Beating Cancer, Finishing My Epic Fantasy Sequel, and Selling More Books Than Ever

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I started coughing up blood every day last October. It began as just an annoying dry cough right after I’d slightly choked on a wasabi-slathered dumpling. I was sure my little culinary mishap had caused some kind of inflammation that led to bronchitis, and, having no insurance, I tried to just tough it out even as regular fevers accompanied the problem. The knifing pains that grew worse in my lower abdomen and back were just a result of the strain the cough was putting on my muscles, I kept telling myself.

Finally, after three weeks of wishing this would clear up on its own, I went to Urgent Care on Nov 1 and was swiftly diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to my liver and lungs. The doctor was quick to reassure me that this type of cancer is very treatable with an extremely high survival rate, and I drove home accepting the completed puzzle whose little pieces I’d been ignoring since long before that bitch of a cough set in.

I spent the next few days discovering my luck was so much better than I’d realized, getting insurance through Covered California (Thanks Obama!) and persuading the fine people who work for San Diego County to expedite my coverage so I wouldn’t have to wait till the New Year to start treatment. Turns out their timing was excellent as my left leg started feeling like it had a 30-pound weight strapped to it when I walked, then quickly became sore, swollen, purplish, and barely able to get me around the house.

One week after my diagnosis, I was finally able to see the oncologist I’d been referred to, who breezed through our consultation and sent me for an ultrasound that revealed the cancer had caused a major blood clot extending through my leg into my abdomen. The oncologist didn’t feel like talking about it afterward, but he left some cute pills at the front desk.

Anyway, while seeing few alternatives to weeks of waiting for this or that scan before treatment could begin thanks to this fuckduster fellow, I was again super fortunate to be seen by a urologist who took all of two minutes to assess my situation and tell me, “You need to be in the hospital right now, Asshole.” To which I replied, “All right, Clammy Hands.”

He called his connections at the adjacent ER, where I was promptly admitted and hospitalized for six days. The staff at Scripps Memorial Encinitas were wonderful, and during a week when I would have otherwise been twiddling my thumbs waiting for one minor step toward treatment, they wasted no time knocking out every barrier between me and the lifesaving care I needed. An MRI showed that my brain was clear of tumors, and other procedures found that the blood clot had traveled through my heart and set up shop in my lungs with the cancer. I ditched that first oncologist and went with the team at cCare whose expertise AND compassion are abundantly clear. The hospital administered my first week of chemo, and it was way easier to tolerate than I’d anticipated.

It’s been three months now since I got out of the hospital, and I’ve been giving myself two shots in the stomach a day ever since to keep my blood from turning to cottage cheese. The leg is much easier to walk on but still balloons up with little provocation, and I won’t be reliving my glory days of running miles on the beach anytime soon. Chemo Cycle 4 is near the end (I think somewhere around the start of Cycle 2 is when I woke up with my hair falling out and decided to Walter White that shit). Just about every time I go for treatment I’m reminded that my situation is a damn walk in the park compared to other patients’ hellish illnesses and side effects that I’ve managed to avoid. My mom, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends have all provided unique antidotes to the poison, and I hope to give back many times over.

A CT Scan in mid December showed that the cancer and clots in my lungs and abdomen are significantly reduced, and another on March 1 will determine whether I still need chemo. I suspect a few more cycles will be in order, which will be a breeze like the last couple. I’m looking at another two or three slightly inconvenient months, and then I’ll turn 30 at the beginning of my new normal–when I publish my second book and see life-improving profits from my successful advertising strategy born from several failed ones.

This next part will probably be more relevant to those in the publishing game trying to improve their sales, but might still be a fun read for everyone. Don’t be a dick.

I published my first novel, an epic fantasy, three years ago, and became obsessed with the idea of selling enough copies of it to pay my bills every month. Holy shit did that not work out, but it led me to find that it actually could with just two books in a series. I started by paying some “social media guru” to blast my book’s link to thousands of Twitter followers several times a day, which is a really obnoxious and ineffective way to market. A sizable portion of these people are likely not even interested in the genre you’ve written, and most of those who are might look at the post a second longer than others, while the select few who click it probably won’t buy it.

Then, over the ensuing couple years, I focused more time and money than I care to admit on Amazon Ads, Facebook Ads, and BookBub Ads. You need to be careful with these, because they can easily draw you into a state that’s essentially gambling addiction. They each provide this magic machine at your fingertips into which you can put x dollars and sometimes get back more than x, which brings on an intoxicating endorphin buzz that makes you disregard the more frequent cases where you lose your fucking shirt because you really don’t know what you’re doing.

That was the negative overall experience I had with pay-per-click advertising on Amazon and Facebook. Despite a few rare days or even weeks where my return on investment came near enough to my ad spend that sequel sales could theoretically overtake that margin, there was no combination of sales price, pitch, and audience that produced a scaleable, reliable business model built on just two books. I did however collect enough positive results to do well on those platforms when my series is at least three books strong. BookBub, in my experience, is the gold mine that can bring in consequential monthly profits with just two books.

BookBub is the biggest book advertising platform in the world, with millions of subscribers who have signed up to receive a daily e-mail about discounted ebooks in their preferred genres. One significant thing that sets it apart from Amazon and Facebook is that 100% of the people on that platform already want to be sold books. That’s the only reason they’re there, so they’re not nearly as “cold” as the customers you’ve tried to entice on other sites. Most authors and publishers know about the coveted BookBub Featured Deal, for which hundreds apply every day and only a handful get selected. If you’re fortunate enough to have your book selected for this promotion, which I was once, you’ll see a few months’ worth of sales over the span of just a couple glorious days.

Authors who’ve written a series will often promote their first book this way at a price of 99c-$2.99, and then make serious bank from hundreds of full-priced sequel sales. BUT, you can only do this for a particular book once every six months, and there’s no guarantee it’ll be selected a second time. As exhilarating as it was to see my debut epic fantasy rank above A Game of Thrones on Amazon’s Epic Fantasy Bestseller list for a few hours, I’d happily settle for a more permanent spot a few dozen rungs down the ladder.

Here’s what today’s BookBub e-mail for Fantasy looks like on my iPhone:

 

Front and center is Masks and Shadows, today’s Featured Deal, a promo that cost the publisher $1,200 to hit the inboxes of 1.8 million subscribers interested in Fantasy (would cost about $700 if the book were 99c). Beneath all the platform links for that, you’ll see another ad for a different book from a different author. THIS chunk of real estate is the gold mine I’m talking about if you’re an author looking to earn a profit that actually makes a difference in your life consistently every month. It’s a spot you can grab not once every six months, but every single day.

The way the bidding system works, you can attach your ad to the bottom of a Featured Deal e-mail for around $6-8 per every 1,000 unique recipients, and do it on a large enough daily scale to spend easily $100 a day and see enough sales to make it worth that investment, if you target and pitch proficiently. I was surprised to see that this book advertised at the lower half is selling really well, because my data shows that such a vague pitch made to the entire Fantasy audience fares poorly. I doubt this ad could bring in a positive return on investment with just one or even two sequels to sell. This book is however the first in a series of five, and maybe the publisher’s got several other marketing avenues in play.

You’ll get the best results by being surgical in your audience targeting, and BookBub lets you do just that by providing the option to select fans of specific authors rather than broad genres. Find semi-popular authors of books comparable to yours, use Photoshop or canva.com to tailor your ads to convince those readers that if they love that writer, then your book is precisely their cup of tea, sell your book for 99c, and you’ll acquire dozens of new customers per day at a reasonable cost.

I don’t love selling a book I put my heart and soul into for 99c, but I’m ecstatic about the opportunity to make a grand or two a month off of my art, and this is the only approach I’ve found that allows for a meaningful profit margin from just two books to offer. Repeatedly seeing that no such margin remained after the cost of pitching my $5.99 Book 1 to those few willing to pay that (fair) price, I realized that if I could sell Book 1 at 99c for a customer acquisition cost around $2, and 65-70% of those people bought Book 2 for $4.99 or $5.99, then I was in the money.

Say I spent $100 on a day’s ads to sell 50 copies of Book 1 at 99c a pop. My cut of each sale is 35c, which amounts to $17.50. But then say 35 of those 50 customers go on to buy Book 2 for $5.99, for which my cut is $4.10. That amounts to $143.50, and added to $17.50 I’ve made $161 off of one day’s investment of $100. It sure as hell isn’t much, but I’d be over the moon to just press a few keys and collect $60 a day or $1,800 a month from two books that are done while I write the third.

On the cold, unforgiving landscape of GoodreadsBook 1’s 415 ratings show that 90% of readers at least “liked it,” and 70% either “really liked it” or “loved it,” so I don’t think it’s aiming too high to think that if Book 2 were available today, 70% of those buying Book 1 would eventually move on to the sequel. With that reasoning in mind, I found five popular authors with large fan bases on BookBub and was successful in making 1 99c sale for about every $2 spent, easily getting between 40 and 50 sales per day with extra gravy trickling in from subscribers to Kindle Unlimited (basically Netflix for books).

After focusing the better part of two years on building a well-oiled book-selling machine that I can run like clockwork every day while I write more books, I’m as close as I think I’ll ever get. I’ve tested it thoroughly enough to know that it’s reliable on any given day, and now all the equation needs to be complete is Book 2. I was just starting the final three chapters when I got my diagnosis, and trading a hospital bed for the writer’s chair feels a bit daunting, but good.

I spent my 20s turning away from several paths I was urged to take, ones that could have offered much-needed comfort and stability, trying instead to figure out how to build a life on work that shares the best and brightest of me with the world. I can’t believe how fast my 30s have come along, but if I can start them in that bright patch I always envisioned just over that next hill, maybe I won’t let them go by so quickly.

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