Fail Fast, Fail Cheap

Note that I should not be writing this blog post but should instead be figuring out what project to start next.  (Advice to everyone else?  DO NOT try to maintain eight pen names.  Pick one direction and go in it.  Life is much simpler then.)

So, anyway…

I just paid $100 for an advertisement set to run next week.  And it had me thinking about launches and promotions and…

See, there’s this notion that if you write a good book and pay to promote it, it will sell.  Or if you write a good series and give away the first book in that series that it will sell.

This idea is very pernicious, because it can lead people to a few fallacies.  (ooh, look at me using big fancy words…probably incorrectly…)

One is that their book failed because they didn’t spend enough on it.  They should’ve paid for a better cover, paid to have it edited one more time, paid a gazillion to advertise it, blogged daily, tweeted ten times a day, etc. etc.  Since they didn’t, that’s why they failed.

Two is that if they did do all those things and didn’t see amazing results that it must be because they did it wrong or wrote something truly horrible that no amount of pretty covers can fix.

Now, both of those have a grain of truth in them.  People do sometimes fail for lack of effort or improper execution. And others do sometimes fail because they just can’t write and no one cares to stick with them.


Here’s a very ugly truth: Sometimes you can write a perfectly enjoyable story that people appreciated and liked reading and no one wants to buy.

No amount of covers or advertising will change that.

And so throwing tons of money at something in order to launch it when it’s just not something that will launch well is a waste.

Which is where we come back to the fail fast, fail cheap mantra that I learned in business school.  (Loved that professor.  If all my professors had been South Africans I suspect college would’ve been ten times more fun and informative than it was.)

Maybe, and I say maybe here, launching a book with all the bells and whistles in place isn’t the best strategy.

I know, I know.  Someone who actually does well at this will come along and say, “Don’t listen to anyone who hasn’t been highly successful at this.  I paid tons for advertising and I bathe in money every night I earn so much.”

But hear me out.

That person may not be the best person to listen to.  Because they wrote something people want to read.  (Like urban fantasy.)

I tend to write things that don’t categorize well.  The other day I tried to write a romance short story and had to put in women’s fiction because it turned out my main character was cheating on her husband and it wasn’t an erotic story either.

Now that story is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  I think it’s well-written.  Or well enough to sell.  I also think it will not sell well.

It’s not a story to attract new readers with.  If I had an established reader base, sure, maybe I could get lots of reads for it.  But as a standalone?  No.

I could, technically, put in about $250 in advertising for that story.  There are enough sites out there that would accept my money that I could push it that hard.  And I might make $150 off it short-term and think I was doing well.

But I’d be better off investing that money in something the market has actually shown an interest in, which is what I’m doing next week.

Next week I’ll be promoing a story that sold over fifty copies in the first week it was released with no effort on my part whatsoever.

Could it have sold a thousand the first week if I’d promoed it?  Sure.  Maybe.

Did I know that before I published it?  Nope.  Not at all.  I suspected.  (Because I actually had legitimate categories it fit into.) But I didn’t know.

And there are some titles that don’t promo well.  My non-fiction doesn’t.  It chugs along on its own, but, in general, running a promo on it doesn’t do anything for it.  When readers want those books, they find them.  But they don’t buy them just because they’re on sale.  Also, they tend to buy the paperback version, so sales really don’t help with that.

I’m not saying don’t give it your best effort up front.

I’m just saying that before you spend thousands of dollars on a launch, find a way to justify that expense.

If you just wrote a short story?  Eh, I don’t know…The odds of a short story selling well enough to justify a full advertising push are pretty low…(Unless it’s erotica or romance.)

If you wrote a novel and everyone who reads it kind of sits back or takes weeks to get back to you about it?  Hmmm….Maybe write the next one.

All of this is on my mind because I’m gearing up towards a novel launch probably in October and trying to decide just how strong to push it out the gate.  Do I get a nice cover and make it all spiffy and then see what happens organically?  Or do I also sink a nice chunk of change into advertising?  And, if so, at what price?  Sale out of the gate or full-price launch?  Which makes more sense?  Which will tell me what I need to know about that novel with the least amount of additional time and money spent?

And you thought this being a writer thing was just about writing…Haha. Sigh.  No.  (Not even if you’re trade pubbed.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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3 Responses to Fail Fast, Fail Cheap

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    Another consideration is long-tail: none of my books have paid their costs back during the first month after release, but most of them have covered the rest from the ongoing lower-level sales that follow; so are therefore now pure profit.

    So “fail” might be too binary a term: immediate results are tricky; but – unlike many products – ebooks are much more likely to become profitable without ongoing input – albeit at a low level.

    • M. H. Lee says:

      Good point. Although I think the number of books that simply fall off a cliff after a few months and never sell again may be higher than those that continue to generate small and steady sales.

      • Dave Higgins says:

        True. Although they do still make an author’s catalogue look larger, which increases the chance the author will be seen as a proper author by readers who care about that sort of thing.

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