Pen Names and Reader Targeting

Posted on June 4, 2019 By

So here’s where I’m at: I have some new stuff coming out soon, only I’m not sure where to put it. Or why. Or even how. Strangely, it’s not because I don’t know how to click “Publish” or the equivalent.

I mean, that’s probably not it. Right? Thing is, there are trade-offs involved every step of the way. Decisions to make. Some of them might even matter.

It’s funny how many different topics seem to come together, though each clamors for its own variety of attention. For instance, let’s start with…

Kindle Unlimited (a.k.a. KDP Select) versus “going wide.”

One issue, typically described as the primary issue, is exclusivity. I have what I suspect might actually be a larger issue to discuss, but let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. Putting an ebook in KU means it’s not supposed be available elsewhere. On its face, that’s a bad thing.

A common argument against KU is that it will piss off readers. If they prefer to buy their ebooks from Barnes & Noble, and the ebooks are not available, they may be unhappy. There are at least two problems with this argument.

  • If readers haven’t heard of the author in the first place, it seems unlikely that they will become angry.
  • Amazon has the largest online bookstore in the world. The second biggest? Kindle Unlimited. My current understanding is that KU is effectively larger than all of the non-Amazon retailers combined.

So…KU readers seem more likely to find books at Amazon that are not in KU than Google Play readers seem likely to become upset by books they’ve never heard of from authors whose names they don’t know.

More than that? KU “borrows” improve the sales ranking of books, thus leading to increased sales at Amazon. You know, the largest bookstore in the world? So there’s that.

KU borrows also increase the effectiveness of paid advertising. Which gives an advantage to authors who use it. So if we’re doing math, KU seems to be a better choice.

I actually think there’s an entirely different, often overlooked, downside to consider, though.

Targeting Readers

If selling on Amazon, it’s important to realize that algorithms drive everything. If you folks are interested in the specifics, I’ll refer you to David Gaughran’s website and books. Also his email list! Which is often informative and always entertaining. I’d read his email even if I didn’t care about the topics. ‘Course, I’m a fanboy.

Ahem.

In order for algorithms at Amazon to “recommend” books to the right subset of potential readers, it’s important that Amazon learns who those people are. In other words, if a well-loved author of Historical Romance suddenly writes an Urban Fantasy and her readers follow her? Amazon may well start recommending the new book to entirely the wrong audience.

Since algorithms are in charge at Amazon, this may tank sales of that new Urban Fantasy. Sure, that reader carryover does matter, so at first the book might seem to do well. But none of us, other than perhaps the likes of Stephen King, are likely to have anywhere near as many already-loyal readers of our books as Amazon may find in its customer base.

Pen Names

So, this is an obvious solution. The above-mentioned author of Historical Romance can become a new person. Unfortunately…this may not help much, if her readers know about the new persona. If they follow her, with the best of intentions all around, they may effectively bury the new pen name.

Potentially this might even happen if an author writes in closely related genres. Say, Dark Fantasy and Urban Fantasy. Many readers of one genre simply won’t be interested in the other. If Amazon shows a new book to a slightly-wrong crowd, well, oops.

(Even if the wrong crowd buys the book, that’s not necessarily a good thing–if it’s not what they were expecting, well, that’s where bad reviews come from.)

Tight Targeting

So what’s the solution? Stick to a single genre, perhaps. Use secret pen names for others, possibly. (Remembering, of course, to create and maintain separate websites, mailing lists, advertising campaigns, social media profiles, etc.)

Or, maybe, launch a book suffering from a degree of genre dysphoria as quietly as possible, using paid advertising to try to focus on attracting only that particular book’s ideal readers to it. But then…loyal readers of other work may not be happy that they weren’t told of the new release. Hmm. Offer them a freebie, maybe. I don’t know. It’s something to think about.

And what about that book that doesn’t really fit anywhere? Use a separate pen name for it, maybe. Store it in the cloud and forget about it. I mean, crap, it’s probably not even a good idea to give it out as a freebie.

Actually, though, maybe the best approach would be to wait until you’re selling lots of copies of something else. Then it can’t do you any real harm to publish an occasional weirdo. This year. I think.

Back to KU Versus Wide

In the non-KU world, if an author is concerned about the downsides of exclusivity and dependence upon a single retailer, one often-recommended move is to create a “New Releases” mailing list. Great, as far as it goes. (Though see the issues above.)

Ideally that author will provide value to folks who sign up for the list. Possibly even earn a degree of loyalty. Or, you know, at least keep offering things that people want to read. That might be kind of important.

Even KU authors see value in mailing lists. I’m not sure that value applies to their KU readers, but books in KU are also available to regular customers at Amazon. Who will sometimes buy things like preorders…one of the many quirks of KU is that its subscribers have no way to take advantage of preorders.

But again…it’s not necessarily great to have fans crossing genre boundaries. Outside of Amazon, this probably doesn’t matter much. It’s very difficult (at least in my experience) to get many sales at all on those sites–although, once upon a time, Google Play was by far my most profitable non-Amazon retailer–but those sales that do happen don’t seem to be so relentlessly algorithm-driven.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Why I Love Algorithms

Because what else is there? People? You can’t attract readers to your books (AT ALL) if they never see them and don’t know who you are. You can advertise, but it’s very difficult to turn a profit that way. If you’re selling well somewhere else, perhaps you can contact a human at a given retailer and work something out for yourself.

But how to bootstrap? It’s not clear. And, at the largest bookstore in the world, those who use the algorithms and KU will always have an advantage. Until things change, of course. (And, yes, Amazon will fall at some point–now in my 50s, I’ve seen not only companies but governments and belief systems collapse, over and over and…but knowing that doesn’t mean I know the best way to prepare for it. If you do, please tell me.)

Personally? I don’t mind the “one reader at a time, and build your audience” idea in principle. But I’ve seen virtually no sales outside Amazon, while selling thousands of books within Amazon’s ecosystem. And I wasn’t even handling my books all that well at Amazon at the time. So. Hmm.

Putting It All Together

I’m not sure what this is going to mean to any of you guys who read this post. I know most of you seem to be writers yourselves, at least based on my email inbox.

For me, all of the above means that I’ve pulled down all my books. I’m starting fresh in Urban Fantasy. I really do want to re-publish my other novels…someday. I mean, I like them.

I may well publish the Urban Fantasy stuff under a different name. Luckily, for some values of “luckily,” I don’t expect a lot of readers of my previous novels to even find the new ones–hell, my own “New Releases” email list just dropped almost 600 subscribers anyway (long story, discussed elsewhere, but I think it was a good thing–though, if you thought you were on the list and don’t know what I’m talking about, I apologize; you were accidentally culled…but could sign up again…it’s just that my email wasn’t getting through to you in the first place).

But then what? Do I tell new readers about my “real” name, assuming I do re-publish my earlier stuff? I’m not really worried about their screwing up sales under the DH Young name, because that stuff is already cross-genre and extremely difficult to sell via the management of algorithms. But what about going in reverse? If I tell you guys about the “Urban Fantasy” stuff, what will that do?

For those of you who read Urban Fantasy already, it can’t do any harm. If many of you who don’t typically read that genre were to follow me, though, it might.

(Side note about that real-name thing: I’ve switched to DH Young instead of David Haywood Young. I think it’s easier to spell, easier to remember, and not so gender-specific. For a lot of reasons, I think all of those are good things.)

Again, I don’t think this is really an issue for me right now. I think I could go ahead and publish under a pen name, and be open about it. Alternatively, I could publish the more-likely-to-be-popular stuff first, as DH Young, give it some time to establish itself, and then sneak my older stuff back in to the ouvre.

If I were publishing my books “wide,” I’d worry a lot less about genre boundaries. But I wouldn’t expect many readers to find me–and I have trouble buying the “a trickle now means more later” argument, when the alternative is “more now and quite possibly more later too.” Plus, books can be pulled out of KU. There’s only a 90-day commitment.

So, I think pen names & tight focusing on ideal readers are topics that matter more within KU than elsewhere. Not that they aren’t important to some degree at all times…but there’s so much to consider that I sometimes find myself stalling, waiting for Amazon to fold or some other cataclysm to simplify my choices.

Still. I don’t really have bad options right now. Er, other than stalling, I mean.

But some of you guys may be in a very different situation. Do you know what you’re going to do about it? I’d love to find out.

Regardless? Have fun out there!

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