A little over eight years ago, I got the idea for my first published book. I was going through a lot of growth then, particularly with my understanding of church and Christianity. I had found a church community to nurture my skeptical beliefs. And I thought, this is different. This is good. I wanted to share what I’d found with other people. I wanted to write about Christians who were like the people I knew, not those I’d read about in my admittedly limited exposure to typical Christian fiction.
But how to do that? Cozy mysteries are largely about relationships, usually in small towns, and writing a cozy mystery series incorporating my fictional community that mirrored my real life one sounded like a terrific idea. I developed my characters, came up with a murder plot, and started working on the first draft.
I was also tired of the day job by this point. Several mergers and acquisitions had me looking for work every few years. After being the head of a department and a senior programmer-analyst, I was forced to take positions that only marginally used my skills. No one wants an old programmer.
But I wasn’t sure I could afford to retire. Now, we’re talking the 2010-2011 timeframe, when indie (or self) publishing took off like a rocket. Lots of people were making good money with their writing. It seemed totally possible to supplement my Social Security and 401K money with an income from writing mystery novels.
But I hadn’t finished a novel yet, much less published one, so I had no guarantee this was possible. I told myself that when I finished my first novel, meaning took it all the way to publication, I could quit my day job.
I was still pretty much a baby writer, and it took me three years before I published that first book. I called it Faith, Hope, and Murder. It was a book of the heart, something I needed to write.
Self-publishing had changed by 2013. No longer could you just put a book up on Amazon and watch the sales pile up. I watched several months go by with no sales. I could force little spikes by paying for advertising, but I couldn’t afford to do that often with the money I wasn’t earning.
And now people said you had to have at least three books published to see those earlier sales numbers. So I wrote Shadow of Death, probably my favorite in the Community of Faith series. I got better at planting clues and red herrings, better at developing characters. I found a new cover designer and replaced the cover of Faith, Hope, and Murder to match the style of Shadow of Death.
I also found out about something called reader expectations. Readers of a genre want the books they read to be similar in certain ways. Faith, Hope, and Murder got some pretty nasty reviews because of my unique take on a Christian novel. The thing I liked most about it, some readers of Christian fiction found objectionable.
As I began my third novel in the series, I realized that this wasn’t going to provide that supplemental retirement income I had dreamed about. I started thinking about writing a more marketable mystery series, one that would be easier to sell. Years before, I’d gotten the idea of an amateur sleuth who raised African violets. Clean, but not overtly Christian. It seemed to me this was the perfect solution.
I’d also learned that one of the secrets to lots of sales was something called rapid release. If you release books in a series a month apart, you build momentum with readers and Amazon. Except I couldn’t write books that fast. I had to come up with another way.
So, once a year, I changed gears and wrote a book in my African Violet Club mystery series during National Novel Writing Month. After three years of this, I published these three books approximately one month apart. I definitely saw better sales than I’d ever had before doing this, but I couldn’t keep that pace up.
Meanwhile, authors started talking about needing five books, even ten, in a series before you would see steady, significant sales. I wondered how I’d ever get to that point. I knew I “should” write the fourth book in the Community of Faith series next, but with sales of those books in the doldrums, I found it hard to push myself to do that. I wrote a fourth book in the African Violet Club series instead. And then a fifth book.
I also spent a lot of time and money learning how to write sales copy for my books to make them more attractive to potential buyers. I spent more time and money redesigning my website and paying not only for hosting but WordPress themes and plug-ins. I bought ads on the popular lists that would accept me. I networked, joined a tweet team to promote my books (and those of the other members of the team), and spent hours and hours trying to make Amazon ads and Facebook ads work. Then the whole GDPR thing hit the fan, which had everyone who has a newsletter or a web presence scrambling in order to comply, even though no one knew what that meant.
I always seemed to be behind on my self-imposed deadlines to finish more books.
When I set goals for this year, I put the fourth book in the Community of Faith series as the second book I’d publish in 2018. Rather than being a continuing series, I’d use this fourth book to wrap up the loose ends in my characters’ lives and provide closure. Authors in one group I belong to insisted I owed my readers that much.
But when I tried to plan that book, I found the same resistance that had overtaken me in each of the previous years. My heart just isn’t in that series anymore. I could probably come up with a formulaic plot, but I dreaded spending the weeks it would take to actually write that book.
And lately, I seem to have a whole lot less energy than I used to. While I had every intention of working full-time hours on my author career this year, I’m lucky if I can manage twenty hours a week. I know this because I keep a spreadsheet of all my writing activities so I can prove to the IRS that I’m a “real” author, not a hobbyist.
Because I’ve been using my energy to try to write and market books, I haven’t been doing other things I enjoy. My trip to the UK, something I’ve wanted to do for years, keeps getting postponed. It crossed my mind to buy an electronic keyboard not too long ago, refresh my music skills, but I realized it would be another thing I’d buy but wouldn’t use. I keep thinking I’d like to play some interactive fiction games, maybe even write one, but that would take too much time. When I want to read a novel, I’m more likely to be reading a book on plotting or some other aspect of writing craft. Or watching webinars or listening to podcasts, trying to find the magic key that will sell more books.
Writing and marketing have become a real chore, not a fun way to spend my time in retirement and earn some extra cash.
So last week I told myself it was okay to be a part-time writer instead of a full-time one. There was no purpose in beating myself up because I couldn’t complete a new book every three months. I would still be (slowly) working on that supplemental retirement income.
But lately I’m spending more money on advertising than I get in sales. In business terms, what used to work now has poor ROI (Return on Investment). I can’t keep going on like this. This week, I had an ad with a list that always used to earn me twice as much as I spent. This time it didn’t even pay for itself.
I can’t keep putting pressure on myself to do more to make my dream come true. There’s no point in doing something if it’s not fun. Not at my age.
So there won’t be a fourth book in the Community of Faith mystery series any time soon. There may never be another book in that series. And I’m not going to jump into the sixth book of my African Violet Club mysteries. I’m thinking about treating my writing as a hobby rather than a business. I don’t want to have to prove to anyone—especially not the IRS—how hard I’m working at this. I don’t want to be constantly worrying about how to sell books or learning new software to support a late-life career. I’m going to take some time off, figure out what else I want to do with my life. Perhaps I’ll come back to writing refreshed. Perhaps I’ll find something else I love instead. I just know I need a break.