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.)


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.

Maybe This Isn’t For You

The great thing about self-publishing is how easy it is to do. If you really want to put your work out there you can. You can write it and format it and design a basic cover and publish all by yourself.

The horrible thing about self-publishing is how easy it is to do. Anyone can write a book, format it, design a basic cover, and hit publish.

The thing is, even though it’s easy to do and there are not gatekeepers holding you back, self-publishing is not something everyone should do.

I consider myself a resilient person. I’ve been able to handle a tremendous amount of stress in my life without batting an eye. (Terminally ill father while take four AP classes in high school and playing two varsity sports? Easy. Triple major at Stanford while working full-time? Challenging as all get out, but doable. MBA from Wharton while working a more than full-time job? Required a few meltdowns along the way, but done.)

I also really don’t care what 99% of the world thinks about me. There are maybe five people whose opinions mean the world to me and I could really care less what the rest have to say. I’m going to do me and you can take it or leave it.

I’m also in relatively good health, mentally and physically.

But I’ll tell you, self-publishing is a challenge for me. On all levels.

It’s a fight to keep those outside voices out of my head while I’m writing. (Every single time I use alright, I know there are people who will cringe and judge me for it. I mean, seriously?)

And it’s a daily struggle to get visibility for my books. I don’t advertise, I don’t sell.

And even though I know that not everyone will like what I write, it’s never easy to read a one-star review of a book I wrote. I don’t even like reading the three-star reviews.

And when success does come (I know this part more from observation than personal experience) there’s a whole new set of challenges. Do you keep writing what your fans want even though it’s not what you want? Can you really deliver what they want again and again and again? Do you even know what they want? And what do you do when you’ve experienced success and then lost it? Does that mean you were never good enough in the first place? Or that you’ll never achieve success again?

Self-publishing is one of the most mentally challenging things I’ve ever done. It is not for the faint of heart. And, yet, most writers have issues. We aren’t perfectly happy and contented individuals. There’s a reason we don’t spend our free time sitting on the couch watching television or playing video games. Many of us have a dissatisfaction with life that we need to explore through our art.

And when you’re off-balance to start with, self-publishing can destroy you. It can take what little self-esteem you had and crush it. And it can take someone who was already a little distrustful of the world and push them over the edge. I saw it happen this week with an author who became convinced that a promo site had deliberately sabotaged them.

That’s not the first author I’ve seen lose it either. How many public meltdowns over reviews have we seen? Too many to count.

The stresses of doing something so emotionally demanding and doing it in public are extreme.

And, you know what? It’s okay to say this isn’t for you. It’s okay to decide that you want to write, but not publish. It’s okay to realize that you’d rather go the traditional route of agent and publisher (which does have its own stresses, but at least it allows you to hold on to the fact that you were chosen). And it’s okay to realize that you’re perfectly fine making stories up for yourself and never putting a single word down on paper.

It’s all okay. You have to do what’s best for you.

Look. We all have our own challenges and demons that no one else sees. And if self-publishing brings those out for you, it’s okay to walk away from it. (And for every single person reading this thinking I’m talking about you, I’m not. Pretty sure the person who directly inspired this post doesn’t read this blog. And really it was more a general thought I’ve been having these days that I was triggered to write about when I saw KKR’s business blog today: Quitting)

And I’ll tell you one last thing: It’s even okay to walk away from this if you’re good at it…

Life is too short. Find what makes you happiest.

Sometimes You Just Are Who You Are

I know by now how to be a successful indie: Write under one pen name, ideally in one series of novels, hits the needs of a target market that is large enough to make a living, and publish on a regular schedule (four books a year or more)

But it’s not me.

This year I have written and published one YA fantasy, one contemporary romance bordering on women’s fiction, one dating advice book for men, three books for self-publishers (one on AMS, one on ACX, one on CreateSpace), four books on Microsoft Excel, two holiday romance short stories, and also revised and republished a series of seven erom short stories.

That adds up to 365,000 words so far and the year isn’t done. I still expect to publish at least two more non-fiction titles before the year is out.

Even though I’ve been seeing steady improvement in sales and income year-to year, my failure to just pick a direction and stick with it has been bugging the shit out of me. I mentally beat up on myself on a regular basis for what I’ve viewed as a failure to focus. It’s one thing to not know how to succeed (which was me for the first couple years). But to see how it’s done and still not do it? I mean, what the hell?

Turns out, though, that my writing across a ton of subjects and genres is actually just part of who I am.

I think I’d mentioned already that I took a course this month called Write Better Faster that’s offered through the Lawson Writer’s Academy (https://www.margielawson.com/lawson-writers-academy-courses). The course uses a variety of personality tests to see what kind of person you are and then talks about the best way for you to write or edit or plan, etc. based on your type.

Part of being me, for example, is being a pantser. And being an emotions-based writer. And needing my own workspace. And getting stuck in loops where I check on sales, internet, FB, sales, etc. and get nothing done.

But another part of being me is being a Strategic-Learner personality. (Strengthsfinder: https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/home/en-US/Index) And part of that is a desire to keep learning new things.

With my writing that’s manifested as wanting to learn something new (like AMS ads), writing about it once I feel I have, and then wanting to move on to something else.

(It also explains why some day jobs have been horrendous fits for me even though the pay was good.)

Does a part of me wish I were that single-minded writer? Oh, absolutely. Can you imagine publishing 365,000 words a year in a successful series?

But it’s not me and it’s not what interests me about writing. I like the challenge of writing and creating a world that works. Or of finding a way to take the knowledge in my head and put it in a form that others can understand and learn from.

Ideally, I’ll get to the point where I can be me as a writer and make enough to not stress about money, but it’s a relief to realize or reaffirm who I am and how I experience my world. Next step is to give some thought to how I use what I now know about myself to move up to that next level.

So that’s where I am today. Accepting who I am and what I need from my work to be happy.

(And I cannot recommend this class highly enough. Seriously. If you get a chance, take it. It is well worth it.)

On Editing

Editing is essential. Whether you do it as you write the story and loop back through prior chapters to smooth them out or whether you wait until you have a first draft in hand, you need to edit. (Especially as you get older. I seem to be dropping more words as I type these days than I used to, so at least one pass is needed just to see that that word I thought I’d included didn’t actually make it to the page.)

My own personal editing process involves a fairly substantial second draft on any novel. Two of the seven I’ve completed required a gutting and rewriting of 90% of the novel. The others required a more normal for me pass where I added description so readers could actually picture the scene and so dialogue scenes could actually include more than just the words that were said.

After that I do passes to deepen the point of view by removing filtering words (saw, heard, felt, thought, etc.) and also look for my own personal bugaboos (further/farther, lay/lie, etc.)

I also run spellcheck. It’s pretty much the only way I know to make sure that a character name stays the same name throughout the entire book. (I write each name down the first time spellcheck flags it and then tell spellcheck to ignore that word. If it crops up again and it isn’t in a possessive form or plural form, then I know I have a spelling error to address.)

I’m lucky that I spent a good fifteen years of my professional life writing reports for people with extensive vocabularies and an eye for the littlest mistake. They sit in the back of my mind as I write pointing out the proper usage of words like affect vs. effect so I don’t have to go back for most of those.

But, if you haven’t had that kind of “wonderful” training (we once spent an hour and a half in a business meeting debating whether you use its or their when referencing the compliance department), it’s helpful to read a few resources that point out to you what you may not know yet.

And one of those happens to be in the NaNoWriMo StoryBundle (which is only available for two more days and which you knew I had to mention at least one more time, right?). It’s called Blood From Your Own Pen by Sam Knight and it’s full of good advice. There are some points I disagree on because that’s just the type of person I am, but overall I think it’s a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about formatting or editing. And, of course, me being the chatty type I am, I also liked the style it was written in.

It’s part of the base package for the StoryBundle, so  you could get it and three other books for just $5! But you have to act now. (And, really, if you’re going to buy the bundle why not upgrade to the full bundle? Just sayin’.)

It’s Okay If You’re Not There Yet

We’re about at the end of Nano and some will celebrating their victory of “winning” Nano, while others will be kicking themselves for failing to hit those 55,000 words. And even those who won nano will soon realize (one hopes) that putting those initial words on the page are just step one of a long process. (I think it took me nine drafts to finalize my first novel and the second draft was almost a complete rewrite.)

It’s easy to look around and see what others are doing and think you don’t have what it takes. Or to get defeated when things aren’t happening fast enough. And it’s normal. The key is to keep going. If you keep going AND keep striving, you will improve. You will get better. It will get easier and you will start to see little glimmers of success that pull you forward.

Let me share a little of my own journey on this one.

Often times in the indie world there’s a lot of “oh, well, obviously your problem is…” talk. Covers is one of the top targets of these kind of comments. Those who’ve been around a while can look at a cover and think “NO! That won’t work at all.” But for a newbie, that skill just isn’t there yet.

I had to buy a new computer last week because this current one has developed the habit of just turning itself off, and I figured before I transferred my files I would go through my GIMP files and delete all the many drafts that had led to each of my covers. (I’ll sometimes go through twenty iterations of a cover before I’m satisfied.) What this made me do is look at some of my oldest covers.

And, oh man, were they bad. The initial covers on Douchebag were hideous. I’d done enough research to figure out the basic color scheme for men’s dating books (black, white, red, yellow), but what I then did with those colors? Holy cannoli. Bad.  Bad, bad, bad.

But I didn’t know. I put ’em out there without hesitation. And, surprisingly, a few copies sold. Why, when the covers were that bad, I will never know. Trust me, they were BAD.

But I learned and I experimented and I swapped out the covers more than once and I slowly improved. Is the cover perfect now? No. But it gets the job done. And maybe someday I pay someone who does this for a living to put a really flashy cover on it.

(Doubtful. This class I’m taking now has taught me that I have far more interest in the writing of things than in the marketing of things and that I may always be one of those folks who spend far more time on creating a product or thinking about how it all works than on trying to find my audience.)

Anyway. Back to the point. I didn’t know back then what I didn’t know. And I could’ve had millions of dollars to spend and still not done it “right”, because there was a lot I needed to learn. (Still is, but I think I’m further along now than I was then.)

This is a journey. With a lot of steps. And some of us are starting out in Australia with ten bucks in our pocket, trying to make it all the way to London, or in Idaho trying to make it to Russia.

It’s okay if it takes a while. It’s okay if you go off course for a bit. The key is to keep going and keep improving. And if someday your old covers or your old stories make you cringe? That’s okay, too. It just means you’ve learned enough to see the flaws in your early work.

So chin up and keep moving.


Halfway Through Nano

So it’s November 15th. Which means we’re halfway through Nano. I have never actually done Nano myself. It’s not something that would work for me. (Although I have written 20,000 words or so so far this month so may actually hit the Nano goal. But when you self-publish, most months are Nano-style months. Or at least you wish they were.)

And I suspect at this point that there are some folks out there that have maybe decided that Nano isn’t for them either. If you’re one of those people, that’s OKAY. One of the joys and frustrations of being a writer is that there’s no clear path that we all need to follow. It’s like a million streams rolling down a hill, each one taking it’s own unique approach. So Nano didn’t do it for you? That’s fine. Just keep writing when you can and at your own pace.

I’m taking a great class right now called Write Better Faster (https://www.margielawson.com/lawson-writers-academy-courses) that delves into how different personality types approach writing and how they encounter different issues with their writing because of it. Today’s lecture reminded me why one of my best writer-friends routinely does all her writing in a bar and why I have to do my writing in a dedicated home office. And why I would probably be miserable trying to write in a bar and she’d be miserable writing at home.

We’re all different. So if one approach isn’t working for you, don’t beat yourself up or think that means you can’t do this. It just means you need to take a different approach– one that works for you. Along those lines, Patricia C. Wrede had a great post up today: Pavement Conditions. As someone who cusses out the California drivers every year the first snow falls in Colorado and who grew up in the mountains, I found her analogy here very apt.

You have to know where you are and what will work under those conditions. And realize that sometimes what worked before isn’t going to work now. The key is to just keep trying and moving forward.

(And if you find that you’re sort of kind of done with Nano at this point but still committed to writing, might I suggest you take a look at the NaNoWriMo StoryBundle. There may just be a book in there that speaks to you…)

Time to NaNo

And I have to say that Patricia C. Wrede’s post for the day, Looking for Perfection, is a must-read for any writer really, but especially anyone doing NaNo who isn’t quite sure of the ground under their feet.

Remember, with writing, there are no wasted words or bad directions, there’s just learning what works and what doesn’t and constantly improving one little step at a time.

(And, since it is the start of NaNo and you just knew I had to do it, a little reminder that the NaNoWriMo StoryBundle is still available and full of lots of wonderful writerly advice, some that will work for you and some that might not, but all of it worth considering.)