writer burnout

(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)

This time last year, I was working on my launch strategy for the first three books in The Lost Witches of Aradia series. I already knew I was going to rapid release them one month apart starting in January, which was a great way to jumpstart my career and retain readers. I released Book 4 in July, and I just released Book 5 on Halloween.

That’s right: I’ve published five books this year! Insanity.

Part of my launch strategizing included a huge decision. Did I put my books in KU (Kindle Unlimited), or make them widely available on all retailers? After a lot of thinking and reading, I decided to go with my gut and my values and launch wide. Putting my books in KU would mean I was prohibited from selling them on any other store or on my own website, and I’d be earning less than the price of each book in page reads. For $10 a month, KU readers can read as many KU books as they want. It’s a great system for book-a-day and other binge readers, most notably in the romance genre (but it’s still huge in most fiction genres.)

Amazon dominates the ebook market. No one else can compare. Forcing authors to be exclusive in exchange for an impressive, avid reader base is another strategy Amazon has employed to further monopolize the market. Authors in KU end up entirely dependent on Amazon and, often, Amazon ads, for their income, with up to 90% of their earnings derived from KU page reads. To make KU even more advantageous for authors, Amazon counts every KU “borrow” as a sale in their rankings algorithm, even if that reader never ends up reading the book and the author sees no actual income from that reader.

What does this mean? Well, go take a look at any Top 100 category on Amazon. Do you see any non-KU books? Perhaps you see a few. But are they traditionally-published bestsellers? (Or: Do they have a Bookbub featured deal today?) Herein lies the problem. Traditionally published bestsellers can compete with KU books because they can push hundreds of sales a day. KU books can skyrocket in the charts off of borrows alone—they don’t even need to be making that many sales, technically. Amazon’s algorithm is everything to authors. High ranks mean greater visibility, which leads to more sales, which leads to more visibility. It’s the golden positive feedback loop. When the algorithm starts working for you, Amazon ads will also work better, because the algorithm is better able to push your book to your ideal readers. You start populating in searches, or in the also-boughts of other authors and books. The gears of this wheel churn a hell of a lot smoother and easier for books in KU.

And that was okay with me. Sure, most of the books in my genre were in KU. But not every book was! I knew a couple very successful indie fantasy romance wide authors, and I decided to study what they were doing and have faith that committing to the long game would pay off in the end. I didn’t want to be in KU. I wanted my books to be available to readers in countries without access to KU, or to readers opposed to buying books from Amazon. I also didn’t want to be dependent on Amazon for the entirety of my income, especially after seeing the horror stories of authors getting their accounts terminated out of the blue for no good reason. My values were aligned, and I worked incredibly hard to follow all the best advice to make wide work for me.

For the past two new releases, I’ve ranked in the top 30 of the Apple Books Store. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m not selling that many books. It’s unfortunately not all that difficult to rank high in the Apple Books store when all of your preorders are “sold” at once, because Apple moves vastly fewer books than Amazon does. That being said, I’m incredibly proud to have earned 56.7% of this year’s revenue from wide sources (42.4% from Apple Books, 43.3% from Amazon, 7.8% from Google Books, 5.1% from Kobo, and 1.4% from Barnes and Noble.) In the wide sphere, earning as much as I have from Apple is a pretty epic achievement.

However, five books and eleven months in, I’m still not making a living. To many authors, the income I’ve made so far might be enviable in this rugged, winner-take-all market, but as a full-time author, it’s just not enough. At the indie writers conference I attended last week in Vegas, I was told many times that I was doing “all the right things” and just needed to keep going. Wide authors advised me to do more free promos, launch Kickstarter campaigns, and keep hoping for a Bookbub Featured Deal (a newsletter-based promo site with thousands of wide readers that’s extremely selective, but will often launch someone into the top charts and lift their career off the ground.) The problem is, much of the advice for making wide work for me could be summarized into two categories: to keep doing what I was doing and wait for lightning to strike, or to add several more income-generating schemes to my to-do list to further diversify my income.

And y’all… I’m going to keep it real with you. I’m tired. Today I had to go in for an ultrasound for several of my organs because of some wonky blood test results. I’m still struggling to find a thyroid medication that doesn’t make my hair fall out. As amazing and fulfilling as my life is, there are several stressors I’m dealing with outside of the writing sphere that I have to make space for. Unlike many authors in this space, I do not pride myself in a machine-like ability to work 90% of my waking hours. If I don’t take care of my body and mind, I won’t be able to work at all. And if I have to launch Kickstarters, start a Patreon, apply for free promos multiple times a week, sacrifice small animals, and sell my soul to the devil to make wide work for me, then I don’t have the bandwidth for all that.

The problem with comparing myself to trad-published and established indie authors who are killing it wide is that these authors have something I don’t: An established readership. Of course Unnamed Indie Author #1 is making wide work for her! She has 50+ books published and has been building her wide audience for a decade. It’s a whole lot easier to make an income off of wide books when you have so many that you only need to sell a couple of each a day to make bank. Or when you were a part of the early boom of indie publishing, back before KU was even a thing. And of course Ms. Sarah J. Maas isn’t losing anything by not being in KU! She’s already a crazy successful bestseller, she’s pushed by a major trad publisher, and there is absolutely no recognition barrier to purchase her books.

Readers don’t know who I am yet, and thus it’s far harder to gain traction with full-priced books. Readers are starting to, though, and that’s been the most surreal and incredible feeling I’ve ever experienced. I love my cozy, witchy little group of readers who want to attend virtual movie nights with me and discuss anything from sexy book boyfriends to the spiritual undertones of TLWOA.

It breaks my heart to think that some of my readers will think I’m abandoning them without a second thought. But I’ve given this a lot of thought. I spoke to as many people as I could about my problem at my recent conference, and unfortunately it was the KU crowd that swayed me the most. Because it was my KU author friends who told me that all they could say was that they thought I’d make more money because they made more money making the switch. They kept it short and simple. “It’s easier, you will probably make more money and grow your readership faster, but you do you.” In contrast, the wide authors I spoke to often cited abstract values as reasons I should reconsider and keep trying to make wide work. “You just have to keep playing the long game because Amazon is horrible and you don’t want to be dependent on one income stream. You need to keep hoping/waiting for X, and to try X, Y, or Z.” And the thing is, I already knew all of the things they said. The ideal of not being exclusive to Amazon was the main reason I went wide to begin with. When I balanced both perspectives and the hard numbers, it was clear what I needed to do if I wanted to feel like I was exhausting all avenues.

I had to put my books in KU.

The beautiful thing is? I can pull them right back out in 90 days if I change my mind. That’s how long each KU period lasts before renewing again.

I will never know where I’d be today if I’d taken this forking path from the beginning, and I don’t have any regrets. In the future, when I have an established audience, I’d much prefer to be making the bulk of my sales directly through my website rather than third-party retailers. But I can’t keep making decisions based on an intangible future—I have to make them for the here and now, or I’ll never even make it there.

I still feel weird about this decision, and I’ve been mentally preparing myself for a whole lot of disappointed emails, but I also trust that my intuition isn’t leading me astray. In fact, I’m starting to get excited! Advertising is going to get easier, publishing will be far simpler, and there’s a very real possibility that this will give me the boost I need to finally reach the next level.

I’m a full-time author. I don’t have a Plan B. This is it. As much as I wish I could just write books and vibe and everything in my life would be magickally perfect, we live under the shadow of global capitalism. Or perhaps in its iron cage. (A Weber reference for my fellow sociology nerds.)

My creative and spiritual pursuits will always be constrained under our current world order. I am an artist and I am a business owner, and these two sides of me are often in direct opposition of each other. I can only make the most balanced decision I can at any given moment, and right now, that means prioritizing my short-term livelihood over my long-term vision until I have the freedom to focus entirely on the latter.

This is the beauty of allowing yourself to change your mind. I would rather go fiercely into a new path than stay stagnated. And if it comes to it, I’ll happily change my mind all over again.

A Special Note to Readers:

This will be in my regular author newsletter too, but in case you don’t see it: You have until the end of the day Thursday (11.24) to download my books from wide platforms if there are any you haven’t already purchased. Then you can keep them forever. After that, you will still be able to buy my ebooks off of Amazon even if you don’t have a Kindle, and you can read on a laptop, smart phone, or tablet using the Kindle app. You could also buy a paperback copy, or of course, join KU if you read $10 worth of books each month. Additionally, I’m working on a way to allow you to purchase new releases directly from me before they go live on Amazon. That way you can download a generic ebook file and read wherever and however you want without giving Amazon a dime. Lastly, be on the lookout for ARC team updates and join the team for a complementary copy of new releases! I announce it in the Coven and my author newsletter.

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(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe, like, or leave a comment.)

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