$21,000 in one month with a debut novel – An interview with full-time author Todd Ellery Hodges

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shutterstock_283522577During his twenties Todd worked in a laboratory performing drug trials, traveled most of Washington State fixing computers for Apple, sold gym memberships, and helped manage an international supply chain for a chemical distributor. Yet, much like the rest of his generation, he found that he wasn’t well suited to doing any type of work for long. So, he brushed the metaphorical dust off the novel he’d been writing in his head for six years. Soon after “The Never Hero” was published on September 14, 2014, and Todd was able to leave his day job on January 2, 2016 to become a full-time author.

Join Todd and me as we discuss:

  • His favorite part about being a full-time author.
  • Complete transparency with his income charts for 2014 and 2015.
  • What it really means to be “successful” as an author.
  • Moving past crushing self-doubt before he published.
  • How he overcame fear of losing a steady paycheck, left his job, and went full-time.
  • Why he stopped himself from writing a 1,000 page tome and broke the novel into a series.
  • The lessons he learned from making his own book cover and why he will never do it again.
  • Why he hires someone to do his book formatting for him.
  • His theory on how he made almost $20,000 in one month with his debut novel.

How’s it been being a full-time author?

Oh, it’s great. I can get in 6-8 hours of solid writing time every day now. Before that I would have to commute to work, work 8-10 hours, then commute back, which was about an hour and a half by itself. At the time I was hopefully getting in 45 minutes a day. That made it difficult to get into the flow of things. It takes me about 20 minutes to do anything other than tinker and then actually move forward with the story. That’s just how I work. I start almost every day with editing what I wrote previously, and that gets me into the mindset. It’s rough to do that though when you only have 45 minutes.

What’s your favorite part about being a full-time author?

Without a doubt, the best thing is that I can go to bed when I’m tired and wake up when I’m not. You can’t do that when you have a day job. You have to get there at 6:00 AM then you have to go to bed at 9:00 PM whether you’re tired or not. That used to frustrate me to no end, but there was no way around it.

Those of us reading this want to become full-time authors too. In order to do that you need to have revenue. So, how are you currently generating revenue?

At this point in the interview Todd was very excited to show us his income charts for 2014 and 2015. They are provided below for your viewing pleasure along with an explanation of each.

Todd Hodges Income_2014
2014 Income
Todd Hodges Income_2015
2015 Income

What you’re seeing here are the charts for all my sales and royalties that I brought in the whole time the book has been published over the span of 2014 and 2015. I wanted to show people this because it’s inspiring if you’re hitting a period where you’re not even considering quitting your day job. If you look at the 2014 chart, the most I made that year in a given month was $241. The bars may look really tall, but it’s just the scale of the axis. It doesn’t actually go very high. The line charts represent sales of different types of formats or mediums for the book (i.e., ebook, paperback, audio book, etc.). You’ll notice that the paperback is always going to be at the bottom. It’s not like they’re in Barnes & Noble. In the first year I had only an ebook, kindle unlimited (borrows), and paperback sales. That’s why you only see three lines here.

Now, looking at the 2015 chart, you can see that the revenue in January, February, and March barely show up. In May of 2015 that all started to change. That was the first time I could even consider becoming a full-time author because the book made me enough money to live off of. I made about $3,000 that month. That was when the book really started taking off because you can see in the next month (June) it made $17,000. The main difference between those two months was the release of the audio book. When people ask me about what point I realized I could quit my day job, it was July. That was the biggest revenue month of 2015 where it made almost $21,000 in one month.

Now, I’m not showing this stuff to try and brag. People need to know what the reality is if they ever want to make a decision like this. That’s what I like about Hugh Howey. He is really transparent about all these things. It really helps you when you’re trying to see your own progress or see what’s possible.

Tangent discussion: We discussed an article Todd read recently that bugged him.

I was reading this article “Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success” and based on their criteria for “success” was that these indie authors had sold over a million copies in five years. First, I was like: “40 people sold over a million copies in five years?!” I would have thought it was 10 by that kind of standard., but it begs the question: what’s your criteria for success? I did the math of a book selling that many copies at a dollar less than mine with Amazon’s royalty rate. It worked out to around $550,000 a year if the author sold a million copies over five years. I was like: “What the hell are these people using as their measuring stick for success?” I mean how much do you really need to make every month in order to be “successful”? The problem I had about the article is that it’s clearly spun to the point where you have to question why they wrote it. In the title they say “Only 40 authors”, but by your measuring stick was that the number of years and sales that cranked out the lowest number so it wouldn’t sound ridiculous if you said: “Only 40”. That article kind of bugged me.

Yea, that’s just ridiculous. Success is relative. I think a lot of people just want to do this for a living.

Yea, and I would call myself successful if I was making around $4,000 a month. That’s enough for me and my family to survive in Seattle without going into debt. Mind you, Seattle is one of the most expensive cities to live in the United States. To me that’s more than successful especially if it gets me out of commuting for an hour and a half. That’s something I don’t want to be doing.

Share with us your worst moment as a full-time author or as you were becoming a full-time author.

I’ll bring you back to the time when I was writing my book and had that crushing self doubt. It was the time I first submitted my book to an editor. I think the first time you write a book you’re convinced: “OK, I’m finished! Let’s get this to the editor, and then I’m done.” Then you get it back, and you realize: “Ehhh, maybe I had a first draft.” So I got the book back from the editor. I realized that it was way too long. I jabbered on, and I put too much of myself into it. I pretty much got on top of a soapbox and was preaching through the characters. I had to take that almost all out, and that stripped about 100 pages out of the book. It was finally a decent length that I could publish it without the fear that everyone would just be like: “Oh man, this guy rambles on!” Some people still said I rambled on in some of my reviews, but I’m trying to be better about that the second time around. That was a bad realization because you spend a lot of money hiring an editor only to realize that you’re not even close to the finish line. Each time something like that happens, especially if it’s your first book, you start to question whether or not you should even continue. I thought: “I just sunk all this money into this. Clearly it’s not ready. I’m going to have to re-write it and then sink money into it again to have someone review it again.” I actually didn’t do that, but those are some of the thoughts that started going through my head. It can be really hard to ignore them.

What’s your big take away from that story?

Just power through it. You have to ignore it. You have to really believe the story you’re telling is a story that people will want to read then kind of ignore any evidence to the contrary. Don’t ignore it so you don’t take any advice on editing the story, but you have to believe in it pretty strongly before you begin.

When did you realize you could become an author full-time? Was it sometime around July when you were making over $20,000 in that one month?

I had just gotten a $60k per year job in June of 2015. I was super thrilled to get it, but you have to realize that was right when the book took off. So I felt like a huge dick head because I was like: “Hey! I’m here! Oh, I might leave.” Even my superiors at the job kind of saw that on my first day there. I was like: “So, I have this book, and it may have made $17,000 this month… I don’t know if I have to be here.” But I stuck with it for about six months, which I don’t know in the end if that was a good idea. Another reason I stayed was because a friend of mine put her neck out to get me that job. I didn’t want to be like: “Oh, thanks for putting yourself on the line there. You know, your credibility, trusting me, and now I’m going to completely make you look bad now.” The weight of the income from my book was perpetually causing me to question what I was doing every day. So you can imagine after six months of saying to yourself: “What am I doing here? What am I doing here? What am I doing here?” It was tough, but that job was one of the main reasons I waited so long to go full-time as an author. Near the end of 2015 I could see things on the horizon at my job that I didn’t really want to deal with. I could see the huge pile of work that was coming for the following year. Then I looked at my writing career. I thought: “Man, when this comes I’m probably going to be working 11-12 hour days then I’m going to lose all of my writing time, and I don’t even know why I’m still here other than the medical insurance and the extra income.” I sat down with a lot of spreadsheets for a long time and went over all of our expenses. I discovered that I saved way too much money for taxes because I was saving 28% of any royalty check that I got and put it away. After going through the tax system I realized that I didn’t have to fork all that over because of business expenses and so on and so forth. If you check out the 2015 graph you can see that there was another explosion of income in December. So with that and the savings from taxes I made the decision to hold onto all the money I had and pay any bill at the absolute minimum for as long as I could. Then I could just get the sequel done. That’s the point when I quit my job. Right now I’m making minimum payments on my mortgage and anything I have debt on including student loans, etc. until I can get the sequel out. I have enough income to get about six months of safety net if I didn’t spend too much. That was a really long story, and I apologize.

That’s OK. The thing is that we have to talk about this stuff because it’s not like it’s an overnight decision. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, and there’s a lot of things that need to be considered.

One thing I didn’t mention is that I was scared. Every time I considered quitting my day job I thought: “This could all go south on me tomorrow.” The point is there’s no safety net when you jump out. I don’t have a steady paycheck coming in to make sure I have money each month. I have to budget. I have to really watch my funds now and pay attention to business expenses to keep them segregated. It’s a lot of work that’s usually done and divided up for you when you work for a company. I remember that I was scared to death all the way to the moment I handed them my letter of resignation, and then I wasn’t scared at all. I was just like: “I have to wait two weeks to get out of here!” It’s weird how the fear disappeared the moment there was no going back. When you have to make a decision there’s all this anxiety, but as soon as the decision is made, boom. Then it’s: “Well, here we go!”

How did you get to that point where you were comfortable enough to be OK with not having a consistent paycheck coming in?

It’s not about being comfortable enough. It’s actually about being miserable enough. It’s not that I worked for a bad company. I worked for a great company. The benefits were great, and they were completely good to me. I never came home from work thinking my boss was horrible. It was knowing that I wasn’t attached at all to the work I was doing, and that I was giving eight hours of my life everyday to do something for a company. Eventually that has an effect on your psyche that you become so miserable that you’re willing to leave. I give a lot of credit to misery to make me do things in life. With our generation everyone wants you to be so positive and give a positive message, but sometimes there’s something to be said for misery. If you hate something bad enough you’ll do something to change it.

When you finished your first manuscript did you have a plan? What did you do with it?

I had a plan, but you have to understand that plan evolved. Originally this wasn’t going to be a series. I had this epic novel in mind, and then I realized that it was a bad idea. I would basically be writing a 1,000 page book that I would only sell one of. Instead, it could be easily broken up into three books with three distinct climaxes. The story that I had envisioned had the movement of plot to easily be broken up. The other thing was I wasn’t going to write a 1,000 page tome right off the bat. That’s a big page count for people to take on when they never heard of you. From a reader’s perspective: “Am I really going to read 1,000 pages of a book from this guy I’ve never heard of?” I could only imagine what the audio book bill would have been. I probably couldn’t have afforded it actually.

There were a few different strategies I thought about. Once the manuscript was ready to go I actually reached out to Johnny, Sean, and Dave over at The Self Publishing Podcast. They wrote “Write. Publish. Repeat.” They were cool because they stopped me from doing stupid things. I emailed them, and I was thinking about breaking up the story further so that I could publish the novel as a serial. Break it up on the higher points of chapters so there would be cliffhangers. I figured I could get a bigger footprint with Amazon that way. I’m really glad I didn’t do that. I don’t think it would have had the success that it did as a serial if I had broken it up like that. That’s pretty much what those guys told me. I’m not sure how serials were doing back then, but it was really cool to hear back from three really successful indie authors. They took the time to really respond to me, and I’m paying it forward.

I’m curious about this topic actually. Why not serials?

It was really a gut thing actually. It honestly comes down to my own conscience. I know I was doing it as a way to “rig” Amazon in a way. I wanted it to appear that I had four books. So there would be four more opportunities for my name to show up or for my series to appear. I would release them month after month and that would help keep those in the “Hot New Releases” category. Then that would get more visibility, etc. All legitimate marketing ideas, but it felt like cheating. I also felt like it would piss readers off if I did that. So I didn’t do it. Maybe it would’ve worked out great. You never know.

You mentioned that you split your 1,000 page tome into a series, and you got an editor. What did you do after that?

I got one of my photographer friends to help me take some pictures for a cover. I made the cover myself. I’m pretty good with Photoshop, but that was a bad idea. The moment I updated the book with a professional cover things started taking off. That happened around the middle of April of 2015. As you can see in the 2015 graph, it had already ticked up in May then the audio book hit, and that really cranked into high gear. Clearly, I should have taken every piece of advice that said: “Do not do the cover yourself.” Part of me gets suspicious and paranoid about any kind of fear mongering. I felt maybe it was good for me to put it to the test for my own sake, but they were completely correct. They were just trying to help me from making a bad decision, and I failed to pay attention. The one thing I can say is that it was about $800 to get the cover made, and the book made that much more money and paid for itself in one month. It was completely worth it. I’ll always get my covers done by a professional now.

So besides hiring a cover artist is there anything you would do differently if you did it all over again?

I found that any money I put into a book comes back to me. I spent two weeks getting ridiculously good at Microsoft Word so I could format the novel in Creatspace so it would show up correctly as a book printout. I could’ve just paid somebody to do that and save myself from the headache. Instead, I could have been writing for those two weeks. This time around I’m not going to format the ebook or the paperback. I’m just going to hire out. It’s not worth it to spend that time especially since I’ll be doing the job of someone that has done it only once before. If I hire someone who does a thousand of these things they’re going to nail it right off the bat, and then there’s not going to be any problems.

What’s one habit that contributes to your success as an author?

I’m always thinking about my novels while I write them. No matter what, the thing I write the first time is something that’s going to get revised. Probably way more times than I’d like to admit. I really wanted to have my sequel done a lot sooner, but things keep happening. I had an idea two weeks ago, and then I had to rewrite about 40 pages. It was such a small tweak, but it means that one character can’t know something now. Then this person can’t be in the room here, and that means all the dialogue must be taken out. But the story has to make sense so someone has to say something similar that’s in their character. It’s amazing the ripples of one change.

The thing is that I can’t even turn it off. It’s not even a habit really. I get about 6-8 hours of work done a day now. Most of that has been revising because I’m trying to get the sequel done. I go out on my porch about every 45 minutes to get a breather, and the whole time I’m just thinking about the book. During that down time I’ll come up with a solution to something that was weak.

What advice do you have for those of us trying to become full-time authors?

I’m a negative guy. I thrive on misery. I always thought that if I quit my job then that would make it harder for me to really focus on wanting to write because I wouldn’t be miserable anymore. It was that wanting to escape that was driving me at first. “I have to make this work or I’ll never get out of this position.” The things that drive you can be something like that. It doesn’t have to be some inspirational quote you found on Facebook. It can be: “I’m not going to let this trap me!” It can just be the energy that angry emotions give you because that’s one of the hardest things with an endeavor that takes a long time like writing a book. Energy is just a huge factor, especially if you’re coming home every day exhausted from your day job. You have no energy, and you have to find it somewhere. That’s what stifled me so much for the last year. If I have to sit in a chair while I’m tired then my writing is going to suck because I don’t want to do it. It becomes a struggle to get through. You don’t need a sunny outlook on things to make it through. Sometimes a dark and stormy day is exactly what you need to drive you to the finish line.

How did you make over $20,000 in one month with your debut novel?

I have a theory, but if people use it with their books – I guarantee nothing. I’ve only got one instance to test so it’s not a great sample size to say that it’s a sure thing. I’d like to preface by saying I didn’t get a Bookbub promotion until October. None of this involves getting that lucky chance with Bookbub where they promote you, and then 1700 people read your book all of a sudden. So the new cover was made. Then the audio book got recorded. I ran a $0.99 Kindle countdown right when the audio book came out. The countdown deal helped the ebook rise in the Amazon charts. I woke up the morning after the audio book got released, and it sold 50 copies. Whispersync wasn’t even on there yet so people weren’t getting it for $2. I remember waking up that morning and clearing the sand out of my eyes because I couldn’t believe it had sold 50 copies the first day it was out. There seemed to be a direct correlation between getting the book really high in the Amazon rankings and the audio book performing really well. There was something about the heightened visibility about coming off of the Kindle promotion and syncing with the audio book. Then there’s the fact that the cover was far more attractive. All those things came together at the same time, and I really think that’s what shot it into visibility in Audible. The reviews in Audible started pouring in really fast. Everybody in Audible gets to rate the book using a star rating system without the need to leave comments. It’s not like Amazon. So you know how they rated it based on the amount of stars it was given. Having the reviews show up so quickly really helped the book maintain visibility in Audible, which gave it such credibility. There’s also word of mouth from the Kindle promotion and from the Audible listeners that were just telling their friends that it didn’t suck.

What’s the best way we can reach you?

You can email me at: TElleryHodges@gmail.com

Check me out on Facebook at: The Never Hero

Or you can find me on Twitter at: TElleryHodges

All of my contact information is on my website: TheNeverHero.com in the “About the Author” page. I don’t really have an excuse not to get back to you! I’ll reply within a few days.

 

If you enjoy reading a thought provoking and action packed novel then check out The Never Hero, and pick up your copy today. The sequel will be out very soon!

If you enjoyed the interview then please let me know! Email me at Brandon@buildyourauthorcareer.com or leave a comment below. I read every email and comment.

Feel free to check out my previous interviews with other inspiring authors:

Rich Amooi

Tammi Labrecque

Chris Fox

To your consistent progress,

-Brandon

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