How to Make Good Dough Self Publishing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Recently, Amazon’s paperback publishing unit, CreateSpace, sent out an email confirming that CSP was merging with Kindle Direct Publishing. All print-on-demand services are now under the KDP umbrella.

Nothing earth-shattering in all this, just a switch of platforms. Shouldn’t be a big adjustment.

What caught my eye, however, was a line at the end of the letter. Amazon is famously tight with their data, so it was interesting to find this little ditty:

As Amazon’s recent shareholder letter noted, there are more than 1,000 authors who earn more than $100,000 a year from their work with us.

That’s good to know. Because at one time (back in the “gold rush” days of self-publishing, roughly 2009-2012) the vibe was that virtually anybody could make six figures if they wrote fast enough and in the right genre. That was a myth, of course, but like all myths it had a toe-hold in the truth. Some previously unpublished writers, like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey, did strike gold. Some traditionally-published midlist writers, like Joe Konrath and Brett Battles, hopped in and hit it big. There were even a few, like Bella Andre, who scorched into eight figures.

So everyone wanted to know who was making what via self-publishing. Some authors gave out their numbers. But that small sample size couldn’t tell the whole story. Then Hugh Howey and the mysterious “Data Guy” started their Author Earnings reports, which scraped hard data out of Kindle sales rankings. And yes, indeed, a lot of indie writers were doing very, very well.

AE is now dormant, having transitioned into Bookstat.com, a pricey service for companies whose “annual revenues are $10 million or more.” But the final AE report showed that while the gold rush days (such as they were) are gone, indie publishing is here to stay.

But it wasn’t until I saw that Amazon number—1,000 making over $100,000—that I was able to get a feel for how many authors are in that zone. (We must note that Amazon’s number would include non-fiction as well.)

Now, if a thousand indie authors are making six figures a year, I would venture to say that a substantially higher number are in the fives. Very few fiction writers of the past ever made it there. That’s why I continue to say it’s the best time on Earth to be a writer.

Of course, the admonition, “Your mileage may vary” is more apt in the writing game than anywhere else. There are so many variables at play that no two writers will ever come out the same in terms of method, production, and income.

But there are ways of increasing your odds of monetary success, just as there are fundamentals in any entrepreneurial endeavor. And that’s what self-publishing is, after all.

Written Word Media conducted a survey comparing authors who make over $100,000 a year (“100kers”) and those earning less than $500 a year (optimistically called “EAs” for Emerging Authors). Some interesting results here, including:

  1. Indie authors dominated the 100k club.

We wanted to know if there was any correlation between how an author was published and whether or not it got them to the 100k club. The results were pretty surprising to us. Of all 100kers none were purely traditionally published. To be fair, only about 5% of overall respondents were solely traditionally published (James Patterson did not take our survey), so traditionally published authors didn’t make up a big part of the surveyed audience, but none of them were in the 100K club.

Of the 100kers surveyed, 72% were indie and 28% were hybrid. Publishing independently rewards authors with higher royalty rates which means it is easier to start generating meaningful revenue when you self publish. The Author Earnings reports are showing a trend in which indie authors are taking share from traditional publishing, despite the fact that titles of indie books are priced lower than traditionally published titles.

  1. 100kers spend more on covers and professional editing.

No surprise there.

  1. It takes time. 88% of 100kers have been at this for 3 years or longer.

Indie publishing is no get-rich-quick scheme. In the traditional world they used to say it took 3-5 books to establish an author. Unfortunately for writers who have entered the Forbidden City, that number is now only 1-2.

  1. 100kers use paid marketing (e.g., deal alert sites like BookBub; paid ads with Amazon and Facebook) more than social media marketing.

That’s because social media does not sell a lot of books.

  1. Being prolific matters.

From the survey:

Emerging Authors spent 19.8 hours per week writing, compared to 100Kers who spent 28.6 hours per week writing. That’s a 46% increase! The 100kers write a lot more than the emerging authors.

To this list, let me add my own advice:

  1. It helps if you can write

We should all know this by now, but it bears repeating: far and away, the best and most ubiquitous marketing tool is word-of-mouth. And that is generated by, gasp, writing books that are so good people talk about them.

Which is what TKZ is all about—helping writers get better. It’s something you should want to do anyway, if you’re a real writer.

  1. Think like a publisher

You need to put your projects through an analysis like a pub board at a traditional house would. Who is going to buy your book? Is there an audience for your genre? How popular is the genre? Who are some other authors doing well in this area? What are they doing in terms of marketing? What can you learn from them?

Are you an author who can keep producing? In the traditional publishing world, a bestselling author used to be held to a minimum of one book a year. These days, some publishers are pushing their A-list writers to do two books a year, supplemented by a short story or two for marketing purposes.

If you worked at a publishing house that needed to make a profit, would you offer a contract to yourself?

  1. Establish a system of quality controls

If you self-publish, quality of production is your responsibility: editing, cover design, formatting, marketing, SEO, metadata and so on. You can learn do to some of this on your own, but other things, like cover design, you’ll want to farm out. Do your due diligence and be prepared to invest some money.

Also be prepared to review your system as each new book comes out, and make incremental changes geared toward greater quality. That’s called kaizen in business circles.

  1. Learn a few basic marketing skills

Even traditionally published authors have to do this, so don’t complain. As Russell Rowland recently put it:

The part that I never quite understood was the lack of support from the publisher, but it did give me a strong understanding that this is a business where you can’t rely on others to toot your horn. If they do, it’s a bonus. But marketing is up to the writer, even if you’re with a major publisher.

But beware, it is very easy to fall into the vortex of marketing frenzy, thinking you have to do every single thing possible lest you miss out on the “tipping point” of massive sales. Big mistake. Which is why I wrote a book on the tools that really work.

  1. Repeat, over and over, the rest of your life

You want to be a writer who makes some a good side income or maybe enough lettuce to live on? Then work hard. This is business. But if writing is what you love (and it should be, because there are plenty of opportunities to quit), then keep on writing until they pry your cold, dead fingers off the keyboard.

Do you have a “system” for your writing career? Not just how you write a book, but how you see yourself in the world of publishing and what steps you are taking to make it happen.

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26 thoughts on “How to Make Good Dough Self Publishing

  1. Thanks for this breakdown. At this point, I own rights to all my books, and after listening to Neil Nyren speak about how Penguin Putnam (I think–I get them mixed up) turned CJ Box into a best-selling author made me glad I was indie, and at my age, I doubt I’d want a traditional publishing deal.
    Disclaimer: I am not putting a roof over my head or food on the table with my writing income. It’s gravy money, but I’ve been in the high five figures during the golden age of indie publishing. (Had to return my social security the first year I hit big numbers, but I’m old enough to keep it all now.) Considering that when I was traditionally published with small presses, I measured success by how much less I lost than the previous year, I’m pleased with what I’m doing.
    I attended a marketing workshop at RWA this year, and the instructor stressed that you should find the social media platform you’re comfortable with (she recommended Facebook simply because of its hugeness) and that’s it. ONE place to spend your time and efforts. Yes I have a Twitter account, and an Instagram account, but I don’t think of them as “selling” places, just engagement places, and I don’t spend much time there.
    I have a blog as well, plus I have two “first in series free” books which has been working very well for me. I run ads, although I’ve only scored BookBub twice, and they are the 500 pound gorilla.
    But, mostly I write.

    • You’re a great example, Terry, of one who has done well as an indie compared to the small press route. It’s so hard for small presses to compete these days.

      The advice about social media is right on. Specialize in one, the one who like the most. Then concentrate on writing.

      A traditional publisher will look at numbers then choose an author with four or five titles and pull out all stops to push them into bestsellerdom. Box is one. Lee Child is another. That’s how you make it to the A list. But for every one of these there are dozens of authors who didn’t get selected, and who have been dropped by their publisher.

  2. Great post, Jim, and I’m very glad to see it here. Re my own process, I write, allowing myself to be the first audience for my characters and their stories. If they surprise and delight me, the work is published. If not, I pitch it (it’s still practice) and move on to the next novel/short story.

    • That’s a good reminder, Harvey. The first person who should be both surprised and delighted is the author! Those two things make a difference in the actual writing that shows up on the page.

  3. Excellent, valuable information. I’m buying your book—as soon as I remember my Kindle password. And I’ll restart my blog now that it’s finally swept of those pesky Russian bots.

  4. Good stuff, Jim. To me, the biggest sticking point for new writers is your comment: It helps if you can write. Without that, all the other wonderful pieces of advice are of no value.

    • Absolutely, Joe. I often tell writers that you can do all the razzle-dazzle marketing stuff and it only gets you an introduction. Your book has to close the sale and, even more important, open the door to future sales.

  5. Great post, Jim. This is the subject I most enjoy hearing you discuss.

    My system includes (along the lines of #2. Think like a publisher) reading the best sellers in my genre, and then analyzing what they’ve done differently, what makes their fans love them.

    I’ve also been fortunate to find a local school district coordinator of an honors English program who has allowed her class to critique my writing. Nothing like teenagers reading middle grade fantasy to make you get real with how young people think and talk.

    Thanks for your continued teaching and encouragement!

  6. “It helps if you can write.” Amen, brother Jim.

    What often gets overlooked in statistic analyses is that a huge portion of Amazon’s 20 million or so book titles have replaced yesterday’s slush pile. There’s no barrier to publication. So many wannabe writers can’t tell a story or can’t write a cohesive sentence. But they sure can press that “Publish” button. And from what I can tell, that number is growing.

    The publishing industry’s so-called “gatekeepers” are still there, agents and editors winnowing through gobs of chaff to glean a readable, entertaining product. Behind the zillions of “not for me” rejections are trained eyes and minds keen to the elements of story and character building that must be present to make a book salable in the first place.

    Indies have different challenges than trads to get their work out there and visible. Their gate-keepers seem to be reader/reviewers and a mountain of shifting category definitions and Amazon’s dubious attempts to automate the curation process. Most 100kers have gotten past those barriers through hard work and talent.

    …except for the book stuffers. But let’s not go there.

    • Wise words, Dan. And I’m glad not to “go there” with the unintended consequences of disruptive change. Amazon tries to do the right thing for its customers and authors, but the territory is so vast that when one crack is patched another seems to open up. It’s like Whack-a-Mole.

  7. Hi Jim,

    Great post. I absolutely agree that a self-publisher has to have a system, especially in 2018 with the maturing indie marketplace. For me, it’s writing books in a series (in my case, urban fantasy), building a mailing list and working on engaging those readers. And advertising. Which can take several forms.

    I’m part of a group of 7 authors that published “Street Spells,” an anthology of urban fantasy stories that tie-in to our series which we have “priced” at free. We have a Book Bub tomorrow for the anthology in “supernatural suspense”, and hope to generate thousands of downloads.

    Controlling costs is also vital. In the past eighteen months since I began self-publishing, I’ve grossed about ten grand. Editing, covers, advertising, and other costs can add up. I’ve netted a bit less than half of the gross. Obviously, a business needs to show a profit to be successful. So far, so good.

    As always, thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience!

  8. Thanks, Jim, for an honest, no-nonsense analysis of the publishing biz. “Kaizen” (consistent gradual improvement) and “muda” (defined as “waste” per the linked article) were unfamiliar terms that I’m adding to my vocabulary.

    Great info!

    • I do love the idea of constant and never-ending improvement, Debbie. That’s why I have studied the craft for 30 years (I started in 1988 and haven’t stopped). I review my system and cut out what doesn’t work, and keep trying to do the things that work better. That’s how businesses grow, and writers are in business, be they indie or traditional.

  9. Great post. I went through it picking out my weak spots. Long list in marketing. In the mucky world of marketing advice, your post shines through and is what I needed. Thanks.

  10. Great info, Jim. I admit I was surprised the number of hybrid 100Kers was only 28%. As a soon to be hybrid myself, I’m paying close attention to this.

    PS: Just finished the third “Try” book. Loved the whole trilogy. Buchanan was a great character. So now I can just tap my foot impatiently waiting for the next Romeo… 😉

  11. Thanks for this post. It’s very helpful for the newbies like me.

    My first novel is being traditionally published. Since I knew nothing about the publishing industry, I needed to rely on the folks who did. If the book succeeds in gaining an audience, I hope to extend it to a series and will stay with the publisher.

    However, I appreciate what you had to say about self-publishing, and I’d like to take a look at that with another work.

    Oh, and your book is very timely. I’m busy putting together my marketing plan — not nearly as odious as I thought it would be, but not as much fun as writing.

    Thanks!

    • Since I knew nothing about the publishing industry, I needed to rely on the folks who did.

      No time like the present to learn all about it, Kay. Bottom line: it’s about the bottom line. It’s a business. Here’s hoping your book brings a profit to the publisher … and you!

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