A Winding Path to Five Figures A Year

I think I know by now the “best” path to being successful at self-publishing. Write in a popular genre (billionaire romance, LitRPG, reverse harem, space opera, thrillers, etc.). Write in a series. Release frequently. Price competitively.

But after four years at this, I’ve come to realize that knowing something and doing it are two completely different things. And that I am not going to be that person that writes a book a month. (Or if I do write a book a month it’ll be a non-fiction title one month, a romance novel the next, and a fantasy novel the month after that.) And that if I do write to market, I’ll likely lose interest and not continue on that momentum even when it’s obvious that the written to market title performs the best with the least effort and expense. (I’m looking at you billionaire romance serial.)

There are MANY days where I wonder if I’m being a fool for continuing to do this self-publishing thing, because there are other ways for me to make far more money than I do at this. But I like it. I don’t know why. (Having my pup curled up asleep five feet away and not having a boss or co-workers is probably a good part of it…)

It helps that over the last four years I have seen steady progress. Even though I’d love to be in the high five-figures or low six-figures, this year I did manage to break into at least the low five-figures.

So I’m here as proof that it’s possible to write what you want, self-edit, do your own covers, be generally anti-social in terms of group promos and FB and Twitter, and still do alright. It’s not the fast path to success. Let’s be clear about that. But it’s also not the “oh my god, you will forever lose money and suck” path either.

Because I’ve taken such a convoluted path to get to where I am right now, it’s hard to tell someone else how to take that path. So this advice is going to be a little high-level. More strategy than tactics, I guess.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail and Don’t Quit If You Do

The first title I self-published was Don’t Be a Douchebag. At the time I still fully expected that I would go the trade-publishing route with my novels, but I got annoyed with my experiences online dating and decided to write a book about it. I had no interest in building a platform, which is what a publisher would require, so I just put the book up on Amazon.

It had a horrible cover. Horrible. So bad I will not post it here. About the only thing I got right on that cover was the color scheme for dating books for men. It was that bad.

The title barely sold. Following up on the horrible cover I then did a free run on the book. Why? I had nowhere for readers to go. Maybe I thought they’d leave a review. (They didn’t.) But I had no plan or strategy or idea of what I was doing. I just knew other people offered books for free, so I did too.

A few months later I actually unpublished the title for a while. (I thought it was maybe a little harsh and I felt bad about being so mean to men who were just trying to meet someone and generally clueless about how to do so.)

But eventually I republished it and put the book into audio. And, while they’re not impressive numbers for fiction, that title has now sold over 300 copies, mostly in audio, is nicely profitable, and continues to sell every month with no or minimal effort on my part.

That book was a failure. I did everything wrong when I published it. Bad cover, no promo followed by bad promo, and I let my family buy copies which meant the also-boughts were a nightmare. But eventually it found it’s own little niche. (In 2016. It was published in 2013.)

2. A Book Doesn’t Have to Succeed Immediately

Douchebag is an example of this, too, but the first romance novel I published proves the point as well. That book came out in December 2014. It was the second novel I’d ever written and the first I self-published. They say we all have a therapy novel in us–that novel that’s sort of exorcising your demons. This one was mine. I was supposed to be writing an MG fantasy novel while I was living in Prague and instead I ended up writing this thing. (It originally ended with them not getting together because the whole point of writing it was to point out how they shouldn’t get together. Who needs a therapist when you have writing, right?)

Anyway. I wrote this novel even though I had no intention of becoming a romance novelist. So I self-published it. And it sold. It made me something like $400 in the first month. Which for me at the time was a big deal.

But I wasn’t looking to write romance novels and instead of saying to myself, “Aha, I’ve found what sells,” I wrote a series of books about managing your money.

Now, conventional wisdom is that since that book didn’t sell thousands when it was released, that it was dead and not worth following up on. (And I think that may be good advice if you’re writing to market. I have a theory on written-to-market titles versus “evergreen” titles and how the sales curves behave for each one.)

But after a few years I suddenly had the urge to write a follow-up novel featuring a minor character from the first book. So I did. And somehow, between the release of that second book, a free run on book 1, KU, and AMS ads, that novel that I published in 2014 made me close to $3,000 this year. (And probably would’ve made me a lot more if I hadn’t randomly decided to pull it from KU to try for a Bookbub.)

So don’t give up on a title just because it doesn’t go gangbusters right away. Especially if it wasn’t written to a hot market.

3. Experiment

Both of the above examples teach another lesson. And that’s the importance of experimenting. At a time when people were saying that AMS ads were horrible and too expensive, I started to try them out. And they did well for me. I had a product display ad on that romance novel that cost me $8 and led to $100+ in sales. (They’ve since fixed the glitch that made that possible.) And a large part of the sales of that novel this year were also due to AMS.

Will you always succeed with experiments? No. I paid far too much for Early Bird ads this year that were not worth it. But you don’t know if you don’t try.

With Douchebag, putting the title into audio worked. If I hadn’t done that, that title would be doing nothing for me right now.

I also move titles into and out of KU. Some do well wide, some don’t. Some do well in KU for a bit and then die off. Without trying, how do you know? And the “nice” thing about having a low-performing title is that you have nothing to lose by trying something new except maybe a little time and possibly some money. There is no momentum to lose, there are no fans to anger. When you’re small, you have far more flexibility than when you’re big.

4. Sometimes It’s Better to Be Cheap

This one is dicey. And I know I’m going to get kickback on it, which is why I stay out of these discussions on any public forum. But I’m trying to give an alternative view here, so I’m going to talk about this even though I’ll probably regret it.

Conventional wisdom is that you should have a gorgeous cover and professionally edited book. And I get the argument for putting out the best product you can. But I think for a lot of newer writers, including myself, they don’t have the experience to judge a good product from a bad one. I have seen more than one post by an author who said, “why am I getting complaints about how my book needs to be edited? I paid for an editor!” And more than one author who asked why their book wasn’t selling who had an attractive cover that was absolutely not a good fit for their genre.

And even when you do get it right, it takes a lot to earn back those expenses. I have twenty-six “series” that I track. These are groups of books, like Excel Essentials which includes Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel, that I treat as part of the same advertising group. All but five of those groups are profitable when I look at money made from sales versus money spent on advertising, covers, and editing.

Only one series is in the red more than $50, and that’s my Rider’s series. I would argue that the covers for those books are gorgeous and hit their market. But they were expensive covers and I’m still paying for them.

All those other series where I did the covers myself? They’re profitable. The one where I put up the big bucks is not.

Fact of the matter is, most newer writers have an issue that no amount of editing or cover will overcome. And that’s that they wrote a book that isn’t hitting the market and no amount of paid promo, beautiful cover, or perfect implementation of Strunk & White is going to help.

Most authors would be better off spending a small amount of money on their initial book or two, learning the ropes, and then spending big money once they have an idea of what they’re actually doing. (In my opinion. Yes, there will be a handful of authors every year who would’ve taken off if they’d done it all “right” up-front, but there are far, far more who spend money they shouldn’t on a first book. You can always change covers or even re-edit a book later. You can never go back if the launch of that first book breaks your soul and your bank account at the same time.)

5. Rules Schmules

What most writers focus on when judging one another’s writing is not what most readers focus on. A few years back my mom gave me some Nora Roberts books to read. And after I’d done so I asked her what she thought of the head-hopping that occurs in those books. (The ones she gave me were 90% third-person limited but Nora would jump into someone else’s head for a sentence or two when she felt like it.)

My mom hadn’t noticed. She’d probably read a hundred books by the woman and never picked up on the head-hopping.

There was some other author she read who switched between present and past tense in a way that annoyed me, but my mom hadn’t noticed that one either. All my mother, and most readers like her, wants is to be entertained. She wants to lose herself in the story.

Writers get caught up in technical rules that readers don’t care about and they forget that the goal they need to focus on is writing an entertaining story (for fiction) or an informative book (for non-fiction). That’s what readers care about, not whether you use “whom” correctly.

For example, I use alright. Happy to do so. It’s a conscious, deliberate decision I’ve made. When I say, “Alright now, let’s talk about x” that is one word to me, not two. But there are grammar purists out there who would probably be horrified to read anything I write because of that. (Fortunately, those people are not the bulk of readers.)

I went to Stanford, have an MBA from Wharton, worked in high-paying consulting jobs, and have read thousands of books, and the first time I ran across this “all right” issue was when I bought a copy of Strunk & White. Until then I’d always thought it was “alright.” After careful consideration, I still do.

Language evolves. Writing styles evolve. The question is: are you finding the readers who can read what you write in the way you write it and enjoy it? If yes, keep on keeping on. If no, consider a change.

6. We’re All Different

That leads me to my final point or piece of advice. We’re all different. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. What works for one writer (detailed plotting, for example) may not work at all for another. The thought of creating a five-page character profile horrifies me. So does letting people read what I’m writing before I think it’s a polished product. For others that’s their jam.

So if some bit of advice isn’t working for you, don’t listen to it. If you’re looking for solutions to a problem, then absolutely try different approaches or techniques. But don’t let someone else tell you the path to take or the way to do this thing if it doesn’t work for you. I get bored writing the same thing. I know it’s the successful way to do things, but it’s not me. I’ve had to find a non-traditional path to where I am because I couldn’t follow the one everybody swears by.

For me it was a question of doing it my own way and continuing to make forward progress or letting all those other voices into my head and getting nowhere. Find what works for you and what makes you happy. No one else has to get up and live your life everyday. You do. So do what works for you. (Easier said than done, by the way.)

Conclusion

I don’t know if any of that helped. I hope it did. This post wasn’t for those who want to skyrocket up the charts. My approach is not the way to do that. It’s for those who are struggling to get off the ground and want a bit of hope that they can do so even if they don’t follow the “correct” path.

Will I be able to improve on this year next year? I hope so. With writing there seem to be some natural support levels.  I hung out in the $300-$400 a month range for months with an occasional foray into $800 a month before I suddenly popped up to $1500 a month and have held steady above $1000 a month now since June.

But this self-publishing thing is a constantly moving target. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. What’s popular will change, what advertising works will change, and so will price trends. You have to be willing to try new things and to not quit.

(And, honestly, quitting isn’t such a bad thing. Read Seth Godin’s The Dip sometime. For some it’s a matter of pushing through, but for some it’s realizing there’s a better place to focus your efforts. Only you can tell which one you are.)

Anyway. Here’s to 2018, whatever it may bring.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

I am a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 I have also been a published author who writes under a variety of pen names across non-fiction, fantasy, and romance.

One thought on “A Winding Path to Five Figures A Year”

  1. “So I’m here as proof that it’s possible to write what you want, self-edit, do your own covers, be generally anti-social in terms of group promos and FB and Twitter, and still do alright.”

    Music to my ears! (Mainly the anti-social part.)

    Liked by 1 person

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