Elizabeth Ann West is the author of five novels and seven novellas, 10 of which are story variations of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice.” Her books have won reader conference awards and hit the Historical Bestseller lists on Amazon, Kobo, and the iBooks stores multiple times. A lover of all things geeky, Elizabeth codes websites, dabbles in graphic design, and is always looking for new technology to learn and master. A Navy wife and mother of two, her family has lived all over the United States and is currently residing in upstate New York.
Join Elizabeth and me as we discuss:
- How she accidentally became an author.
- Her take on outsourcing some of the work and why she works with a partner.
- Her favorite part about being a full-time author.
- Why using Amazon is a privilege and not a right.
- The different ways she’s generating revenue.
- Why she doesn’t hesitate to give out her books for free.
- How the size of your mailing list doesn’t matter.
- Her worst moment as an author.
- Navigating Amazon eBook categories to your advantage.
- Why she went wide.
- How keywords can help your book get visible.
- The benefits of using Google Adwords instead of Facebook ads.
- One question to ask yourself when trying to find a genre to write in.
- What she’d do if she could do it all over again.
When did you take the leap to become a full-time author?
Becoming a writer was actually an accident for me. I have a degree in political science, and my husband is in the military so we move every two to three years. Trying to keep a career with that, whether it’s teaching or nursing (every state has different licensing) so it’s really hard to have a career that’s in high demand and can move with you. In 2007 I wrote an article called “Military Wife Tips: Keeping Any Long Distance Relationship Alive,” and a website payed me $7 for it. I actually started in non-fiction article writing where I made about $1,000-$2,000 a month from home.
In 2011 my hubby was bugging me to write a novel and then I wrote “Cancelled“. I published it back in September of 2011 and I quit, which I’ll get into a little bit later about what happened there. Then I became a book marketer for over three years. In 2014 I had another setback, I tried to do a 9-5 job, but that didn’t work out. Then I decided to write a happy, little story, and it ended up making $2,000 in that first month. So, I was off to the races again.
You’ve had quite the career!
Yup, I say I’m a Jane of all trades. I do everything like coding my own websites and my own formatting. Back in the day before you could just upload a word document you had to actually format the html, and I was one of the few authors who knew how to do that. I’ve never had to outsource anything other than my first book cover.
Wow, OK. Why do you choose to do all that yourself?
Couple of reasons. Because I can, is the first one. The other reason is because I’ve actually been studying entrepreneurship, believe it or not, since elementary school. When they had the Junior Achievement program I had my own little “Babysitter’s Club” based off the books. One of the first things they teach you about being an entrepreneur is that most fail. The easiest way to mess up is to expense yourself to death because you can’t control the cash flow coming in at the very beginning so it’s really important to start off as lean as possible. Even if it’s just for the first few products, until you learn, and then you can actually figure out when it’s worth your time to outsource something and when it’s worth your time to just do it.
Do you feel like you’re at the point where you can start outsourcing?
Oh, I just took on an intern this summer. He hasn’t started yet, but he’s going to, and I also work very closely with my best friend, April Floyd. When I was an eBook marketer she became my business partner. We did book marketing and blogging together. She actually helped me publish the first books I was doing when I came back in 2014. I think that makes it a lot easier for us because what I’m really good at I can do for the two of us, and what she’s really good at she can do it for the two of us. We tease each other that I’m the kite and she’s the rock, so when my pulls are way out there she’s the one that’s like, “Elizabeth, we need to break this down just a little bit smaller.”
I like it. It seems like you have a great team dynamic going on there.
We do, and we’ve been working together for four years. We’ve never met in real life. She’s all the way in Alaska, but she’s actually a military wife as well. We have that common thing that just kind of clicks for us.
What’s your favorite part about being a full-time author?
Probably the flexibility. I’m not dependable at all. There’s very little that I do every day consistently. Sticking to a schedule is an extreme sport for me. I had to take on homeschooling my daughter this year out of the blue, and we literally pick up and move all the time. Even just this year we were living in a completely different place from June of last year to December. Then we moved from that apartment to this house, but because I’m a full-time author I can just pack it up and move.
So, flexibility has got to be number one for me because I know a lot of authors that will say, “Oh, the writing’s my favorite part.” I enjoy all aspects of being an indie author, from the business part, to the marketing, to the writing part. I really like all the pieces.
You like all the pieces because you’ve been involved with the business side of things since you were young?
Yes, I killed my mother’s rubber tree plant with my first business actually. I was going to make super balls and sell them at school, and my dad told me that to make rubber you just boil down the leaves. I was eight years old, and I took every leaf off my mother’s rubber tree plant, cut it up and then put it in hot water in the bathroom sink. I thought the water was boiling because I couldn’t touch it. If you’ve ever seen a rubber tree plant the leaf is actually pretty rubbery so they clogged up the sink, the water came up over the sink, and I was standing on the toilet. The hot water is going all over the floor and I’m doing what any eight-year-old would do – scream for her mother. My only punishment was that I had to clean it up. I learned how to take the trap out from underneath the sink and clean that, which is absolutely disgusting.
Currently today, how are you generating revenue?
I’m a huge believer in “every little bit counts” going hand-in-hand with the lean mentality in the very beginning if you really want to control your expenses down to the last penny. Same thing with income streams. I actually make money from Google AdSense on my blog with AdWords coming in. It’s not a whole lot of money, but it’s about a $100 every couple of months. That more than covers the hosting costs. I’m also wide, so Google, Kobo, Apple, and Barnes & Noble count for anywhere between 10-15% of my monthly income. A lot of people would say, “Well, why aren’t you exclusive with Kindle?” What a lot of authors don’t know, is in 2012, they cracked down on free book sharing where if you share too many free books you no longer make your affiliate money for that month. What a lot of people also don’t know, and I have talked about this on Kboards a few times, is they also cracked down on any kind of domain that had Kindle or Amazon in the domain name, even as a slash folder. A lot of these bloggers were mom and pop bloggers, they weren’t professionals. They weren’t like Bookbub which was created by people who have degrees in their field and everything. These are just people who love books. Kindle really took off at a time when more readers than ever were willing to start blogs, and the crackdown came with it. There were people I knew who lost $2,000-$3,000, just gone. Their accounts were shut down.
So I look at working with Amazon not as a right but as a privilege that could disappear at any time. Even though between 85-90% of my income is Amazon, if that went away for whatever reason I would at least have enough money coming in to keep going. It’s usually between $500-$1,500 a month and growing, and that’s enough so I wouldn’t be shut down completely. I could rebuild. I could rise again. I could do what I have to do, and I would still be able to sell my words.
I love that mentality. The ability to go wide really prevents you from being at the mercy of Amazon.
It’s a lot of work though. I make all of my writing everywhere for free on the web as much as I can. In fact, my latest novel that’s $9.99, that’s sold over 1800 copies (it’s over 2,100 copies at press time), is completely free in rough draft form on fanfiction.net right now. It’s been read by over 30,000 people, but I find that by making it free that way (accessibility wise) I’m building a clientele of readers and their relationship with me. Just last night a reader messaged me because she’s in the middle of a move, so it’s more of a personal conversation between the two of us. I asked her if she had all of my books, and she said no. I was able to just go ahead and gift her all my books right then and there. You get a lot of “thank you” and “bless you,” but I grew up hand-to-mouth a lot of times with a lot more month than money to put it that way. So, whenever a reader says, “I can’t afford it” I don’t even blink an eye. I’m just like, “No problem. Here you go.”
You give out your books for free whenever you feel like it?
Yeah, it’s actually part of my writing process because if I could be a writer and put a desk in Times Square, and perform as I was writing, I so would. What I do is I write my chapter, I’ll run it through a few grammar checks here and there to make sure it’s not like you’re going out of the bathroom with toilet paper on your foot. It’s OK. It’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s definitely readable. I put that out there for the world to comment on. By and large my readers are like my cheerleading section. They will tell me, “I love this.” “We need more of this.” “Hurry up and make them get married already.” “Where is the kiss?” It’s really energizing, it really is. Like I said, if I could be in Times Square and just be like, “I’m writing live for you people, and the words are on that billboard!” That’s what I would do.
From a business standpoint it seems like you’re really focused on using permission marketing tactics.
Yea, it’s more like relationship marketing. Even in forums, in author forums, everybody’s going big on, “You have to have 20,000 people in your mailing list. You have to have 30,000 people in your mailing list.” But you have to pay for that. I’d much rather have 600 people on my mailing list that I know 200 will buy my book when I send them the link. You still need those 20-30,000 people, and I actually reach them through Facebook ads and through Google AdWords express.
I always feel weird when I talk about my processes. I always feel that I’m a little bit different than the mainstream.
Yeah, it seems like you’re tackling this from an entrepreneurial standpoint. But, at its core, you’re an entrepreneur creating products that you sell.
Yeah, there was actually a recent article that quoted Jeff Bezos, “You need to know what’s important to your customer 10 years from now.” And what’s important to my customer 10 years from now is a good story that they can get. That’s the two main things. I’m not so new in the industry that I can’t remember a time before Kindle. Something else is going to come along to disrupt. Whether it’s five years down the road or seven years down the road, whatever it is. It may be a new format, but stories have been around since we were sitting around the fire. The story is not going away.
Right. I like that mindset. Let’s talk about your worst moment as an author. Really take us back, bring us to that moment, and share that story with us if you can.
I cannot name names, although people know the name, and it wouldn’t take a whole lot of research to figure it out. 2011, when I first published, I published with stars in my eyes. I had been on Twitter for a good eight months before I published. Being an aspiring author, rubbing elbows with a lot of the names that you now recognize having sold a million copies. We were all brand new back in the 2010/2011 time frame. I’ve always been very good at technology, and I had an author who was a top 100 Amazon author at the time. The author isn’t now, which kind of makes me grin, but it’s my own fault because I allowed myself to get used and abused. I built an entire website and worked for free for five months on the promise of “exposure.” I learned a lot, and my eyes were very well opened. When I asked for a stipend, a very small amount of money in comparison to what the promo I had put together did, this author called me greedy. Then they kicked me out of all the groups and even a lot of things that I had built. I’d even taught this author how to use Google Hangouts, and, all of a sudden, I was greedy, and I was an evil incarnate.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one this happened to. There’s been a whole string of “Elizabeth Ann Wests” behind me that ran into similar problems with this author, and I nearly quit writing. I actually did. I was so demoralized. This author was able to tell me I was so small, and in reality, if I went back to 2011, I sold 27 copies of my first book in my first month, which was not shabby at all back then. I know 27 copies today doesn’t get you a whole lot, but back then that was enough to put you higher than 20,000 in the Paid Kindle Store in the whole month! That’s how small the audience was. Then I did my own first, free run in January 2012 on “Cancelled,” and I got to #27 free in fiction. This is before Bookbub. ENT and Pixel of Ink were really just starting to roll. Not every book got into the top 100 free if you ran free. Kindle Select was literally less than 30 days old when I first went free. I guess what I learned from that moment, and it stays with me, is be careful who you befriend. Because there are a lot of people in this industry, unfortunately, that will have a smile on their face and a knife behind their back. There’s a lot of jealousy, and you really have to be careful. My circle of friends is about four people that are really intimately close to me that I share all my plans with, all of my ideas with, and we bounce back and forth with each other.
How do you go about being careful?
There’s a process now. You share a little bit, and you see what happens with that. You can really start to see early on if somebody is just using you. My litmus test is usually three parts. If I give three ideas, and I still haven’t heard anything back from this person, or they don’t come back to me with something new or exciting, then I know I’m being used. I know that they’re just trying to be friends with me because they think that they could get stuff from me. At the same time it can make you stronger. When I came back in 2014 there were some people on Kboards that approached me when I made a post about “You’re not going to make a living on 99 cents.”
I had people tell me how good their paychecks were, and so they knew what was right and I was wrong. I was like, “Listen, I’m not talking about authors in your position. I’m talking about authors that have one book, and they’ve made it 99 cents. They’re not even making enough to get $5 checks each month from Amazon.” I’ve been there. I’ve lived that for 15 months. So, I’m like, “At least get a check every month even if you’re only going to sell two copies. At least make sure you make $2.50 per copy.”
At what point did you realize that you could make a living as an author? Tell us that story and really bring us there if you can.
That’s hard. It’s hard for me to answer that question only because I’m in the category of the “privileged author.” We live off of my husband’s paycheck. So, I’m one of those authors. I try to be clear about that because there are things that I can do and risks that I can take that other people can’t always take. I think it can be disingenuous if you’re sharing advice or you’re talking about your processes and you’re not clear about the fact that it’s OK if I put this down. However, I do have a goal of making my husband a house husband. He’s served our country for many, many years. He’s been in war, and if my books can make enough money when he retires in five years where he can stay home and do whatever the heck he wants to do then that’s really my goal. I realized that was a possibility in July of 2014 when “The Trouble With Horses” went out there midnight on the 4th of July. It sold 100 copies in a week. I was like, “I figured out Amazon! I figured out how the categories work!”
Oh, let’s talk about that a little bit. Let’s talk about categories.
Oh boy, I have entire discussions on Kboards about this. So, what you want to do is go to Amazon like a shopper. Up at the top left in “Departments” you go to “Kindle eBooks,” and you’ll get on the eBook page. Everyone complains that Amazon doesn’t give us enough information, but they actually give us a whole bunch of information. To the right of every category are how many books are in each category shown in the parenthesis. Every once in a while they change up the formatting and it disappears, but if you just drill down a little bit more then the top left bar will show you “Search Results” and that number is how many are in there. So, if the numbers in the parenthesis ever disappear don’t freak out because it’ll just be at the top.
You can literally drill down and find out how many books come out in your category in 30 days. Now to be on a Hot New Release list you have to be one of the top 100 books that came out in the last 30 days or is a preorder. You need to target a category that has less than 100 books coming out every 30 days. You will always make the Hot New Release list if you just buy your book. I figured out that the Classics British category, at the time, had less than 100 books coming out in a 30 day period. Then I just started releasing books every 30-60 days and all of a sudden I had five books in the top 10 list on one best-seller list. It wasn’t a competitive best-seller list at the time, but now it is because all my friends are there. It’s like, “We own this joint. We own Classic British Fiction.” It’s all full of “Pride and Prejudice” fan fiction, but there are categories in every major genre, even romance. Gothic romance gets something like 120 books in 30 days. It’s the least competitive romance category.
I don’t know how to write a gothic romance, but if I looked it up I could figure it out. I could read a couple of books. Steampunk is another opportunity in sci-fi. Maybe your book is a little bit steampunk, but it’s really urban fantasy. Steampunk would then be your easy category but then you also target urban fantasy. Even if you can’t rank in urban fantasy you’re ranking in steampunk so you’re getting extra help from Amazon’s marketing system (by getting on their emails), and it helps increase your sales. But be reasonable in where you categorize your book, the “easier” category HAS to fit.
How do you figure out that 30 day period of how many books are being published?
Well, if you go to Amazon, in the top left go to “Departments” and you want to go down to “Books and Audible Kindle Books.” On your left sidebar scroll down right where it says “New for you” in the middle, to the left you’ll see “New Releases.” In the last 30 days there have been 92,897 books released in the Kindle Store.
Ah, OK. There’s actually a “Last 30 Days” category.
Yep, but there’s more than that. What genre do you write in again?
My wife writes in Teen and Young Adult.
OK, that’s really tough. So Teen and Young Adult at the bottom, go ahead and click that. 223,000 are in the category, so you have to compete with a quarter million. And then you click on it and it’ll immediately tell you there’s 95,000 Kindle Unlimited eligible. In the last 30 days, I see 6,000 for just “General Young Adult.” Let’s drill down further. What else, what category?
Science Fiction and Fantasy.
OK, now before you click on it, I want you to notice that it’s by far the most competitive category other than just General Literature and Fiction. So, if I was somebody writing YA, I would immediately look at Historical Fiction as an opportunity. I would look at Horror, Social Issues or Sports and Outdoors as other opportunities. Maybe you’re Science Fiction Fantasy, but you can also be Sports and Outdoors if they’re camping.
Let’s go ahead and click on Science Fiction and Fantasy to see where we can find some opportunity here. Are you Science Fiction?
Yup, Science Fiction is good.
Notice that Fantasy has 22,000 books and Science Fiction has 8,000. If you’re writing to market pick the least competitive one. Now you get all the way down to science fiction. Let’s go even further. Are you Action and Adventure, Aliens, Dystopian, Mystery, Steampunk, or Time Travel?
Action and Adventure.
There you go. They only get 34 books every 30 days. If you put a book in that category and you buy one copy then you’re on the Hot New Release list. But, you can even go further. You can go down to the left, and you can see the different “Define by Sci-Fi characters.” You have to balance opportunity though because there are 14 books based off of Pirates in Science Fiction Action and Adventure. If you target that then you’d have great keywords for your Google ads and your Facebook ads. You just target people that like Pirates of the Caribbean. You can also target people that like whatever recent movie came out that’s in the same genre as you.
Perfect! Can you tell us about your decision to go wide? When did you realize that would be something that you’d want to do and that would work for you?
I was around for the very original Kindle Select and I watched as the earliest adopters were the only ones to make big bucks. By the time I joined at the end of January, even though it had been less than a month old, with the number of freebies, you weren’t making as much off the bounce. There isn’t even a bounce anymore. Back then there was a conversation of how many free books put you on the paid rankings so you would go free to get spring boarded onto the paid rankings.
That’s actually antiquated advice. It doesn’t really work like that anymore. So, when Kindle Unlimited was released in July of 2014 I had just written two books, and I made them wide for about a week because I still had all of my accounts from when I had published in 2011. Back when I published in 2011 there was no exclusivity program at all with Amazon. Everybody was just trying to be wide, as wide as could be. I jumped in feet first with Kindle Unlimited, and it was OK. I never made more than $500 off of my borrows, and that was back when borrows were $1.20 apiece. My genre was actually one of the lowest to adopt Kindle Unlimited. Now the readers love it, but it’s a little too late for me. I’m kind of locked in, and I’ll explain. In July 2014, I put two books in. Then I put another book in for September 2014 and another book in November 2014. I then put in a box set with a friend of mine in November 2014. My first JAFF novel was coming out in December 2014 so that was five books in about five months.
They were novellas and page count had nothing to do with it back then. Each borrow was $1.20-1.30, but as I kept putting more books into the program my total borrows kept going down. I was getting fewer and fewer borrows but my overall sales ranking was doing better. I was like, “OK, I’m making less money putting more books into the program.” I was writing in a series so it didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t like the books were bad. I had good reviews, and I had a lot of read-through in terms of sales. It’s like sales were telling me one story and the borrows were telling me a completely different story. There I was faced with putting a full-length novel out, “By Consequence of Marriage” to Kindle Unlimited in December, and my genre commands a higher price for books. I knew “By Consequence of Marriage” it was going to be at least $8. I actually released it wide at $8.24 because I didn’t want to make $1.20 per borrow on that puppy. I had to make the decision that if I wasn’t going to put that novel in Kindle Unlimited then it was time to start strategizing to be wide. I had a backlist, I had six books, and the novellas can be alternating loss-leader status to drive traffic to the novels. I had enough to get the funnel going. So, the first book to come out of Kindle Unlimited was actually book two of my novella series. Immediately when the book came out I started making more money just on the Amazon sales because it couldn’t be borrowed anymore. More people were buying it than those that would have borrowed it instead, and that was enough to completely make up for the fact that I wasn’t getting borrows anymore! So, all the books came out in February, and at that point I didn’t have to make a single penny being wide. I made more money outside of Kindle Unlimited on Amazon alone because my royalties were so high. That’s hard math to do. It’s not hard math, it’s startling math. I was able to see that about 30% of my sales were cannibalized by Kindle Unlimited, and that’s not a small number. There are other problems with Kindle Unlimited for me in the sense that if somebody downloads my free book they have it. It’s counted in the Amazon system as a sale for $0, and that person is counted in the Amazon database as a customer. When you release again there’s a chance that this “customer” is alerted by Amazon’s internal systems with a message like, “Hey, you liked this author. You got this book. They have a new one.” I only know about that because back in the early days when one of us would go free all of us that were authors would hurry up and download the free book to try and help our friend rise in the ranks. I have a very good author friend, Megg Jensen that released a couple of her books for free, and I dutifully got them all. I’ve never read them because I don’t read her genre. I’m not really big into sci-fi fantasy, but Amazon still emails me four years later every time she releases a new book.
Alright, let’s rewind a little bit. When you had your first draft did you have a plan?
For the first book of my resurrection I just kind of published it at midnight. I was out of the game for three years so I didn’t have high expectations at all. The book went out and it was an accidental, serendipitous thing. I was like, “Well, this is wonderful that I learned how well keywords can work.” I used “Pride and Prejudice,” and my genre lends itself to great keywords. Anybody’s genre can have great keywords too if you brainstorm a little bit. Your wife writes Fantasy sci-fi, what are her books about?
Her books are about a strong heroine with superpowers, and she doesn’t know she has them. It goes into the realization of her powers and trying not to hurt people in the process of controlling them.
Keywords don’t generally recognize spaces. So even if you used “super girl” it would still be “supergirl.” If somebody searches “super girl” your book would come up because people who are fans of “super girl” are generally going to like a YA with a strong heroine. Anyway, it takes some brainstorming. It takes some sitting down and one of the best ways to do it is to either look at Twitter’s What’s Trending or Pinterest. Those are the two main ones. It’s about looking for what new shows are coming out and things like that because you can target all of that with your advertising. Nobody comes after you if you target the people who love the show “The Walking Dead” and you write Zombie Apocalypse Fiction. Amazon will get upset if you put “The Walking Dead” in your keywords, but you can do it with Google so it shows up every time somebody searches “The Walking Dead.”
With Facebook and Google ads you can target specific niches of people?
Yup, and Google is a little bit better in terms of variety of interests because it’s been around longer than Facebook.
Which one do you prefer?
Honestly, I like Google AdWords Express. It’s so inexpensive. I think I paid $50 on my last ad, and it reached 170,000 impressions. A lot of authors tend to shy away from that kind of advertising. They are from my days when I was in book advertising and authors were like, “Well I paid $10 so I better make $10 in sales.” In reality, that depends on you. My job is just to draw you traffic, but I can’t control how many people converted (bought your book). That’s based off your book page. If I delivered the ad to people, and I would always show the traffic, like, “This is how many people saw this post on Facebook.” This was back before Facebook changed and now you have to “pay to play.” We actually had reader groups that had over 10,000 people in them, and when I posted something 10,000 people saw it. I charged $5 for those posts. It was really inexpensive at the time when everybody was ready to kill somebody to get a Bookbub. I even look at book marketing very differently than other authors. I look at it solely from a brand perspective. I need to drive it in their skull, “Elizabeth Ann West writes Jane Austen fan fiction.” That’s what I have to drive to the readership at large that likes historical fiction, regency fiction, Jane Austen books, and “Pride and Prejudice.”
Yup, I’ve targeted that too. But even then, if you’re thinking like Venn Diagrams, Downton Abbey doesn’t have quite as much overlap as say “Pride and Prejudice” or Jane Austen does.
You described the idea of a Venn diagram. Is that how you approach most of your promotions and marketing?
Yeah, I mean you have to have a reasonable expectation. If I’m targeting Downton Abbey with a Facebook ad for example, I’ll probably get a 4 or 5 relevancy score. You have to understand what you’re doing. If you take Mark Dawson’s course, or some of these other courses, and then they scream at you about needing to have a high relevancy score, then maybe you do. You may also just want a 5 relevancy score if you know that the particular thing that you’re targeting is really a stretch for your books, or you’re really just trying to grab anybody who could marginally be interested in your product.
Oh, I wrote a note here. You mentioned a “niche” genre. Can you explain that?
A niche genre is a genre of books where the readers are so desperate for more titles they will read any author that puts something out there. It’s usually very specific interests. Erotica actually figured this out I think and probably the fastest in terms of the Indie community goes. When the erotica writers were doing really well in 2011/2012/2013, before all the crackdowns came, you had very specific fetishes where any book in there would just skyrocket. Another example is Arthurian Legends. Readers who like Arthurian Legends want a King Arthur story. It could be about Merlin, you could bring Merlin in, heck, Harry Potter has Merlin in it because he’s one of the wizard cards. The point is everything is derivative, and if you can figure out some audience that would like your story because you have elements of some other stories in it, even if it’s just a homage, then that’s how you can find a lot of readers.
How would you go about figuring out just one particular niche audience?
I often challenge authors to tell me a type of story they read and loved but were frustrated because they couldn’t find another one just like it.
That’s a great question to ask yourself. I really like that.
Yeah, and it’ll tell you the answer. In my case, for example, I was a closet Jane Austen fan fiction reader since my mid-20’s. I say “closet” because it doesn’t sound very elevated to be like, “Yes, I like Jane Austen fan fiction.” At that point you sound like you’re reading “it’s not difficult books,” but I don’t need difficult books.
I have a difficult life. I’m a mother and a military wife. I just need a Mr. Darcy and popcorn, and just reading and reading and reading. I got to the point where I was just, and this is not knocking other books in my genre, just so you know. I love those authors, love them to death, but for me (being a busy mom) I needed to get to the point. I couldn’t do anymore of these huge 400 and 500 page novels. We know what’s going to happen. Can we cut out some of the tea parties and some of the balls, and some of the dinners? When I started writing my books I was writing primarily for an audience of one – just me. I want all the good parts, and I’ll take out the boring bits. Then I started reading more and more about plot and structure and different authors out there that have actually been very successful at this long before me. James Scott Bell, even when you read “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” which I have not yet attempted to write, but good stuff in there, where it really forces you to look at story (in movies and plays and books) and really break it down to the basic bare bones. The things that really resonate with you.
Looking back, if you could do it all over again is there anything you would do differently?
Sometimes I tell myself there’s things I’d do differently, but then I always believe that I wouldn’t be where I am now if I did. I think I would write more. I have a gift in that I’m able to write very quickly, fully formed stories that captivate audiences. When I first started speaking out about how fast I was writing, I was one of the early members of the group “Speed Writers” with Jim Johnson. In about 2014 Dean Wesley Smith put out the idea of writing a million words in a year. You may not have been on Kboards yet for this, but Jim Johnson created a Google group for people who were trying to aim for “Light Speed”, or whatever it was called, for a million words in a year. I picked up dictation, which I was quoted about in one of Chris Fox’s books, and I had a dictation thread on Kboards. I was talking about dictation, and how it allows me to get 1,000 words in 20 minutes. Then there’s maybe 10 minutes to edit that, but I can usually do 2,000 to 3,000 words in an hour. When I was first talking about this there were a lot of people that I let into my brain when they said something like, “It can’t possibly be good if it’s fast.” I just have to accept that. I have to give myself permission to not get trapped in thinking “It has to be perfect” or “I have to fit in” or “I have to be just like everybody else.” I need to write the way that Elizabeth can write in the way that Elizabeth can put out books and just let what works for the other people work for the other people.
Great mindset. I like it. My next question is about marketing, but I think we’ve covered a good amount of that at this point.
Well, I just moved into Google ads and Facebook ads. I spent $400 on my latest launch. I don’t do blog tours. I used to, but I think there’s a time and a place for blog tours. You definitely want to have some clips when you’re first starting out. The clip is if somebody searches your name as an author in Google you don’t want the only things to come up to be your Amazon link and then a whole bunch of other links that don’t relate to you. If you go on a blog tour and you’re on blogs early in your career then those links come up when somebody searches “Elizabeth Ann West.” A blog I was on back in 2012 still comes up in the top 20 results.
Ok, what’s the benefit of that?
There are a couple of benefits. One is that we are an internet society, and that’s the society. Really and truly age on the internet is quickly becoming a top commodity because you can’t fake that very well. You can change the date on your blog if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t necessarily be registered like that by the Way Back Machine and the different crawlers and things like that. So, let’s say an agent or an editor or a big publisher is looking you up. What are they going to be more impressed with, somebody who has two links or somebody who has a breadth of clips and clips they’ve been on? It just provides a more professional front.
Oh, I see. It’s like a portfolio almost.
Yeah, it’s like the difference between being the kiosk in the mall that’s in the middle of the hall and having a boutique store versus moving to the point where you have the anchor store. Like Amanda M. Lee, she’s got an anchor store. I have a little, single boutique, but it’s a boutique. I’m not in the kiosk.
You mentioned that you write pretty fast and you took a break for a few years.
I actually just recently took another break from July of 2015 until March of 2016, I did not publish anything.
How did you get yourself back into it?
That was when the money went away. No seriously, July of 2015 was my first month ever where I made over $10,000 in a month. I released a book and I had a Bookbub. So I was like, “Woohoo!” Then the decay slowly happened, and it took all the way until February of 2016 before I was below $1000 a month on Amazon. It was around $700. I was like, “Oh my goodness! I have to write a book!” So I had “A Blessing of Marriage” in progress, and I shared chapters and stuff. I think I had 15 chapters when I got hot on it again. There’s nothing like a falling royalty book report to be like, “You better be getting back into the game!”
It’s not so much the money though. When I talk about the money, for me, it’s not about it being actually what it is. It’s just a number. I love data. Like I love looking at page hits as much as I love looking at the Book Report. I actually like Google Analytics more than my Book Report honestly because then I can go down and be like, “Oh, look, they’re spending five minutes on my site versus four minutes last month.”
So you saw your Book Report and it was showing lower numbers than you would normally get? You basically just kicked right back into it?
Well, I had to put up or shut up. I had to decide what I was going to do to actually get back into the game. It wasn’t very easy because I was homeschooling, and we just moved into a new house. I had no normal. My new normal was waking up at five in the morning to get a good two to three hours of writing before the rest of the family woke up. Then I could do my day because I don’t get any writing in at night anymore. It’s what happens when you get into your thirties.
I kind of come down half awake, start the coffee, and between 5:00 and 5:30 I can usually write. Sometimes if I’m lazy and hubby’s going to the gym I’ll take my dictation stick upstairs (my MP3 recorder), and I won’t get out of bed until after I record a scene. Then I come downstairs around 6:30/7:00, and I don’t feel so guilty because I can plug it in and I’ll have 1,000 words. Then I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not lazy!”
“I totally wrote these words!”
Totally did. Never mind if they need to be edited and some of it doesn’t make sense. It’s “organic.”
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success as an author?
I am always willing to learn new things. I find that the stuff that stops my author friends, people who have been around a lot longer than me who have seen much bigger success than me, what ends up happening to them, not all but some, is they refuse to change. They refuse to learn new things. When that happens, whether it’s a new genre or a new way of marketing, then they unfortunately don’t get to keep going in the game the same level that they were. I personally pursue new stuff all the time to learn. I’m always on the latest. When stuff does hit the fan I’m already exposed to it and I’ve taken away that layer of shock. I’m not like, “Oh my god, Facebook ads! I’ve never even heard of it.” I’d already used Facebook ads for a whole year, to varying degrees, before Facebook ads was THE hot thing to do.
What’s a new thing that you’re learning now?
Hmmm. What do I want to give away? So, the newest thing, I haven’t implemented it yet, that’s important to note. This is extremely experimental from the laboratory of Elizabeth Ann West. You can sign up for an Amazon Seller account for $40 a month, and you can set up to sell your own signed paperbacks on Amazon straight to customers. It’s more expensive if you want to be fulfilled by Amazon, but you can actually mail it from your house. What better way to build a Christmas card list of your readers than by people that purchase signed paperbacks? You don’t have to discount them, you can sell them for the regular price, and then they’ll tack on shipping or whatever. If your books cost $4 to print from Createspace, and you sell them for $9.99 signed, then you make $5 on the deal. It opens the door for traditional sponsored products advertising on Amazon. You can purchase products or you can purchase advertising in the Amazon store for your signed paperbacks. Ideally you can build up this thing where you told all your readers about it because you personally know them, and they’re on your mailing list. They can put reviews there, and it can be a great way for readers to come in and get a handshake from you before they’ve even read your book.
That is so cool!
That’s the super experimental thing on my radar for the next six months.
What are you most excited about right now?
What I’m most excited about right now is working with my best friend, April Floyd. We worked together for four years. There’s a little spell where we were still best friends and helping each other, but we were both doing our own things for a little bit. Then at the end of April, we were just like, “No, we’re going to go into this together because it makes more sense.” Economies of scale.
If I’m really good at running Google ads then I should run Google ads for both us rather than both of us having to take the time to learn it. Not saying she can’t learn Google ads, she absolutely can, and she is, but it takes something off of the to-do list for “right this second” and moves it to “we’ll get to that when we have time.” We’ve just been screaming good. Since the end of April, I’ve put out one book, and she’s put out two books. And we have more in the works!
Wow, are these novellas?
One of hers was a novella, the other one is a novel, and mine’s a novel. The two coming out soon are novellas. I do both. It’s really kind of the same thing. It’s like the difference of 15,000 words. Yeah, I’m not writing 100,000 word books. In fact, most of my novels are between 45,000 and 65,000 words. Then my novellas are between 20,000 words and 38,000 words.
What’s the best way we can reach you?
My website elizabethannwest.com, that’s the easiest way. I’m also on Facebook. And I’m not often on Twitter. I’m working on it. I’m usually on Twitter about once a week, which is @eawwrites, but the easiest way to contact me is to just email me. I am not one of those authors that’s like “Oh no, I can’t email!” No. Please just email me, which is email@example.com. I get emails all the time.
Alright, Elizabeth. What advice do you have for those of us trying to become full-time authors?
I actually thought about this one for a long time. Before Chris Fox was “the Chris Fox,” he and I would just chat on Facebook on things because our philosophies are very similar. One of the things that both of us realized that we do early on is game-ify how we do our business. That requires authors from the very beginning to know your past, know your present, and know your future. It can’t just be like, “Oh, I want to be a Top 100 author.” You need to make a goal and keep trying things until you reach that goal. Don’t change your goal just because you haven’t hit it. If you try a few times and you don’t hit it then you need to talk to people, you need to do research, you need to figure out what it is to get to that next level. You can’t cheat by putting in a cheat code. You have to figure out how to make that super hard jump that Mario has to make.
I think that’s the best advice that I could give because if you don’t have tenacity for getting to your next level, whatever that next level is, you’re not going to get there. Because it’s hard, and the second you get an obstacle or the first time you try to make the jump and you fall in the little hole, you’ll go, “Well, it doesn’t work for me. It works for all these other people because they’re lucky.” Then you’re going to miss out on some of the best things that there are to have from this life.
If you have any questions that you’d like me to ask Elizabeth then I can compile those because she is more than happy to do a part two. Just email me at Brandon@buildyourauthorcareer.com
If you want to travel back in time with Mr. Darcy and get a dose of Jane Austen story variations then check out Elizabeth’s author page.
Enjoy the interview? Then please let me know! Email me at Brandon@buildyourauthorcareer.com or leave a comment below. I read every email and comment.
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To your consistent progress,