Sunday, August 17, 2014

How High School Marching Band Changed my Life... at Age 40

I was never very involved in high school. I didn’t play sports, and I wasn’t in any clubs. The final bell rang at 2:40pm—if I wasn’t already a mile down the road by 2:45, it was because I was serving detention. For me, “being involved” equated to conforming, or giving in, or… something. What it was I would have been giving in to, I have no idea now and I’m not sure I knew back then.

I’m married now, with two teenage children. Both of them are hopeless band nerds, and believe me when I say there is no way for me to fully express the unabashed pride and affection I feel when I make that statement.

But I didn’t always feel that way. Band, especially marching band, is an enormous time commitment for students. Because it is for them, it is for their parents too. The rehearsal schedule is filled with long, grueling, twelve-hour days spent on a blacktop in 90 degree weather. Most days, rehearsals run even longer than they’re scheduled. Competitions, especially the out-of-state ones, can result in the band not arriving back home until 3 or 4 in the morning.

For the parents, having a kid in marching band can be inconvenient and annoying. It can make or break weekend plans, and even cancel vacations. For a guy like me, the whole program seemed ridiculous and too much.

Now, I want to be clear: when I say my kids are hopeless band nerds, I’m not saying that marching band is a hobby they enjoy, not even close. They love it with an unquenchable passion, and it was that way from their first day of rookie band camp. So even in the beginning, it was hard for me to speak out against it… as much I may have wanted to.

My daughter is my older child. Her first year with the band, I didn’t really pay a lot of attention. I worked a lot—night hours, which are a staple when you own a pizzeria—and my wife handled most of the picking-up and dropping-off duties. Honestly, I didn’t think my daughter would stick with it, but she did. It became so important to her that when her second year rolled around, I agreed to begin fundraising for the band through my pizzeria. As a result, I began spending some time at the school.

Let me tell you—I was blown away, completely and immediately. It could be 8:00pm and there would still be 200+ kids at the school, still working hard. And they were happy to be there! My wife scoffs every time I say it, but I still can’t help marveling at the idea that there is a whole other world, a ‘school after school’, that I never knew about.

I began to start coming early to pick up my daughter (and eventually my son too, who joined the band in his last year of middle school), just so I could watch them rehearse. I marveled at their attention to detail, their unrelenting spirit, and the pride with which they carried themselves. Even after 12 hours in the hot sun they still gave it their all, and they loved every minute of it.

My son and daughter, they looked so alive, so proud, especially during performances—something that would have terrified me when I was in high school.

It made me realize there was a major component of my life missing, one that had never been there before simply because I’d never had the courage to commit to doing something I love. Work and money had always seemed too important—an excuse. But there my kids were, doing both what they had to do (regular school) as well what they loved. They’d committed. Fearlessly.

And so in November of 2011, I wrote the opening line to my first novel. It wasn’t ready for publication until April of 2013—work kept getting in the way, family and friends kept getting in the way, life kept getting in the way—but I stuck with it. I stayed committed. If my kids could do it, I could do it.

That novel has found its way onto more than 50,000 Ereaders. My next four novels have already sold thousands of copies. I get fan mail. I have an enormous subscriber list that gets bigger every day.

Courage, conviction, and commitment to a passion were all it took, and I never would have learned that lesson if not for my kids and, of all things, high school marching band… at age 40.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

My Advertising Strategy Part II

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Last post I talked about the basics of my strategy: have a series, make the first book free, and "overkill" a consistent message.

This is the post I will talk about where I advertise, which is really the meat and potatoes of what I do.

When I first began writing and learned that there were companies out there selling something as basic as a single tweet (to thousands of followers), Facebook posts (again, to thousands of followers--or friends, in the case of Facebook), or an email sent out to a list, I scoffed. It was absurd to me to think that people would pay enough attention to that kind of advertising that it could make any significant impact in sales for an author like me.

I've had experience with email marketing and social media advertising in the past (through my regular job) and none of them worked. Why would I ever consider paying good money for something I'd already tried before that didn't work?

Well, let me tell you--Twitter and Facebook may not yield high results, but email marketing, for books, absolutely does. If you're an author struggling to get yourself noticed, this is the road for you to take. Now, there are a lot of companies out there that provide this service. All of them, bar none, will promise to deliver amazing results. Unfortunately, you don't get to put that to the test until you've already paid them.

This is the post where you learn which ones work, and which don't. This is the post that will save you a lot of time and money. Now--keep in mind as you read this: some of the sites I list here that didn't work for me might work for you. Maybe I'm the wrong genre for the majority of their mailing list. Maybe the size of their list has grown significantly since the last time I used them. Try them if you like. Actually, I encourage it, and would love to hear back from you if you have positive results.

I can only tell you my experiences, and let you make the decision from there.

As I said in the last post, I go on a six-month rotation. Most sites regulate how often you can advertise a book with them. Most will allow an author to advertise different books once per month (meaning if you have multiple titles, you can advertise a different book once a month). But if you want to advertise the same book over and over, the waiting period is usually longer. Keeping in mind (from my last post) that I only spend money on advertising my free book, I'm forced to go with the max amount of time between postings. That's fine with me. I want to give the mailing list time to grow between mailings. I don't want my book to become the equivalent of 'spam' when their mailer goes out. Six months, to me, seems like an acceptable period of time to satisfy those requirements.

I follow the 15 Day Rule: I try and have something go out every 15 days. I want people to see my book, my name, and my graphics as often as possible, and in as many places as possible: brand recognition. By doing that, I establish trust in my product, because the more often someone sees a name or logo, the more likely they are to believe it is legit. I am legit, and I'm not afraid to shout it from the rooftops.

There are only 3 companies that yield strong enough results that I don't worry about following up 15 days later. For those, I wait 30 days. For the sake of an easy example, I'm going to start the list on January 1, although that isn't necessarily a date I use.

My rotation, the cost for each, and the results (for me) are as follows:

  • January 1: ($130 for a Scifi Listing) Last run, 15,239 downloads on the day of the ad  *Bookbub is by far the best of any ad site. I skip 30 days for this one
  • February 1: ($0, for now. They will soon charge for free listings) Last run, 376 downloads on the day of the ad
  • February 15: ($5) Last run, 487 downloads on the day of the ad
  • March 1: ($0--free books are free listings) Last run, 1522 downloads on the day of the ad *2nd best results I've ever had, I skip 30 days for this one
  • April 1: ($50) Last run, 538 downloads on the day of the ad
  • April 15: ($8 premium) 155 downloads on the day of the ad
  • May 1: ($25) Last run, 423 download on the day of the ad
  • May 15: ($5) Last run, 128 downloads on the day of the ad
  • June 1: ($50) Last run, 667 downloads on the day of the ad *3rd best results, I skip 30 days for this one
  • *repeat beginning July 1
As you can see, you don't always get what you pay for. High cost does not always equate to the highest yield in sales, but these sites are the ones that have given me the best results. I can tell you this: I'm averaging over $1,500 per month in sales, and I'm spending $510 a year in advertising. It's a no-brainer.

Bookbub is the site that will "make you," but recognize that they are choosy. They decline 90% of their submissions. It took me 7 attempts (once a month) to get approved for an ad, but it was worth it. If they decline you, don't give up. Set a reminder for yourself and submit again 30 days later per their policy. Persistence will pay off.

Now for the ugly: the sites that didn't yield results for me.
  • ads: don't do it. I put $50 in their fund, have changed the layout and wording of my ad dozens of times, and have had no results.
  • Google Adwords: you pay per click. If someone clicks on your ad, it costs you. But that doesn't guarantee a sale. I did them for six months, spent over $300, never saw any increase in sales.
  • Hotzippy ( and Very professional site. It gives you confidence just looking at it, but I saw no increase in downloads. $30.
  • I really like this site, and I really like the owner, Vinny, but it didn't help sales. It was only $10 though, so maybe worth a try again in the future.
  • no spike in sales, not even a blip. $15.
  • Spent $50 for the ad and actually saw a decrease in sales on the day it went out.
There are other sites that advertise books, many of them. I realize I haven't listed them all, but these are the ones I've used. I welcome comments, insight, or experiences from other authors that aren't the same as mine for comparison, especially with regard to sites I haven't mentioned.

I know how hard it is to find good advertising in this business. I know it can feel like every other author out there is in direct competition with you, and yes--they are, to some degree. But the great thing about books is that it isn't like "Big Mac" vs "The Whopper". Readers will try both, and if both products are good they'll come back for more from both authors. So for me, I'm happy to share the way I operate with other writers.

I hope I've been helpful.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Advertising Strategy
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I'm going to break this up into two posts. Today's will break down the way I advertise and why. The next one will be a list of all the advertisers I don't use as well as the ones I do use, and how often.

For any author who has been in the business for a while, there are no smoking guns here. For those of you with marketing degrees or backgrounds in the field, no revelations. Some of the way I advertise is Marketing 101, some not. Some I'm still learning. In no way would I call my strategy "The Way to Do It" -- but it is the way I do it, and I promised I would share it.

There are three main facets to my advertising strategy:
  1. Have a series to work with.
  2. Be willing to give the first one away.
  3. Be consistent. "Overkill" the message.
Some authors will never have a series, I know that. It's just not the way they write, and not what they want to do, and of course that's fine. For my strategy, though, I feel I need a series or it wouldn't work. Currently, I have five books on Amazon. Four of them are part of the same series. 

Important fact, here:
  • I sell no less than 500 of the second, third, and fourth books in the series every month. 
  • I sell no more than 20 (per month) of the one that is not part of the series.
My horror book, Sway, which I feel is one of (if not the) best of my books, barely sells. But the others do very well.

The first book in my series is my flagship, it is the rock upon which my entire campaign rests. I only pay to advertise it. Not a single other one of my books gets a nickel thrown at them.

And it's free. Not $0.99, but absolutely FREE. "Try-it-before-you-buy-it." I know a lot of other Indie authors use this strategy, too. The reason is because it works. By doing this, I believe I'm sending a message that says I'm confident in my work, confident readers will enjoy it. So confident, in fact, that I'm willing give away something I spent 21 months working on to prove it.

Now, I know there are a lot of readers out there who will download any book that's free just because they can. In fact, I have found that to be true of the majority of people who download the free version. I also know that there are many who won't like my book. Hey, that's okay. I don't like McDonalds much, but they're doing just fine without my $1. My stories won't be everyone's cup of sweet tea, and I know it. In fact:
  • In FREE downloads vs. purchases of the other three in my series, My ROI is only 5.57%
Sounds awful, right? It's not. As of 7/31/14 I've had my first (free) book downloaded 43,511 times. Now, again... that sounds awful, right? Well, it's not. Because those downloads occurred in a short, three month span. Do the math. Compared to "pre-free" times, before I made Book 1 free, (basically, any time before 5/1/14) I'm rolling in sales. 

Now, don't get me wrong. "Rolling in sales" is a relative term. I did say compared to pre-free times. I still have a day job out of necessity. But in the three months since I began operating in this way I can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not a train. All I have to do is write three times as many books as I have now, have them all part of a series, and I can write full-time. Ten more books. Last year I churned out four. Not sure if I can keep that up, because I'm really burning the candle at both ends, but if I can I'll be a very happy camper. And honestly, two years of hard work in exchange for who-know-many-more of doing what I love... SOLD.

So--I have a series, I give the first book away free, and then finally I make sure I'm consistent in the message I deliver. In my case, the message is, "Hey! I have this series, and the first book is FREE" Pretty straight-forward, right? It is, but it's the easiest part of the strategy to let slip, and is just as important, probably more important, than the other two facets of my strategy.

I advertise through various book selling sites and blogs roughly once every 15 days. I say "roughly" because there are two that provide pretty amazing results and I don't need to follow their ad so soon after, they sustain themselves for over 30 days. I work off a six-month rotation using ad sites that have yielded positive results in the past. It took a while to get that rotation set in stone--a lot of sites out there promise great results but don't deliver, and I think I've probably tried the majority of them. In the next post, you'll have the benefit of being able to avoid my failures, because I'm going to list all the sites I've advertised with that didn't work.

So that's it. That's my strategy in its simplest form. Sure, I post on Facebook and Twitter now and then, I post on this blog, and I send out New Release emails to my subscriber list, but that's just when I need a break from writing. Nothing to it, right? No smoking gun, I know.

So how come every Indie author doesn't do it? They should, because it works.

Questions/Points to be Made?
Let try and address a few I know will come up.

"This is all great, but I don't have a series." Even for those who don't have a series but have numerous books all in the same genre, I believe this could work. Choose the book that best represents your work and make it free.

"I just can't stomach giving away something I worked so hard on." How much are you making now? A little? Nothing? Wouldn't you rather make a lot more? I was selling less than 15 books a month before I incorporated this strategy. And part two to that: why did you write your book, if not for it to be read? Isn't that, really, the greatest gift to any author? To have fans who appreciate your words?

"I don't have multiple titles." Then why are you wasting your time browsing blog posts for get-rich-quick schemes? It's not going to happen. Get back to writing and come back here when you have more titles.

"I can't afford the ads." Let me tell you: you may have a bestseller sitting on Amazon right now, but no one is ever going to know about it if you don't advertise, and advertise often. You can't afford not to advertise. Social media isn't a complete waste of time, but it's damn near. 

"Matthew... over 40,000 people have downloaded your free book. Don't you think you've peaked? How many more people are there?" I write young adult science fiction. Hunger Games (just the first book) has sold 28 million copies. That means I've reached 0.1% of my potential audience so far, and mine's free. I'll happily keep plugging away.

"Okay, okay. So what companies do you advertise with?" I'll get to that in the next post. Maybe tomorrow, probably more like the middle of the week, because I've got some writing to do.

Friday, August 8, 2014

I'm out of state for work this week, and it's very quiet where I'm staying. My first meeting of the day got canceled, so I figure what better way to spend the free time than saying hello.

The final ad I was waiting for went out yesterday with disappointing results, but it did go out and I'll be sharing my strategy and results sometime in the next few days. I hope that I'll be able to lend some advice that will help other Indies.

Tomorrow is DCI Finals (Drum Corp Int'l) in Indianapolis. It's like the Superbowl for my band-nerd kids, so we're heading there to watch as the greatest marching bands in the world battle it out for the number one spot. I've never been to a DCI Finals performance, so it should be very exciting. I'm certain the music and showmanship will be off the charts.

Camping was... okay. LOL. It was hot, I sweat a lot. I fished a bunch, caught three fish smaller than my hand. Ate food laced with flies and dirt. It was grrrrreat. Honestly, I could probably do camping a little better if it was a little colder, but anything near 90 degrees or more and I'm pretty much miserable. I don't like to smell. Call me a wanker, whatever, it is what it is. This is why I need to live in the mountains.

Working on rewrites already with Shimmer. It's coming along so good, I can't begin to explain how excited I am for this new series. It'll still be months before it's published, but the flow is so good... loving it, absolutely loving it.

I hope you're all doing something fun this weekend. If you're not, summers going to be over before you know it... better get out there. Maybe go CAMPING.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Going camping this weekend. I'm really not much of a camper. Not sure how that happened, I used to love going when I was younger. We even have a pop-up now, so I won't be sleeping on the ground or anything, but still... guess I'm either getting old, lazy, or just plain cranky. Seems like a whole lot of work when you're supposed to be relaxing. Give me a room with a fireplace and a view (and A/C!!!) and I'm a much happier camper.

I know I mentioned posting my advertising strategy a few posts back. A few of you have emailed asking when. I will, I promise. I'm waiting for one more ad to go out on August 7th, and then I'll post. It's the last in a series of ads with new companies I've been trying out.

Today is my big brother's birthday. A big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you, Joe! He's out in Las Vegas, so I'm sure he'll find something fun to do on a birthday night in Vegas that happens to fall on a Friday!

I'm nearly finished with a book coauthored by Debra L Martin and David W Small: Witch's Curse. It's a fantasy, which is usually not what I read, but this book is GOOD. It's the second in a series, but could easily be read on its own. I'd recommend it to anyone. First book in the series, Assassin's Curse, is only $0.99 right now. I have it perma-linked on the right side of this page.