2021 Goal Setting

Today I uploaded most of my December 2020 numbers in my Access database.

(Audio and Kobo are still outstanding and so is IngramSpark Australia for some reason and I never upload D2D until the last moment to give them time to finalize the numbers they show, but what I had at this point was 95% of the year so close enough.)

As I expected, revenue was down, but profits were actually up, so yay. It seems less people were clicking on ads perhaps but more were willing to buy when they did since most of my revenue is ad-driven. Either that or I just didn’t keep my eye on the ball as much in 2020, because, well…2020. Either way.

Steady improvement, but still not where I’d like to be. And still not sure that the market is long-term sustainable as it exists today. But that’s a post for another day.

Part of looking at my numbers involved comparing them to some goals I’d set at the beginning of the year for revenue and profit by author, series, and title for 2020 as well as lifetime.

After laughing uproariously at my early 2020 optimism (I was hoping to have lifetime revenue by now of $75K more than I have) it was time to set 2021 goals.

I realized what I needed to do was stop setting goals based on lagging indicators like revenue and profit and instead set them on leading indicators.

What do I mean by that? I’ve probably discussed this before at some point, but it’s a good topic to cover again. A lagging indicator is a result, but it requires other actions to make it happen. A leading indicator is an action you take that actually drives those results.

For me, with publishing, leading indicators are published titles and ad spend. If I don’t publish titles and advertise them, I don’t make money.

For some it could also be word count or hours spent writing but those don’t work for me. I need a tangible finished product that I can sell. If I write 50,000 words on something I don’t publish, that doesn’t help pay my rent. Right?

And sitting in my office saying, “I will make $50,000 in profits this year” sounds great, but unless I have something out there selling that well already, it’s not going to happen.

Fortunately, I normally do set new year’s resolutions some of which are things like, “Publish 4 non-fiction titles” which cover the “produce new product” side of things.

Where I tend to forget this is when I look at ad spend, revenues, and profit and loss. Because I’ll often jot down revenue and profit goals for a title separate from my new year’s resolutions. “I would like Title X to make revenue of $20K with a profit of $15K.” But I almost never jot down title-level ad goals.

Saying I want a profit of $15k is nice and all, but it leaves out the steps that are required to get there. Which for a published title comes from promotion and advertising. If I think a profit of $20K requires an ad spend of $5K, then I need to actually spend that much on advertising. That needs to be my goal.

If I can actually make that work. There are diminishing returns on ad spend for some of my titles. The market for them is only so big, so I can’t just say “Spend $500K to make a million” because, haha, no, not with what I write.

But what I can do is go back to that revenue goal of $20K that expects an ad spend of $5K and then break that down either monthly or quarterly and set a goal to spend $400 per month or $1,200 per quarter on that title.

Now, I know some people who publish don’t have that money to spend on their titles. It comes up in the forums often. So let me say this: Start small and reinvest your profits.

Especially with something like AMS ads, you do not have to spend hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands when you’re getting started. You do need to bid enough for your ads to show, but if you can only spend $2 a day on an ad, fine. Start there. If that ad is making you $4 a day then next month you can spend more. And the month after that and the month after that.

(I think we all have a better grasp of exponential growth after last year, no?)

And if you spend $2 a day and don’t make anything over the course of a month, then something there isn’t working.

If you aren’t getting impressions, you’re likely not bidding enough. If you’re getting clicks but not sales, then something is off in that chain from first impression to purchase.

Are you targeting the right audience? Is there alignment between your target audience, your cover, your ad text, your sales page copy, your genre, and your look inside?

Does it all tell customers that they are getting the same product or does the initial impression look like a novel when what you really wrote was a philosophical treatise? Is the price you’ve set competitive for your genre? If it’s more do you justify that added cost with your presentation of the product?

And if you’re getting sales, but losing money, you may need more product to afford those ads. Often a first-in-series is a loss-leader and you make that up with the rest of the series. Or there’s something in that sales funnel that can be tightened up to get better conversion. But it’s good to start poking around and figuring that out so that when you’re finally ready to run you actually know what you’re doing and what works for your books.

Anyway. Some thoughts.

And now I have to go feed a “puppy” before she starts crying that I have cruelly neglected her by going 3 minutes past her lunchtime. (The real reason I write is so I can have the free time for her. Haha. Sad but true.)

Aer.io

I’m supposed to be setting up a Facebook ad for my new release but I ended up going down a bit of a rabbit hole with a site called aer.io.

Basically it’s a site associated with Ingram that lets you create a storefront to sell any print books that Ingram distributes.

You can create collections and offer your own discounts off of the list price. It’s a little clunky still (see the Stephen King book cover in the attached link which is not in English but fine when you click on the link) but definitely intriguing.

If you want to see one of my experiments, here’s what I did for a list of the books on my best writing advice books shelf. There were only two on that shelf I couldn’t find in their catalog:

https://shop.aer.io/WritingBooks

And here’s the link to the non-fiction store I’ve been working on for my books:

https://shop.aer.io/MLHumphrey

There are things I don’t love about it like the overlay on collection names. And it seems to like to overwrite the description for the page that you give when you go in to edit, but other than that…pretty cool.

Looks like anyone can set one up and you’re basically a little online bookstore.

New Year, New Releases

The Excel Essentials 2019 series is out! That consists of three titles, Excel 2019 Beginner, Excel 2019 Intermediate, and Excel 2019 Formulas & Functions.



I’m going to take a moment to talk about them and then I’ll dive in on some thoughts for the writer folks who follow this blog.

So, how do these differ from the Excel Essentials series? If you’ve already read Excel for Beginners, Intermediate Excel, 50 Useful Excel Functions, and 50 More Excel Functions do you need to buy these, too?

The answer is no. These books are written specifically for anyone using Excel 2019 but 97% of what I talk about in the two series remains unchanged so if you already read the first series you’re fine.

In the formulas & functions book I do cover a few new functions, IFS and TEXTJOIN being the two main ones. MINIFS and MAXIFS as well. But in the prior series I covered nested IF functions and CONCATENATE which were the old way to accomplish the same thing as IFS and TEXTJOIN. And the older functions are still better choices if backwards compatibility is an issue.

Which is why I continue to recommend the Excel Essentials books for anyone using an older version of Excel or who needs to worry about structuring things so they work for others using older versions of Excel.

I basically came out with these books because I just upgraded computers which meant upgrading my Office version to 2019 so I had access to it and also because I know there are users out there who want a book focused on their particular version of Excel so why not give it to them now that I could.


Which is the perfect segue (an interesting word because I want spell it very differently based on the way it’s pronounced) to talking about this from the writer perspective.

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction you always have to think about self-cannibalization at some point if you’re going to publish more than one title.

On the fiction side writers do this when they release bundles. If I have a bundle of books 1 through 3 and books 1 through 3 available on a standalone basis I should expect that some readers will buy the bundle instead of books 1 through 3 standalone. Which means that every sale of the bundle is a sale I don’t get of books 1, 2, and 3.

But it can make sense to do so anyway, because there are readers who are bundle readers who won’t buy a book standalone and it’s also often a way to reach readers who won’t pay as much without having to discount the standalone titles. So you broaden your potential audience in two ways.

The drawback is on a site like Amazon that is so rankings-driven it can decrease overall visibility. Maybe. Because sometimes getting a Bookbub promo is easier with a bundle which can then increase visibility. (Of course at that point you’re selling at high volume but low per-unit profit, but that trade off can make a lot of sense depending on when you do it. My general inclination is to price low only when I have somewhere more expensive for readers to go after that because it’s not easy to make a living on 35 cents a sale.)

In non-fiction there are any number of ways to do this as well.

One is an updated edition of a book. Most readers if there’s a 2010 and a 2020 edition of a book will buy the 2020 edition assuming it’s the “better” edition so publishing a new edition often means no longer getting sales of the editions.

If someone takes another pass at the material you assume they will find better ways to say what they were saying the first time around and update the book for any changes over time.

(Although I will say with cookbooks this isn’t always true. I have Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks spanning thirty years and some of the older recipes are the better-tasting ones because they weren’t trying to be heart-healthy. Although, let’s just take a moment to be glad that 1970’s entertaining suggestions stayed in the 70’s. Hanging bananas off of a centerpiece is an idea no one should have ever had, ever.)

Getting back to the point.

With non-fiction other ways I’ve cannibalized my own sales is through bundles. For example, I have the Excel Essentials title which is the four Excel books from the original series combined into one title.

(Even though it’s a discount over the four individual titles, the individual titles still sell much better, probably because the initial price point seems daunting to someone who hasn’t read my books yet.)

I also have the Easy Excel Essentials books which are extracted from the main series titles and focus on specific topics, like Pivot Tables.

They’re less economical for people to buy if they buy them all but people do still buy them either because they only care about one specific topic (Pivot Tables or Conditional Formatting) or because the price point seems more reasonable to them. They’d rather buy six books for $3 each than buy three books for $5-$6 each even if there’s less overall content in the six books.

Of course, another reason to release new titles has nothing to do with sales, but instead has to do with visibility.

For example, the newly-available-to-everyone AMS Sponsored Brand ads work best with three or more titles. So I went ahead and released Access Essentials so that I’d have three books on Access that I could advertise via one of those ads. I didn’t actually expect high sales on that title, but it gave me another advertising option so it was worth it.

And, as fiction authors who focus on Amazon sales know, there is value in being in the new release charts. (Although that’s only self-cannibalization when it’s an omnibus or bundle release, but that can make people realize they missed book three in that series and go buy it.)

Anyway. It’s something to think about if you’re a slower writer and trying to figure out what you can do. Think about new formats, bundles, etc.

But I don’t recommend new editions unless for this purpose. (These three books took me over a hundred hours to create and with novels or short stories I’ve redone it took as long as writing a new one and probably wasn’t such a vast improvement it was worth it.)

Also, I highly recommend having a release of some sort in January because it’s a nice, easy way to hit at least one New Year’s resolution. 🙂

Checking In…

I haven’t been posting much, mostly because I figure I can post annoyance at the world or I can put my head down and do something productive that moves things forward. So I’ve been working, working, working.

Yesterday in the mail I received the paperback proofs of the large print versions of my YA fantasy novels and the hard cover proofs of the large print versions of my cozy mysteries and I have to say they look really good and I’m glad I took the time to do that project.

Large print was something I sort of tried doing a few years back but I didn’t do enough research I don’t think to really get it right. It’s more than just a larger font size. For example, no italics. Those have to be replaced with bolded text. And font choice matters. So does placement of the chapter name and page numbers, etc.

I figured I’d judge the success of the large print books by sellthrough to the rest of the series. If people buy book one in large print and no one buys book two then that means I failed somehow on the formatting. But the cozies are showing good sellthrough. (Once I went into the Amazon listings for the regular print versions and told people how to find the large print version. It seems Amazon buries the large print version so that you have to be Houdini to find it and I don’t expect my cozy readers are.)

What else? I don’t know if it’s 2020 or it’s me, but things seem to be taking longer to do these days than before. I’m working on some new editions on the non-fiction side and I swear the books that were supposed to be revisions of old titles are taking twice as long to create as they did the first time around.

This is what it means to be a Maximizer in the CliftonStrengths world. I can’t pass up an opportunity to make something just that little bit better, which in one case led to rewriting 80% of the book. It wasn’t bad to start with but I was combining two books and for that to work I needed to change the approach substantially. (I know, I’m being vague but you’ll see when I publish what I was talking about.)

What else? I find myself glad I write both non-fiction and fiction books because this time of year, if you’re not pushing your fiction, can be brutal for sales. Fortunately, it’s a good time for print sales and with non-fiction I can price competitively enough that I don’t take as big of a hit as I would if I only did fiction.

Which is a reminder when looking at other’s recommendations and advice to pay attention to what they write. I find the fiction advice I see is often bad for non-fiction. Like don’t worry about print, price your print with thin margins, put your first title free, etc.

Same with if someone has a well-selling ten-book series. What they can do with that versus the author who has two or three books out is vastly different. I also think sometimes people who are a lot farther along on their path forget some of the struggles of being new or close to new. Like, they have books that just sell and don’t understand that that’s really not the case for most new writers.

And, of course, the genre differences. Writing for an audience that devours books and marketing to that audience is vastly different than writing for an audience that reads, but not at a book-a-day, give-me-the tropes pace.

Of course, every time I’m tempted to wander off into the wilderness alone and just stop listening to anyone anywhere and do my own thing, there’s something that comes up that makes me stay connected through FB groups or forums or whatnot.

This year the ACX returns thing finally blew up and it was good to know it had since they won’t delist my books but also ignore my emails and no longer even send me those helpful updates that others get. And I was able to get access to Nook promos which have helped. And I think I may have access to Apple promos now but haven’t looked closely at that email yet to be sure of it.

All of that comes from being tied in through groups here or there as painful as the experience sometimes is. (Kboards is such a pale version of what it once was that it’s kind of sad…)

Oh, and I put my books in for Amazon promo consideration but not holding my breath there. But good to know you can at least do so now.

So, yeah. We’re heading towards 2021 and I’m neither glaringly optimistic about it all nor darkly pessimistic. Thanks to EIDL and PPP I made it through 2020 unscathed (knock wood) and able to keep writing and publishing. We’ll see what 2021 brings.

Another thing to think about is property ownership. I was burned to the cost of $30K when I left full-time consulting and sold my condo in DC so I don’t always think that owning property is the best bet, but I am very grateful that I bought my house that I live in now because that property appreciation certainly helps. It’s the cushion that lets me take some of the risks I do. I can look at that equity I’ve built up and think, “Worst case scenario…”

Anyway. Pup is crying to be fed and then I have to proof three books and get them off to the printer for print proofs, so back to the grindstone. Hope you and yours are well.

Leveling Up

I’ve spent the last week and a half or so learning how to use Affinity Publisher to format the interior of my print books. Up until this point when I wanted to handle the formatting of a book I did so in Word.

(I have Vellum which I can use for a basic fiction book, although I disagree with them on how they handle widows/orphans and also they have a weird glitch in their process that sometimes leaves off page numbers or headers for an entire chapter which then moves around when you regenerate the file until it finally goes away. Overall fine for a basic book. But for a lot of my non-fiction I desire more control.)

It’s not all that hard to format a book in Word, especially if you use Styles and Section Breaks and combine that with the KDP templates that you can download through Amazon’s publishing website.

But I’d paid for Affinity and knew it was supposed to be a publishing software (I’ve been using it for my covers instead of GIMP) so decided to finally dive in and see what it can do.

There are some things I really love about it so far. I can see the potential time savings and automated consistency that I’ll get from Affinity Publisher once I’m up and running.

But I’m not there yet. I’m still learning. I’m still leveling up.

It’s little things that I have to learn. For example, with my covers I had to learn to check the box to include bleed so that the cover came out the right size. With books with images I’ve had to learn how to export in grayscale. And with books with muti-level tables of content I’ve had to figure out how to apply two levels of formatting to the TOC.

Little things like that.

Which is when it’s tempting to quit and go back to what you know. I know how to do all of these things in Word and can probably do them in half the time in Word. Right now.

It requires manual effort, but I can do them. I know the process.

With Affinity I’m doing a lot of Googling for answers. And sometimes I just don’t know the industry term to use. For example, it’s called pinning when you want an image to stick with specific text. I was trying to look for how to “anchor” an image to text.

Little things like that that trip you up and take extra time.

But the key is to not quit halfway through. Leveling up often requires a step backward to move forward. You lose expertise in order to gain expertise. You become more shaky at what you’re doing in the short-term. But it’s worth it long-term because when all is said and done you get through all that struggle and everything becomes easier.

So I’m sticking with it even though I have now generated this one book file probably ten times today. Because I know that by the time I’m done with these practice books I’ll be ready to do what I’ve been gearing up for and that’s formatting and publishing about a dozen new image-intensive titles.

(Honestly, being able to see the DPI value on every image I’ve embedded in one spot is reason enough to use Affinity instead of Word.)

Also, don’t be fooled by my complaining. I love the process of learning something new and struggling for mastery and then finally figuring it out and having that aha moment. I’m pretty sure that’s why I keep with self-publishing even though there are probably far more profitable ways I could spend my days…

Anyway. Back to it. Time to proof this book for the umpteenth time today and hope that all the little issues are now gone.

Do You Engage Your Readers?

I have one writing rule: If it works, it works.

The only thing that should matter is whether what you wrote works for your readers.

Did you convey the story to them? (For fiction) Did they learn what you wanted to teach them? (For non-fiction)

Those are the ideals.

Often readers will read a different story than you tried to convey. And they will learn a different lesson than you tried to teach.

(For the record, I do not ever recommend using the automated keyword setting for a new AMS ad for a new book, as an example.)

But if you want a chance to get to that ideal you need to do one thing first: You need to engage your audience. You need to draw readers into your book and you need to keep them there.

This is where some of the one-size writing advice comes from like: Start with action! Have a clear conflict! Skip the prologue. (I actually agree with that last one 99 times out of 100.)

Those are all tips to help make a story engaging. But they aren’t requirements to make it engaging.

All you need to do (and I say this like it’s easy but it is not) is find a way to grab your target reader, bring them into what you’ve written, and keep them there until the end. How you do that is entirely up to you and who your target readers are.

So when you start to panic about “I write like this and it’s wrong” stop. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s the exact right way to engage your readers.

New Release Misstep

I received an email today from a writer friend who had just published their first novel on Amazon. And the email was basically asking friends and family to buy the novel and leave a review.

Which sounds like a great idea for a new release, right? Get some sales and some reviews.

Except, especially on Amazon, that can be the kiss of death. Because Amazon is all about the algorithms. What is this book you have published and who can I shove it in front of to generate sales?

And the problem with having friends and family be the first people who buy your book is that it’s very confusing to those algos. Because your middle grade fantasy is being bought by someone who reads 90% mystery and also by someone who reads 85% non-fiction and by someone else who reads gritty books across fantasy, sci fi, horror, and mystery. So what reader can Amazon find that fits all those categories?

None.

Now, granted, I myself have made this mistake. Because who wants to publish a book and have no sales? So you tell people about it. And because they like you (hopefully) they buy it even though they may never actually read it and generally don’t read things like it as a general rule.

Which means you end up trying to swim against the current to get to your actual audience. And you don’t have a lot of time to do it in because Amazon is relentless with its 30-day, 60-day, 90-day cliffs. It’s an environment where your book either proves itself or it sinks. Fast.

Better is to not tell friends and family about your new release until your also-boughts have populated. Also-boughts that you have hopefully helped craft via advertising towards your actual target audience, so that when those friends and family come by to show their support Amazon already knows what you’re selling and who it will sell to.

It’s a bit counterintuitive to a lot of businesses. When I was a broker you were encouraged to find friends and family members who’d invest with you first and then move out from there as you did well and got word of mouth. Lots of businesses are built that way. But books don’t work quite the same. Because people will pay a dollar or five for a book but it does you no good if that sale doesn’t help build towards more readers. Better to have people share links on your behalf with people they know who might be your target audience and hope those people buy it.

Anyway. Something to think about for the brand new author with no established audience.

 

 

Some Thoughts on Book Covers

I have friends who swear by using professionally-done covers. And some of those friends do very, very, very well. Much better than I do. (Although I suspect that’s down to writing skill and speed of publishing more than cover quality.)

Me, I tend to do my own covers. And I’ll tell you why. Because coming from a corporate background it drives me absolutely batty to deal with cover designers.

This last week I redid two series’ worth of covers. It was 20+ covers and I was able to create them and upload them and be done within a few days. At the same time I’ve been paying to have the covers redone for my YA fantasy series by one of the really good cover designers out there and it’s taken six weeks (?) so far to get three covers done. If I’d gone with one of the other top designers out there I’d still be waiting for them to get started because most have waiting lists of three to six months, assuming they’re taking on new clients.

So let me walk you through my cover designer experiences. I’m not naming names, because that’s not the point there. The point is to understand some of the challenges of dealing with cover designers and why, if you can do it at all, it might make sense to do your own instead.

Cover Designer #1: Pre-Mades

As with all things self-publishing, I ventured into paying for covers the cheap way by buying a couple of pre-made covers. One was for a romance novel, one was for my SFF short story collection. And they looked good. I have no complaints about the appearance of the covers. I mean, I chose them after all, they were a completed product before I paid for them.

The cover designer was also easy to work with and provided my files within a few days of my placing my order. I had no complaints about that designer’s responsiveness or professionalism.

All good.

Until I started poking around on some stock photo websites and realized that the cover designer had literally taken existing stock photos and just slapped text on them. No edits to the photo whatsoever. It was the same exact image, not zoomed in or cropped in any way. No extra border. No combined images. Nothing changed.

Which means that the pre-made they slapped up on their website probably took ten minutes to create and another ten to customize it when they got my order. They needed an eye for placement and font choice, but that was pretty much it.

Now, granted, that’s probably all you can expect when you spend $35 for a cover. But it made me realize that I could probably do that myself. And when I did the next romance cover I did buy that original stock photo and put new text over it to match my second romance novel cover rather than go back to that cover designer and pay for them to create a custom cover to match the first one.

So decent to work with, decent result, but something anyone could slap together with minimal design skills.

Cover Designer #2: Custom Cover

When I published my first fantasy novel I decided it was time to quit playing around and do things “the right way”. I’d seen a trade-published cover designer’s work that I thought was really good and I reached out to them about what it would cost to have them do my covers. Turns out the answer was $650.

That was a lot to spend, but I wanted to give that book all the chances in the world, so I paid it. And the cover is gorgeous. The artist actually did a photo shoot with a local girl who worked at Starbucks and turned her into exactly what I was looking for. It was an illustrated cover and that artist nailed it. The first draft had a bad font and the image needed moving a bit but we fixed that easily enough.

I really had no complaints about that first cover. (Later when I had that book on display at a convention I realized it didn’t look as good from a distance. My homemade covers on other books on that table drew in far more readers than that very expensive cover did.)

Of course, there was no way to do the second cover in that series without using the same artist. So I had to go back to them a year later and see if they were available and what timeline I was working with. They said it would be a month to get the cover done, but they missed the deadline and I had to delay my release while I waited for them to finish.

We also had some back and forth on that one that was a bit painful. But I was stuck with them at that point. Fortunately design of the third cover went smoothly but I do seem to recall that they were late on that one, too.

The bigger problem was that when I wanted to change the back cover copy on two of the print versions a year or so after that I was told it would cost $200 to do so. I don’t sell enough in print on those books for that to make any sense.

So gorgeous covers but production delays and high costs to make edits.

Cover Designer #3: The Designer That Never Was

When I decided to publish my first cozy mystery I looked a the covers in the genre and found that most of the best in the genre were a style I couldn’t replicate myself. So I looked around to see who did covers in that genre.

One top designer was booked out six months but another said they just needed a month’s notice and to let them know when I was ready to go. They were about $250 a cover I want to say, so reasonable for what they did and available in a workable timeframe.

Great.  I reached out about a month later, and…nothing. They never replied to me again. Not via email, not via their website. They were just gone.

Fortunately I hadn’t paid them so I wasn’t out any money, but it frustrated me enough that I just went ahead and did my own covers for the cozies.

So one man shop, disappeared without notice.

Cover Designer #4: High End Cover

This year I had some money to spend on my business so I figured it was time to try new covers on the fantasy series. (Even though it took two and half years to pay off the first set of covers. I sometimes don’t learn my lessons.)

I poked around and most of the top designers were not available or had a long wait time, but one had a website that said they’d send through options within a couple weeks, so I submitted with them.

They don’t have a series option so I had to do each cover one at a time even though my ultimate goal was three covers for a completed trilogy. Again we were in the $600 range.

First, I had to chase them down after that two weeks passed without any response. It took a few more days but then they sent through some ideas which were…okay? But not worth $600.

I had specifically said I didn’t want a cover that looked muddy from a distance like my first fantasy one had turned out to be. I even gave them the link to that cover, but one of the options they sent through was mostly brown colors that would be muddy from a distance.

I ran the options by a private group I’m in and those folks agreed that, no, not worth continuing if that’s what I was going to get. I could’ve paid a third as much to a different designer and had covers on par with what they sent me in that first round.

I gave them one more try with much more specific guidance based on work I’d seen them do for others and they finally came back with something much, much better, so I stuck with them.

After that little hiccup the first cover was fine.

But then the second cover–which was part of the series–was done as if the designer hadn’t thought “hey, this cover needs to fit with the other two”. It was fine on its own, but not as part of the series. It was like someone hadn’t liked aspects of the first cover so had decided to fix those aspects with the second cover. But that didn’t work because the two covers had to sit side-by-side and I already had the first cover.

(My other expensive cover designer actually changed the font on my on my second book, too. It was a better font, yes, but it meant anyone who already owned the first book was stuck with books in a series that didn’t match.)

This lack of continuity with the first cover really frustrated me. This is the type of thing that if I’m paying you $600 for a cover I expect you to handle without my guidance. But I was stuck in at this point because I’d already paid for the first cover. So I told them all the fixes that needed to be made and they were done.

But now we’re on cover three. There were some fixes to the central image because the first round of choices were not good, but that was pretty simple. And they made a basic error they shouldn’t have, but that got fixed, too.

When they sent me the print proof the coordinator pointed out something to me about the text on the back cover that I agreed needed changed. It was a simple fix and since they’d pointed it out to me, I figured it would be done within the day and done right. But the next proof I got they’d fixed the wrong thing. It was even worse than before. And it took three days to get that first fix back. And then another two days to fix the bad fix. So five days for a change that literally was a five-minute change that they identified first.

And I’m still waiting for the final files.

So beautiful work but long delays in getting it and challenges in getting a product worth what I paid for it and in having to manage someone who wasn’t managing themselves well.


Those are my cover designer experiences. I’ve also had a few cover designers I reached out to who said they couldn’t do the type of cover I was looking for, which is fair enough. I hold nothing against them for saying that. It is what it is.

I do believe that covers matter. My mom is one of those people who will buy a book just for the cover. But I also believe there’s a “good enough” standard for most genres and that there are ways to do good enough covers in most genres that don’t require massive design skills.

Just like with writing, I think it’s a process of leveling-up over time as you see and think about what works and find ways to get the appearance you want. And, this will sound sort of strange, but I figure all of it has to work together and sometimes a non-million-dollar cover is actually the better choice because it more accurately conveys to the reader what they’ll find inside.

(One of the reasons I gleefully use alright instead of all right in my books is because I know that the Strunk & White purists will be turned off by that and leave my books alone which is a good thing for both of us.)

Too Lazy

I was thinking yesterday about how I’m too lazy to ever actually succeed at the traditional publishing route. Which is ironic given the amount of additional effort that self-publishing requires. But in a sense I’m also lazy there, too.

I’ve determined it’s because I’m missing the “please like me” gene.

Let me explain.

This week I redid over twenty covers for my short stories and loaded them to five different distributor sites. This was for two pen names so once I had the basic template in place it was relatively easy to create each of the covers, but it was still probably a day or two of design work and a full day of updating and uploading the files.

I had recently bought Affinity and wanted to experiment with it and also have bought over the last year a large, large number of fonts through Design Cuts’ bundles as well as a few fonts that were just really nice, fancy ones.

And it was time to level-up those covers.

When I did the speculative fiction covers, I also decided I’d go ahead and publish a couple short stories that have been moldering away on my hard drive and were doing no good there.

This is where it gets back to that laziness. Because one of the stories (The Taste of Memory) was a semi-finalist sometime recently in the Writers of the Future contest. That means it was top 16 in that quarter’s entries. And the critique I got back on it was essentially you could tweak this one thing, but this story should be sellable as is.

So I sent it out to a handful of pro-paying markets, I think maybe five of them. And then I lost interest and just let it sit.

Because I’d done the part that interested me–I’d written my story and explored the nature of memory and the creative process and how much trauma plays into that. That’s what I cared about, personally.

Which meant that all that was left was to put in a bunch of effort trying to find someone who’d like it enough to pay me for it. And that’s…boring to me.

I know other authors who write to be read. They get their satisfaction from others reading and liking what they’ve done. But that’s not me. I’m missing that gene. I’m like, “Oh, you don’t like it or me? Okay. Whatever.”

So after a little bit of effort to see that the story wasn’t going to sell to one of the top markets, I moved on.

Which is not how you succeed in this business, by the way. If you want to break in with short stories you have to write a story and keep that story going from one market to the next to the next to the next until someone buys it. And while you’re waiting you just keep cranking out new stories.

It can take years for one story to sell. (I once had an almost sale with The Bearer and I want to say that Tor.com held onto it for over six months. Six months for that one submission to finally get a no. Have a few of those on the same story and, yeah, years. I got great personal rejections on The Bearer, but after a while I was just bored with sending it out again.)

But that’s what you’re supposed to do. Keep sending it out until it sells. That’s how the game is played. You keep submitting until someone says yes.

Same with queries, right? You’re supposed to query something like a hundred agents before you give up on that particular novel. And then you write the next novel and do it all again. And again. And again until someone says yes.

(Dating works that way, too, by the way. But this post isn’t about dating.)

It turns out I’m just too lazy to deal with all of that. So I self-publish. Where the work is ten times as hard. And, really, you’re having to pursue the same sort of “do you like it” thing that you do with traditional publishing, but you just do it with advertising instead.

It’s crazy. And honestly it’s a miracle I’ve made any money at this thing given where my particular laziness lies…

So anyway. Look at some of my pretty new short story covers:

In Search of a Hero7 small  The Taste of Memory small  The Bearer5 small

Puppy Love Holiday Surprise small  Puppy Love Volumes 1 to 13 small

(That now won’t sell because I did the fun part already and am now going to move on to something else like writing a new novel instead of doing anything more to promote them. Hahaha. Sigh.)

 

Nine Years

Nine years ago today I decided to try to write my first novel and get it published. My goal at the time was to be traditionally published, so I wrote that novel and queried it and found out I should write short stories so did that for a bit and submitted those and got some “send more”/”almost there” type of rejections before I turned back to novels which is what I really wanted to write. And I attended some conferences here or there.

And then I wrote a non-fiction book that I had no hope of getting published through a publisher because I had no platform and no reason that I had written that book other than having a very strong opinion about the matter. So I self-published it. And I self-published some of those rejected short stories.

My results were…underwhelming.

My covers were horrible, SFF short stories are not where the money is in self-publishing, and then I got derailed by taking a consulting project that kept me from writing for eight months. (But did pay very well and let me qualify for the mortgage on my current house.)

After that project, I gave it another try.

I got sucked into the “just write a bunch of short sexy stories” thing that was going around at the time. Those did sell better. The billionaire story I wrote in one day on a whim sold the best. So I went ahead and threw the romance novel I’d written as therapy up and it sold well (for me at the time), too.

But I didn’t follow-up well on those little nibbles of success. It took me three more years to write a follow-up to the romance novel.

I kept throwing whatever I thought of at the wall. Lots of it failed because I was still writing short stories and non-fiction not many people wanted.

Then I realized I didn’t want to go back to consulting so I finally published one of my fantasy novels with a gorgeous cover and real advertising spend behind it.

The results were…not so good. It was depressing. I’d finally done what everyone said to do and no one wanted my book. (I did launch at full price which didn’t help, but still. I’d bought a pretty cover! I’d paid for ads!)

I kept pushing, though. I kept trying.

I eventually finished the trilogy, but it took me a year to get out each of the other two titles which was not good.

Then I went to a writing workshop and let it get in my head. Was my writing too emotional? Too angsty? Was it too cliched? Me and my European settings and white people. (Although the first series was actually neither of those things. But when you let the doubt creep in…)

So I turned to non-fiction. And saw some success. Not immediately. Four months after publication a couple of those titles took off. And they’ve sold steadily for three-plus years now.

I added what I could to extend that success. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t.

Rather than go back to fantasy, I branched out into cozy mystery. I still wanted to do well with fiction and I had a contemporary story idea I thought would work. I also promoted the fantasy trilogy that hadn’t done well initially and finally got it profitable. Ironically the year I priced it at $7.99 per title was my best year profit-wise for that title. But that could be in part thanks to a Bookbub feature.

And so now here I am. Thirteen novels later, eleven of those still published. Too many short stories to count. Too many non-fiction titles to count. Nine years in. 2.65 million words written. 2,800 hours spent writing/editing. Over $150K in revenue. Over $70K in profit.

I’m proud of where I am, but I’m still a hot mess.

Do the math on those numbers and you’ll find that I only spend about six hours a week on writing/editing, which is pathetically low for someone who does this full-time. (And probably a good part of the reason I’m not further along with this whole thing. That and splitting my efforts in so many different directions.)

My top-earning pen name has almost 600K words of published material out and it’s 20x as profitable as the next-highest-earning pen name which only has 270K words published. For my top three pen names, profit and word count are in the exact same order. The one with the most published material is the one that’s made the most. The one with the second-most number of words has made the second-most, etc.

Number four breaks that pattern, but it’s also my only written-to-market pen name.

I know what I need to do. I need to focus better and produce more work. More cozies, more fantasy novels. New material that leads back to what I’ve already done. Without a deep enough bench of material it’s hard to advertise effectively.

I’ve never done a 99 cent promo on the boxset of my fantasy trilogy because there’s nowhere for those readers to go after that. Also, I know that the more related titles someone has, the better able they are to make a profit off of ads on a first book. Assuming they write well enough to pull people through the entire series that is.

I looked a few years ago and figured it would take 8-12 novels to really be firmly established in a genre. I have 3 fantasies and 6 cozies. I need at least double what I already have for both.

That’s what Year 10 is going to be about for me. Trying to fill that in. Trying to push myself to write enough that I can add a new fantasy trilogy and at least four more cozies to my catalog.

I have a few non-fiction titles I might add as well. Non-fiction writes easier for me than fiction because it’s just a data dump for the most part and not creation of something brand new. So non-fiction fits well between drafts or fiction projects. But my focus will be on the fiction.

I want to write/edit for 10 hours a week instead of 6. Or even 20 hours a week. Imagine that…

It’s not going to be easy. Internal motivation is not as easy to generate as the responsibility that comes with an external deadline. I can easily work sixty-plus hours for someone else, but not for myself.

I figure I have one more year to make this sustainable. I’m close. But I’m not there yet. Not unless I want to live in a dingy apartment with a bunch of weird roommates and eat canned tuna fish for every meal.

So. One more year. 500K more words. With focus.

Here we go. Wish me luck. Haha.