Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 1, 2011

ROI and KPIs in Publishing

"The Cradle" - Henry Sandham
One of the many adjustments I had to make when I moved from publishing into the tech world was learning a whole new set of acronyms.

And whether at work, at conferences, reading social media blogs, or having conversations with other people in a similar role as mine, there are two acronyms I hear again and again:
  • ROI (Return On Investment), meaning, is the time/money/effort behind what you're doing worth it? What's your bang for your buck?  
  • KPI's (Key Performance Indicators). How are you measuring success, and how are you doing?
People are constantly assessing what works, what doesn't work, the impact of a campaign is having, what your goals are, what the "net net" was. You look at the numbers and then adjust for the future. Numbers are key.

Here's the thing when you're an author trying to figure out the best way to self-promote: I have very little idea what is working.

As a traditionally published author I basically have two numbers I can look at: the Amazon sales ranks for the hardcover and Kindle editions, and my Bookscan number of copies sold (as provided by Amazon).

The Amazon number is fickle and clearly only reflects a portion of my sales. Bookscan also only captures a portion, usually estimated to be 70% of sales, and that percentage varies from title to title.

Here's what I don't know as an author, or at least don't know particularly accurately:
  • At which outlets are my sales taking place? Is it doing better at B&N? At indies? Online?
  • What effect are my promotional campaigns having? And where should I focus my attention?
  • Who is buying my book? Mostly blog readers? Other people? What's my reach?
  • What do the numbers suggest I should be doing more of?
I'm flying in the dark. And while I have no complaints about my own publisher, too often publishers treat authors on a "need to know" basis and are stingy with sales data. (Though truthfully I don't know that publishers have access to a whole lot more information than I do.)

Not knowing is no way to be. I would love to calibrate my approach and tell you precisely what is working and not working. I just don't have the data.


Megg Jensen said...

Ha! Being indie is no less frustrating. Sure, I know my sales numbers for each outlet, yet, I can't determine which blog post or review contributed to a purchase. I'm constantly re-evaluating & sometimes I think not knowing might be better. lol

Stephanie Reed said...

Yes, I was just telling an author friend that it's like flying blind. It would be useful to know these figures to redirect our marketing efforts, but it would also be nice to know who likes our work. Writing books is rewarding but lonely.

Matthew Lang said...

Tell me about it. My publisher is fantastic at telling me what books sold via what channels (I get a breakdown every quarter), but since it's not real time and tracked daily--and obviously I can't see incoming links to third party sites--I have no real idea what is driving those sales.

Would be nice if such tracking was possible, but trying to do so for each book and author on a website... ouch

author Scott Nicholson said...

The simple response is to do everything, because nobody in advertising truly knows what works, or everyone would do the exact same thing and repeat it endlessly. The same thing may never work twice, or even once.

The difference is, if you are an indie, you can afford to invest, because you are getting back 35 to 70 percent instead of 8 to 15 percent. While you do get real-time data for most of your ebook sales, if you are doing multiple efforts (as you should), it is not easy to know which particular activities are most effective.

But again, what worked last year or last month may never work again, so why not invent the next thing? After all, you are running a business as a creative entrepreneur, and marketing actually takes far more creativity than writing a book.

Chris Phillips said...

Do you have #'s on where libraries purchase from? Do you have numbers about what schools, public libraries do or don't have your book? Because that would be the one thing, self promoting wise I'd want to ensure is that I'm in as many schools/libraries as possible.

BP said...

Thanks for explaining those acronyms; just ran into them the other day and had no clue what anyone was talking about. Two thumbs up!

Rick Daley said...

It's even more nebulous when you try to associate the known sales numbers to marketing events. Did that tweet generate sales? Who clicked the links in that interview I did for that blog?

When you have a marketing opportunity that may require a capital investment it gets stickier, because chances are you'll never know the ROI on that investment. The only known stat is $0 invested = $0 ROI (remember time is money, not all investments are capital).

Here are some other KPIs for writers:

- Reviews (Amazon, GoodReads, other sites)
- Facebook fans / likes
- Retweets / @ mentions

WORD VERIFICATION: fatormas. The classification of gained body weight and whether it is derived from Twinkies or weightlifting.


Valerie Rieker said...

I've heard this same thing from a friend of mine, who created a comic. When it first got published, it was digital only, and would go to print if it did well enough. But he was never told what "well enough" was, and he was never given any stats or updates. A few months later, he was told that it was going to print, which meant it DID do "well enough", but he's still in the dark. And he's afraid to ask, haha. I guess you can only do what you do and hang on tight.

David Gaughran said...

Hey Nathan,

I can tell you that even if you had up-to-date sales figures like us self-publishers have, you would still be largely in the dark.

You should check out which will allow you to peer behind the curtain a little.

It tends to under-report actual sales numbers (but I haven't heard reports of over-reporting), particularly if you are selling very fast or very slow (outside of, say, 1-10 books a day).

As such, the actual sales numbers can't be relied upon, but it is very accurate at capturing your ranking on an hourly basis (one hour delay from Amazon), and plots it in a nice graph so you can see bumps and dips, and at least have some vague idea of what promo is doing what.

It's better than the graph on Author Central, because that just shows your average ranking for the whole day, whereas this will actually plot the hourly changes, which is much better at capturing spikes.

It won't start tracking your book until someone (anyone) first feeds the Amazon URL into the system, but once you do that, it will be tracked (for anyone to see).

As I said, don't rely on the sales numbers. It captured 95% of my UK sales this month (slow and steady), but only around a third of my US sales (steady but with big spikes now and then).


Anonymous said...

"I'm flying in the dark."

Welcome to the club. I've been on bestseller lists and thought, "Wow." But the sales didn't refect these so-called bestseller lists. (I have my doubts about all of them, especially amazon.)

I've had quarters where I thought, "no one's buying anything...this check is going to suck." And then the numbers turn out to be fantastic and the checks are big.

And it's almost impossible to tell sales by the number of reviews on amazon or goodreads, epecially with certain genres. Erotica and erotic romance are discreet genres, people don't leave reviews openly...even when books are selling in large numbers.

I would imagine with kid's books, especially middle grade, it's just as hard to predict sales by reviews because kids don't actually review books themselves as often as adults. So it's either up to the parents or teachers who read the books out themselves to leave reviews.

Mr. D said...

Well, I guess we can call this yet another frustrating aspect of the publishing world.

SBJones said...

The only data I have are from the books I have sold myself and the ones that sold through amazon or B&N from people who have told me they bought them. I have sold books in other countries and I have no idea who or why they picked up my book.

Having worked for Dell for 8 years we had access to every tiny bit of information and it really really helped when it came to various metrics.

D.G. Hudson said...

ROIs and KPIs -- sounds like the corporate speak that it is. Marketing terms like these are dear to the number crunchers, but aggravating to some creative people.

So many systems to evaluate, geared to produce the results the originator intended, usually to reinforce their marketing plan. Marketing is all about the numbers.

Thanks for sharing, Nathan, as we learn from these insights of yours how steep the learning curve can be for the author.

Darley said...

Well, if you figure out an answer to tracking those unknowns, please let us know. It must be frustrating though, not knowing where to spend your efforts, what's a waste of time etc.

Anonymous said...

If you can get your hands on the information you need, data is still only as good as how you use it.

You ask a lot of good questions, so it looks like you're in the right place, but there are many people who think because they have numbers all is good... they misinterpret what the numbers really mean.

I run analytic reports for a newspaper website. We have one person who likes to get weekly measures and touts how well his section is doing. And I guess in his eyes it is... I don't have the heart to point out his 12k impressions a month is nothing compared to the over 6 million the website gets as a whole.

Numbers are great if you use them to your advantage; compare, ask questions, learn, adjust. But they can just as easily be hard to understand and misleading.

Scott said...

It's a business, right? I think ultimately the only metric you can really depend on is money coming in.

So you do everything you can, and if the money comes in desirable amounts, you keep up the effort. If not, you stop wasting time and move to another project.

That sounds depressing.

Cathy Yardley said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. I've been trying to wrap my brain around this for a while now. You'd think being an indie would help since you get the #s of sales at the lesat, but as Megg points out, it's not tied to anything.

The only thing I can think of so far is to track what you CAN tie things to... in a nutshell, "Build the LIST." It seems if an author can build a solid brand-based newsletter list, growing it with true otaku fans, then you've got a shot at least at perhaps boosting a launch, and perhaps giving a nudge toward word-of-mouth.

Been reading Chris Anderson's THE LONG TAIL, which is amazing. And of course Justine Musk's fantastic Tribal Writer site. I think that authors "going native" and thinking like readers is our best bet.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Honestly, marketing/advertising of any product is riding into the dark. Nothing is concrete. All you can do is use what information you have to the best of your ability. When it comes to books and authors however you can consistently get your name, brand, and book seen is good.

I can tell you as a blog owner who promotes my blog as well as my guests and their books, I've tried various social networks. One month I might get a lot of hits from one and the next nothing or next to nothing. I've played around with some in so far as tracking stats. For me, I know which ones provide me with the best overall results, but ROI, time is still being spent and time is valuable. So I try to use it wisely and creatively.

I know my readers and I know there are a lot who buy books from my blog links but again, even with knowing those figures it's in flux and changes.

Sia McKye's Thoughts...OVER COFFEE

Anonymous said...

"So you do everything you can, and if the money comes in desirable amounts, you keep up the effort. If not, you stop wasting time and move to another project."

It doesn't always work that way for writers/authors. Only the very lucky few make good money with one book. You have to keep writing more books to build a readership and a career. And with the competition getting stiffer each day, the only way to do this is to be tenacious and keep writing.

Other Lisa said...

I think with some exceptions that book marketing is still largely a process of hand-selling. I really believe that to the extent an author (or the author's publisher) can get out there and connect with venues relevant to his book and readers who are likely to enjoy it, this is helpful. Brick and mortar bookstores are still important, and I think it's worthwhile to get out to as many who sell your type of book as you can, to connect with the owners and buyers and hope that they will become enthusiastic promoters of your book. There are plenty of e-versions of these kinds of interactions as well. I think those kinds of things can, if you're lucky, start to snowball. But it's one book at a time, by and large.

I've so far found my royalty statements pretty useful, though I too would love that breakdown of WHICH bookstores, exactly. But they do tell me about library sales, which e-versions are selling, and so on.

And the geographic breakdown from Bookscan is pretty interesting too.

neverie said...

ROIs and KPIs... Nathan, you're not working at Newegg, are you? Your job sounds just like it does around here. Lol~

I guess, since there's no way to track the ROI of any given marketing vehicle, the best thing is to just get as much exposure of any kind out there. They can't get intrigued with/buy your book until they know about it, right?

Amanda said...

As a distributor, Bookmasters has a stats page that allows publishers/self-pub'd authors to see shipments in real time. That doesn't translate exactly to across the register sales, but it does help understand the breakdown a little better. We use those kinds of details for sales a lot. Disclaimer: I work for Bookmasters.

Anonymous said...

I'm a techie. Thanks for the advance warning that I won't be able to expect any metrics data.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

For those interested in library holdings (another piece of the pie), there's

From a scientific perspective, I'll add another source of uncertainty when trying to determine the effect of a promo effort: the writer has no control case. If you see a bump right after a promo effort, the temptation is to think it was the promo effort--but how do you know it wasn't just a normal fluctuation in sales? Or that the bump wasn't actually the result of a book club somewhere picking your book, or an enthusiastic indie putting your book on display or talking it up in their newsletter?

And if a promo effort seems to result in no sales increase--how do you know that there wouldn't have been a sales dip that week otherwise, and the promo actually canceled out the dip?

Without a control case, we don't know.

But the upside of being in the dark (because I always have to find an upside) is that the writer can't get too crazy, trying to micromanage everything. We do our best and then at some point we have to let go.

Mira said...

I like this post alot! You make a really good point, Nathan.

Having more information allows the author to make informed decisions.

Hopefully, posts like this one will help publishers decide to give their authors more information. Allowing authors access to information helps everyone involved. There really is no downside. Whereas withholding information that self-publishing authors have access to - just not a good idea for alot of reasons.

Good topic, Nathan! Thanks! :)

Don Zolidis said...

It seems like it's in the publishers best interest to share as much of the data as possible if the writer. If they're expecting you to do some (or most, or all) of the marketing, you need as much information as possible.

That said, perhaps the publishing industry could learn a thing or two from theater publishing. I'm a playwright with many titles published, and have sold over 50,000 books - mostly to schools - I can see in real time who is purchasing what play and where that school is located. Not only that, but my publisher allows me to see the email addresses of those who are producing the plays, which I can then collect and use in direct marketing.

Now I can coordinate this information to learn, where geographically, are my sales the strongest, in what kinds of schools, to what kinds of people. I can send emails directly to fans (people who have bought and produced the plays) and suggest new titles for them. I can also let them know precisely when I have something new.

You can imagine what kind of a marketing tool this is. If (hopefully when) I get my novel published, I can organize book tour locations around productions of my plays, email the teachers at the schools, and even advertise at play performances of a book signing event. Since most drama teachers in middle school are also the English teachers, I have a direct window into thousands of classrooms.

It can't work quite the same way in publishing, but if you're selling e-books, can't you get the email addresses of people who have purchased the book? Or does Amazon or Smashwords hoard this information?

I imagine one of the reasons J.K. Rowling set up Pottermore (not that she needs help marketing, sheesh), is that she can now market directly to her fans and collect their email addresses. She controls the information.

Publishers should demand a steadier flow of customer information from e-book seller outlets and pass that information, (or chunks of information, or complied data) on to the writer.

Kristin Laughtin said...

But will the data come in time? If so, you are a test case, and at least the rest of us can learn from your example and maybe do well.

Otherwise, it's all about finding new ways to get data. I really liked the suggestions in Rick Daley's comment, and surely there are other places from which to glean bits and pieces.

Adam Heine said...

That's something that's always bugged me about the publishing industry. I wonder if the industry wouldn't take off if booksellers and publishers didn't just release ALL the data they had.

Interestingly, this is one area where self-publishers are at an advantage. How long before a savvy self-pubber finds the sweet spots and sells a book on how to sell your book? :-)

Anna Banks said...

Ew. This post make me feel pukish. I don't like not knowing. :(

Terin Tashi Miller said...

As an "independent" self-published author, I have one reasonable way to tell how I'm doing. I get royalty statements every month, and sometimes more frequently.

The statements, generated from Amazon's CreateSpace self-publishing arm, tell me how many copies I've actually sold, and even where (distribution channel or, for instance). The unknowns for me are bookstores, which occasionally carry my books.

So. I understand certainly the dearth of information and measurable results, but have to say: welcome to the club!

And remember, F. Scott needed $36,000 in those days to live on, at least he thought he did, and he was very disappointed Gatsby wasn't doing that well--as far as he knew.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a great case study of a writer spending far more than he made and trying to make up for it by selling what the market wanted, he thought (he was right as far as Saturday Evening Post, and wrong as far as Hollywood).

His constant, crushing debts and early death should be a warning to all who wish to get rich writing, as opposed to be published and have something in print left to show you were, in fact, here on this planet at one time...:)

Marilyn Peake said...

I know exactly what you mean. Experimenting with self-publishing on Amazon Kindle, I love that I can check my actual sales numbers immediately after promotional efforts. This has helped me tweak what I’m doing to promote my books. So far, my sales have increased significantly every month, with my sales in July exceeding the goal I had set for last month.

Here’s a rather eye-opening article by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, best-selling author who’s the only person to ever win a Hugo Award for fiction and a Hugo Award for editing, about how many authors don’t seem to be given accurate sales figures these days: The Business Rusch: You Are Not Alone. And here’s her rather impressive Biography: here.

Jess the Reader said...

What are you talking about? Don't you just check Nielsen? Wait, is Nielsen in the U.S.?

This is what I'm talking about:

When I worked in a bookstore, we checked these reports religiously. And when I worked for a book industry magazine, we published their figures. They are invited to talk at every ABA (Australian Booksellers Association) Conference, and although the report is always number heavy and a little soporific, there are fascinating moments too.

Note that I don't work for Nielsen, I just think they're great. And most media outlets in Australia who publish sales figures or best selling lists for books would get the data from Nielsen.

Apart from Nielsen, which is obviously not worldwide, why isn't your publisher tracking your sales? I bet they are, they're just not reporting them to you. Surely they could set up a monthly email to each author with a list of each of their books and how many have been sent to where, and how many have been returned (ouch! Maybe not). It shouldn't be a lot of work with all the reporting systems available these days.

Anonymous said...

How frustrating.

Back in the day, when real estate was flying high, I marketed high end vacation homes. It was easy to track what worked thanks to Google analytics and SEO. 50% of our buyers found us through out website, and a huge chunk of the remaining 50% came through word of mouth.

It was nice knowing what worked. And the photography and write-up aspects were fun. But the rest of the job was pretty much a soul crushing waste of time working for an evil empire. So, I guess at the end of the day I'd take the frustrations of being a writer over the slow death by office drone.

Matt Larkin said...

" author Scott Nicholson said...
The simple response is to do everything, because nobody in advertising truly knows what works, or everyone would do the exact same thing and repeat it endlessly. The same thing may never work twice, or even once."

It makes me sad how true this must be. As Nathan said before, self-promotion feels wrong, and you have to do it. But to have to do it and not even know if it's working or what part works best, is a double whammy.

wry wryter said...

Hm...I would love the numbers problem. Figuring out how many of my books sold via a check? I'll take that. Not knowing how, when, where, my book is going,oh wait, I have to get it published first.

This is a great post but to some of us it's a little like reading an article about how best to manage your portfolio while standing in the unemployment line.

I'll take your angst Nathan.
I know, I should be careful what I wish for.

Ann M said...

That must be kind of frustrating... And, I would think the publisher would want to know what is working, too, because they would want to capitalize on it as well. But, perhaps such data-compilation is too time intensive for their budgets.

I'm pretty sure that Amazon has reports for vendors that list how many of a title were ordered (on a monthly basis, I think). And also how many copies were purchased by Amazon on a monthly basis. I wonder if you could get that data from your publisher? But, I don't know if there are such reports for Kindle versions, as well...

Matthew C Wood said...

It's a shame there is no system in place to track collated sales of a book across all outlet forms. It would be of great benefit to both publishers and authors to have something like that.

Emily Wenstrom said...

As someone who works in marketing/PR, I can tell you someone, somewhere has those numbers. Because as a marketer, being able to back up what you did is huge. It can be the difference between getting promoted and getting fired. The numbers are how the people who aren’t in marketing (the people in charge – your clients, or your CEO) know that what you’re doing matters.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’re easily available and just hoarding the data. It can be complicated, especially if they’re grouping initiatives for multiple books. You’re also sometimes at the mercy of the company you’re working with and what/when they give you info…but they want to prove it’s working for your publisher too, so they will continue to get business from them. The numbers are out there.

Mira said...

Marilyn, that was a great article that you linked to. Thanks!

J. Anne Huss said...

It is really hard to determine what works until you get a big return that stands out. When you have the same old average, or less than average, sales you can't make any headway. In fact, sadly - sales is more about hindsight than foresight. It is easy for Amanda Hocking or John Locke (or any other writer that is responsible for, and must track their own, success) to look back and connect the dots. When you're following the dots you can't see the big picture, but once you pass a certain point it all makes sense. This is why it is helpful to read about the success of others; it doesn't mean what they did will work for you, but it does show you what worked at least once.

Anonymous said...

Even if you had that data you'd be faced with the problem of what to do about it. There is an oft repeated tale in the grocery industry that on a Friday evening there is a disproportionately higher percentage of men who come into the store and buy both a 6 pack of beer and packet of diapers. What do you do with information? Put the diapers and beer closer together or further apart?

Buy Books said...

The book retailers have those stats but of course they are not making it publicly known. They use that for their own business success. Amazon does list the top-100 best selling books, with ranking updated hourly. But what about the other millions? As an affiliate selling books via a smartphone app, I am able to see which of my affiliate accounts is bringing in more commission.

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