I’m hip-deep in producing the videos for the Excel for Self-Publishers video course. (Two and a half hours of video done, probably half an hour worth to go. Woot!) And it has me thinking about competition a lot. Partially because it’s such a business-focused class/book.

When I first started self-publishing, the indie mantra was “we’re all in this together”. And everyone talked about sharing everything and how there was room for everyone. People were encouraged to self-publish and you’d see authors openly share the genres where they were finding success. It was an all-for-one environment.

I’ve seen it on the trade publishing side, too. This idea that there’s room for everyone. That authors don’t compete with one another. That we’re all just one big happy family of writers who will conquer the world together.

Now, you may have noticed that I’m a bit of a cynic. If you hadn’t, I am.

So this message never sat well with me.

(One of the lessons I learned in business school was that there are some people out there who’d stab their own mother in the back to get ahead and they won’t hesitate to lie, manipulate, or cheat to get what they want. Not taught in class, by the way. More a matter of observation and listening to what some people chose to brag about. Suffice it to say, I have some classmates I would never, ever do business with.)

Anyway. Over the years I have tried to reconcile this message of “help everyone and we’ll be better off” and the fact that we don’t live in a limitless world.

And here’s where I’ve come out on this whole issue:

When it comes to growing a genre so that it’s recognizable and people can ask for it by name, we’re in this together.

When it comes to growing a sales platform so that readers go to that platform to find a new book, we’re also in this together.

By working together to drive discoverability of what we write and where it can be found, we all benefit. When people read a Twilight or a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games or a 50 Shades and want more, all authors who write that type of book benefit from that new reader hunger.

Anything that expands the potential number of readers is good for all of us. And so early on having quality writers self-publish and raise the respectability of self-publishing benefited all self-publishers.


There are only so many spots at the top of the lists. And there are only so many hours a reader has to devote to reading per day. And only so many dollars they have to spend on new books.

And there are only so many advertising slots available. We’d all love a Bookbub on all of our titles, but that’s not an option. They only have so many spaces available to run ads and more than enough books to choose from.

And with pay-per-click advertising (like AMS), the more people who are using them, the more it costs everyone to use them.

So it’s sort of a love-hate thing.

We need our fellow authors to keep readers engaged with books as a form of entertainment between our own releases. No one author (unless they’re insanely prolific) can meet the reading needs of their readers. And it’s in all of our interests for people to read instead of turn to tv shows or movies or laser tag or what have you.

But when there is enough product out there to keep readers engaged, and I’d argue there is, then we all start competing with one another for what is now a limited resource — reader time and money, as well as visibility.

(And if that competition then leads to people releasing subpar product or taking shortcuts that damage the reader experience…well, that damages us all, too, right? Readers throw up their hands in disgust and either go re-read their favorites or turn to tv and movies for their fix.)

Anyway. A few thoughts for a Friday afternoon, partially based on something I see going down right now but don’t want to post about, because, ya know.

Time to get back to producing a product only about a dozen people will want. Because that’s how I roll…



What Makes A Story Well-Written?

Over on Twitter someone mentioned that they were starting to “read” (audio version), Nora Robert’s Year One and that reminded me that I’ve been trying to decipher for myself what makes a book well-written.

I normally try not to call out specific books, but that one represents for me exactly the conundrum that this question brings up.

My mother is a huge Nora Roberts fan. She’s currently re-reading all thirty-plus JD Robb books and routinely rereads her Nora Roberts romances. So she loves this woman and her writing in whatever form it takes.

But she was disappointed in Year One.

And I think the reasons why highlight something that I’ve been trying to sort through for myself as a writer.

I think there are two types of good writing. There’s writing that pulls you from page to page through a story. It’s something in that particular writer’s word choice and sentence structure and description and dialogue that keeps you reading. For my mother, Year One had that. She finished the book in two days even though she didn’t really like it.

I did, too.

There’s something about how Nora Roberts writes a story that is easy and enjoyable. Whatever this combination is (and I think it’s unique for each writer that has this skill), it makes reading a pleasurable experience.

But that kind of good writing isn’t guaranteed to make a book an enjoyable read that you want to recommend to others or read again. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have that satisfied feeling that the best books give.

SPOILER ALERT:In this case, part of the issue was that this book isn’t a romance but it also doesn’t do well as what it is. There’s a couple at the beginning of the book and by the end of the book one of those two is dead and the other person is with someone new. And the story is not about moving from that first relationship to a better one. So not a romance. Also, it starts as multiple viewpoint so you’re led to care about numerous people, but then the book skips over a significant part of their personal journeys and ends with us not knowing what happened to all but one character. And not in a cliff-hanger way. In a “the last 100 pages are about one person only and who cares what happened to all those others when they were all attacked” way.

So I keep asking myself what it was this book was missing. Because I read it. Cover to cover in two days. I didn’t set it aside.

It was well-written, but I think perhaps not well-told.

And I think that a truly great story is both. It has writing that engages the reader but it also has believable characters and good conflict and it keeps all the story lines gathered together and resolves all of them in a satisfying manner. There aren’t incongruent scenes. (A problem I had with book 2 by a different author recently.) And you see the key parts on the page. (I happened to think the last Brad Thor book was one of the better ones he’d written recently until the last twenty pages or so when it skipped ahead a couple weeks and summarized how things ended. Like, what? That takes all the satisfaction away, thanks.)

I don’t think there’s one formula here. I can think of a dozen authors I think write well and can carry any story and they’re all different in how they do that. And I can think of another handful who don’t write so well but tell a story so riveting that you just have to keep going.

As a reader my personal dread is the person who writes well but tells horrible stories because I’ll keep reading even as I hate them for making me do so. It’s terrible to want to throw a book away but be drawn forward by the writing. I’d far rather read a good story with messy writing than an awful story with good writing.

Anyway. It’s something I think about and try to learn from although I clearly haven’t puzzled it all out just yet.

Playing 3D Chess While Juggling Chainsaws

I was trying to think of a good analogy for what self-publishing feels like to me and that’s what I came up with. It’s like trying to play three-dimensional chess while simultaneously juggling chainsaws.

I suspect that’s not the case for every author. If you write under one pen name and in one series, it’s probably much more straight forward. But I currently have seven active pen names and multiple lines under some of those. For example, M.L. Humphrey has the Excel books, but also books on Word, self-publishing, writing in general, and personal finances.

Thanks to AMS ads, I can keep most of those moving at least a bit every day once a title is published.

But where to focus efforts and energy is where it gets interesting. Write another fantasy series because I’m pretty sure I’ll need twelve novels before I can really judge how that pen name will do long-term? Write another romance novel because just two romance novels under that one name have done well for me and another might cause another leap upward in terms of sales? Find a way to expand on the non-fiction titles? Master Google AdWords so I can find a steady way to promote my books on non-Amazon platforms?

There’s just me and just so many hours in the day. I have to pick one and do it.

And I’m not operating in a vacuum here. Every other self-publisher is making their own choices right now. Choices that will impact me. So are traditional publishers. And other entertainment providers. And the government. And social media platforms. And consumers for that matter.

All of it has an impact. For some of it there’s nothing to be done. Not yet. I either can’t see it or can’t do anything to change it or react to it.

And for the rest of it, even if there is something that can be done, the better answer is probably “produce more content regardless of what that content is.” Because without product to sell it really doesn’t matter what the market is doing or what the competition is doing.

Which is why I should stop writing this post and starting working on the next thing. (Whatever that’s going to be, which is the problem after all…)

Giving Advice

This week I had a friend of a friend who’s a new author reach out for some writing advice. And of course there are always folks finding their way to the various forums who want advice as well.

And it’s tricky.

Because I’ve found my path and how I want to approach this. (Subject to change, of course.) But it isn’t how I started out and I don’t know that telling someone to do things the way I do them is necessarily appropriate.

Especially since this industry is changing so much and so fast.

For example, one of the folks who was looking for advice on self-publishing was looking for advice on how to get their first novel into print. Now, I could have a lengthy discussion with that person about whether print is the best choice. And point out to them that a large majority of their sales will (likely) be in ebook if they self-publish and talk about how once you put that book out in print that listing will be on Amazon probably longer than they’re alive and that maybe that’s something worth considering when you’re new and not yet good at figuring out your book’s title and cover, etc. and are probably going to publish it under your real name.


I could just point them to CreateSpace instead of having them pay a few grand for something that should cost less than $500 and could actually be done for free if they want to put in the effort.

If that’s all that person wants–to see their book in print–who am I to try to turn them into a full-blown self-publishing business looking to make a profit? Will they later start to learn more about self-publishing? Maybe. Or maybe all they ever wanted was physical copies of their book to give to friends and family.

So be it.

Same with the newer writer who approached me. Right now that writer wants to go the trade publishing route. So I told them how to do it and that money should flow to the writer in that case. Could I have launched into a lengthy discussion about contract terms from the Big 5 and agent pitfalls, etc, etc.? And maybe even suggested that self-publishing was the better option for that novel given what they’d told me about it?


But that’s not where that author is mentally. And I don’t think it’s my place to drag them down that path. Hopefully they’ll learn and either adapt to fit into the path they do want to take or choose a different path, one better suited to what they’ve already written. That’s up to them, not me. All I can do is give them that starter bit of knowledge that will let them decide.

Or so I think.

Hopefully I’m right.


Make The Voices Stop!

I’m 15,000 words into the first novel of a new series and I’ve hit that point in the writing process where the story is starting to take shape, which also means that point in the process where all of the outside voices start clamoring for attention.

Like the one that says that standard Medieval European fantasy settings are so knee-jerk easy to use and cliched and why would you use that when you have your entire imagination to work with.

Or the one that says you can’t possibly sell that series as a fantasy romance if both of the love interests are going to die in the end, even if the main character does in fact love both of them and struggle around finding happiness with them.

Or the one that says if you’re going to use that legend as the jumping off point for this series then you need to be true to x, y, and z portions of that legend or the readers will hate you forever.

There are other voices, too. Those three are just the loudest today. With each novel I find I have to go through this at some point. I usually take a few days, consider what those voices have to say, and maybe adjust course slightly (like having this series be inspired by that legend but not using those actual names or places). But at the end of the day I have to write the story that works for me. Because if I keep listening to all the voices I’ll never get the words down on the page and certainly never publish them once they’re there.

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.