Thursday, July 19, 2012

Going Indie - Day 1: A Sigh of Relief

Get My Little Pet Dragon
There have been many false starts to this writing career. Essentially my entire life has been one big false start. First I wanted to be a Disney animator, the next, a video game designer. It's taken me awhile to figure out what I really I wanted, and now that I'm here, there's no going back.

Back in October, I had a major breakthrough. Although I'd been writing for years, I'd never finished anything. I'm a bit of a prankster at heart, so once I get a wild idea in my head, I go for it. The result was a comedy that was a bit on the naughty side. For the first time ever, I completed something from start to finish, and put it up for sale on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. When I got my first sale, I was hooked. This is what I wanted to do from now on.

Although the project was fun, I wanted to move on to more “serious” work. Around this time, I came across an inspirational thread from a guy who had just made $1,000 in one day by selling e-books. He called himself throwaway_writer, and was being criticized for being a fake. (I’ve met him, BTW, and he’s the real deal).

The more I read, the more his story checked out. Was it indeed possible to make a living by writing? And better yet, a very good living? I had to find out.

Immediately I got to work. If he could do it, why couldn't I? I had been studying prolific authors for many years, from Nora Roberts to Georges Simenon to Ryoki Inoue. If I simply implemented a trickle of their discipline and organization, I could find success, too. So I took my best short story at the time, added a couple thousand words, paired it with my most popular inspirational blog posts, and put it up for sale in 5 days.

Although Literary Dynamite wasn't a big success, I'm extremely proud of it. It also reinforced that I could start and finish projects in a timely fashion. Suddenly I found myself embodying the principles that I’d so deeply admired: working hard, abandoning inertia, trusting your instincts, and most of all, giving everything.

When my rewrite of The Sweetest Stalk stalled, I decided to try my hand at a children's book, which I'd recently procured the artwork for. It launched on Thanksgiving, and to my surprise, did better than anything else I'd written at the time. Although it seemed like there were just as many pictures as words, I absolutely loved putting it together.

So I wrote another. And another. And another.

Suddenly I'd written four in all, and remembered back to something throwaway_writer had said: once you have multiple works, put them into compilations! I did just that, creating Four Fantastic Bedtime Stories for Children 3-6, which includes My Little Pet Dragon, My Crazy Pet Frog, A Little Book About You and Pigtastic.

Even though I was seeing a trickle of steady sales (a couple a day), something was missing. Such as…(cough, cough)…my promotion, or lack thereof. It was at this time that I discovered KDP Select. For your exclusivity, Amazon gives you 5 promotional days and pays you each time your work is borrowed. I really didn't like the idea of giving my work away for free, but when my friend S.J. Wright wrote about the benefits of free promotion, I decided to give it a try.

I started by submitting exactly one title to KDP Select. It was my experimental children’s book A Little Book About You. Since I was experimenting anyways, why the heck not? What did I have to lose?

I scheduled my free promotion to hit on Christmas Eve, and grumbled when Barnes & Noble dragged their feet in publishing the Nook version of Pigtastic. When the promotion finally took place, I was stunned. In the first day, I moved over 200 copies in the U.S. alone and a few additional units in the international stores. I was sitting in the 1200s in terms of rankings, the highest I'd ever seen, paid or otherwise. The next day I had no idea what to expect, and when I gave away an additional 800 copies, my jaw about hit the floor. A thousand people had downloaded my work. Unbelievable!

When all was said and done, I’d given away 3,200+ copies in just 5 days. "Well, that was great publicity," I told myself, and didn't expect anything else to come of it.

Boy was I wrong! Immediately afterwards, sales rolled in. Now we're not talking about mega sales here, but when you go from selling one to two copies a day to ten to twenty, it really gets your attention.

To recap, over the past three months I'd gone from making $10 to $20 to $200. And KDP Select was directly responsible for at least half of the sales, the other half, friends and family. "There's really something to this free promotion nutwittery!" I mumbled to myself.

When Barnes & Noble finally got around to publishing Pigtastic a week later, missing the Christmas holiday entirely, I decided to get even and throw all of my titles into Select.

Again, what did I have to lose?

The next few promotions had limited success. The Spanish versions of A Little Book About You and My Little Pet Dragon did well, but failed to muster any more than 300 copies each. As for the English language version of Pigtastic, I gave away a little over 2,000 copies, the disappointing result mistakenly attributed to the end of the holiday rush. (Pigtastic turned out to be a steady seller, not a bestseller.)

As the month wore on, and my royalties crossed $200 in the first couple weeks, I decided to do something unprecedented: make my premiere title My Little Pet Dragon free, starting on my birthday and running it for the full five days.

Now I've heard people swear up and down about the wisdom of saving free promotional days, and it does make sense if you know exactly what you've got. The problem is, you don't. The only way to hit a home run is to put everything into it. Sure, I strike out a lot, but I get 5 free promotional days every 90 days, so it's worth the risk. (Keep in mind that it’s a lot easier to say this when you have a full time job to fall back on.)

In all honestly, I had no idea what to expect from the free promotion of My Little Pet Dragon. If I could beat the 3,200 copies that I did in December, I'd be happy. So you can imagine my surprise when I gave away 6,000 on the first day. I was in the Top 100 before midnight, all with a cute little children’s book that I’d put together to teach my son how to say the word "dragon."

But the good times didn't stop there. I gave away another 10,000 the following day, and pushed my way all the way to the cusp of the Top 10 late Friday. I was #2 in Children's Ebooks, but couldn't get past two titles, which I cannot remember for the life of me.

Now it's funny how exciting these things are when you don't understand what’s going on. On Saturday, the titles that had been giving me problems magically disappeared, springing me into the #1 slot in children's ebooks, and helping me crack the Top 10.

How did this happen?

In the eyes of many, I screwed up. You never run a free promotion on Saturday and Sunday. That's where you make all your money. Right?

By that logic, many people drop off on Saturday to take advantage of sales. But that also means there's weaker competition on the weekend, making it easier to climb the charts. Also, more people are available to download your free book.

It's like missing the forest to see the trees. There will be many more weekends to cash in. What you need is visibility, and of course, to be recommended on behalf of Amazon. The more free giveaways you have, the more likely you will be recommended.

So by the end of Saturday, I cracked the Top 5. And by early Sunday, I was sitting at #2. That's right, #2 out of EVERYTHING in the Free Kindle Store! How had I done this, and more importantly, what was this quirky title called Hamster Habitat that was entrenched before me? It turned out Hamster Habitat was an interactive game, but lumped in with the other ebooks. Try as I might, I could not claim the title of the #1 free e-book, even though the other was clearly a game.

But I'd proved my point. I made it straight to the top by taking risks. And by giving away 56,000 copies of my free children's book.

When My Little Pet Dragon came off free promotion, it not only cracked the Top 100 paid (for a few days), but it also began pushing my entire catalog. I'd just gotten A Pocketful of Dinosaurs and Ninja Robot Repairmen out the door, so my timing was perfect. Suddenly everything was moving. The tail was long, sparking sales through the rest of January and clear through February.

January wound up netting me around $5,500. When I topped $6,000 in February, I realized that it was time to change occupations. I could no longer keep my mind on my full time job anyways, so it was not a matter of if, but when.

But a funny thing happened on my way to success. After quitting my job at the end of March, I found myself completely exhausted and run down. What I needed was a break. Over the next few months, I enjoyed my mini-vacation, continuing to run my free promotions, but doing very little writing. My Crazy Pet Frog wound up doing big numbers in April, giving away 43,000+ copies, and spurring sales that lasted through May.

Of course, we all know what happened in May, right? At least self-published authors do. Amazon changed their algorithms, making it more difficult to get higher rankings, which ultimately leads to sales. Free promotions also seem to be adversely affected. Suddenly my free giveaways were getting to the edge of the Top 100 and dying. One after another, it was very depressing. Borrows also became much more difficult to come by.

June turned out to be disastrous. I went from making $3,600 in May to $1,600 in June, a drop of over 50%. Certainly it didn't help that I wasn't producing content like I did before, nor taking my new profession more seriously. Heck, I couldn't even bother to write these blog posts to chart my journey, which I'd promise to do from day one.

With any new endeavor, there's an adjustment period, but there also comes a point where you see yourself for what you are. I'd gotten lazy, allowing myself to get distracted by whatever came up. When I realized that I might be in trouble, I did what most people do. Like a coward, I hit the job market, electing to work during the day and write in the evening (even though I wasn't doing much writing in the first place) while I waited out the summer downturn. Again, I wasn't addressing the real problem at hand.

Now I really have to hand it to The Huffington Post/AOL, where I interviewed in late June. Our interview was supposed to run a couple hours, but turned into a 5-hour marathon. I got pounded from every conceivable angle, technical question after technical question. They grilled me on my experience, like any good employer would. With my recent self-publishing experience still fresh in my head, I missed plenty of questions. I wasn't adequately prepared. I felt stupid. Worthless. As if I'd made up everything on my resume. Never had I hit a lower point in my life, and when I left their offices, I knew that I wouldn't be stepping through those doors again.

There's a name for this. It's called adversity. Mentally I'd checked out long ago. This was my new profession, what I'd fought 40 years for. Was I really willing to jump back into a miserable and unfulfilling day job? No, it turned out.

The most important thing in handling adversity is how you react. All the sudden everything was crystal clear: I would need to work my way through this. Success has nothing to do with summer downturns or algorithms. The readers are there; I simply wasn't doing the work. I bought into my own hype, and took far too much time off. The only way to turn things around is by producing. It was time for some new blood.

In the past 3 weeks, I've produced 14 titles. Two of them are on free promotion today. I told myself that I wouldn't write this post until I’d turned things around and published at least a dozen new works. Now that My Little Pet Dragon has cracked the Top 50 again, I can now breath a sigh of relief (for the moment, anyways), and say that I'm well on my way towards building the life that I'd always dreamed of.

Currently I have 52 published works up, and I've got a ton of new products on the way. My goal is to arrive at Christmas with over 100 products. I'm wary of taking too much time off, and have a personal goal of publishing a new work every 1-3 days. A few times I've published a new work within 24 hours, but only if it was ready. Remember, garbage begets garbage.

So what does all of that have to do with today? Today feels like the first time that I’m making good on my promise. I will get over the hump, regardless to what Amazon does to their system, but not by giving up on my writing. As long as I maintain my discipline, and keep putting out quality work, everything will be all right.

Today is a new day, the first of a new journey. Now that I've straightened myself out, it's time to obtain what I'm really after: to be one of the most successful indie authors today.

Most likely it will take more than 100 days. Who knows? Follow me as I document my experiences and shoot for the stars.

Scott Gordon
Children's Book Author

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