SPS-260: Hindsight’s 2020: the Self-Publishing Year in Recap – with Mark Dawson

Mark and James reflect on the year that was 2020 and look ahead to what 2021 might hold in the indie author space.

Show Notes

  • Mark reflects on his year in book sales and ad spending
  • An update on James’ writing
  • And an update on Fuse Books, the SPF publishing arm
  • Trends observed in book advertising
  • Thoughts on advertising platforms that are working (or not working) for authors
  • Why an email list still matters for authors
  • On the Ads for Authors course opening on Jan 13 with a new module about BookBub ads

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

COURSE: Ads for Authors opens for enrolment on January 13, 2021

MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.


SPS-260: Hindsight's 2020: the Self-Publishing Year in Recap - with Mark Dawson

Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show...

Mark Dawson: The Cleaner, in paperback, is WH Smith's book of the week, this week.

James Blatch: Great.

Mark Dawson: Which is great, because WH Smith's is now shut.

Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?

Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first-time author James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.

James Blatch: Hello. A very quick note before this week's episode. Unfortunately, Mark's quality sound did not record, and we were not left with enough time to fix it afterwards so we're having to use another source for his sound, which is the top of one of the cameras.

It's not ideal, but we can hear him, which I suppose is the best thing. We do strive for quality each week, but every now and again, we have a technical hiccup. So do bear with us. It's pretty good, actually. I don't think it's going to ruin your day, but I just wanted to make it clear that it's not our normal 100% quality service. Enjoy the episode.

Hello and welcome. It is the Self-Publishing Show with James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson. Hello.

James Blatch: This is-

James Blatch: Are you all right?

Mark Dawson: Yes. I'm slightly out of focus again, for those on YouTube. That's better. There we go. Much improved.

James Blatch: I think I'm crystal clear.

Mark Dawson: Unfortunately.

James Blatch: This is our second show of 2021. So we thought after our New Year's Day show, we would do a little look back at 2020, the year that was. The year that was dominated by a couple of big things. One massive global pandemic, a US election and quite a few other things.

But we're going to restrict ourselves to talking about those things relevant to the indie publishing world and maybe mention one or two highlights from our own self publishing show archive from 2020. We had a good year of interviews, which we certainly enjoyed bringing to you.

Mark, why don't we start with you and me and where we are and what 2020 did for us, in our terms of our publishing career. We could talk about our golf, but I think we'll probably restrict ourselves to talk about books.

How was 2020 for Unputdownable, which of course is your publishing house?

Mark Dawson: I was going to say, publishing for us, have you published a book last year?

James Blatch: We haven't come to me yet. I'm after you. You're first.

Mark Dawson: Yes. It has been a good year. So as I mentioned to you just a minute ago off air, I'm not doing income reports this year, but I have come to the end of the year and been looking at trends and numbers and things in the business for when my accountant gets back to me in a couple of weeks.

What I've seen from just doing some numbers and some crunching over the Christmas period, is it looks like my revenue is down. Well it is down by 4%. So 4% down on 2019, which is almost the same. But the good news is for Unputdownable anyway, is that costs are down very significantly. I don't know exactly how much, but I think it's around about 30% down in terms of money going out, which means that profit is well up. So it's been a very profitable year in 2020. So pleased to see that when I was looking at the numbers earlier.

James Blatch: So two questions. The first question is, why do you think revenue is down overall? Then I'll have a supplementary after that, if that's all right.

Mark Dawson: Well, your second question will be connected to the answer for the first one.

James Blatch: Yes.

Mark Dawson: So the revenue is down because I didn't run quite as many big AMG campaigns last year.

James Blatch: AMG is ...

Mark Dawson: Is Amazon Media Group. So it's a curated way to get a lot of impressions, millions and millions and millions of impressions on Amazon, typically in the UK. I've done it in the UK and Germany as well. In 2019, I mean we've mentioned it on the podcast before, but it was a fairly significant expense. The campaigns are expensive to run, usually roundabout $40,000 a month. So very, very expensive.

There's a bit of flexibility in that price I think these days, but it's not cheap. Now obviously it works. I am of the opinion after testing them for the last two or even three years now that they're not as effective as they once were. The return on the ad spend is decreasing. I'll never say never. I think I can very easily go back to them again, but it did get to the point where I was having to rely on a very aggressive read-through calculation in order for me to be happy that they were continuing to be profitable.

I've got 18 books in the Milton series now. I had to use all of those in the calculation to get to a number that I thought was probably going to be sustainable. When it got to that point I just felt it was ... I'll give it a rest for a little time. As I say, my ads on that platform, I could probably find out the number, but I would not be surprised if it's hundreds of millions of impressions now, over the last couple of years.

There will come a point with that much of the ad being flooded into specific parts of the market who we think might be interested in those books, there will come a point where those ads get fatigued. So I thought it was not a bad idea just to step back for 12 months and see how things did without that and concentrate also on Facebook ads and Amazon ads, general, the self-service Amazon ads. Those platforms have both continued to be really excellent for me over the last year or two.

James Blatch: Yes, you're right. My second question is obviously, why is your spend down, your expenses down? That's answered that, because the AMG is a big chunk of change to spend.

Do you think this might be genre related, Mark? The other big hitters who use AMG, are there people, perhaps in romance finding more success with AMG?

Mark Dawson: No, I think they do work. They certainly work. I don't think it is genre dependent because Amazon offers targeting options that you can't access if you do it yourself. So they have some fairly sophisticated targeting options that you can take advantage of.

I've introduced probably, over the course of the last couple of years, I imagine I've probably introduced about 20 authors to the AMG team. Unfortunately I'm not on commission. I wish I was, I wouldn't have to write a book again for months a month. I know that they have worked. I've also seen some of those kinds of year-end retrospective hosts in our community and in places like 20 Books where authors have been running those big AMG campaigns. Those authors are the ones that are doing the $2 million years, the $2.5 million years, $3 million years. You often see AMG as a part of the strategy that they're using to drive that kind of revenue.

James Blatch: Yeah. It's quite a thing, I think, for somebody running their own business. It's basically them, their books, rather than maybe having a list of a hundred authors, to write a check for that amount of money. Quite a brave thing, I think, for you to do in the first place. I was surprised when you said you were doing it. You knew this moment was coming, when you had to hand them, I think, that first check of $20,000 or $30,000, fingers crossed.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. You don't pay in advance, you pay retrospectively. When I first did it, I think it was November or December the year before last, so 20, was it 18?

James Blatch: '19.

Mark Dawson: I lose track. Yeah, 2019. Something like that. It may actually have been a lot earlier than that. But yeah, it was quite a lot of money obviously. It did involve a certain amount of fingers being crossed and dry swallows as you send that money off to Jeff Bezos. But it worked pretty well.

Impossible to say, but I suspect a lot of the continued growth I've seen in terms of sales could be traced back to that. I'll still be benefiting from readers who were introduced to the series over the last two years through those ads are still buying their way through the rest of the books and then maybe moving into other series that I've written. So I'm very pleased that I did it. I think it worked pretty well. Certainly met the expectations that I had going in.

James Blatch: In terms of the writing side of things for you Mark, so John Milton is still alive, struggling on. He hasn't been checked into a liver clinic yet. You've also introduced you Atticus police procedural character, who you've published one book from so far.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. One book in January, 2020, or a bit after that, January or February, 2020. He's done really well. We have loads of reviews. Actually, it's sticking around in about the 250 in the store at the moment. I had a Kindle daily deal over Christmas and has been quite sticky, which I've been quite pleased about, with minimal backup from me.

This is just, I don't quite know exactly what it is, whether it's word of mouth or Amazon is recommending it a bit more aggressively than it has done before, but it's doing quite well. I have a second book. The book I'm writing at the moment is called A Place to Bury Strangers. That's the second in the Atticus series. I'm really pleased with how that's going at the moment. I think that will probably look to be like a one book a year, kind of a traditional release model for Atticus. Because Milton is still ... Those books are still the ones that sell the most.

Although it's nice to have a change of pace, cleanse the palate to write something like Atticus, it's still the business sense still, at the moment anyway, points me towards Milton as the one that I need to release the most often.

James Blatch: We are going to talk about the platforms in a moment, I know it's always an interesting area of what you think Mark, in terms of what's working and what's not at the moment. So we're going to do this in a fairly perfunctory way, at various points in the next 12 months we will have episodes dedicated to those individual platforms because they're always worthy of delving into.

But yes, thanks for asking me about my writing. I'll bring you up to date on where I am with my publishing career. So people might remember that it's been a rather torturous journey, my first novel and actually middle of last year I contracted a second development editor to help me get through the final hurdle, called Andrew Low. I got him through Reedsy. Working with Andrew was a very pleasant experience. He gave me a very detailed, very good ... He's listened to the podcast, by the way, as well.

So he was quite pleased when I selected him from ... He said, "Oh, I think I know who you are from the Reedsy applicants." So what Andrew did was gave me a really good editorial breakdown of the book. A big chunk of it is a description of the book and how it works and then more granular detail and where he thinks it works well, where he thinks it doesn't work so well. For me, that was simply actually a fairly simple fix.

But one that's time consuming is that he believed I had overwritten the scenes, told the reader what to think far too often, rather than allow the story to prompt the reader to enjoy the changing characters, changing situation and to get ahead really of the plot. So what I'm doing now is rewriting the book, sort of revising it. Taking the scenes, deciding where they're going to be in there or not, deciding whether I need to rewrite them.

Stripping out a lot of internal dialogue and all those pointers and just doing what Stephen King says in On Writing, which is a book I read last year, which says, " Trust your reader." Trust your reader to know what to think. And if they think something a little bit different from what you intended, that's also okay, because that's how stories work. And we all bring something different to the stories that we're told.

I'm enjoying this process, but I have to get through 2,100 words a day in revision. I have to stick to that pretty religiously. So, yesterday, unfortunately, I didn't get to it at all. I need to do 4,000 today.

Mark Dawson: Unfortunately.

James Blatch: Unfortunately.

Mark Dawson: I don't know why. It wasn't unfortunate at all. You decided to go and play golf.

James Blatch: That is true. But I knew I'd do 4,000 today, except I've only done about half an hour today, and that half an hour has been rearranging scenes, which happens every now and again. You decide to change the order of things and it becomes just messy. And obviously that's going to be time consuming.

We've just been put in to another national lockdown in the UK. I've got nothing else to do for the next few weeks. I shall work some evenings and get that done.

I am enjoying it, and I'm enjoying the fact that this is close. I have a January the 31st deadline to finish this process, which is the rewrite. I've given myself February then to read it, make sure it makes sense, I haven't messed anything up, in terms of the logic and the order.

And then go through the scenes again, probably with ProWritingAid or just rewriting them myself to... Or tinker with them a little bit, just to make sure that I fixed everything that I can see that needs fixing, or I improve descriptions. So I don't describe the characters at all.

That's an interesting question, actually. Andrew pointed that out. He said I did it deliberately, because I think people should have an image in their mind once they know roughly the situation, the age, young RAF officer pilots. I think it's up to them to picture them.

But Andrew says he prefers to have at least some description at the beginning of what they look like. Is that something you always put into your books?

Mark Dawson: Definitely. You don't have to be prescriptive, but I think it's where you just want a little hint as to what the author has in mind for how someone might look.

James Blatch: A blond with piercing blue eyes. That's how I describe myself.

Okay. So that's where I am with that. And so that looks like it should be into copy edit with... Back with Andrew, actually. He's going to do the copyedit in end of February. Who knows? Published in April. Don't see any reason why not at this stage.

Mark Dawson: Which April? What, '21?

James Blatch: 2021. So, once I've reached my target on January the 31st, I don't think there should be any unforeseen hurdles from that point onwards, which is quite exciting. And then I can get back to writing the second book, which I'm really enjoying writing. Redneck is its working title, set at Edwards Air Force Base in the US.

So that's my writing. Thought I'd bring that up to date. Thank you all for your endless encouragement and occasional mockery of my writing career.

I also just want to mention Fuse Books, which is the imprint that Mark and I started a year before last, where we took on our first author on the 1st of February, 2020. So coming up to a year with them. And then we took on our second author, Kerry Donovan, on the 1st of November.

I've been going back over the figures for that first year, and it's quite interesting. Obviously, it was new to me, marketing books. Although I've been immersed in this culture and the detail of it, actually, for a couple of years, here I am for the first time picking up the reins myself.

Robert followed a pattern where the first month I spent quite a lot of money and made a loss, but started to see the page reads go up and the sales go up. The second month was more or less breakeven and the third month moved into profit.

And then I peaked at about six months in, if I can see in terms of revenue of about $11,500 a month by August last year, but the spend was quite high. I was about 60% of that was spend.

I then refocused just on profit and made some significant changes. The most significant of which was to scale back Amazon ads and focus almost entirely on Facebook ads, which seem to be working better for these books, and that worked.

So now the spend is down to more like 35%. Although the revenue is down a bit, the profit is way up. I think I was saying to you Mark off air, I'm happy to share some of these figures. I do every now and again in blog posts anyway, that we're now making 200 plus dollars a day on Robert Storey's books, which we're really pleased about. And that's just going up at the moment.

So we're going to be approaching hopefully in the not too distant future $100,000 annual profit for Robert's books to share with his parents. And they've been hugely supportive and very, very thankful for what we've been doing, but it's been lovely to work with them this year. I want to say, I don't know if they listen or not. They probably don't, because this is nerdy book marketing. But I want to say a big thank you to Terry and Maureen.

The second author, Kerry has come on at a similar situation. First month was a loss. And the second month, we moved into profit, just a few hundred dollars. I'm now looking at the first few days of January and already with what I've learned from Robert, keeping an eye on that percentage of spend.

But I do think when you're starting with a series and there'll be people who've written two or three books and are launching them together, people like the Maria Lewis model, I do think you need to spend quite big and not expect to make a profit, to start getting momentum, to start getting to the point... because read through delivers you your profit. You're not going to see that for two months, maybe more, depending on how many books you've got and that you shouldn't be disheartened during that initial period.

You've got to be brave. It's a bit like you writing that check to AMG. At some point, you need to put some money in, sit back and just relax about it, knowing that you're following a strategy rather than posting to a Facebook group after two days of advertising where this is not working. Unless you're getting actually literally no clicks, that's a different question. But that seems to be the case with the books that I've been scaling up.

Robert's books, I should say started with just under $2,000 a month revenue, where that was dwindling and dropping by a couple of hundred bucks a month, because he'd stopped advertising shortly before, about four months before. Kerry's books weren't selling hugely at the beginning. I'm starting from a lower base there, but I'd see no reason why we can't get that up to where we are with Robert. So that's Fuse imprint.

Probably we'll take on at least one more, maybe two more authors this year, because that's from a small indie publishing point of view and the big publishing point of view, that's how you grow really, isn't it? You do the same thing multiple times with authors. And the trick for me is going to be to scale up the company, probably with some help and some VA assistance at some point to make sure that we keep eyes on the campaigns every day.

Following the footsteps of people like Jasper Joffe, who we've had on this show before. And the myriad, I would say, Mark, of independent, small indie publishers that are springing up around the globe.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, there are more and more, aren't there? It's the only thing I could see happening. We've had a consolidation in traditional publishing with Simon & Schuster being bought by Penguin Random House. I think it is possible that we'll start to see consolidation with indies coming together, or indie authors working together, indie authors who aren't interested in marketing, perhaps entering into some kind of an arrangement with the Fuse model or Jasper. We're very similar in terms of how those models work.

Whereby they take a very generous royalty, much more generous than they get in a traditional deal. And the exchange for that is that they don't have to worry about the marketing and the advertising. So you can certainly see that.

The thing I would caution about that is whenever you get these kinds of... and this is not new news, it's been around for a little while, but just be careful with who you deal with. We get quite a lot of approaches from people who want to be on the podcast. And we saw one not that long ago, who had a publisher and wanted to come on and talk about publishing and things like that.

We're much more careful now on our vetting. We do see it as a responsibility to make sure that people on the podcast are bonafide players and they have the best interests of their clients at heart. We did a quick search on this particular publisher and we found very quickly that it was in fact a vanity publisher or elements of vanity publishing, that we're not happy with, not comfortable with. So that person won't be coming on the show.

So we are being more careful. I'd just caution listeners and viewers that if you're thinking about working with someone who's just come in to the market or anyone who's been around for a little while, just do a bit of research, first of all, just to see what the internet says. And obviously there will occasionally be what you might call false positives. So you could have someone who's had a dispute with someone and there's something, a malicious review perhaps.

But it shouldn't take too long of looking around and asking for advice to make sure that the person you're thinking of working with is someone who deserves your business. So just bear that in mind. That's my 2020 public service announcement.

James Blatch: I like it. And I think there's a very simple test, which I think is probably applicable to all situations is that you should not be handing money over to a publisher to publish your book. So if there's any element of that, if they're adding on services for you, that's not the publishing model that we approve of. We've not taken a penny from either of our authors, Robert's family and Kerry.

And in fact, we have written into our contract that if we're no longer performing to a higher level than they could by themselves, the contract's breakable. There's no point in them signing with us unless it's in their interest. And of course, it's in their interest, it's in our interest. So that's built into it.

And of course being generous, that first month of negative return, which was a bit of a shock for Kerry, we agreed informally to pay him that minimum amount that would be what we would be doing if we'd broken even on the contract amount. That's the sort of behaviour you'd expect from a reputable publisher. And if they're asking you to pay for marketing services or anything else, that's probably a red flag, I would say.

That's not to say, Mark, that Kerry's talking to me a lot about marketing the books as well, about emailing his list and writing his next book and all the rest of it, and Robert is no longer with us to do that. And his parents don't do that. But that's not to say that even if you're published with an indie or Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, you shouldn't be marketing yourself. That's a different thing.

Mark Dawson: You'll still need to do that, but it's the other things that you don't want to do, that you can hand over.

James Blatch: So 2020 did see a massive thing that does have a knock-on effect of almost every aspect of life and that is the global pandemic. The stuff of dystopian novels only in 2019, even in January, 2019, it seemed like the stuff of a science fiction film. And then by March, we were in the middle of it.

It was a very worrying time. We talked about this at the time that suddenly the economies appeared to grind to a halt. Physically, they appeared to grind to a halt. They high streets were empty, cars weren't on the road.

And yet, we saw something perhaps not that surprising in hindsight happening in the digital side of the world, which is an uptick. So companies like Amazon found themselves as they work hard to be very well-placed as an online retailer at that point. Supermarkets, the slots for delivery and the online side of them, where it became hard to come by and book sales went up and this is not just anecdotal. We're going to have a Kinga, from PublishDrive on, I think next week or the week after. And she's going to look back at 2020 and show you evidence of book sales going up because they can see that. Of course, we've heard from Alex Newton at K-lytics, the same thing. Some genres done better than others, but generally it has been...

Well, let's be honest, Mark, it has been a pretty buoyant year for book sales online, hasn't it? Which is really helping the indie industry.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, no, not that surprising. Obviously the pandemic has been a cluster you know what. And, as you mentioned, we're back in lockdown again, the kids are off school again until March probably. Which brings challenges and even those challenges are minuscule compared to people who are in hospital.

My dad's been in hospital over Christmas and I couldn't really visit him. He's back in a home now, I can't go to see him. And again, that's minuscule compared to those people who lost their loved ones, and weren't able to see them in their last few days. So that's the context and the perspective. But from a business perspective, we are quite lucky in that we don't rely on physical items that need to be made.

It's very hygienic to buy an eBook from Amazon. There's no delivery involved and it's instantaneous. And also people have got more time to read. Reading is a cheap activity, in terms of the hours per pence that you get from reading a book. So we've been very well positioned to at least ride out the storm as it were. And some people and others have been able to do better than that. And I've actually found that their businesses have grown, which is wonderful. So I'm very grateful to be in that position. But from my perspective, it's not all roses when it comes to that. We've been mentioning on the podcast, I've got paperbacks in stores at the moment, The Cleaner in paperback is WH Smith's book of the week, this week, which is great because WH Smith's is now shut. I think it's book of the week in Tesco's and Sainsbury's, now those supermarkets for those who are outside of the UK, they're still open.

And I think that you can still buy books there, but people are not going to be going to those supermarkets in the same kind of levels that they were before. So I don't know, but I imagine sales will be very, very significantly down for those books, which now that's annoying, but there's nothing, absolutely nothing that can be done about it, and it's not the same. It's a bit bothersome, but that's about it. That's about the extent of it.

And I was still grateful that I have the digital side of things to keep focusing on. E-books, audio-books, print on demand, all of that kind of thing is still untouched and still as effective as it was before. Probably more effective than I was before. So, bumps in the road. But, generally speaking, it's been a pretty good year business wise. And I don't really see that changing as we push on into 2021.

James Blatch: I'd hope that it has a long-term effect. It's difficult to look back on this because we are still in the middle of the pandemic, although the vaccine is doing the rounds now, and we hope we all cross our fingers and pray that that is going to be the way out of this in the next few months. But I don't think this will be switched off, the digital resurgence or the digital uptick, when the pandemic goes away. Because I think during that time, we will have introduced people to electronic reading eBooks and various methods of doing stuff online, online courses, all the rest of it. That will have a legacy that will go on for a bit.

And once you converted somebody to a Kindle, or other eReaders available, they tend to use that as their preferred method. We will probably be able to look back at this with Kinga when she comes on in a couple of weeks, some of the figures. But, in terms of what people should be doing, bearing in mind this is still the case, I guess now is the time to be marketing, getting cheaper clicks, getting your product out there. And there's not much else we can say in terms of advice of taking advantage of it, Mark.

Mark Dawson: No, I noticed. The other thing we should be doing, as all the brick and mortar stores closed, as went into lockdown, I found ad cost went down significantly. So it was also much cheaper to reach people, they were more hungry than they were before. So it was a perfect storm of the market and the advertising all coming together for people like us, who are able to move quickly.

We only went into lock down today, so we'll have to see if that trend repeats itself. But, I wouldn't be surprised if clicks become a little cheaper, as we move out of Christmas into January, when traditionally people are not advertising as heavily as they do in Q3 and Q4.

And that may be further depressed by the fact that there's no point for Sainsbury's and Tesco's to be advertising what's on their shelves right now, because people... Actually, that's not a great example of it. WH Smith's are not going to be advertising what you can get in Smith's right now, because the stores are closed. So, that's going to be removing ad spend from the market. Facebook still has the same inventory. Amazon has the same inventory. They want to sell those, but the auction is like to be cheaper. So yeah. Now is a good opportunity to be advertising. And my advice, it's something that authors should be looking at, for all the benefits that we've mentioned previously.

James Blatch: Okay. All right. Let's move on to platforms, Mark. There's no great revelations from 2020 about all the platforms.

We had a quick chat about this before we went on air, we haven't got anything new to add apart from Instagram, Twitter, really not great platforms for authors, YouTube-

Mark Dawson: Advertising, not authors. Advertising platforms.

James Blatch: Even organically. But I stand to be corrected, I see some active authors on Instagram.

Mark Dawson: I do. I definitely do. Instagram is a very good venue for authors. Not necessarily authors like me who are writing thrillers, but I follow a lot of romance authors on Instagram. And I imagine if we had Lucy Score on the show again, she's very busy on Instagram or Maria Lewis, as you mentioned earlier. I think they might have something quite different to say, in terms of the success they're having. So I wouldn't dismiss it.

James Blatch: Best scenario to look into it.

Mark Dawson: Other I would, we've mentioned before Twitter is not much point. I don't think there's much point for anybody being on Twitter, if you want to sell books. Twitter is a particular kind of environment. I'm on Twitter and it's quite addictive and there are some people I follow. But it does give licence to people to say things to others that they wouldn't say if those people were in front of them.

James Blatch: It is an oppressively negative and depressing experience, Twitter, a lot of the time. I wish I could kick the habit.

Mark Dawson: I came off it for about five weeks in the summer and totally enjoyed it. Certainly for ads, it's not worth it. We had a Twitter ads module in the Ads for Authors course and killed it because we can't stand behind it, it's not effective. And say this for YouTube. So YouTube ads are not going to be effective for almost all authors because they're too expensive. If you have other things to sell, they can be very effective. So we sell courses that are a bit more expensive than eBooks.

For us, it does make sense to be active on YouTube. And we are lazily building our YouTube platform. We'd love to accelerate that a little bit. But it's a platform that's good for us to be on. I think it's a good place if you like doing videos and that's a medium that you appreciate. I think it's a really good place to communicate with your readers. And you can take that content and repurpose it on Facebook, for example, and get double bang for the buck. But yeah, probably not going to be a good idea for most authors.

James Blatch: No. And there were some behind the scenes changes a couple of years ago with YouTube ads, which just made it very difficult. So custom audiences are, you'll know if you are running ads on any of the platforms, very important parts of able to optimise your spend and target it. And they took customer audiences away from organisations, unless they met criteria. And SPF passed that criteria halfway through last year.

I've still heard nothing and they never reply to any emails of mine or contacts of mine to have this enabled. I don't think they're interested in anyone who's not spending a few million a year with them, and so it just makes it unworkable. So I have actually pulled out of YouTube even for SPF, and I told them so. I told them I'm putting the money into Facebook. They didn't care. Okay. So what about the big ones?

Before we move on to the other platforms, let's talk about email. Let's count that as a platform itself.

I can remember being told that email's dead, in about 2015, and that nobody uses email anymore. How's that going?

Mark Dawson: I think it's still the most important medium that we have available to us to reach readers. It has been ever since I've been doing this, and I don't see changing at any point. I can't see a future where email is not important. It's not free, you have to pay your service provider. But, compared to running ads, it might as well be free, it's extremely cheap. It's very effective. It gets into people's inboxes.

They'll see the emails, they can interact with them and they can reply to you. You can send them to wherever you want. So if you want to send traffic to Apple, for example, you can do that. And yeah, email is still my biggest platform, my biggest lever, when it comes to selling books, new books, back list books, everything. It really is the most powerful weapon in my arsenal, when it comes to reaching readers.

James Blatch: Okay. So let's make 2021 in the Self-Publishing Show the year of the platform because it has been, I think, over a year since we've done platform specific episodes and we could probably put together a mini-series, in the first half of this year, where we look at these in more detail. So we can explain some of the strategies you need to employ with mainly this building and so on to take advantage of the things that Mark's talking about. And then we'll move on to the other platforms. So let's mention them now.

We've got the two big ones, I think, remain as Facebook ads and Amazon ads. And I'll say, Mark, I speak to a lot of authors and it never surprises me to hear that one person only wants Amazon ads, cause that's what was effective and they never really got going on Facebook ads. And then, vice-versa, like us at Fuse, who now pretty much only run Facebook ads and Amazon ads.

It's always quite difficult to judge exactly what it is that lends some books to work well on one of those platforms and not the other.

Mark Dawson: Don't think it's books. Cause, if that was the case, you'd have no one running romance ads on Facebook, for example. Or even some sort of sub-genres. But you do see success stories with author A writing small town romance does very well on Facebook ads, author A writing very similar books can't get Facebook ads to work. So I don't think it's the genre.

I don't think it will be the covers, necessarily, provided they're all following the tropes, I don't think that's necessarily going to be it either. I think it is just kind of the affinity of the author, it's the expertise of the author, whether that platform is one that they get or they don't get. And I don't think it's any more complicated than that.

I think some authors are going to feel more comfortable with a platform like Facebook, other authors are going to be more comfortable with a platform like Amazon. And they each have different pros and cons. I mean, for me, both platforms work quite well for me, and I know lots of others are in that boat. But on the other hand, I do know lots of authors, as you say, who are diehards for one or the other. Have we had a Blake on the show, Stephanie and Blake Hudson?

James Blatch: Not yet, no. We've had a few technical problems getting them in.

Mark Dawson: That's right. Stephanie's been ill.

James Blatch: Yes.

Mark Dawson: So that's been a reason, but I mean Stephanie and Blake, I'm not not kind of sharing state secrets here, because they've posted on, in the 20 Books group, quite a lot how they're doing. They've had $300,000 months this year, and I think they cleared 2 million, which is obviously amazing. And Blake who runs that side of the business is very good at Facebook ads. That's what he focuses on. I don't think they really do that much with Amazon.

On the other hand, I've seen plenty of authors who can't get their Facebook ads to work and do well with Amazon. So I think it's a case of, you need to find one of them, one of them needs to work. We can put BookBub Ads in there as well, that's the third part of the trifecta. You need to get one of them to work. If you can get two them to work, that's great. If you get three of them to work, you can come and work for Fuse Books. But yeah, if you can get a couple of them you're doing really well. I think you do need to have one of them working effectively. And it may just be what it is the one that suits you the best.

James Blatch: And we should say that we are not available for one-on-ones, unfortunately we're too busy. But we are aware of some online courses. Of course, that's what we do as well. In fact, next week is Ads for Authors. It'd be remiss of me not to mention the Ads for Authors goes on sale for three weeks from Wednesday, the 13th of January. And this iteration of the course will include a brand new BookBub for Authors course from the team themselves at BookBub. We're very excited about that.

We also have an enhanced Amazon ads course, Janet Margo, fresh out of that department in Amazon. And we've got an exercise running with Janet at the moment, actually, to set people with some tasks, making sure they are ready for Amazon ads. Yeah, so there you go. and that will be open from Wednesday the 13th for three weeks.

Mark, before we go, because we're really eating up the time here. Why don't we talk more broadly about any landscape changes, which is a slightly like the poncey way of saying anything that's happened that might affect people in our areas. Wide versus exclusive is a kind of landscape decision that people have to make early on in their careers, but can revisit it at any time, 90 days' notice to KDP.

Why don't we just, first of all, explain clearly what wide versus exclusive means. Then we'll have a quick chat about where you think we are with that decision making process.

Mark Dawson: Exclusive is you're just exclusive to Amazon. So you're in select, which means you're in Kindle Unlimited, which means you books can't be anywhere else. So that's exclusive.

James Blatch: The ebooks?

Mark Dawson: For ebooks, yeah. And wide it is the opposite of that. So it's you're not in select, you're not in Kindle Unlimited, but you are on Apple, on Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, on Script, on Tolino, on all the other platforms that are available. This is the existential crisis of the 21st century digital author. Which course do you want to follow?

I ended up writing an 1,800 word post on the Facebook group last week. And for me, people have always ... We've had people, I've become aware of recently. We might have a blind spot in this a little bit in that we do tend to focus on Amazon. And it's partly because at the moment I am an Amazon exclusive author.

My books are in Select, so they're in Kindle Unlimited, and that's a big part of my business. But what I probably haven't referenced enough, or reminded people enough is that hasn't always been the case. I was originally wide. Then went into Select, I was in wide again, and then went back into Select. So I've done very well Wide too. I'm lucky enough to know plenty of the people who work for Apple, for example. I mean, you and I played tennis with Ian and Sashee in Florida, couple of years ago when we could travel. And of course we let them win.

James Blatch: I think you'll find I won. You always say that, but I was playing against you.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, that was true.

James Blatch: I won with Sashee.

Mark Dawson: You did that's right. So I am a massive fan of those platforms, I'm a big fan of all of them. And for authors making that decision, there are lots of things you need to take into account from the financial, to the political, ethical, lots of reasons that you need to consider. And when I recorded the 101 lesson on that decision, it was the one I had the most difficulty with.

I've come to conclusion that there isn't a right answer. My view is if you're starting, you should probably, my advice would be to master Amazon first, because that will almost certainly be your biggest market. But as you say, you're only tied in for 90 days. And once you're comfortable at Amazon, or maybe you're not comfortable and you want to try something else. You can quite easily get out and go wide, but it's a decision for authors to make.

There are lots of groups now that will kind of discuss that. So 20 Books group is pushed slightly towards KU. We're probably pushed towards KU and that's not deliberate. I think there's just kind of perhaps reflective of what I do. There's a group called Wide for the Win on Facebook that I'd recommend if you're looking to go Wide. And I had lots fun kind of looking through that group. I only joined recently. And I think they were kind of, "Why is Mark joining our group?" So I had a few messages with Erin, who's the founder. And the reason was because I like to keep my ear to the ground and see what other people are doing.

I had a quick scope through the group, and there is a little bit of the, "I don't listen to the podcast anymore because all they ever talked about is Amazon." So I hear that. It's not deliberate and we will try. We'd love to Apple on, but Apple are not allowed to do that kind of outreach. But perhaps we'll get some authors who've done very well Wide, and I've said to Erin and her co-founder, who I'm afraid their name eludes me now. We'll get them on the podcast and they can talk about their experience.

James Blatch: Okay.

Mark Dawson: Because, my view on this is I am completely agnostic. I don't have a favourite, it's a business decision for me and it should be for everyone. It's what's best for you in your business? And for me right now, I'm very happy to be with Amazon, but I also value and appreciate the other platforms as well.

James Blatch: Well maybe a good way of doing this, a different approach is for us to have a couple of episodes, one the case for Wide, and one, the case for Exclusive. And advocates for those two sides explain what they get out of it, the advantages to them as they see it. And that's a slightly different way of then doing a kind of evenhanded discussion about the two, which is what we normally do. So more than happy to do that. So Wide for the Win is the book, I was just looking to see whether it's in Kindle Unlimited, but I can't see it.

Mark Dawson: It's not a book. It's a Facebook group.

James Blatch: Oh, it's a Facebook group. Oh, it's a shame. Because I'd love to see a book called wide For the Win. Why you shouldn't be in KU. But there you go.

Mark Dawson: Not likely

James Blatch: There's a couple of small things floating about. We know that Apple have changed their marketing permissions, expectations, and requirements, and we're going to visit that more properly in the next couple of weeks, so don't panic about that. It's not huge, we don't think at this stage. And then that's it.

I want to say thank you very much for everyone who was part of the ride into 2020. It's been a thrill and we pray and hope that we're going to come out of this pandemic safely soon. All that remains for me to say, therefore, for is it's a goodbye from him.

Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

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