Fb Ads + Wren 3 & Pequeno edits – Writing Wk13.2 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

This week I’ve mostly been absorbed with scaling up my FB ads while writing a couple new chapters for Wren book 3, Make Them Pay.

FB ads scale up

I’ve been serving my suite of Saint Justice ads (5 of the book covers in both square and rectangular, copy is the book blurb) to 3-4 primary audiences for the past month, but never really knowing which ones were working and which were just spinning my wheels.

Now, thanks to judicious use of affiliate links, I have a much better idea of who converts and who doesn’t. This is super valuable. It’s also kind of obvious – but when I’m managing my FB ads, it’s easy to pour more budget into the ad set that’s getting the cheapest clicks. But that way lies madness. If that was all I cared about, I’d only run video feed ads (and make no sales at all!).

So, who’s performing? Here are the ad audiences and conversion:

  • TAK Thriller Authors & Kindle CVR: US 10%, UK 8%
  • TAE Thriller Authors & Ebook CVR: US 5%, UK 4%
  • AMK All Media (Thriller Movies/TV/Books) & Kindle CVR: US 5%, UK 5%
  • LA1 Lookalike 1% CVR: US 5%, UK 4%
  • LA4 Lookalike 4% CVR: US 1%, UK5%

This is invaluable data. With the TAK ads getting 1 sale in 10 clicks, compared to everything else getting 1 in 20, I should be willing to spend anything up to double the price on the TAK ads. If I’m not doing that, I’m not optimized. But to date I’ve not been doing that. I’ve been splitting my budget pretty evenly across these 4 or 5 audiences. This tells me I need to double down on TAK. Only move budget over to the others when TAK is double the price they are.

Also, the LA4 ad in the US performs terribly. 1 sale in 100 clicks is unacceptable. I can switch that off easily and only save money. Otherwise, 1 in 20 seems the order of the day. Real useful data. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Make Them Pay new chapters

I just finished edits on Make Them Pay, right? Right – but then I got a review from a guy who’s loving the series, but he said he felt short-changed by this book.

🙁 That was a downer. I don’t want to disappoint fans. It’s true it’s the shortest book right now, at 63,000 words. I made it that way by cutting out a lot of non-scene verbiage. Like, repetition of explanations, action, events happening twice. So I felt bad. I wondered what I could do. Last week I thought about adding a few additional acion opening chapters – and I still mean to do that.

But – on a brief glance at the middle, I found a spot where I can smoothly add in new chapters and a whole new setting. It’s right after Wren breaks social media. Previously he did this twice in a row, bu to sort of no avail, setting up a Black Lives Matter thing in the street. Fine politics, but unnecessary. Also, after this he gets winged off to a strike where all the detective work has been done by his hackers. He just takes their word for it and kicks ass.

Not very satisfying. How was the detective work done? Well, the hackers built a matrix, and… (yawn). I don’t wan to rely on hacker ‘magic’. So I came up with a source Wren could shake down, happily just up the road from Silicon Valley – San Quentin Prison.

It’s a cool double chapter sequence. Only adds 4,000 words, but they’re solid and worth having. Now he sets it all in motion, and his hackers only follow orders. Better.

Saint Justice concerns

I got a couple of painful Saint Justice reviews this week, and the average star rating dropped from 4.1 to 4.0 to boot. I’m not happy about that. The worst review went like this:

Not as described!

Based on the one paragraph summary, I bought the 5 book set. After reading St Justice, and learning that the serie’s plot revolved around chasing groups that abused minorities, women & children, I deleted the entire series. I read for enjoyment, and I found nothing enjoyable in this book.

That’s not good. I feel bad that someone dropped 5 books’ worth of cash then deleted them all. I don’t wan to misrepresent the book. Likewise I don’t want to put all that stuff in the blurb, because I know it’ll crush conversion. It’s a tricky problem. So what can I do?

Well – change the body text to make it fit. I’m starting off small. So far I have:

  • Gone through all the books and changed the offensive term ‘Pickaninny 3’ which the Apex uses for Wren to ‘Pequeno 3’. I feel there’s nothing lost. The Apex is not racist anyway. He hates everyone equally.
  • The bikers in their opening Saint Justice interaction with Wren mention racial slurs maybe 3 times. I can cut all those and we still know who they are, when they’re talking about nooses and calling him ‘Boy’. It’s enough.

That’s it so far. I don’t know that I need to get rid of it all. It’s the core plot. But if it lifts readthrough, which is currently sub-50%, I don’t mind doing it. I could:

  • Change the assassin’s almost use of the N-word, and remove Wren’s response.
  • Flip the whole plot from being a ‘race war’ narrative to something else. Supremacism but not based on race? Or maybe hatred of religion (by the bad guys, obviously)? That’s dangerous territory too, but less heated than race.

I could do that. But should I? And it doesn’t help me with book 2, but I’ve really moved the child abuse angle of book 2 deep into background. We hardly come near it – though we all know it’s there in the background. Hmm…

To help me decide, I’ve hired 2 more beta readers via fiverr, and asked them to assess Saint Justice and tell me what I can do to get higher ratings and better readthrough. We’ll see what they suggest. I’ve not had full feedback from anyone yet on this latest iteration of the book, so it will be interesting.

Generally, it’s getting better.

By this time next week

I absolutely must focus on book 6 now. It’s due out in 3 months, and I have 20,000 words. Gotta get it done, edited, sharpened, cover made and put out. It’ll happen. So – 30,000 words by this time next week!

First 10k month – Writing Wk13.1 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Early this week I made my first major post on the 20booksto50k Facebook page. It’s the biggest group of Indie authors I think there is – almost 50,000 members, brought together by a shared ‘climb up the mountain’ toward book writing/publishing/marketing success.

On there you’ve got folks making 100k+ a month and more, and sharing how they did it. You’ve got people who run their own small presses, who write a book every two weeks, who’ve been full time indie authors for a decade and more. I’ve never written a post there before – lots of comments, no real content, until March brought me my first 10k month.

That’s a real milestone. I wanted to mark it while also sharing what I’d done to get there. I posted the below in the morning, and within an hour it had 200 likes. Now on Friday that’s up to 1000+ likes and 250+ comments. I guess I mention that because I never expected it. It’s hugely encouraging.

Here’s the link to the post: https://www.facebook.com/groups/20Booksto50k/permalink/3471122772994162/

Here’s the post, for posterity’s sake:

My first 10k month

I just reached $10,000 revenue for this month, March 2021, and would love to share how I did it and what I’ve learned in the long process to get here. A couple of quick stats first: I cleared 10k on an ad spend of approx. 66%, almost entirely on Facebook ads. That’s a 50% Return on Investment – I’ve no doubt others are doing better, but I’m blown away to be making this kind of reliable (thus far) return.

The tl;dr version of this post boils down to this – Working on your ads skill won’t matter if people don’t want to buy your book. Simple and obvious, maybe, but I’m sure there’s many folks out there who, like me, have dug deep into ads looking for the magic copy or image, when what you need to do most is make your book into something your target audience WANTS to read. 

My story (at slightly more length)

I’ve been self-publishing since 2014, starting with 2 weird epic fantasy that struggled to sell (though I did get a Podium audio deal), followed by 3 hard science fiction that really struggled to sell (though some famous authors provided blurb copy), followed by 9 zombie apocalypse thrillers that sold pretty well – especially when I rewrote them for pace and content then combo-ed them into a 9-book boxset which sold for 99c – making most of its money through KU page reads.

Nearly 3 years back I decided to make the move to writing thrillers. I wasn’t a massive fan of reading in the genre, but I loved Lee Child and Barry Eisler’s books, while watching most big action/adventure movies and TV shows – with a particular soft spot for 24.

So I wrote my first Christopher Wren thriller. I wrote three in the series, self-edited, made my own covers, wrote my blurbs, then fast released them all in June 2019. It wasn’t to crickets, but it wasn’t good either. The series responded to Facebook ads, had a Bookbub or two, but mostly lost money for a year or so.

I kept the faith, reinvesting my zombie book money (which was starting to dry up) on making the Wren audiobooks while writing books 4 and 5. There were various revelations through this time – primarily that the series had abysmal readthrough (around 10% to book 2), with reviews broadly saying that while people thought it was a good book, various off-genre features turned them off and made them not want to read on. It held a 4.1 star rating on Amazon US, but something was clearly wrong.

Investigation

I was adrift for a while, wondering if I ought not just move on to a different series. That’s a vast amount of work to write off though. 5 books and 2 years of all my energy poured in. Plus what guarantee was there that in my next series, I’d hit the market square on if I didn’t even really know why this series wasn’t selling?

I decided to dig in and keep trying to figure it out. I solicited reviews from blog tours and net galley deals, and they were all excellent. OK. So maybe those reviewers are not my target audience. I looked to get editorial help, but I’ve had bad experiences with editors in the past, and didn’t want to go big or rely on any one person’s opinions too much.

So I looked at Reedsy and Fiverr, and over a period of time hired a range of manuscript assessment deals and beta readers. Comments were generally incredibly helpful – when I asked them to focus on why people weren’t wanting to read through to book 2.

Results

What came in for me was that the book was off-genre by quite some way. This is a simple way of saying – “It’s not what people want to read”. Super simple, but pretty much the core reason I think anyone who’s struggling to sell is struggling to sell. People just don’t want to read it, and nothing you can say in your ads is going to convince them otherwise.

I’ve been learning this lesson for years. My epic fantasy books were very weird – in setting, narrative, hero, villain – kind of Victorian steampunk with invented races and a crazy kind of memory-magic. Totally my kind of thing, but not mainstream. In my hard science fiction books I just went all out crazy, with a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk mind-jacking adventure through ruins and nightmare-scapes. Again, wholly my bag, but almost impossible to find the audience.

I tried very hard to market all these. I put solid dark epic fantasy covers on the fantasies, but couldn’t reach ‘my’ readers. I put cyberpunk covers on my science fiction, but nobody really reads cyberpunk now, and the books only loosely fit that genre anyway. My zombie books however had great covers and only subverted the genre tropes reasonably late in the story (naturally, I had to flip everything), so people were reading through more.

It’s turned out to be the same story with my thrillers. Jack Reacher thriller readers want thrills that are fun and exciting, not gross-out, dense, deep, confusing, disturbing – which is what my books were. I had lots of blood and gore, lots of death of sidekicks, a hero who was violently dark and out of control thanks to mega past trauma, multiple viewpoints including from the perspective of killers (great for serial killer genre, not great for lighter thrillers), lots of swearing, real downer endings, real downer beginnings.

I basically bludgeoned the reader. In some genres this may work really well. Not in this genre.

Action

So I worked to learn the genre more – not what we see in movies and TV, which is what had largely inspired me, but in what we see in books. I am still learning it. I got those fiverr and reedsy readthroughs and acted on comments I kept hearing, changing the body text across all 5 books. I read lots of books in the genre. Things finally transformed when I realized I had to remove ALL the multiple viewpoints, straighten out the narrative, make my hero way more in control, massively reduce the violence, blood, swearing, brutality and downer vibes, and basically make my books less challenging and more FUN.

So I did all the above, including writing all new action openings for books 1 and 2. I added new slightly cliff-hangery endings. I made big cuts of downer stuff – book 1 dropped from 90,000 words to 70,000, book 2 from 100,000 to 80,000, book 3 from 90,000 to 63,000 (very short! I am currently bulking it back up).

I got new covers made by a pro on 99 designs. They are dark and on genre for terrorism thrillers. I wrote new blurbs. Things totally kicked off when I put up the new version of book 1 on Amazon, with its all-new action opener scene, and a new tagline to hook people in.

‘They stole his truck. Big mistake.’

Sales

Book 1 started selling like never before. Conversion on my low-level Facebook ads spiked. I watched readthrough to book 2 jump from around 20% which I’d coaxed it up to over the past year to around 50%. That carried over to later books in the series well. Reviews coming in on both Amazon and on the Facebook ads are so different from what they used to be.

Previously people said a lot of ‘I liked this book, but I’m going to need some time to recover before I read book 2.’ Now they were saying they leaped straight to book 2. Yes.

So, I cranked up my ads. I read the recent income report posts by Blake Hudson (thank you!) and started making more images, trialing more audiences, and expanding my spend. I made $200 in a day! Then $300! Then $500! Then it dropped because Facebook cost per click went up, so I made more images (both square and rectangle) and went back in hard.

Yesterday I made $650 in a day, off about $350 spend. That’s nearly 100% return. Wow. How far can this go? I have no idea. It might all disappear tomorrow. But the lesson I’ve learned is simple and super clean.

Lesson

Ads won’t sell a book. I’ve done nothing really different with my ads to cause this recent surge, other than scale up once they started working. I always was using my cover image as the image, always was using my blurb as the copy, always targeted a mixture of interests (Thriller authors narrowed by Kindle) and Lookalikes (built off my Facebook ad click engagement), was always sending clicks to both the series page and the first book in the series, was always targeting mostly newsfeed in both US and UK primarily.

The thing that sold my book was the new blurb, and the cover, and the opening chapters for the Look Inside, and the fact that they finally were all singing from the same hymn sheet. Fun. Exciting. On genre.

Write and package something that readers want, and they will come to you. Ads will suddenly start working like someone opened up a spigot. If your ads are not working, look to your book, and your genre, and roll up your sleeves to start syncing them up…

Enemy of the People 1/4-point – Writing Wk12.2 2021

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I already wrote in 12.1 about finishing up Make Them Pay – through the week’s end I chased that with some oddball tinkering on books 1-3, re-made the boxset and re-issued it, then dug into book 6. Also lots of ads nonsense ;).

Enemy of the People 1/4-point

I had been concerned even before this latest spate of rewrites that the Enemy of the People opener was not propulsive enough. It is all down-time reaction to the events of the last book, with some problems of Wren’s physical and mental state.

At the core though – it’s not fun to read about a Wren who’s so mentally broken. If he needs to be chivvied along and properly motivated, then I’ve not made the threat adequately immediate. So, I’ve fixed that:

  • New opening sequence, that extends the escape from DC that ends book 5 and also introduces the book 6 villains right off the bat. I think it’s going to work pretty great.
  • When we check in with Wren, he’s not mentally defeated – though he is physically broken. We recover him from that pretty quickly though, and get straight into the action.
  • In writing the last couple of days, the scale of the story just leaped a notch. A mass violence/riot event that would have closed out one of the earlier books is now happening as standard. It shocked me a little, but until that point I’d been worried the threat wasn’t really there. Now I’m certain it is.

So I’m finally at 20,000 words! Only 60-odd k left to go. Though if it runs short like the earlier ones now do, it may close at 70k. So short.

Facebook Ads

A while back I turned off all my affiliate link ads because they weren’t getting through Facebook for some reason. Now they are, so I spent many hours setting them all up again. Now I get an extra 6% every time I make a sale, which of course is great.

I also get to see which ads/audiences are converting. Answer? So far, they’re all doing about the same… I also figured out you can send an affiliate link to a series page. Previously I was only running series links, and getting a good number of people who bought all 5 books in one click.

Then I tried sending to book 1 only. Conversion on book 1 went up, but sales of the rest of the series dropped a lot. Hopefully readthrough will take care of that, but why leave it to chance that I’ll sell books 2-5 later when I get just sell them upfront now? So I’m going back to pushing the series link.

Next week target

By this time next week it’s probably realistic to hit 30,000 words. I’d love to hit 40,000, but I’m both slow and kind of lazy at the moment. It’s also true that writing fast thriller scenes takes me way longer than the baggier kind of writing I was doing before. So much critical thinking goes into drilling down to whatever the core story is. Better for the reader, more work for me.

Make Them Pay rewrites finished!? – Writing Wk12.1 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

I just closed out the Make Them Pay, Wren book 3 rewrites, and am feeling celebratory. I already wrote about everything I did to change the book, but as I accelerated toward the end, I was really feeling it.

This thing hums. I am getting better at spotting the bits that lag. I had 2 chapters that were kind of coda, catching up on where everyone was up to. Now I’m thinking that kind of stodge is a readthrough killer. If you give kind of happy-ever-afters to all the characters, and end with little sense of threat and a feeling of closure, who’s going to feel compelled to read on?

It doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger, either, although that works. I changed the ending by about 20 words, and suddenly there’s a compulsion to race onward. I feel it. The threat is closer to home than ever. We need to read book 4 to find out how it will play out.

Previously people had asked – will there be a 4th book? If Wren’s in jail now, is that it for him? and I can’t blame them – I had lines like ‘ Wren’s father might be out there, but it was OK, and things would work out’. Not exactly that, of course, but basically that.

I also had a bolted on ‘revelatory’ flashback, but it was a nothing revelation, easily removed. We already had our big revelations, we don’t need a minor added one.

The trick now is to keep carrying this momentum forward. It is super obvious to me now that book 4 opens too gently. The opening line is actually – ‘Wren liked his cell’. Are you kidding me? We need urgency from the start. We need a genuine injustice that threatens Wren to the core. Not too much, not to gross us out or make us uncomfortable, but being content in a black site cell is just silly. So, this plus lots of other changes. Here are some more I dreamed up, to carry the threat forward and spice things up generally:

  • New Make Them Pay opening chapters. Instead of bunch of narrative fill for why Wren is up in Deadhorse, we’ll just show it. Have him tackling another Pinocchio cabal, put a child at direct risk, have Wren mop up those guys and get a clue on his father. Hi-octane, high injustice, high payout on vigilante justice done. Propel the narrative up to Deadhorse.
  • New False Flag opening chapters. Now Wren is desperate to get a message out about his family, under direct threat by the Apex. At the same time, Humphreys is trying to break him via torture. Make this horrible. Put Wren up against an interrogator like Nurse Ratched, trying to crack him. This could even be a great way to intro all the flashbacks. Have Wren defeat the interrogator by turning the tables. Some real stakes. Then we move onto Humphreys and the main story.
  • New Firestorm opening. This one can be Wren bouncing around hunting his father still. Can include the conversation with Gruber that is now delivered via loaded narrative summary. Have him raid somewhere filled with threat. Fill in the gaps – then go see the Ghost as the last resort.
  • New No Mercy ending/tweak? Currently I think the kicker to threat is not there.
  • New Enemy of the People opening. I’m about to refocus fully on getting this book done. It’ll be tricky to have an action opener, and I may dip back into Wren’s back catalog to get there. Maybe even a flashback to his Pyramid days, but propulsive. Then on with the present story.

Having these kicker opener and endings seems super key to readthrough to me. I’m reading the David Baldacci book A Long Road to Mercy, and he has such a killer opening. An FBI agent whose sister was killed be a serial killer as a child, now confronting that killer in a max security prison. Kind of Silence of the Lambs, but more intense because of their history. After that, the story goes super flabby and slow, but that powerful opening holds me still. Imagine if the body story was as powerful as that opening?

That’s the goal. Make Wren utterly addictive. It feels like super hard work. Crafting and crafting. But worth it.

Wren sales down, Facebook ad mystery and W3 rewrites – Writing Wk11 2021

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The past week has been a little disappointing sales-wise, as my Facebook ads are delivering less bang for their buck. Thus far they’re still profitable, though I’m spending more to make less, and that is naturally frustrating. What is causing this?

Facebook ad mystery

It’s a mystery, so I don’t know, but every day I try new ad combinations that are attempts to test the water and figure out some kind of mastery. Here are some disconnected comments:

  • Maybe I have already shown my Wren 1 ad image and copy to all the cheap clicks who are likely to buy, in all the major targetable areas who are likely to buy. Only maybe 1% of any given audience have seen my ads on Facebook, but maybe that 1% are the cheap clicks who buy.
  • This is borne out by data – click costs on my Wren 1 ad are up between 20-30p, a lot more than the 12p of the heyday 3 weeks back.
  • So I try new ad images, to the same audience, using the other book covers. Copy doesn’t matter, I can use the book 1 blurb or book 2 or 3, I’m back to getting very cheap clicks, BUT not the sales of yore…
  • So are each of these new ads just targeting the same 1% batch of cheap clicks who buy? And any of them who would buy have already bought, hence the dwindling returns? I don’t think there’s a way to know this or check if these are the same people across ad sets. Maybe they are.
  • If they are, and that’s why they’re not buying, I should stop running these parallel ads. I’ll probably do that tomorrow. Double down on the old ad and its higher cost per click, in the hope that these are new clicks. My ad spend will drop significantly. I’ll be able to get back in touch with who amongst all these ad sets is actually converting.
  • This then is an argument for stopping making new ad sets. Within an ad set, FB is unlikely to show my ad to the same people too often. Across ad sets, I’m thinking each set considers the whole audience afresh. So by running ads in tandem, I’m really hitting the same people multiple times per day. Perhaps a useless thing to do…
  • Funnily enough, something like this actually happened when I first launched Saint Justice with a different cover. I got good sales for cheap clicks for a week or two – then it just went away. Maybe there is a pretty tight group of big buyers on FB, and you can burn through them in days. Maybe…
  • Then the strategy would be, ride one ad image until it can really no longer perform. Then turn it off and start a new ad image to the same audience. Keep moving to new ad images. You’re sort of inundating the audience, but they’re only going to see one ad in any given period.
  • The alternative to all this is that the big spike I had wasn’t even due to FB, but maybe to Amazon. Perhaps they were giving my books some headwind in that period, sending me out in emails. It’s possible. I might never know it. It would throw off all my data. Hmm.

So, that was a lot. My next step is to prune my ads way back. Find out who is performing by adding them back in one at a time. But maybe ditch the parallel ads regardless.

Wren 3 rewrites – Make Them Pay

I swiftly rewrote this back a few months back, mostly to take out the side stories. Now I’ve been looking at it again, in the light of writing new openers for books 1 and 2 that set a very persona stake for Wren, and finding far more wrong than I ever imagined.

This is backed up by reader reviews. Weirdly it has 4 stars on amazon, not 4.5 like book 2. Also weirdly, this is exactly what happened with my Last Mayor series. Book 3 got 4 stars, book 2 got 4.5 Normally when readers are 3 books in, they love your writing. Not in this case.

For the Last Mayor, I ended up making substantial changes to book 3, which ended up with being very short, maybe 50,000 words. Turns out there wasn’t much story in it. Bizarrely, it’s going the same way here. When I first wrote this book, it was probably 90,000 words. Now it is just 60,000! So what am I changing?

  • There are many occasions where I’ve made Wren unlikeable, sort of didactically. Either he is weak (collapsing, weeping, feeling suicidal, going on about all his guilt/PTSD, pointing out his own mistakes, dwelling on his past failures, being unconscious for long stretches of the action, neglecting his Foundation members), or childish/reckless (laughing manically in major action scenes, getting high, getting peevish about ownership of his Foundation, charging in half-cocked) or cruel/incredibly violent (shooting Rogers and leaving her in a suicide cult, berating the Anti-Ca girl endlessly, being brusque with Gruber, horrifically attacking innocent civilians at Namecheck) or doing something unbelievable (having a team who can hack and mobilize dozens of remote driverless vehicles within hours, getting shot a couple of times and feeling mostly fine), or some equally unpleasant behaviour.
  • That’s really a lot. I’m kind of surprised by it all. Why have I done all this? And it was worse before earlier edits, remember. He was harsher. Just a selfish bastard, really. A violence-spraying psycho, like the editor said, acting holier-than-thou but actually completely out of control.
  • To be out of control, whether it is to whims, circumstances, your own choices, is not why people read these books. They want a cool guy dispensing with bad guys in clever ways with clever bon mots. That’s kind of it. They don’t want to be beaten over the head with a guy spraying violence because of some horrific past he still hasn’t processed.
  • So. All that above has changed. It’s a lot. I rewrote whole chapters so Wren’s competence and decency shine through. He’s not taking drugs, feeling sorry for himself, fighting over silly shit anymore. He’s pumped to hunt his father. It’s personal. He hates injustice. He never calls himself a cult leader.
  • Up until now he was still calling himself that. Ugh.
  • Also there are whole chapters gone, largely due to repetitiveness. Right after he breaks NameCheck, he goes down the street and basically does it again with Iota. Why? It adds in a sort of BLM scene, out of nowhere. It is eminently unnecessary, so I cut it. With Jessica the cult girl, he basically makes her flip allegiance to him 3 times. Once would be enough. Now I have it happening twice, which is maybe OK. This happens often with reference to what’s going on on the Internet. I keep mentioning it. But nothing much has happened since the last time I mentioned it, so…
  • Bad events are not properly processed (suicides at Anti-Ca). Mundane events are dwelled on (the Foundation intervention). Long boring calls are made (most calls to Humphreys).
  • I’m fixing all this. Straightening things out so it’s taut.

I’m almost done. It’ll be 60,000 words – really short. Hopefully it’ll be loved, and readthrough will climb. It makes me wonder though, how much of these problems still exists in books 1 and 2, maybe 4 and 5 also? Why would it be in 3 if it’s not also in 2?

Boy oh boy. I’ll need to look through them all, and carry all the lessons forward to book 6. I need to get writing that soon.

By this time next week

I should have a better understanding of my ads. I imagine a smaller budget, more tightly focused. I should also be done with book 3 rewrites, and take a few stabs at book 2. I feel the middle of it may be bogged down. I’ll try to clean it out.

Wren sales & Facebook ad lessons – Writing Wk9+10 2021

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2 weeks ago I felt like I was teetering on a highwire – sales rising crazily, ads working like never before, selling books like hey were hot cakes. I had no idea if it was a weird blip or a one-off, and feared any single change I might make could mess things up.

Well – that hasn’t happened, though I’ve done a number of things that messed things up, reset the ads and dropped my rank. A torrent of horrible reviews hasn’t rushed in, crushing my star rating, and if anything, people have been saying very nice, positive things.

There was the one review that called the book WOKE TRASH, but really it’s about time I got something like that. Better problems, really. They’re not horrified by the gore, bored by the side stories, confused by the incoherence. It’s the social message that gets them. That’s a problem I’m happier to have.

So, what has been happening these last 2 weeks?

I learned a lot about Facebook ads. In the glory days of 2 weeks ago, I was getting good clicks at 13p. Amazing. That rose after a few days toward 20p, and I tried to stop/offset that in a couple of ways:

  • I started some video ads, served to video feeds. As ever, these achieved nothing while wasting a bunch of money. Lesson learned (again).
  • I swiched my whole performing campaign over to Campaign Budget Optimization. This reset all the algorithms knowledge, and ended up just pushing all my budget to the chepaest, but least converting ad sets I was running.
  • I undid that, then tried making 4 new ads, 1 for each of the other books. These got converting clicks at the old, cheaper levels – but didn’t sell book 1 – rather I sold more copies of book 2. I guess that is good, but it feels a sub-optimal experience. It’s better readers start with book 1. So I turned those ads off.
  • I experimented briefly with narrowing by Engaged Shoppers. This made no discernible difference to conversions, but did halve my audience and potential clicks, so I turned that off.
  • After that, I can’t get the cpc back down to 13p, and am starting to accept that is reality. I’m targeting some big audiences, millions in them, but what % of those millions are 13p clicks? Maybe not many. With big ticket advertisers on FB, I’d guess clicks can cost up in the high dollars range. So that is reality.
  • As a result, I’m going to raise my bid caps. One thing I’ve learned about bid caps, is they are not in any way a control or an incentive to FB. If I say, don’t bid above 23p a click, that doesn’t really push the algorithm to get me cheaper clicks. It’s already trying to get me cheaper clicks. It’ll just throttle the ad if there are no cheap clicks available anymore.
  • When that throttling happens, the ad set become Bid Limited or worse, Learning Limited, and it needs to be re-started so it can do the Learning Phase again. That’s all wasted Learning time, not optimized. So my aim now is to have looser Bid Caps, and manage things with the overall budget. That has to be managed gradually, to avoid going back into the Learning Phase.
  • I’ve also learned about hard caps on daily spend per audience. If I have a lot of ads serving to the same audience, they’re all in competition with each other. There’s overlap and it’ll cost me. Some audiences can only sustain a certain amount of daily spend – they just can’t be ramped up higher and stay profitable. I’m looking at my revenue per click, and it’s somewhere around 40c per click. So I can afford anything up to 40c bids before I start losing money – as long as that conversion holds. Somewhere between here and there will be a profit sweet spot – I need to figure that out.
  • Currently I’m running mostly ads to book 1 and a couple to book 2, hoping to get cheap book 2 clicks while book 1 maintains a workhorse-like stance.

So all that has kept me busy. I have also been rewriting some. In these last 2 weeks I wrote a whole new opening for book 2, which starts Wren off in Minsk attacking a dark Internet server farm. I think it’s pretty cool. The last few days I’ve been speeding up the book 3 opening, and trying to come up with a new way to frame the income inequality core issue.

  • Essentially, I was worried about the current Handel Quanse arena stuff because a- it’s grotesque and b- would that really kick off mass rage against rich people? I tossed and turned with this question for a day and a night, and now I’ve come to an answer. It’s fine. It works if I frame it correctly. People are already angry and afraid. This is a catalyst. It’s good.
  • This doesn’t resolve other issues. The way Wren gets access to the social media companies is brutal, and I can soften it. Also what he does to coerce the CEO is very tough. Maybe I can make it less so.
  • His raid on Anti-Ca is also harsh. I already softened this, but maybe can make it feel more righteous. I’m always putting Wren against soft targets, when they should be hard.
  • His reaction to Yumiko burning alive is way overboard. With this new, ready-made tougher Wren, I can undo much of that. I think readers probably found that way too emotional. It may be a big part of the reason book 3 has a lower review score than book 2. Crazy, but true.

So my plan for March is to finish reworking books 3 and 2, take a look at 4 and 5 if there’s time (mostly just to remove the side stories, which will make them match the others in the series), then I really need to focus on book 6. The launch date is July, so I’ll have 3 months. I want to hit that date, so we’ll see.

Not much else going on. We’re still locked down, though the country is gradually loosening up. Work keeps me pretty occupied. Main goal is get that readthrough up, and optimize the max number of clicks per day to get the max profit. Also – keep trying to crack Amazon ads!

Wren through the roof – Writing Wk8 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

This week has been epic in sales. I’m not ready to talk turkey (details) as I’m wholly aware all this could go away as swiftly as it sprang up. That’s happened before. I sold big, didn’t know why, and it just disappeared.

This hasn’t disappeared yet. Here’s some sense of what I’m looking at, with actual numbers removed:

It’s heart attack territory, really. Whenever I see the chart rising, I get a mega adrenaline spike. Worries that it’ll disappear, or that it’ll lead to a flood of negative reviews that throttle future sales, or somebody will figure out this shouldn’t be happening and squash me on Amazon.

Well, it hasn’t happened yet. I wonder if it will keep climbing, plateau and hold, or drop again? I wonder if Amazon will contribute some promotion juice to the mix via their auto-recommendation emails, that’ll raise it higher still?

I grabbed a couple of bestseller tags in Amazon and Canada. I’ve never had this happen before, without the boost provided by a Bookbub or similar promo stack. This is just Facebook ads.

And in writing?

Early in the week I worked on Wren 6 – added 2,000 words at the end, then did some redrafting of the early material to sew in the secondary perspective. I’m getting rid of all these now, showing them through Wren’s perspective, and it’s clearly working.

The latter half of the week I’ve been doing this for book 2. I weaved in DeVore’s heartstopping opening scene, now seen from Wren’s perspective. I add in some jokes. My goal with all these books now is:

MAKE THEM FUN

That’s it. I see now, with fresh eyes, how often Wren drones on about guilt and misery and the weight of all these decisions. There’s just no reason for this. It’s like me, the author, browbeating the reader for some reason. That, what, PTSD is very real, nobody can kill without suffering themselves, and blah blah boring.

Nobody wants to read that stuff, that makes them feel guilty. It’s supposed to be fun. So I’m stripping those weight-adding sentences wherever I find them. They pop right out with ease. None are pivotal, they’re all just dragging the story down.

Plucked! Also I wanna double check for swears. My goal now is to make these books as close to PG-13 as I can. There are horrors, but if I pull the camera way back, I think they’ll be more palatable.

What else?

I’m going to rework the paperbacks to match the ebooks, cover and text. I’m going to finish book 2 then set in on books 4-5. I’m also going to keep working on book 6. Still the goal can be 20,000 words by this time next week. Keep pushing that back ;).

Now I’m gonna go mow the lawn. It sorely needs it y’all.

Wren readthrough at 50%! – Writing Wk7 2021

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I’ve been blah-blahing about the importance of readthrough for many months now – keep on editing Wren to try and get more people to enjoy book 1 enough to read book 2 and onward.

Well, maybe I have hit it. I’m wary to draw broader conclusions, but figures this month so far suggest the last edits to Saint Justice have doubled readthrough from 25% to 50%.

Strong news, if it holds true. This month I’ve sold:

  • Wren 1 – 119 copies
  • Wren 2 – 62, which is 52%
  • Wren 3 – 49, which is 41% from book 1, and 79% from book 2
  • Wren 4 – 39, which is 32% from book 1, and 79% from book 3
  • Wren 5 – 38, which is 31% from book 1, and 98% from book 4.

That 52% is excellent. It does drop off quite sharply, but each time I’m keeping at least four fifths of the readers. I just re-edited book 3, I’ll do book 2 more thoroughly at some point, and hopefully get those numbers up too.

From any angle, it’s excellent. Approximate readthrough value is about $6 – so when I sell 1 copy of book 1, I can expect $6 total income. Average cost of sales are coming in below that at the moment. Plus of course there’s KU reads.

KU readthrough is actually lower than sales right now, which is unusual – it’s usually higher. I’m thinking it might take time for the changes to register with new readers to the series.

Some of this is also due to strong conversion on my new FB ads, coupled with new Amazon blurb. It’s back to the Jack Reacher format, with a crime everyone can comprehend and have an opinion on:

They stole his truck. Big mistake.

CIA black-ops legend Christopher Wren pulls over on a Utah highway after three weeks on the road. An arbitrary decision he’s about to regret.

A biker gang attacks Wren, leaves him for dead and steals his truck. Now he’s going to get it back.

From a secret warehouse in the desert. Ringed with fences. Filled with human cages. As the body count mounts and a shocking national conspiracy unravels, one thing is for certain.

Justice will be done.

It’s working well right now. I’m spending conservatively on ads.

What else?

I’ve gone back to working on book 6 – now I’m blending the side-story into Wren’s view, and that took a little while. It’s at 11,000 words, and I’m ready to move forward. The foundation looks solid.

By this time next week, it’d be great to have 20,000 words. Ramp things up.

New Firestorm cover

Also, not to bury the lede, I got my new cover for Wren book 5, Firestorm, today. I love these. It strongly reflects the Capitol riot, but I wrote this scene before the riot happened, so who’s reflecting who?

I love it. Can’t wait to get book 6 more developed so I can get the next cover done.

Wren write to market!! – Writing Wk6 2021

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I talked a lot about rewriting Wren recently – well buckle up cos here’s some more in that delicious vein!

WRITE TO MARKET

Chris Fox came up with that snappy term – WRITE TO MARKET. It is best summed up in a simple Venn diagram that I just made you’re welcome:

While being aware of this, I’m not a big doer of this, though I think I am trying. I definitely pick popular genres that people want to read – however when I go in I tend to lean more on what I want to write than what most people want to read.

Looking at what I did in Wren that doesn’t match what readers want in my chosen genre – vigilante/terrorism thriller:

  • Go heavy on third rail social issues as the core issues – race, child abuse, income inequality, etc… (would fit better in literary fiction)
  • Go heavy on the perspective/psychological makeup of the bad guy (would fit better in serial killer fiction)
  • Go heavy on guilt and the consequences of violent action on mental health (would fit better in literary fiction)
  • Open with a main injustice unrelated to the main character (would fit better in detective fiction – open with a murder)
  • Go heavy on cults (would fit better maybe nowhere – maybe literary or serial killer)
  • Go heavy on DOMESTIC TERRORISM (not a common thing in terrorism thrillers or anywhere – they’re usually focused overseas on jihadis)
  • Not have a woman and her son in need of protection (pretty common trope in vigilante justice)
  • Go heavy on violence, gore and torture (would fit better in horror or serial killer)
  • Go heavy on swearing (would fit better, hmm, serial killer?)
  • Open with the protagonist behaving as an antagonist (much more a literary device – real bad good guy)
  • Have the protag abuse drugs repeatedly (nobody much likes this – maybe serial killer)
  • Go heavy on social justice with a black protag (I’m not sure where this fits – my impression is most terrorism/vigilante readers are white folks in the US heartland, probably leaning conservative, so I’m off base)

That’s a lot! Looking over this list, I can see over the last year I have fixed many of them. Some things it seemed I couldn’t really change, though – primarily the focus on social issues and the domestic terrorism angle.

Change those and it’s totally a different book. Pretty much everything else I’ve softened or removed considerably. So I’m learning the market.

Why not serial killer?

One interesting issue I faced when I first started approaching this fix-up operation was whether to go lighter (terrorism/vigilante) or darker (serial killer). I went lighter.

If I’d gone serial killer, I could really have stayed as the book then was. Serial killer readers love gore, violence, darkness, getting inside the bad guy’s head. I wasn’t sure at all what call to make here – other than go with the book’s core thrust.

It’s not a serial killer story. Those are pretty clearly bounded, as far as I can see. One evil guy, killing individual victims. Not mass-scale terror and vigilanteism. I figure I’d probably get just as many bad reviews if I try to make this square peg book fit in that round hole.

Also – I didn’t set out to write a serial killer book. I don’t really read those books. Whereas I do read Jack Reacher, and I did watch 24 – and those are more more what I was inspired by. That’s the kind of story I want to tell, and the market I want to tap.

So – was it a mistake? Well, who can say 🙂 I could always re-launch the original version with all its violence, darkness and swearing under a really dark cover. That doesn’t appeal, though. I like where we’re at right now. Fast, clean, a couple of points of difference while the rest should be a smooth read.

Editing progress

Thus far I have rewritten Wren 1 and am currently working on 3, MAKE THEM PAY. I already took out all the Handel Quanse POV, and am thinking very little is lost, really… Now I’ll sharpen and speed various other sections and we’ll see if readthrough to book 4 goes up.

Wren FB group

The Wren FB group is progressing really nicely, with 39 members, and I’m kind of learning what posts get more responses. Photos and real human stuff seems to do the best. Separating things a little from always talking about Wren – which is maybe a kind of sales pitch in itself.

Selfies. Cat pics. Getting to know you chitchats. They are doing best so far, and are the most fun to engage in really. My chatty, newsy newsletter is getting some lovely responses – makes for some nice little email conversations.

EDIT

I was thinking last night (the night I wrote this post) about why, if all the tropes of my book were so close to serial killer, I hadn’t moved toward the darkness, kept it as it was, and branded it serial killer?

I already said above about the focus on single victims in serial killer fiction rather than terror attacks, but I was thinking that was probably surmountable. Then I hit on the best reason – my Wren books, unlike serial killer and unlike even vigilante justice – have huge special effects-laden action scenes. Really big stuff, large numbers of people, explosives, weaponry.

That’s not even close to either other genre. And those are facets I can’t change either. So, this is just to say that, although it has proved a lot of work to grade Wren for the terrorism genre, it’s the right choice. Big sales are a different matter – but as ever, I’m closer now than I ever was before.

Wren 1 rewrites: back behind the DM’s screen – Writing Wk5 2021

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Well it has been heck of a week in rewrites. I already said everything I’d do to Wren 1 in the last post, in line with vicious comments I got from a Fiverr beta reader, and this week I did them, and was left feeling strangely bereft…

But do not shed a tear for me, Argentina. Stats are very early to come in on the effect of this new rewrite, really just a week since I put a half-finished new version of Wren 1 on Amazon, but it’s looking good so far, with readthrough up from 27% to 50% to book 2, and holding the same to book 3!!

If this is due to the greater readability of Wren 1, I call that a massive win. Time will tell – as it could also be due to some random foible of advertising or purchasing behavior.

If it is 50% or 50%+ though? Transformational. If I can continue selling book 1 at the same rate via ads, that 50% readthrough will not only double revenue – it should apply a 4x or higher multiple as more people read through the series. I’m dreaming big. It might make this whole endeavor far more viable.

But why bereft? (sad face)

Bereft at the loss of Wren 1 weight

This feeling hit at the end of redrafting the whole book. I hadn’t intended to redraft everything at all – only to suture parts where I’d taken out flashbacks and Mason.

But. Taking out Mason made me notice areas where, thanks to the Mason distraction, I’d skipped over parts in the Wren narrative. Maybe this is why some people called the story incoherent? More on this in a minute.

It also drew my attention to flow and line-by-line edits. I found my old tricks a few times – write something, write something else, write the same thing again. In these instances, I probably got excited with the imagery of a scene, or realized I’d skipped an important scene-setting detail, so just wrote at greater length.

In these instances I need to go back and synthesize so I only say it once, with clarity, then move on.

On this note, Su and I have been watching the K-Drama ‘Signal’. I really dislike this show’s style of repeating everything multiple times, always being dialled stupidly up to 11 (adults constantly taking arguments to semi-comical fisticuffs or taking grief to extreme, lingering wailing), showing the same narrative from different time periods via a profusion of flashbacks, and leaving out essential information the viewer should know.

I hate it. Maybe I do it. Flashbacks, check. High emotion, check. Repetition, check. Forcing the reader to construct the narrative somewhat themselves. Pretty much check. And this brings me full circle (again) to the first Story Craft post I wrote over 10 years ago, regarding the Dungeon Master’s screen.

The DM’s Screen

Here’s that original post – https://www.michaeljohngrist.com/2010/07/fictioner-1-the-dungeon-masters-screen-and-toast/

I was talking there about my epic fantasy with Sen – where the style I wanted to write in was various kind of ‘chunks’: here’s a world-building bit, here’s a character bit, here’s a dialogue bit, etc… Like the book of ideas a D&D Dungeon Master has. I wasn’t great at knitting these ideas together in a story. If anything, I resisted it.

It lets me see I am really not a natural storyteller. Terrible admission to make – but it’s not a new one to me. I thought I’d overcome it in recent years, and especially with Wren, but it seems not, because what purpose does Mason serve in Wren 1? What is the purpose of the flashbacks?

They are weight. They add body. They round out the world. They are, however, pretty much devoid of narrative drive. Mason’s story is the story of things happening to him, not of him as a character with agency. It’s not really a thread on its own because you couldn’t read it on its own – it’s just him suffering. Same with Wren’s flashbacks – they’re not propulsive on their own. They only worked when tethered to the main story.

And that weight clearly drags the main story down. It chops it up, makes it harder to swallow, forces readers to construct the meaning of these sections for themselves.

Tough going for the mass market, who want to be told a story. And who can blame them? Reading a thriller isn’t supposed to be such work.

Removing these scenes made me tune in to the main narrative more – how it should hum like a taut wire, not sag from decorations. As ever, there’s room to say things only once. Wren’s backstory should be there only so much as it’s relevant, and only in small doses. We can’t have huge dollops of it at once, disrupting the flow.

The book is now much shorter. 67,000 words, down from 100,000 when I first finished it. Short. But I think people will leave this book maybe wanting more. Previously, I offered such a rich banquet they didn’t need more. I’m quite full, thank you, they were saying. That’s enough for me.

I want to leave them sated but still hungry. I thought about offering the Mason side story as an extra – but do I really want people reading that extra? Quite likely it’ll still be stodgy. It’ll fill them up and get them thinking, hmm, actually I don’t need to read book 2 now. I’ve had enough.

NO, I say! No more stodge!

So…

I already ran a similar edit on book 2. Very briefly, though. Not line-by-line. We’ll see how readthrough looks. If 2 to 3 remains strong, I don’t need to dig in much. If it’s poor, I will. Most of all – I’m very curious what new readers will make of book 1 now, with all the weight taken off.

Will it work? Will they be left wanting more? It’s quite exciting.

Word count

Only negative, I’m afraid this week. Cutting words. I’ll get back to book 6 soon. Seems every time I do a rewrite, I need to take a little time to recover and adapt. That’s fine. Hopefully the latter books are taking on these lessons learned from editing the earlier books, as I go.

I have noticed some of that happening in the latter books. The side stories of suffering began to bleed into Wren’s narrative – often with him watching a video of what happened. I can pretty easily make this shift total – we’re entirely in Wren’s POV. We see the threat entirely from his eyes.

It cuts repetition clean away. Now the mystery remains – until Wren solves it. We the reader are none the wiser than Wren.

Facebook group?

The Facebook group’s doing pretty good – up to 26 members now. I’ll keep posting content, push it to my newsletter, and try and offer value to my most engaged readers. It’s fun, too.

Facebook ads

One further thing to note – yesterday FB lifted its limits on my ad spend, so now I’m also allowed to import my newsletter and make a lookalike audience from it. I did that yesterday and started serving dynamic ads for both the zombie books and Wren. Thus far, getting very cheap clicks. Too early to say if they’re profitable.

Again, time will tell ;).