It’s hard to believe it’s been five whole years since I first published BEAUTIFUL DEMONS. When I decided to take a chance on self-publishing, I had no idea just how dramatically my life was about to change. Every year in this business gets more intense, more emotional, and more difficult, but there has never been a doubt in my mind that it’s all worth it. I am lucky enough to be doing what I love and actually making a living at it. It’s a dream come true.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and unicorns. Writing and self-publishing is Hard (with a capital H). It’s a never-ending learning process, both in craft and in business. I am constantly reading and watching and experimenting, trying to figure out better ways to organize my time and get my books in front of readers. Over the course of the past five years, I have learned a lot through persistence and plain old fashioned trial and error.
I already know this post is going to be long, but I wanted to give a brief breakdown of my sales numbers, just for anyone who is curious how it all works out in terms of sell-through in a series and that sort of thing. Sadly, there is no way to have absolute numbers on free downloads because not all vendors report free downloads. However, I can give you a little bit of an idea.
One important thing to note is that the places where you see the most drop-off for me in terms of series sell-through is either going from free to paid, Book 1 to 2, or where I took nearly a year to publish the next book in the series. Those most notable places are from Rival Demons to Demons Forever (11 months between due to having a baby), and from The Moment We Began to the next full-length novel in that series, The Fear of Letting Go (14 months between). Sometimes spreading things out is inevitable, but I think if you can stay in the zone of putting out series releases no more than 6 months apart, you’ll be seeing better sell-through overall.
For example, my sell-through from Rival Demons to Demons Forever in terms of readers who are currently reading through the series is nearly 99%. The gap of those 8,000+ readers was primarily readers I lost in those 11 months between books and will likely never get back. Just food for thought. Okay, so here we go. I’m breaking this down by book and then by retailer.
Total Paid eBook Sales from October 2010-September 2015 = 390,330
*Novellas have a single asterisk beside them
**Documented estimated free downloads next to free books in pink
The Peachville High Demons series:
Beautiful Demons – 21,496 (**250,000)
Inner Demons – 39,100 (**20,000)
Bitter Demons – 32,020 (**20,000)
Shadow Demons – 60,136
Rival Demons – 49,957
Demons Forever – 38,230
*A Demon’s Wrath, Part 1 – 15,953
*A Demon’s Wrath, Part 2 – 14,177
*After Midnight – 4,763
Beautiful Demons Box Set: Books 1-3 – 8,000 (**285,000)
The Beautiful Darkness series:
Emerald Darkness – 6714
Sacrifice Me Serial:
*Sacrifice Me, episode 1 – 86 (**45,000)
*Sacrifice Me, episode 2 – 5588
*Sacrifice Me, episode 3 – 4501
*Sacrifice Me, episode 4 – 3829
*Sacrifice Me, episode 5 – 3535
*Sacrifice Me, episode 6 – 3162
Sacrifice Me Season One Box Set – 13,517
Eternal Sorrows Series:
Death’s Awakening – 2163
The Fairhope Series:
The Trouble With Goodbye – 10,633 (*240,000)
The Moment We Began – 29,945
*A Season For Hope – 15,874
The Fear of Letting Go – 9,951
Amazon US – 170,378
Amazon UK – 37,433
Amazon International Other – 3759
Amazon Total – 211,570
iBooks – 66,746
Google – 57,464
Barnes & Noble – 46,209
Kobo – 7,826
Misc. Other – 515
(Just an important note here is that while I’ve sold books at BN and Amazon for my entire five years, I didn’t start selling at iBooks for at least a year, and I didn’t list my books on Google until Spring of 2014.)
Another thing I’d like to add is that I have never hit a major bestseller list. I have never had a book hit the Amazon Top 100 on release. I’m not a famous author with a massive fanbase. I’m just a regular person writing books from the heart. Until summer 2014, I had never had a sales month where I sold more than 10,000 books in a month. It took me nearly 4 years to hit that milestone, and I’ve been blessed that I haven’t had very many months since where I sold less than 7 or 8,000 books. That can change at any time, but the important thing to note is that you can still sell a lot of books without ever getting major recognition for it.
I may not be on anyone’s “bestseller” radar, but I’ve sold nearly 400,000 books. I’m an indie midlist at best. Just knowing THIS is what’s possible on the midlist is mind-blowing, and it’s something that wouldn’t have been possible even 6 or 7 years ago. My first year self-publishing, I made almost $48,000. In 2015, I’ve made more than 5 times that. You don’t have to be a runaway bestseller or write to trends to make an amazing living as an indie author. Remember that! People have been saying for several years now that the YA indie market is dead. I totally disagree, and I think my numbers speak for themselves.
Just because you don’t see a lot of YA indie authors on the top lists anymore doesn’t mean it’s dead or that you can’t make a living writing it. I could probably write fifty thousand words on how I feel about this topic, but I’ll just leave it there for now and get to the meat of this post before you fall asleep :).
I figured since it’s been five years, I’ll lay out the five most important things I’ve learned along the way.
#1. THINK LONG TERM
Everything these days seems to focus on fast. Fast releases. Fast writing. Fast journey to the top of the lists. A lot of writers I come in contact with seem to care only about how to get as many sales or as much money today as possible. It’s not about how to grow a career that lasts, and this, I believe is something they will eventually regret.
We all want to see amazing sales right from the start, but if you truly want to have a career that lasts a lifetime (and potentially beyond), you need to start thinking long term. What does that mean, exactly? To me it means writing the absolute best books you can, even if it means not releasing a book every month or whatever insane increment we’re expected to release these days. In some ways, this comes down to knowing yourself and your skill. Some people can write extraordinarily fast and still write amazing books. Some people can’t. But the bottom line is that you need to find a balance between writing/releasing as quickly as you can without sacrificing quality. This is going to mean something different for everyone, but it’s one of the most important aspects of long-term success.
Thinking long term also means looking ahead and trying to see the bigger picture. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to create a plan. We all know that writing a series seems to be the best way to make money writing indie. I’ll take it one step further and say that writing a series and putting out consistent releases in that series (no more than 4-5 months between), is the absolute best way to start building an audience.
I started out this way with my Peachville High Demons series and grew a large fanbase from the beginning, but once I’d finished my final book in the series, I was like a kid in a candy store. New stories! Shinies!! So I started a new genre, several new series, and stopped having a set plan. When I finished one book, I moved to the next thing that was on my mind. I can’t say this hasn’t worked for me, because miraculously my sales and income have continued to grow despite this unplanned chaos I’ve been following the past few years. Would I be doing “better” overall in terms of growth and success if I had followed the one series with consistent releases plan since 2012? My bet is yes, and I’m going back to that plan for 2016. Check back with me next October to see how it works out :P.
One thing to keep in mind is that right now, EVERYTHING about the digital indie market is still in its infancy. We’re all still only seeing what happens to careers in the short term. There are some who self-published before me, but honestly not many, and a lot of those people have already quit or gone traditional. We see a lot of shooting stars in this business–people who rise to the top due to brilliant marketing, facebook ads, and great books written in the exact hot trend of the day–but in five years, I’ve seen a lot of those stars burn out because writers weren’t thinking long term. They hit it hot and hard and fast and didn’t even stop to realize that trends change, money runs out, algorithms change, and almost nothing stays constant in this business. Don’t sell yourself short by thinking about how to get the most sales today. Make sure the decisions you’re making won’t compromise your long-term goals.
#2. DON’T BE AFRAID
There is a lot of fear in writer groups. Many of us are afraid our next book won’t sell or that the sales we have now will be gone tomorrow and this dream we’re living in will be over. Some of us are afraid we’ll never reach our goals or that we started too late or that we’re just not as talented as the people we see getting all the accolades. Self-publishing is a scary business, but we don’t have to live in constant fear.
The more you start to accept the fact that everything changes, the faster you’ll be able to recognize those changes and figure out a way to rebuild or improvise. I’ve been a victim of my own fear because I have been scared to raise my prices or step outside of my most popular series or start something totally new. But the times when I took risks and was willing to experiment with either pricing or marketing or my mailing list have been some of the most productive and beneficial times of my career. I think it can be easy to get stuck because fear is constantly breathing down our necks. We turn to what’s safe and comfortable instead of trying new things and innovating. The truth is that staying safe and never branching out taking risks is possibly the riskiest move of all.
I had a major battle with fear in early 2014. My husband and I had just moved to a new city and new house. He quit his job. We hadn’t sold our old house, so we had two mortgages. And suddenly sales tanked. I’m talking I wasn’t making enough a month to cover the mortgages much less food or insurance or anything else. We only had so much left in savings and only my income coming in, so yeah, I was terrified, to put it lightly. There was a part of me that wanted to curl into a ball and hide. I told myself that maybe my books just weren’t good enough and the success I’d had early on was a fluke.
But then my husband turned to me one day at lunch and said, “Why don’t you put The Trouble With Goodbye free?”. It hadn’t occurred to me to set another series-starter free. It had worked wonders for my PHD series, but I was so stuck in this fear of change or messing up what I thought was a delicate eco-system of sales that I didn’t even consider ways to shake it up. But what did I have to lose? I did it and made over $14,000 that month. It saved us for several months. Then I took a risk and pushed out my existing series to write a serial called Sacrifice Me. I had no idea how it would be received, but those two risks revitalized everything for me, and 2014 ended up being my first ever six-figure income year. Don’t let fear paralyze you!! If you’re stuck, try something new and don’t give up!
#3. SUCCESS IS PERSONAL
The word “success” is a trap. Writers throw this word around all the time, but people tend to ignore the most obvious pitfall of this word; it’s all relative. Success is a very personal term, and no one else can define it for you as an individual. I heard an author at RWA refer to her NYT Bestselling, multiple six-figure a year writing career as “somewhat successful”. I nearly stood up and screamed. WHAT? If that’s only “somewhat successful” what the heck am I doing with my life? haha. Why are we this hard on ourselves??
I’ve also heard a friend refer to her sales as “circling the drain” when she’s easily making twenty to thirty grand a month. Yes, I said A MONTH. I understand that to her, this is a huge dip from where she was a year ago, but sometimes I think it’s easy to lose perspective on what success really is. Just because there’s someone next to you talking about making a million dollars a month does not make your five grand a month any less exciting. Someone else’s enormous success does not suddenly make your six-figure income only a “somewhat success”.
Success is very personal. I have spent a lot of time this year journaling about what success means to me. It’s easy to lose sight of your own goals, but I highly recommend sitting down right now and writing down the absolute most important things to you in terms of your writing career. What, above all other things, are you most wanting to accomplish? Why do you write? How you answer those questions will largely determine how you should be defining success in your life and your career. It isn’t about what other people think of you, trust me. It’s only about what you want vs. what you have. Which brings me to my next point…
#4. STAY TRUE TO YOU
There are thousands of authors out there right now just like you and me. I bet if we called in even a hundred different authors, we would hear something like a hundred different combinations of the goals that motivate them. Some writers honestly just want to get their stories out there into the world. Some people could care less about story and just want to make as much money as fast as they can. Some are just trying to find a way to feed their children. Others want fame and fortune and won’t be satisfied until they have a movie deal and seven figures in the bank, while some would rather toil in near-obscurity so long as they never have to leave their house or wear something other than yoga pants to work.
We are all unique in our talents and our motivations, so it stands to reason that we will all have very different paths to take on this journey of self-publishing. That sounds all well and good except for the fact that it’s very easy to watch other people rise to the top and think, “Damn, why not me?” If you’ve followed me for very long, you know that I struggle a lot with comparison. I compare myself to others way more than I should and sometimes judge my own self-worth based on how I think I compare. It’s a very dangerous and depressing way to live, especially when you are surrounded by authors who enjoy talking about their success.
The biggest problem with this is that when I compare, I start to feel like maybe that other writer is doing something I should be doing. I start to doubt my own path, thinking that maybe if I wrote in X genre or tried adding more X to my books or using X cover artist, everything would fall in line for me. I start to lose my focus and my joy and follow someone else’s path, not mine, and this, I believe, is one of the most dangerous pitfalls a writer can fall into.
What if JK Rowling had listened to all those people who told her no one wanted to read about boy wizards? What if self-publishing had been more of an option for her back then and she’d decided to write hot military romances instead just to make money? Hot military romances are awesome, but for Rowling to have written that instead of Harry Potter would have been a travesty. She had a unique story inside her that only she could tell, and instead of being influenced by the market or what a friend told her to write or by what seemed trendy at the time, she just wrote the story in her heart. I think it’s safe to say that risk paid off for her way more than writing to trends ever would have.
What you write should always be a reflection of your personal goals and desires. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to stop and think about what you really want out of this career. For me, the most important thing is to tell stories that inspire people to be their best selves. I want to write about characters coming of age and being faced with death, only to rise above and embrace the power that has always lived inside of them. I want money and success, sure, but those things are secondary to the desire to write stories that inspire. Someone with different goals will make different choices. No judgment, no drama or negativity. Let’s just each figure out our path and stay true to who we are and what we want most.
#5. SLOW DOWN
As I said earlier, the name of the game these days seems to be FAST. Everyone is obsessed with it. The faster you can write and publish, the faster you’ll be famous or rich or whatever. In my opinion, it’s gone to ridiculous levels lately with writers bragging about writing books in 3 weeks or less and publishing 13-15 books a year. I don’t doubt that there are people who can keep up that pace for a while and still write quality books, but I do doubt that there are hundreds or thousands of people who can maintain that pace for very long. Eventually, something is going to suffer, be it quality of writing or health.
Burn out is real, and it should be taken seriously. There have been times I’ve felt burned out from writing just 3 or 4 novels a year. The more I write, the more complex my stories become. The book I published yesterday, Sorrow’s Gift, has seven distinct points-of-view and is a genre mashup of zombie apocalypse and contemporary fantasy. It took years for me to craft this book, and there were times I put everything I had into it, going without sleep for days just to figure out a plot twist. I loved every minute of it, but I can’t keep up that kind of intensity every day for the rest of my life. I need a break in between or I will absolutely burn out.
This goes back to the idea of knowing yourself and listening to yourself and your body. Don’t push beyond the limits of what’s healthy for you or you will pay for it tenfold. Trust me on this. Especially if you are a writer, like many of us, who struggles with depression. Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to slow down and to take the time you need to actually craft a story you can be proud of.
Like I said before, there’s no judgment here. Some people can keep up an amazingly fast pace and write quality books and never burn out. But you better know whether or not you’re that person before you try it. I need breaks between. My stories need space to breathe and grow and become, and I’m not going to apologize for that.
I’m just going to say this again for those of you who really need to hear this. IT’S OKAY TO SLOW DOWN. Really, it is. Be good to yourself and be aware of your most basic needs like sleep and mental breaks and human contact. Food that isn’t diet coke and twizzlers or whatever you keep by your desk when you’re writing.
I recently started keeping a list of “Fill The Well” activities in my Filofax. I brainstormed a huge list of things that fill my creative well. The process of publishing and marketing and even writing is draining, and sometimes in order to perform at your best, you need to step away and refill the well. For me, it can be something simple like shopping for office supplies, looking at cute Hello Kitty art online, watching HGTV, or spending time with my 3-year-old son. It can be something bigger, too, like a trip to Charleston with a friend or a lake retreat or trip to the beach. When I’m starting to feel drained, I turn to my list and pick out something that speaks to me. I may only take a break for an hour or two, but it’s been helping me find balance in a hectic career.
Slowing down also means you have permission to stop obsessing over all the things that aren’t getting done. All of us probably have a list of things that we’re falling behind on at all times, which is part of why we never feel like we’re truly “off duty” as indie authors. And of course, there is always some new technology or website or app we all should be looking into, right? The learning process is NEVER over as new things are being developed and what used to work stops working.
Do yourself a favor and accept it right now that you are never going to be done learning. You are never going to know everything or do everything perfectly. Pick your battles and forget the rest. Seriously, it’s okay! The #1 most important thing in terms of success and growth in this business is exactly the same today as it was five years ago. What is that, you ask?
Your next book.
There is no greater marketing tool and no better way to spend your time, so as long as you’re writing and working on your craft, you’re doing the one thing that will contribute the most to your income and your goals. Don’t sweat the rest of it!
And since I’m already 3,000 words into this post and you’re (hopefully) still here, I’m going to indulge by giving you these five tips, plus one to grow on.
Once you know who you are and what you want most out of your writing career, make a plan and follow it without fail. Believe in yourself and know that even if it’s a slow road, you are going to make it where you want to go. Believe in your choices and trust your instincts, because no one around you has the same unique set of ideas and goals as you. What works for them may not work for you, and that’s okay. Believe in yourself! Follow your gut! If something feels wrong for you, it probably is. Stop comparing yourself to others or watching what everyone else is doing and feeling inadequate. You are enough, and you can do this.
Just before I self-published that first book in 2010, I went to the beach with my family. My husband and I spent long nights talking about my future. Did I want to spend the next who-knows-how-long submitting my books to agents and editors who might ask me to change my story? Or did I want to take complete control and self-publish? Back then, this was not a popular option. Many people told me I was selling myself short and ruining my potential, but I knew I was making the right decision for me. I got a tattoo during that beach trip that simply says “Believe“, and I look at it every day to remind myself to believe in this dream. To believe in my stories and my talent. I believe that I am following the path that’s right for me, bumps and all.
Believe in yourself and you can reach your goals. It’s a difficult, emotional path, but it’s incredibly rewarding and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I never dreamed I’d be sitting here five years later with almost 400,000 sales under my belt. I hope that five years from now I’m still continuing to have my mind blown by this amazing career. I hope I’m still writing stories I believe in, and I hope there are still people reading them.