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Measures of Success: Where I Am in This Publishing Experiment

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Lately I've heard from people who assume I'm earning piles of money from my books. They tell me I make the whole publishing thing look easy, and that it makes them want to jump in.

This is a really good example of why I try never to make assumptions. 

It's funny, because I've been pretty up-front about the whole thing from the beginning, as you can read in this post on my decision to self-publish as well as this post about what it took to hit the bestseller spot in two categories on Amazon. If you don't want to read those two posts, here they are in a nutshell: 1) My decision to self-publish was borne from a cold-eyed practicality that showed me getting an agent and a solid traditional publishing contract would be as likely as winning the lottery and 2) Hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon came after 25 years of toil, and I still had to make the book free.

But I guess my previous posts weren't enough. People see "bestseller" and the fact that I'm up for a couple of major awards, and they automatically assume I'm making piles of money. And maybe it's my own fault for trumpeting the bestseller achievement, which is a big win, don't get me wrong. But because publishing today is totally broken, it doesn't mean I'm making piles of money, or even enough to call this my new day job, neither of which I have actually claimed, but people seem to assume. There's a lot of hope and fantasy-making when it comes to the life of a writer. We still want to believe we can all be J.K. Rowling, and that getting there is easy. 

Here it is for the record: My husband/business partner and I are still in the red on these books. 

And here's why:

  1. Discoverability. By at least one estimate, there's a new book posted to Amazon every five minutes. Simply getting eyes on your product remains the biggest obstacle in all of entertainment. At the video-game company were I used to work, it was of chief consideration. We did the best when we had our own portal to funnel new games to players who'd played our previous games, but the Apple store made this more of a challenge. So if I could design a Lisa Brunette portal within Amazon that sent my book promos to readers who'd purchased my books before, or similar books, I'd be in business. But that's not possible.
  2. Have you bought my books? If you did, thank you. I hope you enjoyed them. But was it the print or audiobook version (which earn me just a few cents to a few dollars in royalties), the ebook version (which earns me even fewer cents to a couple of dollars in royalties), or the free version (which earns me next to nothing in royalties)?
  3. Sales of Cat in the Flock to-date are clocking in at just under 5,000 copies, most of those free, and sales of Framed and Burning are lower because it's been $3.99 since launch with no promos and no KDP enrollment (what this is). As for my other books, there's a reason I continually refer to poetry as a "labor of love." Ditto short stories.
  4. Most of the people who downloaded the free copy during the promotion that catapulted Cat in the Flock to bestseller status haven't yet read the book, which affects my royalties via Amazon's "normalized pages read" count, and they did not buy the second book in the series. This is a well-known result for bestsellers on Amazon these days, so writers and marketers generally hope the lift will boost sales a few times as others see the book in the ranking, which did happen for a time...or I don't know what else, and neither do they.
  5. I am no pro at promotion. It's funny because I keep getting notes of admiration/offers to hire me from other authors who think I do it well, and I tell them I'm just bumbling around here, but since authors on the whole tend to be really terrible at this, I guess I look good by comparison. I am still learning how to do the book sales and promo thing, so stay tuned. Hopefully I'll get even better!
  6. Most of the friends and family to whom I've given free copies of my books haven't read them. I try not to get too tripped up about this, as it seems to be a writer phenomenon: Those closest to us tend to be the least likely to read and discuss the book (with the exclusion of my husband/business partner, who's my biggest fan; he also has a stake in the game). But it's probably because reading the words of someone you know very well can be jarring. As my sister (who is actually very supportive) said, "I hear your voice in my head as I'm reading, and it's weird." This recently happened to me with an old friend who wrote a thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect after she blurbed my thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect. I freaked out reading the first chapter and haven't been able to pick it up since. It wasn't just the voice; it was the inevitable comparison in subject matter. People you know look for themselves in your books; they can't help it.
  7. I've been very fortunate to have amazing supporters and fans who share my content, but I haven't had the time to grow my list the way I should. It's a business that is definitely more-than-full-time, like a start-up or your new local restaurant, but I have not yet had the luxury to focus on it 24/7 because I have to attend to my other sources of income. We spent this entire last weekend working on republishing both Dreamslippers books, for example, so we feel like we now need a weekend to recover from our working weekend.

We're not yet in the black, but we partners of Sky Harbor LLC invested more into the business than most indie authors, so we have more to make back. We saw this as a long-term strategy, and it's way too early to call since I've only published two books so far. The models I have for how this works didn't begin to make a living until they were into books three or four, and this goes for both the indies and the traditionally published authors. One traditional author tells me the only way he lives off his writing is through his foreign sales. His foreign publishers are also the ones who pay for his few book tours, as his U.S. publisher won't pay for any.

My approach is to be much more diversified, too. I'm currently working as a game writer, speaker, and journalist in addition to the fiction I write. I believe this is a healthier mix for these volatile economic times. But that means I'm trying to keep up with four different industry spaces, growing my contacts and experience in all of them at once. Some days, it feels like managing four different start-ups.

Overall, I'm flattered that people think I'm making a living at this, and I am thrilled with the success I've had with my fiction. With just two books under my belt, I've won one book award and am a finalist for two others. My first book hit the no. 1 spot not in some quirky niche but in two major categories on Amazon: paranormal mystery and private investigators, which, if you think about a book being published every five minutes, is a huge achievement. It's trending at 4.5 stars on 52 reviews, and the second book is close behind. I've been approached by a Hollywood director about TV rights (but don't get too excited--Hollywood is notoriously fickle). Enough readers and influencers have given their independent, non-paid praise of the books such that I know if I can surmount the hefty obstacles, I will begin to see some financial success. I've proved I am a serious career author with the speaking, marketing, and most of all, writing chops to go the distance. It's only a matter of time before the right people--and/or an army of readers--take notice. 

And if they never do, I will at least know that I gave it my all, heart and soul. Plus, look at the enviable experience I'll have to offer in my next day job...

  

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