The Blackjack Strategy: Harnessing Luck and Randomness to Your Benefit

Ah, yes – luck.

Luck’s role is a omnipresent topic of discussion in all artistic communities, with indie authors being little different. One side of the argument goes a little something like this: everyone who “made it” is lucky. Success is all random – pure chance. Then the other side comes back and says, no, it’s all about hustle and hard work. Luck is a myth. Caricatures of both sides, to be sure, but you probably lean more toward one than the other. I’ve hopped from one side of the spectrum to the other, as susceptible as anyone else to particularly impassioned arguments.

I get why people yearn for a simple answer. This business is hard. Those who aren’t successful yet often want to believe that fate’s cruel whims are chaining them to the doldrums of obscurity. And those who made it want to take full ownership of their accomplishments.

Like most things in life, of course, the answer lies not at the extremes, but in the middle: yes, luck absolutely exists. To say otherwise would be ridiculous; it is mere luck, for example, that you, dear reader, and I, your humble marketing essayist, were both born during a time where we can publish our own work without gatekeepers. I can assuredly say that, had I been born when traditional publishing was the sole method of distribution, I would have never considered writing a single novel. That particular twist of fate had nothing to do with me. That is the very definition of luck.

There are hundreds, if not millions of such lucky breaks – both seen and unseen – granting me this opportunity. Of course, when we think of luck, we tend to think of matters less…cosmic and temporal, and more along the lines of this book took off, and mine didn’tWe have similar covers and a similar ad campaign. What the hell is going on? I think this hack got lucky.

To which I say, yes, they most likely did (and no, they are unlikely to be a hack). There is significant randomness to what takes hold and what does not.

But here’s the good news, and the general point I’m putting forth within: I think we can all harness luck – and, if not control it, maximize what happens when our opportunities do come a-knocking. And I’ve designed my upcoming strategy to take luck by the reins and wring every bit of juice out of its considerable power.

Let’s begin.

The Foundational Principles

Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I have no interest in a Booker or a Nobel prize. But I think Taleb’s sentiment prevails for our line of work: to reach a certain level of success in indie publishing, what one needs first is consistency (hard work). This is a boring, but necessary, first step. Too often, I see authors with one book and no marketing, putting in an hour or two a month, expecting to see huge dividends. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist or occasional writer. In fact, most people would be far happier if they simply made this their objective. But, when one is competing with Steven King, Nora Roberts, and a cadre of talented, hyper-prolific authors, such modest efforts, realistically, will be trampled.

This is a billion dollar business with thousands of well entrenched players, both living and long-dead. One cannot show up when they feel like it, nor when the muse strikes. They must do so on a set schedule, as if this was a job.

Because, realistically, it is.

This consistency has been lacking in my own career, although I’ve managed to sell almost 75,000 books anyway. However, I’m implementing two key changes in 2018 to not only work more consistently, but also get my work to work harder for me:

  • Create a plan I can live with, rather than the optimal one I’ll never execute. This is the biggest thing holding us back from what we want. We set stupid goals with ultra-tight deadlines. It is very hard to recognize your own abilities and assess what a realistic rate of progress should be. Meet yourself where you are and start building from that point. Mastering this is key to maximizing your progress.
  • Hone in on a select few areas of practice, with more focus on the fundamentals. From Effortless Mastery:
Many musicians are so fixated on complex elements that they fail to spend enough time on the basics. As a result, they tend to have all sorts of glitches and basic gaps in their playing. For example, if basic chord progressions are not fully digested, you will struggle with most standard tunes. Eighty percent of jazz standards are comprised of the II-V-I progression. If you really master that progression in all keys, you’ll find that you can fly through most tunes instantly. (60)

I am not a professional musician, nor am I willing to woodshed for long enough to become one. However, from playing guitar for over a decade, one thing is abundantly clear: consistency and quality trump everything. It is simply stunning what one can accomplish when showing up and practicing well. On the latter point, I invite consummate master Leonardo da Vinci to make a supporting argument:

A young man, who has a natural inclination to the study of this art, I would advise to act thus: In order to acquire a true notion of the form of things, he must begin by studying the parts which compose them, and not pass to a second till he has well stored his memory, and sufficiently practiced the first; otherwise he loses his time, and will most certainly protract his studies. And let him remember to acquire accuracy before he attempts quickness.

As a young man, this advice is particularly resonant, but of course, it applies to anyone who is an aspiring artist. In fact, it is so brilliant, that I would venture this particular quote would be enough for one to know almost all there is to know about learning: strive for accuracy and quality first. Break things down into their component parts. Do not become prematurely obsessed with speed.

There is another element to hard work – and that is rest. From Peak Performance:

If we never take ‘easy’ periods, we are never able to go full throttle and the ‘hard’ periods end up being not that hard at all. We get stuck in a gray zone, never really stressing ourselves but never really resting either. (114)

Burnout is very real. The misconception is that it’s possible to work constantly, without breaks. Doing otherwise is a sign of laziness or poor character. On the contrary, periods of rest and active recovery are critical to synthesizing information and growing as a human being. You need to be able to focus intensely – to generate quality practice and work – to grow. Otherwise, you stagnate in a state of half-awake lethargy, where you’re stressed and spiraling downward.

These principles are supported by some common heuristics in the indie/publishing world:

  • It usually takes 1m+ words before an author hits their stride and writes something sellable
  • It usually takes 5 – 10 years to become really good at something
  • Most indie authors making $100k+ have catalogs of 25+ books
  • And then, from my Ultimate Book Marketing Formula: Genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + great covers/blurbs + newsletter + consistent new series novel releases of 60,000+ words/150+ pages (4+ per year) = full-time author; 6+ releases a year = $100k+

Exceptions are notable because they get lots of attention. And no one’s experience will follow these heuristics exactly. But, the longer I do this, the more they hold true. We all believe we’ll be the exception, but usually we’re the rule. That’s fine, though, because so long as you keep writing and marketing – i.e. you’re persistent – then you can put yourself into position to succeed.

Naturally, this is the exact opposite of how most people try to accomplish everything: all the BS “become Hendrix in three days” type of ads and books plastering the internet are proof enough that a much larger market exists for things done quickly than things done correctly. I am as guilty as anyone of fueling that particular market. In 2018 and beyond, however, I’m taking a much more measured approach, and revisiting the fundamentals.

None of this is rocket science. But I don’t think most things are, once you break them into their component parts. The trick, then, is not some eureka insight or secret, but to execute the fundamentals well. The latest Facebook or mailing list tricks might be more interesting, but how many of us have weak blurbs or substandard covers? What about mediocre characters or plots that crumble midway through a book?

You’ll notice that these aren’t goals so much as foundational principles. This is deliberate. I don’t set goals any more, largely because I believe they’re ineffective in areas where the outcome is highly variable (which describes much of life). These will be used to form a strategy at the bottom of this post. But telling you what I’m going to do is much less helpful than telling you why I’m doing it. It is doubtful your situation mirrors my own; thus, copying my strategy would not be effective. Using the principles to create your own would be far more useful.

Anyway, we’re done addressing consistency. Let’s move on to what we can do about the luck part of the equation (and maybe that private jet).

Mindset Shift: Extremism and Cargo Cult Science

A big culprit behind extreme views – and many false beliefs surrounding artistic success – is a phenomenon known as cargo cult science. This is a humorous term coined by renowned physicist Richard Feynman to describe superstition masquerading as science. Upon their contact with advanced technology, some pre-scientific cultures would adopt the trappings of science – building runways, radios and so forth out of wood – without understanding the actual mechanisms behind it. Thus, they would wait by their wooden runways in futility for planes and such to land and bring them further material goods.

Obviously, building wooden radios won’t attract planes. However, this type of superstitious phenomenon or correlation-causation mistake isn’t limited to cultures with no exposure to advanced technology. In fact, I would argue that a cargo cult mentality is more rampant in technologically advanced capitalistic societies. Why? We’re all looking for a competitive edge. Which leads us to such fallacies as:

  • One weird trick to…
  • The secret of…
  • The hidden traits that separate winners from losers…
  • What the people in power aren’t telling you…
  • The one key of those who succeed – and it’s not obvious…

We can go on and on, of course, but such alluring promises run rampant across the web, in book titles, in expensive courses, and almost everywhere else you look. Marketing expert Dan Kennedy summarizes this desire quite succinctly, stating in the excellent No B.S. Time Management:

My business—the information business, as well as businesses such as weight loss, diet, and financial advisory services—revolves around the public’s stubborn belief that there must be a “secret” to success, concealed from them, possibly by conspiracy, that if uncovered, would change everything. (67)

This obsession with secrets, in addition to our obsession with copying successful people’s quirks – things like Steve Jobs’s or Mark Zuckerburg’s simple attire, or drinking a certain type of tea in the morning – are prime examples of this cargo cult mentality. In the case of the attire, these might be small optimizations (based around the hypothesis that making too many choices erodes willpower/uses cognitive resources on tasks that don’t matter). In the case of the tea, it makes zero difference – yet how popular are “morning rituals” or “what writing tools I use” type of content? In many ways, we outfit ourselves with the wooden radios and runways of capitalism, adopting the “uniform” of successful people – their apps, their productivity hacks, their way of dress or speaking – without digging into the principles beneath the veneer. And, like a radio without electronics, this does nothing to create the reality we desire.

Hyper-competitive nature of our modern world aside, I think there’s another reason we succumb to superstitious, surface-level analysis: it gives us an easy explanation. A “secret” grants us an alibi for why we’re not successful. A simple change, like tea, makes it seem like we’re one hack away from success – when, in reality, we need five or ten years of diligent practice to even begin competing. It makes it seem as if our productivity woes are not the product of skills in need of improvement, but rather our lack of a trick or app. And adopting the hallmarks of your favorite successful artist – their rituals, time management tools, writing strategy – allows us to present a veneer of legitimacy to the world (and ourselves) without actually putting in the hard work of scientific discovery.

In short, we can pretend to be something that costs a lot to achieve. And pretending is far easier than the annoying reality: it takes years. Scientific discovery entails lots of testing, lots of failure, and lots of setbacks. Likewise, so does improving one’s craft and learning about marketing. It’s far easier to build wooden radios and then complain when things aren’t working.

I don’t think most of us even do this consciously. With wooden radios, the problem is fairly obvious, to the point of being almost comical. But our wooden radios are often so couched in the appearance of legitimacy – we use Scrivener, have two monitors, and have a weekly writer’s group, damnit! – that it’s difficult to even realize that we’re playing a trick on ourselves. All of these are things that successful writers often do, but doing them does not necessarily mean you are on the path to success. In fact, they have no causal relationship to being successful at all. Unfortunately, the real world is complex, and causal explanations are often frustratingly murky or totally absent. And in the absence of clear explanations, even grasping at straws can be a comfortable placebo.

Thus, if we want to separate luck from skill, the solution is simple: we must strive to uncover real causes and principles, and not be fooled into elegant or alluring surface-level explanations – or the temptation to invent or adopt one where no real answer exists. And be willing to accept uncomfortable truths when they present themselves.

This, of course, is hard – as Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

A Better Word for Luck

The word luck has far too many negative connotations – from lack of skill to gambling – that I think we need to throw it out entirely. It doesn’t hurt that it’s actually not an accurate descriptor of the phenomenon we’re studying. Luckily, however, that word exists.

And it’s called variance. Publishing is a game of skill: if you market better, and write better books, your chances of success improve. However, you are not guaranteed success, and the chance of any one book/series breaking out are probably lower than we’d all like. Thus, we can say the outcomes vary: even if we do everything right, we will often be faced with failure or subpar results. On the flip side of the coin, we can do everything “wrong,” and hypothetically succeed. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of this gig, and no doubt a chief reason why people succumb to a cargo cult mindset: it can all seem very random, and totally unpredictable.

Indeed, variance generates many superstitions and false beliefs. For, when one buys expensive covers, learns how to market, and writes a good book, and is still not rewarded, it is tempting to believe that some missing secret formula is to blame, or that success is simply up to the whims of the Amazon gods. Such is not the case: like a hand of poker, or blackjack, your success is based upon probability. In such games, you are not guaranteed success on any one hand. In fact, you will lose a great many hands. But if you are skilled, you can profit over the long term.

Better marketing and better books nudge the probability of success – what is known in gambling as your edge – higher. But they cannot guarantee the success of any one book. In fact, in a system with high variance (like publishing), one should expect not only a wide range of outcomes, but for their best efforts to often be stymied.

Why am I using blackjack as an analogy? Because, when played correctly (and under the right casino circumstances), it is a game of skill where you experience similar highs and lows. Like publishing, few come to the casino and win, although almost all expect, secretly, that they will emerge richer. Under normal conditions in blackjack, even when playing basic strategy, the house holds a slight edge (about 0.5%). However, there are those who study hard (learn to count cards), have nerves of steel, and understand variance’s role in winning/losing who do succeed. These professional card players have developed an edge – but this edge is not valuable when used over a couple hands. It is only after hours or days at the table that the scales balance in their favor.

The main part where this analogy breaks down is in payoff. In blackjack, your upside is capped. With a book, your upside is unlimited if you hit it out of the park. This is important, because it means that if you keep your investments in each book reasonable, all it takes is a single new book to ignite your backlist and your career.

Harnessing Variance #1: Sharpen Your Edge

First of all, learning basic blackjack strategy – when to hit and when to stay, and so forth – is equivalent to getting good covers, solid blurbs, and writing a decent book. Most players aren’t even at this level, which gives some the misguided notion (myself included, early on) that these basics are all that is required to succeed. Most people, however, can learn to do these things with a little effort and elbow grease. And sometimes these elements are good enough for a solid run. But they aren’t enough to win consistently.  Understanding such basics is not enough for a career – rather, it is a mandatory prerequisite, the price of entry.

Your heart may have jumped a little when I mentioned counting cards. This is another reason this analogy is apt: counting cards is difficult, and demands significant practice. Casinos have developed techniques to blunt its efficacy (having multiple decks and reshuffling them, for example). This is quite similar to the ever changing publishing landscape and the various retailers’ tweaks. Not everyone can do it.

That is an important point, and one worth reflecting on. I do so often, as uncomfortable as it is. I exist in a strange state of midlist limbo, where I am selling books, but not quite at the level where it makes sense to stake a permanent claim as an author. At this point, things could go either way. You don’t really know if you have the chops to succeed until you have done so. Until then, you simply must move forward with faith and perhaps a healthy dose of self-delusion.

Developing an edge in any competitive discipline is hard. The fact is, it’s a lot harder to be a professional author than, say, an engineer or accountant. This isn’t because the work is inherently more challenging, but rather a numbers game: there are far fewer “slots” available to fill for professional authors, and many, many more people wishing to fill them. By some estimates, 80% of people want to write a novel in their lives. By contrast, there are well over a million engineers in the United States, and considerably less competition for such positions.

Thus, the publishing equivalent of “learning to count cards” is extremely difficult. Much is made of imposter syndrome or self doubt, but I think the opposite is far more common, where people vastly overestimate their own abilities and chances of success. They vastly underestimate just how challenging this business is (I’m guilty of this). If this sounds demoralizing, it shouldn’t be; I merely believe it’s important that people set their expectations accordingly. Many people are crushed when their first book, or their fifth, doesn’t do well, and decide they “don’t have it.” Then they might decide that luck is responsible for their misfortune.

If someone has written for 5,000 hours, published 30 books, and marketed the hell out of them, expecting to compete with them right off the bat strikes me as unrealistic. Of course, just enough people do jump in and start swimming in the deep end each year that this expectation will probably never die.

I had this same reaction, of course, but I also decided – around book 10 or 15 – that I wouldn’t quit until I wrote 30 novels. This would give me enough time to get good, and also allowed me to play enough “hands” to survive variance’s inevitable ups and downs. At that point, if it didn’t happen, then it probably wasn’t going to happen. But I would know – or at least come as close to knowing as possible – that I didn’t have the chops to succeed. There would be no what if? – I could accept that I wasn’t going to make it, and that would be that.

I’m at around 22 at this point, and on a nice upward trajectory. The graph looks like it could hit an inflection point in 2018, but you never really know until it happens.

That brings us to another point: risk. It is a significant risk to invest 5+ years of your life, countless hours, and money in a venture that, ultimately, might not succeed. That’s part of the reason shorter timelines are alluring: they mitigate this risk. I don’t have an answer for this, other than to say that pursuing a career in any creative art has always been a dicey proposition. The world has no shortage of music, books, paintings or movies, and there are a lot of people making these things, since each occupation is (perceived as) highly desirable. Thus, it’s worth considering whether or not the risk – and costs – are worth the outcome.

That’s an important question to reflect on during your own time. As I’ve already said, I think most writers would be better served accepting this as a part-time or side gig that generates some extra bucks and enjoyment, rather than reaching for the full-time goblet sitting at the top of the mountain. For that goblet might be made of gold, but the mountain is an unfriendly place. And sometimes you reach the summit to find someone peed in the cup.

Metaphors aside, there are two parts to developing your edge:

  1. Improving your writing.
  2. Improving your marketing.

I’ve adopted the mindset that, since I’m not in the position I want, I’m doing something wrong or my skills aren’t currently up to snuff. This has pluses and minuses, but the main advantage is that it puts the burden of responsibility on my shoulders. It also gives me the opportunity to grow: I can adjust my approach so that I don’t repeat the same errors, and I can design a program to improve both my writing and marketing.

It is very easy to get stuck in a work treadmill, where you’re doing lots of writing and marketing, but you’re doing the same types of writing and marketing. Hence, you’re not trying new things and poking at the boundaries of your knowledge. This means you’re not improving and honing your edge. You need to be pushing at the edges of your abilities at all times, particularly when you’re unsuccessful. The temptation is to say, oh, that’s just luck – the market, or Amazon, [or other big corporation/vague entity] doesn’t appreciate my book and is screwing me. This might be true, or it might not, but it ultimately makes you powerless. If it’s all luck, then we might as well be buying lottery tickets.

If it’s not all luck, then our actions have some effect on the outcome. Which means we can improve the quality of our actions to increase the probability of getting a favorable outcome.

Harnessing Variance #2: Manage Your Bet Size

A key part to winning at blackjack, poker, or stock trading – any game where variance is involved – has little to do with how you attack the game itself. Instead, a huge part – some might argue the most important part – is managing your bankroll. Most players pay little attention to their bet sizes, simply making them based on emotion or feel. However, this overlooked part of the game is often the difference between winning and losing.

People have a tendency to want to hit home runs. Going “all-in” is popular both in gambling movies and in our culture at large – this is shown as having guts, not as being stupid. In reality, going “all in,” or even betting a substantial part of your net worth on any one hand is almost always a fool’s errand. I’m not going to go into the exceptions to this; naturally, there are investors or players who adopt much more aggressive betting strategies that we’re not exploring here. However, it should be said that, when someone “loads up,” (this is Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s strategy, so you know it works) and puts down a massive bet, it’s usually A) far less than the layman’s notion of loading up and B) because they have a massive, massive, edge. This is much different than the poetic, but often tragically misguided notion of going “all in.”

Most of us don’t have such a massive edge that we can afford to bet the farm on our latest novel. The publishing game is fuzzy, even for experts: Harry Potter was rejected by multiple publishers.

The #1 rule is this: you can’t keep playing if you don’t stay in the game. And you can’t stay in the game without some coin.

There’s a flip side to this, however: you usually can’t win if you don’t have a little at stake. Yes, some people bootstrap their way to success. But most people invest in their work – both in its presentation and its marketing (as well as, perhaps, honing their edge through educational resources).

The key here: don’t invest too much in any one book, but still give each an ample shot to succeed. In our case as authors, I mean time-wise and emotionally as well as financially, as there’s a tendency to view a novel as “precious” or to have a fervent desire for a certain work to succeed. Obviously it’s good to care; it only becomes a problem when this emotional investment affects your judgement or causes you to become despondent when a novel doesn’t meet expectations.

  1. Time: Reach a level that’s professional, but not obsessive (e.g. eradicating every instance of “that” in your manuscript). Every book has flaws, weak points or perhaps an odd contrivance or two. The aim here isn’t to be lazy (remember, quality is important), but simply to not give into perfectionism.
  2. Emotions: Accept that a lot of this is out of your control. There are great books that never find an audience. That is just reality. Being able to disengage from a “failure” is key to playing the next hand. If you’re constantly living in the past, you aren’t living in the present, making new work, or improving. Once your book is released, it’s a commercial product. Capitalism is often cold and uncaring.
  3. Financially: invest in your work, but don’t bet everything on a single series. Don’t do silly things like charge up your credit cards, take out loans, or blow your entire savings on a book launch. And, if you have a budget of, say, $1,000 for a launch, make sure you allocate that correctly, and cover your main bases well. Don’t spend $950 on a cover and then $50 on one day’s worth of ads.

How much you should “bet” per book is, of course, hard to quantify. How much is too much time? You don’t want to release a sloppy product, because that limits A) your edge and B) its value as a practice tool (if you’re not pushing your limits with each book, then you’re going to stagnate). You must care about your work. I just received a paperback copy of a complete collection – basically everything I wrote in 2017. From a financial point of view, this makes zero sense; I doubt it will earn out the $500+ it cost me to produce. But from an emotional point of view, it was self-affirming: in a business where the tendency is to compare yourself to others (and, particularly, those at the top), it served as a reminder that I produced a ton of good work this year. The aim isn’t to be an automaton where every situation comes down to business.

Even with things that can be quantified, who can say how much you should “bet” on your cover, versus advertising? In table games and investing, you can devise a mathematically optimal betting strategy. In publishing, this is much fuzzier, and you have to do it by feel. This comes with experience.

Harnessing Variance #3: Further Hone Your Edge Through Tactics

This could also be called knowing your casino. For example, there are variants of blackjack that change the odds. Certain casinos offer perks/comps/bet matching. This is analogous to the difference in genres, using the Amazon algorithms to buoy a new release, playing in Kindle Unlimited and so forth. If you don’t have an edge, none of this stuff matters; you’ll still walk away with empty pockets.

But, when you do have solid marketing and books in place, these tactics can transform a small edge into one you can leverage into something truly career changing. In the past, I’ve made tactics the foundation of my marketing strategy – they’re shiny, and it’s tempting to believe in the “one secret that will transform your self-publishing business forever” (tell me you wouldn’t read that post if it existed – c’mon). Instead, they’re more like spice – they can turn a bland dish into something memorable, but if all you have is pepper and water, you don’t have enough sustenance to fuel you for very long.

Harnessing Variance #4: Play Enough Hands

When the edge is against you, you want to limit your number of hands. Zero, in fact, would be the optimal number, since over time you would expect the house to relieve you of your money.

Of course, to develop an edge, you have to play many hands where the odds are against you. Thus, you should expect to pay some money as an “education” as you learn.

When you have an edge, you want to play more hands. Fewer hands increases the role of luck in the outcome. Even a master playing one hand of poker, or two hands of blackjack, would see his fate dominated almost entirely by luck. Much the same with a single novel, or even a couple: that’s not enough hands to properly exploit your edge. But, provided you do have an edge – great books and great marketing – playing as many hands as possible benefits you. Because, over time, you’re going to come out a winner. Thus, once you have a winning formula, you want to scale up your releases and crank as much as you can.

This requires two things: to make smaller bets (#2). You need to stay in the game. Don’t rack up your credit cards, don’t get obsessed with making a certain book a hit.

And then, release consistently: new novels, and new ads. You need a steady stream of consistent releases – likely in different series, trying things differently when you don’t succeed.

And you need to test a variety of advertising mechanisms/approaches to see what works for your series and so forth. If you’re using PPC, you need to constantly be refreshing your ads and testing new approaches. This requires lots of small bets ($1, $2, $3 per ad) and quickly stopping subpar hands.

Then, when you have a winner, ride it for all it’s worth. This is like when a deck is “hot” in blackjack. Players scale up their bets and go for it. These opportunities are rare, but they can make your night at the tables. And when you have a hot winner in publishing, that can make your career if you jump on it instead of waiting.

Harnessing Variance #5: Execute

I’ve written a lot about habits and routines already, so I won’t belabor those points here. Suffice to say, good habits are the bedrock of productivity.

One of the things I want you to glean from this is the process of designing a strategy. Not necessarily taking mine – which probably doesn’t fit your skills, schedule, goals or life. Business boils down to two keys: good strategy and good execution. Most people focus on execution: I wasn’t disciplined enough. I didn’t want it enough. Thus, the solution in the future? Grit my teeth and buckle down harder. Be better.

This rarely works, but not for the reason we think. We’re not broken or otherwise fated to a mediocre existence. Execution flows from strategy; they are inseparable. If you have a bad strategy, your execution inevitably suffers. As a simple example, consider this “strategy”: drink three beers and then try to write your daily words. For most, this results in unbelievably poor execution. No one would use this as a strategy. But people make “big, audacious” goals that effectively do the same thing – disempower them through their sheer ridiculousness. Then they compound this by trying to fix everything – making huge goals in all areas. Lose 100 pounds, write 12 novels, become a marketing guru. This year will be the year that everything clicks.

Life doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. A year is not as long as you think. And three months certainly isn’t. Not that you can’t make great progress. You can. But usually that demands two things:

  1. Narrowing your focus. I spent a lot of time on marketing in 2017. That led to a dip in my word count. Basically inevitable.
  2. Meeting yourself where you are. This is so, so important. Remember that Feynman quote from the beginning: the easiest person to fool is yourself. It’s tempting to believe we’re further along and more skilled than we are. I mean, hell, I’ve spent the last three years believing I was a 1m+ word per year writer if only I “got it together.” But I was a 300,000 word writer, then a 550,000 word writer. Maybe I’ll get to 1m, but developing those productivity chops will take a couple more years, minimum. Pretending otherwise did me no favors, and only hampered my progress (while stressing me out). Accept where you are, and then design a strategy (plan) based on that reality to get where you need to be.

Remember this when you’re setting up a strategy in any part of your life: adherence is number one. If you can’t show up to execute it, it doesn’t matter how great your diet, book launch, job plan, schedule or productivity hack looks on paper. You need to scrap it, and then revise it into something that you can actually execute.

And that, really, is the key ingredient to the plan you see below: it’s designed for me, based on reality.

Putting it Together: The Blackjack Strategy

Despite the fancy name and almost 5,000 words of discourse, the plan, actually, is rather basic when it’s distilled. To recap, the founding principles are:

  • Consistency: you need a certain baseline of hard work to move the needle. This is unavoidable.
  • Quality: you need to cultivate quality through focused, consistent practice. It is possible to work hard without progressing your skills. In a fast moving world, this is not an option.
  • Adherence: make a plan you can stick with, rather than one that looks great on paper but is unachievable.

And then, here’s how I plan to harness variance to my advantage:

Edge (books): Focus on two to three areas of craft. Once you get beyond a basic level of craft, you generally need to narrow your focus in order to make noticeable progress. When you spread your practice time too thin, your progress is so minuscule that you often get discouraged and quit. Or you don’t make any progress, because advanced concepts take more time to master than the early fundamentals. It doesn’t make sense to do this until the early fundamentals are in place; however, I can write a competent novel at this point. While I obviously have weaknesses, there are no fundamental weaknesses that hamstring the book entirely. Thus, I’m going to focus on three areas: characters, dialogue, and scene/sequel structure. One of those is a strength (dialogue), one is a relative strength, but could be improved (characters), and one is a weakness (scene/sequel structure – my books have occasional pacing problems that I think can be resolved through more consistent scenes and sequels).

I’d like to be really, really good at a few things. I think this is better than being decent at many areas, provided the other areas don’t weigh you down. Take Elmore Leonard: his characters and dialogue are transcendent. Not to say the other parts of his work are bad, or even average; merely that these areas are so strong that they render any other weaknesses largely moot. They also gave him a distinct brand and voice (or, as he called it, his “sound”). After deliberation, this is what I’m going to aim for – my voice is too distinct to tamp it down a la a stripped down Asimovian style. The only option, then, is to double down on a few areas.

This is a risk. If readers don’t like your voice or your take, then strengthening it will only be a negative.

This might need to be chopped to two areas of study. We’ll see as things progress.

Edge (marketing): copywriting & PPC ads. It’s become clear that PPC is the only way to scale massively, outside of Amazon touching you with the magic wand. But PPC is competitive, and only getting moreso; thus I need to hone my chops. This will be done through continually running ads. I’m getting a lot better with PPC, semi-routinely generating sub-$0.30 clicks in a competitive genre (urban fantasy). I need to continue creating new ads and working on this. Copywriting (good ad copy and a good blurb) is a key skill that influences click costs, as well as conversions on your Amazon page. Since these dovetail, that allows me to double up some practice/work time and get more bang for each hour.

Bet size: loading up (books). I’m actually contradicting my own advice above to make small bets. For most writers, this makes sense: you want to test the waters with more series, test different book lengths, different characters, maybe some pen names. In truth, most “bets” in the book business are fairly large, since a novel demands at least a month, if not more, of work, plus often substantial production costs. But even in the realm of indie publishing, I am “loading up,” and making a big bet on this new series. I’ve gone the smaller bet route in the past, and I think I’ve found my niche, even though I’m still searching for that elusive breakout hit. However, I feel that I know enough about marketing, am a good enough writer, and have the infrastructure in place that I have enough of an edge to load up.

This filters into an overarching objective that hasn’t been mentioned: I’m trying to make $1m in a year at some point. This is a ways off, but I’ve analyzed myself, as well as the market, and come to a simple conclusion. The only ways to accomplish this are to take bigger risks, or work way harder (or get absurdly lucky, but that’s not an actual strategy). I’m willing to do #1, but not #2 (I’m also 28 years old, so a “big” risk really isn’t the same for me as it would be for someone who’s 50 with two kids). I would rather lose $10k and have a shot at big money than make $10k but be conservative. This is a deliberate strategy choice.

Thus, instead of allocating my six books between multiple series, or two trilogies, they’ll all be in the same series. I’m going all out on the covers, with each one costing me a cool $700. Each book will be 80,000 – 100,000 words, which demands more writing time versus my typical ~50k – 60k. This will be a stretch, demanding about 600,000 words of writing; but I’ve written 550k in a year before, so this is doable. I’ll be investing heavily in each launch. Almost all of my revenue from books will go toward advertising this new series; past series will likely be slowed to a drip, or cut off (BookBubs aside).

Basically, everything rides on the success of one character, one series, and one sub-genre (urban fantasy). These factors result in a high degree of correlation: if it proves successful, this series will massively spike my six backlist books (two trilogies), plus be a huge winner in Kindle Unlimited (urban fantasy is popular in the program). It will bring in an influx of urban fantasy readers to my newsletter and build my pen name as an indie author to watch. If it flops, I’ll be out nearly $5k in covers, plus whatever advertising costs are; my backlist will also go into hibernation, as those books will primarily be relying on spillover from the new books to succeed instead of ads. My newsletter growth will stagnate, as I won’t be running many giveaways/PPC ads to boost the numbers. And my pen name will stall, rather than perhaps grow at a more modest rate.

An important point: I’m not doing dumb shit like charging my credit cards. This isn’t “my last chance.” It’s a calculated risk that has a huge potential payoff, but also a substantial chance of losing money. I will not be at risk of ruin should this not turn out.

Bet size: small bets (ads). I’ve tried to hit home runs with ad stacks and PPC before, but spending hundreds or thousands in a short period of time doesn’t work well unless that’s the price of a BookBub ad in your genre, or you’re launching with a huge flourish. Even though I plan to launch strongly, I’m going to run a lot of smaller ads at $1/$2 etc. spends, rather than hunting for big winners, or starting off with big spends. I’ll still scale winners, but I’ll also be content to let some small fish ride – because these small fish, in tandem, result in huge gains when you compound them over the year. And it’s much easier to find cheap clicks with a $1/day ad than it is a $50/day ad.

Make lots of bets, further hone your edge, and execute: Publish 6 books, each on the 1st of the month: Jan 1, Mar 1, May 1, Jul 1, Sept 1, Nov 1. This smooths out Amazon’s cliffs, which start to dip at 30 days, but are now quite precarious at the 60 day mark. I’ve tried to release a book every month before; I don’t have the productivity chops to do it right now. Two months will be a stretch, as consistency isn’t my calling card. But based on past behavior, it’s doable – provided I adjust a few behaviors.

Publishing on the first gives something people can count on: they know a book will come out every 2 months, and they know it’ll happen to kick off the month. I’m basically copping this idea from YouTube, where channels will have videos come out every Wednesday, or on some other set schedule. Even with multiple points of contact – mailing list, Facebook, Amazon, BookBub etc. – it’s inevitable that your release announcements won’t reach everyone. This gives you an extra means of reaching some people who otherwise wouldn’t realize your new book was out.

I also know a fair bit about the algos, and have studied them a little bit more. All of these are tactics, but I’m hoping they’ll help the series rocket out of the gate and get rolling quickly.

The Daily Plan

This is very simple.

  • Wake up
  • Workout and meditate
  • Shower
  • Write for 90m
  • 15m break
  • Market for 90m

Other pieces:

  • Take Sundays off.
  • When something comes up in the morning, I’ll just move the schedule back a few hours and start when things clear.
  • Stick with the plan for the year.

To be clear, some of this is already in place. A routine is built brick-by-brick, over months and years. My main focus is on the consistency and getting the writing done in the morning. Usually I write at night. We’ll see if this proves realistic, or whether or not I should just stick with nighttime work. I’m also hoping to add a second 90m writing session at some point. But I’d like to get this nailed down like clockwork first. Realistically, that could take me the entire year.

There will be occasional stretches that demand more work hours, such as launches, or perhaps during revision periods. I’ll see how those slot in.

That’s it. I’m expecting to take another day off each week, just from past experience. That means about 250 work days a year. This will result in about 375 – 400 hours of writing practice. In five years, I’ll be 33, and the result will be 2000+ hours of writing practice, plus all the corresponding books. Again, thinking long term. At that point, we’re closing in on the kind of craft chops that make bigger revenue numbers much more realistic.

To get where I want to go, the concept of optional needs to be eliminated from my vocabulary. This needs to be taken as seriously as a project or appointment with others. Again, my past output hasn’t been bad by any means, but it needs to be elevated. For reference, I’ve written for about ~250 hours this year so far. This would 1.5x my output, but the true effect is likely exponential: producing more work results in faster revenue growth, and practicing more consistently makes for a compounding effect on craft. Thus, it might be 3x, 5x, or even 20x more effective than my previous efforts.

I’m going to stick with it through the course of the year. There will be adjustments, but the core of the plan will stay the same. Maybe it’s a tendency of the young, or maybe it’s just human, but the urge to look for something new and shiny has derailed me more than once. I’ve still made a ton of progress over five years – but I have to wonder where I’d be if I had simply been patient and allowed some things to play out, rather than constantly trying “three month fix everything” challenge type of approaches to business (and life, at large). Subsequently, the most essential part of the strategy – and, likely, the most difficult – will be to simply stick with itAdherence has consistently been shown to be the most critical piece of any self-improvement plan. Hence the emphasis on a plan you can live with, rather than the most optimal one possible.

I already have it in my head that I want to release a few other novels. This strikes me as unrealistic, and something that will reduce my output/chances of success, rather than raise them, as my devil voice is telling me. We all deal with things like this; I think successful people are better at ignoring or disarming this type of nonsense than most. It’s something to work on – balancing the necessity of trying new things, while still maintaining course long enough to reap the benefits of your work is difficult.

Anyway, after 7,500 words, this strategy is remarkably simple: release a full-length novel every two months, work on a couple areas of craft, and build my PPC skills. But hopefully the thinking behind it gives you some ideas for how you might design a publishing strategy of your own for 2018 and beyond.