Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"The Rule of 10" or "Why Numbers Are Deceptive in The Writing World"

Despite the fact that authors deal in words, it is numbers that rule our lives. Everything from page count, to margin size, to cover image dimensions, to how many re-tweets our book release announcement gets are the determining factors in whether our careers rise or fall.

That's bad enough, but I've talked about this before in posts like Authors Live Under The Tyranny of Numbers (Here's How You Can Help!). Today I'd like to talk about something else, though. Namely about how frustratingly deceptive numbers can be for all the creative professionals out there.

Come on baby... papa needs a bestseller!

There's Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Figuring out how well your book is or isn't doing can feel like reading tea leaves. The reason for this is that it's easy to get caught up in numbers that look good for you, but whose true import is difficult to determine. Even if you have access to all the necessary metrics, authors are often just as surprised as anyone when a book does well. Or, worse, they might think their book is doing really well, when it actually isn't.

How does that happen?

Well, if you're solely focused on your sales, you're never going to get confused. More sales equals more success, and as long as those numbers are good, you're doing great. The problem is that there's so many other numbers out there, and they're easy to reach for if you don't have those reassuringly high sales figures.

No, I only sold 5 copies. But there were THOUSANDS of free downloads!
For example, say your book is enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited program. That means you get credit for members who read your book, and you earn a fee per page. Since that's the case, it's only natural that you'd get excited when those numbers start climbing. 300 pages here, 250 pages there, hey, looks like you're doing pretty good! Even if no one buys your book outright, if enough KU members just read it, that won't matter, will it?

Well, that depends. Because the per-page value of a read will fluctuate based on the number of members in the program in a given month, as well as the total number of pages being read that month. Not only that, but what looks like a lot of page numbers to you might, in fact, be nothing more than a drop in the bucket. You won't know that until the month is over, though, and you find out that what you thought was going to be a few hundred bucks in your pocket is just a single Jackson and some change. All because a bunch of members cancelled their accounts, and those who were left read more books, thus lowering the value of every individual page that was read that month.

This is just one example of how numbers can be deceptive for authors, especially if you don't have any concrete idea of what those high numbers really mean.

As another example, I recently hosted a free download for my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife. It did fairy well for me, with exactly 700 downloads over the weekend. That's a pretty solid number, and something to be excited about... or is it? Because if I'd sold 700 books over the weekend, sure, I'd be over the moon. That would probably be over $2,000 in my pocket! But I gave away 700 free copies, hoping that it would generate buzz through people telling their friends, leaving reviews, etc. The problem is that while more downloads is always good, it is not at all indicative of the amount of buzz your giveaway is generating. Because 100 people who tell all their friends, make social media posts, and leave reviews are exponentially more valuable than 100,000 people who read the book, and then tossed the file in their recycle bin never to be mentioned again.

The Rule of 10

As a way to avoid getting caught up in false excitement over things like social media shares, free downloads, and other metrics whose impacts are difficult to track, I find it's easy to implement the Rule of 10. While not a scientific term, it helps you keep things in perspective, and gets you asking important questions about the value of the statistics you're looking at.

More goddamn numbers.
Imagine you're going to move, so you ask your friends to help you pack up and haul stuff. Chances are good you'll get help from 1 in 10 of the people you ask. Some may tell you they can't because of work, or say they'll help only to be mysteriously absent on loading day, but motivation doesn't matter here; you can expect a 10% rate of help on your request.

The same thing is true when it comes to your numbers as an author. Some people might really wish they could help, and other people assure you they'll be there to help you get the job done, but only 1 in 10 of those people is going to actually show up when it matters.

Take that giveaway I mentioned. 700 people downloaded the book, and of those 700 people I'd bank that about 70 people actually read it. There might be more, or there might be less, but that's a number I think is fairly realistic. Then, of those 70 people, I predict that 7 of them will actually give me some return on the freebie investment (go buy another book of mine, follow me on social media, leave a review on the book they read, etc.).

You can apply this rule to most other promotional efforts that are difficult to track, too. A blog post about your new book is blowing up? Cool. So of the 10,000 people who read the article, maybe 1,000 people actually checked out your book's page. Of those 1,000 people, you might get 100 of them who read your free sample, buy the book, or save it for later.

Now, 100 sales is still 100 sales... but it's important to remember the connection between, "This piece of promotion is getting really popular!" and, "Holy crap, my sales are through the roof!" is a nebulous one at the best of times.

Be That 10%

I said this in 10 Concrete Ways You Can Help The Authors You Like, but it bears repeating; if you can be the activity in an author's career, then you are that 1 friend in 10 who said they would help, and actually showed up on moving day. So tell your friends, buy a copy, leave a review, and see if you can ask around to find other 10% people who have the follow-through to help authors move books.

Trust me, if only 1 in 10 folks is helping, we need all the help we can muster.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing entry. If you'd like to see more of my work then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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