Self-Publishing 2018 Year-End Review with Full Sales Numbers

If you’re new to my year-end articles, be sure to check out the previous years (especially last year’s as it’s a compilation of all that I’ve spent and earned since I started self-publishing back in 2011).

How did I do this year? What did I learn? What are my plans for next year? And most importantly, what can I share with you that will help you on your indie publishing journey? Read on.

2018 in Review

To put 2018 in perspective, at the beginning of the year, I made two hard decisions:

  • Stop the hemorrhaging of book expenses.

  • Decrease dramatically the amount of time I would spend on my author business.

At the end of 2017, I knew that I had to cut my expenses. And I did that. I cut back on many of the paid services that I had (CRM, paid Mailchimp, advertising promotions, etc.) and I also cut back on time.

Why time?

It’s not because I lost interest in writing or the publishing industry, but rather my eye was on the November midterm election. I volunteered in my local community’s progressive organization and spent a good chunk of my free time in 2018 helping to make changes in not only my township, but also in my state. I don’t regret the time I lost, and frankly, I decided that America’s future was more important to me for my children’s sake than learning more about marketing books. Something had to give in 2018 and I chose my children’s future over my author business.

With working a full-time job, raising a family, and my activism, I spent a lot less time on my author business this year and this negatively affected my results in 2018, but I still am happy with the decision I made. For me, 2018 is simply a blip in my long-term plan. My goal is for planning out decades and not a quick spike with lots of sales during one year and then burn out. So with that all said, let’s get started.

My goals for 2018 were:

  • Lose less money in my business.

  • Publish 2 fiction books.

  • Sell more books through newsletter author swaps.

So how did I do?

Expenses

Last year I spent $4,856 on business expenses. I wasted a lot of money on ill-formed advertising because I became impatient and wanted to try and make a quick buck. My sales were poor last year, and instead of tightening my belt, I bet on useless marketing tactics. The good news is that I did spend less this year. Here’s a list of all my expenses:

Services/Fees

Costs

Redemption (Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries Book 4) Cover: $150
Shuttershock (2 images) 1 for Redemption book cover: $29
Redemption (Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries Book 4) Editing: $496
Author Cross Promotion: $45
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) January: $50
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) February: $23
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) March: $11
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) April: $18
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) May: $10
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) June: $16
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) July: $187
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) August: $32
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) September: $44
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) November: $13
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) December: $99
Google apps: $60
Squarespace web hosting fees: $192
Web domains: $23
Freebooksy Lost Ad: $100
Redemption Copyright Registration: $55
KDP Rocket: $97
Ahab's Heir proofreading: $561
Ahab's Daughter new cover: $300
Ahab's Heir cover: $270
Ahab's Heir copyright registration: $55
Bookfunnel: $150
Bookbub Ads (11/10-2/2/19): $35

Total: $3,121

So with everything all said and done, I spent $3,121 on my author business in 2018. My big expenses continue to be proofreading and book covers. I pulled back majorly on marketing ventures and my only bomb of the year is the Author Cross promotion. I should have done more research on this one. Due to a mixup, I thought I was going to be part of a massive email newsletter that would promote one of my books to tens of thousands of people. Instead I received a set of emails from people who had opted in to participate in learning more about my books.

2018 Author Business Expenses

With the General Data PRotection Regulation (GDPR) rolling out across Europe around this same time, I felt really conflicted on how I received the emails. Instead of just throwing the 500+ people on my mailing list, I emailed them and asked if they wanted to opt-in on their own. A few did, but I basically threw away $45. Still, I wanted to make certain that readers had a choice to opt-in rather than to just take the Author Cross promotion owner’s word that they had.

Would I join in a similar promotion again? No, I wouldn’t. You live and you learn.

When all is tallied up, the good news is that I spent $1,735 less this year than in 2017.

My Strategy for 2018

In January 2018, I decided to run an experiment. I put many of my books in Kindle Unlimited (KU) and I wanted to see how much money I could earn through KU. The tactics that I wanted to roll out were simple:

Write two books, run some AMS ads and drive traffic to my books in KU. My Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series now has four books and I hoped to drive traffic to book 1 and let the read through do the rest. I also have a boxed set (books 1-3) of the series and tried to run some ads, but I have only 1 review on the set. The social proof exists more in the 190+ reviews in book one whereas the box set only has the 1 five-star review.

The overall strategy was this: Write and publish the best books I could, build relationships with my readers on my mailing list (1,400 people) by sending out an email every two weeks, and build out my brand and value proposition with as many people as I can.

My books and newsletter focus on a very clear goal: Write books about heroines who do not need a man to save them. Through their own journey, the heroines in my books find the strength within and rescue themselves.

Between all the horrible news that took place this year (Kavanaugh hearings and major abuses of power brought to light by the #metoo movement), I made it extremely clear in my newsletter that I was an ally for women. I was raised by a single mom, who worked full-time, and had to move back in with her parents to take care of my brother and I when we were kids. No alimony checks ever came to help my mom take care of us. There were times when we relied on food stamps to help us get by.

Now that I have a daughter and son of my own, the books I write, and the reason why, are extremely clear: I want my kids to grow up differently than I and know that no woman needs a man to save them. The women in my books do go through rough times, but they also kick some ass and can hold their own.

The good news is that I had solid numbers on my newsletter open rates (average of 37%) whereas the industry is a lot less than that. I’m proud of the emails that I wrote this year for my newsletter because they weren’t just “buy my book.” My most opened email (the topic was “Do you still read?”) had a 43.3% open rate.

The not so good news is that I didn’t spend time trying to build my list in 2018. I shut down my BookFunnel account to save money and only had a sign up newsletter form on my website. In the back of my books, I only had a call to action (CTA) to join a newsletter in some of them. I had no effective means to drive traffic to my signup form.

And another thing I quickly learned is that being in KU isn’t that great if you’re not actively driving traffic to your books. For better or for worse, we’re definitely in a “pay to play” publishing market now. I didn’t see a lot of organic discovery.

Long, long gone are the days where you could put your first book for free and you’d get thousands of downloads and then readers would buy the other books in your series. So that’s where Amazon Advertising came in...

Amazon Advertising (formerly AMS)

I’d heard some great things from Brian Meeks and picked up his book on Mastering Amazon Ads. I read the book, joined his closed Facebook group and started experimenting (I even purchased KDP Rocket to help me with keywords).

I tested, ran some experiments and discovered that sometimes my ads would work, and sometimes they wouldn’t. At one point, the top keyword that was driving great traffic to one of my books was “book book book.” I kid you not.

I spent hours working on building ads, testing them and pouring through the data. I had a small budget (I spent $503 for the year)  and came to the conclusion that my time was being wasted in the ads. I set a few up, forgot about them and then the fall hit. I started hearing on various publishing podcasts that Amazon had tweaked the effectiveness of their ads. Not only that, but Mark Dawson and The Sell More Books Show also started reporting about the change as well as the vanishing of the “Also Boughts” in the Amazon store.

David Gaughran wrote about the Also Bought Apocalypse and I started seeing some extremely scary things online: Some writers were losing as much as 30% of their sales due to the Also Bought changes on Amazon.

And then I saw my anemic sales suddenly flatline. No matter what I did with my Amazon Ads, I saw barely any KNEP reads or sales. It seems that my choice to go all-in with Kindle Unlimited couldn’t have come at a worse time.

In the midst of all this, there was the midterm election here in the States and my time was being spent in volunteering. Between raising my kids, working full-time, and activism, I had to make another choice: Spend more time and money figuring out the changes in the Amazon Advertising platform or finish Ahab’s Heir in my Werewhale Saga.

I chose to finish book two in my series and focus on my long-term goals.

As I made this decision, in the back of my mind, I could hear two powerful voices: Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Joanna Penn. Joanna has said again and again on her podcast: Go wide. Do not keep all your eggs in one basket. I had done that up until 2017, but wanted to try a KU experiment in 2018 and now I was paying the price due to Amazon making drastic changes to their platform. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has also been a big proponent for going wide, but more importantly, she’s been a voice of reason: Focus on the long-term, build your author career slowly, learn the business of writing.

I’ll be honest: I’ve been publishing books now since 2011 and I’ve gotten impatient at times. I’ve wasted money (especially last year) in trying to throw money at bad marketing strategies to make a buck. Late in 2017, I saw how other authors were making great sums in Kindle Unlimited and I wanted to do the same.

Did Kindle Unlimited work for me? No.

I made only around $150 the whole year with KU/KOLL royalties. Because it’s so important to drive traffic to your books, there just isn’t the same organic reach that there used to be. And with the shake up in also boughts in the Amazon store, that just compounded the problem. With limited advertising resources, I focused on writing books and chose another path to get the word out.

Author swaps

I created a Google spreadsheet to track my progress and contacted as many authors as I had time to ask them if they’d like to participate in author newsletter swaps. I’ve been doing swaps for more than two years and found them to be a free and fairly effective tool to get the word out about my books.

In 2018 I took part in 13 swaps. I helped other authors and they helped me. The coordination of swaps did take time and some authors were more organized than others. Some (thank you!!) had their covers, descriptions, links, suggested text and dates all ready to go while others had to be followed up with several times. My results were mixed on sales, but for free, you can’t beat author swaps.

The secret that I learned in 2018 is that it was not as effective to do the research to find an author and write to them directly. Often I’d hear back that they didn’t participate in swaps or had stopped doing them due to lack of time. But say what you will about Facebook (and I could really say a lot as I’m not too happy with the platform due to privacy issues--be sure to read up on these 21 Facebook scandals from 2018), I found a few closed groups where authors were actively looking for swaps. The closed Facebook groups were a great resource of like-minded authors who also wanted to swap promotions. And the work was easy: I found someone who had books similar as mine, we contacted each other and then planned on sending out a promo in our newsletters to help each other out.

One of the biggest lessons I learned in 2018 is the power of community. No matter if it was the progressive group I was part of in my community or the indie author community, working together made all of us more successful and exponentially increased our reach.

For years I had worked alone, but now by networking, I could help others and they could help me. The reach isn’t the same as some of the ads, but with the low, low cost of free, the newsletter swaps did make a difference in my sales.

As a marketing tool, author newsletter swaps were my most successful tool and it helped me not only sell books, but also to network and build relationships with other authors. A win-win for everyone.

Going Wide

As the year wound down and my books started coming out of Kindle Unlimited, I re-focused my efforts and chose to go wide.

For me, that means making updated versions of the .epub of my books (as well as my .mobi versions--more on that in a bit).

I use Calibre and manually create all my own ebook files. I’m a techie at heart and I like doing the work, but it also allows me to save money. (I’d like to try Vellum but it’s not available for Windows.)

I use Draft2Digital to publish in the Apple Books store (as well as for SCRIBD and a few others stores), but publish directly in Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

To help some of you new authors out there, I used to create separate versions of my ebooks for the Amazon store and all the others. The reason: On an Apple device, you can’t put in links to the Amazon store. When you try to do that, you’ll receive an “this action is supported” error message--even if you make the URL with a URL shortener.

(Note: This is true even for an Amazon version being read on an iPhone using the Kindle app. If you want to link to other books you have for sale on Amazon, you can’t do that as Apple blocks the link to Amazon.)

I was spending a heck of a lot of time making sure that all the versions of my books had the right links in the back, but this wasn’t efficient and I started getting sloppy and forgetting to update all the versions after I launched a new book.

Now I’ve come up with a much more effective plan: I have one master file that contains all the right links. I can now export the file to .epub for going wide or .mobi for the Amazon store. When putting in CTAs in the back of the book asking for readers to buy my next book (or leave a review), I can either use Draft2digital’s universal book link or like to landing pages I created on my own website.

For example, if I’d like someone to leave a review after reading my book, I’ve created a page on my site that lists the direct links to all the major stores. Instead of having to create separate versions of my .epub/.mobi for the various stores, I can just have one file. Yes, it’s an extra click for a reader, but it saves me lots of time. In 2018, I focused on making my processes more efficient. With publishing new books several times a year, making changes to five or six different .epub files isn’t a good use of my time. Now I just need to update one master file and export out a .mobi and .epub files. Nice and easy.

Another tip: If you’re creating your own .epub files, be sure to put them through the epub validator. I found a few errors in my files and was able to clean them up nicely. Now I know that I have “clean” master files and I’ll be set for moving forward with consistent CTAs in all of my books.

Readers can see what the next book in the series is, leave a review, sign up for my newsletter and also see all the books I’ve written (with links to all the landing pages on my website). Sure, a lot of readers won’t see this in the back matter, but some will. I want to be smart and make it extremely easy for readers to find out more about me and to give them a little something (the first chapter in the next book) as an added bonus.

From polling my readers a few years ago, I know that there is a small portion that don’t buy books on Amazon. Now by going wide, I’m able to better serve them again and prepare for any other major changes that Amazon might throw our way. Yes, I spent a lot of time making the updated .epub files to go wide, but in the end, it’s time well spent. It’s allowed me to clean up my books, standardize the front and back matter and make my conversion process more efficient by saving me lots of time in the future.

My 2018 Sales

So how did I do? There’s no easy way to break this down: My sales took a bit hit in 2018. After all was said and done, I made $611.38 in selling books and Amazon Affiliates fees. And so you don’t have to scroll back up, I spent $3,120.63. That put me $2,509.25 in the red for the year.

Am I happy with this result? No. But again, I made some decisions that directly affected my sales. I chose to spend less on advertising as well as less time on marketing.

I learned a lot in 2018, put out two great books and put together a solid plan on streamlining my processes. I’m proud of the work I did this year though I’m not happy with the bottom line.

I look at the money I've spent this year as an investment for the future. Yes, I lost money in 2018, but I need to invest in order to grow. As a comparison, if I were to buy a Venti Caffe Mocha at Starbucks every day for a year, that would cost me $1692.60. Are there easier ways to make money? Yes. But I love to write and I’m in this for the long haul.

Over the years I’ve had fellow authors contact me and tell me: “You can get a free website, or cheaper covers, forego proofreading…” and a whole other list of advice. Here’s how I feel about that: I’m working on building my media empire a little at a time. I’m on a 10+ year plan, and it’s frustrating to see low sales, but I’m working hard to strengthen my connection with my readers and to provide them the best damn books I can. For me, that means solid covers as well as proofreading.

Here’s an example: In 2018, I rebranded my Ahab’s Daughter cover. I found that the original cover wasn’t connecting with my readers. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to put out an additional expense not only for book 1 but also for book 2. Still if you look at the difference in covers, I’m applying what I’m learning to more align my books with the genre I’m writing in.

Ahab’s Daughter original versus new 2018 cover.

On the negative side, I’d like to rebrand my Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series. But I’m now 4 books in… On average a book cover is $300-$600, so to create four new covers is going to cost me around $1200-$2400. With limited funds (and time), I’ll either need to barter with a graphic designer/author who can make the covers for me or spend the money.

I share these cover stories because I hope that I could help you as you’re on your own author journey. There are decisions that are made early on in the process that will directly affect you years down the line. There’s either tech debt or art debt that accumulates over time if you make decisions that might save you a few dollars today but cause you some headaches in the future.

If you’re publishing lots of books (I’m only at 10 right now, but still that’s a lot of back and front matters to fix), standardizing what you put in your books will save you lots of time (and help you avoid mistakes when you publish your next book). You’ll have a template to work off of that’s been tried and tested.

So although 2018 was not a banner year for me in selling books, I did make 2 out 3 of my yearly goals. The challenge for 2019 is to find how to increase my readership and still produce great books.

My Goals for 2019

  • Increase my mailing list with real readers.

  • Sell more books.

  • Network with more like-minded authors.

  • Continue to learn the business of writing and book marketing.

Why do I write these yearly articles? That’s simple. I like to hold myself accountable for what I’ve done for the past year, and I like to pass it forward by helping new authors on their journey. To continue that tradition, I’ve updated my graph on what I’ve spent and earned each year from 2011 until 2018.

Book Expenses and Sales from 2011-2018

And I’m sharing all my past articles in a handy dandy list below to make it easier for you to read them.

Thank You

Yes, this is a long article and I appreciate the time you took in reading in. The value that I bring to the indie author community is that I’m not afraid to share my failures and the challenges I’ve had over the years. I’ve wanted to write books since I was around 9 years old. I’m not in this to chase a trend, find a get rich quick scheme or to bamboozle readers. I’m an author because I love it.

Writing this article will hopefully help you on your author journey. If you have the means, I would appreciate your support. A small donation via Paypal can help me continue to write articles like these. And, if you’re interested in my indie author journey, I’ve written a book that’s part guide book and part memoir: How to Become a Successful Author. Not only will you learn some good tips, but you’ll also learn from the mistakes I made!

Thank you again and I do hope this article will help you. Feel free to comment below.