This week, authors Crys Cain and J Thorn discuss how they feel about advertising, what they’re doing for advertising, and what other venues they’re exploring outside of the pay-to-play game.


Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn.  

J: Hello, Crys. Here we are, still batching. 

Crys: Still batching. So no comments, no updates. The trimmer has stopped momentarily–  

J: For now!  

Crys: –from last week. And, right into our question.  

J shared something in Slack, and this is something that he has been preaching for two, three years now, about pay to play, the importance of advertising.  

And so my question for him, for us, is how do you deal with the encroaching importance or influence of pay to play?  

J: Yeah, I feel like I’m not the best person to answer this question. Why don’t you start with this one? How are you dealing with it? 

Crys: Well, I did finally start attempting ads on Amazon I’m doing $10 a day. I think that it’s at least paying for itself, but I haven’t done all of the tracking that I ought to to know, because…  

If you’ve ever looked at any learning about Amazon ads, it’s really difficult to get a true response about what you’re earning, especially if you’re writing a series because if you are advertising the first book in your series, you’re actually earning throughout that whole series. And they don’t track what other books sold after book one. You don’t know.  

So my ACOS, which is a percentage of payments earns, and you want it to be below 100 in true terms. And it always tells me I’m like above 400%. But I have long series. We’ve got 20 plus books in the one world and you can enter it in at any series point. 

So one purchase on that ad might equal hundreds of dollars of income. Or it might only be that one book. It’s hard to tell. I’m not doing all the things, but I think it’s evening out. So that’s the first thing I’m doing. I’m like, okay, I will start to learn this.  

The way I approach new things is I start tiny just so I’m doing it, and then I set it and forget it until I am ready to actually deal it and learn with it. So I have started it.  

I did this with investing. I started with Acorn, terrible app, but it got me started. Investing $5, $10 a month and then let it sit for six months, a year until I was like, okay, now I’m ready to actually learn. But I knew I had started, so it wasn’t as big of a hurdle to actually dive in. Because I was like, I’m semi aware of what this entails, which I think is the biggest step, first of all, to learning anything.  

The second thing I’m doing is going wide, honestly, and saying screw retailers and going direct sales. 

So as I’m publishing as Crys Cain, I will be really focused on direct sales. And our friend who’s also a member of The Author Success Mastermind, Alica McCalla, and I have been having really good conversations over the past year about direct sales.  

She focuses a lot on blogging and you’ll hear a lot of people say blogging is dead. She’s been studying, not authors, not internet marketers telling you how to make a million dollars. She’s been studying craftspeople, specifically people selling on Etsy, and how they build their personal brand so that people are dedicated to buying from them and blogging is still working for them.  

That’s what she’s been working on and always creating blogs that tie back into her brand, what she’s selling. She’s developing a merchandising line. Some people come to her through their merchandising. Some people come to her through their books, and then there are sometimes crossover.  

That’s really how I’m planning on fighting against it is building that brand, that audience that is like I want what this particular person has.  

And this ties back into our last episode where we discussed a little bit about not sticking completely to one genre, but building that unique genre mashup or whatever it is that we love. And this is interesting because I’ve seen you move from, stick with one genre, learn that genre, do that genre, don’t pollute things, to screw that, it doesn’t make me happy anymore.  

J: Yeah. I think anyone who considers themselves a true learner will admit that things change over time and your opinions change. Because you’re learning things. It’s literally, you’re learning things you didn’t know, which then changes your outlook on things. 

So yeah, you could pull up old episodes of podcasts that I’ve been on where I’m saying exact opposite of things I’m saying now. And I don’t feel like there’s an issue with that.  

Crys: And the environment changes.  


J: Everything changes. And I think too, like, I’m not categorically against paid ads or PPC advertising, but I liken it more to a casino. 

If you go into a casino and you sit down at the blackjack table, can you win money? Yeah, you certainly can win money. Can you do it by not knowing what you’re doing? Very rarely. Can you do it if you know way more than the other people at the table? Yeah, that’s much more likely.  

The situation is that the house is going to win most of the time. And a small percentage of people who understand blackjack are going to win proportionately more than everyone else who sits at the table. So that’s where I am. I feel like most of us, especially in the indie space, are just sitting at the blackjack table. And we might have some idea of what we’re doing, but the very few people who do are the ones who are getting the most ROI from it.  

It’s not categorically bad or wrong, but there’s just a very small percentage of us that I think are going to benefit from it. And when you look at the volume, whether it’s Google or Amazon or Facebook, they are raising the CPC rates because the more people who advertise the more money they make, regardless of the outcome.  

So I think those are all things that you have to factor in that are even completely separate from your catalog, from what you write, from how much you want to produce. I’ve said I still believe this, unless you have a series that’s seven, eight books long plus, you’re probably gonna lose money because your book one is a loss leader. And if you get read through that’s where your ROI is coming in. I still think that’s the case.  

So should all authors be doing paid ads? I don’t know. It just feels like gambling to me right now. And I feel like it’s getting harder and harder as opposed to easier. 

Crys: And another thing you’ve said that I a hundred percent agree with is, you just don’t want to spend the time and that’s not worth it to you. 

J: Exactly. You could take a course on blackjack, you could read all the books and you could go to a casino. Like if you spent hours playing blackjack at home and online, and then you go into a casino, you’re more likely to win money because you’re going to know what the strategy is, or you’re gonna know what you’re doing. But if you don’t like playing blackjack, that’s not a great way to make money. 

And so I hate paid ads. Like I hate writing them, I hate monitoring them. Most of the paid ad experts are saying like, you have to dedicate a certain amount of time every day, you’ve got to stay on top of it. You can’t just set them up and then expect them to do great things. And that’s not how I want to spend my time. 

Crys: The main thing that I’m really excited about exploring, because nonfiction authors do this excellently and we do not do enough as fiction authors, is the free to paid pipeline. So the thing I’ve heard from so many authors, from so many experts, is it’s not worth it to offer things for free because the conversion rate is low. 

That’s a fact of offering free things, period. The conversion rate is low. That’s nothing new. That’s not special to fiction writers, and yet it works. You still get at a higher conversion rate than zero.  

The main reason I want to do this is, I’m not a social media person other than TikTok, I love it. And the reason I love TikTok is, because I examine this fully, is it’s a storytelling app. Well, outside of the teens like doing their dancy things. It is developing into a storytelling app and their algorithm is so well-defined that if you are a storytelling responsive person, you will be delivered stories. You won’t be delivered dancy videos.  

I get a lot of story videos and I love it. And it’s about personal stories, there are a lot of people telling new stories. I’ve linked to them in The Author Success Mastermind in some of the videos I’ve done. I did a video on TikTok and there are a couple of people I follow who tell fantasy stories.  

One is My Demon Roommate and the demon lives in an extra dimension in her closet and so she acts them out and she tells these stories. Another one discovers a vampire who just woke up after 200 years. Another one is just real life, but she plays like 18 different characters. She has hats and voices for all of them. And it’s family and it’s romance, and it’s kids.  

They’re these tiny 60 second videos that are telling sequential serial stories over time that gets so much response. And that’s the kind of free to paid that I’m looking for. I want to be writing stories that I can also tell related stories, via TikTok or written, like serial fiction, and have them free because even 0.1% is greater than zero.  

Now the main argument I hear against offering free fiction, other than it doesn’t work, which is a lie, is that I put too much work in this to offer it for free. And I completely understand that when it comes to novelizations, even novellas, it’s really hard. You’re like, this took me so much of my time.  

J: Although you don’t necessarily hear that from more experienced authors.  

Crys: But more experienced authors also have a large catalog. So when you take the catalog as a whole, offering one thing for free is not as much of a cost to them. When you only have 5, 10 books out, it feels like so much to offer something for free. 

And honestly, that’s where all of my excitement from serial fiction comes in. It’s ah, this is the way that we can do the free to paid version. And a lot of the reason that Vella’s approach has disappointed me, they don’t allow you to offer for free in any form, because my original plan was, oh, I’ll do it paid on Vella.  

But they’re not taking any kind of audio rights, so I could do a free podcast of me reading the story for free. So it’s not a professional level quality, so I still save that for a future audio book, but they still get the story for free at a delay. So if they want access to the most recent episodes before it gets to the podcast or whatever, there’s so many ways to structure this, then they can pay to get early access or whatever it is. 

That’s where, I mentioned Alicia with her blogs, she offers that free information connection to her brand that leads into the paid. And I think indie authors just are not making use of that in a way that would really benefit us. 

J: And it’s funny you talk about Alicia because she is very focused on merchandise. Like she really understands the value in that. I think part of the argument about free doesn’t work is because if you are giving away a free short story, or even a free novel, so is every other author. And I’ve heard people say, I’ve got a whole folder on my hard drive full of free downloads I’m never going to open. So it’s not necessarily free, but maybe you have to rethink what that free item is.  

Crys: Ooh. Yeah. That’s a great mention. You need the hook. You need the hook a lot of times. Particularly with the free fiction, you need a hook that leads into something else that exists that is paid.  

J: Yeah. Yeah. 

And maybe this is the opportunity to go back to the future. I remember Mark Dawson years ago was saying like he would create these PDF dossiers for his characters, and it was more like bonus material on the old DVDs as opposed to a freebie.  

If you are creating something that is unique to that world that would interest that reader but it’s not just another book, maybe that’s a hook. And it allows you to be more creative. It solves the problem of, I worked really hard on this book and paid a thousand dollars for the edit and 500 for the cover and I don’t want to give it away for free. So maybe we need to get more creative about what that reader magnet is. 

Crys: And I would say that Alicia’s merchandising is a paid magnet for her fiction because what Alicia’s brand is Kick-ass Black Women Warriors. And so her merchandise often doesn’t actually have any characters in existence currently. She might write characters for them later. But Black Women Warrior lovers are going to see like her vampire huntress hoodie, her the power’s in the puffs face masks, shirts and be like, oh, I love this look, this image that connects to things that are not specific necessarily to her book, but that have a greater connection. So if you are interested in merchandising, if you look at it more of, what does my audience connect with that also connects with my fiction and then creating merchandise around that versus specific to your story. Even stickers or whatever.  

Then you start building that connection to you and then that interest into your books. And this is a long play. This is not like I’m going to create something and then boom, make a bunch of money in three months. This is a year plus investment.  

J: I don’t think we’re talking about things that are going to get you 5,000 new subscribers in a week. 

This is something I’m thinking about and it’s a little more sort of internet markety entrepreneurial, but if you think about cost per subscriber and lifetime value of that subscriber, I think it then opens up a lot of possibilities. So for example, instead of spending a hundred dollars a day on Facebook ads to drive people to a free ebook that they’re never going to open, what if you had a custom t-shirt and you gave that away.  

Let’s say that it costs you a total of $10 to produce it and ship it. Like it’s $10 per subscriber, which sounds like a lot. But if you’re calculating your long-term value of that customer as a hundred dollars or more at 10%, maybe not so much. Or maybe it’s not a t-shirt, it’s a sticker, or it’s something small. But it’s something physical that is not being offered anywhere else. It’s got some tangible value to it. Maybe that’s more memorable. I don’t know. Like maybe that doesn’t work, but I think now, especially with print on demand in the merchandising space, you have a lot more options to do something like that.  

Crys: I was thinking of a shirt that I saw and it took like the seven touches before I was like, yes, I need it. But I kept looking at it going, I want it, do I need it? No, I want it. Do I need it? No.  

I’ll describe the shirt and then you can imagine like the weird kind of fiction you could write off of that. And it is UFOs abducting dinosaurs with rainbow backing. And I was like, I need that. I need that. 

I debated about bringing it on the trip. I don’t think I did. Because I love it and I’m like, I don’t want it to get worn out. And I was like, and my son will love it. He loves aliens. He loves spaceships. He loves dinosaurs. And there’s so much weird fiction you could write around that t-shirt. And I’m not the only one who’s looked at that t-shirt and gone, oh my gosh, that’s amazing. 

Some of us are not visually oriented, but if you are, if you can imagine like the visuals and then hire out to have those created and create your fiction around it or something that matches with your fiction. There’s just so many possibilities to expand how you bring people into your world. 

J: I’m totally aging myself here, but as a teenager, all the burnouts like me had their jean jackets and you put patches and pins.  

Crys: Yeah. Patches are coming back too.  

J: Patches and pins, like some very simple stuff like that. Like we used to pay for them, but we gladly paid for them back in the day. So imagine now if like your favorite author, your favorite character, your favorite world, your favorite novel, has some sort of visual representation that you can display. Like maybe that’s the new reader magnet.  

Crys: Yeah. Oh my goodness. There’s just so much that we can do and that people are scared to do. They’re scared to do things that cost money, because this can be an expensive business to get started in. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be, especially when you care and you want to do it right.  

J: I think too, if we come full circle on this, like you’re going to have to spend money one way or another. 

That’s the reality of pay to play. Like whether I like ads or not, I recognize I’m going to have to pay to get eyeballs on stuff. So instead of giving that money to Facebook or Amazon, why not invest it in your future reader and give them something memorable?  

Crys: When I do consults with authors, they’ll be like what do I need to do? Do I need to be on social media? Do I need to do this? I was like, you don’t necessarily have to be on social. You do have to find a way to reach people that you don’t know. If you are somebody who is super outgoing and has the energy to go to a bunch of conferences, not writer conferences, reader conferences, then do that. If you hate social media though, most extroverts do not hate social media.  

Otherwise, maybe you do have to have a presence on social media. You gotta find a way. So you’re either paying with time and attention, which is social media, or you’re paying with dollars, which is ads. But you have to find a way to get out there and that’s going to be different for everybody else. 

I really like this idea of like free serials fiction that leads into a paid form because that is natural for so many of us, particularly as introverts. 

What question shall we ask people this week, J?  

J: I’d love to know what people are doing with paid ads, if anything. Is something working for you? Do you have an alternative? Are you thinking about it?  

Maybe you’re not at the stage where that’s even a consideration right now, but I’d love to know where people are with it.  

Crys: If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.