How I Took Charge of My Life and Career

6 years ago

In February 2010, I was laid off from our local newspaper, my second layoff in two years. I decided it was time to take charge of my life and career and to stop being someone else’s employee, writing and publishing other people’s stories, and getting let go when the work ran out.

In my heart, I was a novelist, and it was time to make a living from my fiction. To get from point A to point B, I made some radical decisions. I decided I had to stop wasting time and money on things that weren’t working and focus on things that were. What wasn’t working for me was my small publisher, which couldn’t get my books into bookstores. What was working for a lot of people was the growth of e-book sales.

I set aside the novel I was writing and got busy saving my career. The first step was to rewrite and self-publish on Kindle a standalone thriller I had completed but never sold. I’d once had a big-name agent for it, so I knew it was solid. I also had a second standalone thriller that my publisher had offered a contract for, but I hadn’t signed it yet—because the book wasn’t scheduled to be released until late 2012. That seemed like an eternal and foolish wait. I had a mortgage to pay immediately. What made sense was to get the two thrillers into the digital world where readers were buying.

I took the second major step and let my publisher know I was withdrawing my standalone. I spent a couple months rewriting and updating the stories, then I paid for editing and cover design. I withdrew the money from my tiny retirement account and considered it an investment in my future. That summer, I published the two thrillers (The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect) on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.

At that point, I had one foot in each world. I was self-published, but I still had a traditional press for my series. Next, I rerouted my promotional efforts toward e-book readers. I quit sending marketing material to bookstores and instead joined several Kindle forums, where I participated in discussions. I got more active on Goodreads and did five back-to-back book giveaways just for the exposure. I wrote a dozen guest blogs and sent them all over the Internet. My sales jumped significantly.

By then my publisher had uploaded the second Detective Jackson story (Secrets to Die For) to Kindle, and I started thinking about how much money I could make if my publisher wasn’t keeping most of my digital profits. After the third Jackson book (Thrilled to Death) faced the same difficulty getting into bookstores, I decided withdraw from my press. It took a few weeks to finally make the call. Who willingly gives up a second publishing contract? Taking back my series meant foregoing the industry’s stamp of approval. I hated to let it go, but I felt I had no choice if I wanted to make a living.

So I called my publisher and asked for my ebook rights back. I also asked to be released from the contract for the fourth Jackson story (Passions of the Dead). I knew the manuscript had not been edited, so no time or money had been invested. My publisher was not happy, but graciously granted my requests. Letting go of that contract was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not only did it mean taking on the “self-published” stigma, it also meant giving up book signings, which I love. But I had looked into the future and determined that bookstores were not where most people would buy their novels in 2012. For once, I wanted to be ahead of the curve.

I sent my Jackson files to be converted to e-books, then uploaded my versions to Amazon, as my publisher took hers down. At that point, I had five books selling on Kindle, and my numbers were getting better every month. While the last manuscript was out for editing and cover design, I bought an inexpensive ad on the Kindle Nation newsletter and increased my online promotional efforts. Sales took another huge leap.

When I released the fourth Jackson story on Kindle, I dropped the price of the first book in the series (The Sex Club), to $.99. Sales for the first book skyrocketed, and a week later, sales for the follow-up stories nearly doubled. I uploaded my series to Barnes & Noble's Nook and started selling there too. Mystery Scene and Crimespree magazines gave me great reviews, lending credibility to my work, and devoted readers spread the word.

By the end of the year, my series was a bestseller on Kindle, and I was making a living from my novels. I now have seven books on the market, an eighth one coming out in September, and no worries about being laid off. Taking charge of my writing career and investing in myself was the best thing I’ve ever done.

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and mystery/suspense novelist

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