Decade In Review

Hi folks! As I write this, it is the last day of the year, and thus the last day of the twenty teens. As has been pointed out by an awful lot of people, this is just an arbitrary point in time and thus has no more real importance than yesterday or tomorrow, but I’m all about assigning meaning to meaningless things, so let’s take a look at the last few years!

The Beginning

The Year is 2010. I am working at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. I’ve been there for about five years, and it is becoming increasingly intolerable. I’ve spent the last three years or so sending out query letters to agents, seeing if anyone would be interested in taking me on as a client so that I can perhaps have my pet project, The Book of Deacon, published. I’ve sent out a few dozen of them in groups of two, and the vast majority of the the agents failed to reply. Of those that did, most rejected me outright without looking at my story. If I recall correctly, exactly one of the agents asked to see the first five pages of my story, and rejected me shortly after that. I was sick and tired of being rejected, as I did not handle that very well at the time. (I don’t handle it very well now either, but I was FAR worse then.)

My friends (mostly Cary and Sean) are the only people who even know I have a book I’m shopping around. I’ve not told most of my friends and most of my family because I am, inexplicably, horribly embarrassed that I’d written the story. I announce my intention to stop shopping my manuscript around, so they convince me to self-publish. I look into it, do some research, and publish it on Smashwords and what was then called Amazon DTP. The book looked like this.

The original, terrible cover or the book of deacon, made to look like faded parchment.

The book is not professionally edited, I made that cover, and it costs $9.99. I sold one copy.

Getting Smarter

Over the next few months, see that customers have about the same opinion of my book as agents. They don’t feel the need to read it. I drop the price to $4.99 and sell one more copy, then drop it again to $2.99 and sell another copy. After getting some bad reviews, I go through and give it another cleanup pass to iron out some of the typos, and I make a new cover.

A less faded faux parchment cover.
The Book of Deacon

It’s better, but not much. I decide that maybe people don’t like how long the story is, so I write and publish Jade, which is shorter. I sell it for 0.99 cents. No one buys it.

Now it is May of 2011. I’ve made a grand total of $19 from my writing. After reading an interview in which Brian S. Pratt explained his decision to make his first book in his series free, I do the same. Not long after, a website called Pixel of Ink picks it up and features it in a blog post.

25,000 people download the book.

Something like 10% of them pick up the sequel. I make $1900 before the end of the month. Against the advice of my brother, who was decidedly of the “Take the money and call it a win” camp, I decided to reinvest the money in a professional edit, plus professional covers from Nick Deligaris. Now the book looks like this.

Welcome to the world, Myranda.

My sales quintuple over the course of the next few weeks.

Going Pro

Over the next few years, my earnings continue to grow, year over year. Start a sci-fi series which could come to be called Big Sigma. Then a steampunk series which I call Free-Wrench. I jump back and forth between these series. Once I get the hang of things, I’m able to write about one new book in each series per year. By 2014, I am making far, far more from my writing than my day job.

Now I’ve been working at Horizon for 9 years. When they hired me, it was with the promise that I would be recruited into the main company as soon as possible. Nearly a decade into it, that day had finally come. I was going to be given a raise that would bring my annual salary to about half of what my books had earned that year. In exchange, I would be expected to work nearly double the hours I’d been working, and my hiring would come with no seniority from the 9 years I’d already spent with the company. I’d effectively be a new recruit with a slightly bumped up salary.

I politely declined. In September of 2014, I quit my job.

I was now an author.

The next few years went pretty well. I increased my creative output. I experimented with a few new books, most of which didn’t make much of a splash. My earnings stayed comfortably in the six figure range. By this time I was co-host of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast. Things were good.

The Going Gets Tough

One of the impressive parts of my career to this point was that I’d maintained it almost entirely off new releases. I did little in the way of promo and nothing in the way of advertising, save the occasional BookBub Feature. My earnings were sagging a bit on the bigger stores, but it was made up for by other opportunities. I got to work with StoryBundle and helped put together bundles. Audio Book companies contacted me to do releases of my stuff. Foreign publishers bought the foreign language rights. Basically, I didn’t see the need to steer the boat in any new directions, because things were holding steady.

But things weren’t improving. I experimented time and time again with fun new ideas, or new promotional tactics. They fell flat. I tried my hand at advertising or spicing up my blurbs, but found I lacked the knack. No big deal, I figured. Things are going pretty strong without them. Plenty of time to work them out in the future.

But the earnings kept ticking down. I was not kindle exclusive, and bit by bit the introduction of lots of Amazon Ads and the dominance of Kindle Unlimited in rankings made my earnings at Amazon slip. My earnings elsewhere slid as well, albeit more slowly.

In 2017, I narrowly missed the six figure mark from my author earnings.

In 2018, I missed by a little bit more.

Now 2019 is coming to a close, and it has been my worst year professionally since my first big break. (It’s been pretty bumpy in my personal life, too, but this post is already a bummer, so I won’t trouble you with that.) I tried a Kindle Unlimited experiment, but I botched it by not adjusting my release tactics properly. Dedicating the time necessary to get that gambit in place meant my other series went without new entries. Earnings plunged.

I have no one to blame but myself. As the co-host of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast (and now the Six Figure Authors Podcast), I had all the information I needed to get things rolling in the right direction again. Indeed, I’ve helped young writers get started in the biz by giving them advice that I myself had yet to start following. But here I am, ten years into my career, struggling more than I have in the last half decade.

The Future

So what comes next? Well, for starters, I’m shooting to release new stories in (and potentially conclude) my three main series this year. Each will earn a sixth book, if I play my cards right. Each of those new releases will include attempts to boost sales in the earlier books in the series.

Some experiments I started more than a year ago are also likely to bear fruit, or at least blossom.

I’ll be trying to get a solid baseline of advertising established. I’ll be trying to get my newsletter whipped into shape. I’ll be trying a lot of things.

I’ll be trying.

Who knows what the next few years will hold? I certainly didn’t know in 2010 I’d be looking at literature as a career. Maybe I’ll get my butt in gear and start rocking and rolling again. Maybe I’ll run out of steam and go back to the workforce. But whatever happens, I’ve cherished the decade of writing that is just coming to a close, and I thank each and every one of you for the part you played in getting me to where I am today. I hope in my small way I’ve returned the favor.

Happy 2020!