So December marks one full year since I decided to go all-in on becoming a true indie writer. What does this mean? It means prior to December of last year, I was still trying to go about writing in the old traditional way, meaning I wrote about a book a year and I submitted queries to agents and editors.
Oh, I’d dipped my toes into the indie world. I discovered promo sites (they send you daily emails with deals for cheap or free ebooks, based on what genres you told them you liked) and ran quite a few ads in them. The results were not awe-inspiring.
The Kboards freakouts
I’d also spent some time on Kboards, reading what other indies had to say about the business. But most every time I did I came away depressed and confused. Confused because there was so much information on so many subjects that had nothing to do with actual writing. Things like algorithms and email list building, newsletter swaps and new book launch strategies. It was so overwhelming that I usually gave up pretty quickly, threw up my hands and closed the tab on my computer.
The thing I saw over and over on Kboards, the thing that upset me the most, was successful indie authors saying how important it was to write faster. Most seemed to agree that an indie had to turn out at least three books a year in order to break through, and some spoke of writing a book a month. I learned this craft in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when we were told that a book took at least a year and that we needed to revise and revise and revise until our fingers bled. (Okay, minor exaggeration, but you get the point.)
And here were all these people telling me I had to at least triple my speed! Not only did I not think it possible, but I was certain that to do so would lead to turning out nothing but crap books. Which, as a true artiste, I was determined never to do. Better to hang up my keyboard than sell out!
Getting nowhere fast
But by December of last year it was clear I wasn’t getting anywhere with my old beliefs. In 2016 alone I sent out 60 or 70 queries to agents and publishers, all of whom said on their websites they were looking for new authors. Most never even responded.
As I mentioned before, I did some promos, but I lost money on every single one and as soon as they ended, the sales did too.
I finally had to accept what was staring me right in the face: either try something different, or go back to my day job (teaching HS English). And I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to give up on my lifelong dream. I was actually desperate enough to try anything.
Which is what I’ve spent the last year doing. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned so far…
I’m capable of much more than I thought I was.
I’d never written more than about 150,000 words of finished copy in a year before. (That’s roughly a 400-450 page book.) This year I cranked out six books, or nearly 600,000 words. I never ever dreamed I could do such a thing. Sure, by October I was pretty horribly burned out and so I slowed way down and “only” turned out an 80,000 word book between then and the end of the year. But I did it. I proved to myself it was possible.
How did I do it? I set word goals for the weeks. It was 10k per week at first, but then I upped it to 20k. I put my butt in the chair and I wrote. I did writing sprints with a fellow author on Chatzy and we cheered each other on. I overlapped the books, so that as soon as I finished the rough draft of one, I’d start the next while at the same time revising the first. (Which made my eyes cross.)
I lived in the worlds I was creating, always thinking of what was going to happen next even when I wasn’t “working.” Mostly I plain old dedicated myself to it. I took it one day at a time. I kept telling myself: All I need to do is get my 4k words today. Let tomorrow take care of itself.
Knowing that I have tendencies toward obsessiveness and workaholism, I also set a firm rule: Once I had my 20k for the week, it was time to stop. No work until the next week. That helped a lot.
This is a business.
I still cringe when I write that, but it’s getting less painful. I respect and admire those authors who write what they want to write, market be damned, and who are willing to spend as long as it takes to get the book down just write. But I want to make a living and it’s nearly impossible to do so on that path. If you want to be an indie author, and make a living at it, you have to treat it like a business.
Which means that in addition to being a writer, you are a businessperson. As a businessperson, you have to recognize that your books, your precious darling children that you love so much (and I do love mine), are products. As products, they need to be packaged properly, priced correctly, and marketed.
I’ve learned the necessity of getting, not just good covers, but covers that fit the genre. I’ve learned about writing to market, which means figuring out what genre I’m going to write in, then doing my research in that genre. What is selling in that genre? How much is it selling for? How long should it be? What are readers looking for? (Still learning in all these things btw. Probably I always will be.)
Can I just say here that I really kind of hate marketing? Because I really do. But you know what? You can have the best product in the world and if no one knows about it, it ain’t gonna sell. No how. No way. No, sir. (Yes, there are unicorns, outliers whose books blow up and go viral for whatever reason, but they’re called outliers for a reason. They’re damned rare and basing your business plan on hoping that you’re one? Not a good idea.)
I can sell books
In 2016 I sold 1220 books, mostly at 99 cents each, and had 51,198 page reads (if you make your book exclusive to Amazon and enter it in their Select program, people who have Kindle Unlimited can download you book for free and read it. You get paid by the page, something like 4/10ths of a cent.) Now, those numbers aren’t bad when compared to selling nothing, which is what I was doing as a traditionally-published author. But they only netted me about a thousand bucks and I spent several times that on promos at least. Clearly I wasn’t going anywhere but down that way.
This year I’ve sold 7180 books and had 1,689,934 page reads. It’s still a long ways from making a living, but it’s a good jump and it proves I’m not completely wasting my time. I suppose it also proves that there are people out there who like my stories. Which is pretty darned cool in my world. It wasn’t that long ago when I was happy to find one friend who’d read one of my books. Now complete strangers do. Who knew?
Achieving my dream won’t, by itself, make me happy
Okay, that plain old sounds depressing. Let me clarify it a bit.
Being an author is a long-term dream of mine. Like, over thirty years now. And, as I suppose is true with all dreams, it’s always had around it a sort of warm, fuzzy, angelic glow. A sense that if I actually made it there, if I actually became a real author, things would just sort of magically become better. I’d live happily ever after.
Sorry, but it isn’t true.
The truth is that even a dream job is still often just a job, with bad days and extraordinarily sucky days. Writing is a very isolated enterprise and thus can get really lonely. I don’t get to go to happy hour with my co-workers and blow off steam. My back gets sore from all this sitting. I spend too much time in my own head. Blah, blah, blah.
The point is, that no matter how many books I sell, I’ll still be me. I’ll still struggle with the same fears I’ve always struggled with. I’ll have days when the world looks pretty bleak, days when I want to chuck it all and run away from home.
I mean, people have read over one-and-a-half MILLION pages of my books this year (along with however many pages were read in the 7k books I’ve sold). I know that’s not a lot to an established author, but to me that’s a boatload. Heck, even a crapload. It’s way more than I ever dreamed of. I want to pinch myself right now.
But you know what? All those pages don’t really mean anything. They don’t really change anything. I guess what I’m trying to say is, by all means, chase your dreams. But don’t think catching them will make your life a fairy tale. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s true. And I believe that knowing that will help in the long run. Because let’s face it, achieving something you’ve always dreamed of and then still not being happy can really wreck your day. I mean, what’s left to strive for then?
What about the future?
One thing I really learned this year is that I can’t really maintain this pace. I’m sure there are writers who can crank out 600k words a year and do it indefinitely, but I don’t think I can. More importantly, I don’t want to. I think it will inevitably suck the joy out of writing for me and I made a promise to myself, lo those many years ago when I was taking my first Creative Writing classes at the university: I’m doing this because I love it. The moment I start to hate it, I quit. Writing is precious to me. I won’t destroy it, not for all the money and recognition in the world.
I’ve read some things recently that got me thinking. It seems to me that a great many indie authors have learned to view their work as something akin to factory production. A factory produces products quickly and those products are more or less interchangeable. They’re doing this because they believe they have to. People have lots of choices when it comes to entertainment, and if you don’t keep feeding them new products quickly, they’ll forget all about you.
I have a couple of problems with this. For one, I don’t believe it’s sustainable. It grinds you down and in a few years most people are going to burn out. For another, I think that the problem is baked into the method. Let me explain.
If I treat my books like factory commodities, then that’s what they’ll be. Fun and entertaining hopefully, but ultimately forgettable. Being forgettable (because that’s what commodities are, right?), if I don’t keep ‘em coming every couple months, I’ll lose my audience. You see? They’re forgettable precisely because I’m making them that way in my desperation to not lose my audience.
But what if I look at this a different way? What’s the opposite of mass-produced factory goods? High quality, handmade goods. Artisanal goods.
I know, I just said up above that you can’t make it as an indie by writing a book a year, that you have to turn them out faster. But what if there’s a place in between?
What I’m planning on doing is slowing down somewhat, but still working faster than the old way. I mean, surely three quality books a year is enough to keep the readers happy? Maybe it’s not a book every other month, but it’s still fast enough that hopefully my readers won’t have completely forgotten who I am by the time the next one comes out.
And yet slow enough that Eric doesn’t go crazy and can have a normal life and still enjoy writing.
Will it work?
Who knows? Heck, I only know enough to know I don’t really know anything. I guess I’ll find out. Probably by the end of next year I’ll look back and go, jeez, were you ever naïve, Eric. What a country bumpkin.
Well, I’ve rambled on long enough. If you made it this far, thanks. I hope some of it was interesting or useful to you. Drop me a note if you have any questions or you want to doubt my general intelligence.
Have a wonderful, peaceful 2018, everybody!
I first read Ace Lonewolf. I loved it! I’ve read most everything you have written. I love Tales from the Ranch. I’ve even looked up the ranch. After reading about you I have felt a connection. I too grew up with an immune disorder, get infusions, lived in the SW around Mescalero Tribe. Hippie days, what can I say. My father was very stern, a yeller etc.
I respect anyone whom is able to stick to their values. Good self awareness shows you have put in the work to do that. My point; as an avid reader I will be understanding and patient. I certainly will not forget you. Do what’s right for you and respect your craft and readers. I hope this works out for you and your family and that you do make a living writing.
HAPPY NEW YEAR,
Thank you for your wonderful reply, Joy. It means so much to me. I’m glad you enjoyed the Tales from the Ranch. There will be more of them someday, I promise.
Onward to the new year and all that it holds!
will be interesting to see what other styles you’ll experiment with… i enjoy writing myself; Eastern style poetry and free-verse are my favorites…i also have other things that i’ve written, altered, expanded and added to over time in my attempt at world building… not that it makes a lot of sense to anyone else being very Pythonesque in the logic department… i read so many things on so many topics that it all gets scrambled in my brain and comes out in strange and odd juxtapositions… i also look for patterns in nature and use them in art…have literally thousands of radar images of storms that i’ve saved to use as the basis of land forms on maps…cracks in pavement easily translate into rivers or major tributaries…also have interests in constructed languages…can speak a little Cherokee and do know a bit of Braille (grade one and two (which uses contractions for spelling (although i’m pretty rusty on that one) …
Fascinating, Scott. I too feel like I see patterns and make jumps that logically don’t really seem to fit.
This is an excellent post, Eric. We’re on the same path. I got as far as getting an A-List literary agent before deciding to go indie in 2015, and since then I’ve been making the same realizations as you, learning the hard way (also the only way).
Cheers to a happy & productive 2018 for us both. -P.K.
Thank you, PK. Best of luck in your writing career!
Regarding: “Achieving my dream won’t, by itself, make me happy.”
My thought is that WORKING toward one’s dream, by itself, will make you happier. Reaching your dream may not look the same in real life as it did on paper, but that’s probably for the best. Maybe for the better.
Yes! Well said. It’s important to enjoy the journey.
Hi Eric, I purchased your Lone Wolf Howl series, but admit I’m still to read them. They’re on my TBR for this year. Anyway, I wanted to highlight that even though I haven’t read them, when I got the usual email from Kindle showcasing books that are recommended for me, I saw your book Wreckers Gate. What drew me in was your name. I saw it and recognised it as the author I had purchased books on last year and so instead of deleting the kindle email, like I often do, I clicked on the link for your book. I can see that I should probably get the Chaos and Retribution series first, but these two series have now been added to my wish list to buy. I think putting out quality work is more important than quantity work.
Thank you. And I agree with you, I’d prefer quality over quantity too. Which is why I suppose I’m focusing on it more this year. As for the fantasy, the Immortality and Chaos series actually comes first (Chaos and Retribution still has 3 books to go too). You can read them in any order, but probably best to read I&C first.
Nice work Eric! I read through both the immortality and the retribution series in two weeks. Looking forward to the conclusion!
Thanks, Adam. I’m working hard on book 4 and getting close to finishing it. That just leaves 5 and 6 and the series is finished!
So, I’ve read your post just now, because your book was in my Amazon recommendation newsletter, then I looked you up on goodreads which eventually led me to this blog post which is quite nice…
Anyway, to the point: Whether or not is the tendency to write at such speed necessary will probably depend on the reader. For me, it won’t matter. If a book is good, I’ll wait a year or more for the sequel, because it gives me good chances it’ll be good. These people might not read masses of books each year (or even month), but they will enjoy them and remember them if they had fun. That is just a reader’s perspective, without the insight into visibility as writer…
Also, even if every tenth book that is in my recommendation mails actually catches my interest, my TBR grows faster than I read. Possibly another problem of the tendency to write in masses, being overwhelmed by choices.
Thanks for your feedback, Tomas. I’ve definitely slowed down this year. I’m trying to find the middle ground, where I don’t kill myself but people don’t die waiting for the next book.
I’m an aspiring indie writer (as is my husband, I actually read him your blog post out loud) and I wanted to tell you how much we appreciated this post. I’m really impressed by your dedication to your writing and I think that you have a really bright future as a successful indie author. Your covers are kickass and we’re both looking forward to reading your latest series. I have been meticulously studying the market for indie writers in a variety of genres and doing a ton of research over the past several months and one thing about your launch/marketing/promo strategy jumped out at me as a potential area for consideration as you go forward with your 2018 writing plans. That is, I think you are releasing your series books way too close together. While you are absolutely right that there is much discussion on Kboards and elsewhere about writing fast and releasing one book a month (and there are many, many prolific authors in the indie world), for genres like fantasy, readers are not quite as voracious as romance readers, so they need a little time in between books to absorb the material. Probably at least 30 days, and possibly longer. If you flood the market with all of your titles in the span of two months you’re not giving each book a chance to climb to the peak of its popularity. And you also potentially miss out on the opportunity to promo each title with a specific marketing strategy. I can’t speak from personal experience, so please take my comment with a grain of salt, but I genuinely want to see you achieve your dream of being able to make a living from your writing without burning yourself out or feeling like you have to chase a business model that doesn’t work for your lifestyle. Good luck!
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Cara. I hope some of what I’ve gone thru can help you both in some small way. I will keep your comments in mind during the next launch. Who knows what will end up actually happening? It’s a constantly evolving marketplace, after all. Best of luck with your writing!