On Aug. 29, 2011 – four years ago today – I published my first novel, A Soul to Steal. My life hasn’t been the same since.
From all outward appearances, little has changed. I’m still in the same (great) job, working as a journalist and editor covering financial news. Pressing the button to publish hasn’t made me rich or turned me into the next Stephen King. The vast, vast majority of readers have no idea who I am, a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.
But even if publishing a novel hasn’t dramatically changed my circumstances, it has profoundly affected my life. Writing novels was always something I dreamed of doing, yet I constantly found reasons not to actually do it. I took writing courses in college, studied under horror novelist Thomas Disch, and thought up lots of new plots, but continually convinced myself I didn’t have time to write a novel. In retrospect, I was living in this fantasy world where one day I would find myself with either lots of time or lots of money, enough that I could make my dreams come true. It wasn’t until about thirteen years ago that I realized that was never going to happen. There was no fairy godmother coming to offer me a publishing contract and unlimited time to write.
I decided to force myself to write a novel, an agonizing affair because it wasn’t until I actually started that I realized just how difficult it was. It took me two years of working on it on and off before I finally managed to have something presentable to show my wife. When I did, she (unexpectedly to me) loved it and urged me to begin the process of publishing it. I set out to do so in the only manner available to me then, querying agents and the occasional publisher to see if I could garner any interest. It didn’t take long before I realized this process, not the actual writing and editing, was the hard part. When I couldn’t even get an agent or publisher to read my book, much less publish it, the dream died. I put the novel in a drawer and let it rot.
By mid-2011, however, the world had started to look significantly different. I read articles about Amanda Hocking scoring a $2 million contract after self-publishing, and began to wonder if maybe I should take a stab at publishing the book myself. At first the idea seemed crazy, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder, “Why not?”
|Original cover for A Soul to Steal|
I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a cover, blog, or marketing plan. I solved the first problem by asking a friend of a friend for help and finally one day just threw the book into the world. I’m not sure what I expected. To anyone who asked, I said I hoped the book would sell a couple hundred copies. Secretly, I hoped a new novel of the Headless Horseman would go viral, becoming an instant sensation. It will come as no great surprise to learn that it did far better than the first estimate and well below the second.
But it was a start. It wasn’t until I got going that I realized I hadn’t just published a single book, I’d made a life choice. Once the book was out in the world, it started finding readers. At first it was just friends of mine, but after advertising the book on Facebook and later using some of Amazon’s promotional tools, it was random people I’d never met. It was immensely gratifying when many of them left reviews saying they loved the book—and they wanted to know what happened next. I had vague ideas that because A Soul to Steal was centered around Halloween, I could relax when Nov. 1 hit. But by the time that date rolled around, I realized I could do no such thing—I had to write a sequel.
Moreover, self-publishing awakened something inside me, both good and bad. On the plus side, I knew now that I had the power to realize my own dreams—I could be a published novelist. On the bad side, I became obsessed with sales figures and reviews. I tracked them daily, creating an elaborate spreadsheet to ensure I had up-to-date data about what was happening with the book. If you want to know how many books I sold on Oct. 15, 2011, I can still tell you (8). The problem came later when I realized that all this data was also making me crazy. I’ve never been a moody person, but suddenly my entire demeanor could be affected by how well my novel had performed a day before. If it had sold well, I was a happy man. If not, I became a sullen teenager. And God help me if someone left a bad review.
But I learned new skills as well. I immersed myself in the marketing world, learning about the best way to promote the book. I commissioned a new book cover, one designed to look more professional. I established a writing schedule to keep myself on track toward finishing a sequel. I started my own e-mail list, began a blog and learned how to make better use of social media. I’ve hired a fantastic editor and cover designer to work with me. I taught myself to think like a small businessman.
Four years later and my world is very different. I’ve published four novels and one novella, and I’ve written another novel, novella and short story, all of which will be published in the near future. I’ve sold around 20,000 books to date—a figure that still boggles my mind—and given away more than 100,000 books. I’ve (mostly) learned to deal with the ups and downs of selling books, and no longer check my sales figures on a daily basis.
During that time, Amazon, which is often maligned in the press, has been a tremendous partner in helping my books take flight. I initially published A Soul to Steal on multiple publishing platforms, but never found traction on any but Kindle. Since 2011, I’ve used several tools offered by Amazon, including free days and countdown deals, to sell many more books. Through Amazon’s ACX, my friend Brian Gill and I have turned three of my novels into terrific audiobooks available on Audible (with the help of sound engineer John Griffin), something I never even dreamed of when I first began publishing.
If that weren’t enough, Amazon created the Kindle Scout program last year, which allows voters to choose books for Kindle Press to publish and promote. I was incredibly fortunate that my most recent novel, The Forest of Forever, won a Kindle Scout contract—and I’ve been blown away by the amount of support it has received. Forest is far and away my fastest-selling title to date, and Amazon’s promotion of it has helped me sell more of my other novels.
Amazon even recently changed its pay model for books enrolled in KDP Select, agreeing to pay authors by the number of pages read in a single month by readers enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. This change has caused grumbling among some, but I’m immensely grateful for it, since I write longer books. In the month of July alone, more than 500,000 pages of my books were read. Under the current pricing structure, I make more money from a reader borrowing a book for free under Kindle Unlimited than I do selling it. As a result, as of this week, all my novels are now exclusively available through Amazon.
Most of all, I’ve learned that writing novels isn’t some unattainable dream that only a lucky few can do. You don’t have to be rich or the next Stephen King to make it happen. You don’t have to wait for some agent or publisher to bless your work. You just need time, perseverance and a lot of hard work. In the past four years, I’ve learned that writing novels is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s one that I plan to keep running for a long time to come.