Before you publish, Part 7 – Identifying your audience

Before you Publish - 7

I want to preface this post by saying that I don’t claim to be an expert. The advice and recommendations below are based on what I’ve experienced in my journey and what I would do if I were to start over – or at least do for my next book.

In the initial post to this series, I had a few questions in my checklist that involved knowing your audience. There is a whole pile of reasons this is important. Most writers are going to say ‘Well, duh.’ Really before saying that, we should make sure we fully understand why the hell we should care. I got an agent review for The Dark Queen of Darkness, where I was asked: What’s the audience for this book. My response: I don’t know. What I should have said was: young adult, appealing more toward the female end. I didn’t know/accept this until after I was crushed by his hyper-critical review. What this experience taught me was that knowing your audience is relevant no matter how you hope to be published. Now that I’ve committed to self-publishing, knowing exactly who I am trying to tell stories to is a critical piece of the puzzle.

The reason you need to know your audience is advertising. As I said in an earlier post, you’re going to be responsible right down to the most nuanced aspect of publishing. You’re going to waste money on advertising if you don’t know who to target. If you’re paying Amazon, you only need to know about your book and similar work. If you’re using Facebook, knowing sex and age-group is going to help you even further because you can target readers based on demographics as well. This might not seem like much of an advantage, but recall the whole point of marketing is reaching readers who are most likely to want to read books like yours.

From everything I’ve learned to this point, publishing is all about volume. When you make two dollars on a book, you’ve made two dollars and found one reader, but at this point, you’ve likely spent at least a few hundred dollars getting it all together, not including your time to actually write the book. To get to the break-even point, you’ve got to find hundreds of readers –Thousands if you want to move into making money. You can’t do that without effective targeting.

As I’ve been saying throughout, I’m brand new at this, and all of this is what I can see for having dipped my toe into advertising. I’ve spent a couple hundred dollars on Amazon and Facebook. The reach has been good, but the clicks poor and purchases non-existant. For every 5 or 6 thousand impressions, I’ve gotten 1 click through and 0 purchases. This tells me I’ve got a few potential problems. The first is that my blurb, cover, and hook aren’t working. The second is that nobody actually wants to read the book, the third is that I’m not actually getting this work in front of the most likely readers. Either way, it’s hard to spend that kind of money to have absolutely no return on investment.

In my experience so far, the best way a new indie author can work out their target audience is beta-readers. If you get ten or fifteen people to read your book from different backgrounds and perspectives, you’re going to start noticing patterns among the people who read and liked your work and those who didn’t. Those perspectives will give you the necessary demographic clues you need to successfully target your advertising dollars.

All that said, if you’re writing in a specific genre, it might be that you already know your audience. Romance writers, for example, seem to have reasonably well-defined categories and target audiences. To start, it’s probably the largest segment of the publishing industry with a lot of very avid readers hungry for new material. Of course, it also appears to be incredibly competitive. One of the most expensive Amazon key-words I’ve run across so far is “Paranormal Romance.” This will cost you $2.00+ per click. If you’re like me, however, and you write satire that follows in the footsteps of Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, identifying your audience is a hell of a lot harder. I’m too inexperienced to know just how to get this in front of potential readers. In any case, using your beta-readers for this kind of insight should help.

This is where reading a lot of other work or searching for other books similar to yours and reading those comes in handy. You can absolutely use other people’s work as a guide to finding your audience. If you’ve written a book similar to another, you’re going to want to try to get in the “If you like this title, you’ll probably like this title…” list in Amazon. This is super hard to do if you’re not exactly sure what your book is like or have a limited perspective. I’d hazard a guess to say most indie authors don’t have this issue and avidly read what they are writing. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who wrote a book that appeals to me but without spending a lot of time up-front reading similar books. I’m looking at Wine Bottles and Broomsticks from a slightly different perspective than most readers, and now that I’m actually trying to sell copies, I see the problem pretty clearly.

So, once again, I’m giving advice from a thoroughly inexperienced lense, but this has been my initial impression, within just a month of advertising. If I were to start over, I’d have spent a lot more time with both beta-readers and in researching similar books from several different angles. Had I done this, targeting would be going much easier, and I wouldn’t be wasting hundreds of dollars on advertising with absolutely no return on investment.

What’s your experience been with targeting your audience? Do you think Beta-readers are helpful there? Have you written something that doesn’t fit your usual patterns of reading? Leave me a comment.

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Before you publish, Part 6 – Editing

Before you Publish - 6

In the checklist I developed in the initial post to this series, I said that at a bare minimum, you need to use a grammar checking software like Grammarly, or a competent friend edit your work. Ideally, you’ll hire an editor. The thing about this is that an application like Grammarly is a pretty weak solution. There are a lot of things it doesn’t do or doesn’t do well. A lot of indie writers do their own editing just fine, but having a second opinion is an excellent idea. I absolutely fall into this category. For Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, I did my own editing, assisted by Grammarly. While my grammar wasn’t so bad that folks put down my book, I have received feedback about the quality. Most were generic comments that didn’t help me actually make corrections, I did get a few specific comments, which I addressed. In the end, it points to how important it is to make sure your work is well-edited. You don’t really want most of your social media posts commenting on your lack of editing.

One of the things I am struggling with is the cost of editing. A book of 270 pages is likely to cost you $700-$1000. If you break this down by hour, you’re getting a great deal.  If you look at it by return on investment, you’ve expended every dollar your book will ever make and then another $500. I am of two minds on this. For my upcoming book, The Dark Queen of Darkness, I did hire an editor. Her rates were more than $700, but it’s a longer book, and we’ve done more than a basic copy edit. I think I got a fantastic deal on this, but I know now after looking at sales, I will never make this money back. That said, I feel like this was a necessary step. It’s one of those things that makes self-publishing incredibly hard. You want to look as professional as if you’d gone through a big publishing house, but you’re going to pay for it. In the end, it means you are going to pay someone else, and never see a dollar to the positive.

Alright, this is a bit hyperbolic. I’m looking at this from the perspective of releasing a single book, not the performance of the complete works of a writer across time. Practically speaking, if I publish loads of books, do well with advertising, and find my audience, I will probably make my investment back. However, it’s going to go better if I’ve spent the time and effort to properly edit my books. Nothing is more irritating to a reader than mentally editing a book as they read it. We can all put up with a few errors, but more than a hand-full and it’s obnoxious to the point of not being something that can be read.

I think my whole point on editing is that you need to consider, as a writer, you might be too close to the work to edit it well. Consider having someone else do that for you. It might not help your bottom line, but remember, this is a long game. You’re not going to make a living right out of the gate, but if you don’t take quality control seriously, you may find readers just aren’t interested.

What has been your experience as a writer? Do you think self-editing is perfectly fine?

Before you publish, Part 5 – Beta Readers

Before you Publish - 5

In the checklist I put together in the initial post to this series, I had a bullet about incorporating the feedback from readers of your work before you’ve published. For everything I’m working on publishing, I’ve asked friends and family to read.

To co-opt a saying picked up from someone else, the reader isn’t always right, but they are always the reader. You could also use, where there is smoke there is fire. The point here is that your beta-readers might make observations or commentary that simply isn’t helpful to improving the narrative, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. It’s true that sometimes, your readers simply didn’t engage with the characters or story and are responding to things in a hyper-critical fashion that should give you pause, but don’t necessarily translate into workable revisions. The flip-side of that coin is critical observations DO need to be addressed. We, as writers, have to identify the difference between readers who just don’t like the writing and those who are pointing out fundamental flaws. The takeaway is that we need to make sure issues are dealt with before we publish.

From my perspective, I take every criticism seriously. As I just said, where there is smoke, there is fire. If a reader tells me that a character isn’t working or a bit of plot doesn’t make sense, I revise the work. Often, this results in a better story. Sometimes, the suggestions weaken the story or chip away at the conflict and effectively water-down the plot. This is why you need to have more than one person read your work. If 9 people tell you this bit was good and 1 person gives you a 10-page diatribe as to why it wasn’t. You take the 10-page diatribe seriously while keeping in mind that 90% of your readers didn’t see it that way. Plus, as the writer, you get to choose – did that really seem to work? Did the revision addressing it result in a better book? Is that criticism productive, or did the reader simply not like it for some reason? This is hugely important, and you have to seriously think about it, but you can’t actually decide if the feedback is helpful unless you make an attempt to incorporate the recommendations.

For every book I’ve sent out for readers to review, I’ve had at least 1 reader that didn’t like it. You can usually tell. Often, if they didn’t like the work, they won’t finish it. Sometimes they ‘finish it’ in the sense that they powered through, but stopped actually reading at some point. This happened to me with my upcoming book, The Dark Queen of Darkness. I had one reader who just didn’t care for it. I asked what he thought of the ending, and he couldn’t say because he stopped engaging somewhere in the middle. Other readers went on to explain what character they liked the best. What this told me was less about revisions and more about the audience. This is another essential aspect of having beta-readers, which I’ll delve into in a later post.

Frequently though, you will get consistent feedback involving flat characters, weak plots, or other things. A writer who is unprepared for that criticism will often shrug it off or blister at it. You can’t do this, even if you disagree right out of the gate. Every bit of feedback is helpful and should be seriously addressed. Sometimes, you don’t do anything with it, but most of the time, you should be making revisions.

If you haven’t sent your book out for review, it’s not ready for publication. This is one of the most emphatic things I can say about self-publishing. I suspect a lot of indie writers will disagree, but from where I sit, it’s one of the most valuable steps in the process. If I could get more feedback, I would.

What do you think? Do you have a different experience?