My 2020 Strategy & 7 Takeaways from 31 Days of Newsletters (January 2020)

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Welcome to the first in my series of monthly strategy breakdowns. As outlined in the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing, throughout 2020 I’ll be reviewing what I did each month to assess what went well and where there’s room for strategic improvement. This being the series’ initial entry, a quick overview of 2020’s strategy is in order. But first, a quick review of strategy’s importance from the Ultimate Guide:

Business can be distilled into two core elements: strategy (your system—the specific steps you’re going to take to achieve your core objective) and execution (actually implementing your strategy effectively). At the heart of strategy, of course, your core objective. your objective, whatever it is, must be crystal clear. You then eliminate all choices, options, and tasks that do not help you reach that objective by making key strategic decisions in the areas outline below.

Flexibility is critical because not only do authors have different objectives, but we also have different strengths, preferences, and available resources. There is no one size fits all strategy. The purpose of this series, then is simple: I hope that seeing my original answers to these strategic questions and the ensuing evolution and adjustments I make over 2020 helps you to refine and develop your own marketing strategy.

Finally, for those unfamiliar with the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing, the guide walks you through creating your own customized marketing strategy step-by-step. You can check the guide out here.

My 2020 Strategy

Without further ado, here’s my initial strategy for 2020 (by the way, if you haven’t filled out your own strategy, you can write out your own answers to these questions on a sheet of paper):

  • CORE OBJECTIVE: build writing craft and backlist
  • LAUNCH WIDE or KU: all in Kindle Unlimited
  • SERIES? PLANNED # of TITLES?: yes. One 5 – 6 urban fantasy book series and (potentially) finishing the final books in two sci-fi trilogies. Also two non-fiction books on marketing and productivity.
  • LENGTH: 40,000 – 60,000 word novels
  • NEW TITLES IN 2020: 6 – 8
  • SUB-GENRES: urban fantasy, post apocalyptic, space opera, non-fiction
  • CORE TRAFFIC SOURCES: Facebook Ads, Amazon Ads, BookBub Ads, promo sites
  • NEWSLETTER BUILDING PLANS: organically only via a reader magnet novella specifically written for the 5 – 6 book series. Organic via word of mouth and content marketing for non-fiction. Not actively building my sci-fi list.
  • PRODUCTION BUDGET PER TITLE: $750 – $900
  • ADVERTISING BUDGET PER TITLE: variable

Learning-wise, I plan to focus on the following areas; these may yet be too broad and require further narrowing to give them the proper focus:

  • CRAFT: dialogue, scene/sequel structure, and plot structure
  • MARKETING: cover branding and Top 100 Research

I’ll continue to run ads for other authors and run my ads course, which means my skills in PPC will still grow. But I believe there are diminishing returns in focusing my efforts solely on the ads; the branding is at least 50% of the ads’ success, if not more, so to level up my marketing game, I need to turn more attention toward branding and what’s transpiring on the Amazon page itself.

A note for those who have read The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing: my core objective has changed dramatically. The original versions:

  • The original strategy found on this website (back in August 2019) was focused on writing 12 novels over the ensuing year (that was far too many).
  • The original version in the book was focused on making $25k net a month.

Shifting gears is not a bad thing, contrary to reams of productivity and business advice. Your strategy is not a static document; it should evolve as you learn. What you know right now will not be what you know six months from now. If you learn something important in the meantime, shouldn’t your strategy update ccordingly?

Most importantly, by doing the work, you learn things about yourself. And maybe you may discover that what you originally thought you wanted…well, you didn’t really want it that much at all.

As much as my content is focused around around marketing, I don’t care about money a lot. I’m far more interested in skill and craft. The feeling most people are trying to buy with money is what competence actually brings. But craft can’t be bought. It can only be earned.

(I have nothing against material things; I have a nice laptop. But it doesn’t make me write better.)

The most expensive guitar in the world will not make me sound like John Mayer. The most expensive computer in the world will not make me write like John D. MacDonald.

Money is useful for building skill, but for decidedly non-material reasons: A) preserving health, B) freeing you from busywork/bullshit jobs/the stress of not having enough money, and C) building skill by purchasing resources, training, or other expert advice. For me, the main benefitof earning more is having access to better experts. I have spent most of my life figuring things out on my own and teaching myself. This, while lauded in our culture and a useful skill, is an extremely dumb approach. When you can pay for expert advice or outsource to experts, it should be done without hesitation. It can cut months or years off your learning curve. And, counter-intuitively, save thousands of wasted dollars in the long-term.

This “money doesn’t matter that much” realization wasn’t a lightning strike. I’ve been focused on craft since I picked up a guitar 13 years ago. But sometimes it takes awhile to fully internalize.

What I Did

My main challenge over the past year and a half has been writing fiction consistently, which meant my focus in January was going to be writing. The last book I published was the third title in an unsuccessful urban fantasy trilogy. My expectations, coupled with the series’ poor performance, left me unmotivated to write another book. That hiatus has stretched out to about 18 months, during which time I’ve finished a single novella but nothing else.

Over that time, my marketing business (courses and running ad campaigns for other authors) has grown significantly. From a time perspective, I still have plenty of hours left over to write; but most of my energy is focused on other authors’ books and careers. I do genuinely enjoy doing this, but it means there’s been relatively little headspace remaining for my own endeavors over the past year.

This trend continued in January, and wasn’t helped by two additional projects I undertook that required more attention and energy than anticipated:

  1. PROJECT: One marketing newsletter per day
  2. PROJECT: One ad test per day

While I completed both, I wouldn’t consider that a victory. Actually writing the newsletters only took anywhere from ten minutes to two hours (depending on length). But the actual investment (coming up with ideas, choosing which ones to use, scrapping things that I felt didn’t work) was more involved than I anticipated.  Sharp focus, it turns out, is in short supply, something that few productivity books acknowledge. This is the real reason pursuing too many marginal projects or objectives tends to be problematic: we don’t have enough quality cognitive resources to spread around.

Here’s the newsletter stuff, by the numbers:

  • NEWSLETTERS: 31
  • SUBSCRIBERS GAINED/LOST: 1366 on Jan 1 > 1300 on Feb (-66 subs)
  • EMAIL RESPONSES: 133
  • MOST OPENED: My 2020 Book Marketing Strategy (50.1%)
  • SECOND MOST: The Emperor Has No Clothes (46.3%)
    • This one was the biggest surprise. I wouldn’t expect this subject line to do well at all. Might be a case of audience match, in that it’s a fairytale reference (which I hadn’t considered). More likely, it was just randomness
  • LEAST OPENED: Productivity Parts 5/6 – Objectives, Plans and Habits That Don’t Suck (35.6%)
  • MOST RESPONDED: My 2020 Book Marketing Strategy (16)
  • LEAST RESPONDED: 4-way tie with zero
  • ULTIMATE GUIDE TO BOOK MARKETING PRE-ORDERS AT END OF MONTH: 43 @ $5.99 (it wound up with 62 when it came out on February 10)
  • BOOKS RELEASED: zero, despite aiming to release three (lolol)

No surprises here: the productivity stuff tended to produce the lowest open rates, whereas anything with 2020 in the title got 45%+. That makes sense, in that this is a marketing newsletter and also people like up-to-date information.

First of All

It should be said that I’m grateful anyone reads the newsletters or this site. The biggest takeaway, honestly, is that it’s nice to be able to press a button and have people around the world not only read what you wrote, but comment on it and enjoy it. I think this is overlooked (I ignored it completely before adding this note post-publication) since this is now commonplace, but twenty years ago, this was literally impossible (or so complicated/arcane to the point of de facto impossibility).

I’ve written a lot of words over the past eight years. Many of them barely got read. That’s pretty much the path of any professional writer: write a lot. Hone craft. Feel like you’re shouting into a vacuum.

So when someone hears us, that’s massively gratifying by itself. But it’s also easy to take for granted as our career progresses. Expectation kills most joy and satisfaction. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive for progress. Just that we shouldn’t overlook what we already have.

Onward to the first of our seven takeaways.

Takeaway #1: Challenges are Dumb (Most of the Time)

I already mentioned that, despite completing both challenges (a rarity in and of itself), I didn’t consider this a victory.

This doesn’t gel with what the internet seems to claim. Challenges are, after all, shouted from the YouTube and Instagram rooftops far and wide.

When we break down the challenge design process, however, the problem becomes immediately clear:

  1. Set a random goal and then take action based on some shit the internet or some product/course/book told you to do.
  2. ?????
  3. Be happy/satisfied/get what you want from life.

While action is a prerequisite for progress, most productivity advice follows the Underpants Gnomes’ school of thought. The idea is that we’ll just do stuff, and then reap the rewards.

This is, of course, not how progress works. Two key considerations are missing from the above sequence: whether all that action brings you closer to your core objective, and two, what to do after the challenge is over. Which means that, even if the challenge is completed, the long-term result is usually to end up right where you started. Or, more likely, worse because of either failure, or expending a lot energy in pursuit of an end that we didn’t want.

Neither of these challenges really had a purpose beyond take more action. Which, in and of itself, is not useful.

Takeaway #2: Experience is Irrefutable Proof

It’s one thing to read about something.

It’s another to know it in your bones.

This is the difference between theory and experience. Learning everything via direct experience is, of course, dumb. That’s far too time intensive (and probably dangerous) to be a viable life strategy.

But we each have some nagging “what ifs” that refuse to go away. These vary from person to person. Short-term challenges have always been one of those things for me. School and I never mixed well, and challenges are, generally speaking, a very school-like approach to success.

Which should be a warning sign. But certain methods get drummed into you over the years, along with cultural norms about #grinding and working as hard as possible. And, naturally, the allure of making a lot of progress in a condensed time frame is also enticing. Which makes me periodically wonder, despite my laser focus on the 80/20 rule, that maybe I’m missing something.

Nope.

Most of society (school and the professional world included) is obsessed with short-term results. Challenges produce a lot of activity. They produce a lot of reports and numbers that look like they must mean something (see: all the data above). But the majority of worthwhile endeavors (building skill, building a fan base, building wealth, building muscle, building relationships) are long-term games that compound over time. Yes, there are shorter term projects that drive that long term progress. But random bursts of activity don’t drive lasting change.  Sprinting has its place, but sprinting in the wrong direction is an unsustainable recipe for burnout and injury.

I’m glad I did these challenges. It means I can block out the noise and just focus on my habits and own system for working for the rest of the year.

Takeaway #3: More is Not Necessarily Better

There’s a cultural and entrepreneurial obsession with more.

More books. More content. More work.

Yes, a certain level of output is necessary. But it’s easy to hit a point of not just diminishing, but negative returns. Close to 5% of my list unsubscribed during this experiment, which is totally fine.

But it’s also not the type of outcome I had in mind when doing daily newsletters. This was not an issue of quality: I know the newsletters and the guides are good. That’s not me saying this in delusion; people email me raving about the quality.

There are two issues here, actually: one, writing newsletters is not a list building technique. Yes, people forward them, but realistically, with 1300 subscribers, that’s not going to be a huge growth lever at this point. Writing content for the site has more utility, because it’s easier for people to link something than forward it; and you also can’t post the newsletter on social media (without a specific link that ConvertKit doesn’t provide readers directly).

The second issue is one of quantity. Simply put, there’s a balance between enough and too much. Aim for the Goldilocks zone. For non-fiction newsletters, that’s probably weekly (with occasional bursts of more content when appropriate). With fiction, a monthly newsletter and 4 – 12 novels a year (per pen name) is the sweet spot. I think this is tremendously freeing and stress-reducing to realize. Working harder for less return is not where any of us want to be. You may be grinding to write a book a month when your readers really only want a book every two. Optimizing for volume or massive action is incorrect. Additional volume is only valuable if it brings additional reward and doesn’t stress the system. Because making more money is useless if you destroy your health or sanity to get it.

Takeaway #4: Engagement Myths

This is a follow-up to the previous point.

The first newsletter of the month on January 1 announced the Mini Guide to Productivity. It produced a 43.5% open rate.

Out of the last seven newsletters on strategic mindset from Jan 25 – Jan 31, the highest was 43.8% and the lowest was 36.2%.

In other words, more content and more work did not produce more engagement.

It did not increase open rates.

It did not increase click rates.

It did not produce more pre-order sales of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing.

It did not generate more subscribers.

As mentioned above, there is, of course, a balance to this. When I went four months between newsletters last year (Nov 10, 2018 > March 6, 2019), open rates dipped about 10% from 40.2% > 36.9%. Note that the March newsletter was a sales email for the course, which typically have lower open rates; it was also higher than most of the other emails I sent in 2018. But nonetheless, a few newsletters in between may have been helpful for keeping engagement higher. A counterpoint to this, of course, is that 40+ people still purchased the course, which was a 4 – 5% conversion rate on a product that cost $99+.

From the numbers, and my gut, I’d say weekly is a good balance for the non-fiction. And that’s my plan for the next couple months.

Takeaway #5: One Thing at a Time

This is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over. Taking on more projects looks impressive, but your goal is not to wow your friends with your massive ambition.

Your goal is to get results.

Splitting 6 hours between six different progress doesn’t generate 1/6 the progress on each. Because of compounding, and how you get into flow and momentum build as you invest more time into a project, spending 6 hours on one thing probably produces 20x the results. It is vastly more efficient to focus on one worthwhile project and finish it than to moonlight between half a dozen.

As I mentioned earlier: quality focus is in far shorter supply than time. Dedicating your energy to ill-fated, low impact projects destroys your career’s rate of compounding. There’s also a tendency for focus and time to flow toward the path of least resistance (and importance). Writing the newsletters, at this point in my career, is easier than writing novels. Which meant the fiction got very little attention, and the ads and newsletters got it all.

Takeaway #6: Genre and Brand are Narrower than You Think

The open rates for the productivity guides were almost universally lowest across the board (the initial productivity guide notwithstanding). This could be for a few reasons; maybe people think that content is bad (or just not as good as the marketing stuff). Maybe people aren’t interested in productivity advice when I’m not writing my own books consistently (i.e., it’s hard to take seriously).

These are viable theories, but I think the primary reason is much simpler: it’s called a marketing newsletter on my site, which means people signed up for marketing content. And productivity, while related, is not the same topic. The reason I give credence to this explanation over the others? I also saw less overall engagement with the strategic mindset series that capped the month. And from the comments and emails I received from people on that series, those who read it thought it was excellent. Perhaps the best newsletters of the month.

But fewer people read that series than the marketing specific emails. Which makes sense: while there is crossover between all these topics, some people are just here for the marketing.

This may be discouraging to those who have multiple interests (re: everyone) but I think there’s an important takeaway here, which is…

Takeaway #7: Don’t Obsess Over Metrics

The people who liked all the productivity, marketing, and mindset emails? Those are the authors most likely to pick up my books, courses, consulting, whatever.

Metrics are just one piece of the puzzle. And they can be deceptive. Because, at the end of the day, you’re not writing for open rates. You’re writing for the core group of people who are going to buy. Obsessing over everyone else is a waste of time. If I wanted to optimize for the short-term, I’d probably chop the emails down to 500 words and send a bunch of listicles with the year or some buzz word in the title (7 ways to do X in 2020). Sprinkle in some secrets or whatever for good measure. 

This is the type of content that generates thousands of page views online and gets shared like crazy.

But all that activity is not necessarily meaningful. Because you cannot eat page views. And if you optimize around people who are lukewarm about what you do, you often drive the people who are going to buy away. Which means you won’t produce the two things that actually matter in business: sales and profit.

And impact, too. Which you also can’t eat, but is tremendously meaningful. When you’re surrounded by people who get what you do, this is energizing. When you’re not, it tends to be demoralizing, no matter how much money you’re making. Which is important to consider in all this marketing business. Because beyond sales, and profit, and everything else we can focus on, I think what we, as authors, really want are readers.

This is a human desire, not just an artistic one. We want someone to say yes, I understand where you’re coming from. It might not pay the mortgage, but it might be more valuable. Because without that, we’re living on an island. And no matter how beautiful the sunsets and warm the breeze, that’s a lonely place if there’s no one along for the ride.

 January KPIs

  • TOTAL WORDS: 70,490 (not all of these were new, but then I also revised some stuff and deleted a bunch of others, so we’ll call it a wash)
    • 32,030 (newsletters)
    • 6,938 (fiction)
    • 31,522 (productivity guide)
  • URBAN FANTASY ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,726 > 1,783 (+57)
  • NON-FICTION ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,366 > 1,300 (-66)
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