28 Days to 10K: A (Not Quite) 5-Figure Blueprint

Let’s just cut right to the chase: the 28 Days to 10K challenge did not succeed. For the uninitiated, I was trying to double my previous best month ($6,200 to $12,400) during the course of February. With a snappy title in hand and a shell of a plan, I set out to hit the mythical 5-figure mark.

And, well, I came up short. By a lot. I didn’t even beat my best month ever, which, as it turned out, was around $6,900. Oops.

This essay is the breakdown: an honest analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and how it applies to you.

Before we begin, I’ll recap the challenge a little bit. If you want to check out the series archives, each week served as a standalone mini guide to a certain topic (habits/challenges, How to Hit the Top 100, perfectionism/analysis paralysis, finances and dealing with failure).

But if you don’t want to read through those (and the KBoards thread), or would just like a more succinct summary of the key takeaways, this little recap guide should be useful.

Onward.

The Original Plan + Results

I’m going to include the #s here. Honestly, I don’t think they’re particularly important, and if you’ve seen a few BookBub runs or promo stacks, there’s not much to see here.

  • 5 promo runs (2 including BookBub)
    • A BookBub that resulted in a $0.99 complete trilogy hitting the Top 100 in the Kindle Store.
      • 1769 sales on BookBub day; hit #54 overall
      • 2508 sales + 130,000+ page reads for the month; promo cost = $491
    • A free run on the dystopian novella Vanishing Midnight
      • 2105 downloads over 5 days; 7 sales and ~700 page reads for the month
    • A BookBub free run on Book 4 in an action/thriller series. Set up to coincide with Book 8’s launch.
      • 30,458 on Amazon + 7482 wide on BookBub day; hit #2 in the Free Store.
      • 53,020 on Amazon + 16264 wide = 69,284 downloads for the month; promo cost = $648
    • A free run on Lightning Blade originally meant to coincide with Shadow Flare‘s launch.
      • 3213 downloads over 5 days; 22 sales @ full price the day after, but that tail quickly evaporated; promo cost = $131
    • $0.99 sales on Demon Rogue, Blood Frost and Moon Burn
      • 312 sales + 8288 page reads over 4 days; promo cost = $215
  • 3 book launches
    • 8th novel in a long-running action/thriller series: released on the 16th (wide)
      • 106 sales for the month at $2.99+ (mailing list = 236 people)
    • Shadow Flare (Book 2 in a new urban fantasy series): didn’t happen
    • The Complete Half-Demon Rogue Trilogy box set: released on the 22nd (KU)
      • 97 sales @ 99 cents + 2210 page reads (only sent to mailing list of ~1000 people + $30 in BookBub ads later on)
    • Added mid-month: The Kip Keene Box Set #2, also released on the 22nd (KU).
      • 38 sales @ 99 cents (only sent to a mailing list of ~900 people)
  • Expand Book 1 (Lighting Blade): added 23,000 words for a finished book of 57,000 words.
  • Write Book 2 (Shadow Flare): wrote 38,622 words.

These all had clear deadlines associated with them. Unfortunately, other than the prescheduled stuff (e.g. the promos + one of the launches), none of those deadlines actually meant anything, and changed frequently throughout. These delays impacted the effectiveness of the promos (e.g. Lightning Blade‘s free run was pretty useless without Book 2 out); however, the main promos (BookBub) were unaffected.

Key #s: Revenue, Words & Such

My main goal was revenue; in the past, I’ve succumbed to shadow goals (e.g. writing a certain # of words). That still happened to an extent (I had an unsuccessful 7, then 10 day novel challenge, which has now morphed into a 2 week novel). But, generally speaking, the focus remained on money.

  • Total new fiction words: 42,606
    • Guides/recaps: 11,113
    • KBoards thread: 18,466
    • Lightning Blade: ~23,000
    • Tentative, just for fun total: 95,195
  • Weekly goals: 5/11
  • Deadlines: 4/8
  • Total Revenue: $6567
    • Amazon: $5864 (assuming page reads @ 0.0045)
    • D2D: $495
    • Google: $51
    • Paperbacks/Createspace: $58
    • Affiliate: $99
  • Total costs: $2674
    • Promo: $1734
    • Covers: $460
    • Proofreading: $250
    • Vellum + MacInCloud: $230
  • Net: $3893

What Went Well

After a failure, it’s easy to get discouraged or think that all your efforts were for naught. That certainly wasn’t the case here – I had my 2nd best month ever – so I thought I’d review the wins that did occur during the course of the past 28 Days. Because it’s easy to not give ourselves credit for accomplishments, especially when we believe that we “should” have done more.

  1. I posted every day on KBoards. This is surprising, since it made me no money and had no direct influence on the outcome of the challenge. Further, a few days in, I realized that each post was taking me between 30 minutes and an hour. Nonetheless, I kept posting every day for the duration of the challenge, even when digging through the #s became irritating and I figured I had nothing left to say. Most of the time this was enjoyable, hence not really feeling like an accomplishment – a few days sucked (or I had something uninspiring to report, like I’d been sandbagging on Lightning Blade), though, and I showed up anyway.
  2. I posted lengthy recaps/guides every week. These chewed up another couple hours, but I got these done on time – and the results were most excellent, which you can discover here.
  3. I finally ran the #s on compound interest for recurring costs. For example, InDesign was going to cost me a whopping $3200+ over the next 10 years; instead, I switched to Vellum, which will run me $800 – $1200 (including the price of a Mac, if I choose to buy one). I also reviewed other sources of leaking money in my business – so while I didn’t hit 5-figures, I actually saved myself the difference between $6500 and $10k. Which is less flashy, but actually the same thing.
  4. I finished the extended edition of Lightning Blade. This increased the KENP by 50% and catapulted it into unassailable full-length novel status (57,000 words). That didn’t have a noticeable effect on the bottom line this month, but it will pay dividends down the line.
  5. I wrote 38,000+ words of Shadow Flare. The 50,000+ word novel is still going to be finished in less than 3 weeks (including revision time), which is a barnburning pace by pretty much anyone’s standards.
  6. I realized that chasing #s is a fool’s errand. I would have netted more money by simply eliminating multiple promos/releases from the schedule. Likely, had I put those funds into the remaining promos/launches, I would have generated more revenue as well. This seems counter intuitive, until you realize how compound interest works. By desperately trying to promo everything, you never generate enough momentum to get off the ground.
  7. I realized I suck at 80/20. Despite talking about it at length throughout this blog, I’m still bad at prioritizing and choosing what really matters. This means I’m doing more work than necessary for lower than expected results. But good news: that’s fixable.

The last two don’t seem like positives. But identifying errors in your thinking presents a huge opportunity if you address them.

What Went Wrong

  1. Not enough cash. Mid-month, when the numbers were dropping, the only real option to bump things up was PPC. Unfortunately, my PPC skills are somewhat lacking, and I didn’t have the free capital to dump a bunch of money into ads for testing. This is because I used cash on things that wouldn’t have a big return, just for the sake of doing promo. That’s foolish.
  2. Unrealistic deadlines. I didn’t finish Lightning Blade until around the 20th, when I had it scheduled for the 10th. This pushed everything back, but was largely a result of rebelling against unrealistic goals. I often succumb to what I call “home run thinking.” That is, trying to get back into the game with one big day of 10,000 words – or a few of those in a row. Naturally, the mind rebels against these ridiculous #s, and doesn’t even start. Thus I strung together a series of zeroes that, if they had simply been small steps, would have gotten me there by around the 14th. Then I could have finished Shadow Flare by the end of the month.
  3. Ignoring past history. This goes hand-in-hand with #2. The original plan was ambitious, to say the least. I actually completed most of it, but pushed back the two most important deadlines (Lightning Blade’s revision and Shadow Flare’s completion) continuously. These deadlines were set with unrealistic expectations that, judging from my past output, had little chance of succeeding.
  4. No rest breaks. You need downtime. I’d just finished two novels in January, releasing them both on the same day. Then I jumped straight into this challenge, with a schedule that demanded daily updates and significant daily progress. I needed a break. Naturally, these found their way into the schedule, causing massive disruptions. I should have either scheduled slippage into the plan, or taken a couple weeks off before launching into this challenge. Unfortunately, February was calling.
  5. No tail. Both of the BookBubs were successful and netted a profit. But they didn’t have the sort of spectacularly successful tail necessary to propel me forward. There’s nothing I can do about that; such is the nature of luck. Not everything is within your control. But I could’ve predicted this, because, interestingly, in my best month ever ($6,900), I also had two BookBubs – for the same two authors, with books in the same series. Based on those numbers, I could have extrapolated that, barring some divine intervention, ten grand wasn’t in the cards. This goes back to point #3: ignoring past history.
  6. Bad planning. This is basically #2 + #3 + #4. But I was lying to myself that this was well-planned, since I had clear deadlines and a clear goal. Again, merely writing something down on paper doesn’t make a wish any more true. I needed to have more of Shadow Flare done, and Lightning Blade completely in the can, for example, in order to pull off these releases with the proper support. Playing catch-up and frantically trying to meet deadlines is not a plan.

But these errors, I think, were less important than the three reasons below.

Top 3 Reasons I Didn’t Succeed

  1. Splitting my resources between 5 author names. It’s impossible to spin this many plates. Backlist sell-through is a big part of any promo; when you’re running them under multiple names, that goes away. Of course, that’s the reason I could get two BookBubs in the first place – but two names is more than enough. I’m unique in that I publish other authors. But for those with a ton of pen names or thinking about publishing other people’s work, just a friendly warning. You’re only one person and you reduce your rate of progress significantly by spreading your limited attention and resources around.
  2. Challenges/goals/resolutions are fundamentally ineffective. The completion rate for resolutions is somewhere around 8 – 12%. Studies have shown that crash dieting actually has the opposite effect: it results in weight gain. There’s a quote by the Greek poet Archilochos: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” In other words, our habits dictate the overall outcome, regardless of what extrinsic demands the world places upon us. There’s a myth, propagated by the hero’s journey, that when confronted with great adversity, we will simply rise to the occasion and show our true colors. In effect, we do show our true colors: whatever skills + level of discipline we currently possess are exposed for all to see. If people could magically rise to the occasion, the US Government wouldn’t spend $25,000 training each Marine – and $500,000+ per Navy SEAL. Military philosophy/strategy is fascinating and useful, and far more robust than self-help nonsense for a single reason: those ideas/rules are written in blood. Obviously the stakes are far, far lower in most of our lives, but the general principle remains: You need to develop good, automated habits to succeed. Or, as another famous Greek (Aristotle) said: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
  3. Splintered focus due to shadow goals. I did a much better job of keeping shadow goals to a minimum than I did in 100 Days to Greatness. But they still cropped up: the 10 Day Novel Challenge. Weekly recap posts. Making sure to keep everything updated on KBoards. All these sapped time and mental bandwidth away from the challenge. Further, I just had too many promos/launches etc. going off. We confuse volume for productivity; it would have been better to execute each one with care + the proper support, instead of giving each one half attention.

9 Promo Takeaways

Nothing new that hasn’t been said already in the Ultimate Guide to Promotion. But this month proved as confirmation that the principles – namely that you should aim to increase your sales curve over a 3 – 10 day period – were sound.

  1. By spreading promo over three days (BookBub on Day 3), the horror box set hit #54 (horror is a small category) and went on to net $1500+.
  2. By spreading promo over four days (BookBub on Day 4), the free Book 4 hit #2 in the free store, stopped only by a cozy mystery box set of four titles. Gave away almost 70,000 copies during the course of the month.
  3. Don’t waste your promo dollars/days on useless stuff. Since Amazon doesn’t pay you back for 60 days (at the earliest – since most promos must be scheduled in advance, you’re really out that outlay for 90+ days), you need to be careful to not waste money – and keep some dry for a rainy day. Further, the first time you run a promo will see the biggest results – even smaller sites can have a tremendous return. If you waste this on a weak run like Lightning Blade’s (which had no follow-up book available), then that reduces the effectiveness later on + wastes valuable powder. Outside of launch or a BookBub run, you need to think very, very hard about whether to do a promotion – and then make sure you have the follow-up books available to make it worth your while.
  4. Focus on one or two pen names. Otherwise you spread yourself far too thin and will never gain momentum. It sounds great that I ran 5 promos – impressive, right? Lots of excitement. But that money would have been better served rolled into a couple promos – or just pocketing it. For example, simply removing Lightning Blade/Vanishing Midnight from the docket would have increased my earnings by $150.
  5. The best advertising is a new book. E.g. over the summer, my urban fantasy series made $2700 after Book 2 came out. Naturally, I didn’t double down on this success, waiting until January (6 months later) to release Book 3. Predictably, that spark had largely died. This time around, I didn’t get out Shadow Flare, thus costing myself some substantial new release money.
  6. Wide vs. KU: this devolves into an ideological argument when it should be a matter of revenue/time. I pulled a few books from wide distribution that had made less than $300 total. If something doesn’t resonate wide, or in KU, the answer is to explore the waters and see if the alternative will benefit you – not to dig in with ill-advised beliefs that one is better than the other. The one that’s best is the one that makes you the most money – and, sometimes, the option that frees you the time to write (wide is a hell of a lot more admin work).
  7. Immediate sell-through on a free run: you can increase sell-through to another discounted book in the same series by placing a notice at the top of the free book’s description. This nets between 1.5% – 3% instant sell-through. Amazon’s TOS is fuzzy on this, although they seem to be fine so long as you link within the Amazon site. Alternatively, if your series is already linked on the first page of the also-boughts (e.g. $0.99 Book 2 is in free Book 1’s also-boughts), or has one of those fancy series sliders, this sell-through should happen without the mention, since these will serve to notify browsers of the deal.
  8. Permafree pretty much sucks these days. Obviously a YMMV thing, but the sell-through wasn’t great, the organic visibility on most platforms is nil, and absent continuous promo, you’re not going to get enough eyeballs on your free book to move the needle at all. That being said, for a temporary promo (e.g. a month where you’re going to run some big promos a la this BookBub) it can still be useful tool. Not anywhere close to being “set and forget,” though.
  9. Even BookBub isn’t a silver bullet. Most of the tails die fairly quickly (2 – 4 weeks). However, a lot of people have unrealistic expectations since, beyond the initial #s and a few days after, authors tend to stop reporting the #s (since they become way less exciting). And those who get sticky are more likely to post about it – whereas those who drift back into obscurity don’t. These two runs combined to make $2500 – $3000 in profit. You’ll take that, but I’m not retiring any time soon. Thus, if your central strategy is “get BookBubs,” or you think it’ll be the skeleton key to riches, know that you’ll still be working after.

22 Mindset Takeaways

So, after 28 days of topics, 5 weekly recaps and another 2,000 words into this guide, what are the key ideas/most important takeaways?

  1. The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula: Genre research + two targeted traffic sources + newsletter + good covers/blurbs + consistent new novel releases (4+ per year) = full-time author (I’ve reduced this to two traffic sources in light of the results here; most people just don’t have enough time + money to do even three properly). Indeed, the more I reflect, the more I find this formula to be startlingly effective at cutting through the noise.
  2. Habits trump challenges. You can create habits by identifying a common trigger (e.g. sitting down at your PC) + analyzing the behavior (e.g. you check your email) + the consequence (e.g. you feel good in the moment, but don’t get your work done). Then you can rewire your brain by associating that trigger with a different behavior (e.g. when you sit down at your PC, you write 100 words instead). You can also find common, unused triggers (e.g. walking through a doorway) to help instill new, useful habits (e.g. doing 5 pushups). Do this consistently (daily or multiple times a day burns in the habit much faster) and you’ll create a new neural circuit, overwriting an old, detrimental habit with one that benefits you.
  3. 50% of your productivity comes from habits. The other 50% comes from energy. Your energy is dictated by sleep, exercise and diet. Getting these ducks in a row improves mental clarity, focus and productivity more than any hack, deadline or challenge possibly could. This heuristic is obviously a simplification, since many things influence your productivity; nonetheless, these account for most of your output on a daily basis.
  4. Perfectionism and analysis paralysis can be defeated by creating simple, well-defined rules.
    1. 7 second decision making: make unimportant or normal decisions within 7 seconds. Endless deliberation just wastes time.
    2. Take action: even the best information is fundamentally imperfect. Getting started will allow you to better separate the good advice from the nonsense.
    3. When it’s done, it’s done: revising old, already published works doesn’t make you money and doesn’t improve your craft.
  5. Kaizen (continuous small improvement) and grit (persistence) rule the day. Often what looks like a massive leap is simply the product of compound interest. Banking improvements day after day is the true to key to success – not one off challenges that fail to change your neural circuitry.
  6. Some small mistakes/loose threads have to be left alone to avoid big ones. Your workload grows exponentially as you have more books. Simply put, making sure all the back links are in order, or the Amazon pages are fully updated with the latest titles in the “From the Author” section starts to become unfeasible. Spending time addressing those issues took valuable time away from finishing the books that needed to get done – which was a huge error.
  7. Make a release schedule that fits your current abilities. I keep trying to write a book a month; I keep failing. This reminds me of working out. If you’ve ever tried to do a pullup (or a 1-armed pullup), you’ll find that, if you can’t do it, the answer is not to continue failing at that exercise. That’s a road to injury, frustration and zero progress. Instead, you reduce the difficulty to where you currently are. It doesn’t matter what intense workout Jason Statham uses; you need to build based on your current level of ability. By allowing your ego to control the narrative, you guarantee that you make zero progress.
  8. Sandbagging and lying to ourselves is nonproductive. If someone is more successful than you or more skilled, they are likely doing – and have done things – that you are not doing. Not always true, but I think it’s better to assume you’re not quite there or making some sort of mistake, rather than believing the world is screwing you. Why? Because you can control your improvement and fix your mistakes – if it’s all luck, then what’s the point?
  9. Focus is the key to progress. 30 minutes of intense work (known as deliberate practice), wherein you’re only concentrated on the task at hand, is better than 5 hours of “work” spent intermittently browsing the internet and texting friends. Multitasking is bullshit, and task switching is lethal to your efficiency/quality of work. Focus on one thing at a time, and give it your complete attention. If you intensely focus during the minutes you have (re: focus on only the task at hand), you can accomplish an astounding amount of work in little time.
  10. Reframe failures as courses/learning opportunities/investments. No one considers a business course at college a failure because they didn’t instantly make back their $5,000 investment. Same thing here, then: consider your first couple years a MBA in Indie Publishing. A cheap one, too – or maybe you even make a little money. Either way, reframing it as a learning investment, even when you vaporize $5k, is critical to cultivating resilience.
  11. Double down on success; eliminate failures. We tend to do the opposite: try to prop up our losing books/pen names with the funds from our successes. This is a good way to end up in the poor house and kill our momentum.
  12. It’s much harder to execute something well than to be original. I’m not saying originality is useless, but you need to have a bedrock of fundamental skills laid down before you have the necessary understanding to innovate. Too often, we devise our own elaborate plans/paths filled with pitfalls to solve problems that others have already figured out long before. Most problems do not demand novel solutions – they simply require execution of basic principles. Learning from the mistakes/experience of others can accelerate your progress by years.
  13. Boredom is necessary to achieve greatness. If you’re constantly seeking stimulation, pleasure and distraction, you’re destined for an unsatisfying existence, no matter how much marketers/films want to push this lifestyle. As Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
  14. Use Vellum + MacInCloud. I used InDesign for years. It was a miserable experience for creating EPUBs, and resulted in numerous device-specific glitches that I wasn’t aware of until someone would email me. Vellum, even with the latency of MacInCloud, is a delightful experience and costs less than 1 year of InDesign. I would use absolutely nothing else, even as a Windows user; my KENP counts even went up 10 – 15% across the board.
  15. Be wary of vanity metrics. Sales #s, mailing list #s, Facebook likes, reviews – these all tell you nothing without context. The only true metric that matters is your revenue. If a mailing list of 30,000 generates 10 sales, then it’s just a huge money pit. 5,000 sales at $9.99 is a lower middle class living. 5,000 sales at $0.99 is barely a new computer.
  16. Plans aren’t meant to be followed absolutely. Inevitably, once things get into motion, you’ll need to make adjustments in real-time. The true purpose of planning is to identify obvious unforced errors prior to embarking on your journey, since you’ll be putting out plenty of fires along the way.
  17. Adherence is far more valuable than the perfect system. To achieve results, you need to stick with something for the long haul (e.g. you need to actually take action consistently). That means writing 5 books or 10 books or 15 books (e.g. a career), not half of one in a blur of cracking joints and pots of strong coffee. You need a system that keeps you showing up day-in and day-out, not the theoretical uber-system. Tim Ferriss says it best: People tend to abandon the good system they’ll follow in search of the perfect system that they will quit.”
  18. Another way to make more is to spend less. If you hack down unnecessary expenses, you can often become a full-time author – or retire – much faster than you thought possible.
  19. Showing up is for amateurs. Productivity porn abounds on the internet, with too many techniques and annoying platitudes to recite here. Problem is, showing up is merely the price of entry – the bottom of the success pyramid. The real work begins once you’re actually practicing with intense focus – which is far beyond merely showing up. If you’re having difficulty showing up, then you need to reduce the difficulty, reexamine your habits or adjust your energy management (sleep, diet, exercise).
  20. These are the only sources of action.
    1. Habits. Things you do automatically, regardless of the items below.
    2. Energy management – sleep, diet and exercise.
      > controls intrinsic motivation – the feeling of “wanting” to do something.
      > controls willpower – the ability to overcome “nah, I’m not doing that.”
    3. Extrinsic motivation – accountability (having to pay the rent or a bet with a friend) and deadlines.
    4. A purpose. Which is technically intrinsic motivation, but it transcends that with either maniacal focus/obsession (e.g. I want to become Picasso and will paint for 16 hours a day to do so) or some sort of greater good/sense of community/changing the world (e.g. an impact bigger than yourself – can be your kids, can be your company, can be changing the world with an idea).
  21. Keep accurate records. Your memory is faulty, and you’ll often misremember things. If you’re an optimist, you’ll think you’re doing better; if you’re a pessimist, you’ll think you’re doing worse. Neither is good: you want to know exactly where you stand, and whether your efforts are generating improvement – so you can double down (#11) on your winners and axe your losers.
  22. Failure is in your imagination. None of this will matter in 2 weeks or twenty years. Allow yourself to fall down, be a novice and look “foolish.” Everyone is too busy worrying about themselves to be concerned with your imagined shortcomings.

Quotes that Encapsulate This Philosophy

  1. “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” – Archilochos
  2. “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle
  3. “Many people are obstinate about the path once it is taken, few people about the destination.” – Nietzsche
  4. “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” – Bruce Lee
  5. “Don’t make difficult, don’t make easy. Just practice.” – Dropping Ashes on the Buddha

Last Words

Ultimately, I think this quote from Todd Rose’s book The End of Average is pertinent to us all: “We all strive to be like everyone else—or, even more accurately, we all strive to be like everyone else, only better.”

It sounds foolish when put so succinctly, right? Because if we’re all playing the same game, no matter how good we are, 50% of us will be below average. And average just doesn’t cut it.

Challenges are sexy. They make for good copy. But they don’t work for most people. The only people they tend to work for are those who already have the habits/skills necessary to achieve them – or who accidentally choose a challenge/deadline that matches their rate of learning.

90% of the time, that doesn’t happen. Even with substantial records, I continue to set poorly designed challenges, seeking to become like everyone else (or the American ideal): the hyper-productive, always cranking wordsmith with a legendary work ethic. That, however, is not who I am; it is never who I have been; and, in all likelihood, it is never who I will be.

The solution, then, is to forge my own path. Take a left turn away from the goal-setting gurus and questionable psychological science that everyone is jamming down our throats. Step away from the noise and allow it to sink into the background as I use the information, records and knowledge I’ve accumulated to create a system that works for me.

Too often we see unconventional paths dismissed as luck. But maybe these people knew something all along.

Maybe they knew themselves.

That’s the real blueprint. Not the one I suspect we’re all seeking, but it has one advantage over all the others.

It’s true.

And once we create it, we’ll have a blueprint made just for us.

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