The bullet hole paradox

I saw a post the other day, on LinkedIn of all places, that piqued my interest. It was titled “the bullet hole paradox.” A more accurate term is survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias

During World War II, fighter and bomber planes would come back from battle, riddled with bullet holes from a combination of the guns of enemy fighters and the Flack bombardments. FlaK is the german short term for Flugabwehrkanone – essentially an 88mm projectile which exploded at altitude, sending out jagged metal fragments that tore through nearby aircraft. It also left that characteristic black cloud hanging in the sky that we all remember from WWII movies.

B-17 Flying Fortress Attacked by Me-109s

The Allies analyzed the returning aircraft. They found the areas that were most commonly hit by enemy fire were the fuselage, the outer wings, and the tail. They sought to add armor to these most commonly damaged parts of the planes to reduce the number that was shot down.


Lucky for them, as armor is expensive and heavy, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian-Jewish statistician pointed out that there was another way to look at the data. Perhaps, he cleverly deduced, the reason that some areas of the returning planes were not covered in bullet holes was because the planes that were shot in those areas did not in fact return.

Wald’s singular insight led to the armor being added where there had been no holes, the cockpit, and the engines. This ‘leap of logic’ I shall call it, helped turn the tide of the war.

The problem is seldom information scarcity, but rather in the interpretation of the data itself, and that interpretation is often biased by our upbringing, our education, our “intuition” and our life experiences.

It turns out that survivorship bias is present in many parts of our lives.


Yep – bare with me…

There has long been a belief that cats that fall from fewer than six stories have greater injuries than cats who fall from more than six stories. The reason I was told, was that cats reach terminal velocity after righting themselves at about five stories, and then presumably, thrilled with this acrobatic feat, relax, land on their feet and stroll away, while their more vertically challenged cousins lacked both time and flexibility and hit the pavement in a more uncontrolled and permanent fashion.

One, possibly more likely version of this story would be survivorship bias. This version of events simply states that cats that die in any fall are less likely to be brought to a veterinarian than injured cats, and thus many of the cats killed in falls from higher buildings are simply not reported.

The arts

This concept of survivorship bias is interesting right? Well, I thought so. But what does it have to do with writing? Well, the theory goes that it is prevalent in the arts as well.

Why is the music of the 70’s and 80’s so well regarded? Survivorship bias provides a possible answer. Only the best music from those eras continues to be played. They are the tracks that survived the ravages of time.

Who remembers ‘Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce’ or ‘The Birdie Song by The Tweets’ from the 1980’s? Sadly, I do.

All of today’s music, both brilliant and dreadful remains current and so we unconsciously apply our biases.

I think the same thing is true of some cornerstones of literature. I am reading a novel right now. The story is solid, not this person’s best I suspect, but it’s good. This author has written bestsellers and had some of the best movies ever adapted from his works. But the actual writing. Meh. It’s just OK.

OK – so 99% of you clicked away because you think this is all hard cheese from a self-published nobody (and you would be right in thinking that). But honestly, one page had four paragraphs and they all began with the word ‘then’. How can that be considered great writing?

Reading is hugely down to personal taste, but I remember finishing reading ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and throwing the paperback directly in the dustbin with a combined huge sigh of relief at finishing, and a wistful groan at the not inconsiderable moments of my life I would never get back. ‘The English Patient’ was a brilliant film adaptation of one of the most tedious books I ever had the displeasure to slog through, and you, my friend are talking to someone who has read ‘The Silmarillion’ three times and managed to finish, and even moderately enjoy, Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ AND ‘The Odyssey’.

There is a little of the Emperor’s new clothes applied to many facets of our lives, and apparently, previously unknown to me, a liberal dash of survivorship bias as well. I read a review on Amazon the other day and the kindly fellow stated that he ‘refused to read books by self-published authors because they are all amateurish and baldy written.’ — Baldy written you say? All of them? What an utter knob!

I carry my inner bias too, we all do, it’s partly what makes us who we are. All I ask is that every now and again we all attempt to rise above those limitations and give some of the Indie authors out there a chance and an honest review. Together we can create a new group of survivors.

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A helping hand

Sometimes that’s all we need right? A friendly shove in the right direction. A tool that simplifies a complex process. A secret whisper that hints at a better way of doing things. Thirty years in the software industry didn’t give me a hint towards the hidden and deeply mysterious realm of the self-publishing business.

So, in this blog post I am going to share with you some of what I have learned in this last amazing, maddening, exciting and wildly frustrating twelve months in the business. It will be old news to even more ancient hands, but for those aspiring to write and publish that next Man Booker, I genuinely hope this helps just a little.

The subject is truly vast, so in this post I will be focusing purely on the monster that is the “Mighty Zon.”. We will get to FB/Goodreads/BookBub/BookLife/Patreon/Pubby et al in a subsequent post.

First off, it’s super easy to publish via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and there are literally a thousand YouTube clips and books on the subject. Believe me though, that’s really not the issue so we are not getting into that here, although I am happy to answer questions via the website or email.

The issue is exposure and visibility. Over 1 million new books get self-published every year on Amazon, and Amazon only allow you to list your masterpiece in a total of two categories for those browsing to find it. Well, there are those seven keywords as well right? Well…Amazon are not entirely transparent here. There are actually 8 categories you can pick, from a list of around 4,700. You have to identify the categories yourself though and submit via email to KDP Admins. One great tool to help is BKLNK. Find a book just like yours that is selling well, scrape the ASIN from the product page and type it into the site. It will return a list of all the categories that that successful author used, though importantly, please pick a successful fellow Indie writer. There is literally no value in linking to a Stephen King – it’s a no win option.

Another free tool to help with your product page is Kindlepreneur. When you set your book up in KDP you are prompted to enter the blurb. But there are no native formatting tools available in KDP. HTML is supported though, and this handy tool allows you generate the formatting you want in the editor and creates the HTML tags in the background.

KDP is famously flexible. You can change pretty much everything about your book whenever you want. The only thing that is a pain to change is the title – get that right before you publish. Its not impossible to change later but its far from ideal.

The next option is advertising. FB, TikTok, Instagram all have advertising platforms but the most cost effective and the one closest to point of sale is Amazon themselves. Its a short and extremely familiar hop from seeing a book that looks intriguing to get to the product page, read the reviews and click to buy. Amazon, are also extremely frugal with your money. A $5 ad can go a long way, and be profitable quickly, IF (thats a big if, if you didn’t notice) you have everything else in place. A great title, a fantastically visually and genre relevant cover, and a blurb that just compels me to click that magical buy now button all need to be in place. The hidden secret that nobody talks about is that you need to run lots of ads. Category ads, search term ads, auto ads, the entire gamut. You need at least 10 ads a week running for a single book to get the impressions (somebody on Amazon saw the fish) to generate the clicks (you got the fish on the line) to get the sale (I wont bother writing a metaphor for that one). You need around a 0.3-0.5% conversion rate on impressions to clicks ratio to be confident you will get around the subsequent 1 out of 8 clickers actually buying the book. I have heard rumors that a 5% conversion rate is possible but not by me my friend!

It’s important not to rely entirely on the KDP advertising dashboard! It doesn’t display the Kindle Direct readers sales revenue at all. For that, you have to cross correlate against the Royalties Estimator in the brand new KDP dashboard. And, if you are anything like me, you will be refreshing that dashboard every 30 seconds to see how many new sales you made. Forget about that! Amazon are good, but not that good. It takes hours (days) for the data to reconcile. And, for Kindle Direct readers, sometimes months. Think about it, they get to read for free right, so they download a book they think might be cool and then just leave it in their library and get around to actually reading it next thanksgiving.

Top tip: don’t kill ads too quickly. All the books and videos tell you to, and its probably true for any other platform but Amazon, but you need to leave them alone (see the note above about KENP). You need at least 100 clicks to generate the data that tells if you are doing OK or badly, and that takes time.

There are lots of rumors about the Zon algorithms but one I have seen from a fairly reputable source is that they favor short term ads. So run your ad for a 2 to 3 weeks, get your 100+ clicks and then tweak and re-publish, perhaps with different copy and search terms. Try crazy copy but be compelling. Oh yeah and it needs to be less than 150 characters in length. Check it on wordcounter.

Search terms I hear you ask? No? Well I will elaborate regardless. For a targeted ads you need 100 to 150 relevant terms that will lead a searcher to your book. Think, similar Indie authors, genre specific words etc. There are a bunch of data scrapers that can access a page like Goodreads Listopia and garner the terms you need. Instant Data Scraper is one such Google snap-in that works great. Some skills with excel (or access to a geeky teenager) will certainly help here to filter out the garbage. Remember the trickery here is relevancy. If your book is a steamy vampire trope, keywords such as ’17th century furniture’ and a listing of authors such as ‘William Shakespeare’ and ‘Mary Berry’ simply wont ring that bell, and you really, really want that bell to peal don’t you?

Last tip for this post is to specifically target kindle, if that is your primary target buyer. If you broadly target an author in your genre, you risk helping Zon fund their cross marketing of paperbacks and hard covers. Find the ebooks that are similar to yours and make a list of the ASIN’s they are listed under. This will help drive traffic only to your kindle sales page.

I really hope you enjoyed this post and found it useful. For sure, it’s targeted at those aspiring to publish or relative newbies, but the Indie publishing industry is new and growing fast, so maybe not. None of this is written down anywhere I can find. I will keep posting as I learn more, so tell your fellow writers and give me a follow. Ask questions and together we will perhaps make this an industry where we can all make an honest buck or (mentally throws coin in fountain) a million.

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