Writer’s World Episode #176: Bumps, Lumps & the Power of the…

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TC1 Giza Map. Author image.

Well, the holiday book buying bump is over – not even Amazon can get a print version of a book to you by Christmas – so I’m here not so much licking my wounds at my meager nine December sales compared to last season’s nineteen as trying to look forward to kicking ass with TC2 next year. Correction: I just checked my paperback on Amazon and indeed they are still claiming a Christmas Eve delivery if you order today – unbelievable! Not for hardcovers of course.

In the end, my sales were in the U.S. for the most part though I did sell a copy each in France and Germany. Nothing in the U.K., which was a bit of a surprise, perhaps they key upon year of publication, only seeking newer books, or the lack of consensus in my ratings and reviews held them back? Canada and Australia? I don’t know, they just aren’t players for me.

Well, no market region is a player for me if we’re being honest about my numbers. I’m at 184 sales lifetime including all formats. Pretty pathetic. Especially given my seven or eight thousand – yes, seven or eight thousand dollar – advertising costs over two years. My ACOS isn’t so much dismal as, well, humiliating.

What to do? Look on the bright side? I have received forty additional ad clicks as compared to last December and the month isn’t over yet. Does that mean that forty more folks were exposed to TC and will perhaps be interested in the arrival of TC2? Hell no. The unfortunate reality, in my opinion, of my legitimately successful ad click (as opposed to click-thru) campaigns, at least in the U.S., probably has more to do with the omicron zaniness than anything related to my work. The book cover, that is, catches peoples attention because it appears that Vixy may be wearing a mask – I’ve discussed all this irony elsewhere. What else would explain, besides, again, the just-above-mediocre ratings/review average as it appears on Amazon (3.7 stars) and the non-click-throughs except that the folks only click out of curiosity on behalf of the book cover image, or, heaven forbid, because they are honestly interested in a SF novel to do with masks? Life is indeed irony. (Once again, for the record, Vixy wears a veil whilst in Egypt and the cover, well, my designer’s intention was to communicate that half her face is in shadow cast by the faux-curled book cover, and the other half is in the light, oh well, whatever works).

But what to do next? I am doing my very best to work the systems – I experimented with maxing out my so-called dynamic bidding settings on KDP and it seemed to work but only in the sense that I received so many clicks so fast that it burned my $600 monthly budget and I had to dial it back to even keep the ad campaign running through today. Again, that book cover can certainly get its share of clicks. And my blurb and synopsis are fucking great, I’m convinced of that. Well, good enough, at least. But neither that stuff nor the “Look Inside” – the writing itself – apparently inspires folks to pull the trigger. And that’s all that matters: sales.

I don’t write not to be read. We all know it isn’t the money for fuck’s sake because all it does is cost me thousands of dollars to even be on the playing field. So that I continually battle the sense that I’m merely a fop of a vanity press wannabe and that I sell anything at all only because I pay so much to advertise a book that statistically nobody wants.

It’s funny, last night, noting that the dustjacket hardcover has been priced at $14.50 or so for perhaps months (Amazon, to their credit, just keeps dropping the price until it sells), I bought a copy myself. Why? First, because I don’t have a copy of the third state in my possession. I have a shit-ton of second states which I’m trying to get myself to toss in the rubbish. But I gave away the only third state – a case laminate version as it happens – to one of my relatives. No feedback for that except, “How did Keith learn to write like that?” Oh, well.

The second reason I bought the dustjacket version, then, is the Amazon discounted price. Hell, I compared it to my author price on Ingramspark (the folks who actually manufacture that version) and it was not only almost five bucks cheaper – FIVE BUCKS! – on Amazon but I’m getting the the damn thing on Christmas Eve. Poor, pathetic Ingramspark can’t even ship it until at least twenty fucking business days from now!

The disparity in price and availability – production and shipping efficiency – between Amazon and Ingramspark is commensurate with that between Amazon and, say, Barnes & Noble. Which is to say, there is no comparison when it comes to who is better at selling books. Add to that the lousy indie publishing process at B&N (decrepit and worthless) and the painfully old-fashioned marketing model (pay to have an outlandishly expensive ad mocked up and placed on the B&N site) and it’s obvious why I literally cannot sell a single book on B&N or for that matter any other retailer. For the indie like me, an outsider authorpreneur with one book, continually on the cusp of oblivion, it is Amazon or nothing. So, say what you will about so-called corporate monopolies or the imagined unfairness of it all in bookselling, the numbers speak for themselves.

And, let’s face it folks, book retailing in the old fashioned sense really is dead. Yes, I bought a novel last week at a brick-and-mortar store here in Ann Arbor. But it was only because I was killing time waiting for my eyeglass joint to reopen from their lunch break. I paid $17.99 for City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty, exactly the same price I charge for TC1. And meanwhile I took a look around the store which I hadn’t been in for at least a year, more like eighteen months, and my own title was long gone, of course, after they’d been gracious enough to at least shove the thing onto the bottom shelf, spine out for, I don’t know, the duration of one of their inventory cycles. There and gone, so be it.

My point about wandering around this little bookstore, however, is this: they don’t really sell any quantity of books. Book stores never really do, even the big ones. If you understand that there are some 8M titles they could be stocking, perhaps 10M that can be obtained from either the trads or the indie POD world – I don’t know the exact number, I’m just referencing what Amazon posts as the part of their tracking – then it’s obvious that, as with all brick-and-mortar retail selling of anything, what’s on the shelves is merely a pathetic sliver of what’s available online, all of it capable of being delivered to your door.

But, regarding this little store, which happens to have been around for many years here in a strip mall on the west side of Ann Arbor? It’s on it’s second owner (last time I checked). And I walked in, ticked off that they still required masks but that’s a different beef of mine, and discovered an entire section reconfigured away from selling magazines (Locus, for example) and into, yes, knickknacks and worthless bric-a-brac. Candles. Toys. Cards. Dust-collecting junk. Which for years had already occupied the entire front of the store. As if we need more of this crud for sale in a bookstore?

Well, the business model apparently says, yes, we do. It’s apparently, unbelievably, what people prefer to buy in a so-called bookstore. Not books, or even magazines. Oh, and the books themselves? Get this, I’m sauntering around the SFF section and I’m taken aback by encountering three shelves devoted to nothing but Tolkien. Three entire shelves! And a center display table, too. All Tolkien. Out of perhaps, I don’t know, a paltry twenty-five or thirty other SFF shelves.

What else? Well, another three shelves of, guess what? Dune. And another center display table of exclusively Frank Herbert. I didn’t bother to check Harry Potter (I have never read any of Rowling and don’t expect to, not out of spite but rather because the series simply seems too adolescent and does not appeal to me, no harm, no foul, no blame). Let’s say Rowling commanded at least another three shelves and a display table. So that I can safely estimate that perhaps a whopping thirty percent of the SFF section within this bookstore was consumed by a mere three authors. Only one of which is living. The Hobbit was published in 1937 and LOTR in 1954. Dune? 1965. This amounts to roughly ten percent of the genre’s so-called shelf space consumed by each of these authors, two of which are long since demised. And you might have noticed that I haven’t even begun to consider, say, Star Wars.

It’s mind-blowing. And the sales, of course, justify this. Locus Magazine publishes its list of best sellers and of course, perennially, it is these three authors that inevitably or at least regularly appear in the top ten. Prove me wrong. Who cares? I mean, at least in the case of Tolkien and Herbert I can agree that those are, for the most part and especially in the case of Tolkien and the first Dune title, masterful works entirely deserving of their fame, fortune and timeless appeal. So, we’re giving the people what they legitimately want.

What about folks like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, even genre-crossers like Atwood and Stephen King? Or the newer leaders like Crouch and whomever else? In any bookstore you’ll probably see at least half a shelf devoted to Heinlein, and more or less to the other SF greats beyond those I’ve mentioned and, well, Stephen King remains in his own class – whom else can you be assured to find anywhere books are sold from the airports, gas stations and grocery stores?

Anyway, I don’t intend to whine. Gads, I’m not whining. I can’t compete and don’t deserve to, I get it. And being an entrepreneur, you sell what sells or you go out of business. If there happens to still be an unspoken mandate, shaky and diminished and dubious as it may be, that bookstores are supposed to expose us to new writers and new work in general, well, what of it? It’s the dream and not the reality. Toys and bric-a-brac are what folks buy in a bookstore. I don’t. I never will. Well, perhaps except for a Bob Ross or Doctor Who coffee cup or something. No. Why, after all, when I can get anything I ever happened to want like that online?

I don’t own a Bob Ross coffee cup or refrigerator magnet. But I’m not against them at all. Doctor Who stuff? All fun in its proper context. Which is to say, outside of a bookstore. Neither Bob Ross nor Doctor Who, of course, had anything to do, at least in the beginning, with books. Television and video rules the Earth, it’s just the way it is. Hey, I do own a Crafsman coffee mug. And I’d probably pick up a Cajun Craftastrophe version if T-Nu sold them.

On the topic of video. I want to give a shout-out to somebody I came across via my wife’s treadmill software or apps, as they’re called; namely, Ifit.com, which publishes exercise videos of all types to watch on your treadmill’s video screen. Romy Romany, a native Egyptian, born and bred, as they say, in Cairo, can be characterized, no harm, no foul as far as I’m concerned, as a so-called “popularizer” of Egyptology. He’s educated in the field, he can read a bit of hieroglyphs, he isn’t a PhD (these days not necessarily a bad thing at all) and he seems genuinely proud of his heritage and the archaeological heritage of Egypt. Moreover, he’s been making documentaries with the likes of the Discovery Channel since he was following his father around the Giza Plateau and everywhere else to do with Egyptology. He’s got a compelling personal story, too, to do with the struggles of modern political Egypt, I’ll leave it at that.

I mention him, however, first and foremost, because he created a video tour that reproduces very similarly the route that Five takes in TC1 from the Queen’s pyramids and along the western faces of Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu. He may dive around the eastern face of Khafre, I can’t recall. The point is, had this video and a handful of his others been available when I was researching and writing the novel, working hard to be true to the actual distances and geography and all that, it would have helped. Then again, I suppose I’m glad I didn’t have this video (and there have been Giza walk videos around for probably decades already, I don’t know) because it made me learn things in my own way.

Anyway, here’s the video and it’s a good place to begin with Ramy’s stuff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqguuqA9JXs.