A few months back, I tipped Writer Unboxed readers to a new self-published ebook project I launched, The 33. I used its unusual episodic format as an example to encourage storytellers of all stripes — traditionally-published writers, self-published writers, publishers and more — to thoughtfully examine the ebook marketplace and spot opportunities to tell and sell stories in new ways.

Today, I’ll share some of the insights I’ve learned since The 33’s debut, and encourage you to embrace another customer-centric strategy as you move forward with your own writing, and building your career.

First things first: Tell your inner artist to go for a walk or something. That frail, hand-wringing creature has no business reading this post. We’re not talking about craft here. We’re talking about making money with your words. Tell your inner artist to put on some yoga pants, grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and go fret about impostor syndrome or something.

Okay. So. Regardless of your publishing persuasion — traditional, self, Big Five or scrappy indie — you oughta be interested in earning some scratch from your words. And so, with your inner artist busily chomping away on some Chunky Monkey, let’s talk straight: Stories are products. Readers are customers.

Stories are products. Readers are customers.

By studying customer behaviors, you can craft stories — and offer those stories in resonant ways — that will sell more products. This will entertain more people, and put more food on your table. Win-win.

As I mentioned in my last post, observing larger trends in e-publishing is a critical component to this success. E-reading devices — from Kindles to tablets to smartphones — are now ubiquitous. Short stories and short novels / novellas are growing in popularity. Serialized narratives are, too. And the dark days of miserly early-adopters who wouldn’t download a novel unless it was free or 99 cents have ended. Thank goodness.

These trends, and others, suggest that customers’ comfort with e-fiction and shorter-form narratives are here to stay.

The33_Episode5Knowing this, I launched The 33 in January. The 33 is a sci-fi/supernatural thriller ebook series that combines the business models of comic books and TV shows. The 33 isn’t a novel, or a serialized novel. It’s a monthly short story series with recurring characters, told over TV season-like arcs. Some of The 33’s adventures are told over multiple episodes. Others unfold as one-shots. The first season of The 33 will be 12 episodes long.

It’s a weird hybrid of genres, storytelling techniques and business models … and I’m delighted to say that it’s been very successful so far. The 33 is a self-funded, self-published endeavor with no meaningful marketing push. Four episodes, ranging in length from 10,000 to 35,000 words, have been released so far. I also recently released a free 2,000-word one-shot story. A new episode will drop at month’s end.

I’m not generating Quit Your Day Job money yet … but this is a years-long series, which means the endeavor is a marathon, not a sprint. So far, things are going well. The market is supporting my price point per episode ($1.99 and up). Sales are better than expected, given my deliberate lack of marketing. I’m not yet ready to spend the cash, or social capital, on a concerted publicity push. I want more product out in the wild before I do that. My mantra: Make now, market later.

Further, I’m generating more revenue than I expected to be, being only five months in. This is because when I studied the ebook marketplace, I drilled deeper than other creators might. I went from the macro (the meteorological-like shifts in ebook adoption, consumption habits, etc. that I mentioned above) to the micro.

I zeroed in on what my readers wanted. If you want to level up your sales and the connection you have with your customers, read on. This is important.

When I zeroed in on what my readers wanted, I soon found myself facing a very difficult decision about The 33. The decision I made has wound up generating more revenue for me than any other I’ve made before or since.

Years ago, I released my fiction as free podcast-audiobooks. I recorded and published these audio stories myself. This attracted a thriving subculture of book readers to my work — folks like me, who prefer reading with their ears. Even after I stopped giving away my audio stories in 2009, some of these folks remained interested in my career and work.

I knew these people might purchase audiobook episodes of The 33. How many of them would purchase audiobooks, I couldn’t say.

Put another way: I saw a business opportunity within my business opportunity. (A bizception!The 33’s unusual-but-untested episodic format was Level 1. Catering to interested readers with audiobooks was Level 2 … though this approach was also untested.

Like everything else in the publishing business, recording audiobooks is harder than you think. Editing and producing them is difficult, too. It also isn’t free; it requires a monetary investment in decent recording gear. Worse, it’s a time suck. Homebrewing audiobooks pulls you away from other important things, such as writing new stories to sell. Outsourcing audiobook recording and production makes that pain go away … but it brings another kind: monetary expense.

Would my audiobook fans buy a monthly product?, I wondered. If I offered a single text-only ebook product, I’d eliminate any audio-related expense and risk. But how much money would I leave on the table if I didn’t cater to this thriving subculture? These guys loved my free audiobooks, after all.

If you’re new to the e-publishing game, approach it as a startup business. Run a tight ship. Keep costs low. Do whatever you can yourself, unless it defies good sense and taste, and damages the rep of your work. (Like designing your own book covers. Oh, the horrors…) Keep your head down and make cool stuff. Outsource only when absolutely necessary.

I use this approach with The 33, but still pondered outsourcing the audiobook stuff. The additional expense of outsourcing was a turn-off … but a greater risk was that my customers, the people who’d enjoyed my audiobook narration, wouldn’t spend money on a product narrated by someone else. I’d bleed out on audiobook production costs, and not recoup them with sales.

The smart and efficient thing to do was clear: Roll ebook-only. Do audio later, if ever.

But I knew my customers. I knew what they liked, and made a significant bet based on that knowledge.

Every episode of The 33 — including free episodes — is available in audiobook format. These audiobooks are recorded and produced by me. It’s a shit-ton of extra work.

Those monthly audiobooks can only be purchased at my website. They’re priced at $2.99. They’re my the best-selling products.

Actually, that’s not true. The discounted “ebook + audiobook” bundle I offer, priced at $3.99, is my best-selling product, month after month.

Purchases made at my website represent a majority of my total sales. Month after month, they smoke my Kindle, B&N and Kobo sales. Of the sales generated at my site, at least 90% are audiobook products. And since my per-sale royalty is much higher when a purchase is made at my site vs. another marketplace (such as Kindle / Audible / etc.), that converts into a decent wage. Way more than I would make otherwise, had I offered an ebook-only product.

Understand? By observing emerging opportunities on the macro scale … and by using that knowledge and intuition to inform your examination at the micro level … you can craft, package and publish stories in ways that will resonate with customers. And not just any customers — your customers, the people you’ve consistently wooed with great content. These are the folks with whom you’ve built a relationship via social media, email newsletters, personal correspondence and more.

These folks make your career.

Am I saying to not write full-length novels? No. Am I saying to serialize your fiction? No. And I’m not telling you to record your own audiobooks, either.

I am suggesting, however, that you examine the marketplace, and the consumption preferences of your current customers … and customers you haven’t yet acquired. Is there a way to better serve them? Are there ways to eliminate barriers between them and your stories? Look at the marketplace — and at your storytelling strengths — through the eyes of your inner entrepreneur, not artist. Look for opportunities. Mimic established business models to minimize risk, or try something different, like The 33’s hybrid business & storytelling approach.

And finally, if you don’t know your customers’ consumption interests and preferences, get out of your snail shell and ask them. Hit your social networks. Ping your people via your email newsletter. Reach out to a few through private email.

Ask, accumulate data, and move forward armed with a greater understanding of what your people want. This intimate understanding will help you create stories and product offerings that will resonate with your existing customers … and likely attract new ones along the way.

What consumption habits have you learned about YOUR readers that have helped your book’s impact or sales? Share your insights with the community!

About J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.