2020 Writing Roundup & 2021 Plans

Mike GristWriting, Yearly Writing Update Leave a Comment

I said it last year for the 2019 roundup and I’ll say it again here – this was the biggest year of my writing career so far, with 4 audiobooks out, ad spend up, pre-orders climbing, 2 new Wren releases and pretty regular income of $100-$200 a day.

3 major efforts defined the year:

  1. Getting Wren on genre

Much of 2020 was spent learning just what I’d written with Christopher Wren, learning to market it, and then getting over various major downers that threw the whole series into doubt.

I’ve said it countless times through the year in different ways (covers, blurbs, text), but in sum – I thought I’d written a Jack Reacher/Mark Dawson-like vigilante justice thriller series, when in fact I’d written a dark terrorism thriller.

There’s a big difference. I put on a Jack Reacher cover (last year), aped a Jack Reacher blurb, set the expectation as small town shenanigans, then marketed that. It led to countless bad reviews complaining about the violence and dark tone. So I acted, often circling back and acting again, fine-tuning, scrapping, re-starting:

  • New covers twice, for the whole series. That’s still happening now.
  • New blurbs repeatedly, moving darker, more terrorism, more violence.
  • Overhaul of all series books to grade down the more extreme violence, swearing and downer deaths, and make Wren a little lighter and more likeable.

Has it worked?

I can say with some certainty that it has:

  • Of the last 20 reviews for book 1 on Amazon 14 were 4/5 star and 10 were 5-star.
  • None of these reviews, whether positive or negative, mention the violence or unlikeability of Wren. A few people say they don’t get it – I think these were people turned off by the book’s politics, because I know it makes sense. That’s par for the course with a social justice warrior hero like Wren.
  • Readthrough to book 2 is up. Early in the year it was around 15%. Later in the year it’s 30%+. That’s far from great, but until I get some feedback I can use, I won’t make any further changes. I am finding readers who like it.
  • More people say they like Wren, would like to fight alongside him.

Moving forward, I have my best covers yet – really competitive with the top in the genre. I hope conversions will thus rise, making ad spend more effective.

So what were the downers?

Around mid-year I entered a slump, disappointed when I first discovered how poor that readthrough was (15%). Should I even continue writing Wren books if no one was reading them through? Why write book 5 or further if so few were even reading book 2?

This doubt swallowed me for a few months. I hashed out a whole other series with a similar, but way more likeable hero, and wrote 10,000 words getting it started. I re-worked Wren when I could figure things out – which was aided somewhat by getting 2 beta readers of 5iverr to assess Saint Justice.

Basically, they loved it. They had few improvements to offer.

I then went to get some more reviews from blog tour companies. One organizer in particular, Damp Pebbles, led to a flood of in-depth, incredible reviews, some dizzyingly so. These readers really engaged and really loved Wren.

So, whuh? Had I really whiffed the genre targeting so much?

All that gave me a big confidence boost. The books are good. I pushed on with book 5. Next up is 6, then 7, and we’ll see where things go from there.

On the whole, it’s been an incredible rollercoaster of a year in genre learning.

2. Audiobook production

Producing all 4 Wren books in audio took a huge amount of time (in proof-listening and editing) and money this year. I spent approx $2000 per book for my excellent narrator, so that’s an $8000 outlay – all just about covered by profits.

Without the audiobooks I would’ve made $8000 profit approx. That’s amazing. With them, I came out even – because for whatever reason, these audiobooks have not sold. Depressingly, book 4 has sold barely a handful of copies.

Ouch. What to learn from this?

The first lesson is to not make any more Wren audiobooks until I can sell the current ones. Along with the new ebook covers, I’ll get new audiobook covers too. Maybe this will help. I can’t really change the text though, as I did with the ebooks to make Wren more likeable. If you’re listening, you’re getting the much darker version.

Maybe that puts people off. They’re not listening through. I’m content to chalk this one up. Next time I consider audiobook, I’ll definitely wait longer to really finalize the most profitable version of the text.

I thought I’d waited long enough when I did these, but I guess not. Will new audiobook covers make a difference? It’ll just be a bonus going forward.

3. $100+ daily ad spend

I’m sold on the concept that you have to spend daily money to make money in fiction ebooks these days.

In the old days you could run one big promo list boost and coast it for weeks/months. Put your book on free was enough. These days the competition is far fiercer. If they’re spending, you have to spend too.

So I did. I’ve tried Facebook, Amazon and Bookbub ads for years, but rarely spending substantial sums per day. This year I cranked that up. For a few months I was dropping $100+ a day on Facebook ads, and making modest profits back. 10% returns and the like.

Not great, but you’d take a 10% return on a financial investment in a snap. Way better than putting it in a bank at 0.1% interest or less. Far from great, but not losing money.

In the process I went deep on Amazon ads. I tried Machete for managing thousands of keywords, and Prestozon for boiling that down to dozens, then on and off again. I figured out how to place my books precisely on competitors’ book pages, but all this was to no avail. I only lost money on Amazon ads.

Same with Bookbub ads.

Only Facebook has given me a consistent return. It’s where I spend all my budget, unless I’m experimenting with Amazon.

An interesting point about the big ad spend is that, while it’s incredibly nerve-wracking at first to consistently spend $100+ a day, as long as you’re making at least that much back, you get used to it. It’s fine, really. On days you lose out, though, it’s very uncomfortable.

2020 lessons

So here are my lessons in sum:

  • Genre is everything. Indies can’t sell literary or off-genre. They have to draft behind genre styles, tropes, covers and motifs trail-blazed by big publishers with big marketing budgets and movie deals. Your book has to fit or it’ll be tossed.
  • Audiobooks are a losing proposition (at least without the above lessons fully applied).
  • Facebook ads work. Amazon doesn’t.

2021 plans

My plans for 2021 are pretty simple, because I’m on a glidepath already and just need to ramp it up.

  • Write Wren book 6 and 7, then write book 1 of another thriller series and see where we are.
  • Market via Facebook.

That’s pretty much it. I may tinker with enlivening a Facebook fan page for Wren, but that seems like a lot of work for maybe not much reward (fan engagement). I’ll definitely keep experimenting with Amazon ads, but without much expectation. I’ll make box sets and apply for Bookbubs, but that’s all very standard stuff.

Ultimate goal is, as ever to make replacement money. After replacement money, I go 10x! Maybe I would write my learnings about genre into the non-fic book I started a year ago, back when I thought I’d hit on a gold mine (it evaporated).

All right. Let’s get on with it!

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