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If you want to be a successful indie author these days, you need to get to grips with technology. Whether it's writing, publishing or book marketing, there are lots of different tools that can make the author life easier … if you're willing to learn.
Today I talk to Ron Vitale, author and technology expert and we geek out on all kinds of useful stuff 🙂
In the intro, I mention the new Audible snippets functionality, How I Have Iterated And Optimized My Author Business In The Last Year, and the new Self-Publishing Formula Podcast. Plus, my progress on Destroyer of Worlds, ARKANE #8.
This podcast is sponsored by the Creative Freedom Course; A Step By Step Guide to Making a Living with Your Writing, based on my own journey from one book to multi-six-figure author entrepreneur. Creative Freedom is about empowering you as the creative and giving you the tools and skills necessary to make a living with your writing. Click here to learn more.
Ron Vitale is a fantasy and sci-fi author, as well as a web technology director in higher education and a marathon runner. Here's his round-up post on lessons learned as an author in 2015 which we talk about in the show.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- What Google Analytics is and why it matters for authors.
- Writing blog and website content aimed at the specific audience Google Analytics is telling you is visiting your site.
- The next steps after Google Analytics, including enabling demographic aspects and asking readers what type of information they want more of.
- Why measuring information helps us to manage it and these Google tools help authors create more diversified streams of income.
- A brief overview about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and the future of web searches, including how algorithms are learning from what we search for.
- Why longevity matters to Google.
- The future for writers who want to create in new arenas like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.
- An explanation of Accelerated Mobile Pages, how authors can apply this technology to their sites and why it matters for global growth of ebook sales. Read The Next Web article on AMP, and also this article about WordPress plugin for AMP.
- On work-life balance and not being able to do everything at once.
- Lessons from marathon running that can be applied to the writing life.
You can find Ron at www.ronvitale.com and on twitter @ronvitale.
Transcript of interview with Ron Vitale
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I'm here with Ron Vitale. Hi, Ron.
Ron: Hello. Welcome. I'm so happy to be on the show.
Joanna: Oh, no. It's great to have you here. So just a little introduction, Ron is a fantasy and sci-fi author, as well as a web technology director in higher education, and also a marathon runner.
Ron, start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Ron: Sure. One of the things that's not well-known about me is that I actually have an English literature degree, a French degree, and a Masters in English literature.
Joanna: Wow. There we go.
Ron: So what is very interesting is that when I was going through university, the economy at the time was not doing so great, and I went into medical publishing rather than teaching. During all my school years, everyone always said to me, “Don't become a novelist. Don't become an author. You will never make any money. You need to find a day job.” Unfortunately, I listened to them. So I put all my writing on hold. I wrote a novel, my first novel, when I was a teenager and just kept reworking it and rewriting it, and rewriting it, and it just sat in a drawer. I tried to shop it to get it published for many, many, many years and just never did anything with it.
But when the World Wide Web exploded, I realized that I really enjoyed learning technology, and I started doing on-the-job training of how I could figure things out with taking my writing skills and applying that to the web. So what happened was it organically just blossomed in that a career path opened, in which I'm that person at the job that understands technology, but also can work with the communicators and the marketers on the team. I fit in that nice sweet spot. I know both languages, and I can go back and forth between the two groups.
I've been doing great with my career over the years, but I always wanted to write books. Then the indie publishing just exploded back around, was it, 2010, 2011. I said to myself, “Either I'm going to have to just put writing away forever, or take a risk and try just writing some books and putting them out on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, and the whole thing.” So I did that and that's really how my journey kind of began, that I just took a really great big leap of faith saying, “Let me see if I can do this.”
Joanna: Again, it's great and I wanted to talk to you because where you are that's kind of what my job was, too — being told that I could never be a writer or do anything creative and taking a quite technical role, but feeling like I was not being creative enough. I wanted to talk to you, because you wrote this great post at the end of last year, at the end of 2015, about your reflections on being an author, and so that's what we're talking about today. But you are a technical guy, which makes a lot of what we do as indies a lot easier, and you included some information about Google Analytics on your post.
I wanted us to start by explaining what is Google Analytics and why is it useful for authors?
Ron: Sure. Google Analytics is a free service that Google offers that anyone who has a website, you can sign up for a free account and you take a little snippet of code and depending if…whatever your platform is…I use Squarespace. I know a lot of people use WordPress. You can get a WordPress plug-in. In Squarespace, you can take the code and just drop this code on there. So anytime someone comes to your site, all that information is then basically compiled and there's analytics and there's data that's behind it.
Now, you're not going to be able to get specific information about this reader or that reader. But you'll get a high-level view of the type of traffic that's coming to your site, the demographics, the location, the amount of time someone spends on your site, a bunch of extremely useful information that as marketers…again, I'm real big on this.
When you're an indie writer, you have to wear not just your writer hat, your editor hat, but also your marketing hat; and you need to wear all those different things at the same time. So understanding that data and having access to it allows you then to use it so that for marketing purposes. You can say, “Well, maybe I want to run Facebook ads in these particular countries, or states within the United States, and these particular age demographics.”
Without having this information, you're just basically a shot in the dark just guessing, hoping that you might find your readership. Whereas, I know 76% of the traffic coming through my website are women, and they're within the ages of 18 and 24, and then from 25 to 34. So I know that when I'm writing blog posts or I'm writing different articles, I have a sense of who my readership is rather than, again, I'm just guessing.
Joanna: Tell us the name of your book series, so people might understand why your demographics are like that.
Ron: Sure. It's “Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries” is my first series that I'm working on, and then I just started another series, “The Witch is Coming” series. So like you, I like writing and have a darker edge to things. So a lot of people think, “Oh, it's Cinderella and she lived happily ever after.” No, that's not quite what happened.
Joanna: No, that's great. I think that's so important. A previous show, I've had Adam Croft on talking about Facebook ads, and one of the things we talked about was age. I found with my own advertising, as soon as you make the age range smaller, the ads are cheaper…
Joanna: …if you're targeting the right age group. Now for me, I'm not the 18 to 24 range. My target audience is actually skewed older, which is I guess understandable, especially in the self-publishing space where people have more money. So it's an interesting thing.
What are the other things that you have to do in order to have that traffic? For example, presumably you're writing content that relates to that target audience. What are the types of things you're doing as a fiction author on your site to attract that audience?
Ron: So what I've been working on, and this is something new for this year, after that article, that blog post in the end of the year, I have been really focusing on what type of content millennials might want. So this year, I have had a really good success on three ways to deal with stress, something in which the themes that are in my book are then represented in a different way to actually help a reader. So that way if someone's interested in my books, they could also find practical ways of applying different skills to their everyday life.
That's a big thing that this whole life aspect that I'm working on is that, yes, it's great to have your books out there, but then also really want to build my readership and that relationship with the readership. We're not working with publishers, per se. We are the publisher, and so we've removed that middle barrier and now it's just me directly relating to that readership. I want to make certain that I'm providing content that's going to be useful for them, it's helpful for them, so that way they'll come back to my site, come back to the works that I'm creating and writing.
Joanna: Wow. That's really cool because it would be obvious to write an article about dealing with stress if you'd written a non-fiction book about dealing with stress.
Joanna: But what you're doing is writing a tangential article aimed at the audience for your fiction, but you're actually helping them. This is awesome because I think everybody does find marketing non-fiction much easier, because it's very easy to just target content around the topics of that book. I have a book “How to Market a Book”, and I just wrote an article on book marketing. Now, that's super-duper.
Do you have any other tips for what type of content or how people can attract their target audience, or even figure out who they are?
Ron: Sure. The big thing is if you have Google Analytics on your site and if you have the demographic aspect enabled, not only can you find out the age and the sex of the viewers coming to your site, but you also get some topics. So for example, you'll find out are they interested in arts and entertainment? Are they interested in maybe particular TV shows? Are they interested in movies or books, or whatever they're interested in? It may not be so specific. But at least if you have a general aspect of what your readers that are coming to your site are interested in, you can then provide content, see if it's actually performing in your analytics overtime.
Then, what I've done recently, I just sent my email list. I've been working really hard in the last year building that email list. I wrote to my readers and I said, “I want to write about these particular things. What would you like me to write about?” Then people wrote back to me and said, “I really want to know more about the creative process and what other works that you're going on. I really want to hear more things about like work-life balance, dealing with stress, that type of articles.” So I took all that information, and that's basically then given me a whole editorial calendar that I can then play out over the course of the year.
Joanna: This is so great. I'm loving this because I often think that I'm organized about these things and you're just super-organized, which is impressive. I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about Tag Manager. What is Tag Manager? Of course, for some people this might be too technical, but I just wanted to start giving people some more ideas.
What is Tag Manager, and how is that useful?
Ron: Now, this is something that I'd found out about, I'd say, maybe a year and a half ago. So you have your Google Analytics, and Google also offers Google Tag Manager. I didn't fully understand at first like, what was the difference between the two? Why would I want one thing and another thing? So I started teaching myself by watching YouTube videos, reading articles, reading everything I possibly could on Tag Manager. What I realized is you could take one snippet of code, the Google Tag Manager code, you put that onto your website on every page on the site, and then you leave it and never have to touch anything again.
From Google Tag Manager, you could then create different tags. So for example, I have a landing page. I have a Facebook ad that's running now, and it says I have a reader magnet. I've been watching a lot of your podcasts. I've been learning lots of things from people over the years, and I have a landing page. So people see the Facebook ad. They click on the Facebook ad. They can get my first book for free, and then basically they join my mailing list. They're brought to a site where they can then download my book.
On that page, I have different links. I have the .mobi file. I have a .epub file. I have a PDF. I have used Google Tag Manager to find out which is the most popular of those downloadable files, and I can say for my traffic, I wrote it down so I can take a look, it was like 83% was .mobi file. Then I only had like 0.23% of people who actually downloaded the PDF. So it gave me some data. So I can go, “Oh, wait a minute. Most of my readers are using the Amazon platform. I've got maybe 20%-something or so that are using EPUB. It gave me then some really good analytical data to find out where things are.
I set that all up in Google Tag Manager. I had no code that I needed to add to my site, and if tomorrow I say on my website, “You know, there is a download link that I have on my website, or I have an Add to Cart button. I want to find out how many people are clicking on a particular button or particular link, and I want that to flow into my Google Analytics so I can track it, I can do that through Google Tag Manager without ever having to go back to my website and update the code. You take code once, you put it up on your website, and then you go inside Google Tag Manager and then create the triggers. I'll be honest. This can be very, very techy. But there's a lot of articles out there on YouTube to teach you how to do it.
Joanna: Yes. I must say, that is advanced stuff. But I think the higher point of all of this is what gets measured gets managed, and you can actually tell something. So for example, your download stats, I don't think that's unusual.
But another way to look at it is, “Okay, I need to build my audience on these other platforms more, so I don't have 80% of my sales through one big store,” which is true for most authors or even more than that. But building the presence at other stores might be an action out of that.
What gets measured gets managed, and can be improved, whereas most authors, I think, just don't measure any of their stuff. Do they?
Ron: No. You're making a really good point. One of your podcasts, you had talked about diversification. I look at it as just as I have a retirement plan, my retirement plan isn't all in one aspect. It is diversified across a whole portfolio, and I look at my writing career the same way. I look at what you've done over the time with your writing career. You write fiction. You do non-fiction. You do speaking engagements. You do podcasts. You're diversified.
For my future with what I want to do in indie publishing, I really focus on Amazon, which is great for right now. But how do I then really break more into these other markets? Because what if the terms of service change on Amazon, or what if Amazon goes away? Who knows what's going to happen in a couple years? But if I have the data, I can then plan and I can start focusing on my marketing strategy on how to make certain things stronger. So like you said, without the data, you're in the dark. You have no idea. So I'd rather know so I can start planning.
Joanna: Exactly. I think sometimes people are worried about measuring because then they feel bad. So for example, how many people are on my email list? When everybody starts, it's zero.
Ron: I know, right?
Joanna: Then you still feel kind of crap at when it's 100 or a couple of hundred, and you still probably feel a bit crap when it's in the low thousands, right? But all these things grow overtime, don't they? That's so important. Now, I wanted to just come back around the themes and talking about writing stuff.
The other thing that analytics gives you is the search terms. Doesn't it? So give us a little explanation of what SEO is for people who might not know.
Ron: Sure. SEO stands for search engine optimization and if we take a high-level step back, everything that Google is indexing is tied into keywords. They have little bots that go around, they used to call them spiders that go around the web, and they're indexing everyone's webpages. That way, when you go to Google and let's say you type in “fantasy novel Cinderella”, my book hopefully will come up. But in order to get that higher result on a page, there are certain best practices that you need to follow overtime.
For example, if your webpage has the keyword in it, if the title itself has the keyword in it, and the body content has the keyword in it, there are some of the key areas where content is aligned to when the search engines come and say, “Oh, there's a high relevancy on what someone is looking for and what this particular page has to offer.” Now, in reality, there's around 200 or so different bits of data that Google is looking to see, and that's how they're ranking everything. One thing I'd really like to communicate to people is that this is not an exact science in the sense that Google is making 500 to 600 changes per year on their algorithm.
So there's no magic, “Oh, I'm going to do this one thing and it's going to bring me up on the first page search and everything's going to be great, and I never have to look at it again.” That's not true. The best question is if you're looking for something or a reader is looking for something, what are the words that you're focusing on?
Google is focusing more these days on conversational searches. Something that if you were looking for particular information, you want to make certain that as a normal person would be asking to look for that search term, you need to make certain that your keywords and terms you're using in your webpages or your book titles, or your descriptions on Amazon align to that.
Joanna: It's interesting because one of my pet things is, as you know I'm a futurist. The AI side of things, the Big Data side of things, artificial intelligence if people don't know what AI is, our books are full of keywords, as in our books should be the thing that rank our books. I'm really hot on this. You talked a bit about AI in Google's rank brain, and of course Amazon is using AI in their algorithm and their reviews.
What is your interpretation of these aspects and when will we get to a point where we don't have to figure out keywords, but we can just use the book?
Ron: It's really funny. I was in a meeting at work a week ago, and we were talking about this from my job in higher education. We're trying to run ads and create content for the same thing. We want prospective students to come to our university. So it's the same concept.
This is happening against all different type of companies and industries. What I learned is that the way the future is going is that what people are doing now with the keywords and titles and keywords on webpages, that's going to be going away as the more predictive AI, machine learning is going to take over.
So with RankBrain, this is a little scary when you think of it. Google, Facebook, Amazon, their search engines are basically learning. They're taking the billions of webpages that are out there and they're predicting and saying, “This particular person is more looking for this type of information rather than let's say these other bits of information.” So as your searchers are going on, there's 15%, I believe is the number, of users that are searching on Google that are going through this RankBrain. Which means a machine algorithm is learning how people are searching and trying to predict, “This is what that person is actually looking for,” rather than…
I'm trying to think of an example. If you're looking for a car and you're putting in information on looking for a particular car, it's going to look for your geographical location. It might look at your history of your other searches. It might take all this information and provide certain bits of searches to you, rather than a just generic, “Here's what you're looking for because you typed in the word ‘car',” make it more specific for you. So the vendor that we were working with that gave us this suggestion saying, “The content that you're working on, especially for your blog, needs to answer the questions that people are looking for.”
Don't think so much in his recommendation on what the actual keywords are. Answer the questions that someone is trying to find such as, “How do I find a car rental in this location?” You put that information in your blog posts.
Or for us as writers, if we're trying to answer certain questions that we think readers are looking for, we put that in our blog posts, in our descriptions. So that way, as machine learning becomes more popular, that data, that information is going to be served up. So again, this is almost like we are living in the future science fiction, that machines are learning and teaching themselves how to provide better answers to those who are searching through the search engines like Google.
Joanna: Some people might be scared about that, but let's put it in perspective. The reason they're doing that is because people always try and gain stuff. So the answer to, I don't know, what are the best fantasy books about Cinderella, some people will write a blog post that might direct people to a site where they get advertising revenue, rather than it being the right book, which might be yours, for example.
Whereas, what Google's trying to do, and Amazon, is provide the information that somebody wants so that they click. So essentially, all of this stuff should be making things more authentic, shouldn't they? I mean that's the whole point.
Ron: Exactly. That's the direction that we're moving toward. Google has really made some major changes in their search algorithms over the last so many years to make certain that, again, people can't game the system. Your example, that's exactly what people were doing. They were overloading keywords. They were doing all sorts of things to get traffic to come to their site and they weren't providing the right information to readers. When Google realized that through their search results that were coming back, they'd keep making changes and changes.
The interesting thing is, I think, as Siri, Cortana, and Amazon's Elexa, all those more natural-speaking tools become more popular, I think it's very possible in the next, whatever, 5 to 10 years that people will be doing many, many more searches through that natural, “Hey, Siri. I'm looking to find an XYZ type of book.” Again, having that information, a machine is then going to provide certain results back. Rather than when you sit at a keyboard and you're actually typing in certain things like, “I want to find this,” when you speak, what you're asking for is a lot more conversational and different.
I think we're going to be getting to that point that the machines, and then what people are looking for are going to be able to match a little bit closer to provide better responses to what we're looking for.
Joanna: The actions for authors are really just to keep being more and more authentic and add more and more value. A lot of this, I think, will come down to authority as well. So one of the reasons my site gets so much traffic around self-publishing is that I've been blogging and putting out content for seven years. Google sees all of that, and together it makes a reputation, doesn't it? The same thing for your site around the areas that you're doing.
I think the main action for authors is whatever you want to focus on, keep focusing on it and give value to people who come to your site. Do you have any other recommendations?
Ron: Yeah. What you're sharing, that's a key point in that for SEO purposes, your link, your domain authority is taken into account for ranking. So for example, if you were to have started yesterday, you're not going to have as high a ranking. But you have seven years' worth of great content. Google knows that because it's seeing all the back links, all the various websites that are linking back to you, and the authority of those websites raises your SEO. So again, for someone starting out new, it might be daunting to hear, “Oh, I have to write all this content. I have to do all these things.” But as my grandmother used to say, “Rome was not built in a day.”
It takes time. There's perseverance involved. But if you are authentic and you have good, solid content, over time you will be able to raise your rankings, and then you have to have a strategy at this. You have a strategy. You reach out to other authors. You work with them. You build up your own site's authority, and then they're building theirs, and there's that synergistic relationship that's there. That's a very wise marketing strategy. So that's what I would say to people is really think and learn about not just the writing aspect of it, but the business of writing.
Because marketing is changing online marketing and the way people are consuming content. Books today; VR, virtual reality and augmented reality tomorrow. Well, how are we going to adapt to all that? This is a lot to think about, but I actually find it exciting.
Joanna: Me, too.
Ron: It's cool.
Joanna: It is cool. Just on that VR and augmented reality and stuff.
You had on that post, “I am identifying myself more and more with being a digital producer, rather than a novelist.” So how is that affecting how you're going forward?
Ron: What I realized is, again, for diversification, if I put all my energy and all my talent into just doing novels and pumping out the novels, I realize that in 2016 the way the market works now, gone are the days where you could just take an eBook, throw it up on Amazon, make it free for five days, and suddenly you're a best-seller author. That does not exist anymore. There needs to be a marketing strategy and a plan behind that. So what I've decided to do is, yes, I like writing fiction. But I also like writing non-fiction because of what I do at my day job.
I also see that there could be other opportunities for me in different aspects of I don't know what AR or VR is going to provide. But I am a writer, and as a writer, scripts could be needed for virtual reality or augmented reality. I really want to make certain that I'm not limiting myself by saying, “I only write books.” No. I am a creative person. I like creativity. Yes, I write books. But I also like doing all these other things. So as I'm moving forward with my career, I've done podcasting. I've done writing. I've done a bunch of different things. That is, I think, where the people who will succeed is those who are trying different hats. What fails? What succeeds? You iterate overtime. You learn from your mistakes, and then you move forward.
I think it's a really great time to be a writer because there's so many different options. So for me, I want to broaden my horizon. I don't want to simply say, “I'm defined by only this one thing,” and that's really important to me that I kind of share that message, that there's a lot that we can do out there. Let's be creative and let's do all these great things. That's where I'm headed.
Joanna: That's very cool. I just wanted to come back on one more technical thing, is the mobile, because just last week there was an article out about Google Accelerated Mobile Pages.
We saw in 2015 that Google are now penalizing sites that are not mobile compatible in the search engine. But what is Google Accelerated Mobile Pages, and what can people do about that?
Ron: Well, I'm going to be honest. You've stumped me on that one. I had to research that one. I went, “Wow. I need to know this. I don't know what this is.” So I guess to take a little bit of step back, last year Google launched their change in their algorithm. I think it was called Mobilegeddon. If you didn't have a responsive website or a mobile-optimized website, the fear was your site was going to be penalized when someone on a mobile device came to visit it. Now, as to whether how severe the penalization is, it doesn't seem to be as scary as what everybody thought it was going to be.
But with the Accelerated Mobile Pages, this is really phenomenal. What came out of this is that Google created an open source product that they basically said, “We want to have webpages that load 4 to 10 times faster on a mobile device.” So if you work and you have your pages in this, that means copies of your files, of your webpages, are on Google servers, which means they're optimized. Not only do they come up first in searches, they also come up super-fast. In my little digging and research that I've done, I've found out that WordPress supports this. Unfortunately, the platform that I'm on, Squarespace, I wrote to their technical support team and they said at the current time they do not support this, which obviously made me very sad.
I would say, if you're on a WordPress platform and this just launched, get that plug-in. Install the plug-in. Do some research. Find out if there's any other, because I saw there's some other plug-ins that can be tied with the official WordPress one that's been announced, and then you could basically make your pages come up better in search. Again, that's something that will give you a leg up over a competitor. Or if someone, especially in 2016, doesn't have a mobile or responsive website, I would really urge that person to seriously think about updating their page.
Just think of it, if you send an email blast out and you've got thousands of people on your list, most people are going to look at that off of their mobile device. If they can't see your webpage in a very easy fashion, you're not going to get the type of engagement that you're looking for.
Joanna: Yeah. I wanted to bring this up, because of my increasingly global focus and the fact that Google's doing this. We've got Facebook, Virgin, Qualcomm all trying to launch internet across, I think, 4G internet by 2020 to everyone in the world, and this will be accessed on a mobile device. You're not going to have someone in the Sahara on a laptop. They're going to be on a mobile device in Africa, South America is increasingly mobile economy. So for me, this is a real reflection of the speed at which things are changing to mobile devices and smartphones, and that if people don't think books are going to be bought in this way, they're crazy.
I mean, do you see that as in mobile, people buying and reading books, this is the future?
Ron: Yeah. I mean I can speak at it from a personal level with my own content that I put out in my own books, but also in higher education, the number of stats that we're seeing from people coming to the site. There really is a point in which you've got the millennials that are coming in, and you're seeing they're using the mobile device as their number one priority device. Now, as that group is getting older and will have more income, they're going to want to buy things from their phone. Those authors who have content for sale in stores which are mobile-optimized are going to be purchased.
Like you said, and I've heard you say this on other podcasts that you've done in the past, is that being diversified in different parts of the world, you want to be in Amazon India. You want to be in the South American stores and different parts of the EU. That makes perfect business sense because, again, as more people are coming up and using the mobile phones, you want to make certain that you're products…again, I look at our books as products. They're these pieces of the market that we want someone to buy. If we don't have the best content that's available for people using mobile devices, they're going to pass our work and they're going to go to the author that actually does have something that's been mobile-optimized and friendly to be able to see.
Again, it's the whole strategy aspect. To me, the future is mobile. Desktop is starting to go down in use. Mobile is going up. Think about the billion-plus people in India, the billion-plus people in China. We live in the world, we're part of a global economy, and we're indie authors. So yes, my numbers might be very, very, very small now in different parts of the world, but there are people in Australia buying my books. There's people in the UK buying my books. I'm seeing data from all that, from again going back to the Google Analytics. Mobile to me is the future. It makes perfect sense to be aligned with that.
Joanna: It's funny with India. I've actually just started this week running Facebook ads to India. It's kind of odd because the income from India is tiny because of the exchange rate.
Joanna: But the fact is the market is so big. As you say, it's over a billion people. It's only 1.2 billion in India, of which there's over 250 million English speakers, which is the size of America.
Ron: Yes, and think about that.
Joanna: I know, and it's kind of crazy. That's the whole of America as literate, English-speaking, money-earning readers. It's like, this is a big market.
Joanna: It's kind of crazy, isn't it?
Ron: It's important that, again, being forward-thinking, I think, is really important as being an indie author in today's day and age. There are so many changes just in the last six years that I've been doing this. Sometimes my head spins. I can't keep up because I'm trying to learn. I'm trying to write. I'm working full-time. I've got a family. I mean there's so many different things. It is very difficult to find that healthy balance of work and life, and making everything all come well together so you don't go crazy trying to do everything.
But I do take some of my time to focus on research and learning. It's important for me. I listen to your podcast. I listen to a lot of different podcasts that are out there so I can learn what I don't know, and that is really helpful. That's one of the things I love about the indie author community. We share information. Something that I share today will hopefully help someone else, and I've been helped so many times in the past. I love paying it forward. It's a great thing.
Joanna: That's fantastic.
Now, on doing it all, one of your lessons, in fact, in that blog post was that you can't do it all. What was actually the straw that broke the camel's back as such, and how have you changed things this year?
Ron: There's a fear of missing out, FOMO. You see other people do all these great things. I was part of a Yahoo group, and I was seeing these romance writers. They were knocking four books out a year. They're making all this money. They're paying their houses off, and they're working full-time, and they have a family. I said, “Well, I guess I could do that. I could put out a bunch of books in a year.” Last year, I wrote and published two books, but I also work full-time, I have two kids, and it got to the point where I think if my wife were in the room she would say I was not a happy person to be around. Lack of sleep, just work deadlines, stress, irritability; I was not at my best. I will be honest.
When I reflected back on my year post on “here's what I learned this year”, I had to really be honest, because some people are going to be reading my post who are just getting into the business and I thought, “I think this would be an important lesson to share.” You can't do everything all at once, and that's okay. It's perfectly okay if someone else has a best-seller or can do four books a year. I think it's important that you do it your own pace. I have extremely lofty goals, but I also know that I'm not going to burn out in the course of a year. I'm going to keep moving forward, and my perseverance is going to keep me going forward. That way, over time the game of the long tail from search engines and from Amazon sales, that's what I'm focusing on.
Every time we put a book up for sale on a market, it doesn't go away. It's not on a physical bookshelf that maybe is in the bookstore for maybe two, three months, and then is replaced by a new best-seller. All our content is out there. The SEO aspects of that, the various advertising that we can do overtime, as we build up our portfolios that's only going to grow.
I've taken a little bit more of a stance of I can't do everything all in one particular month or one particular year. But I can have more realistic goals so that way I can spend time with my kids and I can spend time at my day job. I can spend time in learning and researching this technology, SEO and stuff that we're talking about, but also I'm putting books out. So this year I'm not going to be cranking two books out and killing myself trying to do that. I'm taking a bit of a step back so I can be a little bit more grounded this year and actually have time to sleep, which is a good thing.
Joanna: That's so important, and I think that reflection I do every year as well. I do it kind of twice a year. I do an end of year “What have I done this year”, and a beginning of the year goal setting, and then I do around September like, “What have I learned in my year of being an author entrepreneur full-time?” This ability to reflect is so important. I think from your blog post, and you did one at the end of the year previous, didn't you, as well?
Joanna: This is so important.
I know some people worry about putting it out in public. Have you had any negative reactions, or does reflecting on this just help?
Ron: I have to say, one of the most interesting things that came out of this is that the amount of traditional published writers that basically came to my blog post and read that was very interesting to see. That I thought I would just be read by the indie crowd, because we're all sharing each other. But my post was shared on some traditional publisher websites, and then others from there reached out to me. It's just amazing, that whole other aspect that writers in general are looking for information on now that author earnings are coming out, and then we can get a sense of what is really working? What's the truth? What are people making? Was it difficult to write and say I lost money last year? Yes, it was. It was really difficult to say that.
But when I look at my career, I understand that last year I spent a lot of money on editing, on new covers. There's website expenses. There was a lot that I did, and I ran out of money toward the end of the year for advertising, for the marketing aspect. In 2015-2016, what I'm finding is that if you're not marketing your books, they're not going to just magically sell themselves. So that's something that it was a hard lesson to learn, but it's something that, again, my platform is growing. It's not something that, “Oh, I made all these mistakes and I didn't learn anything from it.”
I now have five novels that are out in the store. I've got a collection of short stories. I've got my blog that's been going for the last three years. So I have a lot of things that I've been focusing on. One failure in one particular area, yes, it's a hard thing. I'm not at the career point where I can make a living off of my earnings at this particular time. My future goal is, yes, I would like to get there. But that's something that, again, I realize now the missteps that I made and I'm hoping that with what I learned, I can share that with other people who are just starting out at this.
Joanna: That's fantastic and I really appreciate that honesty. It's something I try and do as well, try and share the process and the money side as well. Certainly, for me this is year seven of my business, and I've been full-time for over four years. So I think that people can look at where I am and say, “Okay. It might take seven years,” and I have 17 books. That might be hard for some people to hear, but I know someone like you is like, “Well, I will get there. It's just if I do a book a year, it'll take X number of years.”
I think what your post showed, and of course I'll put all the links in the show notes, is what you can achieve, and that reflecting on it is super-important. So I wanted to ask you one more question.
Joanna: I'm trying to pick which one. I'm going to go with the marathon runner. Okay? So you are a marathon runner, which is incredible.
Ron: Thank you.
Joanna: I've run a couple of half-marathons, but I am walking 50 kilometers, 100 kilometers over two days in a couple of months. But the running is hardcore.
I wanted to know, what are the lessons that you've learned from the marathon running that you apply to the writing life?
Ron: Well, when I decided to become a runner, I had never done anything like that in my life. I mean the last time I had done that when I was a teenager and I ran a couple miles, and that was it. So I was never a sports person. In my day job and my hobbies, and things I do, I'm typically sitting in my chair all the time. As I'm getting older, I realize that it wasn't necessarily healthy. There's a big push now for writers to get up and walk, standing desks, treadmill desks, all kinds of things.
I'd say about maybe six years ago, friends of mine, they gave us a treadmill, my wife and I, and we started running on it. Then I really took to it, and I started running outside, and the friends challenged me to do a 5K, a 10K. Before you knew it, it was a marathon over a couple years.
What I realized during that process is that just as with my writing that I can't say today, “I'm going to run a marathon tomorrow.” I have to train for it. I have to prepare for it. I have to eat right. I have to rest right. I have to do the right cross-fit exercise to exercise different parts of my body, and then that's very comparable to the indie author lifestyle. You don't just write. You read. You have to do research. You read other people's books. You read about online marketing. You read about SEO.
One of the benefits to me in writing, and this is something that I never expected, that if I'm training for a long run, let's say a marathon, that's 26.2 miles and you get a 21-mile run right before the marathon. That's a lot of time by yourself. But that's when I find that I have time to reflect, time to work out plot ideas for my stories. I often run without music, and people think I'm crazy for doing that. But I use that time to be creative, where I'm either solving life's problems in my head or I'm solving maybe problems that I'm trying to work out in whatever particular novel that I'm working on.
So it's a good fit. I have a schedule on write one day, the next day I run, and just alternate that all through the course of the week. I know many people have said this. Many popular podcasters have said, “Keep it really simple with your schedule.” So for me, I know today's a run day. I'm going to go out later today and I'm going to run probably 10 miles is what my goal is. But tomorrow is a writing day. So I will get up early before work, and I will write. The next day is a run day. I don't have to think about, “What am I doing and where do I need to go?” It's very easy then to have that schedule that becomes a habit, and the one aspect of running helps inform the other.
It's a really nice way of using the running to be creative, to work things out, and have that nice mirror. If someone's new to the indie author career, I'd say marathon running is a good match in that maybe you don't want to do it, but the lessons behind it. You can't just sit down, knock a book out in 24 hours, and then suddenly the millions of dollars or pounds come flying in. That's just not going to happen. It takes hard work, a long time, and perseverance, and there's nothing wrong with that. You still can succeed, just have maybe more realistic goals.
Joanna: Yeah. It's awesome. Actually, it struck me when you were talking there that when runners go for a run, they say one of two things, “I'm going for 10 miles,” like you said. Or, “I'm going for an hour,” or “half an hour.” This is what writers do, right? You either sit and write for an hour or you sit and write 2000 words…
Joanna: However long it takes. Some people get weirded out by that. They think that's somehow wrong that you should sit down and something should come to you. But you don't just go out the door and go, “Oh, I'll just see how I feel.” You say, “I'm going to do 10 miles.” Right?
There's the discipline of deciding on the daily goal, and then achieving the daily goal. That's part of the important process.
Ron: You bring up a really good point in that I wish I would've known this when I was in my 20s. My 20s I thought, “I have to wait for my muse. I have to wait for the magical time when I'm suddenly going to know everything to write the best thing.” That's not the best way to write, because you're not always going to have your best work at you.
I have found through discipline if I sit there and say every other day, “Tomorrow morning, no matter if I want to write or not, I'm going to be sitting butt on chair. I'm going to have my laptop on, and I'm going to sit there before work, and I have a short amount of time. I've got about 40-45 minutes before I have to rush out the door and get my son off to school in the morning. I will do everything I can to meet my writing goal,” and I happen to do word count.
I can do my word count. If I don't make my word count, then I will do it later that day, at night, or whenever I will do it. But that discipline over time, there's a freeing thing that takes place where you say to yourself, “It doesn't have to be perfect for that first draft. Just get the words out.” What I like to do, and I know other writers use this trick as well, when I end for the day, I like to end either leave a sentence half-undone or a scene undone so I could easily pick up the threads the next day, or the next time I write. Let's say tomorrow's a run day, then the next day I do a write day. That makes it a little bit easier so that way I can pick up like, “Oh, the other character has to respond to that dialogue.”
But again, it becomes a habit rather than, “Oh, I don't feel like writing,” or “the magical muse hasn't come down and bestowed upon me her wisdom of the best thing on the planet.” I don't have to worry about that anymore. I just know I need to sit down and just write whatever comes for me, and I give myself the freedom to do that. The hard work is going back when you go to do the editing, and then you've got to rip it all apart. That's where the hard part comes in.
Joanna: That's like the last, what, four miles of a marathon?
Ron: Exactly, yes.
Joanna: But you've got to do it. You've got to finish it, otherwise…
Ron: Got to finish.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. No, there are so many lessons learned there. Okay. So where can people find you and your books online?
Ron: Sure. I can be found at www.RonVitale.com. My books are available in the iBook Store, on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble store, so I'm pretty much available out there. There's lots of places that I am.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Ron. That was great.
Ron: Yeah. Thank you so much. I had a great time. I appreciate you inviting me on the show.
I’ve also been lurking around for a couple of years (in the non-creepy way. The reading-your-books-and-loving-the-podcast way)
Today I’m listening while recovering from Leipzig Book Fair. The self-publishing craze has finally gone big in Germany, with indie authors happily coexisting with their traditionally published colleagues. It was quite amazing to watch.
Great interview as always! I didn’t know about Google Tag Manager or AMPs. Something new to play with 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Great to hear that self-publishing is finally taking hold in Germany. I expect to see it spread with the growth of ebooks, as that’s what really empowers authors!
Jessica Aspen says
Thank you, Ron, for being so honest about where you are in your career. Sometimes it seems like everyone else in this industry is writing ten books a year, or making money hand over fist. That’s who we see on podcasts usually or on those yahoo loops, but when you really look at the stats, it’s not true. Most of us are like you, running the long miles and pushing for that finish line. And sometimes it gets really tough. Definitely needed to hear this again, that it can be a long race for some of us instead of a sprint. 🙂
Joanna Penn says
That’s really why I had Ron on, Jessica 🙂 He has a marathon runners perspective on the long haul, but is only in the first few miles in terms of the journey. I’m so glad you found it useful!
Marty Leake says
Joanna the podcast with Ron Vitale was great and your interview interaction provided incredible information for us creative pre-published authors.
Thank you Joanna with your great work. 🙂
Joanna Penn says
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Marty!