My life as a writer and a failure (Zen of Blogging 3)
Stephen King says, about life as a writer:
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Don’t I know it.
This week I celebrate my 7th year of blogging – and I’m coming up on 2 years in which I make a full-time living from my blogs, books and online courses.
There is one basic key to writing that I know of: you’ve just gotta sit down and do it.
Pound that keyboard a few hours a day and you’re a writer.
There’s no productivity trick or mobile app that will save you from actually doing the work.
And fuck inspiration.
Or at the very least, let me tell you: inspiration is overrated. And most of the time it comes while you’re already in the middle of writing.
7 years as a blogger, 2 years as a full time pro.
I’ve learned a lot in this time. Mostly, it must be said, from failure.
Wanna know more?
Humble beginnings at Kinko’s
I used to write zines.
Laid out by hand and photocopied – I’d stuff my backpack with hundreds of copies, and walk up to the register with a few dozen sheets in my hand.
“Just these, thanks!”
Can’t knock the hustle.
The first zine I wrote was about cycling as a political statement.
It sold a couple hundred copies through various distributors at $2 each, and I felt pretty successful as a writer.
The next ones all flopped, mostly because I tried to write about my daily life.
Portland dominated zine culture in the early 2000s, and if you were from Portland, you could write about your bus trip across the state or your crush on the vegan barista or your critique of consumer society.
If you were from Phoenix, apparently nobody cared.
Soon I was on my way to Spain, and my career in zines came to an end…
Teenage angst hasn’t paid off well
A year or so after moving abroad, once I was settled in, I started to write a novel about my teen angst.
The story was told from 5 different points of view (inspired by Faulkner, if I recall) and included basically everyone I knew back home.
I never even tried to publish it.
I didn’t care.
The process was reward enough – spending 6 or 8 months on a completely self-directed project was eye-opening. I was apparently capable of finishing big things.
This was the first sort of minor “achievement” I’d ever had in my life.
So why didn’t I try to publish it?
Well, I knew something about getting published – it apparently involved long years of heartbreak and rejection. (Kind of like my love life, now that I think about it.)
I didn’t want to go through that, with my fragile 23-year-old ego.
So I didn’t.
After finishing my second draft and putting a copy away for safe keeping, I didn’t want to write more. In fact, it took me years to start writing again.
This time as a blogger.
Creating my media empire, a post at a time…
In spring 2010, a friend told me I should have a blog about English.
He was living at my place, and making money online – I’d see him there on the sofa at all hours of the day and night, hunched over his laptop and swearing under his breath.
And some months, at least, he was able to pay the rent.
Seemed better than running around town all day giving classes.
I started madridingles.es soon after.
Anyway, my first idea was to start the blog, get some business cards printed up, and jack up the prices of my private lessons…
Based solely on the prestige that “having a website” gives you.
It didn’t work.
For one thing, the Spanish economy had already started its long, slow collapse.
That made people much more price conscious.
And when I actually did the math, even charging 35€ an hour for private lessons wouldn’t change my life too much – if I still had to go across town on the metro to get there.
Even in the best case, I’d only be able to work 20 hours a week.
I decided to change tactics.
Soon, my humble blog was covered with ugly ads for language schools and weight loss methods.
That didn’t work either. I did the math a few months in, and realized I’d need about half a million page views a month to make ends meet that way.
Key lesson: don’t be afraid to change direction.
My first Kindle book
One day a guy on an online forum mentioned he had a book up on Amazon.
I was a bit puzzled, because he seemed to be just another guy with an internet connection – a guy just like me, only in England.
Googling around, I learned that anybody could publish a Kindle book.
So I did.
Key lessons here: 1) Google is your friend. 2) Take action.
For a couple of weeks in July 2012, I wrote my first ebook. It was about phrasal verbs. My flatmates were out of town, which meant that I could sit at the kitchen table in my shorts all afternoon, sweating and struggling with the first draft.
I got my (then) girlfriend to make a basic cover, uploaded everything to the Kindle site, and bam!
I was a published author.
It sold a few copies almost immediately, mostly to readers of my blog. And kept selling a couple of copies every week.
2 or 3 months later I was in class with an executive working in marketing.
I mentioned my “success” on Amazon – dozens and dozens sold! – and he proceeded to give me what is probably the best advice I’d ever gotten from a mature adult.
“Daniel”, he said, “You’ve found the thing that’s going to make you rich. Now work harder!”
Not rich yet. But certainly working harder.
Another key lesson: Writing can be lonely. Get support from others.
Actually, I can trace back my success as a blogger to basically two things…
One, I picked a topic that people were already interested in and spending money on.
Two, I got encouragement almost immediately from a couple of random strangers. A girl I barely knew named Sara shared everything I did on Facebook, and a guy from Venezuela named Renzo started sending me questions to answer on the blog.
It made me feel like somebody. And like I was doing something important.
And that was all I needed to get through those first couple of months where most bloggers give up.
I wasn’t finished failing yet, though…
My next book completely bombed. I think I sold 5 copies – at least 2 of them to friends.
Looking back, it’s perfectly clear why: no message to market match.
It was about teaching English, and my whole audience was learning English.
They didn’t care.
Key lesson: nobody’s gonna buy a book just cause you took the time to write it. What’s in it for them?
The funny thing is that while I was writing that book, I was already convinced of my own genius. I was going to the top with this one… It was a great idea. Obviously!
How could I fail?
My third book was conceived at an Italian airport just after Christmas, while my RyanAir flight was delayed.
By this time I was no longer convinced of my own genius, but figured I’d keep trying things anyway.
Throw enough shit at the wall and some of it would stick.
I wrote the third one mostly for myself… with low expectations. I just wanted to get all that out of my head so I could continue with my life.
I published it, and for several months not much happened.
But that summer, back in Italy, I was so bored I got out my prehistoric smartphone and managed to connect to the internet long enough to find that I was somehow #1 in the education category on Amazon.
I’m not sure what happened.
But suddenly I was on my way to the top again.
Back in Madrid, I did some very optimistic calculations (what if this 400% monthly growth continues forever?) and then wrote to my marketing guru in the US, telling him I hoped to soon be joining his $25,000 a year coaching program.
I did spend some time at #1 and #2 in the education and language learning categories.
But I didn’t suddenly become a big fish and get to hang out at events with Tony Robbins.
Either way, I now had a solution to all my financial problems: write more $4 ebooks.
How could I fail?
Dominating the interwebs, firing my boss…
I started getting a lot more traffic on the blog.
And I wrote a few more books. I can still remember with giddiness the day I sold a book in the first hour after launch – and 3 copies on the first day.
“C-notes by the layers, true fuckin’ players”, as Biggie said.
In my case, it was good enough to be able to afford to beer and cheap cuts of meat all summer long – my friends were eating rice and drinking water, so this was clearly a step up.
Having a few c-notes to rub together is great for a young guy’s self-esteem, too. Especially if he was expecting to be scraping along near bottom of society forever.
The second-best moment of my writing life (up to now) was when I was able to quit one of my part-time jobs – the one that was making me most miserable.
Just to be evil, I wrote my resignation email to the Director of Studies on a Monday an hour before I was due to be in class.
Then ignored him as he proceeded to blow up my phone.
I don’t need you.
Bitch, please. I’m a writer now.
In the meantime, I had published a very unsuccessful book about business English, and failed at wine blogging.
When I started, I imagined cases upon cases of free wine arriving at my door, as I gained prestige in the enosphere.
But I soon gave up.
I could – and someday will – write about the debauchery that is likely to result from the combination of me, a willing female and a bottle of sherry on a hot summer day.
But it turns out I didn’t have shit to say about wine.
Fruity. Oaky. Who cares?
I just wanna drink it.
Key lesson: write about something you care about. Don’t get into it just because you think you’ll earn money or get free stuff.
Get rich slowly…
Ok, ok, I’m still not rich.
But I’m making a living as a pro blogger – something very few people ever manage to do.
Eventually I figured out that it was going to be very slow and very painful getting rich a few bucks at a time.
I just wasn’t going to retire on Kindle ebook sales.
It was time to raise prices.
I made a couple of online courses for Gumroad, then for Udemy.
The first few times I sent out an email asking people to spend $17 were absolutely terrifying. After that, $27 was terrifying. Then $37.
Now I’m at $97 and lemme tell you something: every time I raise prices it’s terrifying at first.
And every time I do it, my life immediately gets better.
Today, if I had a gun to my head and needed 10,000 bucks by the end of the week, I’d come up with some product or coaching program for $500, and just try to sell 20.
And then pray…
‘Cause after we’ve already seen, I’m wrong as often as I’m right about these things.
My personal Victory in Europe
The best moment of my writing career so far was a day about two years ago when Amazon decided to promote one of my books at a 70% discount.
I bombed my email list with the offer and refreshed Amazon on my (now much smarter) phone every 10 minutes, all day long.
Other than that, it was a long work day on a terrible salary. Buses and trains from class to class, starting before dawn and ending after dark.
At 6:30 PM, though, I finished my class in some godawful neighborhood outside the city.
And at 8 pm I had a date with a girl I thought was THE one.
At around 7:15 I was on the bus back to civilization, and Amazon updated the rankings. I was on top.
Not the education category.
On top of all Amazon Spain.
I was ahead of Harry Potter, ahead of 50 Shades of Grey.
I could barely control myself.
When 8 o’clock came, I met, uh, let’s call her Esther – and collapsed into her arms, an exhausted, euphoric mess.
“I’m #1”, I whispered in her ear.
We kissed. Her lips were like roses.
For a few brief hours, I was the best selling writer in Spain. And happily in love as well.
The next day, I was up at 6:15 again, in order to be in class at 8 AM.
But mentally, I was done.
I decided I’d finish my contract. Do my classes till June 30.
And that was it.
No more wage slavery.
I was going to declare victory over the European labor market. Victory over Spanish wages. Victory over all the shitty jobs on all the shitty schedules for all the shitty academies.
I changed my computer wallpaper to ol’ Winston, giving the V for Victory.
It was time to make my own V.E. Day.
I made a plan, mentally committed myself to life as a writer full-time, and started the countdown to Victory in Europe.
So far so good.
Towards the end of week 9, Esther dumped me.
At the time I was so focused on my mission that I didn’t care… much. It took me several months to realize exactly how much it was affecting me.
In the meantime, the countdown continued.
The school year ended, I cashed my severance check and went to the East of Europe to celebrate.
I was free. And kinda miserable.
Esther’s face still floated through my mind seven times an hour… I still wanted her. I still wished I could fall asleep next to her at nights and wake up with her in the mornings.
And it just wasn’t going to happen.
Key lesson: Success can solve financial problems. But a lot of the bigger problems aren’t financial.
And two years later, my life as a writer continues…
I could write a whole book about the last two years.
Let’s just say: running your own business is hard.
Now you know.
Personally, I had no idea. I was in uncharted territory. I was expecting to retire. Write a few emails a week from the beach, and live on passive income.
How could I fail?
So here’s the thing: the internet’s changing, and fast.
In these 2 years, among other things, the Spanish government killed my website (gotta love Europeans and their regulations) and Udemy, the online course platform where I was making all my money, dried up to almost nothing.
I’ve learned a lot about planning and plan B-ing, about rolling with the punches, and about the futility of “passive income”.
I changed course a couple of times, and I’m doing better than ever. But it wasn’t easy.
So I’ve failed at retirement…
But had quite a few adventures in the process.
Key lesson: the game doesn’t end till you die.
As Stephen Pressfield says,
“Fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”
I’m hardly an artist. But that’s one of my favorite quotes.
Now get out there and write, my loves.
P.D. This was long. But hey. I’m going to be putting together a Chorizo Chronicles book one of these days. So I’d better get used to working harder. Will the book be a success or a complete failure? I’m not sure… But the only way to find out is to try.