Failures in Writing to Market: Lessons from A Post Mortem Analysis

As the final book in the Kip Keene series was published a few days ago, I thought it fitting to reflect on why the series wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. These books – a blend of sci-fi and adventure – were my first real attempt at writing commercial fiction. The trilogy that directly preceded the Kip Keene Adventures, while hardly literary, was still very much about blending story concepts that were of personal interest.

The Kip Keene books, on the other hand, had a clear blueprint in mind: they were meant to be page-turners filled with action, exotic locales and treasure hoards.

They were also meant to fill my writing coffers with hoards of treasure. Alas, the opposite happened; to date, I’m in the hole almost $5,000 for this series, after taking all marketing and production expenses into account.

So what went wrong?

A lot. But first, let’s talk about why I’m even writing this post at all.

Dude, No One Cares About Failure

One of my favorite books is What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, which is a recollection of a stock trader’s spiral into self-perpetuated failure. Unfortunately, while failure is far more the norm – in evolution, life, finance, and business – than success, this book is a veritable unicorn. It turns out there’s not a large market for books about people who fell on their face.

That’s an egregious oversight, in my estimation, because failure is far more informative of success, provided you analyze your mistakes. While one-off successes are often portrayed as repeatable because they make for good copy, the ironic truth is that these feel-good stories often provide little or no informational value. Mistakes force us to improve, provided we’re willing to correct them.

I should be clear that the goal is not to make mistakes. Let me state, in no uncertain terms, that failure sucks and you should do your best to prevent unforced errors.

To sum up why I decided to write this: there are a lot of posts about “how I made 6-figures publishing” or “sold 10,000 copies of my first eBook.” There are more than a few warning about how “it’s impossible to make money self-publishing because of [Amazon, bad promo sites, lack of goat sacrifices etc.].” There are far less in the vein of, “I just vaporized $5,000 – and here’s why.” So I think that some sort of counterpoint is needed.

Also, it’s immensely helpful to reexamine your thinking and find out exactly where you erred. That way you can avoid repeating similar mistakes ad naseum.

And by reading about my errors, you gain the wisdom of experience without actually spending any money. Hooray!

Quick Clarification on Terminology

Write to market has come to mean a hodge-podge of different things, some of them correct, most of them off-base. To clarify, here are definitions:

Writing to market: writing commercial fiction aimed at a pre-existing audience

There are two primary ways to do this:

Writing to genre: writing a book in a well-defined genre/sub-genre, using many of the tropes, expectations and common characters within. E.g. disaster fiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance

Writing to trend: writing a book in a well-defined sub-genre that’s currently hot & selling well, using all of the tropes, expectations and common characters within. Trend books are often laser-targeted toward a very specific sub-genre (in a popular larger genre) that has suddenly grown to a size that outstrips normal demand. Often they’re simply sub-genre books that are enjoying a sudden swell of popularity. E.g. Navy Seal romance, billionaire bear shifter romance, tough guy urban fantasy

If you get nothing else from this post, understand this: your genre is the most important component of your book’s success. The effort required to carve out a living in certain niches is simply far, far easier than in others. I understand that people want to believe that much of their success is attributed to hard work, superior skill or other factors.

All of these play a role, but the most critical – when it comes to sales and making money – is genre.

Choosing a genre is similar to choosing a college major. Certain fields of study are inherently more difficult than others – physics is far more complex than finance. I got both a Finance and an English degree in college; the former took about 1/5 of the study time as the latter. I didn’t have to go to class; the reading materials were less complicated and far less voluminous; the assigned workload (typically only exams) was less. On the other hand, in my final semester, I had to read something like 35 books for the English classes I was taking.

In terms of earning power, however, the English degree is almost worthless on its own. The Finance degree, on the other hand, has a lot of built-in earning power out of the gate, despite being ridiculously easy to acquire.

This is neither right or wrong; it is simply reality. I say none of this with contempt for those who have found great success in popular genres. I have had the Sisyphean experience of trying to push slightly left-of-center books uphill. I’ve also watched the effortless way on-the-nose books catch fire and ignite. Most genres are like physics or English or art history: the work load is demanding, and the pay is not particularly great without a lot of clever thinking. Plan accordingly.

We’ll start our post-mortem analysis with genre, since that’s the biggest thing I got wrong.

A Picture of the Covers, so You Have an Idea of What the Books Are Like

The-Kip-Keene-Web-2

What Went Wrong (WWW) #1: The Concept & Genre

There are two things that are key when you’re writing to market: the book’s concept, and the genre. Nothing else matters if you get these two things wrong. Worse, you need to plan these out beforehand, because they’re impossible to revise/tweak once a book is finished (obviously).

Suffice to say, I got them both wrong.

The genesis of Kip Keene and his alliterative name began two years ago, when I decided to write an updated, modern riff on the Hardy Boys or Tom Swift for adults (with no Swifties, so better writing, too). This later evolved into including elements of golden age pulp fiction, a la Lester Dent’s famous Doc Savage. My pitch line, essentially, was a modern, better written and adult version of the Hardy Boys, with sci-fi elements (since my brand under this pen name is sci-fi).

This is okay, but it’s not a particularly strong or inspired concept: Keene goes to exotic locals, beats up bad guys, searches for artifacts and saves the day. Pretty standard stuff – except for some odd choices, which didn’t help – which will work, if the genre you’re writing is hot.

The straight-up sci-fi adventure genre is pretty much dead on Amazon.

None of the books inspiring the series have been popular for a long time now (the originals, I mean). It’s important to remember, when you’re searching for genre inspiration, that books written even 20 years ago aren’t indicative of what the market wants today. Hell, John D. MacDonald is absolutely revered by writers, and his books weren’t available on Kindle until a few years ago.

The market’s tastes change. The best resource for judging its current palette is Amazon’s bestseller charts. Had I perused these, I would have found something interesting: the adventure sub-genre of sci-fi is absolutely dominated (indie-wise) by space opera and military sci-fi. The rest of the books are bestsellers (The Martian, The Atlantis Gene) or Amazon imprint titles. One fellow commented on this in a review, mentioning that it was good to find an actual sci-fi adventure.

Unfortunately, right now most readers like their sci-fi adventures in space. To overcome the market’s current tastes, I would have needed a very, very strong concept – like The Martian or The Atlantis Gene. I had an okay one.

That wasn’t good enough.

Side note: if you followed the link, you’ll also see that the sci-fi adventure genre is the opposite of homogeneous. In other words, this sub-genre chart is so muddied as to be useless for browsing. It suggests that “sci-fi adventure,” as a sub-genre, is not particularly well-defined and is something of a “catch-all.” This lack of commonalities makes it very difficult to reverse-engineer the genre elements and write a book to market. As I write this, we have Wool (dystopian), The Einstein Prophecy (kind of Da Vinci Code esque thriller), Ready Player One (dystopian) and Cyberstorm (cyber attack on NY) in the top 30.

And nothing like Kip Keene.

WWW #1.5: Stupid Titles

The books’ titles are all alliterative in nature, which I copped as a branding move from the color scheme in John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. In retrospect, titling a book The Emerald Elephant when it takes place in Incan Ruins – or The Jade Jaguar when it takes place in Roswell – was an incredibly poor move. There’s a psychic disconnect between the subject matter and the title – elephants aren’t from South America, whereas jade evokes China/Asia, rather than the deserts of New Mexico.

This creates a weird friction between the content and title that wouldn’t exist if, say, the first book was titled The Last City. Or even something just ridiculously obvious, like Incan Gold (there are probably two dozen books out there with that gem). Clarity trumps cleverness.

WWW #2: Clunky Plotting & Strange Characterization Choices

Yes, the quality of the book does matter. Readers tend to be more forgiving when you hit expectations (see point #1). But if you hit those, and readers still hate your book, you have fundamental craft problems. And, if you don’t hit the genre tropes and your book has craft issues…they’re going to come down hard on you.

These observations are all in reference to the first title, The Emerald Elephant. The latter works are significantly tighter, since I learned more about craft (obviously) and plotting (most importantly), while also incorporating reader feedback and new ideas.

On plotting: I believe I used the the Lester Dent Plot Formula for the first book, which is a basic three act structure. It works, the pages turn and all that, but I’d say there’s about 15,000 words extra that needed to be written for the transitions to be smooth and the narrative to really satisfy. The plot itself, upon re-reading, is solid. It’s just really hard to follow, since I sprinkle in flashbacks amply throughout. Perhaps too amply: I’d estimate almost a third of the total 45k word count consists of flashbacks, including a massive section at the end of the book which interrupts the build-up to the climax. Oops.

The amount of backstory presents another problem: the main narrative feels short, since two stories are being woven together in ~45,000 words. That’s just not enough time build sympathetic characters and get everything situated. Necessary length varies with the subject matter; upon re-reading, The Emerald Elephant definitely needed to be longer and restructured, with far less emphasis on the past.

A final comment on structure: I find that a three act structure tends to sag a little bit, with inertia dropping out through the middle. I prefer to use a four act one, which some people like to think of as three act with a midpoint. A good book on this is Story Engineering, although the author tends to repeat himself and is a little bit overzealous in selling you on the One True Way(TM).

On setting: There was not nearly enough time spent in the Incan ruins.

Adventure rule #1: if you’re going to write an adventure, your characters should spend most of the time adventuring and escaping/surviving the inherent pitfalls of this career path. It takes half the book for Keene to even wind up in the jungle, then he ultimately spends like 3 chapters in the ruins before solving everything in about three sentences. Not enough adventure.

On characterization: In a straight-up genre novel, it’s usually a good idea to make your protagonist hew toward likable/empathetic actions. This can get a little cheeseball if you go too far and make your protagonist insufferably heroic. But, suffice to say, the flaws in most genre novel heroes are usually relatively minor, even if they’re trumpeted to be major. And, if the flaws are major (e.g. he’s a drunk), they don’t impact the hero-ness of the character’s actions (the guy manages to be a dead-eye shot, even after 12 drinks). It’s better to err on the side of making your hero too good/talented, rather than a dope.

In no specific order, here’s what Kip Keene does in the first three chapters alone:

  • As a supposedly legendary outlaw captain, he abandons his cryogenically frozen/helpless crew – including his sister and best friend – to an old man with a pistol (who the reader, but not Keene, knows is friendly) studying Keene’s crashed ship
  • Gets massively wasted for the next six months instead of doing anything to find his friends
  • Works for criminals and steals things using his advanced technology, instead of, you know, finding his friends
  • Unrelated to characterization, but terminally boring: after an exciting opening, Keene takes the rest of the first chapter to follow a shepherd boy and a pack of alpacas around the Andes Mountains…for no reason other than, for some reason, I thought it would be interesting to include alpacas.

A few of these things were so egregious (the alpacas, the Keene gets massively drunk scene) that I cut them significantly when I re-read the book, despite my strict no revision policy. Suffice to say, making your hero massively unlikable – and not amusing – is usually not a sure-fire way to capture readers’ attention. Keene improves significantly during the course of the book (it was meant to be a sort of pseudo-hero’s journey arc), and then becomes much more reliable of a hero in the next five books. But by then it’s kind of too late.

The characters do tend to be a little bit flat and predictable, which is partially by genre design. However, it’s also an issue of craft, because I didn’t understand scene and sequels properly. An action book will be mainly scenes (e.g. where characters are pursuing their goals), but you still need some sort of emotional introspection to serve as a reaction to the carnage, however brief said introspection may be (this is the sequel). I was trying to make this book a little bit more “heavy” than the usual pulp genre fare, which is fine – but to do that, the characters needed to be a little bit more real.

Unfortunately, the pace is so break-neck that this doesn’t really happen.

One final quibble, for those who made it past the alpacas: the end of the book sets up the rest of the series. Subsequently, Keene partners with the rogue FBI agent who threatened to put him in jail. Only…upon re-reading, the extremely limited on-screen interaction between the two gives no plausible reason why Keene would ever agree to work with this woman ever again. There’s no reason for readers to accept this payoff, beyond the trope-y “yeah, and then the two people from opposite sides of the law became friends” thing that readers generally expect.

WWW #2.5: Other Weird Issues

Some flashback chapters are massive chains of scene breaks, since I didn’t exactly know how to weave them into the narrative properly. This is a tell-tale indication of an info and backstory dump. It massively breaks momentum at the wrong moments, and many of the flashbacks don’t matter – for example, we learn how Keene first got his space ship, which is cool, but far better suited to a novella.

In fact, the flashbacks, if stripped out, would probably make for a good novella. Unfortunately, that would leave me without enough to make a novel.

Tension is generally lacking throughout, since I make a classic novice mistake and tend to solve problems for the characters fairly quickly or off screen. This is largely because I didn’t want to devote large swaths of words in showing these moments, or simply couldn’t identify a more elegant solution. That’s obviously a break down on my part, but hardly unusual; we all use plot mechanisms of convenience on occasion. Unfortunately, The Emerald Elephant might rely on them a little bit too much to be satisfying.

There are times where the book veers toward an omniscient point of view, when much of it is tight 3rd person. This is an error of skill, and one that I simply wasn’t equipped to properly handle. Nonetheless, it doesn’t do any favors for character development.

WWW #2.75: The First Book is the Weakest

All of these issues lead to an unsurprising, but damaging conclusion: The Emerald Elephant is the weakest book of the six. Even in a series of standalone novels, readers tend to start from Book 1. Said title needs to be at least promising enough for them to continue on.

For most readers, I think, the issues outweighed the potential. They were not compelled to pick up future titles as a result.

It’s somewhat to be expected that your first book will be the weakest: you’re probably less skilled as a writer, you’re feeling out the characters, and you’re not quite sure about what readers want. Unfortunately, you don’t have this luxury. The most popular series around – The Hunger Games, Divergent etc. – tend to have the strongest title first.

Look, there’s no real way of planning this at the beginning. We would all like to write something as tightly plotted as The Hunger Games, and merely trying harder isn’t going to ensure that we get there (or even halfway there). The point is, if there’s a place to pull out “all the stops” – in terms of promotion, editing, proofreading, beta reading, testing and whatever else you have up your sleeve, Book 1 is the place to do it. If you have a few reasonably strong titles behind it, but the first one is mediocre, those next books are essentially a waste.

WWW #3: Marketing and Launching

Full disclosure: I’ve spent about $1200 promoting the Kip Keene series via newsletters. No PPC ads or social media to speak of. Book 1 was permafree; the other books, other than #5 and the box set, were in KU until April 2016.

While I’m fairly unconvinced that anything could have saved this series from the sudden proliferation of alpacas, there were issues with marketing as well. The first is fairly obvious, and entirely fixable: The Emerald Elephant was supposed to come out in Fall 2014. I had a pre-order or Amazon listing set up. For various reasons, that release date didn’t happen, but the listing technically went “live” that Fall for a couple minutes, which meant it remained accessible in the Amazon dash.

Instead of publishing Book 1 under a new ASIN, I just uploaded it to this old listing in May 2015 and made it live again…thus getting none of the benefit of new release lists, algorithms, or anything else Amazon does to push a new book. After some limited promo – I was holding off to do a multi-release launch in Fall 2015 – the series was already dead. I think I went perma-free out of the gate, or damn close to it, but this didn’t matter: the book’s ranking history was like a stone tied around its neck. Months upon months of zero sales while in its unpublished state suggested to Amazon’s algorithms that it wasn’t very appealing to customers.

Thus it didn’t matter when I did more promo when Books 2 & 3 (Nov 29 2015) and Book 4 & the Books 1, 2 & 3 Boxed Set (Dec 29 2015) came out. Everything was pretty much buried. Worse, I hadn’t gotten enough reviews on Book 1 in the months between May and October – and its average was below 4, I think, anyway – to qualify for any of the heavy hitting promo sites. I sold 4 copies of each of the subsequent books.

To recap:

  • I completely burned the launch window on the most important release (Book 1). There are those who believe you shouldn’t promote Book 1 until the others are out. I believe this is terrible advice, since Book 1 is your keystone title: you need to start getting reviews, also-boughts and suggesting to Amazon that people are interested. Amazon amplifies the visibility of new releases, so you should take advantage of this and launch your damn book with as much firepower as you can.
  • If you don’t have a good launch of Book 1, you need to make sure all that firepower you saved for the future books can actually be used. Which means that you need reviews to qualify for promo sites, some spare money to pay for FB/Amazon ads, a mailing list set up that has fans waiting for the next book and so forth. Simply doing the same launch you could have done for Book 1, but waiting three or four or five months is stupid. If you’re gonna wait, you need to go twice as big.
  • Keep records. I thought I did a hell of a lot more promotion for Kip Keene around the launch of Books 2/3 and Book 4/the boxed set. I did around $100 for each, which was a product of cash flow at the time and probably felt like a lot of money. It wasn’t nearly good enough.

Even with a more consistent release schedule, the situation did not improve with the release of Book 5 (Feb 29 2016). To be honest, at this point I just wanted to release something on a leap day, which is never a good way to plan your business. However, I mention this random piece of trivia because I feel that it’s actually how most writers run their businesses: based on feelings and whims, rather than actual strategic decisions.

I finally got the advertising end somewhat right on Book 5, as there were now two points of entry into the series funnel: Book 1 & the Books 1, 2 & 3 set. I also hit the pavement to get reviews for Book 5 (The Jade Jaguar), but it got hurt a little bit because I sent out unproofed review copies due to time-constraints – not to imply that this would have made some sort of vast difference in reader reaction, simply that it did not aid matters.

In any case, this burst of launch promo was too little too late, doing nothing to revive the series. At this point, I should have called it quits; instead, I commissioned another expensive cover for a sixth entry. A regretful decision; you have to know when you’re throwing good money after bad. After Book 3 sold 4 copies at launch, that was the death knell.

I just refused to hear it.

It’s Not All Bad

When a book fails, I think the tendency is to do one of three things:

  1. rant against Amazon/corporations/the man/Illuminati and an obviously rigged system
  2. believe everyone else can do it, but you can’t
  3. believe everything you did during the course of that project was complete shit

For me, it was number three: my general feeling, after having the taste of failure (both critical and commercial) in my mouth for the past year and a half was that the Kip Keene series was terrible. Irredeemable; send it to the wood chipper. I was pleasantly surprised to discover this wasn’t the case. I hope that the frank criticism of my activities and work above hopefully dispels the notion that I’m biased toward viewing my work in a positive light. But, in any event, there were some good things:

  1. covers. They nail the adventure genre and are really striking. I’m not crazy about the flames on four and five, but that might be personal preference. They might not have enough sci-fi (an oversight on my part), but they’re well-branded, professional and good enough to stand out in the store. In addition, if someone were to be searching for sci-fi adventures, and saw those on the genre chart, they do a damn good job of instantly communicating the adventure part. (Addendum: yes, the decision to go light to non-existent on the sci-fi elements was a conscious decision; in retrospect, it was the wrong one – the branding there should be clearer, but I was trying to appeal to a wider adventure audience)
  2. blurbs. These have been reworked more than a few times, and while they’re not all completely ace, they’re very solid and convey the tone/genre.
  3. testing. Having five (now six) books in a series has given me a wealth of data – particularly once I discovered that, in all likelihood, they would not make me money. This realization allowed me to run experiments that I never would have done with even a small taste of success.
    1. The covers improved massively in terms of genre specificity because I had them rebranded before the release of Book 2/3.
    2. I played with the blurbs extensively and massively upped my copywriting game.
    3. I’ve run tests on what mailing list offers perform best (e.g. free novella vs. free second book vs. free starter library vs. get updates).
    4. I’ve experimented with whether excerpts increase sell-through (undetermined, but looking unlikely).
    5. I commissioned a beautiful eBook interior for the first book in order to see if professional formatting would move the needle (it didn’t, but I’m proud of how it looks).
    6. I found that, even proofreading a short novel with four separate people, typos will slip through.
  4. good scenes. The whole book doesn’t quite hang together, but the bones are there. The opening scene is really good – in fact, my initial reaction was, hey, people are being unfair to this. Then I got to the alpacas, and the part where Keene gets wasted, and some other dumb shit, and I realized that I’d promptly torched the good will/curiosity I’d generated with that opening scene. There’s another scene, in one of the flashbacks, that’s smooth and crisp: the sci-fi setting, dialogue and characterization, as well as the plot, are all woven seamlessly together. There are also a few moments of strong characterization/humanity that extend beyond the expectations of a standard pulp or genre novel, including where the villain is about to die.
  5. experience with promos. The true role of reviews, promo sites, categories and all the other marketing things authors tend to focus on is amplification, not ignition. Without the right book, you’re pouring gasoline on an empty fire pit.

What’s Important: The Cheat Sheet

Since writing to genre is probably the highest probability way to make a long-term living in this business, let’s take a minute to extract what matters. These takeaways aren’t solely from the Kip Keene series; I’ve since tried writing commercial fiction in three or four different iterations, with various degrees of success. Here’s what I’ve found:

  1. Concept and genre are king, but genre is much easier to execute. If you have an absolutely killer concept – that is, your story idea – then you can get away with some genre bending. Most people’s story ideas aren’t nearly as novel, original or crisp as they think. They have decent to “been there” concepts, and then add weirdness on top of that. Not good enough. It’s much easier to fit your book into the lines of a genre than it is to come up with a killer, totally original and resonant concept. Most of the stuff has been done before.
  2. Most books, even those written with commercial interests, don’t make money. Even if you hit with a great cover, blurb, concept, genre and so forth, you can still fail. I’ve released 50+ titles at this point; around 5 of those make up the bulk of my money. Success is probably far more difficult than you can imagine. I don’t say this as a deterrent, but as a way to set expectations. My $5,000 loss for this series is the size of a standard new author advance for trad-pub. They take hundreds of writedowns per year. Say what you want about trad-pub and their shortcomings; many of those companies have been around for 50 – 100+ years. That doesn’t typically happen by accident, but even with a wealth of experience and contracts weighted heavily in their favor, they whiff all the time.
  3. Lots of promo cannot save a book that doesn’t resonate. There’s this near frictionless, consistent stream of sales you get from Amazon when you’ve done things correctly. Naturally this doesn’t perpetuate forever, with more than 3,000 books being released daily. But the difference between a book with limited to no commercial appeal (Keene) and some commercial appeal and a lot of commercial appeal is instantly recognizable on your sales reports.
  4. You don’t need mega-hits. A follow-up to point 3. Your books need to have some commercial appeal. This is good news, because you can build this in; it’s bad news, however, when you realize just how many books exist that don’t meet this criterion. If you look at your genre and sub-genre charts, you can get a good idea of what “some” means.
  5. Don’t keep throwing money down the pit. I could have likely capped the losses at around $2000. But I was stubborn, and also, I kept learning new things as I went along. The amount of information I didn’t know in May 2015 compared to now is somewhat staggering. As these tidbits filtered in, I kept thinking ok, maybe this will help. And, you know what? If I had known what I knew now at the beginning, the series probably would have been more successful. But it never would have been a huge money maker, regardless, because the genre/concept weren’t right.
  6. Keep costs low – save them for advertising. I did some expensive stuff – the covers for the books ran around $500, the formatting $150 etc. – that racked up quite a tab. While I’m glad I did this, upon experimenting with various distributions of funds, it’s generally better (provided you’re on a budget) to weight things toward a reasonably priced professional cover (which can be had for $150 – $250)/and then spend the rest on ads. Things like editing, proofreading, formatting, paperbacks, swag and whatever else you can think of may be nice touches, but they won’t move the needle nearly as much, no matter how much people want that to be true. On a budget of $1,000, I would honestly consider spending $800 on launch ads and $200 on the cover, and nothing on anything else – they simply don’t matter.
    1. This assumes you write relatively clean and can do your own formatting.
    2. An editor can help dramatically, but they need to be qualified and understand your genre. These two traits are challenging enough to find that, for a new writer at least, the pitfalls/expenses are equal to the gains.
  7. Reframe losses as an education. People spend $100,000+ on an MBA or other graduate degree. The experience I gleaned from this experiment and the past year far outstrips all the knowledge I ever learned in school. For $5,000, it was a damn bargain. Consider it a learning expense, rather than a mark of failure or ineptitude. I took a class in indie publishing, learned a lot and came out the other side a hell of a lot more skilled than before.

And the Most Important Lesson

Mistakes demonstrate which paths are incorrect. But they also lead you where you need to go and how you need to grow as a person. I’ll admit that I thought writing commercial fiction would be easier – much easier – than the outcome. After all, who hasn’t read or watched something and thought I could’ve written that after three Colorado pot brownies!

There’s a salient quote from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain that I’ll insert here: “The skill of a skilled writer tricks you into thinking that there is no skill.” Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to understand until you experience it yourself. One would think that fiction rife with pulp-isms and non-stop action/treasure-hunting/shooting would be a simple matter, right?

As it turned out, I was wrong. Writing fiction for a living is very, very hard and takes a lot of trial and error. In this world, we’re constantly bombarded with alluring untruths: that we can get ripped, work for ourselves, become an artist and so forth with very little work, if we only know the secrets. Flipping a switch with a course, book or blog post, or an alluring idea doesn’t just happen. Some pieces of information are far more important than others, but ultimately there are no secrets – success is a latticework of failure, small wins and applied knowledge. What seems easy to experts is merely an automated intuition born of intense practice; the brain has found these skills indispensable enough to make them permanent fixtures of its neuronal landscape.

To be successful at self-publishing, you have to link together a fair number of disparate skills: you need to be a good writer, but you also need the ability to spot good visual good design (covers). You need a feel for copy (blurbs). You need an ability to analyze the market and understand readers’ preferences (psychology/marketing). You gotta manage your cash and spend money in the right places, otherwise you’re left without dry powder at release time (accounting/finance). All of these sub-skills are rarely mentioned, but they’re critical to your overall success.

And, most of all, you need to be resilient. There are few professions in the world that so brazenly slap you in the face with your failure, whether it be in the form of poor reviews or poor sales. This unadulterated feedback can be harsh, especially since it’s rarer in the world-at-large. But for those willing to listen, it’s also a real opportunity to accelerate your growth and get what you want.

To whit: this year has been my best ever, despite having two commercial series flop. I’m not making millions, but the picture is coming into focus. I can’t tell you how long it will take before everything crystallizes the way I’d like, but it will happen.

That’s worth a few thousand bucks, right?