The long, exhausting journey of being an indie author

In 2011, I was walking out of the grocery store and had a phrase come to mind. As the automatic doors scooted out of my way I thought to myself, Man, that would be a really cool title for a book. Almost as soon as the title formed, I thought of the perfect ending. When I got home, I told my wife about my new-found desire to write. She was supportive, but I can’t even imagine what she was thinking when I told her that. As an artist in the video game industry, I enjoyed telling stories through my craft, but I had never shown much interest in writing before. But with this random idea of being an author consuming me, I got straight to work.

After about a month, Loose Ends—which, due to my incredible memory, was not the name I thought of in the grocery store—was a complete 20k novella. And so began my voyage into the world of writing. I had no idea on how to publish anything, but I knew everyday folks like me posted their work on Amazon.  They even seemed to be making some money while doing it.

The book itself did not fly on its own, and I ended up unpublishing it later on. While the book’s success did not turn out like I had hoped, the foundation was laid in several ways for me to continue on this journey as an author.

First Success: I started writing

It seems like such a trivial point, but in order to be an author, one must write. But believe it or not, this is the first obstacle a writer must overcome. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met (especially in a creative field like video game development) where someone heard about As the Ash Fell releasing and then said “That sounds like a lot of fun. I have so many ideas for books I’d like to write.” Usually, I respond with, “Why haven’t you written them?” They would often give me a bewildered look and say “I don’t know where I’d even start.” I return the look of bewilderment and reply with, “A blank Word document.” Don’t get me wrong, the blank white screen staring at me…judging me…Well, it’s one of the most daunting sights for a writer. But if you don’t start writing, you’ll never be an author. Period. So when I set out to write Loose Ends, I didn’t overthink it. I wasn’t worried about the success/wealth from writing (those thoughts crept in as I worked on launching the book). I just focused on writing because it was enjoyable.

Second Success: Networking

One of the greatest successes I had in launching my first (unsuccessful) book was the people I met online. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to go about publishing a book. I knew Amazon was the way, but there wasn’t quite the same amount of “How-Tos” and video tutorials on publishing as an independent author as there is today. This forced me to start talking to other people who had already been there and done that. I went on Twitter and started meeting folks left and right, and friendships quickly developed beyond a shared hoped for indie author success.  I still regularly talk to many of those fine people today. We help each other out, let each other vent in private (when public venting would not be appropriate or professional) and give advice on the things that were successful, and the things that were not. Indie authors can only benefit when they stick together. To quote my friend Michael Hicks from his book The Path to Self Publishing Success “It’s not about competition, it’s about coalition.” We work together to help each other. We cheer each other on as there is success, and encourage one another when there is failure. I am quite sure I wouldn’t have been able to continue my writing if it weren’t for the awesome folks I’ve met along this journey.

Third Success: Improvement

As I mentioned, Loose Ends did not turn out to be the big hit I thought it was in my head. I haven’t read it in years, and I may read it here shortly just for grins, but I know it had a lot of major flaws. My friends and family who read it were kind and said they enjoyed it—that it was a great first book…While there may have been sincerity in their words, they saw things with rose colored glasses. They weren’t going to be the ones to let me know my writing had failed in more ways than it succeeded. This made the sting of my first critical review (one that went into great detail about my flaws) hurt all the more. Though it negatively impacted me for a while (more on that in a minute), it did finally give me the necessary kick in the butt to improve my writing.

First Failure: I stopped writing

As I mentioned above, the first critical review I received hit me hard. The false sense of skill I had based on friend/family reviews made me think I was this awesome writer when in fact I was probably pretty terrible. I’ll still make an argument that I am not that good, but I at least know that I am better than I was before. But as a result of this, I stopped writing while in the middle of a manuscript for my first novel. I was already feeling a bit unsure about what I had written, and then I got notified about that review; I was deflated. I lost hope in ever being a good enough author to be successful, so I pushed it aside. Admittedly, with my daughter being born in June of 2012 I did have a legitimate excuse to cut back on my writing, but it was still an excuse. Had I not quit, I would have more books completed and I would have grown exponentially in my skill.

Second Failure: The money didn’t pour in

The subtitle above isn’t really accurate. The lack of money does not equate to failure, but rather my expectations failed me. I went into this thinking that I was going to make megabucks within hours of my book going live. This was right in the thick of Amanda Hocking’s incredible success, and I thought, if she can do it, so can I! And while that is still very much true, she also has been writing much longer than me, had many more books out, and was working in a genre that was very popular at the time. She put in countless hours of hard work, exercised her creative muscles, and as a result, she had huge success. I wrote and released 17,000 mediocre words for 99 cents, and became discouraged that I wasn’t already driving around a Lamborghini. My naiveté had convinced me that after one book, if I wasn’t raking in the dough then I would never be able to do it. And that line of thinking was a big failure.

Third Failure: I stopped writing, again

In May of last year, I was able to finish and launch my first full length novel, As the Ash FellThe launch was a massive success (for me), and the book has received a lot of high marks. I’ve personally always enjoyed the post-apocalyptic world, but I also wanted to tell a story that wasn’t your typical zombie story either (note: the book has no zombies in it). The book is long; over 100k words longer than Loose Ends. It was a gigantic undertaking for me, for my wife (who was one of the editors), and all the other folks that helped me along the way. And so I was overwhelmed with the positives to come out from the release. I had prepared hard to market the book when it came out, and that I would shoulder that marketing blitz for a while after launch. I did, and it has been profitable. But, as a result of focusing a lot of time and energy on promoting the first book, I had stopped writing the sequel. Again, to be fair, I have had a lot of life changes happen that has caused legitimate distractions (self-employment, another child, time for my family, etc), but I still managed to find a lot of time in the day to tell other people about Ash. While this isn’t a bad thing, if I am only telling people about Ash, and not working on a new book, then my success will be very limited. The more books I get out there, the more marketing they will do for me. And that turns into a big time saver.

Conclusion:

I have learned a LOT over the past several years—both when I was actively writing as well as a mere observer as my friends continued to write, edit and release their books. I have grown wiser and have learned and understand that success almost never comes overnight. With rare exceptions will you be fortunate enough to write a single book that skyrockets you to the top of the charts and allows you to quit your day job. Not because your book doesn’t have the potential necessarily, but because in a sea of screaming, hungry authors, you’re fighting for the attention of every single reader that sails by. And even though there are tens of millions of e-readers out there, you are asking someone to spend their hard-earned money on your book. You’re asking them to trust an author they may know nothing about, to give you money in exchange for a story. It’s more challenging than I originally thought, and is only getting harder.

And now, as I am preparing to cross a pretty big sales milestone for me (nothing that will have me writing full time anytime soon, I assure you), I realize that this long, exhausting road will pay off down the line. It might not come as quickly as I would like (or maybe not even in the same way I expect) but I know that the more I write, the more I enjoy it. And if I can discipline myself to sit down and just do it more regularly, it’ll probably pay off sooner than my adjusted expectations.

Keep writing! Use negative/critical reviews as fuel to improve your craft. Read lots of books, and I also suggest finding some helpful books about writing itself, as well as the marketing/publishing side. And make sure you find yourself a nice support group of like-minded authors. Having honest, even downright brutal critiques is always the way to go.

AJ