It’s been over a year since I self-published The Wicked Wolves of Windsor and other fairytales. With more books under my belt, I’ve been in a reminiscent mood about the last year as a published author. There are things I did wrong and a few gems along the path, but overall it was a lot of hard work with little return.
The rose-colored glasses are gone to be replaced by a steely gaze (or at least I hope it comes across as steely as this isn’t a job for the faint-hearted). As always, I will write plainly and to the facts of what works and what does not when self-publishing. Obviously, your experiences may differ as this is from my personal perspective.
Why be self-published?
Being self-published is strictly a personal preference. It isn’t for everyone, and I fully admit that. Actually, reviewing all the hoops I’ve jumped through this last year, I don’t think I would recommend it for the majority of people who want to become published.
If you want to publish as a hobby, it is a fantastic outlet for that. To succeed and make an income at it, you will need to work hard in areas you may not have skills: marketing, the legal side of business, and social media.
I chose this avenue because I prefer having control over my own creative output. I also have marketing knowledge due to my work in journalism, public relations, and marketing other businesses. Due to my journalism experience, I also have experience in creating graphics and knowing what looks good and what doesn’t (a downfall of many who are creating their own book covers).
I have a husband who is a computer programmer who helps with some of the technical aspects. His help means I don’t have to spend time filing copyrights or buying ISBN numbers (some of the chores he handles for me), or formatting my books for Amazon, Draft2Digital, and Ingram Spark.
I also have the means to hire help when I need it – whether because I need a book cover, or a Virtual Assistant (a VA) to help with my social media.
You might want to check out my How to Self-Publish a Book blog post for all the ins-and-outs about how to get started.
Can you make a living as a self-publishing author?
I personally view my writing as having the potential for a supplemental income. My personal goal is a modest $24,000 a year AFTER expenses. I am nowhere near that, but this is my personal goal. It’s good to know what your expectations are going into this, just like you would for any other business.
If your goal is to become self-employed and earn a living writing, here are some hard facts you need to face:
What you write about will determine sales. Popular subjects sell more. Tropes sell more. Series with cliffhangers sell more. Romance sells more than fantasy (my genre, for instance). For that matter, biographies of famous people and cookbooks sell the best!
Most authors who made it big, leveraged their books into other non-book earnings such as movies, television shows, games, YouTube channels, self-help industries, offering writing courses, working as a speaker, etc. It wasn’t the books that made them money, but what they did with them that made them money (i.e. The Hunger Games movies, Harry Potter movies, etc.).
A trend where authors write-to-market (you write a book based upon that genre tropes after you research what is selling) seems to have success for those who can write quickly. They write a series, each book with a cliffhanger, and push the ebook hard with paid advertising on Amazon.
You must understand it takes TIME to build up your list of published works (your product, aka your widget). The fewer books you have that people can buy, the less income. If you have only one book out, how much income can you make from that? People seem to really miss this point.
If you want to make more money, consider:
- writing more;
- writing in a genre that is very popular;
- writing cliffhangers and using tropes in a popular market;
- imagine how to leverage your books into other income (being a speaker, selling a course);
- getting a book sold takes more than writing talent – you need to wear many hats. If you can’t do that, you will need to hire people or their services to help.
Goal: Realizing my dream as a published author
I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was about nine years old. Unlike others, I cannot tell you that I achieved this at age nine, fourteen, or even twenty-four. Nope. Instead, I had to wait until technology allowed me to realize my dream.
For me personally, publishing fulfilled something that I wanted, and I value reaching that goal very highly.
I’ve given myself 5 years to see if I can make this a paying gig with a small income that I can use towards retirement. If that doesn’t happen, I will continue writing, but the author-writing gig will become officially a hobby.
I’m okay with that because I’d rather write the stories I want to tell – rather than be forced into a box writing what is popular to sell more books. Since I have a spouse who is the primary earner, I have this luxury (not all do, and I understand that). To be clear, I’m not a total maverick, writing weird books that no one enjoys, but I didn’t go the self-publishing route to be writing trope romances.
Your writing goals may differ from mine, and that is totally cool. It’s about knowing what you want and how to achieve it.
What I’ve learned as an author these last 18 months
What you write will directly influence sales. If you write for the masses, the masses will buy. Genres like romance are going to sell far more than westerns. Want to make money? Write a series with cliffhangers, using tropes, that appeal to a large group of people. Want to be a poor purist? Write standalone books for a niche market that has small appeal.
The big question that faced me early on was: follow my heart, or follow the money? I decided to follow my heart – and the money is not flowing in. So again, if your goal is to make a living, you may need to compromise on what you write.
Whether you like it or not, ebooks sell more than print books. While I went print book because some of my readers demanded it, it costs me more and I haven’t seen the benefit – yet. I do think if you can do a print version, do so because 1.) it gives you something to sell in person; 2.) it makes you look more legit; and 3.) you get more revenue from a print book sale than an ebook one.
Understand that if you are an Indie author you will be giving a LOT of books away for FREE. This was probably my biggest stumbling block mentally to overcome. I HATED giving away a book I worked six months on away for free!
The current marketing mentality is to basically have the first book (probably one in a series) free so you can give it out like a cookie sample at the grocery store. As your sample, it hopefully wins readers over to buy more of your books (and why you need more books!). You are hoping to find ongoing fans with this strategy.
However, I decided to no longer gift physical books (I gift only ebooks at this time). Print books cost me a lot to gift out with postage and gave me little return. Inevitably the person who got the book, gave me little publicity and some didn’t provide a review as promised. I could have spent that money on advertising.
All the advice I was given was to go “wide” – meaning to sell on Amazon, Draft2Digital, and Ingram Spark. The majority of my sales at Amazon far outstrips the other platforms. PERIOD. If you want a backup plan to Amazon and want to sell print books to bookstores and libraries, go wide. If you need to save time (and sometimes your sanity), go only Amazon.
I was told that I needed to do Ingram Spark for library and book sales. Yeah, those sales are NOT pouring in, despite spending money with Amy Collins and her marketing program (DO NOT USE HER SERVICE – what a waste of money! Her employees are incompetent. Over promised, and under delivered. She should be embarrassed.).
JMO, for the first year, forget pursuing libraries and bookstores if you are an Indie. Unless you have a backlist of books with reviews and sales, with some big credentials behind you, you will spend a lot of time and effort on something with little return.
Bookstores also like authors with several books published who are seeing substantial reviews by industry leaders. While a few of you out there may be having success, most bookstores won’t touch you with a ten foot pole. Also – surprise! If your book doesn’t sell at a bookstore they can return or destroy it, and you have to swallow that cost. BTW this is standard for the industry, so don’t go cashing that revenue check just yet —
You will need print books for in-person events, such as conventions and book fairs. BUT if you don’t have 4+ books to sell, why are you attending these events? And having 4+ books to sell in the first year as an Indie author is a bit unusual, to say the least.
The pandemic destroyed my plans on selling my books in person in 2020 but I will be attending in-person events in 2021. At that time I will have 4 print books (maybe 5!) to sell and some ebooks (via a postcard with buy code).
Kindle Unlimited versus traditional Amazon – if your book is a page-turner with a sequel or a cliffhanger and numbers over 200+ pages consider KU. If your story is short, a standalone, and you don’t have a backlist of other books, forget KU. If you plan to go wide (see above) with your ebook, you cannot do KU.
If you don’t have money to buy a professional bookcover, expect your book sales to reflect that. Poor book covers will also perform badly in ads, so you’ll be wasting money in several places if you don’t have a good to great book cover that fits your market and that looks professional.
If you don’t focus on gaining reviews, your book sales will reflect that. Sorry, but the fact is if your book doesn’t get reviews, people who are new to your name are less likely to take a chance.
BTW don’t believe that meme going around about how Amazon will promote you if you have X number of reviews. I saw no change with Amazon’s promotion of my book as my reviews increased. I personally think much of that is an Urban Legend.
Having written that, the first 90 days after your book goes live does seem to be an important window with Amazon and their algorithm. That is why you need to focus on building your newsletter and a Street Team, both of which also help with reviews.
While I do believe audio books are building traction, I made a mistake doing an audio book for Wicked Wolves. I’m immensely proud of that audio book, but in reality it took a LARGE chunk out of my budget and gets very little sales. I should have spent my money and time on other projects that first year and first book.
I used Findaway Voices, not Audible; Audible has a narrator share program so you can go that route to keep costs down. I personally don’t feel like I can give a recommendation for Findaway Voices. Many of touted promises about how their company works is flat out untrue (the dashboard control is just one of many over-promised, under-delivered problems).
Quick points for first-time published Indie authors to consider:
- Start with an ebook on Amazon – that’s where you will get the most sales.
- leverage a series so you can entice readers.
- put the first book of the series up for free WHEN you have more books in the series online.
- go wide with paperbacks by doing Amazon + Ingram Spark.
- go wide with your ebook on Draft2Digital when you do NOT use KU (Kindle Unlimited).
- use KU only if you have a book that is quite long with cliffhangers and a series.
- professional book covers impacts sales. No money for a cover? Expect poor sales.
- poorly edited books tank reviews and book sales.
- lack of reviews = tank sales.
- forget audio books until you gain more experience and fans.
- put the majority of your effort, time, and money into writing. More books = more sales.
If I could go back in time and give advice to my earlier self, these are the things I’d say to keep in mind during the first year as an author:
1.) Understand your genre, the audience, the potential for book sales, the tropes, and how to market your book cover and description to that audience.
2.) Know WHY you are doing this. To make money? Find a niche within a popular genre. To realize a dream? Stick to what you want to write (but please get professional editing!). Knowing WHY you are doing this helps you set limits on how much you want to spend to advertise your book and where you will advertise it (if at all).
3.) Keep your focus on writing more books. The more books, the more opportunities for income and for people to find you. This should be your #1 priority. You should be spending 50%+ of your day writing – not social media or chasing reviews etc.
4.) Set up a newsletter and Street Team to help during a book launch and for reviews. Yes, this takes time but the earlier you start, the quicker you will see progress.
5.) Use Publisher Rocket to research Comp Authors (authors whose audience will like your books) and keywords (search terms used to find books like yours). This takes more time than you think; it’s like a never-ending warren!
6.) Make a plan for finding reviewers for your book. I will go into this on another post.
7.) Get organized and TRACK EVERYTHING! I do have a lot of data, but had to backtrack to get some of it which wasted time.
Here are some of the biggest mistakes I made over this last year:
1.) Social media is a time suck. Remember, #1 goal is to WRITE not play around on Facebook or Instagram.
2.) Spending money on an audio book. Wow – how I wish I saved that money for other things.
3.) Spending money on advertising before I was set up to succeed (such as not having the second book in the series out yet). Bookbub was the worst on sucking up money. Wait to advertise when you have more books which can be bought by your readers.
4.) Not using enough of the free resources out there on the Internet. Seriously folks, so much free stuff is out there in terms of advice, tutorials, videos, etc.. to help you. Don’t spend money until you’ve exhausted all of these avenues.
Probably your goals and dreams differ from mine, but the important thing to keep in mind is why are you doing it. Whether it’s a dream to make money, or to see your words in print, you can do it!