This is flip, but true enough. I am on, basically, my third career. After college and law school, I started off as a “junior politician,” working on the Dallas staff of then-Senator Phil Gramm as an underpaid and overworked “caseworker”. I was on the Senate staff, not the campaign staff, and missed out on his disastrous 1996 Presidential campaign. I jumped ship and worked for Governor George W. Bush, staying on through his successful 2000 presidential campaign. I wasn’t able to latch on with the White House staff, though, and wasn’t able to make any headway getting any other role with that Administration.
So I ended up reinventing myself as an attorney. In the Governor’s office, I was working on disability issues, and I got a job at Georgia Tech with the regional ADA center for the Southeast. That led to a job as an attorney with Disability Rights New Jersey in Trenton, where I represented clients with disabilities in a variety of different cases. I had a secondary role managing the state assistive technology program. I did that for eleven years, until I was heartily sick of it.
I don’t want to go too much into why I left my last job, but what happened was that the Medicaid program in New Jersey got handed over to private insurance. That meant that it was in the interest of the private insurance companies to cut back on individual services — and every time they did that, they would send out a letter telling the patients that my office would represent them in administrative law court for free. Which we did.
The upshot of all this was that I was spending a great deal of time arguing with first-year lawyers over whether little old ladies in New Jersey should get 10 hours of home health care benefits per week, or 8. This is — without meaning any disrespect to the little old ladies involved — not the stuff that great legal careers are built on. Around the same time, I was up for a promotion, and didn’t get it — and the lawyer who did get it was an advocate of taking on a lot more of these cases. This meant that I would be spending the rest of my career wrangling over the details of the bowel movements of little old ladies, and how much Medicaid assistance that required. (You want to talk about career decline, that was pretty much it.)
I went to look for other work, and found out that I had painted myself into a corner. There just weren’t that many firms that were interested in hiring someone whose specialty was representing indigent clients in administrative law court. And I couldn’t support myself as a solo practitioner handling those kind of claims. I interviewed with several firms where I could have made a lateral move — guardianship cases, special education, medical malpractice — but none of them were a good fit. I had bottomed out at age 48, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it.
I ended up going in a completely different direction. I left my job and enrolled in a master’s program in human resources at Rutgers. I have a very challenging job working for a small human services agency. It is anything but a glamorous role; I do a lot of paperwork and handle a lot of compliance issues. I am never going to get elected to Congress, or work in the White House, or argue before the Supreme Court, and that is fine.
I take a lot of comfort from this Pat Green song, about a hard-luck country singer:
I gave up on Nashville a long time ago.
So I have, at age 50, become comfortable with the idea of professional decline. I am not exactly thrilled about it. I like to think that I can find a better job, doing something more responsible, perhaps using my law degree. But those opportunities haven’t opened up for me, yet, and maybe they won’t. It doesn’t bother me, or I try not to let it bother me, which is not the same thing.
Professional Decline and Publishing
What does bother me, though, is not professional decline in my career, although that is bad enough. What bothers me is what it means for me as a novelist.
I’ve written and self-published two novels; one in 2013 and one in 2014. Neither were particularly successful, even for self-published works. (I’ve also published an alphabet picture book, which flopped even worse, and had a political short-story collection published by a small press.) I finished my third novel just last year, and I have been querying agents on it over the last month or two.
I’ve had much less success than usual — even though I didn’t get an agent for the last two books, I used to get some kind of response. Maybe it was just asking to look at the rest of the manuscript. Now all I am getting is form rejection letters. And what I am asking myself, from an HR standpoint, is this: if I’ve really hit my creative decline at age 50, does this mean I’m wasting my time?
I’m starting to think so.
There is of course the good old self-publishing stigma, which isn’t (supposedly) what it once was, but only a fool would say it isn’t still there.
I write kind of slow. Three novels in seven years isn’t going to get anyone excited about representing me, and I get that.
I don’t write series, which hurts you a lot in self-pub and doesn’t help with anything else.
I write in different genres. I went from literary fiction to chick-lit to YA fantasy. I have no explanation for this; it’s just what I decided to write about.
I am old. It is tough to write YA when you’re old.
I am an attorney, and attorneys are famously cranky, and twitchy about contract elements.
I don’t have any kind of social media audience to speak of.
I am not only old, but old and non-telegenic, and a white male Republican in the bargain. (Every single agent, in every single profile, coos about how much they want diverse voices. This is partly to keep them from being eaten alive by the Twitter mobs, which is fine. This is partly because they see value in diversity, which is also fine. And none of this, y’know, is keeping me from getting published, but it sure ain’t helping me none.)
There is a name for everything I just did in that last bullet list, and that name is whining. I know that. (I spend half my life telling my 10-year-old twins to stop whining; I know it when I hear it.) And you shouldn’t whine. But it’s one thing to whine about gatekeepers, and another thing to realize that, you know, maybe there are perfectly reasonable decline-related concerns that an agent might have with respect to an aging and slightly doddering potential client.
So This Is What I Am Going To Do
I’m not querying anymore. Not on this project, probably not on any future ones. (I am still waiting on several responses from agents that I have queried; I’m assuming that they will reject me — although I’m open to discussion if they’re somehow, inexplicably interested.)
I’m going to start looking for a cover artist for the book. I’m going to slap a high-quality cover on it and put it on Amazon, and see how well it does. If it sells well, great, if not, great. I’m not going to worry about it one way or another. (This last sentence is a lie, but I’m going to try anyway.)
I am going to start actively managing my decline — my physical decline, if nothing else. I am going to try to eat better, and exercise, and lose weight — if only to set myself up for an enjoyable retirement. I am going to keep working — at least for a while — to save money for said retirement. I am going to cultivate my family relationships, and maybe seek out ways to serve in my community.
But I’m not going to slink into the forest gladly or gracefully. Decline, as Arthur C. Brooks ought to be able to tell you, is a choice. Senescence and death may be inevitable, but that’s not what we were made for. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, Dylan Thomas said.
Selling books online, you guys, is really, really hard. It’s difficult. I am not saying that it’s impossible, because I’ve sold some books, after all, but it’s not easy and nobody should think that it is.
There’s really three ways to sell books online now. One is to use sites like BookBub to advertise books. But BookBub is very selective (a term which here means that you need more than a little bit of luck to advertise with them) and expensive (although it is TOTALLY WORTH IT). And the other sites aren’t as effective, or they haven’t been for me.
The second way is to build a newsletter. The idea is that people will sign up for your newsletter, and then you can let them know about your new books, and they will buy them. Newsletters are very effective, but it takes work to build them, and I haven’t put that level of work into mine.
The third way — and by far the most common way — is to spam the living hell out of your Twitter feed, day after day. Don’t believe me? Go on Twitter and follow some self-published writers (well, not me, those other people) and you’ll start seeing tweets like this:
Okay, look, I have no beef with Marsha A. Moore, and I have no quarrel with anyone who writes this kind of stuff, or sells it, or reads it. (I picked this at random out of my Twitter feed; could have just as easily been werebear erotica.) I just don’t think this is a very effective way to sell books. I don’t think this because (as a self-published writer on Twitter) I see an absolute ton of these ads, and I never click on any of them. I don’t think most other people do. How do I know this? Well….
So I set up a little experiment. I started sending out tweets which offered a free giveaway (via Instafreebie) on all of my books, in exchange for people signing up for my newsletter.
Note that this tweet does a couple of things. It uses the #free hashtag, because people are cheap. It uses the #romance hashtag, because that’s what two of the books that I’ve written are. And it links to my site, which explains the promotion — basically, what I promise to do here is to send out an e-mail to the newsletter list with links to where you can download the books for free (which I won’t be sharing here).
I sent out similar tweets using HootSuite from January 15 through January 31, an average of five tweets per day. And whenever I had a spare moment, I would go on Twitter and send out a few more, and re-tweet other people who were doing the same thing (with the idea that they would re-tweet my books, you know).
And this was a controlled experiment, as I didn’t do any other marketing on any of the books, because if I did that, then it would skew the results. (You’ll notice that the tweets don’t mention anything about the books other than their genre.)
How did that work out for you, big guy?
Well, over the first week, I had over 20,000 impressions, and 8 clicks on my link, and two subscribers. This is despite having over a hundred retweets. So my subscription average was one in ten thousand, which is sucky, but it’s literally two more subscribers than I thought I would get. (A lot of the retweets were from bots, mostly with “egg” icons that indicate that they’re new or junky Twitter accounts.)
The total over the two weeks was over 45,000 impressions — but I never got any more additional subscribers than just the two. On my single best day, I got 3100 impressions — or a fifth of my actual Twitter following. And that’s with getting over 200 retweets.
Only one tweet got over a thousand impressions, due to 16 retweets. And it didn’t lead to any link clicks, and hence, no sales.
And I should also point out that I didn’t sell any books during this time period — not overly surprising, because I was hyping a giveaway, but still.
So, what have we learned?
Having a lot of Twitter followers just means you have a lot of Twitter followers. It’s a meaningless metric. It doesn’t guarantee you impressions, and impressions don’t guarantee you link clicks, and even link clicks don’t guarantee you sales.
As a result, getting more Twitter followers is like isometric exercise — you don’t get anywhere and it’s not nearly as fun as drinking a cold frosty beverage on a warm tropical beach.
Spammy Twitter posts about books don’t get you anywhere and never will — you almost literally can’t give books away anymore, not on Twitter.
Life is an endless dark void devoid of meaning, riddled with despair and agony.
So I wrote a book. Big whoop. A million or so of your friends and neighbors have already written a book or are writing one or are thinking about them. The difference now is that Kindle Direct Publishing has made it super-easy to get e-books published, so every two-bit hobbyist with a day job is trying his or her hand at joining the ranks of the literary elite.
The problem is that, as it turns out, it’s a lot harder to sell these books than it is to write them. You can have a successful and lucrative career selling self-published books — I’m not saying you can’t — but the simile you always hear is that publishing a self-published book is like buying a lottery ticket, in that the odds of success are just about the same. And, really, the comparison is unfair to lottery tickets, because all you have to do is stroll down to the local bodega here where I am in Trenton, NJ and buy a lottery ticket for a dollar. You have to write a book.
And, with self-published books, sometimes you have to give them away. Every three months (if you’re exclusive with Amazon) you are given five days in which you can give electronic Kindle copies of your book away. Free giveaways can help launch interest in a struggling book, enough to generate some real sales in the days following a giveaway. Giving away lots of copies tends to lead to more reviews, which in turn can help to attract more readers. My book, a humorous contemporary romance novel called WREATHED, hadn’t sold more than a handful of copies in months (outside of a one-day 99-cent promotion that resulted in a hundred sales). It only had 17 reviews on Amazon, most of which were positive. (That is, aside from this one.) I didn’t want to put the book out for free, but I had to do something, and this is what I came up with.
So this is the story of how I gave over twenty-five thousand electronic copies of my book away over five days, and what I learned.
6:48 AM, 7/29/15. INTERIOR. MORNING. MASTER BEDROOM, DUCKTHWACKET, NEW JERSEY.
After my Texas Rangers had, somehow, blown a five-run lead by giving ten runs away to the expletive-deleted Yankees, I made the command decision to go to bed early the night before, which means that I hadn’t done Thing One to promote the first day of free book sales. Normally, I’d at least have ten or twenty spam e-mails set to go on my Twitter account. (I have two Twitter accounts — the semi-normal @Curtis_Edmonds account and the very spammy @ScaryHippoBooks account. Guess which one has ten thousand followers. Guess.)
So when I woke up and crawled my way out of bed, I did what I always do and grabbed my phone to check and see how many books I’d sold overnight. And, really, when you’re not selling a lot of books, there isn’t a more depressing way to start your day, outside of learning that the Yankees went on to drop three touchdowns on the Rangers.
I had, at that point, already given nine books away, and I hadn’t done anything to promote the giveaway. I have no idea how these nine people knew about the promotion when I hadn’t done anything to let anyone know. I checked again over breakfast and it was up to fifteen books given away. My guess is that these people had price alerts set up on Amazon to let them know that the book was free. The overriding lesson in all of this: people are cheap.
12:23 PM, 7/29/15. INTERIOR. AFTERNOON. OFFICE. TRENTON, NEW JERSEY.
I did a few tweets about the book being free in the morning, and shortly after, made the mistake of looking at Twitter Analytics. The one tweet I send out about my book being free got thirty impressions. I did another little snarky tweet about my Dallas Cowboys, directed at Bill Simmons, the ex-ESPN Sports Guy. That tweet got over three thousand impressions. I stand in awe at my Twitter incompetence. I am now at 190 books given away, which is OK but not spectacular. I have to stop myself from looking at my sales dashboard on Amazon and refreshing it every five minutes, because that way lies disappointment.
2:30 PM, 7/29/15. INTERIOR. AFTERNOON. OFFICE.
I am a fan of the thing that noted awful dancer Drew Magary does every year where he previews all the NFL teams — I just finished reading the one on the Atlanta Falcons. The best part of these columns is that he opens them up for contributions from self-hating readers. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to this effort in the past.) What you don’t hear enough of, for my tastes, is self-hating self-publishing testimonials. Because, you know, there is so much room for that kind of thing. At its nadir, WREATHED was something like #477,000 on the Amazon best-seller list, which means that there are, you know, a couple of million people out there whose books have not done so well. God, I bet they have stories to tell. Horrible, horrible stories.
Anyway, I say that to note that I’m now up to 275 units given away, and that puts me fairly high on the Amazon free-Kindle list. (I am not so vain as to say that this makes me an “Amazon Bestseller,” but that doesn’t stop other people.)
The Rangers are batting a little more effectively against the Yankees tonight, and have the early lead. I have done next-to-nothing to promote the book since I’ve been home, and I’m up to 730 free books given away. And tomorrow I have my BookBub promotion, so there’s that.
If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s one of the best ways to promote self-published books. If you’re an author, you can pay BookBub several hundred dollars to promote your discounted book. (It’s about half that for free books.) You want to pay BookBub that money, because they have a very large mailing list of people who have been trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to buy your e-book just as soon as the e-mails hit their in-boxes. There are all sorts of people who will take your money and tell you that they will help you sell your self-published book. BookBub delivers.
The problem is that BookBub will only take your money if it thinks your book is any good. BookBub is unique in that it has self-published authors all over the country lined up at their door to give them money, and BookBub says, “No, thanks, try again next month.” Part of this is because traditional publishers are making inroads on BookBub, and there aren’t as many slots left. But whatever the reason, it’s getting harder to get a BookBub promotion. (I, quite literally, threatened to stand in front of BookBub headquarters with a boom box, playing In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel, the way that John Cusack did in Say Anything, and it worked, although I do not suggest that anyone else try this.) After several rejections, I paid $65 for a spot on the BookBub “chick lit” list for my free book. And sometime tomorrow, BookBub will send out the e-mail, and lots of people will download my book all at once. Or that’s what’s supposed to happen.
9:51 AM, 7/30/15. INTERIOR. MORNING. OFFICE.
So WREATHED is in the top 100 for romance novels on the Amazon list for free books. Okay, it’s at #98, but that still counts. It’s in the top twenty for several of the other sub-lists like contemporary romance and new adult, which is good, because Amazon puts twenty books on each page on the lists. Not only is this helpful, it’s free, which is all to the good. I am still not going to call this an “Amazon bestseller,” because I haven’t sold any books yet, but people do that. We’re at 330 books so far today, which is better than yesterday at this time. I don’t know if the BookBub e-mail has gone out yet, but it’s possible.
10:59 AM, 7/30/15. INTERIOR. MORNING. OFFICE.
Welp, the BookBub e-mail must have gone out, because I gave away just under a thousand books in the last hour. God bless BookBub. Here’s what the spike looks like:
So, why do this? Why give thousands of copies of your e-book away? Well, part of it is that it feels good to have some success. Look at that flat line off to the left. That’s what you’re really looking at most of the time — statistical evidence that nobody is buying your book. It’s nice to have the spike, even if you don’t make any money (I’m actually $65 in the hole with the money I gave to BookBub).
Still. Lookit. And it’s over 1,500 today, just as I am writing this. Two hundred books given away in ten minutes. Wow.
2:01 PM, 7/30/15. EXTERIOR. RUN-DOWN GRUBBY-LOOKING PARKING LOT IN POST-INDUSTRIAL TRENTON, NEW JERSEY.
I went to lunch at Five Guys up in Ewing (they haven’t made it to downtown Trenton yet) and I came back to the office with a barbecue sauce stain on my shirt because this is how I roll. I checked the sales dashboard on my phone in my car before I went back inside. The BookBub e-mail has definitely gone out. I’ve given away over 7200 free books today, and that plus the 800+ from yesterday is over 8,000 books. That’s the power of BookBub, ladies and gentlemen. That’s the Free Machine at work.
I do want to stress that this number is not extraordinary — I want to say I gave away something like 17,000 copies of my first book over five days when it came out in 2013. But it’s still, Good Lord God, a lot of free books.
3:49 PM, 7/30/15. INTERIOR. AFTERNOON. OFFICE.
So it’s now over 9,000 free books today, with over 10,000 total over both days. You’d think that would put me in the top 100 overall, but no. I am still behind classics like Werebear Teacher, which is depressing. The good news is that BookBub has, as usual, written better copy for my book than I have:
Meeting a new boyfriend at a funeral may not be ideal, but Wendy Jarrett can’t help but fall for sexy Adam Lewis. A tricky inheritance situation soon takes them from the graveyard to an old Victorian estate in Cape May in this witty romantic comedy!
Damn, that’s good stuff. That’s worth the $65 right there.
The smart thing to do with BookBub is to let them schedule the dates, because if you ask for a specific date you might get it or you might not, depends. They offered me July 30, which was fine except that we had planned to take our kids to see Elmo and Cookie Monster at Sesame Place on Friday. We’re staying the night at the Sheraton across the street, and I check the sales dashboard on my phone before I got to sleep, and I’ve given away over 15,000 books over three days. I sleep the sleep of the just.
7:15 PM, 7/31/15. EXTERIOR. DAY. PARKING LOT NEAR SESAME PLACE, LANGHORNE, PENNSYLVANIA.
I didn’t have my phone with me (Sesame Place is also a water park) most of the afternoon and couldn’t check sales and anyway it kind of gets old just spouting numbers after a while. The good news — the really, really good news — is that a number of people who downloaded the free copy yesterday are ALSO members of Kindle Unlimited, which means that, thanks to the largess of Jeff Bezos, I get a wonderful, glorious, six-tenths-of-a-penny for every page read from Kindle Unlimited users, and that’s over five thousand pages today. WREATHED has 445 pages (in the “normalized” system), so really that’s only eleven full copies read, but still, that’s at least some money to recoup my costs even if I don’t sell another book next week. I don’t know how much money that translates to exactly yet, but it’s something. (It’s a reason for everyone else to do free giveaways targeted at Kindle Unlimited users.)
4:48 PM, 8/1/15. INTERIOR. DAY. HOME OFFICE.
The number of giveaways have slowed down considerably on the fourth day of the promotion (1600 so far today, down from just under 3750 yesterday). I am pleased — you don’t want to give away too many books, or I don’t think so. I don’t know what a healthy number is. BookBub says that the Chick Lit list (which I used) tends to top out around 14,000 books, and I’ve given away over twenty thousand, which kind of tops that.
The Kindle Unlimited page reads are now up to 14,000 “pages,” which is all to the good, but is really a tiny number compared to the 9.1 million pages I’ve given away so far. And, all of a sudden, there are a lot more people who have added the book to Goodreads — about 70 or so. Three of them have rated the book — one two-star (boo!) — one three star (meh) — and one four-star (what, you couldn’t give it five stars? What’s WRONG WITH YOU?)
11:42 AM, 8/2/15. INTERIOR. MORNING. HOME OFFICE.
My six-year-old twin daughters are hanging out on the couch of my office, amusing themselves by taking my Texas Longhorns hat on and off my head (tolerable) and grabbing the back of my chair and yanking it (STOP THAT). On the last day of the promotion, giveaways are winding down. Only 800 so far today — about as many as in the first day of the promotion. The good news is that the Kindle Unlimited results have been stellar — seven thousand yesterday, five thousand so far today. (Oddly, it’s split about evenly between America and the UK.)
I am writing this paragraph on the laptop that I wrote the book on, as though that makes a difference. The numbers today are… I hate to sound positive, after years of being a professional negative person, but they’re swell.
I only gave away two thousand e-books today (putting the total up to twenty-five thousand total), but, holy cats you guys, I had thirteen thousand KU page reads, which translates to 78 dollars if — and this is a BIG if — the sixth-tenths-of-a-cent payout is accurate. (The rest of the world and I will find this out on August 15.) This is still not a lot of money (I paid more than that today for this backpack), but nothing to sneeze at, either.
10:12 AM, 8/3/15. INTERIOR. MORNING. OFFICE.
The final tally:
America — 19,165 free books
United Kingdom — 5,911 free books
Canada — 100 free books
The rest of the world (mostly Germany)— 291 free books
TOTAL: 25,467 free books given away by me.
And in terms of ROI:
Cost of BookBub promotion: $65
37,712 Kindle Unlimited pages read (at six-tenths of one cent): $226.27
TOTAL ROI so far (without selling one book): 348%
It’s actually more than that, as I’ve sold ten books today (they are not showing up in my Amazon royalties for reasons I don’t quite understand, but still. (And I got the nice blurb out of it.)
So what have we learned, if anything?
It is definitely worth your money to pay BookBub to help give your books away. (Assuming you can get a slot, and assuming you have a nice cover and a good blurb.)
In the age of Kindle Unlimited, you may make a great deal more giving books away than you used to, depending on how much Amazon actually pays per page.
People are cheap. This really can’t be stressed enough. People are cheap. And that’s what makes the Free Machine run.
Curtis Edmonds is the author of WREATHED (well, duh, as if you hadn’t figured that out by now), RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, and LIES I HAVE TOLD. He is a frequent contributor to McSWEENEY’S INTERNET TENDENCY. Other works have appeared at Untoward Magazine, Yankee Pot Roast, The Big Jewel, and the Tulane Maritime Law Journal. He works as a civil-rights attorney in the crumbling ruins of downtown Trenton, New Jersey.