What I Learned in 2015 as an Indie Writer in the Self-Publishing Industry: Full Sales Figures and Strategy

No matter if you're just starting out or are making a full-time living by writing fiction, there's a lot to learn in this article. To start off, let me give a breakdown of what you'll learn here. I want to explain what my goals were for 2015, the strategy behind my goals, explain what worked (and what didn't), break down my expenses for the year, then my sales and finally give a wrap up for what I'll be focusing on for next year.

Some background about me: I've been publishing books on Amazon since 2011 (though I did try my hand at Lulu.com a few years earlier). If you're interested, here is my yearly wrap up for 2012-2013 and my What I Learned in 2014 as an Indie Writer in the Self-Publishing Industry. There is a lot of great information in those two articles and you can learn from my mistakes. Please, do that. Save yourself lots of struggle and pain by learning what did and didn't work for me over those years.

If you're new to the world of self-publishing and are a budding indie writer, keep in mind that I started writing Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries: Lost (Book 1) back in 2009. I had a full-time day job (that often bled into after work hours), was raising two young kids and made time to write in the early morning before work. I went from having one book published in 2011 to now having six novels and a science fiction short story collection out in the market. I am in this for the long haul and am working hard to become a better writer, publish the highest quality books I can and to build my relationships with my readers.

Goals

At the start of 2015, I remember having a New Year's Day talk with my younger brother telling him what my writing goals were for this year. I often like to share my goals with people because it helps me be accountable. If I keep my goals in my head, I can just blow them off because no one but me knows what I had wanted to achieve. So for 2015, I told my brother that I wanted to:

I wanted to have some lofty goals because I thought that if I double-downed and really worked hard in 2015 that I could help build out my platform and get to that "magic" sweet spot of having more than 4 books in various search algorithms through which readers would magically find me (read those last few words with lots of sarcasm).

Strategy

When I have time, I like to listen to the Self-Publishing podcast, the Creative Penn podcast, the Smart Passive Income podcast as well as a bunch more, and also like reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blog on the business of writing and Joe Konrath's The Newbie's Guide to Publishing. I built my strategy from what I learned from these sources.

I had a two-pronged strategy for 2015: I needed to reallocate my resources to build my email list and wanted to continue my 2014 trend on diversifying my work on various publishing platforms and also write additional books.

I spent a chunk of time back in 2014 on making .mobi and .epub versions of my books so that they could be on Nookpress, Kobo, the iBookstore as well as Amazon. I had listened and read about the importance of ensuring that I didn't have all my virtual eggs in one basket. If I woke up one morning and Amazon decided to screw all of its authors with new terms, then I would have the ability to refocus my energies on marketing toward other online platforms. But I also knew that there has been an explosion of audiobook listening over the last two years and wanted to try an experiment with Audible.

The better writer AND marketer I become, the more success I will have.

And the driving force behind everything: Build my list! I wanted to build my relationship with my readers so that, over time, I have a platform to grow my business.

If you look at the data from my 2012-2014, you'll see that I gave away more than 20,000 ebooks during that time. My email list at the beginning of 2015 contained 5 people. Clearly, I needed tons of help. As luck would have it, I heard Nick Stephenson on several podcasts and stumbled upon his "Your First 10k Readers" program. I read everything I could and studied hard. I wanted to understand what a reader magnet was, how to set up a funnel of my own and to make my advertising work toward building my email list. Why? Readers are people. Heck, I'm a reader! I want to build my relationship with my readers so that there is no middleperson between them and me.

When I ran KDP promotions on Amazon in the past, I'd have thousands of downloads but not much traction after that and I'd have no connection to those readers. In fact, I've written about how frustrated I have been on not knowing who those readers are. They download my book for free and I never hear from them again and have no way of contacting them. The strategy for 2015 was pretty simple: Split my time among writing/publishing, email list building and learn everything I could about marketing. The better writer AND marketer I become, the more success I will have.

But let me pause here for a moment. This is critical to what I'm trying to do: I don't see my email list as simply people to sell books. That's not my main goal. What I am after is building a relationship with my readers so that I can be my authentic self with them. I'm taking a page from how Amanda Palmer uses social media (read her The Art of Asking if you haven't done so already). And this year, I learned how amazing my readers are.

In running an Audible promotion, I received an email from a woman on my email list. She wanted to mail one of my books to me so that she could get it autographed. She went on to explain that she loves my work, but because of her struggle with MS, she jumped at the opportunity to receive a free code to get the Audible version of my latest book since it's been hard for her to read.

I was touched and humbled. I sent her a package in the mail of the entire Cinderella's Secret Diaries Series autographed and she became my champion for helping me to remember what's really important in life. The relationships that I'm building take time, energy and need to be cultivated. Trust needs to be earned. Without readers, I cannot succeed in achieving my goals. In 2015, I realized that without family, readers and fellow writers, I'll fail. And I nearly did implode and fail this year (more on that in a bit).

What Worked

The ebook market is changing faster than I can keep up. Some of the "tricks" that used to work years ago just aren't working. Using the KDP select promotion to give your book away for 5 days isn't nearly as successful as it was a few years back. With hundreds of thousands of indie books flooding the marketing, authors just want to give you their book. Instead of falling into the trap of banging my head against the desk trying to figure out why the KDP select promotion wasn't working, I adopted a new approach:

Build a Funnel

I focused on creating a path so that I can introduce readers to my work, get them on my mailing list and then build a connection with them. But what is a funnel and how does it work? Here's what I learned this year from Nick Stephenson: Offer a book for free on Amazon (perma-free), then offer your second book for free. In order for people to get your second book, direct them to your mailing list sign up form. Use those reader magnets to convince people to join your list and then create authentic content for them to read. When it's time for your next book to come out, you can share with your subscribers your cover before anyone else sees it, promotions to free or discounted books and simply be honest with them and get your brand in front of their eyeballs. But doing all this in a way that is good for a reader takes a lot of work.

I've worked really hard on this. I went to having 5 people on my mailing list to more than 500. Is it as many as I would like? No, I had hoped for a thousand, but I did see success in increasing my email list.

I have also spent a lot of time in making my products work for me. When a reader buys my books, there are pictures and links for the next book in the series in the front matter and back of all my ebooks. I want to make it as easy as possible for a reader to know that there are additional books and how to purchase them.

Currently, I have three funnels setup and am building those email lists little by little. In order for all of this to succeed, I use advertisements to drive toward whatever funnel I'm trying to build.

Make Advertising Work for You

Now that I setup some reader magnets and created funnels, I needed to try them out to see how they did (or didn't work). I purchased some book promotions on various sites and drove traffic to the funnel that I had created. Potential readers would go to Amazon and get book 1 free, see that they could get book 2 free if they signed up for my mailing list and then I could work on building that relationship with them. Instead of just hitting my readers hard with "buy, buy, buy," I wanted to be authentic with them and give them valuable content.

In the past, I'd spend money on advertisements and my downloads on Amazon would spike through the roof, trickle a bit into sales of my other books and then fall back to nothing. There was no strategy or plan behind my work. Now there is. What I realize is that online marketing takes time, effort and is always in flux. What works this year may not work next.

Facebook Advertising

I watched an online class and learned more about Facebook advertising in 2015. I had experimented last year and spent money on Facebook ads that went right down the drain. I had great engagement but hardly any sales. This is where your funnel and Facebook come together to work well.

Facebook has more than 1.55 billion users and I can create an advertising campaign that targets just the people I want (readers, women, a specific age range, who like certain topics, etc.). I can segment and laser focus my ads so that only those people, who I think will be interested in my books, see my advertisements. Granted I have only started experimenting on using Facebook to drive people toward a funnel in the last part of 2015, but the results are good, but not through the roof yet. I need to do more testing with the type of ads I build, their content (images as well as words) and my budget. With limited funds this year, I tried $5/day for a few weeks and the results were good, but I need to learn more about tracking conversions (more on that next).

Google Tag Manager

I love Google Tag Manager (GTM). What's not to love? I've been running Google Analytics on my website for years and it's great reviewing the data, but Google Tag Manager allows me to track all sorts of stuff. Did I know what I was doing at the beginning of 2015 with GTM? No, I didn't. I had no clue, but I taught myself. Here's what you need to know about GTM:

You grab some code from Google, put it on the webpages you want and then create some tracking events through the Google Tag Manager control panel. Here's a simple example: I ran a promotion, drove people toward a landing page and through my funnel. The people who signed up and made it to the "download your book now" page on my site fired off events in GTM. I started small and wanted to track the number of .mobi, .epub and .pdf files that were downloaded. With the rules I set up in GTM, I now have all that data in my Google Analytics. The beauty of GTM is that if I want to add other rules, I can do so by creating those in the GTM control panel, but I don't need to update the GTM code on my website. Let me say that again: I put code once on my site and never have to adjust. I only need to create new tags so that I can fire off those events (maybe I want to track when people click a button or complete a form, etc.). All of this creates extremely useful data.

If you're not using Google Analytics and then linking that with Google Tag Manager, why not? It's free. Yes, it takes work, but with GA, GTM and Google Webmaster Tools, these three powerful (and FREE!) tools give you great insight into what country/state/city people are coming from to your website, how long they're staying and, if tracked right, what they're doing. This was a big success for me this year though I have only started to scratch the surface on what's possible.

Audible

I was lucky enough to work with Jessica Mann this year. We agreed to share the profits of the Audible sales for my three books in the Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series. Jessica's amazing narration brought my books to life and hearing them really brought a smile to my face. Was it hard work? Yes! Jessica spent many, many long hours narrating three novels and then sending me the audio files. I then listened to all the mp3s and sent her corrections that then needed to be made. She'd make the edits, send me the revised files, I'd review again and then approve. The process to get the three books onto Audible took from February through August of 2015.

I've not sold a ton of books on Audible, but I did make much more money on one sale than I make on my ebooks. And, if I take advantage of Audible's bounty program, Jessica and I can split the Audible reward for our getting new Audible customers to sign up and download my book first. It's a win-win for both of us. I'd like to do more work with narrators on Audible, but it's becoming a much harder market to break into. My Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series is well-reviewed whereas my new Witch's Coven Novel series is just starting out and I don't have enough reviews yet. Still, I had solid success on Audible. I hope to have other books added to Audible in the future.

What Didn't Work

I Wrote a Book in a Month

I'll be honest: I thought people who did NaNoWriMo were crazy. Who would want to write a book in a month? Well, the more I networked and listened to podcasts, the more I fell into deep feelings of FoMO. So in 2015 I wrote a full book in the month of January and used February, March and April to re-write and have it edited. I was still recovering from a torn Achilles and decided that since I couldn't run that I would write a book.

I know that the more books I had out in the market, the better I would do. If romance authors were knocking out four books a year while working full-time, why couldn't I write two books in 2015? As usual, I put my mind to the task and knocked it out. It was simple! Bing, bang, boom.

I learned a lot about myself during the month of January. I could work full-time, write a novel, and raise kids. I could do it all! I could lean in at work, at home and at my writing career and everything would be peachy (do you see the fall coming?). Nothing would stop me!

Until I snapped and broke. By pressing myself so hard on all fronts, I am ashamed to say that I imploded. I became irritable, angry and just pulled in every direction. I have never been such an asshole as I was during the month of February. The added pressure nearly destroyed me. I had my priorities mixed up. My marriage wasn't my top priority and it suffered the worst damage in my 15 years of being married.

It’s not possible to do it all.

To everyone who is new to publishing and living the indie writing lifestyle: It's not possible to do it all. I will say it again for myself so that I can remember this and not get myself in the mess I was in. I cannot do everything. I need to rest, eat, relax and connect with those around me. I can't be plugged in all the time writing and then working at my day job. I learned a hard lesson this year. Yes, I love writing and want to write more books, but they can't happen as fast as I would like and that's okay. In fact, that's better than okay. It's normal and I'm perfectly fine with that.

I Wrote a Second Book

After Awakenings: A Witch's Coven Novel (book 1) was published, I dove right into writing the sequel. Through hell or high water, I would meet my goal and publish two books in 2015. And I did. Betrayals: A Witch's Coven Novel (book 2) launched in September. I love both Awakenings and Betrayals. They allowed me to branch out and flesh out the world of The Realms that I created way back when I was 16 years old and wrote the first draft of Dorothea's Song. The problem that I had this year is that writing two books back to back strained my personal life. I slowed down for Betrayals and adjusted my course so that I wasn't going at breakneck speed. But I spent so much of my budget on covers and proofreading fees, that it left me little money to advertise the new books and emotionally I was drained.

The reason why publishing two books didn't work for me is that I had no time to market these novels. Writing, re-writing, editing, learning online marketing, building funnels, figuring out Google Tag Manager, well, all of that takes time and I did achieve my goal, but now need to regroup and focus on the marketing of this new series. Yes, the books are out there, but discoverability is still an issue and I've not solved this yet.

KDP Select

Unless you have a promotion to back it up, KDP select on its own just isn't performing any longer. When I worked on advertising and aligning my few days of free promotion to coincide with the email blasts that were being sent out for the promos, well, my downloads went through the roof. But without those promotions, there just are too many free books out there and Amazon's algorithms level things out after a while.

The big gold rush of setting a book for free and then raking in the sales are long gone. We all know that, but if you're new to the indie publishing world, it's a good bit of information to have. Don't expect your book to sell only on people discovering it on their own. Just putting it up on Amazon, setting it free and then sitting back isn't going to do it.

All of this plays into my larger strategy of diversifying. My books are available on iBooks, Kobo, Amazon, B&N and several other smaller platforms through Draft2Digital and, of course, three of my books are now available on Audible.

Expenses

You've been patient in reading through the rest of my plans, so now is a breakdown of what I spent and what I sold. The services listed below are what I spent in 2015. Yes, I know I could save a few dollars here and there by changing to a cheaper website hosting plan and going free, but I'm choosing to use Squarespace because it not only gives me a responsive website (a must with Google's "Mobilegeddon" algorithm change), but allows me to create and edit my pages with ease. Because I have insight into my site's analytics, I know that 49% of my website traffic is coming through mobile and tablet devices. With Google's algorithm change penalizing sites that aren't mobile optimized, I wanted to ensure that my website is responsive and works for almost half of my readers. Add in the ability for me to easily add code to pages, connect web forms to Mailchimp and easily create landing pages for my funnel and I think Squarespace serves me well.

If you go through my list of expenses, you'll see that I was hit really hard on two books covers and the proofreading fees for those books. Yes, I could have gone for super cheap covers and passed on my proofreading, but I have decided to invest in my work. I want to present the highest quality website as well as ebooks that I possibly can afford. With that said, here are my expenses for 2015:

  • Google Apps for business ($50/year)
  • Squarespace website/hosting ($192/year)
  • 2 book covers and web banners ($564.87)
  • Proofreading fees for 2 books ($532.50)
  • Web domain and proxy registration fees ($22.42/year)
  • Copyright registration fees ($70)
  • Training books or software ($26)
  • Advertising via book sites and Facebook Ads ($271.67)

Total: $1729.46

Sales

I share these numbers with you out of full transparency. I have six books (and one short story collection) for sale on various platforms and three Audible books. I have worked extremely hard since 2011 in getting these books to market and here are my sales for this year:

  • Audible and ebook sales: $974.08
  • Three SEARCH magazine freelance articles: $28.23

Total 2015 sales: $1002.31

When you take my expenditures ($1729.46) and minus them with my sales ($1002.31) I'm left with a loss of $727.15 for 2015. Yes, I lost money for the second year in a row. I can choose to give up or I can learn what is and isn't working for me and move onward. I choose to write. Maybe there are a few people who have broken through the glass ceiling and have made lots of money in writing ebooks, but I have not fallen into that category. I'm seeing positive reviews on my books, but it's not translating into thousands of sales.

Indie publishing is hard. No, that's not right. Publishing is hard. You can try to chase the market and write what you think is popular, but that's not going to last for the long term (thank you Kristine Kathryn Rusch for an excellent blog post) or you can slog through and work hard.

That's what I am doing. When I look back at 2009 when I started, I did not know much. Now I know how much I don't know. But I keep trying, learning and, most of all, writing. My books are getting better and I'm learning a lot about online marketing and building my brand.

It all comes down to telling my story. To the reader with MS who struggles each day with tremendous headaches, to the people who reached out to me when I was honest with them and told them how hard it was to finish Betrayals this year, I've been honored and humbled by what great people there are who have decided to join my reader's list. It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a world to raise a writer. How many times was J. K. Rowling rejected? And what about L. M. Montgomery, Paulo Coelho, Agatha Christie and a host of other writers?

I have been writing stories since I was nine and I'm not going to stop now. I look at the hardship I've had over the last two years and see that I'm investing in my business. I am the CEO of my company and I'm building my platform little by little. For those who have read my books, they can see the hope that's in them. No matter how hard life has knocked you down, get up, own up to any mistakes and go onward. Be a good person, share what you know, build and be yourself.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a world to raise a writer.

I know that the cynical will laugh at me but I believe our world needs more hope. When I wrote Stolen: Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries (Book 2), I dedicated it to "all those who have felt lost, abandoned, and unloved." I believe there is hope and goodness in this world. I am one of the writers who tells those types of stories.

Am I upset that I lost money again this year? Yes, I am. I'm also embarrassed that I'm a failure as a writer. Self-doubt is hard to shake, but when I take a step back, I see that I did increase my sales from last year. The challenge is that my operating costs are high and I need to invest more in marketing. What I see going forward is a clear path: Write better, publish those books, build my marketing strategy, enact it and invest in what I'm building. I'm in this for the long haul. I'm six years in. We'll see what 2016 has in store for me.

My Goals for 2016

I look back at all the work I did in 2015 and I'm proud of it, but I took on too much. This year I'm scaling back. Some of my top goals are:

Build My Email List

For every promotion I run, I want to continue to build that relationship with my readers. Gone are the days when I just write, put my trust in Amazon and expect great things will happen. That's not how this business is working any longer. Readers are my customers and I need to work with them, doing my best to give them the best possible customer service I can.

Write/edit a book

I have a new idea for a book that's different than any of the series I've written so far and I must admit that the freedom of being an indie author is one of the most enjoyable parts. I also wrote a science fiction book (part of a planned trilogy) back in 2014 at a little more than 100,000 words. Now I need to rip it apart, re-write it and help it see the light of day. I don't know if I can accomplish writing and publishing a new book as well as editing a draft of such a long piece, but we shall see. I will take a page to step back and focus on what's important this year: Family, friends and my connection with people. Driving myself too hard like I did this year, isn't helpful.

Learn more about SEO

I have been lucky to take a 15 hour online course at my day job about search engine optimization (SEO) learning some really cool things about the Panda, Penguin and now RankBrain Google algorithms. Why is this important? The business of writing matters to me. Not just in my writing job, but also in my day job in higher education. The words we use and how search engines process that information is extremely important for online marketing. I knew that Google modified its algorithms throughout the year, but didn't know that they did that 500-600 times a year.

Why does all of this matter? "We're writers and not search engine experts," you might say. The reason why all of this matters is that I believe writers need to learn new skills and that's online marketing. We need to live, eat and breathe digital. Amazon changes its algorithms as well and if we don't understand the words we use in titles and descriptions are extremely important to our readers finding our books, then we'll have missed the boat. With the RankBrain algorithm change, Google is using artificial intelligence to answer some of our search queries (about 15%). Yes, machine learning is being implemented to help humans find the information they search. Now if you stop a moment to think about that, what I just wrote could have been a science fiction story decades ago. What will this AI mean for searching? And if Facebook is also using machine learning, what does all of this mean for authors and how we market our work?

The world of SEO changes dramatically and keeping up is a full-time job. I'm hoping to stay ahead of the curve and use what I learn to make my words work for me.

Facebook Pixels and Conversions

I want to run more effective Facebook ads that have a lower cost per conversion. In the past, I've been successful in having a low cost per click, but I want to define a conversion as a lead. For example: I want to run a Facebook ad, have a potential reader click on the ad, come to my website, sign up for my mailing list and then have that conversion event sent back to Facebook. To do this, I need to take the Facebook pixel code and run that on my website, adding in the event code that I want. This is what online marketers are doing all the time and it works extremely well. I want to know how well my ads are performing and get the data to see that so that if they're not performing then I can change the ads.

It's nice for a Bookbub campaign to drive a tremendous amount of traffic to my site, but I wouldn't know how many conversions take place from going to Amazon to my website. It's all guess work. And, in 2015 and beyond, marketing isn't about guessing. There are tools to help track this information so that I can do A/B testing on ads. I want to learn and use those tools to help increase the effectiveness of my Facebook ads. By targeting a select demographic and tracking those conversions, I'll be reaching out to an audience that will be most interested in my work rather than scouring the internet with "please get my free book" tweets or Facebook page posts (which aren't effective at all).

Keep Working with a Writing Group

Earlier this year my day job and novel writing lives crossed paths. I met a fellow novelist at work and she invited me to be part of a writing critique group. I accepted and have learned some great skills that have helped me to become not only a better writer, but forced me to come out of my shell and network. No matter if it's an article such as Chuck Palahniuk's lesson on removing those thought verbs from your prose or just introducing me to fellow writers, I've learned a lot this year. The challenge continues to be all about managing my time.

In order to become a better writer, I need to read as much as I can get my hands on, learn and practice my craft and network with other authors. But in today's world, the world of publishing is so much more than that when you factor in learning social and other online marketing tools. I've landed nicely in a solid writing critique group and look forward to what 2016 will bring with this group. I just need to remember more of a balance between work and play.

Guest Blog Posts

I took Jeff Goins Intentional blogging course and learned some great things about blogging, but also discoverability. The biggest take home message in the course that clicked for me is that I need to network more with other authors. The more I guest blog post on other bloggers' websites, the more people will find me. Guest blogging works extremely well with SEO. In order to increase the authority of my website, I need to have more inbound links to my site. In 2016, I'll be on the lookout to network with fellow authors. Want to help each other and do guest blog posts for our sites? Email me and let's talk.

Summing the Year Up

I accomplished a lot this year, failed just as much, but still am moving the needle on where I want to be in my writing career. When I look around and see the publishing world changing so quickly, I am happy to see that there is hope. People reading books isn't a dying art. Instead, there is such opportunity and room for growth, but I am identifying myself more and more with being a digital producer rather than a novelist. I write books, but have also created podcasts and worked on audiobook versions of my works. It does not take a huge leap of the imagination for me to see the opportunity for content in augmented or virtual reality with games, movies and the like.

Add on top of that the extremely positive reports that Author Earnings released earlier this year and I'm amazed at how much the indie publishing venture has grown in such a short amount of time. Disruption is taking place in many industries and how we pivot and adapt to the new landscape will be telling. My longer term goals are to have my books translated into additional languages and to continue offering my work on new platforms. I may have failed this year from a dollar and cents perspective, but the skills I have learned, as well as the network I have built, are worth more to me than the money. My family always told me that in order to make money you need to spend it.

I'm choosing to invest in teaching myself skills that are not only helpful for my fiction writing but also for my job in higher education. Many of the same challenges that affect the publishing world are also hitting higher ed hard as well.

I'll end with thanking you for taking the time to read this marathon post and ask you to share your experience with me via a comment. How did you do in 2015? What were your greatest challenges? What worked and what didn't? Only through working together can we help and learn from each other. And lastly, before I go, please do me a favor? Connect with me. Follow me on Twitter or on LinkedIn. If you have a question of me, ask it. I'll do my best to answer your question. Together we can learn and achieve so much more than what we can do alone. Thank you.