and sell-throughs. Actual data. We’re trying to figure out if that data transfers to other books and other writers. We’re trying to make sense of the snippets we get from other lists.
For example, I had heard from sf writers that Book Bub ads work. Our resident romance writer had heard that Book Bub ads were dead before they left Beta. Others at the session hadn’t heard about Book Bub ads at all.
What we didn’t know, from our third-party sources, was how everyone who opined about those ads had come to their conclusions. Were the sf writers’ sales so low that a small goose in sales (less than 1,000, say) was considered successful? Were the romance writers’ sales so high that a small goose in sales (that same 1,000 units) was insignificant?
We didn’t have their data, and we didn’t know. So, of course, someone will experiment and report back.
But the one thing we didn’t discuss, something I hadn’t even thought of until Saturday morning, was how to manage all the data we were receiving. We joked about it a bit, about a writer we had been watching—a high-end marketer who reported that his well-known marketing practices were finally failing him, until he realized (hello!) that he needed to produce more product. Everyone he had reached had bought his five or six books. He needed to write another one.
That got a great laugh from the group, because the one thing we do, we all do is write the next book. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to write as much as we can, with this fire hose of information streaming our way.
And it’s not just the new programs, the new way to market, the new opportunities opening up each and every moment of each and every day. It’s also the changes in the data we receive.
Dean and I both have access to our sales data, and we use it in different ways. He monitors to prove a point, sometimes. (For example, if someone [usually me] says my sales go up when I do x, he digs through the numbers to see if the statement is accurate. (If it’s me, the statement is accurate).) I monitor only when we’re running a promotion that I’m uncertain of.
But depending on the online store and the programs we use, we could delve down to the tiniest detail. What book sold on what day in response to what ad? In what country did the book sell best?
We pay for the extras in our newsletter program, and we can figure out who opens when, if that person read the entire newsletter, if they deleted it unread, if they ignored all of the links except one. Different ad buys bring different information.
My Facebook pages allow me to figure out who is engaging when. I can do the same with Twitter or other social media I use. I recently switched mail servers and the new one brings a whole new level of scrutiny to each email I send, if I want it.
Because I’m mostly drowning in data. I only need it at certain times, and—here’s the cool thing—for the most part, the data remains, either on the servers or in downloadable form (if I’m quick enough). I can retroactively figure something out if I want to.
However, we are rapidly getting to the place, as writers, where we need to figure out how much of this data is relevant or useful. Just because I can find out that more people in Hong Kong open my newsletter at 10 in the morning on weekdays than on weekends doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to know that information. I might, if I’m looking for the best time to send a newsletter. But the service I use for my newsletter will aggregate that data for me, and tell me the optimum time to send a newsletter to that subset on my mailing list.
I don’t have to obsess about it at all.
But writers do. They obsess about how many people they have on their newsletter, whether those names are “good” names, what kind of marketing they should do for those people, what kind of writing they should do because of the newsletter, whether the last marketing campaign brought in “good” names that converted to real dollars, whether five impressions with click-throughs and buys are better than fifty impressions with click-throughs and no buys yet.
If we end up obsessing too much, we end up like that poor super marketer guy. Years have gone by with marketing and learning data and delving into the arcane ephemeral knowledge that allows for the most up-to-date marketing techniques, and suddenly, the writer no longer has any new product to sell.
That’s forgetting the first rule of marketing: Find out what the target audience wants.
If you’re marketing to a new audience who has never heard of you, then you will need to do more research.
But once that audience knows who you are, once that audience likes your work (even a little bit), what that audience wants is pretty simple. They want to know the answer to this question: What else do you got?
And sometimes the question isn’t that broad. In my case, with all of my multiple genres and pen names and fiction and nonfiction and various series, often the question is What else do you got in this series?
What else do you got that’s just like this short story? (Sorry, I often answer, that’s a one-off. Then I get, Well, what’s similar enough that I’ll enjoy it? You got me, bub. Please define what you mean by similar.)
When else do you got in this genre? Or about this side character? Or set in this small town?
I’m fortunate. I’ve been writing for more than thirty years, and I own most of my backlist. Most of it’s in print somewhere. I can keep people happy with the material I’ve already written—except the true fans, who have read everything, and seem to remember everything. (Which I most certainly do not.)
They want more, though, and I’m trying to provide that. I’m trying to do it in ways that keep me interested.
Which means that I personally can’t delve too deeply into the data about which series sells better than another series. Because I need to write what interests me, not what someone else wants me to write.
And even if I did delve into that data, what would I learn exactly? I haven’t published anything new in my Fey series for years now, but the series sells steadily. Do I look at those steady sales, which are lower than the sales of my Retrieval Artist series, and see that number as good in comparison or bad in comparison? Because I can’t tell you how a new Fey book will do in comparison to a new Retrieval Artist book.
The Retrieval Artist series is active, growing and changing; the Fey series isn’t. How does that impact the data?
I don’t honestly know. And no one can really know that until I release a new Fey product. Then what happens? Do we factor in pent-up demand? Is there any pent-up demand? How can I measure that?
Then there’s the whole aspect of the changing ecosystem. My latest story for the Uncollected Anthology, “Helmie,” is a cat story, which usually sell very well for me. We made a bunch of changes at Uncollected at the start of 2017.
We dropped the price of each individual short story (from $2.99 to 99 cents), and then we used BundleRabbit to collect the Uncollected when it was released.
Usually, when you lower prices, sales go up. But my cat story sales went down dramatically. Was that because of the BundleRabbit promotion or did I lower the price too low? Or is there something wrong with the packaging and materials with “Helmie”? Was it the subgenre? (It’s paranormal romance, not urban fantasy.) [link]
I have not gone deep into the data. I don’t know if the story has sold as many copies as the previous cat stories when all of the sales outlets are tallied, not just the ones I used in the past.
Because we changed three things this time (price, subgenre, and bundling), I can’t tell where the impact on the sales was, if there was an actual impact, or if I was misreading only a small subset of data.
Because it’s a short story, and because, honestly, I’m really happy with the story and not going to make any changes in my behavior or in the story itself, I see no point in pursuing the data.
At Uncollected, we’ll be examining the changes we made in 2017 at our last meeting of the year, after we have lots of data. And then we’ll decide how we’ll proceed in 2018.
But we all could obsess about the new changes right now by diving too deep into the ocean of data that we already have.
And the problem is, the deeper you dive into data, the less time you have for writing.
I’m making this sound like I have a solution, or even an opinion. I really don’t. I’m just noting how different this world is from the one I “grew up in” as a writer.
There still are writers who get together and talk about which editor is buying what, and how to break in with that agent, and what that squiggly line on the royalty statement really means. But I keep thinking those writers are sitting under gaslights, ignoring the fact that all the rooms around them have electricity.
But electricity (to stretch this metaphor) is still new to us. We have tools and information; we’re just not sure how to use it properly yet.
I think, judging by our Friday meeting, we’re groping our way toward a way of using it. We don’t have to explain ourselves any more when we use the new jargon of the new world of publishing. We now know what all of the terms mean, and more importantly, we have a basis for comparison.
If a writer tries a new ad buy and reports his numbers in all the areas of the data provided by the online ad service, I can figure out what I want to do with the book I’m thinking of buying an ad for. I can assess the numbers he’s giving me, based on what I’m planning. What was good for him might not be good for me.
Or it might work better for me, even though it failed for him.
Data does help us understand what we’re doing—as long as we keep producing product. As long as we remember that we’re writers first, and we need to remain writers first.
Sometimes, that’s a hard thing to remember. Because all this other stuff is shiny and new and very pretty. And it makes us feel like we furthering our careers—which we might be. Up until the moment we stop writing new words.
That’s when the shiny new becomes simply a distraction, and not a tool at all.
That place is different for each and every one of us.
And, I’m afraid, that’s about all the wisdom I have at the moment. Yep, we’re still learning. Yep, it’s still fun. Yep, it’s distracting.
And boy, oh, boy, is it so much better than reading tea leaves about fifteen editors managing dying book lines.
I do like the new world, so much more than the old one. It’s not even on the same plain.
And now…off to write more new words. Because—y’know—that’s what it’s all about.
Okay. I know. This blog is new words as well. And I love doing it. Writing the blog organizes my thoughts. Plus, you folks give me great ideas and ask me great questions.
I’ve had a bloody hard six months, which only got worse in the last three weeks. (Personal stuff, with family and friends and loss and grief and all kinds of things.) So it’s been hard to focus on tough problems in the blog. I’m getting back to that, though, because that’s how my brain works. And I’m finding I’m relieved when I do so.
I have made a lot of changes here too. The biggest is Patreon. I have a page where you can support the blog if you would like. You’ll get the blogs as I finish them, which is often weeks before they go live. (And sometimes, only hours before.)
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“Business Musings: Data Diving,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2017 by Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn