Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ch 2.2 Five Year Plan

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)

Ch 2.2 Five Year Plan
Why Make The Plan?
There are a million decisions you have to make as an author. What do I write next? Indie or trad-pub? Agent or no? Do I go to this conference or invest in how-to books? Should I join a writerly organization? Etc. When you have to make these decisions, the plan will help you see which answer will support your goals. 

Before I decided to indie publish, I made a Five Year Plan - partly to see if indie publishing was a feasible business, and partly to quantify what I expected to get out of it. I already had my Mission Statement, so I had a handle on my core values. The Five Year Plan was a concrete action plan that lined up with those values. In the years since that first plan, I've revised and expanded it into Financial and Creative Five Year Plans. 

These are one-sheet plans that, at a glance, say where you're headed.

I've also made a full-scale Business Plan (more on that at the end of the chapter).

You could say I'm a bit of a planner.

What works for you may be different, but setting down some basic goals and how you expect to achieve them is the core of any business. And indie publishing is a business, so you need to treat it that way.

What is Your Goal?
  • Do you just want legions of readers?
  • Do you have particular kind of story you need to tell?
  • Do you dream of winning awards? 
  • Do you want to be on the NYTimes Bestseller list, and nothing else will do? 
  • Do you want to earn a living with your writing? 

You don't have to have just one, and these will evolve over time. I make no judgment about your goals, except that they should line up with your Core Values. 

This is critical: be honest with yourself. 
Don't spend a bunch of time chasing a goal that, once you achieve it, isn't what you really wanted after all.

For me, I took this (original) Mission Statement...
To leverage my background in science, engineering, politics and life, to create compelling stories and characters that pose moral questions to young readers and make them think. To have every story be an improvement in craft. To be a leader and member of a supportive writing community, through blogs, critiques, and social networking. To create a body of novel length works that reaches a large number of young readers, to provide the greatest impact on young lives. 

...and came up with this overarching goal:
To make enough money from writing that it would be equivalent to working as a part-time engineer. 

For me, my family's financial plans always included me going back to work once the kids were in school. I had assumed that would be part-time engineering, flexible around my kids' schedules, and that money would be used to fund our three boy's college tuition. If I was going to accomplish all the things in my Mission Statement, I would need this writing business to not just support itself, but grow into something that could replace that missing income. Something that could basically send my kids to college.

It may not be hitting the NYTimes bestseller list, but at the time, replacing a steady engineering paycheck with money from my writing seemed like shooting for the moon.

(But I've done that before, so that didn't put me off.)

My first Five Year plan was a ridiculous mess. I've cleaned it up, boiled it down, and essentially it was this:
August 2011
First Five Year Plan (Financial)
5 year goal: To make enough money from writing that it would be equivalent to working as a part-time engineer. 
Measure: $29,250/yr net income ($50k salary pro rated to part-time), before taxes.
Target: 16,500 ebook sales per year

Cost to launch an ebook ~$1000, so first 500 ebooks go against costs. Assume launch 3 books in a year, so first 1500 ebook sales go to expenses. $30k income is equivalent to 15,000 ebook sales/yr at $2/book profit. Need to sell 15,000+1,500(costs) = 16,500 total.

1 year goal: To self-publish a YA trilogy (3 ebooks) that will start to build my fan base beyond my friends-and-family to a core base of fans that will head me toward that 16k sales number. 
Target: hit the top 100 of my genre on Amazon's SF&F bestseller list (Kindle store).

This book goal: To launch the book, start building the base and build excitement for the series. 
First Target: break even with 500 sales
Second Target: break 1,000 sales on OPEN MINDS in the first 6 months.

See that modest first target (break even with 500 sales)? The reason to set a low first target is: 1) hopefully you can reach it, and 2) if you don't, then early on, you can start to reformulate things like your Marketing Plan (see What Did You Forget To Pack?). Or recalibrate your goals. Note that I didn't expect to reach my five year goal in the first year. I knew it would take time to build a fanbase. I was in this for the long-haul. I wasn't planning on quitting if I didn't hit the NYTimes bestseller list in the first year. I was planning on breaking even, and hoping to break 1000 sales and hit the top 100 in SF&F at some point.

That entire plan fit on one sheet and helped guide my first year. 

And because I was both lucky and worked hard, I managed to exceed my first year goals. 

In fact, I actually did meet my Five Year Goal in the first year.

So I revised.
August 2012
Second Five Year Plan (Financial + Creative)
By the end of the first year, I had sold 10k of my first novel and was making enough money to replace that part-time engineering job (that I won't have to take now). So I recalibrated my Five Year target to fund my three boy's entire college tuition. Sure, I might not make it, and I had more than five years to meet it, because my oldest was only 13. But that was the real target, at least financially. 

Financial Goals
5 year goal: Cumulative income from writing to meet 2021 funding goal for boys' college fund. (Note: this is meeting the 2021 goal in 2017) 
Measure: Amount I can deposit each year (at tax time) into the college saving account
Target: average $34k/year net for each of five years ~ 17,000 ebooks/yr

1 year goal: Finish the Mindjack Trilogy and move forward in a way that will continue to grow my fanbase while providing steady income that meets the financial goals. Establish the business end of being an indie author. Get equipment (iMac) and skills (formatting, publishing team), have a good system in place for tracking sales, etc.

That financial goal was substantially more agressive - I had to not just hit the target once, but every year. Along the way, I discovered that my creative targets were just as important, so I added a Five Year Creative Plan.

The Five Year Creative Plan
Once you get past the how-do-I-format-this and how-do-I-price-this and what-the-heck-is-marketing-anyway questions, the real power of being indie starts to settle in. You realize that just because books have always been written a certain way, does not mean they have to continue to be written that way. Rules you didn't even realize your subconscious has laid hold of (book length) no longer restrict you. The euphoria of realizing you can write anything is quickly replace by a deluge of questions.

What do I want to be writing in five years?
What drives the length of a story?
Where do I need to stretch myself as a writer?
If there was no consideration for sales, what would I write?
If sales were all that concerned me, what would I write?
Do I continue to deliver stories that will build upon my prior works?
Do I diversify and write something completely different?
Does brand matter anymore, in the digital age? 

Once again, having a your core values written down helps guide you with this.

Creative Goals
5 year goal:  Do a large volume of work. Write stories I love. Constantly strive to boost my productivity, increase my creativity, take my craft to a higher literary level. Find a way to balance my creative work with my life, so I can continue to produce at a pace that I can maintain. At my current pace, I can produce 10 novels and a dozen or more short works in 5 years. That's enough to build a portfolio of works in one genre (YA/SF) while possibly exploring other genres as well.

1 year goal: To finish publishing the Mindjack Trilogy, including shorts/collection (Mindjack Origins). Stretch myself in my craft, branching out and experimenting with genre and form (length), while still building on the base built with Mindjack.
  • To finish writing/publishing the Mindjack Trilogy, including the Mindjack Origins short story collection.
  • Produce a live-action trailer for Mindjack. 
  • Brainstorm/outline two possible indie series: one YA/SF, one adult/steampunk fanstasy/romance. Experiment with novel length/number in series. See what works best for the stories.Write and indie release at least one novel, possibly two, plus additional shorts related to these series.
  • Revise my middle grade fantasy. Renew my SCBWI membership. Attend my local SCBWI conference. Submit my MS to agents/editors. If the trad-pub path fails for this book, indie publish.
  • Seek out ways to stretch myself in my craft. Keep myself open to experimentation. 
  • After one year, make a new plan. :)
Does the Planning Help?
For me, yes.

Looking at my creative and financial goals, I realized I didn't want five years to go by without publishing one of my middle grade stories. That meant it went on the schedule, and I was willing to renew my SCBWI membership to pursue the trad-pub path with that book.

What wasn't on the schedule? 
Debt Collector - a future-noir serial idea that hit my brain like a thunderstorm. But when I looked at my creative goals they included things like:
  • Branching out and experimenting with genre and form (length)
  • Experiment with novel length/number in series
  • Seek out ways to stretch myself in my craft
  • Constantly strive to boost my productivity
Writing a 125k, nine-part serial on the fly in four months was definitely not in the schedule. But it was in the creative plan, in the sense that it met many of the creative goals I had set for myself. In other words, Debt Collector aligned with my core values.

So I revised again.
August 2013
Creative Goals
1 year goal: Writing Debt Collector proved I could write faster than I believed possible (125k in 4 months). Reducing social media and focusing during creative time (as well as tracking my creative productivity) was key. I need to continue to push those boundaries.
  • Finish Faery Swap and Third Daughter. 
  • Work with a professional developmental editor to speed story process. 
  • Start the Singularity series, both the first YA SF novel as well as the prequel adult SF thriller screenplay. Write short stories in the Singularity universe to submit to magazines (and eventually indie publish) for more exposure. 
  • Write and publish the second season of Debt Collector. Continue to stretch myself in my craft by taking the Screenplay in a Year workshop with Kat Falls as well as the writing intensive in Minnesota with James Scott Bell. 
Revising time and again isn't a sign of weakness in a plan. It's a sign of strength that your goals can evolve with you, that you're remaining flexible and open to change. Once again, having your core values written down helps to keep you grounded as your actual plans shift.

A Full Business Plan
The "one-sheet" plan can help you identify where you're heading, but for those just starting out, or who want a more formalized approach, I highly recommend Denise Grover Swank's Business Plan for Writers. Denise is a powerhouse indie author with five-times the energy of a normal human. And she's got rock-solid business sense. Here's a sketch of what my business plan looks like (yes, I did one of these, too).

1. Description of Business
Details about business plus summary of Five Year Plan.
2. Ownership of Rocket Dreams Publishing and Location of Business
The Legal Beagle stuff.
3. Products
A summary of current works and planned works for the next 5 years.
4. Pricing Strategy
Philosophy of pricing (including promotional pricing) as well as a listing of current prices, both print and digital.
5. Financial Plan
A summary of sales of current works in the past, plus expected revenues in the future. Observations about which books perform better/worse.
6. Production Schedule and Writing Plans
A description of the production process (time to draft, critique partners, editors, other publishing team members), as well as a schedule for the coming years.
7. Targeted Audience
Some understanding of who you're reaching with your books.
8. Planned Marketing and Promotion in 2013
An analysis of what's worked in the past and what new promotions will be explored in the future.
9. Web Plan
Plans for a professional presence(s) on the web as well as author branding.
10. Long Term Goals
Both Financial and Creative Five Year Plans, as well as Core Values and Goals.
11. Summary
Executive summary of the business plan.

If you are intent on making a Full Business Plan, please see Denise's more detailed description of how to go about it. 

The Future Is Bright
Making a plan is no guarantee of success (remember my first target? breaking even?). But it puts you squarely in the driver's seat of your own future. Which brings me to thoughts of what that future will look like for authors in general over the next five years. I firmly believe we'll see more and more authors (new, midlist trad-pubbed, as well as veteran bestsellers) going indie, in part or whole. In five years a whole "generation" of writers will have made careers as writers without having ever been published by anyone other than themselves. Those authors will have made their own rules (about storytelling, writing, and careers), and they will be different than any other generation of authors in the past.

This crucible of indie publishing isn't just changing the industry, it's changing the writers.

You can literally write the future with your plan. Be bold! Make No Small Plans! Which brings me to the next section, Taking the Road Less Traveled.

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)


  1. Awesome! :) Another great addition. :)

  2. OHMYGAWD--you sent me to spreadsheet land with just your title here. I LOVE a PLAN! *BUWAHAHAHAHAHA* (and can't say the word without cackling). But you have so many more domains than I'd even thought about.

    Since this first venture of mine is serial, the per unit is a lot less. I definitely need to hit and hit hard because my break even is probably about 1100 units for the first purchased (I am assuming I nearly always give that first one away)

    1. Your break even may be less (mine was less for my serial because I spent less in covers/editing). You should tally up your actual spending, so you’ll know just the target you have to hit.

      *hugs to a fellow planner* :)

    2. I have a friend working with me for covers--I am guaranteeing him a minimum and then giving him a cut up to a maximum, so if I do well, he gets paid closer to the fairer price. And then I'm paying an editor, but also a friend, so she is getting a per page. My biggest challenge is it's only 30% of those 99 centers so it's only 30 cents a book sold. Fingers are crossed!

  3. Oh Susan - thanks for this post!

    I'm just about to embark on the indie journey with my 1st book - launching in Sep - which is an MG mystery (yeah, I know, stupid to start with the HARDEST type to sell in ebooks!!! But unfortunately, it happened to be the mss I was working on when I decided to ditch the traditional route and it is my best so far, I think) - anyway, I'm one of those people who always want results NOW and feel a total failure if everything isn't happening I get closer to hitting "Publish", I am slowly feeling more & more terrified and thinking that I'm going to be a total failure. Your post helped to remind me that I need to think more long-term and not freak out if I don't "succeeed" immediately - and to set smaller, achievable goals so I don't set myself up for disappointment.

    Of course, I still think I've got a hard road ahead of me with an MG novel so I think my fears are founded - but I'm going to take a deep breath now and try not to think about it too much - and focus on the first goal, which is to break even. :-)

    Still, there's something I don't understand - HOW did you know you could do it? I mean, when you made your original 5yr plan, how did you know that you could hit the 16,000 ebooks/yr goal after 5 years? Even if you managed to hit the 1,000 books in first 6 moths, it still means that you believed sales would grow a lot to be hitting 16 times that in HOW did you know that it could be achieved? How did you know that it would just sell a few hundred - even thousand copies - but then sales just die off?

    That's the bit that scares me the most and freak me out about making a 5yr plan - how can I be so confident that sales of my books will grow?

    (yes, I am writing a series - this first book is the first in a canine mystery series. And yes, I will also be considering writing something in a different genre, so that I have some eggs in another basket...although all the advice is that I should put out at least 2 books in this first series first, to give it a proper fighting chance...)

    Thanks for being a great inspiration, as always. I have been following your blog for a few months now, ever since making the decision to go indie and it was been a HUGE help. Thank you.


    1. Of course there's no way to "know" that you will reach any goal you set - I didn't know I could hit the 16k books selling per year goal, I just knew that's what I would have to sell in order to meet my financial goal of replacing my part-time job. Honestly, at the time, it seemed impossibly large. But I gave myself five years to do it - and I don't spell this out in my plan above, but I wasn't planning on launching one book in that five years. In fact, I was planning on launching THREE books in the FIRST year and seeing how that went. In order to sell 16k over three books, now the number you have to sell of each is less (about 5k). And if I wrote more books over the five years (which I would) then the number I have to sell of EACH book gets less and less, to meet that goal. In fact, this is one of the keys to writing as a career - creating a body of works that provide a (small or large, depending) revenue stream over time.

      It certainly was possible that my plan could have "failed." I could have not broken even. I could have sold 1000 copies and then have sales die off. But EVEN IF THAT HAPPENED, I wouldn't have given up. This is part of why it's a FIVE YEAR plan not a SIX MONTH plan. I was planning on having it take five years, trial and error, writing several books, in order to eventually meet my target. I was giving it five years to SUCCEED. If it didn't succeed by then, I would have to seriously reconsider whether this was something I could do as a career. And probably go out and get that part-time engineering job. :)

      As it turns out, I got luckier than that.

      And you ARE starting out on the most difficult level - MG indie books. I'm glad you realize this, so you can scale back your expectations accordingly.

      I'm one of those people who always want results NOW and feel a total failure if everything isn't happening immediately

      This is very unlikely to happen with indie MG. So, that voice that's making you nervous is trying to warn you about that - listen to it. Most MG indie authors I know are doing good to break even - and it's no reflection on them as authors or their books. It's the market. I think that's slowly changing, and there are ways for MG indie authors to make inroads, but the market still hasn't really arrived.

      It will eventually. Maybe in five years.

      You could wait until the market is ready to publish your indie MG. You could write a couple more books, maybe ones that will sell well in indie (YA or adult) and then use that momentum to introduce your MG book later. Or you can start with MG, know that it's not going to make a ton of money right away, but you'll learn a lot about the publishing process and the market.

      Any of those paths is good. It's just a matter of picking which one suits you best.

      Good luck!

  4. I love making plans and writing out lists. I think it's a great idea for anyone embarking on a self-publishing voyage to take your advice.

    It's also a good idea for anyone starting a new blog. I took that route when I started my latest and it's nice going back to see those goals that've now been realized.

  5. Great post. Lots to think about here. I feel like I'm scattered in so many directions in my writing endeavors that a good solid plan would help me figure out what the hell I'm doing.

    Thanks for the motivation and the template.

    And congrats on reaching your 5-year goal in one year. That's amazing!

  6. I feel like you are a clear voice for the indie world that gives direction and hope and possibility. You five year plan has made me feel free. You are living the American dream and showing the rest of us how it is possible! Thank you!

    1. Thank your for the lovely comment, Taryn! That feeling of freedom is something I hope for all my writer-friends. :)

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