2021: Year in Review + Three Takeaways

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2021 has come and gone, so it’s time to break down what happened in my publishing business for the year. This post will cover the following topics:

  1. 2021 Strategy Overview
  2. Results: What Happened + 2021 KPIs
  3. Managing People is Hard
  4. Ramp Up Time
  5. Brick by Brick: Life is a Continuous Game

Let’s hop right in with an overview of my strategy for the year.

2021 Strategy Overview

I design my marketing strategy so that it fits on a single page. This gives me an easy referencea North Starto 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 Six-Figure Author Strategy.

Note that your strategy is meant to be a living, breathing document. Don’t be tied to the pastadjusting course is key, especially when things are as bumpy as they’ve been over the past couple years. Here’s what I came up with for 2021:

  • CORE OBJECTIVE: didn’t have a profit or revenue objective
  • LAUNCH WIDE or KU: all urban fantasy books in Kindle Unlimited
  • SERIES? PLANNED # of TITLES?: yes, planning for 5+ books in a new urban fantasy series (Tess Skye).
  • LENGTH: 45,000 – 60,000 word novels
  • NEW TITLES IN 2021: 2
  • SUB-GENRE(s): urban fantasy
  • CORE TRAFFIC SOURCES: Amazon Ads, BookBub Ads, promo sites
  • NEWSLETTER BUILDING PLANS: organically only via a bonus scene specifically written for the Tess Skye series. Have past novellas for previous series bringing in organic subscribers from those books as well. For non-fiction, organic via word of mouth and content marketing.
  • 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: Amazon Ads, hire freelancers to work on tracking sheets to improve / streamline this

Results: What Happened + 2021 KPIs

My overall strategy was fairly similar to 2020’s, with two main exceptions: I didn’t have any sort of monetary objective. And I dramatically reduced the number of releases I was aiming for. The reason? I hadn’t released a fiction book for 2.5+ years as 2021 kicked off. I needed to lower the difficulty level to meet myself where I was, not where I once was. That I had published 7 books in a year once upon a time didn’t matter. I needed to get that first book in the series done and start building momentum.

Of the strategy outlined above, I executed these parts:

  1. Dramatically improved at the Amazon Ads.
  2. Hired someone to automate part of the tracking system, but this project got derailed. Dramatically improved my Excel / Google Sheets skills as a result, however, which has been quite useful.
  3. Released three novels in the Tess Skye series (45k – 55k words). Wrote a bonus scene to increase organic subscribers.
  4. Released a new non-fiction book (50k+)

I didn’t really miss any items per se from the initial strategy. On the craft side, I could have improved more by narrowing my focus to mainly the structural elements. Or the dialogue; but the structural stuff is weaker and holding back the books / sales more, so it makes more sense to focus there.

It’s tempting to believe we can get better in lots of areas at once. This is true when starting out, but once you hit an intermediate level in almost any discipline, you need to narrow your focus and drill into specific areas. That becomes even more important as you hit an advanced level, where you might be focusing on a certain sub-topic (perhaps even as granular as the start of scenes). While counter-intuitive, this narrow focus produces the most noticeable results, because by improving one area (say, scenes and sequels) you elevate every element of the book: pacing, characters, even dialogue, which must serve the scene at hand better.

On the marketing side, I did hone my Amazon Ad and spreadsheet skills, but my forays into outsourcing the building of the tracking sheet proved unsuccessful. More on that in a moment. First, here are the key performance indicators (KPIs) from 2021:

  • BOOKS PUBLISHED: 4 (3 fiction, 1 non-fiction)
  • FICTION WORDS: 139,476 words
  • URBAN FANTASY ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 2,183 > 2,410 (+227 subscribers)
  • NON-FICTION ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 2,506 > 3,311 (+805 subscribers)

I sent out my first urban fantasy newsletter in over a year, which resulted in quite a few unsubscribes, hence why the overall number of subscribers added in 2021 wasn’t higher. If you’re not releasing consistently, the tendency is to turtle and not send out newsletters or contact your readers. This is the opposite of what you should do; that consistent communication becomes more important the less frequently you release (or the more delays you encounter). Easier said than done, of course, but worth bearing in mind.

Growth was a bit slower versus 2020 on the non-fiction side. The main reason for that was less word of mouth. In 2020, a few people in the indie community with large email lists / followings featured my content in some way. I was interviewed on the Self Publishing Show, which drove traffic to my site and newsletter. David Gaughran shared my book (The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing) with his list when it was released back in 2020, which increased my list size by about 400+ people on its own in a week. Whenever someone shares your work to a large preexisting audience, that can be nitro fuel, whether it’s in the non-fiction or fiction realm. So, if we exclude those two events, the growth was actually similar.

It’s always worth bearing in mind that, while word of mouth is great, and I’m deeply appreciative of everyone who shares my stuff, it’s not a directly controllable marketing channel. Relying on it alone, or adjacent sources like the Amazon algorithms (when it comes to fiction), with no marketing efforts of your own is lazy. The only form of active marketing I’m doing is publishing content on my site / newsletter. Which still requires word of mouth to be effective. That’s worked well, but it’s too many eggs in one marketing basket.

While there’s plenty more I could do here, I don’t think some sort of all out marketing blitz would be necessary or well-advised. Something as simple as advertising The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing via Amazon Ads for a few hundred dollars a month could be enough of a supplement to really accelerate growth.

Managing People is Hard

I planned to outsource the tracking aspect and get someone to build me a mostly automated system that could pull in data from various ad platforms and join it with the sales data from Amazon (and, in the future, potentially other retailers). I spent a fair amount of money on that (close to $10k across the various contractors, starting from the end of 2020), but didn’t end up getting anything super usable, outside of one dashboard. So I had to use that dashboard and brush up on tools like Google Data Studio and Google Sheets to modify it myself, an endeavor which ended up stretching on through the entirety of 2021 (without having all the features I would have liked by the end).

A few lessons from that experience:

1. Projects require active management. This demands actual thought and feedback, which is energy-intensive. This can lead people to say fuck it, I’m going to do it myself in the misguided belief that it’s quicker or easier to do it on their own. It’s not, because the difference is the time: building up a complex skill (e.g., Google Data Studio or Sheets) to an intermediate level will take 20 hours or more (maybe over 100). By contrast, delegation requires short bits of very intense focus, where you need to get over any emotional blocks about giving feedback and clear instructions. That often requires 30m or 1h of research to provide them with exact examples of what you do and don’t want.

That feels like the same investment of resources, but it’s not. The problem is largely one of expectation: when delegating, we expect for our effort level to be zero. Or perhaps even negative, wherein all responsibility disappears and suddenly the wheels of our business hum with newfound efficiency. The latter can happen, but it takes effort to get to the end product that you actually want. That’s significantly less effort than learning the skill and then executing the project on your own, but it doesn’t feel that way when our expectations are misaligned with reality.

What I found was two-fold: I didn’t want to spend the time thinking deeply about the project, so the feedback I gave was hastily constructed and weak. This was compounded by not being direct enough about what I wanted. If a project is moving in the wrong direction, be clear. It will not magically transform into what you want by crossing your fingers while you sit in hopeful silence. Being direct saves everyone time and frustration. In the moments where I practiced this, projects progressed much more smoothly.

Finally, give feedback quickly. Don’t sit on things. This is important because contractors will often take a few days to turn changes around, but also because if someone is moving quicker than that, it’s poor management to stall out the project on your end. That leads to zombie projects that stretch on for weeks or months when they should have only taken days. Don’t shoehorn a month-long project into two days; that’s silly. But the inverse is equally ineffective. 24 hours is enough time in most instances to give feedback, gather materials, course correct, or do anything else necessary. If I summed up my average feedback time for 2021, it’d probably total over a week. That level of corporate or government sloth is unacceptable as a solo entrepreneur, wherein a key advantage is agility (speed of execution). Make sure you’re using that advantage to build your business. Most decisions are not ultimately that important; give it some thought, make a choice, give feedback, and keep the project moving forward.

2. Projects require clear instructions and expectations. This applies to anything from covers to formatting: if you give people a template or reference, they will use that as a basis for the work they do. So be careful about what reference materials you provide. I had a tracking sheet already made that I supplied a contractor with; I didn’t want either the Google Sheets source data or dashboard laid out in the same way, but just wanted to show them the previous work. Then I got something back which used an almost identical formula / layout structure. At the time, this was immensely frustrating, and was a big factor in me abandoning the project, along with the money I’d sunk into it. Upon further reflection, this was my fault and an error in management.

Be careful giving people reference or old materials if you do not want them to use / emulate them; this material will often act as an anchor or starting point that is very difficult to deviate from.

As a side note, if you’re a freelancer or service provider, don’t rely on the client to set the expectations. Take the initiative. Someone needs to do it; in most situations, if you abdicate this responsibility, the end result is that no one does this. That can lead either to project scope creep or dissatisfaction on one side (or both). When everything is set down on paper and clear, everything goes smoother. That does not necessarily mean an official contract; it can simply be an email. This is important even if you discuss things over a call or Zoom; memory fades, email ink does not. Any reticence toward being direct will wear off once you experience how much smoother projects go when expectations are clear. Note that having clear expectations is not the same as being rude or demanding, for those who may be conflating the two mentally; this is an emotional trick our minds can sometimes play on us. It is simply about clarity. The less ambiguity, the faster and better a project will go.

3. Project delegation requires thought. Mentioned above, but worth having it’s own little bullet point. This is key to effective delegation; bad delegation is either mindless or devolves into micromanaging. This is the delegation trap most people fall into, thus leading them back to the fallacious land of I’m better off doing this myself. Mindless delegation is where you either lazily supply reference materials (or give no reference materials) and offer poor / hastily constructed feedback. Micromanagement is where you’re pinpointing changes down to the kerning on the website fonts and not allowing the person you hired the latitude to actually execute and use their expertise.

4. Project and service delegation are not the same. There are certain scenarios where a contractor or freelancer is providing a service that’s not project-based. Projects are things like tracking sheets, covers, dashboards, book interiors, web design etc. with a clear end deliverable. On the other hand, a marketing service like ads management has no clear endpoint. The latter is a scenario where it’s better to be more hands-off after establishing clear expectations. Absenteeism is not the same thing as being hands-off, however. You need to establish those expectations and terms. Then you need to allow the person to execute with accountability, unless they prove to not require it. You should have the expectation that you’ll need to hold people accountable, but let them do their own thing if they prove to be self-motivated. This is a tough tightrope to walk, but comes with experience.

What I ultimately learned during 2021 is that project management is a skill. And that I am currently a poor project manager. Many people think of effective project management as simply “not being an asshole,” “being respectful,” and / or “paying on time.” That’s called being a good client. This is important, of course, but it is not the same as effective project management. That requires input and energy from you. My skillset here has to change going forward, because while I can learn how to do most things, doing so is an ineffective use of my limited time and energy when it sees a much higher return running ads and writing books.

The mental energy here is the biggest part of managing people. Fortunately, that’s the easiest and quickest fix, too. Simply expecting that you’ll need to take time to really think about what you want and supply contractors with clear instructions is often enough to effect changes in your project management skills. Because suddenly those hours of mental investment in managing the project aren’t a burdensome surprise, but a cost you accept and incorporate into the endeavor upfront.

Ramp Up Time

I was aiming to publish 2 novels in 2021, which was a reduction from 2020’s 6 – 8. That might seem like it was admitting defeat. But the numbers don’t lie: I published 3 novels (and a non-fiction title) in 2021, whereas in 2020 I published 0 novels (and 2 non-fiction books). You have to meet yourself where you are and build from there.

Not where you were.

Not where you want to be.

Where you are.

I refused to do that previously. And that continued well into 2021, in fact. Which meant, come June 2021, it’d been almost three years since I’d published a novel. This despite being able to write fast and having published 20+ books previously.

What finally got the book done wasn’t some epic burst of motivation or eureka moment. Instead, it was starting small. I’d been trying to jump back into things and finish the book in three, four, five days with an all-out push. This would result in a single 2,000 or 3,000 word day or two, which felt like a Herculean effort. Then I’d stop, mentally resisting the idea of coming back the next day and tangling with that sort of intense mental strain again.

The trick was to start smaller. I set the bar low and just showed up the first few days, accepting whatever word counts came. These were low output. Words in the hundreds. Maybe cracking a thousand; I don’t have the exact numbers any more. But I had to get back in the swing of things. And I also had to rebuild that writing muscle instead of jumping right into the deep end. It’s similar to not working out for years and then throwing the same weight back onto the bar during your first session back. This is a recipe for an unpleasant exercise session at best; at worst, you’re going to be left burned out and severely injured.

If you instead reduce the weight, then you make progress much quicker. This is simple, of course, but often ego and impatience block us from making such adjustments. Fortunately, it takes less time to get back into writing shape than it does physically. Despite the low word counts during the first few days, that effort proved intense. It was exactly the right difficulty level for the time. And while it seemed like ramping up from hundreds to thousands of words was a long ways off, the thing about skills is they’re easier to rekindle than build. Those neural pathways are just lying dormant, waiting to be reactivatedif you give them the right nudge. Despite “knowing” this, it was still much to my surprise that, within a few days, I began hitting 3,000+ word days. Momentum snowballed from there, and within a couple weeks, Drop Dead was finished and out the door (I don’t have the exact timeframe, but it was fast once I got through those first few days).

Had I accepted the necessity of the ramp up period, there would have been no three year layoff. The key? This ramp up period wasn’t lazy, aimless wandering where I was putting in a weak effort. It was intense and took mental focus. But this exertion didn’t extend to the point of exhaustion or significant frustration. I didn’t leave myself at the end of the day dreading the next day’s words. Getting back into that groove wasn’t what I’d call enjoyable, but it was manageable.

I’m not concerned about the almost-three year gap between releases, by the way. It’s a good lesson. Three years isn’t that long in a career that can potentially span 50 or 60 years. But I certainly wouldn’t want to make that type of layoff a recurring event.

Finally, this idea of ramping up applies on a year-long scale as well. In the past, as I’d tried to get back into writing, I’d aimed for 6 novels in a year. Or 12. So going from zero to maximum output (or beyond, since the most novels I’ve ever published in a year is 7). That was an unrealistic, daunting workload to stare down. Especially if I got behind schedule early in the year. 2 books, on the other hand, was manageable. Even if it was mid-year with zero books out, it was still approachable and doable. It always seemed easy on paper. In reality, it took a lot of effort; what appears easy on paper is often us overestimating our current abilities.

And by aiming for 2, getting 3 books out turned into a big win instead of a disappointment. Would I have liked to publish more titles? Yes. But given the circumstances (long layoff, lots of client work), this left me in a good place to build on for 2022.

Brick By Brick: Life is a Continuous Game

That leads us to our final point: a year is an arbitrary human construct. Likewise with days, weeks, months, and all other measures of time. A life or career is not made up of rigidly delineated, air-tight time units. Instead, it is one continuous stretch of time.

Thus, it does not really matter how many words are written in a day. Or books published per month, or per year. It is what can be built and sustained over time.

That is key. Too often, when thinking about we want, we only consider today. Or this week. Or month, or year. And fail to remember that today leads into tomorrow. That what we do today has an impact on what we have to do (and can do) tomorrow. Instead of optimizing for what can help us make continuous progress, we go for the moonshots, the quick fixes, the intense challenges. This applies to marketing techniques as well as productivity. There’s this illusion that one super focused 90 day diet will fix things. Or that one big launch will be the key.

But if you recall, while a couple events helped me build my non-fiction list in 2020, those were just single moments on a continuous timeline. They gave me a boost, but only if I kept sending out newsletters. Publishing content. Working on the ads. In isolation, they were just moments. Helpful, yes. But if I was expecting for them (or anything else) to be the moment, then I would have quickly gone backward in 2021. Any single event, good or bad, isn’t career-defining. A career is defined by a series of events.

Which means that, since one year leads into the next, you don’t have to get everything done in a year. Or hit any specific benchmarks. The progress meter doesn’t reset when the calendar flips over. Or the next month or day. You can take what you’ve learned and the momentum you’ve generated, and keep building on it by chaining actions together, big and small. One writing session leads to another, to a finished book, to a launch, to backlist ads, to a newsletter, and so forth. As isolated links in the chain, none of them are particularly strong. Together, over time, they can transform into something resilient and nigh-unbreakable. The realization of this continuity frees you from the tyranny of “not enough time” and grants you enough temporal canvas to truly build something meaningful and sustainable. Because you don’t have to do it all today, this month, or this year. You just have to do what you can and keep putting bricks down. That’s far easier than being forever constrained by abstract constructs that, ultimately, aren’t real.

In Closing

2021 wasn’t explosive in terms of growth (profit + revenue actually both went down overall versus 2020). But in aggregate I was happy with how things progressed. There were lots of positives that will pay off considerably if I continue to build upon them in 2022. Which is what I plan to do: release more books, improve my project management skills, and continue honing the ads. Remember that this is a continuous process. No year or moment stands in isolation from another. For me, 2020 was a foundational year where things finally turned a corner and started accelerating. 2021 was framing things out. And now, in 2022 it’s finally time to put everything together and build that house.

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