The Case Study series dives into marketing strategies and tactics I’ve tested over my years of indie publishing. I’ll break down what worked, what didn’t, and offer some ideas about how to use them effectively on your own books.
In this Case Study, we’ll look at goal setting, productivity, and launching a new pen name (or series) through the lens of two ill-fated challenges.
It all starts back in the Summer of 2016 (5/21/16 – 8/31/16), when I was having little luck breaking through in science fiction after 13 novels. It was then that I decided upon an entirely new course of action: I’d launch a new urban fantasy pen name. That seemed crazy and bold (to me), at the time, but really I was just writing to market properly, instead of falling on my face. The ironically named 100 Days to Greatness challenge was my attempt to kickstart sales of this new pen name from zero.
It was not successful.
I was, however, undeterred by its ineffectiveness, embarking upon the 28 Days to 10k challenge in February 2017. As its name would suggest, this was my attempt to break the 5-figure mark in a month for the first time.
It also came up short.
But things didn’t have to end that way—I made clear errors that could have been avoided. We’ll examine where things broke down, and I’ll share a simple strategy for achieving better results.
Before we get into that, however, let’s start with why productivity is so damn important.
PRODUCTIVITY COMES FIRST
Self-employed individuals must hone three skills to enjoy a sustainable career: productivity, craft, and marketing. These skills can be organized in a hierarchical pyramid like so:
This hierarchy is not random. Productivity is the foundation of your career.
Without consistently doing the work, the pyramid collapses. Craft and marketing are, of course, critical to your success. They are not less important than productivity. But their true potential can only be unlocked through rock solid work habits.
Most authors simply don’t put in enough time to give themselves a shot at success.
Having grappled with productivity for years, I’ve discovered that the root of poor productivity is generally not laziness, as commonly believed, but lack of skill. There’s a persistent misconception that productivity can be summoned at will. But our true level of productivity is revealed by what we accomplish under normal conditions. Short-term challenges ignore a fundamental truth relayed by the Greek poet Archilochus over 2,500 years ago: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.“
This “rise to the challenge” myth is perpetuated by the fact that all of us have logged long hours when faced with onerous deadlines—working perhaps 12, 14, or even 20 hours in a day. This gives us the illusion that, if we really dug deep, we could do this all the time. But when this temporary pressure is removed—or continues too long—we inevitably fall back to our true levels of productivity.
This is because productivity is actually a latticework of skills developed through practice—just like writing a novel, playing the piano, or riding a bicycle.
The solution, then, is not another challenge, productivity app, or hack. Too often we try to shed years of poor work habits with a manic flurry of activity. That is ineffective, as the results of my ill-fated challenges illustrate quite well.
Instead, we need to build our productivity skills day-by-day, from the ground up.
Which, of course, was the exact opposite of what I did in these two challenges.
THE GOALS (AND RESULTS)
Original goals are in black; results are in parenthesis. Green = success, red = failure.
(100 Days to Greatness)
- Increase my earnings from $200/mo from $3400/mo total between my two pen names (Jun: $185.77; Jul: $799.35; Aug: $2739.35)
- 3 novels + lead magnet novella for new urban fantasy pen name (2 novels, 1 lead magnet novella)
- 1 novel + lead magnet novella for my original science fiction pen name (part of novel written, release pushed back to 9/28)
- 1000 mailing list subscribers between the two pen names (378 subscribers)
- 150 hours of guitar practice (57 hours)
- Workout and clean up my diet (20 of 44 workouts)
(28 Days to 10K)
- Post every day on KBoards (complete)
- Post a weekly breakdown here (complete; these have since been taken down because they’re no longer relevant)
- Hit $10,000 in gross revenue ($6096)
- Overhaul Book 1 (Lightning Blade) in my Ruby Callaway Series to extend the word count to ~60,000 words. (complete)
- Release Book 2 (Shadow Flare) in my Ruby Callaway Series (delayed until April)
- Release two box sets: The Half-Demon Rogue Trilogy and Kip Keene #2 (complete)
I also missed most of my weekly sub-goals.
That I came up well short of my mark is not surprising. Ultimately, good execution flows from good strategy. Bad strategies produce bad execution.
These are textbook examples of bad strategy.
Challenges are sexy. They get other people excited. They make us seem ambitious. But setting up an almost insurmountable challenge does not suddenly change who you are. The only way to do that is through consistent training—precisely the type of practice that challenges fail to promote.
The ultimate objective is not simply to produce a short burst of activity, but to make critical tasks habitual. This is crucial for developing the skills necessary to perform your job well—these must be automated and internalized so that you can then build higher level skills upon them.
Two common problems in particular scuttled my chances of success: unrealistic deadlines and pursuing multiple difficult goals simultaneously.
PROBLEM 1: UNREALISTIC DEADLINES
I underestimated the work required for both of these challenges. Launching an indie career from scratch in 100 days is a large undertaking, even with substantial previous experience. I needed far more time to write four novels (and two novellas) and properly market them. And making $10k in 28 days? I needed a larger platform and backlist to make that a realistic possibility.
Trying to fix everything at once in a super-condensed time frame is usually a recipe for failure. Worse, it doesn’t develop the long-term habits and skills that help us actually accomplish our goals.
TAKEAWAY: people promote challenges as hyper-effective based on the idea that if you shoot for the moon and miss, at least you hit the stars. Wrong.
You don’t jump from bench pressing 100 pounds to 300 in a couple months simply because you challenge yourself. You need to be prepared to train for potentially years—and then do said training. If you try to skip steps, the results are catastrophically negative: injury, loss of strength, and failure to achieve your goal. For some reason this is intuitive when it comes to weight lifting, but is immediately ignored when it comes to mental tasks. You cannot simply will yourself to huge leaps in progress and skill through a snappily designed challenge and arbitrary deadline.
True progress demands sufficient time. Onerous deadlines don’t allow this.
PROBLEM 2: PURSUING MULTIPLE DIFFICULT GOALS AT THE SAME TIME
Most goals are inherently difficult. That’s why we haven’t achieved them yet. Stacking multiple difficult goals on top of each other doesn’t increase our chances of success, just like driving down the highway blindfolded doesn’t increase our chances of reaching our destination safely.
This, of course, is obvious. So why don’t we just pursue our #1 priority and be done with it?
If you’re like me, you have multiple areas that you want to improve—but have put off for years. At some point, you get sick of everything, and in a burst of motivation decide no more. At this point, the prospect of focusing on one goal—thus putting the others on hold—is unpalatable.
Which is why I created a plan where I would work out, get better at guitar, massively grow my business, hone my craft…only to promptly accomplish very little.
I streamlined my focus the second time around, but a quick perusal of my task list reveals a similar problem manifesting in a slightly different way. This time, I filled my calendar with busy work (e.g. posting publicly to KBoards), which prevented me from focusing on the one thing that might have propelled me to a $10k finish: writing Book 2. Instead, I completed almost everything but my most important task. Which was almost the same as doing nothing at all.
If we’re being real, we don’t set too many goals out of ambition. We do this because we have little intention of achieving them. Fantasizing about our streamlined, upgraded life is better than doing the work. By putting them all down on paper, we gain some control over what feels like a disorganized, frantic situation. It provides us pleasure and solace. We thus stoke the fires of our dreams by maintaining journals full of fictional aspirations that we’ll never even halfheartedly pursue.
It’s okay to do this, but it pales in comparison to actual progress.
TAKEAWAY: Pursuing a lot of competing, large goals does not make you ambitious. It demonstrates poor focus. Focus on one goal at a time; put others in a holding pattern or accept that progress will be slower while you work on your #1 priority. If you’re more diligent, you can pursue two or three. I would have hit $10k in Summer 2016 had I stripped away the rest of my goals and simply got Book 3 out in August and Book 4 (it was originally planned to be a longer series) out in September. By losing focus, I fell short of my more modest goal ($3.4k) and ended up failing the second challenge, too (which I only undertook as a delayed reaction to the first challenge flopping).
SO ARE SPEED AND AMBITION POINTLESS?
No. The core point here is to pursue ambitious objectives in the right way. Paradoxically, this has both a higher success rate and ends up being much faster than succumbing to home run, fix everything now thinking.
Naturally, if setting near-impossible goals works for you, keep doing it. Just check your records to make sure you’re making progress, instead of spinning your wheels in a flurry of manic activity. If you’re like most people, however, the challenge treadmill has not produced great results. This can be sobering, and make you feel like you’ve wasted years of time.
Instead of being demoralizing, the realization that challenges are largely ineffective should be liberating. It frees us from the shackles of our past failures, and opens up the real possibility that next time can produce different results—provided we approach our business in a different manner.
And what manner should that be? Simple: working at a sustainable pace that build solid habits while still pushing the edges of our current abilities.
And what about building a career? Well, that’s simple, too: consistent, fast releases are the most effective marketing and career building strategy.
It is key, of course, that these books hit your target audience’s expectations in terms of writing and packaging (blurb, cover etc.). Miss these marks and releasing more books will have no effect. Not everyone can write at a rapid enough pace for that strategy to be viable—and if you can’t, choose a different path. But if you can crank out words, use that skill to your advantage and publish fast.
What should a slower writer do? Finding ways to increase your production will always pay dividends, for one. Barring that, similar principles are at play, with more emphasis on marketing: if you can only release two books a year, be consistent with your marketing habits. Build your email list, work on your ads, and find ways to get your books in the hands of new readers—as well as existing fans, who likely haven’t read all your work. Do all of this month in and month out. None of this is sexy or explosive, but this effort compounds into big results over five or ten years.
Where I see slower authors go wrong is that they abandon their business to the tumbleweeds during non-release months. Or they go years between releases. Then, when they launch their new book, they’re reaching out to a group of no longer engaged readers. By having these major lulls in marketing activity, you effectively start from zero with every new release. If you keep the fires stoked with consistent marketing, however, you can reliably build on your previous progress.
Oh, and one more thing: double down on what’s working. Poor strategies and execution aside, I still could’ve ignited my career by simply publishing Book 3 in August 2016. That would have gotten me near the $10k/month mark, if not over. Instead, I killed my momentum by jumping back to my struggling sci-fi pen name. When I released Book 3 in January 2017, it tanked.
SOME SIMPLE MATH TO LEAVE YOU WITH
Effective goal setting can be distilled into three principles:
- It’s better to actually fix your #1 problem or achieve your #1 objective than to shoddily address 5 issues.
- It’s better to give yourself the time necessary to achieve this objective, rather than cram it into an arbitrary deadline that produces crappy results.
- It’s better to design a strategy based on your personal strengths and weaknesses, rather than trying to fit your quirks to someone else’s “perfect” system.
Contrary to popular opinion, success doesn’t have to be paid for in blood, sweat, and tears. You don’t get points for making things more difficult than necessary.
Some simple math illustrates this truth better than words.
15,000 words a week = 750k a year. That breaks down to a leisurely 2k a day—or 3k, five days a week (with weekends off). 2,000 words takes most authors 1 – 2 hours.
Assuming you spend 1/3 of your time editing and revising (often glossed over in these calculations), thus cutting your output by 1/3, that’s 500,000 publishable words—or a total of six 80,000 word novels.
Throw in an hour a day of marketing, and you’re looking at a 20 hour workweek. The more books you publish that meet your target audience’s expectations, the less marketing stuff you have to worry about. Writing consistently and practicing your craft solve most of your problems.
If you can write competent, readable English and publish six to eight novels, you can make excellent progress in a year with this type of schedule. Full time? Probably not. But repeat it for five to ten years, and it’s possible to reach $50,000+ annually—provided you don’t waste those 20 hours on fake work (e.g. changing the font size on your website).
In the end, consistency is king. But consistency is a deceptive beast, as its spoils only appear after years of compounding. Persevering long enough to see those rewards is 90% of the battle.
That’s it. Go sell some books.