The first year as a full time author.
If you write, chances are you have the dream to be a full time author. It’s not for everyone. It is a demanding, turbulent occupation that wears many out. And yet, we want it.
In 2016 I had a plan. I needed four more years to restart my career now that I knew what I wanted to focus on, build a brand, a back list that could support me and get debt free. Then, and only then, could I do it. Be a full time author.
Plans are made to be burned and their ashes danced on. February 1st of 2016 I was laid off. It was from out of the blue. I was not prepared. And I had a choice ahead of me:
- Did I stick to my four year plan and get a new job that might not afford me the same downtime to write and maintain that plan?
- Or did I take the chance and write?
A year later, it’s no surprise which option I picked. I hope sharing how I made the decision to take the chance helps others evaluate their plans.
I’m going to look at a few key things:
- My position in the market when I entered full time authorhood
- What I did well
- What could be improved on
- How others have helped me
The starting line.
There are a few key pieces of data I had at my disposal February 1st when I was laid off that helped me make my decision based on facts, not feelings.
- Accounting. The first thing was a detailed record of all of my sales up until December 2015. You bet your bippy I spent the afternoon of February 1st getting my data in order to reflect through January. Looking back over the years since January of 2011 I realized that my income, while small still, could easily be built on. I stood to bring in my biggest payday yet due to reclaiming several titles from Ellora’s Cave. Those books alone were bringing in a pretty penny.
- Productivity & Project Management. I have spreadsheets going back almost ten years which help me evaluate and track my productivity. It was how I made deadlines and kept to them while juggling my personal and professional lives outside of writing. If I was writing 50,000 words a month with a job, what could I do without one?
- The enthusiastic support of my family, my significant other and fans.
Looking at the cold hard numbers of output vs input told me a couple things.
First, if I produced steadily, if I released regularly, I could bring that income up. Second, the pace at which I write comfortably would allow for frequent releases.
Not in this data is The Plan. Remember, I had a four year plan. Just because I was let go from my job didn’t change that plan. It merely accelerated it. Previously, in my earlier years writing I wrote, sold or published whatever I felt like writing. From contemporary to space opera, from BDSM to suspense. That works for some authors, but not for most.
Because an author is a brand. Like Coka-Cola or Dr Pepper, you know when you pop that top what you’re getting. Now, some authors can write all over the board and do amazing. I’m not that person. I know I need to pick a thing and go for it. I needed to recreate the Sidney Bristol brand with a flavor people would come to recognize and reach for when they get that hankering. I was a bit ahead of the schedule because I’d spent much of 2015 priming myself to go all-in with this new direction.
February of 2016 would see my first mass market release in romantic suspense with a traditional publisher. Over the previous five years I’d determined that suspense, action and adventure suit me best, and it was my intention to buckle down and build my house on that brand. I was rebuilding myself, so to speak. Which left me in a very interesting place to begin my full time author life.
I felt like I could do it. I set a goal of six months and told myself that if I hadn’t achieved a steady income level of around $1,500 I would need to seriously reconsider what I was doing.
What I did well.
There’s a number of things I brought with me to writing full time. First, I can produce and I produce fairly reliably without much waffling on my output. So long as I like the story, have an outline and a feel for the characters, I can write the book.
I produced five books in a series. I positioned the series so it was at a cross-section of three subgenres. And then I did a spin-off.
I focused on hero-centric, book boyfriends rather than heroine rooted stories.
Above all, I wrote every, freaking day and said yes to just about every promotion that came my way.
This resulted in a grand total of fourteen releases in 2016 between four series. I saw my income go from an average of around $940 per month at the beginning of the year to $2,300 per month. I did this releasing wide versus going into Kindle Unlimited. And I did it with much help from other people. No, that isn’t ground breaking, amazing results. It could have been better, but more than anything I proved to myself that it was entirely possible to recreate myself and establish a sustaining career at the same time.
This full time author gig was possible.
Side note: It should also be acknowledged that I had other things going on to bring in money on the side to supplement the lean months.
What I could have done better.
We all can do better. I learned a few of my mistakes early on and tried to power through them.
First, I dove into writing on a series I began on a whim. SEALs have continued to be popular. Bodyguards were popular. Suspense was supposed to be popular. So I put them all together into a mishmash series. The first book was a fluke. Something I wrote for a boxed set and didn’t really know what to do with. It did well, people liked it, and I wrote characters in with the idea that I could do more down the line. When I was laid off, that book and concept were the best ones I had for creating a viable product line. In hindsight, I might have been better served sitting back and brainstorming a better concept with a more marketable brand. That said, that series has supported me pretty much on it’s own for the last half of 2016, so I won’t complain too much.
Covers. I made an artistic decision in 2015 when I wrote the first book because I wanted to be different. The problem with different is that it does not always mean better. It was just different. And the concept I requested, wanted, and loved so very much…didn’t properly convey my product line. I recovered the series in the latter part of 2016 for a pretty penny and have seen better marketing, sales and opportunities. My advice? Get a really good cover artist, and then an even better friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the cover model looks like Ken’s creepy brother with a thing for Skipper. Yes, I’ve heard that one.
I got distracted by writing what I wanted, not what people wanted. While my first series wasn’t a well thought out brand, it sold well enough. My plan was to create something similar, but different. Good in theory, if I’d stuck with the same part of the statement. Instead of doing something similar, I went off the reservation and did a heroine-centric, series of my heart project. This resulted in months focused on books that did not firmly fit the brand I wanted to push. Do I regret them? Nope. I wanted to write them and there is a readership for them, but they are not the majority. I learned the hard way that sometimes I’m going to have to stuff what I want to write deep down and focus on what I enjoy that will also sell.
The helping hands.
By and far the biggest thing that’s assisted me along the way?
Avid readers and wonderful friends.
I wouldn’t be where I am without people who wanted to read my books and thereby shared my books with their friends. I wouldn’t have reached those readers without other authors reaching back to pull me up with them.
A lot of people treat this publishing game as a me versus them sort of thing that it does not have to be. Readers don’t buy just one author’s books, and accepting that, embracing that, is huge.
I try to always, always, always say thank you where it’s deserved. Or if I’m just grateful. Because a thank you doesn’t cost anything, and it can mean the world all at the same time.
The lessons learned in 2016 are already getting a workout. This year I’m releasing a better planned and more marketable series hung on several hooks for readers to glom onto. I’ve paid attention to brand, tone, things that do and do not work when it comes to heroes and covers. I’m doing my best to learn so that 2017 is the year that we not only make it, but break it in terms of goals and success.
If you’re someone wanting to write full time, my biggest advice would be to consider everything you want to do. If writing is it, the top of the list, your everything, then sit down and start making your plan for how to get there. It’s possible. It’s doable. Yes, we live in crazy, turbulent publishing times, but this is a viable career in need of more, amazing voices telling their stories.
About the Author
It can never be said that NYT & USA Today Bestselling author Sidney Bristol has had a ‘normal’ life. She is a recovering roller derby queen, former missionary, and tattoo addict. She grew up in a motor-home on the US highways (with an occasional jaunt into Canada and Mexico), traveling the rodeo circuit with her parents. Sidney has lived abroad in both Russia and Thailand, working with children and teenagers. She now lives in Texas where she splits her time between a job she loves, writing, reading and fostering cats.