My Year in Review and then an Analysis from 2011-2017
Another year has come and gone and I'm going to list for you all my 2017 expenses for my self-publishing career, go through my year's business plan, share all my sales and then give a thorough breakdown not only of this year, but review the data I've collected on my expenses and sales from 2011-2017.
I'm going way deep into the weeds on this one. Why? I've been an indie author now for six years and I want to share what I've learned with other authors—especially new authors who are just starting out.
I want to dispel a few myths, share my successes and my failures. Spoiler: I failed hard in 2017.
Am I happy about how badly I failed? No, I'm not. But I also want to learn what I did wrong, understand why and then become better in business and in my craft.
I believe that without failure I'll never learn and grow.
I've a lot to cover, so let's get started.
Goals for 2017
I had the following goals for 2017:
Publish my first non-fiction book
Publish book 1 of a new series
Publish Faith: The Jovian Gate Chronicles (book 1) on Audible
Build my mailing list
Sell more books through ads/promotions
I'm happy to share that I did publish my How to Become a Successful Author While Working Full-time non-fiction book and Ahab's Daughter: The Werewhale Saga. And the audiobook for Faith: The Jovian Gate Chronicles launched on Audible. I focused on building out the automation for my mailing list and focused a lot of time and energy on ads and promotions.
I achieved a lot this year, but if I look at the results objectively, I spent way too much money on useless ads and promotions. The strategy behind my technique was flawed because I did create a lot of new product, but didn't have an audience to justify the money I spent on advertising.
Case in point: Faith is a crossover from my Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series. Basically, one of the characters from the Cinderella series spins off into a brand new trilogy, but in a different genre (science fiction). I only have one book in the Jovian Gate Chronicles series written so far, but I spent a good amount of money to have the narration created for the audiobook. And gone are the days where I could fine a narrator to split royalties with me. I spent a good amount of money on an audiobook that didn't sell this year in the hopes of building product out for the future.
The same is true for Ahab's Daughter. I created an entirely new series, but it's book 1. I'm working on the next book, but I spent a lot of money doing promotion in the hope that people would buy it because it's a good book. But readers like series and it's a challenge to convince someone to take a risk on a book if you don't have the other books in a trilogy written yet.
I took big risks this year and failed. But how and why? Let's get into the numbers.
Copy editing for non-fiction Successful Author Book: $307
"How to be a Successful" Copyright fee: $35
Ahab's Daughter Werewhale cover: $381
Ahab's Daughter copyediting: $441
Ahab's Daughter rewritten book description: $157
Ahab's Daughter ARC service: $222
Ahab's Daughter copyright Registration: $35
Food expenses for Digital Book World conference: $9
Amazon gift card for reader's survey: $25
Book Barbarian Lost 7/11/17 promo: $25
OHFB (One Hundred Free Books) Lost 5/23/17 promo: $75
Choosy Bookworm Lost 5/24/17 promo: $25
Kindle Nation Daily (Ahab's Daughter launch): $130
Rebecca Hamilton's Mega Book Blast for Ahab's Daughter 9/26/17: $499
Book Barbarian Lost 10/10/17 promo: $45
Facebook/Instagram ads June-July: $100
Ahab's Daughter Facebook Ads (September): $42
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) April-September: $95
Instafreebie (Jan, Feb, March, April, July, Aug, Sept): $140
Google suite (yearly fee): $60
Squarespace web hosting (yearly fee): $192
Web domain (yearly fee): $23
Mailchimp (yearly fee): $625
Faith Narrator fee: $448
International Author Alliance membership: $100
RAINN Donation honoring #MeToo: $75
Business Consulting Fee $195
BookFunnel (yearly fee): $150
BatchBook (yearly fee): $199.50
When I look at my expenses, I invested in services (website, email list maintenance, Customer Relationship Management online software, BookFunnel, G Suite, etc.) that I incurred to help build out my business. When I add that all up, I spent $1,390 to run the business. Some of the expenses are yearly fees that I'm investing in to help track and better understand my customers.
But the challenge has been finding a balance between paying for a service that works and maintain sales. With Mailchimp, I'm a big fan of their service as it's easy to use and the automation tools do make it simple to setup. However, at the start of the year I had more than 5,800 subscribers. The problem though is that many of those subscribers wanted an offer of a free book through an Instafreebie promotion and I never heard from them again.
I was spending $75/month just on Mailchimp, but I found that people joining my list via Instafreebie were not turning into paying customers. Many of them were collectors—they wanted free books, but then didn't have time to read the hundreds that they had received.
I cancelled my Instafreebie account back in August 2017 and purged 2,000+ email subscribers because they had never opened any of my emails. Before I deleted them, I emailed them one last time asking if they wanted to be kept on the list and only a handful said yes. Paying for subscribers who were not actually opening or reading emails was a drain on my budget.
I corrected course late summer but another big ticket budget item was on advertising and other promotions that did not convert. I spent $1,061 on ads and only made a fraction of my money back. The places I chose to run ads were not effective for me. Some of that was my own fault: I wasted money on Facebook and experimenting with Amazon's AMS. I learned a lot on what doesn't work and have a better understanding on what does.
Readers like series. They also like value. Boxed sets like Dominion Rising did extremely well. And who wouldn't want 23 novels all in one boxed set for a great price? The marketing strategy on pulling together successful authors to all promote one box set was a smart business decision by those authors.
No need to be embarrassed. Failure is an important part of learning. Thanks for sharing this— KristineKathrynRusch (@KristineRusch) December 5, 2017
Frankly, I wasted my money on my ads promoting the first book of a new series. (Feel free to read all the details of my failed Ahab's Daughter: The Werewhale Saga book launch.)
What did I earn in 2017? When I add up all my sales from Amazon, Kobo, Nook, Draft2Digital, paperback, Amazon affiliate earnings and Audible sales, I earned $853.73. Yes, that does mean that I lost $4,002.27 in 2017. That's hard to write, but it's important to factor in that I spend money this year on services/products for the future.
But as I mentioned above, the marketing promotions that I spent and book services were big expenses that were not worth the effort. In retrospect, I could have easily saved money by cutting these costs.
What I Learned in 2017
I need to have more patience and plan for the long term. I've been publishing novels in different series, but need to move forward and complete a series before spending money on advertising.
I also need to acknowledge that I am not following the route that successful authors are implementing: Publishing a new book one a month, or at most, once every three months.
With my full-time day job (that I love!) and raising a family, I choose not to burn myself ragged. I tried that back in 2015 and writing a book in a month wasn't only hard, but it sucked the joy out of writing for me. I take to heart Kristine Kathryn Rusch's post on Sustainability. Burnout is a real thing and I can't work a 40 hour week, pop out a novel every month and still be a good dad. It's just not something I want to do.
I'm looking at my writing career in the long term. I'm focusing on decades and not burning out in 3-5 years. The investment that I'm putting into my craft and in marketing tools (CRM, email list management, etc.) might look crazy, but I'm building out for the long haul.
I wasted a lot of money on ineffective marketing promotions. I would have had more success in saving that money and doing better research with my fellow authors on what promos were working and what weren't. My hope was that I could set up a few Facebook and AMS ads and get some traffic and sales that way, but that's not the case.
Competition is fierce in the indie world. There's still plenty of space left for new authors, but you have to be strategic in your launches: Boxed sets, adding books to an established series, co-writing with an author who has an existing world that's successful—these are some of the techniques that are working in 2017.
As I learned in my failed book launch of Ahab's Daughter: The Werewhale Saga, I also need to be more mindful of my covers. People who read the book like it, but I've received feedback on the cover that it looks too literary and even on comment from an author I trust who thought the book was a comedy.
I experimented and tried to get a cover created that would be the best quality and best speak to my genre. I can't go back in time, but I can re-evaluate and consider a new cover and go along that same path with books 2 and 3.
Get to Know Your Readers
Instead of my spending money on promotions that didn't convert for me, I found that I had much more success in contacting my subscribers directly. I started a campaign back in November in which I just started emailing them one by one.
I am building my relationships with my readers, asking them questions and want to let them know that I'm not just some automated email. I'm writing to them personally and I answer every email I receive. Does this take time? Yes, you bet it does. But I believe that it's important to build trust with a reader and I've focused on making this a priority for me.
In 2017, I've been methodical on sending out my newsletter twice a month. I have an editorial calendar, have networked with fellow indie authors on email promotional swaps and found that these are successful ways in bringing value to my readers. Each time I write my newsletter I ask: Why would a subscribe want to read this? What's in it for them?
If I learned anything from 2017, I would say that collaboration with fellow indie authors not only helped me sell books, but I learned a lot about what to do (and what not to) in marketing. I participated in my first boxed set this year and was interviewed on several podcasts after I published my 2016 year-end recap.
Yet networking and collaboration take time and I tried to speed through lanes to get me faster to my destination of being a global intellectual property powerhouse (I can dream). I found that paying for certain services to be frivolous and wasteful.
I would not spend money again on looking for a service to help manage my ARCs and obtain reviews. I had more success on managing this process myself and wasted money on pursuing this path. I gambled the money on the service and came up with a bit fat goose egg.
Similarly, in comparing my own book description with the one that I had written for me, thoughts of having an optimized description that would organically help draw people to stop and shop were greatly overrated. I want to be clear that I did not have any problems or issues with the professionals I worked with (outside of the ARC service taking more time than projected and coming up with no results). Your mileage might vary: Maybe your book might do better than mine, but in the end, I still think that we authors can manage both of these parts better than an outside service.
Not only do we know our books inside and out, but we also have direct relationships with our readers.
More Downtime Needed
When I look at my day-to-day this past year, I had very little downtime. I created a schedule for myself to help me balance my various jobs so that I could fit exercising into my life. As I write this at the end of an extremely difficult year, I have to admit that I need more downtime.
I'm not reading fiction as much as I would like because I'm using my free reading time to study marketing books or webinars. But worse, I haven't enjoyed reading fiction. The few books that I have picked up this year left me bored and I chugged through just to finish the book. That's unlike me and there were only two fiction books that I couldn't put down:
I mentioned burnout earlier and it's something real for me. When I am literally running from place to place and don't have time to dream, process and think, my stories suffer. My writing this year has taken me longer, but I've looked to why I am attracted to Okorafor's and Anders' books. They both have a theme of displacement, a quest for home and how you can't quite go back to how things used to be.
The two drafts of books that I've written this year are dark and I'm embracing them for what they are. Characters are going off in places that I had not attend or planned. Being overbooked and overworked, there has not been much time for quiet and pensive thinking. And to be honest, it's hard to admit this when I hear other authors on podcasts talk about their success and how they're out-writing me left and right.
The little voice of doubt that whispers to me that I'm a failure because I've not worked hard enough is that devil on my shoulder that I work hard to ignore.
I write these year-end reports not only to help me to reflect on what I did this year (and how I feel about that), but it's also a warning for new authors. Not every indie author is making hand over fist in cash and it's not helpful to beat one's self up over trying to compare one's work with another.
Instead, I need to be more aware of my time to allow myself to have fun more often. And part of having fun is reading books that I want to read rather than doing research or learning new skills.
If there's one thing that I need to really take home and share with others from 2017, it would be this:
Be yourself. Stick to your vision and not what you see others doing. Give yourself space to experiment, fail and learn. Write what you love not just what you feel will sell.
Stay the Course
I branched out this year in writing a non-fiction book and had a great time doing it, but lacked the time and funding to promote it. I enjoy experimenting and trying new things, writing in new genres and allowing my creativity to take me to new places that I had not expected or planned.
However, I also need to be realistic that I can't expect to sell in different genres without promoting and building up those marketing channels. Moving forward, I need to focus a bit more on staying true within my business plan.
I also need to keep in mind the marketing side of my business. I can't just release a book and it magically sells. Someone (that would be me) needs to promote it and build out a marketing plan. This year I spent a lot of my budget on promoting my fiction book and stumbled in selecting the cover as well as the services to promote it.
For 2018, I'm choosing to stay the course by focusing on writing fiction. I want to do more non-fiction in the future, but I can't split myself into many other ways. I'll work on blog posts and do podcasts interviews, but for books I'm going to work on completing series I have started.
After sharing my 2017 numbers, now it's time to stack up and analyze all my figures from 2011 - 2017. Before I do that, a few things to note to put these numbers in perspective:
I have 8 novels and one short story collection out:
3 books in my Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series
1 book in my Jovian Gate Chronicles series that is a crossover from my Cinderella series
1 short story collection in my Jovian Gate world
2 books in the Witch's Coven series
1 book, Dorothea's Song, that's a crossover with my witch's series
1 book in a my Werewhale series (book 2 scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019).
2 non-fiction books
One on work-life balance and being a successful author
I work full-time in higher education and writing is my second career. In order to stay sane, married and raise a family, I have chosen to only put out 1-2 books a year. My novels tend to be 80K+ in length (two are over 100K) and it takes me time to write and re-write them. When I started out, it took me 2 years to publish my first book, now I have things down to around a year to a little less.
I also am a runner and work in 14-21 miles a week (depending if I'm training for a half-marathon). Balancing work, family time, writing and volunteering has been a challenge. Sure, I can sacrifice something, but I don't want to do that. I'd rather have a more balanced life. Is this approach affecting my writing business? Probably, but I chose that I don't want to go down the path of knocking a book out ever 2-3 months. That's just not what I want to do. It just isn't healthy for me.
With that said, here is a breakdown of my yearly expenses from 2011-2017.
Book Expenses from 2011-2017
To help, I'll also share my yearly breakdown articles over the last few years:
What Did I Learn?
When you look at the yearly expense and revenue chart from 2011-2017, you'll see that my expenses started to increase dramatically. If you dig into the details by reading through my year-end articles, you'll see that I incurred more expenses start in 2014 (Mailchimp, website fees, web domain registrations, Instafreebie, advertising, promotions, etc.).
I also spent much more money on my covers and on proofreading fees. My covers back in 2011 only cost $150, but my cover for Ahab's Daughter cost $381. And my Mailchimp and Instafreebie fees were costing me $100 per month, but I was struggling to break even during those months.
By producing only 1-2 books a year, I still had to pay the high cost of Mailchimp and Instafreebie. Putting out more product would have helped, but not at my current production rates. The big challenge is to find more effective ways to have my books be discovered by readers. Building a mailing list organically takes time and energy. My current fiction email newsletter goes out twice a month. I write articles for those posts, and offer something of value to my subscribers. I want to make certain that there are engaging posts so that they can get to know me and I them.
I've had solid success this year in keeping and slowly building my list, but it does take time.
When you add up all the numbers from 2011-2017, here are all the details:
I spent $11,684 on books costs (production, services, marketing)
I earned $4,535.91 (paperback books, ebooks, audiobooks, Amazon affiliate earnings). Note that this is my gross revenue as I also paid taxes on this income.
After you do the math, I was in the red for $7,148.09.
Now I can look at this two ways:
I failed miserably and lost more than $7,500.
I invested more than $7,500 in building up my business.
I've spent money and time building up my mailing list, website and am focusing on a CRM (so I can more easily track conversations I'm having with my customers). Starting a business takes money and I see my expenses as an investment. Granted, I've made some missteps along the way (spending unwisely on promotions that were not successful for me).
Moving forward, I know that I need to complete my other trilogies, create additional products for those trilogies (boxed sets) and then work at doing promotions.
I've taken a bit of a crooked path over the last 6 years and have had a scattered approach on what books I've written. For 2018, I'm dedicating my time to complete books in my different series. From a marketing perspective it makes sense and it'll also make my readers happy as I've had people ask me for when the next book is coming out in a particular series.
What I Would Different
If I could go back in my TARDIS, I would focus on writing and do less promotion. Marketing a first book in a series just doesn't work for me. I tried that with Lost and then with Ahab's Daughter and failed both times.
I wish I would have focused on being more patient instead of wasting my money (and time) on useless promotions. I especially spent way too much money on promotions in 2017 that did not pay off.
A more successful strategy would be to continue to try and get a BookBub as well as other promotional services that have historically proved successful for me, stack those ads up around the same time, and study how those experiments went.
Being consistent and patient for six years has been hard. When I stray and have thrown money at a problem, I've wasted my resources. I've tried to make my sales grow faster instead of focusing on slow growth (as I did back in 2011-2013). Instead I've tried to scale up without producing enough product.
I'm building a platform and have gained a lot of experience, but that hasn't translated into sales. For 2018 and beyond, I now have my platforms in place. I just need to keep fine tuning my automation emails, continue building out my editorial calendar and write more quality books.
The formula is pretty simple, but hard to execute consistently over time.
Summing It All Up
Well, there you have it. I've shared all my data from 2017 as well as all my numbers from when I started tracking back in 2011.
Why am I sharing all this information? Good question. I remember starting out and having no idea on what to do. I didn't know how to convert my own books to .mobi and .epub format, but I had help along the way.
I want to share what I've learned to pass it forward and help fellow indie authors who might be struggling with the same issues that I am.
I believe that together we can help each other out. If you want to learn more about the inner workings of my day-to-day writing schedule, what has worked and what hasn't as well as some personal stories of my indie author journey, then go check out my new book "How to Become a Successful Author While Working Full-Time: The Secret to Work-Life Balance" (and for the doubters: In my book, I focus on strategies on how to successfully complete your books. This isn't a "get rich" quick book.)
Or if you'd rather, send me a donation via PayPal.
I hope this article has been helpful and that you've learned a few things that will make you more successful as an author. I've learned a lot and my 2018 is looking rosy as I apply what didn't work for me in 2017. Thank you.