• tarahthornburg

Evolve or Die: What Being a Writer Looks Like for Me in 2019

Ever had one of those days when someone asks you how you’re doing and you find yourself blurting out your whole life story? Last Tuesday was one of those days.

I started out writing a blog post about how to use freelance income to supplement fiction income, but it quickly morphed into something else. At first, I wanted to give some advice for those of you who were growing your fiction side hustle and wanted to transition out of your day job. But as I started writing about freelancing, I realized there was a more important lesson I could share: a lesson about the life of a career writer in 2019 and a specific requirement of creative entrepreneurship that people often ignore.

That requirement is evolution. If you aren’t willing to evolve, you aren’t going to be able to make a career as a writer today. (You probably won’t make it as a creative entrepreneur period, but this post is specifically about being a writer.)

This lesson came to be in an unexpected way when I took up some freelancing projects once again. Some of you may know that I used freelance income to transition from my 9-to-5 back in 2015. It’s a fantastic way to create another stream of income and pad out your cash flow when you’re working on your passion projects. And there are plenty of people for whom being a full-time freelancer is the end goal.

Freelancing is great. It offers totally flexible hours. You get to work for yourself. You’re location independent, and the money can be good. You don’t get any of the benefits that come with having a day job (like healthcare, paid leave, or co-workers to keep you company), but you also don’t have any of the bullshit that comes with a 9-to-5 (like commutes, office hours, managers, and the dreaded breakroom chitchat). You can’t always control the amount of work you get from a single client, but if you don’t like that client, you can let them go.

What’s odd is that very few people ever talk about freelancing in the indie author community. The focus of the community is mostly on escaping the day job, writing faster, and earning more money from books.

Nobody really talks about what happens after an author leaves the day job.

Most of us who go full-time with our author business either bow out of the discussion boards altogether or become professional advice-givers. There aren’t a lot of honest conversations happening publicly about the stresses and struggles of keeping a business stable and sustainable in an ever-changing publishing landscape.

I always appreciate when the old-guard indies talk about having multiple streams of income and practicing long-term thinking. These people have been in the game long enough to have witnessed all the huge changes that have taken place since the launch of the Kindle. And the fact that they’re still here (rather than going extinct like many of the Kindle Gold Rushers did) means that they have learned to adapt and evolve.

These people have perspective, which is why they are some of the only people I continue to listen to. I’m not interested in hanging around the Facebook groups where people are either wringing their hands over algorithm changes and cursing Amazon or sharing screenshots of their sales data.

At this stage in my career, I’m only interested in the practical aspects of growing my author business sustainably, diversifying my income streams, and getting to a place where I can spend all my time on creating rather than marketing and admin.

So Let’s Talk About Misplaced Focus

Let me be clear: I love the indie author community. Nowhere else will you find a group of people who are more helpful, supportive, and determined. I have met so many wonderful authors — both on the Internet and in person — who have had a huge impact on my career and helped me get to where I am today.

But I think the community has a big problem with “shiny object syndrome.” What I mean is that indie authors as a community tend to be easily distracted by algorithm changes, what ad platforms are working today, and the relative hotness of certain genres. There’s also a huge focus on leaving the day job, which you won’t find in the broader entrepreneurial circle. (I was immersed in the startup world for years, and this is just not talked about very much.)

But in the author community, there is a lot of cache that comes with earning a living from your books and nothing else. (Tell someone you are a full-time author, and you’re guaranteed to get lots of oohs and ahhs at any writing conference.)

I’ve been a full-time author since 2015, and I’ve taken a lot of pride in that. But recently I’ve begun to consider myself more of a creative entrepreneur. I’m not just an author anymore — and that is by design. I still feel like I can give advice on those who want to be *just* an author, but that’s not the path I’m on at the moment.

What follows might read a bit like a confession, and I’m okay with that. I’m not an Internet marketer and I’m not an Instagram star. I’m a real person, and real people change. In fact, the only constant in life is change. Our lives change. Our priorities change. And market conditions change.

Big Changes Mean It’s Time to Evolve

One of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed in the last two years is the “pay to play” nature of platforms like Facebook to Amazon. Content creators are seeing their organic reach diminish rapidly on both of these platforms. Both Facebook and Amazon now want creators to pay for visibility (i.e., use their paid ad platforms), and the cost of visibility is increasing.

Last year, I realized that my book income (read: only income) had come to depend more on my ad spend than the quality of my books or the frequency of my releases.

At first, I was paying a wonderful author friend of mine to manage my ads, but I was beginning to see diminishing returns. It wasn’t her fault. Facebook was becoming more saturated all the time, and my ads were losing their effectiveness.

I was getting frustrated because I found I had to continually spend more on ads to generate the same amount of revenue, and I could no longer afford to keep paying for ad spend and someone to manage those ads. At the same time, there were key investments I wanted to make in my business but couldn’t afford. I wanted to drop five or six grand on audiobooks, but I didn’t want to dip into my savings because my husband and I were entrenched in a major life change.

This year we broke ground on a house. My husband a carpenter by trade with twenty years of construction experience under his belt, and he now invests in real estate. So when we came into a piece of property intending to flip it and fell in love with it instead, he decided that he would take the year to build our house in the mountains…with his own bare hands.

Naturally, this has been an incredible (and educational) life experience. We’re looking at a total shift in our lifestyle from city dwellers to homesteaders (goats willing). I’m so excited I can’t even stand it, but it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows.

For the last nine months, we’ve been living mostly on my book income and what my husband has made in equities investments. And building a house is expensive — even when you take the DIY approach.

As much as I loved wearing my full-time-author-don’t-need-nobody-else badge around, the financial pressure was beginning to take a toll on my happiness. I hate creating and managing paid ads. (I’m not very good at it, but it’s become necessary to sustain my income.) I decided that I would almost rather be doing anything else — which is how I came to the realization that I needed to change my revenue model.

Right now, there are two revenue models that work really well for fiction: rapid release (releasing a book roughly every 30 to 60 days) and regular release plus paid ads (releasing a book every three to six months and driving traffic with paid ads).

Now I don’t fancy writing a book a month, and I don’t like ads. So this means I needed to find a different revenue model — one that would allow me to make greater use of my core competencies.

My New Revenue Model

What I settled on was a model that reduced the percentage of business income coming from digital book sales. This means diversifying my streams of income so that fiction can be pure fun again and I can spend less time poring over ads.

Of course, I was already coaching to supplement my income. But for an introvert like me, there are only so many hours in a week that I can devote energetically to collaborating with other people. I have audiobooks and print books, and I am looking to invest heavily in audio over the next two years.

This quarter, I’ve made serious strides toward developing premium educational content for authors in the form of an online course, but I also wanted to free up some bandwidth to work on passion projects like my nonfiction book (coming soon). So I made the decision to take on some select freelance work once again.

I’ll be honest: It wasn’t an easy decision for me. For the last few years I’ve really enjoyed working for no one else but myself. I am a big advocate of creating intellectual property assets that can continue to earn you income for years (rather than being paid once for projects that will never earn you income again).

I also felt a certain amount of pride in being able to feel as though I was “making it” as a full-time sci-fi author. But the reality of being a full-time author these days includes a lot of non-writing activities, and writing is what I’m best at and what I enjoy the most.

I realized the choice “to freelance or not to freelance” came down to a choice between pride and happiness.

The Made-Up Story My Ego Was Telling Me

When I say it was a choice between pride and happiness, I mean that it was a choice between hanging onto my pride of doing what I’d always done and changing things in a way that would allow me to make more money and therefore be happier. Yes, I know people say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but at a certain level it does. Money buys financial security, the freedom to travel and eat out, and a relief from constant financial worries when one is, say, building a house on 40 acres.

And really, the feeling of pride I thought I was protecting was completely made-up. It was my ego talking. Because let’s face it: Nobody except me cares that I’m able to earn 100 percent of my income from selling digital books.

My ego had also made up a false narrative that I was completely independent — that I relied on nothing and no one for my income.

In truth, I had become very dependent on single entity for my income — that entity just happened to be Amazon rather than an employer. This is the cautionary tale that Joanna Penn talks at length about on her podcast — especially when she espouses the benefits of “going wide” versus being “exclusive” with her books and when she talks to guests like Yaro Starak. (See his interview where he talks about the three phases of freedom.)

If you dig in further to my psyche here, you’ll see that I really had to make the choice of sticking with the status quo or evolving. At the time, it didn’t feel like evolving. It felt like giving in, giving up…failing. I worried that I wouldn’t be a “real author” if I had additional streams of income. At least I wouldn’t be a real full-time author.

I know this might sound stupid, but just bear with me…

Here’s What’s Real

The truth is that I angsted over writing this post because I felt as though it might make me look bad. I kept thinking about how this could discredit me as a writing coach or make me look as though I didn’t know what I was doing.

But I decided to write it anyway because I think there’s an element of transparency that’s missing from a lot of conversations around writing and creative entrepreneurship. One of my core values is honesty, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to contribute to the collective insanity. So here’s the truth…

People on the Internet are happy to share their successes: clever marketing tactics, how they’ve grown their email list to 10 zillion people…how they made $100,000 in a month.

People are less apt to share when they reach a point that they can’t afford their ad spend or where they feel that their current revenue model isn’t working for them. (The ads are running them rather than the other way around.)

People rarely share their dark suspicions that the current pay-to-play environment isn’t sustainable for the little guys.

And they almost never share the hard decisions they’ve had to make to support their business and their family until they’ve made it to the other side and turned it into an inspirational story. (I was broke, and then I made a change to my business and netted a million dollars last year…If I can do it, so can you!)

But you know what I want more than bragging rights? I want the freedom to write books on my own schedule.

I want the opportunity to take on new (and risky) creative challenges.

I want the freedom to create content that’s free (like the blog and the podcast) without that little voice telling me that I should be creating content I can monetize.

I want to spend less time creating ads and more time writing.

And I want the financial wiggle room to invest in audiobooks and the occasional decadent night out with my husband.

And you know what? Stepping into new (and old) streams of income has been freeing. It’s like being able to turn on a tap and have money come out rather than spending all day creating new ads and staring at a drippy faucet.

Next year, I’ll be proud to report that only a percentage of my income came from fiction books because I will have made my business more stable and more sustainable. I’ll be able to tell you (quite confidently) that it doesn’t matter what Amazon or Facebook does because I am only dependent on them for X percent of my income.

If I lose anyone because they’re only interested in the latest publishing trends or what’s working on Amazon or how to make six figures by writing books alone, then that’s okay because that’s not what I do.

I’m a creative entrepreneur who wants to have honest conversations about the lifestyle — the ups and downs, the breakthroughs, the mistakes. It’s about making a living doing what you love — yes — but it’s also about doing more living and loving your life. And for me, that means making changes to my business so I can write more, market less, and not worry about it. That’s what’s real.

Yes, things change fast. So stay tuned. Keep on reading, and I’ll keep writing about what I’m doing and what I’ve learned.

Photo by Ross Findon

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