Sunday, September 23, 2012

Kris Rusch, Joe Konrath, Amazon and Me

This was supposed to be a nothing update post, but three things happened to cause my mind to start churning:

1.) Kris Rusch wrote about how Content is King, and how writers need to take charge of this incredible asset they've created... and stop just handing control over to others.

2.) Joe Konrath posted some data about his sales numbers, a part of which is a counter point to Kris: he has given over a lot of control to Amazon and has benefited from it.

These two posts are not really in diametrical opposition to each other.  They're actually both "must read" type posts, imho.  But this one point of divergence happened to hit on the third thing that happened this week:

3.) I said, off-hand, that my own sales have come to a near stand still, which would seem to support Joe's thesis.  Except...

I lied.

My sales have actually not come to a standstill. They've just come to a standstill on Amazon.

I'm doing record business at Barnes and Noble and Apple (via Smashwords).

As a matter of fact, I think I'll be earning at least as well as I ever have, and maybe better.  It's just that the percentage of my income that used to come from Amazon now comes from Smashwords partners, and the percentage of income I used to get from Apple now comes from Amazon.

I didn't really notice this because Amazon gives you information faster than anybody else, so whatever happens at Amazon feels more immediate and important.  But it isn't.  It's just that it's easier to see.

What changed?

I stopped giving a shit.

Seriously, that's it.  I stopped caring about my stats, and because I stopped caring about them, I stopped reacting to them -- doing things to pump them up.

"But Camille, that explains how your sales tanked at Amazon, but how did it help your sales elsewhere?  What is your secret?"

The secret is... THERE IS NO SECRET.

I let things go as they naturally will, and they found their own balance.  And over time, that's much easier to maintain, and generally leads to good things.  But that balance will be different for every book and every person.

It can be the only way to find out what works for you, not for Kris Rusch or for Joe Konrath or for Camille LaGuire. But one way you'll never find out what works for you is by depending on self-fulfilling prophesies.  Especially in the short term.

Self-Fulfilling Prophesies

The more you buy into the idea that your success depends on Amazon (or something else -- it's not just them), the more your marketing and business choices will be aimed at optimizing that. You'll worry more about rankings and reviews and stats and algorithms and 'also-bought' links and all that.

And this is not an unreasonable thing to do, for two reasons:

One is that Amazon has so many ways to help you promote.  They provide the Associates Program for affiliate links, and they provide the Selects program to promote your books among Prime members.  Their whole site is optimized for you, to reward you and make it easy for you to just focus on them and forget everyone else.

Nobody else does this, and some writers, like Joe Konrath, are in a position to take advantage of it to the hilt.

The other reason we go after this self-fulfilling prophesy is more visceral, more powerful, less rational and yes, more dangerous:

Amazon gives you immediate feedback.

You can see your sales jump in real time, and your rankings update hourly.  Immediate feedback is makes a connection in the most primal part of our brains.  Poke a stick, something happens, our lizard brain says "Cool!" and rewards us. (Edited to note: It does this literally -- it shoots out "happy" chemicals.)

So when you do something and your numbers change, you get a primal reward.  It doesn't matter if your conscious mind knows that those numbers are not related to what you did.  You could have definitive proof that it isn't related, but somewhere deep in your lizard brain, a little caveman is all excited that you struck to rocks together and made fire.

It's like Pavlov and his bell.  You get conditioned to respond to your stats, to need that feedback.  So by giving you that little hourly reward, Amazon conditions you to watch Amazon's stats and keep doing things to make them move.

And the more you focus on Amazon, the more you neglect the other vendors.  For instance, odds are any purchase link you provide will be aimed at Amazon.  And the result of that is that you're proven right.

Pause For a Caveat

Before I go on, I just want to make one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with this.  Everybody's different, every book is different.  Jumping through hoops at Amazon for rewards may be exactly right for you or one of your books.

Furthermore, if you are having success by focusing on Amazon, there's a very good chance that you will lose income if you start neglecting it.  Long term, that may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you, but... it might not.

But What Worked For Me?

What I did was wean myself from that primal addiction to stats.  And as a result, I did a few trivial things which might have made a difference at BN.  But it's really important not to see those as The Secret, because that's just replacing one Pavlov's Bell with another.

Here's the thing that I learned long ago as an investor.  I learned it from reading Andrew Tobias, and I learned it again the hard way when other stock investment gurus led me astray:

When you have a surplus of immediate data, it's easy to get caught up in it.  If you can watch the price of a stock go up and down it's easy to overreact to it.  Data gives you a false sense of security in the short term, and it makes you look at small things and lose the big picture.

You may think that if you just get the right data, you can find that exact moment when the stock is at it's peak to sell, or when it's at the bottom to buy... but nobody can do that.  Not on purpose.  The data simply can't tell you when the market will top or bottom out.  You might as well use your horoscope. (As a matter of fact, there was a stock-picking chicken who had a very successful portfolio....)

So these "smart" investors just churn the heck out of their portfolios, racking up fees, and they think they're succeeding because they don't lose money.  Except... that chicken does as well as they do, and the investors who have the biggest portfolio in the end tend to be the "buy and hold" people.

Buy and hold investors tend to do the following: you research so you can pick solid companies, you decide what proportion of your portfolio you want each company to have, and then when you have money, you don't worry about the stock price or trajectories or 30-day rolling averages.  You just say "My portfolio will have 25% this stock and 25% that one, and 25% mixed annuities and 25% bonds."  (Or whatever.)

Then, whenever you have money to invest, you buy to keep that balance the same.  So if Stock A has been booming, you don't buy that, because it has now overbalanced your portfolio (i.e. taken a higher percentage than you set for it), and if your mixed annuities haven't been doing so hot, you'll need to buy more of them to bring them up to the 25% they're supposed to be.

And you only sell when you have something else you want to do with the money, or when you want to rebalance the whole portfolio -- and in either case, you sell the thing that has overbalanced. (In this case, Stock A.)

By doing that, you automatically buy low and sell high, but it's super hard to do that when you are looking at immediate stock prices. You want to sell your losers and buy your winners... and that leads to buying high and selling low.  Not good.

To me, intellectual property is very much like investment.  It's about long term return.

What happened to me this summer was one of those things that happen with a properly balanced portfolio.  Things shift and equalize, just on their own, without my interference.  Good investments will find their own level.  So will books.

The difference, of course, is that unlike stocks, you are the one managing the company you're investing in, so what you do can make a difference.

However... a good manager keeps its eye on its business, and doesn't run around reacting to stock price or quarterly returns.

(You know, businesses like Amazon, one of the cornerstones of my investment portfolio.  Amazon doesn't react to immediate data -- they plan LONG term.)

So it happens I made some good decisions with Smashwords this summer on some free books. I'll make some less good decisions later, but by thinking more about the books, and less about the leverage and immediate return, I give all my books a better chance to succeed.

So that's enough commentary for now.  Below you'll find the Week in Review/Preview, and writing dare update numbers.

See you in the funny papers.

Last Week's Posts:

Coming This Week on the Blog:

Monday - Episode 41 "Is It Murder?"
A lot of lies get told. Which will be believed?

Wednesday - ROW80 Round 4 Goals.
ROW80 will be starting back up on the first -- though I'll start it on Sunday as usual, to make the update days and the goals line up better.

Thursday - The Final Episode 42 "Alex Finds a Mentor"
Alex could really use a hand right now....

Friday Favorites - My Personal Top Ten Movies List, Part 2
The second half of my list is a little more high-brow.

Between the Dares Progress Report:

Wed: 185 minutes
Thurs: 180 minutes
Fri: 60 minutes.
Sat: 370 minutes.


K. A. Jordan said...

I'm wondering if the immediacy of Amazon's sales reports is like a slot machine. Put in penny, or ten, pull the lever and...the machine does it's thing. What you get has nothing to do with anything you did, it's the machine doing it's thing to 'hook' you into putting another penny, or ten, in that slot.

When I play slots, I put in my dime, get six cents back. It looks like I won six cents, but really, I lost four.

With Amazon, I'm just as hooked on the numbers. What I'm losing is time to write, edit and get my Real Life stuff done.

Smashwords is slower - so it isn't as addictive. I'm seeing some progress there with e-books I've kept out of Select.

What I've noticed is that it's very difficult to NOT LOOK. I want to at least peek...just one more time. That's why it reminds me of a slot machine.

The Daring Novelist said...

That's exactly it.

Our brains are wired to get get hooked on stuff like that. (It was once useful; when the more primitive part of our brain was evolving: looking for patterns as a learning mechanism, an early kluge for getting at cause and effect -- but it's just a kluge.)

I still look at my numbers. It's... entertaining in a mind-numbing kind of way.

J.A. Marlow said...

The need for external validation is still so strong. It went from needing it with agents and editors, to needing it with sale numbers. That said, the sale numbers do reflect our ability to catch and hook readers, but if it's stopping us from writing more then there is a problem.

Personally, I would rather make it with hard work and a backlist than to rely on getting lucky. Not all of us do, and I'm a seriously unlucky kind of person. I can't really control sales, but I can control my output. As Kevin J. Anderson says, “The harder I work, the luckier I am.”

Time to get back to work, writers, and that means words and finished projects!

The Daring Novelist said...

You know, I'm starting to think more in terms of one-on-one validations. Back in the old days, we used to get a lot of our validation from friends and beta readers, and we were a little shy and embarrassed about that, but we wrote. Because it was one-on-one, we recognized it as something personal and psychological, and not as some business metric.

The problem is now that people are substituting business metrics for that personal neediness, and while it can actually make you feel good, that's not really what it's for.

So I'm kinda doing the opposite right now. I'm investing in the personal.

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

I love your reflections on writing.
Your comment also made me realize that I'm focusing on the personal more, too, as Olo Books begins to move my books to print.
Stats and money are much appreciated, but most of the online customers buy silently, without feedback. When your friends and colleagues say, "I love it!" or "I cried," it's food for the soul.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Melissa,

And yeah, you know, as the whole system breaks down and re-forms, we get to build new models, and we find that we are no longer dealing with a monolith.

I think it's overlooked, but we get to mix-and-match all sorts of things to satisfy our motives and needs. We're no longer in a world where we choose between money and art or audience and income or any of those "either/or" sorts of things. We may not be able to do everything, but we have much more choice about how we do any of it.

Man of la Book said...

Great post.

Like everything our brains have changed with technology and those nasty MTV shows - we demand immediate gratification even if it's meaningless.

I used to tell my students not to worry about their web stats. Sure, keep an eye out, tweak a bit, re-visit every three months to look for patterns. But the real meaningful information will reveal itself after a year of collecting and that only if you know how to look at the charts and what to look for.

The Daring Novelist said...


Part of the problem for young writers, though, is that they don't have a lot of other things to take up their attention, so it's easier to obsess.

Time cures an awful lot.