I’m Ines Johnson, author of paranormal romance with lots of kissing. I also write sweet western romances under the pen name Shanae Johnson. There’s kissing in those books too. Lots of authors who come on this blog are a pretty big deal. Me? I’m a pretty big failure. Funny thing is, that was the key to my success!
I failed. A lot. But each stumble taught me something and brought me closer toward the eventual path to success: I now make six figures as a self-published author. In this post, I’ll outline the top lessons I learned from these failures, so you can learn from my mistakes and get a leg up on your leap to six figures.
Solidify author branding
My first mistake? I didn’t know who in the heck I was. I wrote three entirely different subgenres of romance. It’s not a problem if you write across different genres. It’s double (or triple) the work if those genres don’t share the same readers. I soon learned these three subgenres did not.
Readers of my super-steamy dystopian MMF erotic romances were not interested in my contemporary fairy-tale romances. (For those googling MMF, that means male-male-female, which are ménage à trois tales where the swords cross.) Likewise, brand-new readers who found my fairy tales weren’t interested in my books where men shifted into wolves.
What I learned from my readers was that the level of steam matters most. If, for example, you have steamy romance readers who want the bedroom doors flung wide open alongside sweet romance readers who might clutch their pearls if they peeked inside the bedroom, then you must divide and conquer.
How did I solve this? A lobotomy would’ve been too expensive. So, I developed a split personality instead. I separated my books into three different pen names and put the appropriate subgenres together, building three separate audiences. I kept my paranormal romance and fairy-tale retellings together with some crossover:
My sweet contemporary romances featuring wounded warriors have a separate pen name:
Everything else — where the bedroom door was in the spotlight and the mattress was super crowded — went under the erotic romance brand:
This made readers super happy and confident that when they opened a particular book, they wouldn’t get an unwanted sword in the eye!
Does this mean you need a host of pen names for your backlist of books? Not necessarily. You need to take a good look at the audience you’ve cultivated or are trying to build. If there are crossover readers, then you’re good.
Create a publishing schedule
The next place I failed was in setting reader expectations. Sometimes I put out a book a month for three months. Other times, I only put out three books a year. I lost readers and then gained new ones only to lose them again. I had to learn it wasn’t about speed. It was about showing up on time and when you were expected.
Are you a fast, moderate, or slow writer? Can you draft a book in a couple of weeks? Or perhaps it takes you months? No judgment on your speed, because it’s really not about how fast or slow you go in this business. It’s all about consistency. When readers know when to expect you, they’re more likely to show up for you.
To become consistent in putting out books, you should know your WPH (words per hour) so you can plan out your publishing schedule. Let’s talk word count tracking.
Personally, I don’t write by word count. When I do, I break apart my contractions and use tons of adverbs and adjectives to make the goal. Instead, I write by chapters. For me, a chapter is a complete story in and of itself. I set a chapter goal for each day. I typically aim to draft or revise two to four chapters. I get diminishing returns if I try to write more than that.
I’m a very visual person with an unhealthy obsession with office supplies and stickers. When I finish a chapter, I reward myself with stickers or a doodle.
When you know your WPH, you can do more than plot your story — you can plot out exactly when you’ll finish your book. If it takes you an hour to write 1K words, and you write 50K-word books, then you need to find 50 hours on the calendar to write your book. Therefore, if you could take one hour a day over 50 days, you’d get your first draft done. Or you could get it done in half that time in 25 days if you can find two hours per day. And so on.
Pull out a calendar. Mark off the days you know you’re not going to write. Then schedule your 50 or so hours. You can track your words (or chapters) manually with pen and paper like a planner or bullet journal (bujo). You can record them on a spreadsheet like Excel or Google Sheets. You can mark them in online apps Pacemaker or 4thewords. Once you know how many words (or chapters) you can write in an hour, day, or month, then you will have a gauge of your publishing schedule for the year, set reader expectations, and then meet them.
Decide on a distribution strategy
My next failure was being uncertain of where I wanted my books to live online. I moved on and off retailers and in and out of exclusivity for years, which again won and lost me readers.
Finally, I decided to set my book wide, meaning that I offer my books for sale across multiple ebook retailers worldwide. I choose not to have any exclusive deals with any retailers, such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. I made this choice for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that I have been laid off from a job before. Overnight, my single source of income was ripped from me. That trauma made me fear being beholden to one income source.
Being widely distributed is a lot of work. There are multiple commerce dashboards I have to keep up with. But instead of overwhelming me, this makes me feel a sense of security. Income comes in nearly every week from one source or another. I have the confidence that if Bezos packed up his toy and went away, I can rely on Apple, Barnes and Noble, Rakuten (owners of Kobo), or Alphabet (creators of Google).
Does that mean that you should go wide? Well, it’s your choice. Take a close look at each platform. How do the books in your genre or subgenre fare on that platform? Do you have time to be mindful of more than one sales dashboard? How do books like yours place on each of their bestseller charts? Make your decision based on as much information as you can gather.
Set attainable sales goals
My final failure was not having a clear goal for my author career. When I started out, I was making a decent income as a college professor and screenwriter. Of course I wanted to make a lot of money, but I figured the money would simply come because my books were awesome. Instead, my books earned me lunch money every day. I was okay with that because that million-dollar goal was just a dream.
And then I got word that the college I taught at would be closing in one semester. I needed my books to become my full-time income. Quick!
At the time my living expenses amounted to $2,500 each month — not including business expenses. I needed my books to make $30K per year or $82 per day. If my books were $2.99 and I made $2 each sale, then I needed to sell 40 books every day.
I had a goal. Now, I just needed some strategies.
Run measurable marketing campaigns
Newsletter swaps: I set up newsletter swaps with other authors, believing I might be able to average five to ten sales with each blast. I connected with author friends who wrote in the same genre and asked for mentions in their newsletters, reader groups, or social media.
BookBub Featured Deals: These are a major part of my strategy. I do not apply for one until I’ve published at least three books in a series. I’ve found that five is the sweet spot. Why? Because BookBub’s readers are real readers who often binge the rest of the series after they read the deal book.
In 2019, I ran a BookBub Featured Deal for the box set of the Purple Heart Ranch series under my sweet pen name Shanae Johnson. I sold thousands of copies at $0.99.
I left the box set at $0.99 for 30 days because I knew BookBub would keep the deal on their site for that long. The read-through to books four and five continued for months and is what pushed me to make over $66K that year.
In February 2020, I offered the first book in the Purple Heart Ranch series for free, and once again, BookBub accepted it as a Featured Deal. By then I’d published ten books in the series. With tens of thousands of free downloads of book one, the second book made $13K on Amazon alone. (Remember that my books are widely distributed.)
Display ads: Next I set up CPC (cost-per-click) ads. By this time in my career, I’d figured out Facebook Ads by taking courses, heeding advice from author groups, and trial and error. I started a $5-per-day Facebook ad aiming to add another five sales per day to my quota. Once I got those ads stabilized, I tacked on AMS ads, hoping to gain yet another five sales per day. When that started to work, I added in the BookBub Ads. I was blessedly lucky that a few of my books earned a coveted Featured Deal. My best BookBub Ads target my own pen name as the audience. Those readers already showed they were interested in my books because they’d clicked the Featured Deal or followed my BookBub Author Profile. It was an easier sell to show them my new releases.
Please note that I was spending about $15 per day and now had to make closer to $100/day to hit my $30K/year goal (and offset the cost of these ads). But sales were increasing so I had the wiggle room.
Other paid promotions: There are a number of paid newsletters out there, including Robin Reads and Fussy Librarian. Because funds were tight, I stalked each company’s website before purchasing a spot and looked at the books they’d chosen in the past. First, I checked to make sure the books they promoted were similar to mine. Secondly, I looked to see if there had been a change in the book’s rankings on the e-retailer platforms. Once I was satisfied, I made sure to space the promotions out so that I could evaluate the results. If sales increased after the promotion, I knew it worked out for me. If not, I’d let the company know. Sometimes, I got a refund. Sometimes, I got no response.
Adapt based on results
I failed at this author thing for years because I didn’t know who I was, I wasn’t consistent, I moved around a lot, and I didn’t have any real, clear goals. Once I took each of those issues in hand with a thorough examination, a detailed plan, and a keen eye for results, things turned around for me. I’m now a six-figure author who knows who she is thanks to pen names and clear branding, whose readers are one-click buyers because they know where to find me on their favorite platforms and I’m meeting their genre and release time expectations, and I’m hitting my goals because I’ve set them and they are realistic targets. If you take a hard look and reflect on your business, you could do the same!
The views and opinions expressed in this guest post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BookBub.
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Click to tweet: How one author made the leap to six figures:
🎨 Solidified author branding
📅 Created a publishing schedule
📚 Decided on a distribution strategy
💰 Set attainable sales goals
🚀 Ran measurable marketing campaigns
📊 Adapted based on results