Friday, 14 September 2018 18:51

Bringing Ragnarok Developer Diary 3: Who Are My Readers?

It probably seems like a dumb thing for an author to ask, after publishing a book. Especially when he intends the book to be first in a series, and hopes to actually earn a living as a professional, independent author.

But the question has been much on my mind, of late (yeah, I often slip into Middle-Earth English/pseudo-formalism): Who are my readers?

Part of me (the more autistic part) says that's a dumb question because, in time, it effectively answers itself. As N grows, a cluster will form (so goes the theory, anyway). And it'll be similar enough to other clusters that I'll know what to call the thing.

Another part of me (the more pragmatic part) says it's a dumb question because I should have answered it before writing the book. Much harder to figure out how to market a book when you don't even know for certain what genre it best fits into.

And a final part of me (the anxious part) calls it a dumb question because it is irrelevant: too few people will ever read the thing for the question to matter.

*Can I just say how terrible an idea it is to actually learn practiced philosophy? That is, how to construct theories which can then be subjected to scientific evaluation? I was already a P on the Meyers-Briggs scale, but too  many years in academia broke my ability to just ask and answer a damn question without digging into the deeper meaning of it all... *sigh*

Fortunately for me, I also live and breath data analysis, and I've been using the Amazon advertising system as a sort of sensor this past couple months. All in all, I'm inclined to stick with the autistic part of my brain on this one, because I can effectively accelerate how quickly I get a cluster by selectively boosting my visibility to readers in different categories, then compare them.

Which is a jargony way of saying that I can, by buying adds, put a summary of Bringing Ragnarok in front of specific readers, based on what they're looking at on Amazon. So if I type in, say, Octavia Butler on, and specify 'Kindle Store' as category, when the list of top results comes up, I can place the cover image and short description of Bringing Ragnarok on this page (well, normally later pages, since position is a function of how much $ you bid, with front-page bids on popular categories costing up to $0.90 or even more (average is 0.40-0.60).


octavia butler screenshot

What this can tell me, when I do it across a bunch of different keywords (mostly author and genre names), is how readers interested in different types or styles of fiction respond to seeing my ads. Amazon shows me how many impressions (times displayed) I get by keyword or category, and how many times readers actively clicked on them. In theory, the relative ratio of impressions to clicks (average based on my experience and some internet reading is 1 click per 1000 impressions) gives an indication of how viewers in a particular category judged the ad as relevant enough to their interests to click on. The click to buy ratio, on the other hand, tells how many of those reader clicks actually converted into a sale. Which in theory tells you, more or less, if the information available on the landing page was sufficient to convince them to buy the book (within 2 weeks, which is how long Amazon tracks a click-sale connection). Some selected examples below:

Ads performance screencap

clicks 20 days


Ads performance screencap

Now, this is actually pretty crude so far as information goes. A high impression-click ratio may just mean the ad made a browsing shopper curious, which may be totally unconnected to whether they would buy the book, or even wanted to buy anything (people browse out of pure curiosity). And the really crucial buyer decision, the part that makes them go from reading the landing page to shelling out their wages for my book, is totally invisible. Obviously, you hit on a category where you get tons of clicks that convert better than 5:1 to sales, because at $0.50 a click for a book priced at $3.99, assuming the ratio holds as you scale up, you literally have a money-generating machine, even if (after Amazon takes their cut) you only, under this scenario, net $0.20/sale. Small numbers multiplied many times make very big numbers, which pay off student loans (if the dream comes true).

But hitting that magic category is unlikely, at least, not until an author has at least 3-4 books out, which apparently has a tendency to both improve the initial click-to-sale ratio, and (assuming the writing doesn't piss of the readers) generate sales from later books in the series. And even then, there's the niggling problem of figuring out exactly what categories are worth spending ad money on, and what ones aren't.

That's the thing the don't tell you about statistics, until you've taken enough courses. The hard numbers of it all remain totally reliant on having good theory to tell you what's actually important. Unfortunately, social sciences theory hasn't really advanced in about 150 years, and remains mired in the rut of the Greco-Roman European philosophical tradition. So a huge amount of 'good' (peer-reviewed, highly cited) social science work (political science, economics, sociology) is deeply misconceived, because what theories are seen as 'acceptable' by the community in question determines the outcome of the peer-review process, and so you have a system of 'knowledge production' so deeply bound to entrenched patriarchial and elitist cultural values that I really doubt the institution can ultimately be saved...


So basically, key to the whole idea of being an independent author, is figuring out how to most efficiently acquire paying readers, which is usually best done (unless you're a big book company able to pay millions in ads for a crappy product, but you got it on Oprah so people will by it just because of the halo effect... ) by finding out who really really likes your work, then figuring out how to get more people like them to see it.

And so far, I'm not entirely certain who those readers will be, for me. In my head, there's a set of 'tastes' that I think Bringing Ragnarok will appeal to, which I've listed out in the 'From the Author' section on my Amazon landing page. But in my head there's also the more difficult question of what demographic my work might appeal to.

I am proud of the fact that I'm writing unabashedly feminist fiction. Yes, I am a white male (cisgender, heterosexual, married, white, anglo-saxon, all the privilege categories except old (yet) and christian (anymore), and the cat pictures aren't intended to hide that fact, I just don't like having my picture taken at all, and don't see why anyone would care what I look like. But, see, all my life, I've never been able to figure out why the hell people were so caught up about women being able to do the same stuff as men. Like, duh, women are people too. Just people. Most of what we see as gender difference is a result of social training, not some sort of fundamental qualities that vary according to gender. Of course, women should have equal rights and equal pay. Um, duh. Why would it be otherwise, except that in the past a bunch of men figured out that it'd be handy to set up social rules that dispossess women? ['cause there's always more for everyone if you redefine who qualifies as 'someone', hence that being, historically, the fundamental objective of most hard-right groups.]

But I am also writing hard social science fiction with a strong military component, coupled to a re-imagining of Norse mythology that gives the goddesses like Freyja and Idunn their proper due. And if you look on Amazon at the categories that might seem relevant, I think you'll notice pretty quickly that the authors are mostly men.

I can't help but wonder if this is because there are unwritten rules in the science fiction fan community, that make it more difficult for a female author to 'make it'. And I wonder if, with that, comes a tendency among women who are looking for stories like those typically found in military science fiction and space opera, you know, epic stuff, to look for it in other categories. Obviously, many women don't care that much, or else we wouldn't (finally!) be seeing a female Doctor, female Jedi in Star Wars, and hopefully many more to come!

Still, because I have to work in a world of tight margins, I need as efficient a 'channel' to readers interested in epic, sprawling stories with a ton of world building, metaphysical strangeness, and characters who are just regular schmoes - even the gods. And over the past couple months, I've been using ads to get a sense of where, relatively speaking, those readers who particularly want to read about strong female protagonists who pretty much do the same stuff men do, like to hang out on Amazon.

It is an ongoing process, which I do probably too much when not (as I did this week, hooray) making steady progress towards completing Bringing Ragnarok Book 2 by end of September-first week in October (certain sections have lengthened, pushing estimated word count to 130,000).  And I've had some interesting signals, both positive and negative:

  • litRPG and gamelit, which I didn't even know existed until I started doing this, so far have proven the steadiest click-getters and sale-getters. I have no problem with this, though I do wonder if there are genre requirements that make Bringing Ragnarok less of a good fit than it might seem. Many books in this world appear to rely on listing out statistics, and having characters be aware of their living in a video game, .hack/ style. While I prefer to keep this kind of stuff under the hood, non-explicit, I do in fact have a defined progression for the characters, who gain skills and experience as they survive their respective wars (and the meta war looming over everything). I am an avid gamer, and I incorporate many tropes and references from games. And I know for a fact that many, many women enjoy playing games - including war games. Just doesn't get written about in the media as much - probably because introverts like me don't actually talk about what games we play all that much :)
  • Speculative fiction, at least on Amazon, almost seems to be code for 'science fiction with women.' I find it interesting to see how many books there are ones I myself have read, but thought were science fiction through-and-through. Makes me wonder even more about whether women get driven to different categories than men, even if they essentially like the same underlying stories. After all, there were certainly women listening to the skalds sing poetry in the old Germanic world...
  • Military science fiction and military fiction are very hard categories to crack, despite my focus on military affairs. Actually, one of by big 'points' in Bringing Ragnarok is that women go to war too. And not just as doctors, nurses, or other healers. America in point of fact badly lagged even the Soviet Union in incorporating women into all brances of service, including combat arms. Israel has always conscripted women. And the more I read the old Norse sagas and Germanic epics, the more references I catch to women showing up on battlefields, and this being seen as totally normal by the people who later told the stories. There are many, many women in this world who choose a warrior's path, just like men. People are people. But do women who like to read stories about women (and men, of course) fighting in a war, read in different categories than men? I think they probably do, because too many men fail to write believable female perspective characters. And if maleness is an unofficial prerequisite for popularity in the genre...

Final thought: I recently discovered Goodreads, and was pleasantly surprised to see people actually saying they are reading Bringing Ragnarok! Encouragement to get back to working on Book 2!