Flippin' eck' I can't believe that it is already 180 days since I first launched my cozy mystery business under the publishing house Isla Britannica Books Ltd. In some ways it feels like I have learnt and achieved a lot, and yet, in other ways, that I haven't progressed and still have a long way to go. My aim in sharing my personal journey as a new author, is firstly that I can have something to look back on and see where my path led, and secondly, that it might help others, as well as allowing readers of my books to get a feel for the behind the scenes of life as an author.
When I imagine the life of other authors, I think of them sat in beautiful wooden panelled studies or libraries, with an old wooden desk and lamp, leather armchair, and log fire. The stereotypical author, much like a character from an Agatha Christie book. That they spend their day writing and their evenings out at social events or dinner parties. Of course, real life is very far from that, at least for most authors, especially ones like me who are just starting out.
A Place to Call Home
I moved to the guesthouse where I am currently living, on the 15th June 2018, expecting to be here for a matter of weeks, before moving into a house I was in the process of buying. That didn't exactly go to plan, but on reflection it was one of the best outcomes possible.
Prior to my move, I was renting an overpriced, not especially great house in Kendal, in the beautiful Lake District in the north west of Britain. Up until my landlords decided to sell the house and gave me notice (that house is still for sale!). It felt like the end of the world. No way could I find anything locally that allowed pets and was affordable, and all of the properties I was eligible for wanted 6 months rent upfront, two months deposit, and charged for application fees (that's about £8000, the equivalent of a deposit to buy a house!). I was working all hours, just to make the rent, council tax, and utilities each month. If I had been eligible for a mortgage and not been self-employed, then I could have bought the same house I was renting, and been paying four times less for a mortgage than I was paying in rent. A ridiculous situation! But as I'd been living abroad and the amount they were asking for the property was more than I could get a mortgage for, buying the house was not an option.
But I did find a property that I was eligible to buy, in the north east of the country on a shared ownership babis. I wouldn't know anyone, it was away from my outdoor swimming and friends, but at least I would have a roof over my head and for less money. That property ended up falling through, just after I had moved into the guesthouse where I am now. But instead of being disappointed, I felt a huge sense of relief. Shared ownership wasn't really where I wanted to be in terms of having control over my own life. My solicitor had sent me the contract to sign, and what I saw was clause after clause about what I could and couldn't do with my property. I would have to get written permission to even paint the walls of a room, and couldn't put in a garden pond or build a rockery. It felt like a trap. That once I was in the property, I would never be able to sell it, and since the house was supposed to be my stop gap to getting my forever home, back in the Lake District, I knew in my gut that to buy would be a bad choice. But I didn't want to be homeless either, nor did I want to end up losing my pets.
As it turned out, my three cats and small dog settled amazingly well into our one room at the guesthouse, far better than I could even hope given that they were used to playing outdoors whenever they wanted. I also realised how devastated I was to lose the things that I had come to depend upon and trust - our veterinary practice, dog walker, my dentist, local doctor. The local services were not a patch on the relationships I had built up over a long period of time. Those things were priceless and more important to me than I could have realised.
It was clear that I needed to be back in the Lake District, and the silver lining was that my overheads were now a fraction of what they were where I was renting. I realised that I could now focus on becoming a writer and building up my business, one that would eventually not only allow me to buy a house, but to buy an amazing house for cash, provided that I focused on my writing and put in the hours. It was also pretty scary, because being in the guesthouse meant that I couldn't leave my pets for work each day since I no longer had my pet sitter, but that didn't matter because if I built up my own business, then I could simply work from home. This would be a good thing longer term, since I knew that I wouldn't want to keep travelling so much for work as I grew older anyway.
I spent a good few months researching my chosen genre, watching podcasts on YouTube, speaking with other authors, and putting out test books, and trying new things to get a feel for the market and world of publishing. My testing gave me the confidence to know that the future I had in my dreams was ACTUALLY possible, now I just had work on the psychology side and start to believe in myself and treat my writing as a business. It would be along. hard road, with a lot of sacrifice, but it would be worth it.
Starting from Zero
At the moment I'm frustrated with myself, but equally know that this is a phase I simply have to go through as well. I'm sure that very soon, something within me will just fall into place, and that the resistance I currently feel will disappear. I should be further along as a writer than I am!
However, over the past 180 days I have built up a newsletter of almost 3000 people from scratch, and having started to offer my publishing services to other authors on Fiverr, I now have a fairly consistent stream of repeat clients that I Vellum format and do book promo for. This has definitely grown organically in ways I wasn't expecting, an important reminder that hard work eventually starts to pay dividends in the long game. To be honest, I was really surprised to find other authors recommending me on sites such as K-Boards and in their blog posts. For example K-Boards here and on Nicholas Erik's website. I only become aware of these because some of my clients told me that was where they found me, and I have a lot of romance authors to thank too, because they began recommending me to others in their writers groups. It was hard to accept such positive comments at first, I still have imposter syndrome in all walks of my life, it's just who I am, but for the first time, I feel like I'm starting to embrace what it means to be a small business owner. I'm someone who actually has 'clients' now....even if I still can't quite get my head around that!
From a business perspective, am I earning money from offering my services on Fiverr, or would I be financially better off if I put that time into my writing? I admit that one out of three enquiries I get on Fiverr are time wasters. People trying to get rich quick and wanting to use me to do jobs for their clients which they then get credit and charge twice as much for. Those make my blood boil, especially as they aren't serious about quality or longevity and sem to think that publishing is a really easy way to make your millions. I dislike the orders I get where the client tries to bribe me or lure me with promises if I'll get their book on the promo sites immediately, even though I don't make the rules for the promo sites themselves. I get irritated when people place orders without reading through the information I provide on what services I offer. And I find it irksome that Fiverr penalises me when I cancel an order because a client has set me up for a job that I don't even offer because they think they are somehow special and the next big thing. That hurts my ratings and takes months to build up. But on the whole, I love my serious authors, the ones who appreciate a quality job and understand how many hours I invest in making their book interior look just how they want it. Business wise, I should be charging a lot more, especially taking into account the hours it takes me to do a job, but that isn't why I'm offering my services to other authors.
A traditional or old school business person would say that I am wasting my time with Fiverr, and that what I should really be doing is investing my time in writing and publishing my own books. But I actually don't see it that way. I see this as my apprenticeship, a stepping stone to producing better quality books in the grand scheme of things. I get to experience books from many different genres in the space of a week - see their covers, blurbs, description, layout, book stuffing and what not to do's, and answer any questions they have. I'm always learning and improving my own craft. Only then do I realise just how far I have come in my own education and I get a little confidence boost as I realise that I am capable of being a great author and publisher, that I know my field, I have a toolbox of expertise now, skills I have unknowingly mastered on my journey. What's more, I get a huge sense of satisfaction, seeing other authors do well, or being over the moon with how their book looks. I'm growing into my own skin little by little each day and I'm learning important lessons in marketing, communication, and knowing when to say no.
What's more, the money I am earning on Fiverr gets paid into my Paypal account and aside from the exchange rate between dollars and Stirling fluctuating to my detriment, I'm now super close to being able to access Paypal Working Capital. This is money that I can draw down into my Paypal account, based on my annual earnings. I want to invest heavily in my books - in editing, covers, ISBN numbers, all of which costs money. Paypal Working Capital will be the biggest step up in my career, and I have a strong sense that as soon as that happens, my business will snowball quickly. I just have to be patient as I try to get to that financial starting line.
Financial Freedom and Fear
Since my 90 day review, I have made some really scary moves financially. I've gone from having no credit cards or loans, to taking out credit cards. I don't like having debts, I like to be as independent as I can with no ties or trappings. But I realised that if I wanted to publish books, then I would need to buy covers, pay for editing, and invest in my business. It also turned out that if I took out credit cards, it would help me to get my credit rating up, just in case I wanted to get a mortgage in the future. Which seemed ridiculous to me.
I did some shopping around and used a platform called Noddle to see my credit rating and which, if any credit cards I would be eligible for. In a short space of time, I went from a near perfect credit rating and zero debts, to taking whatever credit cards I could and watching my credit score plummet. It should seem counter intuitive, but I'm not worried even though it is logically insane. I used those cards to buy ISBNS and covers and a desk and printer and chair. The cards are zero percent interest for a year and my plan is that every penny of that money is invested into my business and will earn that money back, and more within the space of a year. It should allow me to publish a lot of books, and the more books I have out, the more chance I have of being able to buy a house for cash, back in the Lake District. I'm starting to get enough money in from my business on Fiverr that I pay back £1 a day on each card for now, reinvesting that money in upfront costs of film work and getting to paid speaking events, as these don't pay me for round three months afterwards. Flipping things in the American terminology. Again, I'm focusing on long term gains here. I don't make regular payments into a pension but whenever my income goes up each day, I put 1p, 10p, £1 whatever I can afford each day, aside into separate pots in my Monzo account to be able to buy things in my future life; like health insurance, pension, tax, accountant fee, book covers, and I put £1 into an ISA as my 'emergency fund' as well as paying into my Share Dealing ISA and my Share Dealing account. I've so far bought a couple of shares, and am now starting to get quarterly income into my account from those, not a lot, but still growth on my original investment, that I can then invest back into my account and into more shares. This will become my passive income stream for my pension longer term (alongside my pension plan). I'm 43 now and though I have no plans to ever retire, I'm aware that this will be important to have as I get older.
I have downsized to the maximum I can to reduce my overheads, and am investing heavily in my new business, without taking any money out for myself, or wasting it on things that I don't need. I am living as frugally as I can. I eat homemade soup each day from reduced price veggies which costs me around £4 for a week for all my meals. I work long days at my computer, and sleep for around 4 or 5 hours a day. At no point does it feel like a chore, it instead feels like a step closer to my dream home and lifestyle. It's a year of my life on hold, but the long term gain will be more than worth it, especially when compared to my monthly struggle of making rent on a house with damp walls and a leaky roof.
Mind Set and Other Changes
Mindset is definitely something that is shifting all the time with me, especially as I reflect on the past 180 days since starting my business. I've become more goal focused, I waste less time, and I don't tolerate others as much as I did.
It's very easy when living in a guesthouse, to procrastinate. To put off jobs because you are waiting to use the microwave or bathroom, or waiting to clean your room or change your sheets. It's also very easy to get the life, energy, and time sucked out of you by doing a quick nip to the toilet, only to get drawn into a conversation with another guest who is bored and killing time. Initially I felt rude, or would politely make small talk, but I soon realised it was detrimental when writing and getting yourself into the creative flow and voice of a character. As soon as I bumped into a guest in the hallway or dining area, I would come out of that flow and lose the voice or place I was in writing that story. I could easily lose a whole day that way. I've learnt to be more blinkered, to not switch on Facebook or Twitter or to check my emails when writing, and to try and time my pee breaks or breakfast at times when I know there is likely to be no one around. I'm not quite there yet, but I've clawed back hours of each day just by keeping myself to myself, including writing at night, often until about 4am because it is quiet then. It's the only way I'll ever be able to write my books and get my own home. Sometimes in my frustration I would start looking at houses to rent or buy, but I've learnt that this is another form of procrastination. That it doesn't get me anywhere other than feeling depressed. The only way I'm going to be able to move into a place, is if I focus on my writing. Simple as that.
I've started to use a free app on my phone called 'BeFocused'. I was struggling to get any sessions in with a 25 minute sprint setting, but have started to do 5 minute sprints on the timer for absolutely EVERYTHING I do in the day. I intersperse this with little physical exercises because I know that my health is deteriorating and I've gained a lot of weight with being inactive. I'd like to get 10,000 steps in per day really, but I don't enjoy walking here as much as I did in the Lake District, and this leads to me faffing around and sleeping in because I can't find the motivation to get started with a walk. There's a lot of glass on the streets here and that doesn't make for nice dog walks. I was beating myself up for not achieving my desired walks and number of steps each day, but I've decided to switch to just walking at the weekends, and do exercises between sprints during the week.
Back when I lived in the Lake District, I could write 10,000 words a day and had a lovely structure, even with working a full time job. Because it was easy to get up at 5am, hike around the lake, have a quick lake dip, and then catch the bus home before going to work at 9am. Getting a structure has been tough. Even with it being summer and lighter earlier now.
Another free tool I'm using recently is Habitica. It's a way to turn your habits into games, but I'm not so interested in the gamefy side. For me, it just helps to have a list of things to do each day, which I get the satisfaction of ticking off, and I like it when I get the psychological sound or noise of success - just like on the Be Focused app, Habitica is great for things like remembering to stay hydrated and for ticking off my 5 minute sprints because then I get a sense of reward when I'm on track.
The other change is that I'm no longer afraid to admit when things aren't working, or to mix things up a bit and experiment. Psychologically this would have felt like failure before. The old school world I was brought up in, was about sticking with things until the end, and putting up with them as part of life. You made your bed, now lie in it kind of attitude. I suspect that this change in my attitude is due to me now feeling like I'm a business woman. I'm a creative and an entrepreneur, I'm supposed to be a bit more ad hoc about things. One of those big decisions was to switch from Instafreebie to BookFunnel for giving away copies of my books to subscribers. I'd been unhappy with the attitude of Instafreebie's customer service and their lack of interest in stopping erotic romance authors from spamming my book collections. I was paying Instafreebie each month for a service that was just making me irritable and draining hours from each day in removing romance books from my cozy mystery collections. It was taking away my time, energy, and money. Switching to BookFunnel has been a Godsend, albeit a little frustrating at having to learn the set ups from scratch and setting up 18 months of promos from the start again. But it's lovely to have a sense of respect and being treated seriously. I've also dropped one of my agents for film work and joined a new agent, which was incredibly refreshing to be treated professionally. And now, instead of long suffering through things that aren't working, I'm able to quickly and easily try something new for a bit, see if it works for me, and if not, then I drop it, no feelings of guilt.
I loved Schedugram for scheduling Instagram posts, but it was pricey for where I am in my career and that money was instead invested in the SPF 101 course. So I cancelled my subscription and now only post once or twice a day on Instagram, whereas before I would schedule months ahead. I also decided to drop the Cozy Mystery Book Explorer page on Instagram, and at the start of May began daily blogging on my website again. That one little tweak alone, has increased my affiliate income on Amazon by a couple of cents each day, and saw my Pinterest view jump from 45k per month to over 100k. I'm also averaging $100 a month in affiliate income. In terms of the SPF 101 course, I'm not sure that I've learnt anything new so far since I'd watched their videos religiously over the last 18 months, but the course has come with a lot of discounts and offers, chance to be in a special Facebook group that I'm enjoying, and I now have a kind of Bible or manual full of resources that I can go to directly whenever I need to know something. So I'm still glad that I took the course, even though it is a huge investment each month compared to my income. Psychologically it was an important investment and step in terms of taking my career more seriously.
I've learnt that being ruthless and picky is liberating, that I love having freedom. Previously I would have felt bad at having a negative experience with someone, but now I just see those things as destructive and dead wood. If I don't want to work with a client on fiverr, I don't. If someone complains that one of the 100 free books to download is no longer on promotion, days after I posted the promo, then instead of feeling like I should apologise, I now tell them that they are perfectly free to move along if they don't like me or what I have to offer. People seem to have a sense of entitlement unfortunately, they expect the world for free. I've come to realise that this energy is better spent on investing in the clients and readers I love working with, rather than feeling like I failed or let people down, or need to keep everyone happy. I've learnt to stop caring what other people think, and instead to keep focusing on moving forward and doing the best job I can do now. That has given me more energy and time to focus on the people that do matter within my community, people who will actually buy a service from me on Fiverr for their book, or people who actually read the books on offer and generally love the genre. I don't want to live in a world of negative people who just moan, so I'm not doing that now. This has had a knock on effect on my social media channels oddly enough, and I feel incredibly lucky to have some really cool and creative people who inspire me, now following me. This is really lovely to wake up to each day and see a like or comment or follow from someone I aspire to be like. I've taken a step back from a lot of author groups too, where I felt there was too much negativity, complaining, or people asking silly questions instead of using Google or at least making an effort to learn. Those sites had started to get me down mentally and were no longer giving me any benefit. I would find that hours had passed by, or that I would quickly check my Facebook notifications and suddenly get caught up in some kind of drama that had no connection at all with the group's purpose as a support for writers.
At the Heart of Business
In the past 180 days I have made a lot of headway, I'm building strong foundations, but the heart of the business is still missing and is something I am going to focus everything on as I move forward. That is the writing. It is no good me building up a mailing list, spending money on advertising, or buying beautiful book covers, if I don't have the most basic and important thing in place - the writing. I've struggled with writing a lot since I started my business, but for ridiculous reasons. I am afraid of being successful, and I feel a huge sense of guilt at earning a living from something that I actually enjoy doing. Writing is the one thing I need to become a success, to get a forever home, and yet I struggle to start. It is purely psychological. I have a story, I have a plot, a title, a cover, a desk, time to write, and yet I still struggle to get started on the writing. It is the one component that will pretty much guarantee me success as a writer, it isn't rocket science - I just need to get the words onto paper!
It isn't going to be easy overcoming this mental hurdle, but I have made big steps towards overcoming this. I've started joining author Orna Ross for a meditation session online each morning to help quiet my distracted mind and get me into the creative flow. I've switched from 25 minute to 5 minute sprints on the Be Focused app and with Habatica. I've also decided not to try and fit a big walk in each day. The silly thing is, I have zero problem at all when it comes to doing work for clients and putting them first, and yet, if I only put in as much effort with my own writing as I did with their books, I would be winning. I need to treat myself as well as I treat my clients, no matter how less important I see my work to be. As a way of overcoming this, I've decided to set up a Patreon page where I give away my books for free to patrons who pay $1 a month to support my writing and weekly newsletter. That way, I am writing for real, actual, physical clients now, rather than for myself. I don't want to let them down and I made a promise to them that I will write them books. I currently have ten patrons and that feels great for writing now. Going forward I think that will help me to make the mental shift and to treat myself better.
If I can get the words mastered on a daily basis, and start to get more books (products) onto the market and into the hands of my readers, then I will have a proper business, at which point I think things will quickly snowball and build momentum. All I have to do is write, every day.