Lessons learned after two years in the market
I’m going to try to set down a series of somewhat disjointed thoughts I’ve been having over the past couple of weeks as I review my progress since publishing Take The Star Road in May 2013, almost two years ago. These are as much for my benefit, ‘getting all my ducks in a row’ as it were, as they are for readers. My primary motivation in putting them into this article is to help other authors who are, like me, at the early stages of their independent publishing career, and those who have aspirations to do the same. I figure if we’re willing to share information and ‘lessons learned’, that can only be beneficial to everyone. Here goes!
1. You’ve got to write your *** off to be successful. As the great Robert A. Heinlein would put it, TANSTAAFL (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”). In indie, regular output to keep your name in front of readers is essential for visibility and a steady income. I’ve found over the six books I’ve published so far that each has an initial sales period of about 30 days when things are the best they’re ever likely to be; a second 30-day period when sales are waning; and from then on, a steady trickle of sales, which spike to a certain extent whenever you publish a new book and readers who’ve just found it (and you) buy your backlist. Therefore, I plan to publish four books this year at three-month intervals, so as to keep reader awareness of my ‘brand name’ as high as possible.
I suppose this wouldn’t be true if you published a ‘hit’, something that sells so well it takes on a life of its own in the market; but books like that are few and far between. Instead of trying to capture lightning in a bottle, I plan to simply keep on writing my *** off.
2. Your writing doesn’t stop with your books. You have to be your own publicity machine; and on the Internet, that means keeping up a Web presence that others can find in order to ‘notice’ you. It also helps you communicate with your “1,000 True Fans” (a marketing concept in which I’m coming to believe more and more strongly by the day). My primary Web presence is my blog. Others use Facebook or Twitter, or a combination of all three, or add other media I haven’t mentioned. Whatever your choice, this is your primary advertising medium, and you need to consistently devote time and attention to it.
I started my blog more than five years before I published anything, with the express intention of using it to build an online audience that liked my writing and might buy it if it were offered for sale. It worked spectacularly well, because my ‘hard-core’ blog readers immediately became the core of my “1,000 True Fans” for my books. From the first, they’ve pushed every book I’ve written into the top 20 of the ‘Hot New Releases’ lists in its primary categories or sub-genres, where it’s readily visible to casual browsers and invites their attention. This has been the single biggest contributor to my sales success.
Unfortunately, this is also a lot of work. This year (2015) I expect to write approximately 400,000 words in published books (four of them); a further 150,000 words in edits (sections written and then replaced by new ones, changes, deletions, additions and insertions across all four books); at least two manuscripts totaling 150,000 words for a future series in a completely different genre, with which I’m experimenting; and at least 250,000 words on my blog (2-4 articles daily) and here at Mad Genius Club. That means I’m going to have to write about a million words this year, or an average of 2,740 words every single day. If I allow myself a day off per week, and a couple of weeks for vacation, LibertyCon and other events, that ups the daily output requirement to about 3,400 words.
If you’d told me a couple of years ago that I could do this, I’d have laughed in your face and told you it was impossible. Fortunately, I’ve learned that as I gain experience, I write faster. Right now my daily output varies from 2,000 to 8,000 words (the latter only occasionally, but I enjoy it when it happens). I make fewer mistakes, find there are fewer ‘gross edits’ needed, and get more positive feedback from beta readers requiring fewer changes. I think I’ll be able to sustain that production rate this year. As for the future, who knows? Kevin J. Anderson averages about five books per year. That’s a useful target. If he can do it, why can’t I?
3. You need the support of professionals. Some of them will be in publication-related fields; editors, cover designers, etc. I’m truly blessed to have some of the best among my friends, so that their services don’t cost me too much. My wife is my marketing specialist, and does a magnificent job (I’m hoping that her decision to go freelance as a marketing consultant to indie writers later this year will prove rewarding for all concerned). Oleg Volk, who does my covers, is a friend of long standing, and his assistance and eye for graphic design and layout (something I lack) is priceless. If I didn’t have either of them around, I know I’d have to spend a lot more money in those areas to achieve success.
Also, don’t forget professionals in other fields. As you begin to make a living from your writing, even if only part of a living, look for those who understand the implications of that sort of income and can help you make the most of it. A couple of examples:
- This year, for the first time, Dorothy and I engaged the services of an accountant to help with our taxes. His fees are expensive compared to the simpler tax preparation software we’ve used before, but he knows so much more about the field that we find his input invaluable. He works with a lot of recording and performing artists, all of whom also earn royalties, so he understands the vagaries of that sort of income and how to maximize the legitimate tax deductions allowed by the IRS. He’s also advised us to consider incorporation in the short term, as a more efficient way to write off certain expenditures against pre-tax income. (It’s daunting to realize that my quarterly estimated tax payments this year will each be as large as my total estimated tax payments for the whole of last year!)
- We’ve just begun discussions with investment advisors to whom our accountant introduced us. Given my health issues, I place a high priority on accumulating enough money to provide my wife with short- to medium-term security. There’s also the need to guard against fluctuations in writer income. What happens if my next book ‘tanks’ and doesn’t sell well? What happens if Kindle Unlimited eats into our royalty/sales income, as some (but not all) authors have found? (At the moment that hasn’t proved to be a problem for us, but we’re monitoring the situation very closely.) If we have a reserve, those dangers are less immediate. It gives us time to reconsider our options and come up with strategies to address changes in the market. I’ve set a short-term target to have a full year’s expenditure in reserve, plus one quarterly tax payment (for self-employment and income taxes). Only after we’ve set aside that reserve in full will we worry about longer-term investments and issues such as retirement. (Kristine Kathryn Rusch has recently addressed some of the issues involved. Recommended reading.)
4. Don’t neglect ongoing professional education. My wife and I are determined to keep pace with developments in the market and maintain awareness of how things are changing. That’s happening very fast in almost every area where technology affects the market, and if we lose sight of something important, it might come back to bite us. She’s planning on doing a number of online seminars on marketing, business preparation, etc. as soon as she begins her freelance operations. We’re both considering attending events such as the annual Superstars Writing Seminar and/or the Life, the Universe and Everything Seminar. Both are a long way from home for us, but if we scheduled them back-to-back and included visits to friends along the way . . . why not? We think the opportunity to establish and reinforce professional contacts will be well worth the money, time and effort it’ll take to attend.
5. Be professional. That should go without saying, but in reading the comments left by many authors at online forums like Kboards or elsewhere, I fear it’s honored more in the breach than in the observance. For example, the number of complaints I’ve seen about how certain outlets (particularly Amazon.com) don’t operate in a way that some authors like have been legion. Unfortunately, the complainers lose sight of the reality that Amazon doesn’t exist to satisfy us; it exists to satisfy its customers. If we want them to be our customers too, we have to play according to Amazon’s rules. If we don’t like those rules, we’re free to withdraw from that outlet and market our books through others . . . but we can’t blame Amazon for setting the ground rules it wants. It’s their playground, not ours.
Professional writers watch the market closely, adjust to changing circumstances, and ‘think on their feet’ when it comes to making a living. They realize they’re competing in the entire entertainment marketplace, not just against other books. The consumer has a limited number of entertainment dollars to spend. He’ll buy movies, music, books, magazines – whatever takes his fancy. It’s our job to offer him something he wants more than other things, at a price he’s willing to pay. If we do that, and sell enough of our product to enough consumers, we’ll make a living. I have to keep that reality in the forefront of my consciousness, and make it a fundamental principle of my writing.
6. Find your ‘niche’ and stick with it. I was brought up in the tradition of ‘classical’ science fiction: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, very little profanity, good guys who really were good (i.e. morally as well as professionally), that sort of thing. I frankly don’t enjoy a lot of modern ‘edgy’ science fiction, finding its emphasis on profanity, sexuality and graphic violence to be (to say the least) off-putting. I decided to write what I enjoy because I believed there were many others who felt the same way. Despite those who warned that I was ‘out of step with the times’, I think my sales figures demonstrate that there really is a market for ‘wholesome’ science fiction. I’m going to continue to write for that market, and leave the ‘grittier’ aspects to others. To cite another example, Cedar Sanderson does a wonderful job of combining folklore from many traditions with a modern environment (as in, for example, her Pixie For Hire series). They’re unique in my experience, I love them, and as long as she writes in that vein I’ll buy them. (I really should think of some sort of collaboration. Pixies in space? Spells in sci-fi? Space war with space witches and warlocks instead of lasers and missiles? Hmmm . . . maybe we need to bring Dave Freer in on this?)
That doesn’t mean you can’t work in more than one genre, but I think every successful author will have one primary market and work in and around it. The more visible you are in that genre, the more potential readers who like that genre will be likely to come across your books and buy them. If you’re flitting from genre to genre like a butterfly, your visibility in any one of them will be limited at best.
I hope these thoughts help to convey some of the lessons I’ve learned so far. I’ve got a lot more still to learn, and I expect to do so for the rest of my life. Thanks to all of you for being a part of it so far!