Welcome to the 2020 Indie Author Crash Course. This is an eight part system covering everything from productivity to book marketing. In short, it shows how all these pieces dovetail together to create a long-term, resilient career. Each piece is about 1,000 words long, and condenses everything down to the absolute essentials. It is the ultimate 80/20 overview of productivity, craft, and book marketing.
If you’ve read previous versions of the Crash Course (released in 2017 and 2019), those were aimed at authors who had sold less than 5,000 books. This edition of the Crash Course, however, is meant to be adaptable to any level.
This first part is an overview of everything, so you can have an immediate idea of both where we’re going and how things fit together. As such, it totals about 3,000 words (the other pieces, I swear, will be shorter).
- What You Need
- Core Principles
- The Indie Trifecta of Success
- The 3 x 3 Plan: Productivity, Craft, Marketing
- The 80/20 Funnel
How This is Different From My Other Material
I’ve written plenty of words in my newsletter and, obviously, The Ultimate Guides to Book Marketing and Author Productivity. Why bother reading this?
Yes, much of the material is the same. I’m not going to invent new shit for no reason. However, there are two key differences:
- Brevity. The Ultimate Guides are more of a buffet, where you can select from dozens of options. Their comprehensiveness is both their greatest strength and weakness; that amount of information can be overwhelming. Here, I’m taking what I believe to be the most critical information and using that to present an “optimal” step-by-step path in productivity, craft, and marketing. It won’t fit everyone, but the framework is flexible, so you can still tweak it as needed. This is the ultimate 80/20 guide to building a career, while still being flexible enough to customize.
- Dovetails. This connects the dots between productivity, craft, and marketing in a way that guides on a specific subject can’t. My aim here is to show how everything dovetails together.
- Evergreen. Most of my stuff is evergreen or semi-evergreen, in that I’m not interested in tactics that won’t work two months from now. However, this Crash Course is about 95% hyper-focused on productivity and marketing strategies/skills that will definitely serve you well 5 – 10 years from now, no matter how much the publishing world changes.
What You Need
Before we launch into principles, strategy, and all that, we need to take a step back and make sure our administrative ducks are in a row. It’s easy to get caught in the weeds when you’re just getting started instead of doing actual work, spending all your time making business cards or getting a custom logo that won’t sell any books. After careful consideration, I believe there are only two absolute necessities every part-time or full-time author must have:
- An email newsletter service provider like MailerLite (mailerlite.com; free up to 1k subs) or ConvertKit (convertkit.com; $29/mo for up to 1k subs).
- An author website, which requires:
That’s it. While you can get away with not having an author website, I believe this is a long-term oversight. A website acts as a hub for your author brand, and while it’s unlikely to get a ton of traffic, readers can visit the site to learn about new books, sign up to your newsletter, and also explore your backlist. A website may seem like an expense in the short term, but the long-term benefits are well worth the nominal costs. You can hire someone for under $500 to build a basic WordPress site if you don’t have the technical skills to create it yourself.
While these two items are the only mandatory ones, here are a few more things that can prove helpful as your business grows:
- BookFunnel (bookfunnel.com; $20 – $150/yr): necessary if you’re using a reader magnet (e.g., free novella or starter library) to build your email list, as BookFunnel provides seamless instant delivery of EPUB/MOBI/PDF files to your readers’ reading devices of choice. Also used to participate in cross promos.
- StoryOrigin (storyoriginapp.com; beta): used to participate in cross promos, along with a host of additional useful features. Run by an excellent developer who consistently rolls out updates.
- Vellum (vellum.pub; $250 one-time purchase; Mac only): easily format your book in 15 minutes and generate beautiful print and eBook files with a single click. A contender for best program I’ve ever used in any industry.
- A custom email address (i.e., email@example.com; $50/yr from Google GSuite; gsuite.google.com): having an email address from your own domain instead of a free email service helps increase the deliverability of your newsletters.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but those are the most useful things I’ve found. For more, visit my resources page at nicholaserik.com/resources.
The core principle underpinning most of my material is the 80/20 rule.
For the uninitiated, this rule states that 80% of your results come from just 20% of your actions. The numbers vary (e.g., 1% of your actions can produce 99% of the results). The key takeaway is this: a select few actions have a disproportionate impact on your outcomes. You cannot do everything, nor should you even try; most tasks are worthless. Small, marginally effective tactics are, in fact, liabilities, as they thieve time from high impact, ultra-valuable tasks.
While the 80/20 rule may sound like a BS business term or productivity hack, the math behind it is fairly robust (economist Vilfredo Pareto first observed the principle in relation to land ownership in early 20th century Italy, where 20% of the population owned 80% of the land) and can accurately predict/model input-output relationships in a range of disciplines.
80/20 is what’s known as a power law. This means these core actions aren’t marginally better than their superfluous counterparts; they’re literally 100x or 1000x more potent.
Doing everything is not a recipe for overachieving; it is a recipe for ruin.
This Crash Course aims to distill everything down to the core 20% to cut down on your learning curve. However, you’ll still need to experiment on your own. The 20% does not just announce itself as important; this world is full of complete horseshit that masquerades as legitimate. Thus, we first use trial and error to find what actually works (i.e., we test it ourselves to see if it works) and then we iterate and optimize to hone the core 20%.
As such, we must use a system I call shotgun, then narrow.
It has four steps:
- Trial and error to find the core 20%.
- Progressive overload (practice just beyond your current ability) to scale up the intensity to produce change.
- Iterate and optimize to further maximize the results of the core 20% and efficacy of your practice efforts.
- Do this repeatedly and consistently to produce compound interest.
This is a powerful system. One word of warning: do not over-optimize. If your business or life has a single point of failure, that leaves you extremely susceptible to risk. Have multiple tactics, strategies, and skills at your disposal so if one becomes obsolete or is rendered useless, you can seamlessly switch. This applies to productivity, craft, and marketing. Your objective should be to form a double T-shaped skillset: a broad base of general knowledge (the flat part of the T) and 2+ professional level skills (the vertical part of the T).
Having a multi-faceted skillset not only shields you against risk, but also makes your marketing much, much easier. If you’re the only one who writes hard sci-fi detective mysteries set in the near future, then you’ve tapped into a larger market (sci-fi/mystery) while also offering something totally unique that readers cannot get anywhere else. This keeps you from being a commodity and provides built-in branding that differentiates your work from others.
The Indie Trifecta of Success
80/20 sounds great and all, until you realize that finding the essential 20% can be a harrowing odyssey in trial and error. I’m not going to pretend that you can completely avoid this process; trial and error is an absolutely crucial part of discovering what works for you (e.g., the core 20% within each of these three areas). I won’t leave you to discover the main areas on your own, though, which are productivity, craft, and marketing. These can be arranged in a handy pyramid:
We can add business principles such as money management and strategy as the soil upon which the pyramid rests. If your understanding of business is shaky, the rest of the structure will teeter.
Marketing is relatively simple if you regularly produce books that your target audience enjoys.
Marketing is remarkably difficult if you fail on the consistency or quality fronts. For those concerned about writing every day, consistency in this business is measured in years, not days or months. If you write four books a year, but it only takes 40 days to do so, that’s not better or worse than dividing that workload up over 365 days.
The main takeaway is you need to be publishing good books.
Yes, it’s possible to push a sub-par book up the charts via clever marketing. However, a long-term career is built on sellthrough—that is, readers purchasing and reading the next books in the series (or your backlist). If your books are bad, then they won’t buy the others. And if your backlist is nonexistent because your work habits are poor, then readers will have nothing else to purchase from you and be forced to move on to another author. Should you go long enough between releases, the fond memories of your book will likely fade from their consciousness altogether.
All three elements are vital to your success; none is more important than the other. And each of these elements act as a multiplier; they’re not additive. 10 + 10 + 10 doesn’t equal 30; 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000. You must be strong in all three areas to maximize your chances of success.
You will notice, however, that productivity is the foundation of the pyramid. That is not a mistake: without the ability to do the work, it’s impossible to improve your craft and deploy marketing campaigns.
I’ll show you how these all dovetail.
The 3 x 3 Plan
We’ll discuss the specifics of forming habits and some additional productivity/practice advice later, but the heart of the Crash Course is a productivity approach I call 3 x 3.
There are three areas to focus on as an author: reading, writing, and marketing.
Most people have about 2 – 5 high-impact work hours per day. We’ll split the difference and call it three, which you can divide between those three areas. This does not have to be even; it can be done according to need. It may make sense to focus on two areas (1.5 hours each for marketing and writing).
You can make these daily habits, wherein you do a bit in each area each day, or you can cycle through them in bursts. Maybe you’re a deadline writer and focus three hours a day for two weeks on getting your manuscript done, then you switch over to three hours of marketing for a few days for the launch.
It’s also scalable. You can do three hours if you have it. You can do five. You can do an hour. Whatever is available. Note that it may make sense, depending on your personality, to have completion-based metrics rather than time-related ones. Meaning you might instead choose to do 1,000 words (about equivalent to an hour for many writers), read 60 pages, and do one marketing task. This sounds like a totally irrelevant point, but this shift can be the difference between solid habits and getting nothing done. Productivity is quirky like that.
If you keep doing this for 3 years, that’s around 2200 – 2500 hours (assuming a day off a week and a few days here and there). That’s enough to earn a significant part-time living or potentially even go full-time. And if all this sounds ludicrous, know this: while you don’t have a huge amount of control over when you go full-time, assuming you write 1,000 words an hour and split your time 2h writing / 30m reading / 30m marketing, that would yield:
- 12 – 15 full-length (60k) word novels for a solid backlist
- Reading 80 – 100 books in your sub-genre, thus having a deep understanding/mastery of the tropes and craft expectations
- A complete marketing system in place (website, newsletter, knowledge of ads)
And whether it takes three years or five years or ten years isn’t the point. The point is that you’re building your career step-by-step.
A riff on this system is very simple: most important task + first hour spent writing. Basically, you take a notecard, write your most important, highest impact task on it the night before, then do that first. It should take no longer than an hour. Any time left over from that hour is spent writing or you can do an hour of writing after. This is the ultra 80/20 approach, wherein if you’re efficient and choose your tasks wisely, you can accomplish an extraordinary amount in just an hour or two a day.
The Nine Focal Points
This basically distills the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula (above) into simple steps. Over the rest of the Crash Course, we’ll be diving a bit deeper into these topics.
- Write full-length novels (50,000+ words) in a series that readers like as fast as you can. That means the books fit into a genre and they’re actually enjoyable to read.
- If you love the tropes…hit them all.
- If you hate most of the tropes, nail the One Big Trope (the one thing central to your genre…in Urban Fantasy, that’s the snarky protagonist, in Romance that’s the HEA/HFN (happily ever after / happily for now), in Mystery, that the crime gets solved at the end).
- And the release pace…I’d recommend aiming for 4 – 6 books annually. But whether you can do two books a year or twelve, make sure you’re releasing consistently. Quality frontlist is your best marketing tool.
- Writing good books is not enough. Without effective marketing, even the best books won’t get off the ground. That’s what the ensuing seven points can help with.
- Track your monthly net profit and organic subscribers. Weekly and monthly is better, but adherence is key; do what you can, not what’s “optimal.” We track net profit because the purpose of this business is money in your pocket. And why organic subscribers? They’re the biggest driver of revenue and growth, and an excellent proxy metric for a number of other things. Also, a tip: enter your expenses into Excel as soon as they’re charged. You’ll thank me at tax time, and it helps give you a snapshot of what’s going out the door.
- Master branding. A brand is just a promise of a consistent customer experience. You know what you’re getting when you order a chai latte at Starbucks, regardless of whether you’re in London or New York. Same idea applies to your author brand.
- This is your highest short-term and long-term leverage point. It has a trickle down effect on everything. Your ads will convert better. Your BookBub deals will perform better. You’ll get more organic subscribers because people are buying more copies of your books.
- Voice and style. Without a unique take, you’re a commodity. Even if you love the tropes, make sure there’s you in the book.
- Titles matter a lot and people sleep on these.
- Cover and blurbs on point. (download the Blurb Cheat Sheet, complete with formulas, key principles, and how to practice here)
- Test your covers and blurbs on Facebook. You can test titles, too. You can even test the entire book’s hook/concept on Facebook before writing it. That might be getting too on the commerce side for some, but even if you don’t care about making money, I guarantee you care about having an audience. It sucks having no one read your book. And a lot of that is down to the concept. (Blurb Testing Video from my PPC Course | Cover Testing Video)
- Understand pricing. $2.99 is not just $1 less than $3.99. It is 25% less.
- This doesn’t mean you should never discount; discounting is incredibly powerful. Just understand the numbers.
- Pricing is the second highest leverage point you have behind branding. It’s also a component of branding, in that you can have a premium brand (higher prices for your sub-genre) or a heavily discounted one.
- Build your organic newsletter.
- Have a free novella (10,000 – 25,000 words) that ties in to your main series (a prequel is often easiest, but it can just be a side story).
- Use MailerLite or ConvertKit.
- Install the form on a page a la this one: dnerikson.com/bone
- Link to this page in the front and back matter of your book. Put the front matter link on its own page; including the link in the front matter can increase sign-ups 2x. Put the back matter link on the same page as THE END.
- Newsletter swaps/cross promos.
- Can be used to build your list rapidly by entering giveaways or cross promotions on sites like StoryOrigin or BookFunnel.
- Non-organic subscribers tend to be less engaged than organic ones, in terms of open, click, and conversion (sales) rates. However, you can amass a lot of volume here quickly, so it can jumpstart your list building efforts.
- These can be powerful for generating visibility on a promo or a launched book. But they often work best if it’s a genuine recommendation from an author friend, rather than the type of swap that’s included with forty other books at the bottom of an email. Authentic word of mouth and curation is extremely valuable precisely because it’s rare.
- Understand the Amazon algorithms. These are not a magic bullet. See #1: the books have to be on point. But basically the algos like a lot of sales volume that forms a consistent upward sales trend during your promo/launch period (around 4 – 10 days; anything shorter they tend to ignore, anything longer is hard to sustain), rather than a one day spike and then nothing.
- Submit to BookBub as often as you can. Especially if you’re wide; in certain KU genres, this isn’t going to happen and will be a waste of your 1 minute a month.
- Submit every month. Rotate titles and sets. Aim to always have something in the fire. If your backlist isn’t large enough to do that yet, no worries. Just submit what you can.
- BookBub likes $0.99 box sets; try with these if they won’t run your single novels.
- You can submit for free immediately after you get rejected at $0.99 without waiting for 4 weeks.
- Learn how to use paid advertising. Promo sites, PPC. Yes, you can absolutely generate visibility via other means (see #9). I prefer paid advertising because once you master it, it gives you more control than alternatives. Start small and then scale as you earn more money. And start when you’re ready.
The 80/20 Funnel
This is very simple. We want to transmute any short-term tactics or activities into long-term assets, investments, or skills that “run themselves.” Nothing is truly automated, of course, but the idea here is that we want our work in the present to compound into things that make us more money in the future without having to stay on the hamster wheel indefinitely. This approach also help lower our risk, in that if a short-term tactic or approach stops working, we have savings and a nest egg and alternative skills to fall back on.
There are three steps to selling a book, which I call the Internet Marketing Formula:
- Traffic (getting people to your Amazon page)
- Conversion (getting them to buy)
- Doing these two things profitably
But this same cycle also applies to, say, converting those who have bought our book into fans.
Here’s what that looks like when we chain it all together with our nine points above:
- Drive TRAFFIC to Amazon with Facebook/BookBub/Amazon Ads, BookBub deals, and promo sites. Amplify TRAFFIC by understanding Amazon’s algorithms.
- CONVERT this traffic into sales with well-branded covers/blurbs/series and also using strategic discounting/price promotions to move more volume.
- CONVERT those sales of Book 1 into sales of Book 2 with cliffhangers or open ends, a link + 1 sentence teaser on the same page as THE END, and a 1 chapter excerpt.
- CONVERT those sales into organic subscribers with a link in the front/back matter to my mailing list with a free novella offer.
- CONVERT those mailing list subs into fans by sending them an email once a month and having a well-written autoresponder.
- PROFIT: track these KPIs (key performance indicators): weekly and monthly net profit and organic subscribers.
- Can also track ad conversion, cost per sale (from the ads), weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly sales + net profits, series sellthrough, open rates, click rates. These are troubleshooting metrics that can tell you why your net profit is increasing (or not!).
- PROFIT: double down on what’s working, eliminate what’s not, make adjustments to the branding, series, and autoresponder to improve them.
- INVEST: a certain % of that income into skills (craft, ads), assets (new covers, new books), and investments (stock market).
- Scale and repeat.
This ends up building brick-by-brick, wherein I focus a lot of the attention on launches and big promos, as they’re the highest leverage points. So we get something like this: launch book > sell copies > use to build organic list to make next launch/promo better > run ads between releases to keep selling books that in turn produce organic subscribers > launch next book higher. Repeat until you hit critical mass or your sub-genre ceiling.
Done consistently, this snowballs and compounds. If you take 15 months between launches, it does not.