Exhaustion and Elation - My Self Publishing Adventure

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TStarnes

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In one of the earlier self-publishing threads, someone suggested I post up about how I went about self-publishing, since I think I might do it differently than some of the others who self-publish and I'm somewhat successful at it (as in, I'm almost to the point of supporting myself full time writing). I've been hesitating about doing that, since I'm about to come out with book number fifteen and I'm not sure how to go about walking anyone through how I've gotten to here and how I do things.

Seeing Patty's thread about her Self-Publishing, I liked how she set things up and thought that might be a better way to do this.

So some setup. (this is going to be super long .... and I'm sorry about that)

I started writing in 2015 and published my first book (that series has been moved to a pen name and buried, because it's trash and I hate everything about it. I really didn't know what I was doing then but I kept them available because some people liked them and wanted to read them on KU). I only sold a little here or there in the beginning, but when I started a thriller series, it got picked up by a reading group and I saw a bunch of sales from it, and some really good feedback. I started writing more because I found it rewarding and I was starting to see a little more traction, and by book 3 (publishing about once a year) I found that I loved it and wanted to really make a go at this.

I went back and had real covers made for the books and had some editing done to make them more professional (they were already out, so this was closer to a final edit/proofread than real edit, but it was a start). Over the next two books in that series, I started working out my process for outlining, working with editors and cover designers and basically figuring out how I wanted to do this. I was still only breaking even on my costs by the sixth book in the series, but I was starting to see how this could all work. The one thing I noticed was that the faster I released, the better my sales were, both off my mailing list (since over time people's emails on the list stop responding) and through other marketing.

I talked to a few people, including a guy who was doing this full time and publishes an insane 1 book a month. I can't keep up with that, but he shared his process with me, basically always having a book in one of the steps of the process, writing multiple books at a time and generally always feeding the machine (he does it by juggling a crazy seven active projects at any given time, again, too much for me).

Starting with book 6 of my thriller series in the beginning of year (2021) I put in my new process, which is as follows:

1) Basic outline using cards.
2) Heavily Outline (my average outline is 30k-40k words). I work the outline to the scene level, working out pacing, character development and story arcs.
3) I have 2 editors who go through the outline and look at the plot, pacing, story arcs, and generally everything else and give me notes on what should change or what they think won't work.
4) Draft 1 (which is closer two draft 2 because I outline and edit the outline. I already know the entire progression of everything in the story before I type the first word of the draft).
5) I put it through 2 other editors, both of whom give me notes. It is rare that the story arcs, plot or character arcs change in these edits (that happens once every 3rd or 4th book, when I actually need to rearrange the plot).
6) Draft 2 using the edits. Mostly it's scene level changes or cuts for pacing.
7) Proofread & correct (I have 3 proofreaders who do passes)
8) Publish

It was slow because I had to get the machine started. This meant writing multiple books simultaneously so I could get them into the various stages of editing. It was tough because my daily word counts were huge (I was averaging 7k a day for almost two months), and it required started additional series, because I need to get one book at least to proofreading before I can start the next book in the series. I'm interested in a bunch of genres so I decided to start a coming of age series and a sci-fi/alt-history/time travel series, and started sketching out some stand alones.

Over the summer I've started getting books released, starting the more books and worked on figuring out advertising and joining some writing groups to help keep me on task. Since then I've launched Election Day (the sixth thriller in my John Taylor series) in May, Playing by Ear (the first of my coming of age series Country Roads) in July, Danger Close (Taylor book seven) in August, and The Sword of Jupiter (first in my sci-fi series, Imperium) at the end of October.

I currently have 4 books stages of work and release days plotted out until April. Extraction (Taylor book 8) which just came out of draft edit and is going into the final draft, Fanfare (Country Roads book 2) is almost done with draft 1 so it can go to editing, The Trumpets of Mars (Imperium book two) which is out of outline edit and just starting first draft, and Going Home (a stand alone) which is in heavy outline and almost ready to go through outline edits. My deadlines are Extraction out by the later half of December, Fanfare out at the beginning of Feb, Trumpets of Jupiter out at the beginning of April and going home out by the end of April or beginning of May.

If I hit deadline on Extraction, that will make 5 books in 2021 and I'd like 8 in 2022. I'll update this thread as I move along in my processes. let me know if you want to see about specifics like costs of advertising, mailing lists, other costs like editing and covers, and earnings or if this isn't helpful at all and if I should stop.
 
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Woollybear

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There are a few other great self publishing threads kicking around this forum. One from Cathleen, a font of SP wisdom, and another ... maybe LJD's? There's a writer who pops in every few months/years with sales reports and updates.
 

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Thank you for doing this! It must have been a lot of work to streamline your process like that.

How do you work with two editors at the same time? Do they work together or do you just mix their feedback?
 

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How do you work with two editors at the same time? Do they work together or do you just mix their feedback?
They don't work together. On both the outline edit and the draft edits, I take all of the feedback, merge it into a master document (I color code them so I know who recommended what), and make changes from there. Sometimes their changes are not compatible, and I have to look at both and decide which to take (same as when I decide I disagree with their suggested changes and don't do them, although this is much more common in the outline edit than the draft edit). I like seeing different viewpoints, because everyone, even editors trying to be objective, bring their own baggage to a project.

For proofreaders, I work serially. Apply all the proofs and then send it to the next proofreader, trying to weed out all of the errors.
 
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TStarnes

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Since it's the 1st again (or it was yesterday) I wanted to talk about something that a lot of self-published authors don't do ... record keeping.

I spend most of the first day of every month doing bookkeeping for my writing. By this I don't mean accounting (although I do some of that too). I mean keeping track of everything I've done that month. I keep a large spreadsheet going back seven years (since I started selling books) of how much each book made that month, copies sold and most importantly expenses.

I've talked to some SP authors who say "I know what my expenses are," but they basically just look at bank statements or logins for advertising and keep it in their head. This is not a great way to do it. I know we write because we enjoy it, but if you're trying to become a SP author, you have to treat it like a business. You should track everything and know how much a book made that month, that year and over it's lifetime (both gross revenue and your actual profit). A few reasons for this:

1) If you are trying to make this a career, you need to know how much you're actually making and more importantly, if you're actually making money. Ads can eat up a lot of money if your not careful or not have a good enough return on sales, and the only way to know this is to track it. After a while you'll have a ROI that you think is profitable, and you can use this for deciding if you should keep doing that ad or if you should run with that ad service in the future.

2) When it's time to start working on a new series or book, it's important to know if one of the previous was a flop or really underperformed. It could be the book didn't sit with audiences or the marketing was off or that genre or subject just doesn't sell great for you. The longer you have records, the easier it will be to tell which it is.

I'm sure other people have reasons for keeping records on everything or not doing it, but this is how I go about it. Of course, it is disheartening to see your word counts on the first, because this does take up some of the time you could be using to write.
 
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TStarnes

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Preliminary numbers are in for last month, and I'm thrilled with how it turned out.

I've been between 1k and 1,500 books a month since this summer when I started my new method, but I got to 1,993 last month, which is the best I've ever done. I'm tantalizingly close to 2k a month. Since I didn't really start the high volume until this summer, I think I have a good chance to get it in Jan or Feb. I'm not sure about Dec, since I'm only releasing a Taylor book, which is a good series but in a niche that seems to sell a lot less than Romance or Sci-Fi (it can take 6-9 months to break 1k sales on books in this series), although if I can keep my sci-fi book in the top 50 of time travel fiction for another month and have a thriller drop at the same time, I might make it.

I also hit a sales milestone, although it's not finalized yet since KU numbers aren't locked in till after the 15th. I passed 5k sales in Nov, which is the first time I've hit that number and beat the previous month by almost a thousand (of course, that's gross and I had about 1,500 in expenses between editing, cover and advertising expenses).

I also hit 100 reviews on a book for the first time. While I remind my mailing list to review, I don't do advanced copies or anything like that, so most reviews just come in as they do. I've gotten one other book to the 90s, but this is my first one to break 100 reviews.

November was great, now just have to hold those numbers into December. 3 weeks until my next release, so it's doable ... I hope.
 
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Wow, congratulations. This is so interesting. Thanks for sharing all this information!
 
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TStarnes

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Yesterday was all about advertising challenges.

I advertise my books a lot of ways, but most of that is done up front as my book is coming out. The steady day in/day out advertising I do is all on Amazon's ad platform and it's helpful for keeping a steady, although small, flow of new readers. Some pick up more books after the one they saw an ad for and some end up on my mailing list, turning them into a more sure thing and possible source for reviews.

I haven't talked about ad strategy before, so I'll do that first, before I talk about the challenge of advertising during Christmas (that'll be the next post).

I know a lot of people have said they've tried Amazon ads and found they didn't work, and I used to say the same thing until I got some good advice from another author. Yes, it's a lot about finding the right keywords and casting a big net with your keywords, so you can draw in the most people, but what I always found challenging was the cost of it. Ever time I'd test it, I'd end up spending way more than I'd make on the actual book sales.

The key, for me at least, on advertising on Amazon is your bidding strategy. When you see the "recommended ad rates" that Amazon lists, you ahve to remember two things. One, I've seen a lot of data that shows they inflate that by about 10% over what people are are actually bidding. I don't think this is underhanded, since they are saying "this is what you need to bid to get regular clicks" and not "this is a reasonable amount to bid." The second thing is you're often bidding against marketing budgets and people who don't know what their doing. Actual publishers aren't fine tuning their bids. The few things I've seen on the way publishers bid (from sources that seem to be leaked, since it isn't public on their end, but could have been made up, who knows), they aren't being careful with their bids. They have a marketing budget and they just throw money at Amazon to get eyeballs on their authors books. They're not doing testing and balancing of their ad cost. You also have people who don't understand Amazon ads paying way too much so they're raising the cost of clicks on your ads.

My ad strategy is to bit enough to get those few clicks that happen early in the morning or later in the evening, before the more expensive campaigns go live or after they've run through that days budget. It's a balancing act, since you have to watch it to make sure your costs aren't spiking and your not under bidding and not getting any clicks. It's something you need to look at and work on every day, and it's helpful to keep a spreadsheet to know actual cost and sales numbers day by day so you can chart how the changes have affected sales. I know that's not specific, but the key take away here is advertising for cost and not for clicks, if you want to make it work.
 

TStarnes

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Finishing up on the earlier post, one of the problems with advertising at Christmas is that's when a lot of people up how much they pay, or at least that's how it seems from a users end. Take all this as anecdotal, since it's just based on what I see and how I think it's playing out, and not based on any actual knowledge of what others are doing.

Every year around the end of Nov. or the beginning of Dec. ads start trailing off and what I've been paying all year no longer gets the same clicks it used to, and the range of clicks I get on ads happen in smaller windows. I think this is because the big guys up their budgets, so their ads run longer, which forces some of the people smaller than them but larger than me (marketing wise) to up what they pay to keep getting clicks.

Since I still need the sales to keep new readers coming into my orbit, it means I also have to up my spend. In the end over Christmas I sell the same amount of books, but my profit margin goes down, cause I have to spend more on advertising. It also means time has to be spent finding what the balance point is for how much I need to spend to get clicks. Sometimes I turn off adds for one book series or another when that categories costs become too high.

A good way to combat this I've found is to have a December release, since I'll be able to get sales off my my mailing list, which requires no additional spend. It doesn't make up for it, but it's the only way I've found to make up for the higher costs.
 
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TStarnes

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Finished the final draft of my next book, Extraction, which is book #8 in my John Taylor series (It's a suspense/thriller series). Now it's on to the proof reading step. The guys I use are pretty fast, but I go through it sequentially instead of simultaneously like I do with regular editors, which adds to the time a little.

I'm a little torn on when to have this book out. I really want to have it launched this month, to try and get some sells in before the end of the year, but with the proofing, that means it has to come out Christmas day (or just before/after) so I can get a full week of sells in. I've never released on a major holiday before, so I have no idea what this is going to do to sales (This all assumes I can get all the proofing down this week and next week). That also only leaves a half week or so for pre-order period, which is also the shortest I've done for that.

So even though this is the 8th book in the series, this is going to end up being an experiment of sorts.
 

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Thanks so much for sharing, this is super interesting. I think I'd never be able to juggle with so many books at the same time. Did you start this new process (having multiple books in your pipeline) once you were writing full time? Or did you somehow manage to keep a day job and do this?
 

TStarnes

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Thanks so much for sharing, this is super interesting. I think I'd never be able to juggle with so many books at the same time. Did you start this new process (having multiple books in your pipeline) once you were writing full time? Or did you somehow manage to keep a day job and do this?
Well, first I'll say I'm not doing this full time yet. I'm close but right now I still have a day job (along with children, which means weekends are just as busy as days I go to work). I am able to work on writing about 5 hours a day.

The key, for me at least, is organization. From start to finish, one book takes 3 to 6 months to finish, since there are built in times where things have to go back and forth for editing and what not. That time could probably go down to 2 to 4 months if I only worked on 1 book at a time with all the words being written in a day all going to one book. The problem with that is there would be minimum of 2 month gaps and maximum of 4 month gaps between releases, where my current schedule, the gaps between releases is 1 and a half to 2 months between books coming out.

My process change was to accept a slower writing pace for each book (since the 2k to 4k words I write each day are split across 2 to 3 books being written at any given time) but it allows me to fill the gaps where I'm waiting for editors so that something is always progressing and helps on days when I get stuck, I can keep writing while I think on the thing I'm stuck on. This system basically cuts out the down time (it is, however, grueling cause it doesn't work great with time off).

I'll do some posts soon about some of the things I do to keep organized and stay on track with my goals.

(Sorry for any typos. I wrote this on my phone and autocorrect is trying to mess with me)
 

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OK that is truly amazing and very inspiring, thank you! I have kids too and a full time job, trying to write in the evenings, but I'm not always able to, because, let's face it, I find excuses. You inspire me to do better!
 

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OK that is truly amazing and very inspiring, thank you! I have kids too and a full time job, trying to write in the evenings, but I'm not always able to, because, let's face it, I find excuses. You inspire me to do better!
Yep, It's easy to find excuses to keep you from writing. I have some things that help me and I'll put it in that next post too. Of course, in the end it's all about how bad you want to make something work. I force myself to write even on the days I don't want to.

If you want to make writing your career, you have to treat it like a business and not a hobby. I'm not trying to sound preachy, but I treated in like a hobby for several years and only manages to finish 1 book a year at best. More than process, more than writing speed, the thing that matters is how seriously you treat it (unless you do only want it to be a hobby, that is. Then don't burn yourself out)

Edit: I kind of want to delete this post, just because it comes off as really pretentious. I still think it's good advice, but I'm not doing nearly well enough to sound this annoying.
 
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lizmonster

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Edit: I kind of want to delete this post, just because it comes off as really pretentious. I still think it's good advice, but I'm not doing nearly well enough to sound this annoying.

It's your thread, so it's up to you, but I don't think you sound pretentious at all. Publishing is a business, and it can be hard to internalize that when you've been focused most of your life on the "writing as art" side. It's useful, I think, for people to see it stated clearly that writing is one thing, but publishing - especially publishing consistently and continually - is an entirely different thing that requires its own focus.

I'm finding your posts helpful, anyway. :)
 
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mccardey

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Edit: I kind of want to delete this post, just because it comes off as really pretentious. I still think it's good advice, but I'm not doing nearly well enough to sound this annoying.
Don't delete this post. I think it really nails an important point - you don't self-publish because it's easier, or to avoid "gate-keepers" or for any of the spurious reasons that come up so often. You do it because you're capable of both writing and managing the business of publishing. (If you are, that is. I'm emphatically not.)
 

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I'm in agreement with lizmonster and mccardey. It's not pretentious: it's realistic information about the business.
 
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biberli

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Yes, don't delete the post! It doesn't come off as pretentious at all and you're right: if you mean for it to become a reliable revenue source, then you have to treat it as a business. But I'm curious... tell me this: are you still enjoying it as much as back when you were down to 1 book a year? Are you still feeling the thrill? Or on the contrary, is it now even more thrilling because you're earning money from it?
 

TStarnes

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Yes, I do still really enjoy writing. I love seeing where a story is going and hitting those good moments in a book. Is it more frustrating now? Yep. Definitely. I feel stress when I'm behind on word counts and it looks like I'm going to miss a goal. Is it more thrilling to earn money? Yes and no. When a book is doing well, Yea, it really is. When a book starts falling off or doesn't get traction when it comes out though it's really disheartening, so also no.

I Chose Exhaustion and Elation as the name of this thread because those are the two things (along with frustration) that I feel the most about writing and trying to make it work as a career.
 

TStarnes

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Sorry I haven't had time to post anything else in a bit. The holiday season always gets a little crazy.

However, today is launch day.

I get everything set up at least a week before hand, so all my marketing has already kicked in, which means I mostly just sit and obsessively watch the numbers for the first day.

Sadly, this isn't going to be as exciting as other launch days, since it's the 8th book in my John Taylor series, which just doesn't sell as well as either of the other series, and the further into the series it goes, the longer it takes to break the thousand books sold line.
 

TStarnes

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So once again I let my posting fall to the wayside, since I had to just focus on writing. I had a really good first of the year, and it's pushed me to be more productive, but I think I may have gotten to far ahead of myself.

I'd meant to start updating this at the beginning of each month to report on how things are going, how I'm sticking to my goals, and challenges I've faced ... but I haven't done that. So let's get back on track by talking about March.

I am holding to my original goal of releasing 1 book every other month, but it's been a close thing, and I've decided to add a stand-alone book to my already ongoing 3 series. Partially, it's because I had a good idea for a book, but I'm also doing it for a bad reason, marketing.

I only market the first book in a series (if someone wants me to talk more about advertising strategy, let me know), which means even though I have 11 books out, I'm only advertising 3. I'd like to get more advertising going, since just on the books being advertised (and not the rest of the series), it's doing better than break even and a lot of those people end up buying other books. Not a great reason for writing a book, but I do want to be able to advertise 4 books instead of 3, since the 3 series all have a very long way to go before I start new series that I can advertise separately.

Numbers wise, I'm doing great. At the end of last year (when I first started this thread) I was selling about 1,500 books a month. I'm not selling over 2k books a month (with Jan. being the best at 2,513 books) and hitting 5k+ in profit after editing, advertising, and cover art costs. That's an important number, because it's my "quit my day job" number. However, I want to make sure I can hold this, so I'm waiting to see if I can sustain that 5k number long term or not before I do anything drastic.

Last month was an in between month, so I didn't release anything, but I did get something out in Feb and I am getting a book out this month, both second books in my newer series. There have been some challenges, however, with the biggest one being I lost 2 editors.

I'll make a post about it later this week, but finding editors is a lot of work and has really distracted me. I'm also struggling hard with burn out, because I've been pushing myself since last June, and the word counts have gone from needing 2,500 a day on average to 4k a day on average to keep with my publishing schedule, which is starting to be a challenge to hit every day. It is easier on months books come out, because that endorphin rush of seeing sales helps get me re-motivated. It's the in-between release months that I really struggle with.

I've also set a new long term goal for myself. I want to hit 100 active books. Looking at my book sales, I average at least $2 a book every day, even on old books that aren't selling well. At 100 books, if I hold that minimum (which doesn't count new releases, which is the thing that makes most of my money right now), I think I'll be able to slow down some and write for fun instead of with goals in mind (not that writing isn't fun now, but anything with quotas is less fun than it would otherwise be).

Still, March was a good month and I look forward to April. Here's hoping I hold that 5k mark again, cause I'd really like to quit my job.
 

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Fantastic! Six books a year is a hell of a grind, though, so take care of yourself too. I
 
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On Editors

Over the last month, I've been auditioning editors and proofreaders to replace a few I had been using that dropped out. When I mentioned this in my last post, I got several people pointing out editors I should check out (which I appreciate), but it highlights what I wanted to talk about here.

What makes a good editor for you isn't always what makes a good editor for another author, and why you should always audition your editors with a chapter or section of a chapter first. This isn't just to weed out editors that aren't catching mistakes or being thorough, it's to make sure the editor meshes with you.

While most of editing is about catching errors, there is an art to it as well. We all know as writers, word choice is everything, and sometimes editors will suggest changes to a more appropriate word or phrase that, while grammatically a better choice, isn't the right choice for your story. Sometimes, a slightly better phrase might change the emotion you're trying to make the audience feel or not convey subtleties in information the way you want them too.
This is also why you don't just accept edits as they're given, but go through them one by one, to make sure the edits don't change what you're trying to say.

In one sample chapter I had, I chose it specifically because it contained a double-negative on purpose. Sometimes a double negative gives a difference inference on a sentence the writing it the correct way. In this case, the editor tried to change "I didn't not enjoy it" to "I enjoyed it", which convey slightly different information and changed the point I wanted the character to make (since to me, those two phrases impart different levels of a similar sentiment. Saying someone "didn't not enjoy it" means something slightly different than just saying they enjoyed it).

Of course, you can't make your choice on one edit alone, but as a whole, small differences like that tell you if the editor will mesh with your writing style, polishing what you are trying to say rather than changing it outright. In this case, there were enough other small word changes that I disagreed with that I ended up not going with that editor.

TLDR; It's important to find an editor that meshes with your writing style and improves rather than changes your work. It's not all about how good at editing they are, but how good they are for editing your work in specific.
 

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Book Launch Update
Having a bit of a celebration today. The newest book for my sci-fi/time travel/alt-history series came out, and I hit a tone of milestones. #3 in kindle time travel fiction, #8 in overall time travel fiction and #679 in the kindle store as a whole, which was helped by my all time highest pre-orders ever. And, sales continue to come in and it's still climbing.

I'm actually thinking of dropping my thriller series after the next book (or limiting it to 1 book a year) and start working on a second sci-fi series to capitalize on how well stuff is going in that genre.
 
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