That appears to be the advice freely proffered to independent authors by those who (allegedly) know best. I’m not sure whether or not it’s accurate, but I’m in the process of finding out. You see, circumstances kind of forced my hand. Let me tell you about it, and the lessons I’ve learned from it (so far, at least).
At Libertycon in June 2015, I was afflicted by the first kidney stone I’ve ever endured. It was no fun at all, and I spent most of the convention lying on my bed, groaning. Two hospital procedures followed over the course of the next six months. No sooner had I gotten over them than we moved to Texas, in early 2016. Shortly thereafter a gall bladder problem manifested itself, eventually requiring a third surgical procedure. All in all, it took fifteen months to sort out my various and sundry medical misadventures, during which time my writing came to a grinding halt as far as new work is concerned.
In the middle of all this, I was fortunate to be offered a contract to publish a Western novel I’d written some time before. I put a ‘teaser’ chapter up on my blog, and within 24 hours received an unsolicited offer to publish that book plus two sequels. Needless to say, I accepted with enormous relief! Editing the book for publication (with an editor’s help, not having to do it all on my own – a new experience for me) was a lot less stressful than writing it from scratch. ‘Brings The Lightning‘ was published in May 2016, and has done relatively well for a first book in a new genre from an author previously unknown there. Certainly, I’m satisfied with results so far. I’m now plotting the first of two sequels, and I hope more will follow.
However, this still wasn’t helping me get back to creative writing. My wife exercised what I can only describe as heroic patience in seeing me through my medical trials and tribulations. How she avoided hitting me sometimes is a mystery, but she did – yet another reason why I love her.
I found it very difficult to ‘get back into the groove’. My brain had become soggy with ongoing pain, the insidious slow poisoning effect of a necrotic gall bladder, and the mentally numbing effect of painkillers and other medication. After all the treatments were over, it took me two to three months to begin to produce work that I thought was worthwhile. It was a very frustrating time indeed! Still, as the sages tell us, “This, too, shall pass” – and it did. By early October 2016, fifteen months after my medical misadventures began, I was again writing fiction that I felt was readable.
Meanwhile, of course, my sales had fallen off the proverbial cliff. “Publish or perish” is a well-known phrase in academia. It has a different, yet equally ominous meaning for most independent authors. We depend on getting new work out to our reading public at regular intervals to keep our names fresh in their minds. We have no publicity machine working on our behalf, no publisher spending money on advertising campaigns, no public relations firm firing off press releases. If we don’t produce work that readers want to buy, they look for other writers to satisfy their needs. For fifteen months, I was unable to produce or publish any work in the military science fiction genre where I’d hitherto developed a following. As a result, my sales tapered off, slowly but surely, until they were barely limping along. A writing income that had averaged four figures a month, pre-Libertycon 2015, declined to a lot less than that by the fourth quarter of 2016. (Of course, this excludes earnings from ‘Brings The Lightning’, which were in a different genre and came through a publisher at biannual intervals, rather than monthly, as most indie authors receive them.)
We were able to survive the lean times because we’d built up a reserve from previous royalty earnings (the importance of which has, of course, been drastically reinforced in our thinking by recent events!). Also, my wife found a job locally, which helped to keep the wolf from the door. (Did I mention I love her very much?) Added to our slowly declining independent royalty income, plus earnings from ‘Brings The Lightning’, those measures sufficed to keep us afloat. Nevertheless, it was clear that I needed to start earning more money from my independent writing again, as quickly as possible. Therefore, as soon as I was able, I got down to business.
I’d completed about a quarter of the next volume in my Maxwell Saga, ‘Stoke The Flames Higher‘, before illness laid me low.
I spent some time in September revisiting and revising what I’d written, then began expanding on it. By late October it had taken shape, and I was able to send it out to initial readers and begin the revision process. By late November, it was in publishable form. The question was, should I publish it right away, in the pre-Christmas period that many claimed was not the best time to do so, or wait until the new year? We heard dire warnings that December was clogged with so many potential gifts, all chasing consumer dollars, that a new book would be lost amid the clutter and go unnoticed. What’s more, we’d be chasing dollars intended for entertainment in general, not just books. We’d be competing with movies, computer games, sporting goods and everything else that comes under that heading. In such a season, books were unlikely to be a priority for most potential purchasers.
Against these warnings, there was the simple reality that I needed to get back to earning a living from my writing. We’d coped with the demands on our finances during my prolonged illness, but that couldn’t continue indefinitely. We had to pay off credit card balances run up during the ‘lean times’, and rebuild our depleted reserves. That reality forced my hand. Whether or not it was the wisest thing to do, I needed to get something new into the hands of my faithful readers who’d been waiting for far too long, and I needed to begin rebuilding the momentum that my writing career had lost.
‘Stoke The Flames Higher’ was published earlier this week. The timeline went like this:
Dec 4 – Day 1:
The book was uploaded to Amazon.com. Even before I publicly announced its launch the following day, dedicated fans had found it, and bought almost 50 copies. One even submitted a review that evening! Hooray for fans!
Dec 5 – Day 2:
- I announced the book release on my blog, and asked my friends, fellow bloggers and fellow writers to begin publicizing it as well. We also sent out an announcement to my mailing list.
- Thanks to brisk initial sales to blog readers, the book jumped straight into the top 20 (i.e. on the front page) of Amazon.com’s ‘Hot New Releases’ lists in both military science fiction and space opera genres. This was wonderful news, as it put the book before the eyes of a great many potential purchasers, who use those lists to browse for reading matter. (This reinforces the huge advantage of having a popular blog or large social media following. Those readers are the core of our fan base. Their early purchases drive our books up popularity lists for our genre[s], making our work much more visible to other potential readers, who may never have heard of us before. Effort invested in building a blog or social media following is not wasted – it’s intrinsic to our publishing success. I spend a couple of hours every day blogging, and I don’t regret a minute of it.)
Dec 6 – Day 3:
- A number of reviews (all 4- or 5-star) began to appear on Amazon.com.
- We found that Facebook was ‘throttling‘ almost all release announcements concerning my new book, which was very disappointing. As a result, I think I’ll discount Facebook in future as a primary way to get the word out about new releases. However, blog publicity was bearing fruit.
- The book was also available on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription library service, and by this date, page reads took off like a rocket. I noted that initial sales were slower than I’d expected, but KU ‘paid loans’ were higher. This tends to reinforce my earlier impression that people have fewer dollars to spend on entertainment these days, so they’re using them on the most cost-effective forms of entertainment (including reading) that they can find. This isn’t good news for authors, who will sell less books as a result; but, on the other hand, we’ll at least earn something from KU royalties for pages read. “Half a loaf is better than no bread”.
- Sponsored product links began to show up on the book’s Amazon.com page. Sales of earlier books in the Maxwell Saga also began to pick up, as readers who’d come across my protagonist for the first time in the new book started to look for more.
Dec 7 – Day 4:
- The book was added to my Maxwell Saga series list on Amazon.com, and to my author page there.
- ‘Also-boughts‘ began to appear on the book’s Amazon.com page. I’m watching them with keen interest. It appears that many who buy my books also buy from Castalia House, other indie authors who write here on Mad Genius Club, and from Baen. That’s a pretty select group, if you ask me!
So far, as I mentioned earlier, sales are somewhat slower than I’d hoped, but I ascribe that to three reasons.
- I’ve lost a number of readers who are no longer looking for new releases from me, thanks to the long gap between my mil-SF and space opera novels. I’m going to have to rebuild my following in those genres, and that will take time.
- Christmas is a bad season in which to publish, as we’ve often been warned. I’m sure that’s having an effect on our sales. On the other hand, I’ll take what I can get! The financial drought has gone on too long. I need to break it.
- I’ve been saying for some time that we’re not competing for consumers’ reading dollars; we’re competing for their entertainment dollars. They can buy entertainment in many forms, from going to the movies, to buying a DVD or video game, to going out to eat, to whatever. We need to provide something so compelling that they choose to spend their dollars on our books, rather than something of greater interest or value to them. Also, because economic times are hard, there are fewer entertainment dollars available, and consumers are seeking to spend them in the most cost-effective way possible. We’re likely to see declining direct sales, and increasing membership in subscription libraries like Kindle Unlimited. That means less money to us as authors, but at least there will be some money. We’re going to have to adjust to that changing economic climate.
Overall, I’m satisfied with progress thus far. I’m going to continue to publicize the book launch over the next couple of weeks (and if those of you who blog or have a social media presence could please mention it to your readers, I’ll be very grateful). I expect initial sales to be lower than my previous book in the series, ‘Stand Against The Storm‘: but I’ll gladly take what I can get, and build on that foundation as I strive to rebuild my fan base.
I’ve got big plans for next year, if my health remains good. I discussed them with my readers in a blog post last week, and asked for their feedback: and I analyzed their responses in a subsequent post. If all goes well, I hope to produce four books next year. Two will be independently published, and two through a publisher. I think that sort of mixed approach will probably be important in the longer term, so that I’m not dependent on an income stream from one avenue of publication only. I also have a short story scheduled for publication in a Baen anthology, and possibly a second in a proposed Castalia House anthology; so if all goes well, 2017 should be a banner year for me. Here’s hoping for good health, and for writing success!