Choices for New Writers on a Budget

2020 has become a year of change. As a creative, it’s smart to be forward-looking, especially now.

Budget choices for new authorsThat’s why I’ve been studying trends that may show what we can expect in the new “normal.”

It’s also why I’ve been tinkering with my websites, which may have seemed confusing to people who don’t know me in real life.

For me, the foundation comes first. (I also design my book cover before I start writing a story. It’s a visual cue about the tone of the story.)

My business model shift may appear subtle, but – actually – the cumulative changes are pretty big. For me, this is exciting.

And, as an author, I’ve been studying what’s changed – and still changing – in 2020.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

2020’s ups and downs

Some of my friends are thriving. They’ve written consistently good books, and their stories (and characters) keep improving, tracking with shifts in reader expectations. Those authors have loyal fans who read everything they publish, and then tell their friends about those books.

One of those friends is cozy mystery author Leighann Dobbs. She’s still earning a very comfortable five figures per month as an indie author. So, if you’re wondering what’s possible… she’s a great example.

Other writing friends had good book incomes for a few years. The problem is, they’d built their indie publishing businesses on a variation of the “just in time” model. I’m not convinced that’s sustainable as we move into the new normal. Some of those authors are seeing their book incomes decline.

Several authors are trying to replace lost book income by offering training and coaching. Unfortunately, most are basing those courses on their own past successes.

Right now, I’m seeing radical shifts from month to month. What worked well a month ago may be “shifting sands” by the end of this year.

If you’re considering buying a course or coaching, make sure you’re making a wise investment.

The first big red flag

Early in August 2020, a friend mentioned a very expensive training package offered by a couple of people whose website I’d linked to, and raved about.

I was stunned. Kind of horrified, too. I mean, my enthusiasm may have suggested I trusted everything they did.

I don’t.

Yes, the free info in those writers’ articles can be great. I’ve kept one of their how-to books on the bookshelf next to my desk. I like them, personally.

But in this economy, anything costing money had better be worth the price. (That’s why I listed so many free resources in Budget Resources for Frugal Writers.)

The price tag on what they’re selling now…? It’s far higher than I’d expected.

I wondered, “Is this a fair price? Do people really pay that much for this kind of training?”

So, over the past week, I did some research.

When I saw the numbers, well… The word “shock” doesn’t begin to explain how I felt.

The ugly truth

My biggest mistake: I’d assumed those two authors were making great money from their books. After all, they talked like they did.

So, I researched their incomes, first.

Note: I used KDSpy (a browser plugin) for my research. It gives me a general idea of how much an author is earning at Amazon, as well as which book categories are competitive at the moment.

When I saw how little those two authors were earning, it was a shock.

One of them is earning around $500 from books sold through Amazon.  (I wish that was a typo, but it’s not.)

The other is earning about $2500 a month from his Amazon books.

While $2500/month is nice, it’s not impressive.

But what about other authors’ training and coaching? Could I recommend alternatives to my friends?

Uh-oh…

To see what other authors were doing, I searched Google for “authors offering courses.”

And then I checked those authors’ Amazon incomes.

I was stunned.

Case #1

The first course I found was by an author with several highly praised novels . This author offers training that starts at $500. Additional courses and coaching cost significantly more.

The author’s Amazon income is around $500 per month.

Case #2

Another “acclaimed author” can be your coach in a series of courses. Several cost over $300. Some are four figures.

The problem is, that author’s monthly Amazon sales are around $270, and only one book is ranked less than 1,000,000.  (That means the author isn’t selling even one copy, per day.)

Case #3

This author is selling training costing over $3,000. However, the author uses multiple pen names and reveals none of them. I see lots of boasts about income, but nothing to back it up.

Worse, as I’m reading between the lines (no pun intended), this author uses a popular, pulp-style business model. It relies on lots of readers paying for shallow, predictable stories.

For many writers, that’s not a sustainable or satisfying career.

I think you get the point, and – by then – I was so depressed, I quit studying the “authors offering courses” marketplace.

If you still want to pay an author to teach you to write and publish books, here are my thoughts…

Where’s the beef?

Long ago, a delightful TV commercial featured a cranky little granny staring at a hamburger on a plate. Then, looking at the tiny meat patty inside , she demanded, “Where’s the beef?”

In other words, does the product match the sales pitch?

When buying any course, look for proof that your instructor is currently earning an income you aspire to.

I don’t mean testimonials, and I don’t mean screenshots of a few students’ earnings.

I mean the author’s own income. That’s something you should verify for yourself… if he/she/they are willing to show you what’s behind the curtain.

Yes, that’s a Wizard of Oz reference. Did you know Baum got the name “Oz” from the label on the lowest drawer of his filing cabinet? Really. The drawer was for files with titles O through Z.

Some of Baum’s other books included The Magical Monarch of Mo, named for his M-O file drawer. (I love trivia like this.)

Here’s how “due diligence” works when you’re looking at authors’ courses and coaching:

  • Confirm that the author is currently earning the kind of money you aspire to.
  • Confirm that the author’s income isn’t in a steep decline. ($10k/month might look great to you now, but what if the author had been earning $50k/month just a few months ago?)
  • Be sure he/she/they are currently making money using the same techniques you’ll be taught in the course. Be sure nothing is held back.
  • Make certain you have more than enough resources (time, money, and creative motivation) to follow the author’s business model. There will be up-front expenses and trial-and-error losses during the first few months.

Is this sounding too scary?

Maybe it should, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your dreams of being a published, successful author.

For example, I did find one author who’s steadily shared his royalty statements, pen names, and his most successful sub-genres. Regularly, he’s practically given away his best “trade secrets,” too.

In a normal economy, I’d recommend his training and community in a heartbeat.

But I’m not sure anyone knows what the new “normal” is going to be for indie publishing. And, at a time when many people are putting their day-to-day expenses on credit cards…

Maybe it’s best to look for other options.

The answer is something you’ll find in greater supply than you might imagine: Free tips, advice, and training by successful authors.

Generous authors

Some authors realize that,  because they’re successful, they can afford to help the others.

And they do.

Chris Fox comes to mind. I admire him. He’s helped so many aspiring authors with his “20 Books to $50k” writing and publishing advice (Facebook group),  his how-to books, and his YouTube videos.

Much of his older advice is still valid because it’s generic, not genre-specific or based on a single business model.

Also, this past May, the authors at Sterling & Stone delivered a tremendous free course, “Zero to Published.” It helped me understand why I struggled with some fiction genres, and where my writing actually flows. (I’m still learning from it.)

That’s the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re new to writing, and want a step-by-step overview of what’s involved in writing a book – with helpful advice –  you’ll find that online.

And it’s free.

Start small. Think of it like test-driving a new car: You’re just checking out how this works, and seeing if you like it.

Where to learn to write, free

Some people suggest writing short stories, first.

I don’t. I think short stories can be more challenging than, say, novellas (short novels).

In a short story, you need to convey a lot of information with fewer, more carefully chosen words. (I’m terrible at that.)

Instead, try writing a short book – probably fiction – and plan to spend an hour a day on it. I suggest aiming for around 10,000 words, more or less.

Take a look at Amazon’s “Short Reads” books. Some of them are really short.

Yes, you can write a short book, and you’ll find lots of resources online.

In fact, members of an entire global community write a novel in 30 days, every November.

Well, they try to, anyway. They’re aiming for 50k-word novels. I don’t know many people who can write that much in a single month, without hitting burnout. I couldn’t. (I’ve tried, twice.)

It’s an annual event called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and – though I think the challenge is too steep a gradient for a new writer –people involved in NaNoWriMo offer lots of great, free advice.

Here are some links: NaNoWriMo Pep Talks, the NaNoWriMo calendar and week-by-week advice, and their NaNoWriMo 101 course/worksheets (52-page PDF).

You can start at any time. You don’t have to wait until November.

My two cents: the official NaNoWriMo character worksheets are far more than you need to think about. That’s especially true if – as I advise – you start by writing a short novella of around 10,000 words. Or less.

So, if you look at any writing advice and think, “Whoa! That’s too much work!,” it’s okay to scale it back.

Really, some people just sit down and write. (I don’t recommend that, but I’ve always been a “build the foundation, first” kind of person.)

At the foot of this article, you’ll see several free three- and four-week plans for writing your book.

Reminder: if you need more help, see my Budget Resources list.

Takeaways

If you’ve dreamed of becoming a published author, keep a few things in mind.

First – at least while the book market isn’t as stable as usual – avoid expensive training. (And if you are going to invest in training or coaching, use “due diligence.” If the author is hiding things from you, that’s a big red flag.)

You don’t need to spend a cent to learn to write a good story.

You don’t need to spend anything to publish it, either.  You can throw a book into Amazon (via KDP), FREE, and it’ll be selling in their store within a day or two.

For your first book, don’t bother studying the market. (And ignore K-lytics’ predictions, for now, but file that link for future reference.)

Now, write about anything. 

  • It could be a memoir.
  • A fairy tale, rewritten.
  • A mystery, and you’re the sleuth.
  • A spy story inspired by a movie, except you’d have tackled the problem very differently.
  • A romance set in Jane Austen’s world.
  • It could be anything that you’ve ever thought about and said, “Hmm… that could be a good subject for a book.”

Try not to be too critical of your own work. Just keep moving forward. After all, this book isn’t about commercial success.

Your first book serves just one purpose. It’s to help you decide if the writing life is right for you.

A short book is ideal; 6,000 to 10,000 words is a good starting point. (How long is 6k words…? Not much. This article is 2,000 words, and I researched & wrote it before breakfast.)

Free resources

Here are some “write a book in __ days” resources, grabbed at random. I may disagree with some on a few points, but any one of these can work well for you. Or, you may just grab the best ideas from several.

Here are some additional resources that might help. Mix and match to suit your interests and needs.

I’ll add more to this list as I have more time.

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