It has been an eventful six weeks for me, having published my first book, published a feature article in The Magazine, quit my day job, and still avoided starving to death. I thought I’d share some thoughts on how this is going, in case other writers wonder, “Hey, what’s it like to launch your first book?” or “So what happens after you publish a story in The Magazine?”
My fiancée Rochelle and I spent Christmas and the following week at the Oregon coast. Being a workaholic, I took this opportunity to complete The Blogger Abides, which entailed reading through it several times, fixing tons of typos (I still failed to catch many of them), and finishing up Kindle formatting issues I’d been sitting on for several months. I submitted the book to Amazon on December 30, 2012 assuming it would take 48 hours to publish — hoping to launch the book on January 1, 2013. And of course, it just insta-published a few hours after submission. Oh well. I had a glass of port and bought myself a copy, then enjoyed an extended stay in the hot tub.
When the book launched, a series of unexpected things happened:
- I had no idea what to do anymore. While I’d been writing the book, there was always something concrete and book-related on my to-do list. Once I pushed the button to publish, I was in this new world where I could choose either to “market” the book (yuck) or just sit there and do nothing. Or write a new book. What to do? This was supremely uncomfortable, and was completely unexpected. There was no “yay” moment upon publication (aside from the aforementioned port and hot tub). It was simply the beginning of a new, uncomfortable phase in which my daily sense of success would be measured by sales rather than, you know, “writing.”
- I got depressed. Related to the first point, I felt genuinely blue. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Part of it was probably that my awesome vacation was also ending, but the other part was that I had assumed publishing the book would mean something for me emotionally — would change something within me. And really, like most things I’ve published, it didn’t give me much of a feeling of accomplishment. After a few days I got back to normal, but this blue period was truly unexpected. One lesson I’ve learned as a blogger is that negative feedback stings; positive feedback is modestly helpful; and no feedback is deadly. In those first days with the book, I had a little positive feedback from friends and family (who can trust them to be impartial?), but no feedback from anybody else. It was only when I got positive reviews from unknown people that I started to think, hey, this book might actually be useful. That is when the “yay” moments began.
- I learned about ebook marketing. I don’t think of myself as a marketing guy. But let me tell you, as soon as I had a book to market, I had to become one. So writing guest blogs, getting reviews, and moving units became part of my daily routine. I’m still new to this mode, and it still feels odd, but that’s because I’ve never had to market my own work before — it has always been in some publication, so that stuff was handled for me. I’ve been writing forever; I’ve been marketing for six weeks. It still feels icky. (Incidentally, the book makes a great gift!)
I set a modest sales goal: 100 units in the first month. For a four-dollar book, this seemed very achievable. I topped that goal in the first week. By the end of the first month, I’d more than doubled it. I’ll be speaking next month in California about the book and re-engaging with the marketing side of things, so perhaps I’ll see even more sales then.
Authorial side-note: although The Blogger Abides is the first book I’ve published, I have actually written six or seven full-length books, depending on how you count — mostly fiction, and several for money. So while I have completed book-length work before, including finishing edits with big fancy editors and all that, something always intervened to kill the book between completion and the ability for people to buy it. Not this time.
In a surprising coincidence, The Magazine ran my feature story on competitive Tetris players on January 3, just a few days after the book launched. It was the first (and I daresay lead) article in Issue 7. I knew that The Magazine was a big deal, but I didn’t know just how big. Within hours, I was overwhelmed with the flood of new Twitter followers and readers writing in to say how much they enjoyed it. I was also pleased that the subjects of the profile finally got to read the piece and liked it too.
But here’s the thing: running that feature story in The Magazine was a far bigger deal than publishing my own book. I didn’t expect that. But so far, it has paid me more money, earned me more goodwill and attention, and generally increased my profile far, far more than the book. The book is just another thing I did, but this Tetris article? Apparently to many readers, this is pure gold. (And let’s be clear, I’m very proud of the article, it was hard work, and the editorial touch Glenn Fleishman brought to the writing made it sing.) But that article was a few months of occasional work plus some research when I felt like it, not the eighteen-ish months of hard labor I put into the book.
Nerdy side-note: I’m not sure what The Magazine’s readership is. Because I had so much extra material for the Tetris story, I added a “Special Features” link at the end of my article. Readers could optionally visit that page for videos and stuff. Although I didn’t plan it this way, tracking visitors to that page gives me a rough sense not of readership, but perhaps of ultra-engaged readership of my particular article (and how this readership changes over time). I’m not ready to share that breakdown now, but let’s just say I think The Magazine has more readers than I expected. (I had to put WP-SuperCache in “Lock Down” mode.)
Because The Magazine is very cool, they allowed me (like all their authors) to republish my article after a one-month exclusive in their app. So I ran it on my blog on February 3, 2013. (Glenn even exported the final marked-up version and emailed it to me — something no other editor has done.) In the ensuing two-week-ish period, more than 25,000 people have read that article on my site. This is astounding, and it validates my decision to run it on my site.
I had run through a bunch of scenarios during that month about how to squeeze yet more money out of this article, but also expose it to more readers — I had thought about selling it as a Kindle ebook for a dollar, with extra text and photos; thought about pitching it to Wired as an expanded story; thought about all kinds of ways to try to get more money. But it’s not really about the money. At the end of the day, my readers were saying: let me read it, online, for free, pretty please. So I figured that was the easiest path and it would make the most people genuinely happy. I already made plenty of money on it, and if a few of those web readers picked up my book, good for me, right?
The “free on my website” strategy has worked out extremely well. I suspect that if I had tried to sell this as a $0.99 Kindle ebook, I would’ve sold fifty units and had a bunch of angry reviews complaining that it was “only” four thousand words and a few photos. If I’d pitched it to some other magazine, it’d still be in development (or the pitch might not have landed). As it is now, people are calling this the first must-read blog post of the year, a completely fascinating read, and even using lines from it in a poem. Not bad. And yeah, some Tetris article readers have bought my book too.
So, future contributors to The Magazine — it’s up to you what you do with your work after its initial run, but this approach worked for me. It meant the piece reached lots more readers, I actually made a little more money (in the form of book sales), and a few extremely classy readers even bought me stuff on my Amazon wish list as a thank-you. That is absurdly nice.
The Former Day Job
When I launched my book, I still had a thirty-hour-a-week day job. I was hedging my bets (well, paying my mortgage) by working in tech with a group of friends I’ve known and worked with for over a decade. I left that job, with hugs all around, on the last day of January. I’m still doing some tech consulting (partly to close loose ends with those friends — projects don’t end cleanly on month boundaries), but this frees me up to spend most of my days working on actual writing and reporting. At the same time, a few big leads jumped up and bit me on the nose. So I’ve been chasing down those leads. Stay tuned, everybody.
Oh Yeah, the Book
I’m preparing a second edition, fixing some awful typos, restoring emdashes (they are endashes in the current version), and putting out a print-on-demand version. That should be complete by March, in time for me to speak to the good students of UC Davis about all this stuff. If you’re in the area, come and see me — it’s free.