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My 2018 roundup: mountains and valleys

Lessons from 2018 and goals for the new year

2018 was a milestone in my indie author career, with enough mountains and valleys (or polarity shifts as I like to call them) to make my head spin. My over-the-moon 2018 moment was publishing Mira’s Way, book 2 in the Miramonde Series. I had a fantastic launch event at Book Passage, a bookstore in my California hometown, and sold hundreds of books in the aftermath of the launch. The rest of my work in 2018 focused on writing book 3 in the series and doing a zillion marketing, promotion, and publishing tasks.

I’ve had a few missteps and disappointments this year, which never fail to inspire existential angst. But every time, I put my head down and just keep going. The fact is, I’m still in the newbie stage of this long game. I need to have at least 5 books published to start seeing real traction—which is hard to face sometimes, especially on those zero sales days. I’m slow, after all. There are writers churning out 5 or 10 books a year. I’ll never match that, nor do I want to—but I am getting faster as time goes on. And, weirdly, my writing is getting better as I speed up.

My highs and lows of 2018

Here, in no particular order, are my main takeaways from 2018. I’ve also included advice in the areas where I rocked this world and no advice (or grumpy harangues) in the areas where I pretty much bombed.

1. Built and cultivated a group of engaged readers

I have a “reader magnet” (The Promise, a prequel novella to my series) that I give away to people who sign up for my readers’ group. Mostly through joint promotions on BookFunnel, I grew my list during 2018 to well over 2,000 subscribers.

Tips and techniques: I studied the many emails I get from other authors before designing my own. I personally don’t like getting lots of emails from any one person. I also don’t like super-long emails with tons of images and links and buttons. Too overwhelming. So I keep my newsletters rare, short, and funny and always offer just a few links to free books and other goodies, like a silver scallop-shell necklace similar to the one my character Zari Durrell wears on the Camino. I culled my email list by about 500 subscribers this fall (removing people who hadn’t opened the last 10 newsletters), and I’ll be doing that regularly as I grow the list. My open rate is now above 40% and my click rate is between 10-15%. I’m happy with that and in 2019 I’ll aim to get those rates even higher.

2. Achieved consistent sales with Amazon AMS ads

I had thrilling success with AMS ads in 2017 and I’ve been using them ever since. The main observation I have about these ads in 2018 is that while they still produce significant sales for me, they don’t work nearly as well as they did in 2017 because the market is saturated. Boo hoo! Everyone knows about them now, and the traditional publishers are all in on the game. The bid rates are higher, it’s harder to get impressions, and conversions are slower in coming.

Tips and techniques: I try to look at AMS ads from an analytical approach instead of freaking out over my ever-fluctuating sales reports. I am constantly creating new ads with new sets of keywords, sometimes using KDP Rocket, other times using my own creative thinking. For example, sometimes I’ll wander through bookstores searching for covers and titles that look similar to mine in my genres (historical mysteries and thrillers). Sometimes I copy lists of also-boughts on Amazon, or copy author names and book titles from various bestseller lists online, and use them as ad keywords.

I never used Amazon’s “automatic” ads (where the algorithm chooses keywords for you) because they didn’t work for me in 2017. But thanks to Facebook author groups I became convinced to give them another whirl. Now they are some of my best-producing ads. I also tinker with my sales page copy on Amazon to help sales conversions (usually on despairing zero-sales days). Brian Meeks’ Mastering Amazon Ads and his corresponding Facebook group is a great resource for all of this.

3. Set writing goals and stuck with them

I guess I should talk about writing because—jeez! Isn’t this what it’s all about? In May 2018 I set a goal to finish the first draft of book 3 in my series by the end of the year. I committed to sending the book to the editor next February. Now I’m a few scenes away from being done. The great takeaway is that my writing has improved since last time. My first draft is tighter, more sophisticated, just better in every way—which will cut down on revisions. Yay!

Tips and techniques: So how did I improve my writing in 2018? Daily practice (I aim for two hours or roughly 2,000 words per day). This summer I invested in Shawn Coyne’s “Level up Your Craft” writing course, which helped me internalize the structure of successful beats and scenes. Then in November I participated in National Novel Writing Month and got about 25,000 words of my manuscript done. I write outlines but allow for creativity to take over in “shitty first draft” mode, resulting in twists I never could have dreamed up in planning mode. Though my very first efforts might be hideous beasts, I always start the day’s writing session by polishing yesterday’s work. I do that a few more times going forward as I figure out structural changes and look at the big picture of the narrative.

My biggest writing challenge: I struggle with back/shoulder pain when I stand or sit in front of a computer for too long. So I will be dictating more of my writing in the future. I’ve heard mixed reviews about Dragon Dictate, and the high cost makes me hesitant to use it. Using the built-in dictation software in my phone and computer is frustrating and results in lots of rewriting and editing to just make the text coherent. But I recently heard about Dictate Pro (which only costs $6.99), so I downloaded the app and I’m amazed at the accuracy. I’m planning to use it in tandem with Scrivener (I already write on Scrivener on my laptop, so I downloaded the Scrivener app for my phone ($20) and synced it to my laptop version via Dropbox). Boom!

4. Had my most successful promo EVAH

Yeah, I’m bragging. But it’s in the spirit of celebrating the small successes, so here goes. After the launch of Mira’s Way in July, I organized my best-ever book promotion. I set the price of book 1, The Girl from Oto, to 99 cents for a long weekend later that month. I lined up a few newsletter swaps and paid book promotions, spent $100 on Facebook ads, and tweeted a lot. I got nearly 400 sales over the weekend and the “long tail” boost for my overall sales lasted for a few months. It might seem odd to promote book 1 in the series instead of the book that I had just published. But since Mira’s Way is book 2, I don’t want to drive readers to it until they’ve read book 1.

Tips and techniques: Make a consistent schedule for promotions and stick to it. Twice a year, four times a year, whatever. This is important for planning because you’ll need to line up promotions with paid sites well in advance; the dates fill up quickly. Cultivate relationships with other authors online and promote their books when you can. Then when you have a promotion they (hopefully) will promote yours. Same goes for newsletter swaps—find other authors in your genres with newsletter mailing lists equal to or greater than yours, and promote each others’ sales. Something I learned the hard way (it seems obvious now): if you include a link to something that’s free and a link to something that’s 99 cents, guess which link people will click? That’s right, the freebie!

5. Going wide is rough.

I was adamant in 2018 that I would not put all my eggs in Amazon’s basket, so I went wide by adding my books to Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and other digital platforms. The results have been disappointing. The only time I’ve made significant sales on these other platforms was during promotions. The rest of the time I’m lucky to get a few sales each month. Ouch.

Goals for 2019: Wide hasn’t broken me yet. Oh, no. But here’s the hard truth: I will have to spend much more time and money promoting my books on all of these platforms. I’ll do that with a combination of advertising, book promotions, and building relationships with individuals at these platforms.

6. Got a few key blurbs from influencers.

Every book needs testimonials from influencers to help convince readers to take a chance on it. In 2018 I got several blurbs from other authors, from an awards program, and from a podcaster that have helped me market my books and build my author brand.

Goals for 2019: I’ll keep reaching out to influencers (authors, book bloggers, other publications) in the historical fiction sphere and building relationships for the long term. I’m still wary (scared?) of plonking down $500 for a Kirkus Review or any of the other big-name paid editorial reviews, especially because if the reviewer doesn’t like my book, the bad review goes out into the world anyway, paid for by me. That just seems dumb.

So thank you, 2018, and goodbye.

2019, you’re up.

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