Not long ago, I ran across some comments about how writers just had to let the process flow, that if you worked too hard at it, you were going to start killing the process. You’d sound like a Harlequin romance.
“I can tell when a writer is forcing it in the first paragraph and I’ll put the book right down!”
“Never force your writing. That just makes for bad writing.”
All of this seems to point to an idea that art should come easily. That, if you’re “talented” enough, it just falls neatly onto the page, like Venus springing fully formed from the foamy brine because the Muse channels it magically through your enchanted self. I did my first take on my first novel like that. The result was something that had promise and failed utterly to deliver on it. Two years of queries, partial and full manuscript requests, and rejections later and I was ready to give up. Finally, someone pointed out the REAL problem with the whole thing, and convinced me to tear it down and start from word one. The finished product is vastly different from the rainbow colored, glitter-filled pile of crap I did the first time.
Art is hard. It’s messy and complicated and uncooperative. And like most things we do in life, it almost never turns out right the first time. And limiting ourselves to what we first throw down on the page, I think, is the opposite of letting art “flow.” I think we have created this perception of creativity being like water, that it just gushes forth freely. But maybe….maybe it’s more like wet, sticky clay. It just sits there until we reach in and start squishing it and mashing it and shaping it and getting our hands dirty, then reshaping it and refining it until we have something beautiful.
And make no mistake, for some of us, it isn’t the finished product that is the end goal. Sometimes, act of making art itself is what we’re after. For a lot of writers, just creating worlds and watching the characters’ stories unfold is the entirety of what our art is for. Storytelling is our therapy, our escape. It’s where we find God, serenity or our Zen space. Calling it a hobby falls far short, and calling those writers amateurs feels like a disservice to me, even if the terms are technically correct. When you’re creating art for yourself, writing stories to your own standards, you’re going to write the work you want to read, generally, and you’re usually going to get it right or close to right the first time.
It’s when we start trying to make art that speaks to others that it gets hard. We have to see things from our own perspective, and that of our audience, and bridge the two, so that our audience can see what we see.
Like I said, messy and complicated.
The following two videos are a great example of how the finished product can be so very different where we start from, and the magic of trying out different approaches, instead of expecting it to just fall from our pens fully formed.
The first one shows the process inthe studio, and the second is the finished product. The difference is enlightening.
How I got an agent…
So, how did this happen? What led me to sign with this particular agency? Who did I know (because you have to have contacts in this industry!)?
Well, like a lot of stories, it starts kind of randomly. I was at NorWesCon, and I’d just gotten out of a panel, and I was waiting for the next one on my list to start. Across the hall, two guys were talking about the changes in the publishing industry, and new genres that one of them was interested in, including fantasy and urban fantasy. Well, I just so happen to write in that genre, so I deftly joined their conversation. Somewhere along the way, we all traded business cards, and I learned exactly who I was talking to: Trodayne Northern, from Prentis Literary, and Lawrence M Schoen, a Nebula nominee for science fiction. As we went on, I mentioned that business was so good for urban fantasy for me that I had out-earned Jim Hines last year, (but quickly pointed out that I hadn’t out-SOLD him). It was about here that we decided this conversation was a lot more interesting to us than whatever the panel was on, so we wandered over to one of the little sitting areas, commandeered a table and proceeded to talk about publishing, self-publishing and sales. At the end of things, Trodayne invited me to have dinner with him the next night so we could talk further, and I could meet the other two agents from Prentis.
So, the next night, I pitched some of my upcoming work over dinner, and they told me about what they had in mind to help capitalize on what I had already done to get me the best deal possible going forward. I’d already done my research on them, and I knew by then that they had represented Patricia Briggs. They asked to see some of my current work, and for something from my pipeline, which of course I sent them immediately. The thing was, as much as it actually was a business meeting over dinner, it also felt like I was having dinner with friends I’d also just happened to be doing business with for years. They answered a lot of my questions without me having to ask. I walked away feeling pretty positive about things.
So, NorWesCon came to a close, and I went home feeling pretty good about my career. And the truth was…I hadn’t shown up intending to pitch to an agent.
Over the next few weeks, we exchanged a few emails, as Trodayne and Leslie hit other conventions leading up to the Nebula awards in Chicago. Then, on a Wednesday afternoon as I was driving out of Springfield on my way to X-Con, my phone rings, and it’s Trodayne and Leslie. I pulled over to take that call, and got the news I think pretty much every author wants to hear: They wanted to represent me. We went over the details for a few more minutes, and I resumed my journey on cloud nine. I signed the contract a few days later, and made the announcement today. Now it’s starting to feel real.
There are a few things I’d like to mention.
First thing to remember here is that I didn’t come to the table with just a manuscript. When I showed up to NorWesCon in late March, I was already writing full time, with six books of my own across two series, and a seventh that was a spin-off from another successful series. I showed up with a solid base of readers and a track record of being able to earn with my work. I gave them a solid set of numbers to work with.
Second, while I showed up at NorWesCon with only one contact, I left with half a dozen. A lot of folks say it’s who you know in this business, and I think that knowing the right people can be extremely helpful. The thing is, a lot of folks also seem to think that if you don’t have contacts, you’re out of luck. The truth is, you can and will make them as you go. Just ask my friend Ronnie Virdi, who has recently made friends with Jim Butcher and Kevin J Anderson. So, yeah, contacts are important, but just because you don’t have them doesn’t mean you can’t make them. You just have to get out there and talk to people at conventions.
Finally, kind of a double point. Don’t give up hope and keep your options open. You never know who you might meet or what might happen. So keep your business cards with you, keep a quick pitch rehearsed and stay professional.
Trodayne Northern (l), Lawrence M. Schoen (c), Me (the dorky one on the right)
Wow. I keep saying that, but it’s been that kind of year. Last year, leading up to Vision Con, my whole world was on the precipice of a huge change, one I had been hoping for but didn’t see coming. I guess I’d always seen it as happening more gradually. But over the space of one weekend, at Vision Con, was where my life actually changed. Vision Con has always been special to me. It was my first science fiction convention, and my “home” convention. But last year’s con was even more special to me.
The Friday before, this was my life: I had a decent paying job, no car, and just enough money to pay the bills most months without getting overdrawn. I was still in the churn phase with my writing, where everything I earned from my work pretty much went back into the next book. I had recently released The Demon’s Apprentice, and it was doing rather well, breaking into the top 1000 on Amazon in the days before con. And I thought THAT was about as cool as my life could get. Mentally, I was far from planning regular convention appearances or attendance as a vendor. I had intended to hit a couple of cons later in the year, and I had to base THAT on if I could get a ride and plan it around getting vacation time from work. I was planning on releasing the next in the Demon’s Apprentice series at con, and looking forward to a little extra money coming in from that. It was doing well in pre-order, and I was hoping it would hit the top 100 like its predecessor had.
Friday came and went, and I was making some sales. Things were going well enough. Saturday came, and it was a full day as I adapted to the new sales environment, tying to sell books with two other authors at the table. Now bear in mind, these two other authors were talented, articulate, pretty women…at a convention full of geeks. Needless to say, there were times when I felt almost invisible next to these two ladies, but hey, at least I was in good company! We joked with con goers, did a couple of podcast interviews and in general had a great time selling books. Then came our panel, one of the most fun panels I had ever been a part of, the Publishing Panel. The energy in the room was high, and all three panelists were feeding off of each other and the audience was getting in on the fun.
Afterward, a bunch of us went to a nearby restaurant to east. And this is the moment where my life changed. I was sitting at the table, taking the first free moment I’d had all day to FINALLY checked my sales. I had expected a big jump in sales because of the preorders all hitting my feed that day, but when I checked my sales RANK, I was literally stunned.
Page of Swords OWNED the top spot in Paranormal and Coming of Age, and it was ranked at number 187 on Amazon. I sat there for a couple of moments, unable to do anything but stare at my phone and wonder if I was looking at the right book. Was this actually happening to me? Was this MY life I was in the middle of? Evidently it was.
It became a little more real to me when Gerry Kissell, an artist friend who had done one of the covers for my zombie series, asked me if I was okay (evidently, shocked and stunned looks the same if it’s something good as it does when it’s something bad). I tried to explain what was going on coherently, and eventually I got the point across, because Gerry brought me back to reality with a simple phrase: “I knew you’d get there.”
See, at the previous Vision Con, Gerry had encouraged me to have faith in my work, because if I didn’t give up, I’d make my dream of writing for a living come true. And damn if the man wasn’t right.
About three months later, I bought my first car in years, quit my job, and began to do this writing thing full time. Now, coming into Vision Con for 2016, I’ll be there as a hybrid author, writing both my own series, and writing for New Babel Books in a spin-off series for the Apocalypse of Enoch. I’m a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a dream of mine since I first heard of the organization. My whole life has changed since last Vision Con, and that is where it started. Going to Vision Con this year is going to be returning to my roots, as it is every year, but it’s also going ot be where I come full circle.
I can barely imagine where I’ll be next year.
For the past few years, Jim Hines and John Scalzi have done blog posts where they talk about how much they made that year. I figured this year, it was my turn. They also use pie charts to show certain things, and who doesn’t like pie? So, I might find a use for one, too. Maybe a graph or two, even! Because numbers.
First, a little background. In 2014, I released my first self-published book, Zompoc Survivor: Exodus. It did pretty well, selling about 2500 copies or so its first month. All told for 2014, I made a little over $7,000. Not a bad first year. As the year ended, I decided to release my Demon’s Apprentice series again after getting the rights back from the publisher, and it started off reasonably well. But nothing prepared me for January of 2015, when The Demon’s Apprentice started to take off. And I was even less prepared for what happened in February, when Page of Swords blew its predecessor out of the water and hit #1 on the Paranormal chart on Amazon. The rest of the year was a bit of a roller coaster ride, and I’ll chart it with you. All told, before taxes, I made $67,384 in 2015, which is only a little less than what Jim C. Hines made, if you add in what he made before his agent’s commission.
Now, before that sounds too braggy, remember that since his royalties are from traditional sales, he probably sold a metric ton more books than I did. My guess would be that he sold at least three to four books for every copy I that I sold, which is why agents and big publishers aren’t kicking down my door just yet. Earnings doesn’t equal salability.
Products and Distribution
What this represents is a total of six books in two series sold exclusively through Amazon. After a certain point roughly half of this income represents revenue from Kindle Unlimited. The series are the Zompoc Survivor series and the Demon’s Apprentice series. The genres are post-apocalyptic/dystopian and YA paranormal respectively. Most of my revenue comes from the Demon’s Apprentice series. In fact, every month where I earned more than $10k corresponds with or closely follows a release in that series.
While my career is proof that you can make it by selling solely through Amazon, that may not be the path for everyone. But it sure seems to work with YA paranormal and zombie novels. Later on, I may go with a wider distribution, but for now, this is working.
Breakdown by Month
Below is a chart that shows my total income each month. The thing to remember is that the month I earn the money is two months after the sales have actually happened. So, January is showing what I earned in November, February shows what I earned in December and so on.
So, as you can see, my income varied greatly by month. The chart below breaks it down as a percentage of the annual amount was earned in a given month.
One thing you can easily see from both charts is that more than half of my income came in three months. What happened in those months? Oh, that part is easy: I had book releases around those times. Demon’s Apprentice in late December, Page of Swords in late February, ZS: Odyssey in August and Vision Quest in mid-October. And between book releases, you can see how my income went down. Now, some may argue that my income drop also was most pronounced during the summer, which is typically a dry time for self-published authors. I released the third in the Zompoc Survivor series in August, which caused the small jump in October, so that could also add weight to that line of reasoning as well.
Another thing I learned in looking at this is that for me, a book release has a strong cycle of about two months, and then things drop to a much lower level, one that stayed pretty steady between books. In a way, this kind of mirrors what traditional publishing sees, I think, a strong start and then a drop off after a month or two. The difference is that my books stay available on line after that, which is where my main customer base is, while traditional books, unless they do REALLY well, tend to fall off the shelves after that big sales period (and traditional authors see returned copies come out of their royalties). So this is another place where I think I tend to have an advantage over a traditional author, because I don’t have that drain on my royalties. My physical books are print on demand. So, like a traditional writer, I have that bigger influx at the beginning, then I’m in the trough between books, only I’m still making a little money.
One thing that I learned this year was patience. While February ended with more than $10,000 in sales, I didn’t see that until the end of April. That was a long sixty days. As soon as that hit, and I knew I had another fifteen grand on the way, I was at a point where I could quit my job, since I would have what I made in a year at that job essentially in the bank before I hit the middle of the year. From there, I knew I had a bit of a cushion if I needed it, and I kept that buffer in place.
And as soon as I DID have the full amount in my hands, my wife and I sat down and figured up our total bills for a month, and I set aside enough to cover my half of them for the rest of the year in a completely separate account. All of our bills were set to autopay, and overall, we didn’t change our lifestyle in a lot of big ways. We still live like I made what I used to. If I had to point at one big change in this year, it’s been that we just haven’t had to worry about money. My largest new expense was a decent used car for going to conventions. No new jewelry, no long vacations or any other huge expenses, and no sudden move to a bigger house.
Up until May of this year, I worked in customer service for a credit card company (much like Dave Stewart in the Zompoc series, except mine wasn’t the hell hole his was). My work week was 34 hours, and I devoted those extra hours and more to writing. My wife worked overnights and in recent years, went to evenings, so most of my writing time happened between midnight and three or four AM. I used to put in about fifteen to twenty hours a week on writing. Since May, that number has gone up considerably, though I also end up putting in a more than a few hours each week on marketing and the nuts and bolts of actually putting a book together and managing my writing career. Convention appearances and speaking engagements take time to do right, or at least, they do for me.
Whatever conclusions you might draw from the numbers and patterns, looking at this does prove one thing for certain: as an independent author, you HAVE to publish regularly. And you have to keep your name out there where people can see you. Many of my sales during the summer came from convention appearances and just handing my card out to people. While I didn’t make it into the $100K range like some writers, I also acknowledge I’m something of an outlier, and that as much skill and effort as I put into things, there was still a measure of luck involved. But luck only does so much. Once you’ve been blessed with a little you have to do something with it, like write the next book and up your game a notch.
For aspiring and current authors, I hope this gives you an idea of what is possible. A LOT of people have never heard of me, and that's okay. Enough people have that I can write for a living, and that's the important part. It IS possible to succeed at this without selling your soul or compromising your craft. You don't have to make the NYT Bestseller list in order to write full time. (It helps, though).
Every writer doubts themselves. Some of us do it more than others. We doubt our skill, we doubt our worth as writers, we doubt we have what it takes, and some days we question whether we should be writing at all. Somewhere along the way, I think we all have these moments, especially at first. Times where we don’t believe in ourselves, where everything feels like an uphill battle that we’re never going to win. We start out with skills in storytelling that fall far short of our expectations. We know we SHOULD be able to do better, but we don’t yet know how to do it better.
Sometimes, we give up. For some, it’s just for a moment, for others it’s for months or even years. And for some, sadly, it’s forever.
But most of us keep going, always getting better at what we do, until one day, we receive The Gift. When we get it, most times, we don’t even know it. Other times, it’s so overwhelming that we find ourselves in tears. Sometimes, it takes us years to understand that we have it. But the change is so fundamental that you find yourself wanting to give it to other writers, too.
What is The Gift?
It’s simple. Not easy, but simple. The Gift is nothing more than faith in yourself. It’s when saying “I can do this” stops being an affirmation and becomes a fact, a foregone conclusion that you believe with the same certainty as gravity. When you know you can finish that novel, and when you know it’s good.
Jim Butcher gave me The Gift. Somewhere around page 15 of Dead Beat, I realized that this was similar to the voice I wrote with. That if this guy was a NYT Bestseller, then I really DID have a shot at making it as a writer. The agent who queried me proactively gave it to me again. My readers give it to me every time they buy my books, leave reviews or leave me a comment or a message.
So, when people ask me what one piece of advice I would give an aspiring writer, I’m a little flustered. I can tell them to believe in themselves all day long, the words are going to ring hollow until they receive the Gift. Instead, I wish I could just give them the Gift. Sometimes, though, I can. Sometimes, you’ll have those moments where you’re the right person, in the right place, at the right time. And you get to see the look in someone’s eyes when they start to believe in themselves. When you watch the video below, you’ll see when the young chef begins to get that Chef Ramsey believes in her, and where she begins to believe in herself.
So, until it happens, just keep going. Keep writing, keep learning. You’ll get there. I promise.
Tomorrow’s a pretty big day for me. I thought I’d announce it now, though. Seems I told a few people something big was coming. Not a lot of people…well, okay…just everyone on my Facebook page.
So, what’s the big deal?
Tomorrow, I turn in my letter of resignation at my day job, and give them two weeks’ notice. On May 16th, I start my first day in my new career: author. Yep, I’m going to try to do this writing thing full time for a while. It wasn’t an easy decision, and it isn’t one I’m doing without some forethought and planning. So, if you’re a self-pubbed writer, don’t do this right after you’ve released your first book. Do it when you have a year’s worth of income ready to hand, and a few books under your name that are selling okay.
So, tomorrow starts a period of transition and farewells. I’ve worked at my current day job for more than ten years, and as much as I’m looking forward to writing full time, some of those farewells won’t be easy ones. But, this is what I have always wanted to do with my life, so it’s a lot like hitting a Lifetime Achievement Goal in the Sims.
I’m going to write for a living. I’ll be a full time writer. That’s some nifty stuff.
Quest completed. Achievement unlocked.