I published my first work, In Dulce, Disturbed, a short story, in 2010. It was a lark. I was mad because, years ago, I successfully published a couple of mystery short stories in Alfred Hitchcock and another magazine without too much bother. Today, the competition for a spot in a magazine monumental.
I looked at a few online magazines, but then I decided to publish the story myself with amazon. It was easy enough in those days. I used a couple of beta readers and no editor and I actually went with the default cover. (Remember that thing….kind of blue, I think, like a library book from the 19th century.) It was so ugly. Looking back, it was insane to expect success with a formula like that. But I wanted an audience and wanted to write. So I did it.
And I sold five stories the first month – and it wasn’t to friends of mine, but to readers out there who were curious about this self publishing thing – I guess. Or perhaps I landed a few folks interested in the Jicarilla Apache Reservation where Dulce is located or in the UFO facility that is falsely said to be located there. I don’t know who they were, but I was hooked. Back then, five readers was enough.
I wrote a few more stories. In those early days, I could list a story on amazon for free and get over a thousand downloads without buying any promotional spots at all. It was so much fun. I also listed the stories for free in a promotional newsletter and got multiple thousands of downloads. That was a short lived marketing window, but I miss it today when I have to pay $20-40 dollars for a spot and often don’t get anything close to a hundred downloads. Of course, I don’t promote the books for free anymore.
I wrote five short stories in all, hired a cover creator, and then a better cover creator. From this time on I rarely sold less than 20 stories a month. Readers gave me their honest opinion, and several insisted that it was time for me to write a novel – so I did. That’s when I hired my first editor and proofreader. Plus, that first book was favorably reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly/Booklife (no fee back then, I was selected from a pool of applicants). This review led to my first contact involving film rights. While this didn’t pan out, I was so amazed to get that kind of attention. Those small recognitions and the readers are what kept me writing. Readers – and the editors I hired – helped me see the strengths and weaknesses in my writing. This was invaluable to me, and I don’t think I would have made the progress the readers and editors taught me to make if I had not been able to publish independently.
On the journey I began to pick up more reviews andreceived my first one star review. I pushed passed it – everyone wasn’t going to like my writing, I knew, but it was great that some people were enjoying my work. I began to get grammar trolls (as I call them) who moan every typo. This helped me too, though. For my second novel, In Albuquerque, Abandoned, I hired a two proofreaders.
This was the novel that gained the most success of anything I’ve published so far. A few months after it’s release, the book sold 700 copies in one month. The other books and short stories in the series sold well, too. This success led to continued sales in the hundreds for months. I took the profits and tried all sorts of marketing combinations that included Facebook ads, trailers, Amazon ads, Freebooksy, Books Butterfly (loads of downloads, not many sales), google ad words and other promotional ideas. I made more than I spent, but I didn’t get the kind of audience I really wanted. As for Bookbub, they never gave me a shot, though many of my fellow writers were actually making real money with Bookbub. No matter how many reader reviews or good professional reviews or great covers I had, I was never up to snuff for those guys. Now they seem to do a lot of ads for the traditionally published crowd, so I’ve quit trying until I write more books and get a bigger audience. Bookbub will take me yet, I say.
But will writing more and improving my craft really help? In other words, if I build it, they will come? I honestly don’t know. But I look up to successful independently and traditionally published writers – I still want to be one of them. And the way to do that is to keep writing.
But what about marketing? The first book in my new Cotton Lee Penn series of southern novels has been very well received. I paid for professional reviews and even Kirkus gave me a thumbs up. This book, Gone on Sunday, was my best success with amazon ads and made money there for a few months, then fell off. The reviews are good. I get emails (and someone even stopped me on the street) asking when the next book in the series is coming up. That’s fun.
Still, I have five short stories and three books on my author page, and I have fallen back to my early sales record: 20-30 books a month.
Thus, I feel like I am marketing up from the bottom of a well. I have a blog, a Facebook page, a mailing list, a website – I’ve tried stacked marketing, going exclusive with amazon, going wide. I have two audible books. I now have an editor, and two proofreaders plus several beta readers and a great cover artist. And yet here I am – right back where I started. What next?
I’m nearly done with the first book in a new series about a family that runs a missing persons agency called The Finders. And I am also nearly done with the second novel in the Cotton Lee Penn series. I tried for an agent and got some reads but no offers with the first Cotton Lee Penn book. My plan is to try for an agent again. The Finders book, Silencing Sistine, fits squarely into the mystery genre, and that makes it easier to sell to a publisher.
And speaking of publishers – who knows whether traditional publishing is that much better than independently publishing? I might sell more than 30 books a month, but that might not mean much. I need to get over the hump, out of the dark, to the tipping point….and maybe I will…or not. But I will tell you I love the writing, and I love the readers and editors. I keep learning about writing, and, for me, that’s addictive. If I don’t make a little more money, I’ll have to quit because independent publishing is expensive, but it’s a blast, it really is.
And that’s why for now, it’s still … mysterious in New Mexico.