Cleviosity

In which I decide, it's mostly bullshit, except for writing more books.

I make up words. I don't mean to do it. I don't try to do it. It just happens. Like Cleviosity.

Cleviosity (or Cleviousness) is my term for when you are trying so hard to do something smart that you wind up doing something stupid. And if you've never done this to yourself, just wait a little while. It will happen, I promise. It's a persistent feature of the human condition.

One of my favorite examples of cleviousness is from the famous Turkey Drop episode of WKRP in Cincinnati

 The local radio station does a Thanksgiving promotion where they give away live turkeys. But to make it clever, they throw the turkeys out of a helicopter above a large crowd. The problem is that turkeys can't fly. And so the crowd is pelted by a hail of large birds plummeting to their doom.

And if the fiction of this strikes you as implausible, you should spend some time learning about Balloonfest '86 (the release of 1.5+ million balloons from the city of Cleveland that killed two people)

And/or that time the State of Oregon thought that the best way to get rid of a whale carcass would be to blow it up with dynamite. Try this video. The sound of the news crew getting pelted with flying chunks of rotten whale never fails to bring a smile to my face.

No one can escape errors of cleviousness. Not even “experts” in their field. If you don't want your faith rattled, don't look closely at a cost-benefit analysis of your favorite policy intervention or program. Even though very smart, well-meaning people design those the Law of Unintended Consequences guarantees that they can (and often do) go wrong in a host of perverse and counterintuitive ways. Like a case where aggressive advertising for a suicide hotline lead to a jump in suicides, the advertising serving to remind people that this horrible option was on the table.

I tell you all of this to soften the self-inflicted wounds of my own cleviosity. For I fear, I have duped myself again.

So the problem I have is the same as every other independent author. Discoverability. People have to know about your books to read them. This Substack, podcasting free audiobooks, reader magnets and all the other stuff I do are a way are all ways to increase discoverability. Except that none of them are working. Not really. Because there hasn't been much growth.

Oh, don't get me wrong. My audience IS growing and my book sales are on track for 3x of what they were last year. But the audience is not growing very fast. And 3x of not much is still not much.

My situation doesn’t depress me and it shouldn't depress you either. Because I have found ways that don't work and those have helped me get closer to the way that does.

So, to get my mistakes and future plans clear in my own head -- and because this newsletter shares, 'How's It's Written" — I'm going to summarize it in here.

Where I am. What I've learned.

For the last few months, I have been spending a lot of time trying to crack the next level of the author business. Releasing books, doing experiments, cranking content, reading and listening to many, many 'experts.' Really trying to figure it out.

So here's what I've learned.

ONE — It is easier than I thought to make a good amount of money writing fiction, but it's not easy. (At All) And I've been making it harder by doing it wrong.

There are authors who make a lot of money publishing fiction on KDP. The most fundamental thing they do to make this happen is write A LOT of books. But publishing has changed dramatically since 2011 when I first published How to Succeed in Evil. And, until recently, I didn't understand how much and in what ways.

2011 was a golden moment for Kindle. And into that I launched Evil. If I had three more books to go in the next year, mine would possibly be a different story. But I didn't and I couldn't produce fiction at that volume then.

TWO — I haven't been writing with the right audience in mind.

I have thought that I am writing for me. In one way, that is correct. I'm writing to try and make something that I am proud of. But in another way, it's absolutely wrong. I read, like ~50 books a year right now. And a significant number of them are non-fiction. The audience of people who make a successful author reads 300+ books a year. And they are ravenous fiction readers.

With a business of my own to run and two young children, I have trouble even imagining that it's possible to spend that much time reading. Oh, I'd love to do it, but... So I have had a hard time wrapping my head around my customer. This is a classic and eternal mistake in business. But I'm trying not to make it anymore.

THREE — For discoverability, I'm writing in the wrong genre

Simply put, there aren't enough people looking for another satire or superhero or supervillain book. And the number of people looking for the intersection of the two is frighteningly small. So, for example, there is a Kindle Bestseller lists for Superhero, but go look at it. 

 Do you see anything on there that's really a superhero book? Nope.

Check out satire.

See anything like the How to Succeed in Evil books? .

It's not that my books are bad (although I may be biased, you can use your own judgment) it's that nobody is looking for these kinds of books -- and for sure, nobody is looking for what I'm writing in the categories in which they fits. So the I am writing into a niche that does not appease the cruel and unbending Gods of the Search Algorithm.

This is so bad, I can't even find enough books to target to make KDP ads profitable for the How to Succeed in Evil books. Either my ads are so targeted that they get a minuscule amount of clicks, or they are so broad that I get many clicks without getting purchases. I am going to continue to experiment with this, but the point is, I'm not fishing where the fish are.

This is only frustrating to me in the short-term. Because, if someone finds me for something else I've written, they will be likely to take a chance on the Evil books, so breaking through somewhere else will gain sales, so it will pay off in the in end. And, I made quite a lot of money (in self-publishing terms at least) in the Golden Era of Kindle Sales (2011).

So the lesson here is that I'm going to write one more book in the How to Succeed in Evil series (80k-100k) and then put an end to it. Then, I’m slap them all into a box set and sell all of them for 0.99 on Kindle. And if that seems shocking, that's because (like me) you didn't understand the next point.

FOUR — For most genres, the war is over and Kindle Select has won.

For the ravenous, voracious, slavering readers who put down 300+ books a year, Kindle Unlimited is a bargain. And KU pays authors not by the sale, but by the page read.

The Kindle Edition Normalized Page rate for May 2021 is $0.0044/Page. And a Normalized Page is about 180 words. Which makes the KENP shorter than a physical book page.

This means if you read my 300 page book, I get about $2.50. Even if the "price" on Amazon is .99 cents. And if I can get you grab all of the books at once, my odds that you read more pages go up.

FIVE —For discoverability, I've been putting out the wrong content

I love the "How It's Written Videos" I've been making. Love 'em! And for a very niche audience of authors, they are pretty great. But as a funnel for me as an author... yeeesh.

I started doing them because I thought YouTube videos targeted by keywords would be a good way to reach new people. A percentage of which would subscribe to the YouTube Channel and an even smaller percentage of which would subscribe to this Substack, a smaller percentage of which would become paying subscribers (I know, I know, when you write it down like this the foolishness of it becomes apparent)

The best thing about them for me is that they are great practice for an author. And I'm going to continue to do this kind of thing, but I'm not going to make it any harder by adding video production in on top.

I think there is something to be done with a YouTube channel like that. But that gets into the process and struggle of growing a YouTube Channel. Which is another distraction from what I should be doing with my limited time. Because currently, those videos aren't doing very well.

By contrast, I put up a video called "How to Explain Technical Things to Non-Technical People" and it gets crazy organic growth. Go figure.

SIX — Having only one series is fishing with one line in the water

Boy, that subhead says it all. I have other ideas in me. But I thought the clever thing to do was to write something very original. That is pure cleviousness at its worst. The gold standard is to write something everybody knows and loves but make it original and fresh again.

So what am I going to do with this hard-won understanding?

In a nutshell, crank up my output of books. Not audiobooks, not fiction podcasts, not videos. Books. Write more books. Everything else is bullshit. Perhaps I should get that tattooed on the back of my hands so I don't allow myself to be distracted. (Actually, that's a horrible idea. Cleviousness again?)

And obviously, I'm going to switch genres. The next book out will be the final in the How to Succeed in Evil S1. And it's great. All the stuff that has been set up in the first three is going to pay off magnificently. Even though I know it's unlikely to change my world when it gets out there, I am super excited about this book.

So what about this Substack/Newsletter thingy?

I am going to continue with author/creator/thinker interviews. I'm going to do more work dissecting stories that I'm re-reading and thinking about the genres that I'm trying to understand and write in, and you know I'm always good for the odd philosophical essay.

I also thought I might start serializing fiction again. Substack has subcategories now. So if I did each book in its own category, you could subscribe or unsubscribe to it as you see fit. And that way, I thought I might make part of this newsletter into a beta reader program.

And lastly, I had this crazy idea about playing a game with all of you. A story game. That is writing a serial story where you get input. Or maybe even most of the key decisions. A real-time, reactive, choose-your-own-adventure. 

A h/t for the last two ideas (and a generally EXCELLENT content) goes to Elle Griffin and her Substack The Novelleist. You should definitely check it out. She’s a lovely writer and there's a lot to dig into there. And I learn a lot every time I read one of her posts. 

And what are you doing right now?

Writing Evil. In fact, I'm 20k into the draft of the last Evil book. Here's my progress bar.