I realized as I was working on my taxes this past weekend that I turned a corner in 2015 and earned more than I ever did as a reporter. It wasn’t a little jump, either. In 2014, I made a little under my best-earning year as a newspaper reporter. Then last year, my income made a good solid jump forward to be my best year yet.

Wanting to continue that this year, I started trying to figure out what I did right. Here’s what I came up with.

Man Relaxing Behind Stack of DocumentsWork harder

The tip at the top of my list for earning more would have to be learn to work harder. In the past, if something took me outside my comfort zone, I tended to put it off, which led to me dawdling on some important things. I didn’t have a boss looking over my shoulder so things tended not to get done. I did a lot less dawdling last year. This led to more-productive work time.

Benchmarks

I use benchmarks in my work, which give me short-term targets that I could work toward. This includes having a weekly word count. This has worked out so well that I am actually getting ahead on a lot of my articles and making faster progress on my books. Another benchmark is my monthly sales goals. If I saw that my sales were lagging in a given month last year, I would kick up my efforts to sell books or get a new article assignment.

Consistent work

Nothing beats making sure to work day after day in order to earn more. On my daily to-do list, I include all of the articles that I have coming due in the next couple months. I make sure that I do at least a little bit on the project each day. Little steps forward are still steps forward. It also gives me variety in my day. I’ll write one article, conduct interviews for another, and research another one. The jumping around keeps me from running up against writer’s block so I can keep moving all of the projects forward.

blue-growth-chartScalable work

Even with improving my work efficiency, there’s only so much I can do because I am limited by the number of hours in a day. When you are someone else’s employee, you may get paid by the hour so your income will be limited by the eight-hour workday. My books offer me unlimited income. I have done the work to write the book and it can continue to generate me income for the rest of my life and even beyond that for my family. Each year, I continue as a freelancer, I write more books. This means my scalable income continues to grow and build upon itself.

Marketing

I became a writer to write not to market myself. However, marketing is part of the job no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel. It has taken me awhile to realize this. I’m a slow learner, I guess. Last year, I just decided that I needed to embrace the marketing side of the work as something that I need to do. I did a lot more speaking and festivals in 2015 than I did in 2014. I also started doing some advertising and building my e-mail list, which is something that I wish I had started when I started writing my books. I saw immediate results with some of the items. Others are still in the process of building up to the point where they are effective for me.

I’ve only got January to go by for 2016 so far and January is a low retail month. However, my income for the month is up 14 percent and my book sales are up 31 percent. I think that is a pretty good start and I plan to keep it going.

So one of the things that I am trying to do this year is to be more productive. One of the ways I want to achieve that is by killing two birds with one stone in the things that I do. For instance, when I bicycle, I carry my Kindle in a bag on my back and have it read my current book to me while I’m exercising.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to make a new office purchase. I bought a treadmill desk. I pictured myself walking all day while I typed away on my computer. Besides combining my work and exercise, I figured it would help reduce some of my back pains that I get from time to time. Walking helps get all of my bones into proper alignment and do away with pain.

Treadmill desks, in general, cost a lot more than a regular treadmill. I got an Exerpeutic Workfit new from eBay for a decent price, plus I had $100 in eBay gift cards that I put toward it. It set up pretty easily, too, which I was happy about. It took less than an hour to put everything together.

Then there was the question of where to put it in my office. As soon as it was assembled, I know that it wouldn’t fit where I had planned on putting it. It would have dominated my entire office. It was simply too tall. So I turned it into a corner and rearranged my office around it. It’s not optimum, since I now have trouble getting to some of my shelves, but I can work with it until a better idea comes along.

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My new office layout with my treadmill desk on the left and old desk in the center.

My wife tells me it’s not feng shui since neither of my desks are looking towards the doors. That’s not a big deal since the only think I really know about feng shui is that it’s fun to say. However, having my back to the doors does put me in an opportune position for sneak attacks from my sons.

I use the treadmill desk, but not like I had envisioned. Using one is definitely an acquired skill. When I tried writing while slowly walking, my writing was as unreadable as a doctor’s (even to me!). When I took a drink of water while walking, I wound up splashing myself in the face.

Right now, I try to walk 10 to 15 minutes out of every hour on it. The things that I feel safe doing on it are reading, internet research, e-mailing, and taking a break to watch a video. And even though, I had pictured myself doing more, I have increased the number of steps I take each day (my mom got me a FitBit for Christmas so I can track that) and my back has felt better.

I hope to gradually add more tasks to those I feel comfortable with, and thus, increase my time on the treadmill. I have also considered just using it as a standing desk for some things. Standing would certainly be better for me than sitting.

For the time being, I’ll continue to jump between my old desk and treadmill desk. My point to all this, is that we spend too much time sitting around. It’s not healthy. I’ve also read that even if you exercise daily, if you sit at a desk job, you eliminate a lot of the benefits of your workout. You don’t have to go as drastic as I did to try and change, but definitely take more breaks from your computer to walk around a bit more.

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Here’s an infrared photo believed to be of the Poe Toaster that appeared in Life Magazine. This haunting image is what I based Alexander Reynolds on in The Man Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe. I even gave him a limp to explain the need for what appears to be a walking stick in the photo.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, I heard about the tradition of the Poe Toaster and it stuck with me. Who was the mysterious man who came in the dead of night in the early hours of January 19 to leave roses and cognac on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe?

I think what really caught my attention was that it was an unbroken tradition that dated back to the 1940s and it continued until 2009 the bicentennial of Poe’s birth. Then the Poe Toaster disappeared just as mysteriously as he had appeared. Had the man died? Was it a group of men who decided to end their tradition on a big anniversary? Had the man who been the Toaster simply lost interest?

Those questions will probably remain unanswered and, in my opinion, should stay that way. What more fitting a tribute to the master of the horror and father of the detective novel than to have such a dark, unsolved mystery associated with him.

Luckily, so many others appreciated the tradition of the Poe Toaster that the Maryland Historical Society and Poe Baltimore chose a new Poe Toaster to continue the tradition. I think that’s wonderful, but I wish the Poe Toaster was still trying to be anonymous in his visit to the grave.

I believe that for such a tradition to continue for so long, and if the Toaster was a single man, that Edgar Allan Poe’s writing meant something deeply personal to him. That was the reason he kept his visit private.

It was also the reason I decided to write my novel, The Man Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe. I wanted to hypothesize just what could have happened to make Edgar Allan Poe such an important part of a person’s life that he would visit his grave for 65 years on bitterly cold January nights.

Now, because the Poe Toaster has become a tourist attraction, the visit is done during the day. However, at least his identity remains a secret for now.

The Poe Toaster is not the only unsolved mystery associated with Edgar Allan Poe. The reasons for his death also remain clouded in mystery. He was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore and wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe was admitted to Washington Medical Center where he died without explaining what had happened to himself. Even his medical records and death certificate have been lost to history.

Here’s a news clip about the return of the Poe Toaster in 2016 and a Baltimore Sun article here.

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I used to wonder how a centerfold or porn actor explains their past to their children. In today’s age of the Internet, it seems that all of those past skeletons in the closet never stay there. Just look at what happened last year when all those celebrities’ phones got hacked and embarrassing photos of them were posted on the internet.

The writer’s version of this must be when old novels or articles come back to haunt them. One of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz, wrote lots of novels until pen names when he was struggling to make a living. Apparently, some were even softcore porn. He has said in various interviews that he has bought back the rights of those novels and they will never again see the light of day.

However, the novels were published and copies are still out there if you know what name Koontz used when he wrote them. I’m not sure if all of his pen names are known, but if they are, then it’s just a matter of someone finding one of those pen names of a book cover.

When I started out freelancing years ago, I had to scramble to make ends meet. One way I did this was to write for web sites called content mills. They are web sites that provide content for a lot of other web sites like eHow.com and Livestrong.com.

The articles didn’t pay much, but they also didn’t require a lot of work. I could generally turn one of the articles around in an hour, and to be sure, that is what I did. Since content mills didn’t pay well, I wasn’t going to put hours of work into the story. I got $20 for a 500-word article, on average.

So I didn’t put a lot of work into these articles. Turnaround was important, and I tried to do 3 or 4 a day before I went onto the work I really wanted to be writing. These articles weren’t ones that I put a lot of effort into, but I did try and research them to get them right.

On top of this, the articles were vetted by editors who also weren’t putting a lot of time into their work because they got paid by the number of articles they edited. That means, sometimes, even when I had something right, the editor changed it to something that was inaccurate.

I wrote most of these articles around 10 years ago. However, every once in a while I get an e-mail from someone with a question about the accuracy of one of the articles. Most of the inquiries are from polite people, but some are aggressive, accusing me of all sorts of things.

I try my best to answer the questions politely (even the mean ones). However, quite honestly, I don’t remember these articles. By contrast, I generally remember the articles that I cared about. So I am unable to answer these questions fully, which is not a position that I like being in.

I am embarrassed that these older pieces are still out there after all this time. They certainly don’t represent my best work, but they are still out there representing me. I don’t even have any rights to the work because they were all done as work for hire. That means I can’t ask for the articles to be taken down when I come across one of them.

If there is a silver lining, though, these articles do show me how far I’ve come since I started on this freelance writing journey.

Challenge_Future_New_Year_ResolutionsLast week I looked at how I did with my 2015 writing resolutions. Now it’s time to set some goals for 2016. I tend to set my goals at the high end of scale so that I really have to work for it. That way, if I fail, I will probably be better off than if I had simply set a goal that I knew I could achieve. Also, if I fail, I usually leave that goal in place until I do hit it. I also like measurable goals so that I can gauge my progress.

Publish four books this year.

Having just one book ready to come out (It’s the first in a young adult series), this could really be a stretch. However, I have been working on a biography that I really want to get out this year and I have two other books that are possibilities. So I’ll go for the gold and see if I can get them all out. The biography will be one that messes up this goal if any of them do.

Attend 78 festivals, book signing, talks or other events.

Last year my goal was 50 events and I managed 56. This year, I decided on 78. It’s an unusual number, but it works out to be 1.5 events a week. I had 29 events set up coming into the new year and was contacted about 5 more yesterday, which gives me more than I had for 2014 (32 events). There are still festivals and book signings that I expect to do. Plus, one of the things I like about festivals besides meeting readers is that I tend to have people bring me ideas for articles and ask me to speak at their organizations. Another reason that I think I’ll be able to meet this goal is that with the introduction of the YA book, I will start marketing myself to schools, which should add to the number of events that I’ll do.

Increase the percentage of my income that comes from books to 50 percent.

Last year, although I sold more books than I ever had, the percentage of my income from book sales decreased to 38 percent while my income from articles jumped to 60. While I enjoy writing articles, my ultimate goal not have to write articles because I’m earning enough from my books sales to support my family. I would still write articles, but only the ones that I really want to. This means I’ll have to do a lot better at my book marketing, which I started trying to concentrate on during the last quarter of 2015.

Increase book sales by 33 percent.

This is a big goal and the one I’m least likely to hit. If I do miss it, I am sure I’ll still have sold more books than I did in 2015, which means it will be another personal best year. I want to give myself a goal that will make me work my butt off (but that’s a goal on my personal list as I work to lose weight).

Get all of my eligible physical books converted into e-books.

E-books are nowhere near a major part of my income and it is an area that I could really grow in order to help my previous goal. Most of my books are available as e-books, but there are still a few that I need to convert. I also have one e-book that I would like to turn into a physical book. Eventually, I would like to be able to release e-books and physical books at the same time.

Based on how things went in 2015, if I can come even halfway to achieving these goals, I will have a very  successful 2016.

I went back a year in my blog posts to revisit my 2015 New Year’s Resolutions in regards to my writing. Here’s what I wanted to accomplish this year as I wrote at the end of 2014.

  1. Publish three new books.
  2. Ready three more books for publication.
  3. Get two new projects started.
  4. Get published in three new magazines.
  5. Attend at least 50 festivals, speaking events, or booksignings.

So how did I do?

UntitledPublish three new books.

I’m not sure which books I had in mind when I made this resolution, but I only published two. The Last to Fall: The 1922 March, Battles, & Deaths of U.S. Marines at Gettysburg came out in the fall and The Man Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe was published this week. Although it missed the Christmas season, it barely made it in under the wire for 2015 and is in time for Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday next month. Two books seems to be my average, but with my trying to establish a pen name as well as writing under my own name, I may need to push myself to three books a year.

Ready three more books for publication.

I missed this goal, too. I have one book that is just waiting for a cover and it will be ready to be published at some point in 2016. Currently, I have four other book projects in various states, but I can’t say that any of them are ready for publication. I am really pushing for one of the projects in particular to be completed in 2016, but it is forcing me to go outside my writing comfort zone. That’s not a bad thing, but when you have to learn new techniques to writing, it slows down your progress.

Get two new projects started.

This goal I did accomplish. The projects got started, and are slowly moving along. I’ll work on them here and there when I hit writers block on my main projects. When these new projects move to the top of my “to do” list, I’ll have a good start and I’ll be able to jump right into them.

Get published in three new magazines.

This one worried me as I checked on it since I really hadn’t tried to expand into new publications this year. However, when I checked, I was pleased to see that I had been published in three new magazines. These were The Gettysburg Companion, Hanover Magazine, and frank. Magazine (yes, the lowercase f and period are correct).

 11061652_10207601915987824_7251681378657725713_nAttend at least 50 festivals, speaking events, or booksignings.

Now this one I did put forth effort toward. I attended 56 festivals, speaking events and booksignings this year. Many of them were new places for me and some of them turned out to be excellent venues that I will continue to attend. The interesting thing about doing events is that many times I got ideas for articles and invitations to do other talks from them.

So I made three out of five of my goals for the year. I was disappointed that I couldn’t achieve all of them at first until I realized that in reaching as many as I did, I had earned 28 percent more this year than I did in 2014. I also sold more books than I did in 2014, although it might fall a bit short of my personal record. Now I’m wondering how good I might have done if I had achieved all of the goals that I set.

UntitledWhen I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the mysterious Poe Toaster. Each anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death, he shows up at some point to leave three roses and a half-filled bottle of cognac. In the 1990s, I wrote a novel about the Toaster, but then I put it in a drawer as I pursued other goals.

I came across the book earlier this year and read it. I found that I still liked the story, although it needed some editing and updates.

I wanted to see it in print, but one of the updates I decided it needed was to use a pen name since it is not the typical historical fiction and history that I have been writing under my own name.

The Man Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe tells the story of the Poe Toaster, but it is not the story of some superfan showing his dedication to one of America’s great writers.

Edgar Allan Poe died a mysterious death in 1849. Found delirious on the streets of Baltimore and wearing clothes that were not his own, Edgar was admitted to Washington Medical Center where he died without explaining what had happened to himself. Even his medical records and death certificate have been lost to history.

The Man Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe is the story of the two men whose blood feud brought about Edgar’s death.

Alexander Reynolds and Matthew Cromwell have both lived many lives under many names. They are men of biblical renown, resurrected men who, having died once, can no longer die until the foretold Second Coming.

Eternal life has its cost, though, whether or not Alexander and Matthew want to pay it. Alexander has already seen Matthew kill Edgar’s mother and he is determined to keep the same fate from befalling Edgar.

It’s a historical horror story that I’m sure will thrill readers while at the same time allowing them to learn more about the life of Poe. One of the inspirations I used while writing this book was Amadeus, the historical fiction work about the life of Mozart. I always liked how the fictional elements of the story had been woven into Mozart’s life, which is what I did with Poe’s life and my fictional story.

Learn more about the Poe Toaster here.

Do free books work as a marketing tool? This is a hotly debated issue among the indie authors that I know. Some are quite vehement that since they put in all that time writing the book, they want to get paid for that work.

I understand that. I want to get paid, too. I think the difference between those who use free e-books and those who don’t is their view of their career. Authors who use free books as part of their marketing plan believe that giving away a book now will help them further down the road in building readership and therefore, more sales.

I did some revamping of my own marketing plan this fall and decided to use free books as part of it. The first way I implemented this strategy was to offer three free e-books to anyone who signs up for my mailing list. (If you’re interested, visit my website at jamesrada.com. You’ll find a signup at the bottom of the home page.)

The results were good, but I still need to tweak things a bit to optimize it.

chart free vs paid series starter               Smashwords recently released an updated survey that supports the use of free books. With more and more authors using free book promotions, the effectiveness has dropped off some, but it still works. The 2015 survey found that free books are downloaded 41 times more than a priced book. That is up a bit from 2014, but down significantly from 2012 and 2013.

However, what it shows is that free books are a great way to get your books read. What happens from that point is up to the author. If the book is well written, the reader will want more so authors need to make sure that it is easy for the reader to find more books by the author and buy them.

“A free book allows a reader to try you risk free, and if you’re offering them a great full length book, that’s a lot of hours the reader has spent with your words in which you’re earning and deserving their continued readership.  Free works!,” Smashwords founder Mark Coker wrote in the survey.

Another item involving free books from the survey is that series that offer the first book free earn more money than those that don’t. Smashwords looked at 200 series with a first book free and 200 series that didn’t offer a free book. The survey looked at average earnings and the median earnings of the series. Both ways showed that series using free books earned 66 percent more.

I think this shows that free books should at least be given a try. I certainly will be. If you want to take a look at other findings in the survey, you can find out more here: http://blog.smashwords.com/2015/12/SmashwordsEbookSurvey2015.html

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Kill Zone by C. J. Lyons is the third book in the Lucy Guardino series. I read the first book in the series, Snake Skin, as well. While you can enjoy this book on its own, you’re going to get more out of it by reading the books in order. While I was reading, I could tell there must have been some things that happened in the second book that affected some of the characters in this book.

Kill Zone begins like a typical thriller. FBI agent Lucy Guardino is called to the scene of a brutal double murder of two young Afghan girls. As Lucy sets about to unravel the mystery, she begins to suspect that the oldest girl may have been killed as part of an honor killing.

Before the investigation can get too far, Pittsburgh, Pa., suddenly becomes the target of a large, coordinated attack between a Mexican cartel and Pittsburgh street gangs. The city becomes a war zone that leaves Lucy and her husband trying their best to stay alive.

The story moves quickly and is an exciting read. I like the character of Lucy. She seems very realistic in how she deals with work and family. Add into that, she tries to keep both separate from the other, which is not always possible.

I was a bit skeptical to start this series at first. I thought Lyons wrote medical thrillers and romance, neither of which are genres that I read. The description of Snake Skin sounded interesting, though, so I took a chance and I wasn’t disappointed. Lyons knows how to deliver a great story.

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Here’s a draft cover for an upcoming novel. It’s exciting to have my words coming to life, but sometimes the author needs help to make it happen.

Certainly one of the benefits of independent publishing is control. You, in your role as publisher, get the final approval on everything. That’s nice when you are trying to create the book that you envision in your mind. You don’t have that kind of control with mainstream publishing, and sometimes the result is a book you barely recognize as your own.

Publishing isn’t the only place where this happens. It happens when books are made into movies, too. I remember a story about the western, Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulick. The book was made into the James Stewart movie, Bend of the River. Apparently, it was changed so much between book and movie that Gulick took out a large ad that said that the only thing that the movie had in common with his novel was the first three words of the title.

Independent publishing gives an author control over a book that he or she has poured blood, sweat, tears, and a little bit of their soul into.

However, in the immortal words of Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Writers write, but they can’t always edit, do layout, or create a cover. In those instances, you need to recognize where your talents fall short and find someone who can do the job you envision.

I’ve designed some of my book covers and the results have been mixed. I have one book that I definitely want to create a new cover for at some point.

To make up for my lack of ability with graphic design, I have also hired designers to help out cover design. What has never failed to amaze me in working with cover designers is that they can take my initial ideas and turn them into something so much better than I even envisioned. I’ve also discovered that the covers I hear comments on the most are the ones that I’ve had a cover designer put together for me.

Right now, I have covers being worked on for three different books. I needed original art work for one book and found a young designer named Kate Shepherd. She posted some of her art on her Facebook page. I liked the style and thought it would work well for the cover of a book I was formatting. I’ve seen the ideas that she came up with and she hasn’t disappointed. She has actually been able to create pictures of my characters from my words.

The second book cover is from a different designer named Grace Eyler. It’s the one showing above. What do you think of it? The designer still has some small tweaks that she wants to do it, but I think she captured the essence of the story I’m telling? What does this cover make you think of?

I haven’t seen anything for the third cover yet, but I am excited to see what the designer comes up with. Mainly because with the two previous covers, not only have I been pleased with the result, but I doubt that I could have created either of the covers. I’m not only talking about just the technical aspects, but both of these ladies have a lot of creativity that expresses itself in a different way than my creativity does.

While I’m all for stepping outside the box as you write and publish, know when you’re taking too big a step and get help. Then keep working to improve your own abilities.

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