Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Authors Live Under The Tyranny of Numbers. Here's How You Can Help!

Authors are like gladiators. We put our all into the production, the show, and the story of our performances. We are surrounded by dozens, even hundreds, of our fellows whenever we come to an event. And, most importantly, we live and die by the roar of the crowd. That roar we're all listening for, the voice of the mob, is what I've come to call The Tyranny of Numbers.

Are you not entertained?
The reason I use this term is because there's a major misconception about how authors find success. Most people believe that talent, sweat, hard work, and putting out great content are the keys to regular royalty checks, and an end to financial worries. And while those things are important, there are other factors completely outside an author's control. Much like how you could be the greatest fighter in the arena, but your fate is still in the hands of the nameless, faceless Crowd.

What Goes On Behind The Scenes

Think for a moment about the factors that can help someone succeed in life. For example, if you come from a rich family, you don't have to worry about not eating right, medical care, or dealing with poor public schools. You're given all the help, training, and attention you need, and you're allowed to find your talents. You have the connections to get into a good college, along with the right on-campus organizations, and then the further connections you need to land a good job. Does all of that mean that this imaginary son of a wealthy family didn't sweat, strain, and labor over his skills and talents to become a notable professional? Of course not. He worked damn hard to become as skilled and talented as he is. But he had help, and that help is, more often than we like to admit, what makes the difference between the success stories, and the unknown stories.

Sheila had already put out 26 books... but she was sure 27 was what would get her noticed.
Let's take a smaller, more concrete example that really happened. As some of you know, I was a contributor at Yahoo! Voices before it died. At the time the site shuttered its doors, I was pulling in over 50,000 hits on my content every month, and making triple digit royalties, along with a smaller, secondary check for up-front advances on new content. It wasn't rent money, not yet, but it was getting to the point where it was patching over a lot of the gaps in my monthly earnings when a client begged for more time to cut a check, or a publication date got pushed back.

Of course, after Yahoo! closed that program (giving me and the other contributors less than a month of warning), I still had all this content I'd created floating around. So I found it a new home, and started expanding my Infobarrel archive. While I have not yet put up every piece of old content I had at Yahoo! at time of this writing, I have republished all the pieces that stood out in terms of traffic, and which were consistent from one month to the next. And, while some of them are getting seen, the numbers are a shadow of their former selves. Which, of course, means the content that was once a growing goldmine is now more like a tip jar, paying me between $15 and $20 a month.

Why is that? In many cases the content is the same as it was before, and in some it was improved with better keyword choices, pictures, video, editorial flourishes, and new promotion efforts. Despite those efforts, though, views remain down, and my paycheck remains small. The difference is, of course, that Yahoo! Voices was a huge site, connected to its own search engine, and this gave my content a real leg up on being seen. The sort of leg up where an article like How To Build Batman in The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game would regularly bring in 10k-15k views all on its own. While InfoBarrel is certainly no slouch in terms of tools and experience, it simply does not have the clout or authority that Yahoo! Voices did. And, as such, my numbers remain small.

Numbers Always Seem Easy, But Rarely Are

Numbers are deceptive. For example, I have just over 500 followers on my Facebook author page. Most people would think that, because of that follower number, that I could post a new blog or article, and count on at least a few hundred people seeing it. Maybe 50 or 60 likes and shares to sweeten the pot, too. Or, if I released a new short story or novel, that at least a few hundred followers would want to get a copy. However, in reality, I'm lucky to pick up between 3 and 10 likes from my followers when I post. On very rare occasions, I'll get between 1 and 3 shares on a piece of content. Sales... well, they're far from the triple digits.

That's the same all over social media, too. I've had pages with strong followings (40k+ strong) share my content in an attempt to help me boost my signal, but even in those instances I'm only picking up an additional 500 views or so, with 20 likes, and 4 or 5 shares. Certainly nice to have, but far from what you'd expect from an audience that size.

No matter how you work the figures, they're pretty damn depressing.
The same lessons you learn with blogs hold true with books, as well. For example, a book needs to get around 50 or so reviews before Amazon starts trying to spread the word about you in searches. My latest release, the steampunk noir short story collection New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam, has an average of 4.5 stars on reviews. However, only 8 readers have stopped by to share their thoughts, so Amazon isn't putting my book into the mix, where it might be recommended to other browsers shopping for short stories, steampunk, etc. So, in an effort to get more readers and reviews, I held a giveaway several months ago. Nearly 300 copies of my book were downloaded, and I figured that out of those 300, maybe 20 or 30 would get read. Out of those who read even a portion of the book, I figured 4 or 5 people would stop by to leave a rating, or a review.

The end result? Nothing. No reviews, no ratings, and not so much as a few sales as a result of word of mouth spreading.

It's Still Possible to Hit The Lottery

All of that sounds depressing, mostly because it is, but it's important to remember that you sometimes hit the lottery when you're least expecting it. One of my most notable moments was when I published my short story The Watchmaker's Daughter (which is in New Avalon, in case you'd like to see what all the fuss was about) on Yahoo! Voices. At first there were some token views, but nothing very impressive. And then, overnight, an explosion of activity. For two weeks or so I was getting 2k-5k hits a day on that story. That was the equivalent of about $4-$10 in real money, but I had done absolutely nothing other than write the story. Where had all this traffic come from?

10 Our Fathers, and 30 Hail Marys?
I'd like to say that it was because my story was so captivating that everyone read it, and passed it around to their friends. After all, it was free to the readers. However, while that might be where some of the traffic came from, I have a sneaking suspicion that it was my title's similarity to a popular song that spurred a lot of the traffic I got. However, while the monetary gains were short-term, the attention the story had gotten did gain me a few new readers, and it helped me complete the other shorts that eventually went into my book.

I'm not saying that skill, talent, hard work, sweat, blood, and ritual sacrifice won't help sell your book, make your blog popular, or gain you a gigantic audience who will hang on your every word. What I am saying is that "little bit" of luck we always throw in as an afterthought is a lot more necessary than we want to admit. Because as soon as we admit that most of our success (or at least the initial success) comes from an outside force, and not the creator, we start feeling powerless.

Instead, I say this. Raise your sword, raise your voice, and give the crowd something they won't be able to turn away from! Every article, every post, every book, is another entry into the lottery... you may not win, but you don't even have a chance if you never step into the ring.

Hopefully you all found this week's installment on The Business of Writing helpful, if not particularly uplifting. If you'd like to help me bump my numbers, why not visit The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? As little as $1 a month gets you my undying gratitude, as well as some sweet swag. Lastly, please like, share, and if you'd be so kind, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter!

And if you'd like to check out my books, like New Avalon or my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, just head over to My Amazon Author Page!

1 comment:

  1. Neal, I follow your musings each time they invade my e-mail. It's always good to find some encouragement when I feel like I'm slowing down with my writing discipline. I've taken this particular article to heart, and will work to run with it while the spark is stirring the ashes of my need to push forward. Now to hold on while slogging forward. At least there will be another visit from the "Literary Mercenary" awaiting me in case I once again wander about like a kid in the toy aisle. Now I want my own toy creations on the shelves along with all the others. Such will tell, I suppose.