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Building a publishing career on $50?

When I opened up my Facebook Ads account to check on how well my single ad to my free book was performing, given the steady stream of sales that were coming in, I almost fell out of my chair.

I thought I would be looking at a bill of a few hundred bucks that I would eventually have to pay.

The number was way different. It didn’t even make sense to me.

This was not the year of “full-time publishing”

This year was supposed to be all about me pumping out new books for my Hardwick series.

I wanted to put out a book a month, which was very doable. I would invest in some ads, restructure my entire publishing business, and get things to a full-time level.

If I could make a few thousand bucks a month, which many self-published authors have reached quickly, then I would be in fantastic shape. All I would need is to establish a little consistency.

As I write this, it’s December, and I’ve released one new book all year. Not exactly how I wanted it to turn out.

There have been plenty of extenuating circumstances. The paying side of my freelancing business exploded in 2019. And given how lean 2017-2018 were, I owed it to my family to focus on doing as much as I could to grow that side of the biz.

That meant spending long hours ghostwriting and copywriting – stuff that paid now. And I don’t regret that. It needed to be done.

In exchange, my books had to fall by the wayside. My goals had to keep changing as demand for my other writing services increased at a level they hadn’t been at in 5-6 years.

Gotta strike while the iron is hot. But as I’ve done that, I’ve fallen into the same trap that has kept me here in the past decade: sacrificing the long-term to take care of the short-term.

I have no regrets about this. I won’t reveal the financial situation we were in (and in some ways, still are in), but the damage of 2017-2018 was so great that it took 4-6 months of heavy work and surplus income to clean up the immediate financial disaster and get us to a level where we were even steadily comfortable paying our bills.

Such is the freelancing life. But I did accomplish one thing…

The restructuring of my publishing approach

When I first published the Hardwick series back in 2015, I put out a single book. It was 10,000 words long – a short, punchy story leading to a longer series.

It was called Smokescreen, and I only published it because it was the only fiction story I had ever written and I wanted to test the waters.

I released it on Amazon for free, and without any advertising, it generated enough interest that I wanted to keep writing more stories.

So I released another 10,000 word book, Domestic Affairs. The response was great.

I put together a unique plan: I would release each 10,000-word book one at a time. The first one was free, then you could get the next one for free by signing up for my email list. Then the third one (Snapshot) would be charged for.

When I was pumping out books – then referred to as “Episodes” – I did okay. I made a little bit of money, but I spent most of it on ads anyway. I saw a future in this series, however.

As I dug deeper into the self-publishing world, studying other authors, I noticed that nobody else was doing this. And wouldn’t you know it? There was a reason why.

It didn’t work as a long-term, full-time strategy.

There are times when you want to be unique and different. This is not one of those times. I had to get back to the drawing board.

After devoting months to restructuring and the 20+ “Episodes” I had released by this year, I had a new plan that was more in line with how other authors were doing it (much more successfully than me).

I bundled up the first six “Episodes” and released them as a full-length novel, now called Framed. Then I released the other two, and a fourth novel this year.

There is a lot of debate among us self-published authors on whether or not releasing the first book as free still works. There are loads of authors who swear that it doesn’t work anymore, that it devalues your work, that it attracts the wrong readers, and blah blah blah.

I won’t disrespect those authors and say that they’re wrong. Obviously, they’re working off of some kind of evidence and data. But I knew that free could still work.

Businesses still do it today. “Get the product in the customer’s hands”. It’s called a “loss leader”.

I made Framed free, and I started running ads to it. Anyone who signed up for my email list got a free prequel story, and hopefully with both of those, they’d be invested enough in the characters to start buying Books 2-4 and beyond, once I’d publish more.

What happened when I checked my ads account?

After a couple months of running ads, I had run out of money to keep sending towards them. But the sales kept trickling in, so I assumed it was still running up a bill.

The strategy was working on a small scale, and I looked forward to investing more money into ads when I had the opportunity to.

At the end of October, I logged into my Facebook Ads account to see where the bill was at… and I saw that all my ads were paused.

My account had paused at the end of September because I hadn’t paid my bill.

But my sales were still going.

People were finding Framed on their own. In November, check out how many people downloaded my free book on Amazon…

Yeah. Nearly 2,400 people grabbed a free copy of something I wrote. That is mind-boggling to me.

I didn’t run any ads to them in November. But they’re still finding it at a rate of between 50-100 readers per day.

Of course, that doesn’t mean anything if they’re not subscribing and buying. This is a business, after all.

Has my subscriber base grown? You bet…

I’ve added more than 60 subscribers since I started this push in August or September. That line charts the total subscribers, so there are always a few unsubscribes every time I send out an email.

There’s a steady trickle of subscribers coming in. Again, without ads running.

And sales? Well…

In November, I sold 26 paid books on Amazon (and a few on other stores).

Make no mistake, this is a trickle. It’s not full-time money. In fact, it’s about $50 total gross income.

What this means (it’s more hopeful than it looks)

In this day and age, I’m not foolish: I know that I will need to run ads if I want to build a business. And that ads budget is going to start getting more fleshed out as I start releasing new books (I’ll be setting up a preorder for Book 5 within the next week or so).

But without any advertising, I can get thousands of people interested enough in my book. And I can get dozens of people to part with money and/or their email addresses to buy.

And that’s without regularly releasing new books, which is another key component of a successful publishing career.

Making $50 a month purely passive income is nothing to sneeze at. Yeah, that’s pretty much how much I pay for my email marketing service, so I’m not making any profit.

However, this all shows potential. It is a meaningful result, and data that I can use to build my business around.

I haven’t calculated out everything here. Some of these numbers could and probably should be better. But if you can convince ten people to buy something of yours, you can convince a lot more and build a business around it.

It also means that my publishing business deserves more of my time and energy. Even an hour of progress every weekday can skyrocket my results into something that will be worthwhile.

Getting that $50 number to $1,000 or $2,000 a month would be life-changing. It would be a snowball that I can keep rolling down the hill. It would take pressure off of other aspects of my business.

And most importantly, it would allow me the ability to focus more time and energy on the part of my business I love most: my own books.

No, fifty bucks is not much of anything. But to a guy who is trying to build a life-supporting income $2 at a time, making $50 a month without doing anything is just enough of a spark to give me hope.

It’s those small victories – those tiny, almost insignificant developments – that can turn into massive successes if the proper attention is paid to them.

That’s my plan for December and 2020. I hope you’ll join me for the ride, because it’s going to be fun.