What I Learned about Indie Publishing in 2016: Full Sales & Figures

Where did the year go? It’s already the end of 2016 and the world has gone through some difficult changes and I feel battered myself. Sales for the third quarter report from Author Earnings showed significant marketing share shrinking for indie ebooks. Was that due to the election in the US? Or top indie authors moving out of the indie publishing category, falling under Amazon’s press? Or is the downtrend a sign of more to come?

Personally, I had a hard year. Like many of you, I struggled with working full-time (really enjoying my job and increasing time commitments there), juggling family life with the raising of two kids and making time to write. The good news is that I did not have a repeat of the burnout I had in 2015. I took too much on in 2015 and the big take home was:

It’s not possible to do it all.

I took that lesson to heart for 2016 and used what I learned to ground me. Be happy, healthy and solid with my wife and family. I’m in indie publishing for the long haul and need to plan for that. I published my first book on Amazon back in 2011 and want to continue doing so for years or even decades to come.

Let’s go through a quick recap of my goals for 2016.

Goals for 2016

  • Build my email list
  • Write/edit a book
  • Learn more about SEO
  • Facebook Pixels and Conversions
  • Keep Working with a writing group
  • Guest blog posts

So how did I do? Better than I expected and worse in some areas.

Build My Email List

I started 2016 with less than 500 subscribers. At the time of my writing this, I now have 2,700 subscribers. I have a long way to go, but I did see a dramatic increase in subscribers. How did I do it? I tried Facebook ads, Instafreebie and networking with fellow indie authors.

What worked best? Networking with my fellow authors. One promotion earned me nearly 900 subscribers over Labor Day weekend. Facebook ads were the least effective. Not only did I find it difficult to keep the cost per conversion low (I spent about $.68 per subscriber), but I didn’t find the subscribers to be people who would actually convert to purchasing a book. Giving the first book in my Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series acted as my reader magnet and that helped convince the person to get on my list, I found that subscribers from the Facebook ad were less likely to buy any of my books. In comparison, the subscribers from my fellow indie authors had an established relationship with that author, and trusted that if a book of mine was being recommended, then they were more willing to join my list and try my book out. Over time, I’m slowly started to see more sales from those subscribers.

Would I do the Facebook ads again? At the moment, no, because I sunk too much money in the ads and wasn’t able to recoup my losses.

I also spent a large chunk of time writing up my email drip automation for once a new subscriber joins my list. I have 6 emails (7 on another list) that are sent to a new subscriber over the course of 6 weeks. I spent a lot of time in thinking what a reader would like, testing the emails and making them as professional and exciting as I possibly can. The good news is that I’m extremely happy with my open rates.

I have opted to use Mailchimp for my email platform. Sure, there's Aweber and others, but I like the ease of use (though it does get expensive per month once your list starts growing).

I have opted to use Mailchimp for my email platform. Sure, there's Aweber and others, but I like the ease of use (though it does get expensive per month once your list starts growing).

And I also have a content strategy plan on sending once a month an email to those who have been on the list. I’ve shared other author promotions with my readers, giving them free books and worked hard on providing my readers with good content. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of time: Planning, networking with fellow indie writers to be in a promo, writing the promo up, testing, scheduling and following up with responses from readers.

I’ve decided that from a person-to-person perspective, the best way I can engage with my readers is through my mailing list. I answer every email I get personally. There have been times that I’ve had some great conversations and, my favorite email of the year, one reader told me after one email blast that she would have smacked me upside the head for a comment I had made to my wife. My readers tell it like it is and I respect that!

Write/edit a Book

From January to April, I wrote the first draft of an (as of yet) unannounced fantasy book. I had planned on working on the book with my wife, but she changed her mind due to lack of time. I put the project on hold to give myself time regroup and instead finished Faith: The Jovian Gate Chronicles (book 1).

The rewrite of Faith took me less time than I had expected and I got a rocking cover. The book launched in late October so I had time to start another book. Currently, I’m 42K into the first draft of a non-fiction book. I wanted to give myself a creative break and listen to what I really wanted to write. My hope is to finish the non-fiction book in the spring with the hopes of taking all that I’ve learned in indie publishing and packaging that into a solid book. But that’s 2017 and enough of that.

Learn More About SEO

Last year at my full-time job I took a certification class on SEO and this year I learned more about Google’s changing algorithms and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in Google search predicting what people actually want. Google algorithm RankBrain is a fascinating sneak peak into the future in which more machine learning will be on the horizon, helping us find what we’re looking for by teaching itself. Will this mean Skynet will wipe us out decades from now? Let’s hope not. The most important SEO tip I learned in 2016 is that Google is looking for content to answer people’s questions. Concepts trump stuffing keywords. Good content that serves up the information that people are searching for will win out over content with keywords stuffed in on the page.

Google analytics overview for 2016. Note 9/3/16 is the date that a fellow indie author sent a recommendation to my book Lost.

Google analytics overview for 2016. Note 9/3/16 is the date that a fellow indie author sent a recommendation to my book Lost.

Facebook Pixels and Conversions

I ran several Facebook ads and was successful in convincing more than 400 people to click on an ad and join my mailing list. That was good, but also cost money. More money than I could bring in from the ads. Readers would get my reader magnet (first book in the Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series), but purchasing other books was slim to none. I worked hard on putting this all together, but I ran into a wall in trying to create a tag for Google Tag Manager with a Facebook pixel. My hope was to have the pixel fire off so that I could track how many people actually converted, but I couldn’t get the pixel to fire off.

I tried several times, but then gave up because it came down to writing or wasting time tracking people. Since I knew through Mailchimp how many people signed up, I could see through the Facebook ad manager how many people clicked on the ad and then how many actually signed up. Would I do Facebook ads again? Not for some time. It’s not that they’re not effective, but it’s more of a money drain for me right now than providing a source of income.

Keep Working with a Writing Group

I dropped out of a in-person writing group, but joined two closed Facebook indie groups. I’m happy I did that because the networking and information sharing (not to mention promotional opportunities) has been one of the best decisions I made this year. The local writing group had great people, but I wasn’t learning the marketing that I wanted or was able to ask questions on how to increase my mailing list. In the two virtual groups, there is a monthly call on the one as where there’s some great discussion. The other just has a private Facebook group. I’m seeing sales figures, people asking for help in cover designs, marketing strategy and other extremely useful tips. I miss the face-to-face interaction with people, but what I’m learning in the virtual groups has far surpassed my expectations.

Guest Blog Posts

I went in on this hard in the beginning of 2016 with the intention of increasing my SEO through backlinks, but dropped it at about a third of the way through the year. I found very little traffic on the posts I put up for other authors as well as the traffic I was getting from being on other writer’s blogs. Again, I had to make a call: Stick to my guns and keep writing or waste time. I tried a few and dropped the idea, thinking it smarter to spend my time elsewhere.

2016 Social Media

I did not outwardly mention in my 2016 goals what I would do with social media, but I had to make a hard call. I dropped out being on Twitter except for the occasional rare tweet. I try to post every week to several times a week on Facebook, but I’m not seeing engagement on either platform. Again, I decided to not spend my time and energy on social, trying to find readers. The effort wasn’t worth it. I keep a presence and my content strategy is aligned with my brand. I focus on posting articles, sharing inspiration related to the themes of my novels.

Expenses

  • Google Apps for business ($50/year)
  • Squarespace website/hosting ($192/year)
  • Facebook Ads ($275.38)
  • Book promotions ($381)
  • Faith cover design and web banner ($500)
  • Proofreading fee for Faith ($235)
  • Web domain and proxy registration fees ($22.42/year)
  • Copyright registration fees ($35)
  • Mailchimp ($390)
  • Instafreebie (October - December) ($60)
  • Author conference * ($297)
  • Three new covers for Lost, Stolen and Found* ($405)

*(Expenditures were purchased late in 2016 and I'll not receive deliverables or go to the conference until 2017. I chose to capture all actual money going out in 2016 to give a true reflection.)

Total 2016 Business Expenses: $2842.80

Sales

  • Audible, print and ebook sales: $858.75
  • Two SEARCH magazine freelance articles: $29.26
  • Workshop social media training: $300

Total 2016 ebook, writing and public speaking sales: $1188.01 (December numbers have not been added yet.)

Analysis

When I do the math, I see that I was $1654.79 in the negative for the year. Why is that? I want to be clear, I’m treating my writing as a business and I’m listing my expenses so I can have a true view into what it takes to get the business off the ground.

What costs so much? Covers and proofreading continue to be a massive expenditure for me. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a cheap $25 or $50 cover, but I’m looking at my writing business in the long term. I want to ensure that I can have the best product that I can possibly afford. If that means that I’m paying for that now, then so be it. The good news is that late in December I found a graphic designer to work with who is much more affordable.

Mailchimp and now Instafreebie are also expensive services to run. But without a tool like Mailchimp, I don’t know if I would have been able to build my list as high as I have it and that’s slowly starting to translate into sales.

In retrospect, I partially regret spending the $275 on Facebook ads and won’t be running those in 2017.

The biggest challenge remains and continues to be discoverability. I’m slowly building up extremely positive reviews of my books (thanks to Mailchimp and my automation emails) and I’m happy to see that.

Year-Over-Year Comparison

Here’s a simple comparison between my 2016 and 2015 sales.

2015 Sales:

Audible, print and ebook sales: $974.08

2016 Sales:

Audible, print and ebook sales: $858.75

On a cursory view, it appears I made almost $115 less this year. But that’s not truly the case. Last year I launched three Audible books and earned $446 through the sale of those audio books. Most of those earnings came from free coupon codes that ACX gave to me to promote the audiobooks. In 2016, without the free Audible promo codes, I didn’t have a significant bump this year. But if you take away the $446 from my 2015 sales, I actually made more money in selling books in 2016 than 2015.

The Value of Free?

In reviewing my 2016 sales, the big question that I have is:

“Is the indie publishing market too saturated and are we cannibalizing our sales by giving so many free books away?”

I took part in a 16 author promotion back in November. Sixteen authors came together to give free books away to our readers. I’m on several author’s email lists, and over the past few months, I’ve been inundated with similar offers. For the last few years, many authors have wondered the same thing: Is giving too many free books away good?

I have to admit that I’m wondering the same thing. How many free books can the average reader finish in a year? With so many free books, it’s not hard to get your hands on dozens of them. Having downloaded a good many free books myself, I often pick them up and forget about them.
I’ve downloaded the free books, add them to my iPhone and often forget about them. Having a physical pile of books on my nightstand is a constant reminder of my reading list. It’s so much easier to forget that I have books on my Kindle app.

Instafreebie is helping build my list, but will those readers buy more in the future?

Instafreebie is helping build my list, but will those readers buy more in the future?

And then there’s the perceived value of free books: If the books are free, I don’t care so much about them. They’re disposable. I don’t feel guilty because I spent hard-earned money on them and they’re going to “waste.” I’m an author, and if I feel that way about free ebooks, I believe readers probably feel the same.

And you might be wondering: Why did I include a $300 public speaking fee in my sales? I did that on purpose. I’ve been listening to Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn podcast for years now and am a weekly reader of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Business Musings blog. Both authors practice what they preach and know that they earn additional income from workshops, online training courses or public speaking.

I’d like to continue to diversify my income by branching out into new and exciting areas. Yes, I will keep on writing, but I need to be strategic in how I can increase my income.

Biggest Lesson Learned in 2016

What moved the needle the most for me in 2016? Community. I am continually surprised at how amazing the indie author community is to its own. People are sharing sales figures, book launch strategies, down to what did and didn’t work. I’ve been learning what tactics are wise and what aren’t worth my time. I’ve also been extremely thankful to the authors who have helped me build my mailing list.

To break this apart: I spent $275 to bring on 400 subscribers through Facebook ads. Conversely, I reached out to a fellow indie author and she sent an email promoting my book (which linked to my subscriber sign in page) and more than 900 subscribers joined. How much money did I spend for that? Nothing. There’s great power in helping each other out, banding together to learn what’s working and to not only help with the nuts and bolts of the business of writing, but needing emotional support.

When I look back at the podcasts and private conversations I’ve had, there’s a theme of burnout that echoed throughout the year. People were burning the candle at both ends and needed to recharge. Some authors were cranking out 14+ books over the course of the year. Others pulled back, using meditation, relaxation techniques and shared their struggles with the group. Last year I did not have a support network, but this year I now have a group that I can share my questions and struggles with without fear of being judged.

That’s powerful. Last year I learned that “it’s not possible to do it all.” But in 2016, I realized that with a community of indie authors around me, I could do much, much more. I no longer just had my own skills, but I could ask questions, share ideas and work together with a group. I learned how to use automated emails that would work for me 24/7. Last year I struggled to do it all, but the power of working smart and using technology hit home to me this past Labor Day weekend. I woke up while on a family trip to check my email and saw that hundreds of subscribers were flooding onto my list. Each person would then receive my automated emails that I had worked really hard on months before. No matter if I was working late, out with my kids or writing my next book, the hard work I had put into my content strategy would be working for me as slowly readers left reviews for my book and purchased others. I wouldn’t have known how to do any of that if it wasn’t for working with other indie authors.

In working smart and with others, it’s possible to accomplish goals that I once thought impossible.

For 2017, my plan is to bring as much value as I can to my fellow authors (with this article being a step in the right direction). My days of slogging away alone and frustrated are over.

2017 Plans and Strategy

What have I learned in 2016 and how will apply that for 2017? Good question.

Build My Email List

There is too much disruption in today’s platforms. Amazon has changed over the last few years how free promotional books are viewed, Facebook only shows your posts for approximately 20% of your fans and Google changes their algorithms 500-600 times a year. Such change points for me to build my relationship with my readers. Outside of writing books, building my reader base and making an authentic connection with my readers is the most important thing I can do.

Instead of spending money on Facebook ads, I’m trying Instafreebie and will continue to network with authors on promotions. The plan is to help other authors, build my list and then strengthen that relationship with my subscribers so that they will become readers and buy my other books. (I will keep an eye on whether the value of free through Instafreebie continues to be successful. I want to remain nimble and be prepared to pivot as the industry continues to change.)

Write a Non-fiction Book

There are some books that you need to write for yourself and this is one of them. I have worked hard over the last six years writing fiction, but I want to take stock of where I am, what I learned and share this with fellow indie authors. The non-fiction book I’m writing will not only help me but then I can give back to the community.

Write a Fiction Book

I’m torn between finishing a secret project that I wrote the first draft of this year and starting book 4 in the Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series. I expect to finish the non-fiction book in the spring and can make a decision then. I’m leaning toward book 4 about Cinderella. I miss her!

Work/Life Balance

I have heard personal stories from several writers who have experienced burnout in the last year. Emotional, psychological and even physical burnout. In 2015, I went through an extremely tough year. I learned a lot from my mistakes in 2015 and have been working hard to put that into continued practice.

Yoga, mindfulness, meditation—these are some of the tools that I’ve been seeing fellow writers talk about in online circles. The initial “gold rush” days of putting up a book and making lots of money with little or no marketing are long over and the reality of how hard the work is over the long term has begun taking its toll. How many indie authors have quit already or will quit writing?

I have trained for three marathons in the last five years. The training is hard not just on my body, but for my mind as well. When people ask me about writing, I like to use the marathon analogy. I don’t simply sprint the 100 yard dash and, ta-da, a novel is completed. Research, writing, editing, re-writing, learning marketing techniques, networking and executing the marketing plan all takes time. Multiply that out for every book I’ve published and I have a growing body of work that I’m extremely proud.

But working full-time and writing has come at a cost. I’ve sacrificed family time, sleep and time to recharge my batteries. In 2016, I’ve worked hard to continually practice healthy behaviors and maintaining a solid work/life balance. When I was tired, I would go to sleep. I ate healthier, continued exercising and have added meditation to my daily routine. A few minutes a day on mindful breathing and meditation have both made a big difference in my life.

Is this too new-agey for you?

I’ll put things another way: I’ve seen people bury their stress/angst/problems with drugs, alcohol, prescription drugs and food.

Healthy eating, exercise and some meditation is much better for me than those other alternatives. And after last year’s problems, I am no longer going to hide how hard it has been to work full-time and publish books. Talking about it, owning my mistakes and then making time to be healthy in body and mind has made all the difference for 2016.

Rework the Business Plan

Back in May of this year, I stumbled upon an interview with Denise Grover Swank and went through her posts on creating a business plan. I made the time in late spring to do the same and went through all my sales from 2011 through April 2016. I also planned out my work up through 2018, leaving room for changes.

I want to revisit my business plan and make this an activity that I have a check-in on several times a year. I’m not only able to see where I’ve been, but plan out where I want to go with my writing career.

Network

I’m signed up to attend my first indie publishing conference in January and I’m excited as well as a bit intimidated. It’s the first time I’m taking off of my full-time job with a vacation day to make time for my writing career. That’s a big step for me and with the conference being in New York city, that adds another layer on top of things.

My goal in 2017 is to continue learning about publishing/writing/marketing and the only way I can do that is to hear what’s actually working for fellow authors, listen to their talks and meet with them.

Even though I’ve published 7 books, I still have imposter’s syndrome and know that the feeling is common among writers. I often seeing the superstars talking about their fantastic sales and it’s difficult not to compare myself with them. I’m working hard, going at my own pace and it’s the journey that’s important. Not the finish line.

Summing 2016 Up

Though the numbers don’t tell the full story, once I explain last year’s $446 Audible book sales and subtract that number out, my 2016 sales are better than last. I still have a long way yet to go, and when writing up my business plan earlier this year, I realized that most of my sales are from my Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series. But I didn’t release a direct sequel out from the Cinderella’s series in 2016. I took a risk and launched book 1 in a science fiction series that’s a crossover with my Cinderella’s series. Years from now, I’ll have two series that are interconnected, but in 2016, the book Faith: The Jovian Gate Chronicles seems out of left field.

Balancing my creativity and giving in to what the “market” says I should write hasn’t been difficult for me because I have a business plan now and I can see out a few years. I know now that I have multiple series and it’s going to take me time to write them out:

Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries connects with The Jovian Gate Chronicles. And The Realms series dovetails nicely with the novels in A Witch’s Coven series.

My unpublished fantasy/history book that I wrote this year doesn’t fit into any of those four series, but creates a nice path for new fertile ground for me. And the non-fiction book creates another path.

Diversification. That’s the key to long term success in writing. I have created multiple series, am starting a non-fiction line, a stand alone fantasy book, public speaking, print, ebook and audio products for my books—well, I’m seeing a tapestry of work come together in the most amazing way. I have more of a plan now and can flex and shift as needed.

Without networking, focusing on my own mental/physical health, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today. I think I’d be despondent, frustrated and depressed over my small amount of sales. But that’s not the case. When I ran my first marathon with thirty thousand, more than half finished before me. But I finished as well, went on to run two other marathons all ahead of more than 10,000 fellow runners who finished after me (not to mention the billions on the planet who will never run a marathon).

The same is true for me about writing. I’m running my own race. Sometimes I need to sprint, walk, rest and jog, but I am moving forward. Yes, my sales aren’t what I would like them to be. But I’m working on learning how to solve that. The picture is become clearer after years of trying to find things out. I’m extremely happy about where I’m headed. I’ve worked hard and am slowly seeing my work blossom.

Find something of use in this article? Let me know in the comments. Or, better yet, network with me. Contact me and let’s help each other out!

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