Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about My Success (but were afraid to ask)…OR My Life as an Author

posted in: Various Musings | 1

A few months ago, I received an email from The Fussy Librarian, inviting me and other authors to submit our personal stories about how becoming an author changed our lives.  The problem is–if I’m not mistaken–they wanted inspirational stories.  The first half of my story would qualify; the second half most certainly would not…unless you like rooting for an underdog, one who might be an underdog for the rest of her life.

But enough feeling sorry for myself.  It inspired me to write a special newsletter to my subscribers.  Recently, I asked them what they wanted to see in my newsletters and one of the options was “secrets” about me.  I decided to let them all know the good, the bad, and the ugly…except for what I wrote became way too big to share in a newsletter.  I’m going to pare it down so it fits better in a newsletter (think abridged), but I decided to share the original here.  I don’t know if this is inspiring or depressing…but it’s real, and it’s a story I haven’t told everyone–until now.  And that’s all I’ve got for you today. So, without further ado, here’s the newsletter message I originally wrote:

Some of you have been following me a long time while a few of you have just joined me recently. I only mention this because some of you are fairly familiar with my history…so I apologize if some of this feels like a repeat.

When I first started indie publishing in 2011, the field was still fairly new. The best part of being an indie back then was I learned something new every day and applied it. I didn’t sell many books at first, but every month I did a little better, and—of course—the more books I wrote, the more readers came along for the ride. After publishing for about a year, I described to my husband what I began calling “peaks and valleys”—the peaks were when my new releases were “noticed” and purchased, and the valleys were the lulls in

Example of a typical KDP dashboard (red represents sales, while green represents free books)
Example of a typical KDP dashboard (red represents sales, while green represents free books)

between. If you’ve ever seen a screen capture of the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) dashboard, you’ll know what I mean. I didn’t sell a lot back then but I was content, because I was in the game for the long term. I was quite happy with readers hating my work and never coming back while others loved it and kept looking for the next book, because I knew I was finding my audience.

I call those days the “Nicki Era,” because I was focused mostly on writing books in that series. From April 2011 through May 2012, I wrote the first seven Nicki books, along with several others, and during that time I learned my rock star romance—the first book I published, Tangled Web—outsold anything else I’d put out there. I love(d) writing Nicki, but I also knew I was a good writer, and my goal was and still is to write full time. So, even though I planned (and still do) to finish the Nicki series, I knew that I had to write other books as well if I were to gain any traction or audience. During this time period, I met a few readers who reached out to me (mostly through email and Facebook), and I garnered my first reviews. I also discovered the dark side of Goodreads. Some of the few readers I chatted with asked when I was going to write another Tangled Web book. Welllll…I hadn’t been planning on it, but now that you mention it, what a great idea!

June 2012 signified a bit of a shift in my writing career. I call this the “Traction Era,” because I started gaining some momentum and seeing my efforts pay off. My second rock star book, MADversary, began getting some notice and I met some author friends through the BuNoWriMo group (whom I’d met through my long-time friend, romance author Stacy Gail). I participated in their June writing month, penning the follow-up to Tangled Web. I finished writing Everything But in late July and posted three teaser chapters on my website, but I was still toying at the time with the idea of traditional publishing (I no longer have that aspiration) and planned on “shopping it out” to romance publishers…because I felt at the time that it was one of the best books I’d ever written. So I sat on it for a while but realized I hadn’t published anything since May (Innocent Bystander, the longest and hottest Nicki book in the series up to that point), and my readers were chomping at the bit…so I pulled out what Stephen King calls a “trunk novel.” I had boxes of old manuscripts sitting in storage and there was one book I’d picked at off and on for years, and I knew the story needed a lot of work but it had potential. That book was rocker novel Then Kiss Me. I published it at the end of August, followed quickly by Everything But (because I wanted to stay indie), and I had my best sales to date. How exciting that was for me. I can’t even tell you how thrilling that was, watching what was going on at Amazon at the time. I was actually a “top 100” author during that phase—September and October 2012—but I couldn’t tell you why. All I knew was I was gaining traction.

I also started making friends with some of the indie bands I followed. Facebook was easier back then, and a hell of a lot more open, and I found people that way and they found me. That fall, readers were begging me for more Nicki, so I wrote Blind (incorporating a “guest appearance” from one of those indie bands), followed by a horror novel that had been tugging at me for quite some time (Old House). But during that time, I was thinking about another “trunk novel” (a manuscript I’d literally stored in a trunk!) I’d been thinking about while rewriting Then Kiss Me…the book that became Bullet. I’ll never forget when things clicked into place. That story had been in my heart forever (you know that if you’ve read the Foreword to the book) but I figured it would stay there and in the trunk. It was too silly, too farfetched, too juvenile. There was no way I could rewrite it to make it work.

But my subconscious works in weird ways, and that book continued to pick at the back of my brain. One night, I was driving home from one of the classes I taught at the local community college, and I was about a mile from home when it hit me. Holy shit, I thought, THAT’S how I could make it work. I knew then and there what book was coming after Old House. Around that time, I had sixty or seventy likes on my Facebook page (one of my first was a guy thinking I was the porn star of the same name but without the middle initial), but most of them were readers who wanted to connect with me. Facebook’s algorithms at the time were such that you could see everything on your timeline unless you chose to block it, and it wasn’t dependent upon post “popularity,” so it had a very “real time” feel to it. I shared the blurb for Bullet, followed by the cover—and I knew immediately that something magical was happening.

Yes, this was a new era. This was the “Bullet Era” (also known as “Holy Crap! Maybe I really CAN make a living doing this!!!”). Every night (or day on the weekend), I’d share a little of what I wrote, and I could tell by the interaction and all the new likes I was gaining that something was happening. There was a buzz about my book, a lot of excitement, but we were having fun! So much fun! I started writing Bullet around December 15, 2012, and I published it on February 19, 2013—and I have never sold that many books in such a short time. “This is it,” I thought, “I’ve finally made it!”

I was too naïve to have a long-term game plan in place. I just figured that as readers found and loved my work, they’d be with me forever. I didn’t think about Facebook no longer working the same or Amazon getting flooded with millions of books. Part of my errant thinking was that I’d always had this philosophy: “If I write it, they’ll find it and read it.” I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but I knew it would happen. And that entire year was amazing. My first book signing. I quit teaching, only keeping my day job. I had the ability for the first time in my life to buy a new washing machine when my old one died (yes, that was the first new appliance I’d ever purchased). I was able to pay to have my daughter’s wisdom teeth extracted. I paid off one of four student loans.

That April, thanks to the modest success of Everything But, I knew my taxes were now something I should hand over to an expert, and I found someone. By the time I met with her (mid-March), I knew hiring an accountant was one of the best decisions I’d ever made, because—even though I hadn’t received a penny for Bullet yet—I knew the paycheck was going to be big. And I told her this. In spite of what I was telling her, I had to practically beg her to set me up with quarterly payments to the IRS and the Colorado Department of Revenue, because I knew I’d have to pay lots more taxes than in the past. She almost laughed at me (because she was computing taxes for 2012) and told me to drop my deductions at both my teaching job and my day job and, she assured me, I’d be fine. Something told me I needed to do quarterly taxes, though, and I was able to finally convince her of that. So I had some big payments to make as well, but I thought all was good.

I took my family of six on our first ever vacation…and by that summer, I was down to one job. Some of you don’t know this, but I am the sole earner in my family, so I have often had to work two or three jobs at a time. To be down to one job and (I hoped and foresaw!) then none so I could focus on my writing career was a dream that was in my reach! I didn’t feel the pressure to hurry up and write the next book (although I picked at three anyway that spring), but I actually spent tons of time on my Facebook page interacting and having fun with new readers and I also had my first blog tour—and I spent an entire month getting ready for it, writing alternate POV scenes, answering interview questions, and more. My Street Team emerged from both new and old readers—many were old Nicki fans and some were new Bullet fans. I learned a lot that spring, but I was riding high. Rock Bottom (Bullet #2), released August 31, 2013, also did really well—not as well as Bullet, but it peaked at #287 in Kindle store (and #32 in Contemporary Women). I naively wondered why it didn’t do as well as Bullet but I forged ahead, writing Feverish (Bullet #3) in record time and then working on Fully Automatic (Bullet #4)…but even while I gained new readers, I sensed the numbers dwindling.

February of 2014 signified the “Downhill Era” where I felt and saw my numbers dropping but couldn’t figure out how to “fix” it. My writing mojo was back on track and I was focusing on that, but I had lots going on “behind the scenes.” Specifically…taxes. Yeah. Unfortunately, it turned out I was right. I took all my stuff to my accountant, the person I’d hired to do the number stuff I wasn’t any good at, and discovered, much to my horror, that after all the taxes I’d paid quarterly and after all my deductions (for giveaways, book signing expenses, etc.), I still owed the IRS five figures. My friends, that was scary. I no longer had the income (yes, it was short lived) to pay the IRS out of any earnings. Panicking, I asked my accountant what to do, and she told me I didn’t have to pay the IRS on April 15. She would file an extension and I could deal with it later.

Ummm…let’s just say she gave me shitty advice. The IRS didn’t quite see it that way, and they wanted their money. Now. I had no idea what to do. I’d been pimping the hell out of my newest upcoming book Finger Bang (and I won’t even begin to tell you the let downs I had from “friends” who were going to “help” with that and the book before it), but I also knew that even working my ass off to get it noticed wasn’t going to earn me the money I needed to pay that debt. I finally wound up taking a huge loan out of the retirement at my day job (which I had to pay back from my regular earnings in five years or less), and I got the IRS off my back. Whew.

My next problem? My paycheck was now decreased by over $500 a month. Remember, I still had (okay, have!) three student loans, a kid in college and three kids at home, medical bills, and then all the regular stuff going on. I had to back out of book signings (ones I’d already paid for as far as flight expenses, table and registration fees, etc.) and I had to cut back to bare bones at home. That fall, I had to get a second job to pay the bills…and I watched as my book sales went down, down, down. I’d never been much of a marketer, but now nothing I’d ever done before worked. I couldn’t connect with readers on Facebook like I had before, and it just got worse and worse. Fortunately, earlier that year (May 2014), I set up my newsletter at the urging of one of my former Street Team members, but I thought of it at the time as just another thing to do…but I planned to make it fun. I didn’t realize back then that it would become one of the only ways I’d be able to communicate unfettered with readers.

Anyway, 2015 to the present I consider to be “The New Early Days.” It’s much like starting over. My sales numbers look once more like they did back when I first started. I’ve spent the past year and a half trying to learn new marketing techniques and discovering that I’m a sucker for a good sales pitch (part of why I don’t ever want to be a salesperson in terms of my books—I don’t want to bilk you out of your money in a sleazy way). I realize I could do a lot of smarmy things that I see other authors do, but I’m not comfortable doing that. I don’t want to post my new book (or sales) in thousands of Facebook groups (and only get seen by a couple of people anyway), and I don’t want to make up ridiculous keyword-stuffed titles for Amazon. I don’t want to beg bloggers to share my stuff all the time. I don’t want to have a newsletter that I send out three or four times demanding that you buy my new release, then saying nothing until the next book comes out. I’m in this for the long term—for life—and I want readers who are friends. I don’t want “customers” that I advertise to. I’m not that kind of person and I never will be. Doing those things makes me feel yucky.

I just want to write stories that you fall in love with, that make you feel something.

So I look back over the pages I just wrote and wonder why I poured all that out for you. Well…I guess it’s because I want you to know I’m human. I want you to know I’m not just some sleazy salesperson wanting to rip you off. Yes, I hope you’ll read my books. Yes, I hope that one day I see my books sell like they used to. I would love to write full-time, my old dream. I’d like to take care of my family without working outside the home seventy hours a week. Those are dreams…and sometimes dreams come true. But I wanted you to know my story. Whether you’ve been with me from the beginning of the Nicki Era or you found me during the Bullet Era or even if you came along for the ride during the Downhill Era…thank you. Thank you for taking this journey with me. Thank you for reading this, for reading my books…for all you’ve done for me. In my survey, a few of you told me the one thing you never wanted to read in my newsletter was that I was retiring or done writing. That will never happen. I’ve come this far; I’m not about to go back. But I do want to thank you for coming along for the ride.

The good news? I might be dumb, but I do learn from my mistakes. If I ever do make that climb up again, I’ll be better informed about a lot of things!  I hope I just know how to hang on to my spot at the top!

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