I’ve been at this self-publishing thing for a year and a half just about, and it’s been one of the most expensive, time-consuming, and anxiety-ridden journeys I’ve ever undertaken. I’ve spent anywhere from $6,000-8,000 out of pocket to put my work out there in a form I could feel proud of. I didn’t need to spend that much, but I was a newbie with no idea what I was doing.
Then I started seeing what worked and what didn’t.
I published my first novel, Trainland, last March of 2012 and spent months watching my sales go from 0 to 5, then 0 again, then maybe 5 or 10, and then 1 or 2 again. Those were monthly sales. I think I sold around 50 books in the entire year of 2012. At the time, Trainland and my collection of dark short stories, Peltham Park, were the only two books I had for sale.
Now, three novels later, I’m earning an average of around $1,300 per month. This past August, I sold 619 books. Not a staggering amount, but the two best sellers, Ascendant and Savant, (which account for 85% of sales) are priced at $4.95 with a 70% royalty rate, which means I was able to net $1,600 in August alone. That’s up from around $900 in July, a month after I published the two big ones. (UPDATE: Prices may have been lowered for marketing purposes).
And you know what? The hard part was writing the novels and honing the craft. But publishing them and selling copies? It’s not too difficult when you understand which mistakes to avoid and which guidelines to follow.
Here’s what I hold to be the most important lessons I’ve learned about indie book publishing, and I’m going to be incredibly blunt. No sugar coating.
(I’m also leaving out the “Write good stories” rule because that should be obvious. Write the best story you can, and make sure it entertains you before anyone else. No exceptions.
I also don’t talk about building a mailing list because I only recently started doing that. But a mailing list is a helluva good idea, too. Check out this link for advice from another self-published author who is an expert on mailing list promotion.)
SO…HERE ARE 6 GUIDELINES* YOU CAN FOLLOW TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS IN SELF-PUBLISHING YOUR NOVELS:
*in no particular order
1) WRITE SCI-FI, FANTASY, ROMANCE, AND/OR MYSTERY & THRILLERS. If there’s one controversial truth about being a self-published writer, it’s that literary fiction–stories about “life” and “reality”–don’t sell (in indie publishing, anyway). Short stories don’t sell, either. At least not in significant amounts. Even horror is difficult to push. My first novel, Trainland, was primarily horror, and it rarely sells more than a dozen copies a month, sadly. But Ascendant is dystopian science fiction, and Savant is epic fantasy. Those two account for over 80% of my sales.
The exception to this rule is if you ONLY write horror. If you spend time “building your brand” and making yourself out to be a steady producer of terrifying, suspenseful horror stories you’ll have a good chance of raking in sales. Otherwise, if you write short stories and literary fiction, try sticking to traditional publishing in magazines and with publishing companies. Then at least you’ll have a chance at winning literary awards and making a name for yourself that way.
2) WRITE MORE BOOKS, IDEALLY 1-2 EVERY YEAR. Probably the best advice you’ll ever hear in this business. The more books you write, the more opportunities you’ll create to get noticed by readers, who will then check out your other works. This is the single most important rule you will EVER have to follow. Plus, if one book makes it big, the others (your “backlist”) will increase in sales as well.
If you’re one of those novelists who writes maybe a book every 3-5 years, it may take a loooong time for you to have enough work out there to drive up the necessary exposure. You MIGHT be better off with traditional publishing because then at least you might see an advance worth a few thousand dollars.
Regardless of whether you choose to indie publish or go with a traditional publishing house, you should strive to write and publish a book a year. This applies to all writers, including those who write literary fiction. If you’re not completing a manuscript every year, then what are you doing with your time?
Consider this: You could write 500 words a day (just under two pages, double-spaced, in MS Word), Monday through Friday, and have a 90,000-word novel in nine months. 80-90k is the standard length of a mystery/thriller novel. 100,000 is generally considered to be a pretty big book, unless you write fantasy.
The coolest thing about the craft of writing is that once you’ve practiced it for years and gotten the hang of it, writing 2 pages in one sitting will only take you about 30 minutes. That’s 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and you’ll have a decent-sized novel in less than a year. Spend a few months revising it, send it to a hired copy editor (which shouldn’t cost more than 2 grand), and by the end of the year, you’ll have a book ready to publish. Make sure this habit becomes like clockwork.
3) GIVE SOME OF YOUR WORK AWAY FOR FREE (AND FORGET ALL OTHER KINDS OF MARKETING TECHNIQUES, ESPECIALLY IF THEY COST MONEY). When you make a book free on Smashwords, it distributes it that way to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other online vendors. Once you do that, vendors like Amazon will price match. This is the only way to make a book permanently free on Amazon (which otherwise limits you to a $.99 price tag). You wouldn’t believe how many readers surf Amazon for freebies. I’ve given away over 5,000 free books, and I know that this strategy has generated the exposure necessary to push the paid ones.
Right now, Ascendant is available as a full novel and as 4 separate episodes, the (first) (two) of which are free (UPDATE: I just made Episode 3 free as well). 600+ copies of the first three episodes were downloaded in August, and my hope is that people who read them go on to pay for Episode 4, which costs $3.49, or the whole book, which is only a buck and a half more.
Giving work away for free is the best kind of marketing because it eliminates any feelings of financial risk experienced by potential readers (even at $0.99, a casual reader might not want to risk wasting their money on an unknown author’s work), and it amplifies word-of-mouth promotion.
300 people might download your book for free just for the hell of it. 50 of those “freebie hunters” might actually read the first few chapters. If you’re a good storyteller, maybe 10 will read the whole thing and either leave a positive review or tell a friend using social media or their blogs.
After enough time, you will have reached hundreds of people who otherwise would have skipped your book to download someone else’s. And if they REALLY like you, they’ll pay for your other work.
I’ve spent hundreds of dollars to advertise on reader mega-sites like Goodreads, and to get on mailing lists run by sites like BookBub and a few others. It hasn’t worked for me. Maybe you can find success with it (many others have) but I’m trying to keep costs down, and you probably are, too.
4) TAG YOUR BOOKS PROPERLY TO GET THEM INTO AMAZON’S SUBCATEGORIES AND INCREASE VISIBILITY. For those of you who don’t know, Amazon recently added subcategories to their sci-fi and fantasy genre lists, which you can be a part of by tagging your novels using certain key words in the publishing portal. Now, instead of just “Dystopian,” “Post-Apocalyptic,” and “Epic,” you can get your books to show up on smaller lists like “Superhero,” “Myth > Greek & Roman,” “Vampires,” and “Cyborg.” These lists show the popularity of your novel in each category.
This is an extremely powerful tool and has helped me get visibility for Savant, which alternates between #2 and #3 on the “Myth > Greek & Roman” list, and Ascendant, which is in the top 10 on the “Genetic Engineering” list.
People go to these lists and look for something specific, and that’s when they’ll stumble onto your book’s cover.
Which leads me to the next best piece of advice you’ll ever hear…
5) ALWAYS HAVE AN AWESOME COVER! You can read about my recent cover debacle here, on JA Konrath’s blog. Your cover is the first thing readers will see. It has to SHOUT the book’s story and tone as loudly and as effectively as possible so you’ll get noticed by your target readers.
I made a terrible mistake with my second novel, Savant, which you can read about in the above link. It had a cartoonish cover that targeted kids way too young to be reading the book. I eventually smartened up, designed a new cover that targeted the right readers, and subsequently went from selling 10-20 copies per month to selling around 200 copies per month.
6) DON’T WORRY ABOUT AGENTS AND PUBLISHING HOUSES UNTIL THEY START COMING TO YOU. The publishing industry has changed in ways I never would have imagined 10 years ago when I started getting serious about a writing career. I’m talking about an “MP3 format annihilating CD format” kind of change.
Ebook retailers are now forcing stores like Barnes & Noble to close locations as people realize that paper books are more expensive, more annoying to hold, and heavier when you’re traveling. It’s easier and cheaper to download an ebook and read it on your iPad, Kindle, Nook, or iPhone. Plus, you can carry your entire book library in your pocket, AND your library is backed up in the cloud in case you lose your Kindle.
In my early years as a writer, hoping to get into bookstores, I wasted hundreds of hours submitting query letters and manuscripts to literary agents who would have asked for 15% of the royalties for the entire life of the copyright (70 years after my death) in exchange for pitching my work to publishing houses that would have kept 85% of every dollar earned. I firmly believe I lucked out in having every single one of those agents ignore or reject me.
Now I can reach readers directly, without giving up a percentage. Sure, Amazon keeps 30% of my revenue, but that’s because, in essence, I’ve partnered up with them so they can handle distribution AND (bonus) promotion through their popularity lists and “Customers also liked…” matching algorithms. Amazon doesn’t pay me royalties. I let them keep 30% of the cut for holding up their end of the business.
So why should you forget about agents and publishing houses and focus on the do-it-yourself method?
Because if you do want a publishing house to invest in you, then you need to prove yourself on the market first (I’ll explain why this benefits you more than them in a moment). Otherwise, what dependable business reason do they have to invest tens of thousands of dollars in funding editing services, cover design, printing costs, and distribution/warehousing of your books when no one’s ever heard of you?
They take that risk hoping you’ll be a bestseller, but ultimately, most books fail to sell and they need to rely on the big names like Stephen King, E.L. James, James Patterson, and Suzanne Collins to stay profitable. This is why first-time contracts are so bad for new authors. The publishing house wants to keep an enormous piece of the pie because they know the chances of recouping their investments are slim. After all, how can you possibly know a book by an unknown author will make back its investment and more? It’s hard enough to sell books period with TV and social media competing for readers’ attention.
Doing it yourself–and doing it the right way so your audience finds you–can give you considerable leverage so you can negotiate better contracts and have your pick of the best agents and publishing teams. That’s if you decide to go the traditional route at all, which isn’t always worth it, even if you are hugely successful (see Hugh Howey, who turned down multiple 7-figure deals because he was making more money on his own).
So, ignore agents and publishing houses until you’re selling 5-10,000 copies of your book(s) a month. Then, either contact the publishing “gatekeepers” or wait for them to come to you.
CONSIDER YOUR OPTIONS FIRST. Don’t sign the first contract that comes your way. Don’t give away too many of your rights, including foreign, audiobook, and movie rights. You’ve proven your marketability and sales potential, which means you can keep a bigger piece of the pie while lowering the risk being assumed by the publishing house (they’ll thank you for this). Hire an intellectual property lawyer if someone does offer you a contract AND an advance (there should always be an advance). Make sure you understand what the benefits are to working with this company as opposed to doing it yourself. Become a publishing know-it-all.
Good, consistent writing habits and strategic marketing go a long way in finding an audience for your self-published work. Avoiding mistakes is just as important. Try to succeed on your own first, then consider signing a contract. You have very little to lose other than your time if you’re smart about this business. If your output and quality remain consistent, the potential gains are huge. Imagine if your book revenues covered your mortgage payments for the rest of your life. Not bad, right? It’s also a source of income during retirement, since ebooks never go out of print and don’t have expiration dates.
And did I mention it’s AWESOME to see people enjoying your work enough to pay you for it and sing your praises afterward?
Time to go write 1,000 words of my newest project. Go ahead and do the same. A few years down the line, you’ll be glad you did.
QUESTIONS FOR YOU: So what’s the best advice you’ve ever heard about self-publishing your work? Are you selling hundreds or thousands of books and eager to share your story? Leave a comment in the comments section below, and we’ll talk. And when you’re done, get back to your writing desk!
Also, sign up for my mailing list. There are bonuses to signing up, including free books.
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- The New Year for Writers: It’s All About Daily Goals
- Why Reading Outside Your Genre Makes You a Better Writer
- What a High-Volume Sales Job has Taught Me About Publishing
- Storycrafting Tip #1: It doesn’t matter what the goal is, as long as there is one
- How to Write Good
- Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?