December 2020: Year in Review + Three Takeaways

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With 2020 in the books, it’s time to break down what happened in my business during one of the strangest years in, well, ever. We’ll kick things off with a recap of my strategy, go over the results, and finally dive into three key takeaways:

  1. 2020 Strategy Overview
  2. Results: What Happened + 2020 KPIs
  3. 80/20 is King
  4. Iterative Trial and Error: Ship (Have a Short Memory)
  5. Optimize: Double Down on What Works (Don’t Lose Focus)

Enough preamble. Let’s jump into my 2020 strategy.

2020 Strategy Overview

I design my marketing strategy so that it fits on a single page. This gives me an easy referencea North Starthat I can review when things go awry or I feel adrift. Keeping things to a single page forces you to focus only on what matters, and prevents overwhelm. If you’re interested in crafting your own 1 Page Marketing Strategy, check out the Six-Figure Author Challenge.

Here’s what I came up with for 2020. Note that this is meant to be a living, breathing document. The initial version was different; I no longer have that. Don’t be tied to the pastadjusting course is key, especially when things are as bumpy as they were in 2020.

  • CORE OBJECTIVE: hit $25k net a month  (between non-fiction / courses / consulting / fiction)
  • LAUNCH WIDE or KU: all in Kindle Unlimited
  • SERIES? PLANNED # of TITLES?: yes. One 5 – 6 urban fantasy book series and (potentially) finishing the final books in two sci-fi trilogies. Also two non-fiction books on marketing and productivity.
  • LENGTH: 40,000 – 60,000 word novels
  • NEW TITLES IN 2020: 6 – 8
  • SUB-GENRES: urban fantasy, post apocalyptic, space opera, non-fiction
  • CORE TRAFFIC SOURCES: Facebook Ads, Amazon Ads, BookBub Ads, promo sites
  • NEWSLETTER BUILDING PLANS: organically only via a reader magnet novella specifically written for the 5 – 6 book series. Organic via word of mouth and content marketing for non-fiction. Not actively building my sci-fi list.
  • PRODUCTION BUDGET PER TITLE: $750 – $900
  • ADVERTISING BUDGET PER TITLE: variable

Learning-wise, I planned to focus on the following areas:

  • CRAFT: dialogue, scene/sequel structure, and plot structure
  • MARKETING: cover branding and Top 100 Research

Results: What Happened + 2020 KPIs

I hit my core objective in November. Of the strategy outlined above, I executed these three elements:

  1. Improved cover branding (which came as a result of recording case studies + demos for the courses)
  2. Top 100 Research (which came from doing a bunch of launches for various authors)
  3. Two non-fiction books

But everything else ended up getting scrubbed. I didn’t release a fiction book in 2020, instead doubling down on the non-fiction / consulting / courses,  investing most of my energy into launching books and running ads for other authors.

At first glance, this might seem like a failure. But the core objective is what matters. The strategy is just an ever-shifting roadmap to assist you on your journey. Don’t get hung up on all the things you didn’t do. As Nietzsche said: “Many people are obstinate about the path once it is taken, few people about the destination.”

Again, to repeat: focus on the core objective, and be willing to scrap or adjust the plan.

Despite not publishing a novel, I did manage two non-fiction titles, along with a number of newsletters. That means I wrote a lot—these words were just directed toward building the non-fiction side of my business. I’d claim this was by design or discipline, but it mostly came down to enjoyment: I get more satisfaction out of reading and writing non-fiction at this point. The shorter nature of the newsletters worked in my favor, too; while perhaps no one would accuse a 1,500 or 3,000 word email of being brief, that’s still a block of work that can be completed in one day (one writing session, even). A novel by contrast, contains many distinct blocks of work that must then be threaded together into a cohesive whole.

Here are the key performance indicators (KPIs) from 2020:

  • BOOKS PUBLISHED: 2 (Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing and Ultimate Guide to Author Productivity)
  • FICTION WORDS: 45,931
  • URBAN FANTASY ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,726 > 2,183 (+457 subscribers)
  • NON-FICTION ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,366 > 2,506 (+1,140 subscribers)

Overall, this went well, despite macro market and world conditions being rocky. eBook readership boomed in 2020 with everyone forced to stay indoors. In business, sometimes shifts in the market are beneficial; other times they’re not. I saw a lot of authors assuming that things would be bad, which in turn became a self-fulfilling prophecy when they stopped writing and marketing to the degree that they did in 2019. Assume nothing. Let the data decide, then adjust your plan accordingly. This business is challenging, and you don’t want to waste rare opportunities.

Takeaway #1: 80/20 is King

My business growth in 2020 was a clear demonstration of the 80/20 rule, where I wrote a ton of stuff, gave a number of free classesbut only a few things moved the needle. The 5% driving 95% of business growth was my email newsletter. That almost doubled in subscriber count, and was the catalyst producing most of my course sales. It didn’t produce most of my client work; those largely came through referrals.

But the newsletter remains the core of the non-fiction side. I sent out a ridiculous number of non-fiction newsletters in 2020 (80+), so it’d be tempting to ascribe the subscriber growth to the sheer volume of content. But when I sent out a newsletter a day to kick off the year, I actually lost 60+ subscribers during the course of January. Sending or publishing good content is not an effective platform building strategy on its own. More is required: you must drive people to that content.

The majority of the non-fiction newsletter subscriber growth came from two things: (1) publishing the book and (2) a couple shares from fellow authors and podcasts. The book surprised me; the content had been organized on the site and in other places for some time. But it shouldn’t have: a book has a different feel and being on Amazon reaches readers that this site obviously would not. And reading 60,000+ words of content online sucks in comparison to doing so on an eReader or in print.

For the word of mouth and podcast appearances: none of that was planned or actively driven by me. If I wanted to, I could have more aggressively pursued the guest content marketing strategy: podcasts, guest posts, that sort of thing. As of right now, those opportunities occasionally drift into my inbox. This may seem to be an argument against everything I write about, which is that you must be the catalyst. You cannot simply build something and expect people to show up.

But the truth is, book marketing is a much smaller and less competitive space than, say, the thriller novel market. In the latter, you’re at risk of being lost in a sea of dozens of titles getting published a day. In the book marketing arena, there are a handful of resources. It’s a relatively small community. That makes it easier to get noticed with limited to no active marketing. And I started the year with 1,300+ subscribers, which in this small space, is enough to self-generate: authors forward the emails, link to my site, buy the book, and things grow time. When there’s less competition, you simply have to do less to get noticed.

That doesn’t make this approach a good marketing strategy, per se. Which is why I’ve been slowly doing more active marketing for the non-fiction, and plan to keep working on this in 2021.

Takeaway #2: Iterative Trial & Error (or, Ship the Damn Thing)

Following from the previous takeaway, it could be construed that the key to achieving my core objective was seemingly “random” events where others shared my work. But that ignores the true catalyst: consistently shipping content. You have to try a lot of things to find your 80/20. Hindsight makes success and failure alike seem predictable. And while looking for patterns can provide clues, the truth is, a lot of failures or successes are just narratives concocted after the fact to make sense of a complex network of variables that no one can fully understand.

You do not know what you don’t know about marketing (what your audience wants / how they’ll react).

You do not know what you don’t know about craft (skills / ideas / approaches that you’re simply unaware of).

You need to ship and test a lot of approaches to figure this stuff out.

That makes building a career a two-step process:

  1. Iterative trial and error: testing (shipping) lots of things to identify the core 80/20
  2. Optimizing and honing the few things that work: narrowing your focus and doubling down on the core 80/20

And in trial and error, speed beats skill. This isn’t my analogy, but if I can make 2 moves in chess for every 1 my opponent takes, it doesn’t matter if he’s a Grandmaster; I’ll crush him.

If we throw out the 31 newsletters to kick off the year, we’re still looking at 50+ pieces of in-depth content sent during 2020. I was always trying different things, which gave me a ton of insights into what resonated with people. Over the course of the year, this data and feedback allowed me to make content decisions much more deliberatelywhich feels almost like a superpower.

Now, I still don’t always write things I know will “crush” or do well. But I can strategically position pieces that are polarizing, more niche, or just have lesser appeal. That means I’m not stalling the growth of my business by fixating on topics of limited interest to my audience. And the speed of execution forces me to have a short memory about my wins and losses. If something flops? There’s another chance right around the corner.

Nowhere is the power of shipping more clearly illustrated than in the two core components of my business:

  1. Non-fiction: shipped constantly, massive growth in 2020
  2. Fiction: didn’t ship anything, constant delays / second-guessing, moving backward in 2020

Deliberation quickly devolves into rumination if one’s not careful. That’s why I didn’t publish any fiction books in 2020. Too much thinking about what would sell, if it would sell, if the book would be received well. I knew too much: I knew the odds and the timelines.

But what I failed to keep top of mind was this: if you keep testing and releasing, the odds shift in your favor over time.

Everything besides shipping is mostly an illusion. You can deliberate, plan, analyze things from every different angle. Some of these may be useful.

But ultimately, you gotta press publish and let the chips fall.

Takeaway #3: Double Down (Don’t Lose Focus)

I didn’t ship a novel in 2020. Even though I would have liked to publish one, I’m happy that I maintained focus on the non-fiction side of things. This was generating considerable momentum that ended up snowballing as the year went on. I’ve been in a position before (back in 2016) where my urban fantasy pen name was poised to take off—at which point I promptly took a break to publish a couple sci-fi books, didn’t publish under the urban fantasy name for 6+ months, and stalled things out.

Momentum is precious. It is often arduous discovering what works. Don’t waste all that testing and iteration. Once you have that spark, that ember, you want to coax it into a roaring fire. Capitalize on your efforts, refine + optimize the process, and double-down with your time and effort on what’s working. Too often we either lose focus, distracted by the next shiny project, or continue to split our efforts. An hour in one project and an hour in another will not have equal returns. One might be worth 10x – 1000x more. So spend it wisely.

In Closing

No advice is universal, but since authors tend toward the introspective, this will apply to more people reading this than not. It’s easy to get caught in ruminatory loops, whether that’s about a character arc or the best marketing techniques. When in doubt, err toward action. Make a choice and live with the consequences. The consequences being: it might not work.

Most authors will see a massive improvement in their business if they 2x the speed of their decision making and execution. And the results won’t be 2x, because the real-world isn’t a linear environment. By executing more often, you’ll uncover more of the core 20%. You’ll find it faster. And you’ll develop the skills necessary to optimize and leverage that 20% to its potential.

Which means the results aren’t 2x. They could be 5x, 10x, or even 100x.

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