I'm not really interested in hiring someone or buying anything to help me solve these problems at this point, mainly because a) we can't afford it and b) I'm exhausted trying to supervise any more big projects.
I'm mainly just interested in some informal advice and discussion with people who may have faced this problem before. Also I may reply in this thread and I may challenge some advice fairly directly. That's just part of my process of understanding a subject, so don't take my replies as anything but my attempts to clarify your advice.
I've recently come to the now inescapable conclusion that I just flat out cannot market anything we build on the web. We've done webcomics, software, games (browser, Flash AND apps), ebooks, merchandise, affiliate marketing, blogs, videos, audiocasts, animation, web fiction, etc.
But we generate no traffic. Our best site generated a record 15k uniques back in 2010. That took about a year, a lot of money and the support of a 100+ site ad network. Many of the sites in that ad network had multiple multiples of our traffic levels.
The business we do now, which is the game market equivalent of selling someone ELSE the picks and shovels to go hunt for gold is actually pretty successful, but it will never scale. Our producers have to grind out work client by client, and while every client comes with four figures in overhead, most have only three figures to spend. It generates some money, but not anywhere near enough given the man-hours required.
Now we come to the Kindle. We've got seven books up on KDP now, but sales are VERY sporadic. We have two fiction, one non-fiction and four color
Now I've been told that having a lot of books on Kindle is key, because sales of one book will lead readers to the next, and the next, etc. This is due, again, I'm told, to the "also bought" list beneath each book. What I haven't quite gathered is how a new book with no sales gets on those lists.
For example, if I write 20 books all of which have zero sales, how will they support each other's future sales? Is it just the volume? Anyone who writes this many books must have something to say? Haven't figured that one out yet.
I understand Amazon.com has more traffic than I could ever hope to generate. I suppose that by having random people tripping over my books through category searches or keywords or whatever, I could, over time, gradually build up some sales and a readership. I'd like to get to some minimal level of sales sooner rather than later, of course. Here and there isn't going to work.
Now fair disclosure here: I can write 10k words a day, perfect grammar, perfect punctuation and moderately competent storytelling. Fiction or non-fiction. So if writing a lot of books is the key, then that's exactly what I'll do. I'll write those 20 books by next summer if that's what it takes.
But this is where I hit the wall. I can't market those books, and here's why:
1. If I use paid advertising, I go broke. Nobody pays attention to ads and even if they do click through, they just keep on clicking and they're gone. (Strangely enough we have exactly the same problem on our web sites)
2. If I use Adwords, I go broke by 2:30PM tomorrow. See above.
3. If I use article marketing under pen names, I trip over the "you must disclose your affiliation with the product" rule. Seems there needs to be a Chinese wall between the article writer and the product.
4. If I blog as myself, I'm being redundant. Why blog when I could be writing another book?
5. If I blog as myself, I'll need two years of religously updated, laser-focused content that ranks for keywords common to a buying audience to get out of the Google cage. And even if I'm successful in generating that content (at tremendous cost), now I have two problems instead of one, because...
6. I can't get people to my book page now. Why should I think I can get people to my blog?
7. Twitter is the one bright spot in this dark cave. We have nearly 2000 Twitter followers (it took over a year to get to that point, and we built that wall brick, by brick, by brick). We don't get very much attention from those followers though. (20 clicks total, maybe)
8. I could e-mail book review sites. We sent over 400 review requests for the first book which worked if you consider a few dozen sales success. We did get seven for seven positive reviews and an average four-star rating for that first book, however.
9. I can't do Facebook and Twitter at the same time. It's too time consuming with the studio business and writing books. Even if I could do both, it's the same problem: if I can't get people to my book page, how do I get them to my Facebook page?
I realize I could just go around upvoting everything I see and crowbar-ing my way into people's news feeds, but again, we're looking at 2-3 years before there are enough follows and likes to matter. See my Twitter example for details.
10. Can't just e-mail people because they'll claim it's spam. It would take two years to build a subscriber list (who is going to subscribe to a list about fiction books?), and there are rather arcane and non-specific rules governing collecting e-mail addresses as well.
11. Can't post on forums because people will scream spam plus it's way too time-consuming.
12. Can't build an empire of web sites because we'll be just the most recent example of the Lost City of Unknown Treasures on the web: all site, no traffic. We actually tried this with our comics. We had two webcomics (89 pages total) a web fiction site with nearly 100,000 words of original fiction and a news blog to make a network out of all four sites.
We ranked #1 for "free adventure stories for girls" for a while. Otherwise we were pretty much ignored by search engines. (40 visits a month, max, despite the fact we updated pretty much daily for over two years and did SEO until you can't stand it any more) The only reason we got that 15k uniques month is because of paid advertising for our network.
It's really like kicking whales down the beach. I feel like we've been spinning our wheels for years. My favorite metaphor was provided by a friend of mine:
"Your business sounds like carrying a couch that is 50 lbs. too heavy up a flight of stairs, except there's never any place to put the thing. Just more stairs."
And the thing that drives me completely bats is visiting Kickstarter and finding out three clowns in a garage someplace raised $68,000 for a (REALLY mediocre) t-shirt design or some housewife raised $170,000 for an 18-page book about a dog who buys new shoes.
Knowing what I know about conversion rates and web traffic, I can't figure out how three clowns drove the 11 million people they needed to their site to convert into $68,000 in contributions. Maybe it was all family and friends? Who knows?
What I do know is our first IndieGoGo campaign flopped (and it was for our comics, which are bookstore quality). Our Kickstarter campaign is sitting on the runway with a ridiculously low goal for pretty much the same project. (You don't want to know what it took over five months to get our account approved.) I'm terrified to launch it because I know it's going into the ground like a dart. We've got an IndieGoGo campaign going for our studio which got off to a very fast start and then fizzled. (Yep *sigh* another grind, contributor by contributor)
We could be building browser games, animated television series, plush toys, action figures, audiobooks, board games (I'm being serious. We could build all of those things right now). Doesn't matter. Nobody will ever see them. All the places we could get an audience are surrounded by 20 foot walls. (We scaled the one around Kickstarter, only to find nobody is home)
I feel snakebit. No matter what we produce, nobody is ever going to see it because I am just not competent to attract an audience. The stuff we make is great fun and when (the very, very few) people do see it they seem to like it. But then again, we don't know if it's any good because nobody ever sees it!
The ancillary problem is just as frustrating. Even when we had thousands and thousands of people a week reading our comics, that's all we had. People would show up, take the free bandwidth and comics, and leave. Thanks. No e-mails. No comments. No likes. No upvotes. No recommendations. No purchases. No shoutbox. No nothing. It was WORSE than not having an audience. It was like playing to a theater full of absolutely silent expressionless people. Think about that for a minute. I half expected Rod Serling to be leaning against the piano.
Now maybe our products just suck. Fair enough. Why did those thousands of people keep coming back then? Why did our book go 7-0 with reviewers?
I feel inadequate, frankly, because I'm stting in front of a $7 trillion worldwide communications system and I can't get anyone's attention. It seems like we've built a communications system that actually prevents people from communicating. Oh sure, we can put up videos of our cat vs. our printer, but if we want to sell something or market something we're persona non grata: the guy who has no chair when the music stops.
I also feel like I'm missing something tremendously obvious. Others have conquered this problem, but even if they write a book about it there's always a big unexplained hole in their formula where the "and this is how I got the attention of the entire population of Buffalo New York last Thursday" part goes.
I've been told at various times I should just post some blog entries as me, but I'm really not interested in celebrity or performing directly for an audience. I know it would create that 1940-general-store personal message atmosphere, but I really don't see that causing people to say "oh, well NOW I'll buy your books." I think it will be just another distraction for both me and the readers.
I'm a competent writer (did you guess yet?) and my words may be entertaining or informative, and my characters fun, but I am personally none of those things. At least not today.
Anyway, sorry if that depressed you, but that's my story. Comments welcome.