One Weird Trick to Jumpstart Your Publishing Career

Previous post: The Long Slow Ramp of Death.

A silver bullet.

tl;dr: There is no silver bullet. There is, however, a silver funnel.

In my last article, we looked at the road to $10k as a “long slow ramp of death”, inspired by a presentation on software startups by Gail Goodman. I dropped some metaphors:

  1. Writing is a business.
  2. Starting a business is like climbing a long slow ramp, with death on either side.
  3. To start any business, you need to build a flywheel and impart momentum to it.

I’ve dispelled the notion that there’s any one thing, any one weird trick, that will skyrocket your writing business to meteoric success like those authors we’ve all heard of. No one thing will produce “hockey-stick growth”.

Instead, success in any business, comes from aligning every action to one purpose.

What is a business? It’s more than just a way to spend your hours between 9 and 5. A business is a method of producing value to capture revenue from customers who desire that value. A farmer produces wheat to sell to customers who desire to bake bread. An airline sells fast travel to customers who desire to cross the country quickly.

What is writing? An author produces stories to sell to readers who desire those kinds of stories. It’s as simple as that.

Three kinds of businesses.

Or as complex as that: a farmer must convince his buyers that the grain he sells is good quality and stored correctly. Buying wheat from the farmer must be free of hassle and result in actual, quality wheat in the buyer’s hand, for a reasonable price.

An airline must convince its customers that their airplanes are safe and comfortable and that the travel experience will be free of hassle. The airline must also have access to the airports that the traveller wants to depart from and arrive at, and must sell tickets at a reasonable price for the services offered.

Both farmer and airline must manage a thousand little details particular to their industries, but it all boils down to this taking actions with a threefold purpose:

  1. providing valuable goods
  2. finding customers who desire those goods
  3. convincing customers to exchange money for those goods

Writing is no different! An author writes stories, which are (hopefully!) valuable to a certain kind of reader. The author finds customers who might desire his stories. The author convinces those customers to buy. If all goes well, at the end of the day, both author and reader go home happy.

If you’ve spent much time in the fiction publishing industry, you know that it’s a complex business. And especially of late, it’s been changing rapidly in the particulars: Ebooks and ebook formats; Amazon and its algorithms; social media and advertising; the shifting roles of agents and traditional publishers.

There’s a time and place for going deep into those particulars, and I’ll have do that as I get into them. But those are all tactical concerns and right now we’re looking at the strategic level.

I’m happy to say, despite the seismic shifts in the publishing industry over the last few decades, the fundamentals of the publishing business have not changed one.

It’s still about providing entertaining stories to readers hungry for more.

But how will you get your stories in front of your potential readers? How will you convince them that your stories are worth the reader’s hard-earned money? Why shouldn’t the reader go buy some beer instead?

It’s time for a controlling metaphor. While there are no silver bullets in business, there is a silver funnel.

A funnel.

The funnel is your marketing plan. Above the funnel are all the people in the world. Below the funnel emerge the readers who have paid money for one of your stories. (The funnel leaks heavilyβ€”it’s more like a marketing collander, but nobody consulted me when they came up with the metaphor.)

The art of marketing is to increase the number of customers who make it all the way through the funnel without leaking out.

The top of the funnel: Channels

At the top of your funnel are your channels, which is to say, where your customers are. This is where they first hear about you or your story. In my Road to $10k article I identified the main channels I would be starting with in my own marketing plan: Twitter, Medium, Wattpad, Steemit. These are places where I think I can find potential customers who will be interested in my story.

The middle of the funnel: Customer Engagement

In the middle of the funnel lies the muddle. This is the customer engagement section of the funnel. This is you and your potential customer getting to know each other. This is the farmer encouraging the buyer to take a handful of grain and look at it, smell it, taste it. This is Southwest Airlines telling you that two bags fly free. πŸ’Ό πŸ’Ό πŸ›« (!)

For you, the author, customer engagement can be lots of things. For me, it’s me posting interesting sf-related articles on Twitter, with my colorful commentary. It’s me offering my story in serialized form: “here, read it, smell it, taste it; this is good stuff.”

These days, one of the most important customer engagement tools for any author is the email list. I’ve got two: one for my fiction, and one for my Road to $10k series. (You should subscribe to both, you know!)

Customer engagement is about building trust. My potential readers need to be able to trust me as an author that I will provide something of value to them, without any hassle or tricks.

The bottom of the funnel: Conversion

The goal of the funnel is, of course, to turn potential customers into confirmed customers. You and your customer exchange value for value: the customer gets a story, and you get cash. πŸ’°πŸ’°

Now, there’s an important caveat here: the metaphor is as leaky as your funnel will be. Don’t think that once you have the customer’s money, you’re done. Oh no, don’t you dare think that! Save that thinking for your t-shirt stand in Cancun, where every sale is a first sale.

In an ideal world, for the writing business, conversion is about more than getting cash. You also want to get a lifetime customer.

The funnel experience: a case study

I’m a lifetime customer of John C. Wright. I’ll buy pretty much anything he writes. I like how he writes. I like how he thinks. (I may not always agree with him, but he challenges me to think clearly about those things.)

I entered into Mr. Wright’s funnel in a small bookstore in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. (There’s the channel.) I saw his first novel, a far future space opera, “The Golden Age”. The title intrigued me, so I looked at the cover. (Now we’re entering customer engagement!) The cover really intrigued me, so I read the back cover. Further intrigue! So I read the first page.

Reader, I bought that book. (Conversion! πŸ’°πŸ’°)

But it didn’t stop there. I read the book. I loved it. It was the first of a trilogy, ending on a cliff-hanger. I waited impatiently for the second book to come out a few months later. I bought it in hardcover because I couldn’t wait for the paperback. πŸ’°πŸ’°

Then the second book ended on a cliff-hanger. I waited a whole year, then bought the third book in hardcover. πŸ’°πŸ’°

Then he came out with a fantasy duology. I found it in the bookstore (channel). πŸ’°πŸ’° It was really good. I waited a year for the second book. Bought it in hardcover. πŸ’°πŸ’°

It was probably around that time that I discovered Mr. Wright’s blog (then a Livejournal). I read his essays, learned about the new projects he was writing, and read sample chapters. When he releases a new book, readers of his blog know about it first. It’s both a channel and customer engagement rolled into one.

How much money has Mr. Wright earned from me? Not being privy to his contracts, I can’t really say. But crucially, he probably could. And that brings us to a crucial metric for measuring your funnel’s effectiveness: life-time value, or LTV.

Life-time Value (LTV)

LTV is the average total revenue you receive from a customer, across the entire span of your engagement with him.

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