Reflections and Resolutions
In December 2013, I took the decision to cut back on paid work and throw everything that I had at writing. This meant taking a long hard look at my finances and (1) making a commitment to living within a very tight budget, with no more than £50 spending money per month. In terms of my writing goals, I challenged myself to (2) publish the book I had been writing, (3) write a new novel, and (4) learn about marketing. The fifth promise I made to myself was that I wouldn’t turn down any new opportunity that came my way.
So how did I do?
Living within budget
I got off to a cracking start by selling my car, which not only saved me money but put some back in the bank. There was a lapse to the ‘no new clothes’ rule when I went through the soles of my walking shoes, and I blew three months spending money on going to a family wedding. Also, I cheated ever so slightly, paying for walking holidays to the Lake District and to Pembrokeshire out of savings. But generally, I have stuck to the rule, meaning that there has been very little in the way of going out.
Never off duty, I added my books to the virtual library at Wray Castle
Publish the book I had been writing
In April, I published An Unchoreographed Life. I had a very soft book launch, having only released A Funeral for an Owl in November 2013, but the difference in offers of assistance was incredible. Many of those authors I had interviewed for my own website reciprocated by generously offering to host guest blogs. It helped enormously that I met several of them in person at the inaugural London Author Fair in February.
With another book to my name (a total of five), cross-selling increased, particularly sales of I Stopped Time. My sales graph for the first three quarters headed north-eastwards and was beginning to look very healthy.
April: the first batch of An Unchoreographed Life arrived. Time to open the bubbly!
Write another book
Although my seventh novel, An Unknown Woman, felt as if it was very slow in getting out of the ground, I did achieve my goal. The influence of how I spent my year is evident. It is – in part at least – an exploration of how material possessions affect our sense of self and what happens when we lose everything we own. The writing of this book became especially poignant after, three months into the project, my sister lost her house to flooding. There is no doubt that this event altered the shape of the book. The story also tackles the question of our need to leave our mark on the world, something I find is increasingly on my mind.
I learned that, no matter how much time you have on your hands, a story will only come as fast as it wants to come. My first novel took four years to write – while working full-time, admittedly – so this was not particularly slow by my standards. I will never be one of those authors who puts out a book every three months. My first draft was completed in August, then I began the process of whittling it down. Once it was 30,000 words lighter, my team of beta readers got their teeth into it and several rounds of revisions followed. I finally sent it off to my copy editor this week.
Learn more about marketing
As I was not yet breaking even, my strategy needed to be low-cost. In 2013 I had started interviewing other authors. In 2014 I stepped up my activity, approaching those who appeared on ‘best of’ lists at the end of 2013. Interviews provided a several functions. I helped to support others while learning from their experiences and tapping into their audiences. I have also made some excellent contacts along the way, many of whom have become good friends. Several of these new friends belonged to an organisation called The Alliance of Independent Authors, something I investigated and which has probably proved to be my single most useful discovery of the year. If you are independent author and you are not a member, what are you waiting for?
I boosted my efforts by attending a marketing masterclass given by two entrepreneurial indie authors, Joanna Penn and Polly Courtney. Each had a very different approach. I found that, although I could do more, I had already tackled many of Joanna Penn’s suggestions. Polly Courtney’s recommendation, on the other hand, took me way outside my comfort zone. Did I really want to follow news stories for themes and topics that I explore in my fiction and offer myself as an expert? However, both authors forced me to think where my books sit. Because I had continually been told that my fiction doesn’t suit the current publishing market, I had become experimental, delving into different territories – what some people refer to as ‘cross- genre’. At one point this year, I had books in the charts for religious fiction, historical fiction and urban fiction. I couldn’t ignore the increasing importance of branding. The phrase ‘thought-provoking fiction’ was cropping up time and time again in reader reviews, and this seemed to be the most accurate description of my work.
I read various books on the subject of marketing, the most useful of which were:
- David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Visible, also available as part of the Author Indie Power Pack
- Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book
- Debbie Young’s Sell Your Books
My priority has been trying to make it as easy as possible for people to discover me, and so my books are now featured on a number of sites including Self-publishers Showcase, Ascribe Novel Solutions, Books Go Social and Awesome Indies.
An Unchoreographed Life goes on a cruise with reader Sheila Christie
The need for strong cover design has always been at the forefront of my mind, (read my blog on How I do It here) but my website was letting me down. Its design was based on the cover of my award-winning novel, Half-Truths and White Lies, and it had been stretched to its very limits. The result lacked cohesion and was difficult to navigate. However, the most pressing factor was that it wasn’t optimised for mobile phones.
This was one project I was prepared to invest in, but I was concerned that I should receive excellent value. That meant preparation. I spent time reviewing my existing site and visiting other author websites, deciding what worked well, what I liked and disliked about each, and writing a project brief. I wanted a site that would work hard for me: a welcoming landing page; dedicated pages for each book with downloads; a press page; a page for book clubs; a page for talks and events. Writing the brief forced me to define my brand. I decided that mine was based around the distinctive black and white photography used on my original site and my book covers, but that I would be open to changing everything else. While working on my brief, I read a number of complaints about firms who had changed their brand and were no longer immediately recognisable. I decided to reinforce my brand, changing the font on my website to the one used on my book covers.
I chose The Curved House because of their love of books, their simple pricing plan and not least of all because I liked their designs. I launched my new-look website in September. My most successful blog of the year was The Year in which Self Publishing came of Age, which attracted many new visitors.
I also got to grips with social media. The fact that I was invited to speak as an expert on the subject suggests that my efforts were noted.
An Unchoreoegraphed Life goes to Tuscany with reader Helen Williams
Don’t say No
During the first half of the year, I happily accepted every invitation that came my way. Among other speaking events, I teamed up with author Isabel Wolff (an author I had interviewed and who interests me because she made a successful transition from chick-lit to serious fiction) to talk to a writers group at Waterstone’s, with Isabel explaining the advantages of traditional publishing while I took up the case for self-publishing. I spoke to a group of Surrey Librarians about the rapidly changing publishing industry and why they should stock indie titles. I gave a number of talks and workshops on How to Self-publish. Peter Snell of Barton’s Bookshop kindly hosted two book-signings. While it isn’t always possible to measure the success of an event by takings on the day, I had to stop saying ‘yes’ because the simple equation of travelling expenses v book sales wasn’t adding up. Rather than provided an income stream, as was intended, I was making a loss at every event. Authors are rarely paid for their time, even when the organiser makes a charge. Updating material and tailoring talks to the needs of different audiences is extremely time-consuming. In such a fast-moving industry, what was true last year is no longer true. As a result, I have begun to look at each proposal far more carefully, and to value my own time.
An Unchoreographed Life with Kim in beautiful Welsh Wales
The Hardest Lesson of All
Halfway through the year, I was fairly confident that 2014 would be the year in which I broke even. Sadly, it wasn’t. In a year of many successes, the biggest – and perhaps hardest – lesson has been that regardless of what I do, factors outside my control can (and will) impact on my income. I am one of the many authors whose earnings who saw a rapid drop after the launch of Kindle Unlimited.
What Lies Ahead?
In many ways, my goals for next year mirror those I set myself last year, but the challenges ahead will be tougher.
With many readers signing up for subscription services, authors need to be ready with convincing arguments why their books are worth paying for.
In January, a rule-change will mean that promoting books on Facebook will no longer be free. With predictions that other platforms will follow, this will hit authors with low marketing budgets very hard.
An increase in the rate of VAT applicable to e-books means that either prices will rise or the author must take a 17% hit on earnings. Read The Booksellers take on the issue here.
Changes in EU Tax laws will preclude direct sales of digital products over the internet.
So, why am I excited about what 2015 has in store? For me, writing has never been all about the money. The readers who discover my fiction enjoy it (all of my self – published books have an average of 5 star reviews) and patterns suggest they come back for more. Increasingly, my books are being cited as a good example of what indie fiction has to offer and recommended in various forums. In the first quarter of next year, I will be involved in an exciting collaboration with six other authors (more on that very soon, I promise), I will be releasing a box-set of my first three self-published novels – and I will publish my new novel. Then there is the next as yet elusive book, the thing that will take over my life, the characters who will become more real to me than people I have known for years…
But I couldn’t do any of this without the help of many other people. Tomorrow – The Myth about Self-publishing.
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