What happens when you’ve written award-winning books, get amazing reviews from readers, and your sales still start a downward spiral? You can give up writing — or you can take a step back, review your catalog, figure out a plan and up-skill, then reboot your author career.
In this episode, Michaelbrent Collings shares how he ended up delivering pizza to support his family because his sales had stalled and how he turned it around, reinvigorating his career, taking his book sales income and reader engagement to new heights.
In the introduction, I mention the Voice Double in-between-isode, as well as Findaway Voices launch of Authors Direct, which enables you to sell audiobooks direct to listeners in US, UK and Europe, Canada and Australia.
Today’s podcast sponsor is Findaway Voices, which gives you access to the world’s largest network of audiobook sellers and everything you need to create and sell professional audiobooks. Take back your freedom. Choose your price, choose how you sell, choose how you distribute audio. Check it out at FindawayVoices.com.
Michaelbrent Collings is an award-winning and internationally best-selling horror novelist, and screenwriter. His novel, The Deep was a finalist in the Bram Stoker Awards. His latest novel is The Forest.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
- How to recognize when an author business needs attention and a revamp (and it’s not a craft issue!)
- Facing reality and being honest about what needs to change
- Marketing strategies that stopped working
- Tips for growing an email list and using paid advertising
- Balancing marketing and writing
- Knowing your worth and when it’s time to outsource some of your work
- The importance of being endlessly curious
You can find Michaelbrent Collings at WrittenInsomnia.com and on Twitter @mbcollings
Transcript of Interview with Michaelbrent Collings
Joanna: Michaelbrent Collings is an award-winning and internationally best-selling horror novelist, and screenwriter. His novel, The Deep was a finalist in the Bram Stoker Awards and is one of my favorite horror novels. And Michaelbrent has been on the show several times.
Welcome back, Michaelbrent.
Michaelbrent: Thank you. It is always such a pleasure to be here, and I know that’s sort of the standard truism, but I just get such a big smile when I get to hang out with you.
Joanna: Oh yes, We have a good time. And I think part of the reason I have returning guests, obviously, we get on. We’ve never met in person, we get on well, but I also feel like with each return trip, one can be more honest because your personal friendship develops over time as well. So, I feel like we’re just getting deeper and deeper.
To set the scene to people listening, I reached out to Michaelbrent a couple of months ago because I write fiction and I feel like, over the last few years, I’ve let that slide. Not that I’ve let the writing slide. I’ve definitely been writing the fiction, but I have not been doing a great job at marketing the fiction and my fiction income as a percentage of my overall income was getting less and less, and I needed to pull it back. I was feeling pretty depressed about it. Miserable, not depressed, I was miserable about it and I was just like, ‘Okay, I need to do something.’
I heard you talk about this on I think The Six Figure Author Podcast, which is fantastic. And so, I reached out and you’ve helped me. So, we’ll get into that, but let’s start with your situation. A few years back, you had this kind of crisis.
Tell us about that difficult time and how your career stalled.
Michaelbrent: Well, it did. When I say stalled, a lot of people are like slowed down, but I’m talking about, you’re flying in a World War II prop plane and the engine stops. That’s the kind of stall that I was in.
I was still writing as well, but I had a combination of physical and mental health problems. And then the changes in the marketplace. Amazon became much more of a pay for play playground to work in. All of that combined to make me say, ‘Hey, I’m going to join the fast-paced and interesting world of pizza delivery.’ I had to pay bills and I had to take a second job, which was my closest thing to having a grownup job in a decade.
It was a really tough time on a lot of levels. I actually went so far as to say I’m retiring and it wasn’t like a woe-is-me please pity. I just wanted to let the three or four people that I still thought were out there know I can’t do this because I got to take care of my family as my priority.
A couple of people reached out and said, ‘No, that’s not okay.’ One of them being you, and I got such terrific help from you as well.
What I did is I backed off for about two months and I threw myself hard into the study of areas that I’d been missing. So, as a result of that, I didn’t really reinvent myself, but I certainly tightened up as many of the loose points in my business as I could, because this is a business.
If you’re an indie, you’re a business.
You’re not only an artist. I don’t see myself as an artist at all. I’m just like a guy who makes hamburgers and my franchise, my McDonald’s franchise, was failing. So, I had to back up and figure out why.
Since doing that, I’ve seen a huge increase. My mailing list loan has gone from a couple of hundred to tens of thousands in the last year. And a lot of that is just due to stepping back and going, ‘What do we need now?’
It’s not the wild West. I can’t just put a book on Amazon and be one of six books and expect to sell it. There’s a lot more required now.
Joanna: Absolutely. So, we’re going to look at each of these things in more detail, but I think you mentioned stepping back and that assessment is really hard. And I certainly put myself out there every week on the show and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m meant to know how to do this. And this is really hard. Why is this happening?’
But also I found, as I talked to you that I found I had a lot of self-doubt about even my ability to write and that perhaps I just wasn’t a good enough writer to make it. And it was very hard for me to say stuff out loud, but I really had that.
How were you able to be honest with yourself about what was wrong and change the mindset around what you could do?
Michaelbrent: Well, I think that’s a great question and it really applies to most writers. I think the world of your writing, you’re one of the people that I’ve recommended numerous of your works to my friends. I love your Mapwalker series, so good.
When you get into something where it’s not working the way you want it to, you’re not selling or whatever, the first thing that we go to, I say constantly artists in general and authors in specific, are the weirdest mix of narcissism and self-doubt, cripplingly low self-esteem.
When your narcissism is failing you, we think we’ve got these wonderful works in us and they’re not selling. We revert to that self-esteem problem. And we go, ‘Well, it must be my writing.’ And sometimes, let’s be honest, it is. It’s a craft and it’s a tough one, and you can’t just kind of go, ‘Well, I’m going to be really good at it.’ You have to put the time in.
But lots of great writers don’t make it. And part of that is not their writing. Most of it now is business stuff. It was fairly easy for me to step back once I received encouragement, because even I was like, ‘Well, my work sucks. So, I’m going to do something else.’ It was very helpful to have external validation from people who emailed and texted and said, ‘This is not okay. Figure out what you’re doing and do it better and keep writing.’ So, that was an important first step.
But beyond that, part of what made it easier was my goal is not to be known as the king of a genre or the best writer in the world. My goal has always been to take care of my family. And so, if I have that kind of an externalized goal, it’s less about me, it’s me stepping back and going, personally, this is just personally, ‘the best sort of monetary income potential that I have is through my writing. So, what do I need to do better so that I can get my real goal, which is to put food on this table?’
It took a lot of the ego out. I could look at my covers and say, yeah, these really are sucky. I’ve gotten some feedback and they’re not very good. And I could look at the kind of marketing I was doing and going, ‘This is five, six years behind the curve. Everything’s different.’ And then beyond that, I really rediscovered something that’s true of authors.
I think as we get to be professionally ignorant, we get to be curious and stupid in a way that most adults can’t be. So, I could sit there and go, ‘Wow, what do I need to learn?’ And instead of being depressed, I found all these great courses and so many free things on YouTube. You can sit there and go fantasy book cover, how to make one on Photoshop. And there’s 8,000 different videos pop up and some are helpful and some aren’t, but I was able to dive into this fascinating world of things that I don’t know.
And today I’m doing this podcast and after this, I’m going to go shoot a funny little book commercial, because that’s what I do for all my releases. And I have an upcoming release and I never would have thought of doing that or been able to do it six months ago.
I’m tickled pink that I’m going to go and put up a green screen and shoot video and put backgrounds and do all the fun stuff. So, I guess the threefold thing for being able to step back gives having a support group that says, ‘No, you don’t suck.’ And meeting people you believe, and then taking your ego out of it by having an external goal, if possible.
If your goal is to feel good all the time and sell books all the time, you’re screwed, it just doesn’t happen. And the third thing is to be excited rather than to say, ‘I’m a failure,’ say, ‘I am so happy to be ignorant in this exciting field that I can now discover.’ And those three things really helped pull me through.
Joanna: That’s great actually. In my head, I can see your old cover for The Deep. And I think I particularly emailed you about that because I absolutely love that book, as you know. But the cover, the old cover was just really bad.
Joanna: Yeah. Well, I think it’s like you said, it was something out of a decade ago when the covers were less professional and then the cover that you now have on The Deep, I think you’ve still got it with the book reflecting with the skull. I just love that cover. It’s amazing.
Now, what’s so interesting with your covers is that you learn to do this yourself, which generally is not recommended, right? Your change has been humongous in that area.
Did you just learn how to do these incredible covers or were you already visually interested?
Michaelbrent: I’m glad I’m getting better. That’s for certain. I look back and I’m, because you were one of the first people, you said very nicely, but you were like, ‘One of the big problems is your covers are terrible.’
I was able to channel that self-esteem in a practical fashion, which is to look at my work and go, ‘It sucks and I’m terrible.’ And then to channel my narcissism to go, but I can do it.
Part of that rebranding or restarting, I spent two months taking every online Photoshop class I could afford and could find. I just spent hours and hours locked in my bedroom with my computer open with barely enough processing power to do it and just practicing. And I’m not a visually adept person.
I’m fond of saying my stick figures look like they were drawn by other stick figures who were drunk. A lot of the cover work was just that didn’t work. That didn’t work, that didn’t work. And to date, even a lot of my covers I look at and go, ‘Well, it’s full of things that don’t not work.’
It’s not that I look at it and go, ‘This is a masterpiece,’ but I go, ‘This function, this style function for another book in the genre, or it worked for one of my other books.’ I try not to be repetitive with the covers, but they all have to have a similar feel that identifies them as a Michaelbrent Collings book.
Luckily, I did have a style that developed simply because I liked the look of it myself, and it’s easy to repeat. I’m not this uber expert. I am someone who hates himself to a level that makes it easy to go. ‘No, that’s no good.’ And that’s a necessary part of getting better.
Joanna: Well, maybe not that extreme, but I think some healthy skepticism around one’s ability. I don’t do my own covers and it’s not something that I’m willing actually to upskill on. But how many books do you have now? Because I feel like that was part of it, because if you’ve got that many. How many books do you have?
Michaelbrent: Around 40. I honestly don’t know. I’d have to go count.
Joanna: That’s the thing when you’ve got so many books, then looking at the investment of time and learning a new skill versus hiring someone to re-cover a lot of your backlist.
Michaelbrent: And if anybody’s not in my situation, man, hire somebody. And part of it, like I said, it had tanked and I had these health issues and so I couldn’t afford to, I literally, I didn’t have the 300 bucks in my pocket.
It was like, I could take that. But then my kids would be eating rice for the rest of the month and I wasn’t willing to do that. So, that’s the sweat equity moment comes in and I had the time, not that I had extra time, but I went, ‘This is important.’
If you’ve got a decent job, but you’re like, if I have to go to school to make extra money, to get a master’s degree or a Ph.D., to get ahead, then people do that all the time. So, I was working this for real, it was a pizza job and I’m not ashamed of that because I fed my family with that money. And at the same time, I was going, ‘I don’t want to do this forever. What classes, what grad program can I enroll myself and a self-designed one and fix these problems?’
Joanna: You said that your marketing worked six years ago or something like that.
What were you doing that stopped working in terms of marketing?
Michaelbrent: A lot of it was just low maintenance stuff. It used to be, it really was, I was not like one of the first people in Kindle. I was up there in the early-ish days and there was so much less competition that you’ve got a lot more word of mouth involved.
It wasn’t like I had a fan base, but I could reach out to people, bloggers and things like that. Because they were new too and say, ‘Can you look at this?’ And they would, because there was a dearth of opportunity for them.
When the book blogging situation all started Random House and Dell and Penguin and all the places that are no longer around, they didn’t come knocking at these bloggers’ doors. So, I could go to them and say, ‘I’ve got a book,’ and they’d say, ‘I’ll take it.’ Because they needed books. And so, it was like that.
I did a lot of BookBub stuff. And I still love BookBub. But even that the return on investment started to drop off as the market became more saturated. Now I have a much more comprehensive marketing plan that doesn’t rely on one or two things. There are bigger parts of it. But there’s a dozen things happening, two dozen things happening at any one time that hopefully will keep my eggs from dropping out of a single basket.
Joanna: We’ll come back to the marketing minute. Do you just back on the books themselves? I’ve read a number of your books that they are excellent. And then you changed the covers.
Did you have to update any other metadata on the books? Did you redo categories? Did you redo keywords? Did you actually go through all the blurbs even?
Did you go through and do all of that at the same time? This is a big amount of work.
Michaelbrent: Yes and no. I’ve updated almost all of my old work, but I didn’t do it all at once. And most people don’t have 30 or 40 books they’re dealing with, but they do have an outside job and they do have family responsibilities or church or charities or whatever people are interested in. And don’t give those up.
If you’re going to be a writer, one of the best ways to be a writer is to live a life and to have an enjoyment of being around other people, because then you’ll want to share naturally and it’ll keep you going.
I updated them over time, and that actually helped a lot because my fan base was growing and I was able to say, ‘Hey, I just redid the cover for The Ridealong.’ And I put it up on the, on my Facebook fan page, ‘What do you guys think?’
And I got input, and then I listened to it. It was like move the lettering around. That’s a great idea. The book that’s coming out August 18th is called The Forest and I went through three or four iterations that were all pretty close, but I got very helpful input from my fans and that made them more appreciative.
So, every time I do an update and I’m still updating, some of them have been through two or three iterations since I rebranded or restarted. And every time I put it up online and say, ‘What do you guys think?’ And so, that has been part of my marketing process and it makes it a much more natural and an easy thing because I can do it to take a break. I’m tired of putting words on a page.
I’m going to do some cover work. I’ll share it with my fans. Same with the metadata with the descriptions. It’s all been updated. And now there’s a much more, if you look at most of the descriptions, they have a much more, again, a voice to them that is similar from book to book.
I found stuff that worked over time, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So, I have done all of that, but doing it all at once is a monumental task. And I wouldn’t do that given the chance. Just parse it out. This is a marathon, that’s the nature of the business.
Joanna: Absolutely. I’m just redoing a trilogy and obviously, it is easier with series.
This is another thing because you write in horror and most of your books are standalone, aren’t they?
Michaelbrent: Yeah. I’m getting a little more into serious work just because I wrote a book called Strangers seven years ago, and then I had an idea and realized it was the sequel. So, I put it out and I was like, ‘Man,’ I’ve never done series really. I’ve done a couple, but they’ve never been big hitters.
The exception being The Colony Saga, which was a big seller and that’s a zombie series, but that’s sort of seen its day. And so, I put out the second book, let’s see if I can make it work and the response has been tremendous. So there’s, again, I’m putting food on the table.
I immediately went, where’s the third book going to come from? And I think I’ll be hanging out with that series that’s called the stranger series and I’ll probably do a standalone and then a stranger book and a standalone and a stranger book. And I’ll do that as long as people are interested in reading those stories.
Joanna: That’s great. And I’ve got to say on the zombie thing, the zombies will be back.
Michaelbrent: Oh yeah. They never quite die, right?
Joanna: Yes. They are the undead. I go through phases of reading zombie books, like Jonathan Maberry‘s series, Rot and Ruin series. Oh, I love it. And he’s just got another one out on that next month or something. And then I’ll be like, ‘Oh, we’ll be back into a zombie phase.’
Michaelbrent: That’s the thing too, that it’s good for your authors and listeners to know is for Joanna Penn and for me, for sure. But I suspect for you, it’s like, I’m not really getting into zombie fiction, but just because the market’s oversaturated, if I find a good one, I’m not going to go, ‘Oh, zombies were yesterday. So, I’m not going to read this Maberry title.’ Because I know Jonathan, I like Jonathan. So, that certainly helps. But beyond that, he’s a darn fine writer. And so, if he writes his zombie book, I’ll probably go, ‘I’ll pick that up.’
Just because you have a story that fits into a dead genre, as indies, we are not so beholden to the trends. And if I have a rad zombie story that I can push, I’ll push it and you don’t have to worry quite so much about it.
Joanna: I want to write a zombie book one day, but it’s one of these sub-sub-genres of horror, where you can’t just do the same thing. You have to have something original. So, in my mind, at some point I’ll be, I’ll do my zombie book, but I haven’t got one yet, one day. One of these days.
Coming back to marketing, you mentioned comprehensive multipath. Obviously, we’re not going to go through all of that, but one of the things you did say was about the email list.
How did you start growing your email list again and how are you using that?
Michaelbrent: I’ve grown it in a number of ways. One is Facebook ads and online ads of that sort.
On Facebook, I’ve gotten a real system down that seems to be working quite well. And whenever I feel like calling my email list and adding new people, I can use that as sort of a backdrop that it’s there all the time. I’m always putting people on that way.
There’s a lot of organic entries. I’m getting more people signing up daily on my newsletter than I used to get in six months, like a couple of years ago. And that’s really nice. And part of what I’m doing the other part as far as not just trying to grow it, but the people that I have, I’m giving stuff to them. So, it’s not that I’m emailing them and saying, ‘Here’s a new book out,’ I’m emailing them and saying, ‘I’ve got all these lists of free and 99 cent Kindle unlimited books for you. Check these out.’
I do giveaways all the time. I think I’ve given away four or five Kindles in the last month, something like that. And every time I do a book launch, I get proof copies and I order a limited number of them and I number them and sign them in beautiful gold ink across the front. And I’m like, ‘These are collectors’ items because frankly proof items or proof books have screw-ups.’ These are going to be messy, irregular copies. If you buy it, your regular clothing it’s ghetto. If you have an irregular book, it’s a treasure, it’s that buffalo penny without a fourth leg on the buffalo. People really like that.
What I’m doing is I’m sending a weekly, and sometimes more often email to people. And I do not offer as the main thing, a Michaelbrent related thing. I do my best to offer them something for them. And then at the bottom, I’ll say, ‘Oh,’ and by the way, my books have been on sale since the beginning of Coronavirus. And I’ve put all of them, almost all of them on Kindle unlimited with lending enabled so that people who are hard up for entertainment, hard up for money can get them. And here’s the links.
And even that’s a very service-oriented thing. Because when my wife and I started that, we figured we’d take a real big monetary hit and do it for a week or two. And so many people were helped by it. We’ve kept it going for five and a half, six months now.
So, the things in my newsletter are very much geared towards not selling my books but helping these people out. And as a result, they love me because I’m helping them. And I’m so appreciative of that. And I think that shows too, I’m not just using these people. So many of them are my friends.
It’s actually hard to keep up with all of them now because they email and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re having surgery. That sucks.’ ‘Oh, you have a new baby. Congratulations.’ I love that. They’re great people and treating them that way I think even if you’re not interacting with, you know, 30,000 people personally, the ones you’re not interacting with personally feel a genuine appreciation.
Joanna: And this is where there can be an issue though. I have seen on Facebook that you mentioned I am starting to spend quite a lot of time interacting with people. And this is something that is a difficult balance because if you keep going the way you’re going, you will have to spend 10 hours a day doing stuff like that.
Firstly, I know everyone’s thinking, are you still writing books or are you just marketing books?
How are you balancing your time now and how are you going to continue to scale without spending all your time engaging?
Michaelbrent: As far as how I balance my time now, it’s generally a 50/50 split as far as I will spend half my time marketing, responding to emails. I spend probably three hours a day now, maybe four, responding to emails and messages that are from fans primarily. And then the rest is business stuff.
I know that’s a hugely good problem to have, and I don’t want to be like that ballplayer who’s going, ‘Oh, I’m getting paid $100 million dollars a year and it’s just not fun anymore.’ That’s so ridiculous. So, I’m aware this is a really good thing, but it is draining because I want to attend to each of these people. They are my friends and they are the people putting food in my kid’s mouth. So, I love them.
Day to day, it’s 50/50, when it ramps up into book time when I’m writing, it’s much more writing-oriented, I’ll do a lot less marketing now. I haven’t done any writing for the last couple of weeks. It’s all been marketing stuff. And then when the new books hit, when the new book hits on the 18th, that’ll be marketing for another couple of weeks and then I’ll ramp into the next stranger book.
There’s probably a 50/50 split right now and it is hard to manage. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard to keep straight. I had five alarms go off today to remind me I have this interview. And you’re one of my favorite people. You would think that I would remember it but I’m just so crammed full of stuff right now. Every time the flipping alarm went off, I went, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s today.’ It gets very easy to lose yourself. So, as far as scaling, I’m hiring an assistant, I’ve hired someone part-time. I’m going to be outsourcing some of the work.
I even was doing all the upkeep and the maintenance on my website, which I really enjoyed. And finally, I have a friend who is a very high-level web designer, and I finally called and said, ‘Hey, how much to put you on retainer?’ Because as much as I enjoy it, that’s not putting the food in my kid’s mouth and affording me and my wife our Netflix hour together kind of thing. So, I can’t do it.
You do have to make those decisions. It’s a good problem to have. I’m not going to lie at all. I much prefer this problem to, ‘I hope I can get the next pizza in 30 minutes or less or I won’t get as good of a tip.’ But it is a real thing. And you do have to start shopping out more and more stuff so that you don’t lose yourself.
Joanna: I think that’s a really good point. You cannot step up a level until you’re outsourcing. Literally it’s impossible for one person to do all of this at a level where, when you’ve got as many books as you have and you’re building a bigger business, like bigger businesses need help, but it’s very difficult to get over that mindset shift, isn’t it? Certainly, as an independent creator to go from, ‘I can do everything the best’ to, ‘I need to hire someone.’
Was there just a tipping point when you decided ‘I don’t have any time,’ I need help?
Michaelbrent: Yeah. And that’s what it came down to. And it wasn’t just time, but you look at when you get the whole thing settled where I am a business, you start making easier decisions based on money. So, three, four, five, six years ago, even when I was doing okay, I would get something in my attention that was like, this is a hundred dollars that’ll help your business. And I wouldn’t do it because why should I spend a hundred dollars?
Now I get something in my business as an opportunity. And it says it’s $100. And I look at it and go, ‘It will take me one hour and it’ll return $200. So, I’ll make a hundred bucks for that hour.’ That’s a good expenditure. And a hundred dollars goes out without a second thought.
On the other hand, like yesterday, I sat in the garage, this is indie life for you. I’m shooting this commercial, and I looked at the lighting that I needed. Because I have pretty good lighting, but I didn’t have appropriate for what I wanted for this particular thing.
We’re going to shoot a game show that’s all about my new book. And it’s going to be lots of fun, but I had a green screen and I needed better lighting. I looked online and I’m like, ‘I don’t feel like spending $3,000 on a light. So, can I go make something like that?’ And I did. And that was a heap of fun.
I could validate a day’s work because I was saving myself five grand because I needed to have these lights. And that was a lot of fun. And it made sense on a financial setting kind of way. Now, Stephen King, he’s not going to go. Maybe I’ll go out and make my own set of lights and green screen set up.
Other people are going to do that for him. And if he’s going to be a piece in it, like I’m going to be an actor. I do all these little commercials whenever I have a book come out and I’m one of the actors, and Stephen King might show up on set and they go stand there and make a face and he does need walks off. Because he’s got a whole support system.
If I’m that big, you can bet that I will not be in my garage putting together two by fours to hold lights together. But right now, I can and I like it. And that’s a real gift and a pleasure. And I’ll enjoy it until such time as I can’t afford to do that.
Joanna: And you’re actually really creative with your marketing like you said there, and you’re enjoying the video stuff and you’re funny, you’re a funny guy and I admire how much you share like that. I am just useless at that. I don’t want to chat. I’m not a Facebook person, which is why I’m in awe of how you do it, but equally I don’t want to do that.
In fact, I put some ads up after we spoke and I got some comments that just, well, I got some really nice comments. And then it’s a very angry time in the world right now. And I got some comments on the Facebook ads that just physically hit me. You feel that kind of squeeze in your chest like, oh, that’s just broken me for today. And I just can’t see that. So, I just decided, well, I can’t do that. I can’t do that to myself for now. I might go back to it. But I decided, well, maybe my criteria has to be either the advertising where people can’t leave comments!
That has become a criteria for my marketing. And partly that’s what we need to do is that we need to put in constraints, like you’ve put in a constraint, which is I’m going to pay someone to do my website. I’m not going to do it myself. And I’ve put this constraint in.
What are some of the other ways that you are marketing or some of the things you’re not doing because they just don’t fit? You mentioned book bloggers, for example.
Are book bloggers completely gone from any form of marketing now?
Michaelbrent: No. They call themselves book reviewers. Now, it’s the same thing, but it’s a big site that’s dedicated to stuff they read. I just spent the last two weeks emailing these people. I have a spreadsheet of like 400 book bloggers that work in horror and another couple hundred in romance.
Because I do that occasionally, and another couple hundred in Sci-Fi, and so I reach out to those people constantly. And it’s nice because at this point I do have a system. If it’s someone I’ve never worked with, I have a form and I send it and it’s like, ‘Here’s why I’m a badass. And you should read this book.’ And everybody that I have talked to, they get a personalized email that have reviewed me.
That’s a really big marketing tip by the way, for, especially for new authors. Book reviewers and book reviews are not your right. They are a privilege and you have to treat them that way and you have to treat them with appreciation.
I have been very lucky. I’ve been picked up for review by Publishers Weekly numerous times. I’m not paying them, just they’re aware of me. And so, they’ve started picking up my books. Their first review of one of my books was totally 180 from any review I’d ever heard. And it was not a good review. That is, they were not happy with it. And the only thing I did was I wrote a letter to the general editor. And I said, ‘Please pass this on if you deem it appropriate. Thank you to your reviewer for spending the time for spending the care.’
Their review was thoughtful, whether I agreed and I didn’t say this, whether I agreed with it or not, that was something they did for me. They allowed me to take up space in their mental real estate, which is so limited these days. And I have nothing but appreciation for that.
As a result, even book bloggers or book reviewers that maybe haven’t liked one of my books, they’re like, ‘Please send me your next one just because you’re not an a-hole. You don’t yell and scream if I don’t give you a five-star review.’ And that’s really nice.
I’d like to be able to give someone a review and know that they’re not going to yell at me if they don’t get the outcome that they wish. I have a lot of interaction with book reviewers and they’re fantastic.
Very few of them are sitting there being like, ‘How can I destroy a writer’s soul today?’ There’s just not that many of those. And the more you treat them like they’re human and like their friends that you can make, the more that’s going to turn out to be the case.
I actually dedicated The Forest to two of my very earliest professional reviewers who are my very good friends.
Now, in fact, when I said I need to scale back a little on what I’m doing, one of them was like, ‘Can I do any of your emails for you? Can I go through the lists? I’d be happy to send packages.’ And she’s got her own life. Just we’re such good friends. She was like, ‘Let me help out.’
Joanna: That’s because you’re a real person. Obviously you’re a real person! but I mean you are a real person in your communication. I don’t feel like you put any barrier between what you talk about with your fans. It’s not like you go, ‘They are a fan. Therefore, I can’t say this.’
You’re respectful obviously, but you’re also personal, which I think is important if we open up to our readers. They’re already inside our heads. I feel like I know you in a way because I’ve been inside so many of your books, like I feel like I know a part of your brain that even, well, I feel with my fiction that people who read our fiction know us in a way better than even some of our family.
Michaelbrent: Oh, totally.
Joanna: It’s like a weird thing. I like the readers who love our books, they know us really pretty well. Even though we think we’re being separate, they actually know they can read through our fiction into ourselves.
Michaelbrent: Totally. In fact, you know what? I’m playing a video game and I won’t name it, but I like video games on my off-hours. And some of them are just stunning examples of stories. I can actually feel really good playing it. Because I’m picking up story stuff. I’m playing this major video game that’s been released not too long ago. And as I’m playing it, I’m going, I feel like this author who wrote all the story for it, hates people, just hates the universe and is somebody that I would not like to hang out with on my off time.
I’m going to finish playing it because frankly, I’ve invested too much time to not see how it ends and see if I’m really angry because I’m right about it. But you definitely get that sense with people. That’s one of the reasons I tell people to stay involved in their outside lives because you don’t become a hermit because you continue finding out what miracles people are and that does shine through in your writing.
That’s not to say it’s all happy. Some of my books have very unhappy endings, but hopefully, you don’t get a sense where at any point where I’m writing out code for, ‘I hate you all. I wish you would die by the book first.’
Joanna: One last question on marketing; paid advertising is a huge part of most authors’ lives right now. And I dare say you weren’t doing that much of it before, but what are you doing now?
You mentioned Facebook, what else are you doing for paid ads?
Michaelbrent: I’m doing Facebook primarily. And again, that’s just because like you, it’s a niche that I found works for me and I get those comments too, and they are gut punches and some of the hardest ones are like where they comment on a problem with your book and you feel like writing back and going, ‘You’re right. I’m sure you’re 15 living in your mom’s house. And I’m only a professional who’s been doing this for 10 years. Thanks for pointing that out. I missed it.’
It’s like you get really snarky in your head and it’s hard not to respond to those. So, I totally sympathize with anybody who’s frustrated or who just chooses not to do it. That said, the ads I’m running get a terrific return on investment. I also do Amazon ads.
And the Amazon ads, I’ve noticed an interesting thing, which is I don’t necessarily get a great return on investment on them, but when I turn them off, my Amazon income dips to a much greater level than one would expect. So say I’m making a 5% return on investment with my ad. If I turn it off for that book, I will take a 10% dip.
I make sure to spend quite a decent amount of Amazon money every month, I spend thousands of dollars on Facebook. I do BookBub ads. And I spend a lot just maintaining the mailing list. You get to a certain point and it’s like the mailing list monthly cost at this point is more than my entire marketing budget for 2011 kind of thing. But again, that’s a good problem.
It is weird because when I started, I was getting 10,000% return investment on every dollar I spent, but the question becomes, do you want 10,000% return investment on $1 or do you want a 10% return investment on a quarter of a million dollars? And if you do the math for a quarter of a million makes more sense.
It is not a good idea to just jump into Facebook or Amazon and say, ‘I’m spending 20,000 this month,’ because you’re going to lose your shirt. There is definitely a building process. And basically so far in the last couple of years, every 8 to 10 months, I have essentially doubled my marketing budget. And each time the return on investment goes down slightly.
So, my first time it went from 10,000% down to 100%, and then it went down to 95% and 90%, but it’s still an amazing ROI and I still continue scaling up. And that puts again, more money in my pocket that I can invest in stuff that most matters to me, which is family and being able to give back.
One of the wonderful things about doing the giveaways, I spend hundreds of dollars a month on these things and I love doing it because it feels good to give stuff to people who have given so much to me.
Joanna: And on a marketing angle, you’re building your brand and loyal fans. There’s that as well.
Michaelbrent: I tell people there’s nothing wrong with getting something. A good relationship is where you both value each other equally. And if you have a good nodding relationship with the guy at the store and he has a good nodding relationship with you, that’s fantastic.
I’m giving stuff to my audience and they’re giving stuff to me. One of my best friends, my whole life was a guy that punched me in the stomach the first day we met, we did not get along. And then two years later, it was in high school and I was really scrawny and I called him up and I said, ‘Chad, I know we don’t like each other that much, but you are sculpted. Like you are a big yoked muscular guy and you actually have girls looking at you, which I don’t. Teach me.’
And we went to the gym. And by the end of the week, we have this relationship that was centered on working out and we were best friends. And we each got something from each other. I started tutoring him in Spanish because the dude couldn’t remember how to say fork in Spanish to save his life. And so, it was a mutual receipt relationship and it was a win-win. And that’s great.
So, I really like my fans. I really enjoy being with them and interacting with them. And that is a win for me. They pay for my books. That’s a win for me. And in return, I hope I provide them entertainment and a smile.
I did an isolation journal on my Facebook page. That was nothing but a couple of sentences every day of a person isolated devolving into radical madness. I was convinced the coat rack was trying to kill me. I ended up in a different dimension where someone had replaced all of my family with exact duplicates and I got constant emails saying, ‘Thank you. Everything’s so hard. I needed to smile and I can always look at your page and smile.’ I want to give them that they want to give me back their appreciation in various different ways and it works and I’m grateful for it. And I hope they are too.
Joanna: I read your lockdown journal thing. It was very cool.
Last question, because this is the thing, we both hit this moment in our author life at different points obviously, but we want to keep going with this, right? The likelihood of things changing is 100%. Everything’s changing all the time.
What processes are you putting in place or checking on things that you’re doing so that the same thing doesn’t happen again?
Michaelbrent: Part of it is just being more aware, I think so. If I hear a word that I don’t understand that is in a marketing blog, I follow that.
I got an email from a publishing company saying, ‘We’d like to publish your book,’ and it’s a book that’s already published. So, usually, when I get an email like that, it’s from a publisher who’s like, ‘Hey, can you turn us over the rights and we will screw you to the wall?’ And my polite reaction is usually, ‘No, thank you.’
But I always look at them and this was something I’d never heard of. And I looked into it and it turns out it’s like a $37 billion company in Korea. And so, it very much changed my tone towards them obviously. I actually had to say, no because I can’t give up the rights to this book, but I said, ‘There’s other things, let’s continue talking.’
It opened my eyes to this whole industry that’s very big overseas in Asia, especially have really short chapters that people read on their phone and they pay by the chapter. So, if you like chapter one, you pay 5 cents for chapter two or whatever it is. I was like, ‘That’s the coolest thing ever.’ You can bet that’s on my radar.
Every time I see a friend who’s on a book review site, I check it out every time I see, I get lots of marketing stuff on my Facebook feed because of Facebook being creepy and knowing everything about me and I click most of them. I don’t have necessarily an intention to enroll in that course, but I don’t know, 2 or 3 times out of 10, I find out something I didn’t know, maybe I’m not taking the course, but gosh, I didn’t even know that was a thing and that’ll be on my radar for the future.
I’ve definitely developed more of a business awareness and a constant curiosity. And it’s worked out because I know you’re really big into taking care of yourself as an author. And it makes it a heck of a lot easier for me to validate an hour of workout a day if I can say, I am listening to you to podcasts or watching YouTube videos while I trudge along on the elliptical and that’s helping my business.
So, this is part of my workday now and it’s impacted my health because of that. The more I’m aware of those things, the more it actually helps, not just my business, but my state of mind, my curiosity, my physical level, it all improves.
Joanna: That’s great. Being endlessly curious and improving incrementally, these are the things. And also not taking your eye off the ball, like I definitely did that in favor of other things. My overall income was going up. It’s just the percentage that was fiction was going down.
I’m really grateful for your help. You’re just fantastic Michaelbrent. I really appreciate everything you do, and I love your fiction. I really encourage people to check you out.
Where can they find you and everything you do online?
Michaelbrent: The easiest way to find me is just google the name, Michaelbrent, it’s all one word and I’m the only Michaelbrent in the world. So, that’ll bring up everything and you can go to Amazon and do the same thing.
I have a website called writteninsomnia.com, written insomnia books that will keep you up all night. I have a Facebook fan page again, just write my first name in and I’m going to pop up. Twitter, you can follow me. You can follow me on BookBub. I am eminently easy to find which I’m very grateful for.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Michaelbrent. That was great.
Michaelbrent: Thank you.
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Author: Joanna Penn