Thoughts on Critical Mass

Bouncing Atoms by Mr Jaded from FlickrI’ve noticed recently that I mention the phrase “Critical Mass” a lot when I discuss marketing. Actually, I mention it a lot and thousands of other people mention it a lot as well. The other day I was giving this phrase some thought and decided that a few words on its origin and what it means to me are in order.

So, critical mass is the amount of fissile material needed to create a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.


But what does that mean exactly? Well, oddly, nuclear chain reactions are pretty easy to understand. Not the nuts and bolts mind you, but the general concept.

You have a heavy atom. You shoot a neutron into it. When the neutron hits the heavy atom in a certain way, the heavy atom blows apart into 1) a lighter atom 2) another lighter atom 3) a neutron 4) another neutron 5) yet another neutron.

Again, we’re going with a bare bones explanation here. The type of atom needed is pretty important to the whole process. Also this is a fission chain reaction. A fusion chain reaction is possible as well. And it’s probably worth mentioning, seeing how it is the entire point, that this fragmenting of atoms creates energy…somehow.

But ignore that. You wind up with those five things listed above. Two new, lighter atoms, and three neutrons. The first two aren’t important. The last three are very important.

Note, you started with one neutron flying along which struck an atom. Now, after that happens, you have three neutrons. Why, what would happen if each one of those neutrons struck yet another heavy atom? By god you’d then have the same reaction three times over and would produce nine more neutrons, all of which could then strike their own heavy atoms and on and on and on and you have a runaway reaction capable of producing just crazy amounts of energy.

So where does “Critical Mass” come in?

Well, the critical mass is so critical because if you don’t have enough mass, your chain reaction fizzles out. Imagine this extreme example: you only have one heavy atom. You fire your neutron, your heavy atom splits, produces three more neutrons…and then they have nothing else to collide with because you only had the one original heavy atom. Thus, no chain reaction.

If you don’t have enough mass, enough of your fissile material, it’s possible for your initial event to only split a few more atoms and then the neutrons produced will miss striking other atoms and you’ll get no surge of energy.

Thus, critical mass.

Now, when it comes to marketing, this term is used to describe the audience an author tries to gather in order to achieve a real breakthrough.

The analogy is both good and bad, and pondering how well it works led me to some thoughts on the subject.

For starters, the analogy implies that you need a certain number of readers, a certain amount of mass, before your marketing can be a self-sustaining entity. This part makes perfect sense to me. If you give five copies of your book to readers, and they all love it, well odds are that still isn’t going to produce a giant runaway marketing surge. Those five people might decide to tell other people about your book, thus firing their own neutrons into new heavy atoms, but two of them might not have many friends who like that genre, and one doesn’t usually give out book suggestions so it kind of gets lost in the noise, and the last maybe gets two new people to read it. But then those two fizzle out.

On the other hand, if you get ten thousand people together to read your book at once and then let them loose to tell other people? Well…it’s quite possible to visualize just how different that event would be compared to the previous example of five people.

In other words, the number of readers your marketing efforts produce in one place and at one time is very important.

But this is already straying into the area where the analogy breaks down.

See, one heavy atom is another heavy atom is another heavy atom. They will all be structurally exactly the same. They will all undergo the exact same reaction if their nucleus is struck by a neutron. It will either produce the reaction described above, or nothing will happen.

This is very neat and pat.

People, however, are butt-ass crazy ape beasts that have no rhyme nor reason to them.

I dream of a world in which you can hand five people your book and get the exact same reactions out of all five of them. Even an “on or off” proposition sounds fantastic: nothing happens or the same exact thing happens. Great! Wonderful!

Alas, this isn’t even close to the case. You give five people your book and one might hate it, one might love it and want to tell everyone about it, one might love it and want to keep it a precious secret, one might be overloaded with that particular genre and turn their nose up at it despite absolutely devouring and loving three books right before it of lesser quality but similar flavor, and one might…I don’t know…decide that the cover is dumb and throw it out.

The point is, the reactions your work will instill in people will be all over the place. This is not an either/or prospect like neutrons hitting an atom, it is a spectrum of prospects.  And even if you only look at the positive end of the spectrum, the reactions will still be all over the place. Some people love to talk about books. Some people love to put their favorite books on their bookshelf and never talk about them. Some people can’t remember book titles. It’s beyond nuts.

And then you have to take into account what, if any, influence these people have. Maybe all five of them love your book and want to tell the world, but all five of them are soft-spoken and not really viewed in their social circles as places to go to obtain ideas for books to read.

Well then you’ve successfully turned on five readers, which, don’t get me wrong, is the point of writing, but as far as marketing goes you’ve produced nothing.

It’s confusing.

And annoying.

People should act more like heavy atoms.

But they don’t.

And then you have to start thinking about location and timing. How much does it matter that your readers be near each other be it physically or socially? Does it matter if they read your book at the same time?

Yes. I imagine these things do matter…

…but that’s maybe for another blog post.

Advertising on Reddit

New York Times Square at Night by Werner Kunz from FlickrReddit calls itself “The Front Page of the Internet.” After months of screwing around with it I can safely say that this is an accurate statement.

Months. Literally. I’m old. It took me awhile.

When I first hopped onto the page I had no idea what it was or why I would want to go there. It was just a bunch of stuff being thrown at me.

Again. I’m old.

But since I was checking it out for possible marketing purposes I stuck around and eventually created an account and began to filter what, exactly, the stuff was that it was throwing at me. Now I love it.

Here’s a quick walk-through. Then we’ll get to the advertising.

Basically it looks like this:

Front Page of Reddit

It’s just a list of headlines that you can click through to see more. Hence, the front page of the internet. If you look under the headline you can see who submitted it, when, and to which subreddit (i.e. category).

This link, of some iphone drawings, was submitted by icheban to the subreddit: “pics.”

Submitted to pics

It’s a popular link as its positive votes outweigh its negative votes by 2591.


When you create your account on reddit, you can choose which subreddit’s (category’s) links will appear on your personalized front page. My front page gets headlines from the Bacon subreddit, the Funny subreddit, and a bunch of other stuff that entertains me while I finish my morning coffee.

To the right is the button you can use to submit your own links.

Submit a link

You can write a headline and link to a picture or article or whatever and submit it to the proper subreddit and then hope for lots of upvotes, making your link appear to more and more people. The whole thing is generated by users.

At the very top of the page is a “sponsered link.”

Sponsered link

This link is for a new show on Cinemax. Clicking that link will, I have to imagine, take you to the show’s main website.

These sponsored links are how advertising works on reddit.

You probably already guessed that.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the screen, and click the tiny little “Advertise” button under the “About” column, you can begin your advertising experience.

advertise button

First, very simply, they ask you to write your headline and pick what page you are linking to. Obviously you are directing traffic to…well to wherever you want people’s eyeballs to go. For me I chose Probability Angel’s page.

The link is simple enough. The headline requires more thought. This is what appears in larger font in dark blue. This is your advertising copy. This is what will compel people to click through or not.

This post isn’t about writing great advertising copy. Frankly I’m still experimenting plenty with that. Just keep in mind that this is the first contact you’ll be making with people and you need to hook them and give them some idea of where your link will be taking them.

That is the shortest description of advertising you will ever read.

Right. So then you click “Save” at the bottom and things get a little weird as we move on to this screen.

Campaign Dashboard

Some of this is easy. You can see, in the middle, my headline (called a “title” here) which is “I love cheese.” Then comes the url that people will be sent to when they click on my link, “” Then comes the “look and feel” section, which lets you upload a 70 x 70 picture to appear to the left of your headline. Why they don’t label that section “upload a picture” is beyond me.

Then comes an option to allow or disable comments on your ad.

We’ll come back to the comments in a second, but that lower chunk feels self-explanatory to me.

The upper part with the bidding is a little tricky, at least compared to other Internet advertising. Over at the reddit site they have a comic by The Oatmeal that explains everything. Only, after reading the comic I didn’t understand anything. I had chuckled a lot, and I knew that the example-person in the comic was selling pork chop milkshakes, but nothing else sunk in.

It seems simple.

You pick the number of days that your campaign will run and you pick the total amount of money you are going to pay. Then you pick if you want your ad to appear before all of reddit, or just one subreddit.

Thus far we have some simple math and a single choice between advertising to the entire page or advertising to one sub-category.

So where does it get tricky?

With most other advertising I’ve tried, you have a total bid per day and your campaign can never exceed that. Same here, your budget will never exceed your bid per day, which is the total bid you are entering in divided by the number of days your campaign will run (there’s that simple math).

However, with most other advertising you bid per click and then, every time your ad can appear, the advertising program runs an auction between you and other interested advertisers to see if your ad will be displayed. You win some of these auctions and you lose some but they happen thousands of times a second so you have plenty of chances to let your bid rise to the top. So if you bid $0.15 for a click, and your daily budget is $10, and you manage to spend that entire $10, then you will received $10 / $0.15 = 66.6r clicks. You may be outbid a lot and your ad will not appear as often and you will not spend all of your money and as a result you will get less clicks. Or you may be able to pay less per click, if your ad performs well or other higher bidders run through their budget before the day is out, and receive more clicks for your money.

That’s how I thought this advertising would work, and there’s all that data on the right of the above screen-shot showing CPM (cost per thousand views) and CPC (cost per click) and the count…I didn’t know what the count meant when I started. So I thought that these familiar numbers were implying a familiar advertising system and I plowed right ahead.

The thing is, reddit doesn’t perform an auction for every click. Instead they take your total bid per day, compare it to all other bids for that day, and then grant you a percentage of traffic based on what percentage of the total your bid is. Is your bid for the day 17% of the total amount of money they were bid? Then you receive 17% of the traffic for that day.  How many clicks you get is not a part of that equation. You’re only guaranteed a percentage of views, a slice of the traffic, not of the clicks.

That data on the right of the above screen-shot is the recent, site-wide, history of advertising over the past week. And then there’s the count, which is how many other ads were running that day.

promo history

You have to combine all of these numbers together to figure out what you’re willing to pay per click, how many other ads you think might run, and what you want to bid for the day.

Plus, keep in mind, that the data they give is always for the entire site. If you’re submitting your ad just to one subreddit (category) there might only be two other ads running there so your bid can be much less to garner much more of the total pie.

Basically, when I first decided to give this a try I posted an ad to the fiction subreddit, paid my $20, and received like three clicks. The fiction subreddit is not highly targeted or trafficked, so my twenty dollars was a huge bid for a slice of a tiny pie. How tiny? I have no idea. There is no data on individual subreddits at this point.

Three clicks was not a great return.

Lesson learned. After that I took a closer look at the whole process, started using the history, worked out estimates for how many clicks I was hoping to buy, and tweaked from there.

One major tweak is that I now no longer target individual subreddits since I have zero idea what sort of traffic or competition I’m dealing with there.

Okay, so, results?

Results have been good.

Ads have most certainly led to clicks, and clicks have most certainly led to sales.

A lot of the success of your ads will depend on the headline and the photo you use, as well as your landing page. Again, I’m using my Probability Angels page, and that page has been worked on quite a bit to catch the eyes of new readers who click through from somewhere on a whim.

Whether it’s “worth it,” as a lot of people ask me, I can’t tell at this point.

All of my marketing is focused on the idea that one can hit a critical mass with readers, ideally readers who purchase via Amazon, and that once this happens your readership can produce its own growth. I’ll write a post soon discussing this notion more.

But for now?


The traffic generated has been well worth the costs of advertising compared to other methods, and this traffic is resulting in people purchasing my books. The cost per sale is still high, however, and my proceeds from sales do not cover those costs. But I don’t think advertising is supposed to actually pay for itself at first. It’s supposed to seed readers. And the readers I’m gaining may or may not produce more readers. And the sales I’m getting on Amazon may or may not garner their algorithm’s attention. All of that remains to be seen and I am still futzing and tweaking my reddit ads.

But I do think it has been worth it.

I’ve said this a lot, but advertising is extremely cheap compared to the days before Ye Olde Internette. I highly recommend setting aside a few bucks to try it out. You will learn a lot about how to market yourself in general just by writing your ad copy and figuring out your landing page. You will learn a lot about how to best target an audience for your work. And you will learn a little bit about something called love.

Okay maybe not that last part, but you’ll learn plenty and you’ll get at least a few new eyeballs on you and that’s not a bad thing. Especially for a few bucks. Look at it as a cheap class on marketing.

I want to close out here by discussing reddit’s ability to allow comments on your ads.

This is a very weird concept.

But, take a look at the ad on my front page again:

Sponsered link

See? This ad has 7 comments on it.

Comments are an integral part of the internet that no sane person should ever look at ever.

Well, some comment sections are interesting, but some are horrible places where trolls dwell and ass-hats spew hate.

That being said, I think allowing comments on your ad is the right choice. It shows that you’re not aloof from the community, and I think people are more likely to treat your ad as a real part of Reddit if it has some comments on it.

Just don’t think you can respond to the comments on your ad.

Seriously. Don’t do it.

My ads have received a few comments, and most of them are people making puns about my book’s title (Probability Angles anyone?) or people ripping into my books as well as some people ripping on me simply for choosing to advertise. One commenter said that he would probably buy my book, but warned people not to click through to my website because the positive quotes I’ve included there turned him off.

I don’t even know what to make of that. For that person, effective advertising would be, what, to put up a bunch of bad quotes about my book on my own page? I mean, I often tell people to read the favorited reviews on Amazon to get an impartial opinion, but why would I put those on my page? It’s my page. That’s the one place that’s supposed to…ohfuckit just don’t read the comments.

And let me know if you learn anything about love.

Thoughts on a Sales Spike

Apples by msr from FlickrOn October 7th a new ad went live for one week for Probability Angels. I would link to the blog where the ad went live, but I can’t find it. It seems to have been taken down. I’ve emailed the owner and am trying to figure that out.

At any rate, on Sunday the 7th the ad went live and when I checked sales on that Monday there was an impressive spike in my numbers. I should add here that this ad was solely for the Kindle version and the resulting sales have only shown up for that version so far.

So that’s my first bit of information. An ad directly caused a sales spike. I have yet to have this happen in any meaningful way, especially for an ad that was comparatively inexpensive. This is a pretty large bit of information considering the number of different ads I’ve attempted with flat sales as a result. It’s proof of concept for what, up till now, has only been a theoretical idea. An ad saying (basically) “Here is Probability Angels, here are some review quotes, click here to buy it,” resulted in just that.

The ad was a banner ad and I was charged for a week. I was not charged per click or for impression, as is done by many ad campaigns. No matter how many views or clicks I got, the ad stayed up and my original fee was all I paid. So that’s too, was, different.

Now it gets…annoying. Since the sales spike my numbers have flattened out again. This is to be expected. The question is, what are they flattening out into?

As I mentioned, the spike was pretty large. I was one of the Kindle’s top 250 authors in Horror that week. A somewhat hyper-specific title, but for someone who has existed in the ether for awhile as far as titles go, a very welcome one.

But was this spike large enough to impact sales after the ad was taken down?

I don’t know yet. Which, as I said, is annoying. But initial numbers make me want to say, yes. I have had almost as many sales since the spike flattened as I did during the spike itself. In other words, sales have flattened off, but not to their pre-spike levels. They’ve flattened off at a higher level. Instead of X number of sales a day, I have Y number of sales a day, and Y is decently larger than X.

This concept is oddly missing from so many blogs and marketing articles I read. It’s there in some, but not to the degree I’d expect.

This concept being: the spike isn’t what’s important; it’s where you return to post-spike.

Odds are, and certainly for the kind of campaign I am running for my work as a whole, I won’t have a constant stream of ads being shown. I have to pick and choose and so far, for paid ads, I have seen zero results.

Now, though, there’s this spike. Great. But if, after the spike, after the ad comes down, my sales return to exactly where they used to be, did I really accomplish anything?

I would argue no. Granted, with only a week or so having passed, I can’t really make that call. It takes people time to read a book and then, possibly, tell a friend or review it or pass it on or do any of the things that would foster a real growth in audience.

But let’s say a month passes and my sales are exactly what they were pre-spike. I’d say that wasn’t a spike, it was a fluke. And that does nothing for me.

And yet I see so many people chasing spikes instead of studying the baseline numbers. Spikes are nice and they’re important to chase but…

Apple fruit by Doug88888 from FlickrI mean, pretend you’re lost in the wilderness and you’re looking for apples. I don’t know why you need apples, not important, you just really have to get some apples. That’s your goal. So, naturally, you start looking for apple trees. I mean they’re easier to see, obviously, and they’re a great sign that apples might be around. And then you spot some apple trees. And you rejoice. And then you do nothing else.

The apple trees are spikes but the apples are really what’s important. You can’t swap out your goals like that, but a lot of people start to mix the two up. You have to then verify that they are indeed apple trees. You have to see if they’re poisoned…or something. And that they’re fruiting or…look I’m not a freaking apple farmer. The point is that the search for apple trees, the search for spikes, is only a temporary goal. You still have to find those apples. And a spike doesn’t mean you’ve widened your audience.


So that’s where my head’s been. Ludicrously high after the numbers came in during the ad campaign, and then every day after has been a sea of anxiety and overthinking things and queasily awaiting the next day’s numbers so I can try to verify if I have apples, or if I only found a dead apple tree.

It’s kind of annoying.

Sometimes I don’t think I really have the personality for this marketing thing…

Now, is anyone else have a weird craving for apples?

The Tale of Joseph Devon and NYCC

comic books, bagged and boarded by arellis49 from FlickrSo the New York Comic Convention is coming. It’s about a month away. And I have purchased tickets.

In the past I have attempted to boost sales through conventions, but I did so by hiring my friend Tracy to man tables or spread the word about my books. I’ve never attended a convention myself. This is because me and crowds are not on friendly terms. And me plus crowds plus travelling plus most likely rooming with someone to save on hotel costs…yeah that’s sort of a big leap.

And the notion of sending someone else in my stead still seems like a viable option, but while that was happening we were mainly experimenting with smaller conventions to get a sense of what might work. We decided that larger conventions, without a real game plan, would probably contain too much noise to get any sort of signal across.

It never occurred to me to look into the large conventions in my area…I had a bit of a blind spot there. I mean, why not buy tickets? I can attend from the safe jumping off point of my own apartment, so that’s a huge plus. I can bail if I start to feel overwhelmed by the crowd, which is an even bigger plus. And, frankly, tickets were way less expensive than I expected.

I only have two reservations about my ticket purchase.

First concerns the general nature of this entire experiment I’m running with my work. Everything I’m doing here: the plodding along with nonprofessional marketing, the DIY of every element, the constant stopping to reassess and examine, all of that is because my goal here is not just to break as an author, it’s to understand how it is that authors break. And the reason for that is because I want to be able to turn around to the author in line behind me and say, “Hey. So here’s what I did. Tiny step by tiny step. Here’s where I saw results. Here’s a decent game plan for you.”

I’m trying to build a mechanism.

So, why would I have reservations about branching out into conventions personally?

Crowd by Andrew Pescod from FlickrBecause this is something I never would have done a few years ago. Hell, I’m not sure I’d have been ready for this one year ago (or this year). There’s a lot of psychology and history and whatever behind that statement, but I can sum it up like this: I didn’t start sitting down and writing three-hundred page books in utter solitude because I love being the center of attention. Quite the opposite.

And I imagine that many struggling authors out there feel the same way. If we loved crowds, we’d have become public speakers. If we could express what we wanted to express in social settings, we probably wouldn’t type so many stories with no one around.

Now, granted, there are plenty of authors out there with Rachael Ray-esque personalities.  But that’s not who I’m trying to build my mechanism for. If you have the personality of Rachael Ray then you don’t need my help. You also probably will never write anything I’d want to read, though, either.

I’m trying to figure out how authors very similar to me can market books, and if attending a convention is something I, myself, would have a hard time doing, then it feels somehow wrong to incorporate it into the list of suggestions for other authors.

That being said, I am going to give it a shot, and I think that’s partly because over the last few years the audience I’ve built up has slowly begun to raise my level of confidence. So maybe it all fits together after all. Early steps are to find scraps of an audience. And a later step is to let that audience lead you to places where you’ll feel welcome. Or maybe I’ll step into the convention hall and immediately break into a cold sweat on the first day and never go back.

Point being, I would very much like any steps I take in marketing to be easily follow-able by authors similar to me. And that puts attending conventions in an odd gray area.

The second reservation I have is that this is a comic convention and my proven conversion rate so far has been with gamers. But I do think there’s enough overlap between those crowds for this to be worthwhile. I would draw a Venn Diagram but I can’t draw.

Plus, it’ll give me some sense of what even goes on at a convention. I have no idea if I’ll manage to hand out a single business card, but at some point this first time has to happen and I think I want to go and see what’s up.

So, I’m tentatively looking to be in attendance at the New York Comic Convention next month.

At least I know my t-shirts will fit in…

The Pins are Out of the Grenades: More Thoughts on Self-Publishing

Burning bombI haven’t been sleeping real well lately and my eyes are all kinds of blurry this morning. That’s partly because of allergies and partly because I’ve been pretty stressed out this past week.

As I mentioned last Wednesday, I’ve started seeing signs of my self-promotion paying off. It’s clumsy but, for the first time ever, I have a marketing machine that makes some sort of sense to me.

Everything I’ve tried over the past few years, outside of releasing a new book, has had a murky effect on my sales. My readership has been growing, there’s no doubt there, and I continue to get new fans, but it’s been…well to call it confusing doesn’t quite fit because that implies that I at least understood some of what’s been going on.

I haven’t. Good reviews on well-read blogs have done nothing, bad reviews on blogs with three readers have boosted sales. Giveaways have done nothing, Tweeting “1…2…3…READ MY BOOK!” got me introduced to the publishing house that brought The Hunger Games to Latin America and Spain.

It hasn’t been merely confusing, it’s been like a Dali painting on acid. I might as well have woken up every morning, drank a bottle of NyQuil, and sat down for my marketing time for all the logic that has been involved.

Now though? Now there’s actual sense here. I apply force X to lever Y and Z goes up. I adjust my marketing budget (X) in the two ad campaigns I’m running right now on Facebook and Goodreads (Y) and sales (Z) rise.

LeverIt’s clumsy and I have to believe that I can get a larger rise in sales per dollar put in by tweaking ads, page layout, which quotes from reviewers I lead with, etc. Currently the cost in advertising per sale is a dismal number, and when I talk about sales I’m talking low double-digits for April.

But it’s a functional machine. And it’s real. And that’s why I haven’t been sleeping.

Money goes in, sales go up…but that’s not the end goal.

That’s a means to an end.

The end goal is to have Amazon eventually say, “Why hello there, Probability Angels, you’ve been selling well recently. How about I introduce you to more of my customers?”

That’s been my goal since day one, though I’ve lost track of it plenty of times. That’s been my bedrock concept. And now here I am, putting real money in and creating real sales on Amazon and having hourly panic attacks that my core goal, the attention of the Amazon algorithm, is a myth. Or that the money I’d have to spend to garner that attention is so high that all I’m doing is throwing my money away to see a brief rise in sales and then, once the money, Force X, is gone, things will slow back down to a crawl and Amazon will not have taken notice. It’s stressful.

I do have two concrete facts that I’ve come away with this week, though.

One is that, with the rise in sales of Probability Angels there has been a rise in sales of the sequel, Persistent Illusions. And I’m not advertising Persistent Illusions. At all. There’s mention of it at the end of the current edition of Probability Angels and it is the first book that Amazon recommends if you liked Probability Angels, but no direct marketing by me. So to see the numbers of the sequel also go up is comforting. I’m buying fans not sales.

The second concrete fact is minor and specific entirely to the Goodreads ad campaign, but I found it fascinating.

Goodreads recommends that you create two ads for every ad you make. One to target a set of authors, and one to target a set of genres.

Here are my two ads based on a quote from Nyx. Note the difference in click-through rate:

PA Goodreads Ad with Reviews

Probability Angels Ad No Reviews

For those of you not familiar with CTR, that’s your click-through rate, the percentage of times the ad has been clicked out of the total number of times it has been displayed. CTR’s generally range from 0.05% to 0.50%, so o.11% is a big number in this world, the highest in my ad campaign, in fact.

And yet, the second ad, the one targeting specific authors, has a 0.0% click-through rate. I could see some discrepancy between the two because one targets genres and the other authors, but for an ad worded exactly the same to range from the highest CTR in my campaign to the lowest? No. That was a red flag.

And yet I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on…until today. Can you see it? You probably caught it already.

When I created the author ad, the one with no clicks, I forgot to toggle the box on the ad creation form that puts a link to your reviews at the bottom of the ad.

Three words: “View 85 reviews.” A change from 0.0% to 0.11%.

No wonder I haven’t been sleeping well. I forgot to check off one box and a swing in numbers that large occurred.

Yoga meditation on the beach

I miss the days of pure theory. Those were comforting. It’s so nice to say, “Well this happens because of that and I know it’s true because in my head it sounds right.”

I still do plenty of that and, granted, that mindset came about because nothing I did seemed to matter anyway. But now there’s this jarring sense of cause and effect. And, along with that, a very real sense that I’ve moved out of dress rehearsal, that I’m no longer practicing, that I’ve switched from learning to juggle with duds to juggling with live grenades…and all the pins are out.

Theory no longer; sleep is scarce.

More next week.

A Few Words About Advertising Your Books

Times SquareLast week I chatted a bit about marketing my books, what has worked, and how revisiting my core strategy required some shifts in my current methods (that sounded  like jargon-speak).

At one point I mentioned that advertising was a pretty lousy way to sell books. That may have been a bit of an overstatement. The phrase “advertising” is broad and I don’t think one blanket judgment sums up my thoughts on the subject very well.

When I said that advertising is a lousy way to sell books, I was referring to the ads that most people think about whenever this project comes up in conversation. Big ads. Showy ads. Expensive, one-time ads. For instance, a lot of people have suggested that I price out a billboard in Times Square. I doubt highly that I could afford something like that, but, living in New York, most people throw that idea out. I mean, why not at least get a price quote?

Well, because I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t do anything. For one, the signal to noise ratio down there is absurd. But, more importantly, the advertisements in Times Square are parts of much larger marketing campaigns. Those billboards are not sole attempts to have those products interact with the masses in midtown. Those billboards are usually marquis ads for large brands that also have lord knows how many other ads, signs, catalogues, etc. where they can catch a hold of someone’s eyeballs, if only for a moment. And if you can catch someone’s attention with your product a few times in a few different ways, well then you’ve got something

AD building by By Straws pulled at random from FlickrThe other types of ads in Times Squares are ads for musicals. These ads are much easier for me to relate to. Why? Well, why are there musicals advertising in Times Square? Because that’s where the theaters are in New York. It’s Broadway. You’ve got the ads, then you’ve got the theaters themselves with copy all over them, you’ve got tickets for sale right there in any number of formats, it’s just a great place for musicals to advertise. That sort of overlap is, as I said, easier for me to relate to than the mega-campaigns of GAP or Apple. And, more importantly, that sort of overlap is achievable by me on the web.

There are four basic methods I have tried for advertising my books online. Here are my thoughts and conclusions on each.

1. Designing an ad and buying ad space on a specific website, such as a popular book blog.

This has not worked and I don’t recommend it…for me. I think this method would work wonderfully for a book whose genre is easily accessible. If you write Urban Fantasy as that genre is perceived by the current market,  sexy vampire/werewolf/ghost/human who is out hunting/being hunted by a sexy ghost/werewolf/vampire/human, then I think buying an ad on an Urban Fantasy blog could be great. The audience is primed for you, they came there looking for exactly what you’re offering, and, though it can be costly time-wise or money-wise to put a good design together, you’d just have to hit the proper notes to get clicks.

Me? My books? I have no idea what genre they are. They’ve been eviscerated by urban fantasy fans and adored by urban fantasy fans. I ask people what genre I write in and I get a complete hodgepodge of responses. Fantasy? Thriller? Literary? I mean there’s a scene in my book where an undead ronin saves a two-thousand year old Roman slave from being incinerated by his combined efforts with Isaac Newton to come up with a unified theory of gravity.

What the fuck genre is that?

So, no. This method has not been good to me.

2. Google Ads

Google ads were where I first started experimenting with advertising and I highly recommend you do so if you’re an indie author. It’s cheap, as low as a dollar a day, and you should treat the experience as a crash course in marketing. Don’t just set it and forget it, really dig deep into the data. That’s where this method had its merits. I started thinking about genres (yes, I know I just said I was genre-less but I still have to try to target something), what other authors my readers enjoy, and I definitely learned a lot about simple hooks and call to actions to put into an ad in order to get a higher response. “Click now!” sounds like a stupidly annoying thing to put into your ad, but, seriously, it works.

So Google is a great place to hone, or discover, a wide number of tools that are needed for advertising and bigger picture marketing.

The problem? It’s just too damn big. And the space you’re given to write an ad is laughable. Honestly. It’s like writing haiku.

Facebook by Scott Beale / Laughing SquidIf I was selling vacuums, okay.  “Vacuums on sale. Low prices. Click now.” I mean, it’s easy to get to the point with some products. With books though? It’s hard enough to get across that you’re selling your specific book, not just books in general. You have to cram in your personality and flavor and a sense of your genre. And that’s not so bad, but unfortunately Google awards you when the words in your ad match up with the words you choose to trigger your ad during searches.

So I had to try to get all of the above stuff in while fitting in words like “books,” “urban fantasy,” “thriller,” “zombies.” It’s rough.

And it’s made rougher by the fact that Google doesn’t understand English. If I write, “Probability Angels by Joseph Devon,” well that’s quite obviously a book. The tiny word “by” in there conveys that concept. But for Google this phrase has nothing to do with books because the word book doesn’t appear.

Short answer? It’s cheap and a great place to get your feet wet. But I found composing ads that got clicks, showed up for the searches I wanted to, and weren’t slowly tuned out by Google more difficult than writing a freaking book.

3. Facebook Ads

Now we’re on to something. Equally cheap, which is nice. You can start with a few dollars a day and experiment with their interface and what they like to see in ads. More importantly, they have great targeting. I know that my writing gets compared to Neil Gaiman, for example.

How do I know this? I’ve asked people, and researched what key words have brought people to my site, and taken note of what books amazon pairs me up with. And on Facebook I can write an ad, have my book cover up there, and then target it only to people who have “Liked” Neil Gaiman. This is wonderful stuff.

Furthermore, I can create a larger campaign. Instead of one ad, I have a series of ads. They all  run under the same budget, so I’m not adding dollars here. They all have the same basic info, but they all are offer new angles into my books. Most of them are memorable quotes from my characters. Catching, jarring quotes. Someones sees one, okay, they do a double take and they move on. But that person will see various quotes over time and, again, engaging a target in different ways helps your product sink in. This isn’t quite as varied as the mega-campaigns I mentioned earlier, but it is variation within my ads. The reader is exposed to different characters and their tones while the basic ad image remains the same. It feels much more like a marketing campaign instead of just ads.

And, most importantly, it’s working. Sales are up. Can’t argue with that.

Recent Reads by giveawayboy on Flickr4. Goodreads Ads

I have high hopes for this. Remember the musicals advertising in Times Square from earlier? Well this is the same concept. Goodreads is one of the largest social book networks out there. Eventually I’ll poke around Shelfari and Librarything too but for now I’m learning the ropes at Goodreads.

One thing I like here is that my ads click through to my book’s Goodreads page. My visitor has no sense of leaving one site and landing at my site, which can be jarring. They’re in familiar territory the whole way and they know perfectly well how to ad my book to their “To-Read” pile. You can also choose to have a tally of your reviews included in your ad. That’s great data to throw in there and, again, it’s data that Goodreads users understand.

Plus, you can create multiple ads under one budget so you can come at people from a few different angles just as with my Facebook ads, which I love.

The downside? Currently there’s a massive site-wide bug in their advertising code that is causing zero ads to show. So I have no idea if this idea will pan out. But I think it will. It seems like a good system.

So those are my thoughts and experiences from the trenches. I’ve got a lot of online ad campaigns under my belt and I really hope that my blunders can help others find a quicker and easier path to their audience.

Now…who wants to fund my billboard in Times Square?

Marketing as an Indie Publisher, the Amazon Algorithm, and Why My Books Are No Longer Free

I was talking to a friend of mine once about what I’m trying to accomplish in the world of independent publishing and he commented with a quickly astute, “Huh. Sounds like a lot of chicken and egg stuff.”

Every time I try to gather my thoughts and plan my next move for my books, I come back to that comment and it has continued to ring true.

I put out a new story? Great, so I want to get readers for it. So I tweet and post on Facebook and write about it on here…but that only reaches the readers I already have. Some of them are die-hards and they go on to tweet and write about it (if they like it), but then it fizzles out pretty quickly.

Which is to say that when I want to grow my fan base, I turn to people who already read my work and tell them about it. It makes sense sort of…in the proper light. But when you think about it, it’s…well it’s chicken and egg work.

The annual art contest is another great example. I love the art contest and have loved every entry I’ve received over the past three years, but all I know to do to promote it is to tell my readers about it and encourage them to pass it forward. And that’s effective to some degree, but it doesn’t exactly “go viral” ever.

My initial thoughts, years ago, on how this would work would be that one person would read a short story, enjoy it, then tell two other people about it and my words would spread ever outward. But social connections and influences don’t work like that. It isn’t a clean pyramid of 1 influences 2, then 2 influence 4, then 4 influence 16 and so on.

Generic two-step flow network diagram by esagor Flickr

No. No, social networks tend to look something more like this:

Community and Group formation in a Social Network by BigSee from Flickr

You’re the dot on the left.

Which is to say that some random reader could influence dozens of people simply because they have an upbeat attitude while a huge fan who is more of a thinker might not even share my work with someone else, preferring instead to digest it slowly in their own way.

I think about this quite a bit and the notion of “going viral” is a rather intricate phenomenon.

That being said, I do think the best way of getting there is to not over-analyze it and to find new readers wherever you can, make them aware of your work, and represent yourself professionally but with your own attitude thrown in. Shake every tree but focus on those most likely to bear fruit, like groups you seem to have a high reader-to-fan conversion rate in. Then? Lather, rinse, repeat.

I have definitely been growing my fan base using these methods over the years, but it hasn’t exploded. Which brings me to the very weird question of, “How do I find new readers?”

I mean, again, when I put out a new work I mainly tell my current readers, but that doesn’t get new readers, does it?

Sadly I have no answers. I just know what hasn’t worked, and I know what I’ve had to tweak.

Advertising, for example, has proven to be a pretty lousy way to spread the word. I’m now of the opinion that advertising needs to be just one part of a larger marketing strategy, not a stand alone investment thrown into the world with no real connections to anything else.

There’s a notion in marketing, a sort of “Rule of Three,” when it comes to ads. Think about the first time you see an ad for a new product that pertains to you. You look it over, nod, and then immediately forget about it. Once isn’t enough. But if you see an ad, then read an article, and then it comes up in conversation with friends? Well then that product sticks. It takes about three different entry points into the cranium before an idea will lodge there firmly.

So advertising alone never made much sense or impact. Campaigns would see a rise in hits on the site and then nothing more would happen.

Recently though, I’ve started thinking about this project as a whole again, something I haven’t done in awhile. And some core ideas had to be revisited.

One of the larger tools I always knew I had at my disposal was the Amazon algorithm. Simply put, when Amazon gets a feel for your shopping style it starts to recommend books based on similar shoppers’ previous purchases. If a book, any book, starts getting linked up in Amazon’s big ol’ brain to a popular book, then that other book starts getting pushed on consumers in the world’s largest book store.

That’s a powerful tool, but it’s one that fell by the wayside in my plan over time.


Because when I first started this site the Kindle didn’t exist. The iPhone didn’t exist. Hell, I didn’t even have a laptop. The thinking was to put all my work up online for free. I figured that if someone was going to read an entire book off of a computer, well then that was a FAN, all caps, and I’d gladly give up the royalty for that reader just to have them on my side. Most other readers who became hooked would get sick of reading on a screen and then go purchase a book. And most of them would purchase from Amazon.

Over the years, though, so much has changed. I now happily read books on my phone. People can download PDF’s into any number of devices designed for easy reading. People have more choices than, “Read my entire book off of their computer monitor or buy a paperback.”

So in order to bring my overall plan back into focus, a slowly built audience with a large percentage of them purchasing me on Amazon, I’ve done something I never expected myself to do. I’ve stopped offering my books on my site for free.

This is annoying because I firmly believe that, in five or ten years, books for free on authors’ websites will be the norm. I think new tools for monetizing readers will continue to come along and income for authors will be made based on web visitors. Or at least a larger portion of it than occurs today.

Hell, I think that would work for any already broken-in author with a core fan base.

But for an author trying to find that fan base, when the Amazon algorithm is a major tool being used, well…I need those damned sales. Not for the royalties, but for the PR.

Again, this is a complete turn around from my plan of five years ago, but, again, so much has changed that my plan needed to be revisited.

Plus I can take comfort knowing that my books cost NINETY-NINE FREAKING CENTS for their e-versions and that this isn’t a suicidal price point, but one at which I earn a healthy royalty.

The world has changed.

Somehow I forgot that such things happen.

Time to change with it.

Virtual Book Tour in March

nurture book tourI recently booked a virtual tour with Nurture Your Books.

For those who don’t know, virtual tours are when you and your book are scheduled to appear on a variety of blogs across the internet during a set period of time. This is sort of like what I try to do myself via cold emailing, but by hiring a professional I get access to a much wider network. And I don’t have to cold email anyone.

The great people over at Nurture have set up a ton of reviews and interviews (I think I’ve answered roughly fifteen billion interview questions) and I think a guest post or two.

I did a much smaller book tour back in the fall and was underwhelmed by the results, as well as by the woman I was working with.

I need to stress that the people at Nurture have been amazing thus far and I’m hoping to see much better results.

Here’s the schedule they’ve set up:

Probability Angels by Joseph Devon – NURTURE Book Tour Schedule:

I’m gonna be all over the freaking place and I’m crazy excited about it.

Also they made this:

Probability Angels Nurture Tour Banner

I look vaguely professional there.

I’m not sure how they did that. I think they’re magical beings or something.

Anyway, get ready for more of me in March than you’ll know what to do with.

How You Can Help Indie Authors

Young woman telling a secret to a manHere’s a question I’ve been asked a few times in the past month: “Where should I buy your book so that you get the highest royalty possible?”

The people asking were new readers who were looking to support my work and my life as much as they possibly could. It’s a lovely sentiment and it makes me warm all over whenever it’s expressed, but here’s the deal. At the volume of sales that I’m working with right now, the whole publishing thing is a losing proposition financially.

I’m a start-up company. A research project. The quest for a shipping route to India. However you want to think about it, doesn’t matter, the point is that there is only one thing you need to worry about if you want to support me and my work, and it isn’t money. Money comes later.

Right now? Right now it’s a review.

I need reviews and I need them posted on my book’s pages at the largest book store in the world,

If you use GoodReads or Shelfari or one of those services, reviews there are good. If you have a blog, reviews there are good.

But the absolute most bang you can get for your support is to post a review on Amazon. And it doesn’t need to be a lengthy discourse on my books, or an in depth discussion on their literary merits. Those are awesome and if you want to do that go nuts, but I feel like too many people don’t leave reviews because they feel like they don’t have anything important to say.

Well, whatever, so maybe your review won’t become voted the most helpful review of my book. But it will provide data for the Amazon algorithm. It will link my book up with other books. It will mark my book as a book with a readership, and this in turn will get it recommended to other readers.

So I’m begging you, and not just for me but for any up-and-coming author whose work you love, if you want to support them throw them some stars and a few sentences on Amazon primarily, and anywhere else you happen to post reviews as well.

That’s how you can help me. That’s how you can help other authors. That’s how you can help other readers find new authors. And, gosh darn it, that’s how you can help save publishing as a whole.

Please. If you want to back me, go to Amazon right now and write me a review.

I thank you in advance for your time.


Results From the PARPG Play Test

MeatSo @Rolling20s and I were finally able to discuss his visit to SCARAB two weekends ago as well as the results of his play tests of the Probability Angels RPG. As I mentioned last week, the whole concept of attending smaller, regional conventions was scrapped. @Rolling20s ended up leaving the convention and driving north to a house full of friends where he was guaranteed a play test.

First, I want to thank, @celeloriel, @daniel14159@TheUniverseGM@cadorette, and @nezumi_hebereke for agreeing to be guinea pigs. Helpful, fun, witty, and intelligent, they proved to be most able guinea pigs indeed. Please give them a hand, ladies and gentlemen.

Their play test was recorded and I finally got a chance to listen to it this morning. There was a lot more good than bad, in my opinion, but clearly lots of things need work.

For starters, there’s a ton of information to get across before the players can dive in and actually start playing. This is normal for any game, you have to get a sense of the rules before you can play, but briefly explaining a new dice system and the world of Probability Angels is quite a challenge. @Rolling20s had his hands full. I mean I cant even explain my world.

We’re attempting to build this so it can be run at conventions, so I think some front loading of information is to be expected, but a much quicker and cleaner version needs to be worked out. One of the players came up with: “You’re immortal justice ghosts! Now start rolling dice!”

Which isn’t too bad.

I’ve learned from writing synopsis after synopsis until I want to barf that the urge to put in every cool little detail you’ve come up with has to be quashed. You have to know that you can’t cover everything. You should put in enough to hook the reader, even if it’s somewhat misleading or glosses over some big details, and then trust them to catch up. Same concept needs to be implemented here.

Secondly, some of the mechanics on the dice side of things need to be tweaked. That is something that happens on into infinity for games like this, you can always tweak things. So that wasn’t a surprise.

The worst thing to come out of this experiment, though, was that @Rolling20s has decided that he can’t represent me, with the attention that a sponsor deserves, at future conventions. He is currently working on two other games of his own design, Shadows of the Collegium and School Daze, not to mention anything else he comes up with (most of which is quite awesome), and he came to the conclusion that his attention was too split to run the PARPG as per our current arrangement.  He still wants to shape this into a workable game and run it, but as a fan not as a marketer. This wasn’t a big shock to me as his to-do list has been growing and growing recently and I’m glad that we both realized it.

That being said, in my mind @Rolling20s is still the guy, even if he doesn’t think he can be the guy. He’s just the guy. I have no other guy in the wings, for starters, but, also…he’s just the guy. So I’m calling this a hiatus. I don’t know what word he is using.

Anyway, the plus side of the play test was listening to all of these strangers have fun in my world. And I think they were having fun. Interruptions and confusion and gaffs aside, there were some moments of pure awesome buried in this gaming session (not to mention a reference to one of my favorite shows, Archer).

There is meat here. Succulent, delicious meat. Currently, how best to prepare and serve this meat is a mystery. But there is meat. Do not doubt it.

I’ll put it like this. @Rolling20s and I have managed to put a game together where people were laughing and having fun for an hour and a half while their characters wrestled with the notion of whether or not a dragon running amok inside of an iceberg was real.

I consider that quite an achievement.