Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello. It’s great to virtually meet you all. My name is James Rosone and I'm a thriller author and co-owner of Front Line Publishing Inc. My wife and I co-write military, political, and espionage thrillers, though we're currently working on a military sci-fi series. My wife and I have published eighteen books, with another four more somewhere in the editing process, getting ready to be released over the next eight months.
When I released my first book in December 2015, I was writing as a form of PTSD therapy. That month I earned a whopping $78 dollars. However, our most successful month as an author was exactly two years later, December 2018 when we earned $47,365 in a single month. Right now, if we include audibles, I believe we’re averaging somewhere around $19,000 a month plus or minus a few thousand, so we’ve done pretty well in the self-publishing space considering how long we’ve been writing.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Before I was a writer, I served ten years in the Army and Air Force, and then followed that up with another eight years as a contractor for the Department of Defense and the State Department. During that time, I lived for 3.5 years in Iraq and 3.5 years in Germany, and spent most of that time involved in hunting and capturing terrorists across the globe. Although the reality was quite different from Jack Bauer in 24, I held a unique job in the military as an interrogator. I’d spend twelve to sixteen hours a day interrogating Al Qaeda prisoners, and we’d use the information to capture or kill the rest of their terrorist cells throughout the country.
It was an incredibly intense job. I’d go from huge emotional highs when we’d capture a top 10 high-value individual to immense lows when members of our capture teams would get injured or killed. It was a pure adrenaline junky job, right at the tip of the spear. I’ve interrogated a Saddam Hussein body double that I swore was really him. Other detainees I interviewed ranged from the top five members of the Al Qaeda organization in Iraq all the way down to a fourteen-year-old kid placing an improvised explosive device on the side of a road.
Looking back on my time in Iraq, I have mixed emotions about it. I was honored to have served my country and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’m also torn up at times with the guilt that I could have or should have done more. We lost twenty-six service members on missions derived from my interrogations, and more than a hundred were injured. I kept asking myself if I could have done something different, maybe asked another question or pushed a prisoner a little harder. Would it have changed the outcome? I struggled with that really hard when I left Iraq.
When I stopped working for the government, I fell into a deep depression, and my PTSD symptoms became so overwhelming it was hard for me to deal with them in a constructive way. I lost interest in the things that I once loved. However, one hobby I still enjoyed was reading. I became a prolific reader, often devouring one or two books a week. I enjoyed military thrillers, spy thrillers, and sci-fi the most. However, I found myself annoyed with some of the writing. To me, it lacked realism and authenticity. It’s not that the authors didn’t try—many of them did a decent job—but it seemed like they were just writing about stuff they’d never personally experienced. At best, they’d probably read about these topics.
One day when I was talking with my VA counselor, he asked me a question: “Why don’t you try writing therapy?” It had never occurred to me that writing might help with my own PTSD symptoms. I kicked the idea around for a couple of years and wrote some things but never published them. Then, in February of 2015, I hit an emotional dead end. I suddenly found myself laid off just as my security clearance was in the process of being renewed.
The best advice I could give to any new author or someone wanting to become an author is to find a mentor. Find an author who produces good quality works and has a track record of success and then see if they will help you in your journey.
When my security clearance inevitably expired, all my chances of continuing to work in a classified environment also faded into the wind. For me, that had been my life, my purpose, my mission—and it was all suddenly taken from me. I fell into an even deeper depression and really struggled with thoughts of suicide at that point. I had a wife and two kids now, but I had no immediate means to support them. I sat there for one night in the dark thinking to myself, “Wow, I’m honestly worth more dead than alive.” Then I remembered what the counselor said to me a few years before, and the next day, I set off on a course to write the type of books that I liked to read.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Every author has their own style. Some people spend days or weeks outlining a story. I would describe myself as more of a “Pantser,” meaning I tend to write by the seat of my pants. I’ll craft up an idea for a series with a start point and an endpoint. How I get from a to z is a constantly evolving process. When I outline a chapter, it’s usually only two or three bullet points.
Once that basic outline is written, and it’s not much, I start to fill it in with the story. When I write my books, I tend to write to them with three perspectives in mind:
- 1) The decision-maker level (all wars or operations are typically dictated by the policymakers, so I show that part).
- 2) The strategic level of how the military plans to implement the policy decision that’s been made.
- 3) The operational level or the “grunt” that has to execute the decisions.
My wife and I are a co-authoring team. We write and produce all of our books together, and at this point, we’ve become a pretty good team. I personally love it. We get to collaborate and we work from home, together. We get to spend time with our kids, go to their school events, spend extra time with them or handle other appointments as needed, all while working around our writing.
Here’s how the process works for us. When I finish writing the book, I hand it off to my wife. She then goes in and adds some extra flair to the characters, makes sure the pacing of the books is good, completes the first-round edits and then coordinates and handles all of the editing changes from our professional editor and our beta reader team. While she’s working on book one, I’m already burning through book two, when I finish book two, I hand it off to my wife and then I start on book three. At this point, book one is nearing completion with the editing process, which is when we put book one up for a 90-day pre-order.
We have essentially created a writing assembly line, with a book coming out every 90-days once we start the cycle. Then it’s just a matter of us keeping up with the pace we’ve set and working to ensure we maintain the quality of what we’re producing. We’d rather delay the launch of a pre-order than have to sacrifice on quality. We view writing as a business, and as such, we want to make sure the brand we’re building is known for producing good quality books, not rapidly published books riddled with errors and story plot holes because we didn’t take the time to do a couple of layers of quality proofs.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When I first started self-publishing, our start-up costs were relatively low. I found a book cover artist on Fiverr to produce a cover for under $100, and we were off to the races. As we’ve professionalized our business, our costs have grown. We now spend $350-$800 on the cover art depending on the type of series we're writing at the time. Initially, we spent very little on marketing, but now our average budget is between $2,500-$4,000 monthly. Once we could afford to move beyond our beta team for editing, we also started working with a professional editor, and each pass of a manuscript runs roughly $1,800. There are networking conferences that we now attend; for example, in 2018, we went to Politicon for research, and in 2019, we traveled to the 20BooksVegas conference. However, each of these expenses was added as we had the capital to do so.
When I first started releasing books, I began to network with our readers on Facebook by creating a World War III series page. As I continued to post articles of interest about the military and emerging technologies, the followership grew, and I was eventually able to create ads using a lookalike audience for that group. I did make an error in naming the page after the series; had I known that Facebook does not allow renaming of pages, I would have created an author page at the outset instead of a series page. As it is, we are still trying to build our author page to the same level of followers as our series page.
When it comes to marketing, we initially started out using Facebook ads. In 2016, Facebook ads were incredibly effective, far more than they are now. In the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook changed a lot of their targeting algorithms. While Facebook was figuring things out, we transitioned our marketing efforts to Amazon's AMS platform. Now, AMS accounts for probably 90% of our monthly marketing expenditures.
Naturally, when something is going great, Murphy's Law will inevitably intervene. In February 2019, Amazon made some major changes to their AMS algorithm. Many authors that I’m friends with say that this year’s costs on marketing increased dramatically while the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns went down. For a couple of years, my wife and I were routinely earning 8:1 or even 12:1 return on investment on our marketing dollars. The only thing holding us back from putting more money into ads in 2017 and 2018 was capital. We just couldn't come up with enough money to keep throwing more at AMS ads.
In February, Amazon introduced its dynamic ad bidding program and opened it up to outside groups that wanted to advertise their books and products against those of us authors who were exclusive to Amazon. This created a new challenge for us to overcome. Our sales in the first half of 2019 dropped by close to 50%. This caused more than a few sleepless nights as we struggled to figure out this new marketing landscape Amazon had created. We spent close to six months doing a lot of keyword testing until we found the right way to adapt to the new changes to the AMS platform. Once we figured out how to use the new platform to our advantage, we took our AMS ad spend (which had been generating a 3:1 return) to an average return on investment of 7:1. Given this is still less than it was in 2017 and 2018, it was a marked improvement from the first half of the year.
2019 also saw us make an enormous capital investment in the creation of audiobooks. At the start of 2019, we had four audibles. By the end of the year, that number had climbed to thirteen. This was a huge expenditure on our end. Audio sales have increased industry-wide by more than 400% each year. We knew from a business standpoint that we needed to be a part of this market, but it was a challenge. A good narrator is going to run you around $300 to $500 per finished hour. When your books are roughly 13 hours in length, it's a costly endeavor to take on when you need to transition nine books into audibles. This was perhaps the biggest financial risk we took in 2019. I firmly believe it's going to pay off in the end, so I'm happy with the capital expenditures even if it was more than I had wanted to spend.
In late 2018, we discovered something that threatened to derail our budding success. We learned that although our works are copyrighted, there are a large number of websites on the dark web that will attempt to sell an author's works illegally. Sadly, there aren’t enough hours in the day to track down all of the piracy that happens out there, so I would highly recommend using a site like Blasty.com, which sends cease and desist letters to all of these scamming sites and works with search optimization algorithms to make sure that these results do not readily populate when someone searches for your book.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The biggest strategy we've used to capitalize on reader buy-through of our books is our 90-day rapid release strategy. Each time we release a book, we have the link for the pre-order of the next book at the end of the last paragraph with a nice teaser for why they should go ahead and pre-order the next book. While this strategy does require us to crank out books at a rapid clip, we’ve managed to grow our followership substantially without investing as much in growing an email distribution list.
Another strategy we’ve implemented is asking readers for feedback. When we receive messages from readers who are critical or write one-star reviews (these are inevitable), we have contacted that person and politely asked them how we could improve our work for the future. By not taking it personally and being willing to listen, we’ve even managed to turn some of our more critical readers into some very helpful beta readers.
Finally, we’ve been very active in engaging our fans on social media. We’ve offered to allow fans to name characters and have at times even asked for input in crafting our stories. This is vital in turning a group that might be casual observers into a collection of superfans.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our business continues to grow and our profits continue to increase year-over-year. It allows us to work a flexible schedule, knowing that I'll have good and bad PTSD days. As I mentioned above, there have been some challenges. Recent algorithm shifts for Facebook and AMS have made marketing less effective while at the same time, the number of people entering the self-publishing space continues to grow. There is also a rise in these so-called writer farms--groups who employ dozens or even hundreds of overseas writers to crank out books at a prodigious rate, saturating entire genres with poorly edited and rapidly written books. I see a lot of challenges in the self-publishing space, but at the same time, I see enormous opportunities for those who want to put the work in and really learn the trade. Like anything in life, it takes time and hard work to be a successful self-employed person, but the benefits often outweigh the costs.
One opportunity we're looking at right now is working with the nation-wide library systems to try and get our books into a library in every city in America. I'm also looking to see if we can get our books into Army surplus stores, which are prolific throughout the US. Since we write military and spy thrillers, it's a natural fit to sell our books in those types of stores. In 2020, we're also trying something completely new; we're going to collaborate with a couple of other authors and look to sell our books at local gun shows throughout the state of Florida. The goal with some of these ventures is to really look to use every resource and every opportunity available to us. The marketing landscape is always going to change; the authors that'll survive and thrive are the ones that can adapt and overcome these challenges.
In addition to these new avenues of marketing, we are trying to leverage our connections with other authors to cross-promote our books. Because there are so many readers out there who consume books so rapidly, we are not really in direct competition. None of us can produce stories of high quality fast enough to keep up with the readers, so it makes sense to partner together.
We’ve put a significant amount of hours and financial investment into having our books turned into audibles this year. We are looking into different ways to promote audiobooks since listeners find their next books in different ways than readers do. This is a rapidly growing market, but the advertising industry hasn’t quite caught up with the demand in this field, so more work remains to be done on our end to capitalize on the expanding need for new audio content.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When I first started writing, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t understand marketing, I didn’t understand the need for even a basic author website or the need to create an author mailing list. I didn’t actually start creating an author mailing list until I was two years into this business.
When I began creating my mailing list, I used the conventional wisdom at the time and tried to give away snippets of my books for free. Many authors do this, and will even give away entire novels just to get people to sign up. However, I quickly learned that those who are seeking free items will usually unsubscribe once they receive their freebie, or will seldom open future emails.
I was rather discouraged when I saw this happening, so I changed my strategy. I now grow my mailing list exclusively through the links in the back matter of my books. I don’t list build like many other authors do. My current list is somewhat small, right around 2,500, but it’s highly active, with an open rate of 70% or higher. Each time I send an email out, which is usually around once a month, I can generate between $500 and $2,500 per email. So while my list is small, it churns out cashflow. It does grow, just much slower than what some of my author friends’ lists do.
If you want to get into writing, then you need to sit down and ask yourself: Why do you want to get into writing? What do you hope to accomplish? How do you plan on making this happen? What are you willing to cut out of your life to reach your goals?
One thing I’d like to stress to people is that although I’m being transparent and open with how well our sales have gone, you have to understand this didn’t happen overnight. This is the result of a lot of incredibly hard work and sacrifice. I write every day and every week like I’m going to be homeless at the end of every month if I don’t reach certain writing goals. I don’t watch TV, I seldom go to the movies, and aside from playing with my three kids who are all under the age of six, I have no personal life. I work like a beast. I write seven days a week with maybe two or three days off a month. I write on average five to twelve hours a day. When I’m not writing, I’m reading other books in my genre to learn from them, I’m watching MasterClass.com to learn from other successful authors, or I’m listening to marketing and business podcasts or YouTube videos.
I’m constantly learning or working. I’m not going to maintain this schedule forever, but I am going to continue with it until I’ve hit a certain level of financial freedom. I think a lot of authors would look at my numbers and think they could easily replicate it, but I want to be clear—I often put in eighty to one hundred hour work weeks to make it happen. I research my subjects, interview, and talk with people, and really study up on what I’m writing about. That requires a lot of effort and time. I do believe a lot of people could reproduce these results, but most aren’t willing to put this level of dedication into it.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use a couple of platforms to market our books. I initially started out using Facebook. That has worked in the past, but frankly, they’ve made so many changes to the platform that I’ve found it hard to really keep pace with it and make it profitable.
At this point, 90% of my ad spend is done on Amazon’s AMS platform. I typically spend around $3,000 a month on marketing, with the bulk of it on AMS. I do, however, use Facebook when I launch a book, which is around every 90-days. Most of my Facebook campaigns will usually last around two weeks before I flip back to using Amazon exclusively again.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
From the beginning, I began networking with fellow authors. I’ve heard mentors say that “fortune favors the bold,” so I constantly approach people on social media and try to pick their brains about how they’ve become as successful as they have.
Surprisingly, many authors have not only responded, but have been very helpful. This has led to some very good leads on book cover artists, editors and other services, and it introduced me to Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula group. Joining the SPF community has by far created the biggest impact in our publishing business and its profitability.
In addition to joining the SPF group, there are several books I’ve read that have been very influential. One to mention is Brian Meeks’s book on Amazon Marketing Services advertising. Brian Cohen's Best Page Forward company also helps authors craft book descriptions and ad copy. As you can see in the chart above, each of these events led to marked changes in profits.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you want to get into writing, then you need to sit down and ask yourself a couple of questions:
- Why do you want to get into writing?
- What do you hope to accomplish?
- How do you plan on making this happen?
- What are you willing to cut out of your life to reach your goals?
There are two types of authors: hobbyists who write for fun and entertainment, and authors who view this as a business. There is no right or wrong author to be. It’s a personal decision you have to make. If your goal is to publish books for fun and making money isn’t the priority, then that's great. If, however, you want this to be your main source of income to support your family, then you have to take this very seriously. You have to develop a game plan and then execute it.
I made a LOT of mistakes when I first started out. I didn’t know the first thing about building an email list, I didn’t have an author page and I had no clue how to write book descriptions, what made a good book cover or how to market my books. I spent hours and hours on YouTube trying to self-teaching myself these skills, but it wasn’t until I learned about Mark Dawson’s SPF program and then read Brian Meeks's book on understanding Amazon Marketing Service or AMS ads that things really took off.
The best advice I could give to any new author or someone wanting to become an author is to find a mentor. Find an author who produces good quality works and has a track record of success and then see if they will help you in your journey. I’ve done this with several new authors who wanted to get into the game. I share openly my failures, my successes, and what I wish someone would have told me when I first started getting into this business myself. You need to have someone else walk alongside you.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
This is a tough question. While we aren’t looking to hire a full-time employee currently, I certainly have areas I need business help in. A couple of areas I’m always looking for help in are beta readers. Our books tend to have a lot of technical details in them, so we have a large team that reads our books before they are released and helps us make sure we get those details right.
Another job I desperately need help in is marketing and research. When I hire someone for a job, I tend to pay by the project. My last big project was creating 5,000 keywords for our AMS marketing plan. It wasn’t hard work, but it was tedious and time-consuming. Right now, I am certainly in need of someone who can help me with ways to increase our audiobook marketing or who is knowledgeable on getting books into the library system. It’s all telework, so if you have the internet, a laptop, and a cell phone, you would be able to accomplish the task. If you’re interested in a part-time job or a job that pays by project, make sure to look me up.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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