This is what the last year of my Indie labor has looked like.
I wanted to write this blog post last year, since my official One Year Indie Anniversary was August 3rd, but I was finishing Covenant, my ninth Indie book and just didn’t have the mental energy to reflect properly on this past year.
As many of you know, I was very transparent in the first few months of my Indie journey, providing you with numbers and sales figures and even earnings. I felt obligated to be forthcoming because so many Indie authors had done it before me, and their stories were a big part of why I ultimately decided to take the plunge. As the months have worn on, I’ve been able to update you less often (I also had a YA book release with HarperCollins in May which took some of my focus and energy), but I wanted to do one last roundup that I hope will give you a sense of how much things have changed for me because I took that chance a year ago, and also a sense of where it will lead me next.
The first thing I’ll touch on is money, because I know that’s a huge question for a lot of people considering an Indie writing career, and especially for those thinking about moving from Trad to Indie, or thinking about going Hybrid. I’m not going to be as specific as I was in the beginning – being that transparent was hard for me even back then. But I will say this; my first series sold to Little Brown in a high six-figure deal, and I have made more this year than I did in the first year of that deal. Context is important. The Little Brown deal was for three books, which means that total amount was paid out over about five years. It was still more money that first year than I had ever made to that date – and I still made more this year on my Indie books alone.
But here’s another important thing; there are no guarantees. I’ve been so, so lucky on so many levels. I have a great cover designer who created striking, iconic covers for my series. I had a little bit of money to hire Authorbuzz, which did an amazing job creating and targeting Facebook ads that were absolutely key to the early success of Ruthless, which then made subsequent books that much more successful. I had some friends on the Indie side who gave me so much advice and support, and who talked me through a lot of ugly self-doubt and technical screw ups. I had a little bit of money left from my last traditional book deal, which helped me survive until my Indie stuff started paying. I also created a twist on the Mob subgenre that resonated, which was probably pure luck.
All of those things came together to give me a great out-of-the-gate boost, and I feel its important to say that it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve had friends go Indie since then that have done amazingly well, and others that have been frustrated by what they see as an underwhelming showing (thankfully many of my talented friends are still at it, writing new stories and trying new things). The good news is, at least some of this is in your control when you’re Indie (covers, marketing, etc.), something that is usually not the case on the traditional publishing side.
In addition to writing all those books you see above, in the past year I’ve created a social media presence for my alter ego, Michelle St. James, and also a dedicated website. I went to Romantic Times in Las Vegas and learned a ton, plus made new friends. I was asked to participate as a Discovery Author in a new initiative by the publishers of the 1001 Dark Nights series. I’ve read more romance novels than I can count, and have continued reading the literary fiction and thrillers that have always been beloved to me, assuming it all goes to my writing style in the end. I’ve created an adult romance brand that makes sense and feels natural for me, making it easier for me to maintain because it’s an accurate reflection of who I am.
Following are some other things I learned.
You can’t count on any kind of consistency. Fall and Winter (2015-2016) were HUGE for me. I was making stupid amounts of money. But in April things really started to slow down, and they remained slow through summer (most of those months were about 25% slower than during my really solid months in Fall and Winter). I am REALLY glad I set asidemoney when things were good. It helped a lot with quarterly taxes and unexpected expenses during the slow months. It’s September, and I have no way of knowing if I’ll have another good Fall or if it will remain slow. I have no idea if it does remain slow whether that will be a reflection of the books I’ve most recently released, bigger issues related to the economy, or something related to the market itself, either temporary or permanent. So I guess the lesson here is to take nothing for granted. If you have a great month, set a chunk of it aside for a rainy day.
Ads are also ever-changing. One ad might resonate amazingly well, helping you sell hundreds of books a day for months at a time. Another ad that is very similar, that you like just as much, for some reason might not resonate. Audience matters, too. One target audience might see very little click-through. A very similar audience might give you huge results. Sometimes an ad will perform well for months. I had an ad for Ruthless that ran for over three months, and I was selling hundreds of books a day during that time. It was awesome. During that time, I didn’t have to think about the ad at all. But when the ad went stale and I replaced it, the new ad didn’t perform as well, and we could never really put a finger on why. Ads require a lot of trial and error, which is why I’m still using AuthorBuzz to manage mine. Frankly, my time is better spent writing at this point. None of which should discourage you from Facebook/Instagram ads. Without my ads, I’d see very little traffic. But expect that they will require some time, energy, and a good dose of patience on an ongoing basis.
Graphics are important. You will probably use a lot of them. I’m lucky to have my daughter’s company, Rebekah Zink Media, on retainer. She keeps me in tons of striking teaser and ad graphics, hunts through photo sites for pictures that will meet Facebook’s ad guidelines, and comes up with snappy tag lines for each book. Ideally, you know Photoshop or something like it, or you can work out some kind of arrangement with someone who does. Facebook’s guidelines for ads are all over the place, but in general anything that has naked people or is overly suggestive will be rejected by them – but their definition of these things doesn’t always make sense.
Professional covers are critical. You know how some things just look… amateurish? It’s true of movies and commercials and yes, book covers. I feel bad saying it, because I know it’s so hard to do this on your own, and money is absolutely a consideration. But covers are so, so important. And the #1 important thing, in my opinion, is that they look professional and high end. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you’re better off purchasing a professional-looking, ready-made cover (there are lots of designers and companies who do this) even if it’s not overly original. Anything that looks cheap is not going to compete in the current Indie marketplace. If you don’t want to do a ready-made cover, you can also try bartering services with someone who has great Photoshop skills.
Editing. Oh, boy do I hate this one. It’s been a challenge for me since day one, mostly because my release schedule was necessarily aggressive. Let’s just say I now understand why traditional publishers have layer upon layer of editing. I’m finally at a place where my release schedule is slightly less difficult, but even with more time and a great editor, occasionally things slip through the cracks, and I never stop hating it when they do. I’m still trying to find a system that works for me (two proofreaders? one copy editor and two proofreaders?), but I’ve reached a point where my one proofreader does a pretty thorough job as long as I can give him enough time.
Which brings me to release schedule. I purposefully released my first three-book series a month apart, and my second three-book series two months apart, plus a stand alone and a novella in between because I was trying to build my catalog quickly. I’m pushing now to release my next three book series six weeks apart in order to meet my marketing goals for the busy Christmas season, but next year I’m planning to move to a three or four month schedule for my new series. Now that I have a solid catalog and my financial situation is stable, having a less aggressive release schedule next year will allow me time to work on my YA project, an adult project that’s complete except for edits, and also to have some adventures, which I’ll finally be able to do now that my youngest will be heading to college. I’m not going to lie; the more books you have, the more books you will sell. This is especially true if you include links to your other books, specifically the next book, in the back matter of your existing books. Statistically, a large percentage of people who read one book and enjoy it will click through to buy another book or preorder the next if a link is provided. That’s the funnel that will pull readers through your catalog and keep them reading. My advice is always to release your first 2-3 books quickly (ideally no more than two months apart). After that you can gauge what kind of breathing room you have or don’t have.
Be willing to rethink everything you thought you knew about book marketing. Seriously. I can’t tell you how many giveaways I’ve done over the course of my publishing career. I was once the Queen of Swag, giving away elaborate packages stuffed full of luxury bath products that tied into my book, gourmet food items, custom made jewelry, signed books, and gift cards. I’m not sure any of it moved the needle, and the vast majority of Indie authors I’ve spoken to agree that giveaways just don’t net much in terms of books sold, and they require a lot of time and money to run and manage. Ditto blog tours, which for me just haven’t netted the kind of results that move the needle. As an example, a blog tour for Ruthless was netting me about 10-15 sales a day. Overnight that number jumped to 157 (this was by 8am the next morning). Why? Because my Facebook ad had been approved and was already generating clicks. Now if you want to do them because they’re fun or you’re happy with modest results or you have the time and money and it’s just another thing to add to all the other stuff you’re doing, go right ahead! But for the time I spent generating content for 45 blogs and the money I spent hiring someone to set it up, I saw a thousand times the sales connected to my FB ad. I tried it all on the Indie side only to work my way back to the fact that it really wasn’t necessary, and the one thing I could do that would definitely sell more books is to write more of them. For a long time I felt… lazy. Like, “Shouldn’t I be doing, I don’t know… MORE?” But one of the things I love most about the Indie romance market is that I don’t feel like I have to jump through hoops to sell books. My readers are SO lovely and SO loyal. They don’t need giveaways or anything else. They are happy to have a new book from me, and to interface with me a bit on Facebook. As long as I have a good ad running, I can focus on writing, and that’s still my favorite part of the process. THAT’S the “more” that I want to be doing, and in many ways, it’s a lot less than the marketing I was required to do on the traditional side.
All that said, a mailing/newsletter list is one of the few things that WORK. They are worth the time and effort, and even some money to run ads if you can find a good ad/audience, because they connect you directly to your readers. No one can stand between you and your mailing list. It is a direct line to the people buying your books. You can run polls through them to gather data on trends and reading habits, and you can even distribute ARCs as a way to build buzz and reviews by providing a link to a a free copy through a service like Instafreebie. I’m still working on making my newsletter regular, and I could KICK myself for all the years when I was traditionally published and didn’t actively work to build my list. Look at it this way, if statistically even 10% of your list buys a book when you send out an announcement and you have 25,000 people signed up, that’s A LOT of books just from your mailing list, and you can even have a Sign Up button link to it from your Facebook Page. It does take some time, but once you set it up and establish a template (I use Mailchimp but there are a lot of other services out there), it’s pretty easy to distribute something short once a week. Improving my mailing list (and my own track record getting it our regularly) is my number one marketing goal over this next year.
There is a learning curve. And a time curve as well. That is to say if you want to do well, you will spend a lot of time the first few months (and maybe the first year). You will spend time reading marketing blogs and Facebook threads about marketing and ad management, You will spend time reading a wide array of romance novels to get a handle on what’s out there. You will spend time looking for pictures for ads (unless you have someone else do this for you). You will spend a lot of time writing. You will spend a lot of time getting a handle on Amazon’s KDP platform, Apple’s iBooks platform, B&N’s Nook, Kobo, etc. You will spend time learning to format (easy with Vellum!) or hiring someone else to do it for you. None of which is said to deter you. More to prepare you. I came back from BEA in 2015 fired up to tackle the Indie side of publishing. I didn’t know if it would work, but I was READY to try, and I leaned in extremely hard a good six months before I started to feel a bit of relief, but during that first six months, I was determined not to feel sorry for myself. This was something I wanted to do, and I knew that to be good at it I would need to do my homework and my due diligence. As with everything in my life, my goal was to make sure that if it didn’t work out, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Sometimes when I tell people how many books I’ve written in the past year and how many I still have to write this year, I can tell they think I’m crazy. Or miserable. Or both. Neither is true. I’m more relaxed than I’ve been in a long time, owing both to the financial relief of being paid regularly and to the fact that I’ve found a system that allows me to write for an hour or two most days and still write a book a month. It started with the book 5,000 Words Per Hour, which some of you might remember my mentioning in an earlier blog post. The idea behind it is that you set a timer and write like the wind – no going back, no fixing typos, no stopping for the bathroom, water, research, etc. You just write. According to the authors, this method increased speed exponentially while also allowing for a kind of stream of consciousness flow that actually resulted in better work. I tried this for awhile and came to the conclusion that adhering to their parameters exactly didn’t work for me. Not fixing typos made me crazy, and sometimes I needed to stop and ponder for a minute to make sure I was heading in the right direction and avoid wasting time building on something that wasn’t fundamentally sound. But the idea had merit, and now I use a hybrid theirs/mine model: make sure I have a one or two sentence idea of what the next chapter or scene entails, set the timer (there’s a free app that tracks words per hour but any timer will do), write until the time is up. I do stop to fix typos if I notice them, and I do stop to think about something if I’m not sure I’m headed in the right direction. But if I need a location or a name I haven’t thought of yet, or I’ve blanked on the year of a famous event, I write BLANK in caps so I can go back and fill it in later. If I think of something I already know I want to fix, I add it to a running list of things to address in edits. I do this until I reach the midpoint of my book, at which time I go back and carefully read through, fixing and tightening and adjusting to make sure that first half is solid as a rock before I build on it with the second half. Then I continue. This process allows me to write a standard romance-length novel of about 60,000 words in a month. I’m writing about 2,000 words an hour, and that’s what I aim for every day, splitting that hour into two 30-minute sprints or one 40-minute and one 20-minute sprint or whatever. That means I write for about an hour a day and still finish a book a month. Of course, there is more time spent plotting and researching and marketing and such, but my actual writing time is an hour a day, which I think is perfectly reasonable. It keeps me in the writing groove and prevents me from feeling too stressed. Most importantly, it allows me to feel in control of my time and my schedule, and still leaves me time to work on other projects, go to the gym five days a week, meditate, go to movies with my kids, read, etc.
In 2017 I’m planning to put out three new romance novels, get my other books on audio, pass a YA book onto one agent and an adult book onto another, walk the Camino with my kids, and either move to the city (NYC) or travel once my youngest goes to college. I’m beyond thrilled that I get to keep writing stories I love, that I have the privilege of meeting new readers from all over the world, and that I have a solid, independent income that allows me to work anywhere in the world. This past year has been a great adventure. I wish you many of your own. And I hope the universe keeps mine coming.
You can find me as Michelle Zink and/or Michelle St. James on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and you can find all my adult books on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo.