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!