Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Writing Wednesday: The Long Tail -- What Happens When Nothing Happens?

Hey guys, I'm sick as a dog today, so I'm turning the blog over to my incredible husband and business partner Travis Bach (aka, the one who actually does all the non-writing work in this house). As always, he came through in spades and wrote an incredible post. It's almost enough to make me wish I was sick more often! (THAT'S A JOKE, UNIVERSE. DON'T DO IT.)

Anyway, the tissue pile is getting dangerously high, so without further ado, here's Travis to talk about the Long Tail and why it matters for authors.

***

Hi Folks!

Its low tide time here, so I thought that I'd take advantage of the sleepy sales days to talk about a term we hear about all the time, but seldom get a clear definition of: The Long Tail

This was the most graph-like lemur I could find
I've mentioned the Long Tail Effect on the blog before, but every time I try to find a good link that explains how the Long Tail works for publishing, I struggle to find one. SO! Today I'm going to explain what the Long Tail means for authors, how it works, why you want it, how to get it, and so on.

(Surprisingly, this will not be a super-graph heavy post, despite the mathyness of it all. You're welcome!)

What is the Long Tail?



And now for a graph...
This graph is from the Wikipedia article on the Long Tail.
I've seen this graph many, many times before. I've seen it in the sales numbers chart for every book/new format launch Rachel has ever had plus the many other data sets authors have shown me. This shape, the spike followed by steep drop off, is the shape of book launches.

Imagine, if you will, that the area in Green is the total number books sold during the first 3 months a book is out. The area in yellow is then the rest of the book's life; going right on toward infinity or until the book goes out of print.

(What's really weird is that you can see this shape at most levels of 'zoom'. As in it often looks like this if you are looking at daily, weekly, monthly, and, I theorize, yearly sales data.)

The area in yellow tends to be asymptotic - approaching zero at an ever slowing rate, but (theoretically at least) never getting there. For any given book on a long enough time line, sales will eventually drop below 1 per day. It'll be 1 sale per 2 days, then per 3 days, eventually 1 sale per month, and so on.

The core idea of the Long Tail is to show just how much that yellow area amounts to in terms of sales. Sure it's not a giant spike like the green bit, but it goes on for far, far, longer, and it accounts for more sales than you would think.

How this works in the real world

For authors, there's two concepts that the Long Tail brings to the table.
  1. Most (if not all) books sell more copies over their Long Tail than during the first three months of their launch.
  2. The long-term royalty income that creates stability for your career comes from the Long Tail of your sales, not from new releases.
Let's talk about that first concept first. Just how much does the Long Tail really matter? Launches are exciting, sure, but when it comes to actually making a living at this stuff, steady and stable performance is what really counts. Take Nice Dragons Finish Last for example. 

Units sold in first 3 months (launch) = 12,400
Units sold in the following 14 months = 39,600

To be fair, there's been a lot of sales days and other boosts to help keep those Long Tail sales up. But even removing those promos, the sum from the normal sales days (ie, when nothing is happening and the book is just sitting there on Amazon) is greater than the launch window's sales (though not by much!). That number is just going to climb as time ticks on. Time is actually a great salesman in a way.

Point is, all those small sales days, even as the bumps they generate decrease in size, still really add up over time. Which brings me to concept #2:

The Long Tail of Author Income

Writing is a creative endeavor. While there are many methods authors can to learn to tame, corral, and dial up their creativity, its pretty hard even for pros to pump out books on a reliable schedule. Some books are easy and some are hard, and the hard ones just take longer. Taking longer means the book goes on sale later, and thus one gets the royalties later, creating gaps in the author's income schedule.

When this happens dramatically, (like how One Good Dragon took Rachel over a year to write), the thing that will hopefully keep the professional author afloat are those Long Tail sales from other, completed books. For example, we've had nothing noteworthy happening sales-wise on any of our titles since the Daily Deal a few months ago. Here's what our holiday sales looked like,

Last 60 days' sales for all self-published titles (NDFL, OGGDA, 2kto10k)

That's roughly $5,000 in sales. Nothing to brag about, but also nothing to sneeze at. These small, steady numbers are the bread and butter earnings that keep us fed between books and sales events. This is why the Long Tail matters. When a book takes longer to complete than you planned, or even bombs out all together, the Long Tail is there to help you get through. This is why managing your backlist and the Long Tail income those titles create is so so important, which leads my to my next point...

How to Get a Good Long Tail Going

This tail could use some work! Wait, did this metaphor just get weird?
So how do you get to the point of enjoying solid Long Tail sales even when you're not constantly launching new books/running promos? This list is going to surprise you all I'm sure,
  1. Write good books
  2. Market them and yourself

As always, good, well reviewed, reader beloved books are the key to writing success. This is because the most important source of Long Tail sales are all effectively referrals.

  • Referrals from all the amazing fans and readers out there. (#1 by far)
  • Referrals from book review sites.
  • Referrals from the Amazon engine.
  • Referrals from your other books. (Always make sure you have something in the back matter to let readers know you've got more titles!)

But as an authors, you're not just promoting your books. You're also promoting yourself as a trusted source of entertainment. Authors do this with interviews, podcasts, social media, blog posts, anywhere they can get the word out. Chances are, none of these will have a real impact on your fame individually, but all together, they really work to lift your profile as a writer. Plus, these events have a Long Tail of their own as new readers keep discovering these guest posts and interviews months, even years after they first came out.

The point of all these things is to focus on building momentum and discoverability for yourself and your books. In many ways, the Long Tail is the reflection of how many people are passively finding and buying our books without any real direct effort on our part. It's all the people who read an old interview by chance, think it's cool, and then later see the book on their Amazon recs page and decide on a whim to try it out. We didn't market directly for that reader. They simply drifted in as a net result of the cumulative effect of all the work we've been doing both with promotion and with quality control. Good books really do sell themselves.

This is where the cheap sales gimmicks and strategies that involve cranking out shoddy, crap novels as fast as possible fall down, because these novels are often not as good as they could have been by definition. To be clear: this way of writing can and does make people a lot of money, but the moment you stop cranking books out, it all goes away, because these authors (GENERALLY SPEAKING! Don't send us hate mail!) never focused on building their reputation or their fanbase. It was always new releases.

Again, this is not to disparage any author in particular. There are obviously many authors out there who write fast AND well and kudos to them. But there are also lots and lots of people out there whose career plan is to crank out copies of whatever is popular. This is especially true in the self publishing world, where there is a lot of common advice and pressure to publish publish publish as fast as humanly possible. A strategy that we at Casa de Aaron/Bach strongly disagree with, especially in the long term. This is not because we hate fun, fast, commercial books, but because when the only reason you're publishing a book is because you need a new release to pay the bills, that's never a good place to be.

It sucks to be caught in a publish-or-perish cycle. Its unavoidable when just starting out (even with a good long tail, it's tough to make a living off one book) but that kind of write-or-die pressure gets old fast. This is why we think it's always worth the extra time to create books you're really proud of, not just to sell. Creating true value and getting it to the right customers creates something more far more stable than mere release day sales and ultimately, for the author, more liberating.

Though, since its pretty hard to 'write good books' faster than you already are, lets talk about how to affect your Long Tail by getting the most from your books.

Marking Matters, Distribution Matters, Formats Matter

Though the entire idea of the Long Tail is selling over time, there's actually a lot you can do to hustle the process along. Some things produce immediate, measurable rewards and others help build your Long Tail in more subtle ways.

1. Publish in as many formats as you can. Every format has its own devotees. To reach them all, you want to make sure your book is out in as many as possible, but the most important are audio books and print editions. Not only do these two formats sell pretty well on their own, they also lend credibility and professionalism to your brand, widening the number of people your story can reach. Additionally, each new format is like a mini-launch of the book, providing a bonus to you in terms of sales and attention (that coveted bump to your Long Tail).

I'd love to list hardcover editions here as well, but I just don't have enough first hand information or experience to say anything about them one way or the other. I dream of Kickstarting a line of Heartstrikers hardcovers when the series is finished, though. 

2. Choose your distribution wisely. It's pretty obvious we're huge fans of Kindle Unlimited here, but you may not be, and that's okay. All authors target different readers, and while our readers seem to love KU, yours might be somewhere else. Multiple distributors can be great for Long Tail because they represent multiple different income streams for the same work.

Now, obviously this advice applies mostly to indie authors since Trad Pubbed peeps get zero say in where they're distributed, but one of the best things about being indie is that you get to make these kinds of marketing choices for your own work. You can try all the various distribution methods out there, experiment, and then pick the one that works for you. Also, just like with new formats, launching on new platforms is a way to get attention, especially if you're reaching outside of the Amazon reader bubble for the first time. The important thing is to do your research and/or experiments and decide what works best for you. 

3. Put your book and yourself out there. Sales sites like Bookbub absolutely can get you a lot of sales, and sometimes even a lot of readers (note: these are not always the same thing. To find out why, check out this post). Facebook ads can also be great if you have the time and are methodical enough to hone them (though IMO, stay away from AdWords). 

Traditional marketing aside, what you really want to do is put yourself out there. Get on every place under the sun that will review your book and/or interview you. This is really tough at first, especially if you're self published. Trad authors with the weight of their publishers behind them will have a much easier time, but even if it's just you, getting yourself onto blogs and podcasts is not impossible. Just remember: if you are small, start small. Aim for small blogs and venues, people who are more likely to take a chance on an unknown. As you grow more famous, start trying for the next tier up. Repeat this process until you get where you want to go. Also, don't be afraid to try for the big stuff even if you're pretty sure you're going to get turned down, because sometimes they say yes! Good luck does happen, and all it takes is one big site giving you a positive review to give you a TON of exposure. Rachel still gets a considerable amount of traffic from when Ilona Andrews recced Fortune's Pawn.

Again, any of these three things alone might not make much of a difference. If there was a magic button for long term sales, you know we'd be smashing that sucker as hard as we could. But the combined efforts of many smaller things--building your reputation, getting your books out there in as many ways as possible, keeping your books visible--has a huge effect on your Long Tail, and as you build your backlist, you'll find that all this work pays off by creating a stable writing income that pays out completely separate to your release schedule. That might not sound like much, but when you're running a household off your writing, this will be a huge deal, because...

Your Long Tail is Your Career

The last thing I'd like to talk about is how powerful the Long Tail effect is over time. Theoretical graphs aside, keeping up the pace of launches and promotions is how you build a successful author career. Now that you know what it looks like usually, let's see how the Long Tail behaves for an active author, specifically Rachel since her's is the data I have.

Legend of Eli Monpress Omnibus - Lifetime Amazon Rank data

Its pretty easy to look at this graph and see the cumulative effect of continual writing, publishing, and all the other things Rachel does and I help with. Its kind of her career in a nutshell since most of those spikes are book releases. That effect has kept a nearly 5-year old book well above 100,000 sales rank.

That's no small feat for any book, but it's especially impressive considering Eli was never a huge hit or a best seller with a big marketing campaign. It was just a good book people liked, and thanks to fans spreading the word and our own efforts to keep Rachel and her books constantly out there, especially her older titles, Eli is still bringing in respectable royalty checks long after the series finished.

This is the power of the Long Tail. A book's life doesn't end with its release day blitz, or even with the end of a series. So long as your audience is less than the total population of the Earth, there will always be new readers out there for you to reach, people for whom your books might just be what they always wanted. Finding those people can be rough, but if you spread your net wide and keep yourself and your books out there with promos, interviews, blogs, social media, and quality new releases, you'll find that your megaphone will continue to bet bigger and bigger, sending out ripples that reach more and more people, even when you're not doing anything at all.

***
Rachel here again! Thank you as always to Travis for writing up this amazing post. Isn't he the best?!

I hope you enjoyed the post as much as I did, and thank you as always for reading. You can find more writing business posts like this by clicking on the Business tag, I also post about writing craft and a whole bunch of other stuff, so be sure to follow me on the social media of your choice (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+). I swear to keep you up to date! And if you're looking for a good book to read, you can always find all my novels, read sample chapters and reviews, or write me an email directly at www.rachelaaron.net.

Thank you again, and as always, best of luck in all you do!

Yours 4 eva,
Rachel (& Travis!) 

7 comments:

Sam said...

The link to rachelaaron.net is spelled wrong

Kessie said...

All good stuff! I always enjoy Travis articles with all the numbers. Now you've got me pondering turning all my books into paperbacks ...

Travis Bach said...

Thanks for spotting that. Fixed.

Travis Bach said...

We've found create space to be relatively painless to use but pricing is an issue. We are still not too happy that NDFL print is $13.99, but its very hard to bring that number down.

William Hertling said...

I was a little bit surprised to see you say there were no good examples of the long tail applied to publishing, because Chris Anderson wrote the book The Long Tail specifically written about book and music sales, and he talks a lot about book sales at Amazon. A short summary of The Long Tail theory here: http://www.longtail.com/about.html

An updated version of the 2004 article that originally introduced the concept of the long tail is here: http://changethis.com/manifesto/show/10.LongTail

Then as I read further into your post, I realized you were talking about the slope of sales over time. Woops, wrong long tail.

In statistics, the long tail refers to a power law distribution, as described in the wikipedia article.
In business, the long tail usually refers to the distribution of sales in an industry. As Chris Anderson describes it:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

I think the better term to describe the gradual decline in sales for a given author over time is sales decay rate, which I think is widely understand in the business world.

The long tail (as commonly used to describe distribution of sales) has huge implications for indie publishers because how we can distribute and market to niche audiences, but that's very different from the decay rate of sales over time (also very important, but for different reasons).

Travis Bach said...

@William I agree with you that it this is about sales decay rate and not about the classic economists' definition of the long tail concept. I did things this way because when I run into this concept on say, other author business blogs, this is how its used - talking about the sales generated over time by a book, series, or career. Modern indie publishing seems to be much more concerned with the statistical (calculus really IMO) version of the long tail and how it affects us.

Great comment btw! Thanks!

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