Things learned Self-Publishing in 2016
End of year summaries make most sense at the actual end of a year, but for me it feels like I am drawing a close on a substantial period of time, and as such am in a place to draw some conclusions. My daughter arrives in 1 week, and I don’t know what chaos lies before me. Night feeds and nappies are coming. It may be awhile since I can work again, so I am not going to even try. I’ll take the next few months off until life starts to resemble life again and my bleary-eyed, nappy filled existence stabilises. So my end-of-year, Self-Publishing in 2016 summary is coming now… in September.
It makes sense to look back at the last 12 months from this point because it was around July/August of 2015 that my life as a self-published author was thrown into turmoil. Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited in July 2015 and it halved my income. The borrowing scheme was a bit like a communist regime, where everyone was paid the same for whatever work they had available. It meant my 100k word novels were sharing the same pot of cash with 10 page short stories and earning an equal amount. It benefited some authors, of course, but it hurt me greatly. It forced me to batten down the hatches and re-strategise. Over the 12 months that followed, I was fortunately able to rebuild my income and create a platform for my business that is far more stable than the one that existed before. To Amazon’s credit, they recognised the inherent flaws in the Kindle Unlimited remuneration scheme and changed the payout structure to compensate authors per page read, which is just about as fair as they can make things in my opinion. Many naysayers claim Kindle Unlimited was Amazon’s 1st step towards screwing authors, but the fact is that the corporation rethought its scheme in response to feedback. That is enough to convince me that impoverished authors are not something Amazon are looking to create.
Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the main lessons I learned Self-Publishing in 2016
Self-Publishing in 2016 is now more competitive than ever
For a couple of years, I was the top ‘Indy Guy’ in British Horror. I was consistently at the top of the Horror charts and there seemed to be no other Brits that were even sniffing at my tail. Then Matt Shaw stormed up the charts and put me in second place. Then others came. Now there are brief periods where I am not even in the top 100 Horror Authors. I had a head start, but the competition is here and it is kicking my ass. And that’s okay.
It’s okay because it reinvigorated me. It made me step up my game, which has benefited me in many ways. I don’t want to be Matt Shaw’s bitch. Whenever I launch a new book, I tend to climb back above the sorry son-of-a-bitch for a while, and it feels all the more special to see him in my taillights. Eventually he will put me back in my place, but it’s nice while it lasts. Even guys who have been struggling for years will suddenly leapfrog me in the charts, and I see their happy Facebook posts and smile with genuine pleasure. It feels good to see young authors go through the same highs and lows that I have — and still do — myself, because I know how special it all is. You may think I hate not being number 1, but I am fine with it. I love the rankings as they are now, with authors constantly bustling and battling for rankings. I love going up and down as it keeps me constantly motivated. I love new faces appearing besides mine. It’s vibrant, it’s healthy, it’s alive. Overall, I would say I am a mainstay in the charts, and my fan base is slowly becoming a legion, so things are pretty awesome regardless of what position I am sitting in.
That also means it sucks for new guys just starting out. It’s now nigh impossible to find success with a single book like I did back in 2011. I would say that even having 3 or 4 books available is not enough anymore to replace you day job with self-publishing income. The marketplace is saturated with content—good and bad—and there are a hundred guys and gals in every genre wanting to succeed just as badly as you. It’s hard to get noticed. Really hard. I am lucky to be in a position where people know about me and are actively searching for my books. My biggest asset is that I am already successful. It means I get to focus my efforts on growing, rather than desperately trying to be seen. I don’t envy new authors. Good luck.
The industry is wide open
Despite what I just said about things being tough, especially for new authors, it is entirely possible for everyone to succeed. Self-Publishing is a viable business model in the same way as selling t-shirts or electric toothbrushes. You put a product online and you point people towards it. You do whatever you can to convince people to buy. How you achieve this is entirely up to you. The previous publishing model was: write book-find agent-sell book-promote book-repeat. It was a very finite model and one in which the author possessed very little influence. The new process is: write book-publish book-do 1 of 1000 things you can do to sell book. From advertising to competitions to free giveaways to reviews to guest blogs to video trailers to twitter posts to… You get it. There are no limits to what you can do to help your own success. If you have a eureka moment that no one else has thought of, then try it out and see what happens. Your success will all be down to what you do and how you do it. It’s about effort, ingenuity, and hard work. It is tough as balls to succeed as an author, but if you refuse to accept anything less than your goals, then no one can stop you achieving them. Look for the things no one else has thought of. Anything that gets people onto your book’s sales page is worth doing.
My website is no longer an after-thought
For the first few years of my career I had a free website that I set up just so I could feel all professional like. I would blog-post now and then, but mostly my website was just a big flashing ego sign. I only had it because I could, and because I thought I should. It never actually did anything for me. Then I took a course about mailing lists and readers magnets and my eyes were opened. I spent several months learning how to build a self-hosted website (my personality demands that I do things myself, which saves money but takes time and effort). After several disasters and sleepless nights, I was eventually left with a website that happily drags strangers in right from Google, makes me money from advertising, and signs up about 50 people a day to my mailing list on auto-pilot (you can see it here). My website works while I sleep and is constantly sourcing me new readers. It’s my partner in business and I only regret that it took me so long to see how powerful a decent website can be. I finally got over my aversion of paying for things and realised I need to invest as any other business would. I put money into having a professional and powerful website. This leads me onto my next lesson learned.
You have to spend money to make money
I spent several hundred dollars on joining Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula, but it paid for itself in spades. It taught me about Reader Magnets, Sales Funnels, and Facebook Advertising, but the main thing it taught me was to be proactive. Sitting back and hoping Amazon will do all the work in selling my book is a doomed plan. I was fortunate enough to be making money from my books, so I needed to start acting like an agile, forward-thinking business. The great Kindle Unlimited crash of 2015 taught me how volatile things can be. In the last 12 months, I have put money into my website, spent thousands on advertising, purchased expensive software like Vellum (the greatest thing since sliced bread), bought lots of books (like The Story Grid), and even branched out into merchandise and online teaching. All of these things cost me money. All of these things brought me a return. Even though my expenses over the last 12 months have been higher than ever, I have also earned more money than I ever have in my life. By the time this year ends, I might just double what I earned last year. Spending money is scary, but if done properly it will recoup itself and more. So don’t be so worried about grabbing that copy of Scrivener or ProWritingAid, and don’t scrimp on cover artwork. Invest in the things that matter and you will gain the benefits.
Amazon has the power to destroy me (but less than it did last year)
Last year, Amazon made a rash decision that ruined some authors and badly affected authors (like me). They didn’t do it intentionally to hurt anybody, but they are ultimately a business that will do what is best for them. That means I can never trust they will always have my back. Amazon has treated authors fairly for the first time in history, and I want to make love to their office furniture for what they have done for me, but it would be unwise to not look ahead at some dystopian future where Amazon rules over all. In an ideal world I would love to see Apple pull their fingers out of their tax-dodging arseholes and start making their marketplace a viable alternative for book-buyers. I would love to see Barnes and Noble fire the office of monkeys they have making their decisions and revitalise the Nook. I would love to see Kobo continue to do things right and grow and grow and grow. Until that happens, I can only concentrate on building my own platform and hope it is strong enough to weather any storms. My mailing list has over 10,000 subscribers now and is growing by about 100 people a day. I sell t-shirts on my website. I make money from advertising. I sell an online course to other authors. I diversified.
Diversification is more important than ever
As I become less like an artist and more like a businessman, I have found it important to diversify my income. Gaining revenue from several sources makes my business more stable. If Audible goes bust and I lose my audiobook income, I still have paperbacks. If my paperback sales stall, then I still have ebooks. My current list of revenue sources includes (but is not limited to): paperbacks, merchandise, ebooks, audiobooks, foreign editions, advertising, affiliate links, affiliate products, online course sales, donations and more. The more items I have in my list of revenues, the less I rely on any one source. Stability can be found in a diverse portfolio. This is something other businesses have known for years. Think outside the box and find as many ways as possible for you to earn money.
Fans are more loyal than ever… if you are loyal to them
The groundswell of support I have had in the last 12 months has reduced me to tears on several occasions. I get daily emails of love and affection from near strangers all the time, and sometimes they thank me for things I didn’t even realise I was doing. The common theme is that my readers enjoyed being valued and treated with respect. Businesses thrive on loyal customers, but authors can go beyond normal realms by truly befriending their supporters. If you look after your readers they will look after you with reviews, recommendations, and more. Give them as much as you can because they deserve it. Don’t always think about how much money you are making. Think about how happy you are making your fans. The money will come as a byproduct of a happy fan base. Over the last year I have given away more than ever—free books, Kindles, and more, but I have earned more than ever too. Being generous does not mean you are losing money. Nice guys finish last in business, but strangely the opposite seems to be true for authors. All the top guys in the industry seem to be as nice as pie. All the arseholes are skulking around Facebook begging people to buy their books.
Just keep writing
I have learned that it is vital to build a steady and versatile platform comprised of a decent website, mailing list, and multiple revenue streams, but once you have those set up, the money and longevity are all invested in the books you write. More books means more products to sell. It is far easier to make a thousand dollars with ten books than it is one. It’s much easier for a reader to find you on Amazon with multiple products showing up in search results. Spend time getting your platform built, but don’t forget that the platform is only there to help you sell books. The books are the blood of your empire. Write more and earn more. Can’t make it any simpler than that.
Finally, in the last 12 months I have learned to be pro-active. I suffered a disaster because for several years I had sat at the top of the charts letting Amazon do all the work for me. As soon as I was challenged, I had nothing supporting me and I fell hard. Next time I will be able to respond better. I no longer wait for readers to go out and find my books. I actively grab them and pull them to my work. I advertise my books on Facebook and Amazon. I make sure my website shows up on Google. I make sure that when I get a reader, they don’t just stop at one book. My mailing list makes sure that my readers know the moment my latest books come out. I have a sales machine at my disposal. Everything in my business is streamlined towards two common goals: finding readers and keeping them. Be a business. Be proactive. Do everything you can. But don’t be a butt wipe.
I’m looking forward to meeting my daughter next week, and I will be spending some quality time with my growing family. In the meantime I wish both my readers and my colleagues the very best. I’ll miss you while I am gone. Self-Publishing in 2016 has been a blast.