How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Last week’s post on publishing options drew some spirited responses, especially from one of TKZ’s erstwhile contributors. In his opinion, self-publishing is an exercise in frustration and a path to near-assured failure for first-time authors.”

Now, I have great affection and respect for said commenter, who argues well for his point of view. But I was nonetheless discomfited by that “near-assured failure.” Been thinking about it all week. What does “failure” even mean? Who sets the standard? If a new author finds a way to make steady but not huge income, is that “failure”? If a new author keeps working and growing as a writer, is that “failure”? On the other hand, might it possibly be said that self-publishing, done consistently and skillfully, can actually lead to near-assured success? What is “success”? Is it a loyal readership, even if it pales in comparison to Dean Koontz’s (well, every readership pales in comparison to Dean Koontz’s)? Is it the happinessthat comes from writing and publishing more, faster, being in control of one’s destiny and, yes, making some money at it?

This led me to reflect, yet again, on the writers I admire most: the professionals of the old pulp days. I’ve been on record for a long time stating that this new digital age is like the pulp era, only with more opportunity and potentially better pay. But it requires a certain kind of writer. One like Erle Stanley Gardner (1889 – 1970).


Gardner is best know as the creator of Perry Mason. When he hit on that character and that formula, he was set for life. But what most people don’t know is how hard he worked to get there. He was a practicing lawyer in the 1920s, and was looking for a way to make money on the side. Writing for the exploding market in detective and crime fiction seemed promising. 

He set out to do it the only way he knew how––full speed ahead. His output was, as he described it later, “man killing.” One hundred thousand words a month. A month. Over a million words a year, for at least ten years. (And much of it while he was still practicing law).

He did manage to sell some stories, but not enough to please him. Then one day he realized he did not know how to plot. His stories were merely “event combinations.” Lawyer that he was, he set out to find out how to write plots that sold (I resonate with this, because I was a practicing lawyer when I set out to learn the same thing!)

Boy, did he ever get it. And he kept up his prodigious output until he was a mainstay of famous pulps like Black Mask. Then, in 1933, came The Case of the Velvet Claws and the

introduction of Perry Mason. There was no looking back. At one time Gardner was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling author who ever lived.


While the success that Gardner achieved is rare for writers of any stripe, his example and work ethic can be replicated today. More and more authors are doing a nice business self-pubbing. I’m not just talking about the “stars” like Hugh Howey, Bella Andre and the newest sensation, Colleen Hoover. I’m talking about people you’ve never heard of, and who don’t really mind that because they have plenty of readers who have.

So how do you self-publish fiction successfully? Learn the following lessons from Erle Stanley Gardner. (Note: The info in this post comes from the biography of Gardner by Dorothy B. Hughes.)

1. Treat it like a job

For Gardner and other successful pulpsters, writing was a job, especially during the Depression. They had to eat. They didn’t have time to sit around the coffee bar ruminating about theories of literature. They actually had to produce stories, lots of them. They studied the markets (and wrote in popular genres, like detective and Western) and pounded the keys of their manual typewriters. Gardner was a two-finger typist and had to put adhesive tape on his tips because they would start to bleed. (This is one reason he later turned to dictating his stories, having them transcribed by a team of secretaries).

Seeing writing as a professional pursuit, Gardner reflected on his previous work in the sales field. “I had always told our salesmen that if a man had drive enough, if he kept on punching doorbells, sooner or later he would make his quota of sales. I guess the same thing applies to story writing. I know it did in my case.”

It can in your case, too. Volume is a key to success in self-publishing fiction. That, and learning a few business basics and strategies.

2. Treat it like a craft

When Gardner kept getting rejection slips that said “plot too thin,” he knew he had to learn how to do it. After much study he said he “began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is.” He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into “plot wheels” which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.

Learning to plot stories that sell can be done, because Gardner did it, and I did it. And I wrote a book about it. It’s called Plot & Structure.

Gardner also wrote in various lengths. Successful self-publishing writers write short stories and novellasas well as full novels. Keep learning and growing as a writer. 

3. Treat it like a sacrifice

There’s an old saying about the law, that it is a “jealous mistress.” To be any good as a lawyer demands time and sacrifice. Gardner knew he had to be productive to make real money, so he set a quota for himself of 5,000 words a day. If he missed a day due to a trial or other legal matter, he would make up the difference on another day.

I am often asked what the single best piece of writing advice I ever got was, and I always say, Write to a quota. I write six days a week, and take Sundays off. It’s worked for me for over twenty years. Virtually no one can write 5,000 words a day like Gardner. And of course most writers have day jobs and family responsibilities. So the key is to figure out what you can produce and commit to doing that week in and week out.

This is my standard suggestion: Figure out what you can comfortably write per week, given your particular circumstances. It doesn’t matter the number, just find it. Then up that by 10% and divide into six days. Make that your goal. Keep a record on a spreadsheet that tracks your daily writing and turns it into weekly totals. It will give you confidence to see those numbers adding up throughout the year.

Be prepared to give some things up (TV is a jealous mistress, too) in order to find time to write.

4. Treat it like a mad passion

You’ve got to be a little nuts if you want to be a professional writer. In those early years, Gardner said, “I would work until one, one-thirty or two o’clock in the morning when I would be so dog-tired that I would stop to rest and would fall asleep in the chair and have nightmares, dreaming for the most part about the characters in the story, waking up a few seconds later all confused as to what was in the story and what had been in my dream. At that time I would go to bed. I would sleep for about three hours a night, waking up around five or five-thirty in the morning. Then I would take a shower, shave, pull up my typewriter and write until it came time to go to the office.”

Now, I don’t suggest a madness of that magnitude! I find it inspiring, but also know I could never keep a schedule like that (well, maybe if I was twenty-five and unmarried . . .) But dip your quill into Gardner’s passion and scribble some of it on your writing soul. And embrace the fact that you are part of a grand fellowship of the mad, the storytellers, the weavers of dreams.

5. Treat it like an adventure right up to the end

A favorite anecdote about Gardner, when he was selling some but not enough, occurred after he felt he finally “got it” about plotting. He sent a story to Black Mask with this note: “If you have any comments on it, put them on the back of a check.” Gardner knew he had reached a place of consistent sales, was in this for the long haul, and would never stop writing.

Do you know that about yourself? Are you in this thing to the finish? Make that decision now, and you have a chance to become successful self-publishing fiction.

Gardner completed his last Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Fabulous Fake, six months before his death. Cancer caught up with him. He was hospitalized a few times. But he kept working on a non-fiction book about crime. His editor at Morrow sent him a note suggesting he might want to slow down. Gardner sent one back: “You should know Gardner by now . . . when I get enthusiastic about something, I put the whole machinery into operation.”

Erle Stanley Gardner died on March 11, 1970. He had made some autobiographical notes before his death. The last words were these: “My life is filled with color and always has been. I want adventure. I want variety. I want something to look forward to . . . The one dividend we are sure of is the opportunity to have beautiful daydreams . . . . This is as it should be. This is the color of life. I love it.”

If you want to self-publish fiction, and make some money at it, do it the Gardner way. Love life, love writing, put your “whole machinery” into action, and never shut down the operation.

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You Don’t Have to be a Star



You don’t have to be a star, baby, to be in my show. – Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
A couple of years ago my lovely wife and I were in New York and went to see Blithe Spirit on Broadway. We had only one reason to go, the best in fact: Angela Lansbury. She’s always been a fave of ours, and the chance to see her onstage (in, it turned out, her Tony Award winning role) was too much to pass up.
Sweetening the pot was that the male lead was Rupert Everett in his Broadway debut. It would be two “names” in a revival of  a famous play.
When the curtain was about to go up an announcer told us that Mr. Everett would not be going on that night. His understudy would play the part. There were a few sighs of disappointment. Cindy and I comforted ourselves with the knowledge that the divine Angela, at least, was still a go.
And she was stupendous. The production was a hoot.
And that understudy for Everett? He was brilliant.
So good that I looked him up on IMDB after the show. His name is Mark Capri.
Now, I was an actor for a time on the boards of the Big Apple, and appreciate a fine theatrical turn. Especially from a guy who the audience was initially disappointed to see (he won them over, however, and got huge applause at the end). So I wrote Mr. Capri a note to thank him for his performance.


I bring this up for writers because it illustrates a point. Mark Capri no doubt went into acting, as all Thespians do, hoping to become a star. He did what actors are supposed to do. He got training (at no less than the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London). He was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company and began his theatrical apprenticeship.
Over the years he’s played many roles in theatre (in a serendipitous touch, he made his New York debut with the same theatre company where I made mine, The Roundabout) and guest roles on TV.
In other words, he is a professional in every sense of the term. And when he was needed for that performance in Blithe Spirit, he came through as a consummate pro should.
We are, as we all know, in the midst of the self-publishing revolution. More and more indie authors are making good money, not because they are “stars,” but because they are professionals. The ones who think just tossing up mediocre material into the digi-system is going to make them rich are fooling themselves. I posted a brief clip about this on YouTube.
The ones who will make it will follow the same path as Mark Capri. They will train, they will get some good direction, they will write, they will keep writing. A miniscule number of them may even gain “star status,” whatever that’s going to look like in the future.
But I suspect the era of the superstar writer is coming to an end. The era of the solid professional is upon us. Those who learn how to do it all well (and I’m doing my part to help) will increasingly be able to realize the dream of doing something they love and making a living at it.
They will find their audience and please them with good performances, just like the one Mr. Capri delivered that warm July evening on Broadway. 

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A New Definition of Writing Success

“Rich are the records  . . . with stories of penniless authors, who, sick with hope so long deferred, and at last despairing, have resorted to wild and tragic devices . . .”
So begins a story in the Los Angeles Examiner,New Year’s Eve edition, December 31, 1905. The feature tells the tale of one such desperate author, a school teacher named Edith Allonby. For four years she’d labored on a novel, The Fulfilment [spelled with one “l”] into which she poured heart and soul. She had been published before, but her books had not been hits. The Fulfilment was going to change all that. In fact, Miss Allonby was certain its spiritual themes would change the world. (Indeed, she thought the book had been given to her by God, so the pressure was on).
But the book was rejected. First, by her own publisher. Then by all the other publishing houses she sent it to. “I have submitted my book to all these men,” she wrote in a note. “I have tried in vain. They will not accept it, yet shall ‘The Fulfilment’ reach the people to whom I appeal, for I have found another way.”
After finishing the note, Miss Allonby changed into a silk evening gown, put fresh flowers in her hair, and sat in a comfortable chair. She was found dead the next day, her manuscript on her lap and an empty bottle of carbolic acid at her side.

And so it has been for countless authors for hundreds of years. Not normally ending in suicide (though such cases exist) but often in frustration, depression and despair. (The Fulfilment, BTW, was published in a limited edition after Miss Allonby’s death).


There was one primary reason for all this distress: Their fate as writers was not in their own hands. To get anywhere close to “success” they had to be accepted by an established publishing house (which alone had the means to produce and distribute a book), and then hope that they earned some money for their efforts.
Those two things—acceptance and income—defined writing success. 
Included under “Getting Published,” we can list some ancillary things writers hope for. Like getting on a bestseller list. Perhaps being nominated (even winning) a prestigious award. Maybe just the feeling of being part of an exclusive club. 
But now we are experiencing a sea change on the other side of the diagram:

We all know the traditional model is shrinking. Advances on new contracts are at historic lows. With physical shelf-space disappearing, print revenues are down. While digital income is up for the publishers, the slice of that pie given to authors remains stagnated at 25% of net (or roughly 17.5% of retail). And new writers are finding publishers increasingly risk averse regarding debut authors.
Still, many writers remain focused on that left circle. It represents some sort of “validation” even though it could very well mean less income (the right circle) and fewer readers.
But now a new model of writing success has appeared. Writers, for the first time since the troubadour era (when you could go out on your own and make up stories in song and take in some coin), have it within their power to get their writing out there without a middleman (the fancy term is “disintermediation”).
And further, unlike self-published authors of yore, they actually have a chance to make real dough. Every day we are hearing more accounts of self-published writers who are earning significant income as independents.


Yet income alone is not the main draw of this new model, which looks like this:


Freedom is the invaluable commodity here. To be able to write what you truly want to write, and know that you can get it into the marketplace, is tremendously liberating. It is, in fact, the engine of happiness for a writer. It’s exhilarating to write for yourself, see what you’ve written, fix it, and keep on writing—and be assured that it will have a place in the stream of commerce, for as long as you live.


This does not mean that going the traditional route is a spurious view of “success.” If one seeks that validation, it’s there to be pursued. The point is, however, that it is no longer the only game in town. Which is why I am more jazzed about being a writer than ever. Not just because of increased production and income, but because of the freedom to take responsibility for my own work. 
Let me be quick to point out, however, that this responsibility carries challenges. Being in charge means you are CEO of your own company. You alone are in charge of quality control and production. You can expect to experience the stresses and strains of running a small business. You will need new skills to handle them. These can be acquired, but only through effort and self-discipline.
But it’s more than worth it to be holding the reins of your own writing and life. 
I think Miss Allonby would have felt that way, too. Had she been able to self-publish, she might have lived a long, full life. Maybe she’d have written many more books, grown a readership, and made some money, too.  


I can say this because, in one of life’s ironic and poignant turns, The Fulfilment by Edith Allonby is now available for the Kindle.
So how would you define success as a writer? 

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A New Definition of Writing Success

“Rich are the records  . . . with stories of penniless authors, who, sick with hope so long deferred, and at last despairing, have resorted to wild and tragic devices . . .”
So begins a story in the Los Angeles Examiner,New Year’s Eve edition, December 31, 1905. The feature tells the tale of one such desperate author, a school teacher named Edith Allonby. For four years she’d labored on a novel, The Fulfilment [spelled with one “l”] into which she poured heart and soul. She had been published before, but her books had not been hits. The Fulfilment was going to change all that. In fact, Miss Allonby was certain its spiritual themes would change the world. (Indeed, she thought the book had been given to her by God, so the pressure was on).
But the book was rejected. First, by her own publisher. Then by all the other publishing houses she sent it to. “I have submitted my book to all these men,” she wrote in a note. “I have tried in vain. They will not accept it, yet shall ‘The Fulfilment’ reach the people to whom I appeal, for I have found another way.”
After finishing the note, Miss Allonby changed into a silk evening gown, put fresh flowers in her hair, and sat in a comfortable chair. She was found dead the next day, her manuscript on her lap and an empty bottle of carbolic acid at her side.

And so it has been for countless authors for hundreds of years. Not normally ending in suicide (though such cases exist) but often in frustration, depression and despair. (The Fulfilment, BTW, was published in a limited edition after Miss Allonby’s death).


There was one primary reason for all this distress: Their fate as writers was not in their own hands. To get anywhere close to “success” they had to be accepted by an established publishing house (which alone had the means to produce and distribute a book), and then hope that they earned some money for their efforts.
Those two things—acceptance and income—defined writing success. 
Included under “Getting Published,” we can list some ancillary things writers hope for. Like getting on a bestseller list. Perhaps being nominated (even winning) a prestigious award. Maybe just the feeling of being part of an exclusive club. 
But now we are experiencing a sea change on the other side of the diagram:

We all know the traditional model is shrinking. Advances on new contracts are at historic lows. With physical shelf-space disappearing, print revenues are down. While digital income is up for the publishers, the slice of that pie given to authors remains stagnated at 25% of net (or roughly 17.5% of retail). And new writers are finding publishers increasingly risk averse regarding debut authors.
Still, many writers remain focused on that left circle. It represents some sort of “validation” even though it could very well mean less income (the right circle) and fewer readers.
But now a new model of writing success has appeared. Writers, for the first time since the troubadour era (when you could go out on your own and make up stories in song and take in some coin), have it within their power to get their writing out there without a middleman (the fancy term is “disintermediation”).
And further, unlike self-published authors of yore, they actually have a chance to make real dough. Every day we are hearing more accounts of self-published writers who are earning significant income as independents.


Yet income alone is not the main draw of this new model, which looks like this:


Freedom is the invaluable commodity here. To be able to write what you truly want to write, and know that you can get it into the marketplace, is tremendously liberating. It is, in fact, the engine of happiness for a writer. It’s exhilarating to write for yourself, see what you’ve written, fix it, and keep on writing—and be assured that it will have a place in the stream of commerce, for as long as you live.


This does not mean that going the traditional route is a spurious view of “success.” If one seeks that validation, it’s there to be pursued. The point is, however, that it is no longer the only game in town. Which is why I am more jazzed about being a writer than ever. Not just because of increased production and income, but because of the freedom to take responsibility for my own work. 
Let me be quick to point out, however, that this responsibility carries challenges. Being in charge means you are CEO of your own company. You alone are in charge of quality control and production. You can expect to experience the stresses and strains of running a small business. You will need new skills to handle them. These can be acquired, but only through effort and self-discipline.
But it’s more than worth it to be holding the reins of your own writing and life. 
I think Miss Allonby would have felt that way, too. Had she been able to self-publish, she might have lived a long, full life. Maybe she’d have written many more books, grown a readership, and made some money, too.  


I can say this because, in one of life’s ironic and poignant turns, The Fulfilment by Edith Allonby is now available for the Kindle.
So how would you define success as a writer? 

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Please. No whining.

I have an overarching theory on life that I believe I might have mentioned here on TKZ before: Failure cannot be inflicted upon anyone; it must be declared by the individual.  No matter how hard an artist is knocked down, or how often, as long as he gets to his feet and stays true to his obligations as a professional and a craftsman, the game is still on.  

To quit, however, is to guarantee failure. I respect those who grow too tired of the fight and walk away, just as I respect anybody’s well-reasoned choice to do anything.  To chase the choice to quit with a lot of whining, though, is unseemly.  No one forces another person to give up writing or to seek publication, and since the decision was not inflicted, it makes no sense for an artist to blame anyone who’s not staring back at him from the mirror every morning.

There’s a corrollary: Success must be earned.

It’s worth noting, I think, that with very few exceptions, every person who has found success in any endeavor in any industry shares the single attribute of having worked hard.  They brushed away rejection and tried again.  And again.  When success didn’t come as quickly as they wanted, the real achievers took a look at their own skill sets and identified what needed adjusting in order to improve their marketability. Actors learned to sing, singers learned to act.  Literary writers learned how to write more commercial stuff.  English Lit majors went back to school to learn about cyber security—or to get the PhD that would allow them to teach what they love at the collegiate level.

They didn’t sit around and blame others.  Yes, the publishing industry is changing, so adapt. No one owes success to anyone else.

Throughout the struggle, it’s important to keep your head in a positive space—a space that can be elusive, given the state of popular media.  Entertainment Weekly published a snarky article last week entitled “Stars’ Worst Movies.”  In it, they made fun of an early George Clooney movie called Red Surf.    Rather than being embarrassed about an admittedly less-than-great film, though, Clooney said in the article, “I’ve done some bad jobs along the way.  But you’ve got to do them.  The Facts of Lifes and the Baby Talks and the Red Surfs.  When you’re starting out, those are big breaks.”  He didn’t apologize for those early efforts because he was doing his best to make a living doing what he loved to do.  When the movie flopped, he went on to the next one.  I hear he makes decent coin as an actor these days.

What’s the analogy to novel writing?  Recognize your own big breaks as they happen.  Judge your path to success not just based on the long road that lies ahead, but on the accomplishments you’ve achieved.  Start with the fact that you’ve finished a book.  Or three.  That puts you in the stratosphere among those who dream of publication one day.  Got a short story pubbed in your local supermarket rag?  Shout it from the rooftops.  It’s a big deal.

Opportunity never knocks.  Opportunity lurks  out there, waiting to be discovered through hard work, dedication and risk taking.  It makes itself most visible to those who are focused on possibilities, and are open to trying new things.  Some of my greatest successes in this industry and in others can be traced to casual conversations that were struck up in the most unlikely of places.  Some might call these chance encounters, but I don’t buy that.  Sure, there’s an element of serendipity, but that would not have mattered if both parties hadn’t had their heads and their hearts in the right places.

Whenever anyone asks, “How do I get an agent?” or “How do I get a producer interested in the film project I want to do?” my answer is always the same: Go out and find them.  Introduce yourself.  Attend the meetings they attend, and introduce yourself.  Talk to them.  

Earn their attention.  If that takes you out of your comfort zone, then either expand the zone or abandon the dream.  Or invent a brand new approach that no one’s ever heard of.

But please.  No whining.

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Success is a 4-letter word

By Joe Moore

Okay, it’s really a 7-letter word. But I know a lot of successful authors that would use a 4-letter word when asked what it’s like to be successful. Why? For a couple of reasons. First, success is impossible to obtain. You can obtain “better”. You can achieve “improved”. But you’re always working to be successful. Success can be nothing more than a carrot on a stick just beyond your nose.

Second, success means something different to everyone. It’s a lot like describing an object as being green. Are we talking forest green, lime green, Irish green, puck green, or foam green? How about that green on the Beatles Apple logo or Kermit the Frog green?

I’ll bet if you asked any author who just sold a million copies of his last book, did it make him feel good? The answer will probably be, “Absolutely!” Does he consider himself a success? 4-letter-word no! Why? Because now his publisher expects him to sell 2 million copies of that next book he hasn’t finished writing yet. No pressure there. That’s not success. That’s a problem, albeit one we would all like to have. Now his sales are a bold number on the publisher’s ledger sheet. Now employees’ jobs rely on his success. It’s not just good enough to write another great book that sells lots of copies, he has to worry about the folks that are counting on him for their salary, their jobs, and their future.

So what is success in the publishing industry? Is it when you sell 25,000 copies, 50,000 copies, a million, become a New York Times bestseller? When can a writer kick up his or her heels and declare, “Mission Accomplished”?

Here’s a tip. Success is what you predetermine it will be. It’s what you decide before it comes. If you don’t approach success in that way, you are destined for disappointment. For some, being successful is walking into a bookstore and seeing their novel on the shelf. For other’s it’s the rush of holding a book signing and seeing the line of fans snaking out the door. And for many, it’s money.

But even if it is money, try to remember that it’s more important to predetermine what you’ll do with it, rather than wanting to be “rich”. For instance, determine the amount you’ll need to quite your day job. Or to pay off your mortgage. Or to move to Cape Cod or Palm Beach, or just a bigger house.

The point is, you determine what will make you successful. Be specific, not vague. And if you achieve it, relish it, celebrate it. Because everything after that is the sauce on the steak. And if you do achieve your predetermined success, always say the two most powerful words in the English language: Thank You.

When do you consider a writer to be a success? Have you predetermined your Mission Accomplished criteria? Have you already achieved it?

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Coming up Sunday, June 7, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author Sandra Brown. And watch for Sunday guest blogs from Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

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