Remember that monster list last week, of things we still have to do this year to prepare for the next one?
We’ve made major progress already. But we want another week of work behind us before we meet on the list and share that list with you.
This week we’re doing something different — a guest post from Johnny (open to everyone) where we talk about the nine lessons we learned this year.
Good stuff. Here’s Johnny!
Last year, 1.5 million words or so hit the market with my name on them. This year, the same thing happened.
Sean and Dave, working in various combinations with me or without me, produced like maniacs.
Sterling & Stone, as a bona-fide entity rather than just a name on paperwork somewhere, came to fruition. We wrote a book live. We grew to six publishing imprints. We worked our faces off … and, in the process, learned a whole lot of lessons.
Here are the highlights. May your holidays be grand and your learning curves be a bit shorter than ours.
LESSON #1: There Is A Time For Production And A Time For Promotion
We sorta learned this lesson right off the bat as 2013 began. See, truth be told we didn’t try very hard to sell stuff in 2013. We wanted to produce … and speaking from the Realm & Sands and LOL sides of the coin (that’s me and Sean), we did that in spades. We closed a dozen product funnels, completing either first seasons or complete arcs in all of them.
We knew we wanted to produce first (2013) and then promote all we’d produced (2014). Two tasks, discreetly separated. It was a good idea, and we still believe it. But because we’re squirrels, we ended up all over the place. It might have been more sensible to book a bit more direct promotion earlier so we had focus, but we didn’t. We were all over the place. We had a ton of stuff to promote, but it took us until the middle of the year to settle down enough to start doing it right.
Which is maybe a good segue to head into the next point.
LESSON #2: Blogging Works … If You Do It Right
We wasted a TON of time in the early part of this year blogging. Now pay attention there: We’re not saying that blogging is a waste; we’re saying that we wasted time doing it. That’s because we had no idea what to do. We blogged at RealmAndSands.com for months, hitting huge, “epic” blog posts every week. They took an assload of time to write, and nobody shared them. We never hit critical mass. All that work was kind of for nothing.
The problem wasn’t that blogging, in and of itself, was a waste. The problem was that it was either misaligned or that we had a bad work-to-results ratio. Probably both.
For nonfiction authors, blogging is a great way to attract readers. You’re talking about facts and solving problems in your books, and you can do the same on a blog. We could do that all day long for the Self-Publishing Podcast audience, but we have five fiction imprints and only one nonfiction imprint. We wanted to sell more fiction. The nonfiction, thanks to our podcast and list, was already selling fine.
Blogging can work for fiction authors, but we were pouring WAY, WAY too much time into it and still missing the mark. Readers of our fiction may, yes, have wanted those insightful, epic blog posts. But more likely, they probably wanted behind the scenes content about our writing, extra stories, and more — what Sean calls the “DVD extras” of blogging.
So that’s what we’ve done here on Sterling & Stone: we’re taking content that’s simpler to produce and better aligned with reader expectations and desires (blog-based serials and development diaries like this one) and that — and this is key — is easy for us to produce. I write a development diary every day. It takes 15 minutes, versus the hours I spent on those long posts early in the year.
Now, we won’t claim to have blogging all figured out for Sterling & Stone, in part because we’re trying to do a ton of stuff with one blog. But it’s okay that we’re not there yet because we’ve focused a ton this year on “iterative improvement” — something you’ll see in the last lesson on this list.
LESSON #3: Email Marketing Is Critical And Autoresponders Are King
I’m doing these in a way that hopefully flows logically, but for my money, this is the NUMBER ONE lesson of 2014.
I feel so incredibly stupid for ignoring email marketing as much as we did this year. Sean and I, who come out of the marketing world, know better. We’re always talking about the importance of building an email list, and before we combined forces and apparently became stupid, we both knew that specific sequences of emails, sent at certain times, will drive sales and promotion like nothing else.
For a large part of the year, I ignored sending out email blasts to our list because I figured Sean had it, and I tried not to bug him because he was so busy. Sean, correspondingly, ignored email because he was too busy to hit it. And as a result, we promoted very, very little. That was stupid.
It wasn’t until our Platinum Reader subscription price was due to go up that I said, “Hey, Sean, shouldn’t we send out an email to at least LET PEOPLE KNOW THIS PRODUCT EXISTS before raising the price?” He was too busy, so I just fucking wrote the email to get it out of the way, figuring he could deal if I was meddling.
And guess what? People joined. They emailed us to say how happy they were to hear from us, and how much they liked the Platinum Reader idea.
Then, when we launched Axis of Aaron, we sent some more emails. And guess what? People bought it.
Sean and I know how to email, and we’ll be talking about it a lot more. The biggest ninja thing in the works that we’ve known was ESSENTIAL to selling our work (both fiction and nonfiction) was an intelligent email autoresponder series — a series of emails that go out to new subscribers automatically, over time, after they join your list, to “catch them up” and let them know about what you have available.
We expect this simple strategy (but not an easy one; it’s a lot of work) to revolutionize our fiction marketing in 2015. For more on that, keep reading this blog.
LESSON #4: Competition Is Excellent
Now, if you don’t know us and how we think, you might look at Joanna and David’s websites and say, “But they’re your competition! Do you really want to take your $5.99 book, bundle it with theirs, and find yourself giving away more than 2/3 of that HUGE 30-cents-per-sale profit?
Because Joanna and David aren’t really our competition. We don’t believe in competition, because people interested in most things don’t read one book and then say, “Okay, now I know it all.” A reader of David’s blog might like to listen to our podcast … and shockingly not stop reading David’s blog! And so on, sarcastically.
We think that teaming up with smart people is intelligent, not a bad move. We can learn from them and they can learn from us. We promote together, and that makes all of us stronger.
LESSON #5: Good Ideas Are A Dime A Dozen
If you’re new to us and don’t know about Fiction Unboxed, here’s the scoop: We spent June of this year writing a book live, in front of an audience, in response to our listeners’ and readers’ requests to know more about the writing process that allowed Sean and me to publish 1.5 million words in 2013.
But we didn’t just write and publish a book live, in 30 days. We actually did it starting from scratch. On Day One, with the clock ticking and 1000 people watching, we began our first meeting with absolutely no idea what story we’d tell. We didn’t know our plot, our characters, our genre, our concept … anything. We wanted to prove that ideas could be pulled out of nowhere and turned into huge worlds and satisfying stories. And as the 100,000-word book that became The Dream Engine unfolded in front of our audience’s eyes, that’s exactly what happened.
LESSON #6: Speak To Your Tribe
We funded Fiction Unboxed via Kickstarter, because we thought the idea was big enough to warrant mass appeal. I mean, who’d written a novel from scratch, in 30 days, in front of a live audience, with nothing held back, with the aim of “demystifying storytelling” before? We wanted to shake the rafters, and that meant crowdfunding.
Or so we thought.
We made a lot of mistakes in our Kickstarter, and we wrote a post all about it here. Now, we’re not complaining at all. The project was a huge success, but that didn’t happen because it was on Kickstarter. It happened because our loyal, amazing tribe of readers and podcast listeners showed up and joined in. Running that Kickstarter campaign was a huge, HUGE amount of work, and we drove most of the traffic to it ourselves.
In other words, we ended up speaking to the people whose attention we already had. We could have used only 10% of the effort we did by just selling Fiction Unboxed direct and gotten 90% of the results, no exaggeration. Next time we’ll speak to our crowd first and worry about others only as a distant second.
LESSON #7: Don’t Be Afraid To Trim Your Tribe
You want to know who your friends are? Run a Kickstarter campaign.
We lost a handful of people when we did Fiction Unboxed. Not a ton, but they were a loud minority. Most of our tribe loved the idea or at least tolerated it, even if they didn’t join in. But some people HATED it. They thought we were being sleazy, scammy, or both. They thought we over-promoted it … and you know what? Maybe we did. We were excited, and most of the S&S/SPP tribe was excited too. But we lost some people because of our decision to take that risk, and in the end, we’re all okay with it.
All artists should be okay with trimming their tribes — of alienating some people in order to do something bold enough to make your Truest Fans love you that much more. Bold art is the only art worth making. Bland art — the kind that will offend nobody and not trim the tribe at all — is droll and predictable, and truly pushes no boundaries.
LESSON #8: Every Strategy Can (And Maybe Should) Serve Multiple Masters
One more lesson from Fiction Unboxed before we move on: for everything you do, there’s usually a way to get several assets or uses from it if you plan carefully.
Although we loved doing Fiction Unboxed in the end, we went into the idea kicking and screaming. We want to be fiction writers, not nonfiction guys. Yet it was hard to ignore the call for a follow-up to our bestselling Write. Publish. Repeat. — a call that loudly asked, “BUT HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL?”
In the end, the only thing that got us to do FU (aside from the accidental hilarity of its acronym) was the fact that we wouldn’t actually be writing a nonfiction book. Instead, we’d be teaching a nonfiction lesson while writing fiction.
Stop for a second and think about all we got from Fiction Unboxed, from an assets standpoint:
There was the project itself, which helped a lot of writers and brought us a nice chunk of income. Then there was the novel we produced: The Dream Engine. Then we wrote a nonfiction book about the process of writing live — a far simpler and affordable way for people to take it in, also called Fiction Unboxed— which, by the way, ended up being a legit sequel to Write. Publish. Repeat.for all the lessons it contained.
That doesn’t even count the open “Engine World” story world that many authors are promoting, the follow-up Fiction Unboxed 1.5 (still going on right now as this post runs, in which we wrote the second and third books in theDream Engine series), all of the publicity those things gave us, and so on.
Every time we do something, we ask, “What else can this do for us, if we look at it carefully?”
We’ll write short stories as exclusives, then bundle them later into a for-sale collection. We’ll have company meetings … but then record them and use them for the Authorpreneur’s Almanac. We’ll soon begin blogging here, knowing those blog posts will later combine to form a nonfiction book. The ideas are endless.
The answer doesn’t always show up in the form of extra products, by the way. Which leads us to …
LESSON #9: Everything You Do Should Iteratively Improve
We’ve all said “iterative” so many times this year that the word has lost all meaning (try saying it ten times now. See?). But we do believe that small changes, neverending, over time, is the way that all great things are built. We always, always want to be a little better today than we were yesterday. We want to learn something from each project that makes us better in the next one.
After we finished Fiction Unboxed — which forced us to contort ourselves into strange new shapes in order to fit the project’s constraints — we came out the other side smarter, with a bunch of new habits that we carried forward.
Immediately after finishing The Dream Engine, Sean and I started work on our most ambitious project to date: a trippy, literary mindbender called Axis of Aaron. And as difficult as The Dream Engine was to write with its shifting reality, Axis was far harder. But luckily, Fiction Unboxed had shown us the advantages of Sean editing right behind my first-draft writing so we could meet to quickly untangle our trickiest issues. We’d adopted the habit of recording story meetings so Unboxers could hear them, but in Axis, the fact that I could go back and listen to recorded meetings on that project helped me untangle knots. We’d also learned a few “just in case” safeguards to our Dropbox and file protection protocols during Unboxed, and those have saved our asses a few times since. And don’t even get me started on the writing muscle we’d gained from doing Unboxed at a sprint, analyzing all we’d been taking for granted.
Never be satisfied. You are a writer and you own a business. Always look for small, steady (and sometimes maddeningly slow) ways to improve both. Never be afraid to fix what’s not broken, because even good things can be made better.
Those are just a few of the highlights because boy howdy, we learned a lot this year. And because we believe so firmly in the last one on the list (iterative improvement), there’s really no question we’ll learn a bunch of new lessons this year. So be sure to stay tuned … 2015 is going to be one hell of a ride around here!
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