The year 2017 is rapidly coming to a close as I write this, and I wanted to share a few thoughts with you as I take stock of where I am now and look back to where this all began. Come May 2018, it will have been ten years since I published my first book, In Her Name (which was subsequently divided up into Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle). In February, seven years will have gone by since I sent Season of the Harvest, which was my “breakout book,” to press. Six months later, in August 2011, I resigned from my long-time government job to write full time, and the following April (2012), we moved from Maryland to Sarasota, Florida to enjoy some Gulf Coast sunshine and prime beaches.
I know a lot of folks think this would be the absolute dream come true, and it was for me, as well – for a time. After getting through some major ups and downs (although mostly downs) in terms of book sales – sales would never again reach the heady highs of the summer of 2011 – our finances stabilized in 2012 and we did well for a while. The boys came to really like Florida, and my wife and I loved it down there. I also had the opportunity to take long summer trips in our RV with my parents, who own their own RV, and we toured the Southwest, New England, Florida, and some of the National Parks in the Rockies, including Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
But then in 2015, book sales started a long, drawn out descent. I can’t attribute that to any specific cause, because there are so many spinning wheels – along with sheer luck – involved in selling a lot of books that it’s hard to point to a given thing or two and say, “There, that’s the problem!” If it was that easy, everyone would be a bestseller, but clearly that’s not the case, although I have a few more comments to make on that in a bit. In any case, despite doing everything I could think of to stop it, it was clear that my career was inexorably sliding into the slush pile, and it was clear that if we were to continue to make ends meet, I was going to have to go out and get a real job.
Unfortunately, “real jobs” with wages that would keep us afloat were in short supply in Sarasota, and while I considered myself highly skilled in certain fields after working in the Defense Department for 25 years, those skills were very niche in nature and didn’t translate easily into any of the better paying jobs I was hoping to find. I came to that conclusion pretty quickly, and decided to apply back to the Federal government. I did that in early 2016, was interviewed that summer, and was hired back early this year (2017), thankfully before we had to eat too far into our cash reserves as my book royalties fell way below what we needed to stay afloat.
As I sit here now, it’s hard to believe that I’ll have been back at work a full year come late February 2018. Talk about coming full circle! My plan at this point is to finish out my service until retirement (for which I’ll be eligible in 5-6 years), then we’ll see what we want to do. I also plan to continue writing, of course, although I’ve found that my muse isn’t nearly as energetic as she used to be, and my pace has slowed quite a bit. I clearly need to pump her up with more red wine and chocolate!
Do I have any regrets? Not really. It’s tempting to second guess oneself or to bang your head against the wall wondering “where things went wrong,” but on balance I think things turned out quite well. I had a nearly six year “vacation” where we weren’t bound by the constraints of a regular job and lived in a tropical paradise (if you’ve never been to Sarasota, you don’t know what you’re missing!). I was able to have some great times on our long summer RV trips with my parents that I probably wouldn’t have had, otherwise: if I’d worked through to retirement, my parents would have been in their mid-80s, and I don’t think they would’ve had the stamina for those sorts of adventures. When we moved to Sarasota, we bought a modest house that was perfect for us at the time, and when it came time to sell we made a gross profit of nearly double what we paid for it: that took care of all the money we’d put into the house, gave us enough money to put both boys through college, and left us enough on the side to buy new furniture for the first time in our lives, and we even had some left over to put away. And for me, personally, while I love writing, I found I didn’t really enjoy being an author as a profession (more on that shortly), and coming back to my old stomping grounds in the government was like coming home – I really love doing what I do, and I’d do it as a hobby if I didn’t need money to live on! I know not everyone can say that, which makes me appreciate it even more.
Beyond this brief tale of being normal to riches to just being normal again, I wanted to offer a few thoughts in the hopes that others looking at taking a similar path might have a more pleasant journey.
1) A lot more goes into being an author than just writing books. That seems pretty obvious when it’s stated overtly, but a lot of folks don’t understand just how much of a grind it can be to do the things you have to do every day to try and stay in the game. It takes a huge amount of discipline that’s very hard to muster when you’re the master of your own time and a potential victim of bright, shiny objects. Even just writing, as enjoyable as it was as a hobby, became a chore: I knew I had to write to continue making money, and after a while that became a real drain on my creativity. If anything, my production rate fell after I left my full-time job, and really fell after my sales started a long-term decline, because that’s when desperation set in. That’s not good muse fuel!
2) What is truly frustrating, however, is that even if you do everything right, you may not see the results you want. I’ve seen this with a number of other authors, and in a latent sense suffered it myself. Fellow author Robert Pruneda and I have spoken about this topic at great length, and I think a key ingredient an author needs is plain and simple luck. I’ve seen some very successful authors really work social media, while others have virtually no presence at all. Others have great web sites, some don’t. Some have big mailing lists and send out consistent content to their fans, while others don’t bother. Some have great book covers, others are drab, at best. And even some of the books are mediocre, at best, while others are amazing. Some do a lot of paid promotions through BookBub and other venues; others don’t bother. Yet, from that hugely mixed bag of do’s and don’ts, some authors and books will spring to the top of the sales lists, while others never make it at all. And some will vault to the top and keep one or more books in the top 100 paid, or even top 20 paid, on Amazon (which I use as a weather gauge) consistently, while others spring to the top – usually with a run in BookBub – then fall like a rock shortly thereafter, with almost zero hang time. There is no rhyme or reason to it. You need some of Harry Potter’s “liquid luck.”
4) Spread your net wide in terms of book distribution, and understand that ebook sales will be 90% or more of your sales. I say spread the net wide because, while Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla, it’s not the only game in town. At one point during the golden months of my sales, Amazon accounted for probably 80% of my royalties. Now, Amazon sales make up about 50%. Aside from Google Play, which I publish to directly, I decided some time back to just aggregate everything else (Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and others) through Smashwords for the sake of convenience. But my royalties from Google plus what I make through everything feeding through Smashwords is now almost as much as what I make from Amazon. Granted, it takes a while to build an audience in the non-Amazon book channels, but if you’re persistent, over time it can pay off. Amazon exclusivity, as a general rule, is not necessarily a good thing.
5) As I said earlier, I don’t really have any regrets, but if I could spin back the clock I would do a few things differently. For one thing, especially when the royalties were flooding in that first year (2011) – I made $30,000 a month in June, July, and August alone – I would’ve banked every penny of it and continued working for at least another year, living off my government salary alone, before resigning. That would’ve done a couple things. First, I would’ve had a very nice nest egg saved away before I left government service. Second, that would’ve given me time to gauge the movement of the book market and sales: as it happened, right after I resigned in August, my sales plunged for the next four months before finally turning around. Third, it would’ve saved me from making some really stupid “the sky’s the limit” financial decisions that turned out to be dreadful mistakes. And if you take away nothing else from reading my tale, remember this: do not ever, ever make any assumptions about your sales in the coming month, let alone the coming year(s). Today’s bestseller is on tomorrow’s backlist, and even authors that consistently crank out books don’t always stay above water. Finally, it would’ve given me a bit more of a chance to see if I really enjoyed being an author over a longer stretch of time, because enjoying writing and being an author are not the same thing.
6) Authors tend to lead solitary work lives, for obvious reasons. Sure, you may interact with fans, fellow authors, collaborate on projects, etc. – there are plenty of opportunities to socialize. But the work of writing itself is a lone wolf occupation that, especially after we moved to Sarasota, I found was just not for me. My entire career in the government revolved around teamwork, and while I’m an introvert, that is the sort of work environment in which I thrived. Being an author turned out to be an unbearable lonely occupation, and I think contributed quite a bit to my falloff in productivity. At some point I began to really hate it and grew impossibly bored, neither of which can be good! So, before you embark on a full-time career as an author, you need to have a firm understanding of yourself and your inner motivations, along with what makes you happy and satisfied in terms of work. You may hate your current job and think that being a full-time author would be the bomb, but in reality that may or may not be the case.
7) Be honest with yourself about what you want to do, and don’t be afraid to adapt. For example, as much as I hated to have to leave Sarasota and return to Maryland for work, that made the most sense from every angle. It was the right thing to do at the time, just like leaving work to become an author (although ideally I should’ve waited a year) was the right thing to do then. I would wager that most published authors have full-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads, and the money they earn through writing is dressing on the side. I “made it” for a while, and have sold or given away as promo copies over a million books and made over a million bucks in my writing journey, but didn’t quite have the escape velocity to make the big leagues like, say, Hugh Howey. Book publishing is a lot like a huge beach with ever-shifting sands: sometimes you don’t move much at all, sometimes you move a huge distance, and sometimes you move around a lot and wind up back where you started. The key thing is to not cling to something too tightly when the tide’s pulling you out: start swimming and stay afloat. And the truth is, you just never know: authors who’ve been on the backlists for years sometimes make huge comebacks. Tomorrow’s full of possibilities.
Anyway, there are a few thoughts for what they may be worth. As for me, I plan to continue writing and publishing books because I enjoy it, and making some money from it isn’t a bad thing at all. But I’ve also taking up cooking (especially with the Instant Pot) as a hobby, and of course we spend a lot of time exploring the country in our RV, so you’ll be seeing bits on those and other endeavors, as well as progress on my books, in these pages. So here’s wishing you well until next time!