Over the next five posts, we're gonna unpack the Pirate Author Code until we're elbows deep in the guts of the current publishing industry and the ideals that can safely navigate us toward a fair-weather future. So let's start with the first tenet--"Pirate Authors are beholden to reader engagement." Here is the section lifted from the Code:
We've been set up to fail because we've been tricked to gauge our success by the wrong metrics. The metrics we've been spoon-fed are for tracking consumer conversions rather than reader engagement.
"What's the big diff?" you may ask...if you grew up in the eighties. Well, my fellow Generation Xer, the big diff is that conversion gauges the effectiveness of your marketing package. Engagement gauges the effectiveness of your storytelling. Which is a better indicator of your success as an author? (Hint, the answer is engagement.)
I hate to be the one to tell you this, and by "hate" I mean "relish," but if you are generating written content and you are concerned about conversion at the expense of engagement, you are an information dealer concerned about quick payouts via spammy content rather than quality storytelling. (Oofah!)
I'm not saying you shouldn't be concerned about conversion. Of course, you can't engage a reader unless you first convert that reader as a consumer. But Pirate Authors understand that conversion metrics such as reviews, rankings, and royalties are for evaluating the effectiveness of marketing success and not author success.
For evaluating success as a writer, Pirate Authors rely on metrics such as read-through and direct call-to-action click-through (ie. ask people to do something and track the percentage of them that do it). These metrics can tell you how much a reader is engaged with your brand.
And now for the unpacking.
An Introduction to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
As authors, how do we know we are a success? How can we determine if we are improving in our craft or connecting with our audience? What metric can we use to determine failure, success, and improvement? (I mean, other than how well we can hold our liquor.)
In business, we look for Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to tell us when our company is succeeding. The trick is to ensure you are using the right KPIs. If you are tracking the wrong ones, you'll think you are succeeding, when you actually could be failing. Sometimes the difference between one metric and another seems subtle but ends up being drastic when the strategies of a company are based upon it.
As data gets deeper and deeper, new metrics become available and the ability to track them gets richer. In days of old, most authors depended on the monthly royalties statement from their publisher to indicate success. Each impossibly complicated statement boiled down to reveal exactly how much of your advance you had whittled away that month. Then you would calculate how many more months until you started seeing royalty checks.
Earning out an advance is still an indicator of success in the opinion of your publisher. But that metric tells the author nothing about the reader experience. While it is perhaps a solid KPI for the publisher, it is a terrible one for the author.
These days things have gotten better, right? I mean, with real-time data streaming through my KDP dashboard I have mountains more metrics to choose from!
Hmmm, well, how can I tell you that the yellow liquid on your boot ain't rain?
Hunting for the Rascally KPI
Assuming the majority of your sales are generated through Amazon, let's drill down there first. If your books are not in Kindle Unlimited, your options for Key Performance Indicators are unit sales, royalties earned, number of reviews, average star rating of reviews, genre rankings, overall author ranking, and overall Amazon Kindle Store ranking. If you are in KU, then you have page reads as an additional metric to track. That's a lot of nuts!
If you are defining success by whether or not you are able to pay your bills, then finding your KPI is gonna be easy, right? Royalties earned is all you need. Nothing much has changed over the past 100 years. Now you get more control over playing around with the retail price to see if you can move more units at a lower price or make more money while selling fewer units at a higher one. But if the bottom line is net income, that can be tracked effectively. No hay problema, or that is to say, No problemo.
But, what if royalties start to drop? And this drop isn't due to anything you can put your finger on? What if the decrease in royalties payout is due to a change in Amazon's algorithms? Or due to a shift in culture? Now you're suddenly a failure, when only a few months ago you were a success. This is where KPIs get tricky.
The goal is to find a metric, or a bundle of a few metrics, that provide genuine insight into your progress as a writer. For many of us, earning a sustainable and living wage is tied up in our definition of success, but income alone is almost always a poor KPI. Royalties earned gives you no indication of your reader's experience. Royalties earned for the last month and last year tells you NOTHING about how well you are engaging your readers. And it is this engagement with your reader that will build and sustain your Author Brand over the long haul.
But how can we evaluate reader engagement?
The Metrics We're Spoon Fed from Amazon
Let's revisit our list of available metrics from which to choose our KPI. How about reviews? [shakes head; vomits in mouth.] Reviews were introduced as a means to improve the likelihood of a consumer making a purchase. The intent of reviews is to inspire confidence in consumers. For this reason, they are a lever for information dealers to pull, which is why Amazon has a problem with fake reviews and why authors have legitimate reviews yanked.
Reviews are a terrible indicator of reader engagement. Raise your hand if you've received a review from someone who clearly didn't even read your book. So...that review gaged that a non-reader was more engaged in your book than most of the people who read it? Is that a good thing?
Rankings aren't going to fare any better than reviews. Once again, rankings were invented to inspire buying from consumers. As a bonus for Amazon, rankings inspire competition and aggression among content creators. That competition leads to higher ad spend and more profit for Amazon. Alas, rankings are fickle. They can be manipulated by Amazon and by information dealers alike. Rankings tell us very little about our progress as writers in regards to engaging with our readers.
That leaves us with page reads...if you're willing to go exclusive with Kindle Unlimited. For the sake of this exercise, let's assume exclusivity. Page reads start to get interesting. After all, page reads are an indication of whether or not the reader actually read your book!
Well, sort of. Two things prevent page reads from being a reliable KPI. The first one is a technical problem. I don't blame Amazon for not foreseeing the mobile revolution and failing to successfully launch a smartphone or a touchscreen device. They have done a remarkable job navigating several cultural shifts and instigating some others. But their unsophisticated hardware (Kindle tablets) and their inability to nuance the extremely complicated payment structure of Kindle Unlimited have left them vulnerable to information dealer hacks such as linking to the back of the book, page stuffing, and click farms. Put simply, page reads have become gamified by information dealers.
How the Kindle Unlimited Peep Show Works
The second, and more serious, problem with page reads as a KPI has to do with the peep show system Amazon has devised via paid advertising. Yes, page reads is an indication of how many pages readers have read. But Amazon is in control of how many readers are exposed to your book in the first place. Remember all the investment Amazon has put into massaging money out of consumers? Reviews, rankings, also-boughts, ad placements, recently viewed items--everything all the way down to the ability to read content "for free" with Amazon Prime.
Amazon knows which user behaviors will prompt a purchase. Amazon knows which content to dangle where for certain levels of engagement that will lead toward more sales.
Remember the royalties statement of old? Sent through the mail by your publisher? In some ways, things never change. The metrics writers are being fed are the ones that are important to the people generating them. Your publisher judges your success by whether or not your book earns out its advance. Amazon judges your success by whether or not your content keeps readers engaged in Amazon's ecosystem (sells Amazon Prime memberships) AND generates Amazon ad revenue.
It's no longer enough for your content to contribute to Amazon customers becoming Prime Members. Amazon is interested in seeing how much money content creators will pay to get the privilege of luring customers into becoming Prime Members. I mean, wow. This stuff is brilliant, while...possibly diabolical.
This is how the KU peep show works. Amazon starts you out with a few page reads when you decide to go exclusive with KU. But there isn't much there, unless you drop a quarter into the slot. What the hell, you give it a go. And for a brief moment, the page reads dance! Oh, how they dance! People are reading your words!
Then the page reads stop. You gotta put in another quarter. Pretty soon, you're putting in dollars to get the same results you used to get from quarters. You get the picture.
Amazon dangles you just enough data to keep you investing in the system. But the page reads that you are able to monitor are a terrible indicator of reader engagement. They are at best an indicator of how effectively you have marketed your content for the KU environment and how well you've primed your ads. You can't ensure a successful Author Brand by tracking page reads. Page reads are an important KPI for Amazon. They shouldn't be for writers.
Conversion metrics are to marketing what engagement metrics are to Author Brand.
All of this build-up has been to reveal that unsurprisingly the metrics information brokers feed us are focused on conversion. Conversion isn't bad! But it also isn't enough. If we chose any one of the conversion-based metrics as our Key Performance Indicator, then our performance will focus on, well, conversion. And any content creator focused on conversion will smack of an information dealer using scuzzy, click-bate techniques.
While our marketing efforts should focus on conversion, the central KPI of our Author Brand must focus on engagement. Pirate Authors should develop short-term marketing strategies based on maximizing conversion while maintaining long-term, steady efforts to maximize reader engagement.
Holy [bleep]! You've ruined all my metrics!
Don't pretend you're surprised that I've told you none of the metrics Amazon spoon feeds you are solid candidates for Key Performance Indicators. We've already established that Amazon is concerned about commodifying and leveraging your content in order to sell more Prime Memberships. Why should Amazon care about your Author Brand? Why should they bother to provide you with pre-crunched metrics that indicate your effectiveness at engaging your reader?
Amazon has different goals than you. They track different KPIs. As a matter of fact, they are motivated to obfuscate the kind of metrics that would be most valuable to you. Data is money. Data is power! Why would they hand it out like acid at a Phish concert? (Man, I am old. At least I didn't reference the Grateful Dead.)
Not all hope is lost. There are metrics that Amazon doesn't spoon-feed us, ones that we can extrapolate. At this point, the astute writer will bring up the question of read-through. (See, I knew that's where you were going next!) If you're not familiar with the term, read-through refers to the percentage of readers who finish one book in a series and begin the next. Read-through in a series is indeed a valuable metric and can serve as a solid KPI.
Read-through might be your Huckleberry.
While the number of readers who initially find your book within the Amazon ecosystem is a metric that is heavily manipulated by Amazon and is an indicator of how well-positioned your content is for the Amazon ecosystem, read-through can serve as an indicator of how engaged a reader is with your Author Brand. For Pirate Authors choosing to sail in Amazon waters, read-through is the best KPI you've got.
Typically, the process will work something like this. Write several books in a series. Publish them via KDP. Place all the books in KU (exclusive to Amazon). Run Amazon ads on the first book in the series. Do your best to monitor corresponding increases in sales and page reads of all the rest of the books in the series. If your second book is generating sixty percent of the sales of your first, and your third book is generating ninety percent of the sales as your second...and so on, you are able to roughly gauge your read-through via your KDP dashboard.
A secondary strategy can be to create some sort of prequel for exclusive launch via KU while publishing the rest of the series broadly. Readers on Kobo will have access to book one and what looks like the entirety of the series. The hope is that some KU readers will enjoy the prequel enough to venture out of KU to purchase the rest of the series (still on Amazon), thus allowing you to primitively gauge read-through.
The major drawback of using Amazon KU read-through as your KPI is that it's still impossible to gauge the level of loyalty the reader is committing to your Author Brand as compared to the level of loyalty they are committing to Amazon's brand. Will they follow you off of KU? Will they even remember your story a month later? Will you be able to hook them on your next series? Or are they just churning through "free" content because Amazon waves it in front of their face when we put quarters into the machine?
This drawback is further expounded upon within the second tenet of the Pirate Author Code. And the negative impact Kindle Unlimited is having on readers is dealt with in more detail in the third tenet of the Code! For the time being, Pirate Authors need to be aware of the risks involved while sailing KU waters. In the short-term, you will be feeding a beast that in the long-term we will need to starve.
The Best Engagement KPIs Available for Pirate Authors
The question still remains, how do writers avoid the siren song of metrics being spoon-fed to us by information brokers with very different goals than our own? If not royalties earnings, reviews, rankings, or page reads, what sort of metrics should writers use as KPIs (other than read-through)?
The answer is old-school: email list opens, email click-throughs, and any call to action engagement you can accurately and regularly monitor. If you ask people to do something for you, the percentage and number of those people who follow through constitute a powerful Key Performance Indicator for evaluating reader engagement.
Let's play-out an example. If I post to my private Facebook group that my upcoming book is available for pre-order on Amazon, and I want all my fans to go pre-order now, and I track the number of people who do just that, AND I repeat the process every time I launch a new book, that's a solid KPI. The reason this KPI is better than unit sales on Amazon driven by ads is because this metric evaluates how engaged my fans are. Their pre-order of my book has nothing to do with my sales copy, book cover, ad copy, or keywords.
To be perfectly clear, in this scenario I didn't create a Facebook ad to drive people to Amazon in an attempt to generate conversions. I posted in my closed Facebook group about my upcoming release and made a clear call to action for my fans. The fans who did exactly what I asked them to do demonstrated they are engaged with my Author Brand. They want my next book and they are waiting for me to announce that they can pre-order! If the number of fans excited to engage with my brand in this manner increases with every book launch, I'm doing something right!
This same kind of scenario can be executed using your email list. Using your own email list is actually recommended, but for those of you who have heavily invested in social media, you can still construct a method to track a solid engagement KPI. Create a clear call to action that can be tracked and repeated. Make sure it isn't evaluating your marketing skills. The call to action needs to target a group of people you consider fans.
That's it. Go nail down your Key Performance Indicator for tracking reader engagement and create a strategy to improve that KPI! Publishing is your high seas; own it like a pirate!