May 2020 marks my fifth anniversary as a published author, and honestly, it seems that it was just yesterday that I published Damaged. My very first book. My HORRIBLY written first book. One that isn't available anymore because.. yeah, that horrible part I just mentioned up there. The story was my first escape from mourning my father's loss. One that I wrote in three weeks without a clue about how hard writing really is as a second career. It's easy to write a book and hit publish these days. It's even harder to watch your book get torn to shreds because you just didn't know or even understand the dynamics of your reader base. Which brings me to this month's topic. 10 things that I wish I had known before I published my first book. This comprehensive list is something I've been thinking about writing for awhile. Not only for myself as a reminder of how far I've come as an author, but to maybe those of you reading this that are struggling or even thinking about writing that first book.
1. Write For Yourself
I think this was the absolute hardest lesson that I had to learn after publishing. Everyone has an opinion. Good, bad, and the indifferent. Some like cliffhangers. Some don't. Others like the taboo. Other's want that Happily Ever After like there's no tomorrow. Every reader is different, and you can't please everyone. Read that last part again. You can't please everyone. Write the story that you want to write, and how you want it to end. You can always put trigger warnings in the blurb, but that's a completely different topic for another day.
2. Bad Reviews: Do NOT Engage
One of the hardest things you will have to do is learn to deal with bad reviews. It also goes hand in and with number one. There's always going to be someone who doesn't like it. Everyone's personally tastes vary, and it goes back to that pleasing everyone thing again. One of the worst reviews I've ever gotten was someone who was just appalled that one of the characters of the Heaven's Rejects MC was a fire bug. This review ripped me up and down for allowing such a person to go unchecked in that fictional world. The icing on the cake was that she ended it with thanking all fireman for what they do. Don't get me wrong, I have a very healthy admiration for the men and women who are firemen, but this reviewer was equating a fictional story to real life. It's not the same. I am writing a story, but to her... it might have been real. Which is why I encourage authors to not engage bad reviews.
They hurt like hell, but it's not worth it. There are reviewers out there that live to rip a book to shreds, and they do not give one rip about how you think they're wrong. It's their opinion. Just like you have your own. One the biggest pieces of advice I can give to you is to not engage them. Fume all your want and vent to your close friends, but do not post anything about it on social media or even respond to their reviewers with a comment. It's just not worth the trouble.
3. Finding the Right Team
You likely see all the time on social media where an author is looking for a new editor, personal assistant, cover designer, etc. I know I do, and I've been in their position multiple times over the last five years. Finding your "tribe" for all aspects for your books is almost as hard as writing the book itself. I have found that having someone on your team that isn't trust-worthy or as qualified as you originally though for the job puts you at a major disadvantage both personally and financially. If your reviews constantly ding you for your editing, it might be time to find a new editor. Same goes for all of your book related services. Editing and cover designer at the two biggest things readers mention in a bad review. Well, outside the story in general. If you're seeing those two things consistently, you don't have the right team of people, and that could mean you need to make necessary changes. Books that are riddled with mistakes or covers that are just plain messy will hurt your sales. It can even hurt your reputation as an author because readers won't recommend your books to others. You have to do what's best for your business. That's the bottom line. Surrounding yourself with the right team is key to that.
The other major bullet point under this topic that is you can always go back and fix your mistakes. Remember me mentioning how horrible that first book I wrote, I'm currently in the process of fixing it right now and re-releasing it. You CAN fix it. Just don't wait until you're too far down the rabbit hole to right the ship.
This one has been a major eye-opening experience for me. When I released Damaged, I had it in my head you can't heavily advertise your book until it's released. WRONG! You should be advertising your book for months in advance of the release. When I first started publishing, Facebook group takeover parties and posting in large promotion groups on Facebook were a great way of advertising. Five years later, they are basically extinct thanks to the algorithms that hide everything anymore on social media. And, I mean everything. Posts, photos, links. None of it gets seen anymore especially in those promo groups. I recently went through my groups and removed myself from nearly every single pimp group I had joined over the years. Not only did it clean up my timeline, but now, I am seeing more relative content that I actually want to see.
But, how can you advertise on social media if posts aren't seen. Ads. Paid ads should be a major part of your budget. Done correctly, paid ads on Facebook and even Bookbub can help you sell more books than no ads at all because of the audience targeting. You can select your ad to be delivered to readers who follow authors who write in the same genre as you or even readers who use specific reading devices. Ads get your book in front of readers looking for books like yours. The downside is learning how to create eye catching ads, and not spending thousands with little return. I've been taking ad courses over the last two years, and learning absolutely everything I can about what makes a good ad. It's made a major difference for me.
5. Book Covers
Your cover is the very first thing that a reader sees. If it doesn't fit with the genre you're writing it, the chances are the readers will skip on past it. For example, you have dark romance book you've just released, but the cover is a couple laying in a green field with horses. As a reader, I would see that cover screams contemporary romance. Not dark. You've excluded yourself just off the first look. Readers probably won't even bother to click on your book or read the blurb. Knowing the trends of your genre is key to your success. It's great to stand out among the crowd. It's another thing to hide what is possibly a great story behind a mismatched cover.
This again goes back to advertising. Not all paid promotions are the same. In fact, many of the promotional platforms that I have used over the years have become less and less effective. Blogs used to be a huge staple in my advertising plan. But again, they are being stifled on social media platforms because of the algorithms. I used to dream about having one of my books featured on the top dog level of blogs. Now, I don't even see a post from them. In fact, many of the blog leaders in the romance genre have stepped away from blogging all together. It's sad to see such an important platform for authors go by the way side, but we can't control how our social media platforms pick and choose how we can share our content.
But, you have two great options at your disposal that you can control. Your website and your newsletter. The biggest of that being your newsletter. Since 2017, I have focused a lot of energy in building my newsletter subscribers organically. What does that mean? I have targeted those readers who already like my books. I've done that my keeping my back matter of my books current and by including a link to my newsletter. Your newsletter is delivered directly to the readers inbox. You can't say the same for social media. The same goes for your website. If you are providing your readers with exclusive content on your website, you have more of a chance of them seeing the information you want to deliver than you would say posting on your Facebook page.
Social media is still very key in how we interact with our readers, but you can't control it. By investing your time isn't something that isn't controlled by someone else, you're making better use of your time, and delivering the right content to those who WANT to see it.
7. Value Your Time
I can't stress this enough. Value your time. Value your work. Readers nowadays have gotten accustomed to indie e-books being priced at $0.99 even for full length books. You are basically giving away your hard work away for free. Book piracy takes away enough as it is. Don't do that to yourself. At most, you're only making $0.35 per book. If you've got all of your books priced that way, you're hurting yourself and your bottom line.
And, I'm not talking about putting books on sale because it's a great tool to bring in new readers to your series. Short term sales are great, but short term sale is the key. Pricing is another big thing you need to research. Find what works best for your and your reader base. If you have a long series, make the first book $0.99 as a way to draw in a new reader, but don't do that for your entire series.
This is your BUSINESS. Treat it like one. You don't see longstanding retailers like Apple handing out free iPads on the hope that consumer will buy something else to make up for it.
8. Book Signings: The Good and The Bad
I love going to book signings. Getting the chance to meet readers that I have only had the pleasure of talking to on social media and getting to spend time with author friends is one of the biggest draws for me. Signings are fun, but they are expensive, especially if you are traveling a long distance to get here. Fun doesn't pay the bills. That being said, if you are going into a book signing thinking that you will make back all that you have invested into it... take a deep breath because 99% of the time, you won't even be close. I can count on one hand how many times I have made an actual profit on my signing investment. One hand. I've been to at least fifteen signings in the past year that I can name off the top of my head. Maybe three have I come out in the green. That's 20%. Many other authors will likely tell you the exact same thing. Signings are great marketing tools, but if you walk into a signing thinking that you are going to make big bucks think again. You won't. And, if you are working on a very tight budget, there are other ways to advertise your books that may be more cost effective than attending a signing, which is my next point.
9. Quit Spending Money You Don't Have
I don't know how many times I have seen authors posting about the mountains of debt that they are in because of their books. Admittedly, I was one of them for the first two years of my career. I wanted to be just like the authors at the top of field. I use promotion companies I couldn't afford. I went to signings where I was the only new author there and bought so much swag to give away that it took me years to finally hand it all out. It wasn't until I saw how much money I was really sinking into my then failing business at tax time that I realized what I was doing. You can seriously hurt your family's finances when you don't spend within your business budget. One of the best things I did was to start tracking my monthly sales in a spreadsheet and budgeting out what I wanted to spend it on months in advance. When I had excess, I saved it to use for future releases. Within a year, I turned my failing business in a profitable one that I have today. Even when sales are down, I have a reserve of money sat aside that can offset a bad months of sales. A safety net as you will. The bottom line is if you can't afford it, don't spend it. I don't care how much you love that exclusive photo. If your sales can't cover what you'd spend on it, just don't.
Another useful tool that I use is to try to find ways to cut my service costs when it comes to publishing. For me, it was learning to format my own books with Vellum. I was paying around $100-$200 a book on formatting alone. With Vellum, I took that $200 I would have put into formatting one book and reinvested it into a tool that will save me money in the long run. And in fact, it also gives me the ability to use formatting as a side business to generate more revenue for those authors who choose to not do it themselves. There are numerous ways that you can make your business profitable outside of writing books. Profits that you can then re-invest into your business and use to do things you weren't able to afford to do before like signings.
10. Stop Setting Unrealistic Deadlines
This one has been the hardest lesson of all for me to come to terms with. Working full-time in a stressful field and writing part-time is not easy. When you put yourself up against a deadline that you thought you could make three months ago, you're hurting yourself and your family. I don't care how many times I have talked about how I write well under pressure in the past. The truth is that it's not always the same for every book. This year has been a testament to that. Outside of a few small projects, I haven't been able to finish a single full-length title. Something always gets in the way. And, it came at a cost when I lost my pre-order rights for a year on Amazon for having to cancel a release. Long pre-orders are the most financially lucrative for me, and because I thought I could push and punish myself to get a book done, I paid the price. If you know you can't make a deadline, stop making them. Be more realistic on your writing schedule. Your loyal readers are always going to be there to support you if you have to push back a date. The best thing you can do for yourself is to actually look out for yourself. Don't punish yourself when you don't get many words down for your daily writing goal. It happens, and the more pressure you put yourself under, the harder it will be to get it done. Find a pace that works best for you and stick with it.
The author life is far from easy, but I hope that if you're reading this you can see that you aren't alone in your struggles. We've all been there at some point. Pushing yourself to put out a book or even trying to write to market in a genre that you are just not comfortable with is not the answer. Write what you love. Be who you want to be. Find yourself. That's how you truly exceed.