Lately, it feels like all I’ve been doing is counting down to releases, announcing promotions, and kvetching about the year 2020.
As much fun as all of that is for me, my goal with this blog was to have a mix of book updates AND writing-related thoughts. I’m not big on giving writing tips, because I still have so much to learn, but I think there’s value in sharing our experiences. Less this is what you should do and more this is what I’ve noticed.
With that in mind, and seeing as how it’s been roughly 15 months since I published my first book, See These Bones, here are some of the things I’ve realized along the way.
Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash
It’s a long road
Obviously, there are authors who only need one book to make it big, but those authors are the exception, not the norm. See These Bones had a decent launch, thanks to friends and family and a few advance readers brave enough to take a chance on an unknown author. And then, the next month, my sales and page-reads dropped by ~70%, and stayed there for eleven months.
What I did see in that first year was slow but steady sales. I got my first fan emails and also my first fan art. And reviews kept trickling in with positive thoughts. As my angel-wife kept telling me, a book’s success isn’t measured in weeks or even months. If it takes me three years to break even on a novelette? That’s okay. Right now, it’s more about building a brand and a world readers are invested in. As long as your books are available, there’s a chance readers will find them1.
As an indie author, you spend a lot of time not writing.
I don’t just write my books. I edit them, market them, review audiobook chapters and cover designs, set up and run promotional offerings, analyze sales trends, and tackle a dozen other aspects of production and post-production2.
When I made the choice to pursue the indie author route, I knew there would be a lot of extra work involved, but I don’t think I realized just how much it would cut into my available time. I’m still refining my own pipeline for efficiency, but on any given day, I probably spend ~30% of my writing time doing something other than writing.
I could skip all of that and just drop my books on a digital storefront and hope they took off… but that’s a great strategy for ensuring that they never do.
Understand your budget and spend accordingly
Alternatively, I could source a lot of my non-writing work out to the many feeder industries that have sprung up to assist with (and profit from) self-publishing. But all of those costs add up and as indie authors, we have to pick and choose where to spend our limited budget.
For most of us, a professional cover and editor will probably be our two big spends. The first gets eyes on our book. The second improves our reviews. Even so, it might take months to earn back the cost of a cover. It might even take years. Look at the sales trends and figure out what you can afford.
For now, I only use third parties for those tasks I’m entirely unsuited for: cover design and audiobook narration. When my budget changes, I’ll reassess my spend.
You often hear in indie author circles that the size of an author’s bibliography matters as much as the quality. The best time to sell a reader on one of your books is when they’ve just finished one of your other ones. I’m never going to be able to release ten books a year like some authors do, but I can’t deny the value, in name recognition and actual income, of having multiple books out instead of just one. Even if sales stay flat for each individual title, multiple books means multiple potential sources of income.
I released my second book, Investigation, Mediation, Vindication, in May of 2020. IMV is the first book in its own series, but See These Bones still saw a ~25% bump as a result. Given my sales, it wasn’t a huge figure, but that’s still nothing to sneeze at. I figured I’d see something similar when I released Red Right Hand, the sequel to See These Bones.
Boy, was I wrong. In Red Right Hand’s launch month, See These Bones saw a 500% increase in total royalties. In January, that figure doubled. A ton of new readers found the series because of Red Right Hand’s release, and luckily, many of them ended up liking the first book enough to then read the second. In just under five months, Red Right Hand has not only nudged its prequel toward profitability, it has also paid for itself and will likely cover the production costs of every book I launch this year3.
Even better, I can concentrate my measly advertising budget on the first book in each series and expect some sort of multiplier on RoI. As a series lengthens, the multiplier grows4. I now understand why so many indie authors have 10+ book series5!
Photo by Ergita Sela on Unsplash
Ego is the mind-killer6
Maybe some authors out there are perfect, but for most of us, writing is an ongoing process of education and self-improvement. I’m keenly aware of some, but not all, of my flaws as a writer. Constructive feedback is a great way for me to discover other areas where I need to grow.
I don’t think anyone enjoys negative feedback, whether it comes in the form of reviews, beta reactions, diss tracks, or anything else. Admittedly, a lot of criticism may have limited value, or be just plain mean. But I read every response and reaction to my books, and even when I disagree, I try to glean something constructive from them. The vast majority of readers are silent, so we have to rely on those few vocal people to learn what is landing with our audience and what we could stand to work on. Discounting every criticism as an attack or a sign that they just didn’t get it is a short-term solution that won’t make us any better as writers.
Descriptions, filler words, pacing, characterizations, general standards of prose… I have a long way to go as an author and a lot of room to improve. Instead of taking that as some sort of attack on my ability, I try to see it as a challenge. Ten years from now, if I look back at this year’s releases and can’t find a dozen or more things I’d tweak, it will mean I’ve stopped growing as a writer.
I’m okay with having flaws; what I’m not okay with is stagnation.
Reviews matter, but the aggregate score matters more
It’s one thing to be humble and open to criticism in your reviews and another entirely to obsess over them. The simple truth of any product is that some people will like it and others will not. I’ve been fortunate to have generally positive reviews, but I’ve also had one-star and two-star reviews. There have been three-star reviews that seemed to attack me rather than my book. I’ve had reviews I didn’t even understand. What I’m learning to do7 is to parse each review for valuable insight and then just move on.
The good news is that individual reviews for a book matter less as time goes on. See These Bones now has 120 ratings and 29 reviews on Goodreads and 83 ratings and 50 reviews on Amazon. I’ve read every one of those reviews, but potential new readers probably won’t. More often than not, they’ll just look at the cover, the blurb, the aggregate score, and maybe a few highly voted reviews when deciding whether or not to read the book.
Every negative review hurts, but unless it’s your only review, it’s probably not worth losing sleep over.
Writing rules aren’t one-size-fits-all
There are a lot of oft-repeated rules about writing. Write every day. Don’t edit as you draft. Open with a bang. Keep your sentences short. Write descriptions that appeal to every sense. Don’t use adverbs. Stop putting cats in everything, Chris. I see them repeated all the time on social media. Generally, they’re meant to be helpful, but the perhaps-unintended undertone is always: if you’re not doing this, you’re doing it wrong.
And that’s kind of stupid. Yes, we should probably all work on improving our prose. And yes, one of the ways to do that is to write regularly. And another is through a rigorous editing process. But what works for one writer isn’t necessarily going to work for another. Nor should it! We’re all different. We all have different likes, dislikes, and skillsets, so to expect there to be some mythical writing rule that we all must adhere to is just silly. My process is far from the norm, but it works for me, and is the only reason I have books available at all.
I think there’s value in knowing what the oft-cited rules are, and even more value in knowing why they are and when it’s okay to completely ignore them. Find what works for you!
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
So there you have it. Fifteen months in and I still have so much to learn about writing and marketing and sales and every other aspect of self-publishing. Hopefully, this post was helpful… and if it wasn’t helpful, then maybe it was at least entertaining. Either way, thank you for the read! If you have any thoughts to add, please let me know on Twitter or my Facebook page, and I’ll do a follow-up post.
I’ll be back later this month with two new cover reveals. Until then, stay safe and keep reading!
If you’ve read this far, you’ve got gumption, kid. In fact, you’re just the kind of person that would make an awesome subscriber to my newsletter. Come join the fun!
And by fun, I mean “be alerted when new books are available.” If this site’s blog posts are my monthly, in-depth, fact-heavy shareholders’ reports, the newsletters are my far-less-frequent, carefully crafted pseudo-tweets, skipping all the nitty gritty to tell you what you actually want to know: what’s new and how you can get it.
I promise that I will never spam you… because spamming takes effort, and I am way, way too busy for that.
- And you can take steps like cover refreshes, price promotions, and targeted ads to keep the traffic coming.
- Including this website, God help me!
- While I want to keep this post platform-agnostic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m enrolled in Kindle Select with my e-books. A solid 60+% of my royalties currently come via Kindle Unlimited. I’m leery about being tied to one company, and Amazon and its offerings may not be right for everyone, but Kindle Unlimited has been a god-send for me.
- Albeit not linearly; you lose some readers with every book.
- And in classic contrarian fashion, I won’t be one of them. Because I hate money, apparently.
- Sorry, Dune. Fear might be #2.
- And it’s a process, believe me!