The Organic Approach

My official job title with Knotted Road Press, Inc. is Marketing Troll. (Seriously. Says so in the incorporation papers. She’s the boss. I just work here.)

Part of that is to address marketing issues in addition to my usual stuff. That means trying things to see if they will help build sales and revenue, which has been kinda a pain in the ass as COVID has worked so hard to shut things down, ruin lives, and depress the hell out of people.

Last year, some folks saw a tremendous spike in revenue from their catalog, because folks were staying home and needed something to entertain themselves after they finished the BBEG at the end of Netflix. So they read.

But it was not a universal thing. Some authors saw explosion. Some saw nothing. A great many sputtered and guttered, losing whatever traction that they might have had previously.

I have theories, but without undertaking a massive double-blind statistical analysis designed to test, I cannot prove anything. And that level of work is not going to happen. I do, however, assume Amazon has done all the math. (If any of you have connections, I grok t-sql at a rather high level and would love to ask a few questions and watch them nod knowingly without ever divulging anything. Just to know.)

My sales went down a bit initially, then slowly recovered. Not great. Not bad. The first thing we had done back in the winter of 2020 (Feb-Mar) was to cut out all major expenses from the budget. At the time, that was audio books and translations into German. (We got lucky, in that the US Small Business Administration offered us a loan at ridiculous rates, so we were able to afford two more Science Officer novellas into German at around $8k US total, and take years paying it back. Worth it, as they paid off and continue to earn us money and fans.)

Going forward, one of the things was to keep expenses low, by approaching everything with a strict eye to cost/benefit. April 2020, my Amazon Advertising expense literally exploded, as Amazon started showing things to everyone. At the same time, nobody was buying (I think they all went into KU and stayed there) so my costs weren’t balanced. I ended up shutting down almost everything and dialing back everything else for about 4-5 months.

Kindle Unlimited (KU) lets folks read anything they want in the KU catalog for a fixed, monthly subscription price. Lovely for the reader, but not for someone trying to break in as a writer. It is a treadmill that forces more and more books out of you every month for a declining income because the monthly share-out money is not growing all that fast, in comparison to new books being cataloged in. Put it this way, in the way back, Traditional Publishing probably published less than 50,000 books per year. Amazon usually sees at least 1,000,000 new titles per year, and I suspect that has gone up over the last five years. At some point, it will be two million.

Outside of Amazon, none of the other ebook retailers (Kobo, Apple, Barnes&Noble, etc.) really offer any sort of useful advertising tools. As a result, you have to head over to third party options, such as Facebook ads or one of the daily newsletter blasts (Bookbub is the biggest currently, AFAIK).

This is where it gets interesting. If I asked ten people if any one of those tools had worked for them, I’d get twenty-seven answers. Some people say FB is the greatest ever. Others have seen absolutely no movement on the dial from expensive programs. Even folks that do extensive and invasive A/B testing, over and over again, aren’t seeing reliable results. Doesn’t have to be great, but needs to be reliable for that kind of money.

Part of that comes down to the fact that books are not widgets. Every book is a completely unique thing, and readers have variable tastes. Some might want cookies today. Some scones. Some decaf soy mochas. As a writer, it helps if you have a wide bakery of literary options when someone walks in the door, but that is not a guarantee of success.

This year, I slowly dialed my Amazon advertising back up to where it had been. I twiddle with it regularly, trying to fine tune my expenses by dialing down things with a bad return and dialing up things not getting seen. Right now, I’m spending about $400/month there, which is more than I like, and more than I used to, but sales have slowly returned and keep moving better.

I take the organic approach, which is the point of this blog. There are programs where you can participate in some giveaway where everyone who signs up agrees to get your newsletter, in return for the chance to win an ebook reader filled with books by every author participating. Second place is just the ebooks. Third place is a set of steak knives or something.

I’ve tried a few of those. And seen a massive unsubscribe rate every time I send folks out that first “Welcome” email following on. They don’t want to hear from random author, even though they agreed to.

So I don’t do those anymore. Not until I get a better deal and less headache.

This last summer, a particular website reached out to me blind and asked if I wanted to by an advertising spot on their main page. Science fiction centered. Probably my audience. But then I dug in and noted that I was being asked to spend hundreds of dollars for my tiny ad to be buried in with a ton of others, all the same size. No way to stand out. High cost. Low expected benefit.

After some back and forth, I realized that they were a little desperate for advertisers, thus an aggressive discounting, but their main page still had empty spots. Middlemen, who had a model that wasn’t working. Or no longer working is more likely. The world has changed as a result of the COVID lockdowns.

Didn’t do business with them, but a week later somebody else reached out. They were discounting $29 to $19, and also discounting their Author of the Day deal. I ended up doing it, spending I think $63 to get placement on their daily SF newsletter. Low cost, so something I was willing to experiment with.

The Science Officer (book one of Javier) was the deal. Sales of the book on Amazon doubled for about two weeks, which wasn’t much. But I also saw the series spike pretty solidly as well, which means money. The ad campaign paid for itself that way within one month.

Interestingly, I saw newsletter signups explode. As I said, I’ve taken the organic approach to building my list. Getting fans, rather than random pedestrians off the street.

I used to forward my blog to Facebook, but they kept breaking the link at their end, so I just cut it. Still feed places like Amazon, Goodreads, etc., so I get people signed up coming from there. But this particular daily deal caused a wonderful (and sustained) uptick in readers.

I send the Anti-Stodgy/Redneck Chef newsletter on the first of the month, with the publishing news coming on the 15th. Every time I send Redneck, I see a few unsubscribes, because folks aren’t really interested in me as a brand, but I have more net signups, so I have been growing slowly over the years.

In August, Anti-Stodgy went to 833 recipients. That was the Before. September went to 899. I just sent October to 1,041. I actually had to upgrade my mailerlite account finally, because I had moved into the second category, and have to pay for the account (about ten bucks a month, which is a nice deal, all things considered).

I know folks with twenty or fifty thousand subscribers. Some of them make stupid big money. Some aren’t. I make an above-average, middle-class living as a writer. Less than I did as a Database Architect in Seattle in the before time, but my goal is to keep building that to the point that I exceed that income, without any of the stress and crazy shit I had to put up with in those days.

The Organic Approach means that I’m taking my time. I can do that, because I got lucky in places, and planned in others. (“Assume Success, plan for Victory” instead of assuming failure and trying to mitigate it as well as you can.)

My newsletter folks will wash out some that aren’t that interested in my brand of entertainment, but that’s fine, because those folks who remain with me are the ones that want to buy my books. To keep me in a lifestyle to which I could become accustomed. Trust me, not putting on pants is its own special kind of victory.

I’m building fans. Some of them have even turned into friends, to the extent that I invite them to the house for dinner whenever they are in town. Sometimes, they come to Seattle specifically to visit. It is an amazing thing.

My process won’t work for everyone. Some folks preach a prosperity gospel of things you MUST do in order to succeed. I ignore most of them, because I know one of their secrets. Most of them are trying to make as much money as they can today, because they have a gimmick and it will fail soon and leave them with nothing.

I go back and look at the folks preaching some trick five or ten years ago, and they are all gone now. New folks with new theories have replaced them. For now. Every gimmick fails eventually. I have a different goal.

I want a career that is still going strong thirty years from now when I’m in my eighties. My plan is to have an entire stack of novels done, edited, covered, and ready to be published when I die, so my great^whatever heirs can keep making money off my estate for a long time. I’d like to live to see 2060. (Technically, 2070, if I can swing it.) If I died in 2060, my books would remain in copyright until 2135 CE. And I’ll have a LOT of books by then. Just started novel #73 yesterday. Writing 12-18 novels per year right now. Gonna have a party when I hit 100. Probably early 2023, so mark your calendars.

Organic. Solid, because you get the authentic me, rather than some character that a marketing survey had decided would be most advantageous this month. You get the highs and the lows. You get the Anti-Stodgy campaign and the Redneck Chef. You get the sticking it to the man and the politics of social and cultural revolution. Because that’s me.

I have (hopefully) built up a cadre of folks that find that sort of thing interesting and fun, and will continue to support my by buying books. I even had a special, inner crowd of folks that support me monthly on Patreon ( and get to see stuff long before it ever makes it into print. And I have a lot of short fiction that I have written especially for them, just so I have a new story or series to share with them every month.

Organic, because not forced. Slow, because not flash in the pan. Careful and deliberate, because I want folks coming back time and again to see what’s new.

How are you building your career?

One thought on “The Organic Approach

  1. Phil Kosnett

    This is really useful stuff, Blaze, for those of (read: old guys) whose knowledge of publishing comes from the Before Times. Appreciate the effort you put into this blog, as well as the Business for Breakfast series.

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