One year in self-publishing | Fundamentals of Success

As I haven’t been very active in the self-publishing community (outside of my network of author friends) I imagine a lot of people arriving here will be hearing my story for the first time. So to start, I’ll talk about where I came from, what I’ve accomplished so far, and most importantly, what I’ve learned from it.

February 18th was the one year anniversary from when I published my first story, Claimed by the Alphas: Part One. I was twenty-three and after a two year struggle with cancer, I was up to my elbows in bills I couldn’t pay. Without money to continue college, I took a string of entry-level jobs, finally ending up in a call center. Partially for a creative outlet and partially for the desire to make a few bucks, I began penning a romance story in between shifts. Writing had always been my passion, but the idea of people reading what I wrote was quite intimidating. I probably would have never had the nerve to publish my story, but as fate would have it, my husband was laid off at the beginning of February. We were already living paycheck to paycheck as it was, so this was a devastating blow. I had to write a book and it had to be successful.

And boy, was it ever.

Those first two weeks, I vividly remember refreshing my my sales dashboard in between customer service calls–absolutely blown away. By the end of February I’d had somewhere around 2,000 free downloads on Claimed: Part One, then, I published Part Two. Two weeks after that, I quit my job to become a full-time author.

Last February, I was making less than $1,600/month after taxes. In my first full month of self-publishing, I made $9,000. In my second month, around $13,000. By summer, I was making over $1,000/day, and to-date, between twenty ebooks, one audiobook, and a few meager print sales, I’ve earned a quarter of a million dollars. Along the way, I’ve also managed to pick up New York Times & USA Today titles via two anthologies.

I think it goes without saying that this was not easy. My experience is not the typical self-publishing story. There are a handful of people who have experienced equal or more success than me, but there is a whole slew of people who haven’t.

So what the heck am I writing? Must be some phenomenal, revolutionary stuff, right? Or is it that I’m a literary genius? Or have a figured out a way to game the system?

Nope, nope, nope.

I write romance stories with equal parts of genre cliches, originality, and my own personal flair. I have no formal education in writing and err on the side of simplicity. There really isn’t any gaming the system, I just had to figure out what works for me.

So why has my career been so successful? Well, we all know the two secrets of success: never tell everything you know. That said, I will tell you my golden rule and the mantras that fall under it.

The Golden Rule of Self-Publishing: Self-publishing is a job.

1. I cannot always write exactly what I want to write; I am beholden to the ebb and flow of the marketplace.

2. My readers are my employers; I must deliver a product that satisfies them to the best of my ability.

3. I must continually demonstrate my value to my employers; consistent and timely releases are crucial.

4. I must deliver a high quality product to my employers; stories should be edited and the covers should be professional and appealing.

These fundamental policies are what set successful self-published authors apart from hobbyist writers. Now, that’s not to say that if you follow all of these rules, you’ll make thousands of dollars a week. For that, you’ll need a few more things.

Things every self-publisher needs before they start:

1. The ability to write a compelling and cohesive story.

2. The ability to write compelling characters.

3. An understanding of the genre you wish to write in.

4. A basic understanding of how to market yourself.

5. Self-discipline.

6. A fair bit of intuition.

It would take me weeks to adequately outline each of these for you. What I will say is that most of these things you can learn through time and dedication, with the biggest exception being intuition. Without good intuition, you may catch a windfall only to find yourself languishing on the ground a few months later. This is because you’ll either fail to keep up with the market trends or you’ll fail to figure out what it was about your books that your readers enjoyed.

So, if you’re still with me, let’s move on. Forgive me if some of this is redundant, but it’s just so darn important.

Things every self-publisher should have when they publish:

1. A professionally edited and formatted manuscript.

2. A professional cover that is tailored for the book’s target audience.

3. Social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter, mailing list, and a website (even if it’s just a landing page or WordPress blog)

4. A plan for the next book.

Admittedly, I got away without having professionally edited manuscripts for nearly a full month. To this day, my ARC readers are still emailing me typos here and there. But please, do what I say and not what I did! Unless you’re Rosalind James, hire an editor! There are several you can find via KBoards or even freelancing websites that will do it for cheap.

Now, are you writing 8k erotica shorts? Are you a graphic designer or someone with a sound background in Photoshop (i.e. Sylvia Frost)? Then by all means, make your own cover! If you’re not, don’t. No, seriously, don’t. Your books won’t sell and people will laugh about you behind your back. I’m like the third nicest person I know, and I will laugh at your cover.

In your early days of social media, you’re probably going to feel like a lame lame-o who’s talking to themselves. And you may very well be. But pretty much every successful self-publisher started that way, myself included. Suck it up, send out those new release tweets and post to your Facebook.

Most importantly, know what you’re going to write next AND have a general date for it. If your readers aren’t anticipating your next work, they’ll quickly forget about you.

Things to do after you publish:

1. Inform your readers via social media outlets.

2. Start writing the next book.

Rinse, repeat.

Things NOT to do after you publish:

1. Take off for a couple months.

2. Write negative reviews for other authors.

3. Ignore bad reviews.

4. Ignore good reviews.

Especially early on in your career, it’s critical that you try to publish something at least every 90 days. Unless you’re JK Rowling or Stephen King, Amazon’s algorithms will bury you if you’re only publishing two books a year.

Writing bad reviews for other authors, even if they’re your genuine feelings, is simply bad form. It will also make you a pariah in the self-publishing community.

I’ve stopped reading reviews. Mostly it’s because I’m 4 months pregnant and ruled by my hormones, but it’s also because by now, I know my readers. I know the things they love, the things they hate, and the things that keep them reading the next book. How did I learn all of this? Well, for the first nine months of my career, I read every. single. review. Reviews can be extremely uplifting and they can also be utterly disheartening, especially in the beginning. Still, I read them all, not because I enjoy emotional whiplash, but because hidden in each genuine review is a message: I am your reader and this is what matters to me. Listen to your good reviews and try to take constructive feedback from your bad ones.

These are really just thing things I thought of at 3:30am, an hour after taking a Unisom (hence the numerous typos). There’s sooooo much that goes into being a successful self-published author, but if you do all of this you will succeed (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed)! On what level you succeed is really dependent on how well you execute these things and your own, unique talents.

Wishing you the best,

Viola

Reader Expectations, Writer Schedules, Adult Dungeons, & All-Stars

Sorry I haven’t been able to respond to all of the comments. I’ve joined two large box set collaborations, both set to come out before the end of the year, so between those and my already crazy writing schedule, my time has been strapped. I figured I’d take some of the more common questions I’ve been asked and convert them into a blog post. If I didn’t get to your question with this, I encourage you to give me another nudge and I’ll try to with the next post! And sorry if this has some errors, I only gave it a once over and my brain has the tendency to read what I should have written, even if it isn’t there. >_<

Reader Expectations Within a Genre
I was asked about genres and how I know what the expectations are for readers in each genre. One of the best ways to figure out what readers in each genre are looking for is to read reviews. I’d give you some examples for mine, but most of my bad reviews are just people complaining about the length or the fact that my heroines always wear impractical shoes.

Look for common complaints and common praises and you’ll start to notice trends. For example, in New Adult books, a cheating hero has a much better chance of redemption than a hero in a paranormal romance, where fidelity is one of the cornerstones of the genre.

Different genres have different expectations and once you figure out what those expectations are, you can begin to mold your story around them. It’s important to remember that these conventions can bent and broken, and in fact some of the best and most unique stories run contrary to reader expectations. What you always have to remember though, is that for each convention you break, you better be following two, because if you go crazy and try to make your story too unique, you’re probably going to end up pressing way too many buttons with readers.

Writing on a Tight Schedule
I’ve always set very aggressive deadlines and I often found myself scrambling at the last minute to finish. Later, I began setting more lax deadlines, but was still scrambling at the last minute to finish. My problem had nothing to do with the deadlines and everything to do with procrastination and poor management of time.
With my current serial, I’ve been much more organized and it really shows in the cohesiveness of the story, the quality of the writing, and my overall quality of life. Here’s how I’ve managed this.
First off, I drafted my entire serial out before I started writing. I did a pretty loose draft, about a 2,000 word summary per book that outlines all of the major plot points. I kept it loose intentionally that way my characters have room to breathe. I think it’s a really good idea to keep plotlines flexible because characters can change so much between drafting and actually writing. The last thing you want to do is hit a point where you’re trying to cram your characters into a plot that just doesn’t really make sense considering how they’ve grown and evolved. That’s something I can talk more about later.
So, after I did my initial draftings, I went back into the first book and drafted each individual chapter. I’m going to post a couple pictures of my scrivener files so you can see what this looks like. Basically, I do anywhere from 250 to 750 words per chapter.

Scrivener

You can click on the image and enlarge it to get an idea of what this looks like. As you can see I’ve done a skeleton draft of Chapter 4, writing down the dialogue and a handful of actions that will take place. In the upper right corner is where I monitor projected word count versus actual word count and where I make note of chapter deadlines.
So now I have an overall draft of my book and individual chapter drafts. In the past I’ve been a strong advocate for pantsing, which for those of you who don’t know, is sort of like discovery writing. You have a general idea of what you want to happen and you just say to hell with plots, I’m gonna figure this out as I go. When I say that, some of you are probably thinking YES THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE! and others are appalled. I can say that my best writing is a combination of these, but for now I’m going to focus on the plotting aspect because I think that’s way more important for effectively managing your time.
The overall draft is going to help you to do the chapter draft and the chapter draft is going to help you write way more efficiently. Instead of scratching your head and wondering what to write next, you’ll have the chapter draft to refer to at all times, which basically makes writer’s block a thing of the past. I also like to assign mini-deadlines to each chapter to keep myself on the ball. I never think of reaching a specific word count per day, my focus is always on doing a minimum of one chapter per writing day and a maximum of two. At least for myself, writing more than about 4,000 words a day really burns me out and the next day I’m much less enthusiastic about my WIP. It’s important to recognize your own limits that way you can pace yourself better.
A 30,000 word book, which is about 100 pages, takes me around two weeks to write from start to finish. To give you a breakdown of my most recent book, I spent two days drafting the 13 individual chapters, which left me 12 days. Most of the days I wrote at least one chapter, some days I had good momentum and I finished two. On days where I knew that I would be distracted (like payday) I didn’t schedule any writing at all. I try to rush and push myself to exceed my mini-deadlines in the first week that way if life happens and I miss day in week two, I’m still ahead of the game.

Adult Dungeon

I remember somebody asked about Amazon’s adult dungeon, aka where the naughty books are hidden away. I want to just go over that really quickly because there isn’t too much that you need to know about it. For those of you don’t know, here’s what happens when you submit a book through KDP. It goes through filters and certain content will trigger flags. After the automated filters, the book is reviewed by an actual person. They review the cover as well as the flags to ensure that the book doesn’t contain any banned material, such as underage erotica. There a are a few things that can get your book put in the adult dungeon. Nudity on the cover is a big one. Obviously you can have male chests, but you don’t want any female breasts showing. You also don’t want to show any butts or genitalia. Those are the ones I know for sure will get you put in the dungeon. I’ve also heard people say that sideboob, hands over boobs, and straddling can get you there as well, but take those with a grain of salt.
The other things you want to be conscientious of are your blurbs and your titles. I know for certain that if you talk about pseudo incest in your blub, you’ll probably get shoved in the dungeon. That’s a very lucrative subject and if you decide to write about it then be sure to use words like taboo. I’ve heard authors say that the word “sexy” in their title has gotten them dungeoned, I don’t know how true that is, but I’d err on the side of caution.
I written thirteen erotic romance books and I’ve never been dungeoned. Basically, if you want to keep your books out of the adult dungeon, just be smart. Make sure your cover is sexy, but not smutty and make sure your blurb and title conveys what your book is about without going into graphic detail. A blurb is like a nice dress. It should emphasize your assets while still leaving something to the imagination.

Unlimited and All-Stars

My inbox is flooded with people asking about KU. Please keep in mind, while I’ve always been open about my successes and how I’ve done the things I’ve done, it doesn’t make flat out asking me what I’m earning not rude. So, um, don’t do that.

I was initially turned off by the idea of an All-Star program, as were many of my friends. We assumed it would just be doled out to all the people who already had special deals with Amazon. We were all surprised yesterday when a lot of us got an email. August was a pretty slow month for me and I didn’t even expect to scratch that list, but I actually received one of the larger incentives. It’s not something I would plan my finances around, but I personally know a few authors that only had one or two moderately selling titles in KU that still took home one of the $1k bounties.

A lot of you want to know if I think KU is worth it. I would say yes, with caveat that it is if you aren’t selling strongly on any other channels. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve already released a few books and been at it for several months. I’ve found a good deal of success in the program, but when I pulled out my sales were beginning to really pick up on Barnes & Noble. If I ever decided to pull out of the program, it would probably take a while to regain that momentum.

A few rules of thumb when transitioning into KU:

  • Don’t pull your books from other vendors mid-series. Make sure your series is complete and your dedicated fans have time to finish it, a least a week.
  • On that note, give your readers fair warning, again, at least a week, that all of your books are coming down from other vendors.
  • Establish a No Kindle? page on your website so that fans without a Kindle can enjoy your book in their desired format. Be sure that you are prompt in distributing these copies to your fans.

Anyway, I hope this stuff was helpful. Feel free to ask me more questions, I’m going to try to squeeze another blog post out before the end of the month.

Finding and Structuring the Idea

Before I jump into pricing, marketing, and all that jazz, I’d like to start where we all start: with an idea. Coming up with ideas is pretty easy. Most writer have folders upon folders of book ideas. The hard parts are determining which of those ideas is viable and subsequently figuring out how to structure that idea into a multi-arc story. Yeesh, that can be tough.

 

Which of My Ideas Is Viable?

Allow me to begin with a disclaimer. There will always be outliers, unique ideas that no one could have predicted would be successful. If you have an idea that is haunting your soul and you have the money to lose should things not pan out, then by all means, follow your heart. If you’re a (literally) starving artist and you want to find an idea that has the greatest chance of being moderately successful, then read on.

Anyone who’s read my previous guides has heard me say this again and again, but it bears repeating:

Don’t write what you want to write, write what you want to read.

Let me explain with an example. If I had started off writing what I wanted to write, I would have written three four-hundred page fantasy romance novels. I don’t mean elves, dwarves, and orcs, hoh no. I have a four unique races, five continents, and forty nations in my unique world. I know everything from each nation’s individual gods to what they used to export 500 years ago. I have put years into constructing this world, its history, and the stories that take place within it.

So why didn’t I write it? Because no matter how much I would enjoy writing it, in its current form, it’s not the type of book I would seek to read.

When I started my career, I was flat broke. I over drafted my bank account to pay for my first cover. I couldn’t afford to be whimsical and write an epic fantasy just because I was in love with the idea of it. I needed something I knew I could sell. So how did I decide what to write?

I asked myself: What do I want to read?

That’s a very powerful question, because although we’d all like to believe we’re special snowflakes, our tastes aren’t as varied as we’d think. That’s why some books explode in popularity and others sink into algorithmic oblivion. The point isn’t just to write a book people will like, it’s to write a book people will actively seek out.

Now, there is one dangerous pitfall when you ask yourself this question. If you’re writing the type of book you usually enjoy reading, you’re probably going to end up with an idea that’s derivative of something. Maybe you love 50 Shades of Grey and The Crossfire Series, so you decide to write something in the billionaire BDSM category. Chances are, you’re going to come up with an idea that’s painfully similar to other books that are out there and without the aid of a publisher throwing money around, it’s very likely your book will still sink into algorithmic oblivion. If you’re looking to break out, writing in a saturated genre can be just as bad as writing in a small niche, perhaps even worse. But there’s hope.

Ask yourself: What do I want to read that I can’t find?

This is the real magic question. Ever been up at 2 AM, browsing the Kindle store for that elusive book. You know, that book. The one that has that thing that you love with that theme you can’t get enough of? That book that just ticks all of your boxes? But damn, you can never quite find it.

Again, we all like to think we’re special and that are tastes are unique, but if you’re looking for a book that you just can’t find, imagine how many other people are looking for that exact same book. The difference is–holy cow–you’re an author! Unlike the hungry masses, you actually have the ability to write that book!

To recap, if you want to chose a unique idea that will sell well, you need to reflect on your own reading habits. Figure out which book you’ve been craving that you just can’t find and write it.

 

Structuring the Idea (Character-Driven Fiction)

Before I go into this, I should note, I write romance. Romance is extremely character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven. Therefore, my story structures rely heavily on character development, rather than external conflicts.

Okay, so (hopefully) you have a unique gem of an idea now. So what the heck do you do from there? In my opinion, this is the toughest part, so if you can get past this, it’s (mostly) easy from here. Instead of talking in abstract terms, let me take you through the process that I used with my current serial.

My third and current serial is Running With Alphas. I came up with the idea while in the process of writing my second serial. My idea started like so: I want to read a book about sexy werewolf twins that are both in love with the same woman. So how did I turn that single sentence into an 8 arc, 800 page story?

Once I had the idea, I started thinking about the characters. Who are the male leads? Who will the female lead be? Who will my main characters interact with (secondary characters)? When I make my characters, I go pretty deep into their backgrounds, starting from the time they were born until where they are today. I think about the major events that happened in their lives and how it shaped them into the person they’ve become. If you need a little guidance, here are some sheets that can help with that.

Once you have a cast of deep characters, your story will begin to shape itself. Take a few hours, or even a day, and think about what sorts of conflicts these characters might have with one another. What will one character dislike about another? How might their personalities clash? Better yet, think about characters that already know one another. How will their past relationship affect the story? How will introducing a new character change preexisting relationship dynamics?

Once that’s done, think about the setting and what impact it will have on your story. Think about how your characters will spend their time within the setting. It’s important to remember that characters don’t stop existing when they’re not in a scene, and oftentimes when you consider what they might be doing, you’ll realize they’re up to something interesting. You might even find out something about them that you didn’t know before. 

When I was at around six books, I hit a bit of a wall where I wasn’t sure what to do next. A lot of the loose ends were tied, but the story just didn’t feel finished. I still wanted to do more with the characters and I knew fans would want more as well. Instead of making the same mistake I made with my first serial and ending it too soon, I went back to the drawing board. 

As I’ve only done this once, I can’t give you all the answers. I’m sure there are plenty of techniques for stretching a story out, but I didn’t want to stretch it, I wanted to enrich it. So I introduced a new character. 

My new character is pretty straightforward, but man, does she add a lot of conflict, three books worth! And do yourself and your readers a favor, don’t add a character that exists just to drudge up old drama, like childhood love interest or something cliche like that. If you’re bringing in a new character, make them fresh and interesting. 

To recap, in character-driven fiction, your characters will help you to build your stories. Instead of creating a great big plot and forcing your characters into it, focus instead on creating deep, compelling characters and let them take your one sentence idea and turn it into an epic story.

 

I hope this was helpful information. If you have a topic you’d like me to focus on next week, let me know and I’ll see what I can whip up!

 

Leaving KB and Starting Fresh

I left KB rather abruptly and I won’t be going back. I will, however, be moving most of my information over here in the next few weeks, as well as supplementing it with additional information.

While my departure may seem abrupt, this is a decision that my husband has been pushing me towards for several months now. It has nothing to do with the Clarissa Black thing. While the use of the names Asch and Caim was very aggravating, it’s not plagiarism and I don’t feel that it was related to KB in any way, considering the people she actually did plagiarize, like Aubrey Rose and Michele Bardsley, are not active on KB, at least not under any persona I’m aware of.

A lot of you who know me privately already know why I left, but for those who don’t, I left due to the constant attacks on my books. “Attacks” feels like a strong word, kinda even makes me wanna roll my eyes, but I’m not sure what else to call them. On a weekly basis, I have to deal with people down voting my positive reviews and up voting my negative ones, as well as submitting fake 1-star reviews on my books.

Now, I don’t think my writing is amazing or that my books are in any way perfect. I also don’t believe that there are readers out there that wouldn’t absolutely hate everything about my books. Everyone has different tastes and I am very well-adjusted, all things considered. Bad reviews suck, but I take them in stride. What I don’t do is immediately think “This person claims she didn’t like my book, they MUST be trying to destroy me!!” Okay, now I’m rolling my eyes.

What I’m talking about is: When, overnight, someone down votes thirty positive reviews on three of my books. Or when I get unverified 1-star reviews across multiple books from the same person who has never reviewed anything or hasn’t reviewed in a year that just says “……….” To recap, a person made an Amazon account solely to submit  1-star reviews on multiple books of mine that just say “………”

That’s when I start to call shenanigans.

Now, the good thing is that Zon is a lot smarter than people give them credit for and reviews like that can be removed. The bad thing is that this is this is the type of thing I’ve been dealing with since I made my very first Mega thread on KB, back in March when I was still all new, shiny, and twenty-three. As the attacks began to roll in, I had to start taking measures to prevent things like this, such as stripping my sig line and changing my name, but by the time I wrote the Serialized Romance Thread everyone already knew who I was so it was kind of pointless. The most frustrating thing about it was that I couldn’t say too much publicly, because it felt like I was just inviting people to trash my books.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the copying stuff kind of annoyed me. Not really the “Claimed by” names, because frankly, those were great for keyword crossovers. The covers that looked similar to mine didn’t upset me either and neither did the similar plots. I don’t know why, but the one thing that really made me angry (besides using my character names) was when people used the same fonts as my covers because it made branding a bitch. I quietly resolved that though, by working with a new designer.

I understand why the timing of my leaving would lead people to believe that I’m upset over the name copying thing. I’m actually very happy with the way that was resolved and, again, I don’t feel that was related to my KB posts. Yesterday, I woke up to multiple “…….” 1-stars, as well as down votes on several 5-star reviews across multiple titles and my husband (as well as VM Black ;- )  finally convinced me to step away from KB.

This isn’t really anything new. Many successful self-published authors have experienced similar attacks after posting threads there and we’ve all seen them strip their sigs, change their names, or just plain leave. I don’t want this to come off as an attack on KB, because it’s definitely not. There’s a lot of good information there and a lot of support for fledgling authors, but it is a public board and you never know who’s reading your posts, what their feelings are towards it, and what they’re going to do. I made a lot of mistakes, mainly being so open about my earnings and my opinions on writing and marketing, which I attribute primarily to naivety. Personally, I don’t feel that I have anything to gain there at this point in my career and I won’t be going back, not even under a pseudonym, but I do encourage people to go there and learn, just BE SMART. Don’t talk about what you’re making and don’t talk about how many books you’re selling if there’s any information that can lead people back to your books.

Honestly, I don’t know if moving my information to a blog is going to change things, but a few turds in the punch bowl doesn’t change the fact that I genuinely enjoy helping people. I’ve saved most of the info from the Serial thread and I’m going to start uploading it with supplemental information later this week. My hope is that this can ultimately be a place where we can discuss not just writing, but self-publishing as a whole, because writing is just one of the many skills that is required of a successful indie author.

I don’t have a set posting schedule yet, but feel free to follow my blog, as I will begin posting this weekend. I also plan on doing a few video blogs and podcasts as well.

Viola :)

Pardon the mess…

As of today, I’m in the process of converting this blog into a writing/self-publishing blog for my author friends. For readers, don’t dismay, all the usual updates for my books will now be on violarivard.com!