It’s the Reader, Stupid (Part 2)

A year ago, I wrote a short blog post called It’s the Reader, Stupid, inspired by James Carville’s advice during the 1992 Presidential campaign, when he coined the term “It’s the economy, stupid.” The post was meant to be a reminder to publishers and bookstores that their customer is the reader, not each other.

I think it bears reminding to all of us just who should be in charge of the publishing industry, and that’s the customer.

What got me thinking about this today was a discussion on KBoards about how Amazon’s algorithms and also-boughts work, what gets promoted and what doesn’t, and all the ways that entrepreneurial writers attempt to figure out the market they’re writing for. Here’s my reminder: It’s all about the reader.

One of the biggest mistakes I see self-published authors make when it comes to Amazon (or any digital retailer) is to assume that they make decisions based primarily on our welfare. Any tweak Amazon makes, authors immediately determine how that change is going to affect them, which is smart. The mistake is to assume that the tweak was designed to affect them. It wasn’t. The tweak was designed to affect the customer experience.

It’s the reader, stupid.

(Please note that I hate using the word stupid, but that I use it for the same reason that Carville did. It shocks us into paying attention. Also, it’s hard to employ a meme without quoting the meme-ish bit.)

Reminding ourselves that it’s all about the reader can be immensely useful. What sorts of titles do we think Amazon might promote? My guess, using this reminder as a framework, is the titles that provide the highest level of customer satisfaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean the titles with the most or best reviews. It might mean the titles that have the highest completion-to-purchase rate. Or the lowest number of returns. Or the highest percentage of sequel purchases. It might even mean the titles that display slow organic growth via word-of-mouth rather than heavily promoted explosive growth. It could have to do with cover art or genre.

It’s no surprise to me that Amazon doesn’t promote my title I, ZOMBIE. It’s the only work of mine that my wife couldn’t get through. The book is revolting enough that I had to put a disclaimer right in the product description. Even if horror is a popular genre, Amazon would turn off customers by promoting a niche work that won’t satisfy most readers.

This is a philosophy I think any sane thinker would agree is a sound one. I’m sure Amazon does the same for its other products, heavily promoting the items that have the fewest returns, which signals not only customer satisfaction but cuts down shipping and restocking costs.

Personally, I enjoy writing all over the place, including things that I know won’t sell very well. I’m not in this to maximize my earnings. But for those who are, I recommend not looking at Amazon’s decisions as somehow being directed at authors. That just doesn’t make any sense. Their decisions are based on customer service and customer satisfaction. If you want to succeed with them, all you have to do is align yourself to that purpose.

And what could be more noble? Write what you think others will enjoy; edit the work to maximize that enjoyment; grace your work with a pleasing cover; and price it reasonably. Whatever happens next, it isn’t about us. It’s about the reader.

32 responses to “It’s the Reader, Stupid (Part 2)”

  1. There’s nothing stupid about it – it’s straight common sense. We aren’t writing books to please Amazon so there is little point in worrying about every tweak they make. Let’s focus on writing books that people want to read and enjoying ourselves in the process.

  2. If there’s one lesson to learn from the Hachette vs Amazon dispute, it’s that Amazon puts the readers/customers first. They’ve put their name and a major vendor relationship on the line in the name of lower prices for readers. Of course, they’ve also shown that the lower prices mean more profits so let’s not think them too benevolent, but they are one of the only retailers who would do something like this.

    I think most of the self-pubbers who get rattled by Amazon changing something are the ones who never understood why their books started selling in the first place and are therefore equally dismayed when those sales stop. Yes, there is always going to be that pesky little element of luck, but you should always have a game plan and an overall strategy for how you are going to make your books sell and then stick to it. You should understand what you do well and why people enjoy your work. Starting from there, it will get easier to understand what is not working and improve.

  3. I love this sentiment, Hugh. There’s often an egocentric paranoia to self-publishing that needs to be maintained with regular wisdom. Maybe cause writers are often insecure and struggling to succeed in an insecure industry?

    1. Source: I took Psych 101 twice.

  4. This is refreshing to read and helps to put one of my insecurities to rest. I know little to nothing about maximizing on Amazon’s algorithms or explosive marketing.

    But I love to write and, so far, reviews for my one and only book are flattering. (And they’re not bought!)

    This tells me how I should best be spending my time, despite the whirlwind of social media competing for my attention – WRITE THE NEXT ONE!

    Hugh, I see your progress bars (in constant motion) top left of this page and can’t help but feel a bit envious. I can’t wait until my day job isn’t what bars me from writing but what grants me the time to do so.

  5. Personally, I enjoy writing all over the place, including things that I know won’t sell very well.

    YES! There often is so much focus on selling well, that I think authors forget they are writing for other reasons as well: to please the reader, to please ourselves, to say something that needs saying. To put a book out there when there’s not one like it. To round out our body of works. To try something new.

    This freedom of indie is the most precious part to me. And as I write more works (and more range of works), it becomes more clear how Amazon (and readers) will be attracted to one or the other more or less strongly. It doesn’t make that a bad work, and Amazon should rightly match readers with the works they will enjoy most. But it doesn’t mean that book shouldn’t have been written either. Quite the contrary, in some cases.

    Chasing algorithms might get you more sales. Pleasing the customer will always work. But writing works you love? That lasts forever.

    1. Can’t agree with this more.

      Part of the problem with publishers as well as television production(s) is that they tend to recycle what’s in vogue. It leads to a glut of police procedurals and medical dramas. Even when they’re producing high quality, it leaves a gaping hole for other material (SciFi is barely even touched in television). It’s that snake eating itself mentality. Nothing new can ever come from it and its cannibalistic (Watch Gotham to see how bad it gets — last nights episode blatantly ripped off Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and every Mafia film ever with copy/paste dialogue).

      When authors have an outlet for their weird strange unique creativity, we start to get more than just variations on the same thing over and over again.

      The irony is that the publishing model makes authors like Susan and Hugh and Paulo, authors that follow their hearts in terms of content, stand apart from the crowd.

  6. Thank you for this, Hugh. It pains me to see writers in a dither, all tangled up and frantic over marketing and promotion to the detriment of their writing. (Or worse, giving up in despair) There are no shortcuts to a solid career. There are no magic beans or gimmicks.

    I think if writers would realize that “I’m gonna sell a bunch of books” is a much different goal than “I’m gonna make my readers laugh, cry, think or tremble in terror.” The first is narrow and self-centered; the second leads to great stories.

    I would like to throw in a little self-serving wisdom, both as a producer and a reader: Raise your production values. Edit your words, make sure your ebooks work properly, make sure your print-on-editions are well-designed, proofread everything before releasing it into the market. Get in the habit of thinking, MY readers deserve the BEST. Never ever settle for “good enough.”

  7. Excellent advice and I am glad that I read it this morning. I’ve come across quite a few posts by authors in one of my chosen genres that bemoan the algorithms and positioning of books and I was starting to get worried. While erotica may be a slightly different animal than most styles, it is good to be reminded that Amazon has the best interests of my readers (all ten of them) at heart. If I produce quality work, the retailer’s machinations will work in my favor.

    And David List, I hear you about the day job. My latest job started out as a part-time gig that paid my bills and left me plenty of time to write but now it’s blossomed into a full + time/seven day a week thing that is draining me dry. I’ll look back on this part of my life with fondness, I’m sure, but until then… I’ll keep plugging away because that’s what we do.

  8. I’m with Hugh on this one…partially.

    I write all over the place, too, and I don’t worry about whether the stories sell. I sometimes have the hardest time figuring out what genre to place some of my stories in, because I have elements of many genres in all of them. I have three series that I’m writing, and it won’t be too long before I combine two of them into one. The remaining two series are also in the same universe, and will have some crossover as well.

    Most of my stories have four-and-five star reviews from the people that have read them, with one exception: “Mama Told Me Not To Come”, the first Justice Security story. Folks either liked that story very much, or hated it very much. There was very little in-between. Subsequent Justice Security stories have been well-received.

    Do I write to please readers? Well…yes and no.

    I write mostly to please myself. I write things that I would enjoy reading, and when someone else enjoys it, I’m very pleased. If someone doesn’t like what I write, I’m unhappy. But, I keep writing either way, because I love my characters, and I love writing what I write, because I love READING what I write. And I’m glad that my stories have brought pleasure to those that like them, too!

    So, yes. It’s kinda about the readers for me. I’m not in it to make a mint, obviously. I literally write to banish these story ideas from my head, and, hopefully, to please those readers that are patiently waiting to see what happens next in that universe.


    1. You misspelled “grating”.

      1. Also a “your” typo at the end. And the lead quote from me isn’t from me (as is clear if you read the NYT piece). I think the piece was rushed.

  9. On the other hand, apparently thinks that the guiding principle for which they write is “It’s the stupid reader.” A Salon article dated October 14 links to “an article in today’s New York Times” that is, in fact, dated two days earlier, October 12. Then Salon refers to that article by saying, “Howey defended Amazon and characterized Ursula Le Guin’s statement that Hachette’s tactics amount to censorship as ‘mostly lying.’ ” Except that, in that directly referred to Times article, it’s quite clear that Howey never said that. The Times attributes that quote to an unspecified “Amazon Kindle author” named Mir. Which “Mir” is unclear (there are several authors in the world with that name). Of course, since the Times article is by the notorious shill-for-Big-Publishing, David Streitfeld, that fact that something is unspecified and unclear should come as no surprise, and it seems that we can now add Salon writer Rob Spillman to that group also.

  10. I almost forgot. Spillman himself, in his Salon article, spits out that way-too-common bit of language ignorance by saying that Jeff Bezos “really could care less about books.” I guess that, when you write for stupid readers, you don’t need to be the brightest bulb in the box.

  11. I agree, write for the readers but I would warn (as a reader, NOT an author) is to write for you, the author. That truth, when your writing something you believe, feel, touch, comes through in the story. I’ve seen too many authors that go down the path of pleasing the genre and missing the reader because they didn’t stay true to themselves.

  12. I’m so sick of this anti-democratic notion that the public doesn’t know what’s good for them and has to be ‘guided’ in their choices lest civilization itself comes crumbling down in a tsunami of popular dreck.

    I’m sick of the self-styled sifters of art claiming that readers don’t know what’s good, whether it be books or where to buy them.

    Readers have spoken.

    They increasingly prefer digital over print, Amazon over brick and mortar bookstores, fast shipping over driving to the big box bookstore to pay outlandish prices for hardcovers. They prefer decent prices, huge variety and fast shipping to expensive, hard to come by, dreary navel gazing preferred by the sifters. They prefer genre books to the high-minded literary works that college English professors prefer.

    Get over it, Big 5 and all your minions.

    Adapt or die.

    1. Smart Debut Author Avatar
      Smart Debut Author

      I’ll take “Die” for $100, Alex.

  13. Hugh,
    Did you have early knowledge (even by a matter of hours) of the Kindle Scout program? Because in the context of Amazon’s announcement, your post today seems positioned to deflect critique of the program from self-publishers before it starts.

    All that said, I understand your take on Amazon’s motives (reader first), still, it’s rather odd for high-profile self-publishers to criticize major book publishers regarding royalties, yet make no mention of the 50% royalty being offered by Kindle Scout. Would love some comment from you on this.

    1. Is Kindle Scout the crowdsourcing program? Where you upload samples and readers vote on nominees to win a publishing contract? I’ve heard of that program but didn’t know it went by that name.

      If they are offering 50% of GROSS, I say that’s unbelievable. I’ve been urging publishers to pay 50% of NET, which would be double the current digital royalty rate of 25% of net.

      Keep in mind that Amazon’s royalties are generally gross, or right off the retail price. They don’t have to pay 30% to themselves, and then give the author 50% of what’s left. So this is TRIPLE what publishers pay at 25% of net, not double. Three times as much.

      We can’t expect Amazon to pay anything close to 70% royalties, ever. What they pay KDP authors is not a royalty. It’s a split. They take 30% for handling the retail side. The author delivers a finished product, edited (hopefully) and with cover art intact.

      For their imprint stuff (and Scout as well, if I’m right about what that is), there are editorial demands that have to be met. I think those contracts are for 5 years with some kind of minimum earnings to keep the rights beyond that as well. This is better than anything you’re going to see from a Big 5 publisher for a long while.

      1. As always, Hugh responds with class and intelligence. You just taught me a couple of things. Thanks for the reply and clarification.

  14. When I started writing about my superheroine, I wrote without any demographics in mind. I get told that I am probably aiming at young adult by people who have not read my stuff. Superhero = kids only in their minds. Super Holly is 25, not 16. And I still want to keep my condom joke at the end of the book.

    But recently in the comic book store, I saw a young, tall man with his cute, thoughtful little girl. He was rewarding her for getting straight As. He had a hard time finding comic books for her. Then and there I decided to write a story about a superpowered little girl. (It will be a Kindle book, not a comic book.) The story is coming along nicely. This one story was inspired by one adorable little demographic.

    Is Super Holly New Adult? Nah, writing for demographics seems exclusionary. I want to write more fun into the superhero world. If the writing is good, an audience will find it.

  15. Being both a reader and a writer, I’ll go with the Reader scenario. Most writer’s want their written words to be read ergo the reader wins. I guess in this case the chicken and the egg thingy doesn’t work (as far as a debate goes). You absolutely need the chicken first before you can have an egg sandwich! Great article! Great books, btw!

  16. You’re absolutely right. It’s all about the reader.

    Getting to that reader, that’s the difficult part for those of us down in the weeds, and that’s why there’s the focus on Amazon algorithms. And yet, as you point out, they’re not the goal. The algorithms might determine how much a book gets floated but it’s the reader that decides to buy (or not).

    I suspect the single biggest factor authors should consider is gaining a name for themselves. If you have a reputation as a writer that readers enjoy, buying a book is less of a decision and more of an impulse. Getting that reputation. That takes work. Even so called “overnight debut” writers like Andy Weir spent years promoting stories online in serial format and wrote several books before his so called “debut.”

    I’ve recently written two provocatively titled stories, MY SWEET SATAN and ALIEN SPACE TENTACLE PORN. Neither of the stories are R rated. They don’t even come close. They’re an experiment. Fans instantly recognise that they’re going to be something special. New readers are (hopefully) intrigued by the blurbs and the rave reader reviews. Slowly, I’m trying to build a name for myself as a writer that will surprise and delight.

  17. Hugh, I always enjoy your posts, and basically agree with this one, except that I’d slightly change your wording. Amazon puts customers first; sales, not readers. They don’t promote new books consumers might like, they promote the ones that are already selling well. I see no evidence that they put books with the lowest number of returns or highest number of sequel purchases over those that have the highest sales but possibly lower star ratings, which is another measure of reader satisfaction. If I could be proved wrong in this, I’d love it.

    Nor do I criticize them for it. They are running a business. I have been treated fairly as an Amazon author and as an Amazon reader, and have no basis for complaint. It’s up to me to bring up my sales, and that is tough, despite the fact that my book, Walls of Wind, has a 4.8 star rating given to it by complete strangers – just not enough of them yet.

    That’s my job, not Amazon’s. They never said they’d do my marketing for me. They gave me a fair playing field to compete on and as much time as I need to learn the game. That’s all I ask.

  18. Hugh, what do you want us to take away from this? Anything more practical than “Don’t take it personally?”

    I agree with that. It just seems like you’re responding to something that riled you.

  19. What I’m still astounded by is how little effort publishers make to actually research their market. I still see way too many e-books being released at ridiculously high prices…only conclusion I can reach is that publishers still have their head stuck in the sand when it comes to pricing.

  20. Nobody is in charge of publishing, and let’s hope it stays that way. Consumers are certainly an extremely important factor. They constitute demand. But supply is just as vital to a market.

    And equally important are what I will call the market makers. They invest their capital developing eReaders, software, and online stores. Without them the consumers would be sitting around wishing they had something, and the suppliers would be sitting around wishing they had a way to satisfy that demand. In terms of eBooks,

    It would be like 1980.

  21. Interesting review you provide in It’s the Reader, Stupid (Part 2) | Hugh Howey which I read with interest.

  22. […] It’s the Reader, Stupid (Part 2) | Hugh Howey […]

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