Three Articles on Publishing and Money

I am nowhere near ready to even think about the publishing process for NEXT BOOK, aka A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS — I’m still hacking at my first draft and turning it into a more cohesive second draft.

However, I read three articles this week that harmonized in an interesting and/or disheartening way, so I wanted to share them with you. How do we get our books into the hands of the people who might appreciate them? Does the capitalistic model, especially when combined with the algorithmic model, “just not work”?

Reedsy: The Ultimate Guide to KDP: How to Succeed on Kindle Direct Publishing

Once you’ve got your KDP book’s product page polished for maximal conversion, it’s time to get as many eyeballs on it as possible. While there are plenty of ways to market your ebook off-platform, this section will focus on how to boost its Amazon discoverability — how to make it easy for relevant readers to find it on-site.

Remember, when it comes to books, Amazon is the world’s leading search engine and recommendation system. There are many ways to send readers to your book page. But what you really want is to reach the point where Amazon does the bulk of the marketing for you.

Seth Godin: Surrendering Curation and Promotion

Facebook, Linkedin, Google, Apple and Amazon have very little ability to promote a specific idea or creator.

That sounds crazy, but culturally and technically, it’s true.

[…]

The platforms are built on the idea that the audience plus the algorithm do all the deciding. No curation, no real promotion, simply the system, grinding away.

This inevitably leads to pandering, a race to the bottom.

Longreads: The First Book

Jennifer Matthewson: As I’m sure a lot of first-time authors will say, I expected to have more management from my publisher. It was a small publisher in D.C., but there was no marketing at all, so I had to do it all myself. I think it’s a complete shift of expectations once you realize you’re the one salesperson for your book.

[…]

[Sophia] Shalmiyev: My number one myth is that the publishing house will pay for your travel. I have maxed out all my credit cards to go do the gigs I wanted to do, and I gave up many many more because I was not encouraged in that direction. A book tour for an unknown author sells no books, not enough to justify it. Yet, sitting at home and doing nothing would have been a new low. The other myth is that you can be honest and be yourself. You cannot. You will get in trouble. I feel like I am in trouble every day I speak and have my book anywhere in proximity. I have a lot of negative feelings about the industry treating its editors and agents like rags to be used and wrung out. They are overworked and exploited, and for what? The capitalist model just doesn’t work. Plus, the schmooze is incredible. You have to like talking to strangers nonchalantly about craft and sales.

I do love talking to strangers nonchalantly about craft and sales, so I guess that’s a start. ❤️

On Debt, Value, and Time

Earlier this week, Seth Godin wrote a post about debt:

The simple but hard to follow rule is this: Only borrow money to buy things that go up in value.

He lists some examples of “bad debt,” such as going into debt for a wedding, but my immediate response was well, aren’t you having the wedding because you want the relationships to go up in value?

And sure, that is a different kind of value (and credit card companies won’t accept it as payment) but, arguably, you have a wedding to bond with both your partner and your family/friends/community (unless you have one of those weddings that also serve as goodbye parties for people who won’t be following you to the next stage of your life) and those are the people who are likely to provide support, including financial support, when you need it most.

My other thought, after I read Seth’s post, was I wouldn’t have my current career if I hadn’t been willing to go into $14K of credit card debt.

As you might recall, if you are familiar with the Nicole Dieker Life Story: I got into freelancing in 2012, while I was in Los Angeles trying to make it as an indie musician. I didn’t want to get a job that would prevent me from taking every terrible gig that came my way, so I searched Reddit.com/r/beermoney which led me to Amazon Mechanical Turk which led me to the content writing site CrowdSource, at which point I started throwing all my spare time into writing and editing articles and quickly became the fourth-highest earner in CrowdSource history. (I have no idea if that record still stands; it’s been years since I last wrote for them.)

I balanced writing and music for another year or so, until it became so obvious that the writing career was the only one of the two that was actually taking off, and then I went all-in on writing.

But I also accumulated $14K of credit card debt in the process (starting with my initial move to Los Angeles and ending when I left Los Angeles for Seattle because, at the time, Seattle was significantly less expensive).

I swiped my credit card for a lot of stuff that didn’t increase in value. The groceries were consumed immediately; the train tickets I bought so I could go play background music at a steampunk festival didn’t help me get a better-paying gig; the vacation I took with the guy I was dating didn’t lead me towards a long-term relationship.

However, the debt bought me time — first to founder at my music career, and then to build my freelance one.

Here’s another story I’ve told before: when I graduated from college in 2004, I moved to Minneapolis for an internship that ended up falling through. Since I needed to earn money right away and did not want to go into debt, I did the usual new-college-grad flail at finding something “in my field” and ended up working as a telemarketer for the Minnesota Orchestra.

Later that year, I transitioned into an admin position at an insurance office (that I got primarily because I went to a temp agency and aced the typing test) where I spent most of my work hours either filing envelopes in an empty room or pushing boxes of copy paper around the buildings to refill all the copiers.

I was trying to save up $500 so I could rent a black-box theater for one night and put on a show, since I’d read about people doing that kind of thing in the 1970s, but even though I could have put the $500 on a credit card and gotten it over with and learned from what I would have undoubtedly considered a mistake, I told myself no debt.

So I worked, and saved, and waited, and nothing happened, and then I went to grad school. If I’d been able to test my artistic theories right away, instead of spending three years in an educational environment that prevented me from learning whether they had any value in the marketplace, which is what I had to do, on my own, anyway, well… who knows what might have happened.

Yes, it is a privilege to be able to have the kind of credit score that lets you get into five figures of debt, but it’s not the kind of privilege that’s exclusive to the very few. If you don’t have poor credit to begin with, and if you always make your $25 minimum payments, you can run up a lot of debt and maintain it for a very long time.

Which is what I did.

And it bought me the time it took to establish my freelance career, which will probably gross six figures this year.

Technically, I did exactly what Seth Godin advises. I went into debt for something that increased in value, and paid it off four years later.*

But I couldn’t have predicted any of this back in 2012.

So did I do the right thing financially, or not?

And if I hadn’t built a successful freelancing career, would the answer to that question change? ❤️

*In the interest of full disclosure: at a certain point in my debt repayment process my parents said “we don’t want to see you paying interest on those credit cards” and wrote me a check for the remainder of the debt; I paid back my parents in installments. I didn’t request their financial help but I did accept it, and that was where the privilege part of this story really kicks in. However, I am 100% confident that I would have been able to pay off the debt without their help; at that point I was living on 50% of my income in order to maximize my credit card payments, and planned to continue until the debt was completely gone.

On Content That Makes Money and Projects That Don’t

Matt Zoller Seitz: Avengers, MCU, Game of Thrones, and the Content Endgame

This weekend saw the release of “Endgame” and the premiere of “The Long Night,” the longest and biggest episode of “Game of Thrones,” the most lavishly produced fantasy series in TV history, and one of the last series that people watch as a group, episode by episode, week by week, experiencing big moments as a single unified audience. One is a movie experience that takes many of its stylistic cues from television. The other is a television experience that strives to be thought of as cinematic. Both are mega-entertainments that are meant to be experienced on the largest screen possible (theatrical or home) in the presence of others. Both will ultimately be viewed on the handheld device that (according to our own statistics) 65% of you are using to read this essay. They’re just two more pieces in the content stream, bigger and shinier than all others, but ultimately things to discuss on social media, bond over, and quickly move beyond. The state of the art. 

This is it. 

This is where it was all leading, whether we realized it or not. 

This essay is SO GOOD and SO TRUE.

Seth Godin: When Your Project Isn’t Making Money

It might be that you’re too early to the market.

There are early adopters, certainly, but maybe not enough, or not willing to pay your price…

Being too early also means that your costs are higher and your forward motion is slower.

And it might be that you’re too late.

Which means that the people who were interested, interesting and willing to pay extra already have their needs met, and all you’re left with is bottom-fishing, bargain-hunting late adopters.

This piece lists all of the reasons why small projects fail. It’s already digging into the dark sticky parts of my brain, the small percentage of my mindset that isn’t perpetually optimistic.

It’s honest, in a way that all of the “try hard and you can succeed” essays are not.

It also offers some hope, at the end. ❤️

Indie Author Advice From Seth Godin’s ‘This Is Marketing’

If you’re already familiar with Seth Godin’s blog, or have already read any of his bestselling books — Linchpin, Purple Cow, etc. — you already know a lot of what he’s going to tell you in his newest book, This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.

  • Make a product that solves a real person’s problem.
  • Get really specific about what kind of person you’re targeting and what problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Don’t be a brown cow (boring, typical), be a purple cow (unique, remarkable, phenomenal).

So I wanted to focus on just one section of this book that happens to be particularly relevant to creative career types (aka “the kind of person this blog is targeting”).

In Chapter Nineteen: The Funnel, Seth writes about “life on the long tail:”

On the left are the hits. There aren’t as many of them, but they each sell a lot. In fact, number one sells ten times as many copies as number ten, and a hundred times as many as number one hundred. A hit is magical.

On the right are the rest. The long tail: good products of specialized interest. Each, by itself, doesn’t sell many copies, but taken together, the long tail sells as much as the short head.

Half of Amazon’s sales are books that are not in the top five thousand. Half!

Half of the music consumed on streaming sites isn’t available in stores. Not half the titles, half the volume.

Amazon can do great with this strategy since they sell all the available books. Each author, though, is in pain: selling one to two books a day is no way to make a living.

Seth’s advice is to become the “short head” of a specialized market, e.g. the best person selling “video courses on using a GH5 camera to make movies.”

Or, in the self-publishing world, the best person writing “steamy older woman younger man romance.”

If you’ve spent any time on Amazon recently, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of indie genre fiction authors have started using specific genre keywords in their titles. We’ve got Gloria King’s Love Thy Neighbor: Steamy Older Woman Younger Man Romance, for example, or A.R. Winters’ Cooks, Crooks and Cruises: A Humorous Cruise Ship Cozy Mystery (Cruise Ship Cozy Mysteries Book 2). They want readers to know exactly what they’re getting, so the readers who want exactly what they’re offering will be incentivized to purchase.

This is one way to get around the “can’t make a living selling two books a day” effect. (At roughly $2.50 in royalties per book, that’d be $1,825 a year before taxes.)

The other way to get around the “can’t make a living selling two books a day” thing is to find ways of earning money besides selling books.

Like keeping your day job. (As many authors do.)

Or freelancing. (Ditto.)

Or freelancing and teaching and editing and speaking and a bunch of other gigs that all support and sustain each other. (Tritto.)

If you do that, and if you are ready to build a career that, as Seth notes, is about solving someone else’s problems*, then you can do the creative work you want to do without having to try to be the best person at “older woman younger man humorous romance where the younger man has a really cute dog.”

Because you’ll be making the art that only you can make, telling the stories that only you can tell, etc.

And, in a world where other people are competing to be the best at a certain set of keywords, this kind of unique creative work can really stand out.

Of course, you still have to figure out how to market it.

Which means you’ll probably still want to read Seth’s book. ❤️

*One of my most popular freelance articles, which still gets retweeted and shared at least once a month even though it was published in 2015, is Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself With A/B Testing at Unbounce. This is a perfect example of using a freelance career to solve someone else’s problems (both Unbounce’s problem of needing a guide to A/B testing, and the readers’ problem of… also needing a guide to A/B testing). When I teach my “how to freelance” classes — and I’ll be teaching another one this summer, so check back later for dates — I get a lot of students who want to build careers as travel writers or celebrity profile writers or writers of stuff that sounds interesting to them. You can absolutely get paid to write about travel (I’ve done it) but you’ll get paid a lot more money if you’re also able to write about A/B testing.

Problems Have Solutions (h/t Seth Godin)

This week is going to be a “things I’m thinking about” week, so let’s start with a recent Seth Godin blog post called Problems and Boundaries:

All problems have solutions.

That’s what makes them problems.

The solution might involve trade-offs or expenses that you don’t want to incur. You might choose not to solve the problem. But there is a solution. Perhaps you haven’t found it yet. Perhaps you need to do more research or make some tradeoffs in what you’re hoping for.

If there is no solution, then it’s not a problem.

It’s a regrettable situation. It’s a boundary condition. It’s something you’ll need to live with.

(I love Seth Godin’s blog, go follow his blog, also his post on what a good personal blog does was one of my inspirations for shaping this current iteration of Nicole Dieker Dot Com.)

So. Problems vs. boundaries is something I’ve been thinking about in my own life and — not at all coincidentally — one of the focuses of NEXT BOOK.

The examples of boundary conditions Seth gives in his blog post are along the lines of choices eliminating other choices: if you have committed your time to event X, you cannot also commit to simultaneous event Y.

I’m fine with that. I LOVE that. Even the part that comes with hard tradeoffs.

But I’m curious about larger-scale problems (climate change, socioeconomic disparity, etc.), the point at which they turn into boundary conditions, and what that implies.