How to Find Success as a Self-Published Author

by August Wainwright on July 10, 2013

I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone for the great response to the 50 Best Sites for Indie & Self Published Authors post. The reaction has been amazing and many of the writers and sites on the list have weighed in to say thanks. I’ve also learned about a few new sites that are worth a regular visit. Unfortunately, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed answering emails and spreading the word, so I haven’t gotten around to posting a new article for the last 2 weeks. No bueno.

Recently, I’ve been struck by a recurring conversation that continues to pop up everywhere I turn. In various forums, on websites, and in comment sections, it seems to be what so many indie and self-published authors are thinking (and complaining) about right now.

So what is it?

Well for me, it’s a discussion about success. It’s a discussion about how to define what success looks like and a discussion about how to achieve that success.

However, on all of these sites, the argument is framed as one of failure – not of success. Here are just a few examples of what I’ve recently heard:

“Now that Amazon has changed their algorithms to target indie authors…”

“Now that free is dead…”

“Last year, with the post-free run bump in sales, I could count on getting at least “X” sales after it went back to its regular price. Now I’m barely getting any post-free sales. Either free is dead or Amazon is targeting authors like me…”

“There’s no way to sell books if you don’t use Bookbub…”

“Bookbub won’t feature my book because I don’t have enough reviews, but I can’t get enough reviews if I’m not featured on Bookbub.”

“No new authors in 2013 are finding any real success…”

“I published my book last week and only had 5 sales, this is ridiculous…”

No, sir, you are ridiculous!

(Sorry, that was an outburst).

The point of highlighting these arguments is to show the thinking of some self-published authors. And, seeing as how this site is quickly turning into a place to help writers perform better in the current publishing marketplace (which I love the direction it’s taking), I believe this is a conversation that needs to be openly, and truthfully, discussed.

So let’s dive into a few of the issues surrounding the success of a self-published author…

 

You are NOT an outlier

I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but you aren’t Hugh Howey. You aren’t. Statistically speaking, it’s an extremely safe bet for me to say that you, the one reading this post, will never sell a million copies of anything you write – especially over the course of just a few months.

This idea that because one out of every ten thousand writers finds overnight success (that’s a completely made up stat; it’s probably much more rare than one in ten thousand), that it somehow translates to the idea that overall success as a writer is framed by these outliers is so wildly off-base that it’s comical.

The idea of a brand new author showing up with their first work and finding major success with no pre-established base was just as absurd in 1983 as it was in 2003 as it is now in 2013.

This skewed idea of success has led so many new authors to believe that if Brad Thor does it or Russell Blake does it or Joe Konrath does it, then they’re simply a click of a “Publish” button away from doing it too.

You aren’t that writer.

But what you probably are is a good writer. You might even be a great writer. So how do you attain the success that you’re seeking?

 

Slow growth is the sustainable way to success as an author

Let me ask a blunt question, and I want you to really think about this for a second:

Do you really want crappy books with crappy covers and crappy amateur blurbs to be able to get post-free sales bumps? Do you really want poor products to represent indie authors? Do you really want YOUR marketplace to be that easy?

You’re entitled to your own opinion, but my immediate answer is NO. I don’t want things to be that easy. Either way, you should stop to think about what the marketplace of 2011 and 2012 have done to the thinking of new authors.

The algorithms and marketplace of the last 1.5-2 years allowed unknown self-published authors to become overnight successes, sometimes regardless of the quality of their product. That 18-month period of the “free” gold-rush WASN’T the norm; it was never going to stay that way. Now the systems and algorithms are starting to normalize.

Is Amazon perfect? No. Is B&N or Kobo or Apple perfect? No. But the technology is still amazing and it’s still unbelievably liberating.

And yet, I’ve actually watched multiple authors on various forums publish their first book, with absolutely no prior following, openly discuss their first and second week sales numbers with smiling emoticons, and then after the sales fall off over the next few weeks, they post about how they are barely staying afloat and that they don’t know what to do and that it seems like the time of the indie/self-pub author is dead.

I say – GOOD.

As much as I want to help other authors that are on a parallel journey to mine, I have no time for the people who think that if success doesn’t come in less than 30 days, then it’s not coming at all.

Real success – the lasting kind – takes a tremendous amount of time and effort.

Whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hours idea or Dean Wesley Smith’s thinking on slow growth, true success as an author takes years, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words.

Did you know Issac Asimov is believed to have written or co-written 512 books (a New York Times article from 1969 credited the then 49 year old Asimov with 108 books and over 7.5 million words). Ray Bradbury published more than 30 books, close to 600 short stories, and numerous poems, essays, and plays. Stephen King has published 55 novels and close to 200 short stories, and probably has many more that are yet unpublished.

So here’s the path to success:

Write. Edit. Re-Write. Re-Edit. (Do this a few more times). Get a great cover. Write a great blurb. Publish. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Notice the three repeats there at the end. That is the key. Most series don’t find success until at least the third book. Most authors don’t find success for the first few years, maybe even the first decade.

But what’s really worth discussing when it comes to “success” in today’s marketplace is what that success looks like when it finally comes.

 

A real example of a brand new author (with numbers)

Look, if you’re one of the lucky ones who hit it big because of a free run or the hot ad-company-of-the-week, well then great. But the idea is to keep writing, get better at your craft, and plan for the future.

That is what self-publishing allows for. I entered the industry full-time somewhere around late February of 2013, with no writing experience other than as a hobby. I’ve been writing off and on my entire life, but I’ve never approached it as a potential career.

Last year, my wife deployed, my other business was doing well, and I had a lot of free time on my hands. I started writing letters to mail to my wife (a dying but extremely valuable art) and she eventually asked me to send her a few stories. (You can read my first ever post and a little more about the start of my journey here). That’s how I initially got into writing on a semi-regular schedule.

I never submitted to agents or publishers; I also never submitted a single story to competitions or magazines. I published my first book via Amazon in late May 2013. I just finished publishing the 2nd in my current series, a short 12,000 word novella, in late June. The 3rd is due out in the next few days. I’m not yet on any platform other than Amazon.

And now I’d like to take a minute to talk specific numbers. I know most people frown on the idea, but I’m not begging and I’m not bragging, so I see no issues with discussing real numbers.

So far, in the month and a half I’ve had books available to purchase, I’ve sold roughly 1 book per day, per title (full disclosure: those sales are both as myself and under a single pen name where I have two books published). Just a single sale per day, per title.

So, again, I ask: what is “success”?

Because under almost any metric you’ll find online, I’m a complete failure.

 

Yet, here’s the reality for someone who is a completely new author in 2013:

  • In roughly 4 months (beginning of March to present day), my website has attracted close to 500 subscribers who are actively engaged in the articles I write.
  • In the roughly 2 months of being “published”, I have 115 subscribers to a newsletter specific to my book series. (The cross-over between these lists is minimal, roughly 4%).
  • In the those 2 months, I’ve averaged about 1 sale per title released, per day.

 

This is what those numbers project to be by the end of 2013:

  • My website subscriber list should be somewhere between 1000-2000 people.
  • My book series subscriber list could be anywhere from about 500 up to “who knows”. The reason this is hard to quantify is because I only have 2 titles out right now in the series (and an additional 2 under a pen name), whereby the end of 2013 I plan on having 8-10 books out.
  • I plan to publish to all platforms later this summer. Should I be able to bump the 1-sale-per-day-per-title up to a modest 3 sales per day (across all platforms) and, accomplish my goal of releasing 8 titles by years end, I would be selling 24 books per day. 24 books per day at my current avg. profit price of $2.35 would equal just over $20,000 in 365 days.

 

Also, it’s worth noting that I have a KDP Select run scheduled for July 26-27th, but as of right now, all my current numbers are with no free runs and no advertising. I’ve yet to use a KDP free day, and as of writing this, I’ve not submitted my books to Bookbub or any other major advertiser (but I do plan on doing so).

Are those numbers blow-the-roof-off amazing? I don’t think so, but what IS amazing is that they are completely attainable.

Is it “success”?

To me, it’s a damn good start. To you, I don’t know, I guess that’s for each individual to decide. But for me, the idea that a very realistic minimum of $20k in 2013 with ZERO pre-established base before March of this year, I have to say that I think that’s quite amazing.

With the right marketing (which is something I plan on discussing in great detail on this site), a mediocre free run (regardless of what that means right now), or a well-placed ad, my numbers could be well in excess of that projected minimum.

And the key is still the long term. Look at what happens if I publish 8 titles a year, for the next 3 years and STILL only average 3 sales a day per title at an average sales revenue of $2.35.

8 titles per year X 3yrs = 24 titles
24 titles X 3 sales a day per title = 72 sales per day
72 sales per day X avg. sale profit of $2.35 = $169.20 per day
$169.20 per day = $61,758 per year

With 50 titles available and STILL only 3 sales per day per title, that yearly income becomes $128,662.50.

So from writing 1000 words a day on my laptop over the course of the next 5 years, I could possibly end up making an additional six figure income doing something I love. That’s “never hitting it big” – never selling more than 3 copies of any title on any given day.

And that income should continue on forever. In the digital marketplace, my books never go out of print.

To me, it’s amazing what is possible for a new author in 2013. The technology and networking at our fingertips is nothing less than incredible. But you still have to write. Sit down, every day, and write. Write a little; write a lot. Just keep writing. Keep turning out great products and, eventually, you’ll find an audience.

Success isn’t something achieved overnight – it’s earned over a long period of time, with a tremendous amount of effort. But it’s very attainable – now more than ever before.

 

What are your thoughts on the state of indie and self-publishing halfway through 2013? Are you encouraged or discouraged? What’s your story so far and what are you planning for in the future? Leave a comment below.

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23 comments

August, like you I have been writing for a long time. I started gingerly years ago with my work on the Old MySpace where after six months my poetry took off. Sadly MS is gone as it was. I am on Facebook too; no time to really attend to that site. I find more of interest on LinkIn. I don’t remember now if I asked you before are your publishing your work through ‘Createspace?’ I hear pro’s and con’s and would like to know. I’ve a collection of fourty some years of poetry I am refining; plus four novels in the works. I know networking is so important, often feel like I need a dozen hands and six computers, alas only two hands and one computer…She sighs!
Sincerely, Racheal

by Rachealgrace Adams on July 10, 2013 at 12:23 pm. Reply #

Racheal,

At this exact moment, I’m not using Createspace for print books. My main reason to this point has been due to quality. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to print books and I want my books to look and feel a certain way – Createspace (and print-on-demand in general) can’t really deliver that quality.

HOWEVER, I’ve decided to utilize Createspace for Amazon only, if for no other reason than to add a pricing comparison for my ebooks. When a potential customer sees a print book available for $11.50, and then notices the ebook at $2.99, then the ebook now looks like a better deal.

Good luck!

by August Wainwright on July 11, 2013 at 10:26 am. Reply #

At times it seems crazy to think outside the status quo, but I am with you. I released my first mini book at the start of this month. I will be happy if I sell 5 books this month. I have stories out for contests and submitted to magazines. Aside from the blogs that are steadily growing my submissions to other places will be the only advertising I do.

I am considering offering the first book as a freebie when I put up my next one. The launch of new books will probably the only time I offer them as freebies.

by Jon Jefferson on July 10, 2013 at 7:32 pm. Reply #

Hey Jon,

Thanks for the comment. I’ll be releasing #3 and #4 in my current series this month. Then I’ll be working on a full length novel that will act as a prequel to the series. When that is finished and ready to publish, I’ll be setting the prequel as a perma-free title to act as a funnel to the series.

I’m still of the opinion that “free” is a huge tool for new authors… if utilized correctly.

by August Wainwright on July 11, 2013 at 10:29 am. Reply #

This post could not have come at a more appropriate time! The rational, business side of my brain keeps repeating the ‘Write more good books, success doesn’t come overnight, keep at it, keep at it, keep at it, don’t expect to start seeing returns until book 3-4’ mantra that I’ve judiciously subscribed to after all the hours spent researching the self-publishing industry and other authors’s blogs in the last 12-18 months.  The unrealistic, dreamy side keeps thinking ‘Hmm, I want more sales here people. I need that new GT 86, goddamnit!’ I’ve still got the day job, although I am working 70% of the hours I used to work before (I’m a Paediatrician, mainly doing prem baby intensive care) and my novels are 100-110K words, taking about 11 months to write a first draft, with 2 months of rewrite following feedback from editors and beta readers. I think the figures you mention are realistic and new self-pub authors have to learn patience. There is so much information out there to assimilate and the publishing industry is in constant flux. Although the thought of having to keep up with the never ending changes was initially overwhelming, I have now discovered many great blogs that provide the information in digestible bites that make the acquisition of new information more tolerable. Yours is one of them :)

by AD Starrling on July 11, 2013 at 2:58 am. Reply #

Thanks AD, glad I’m a part of your journey. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.

by August Wainwright on July 11, 2013 at 10:27 am. Reply #

Great post. Nice kick in the butt for high expectations. Love how you showed it in simple math too, small numbers but they do add up! Shows it’s possible.

Best,
Adrijus

by Adrijus G. on July 11, 2013 at 2:51 pm. Reply #

Yea, people tend to shy away from using real numbers, but in this case, it’s amazing to see what is actually possible with a long-term mindset.

Thanks for reading Adrijus.

by August Wainwright on July 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm. Reply #

Brilliant piece! Thanks!

by Debra L Hartmann on July 12, 2013 at 10:06 am. Reply #

I think the fact that publishing has become “easy” has led people to believe that the money is also easy. But the chances are most of those people will write and publish one book, maybe two at the most, where 3-4 or even more are required to get any sort of traction.

I’ve got my first novel (like AD Starrling, it’s a 110K brute of a thing) with a professional editor right now. I’ve got a slot booked with a professional cover designer and a professional formatter. I want each book to be as good as it can be. I’ve got another book in the series ready for me to do my final edits, and the third outlined. I’ll be way out of pocket on this for the foreseeable future, but it’s the only realistic way that I can see to get anywhere. And if the gamble doesn’t pay off, at least I’ll have 3 books I can be proud of.

by AC Smyth on July 12, 2013 at 10:09 am. Reply #

That blind crazy hope that you can sit down and rattle off a novel and make yourself a truckload of money is the very same thing that keeps casinos and bingo halls and lottery ticket peddlers in business.

I started out e-publishing a couple of years ago. In 2011 I was averaging about fifty dollars a month in income from the e-books. In 2012 that went up to about a hundred a month. Right now I manage about one hundred fifty a month.

I hang out on Kboards and a few other forums and such and I know that there’s a lot more folks out there who are pulling in a whole lot more than that. Some of them might even snicker when I walk into the cyber-room.

Too bad.

I keep writing. I keep putting the e-books out there. Every now and then I’ll put out a blog or say something damn near deep and profound on somebody else’s blog and every now and then I’ll shake the promotion tree just a little.

But mostly – what works for me – is just writing.

In fact, I ought to be writing right now – right?

I’ll get write on that…

by Steve Vernon on July 12, 2013 at 11:15 am. Reply #

Knew I forgot something… thanks for the reminder.

by August Wainwright on July 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm. Reply #

Thanks for the balanced viewpoint. Finally something that makes sense to this newbie. Keep up the commentary and I’ll keep taking notes!

by LucyLit on July 12, 2013 at 11:33 am. Reply #

Thanks so much for this. I think this is a very healthy perspective and one that gives much more hope to most authors than any idea of instant, massive success.

I’m starting a career as a fiction author, having retired a couple of years ago.

I just published my first mystery novel as an ebook to Smashwords and I’m not sure how much attention it will get. If I needed to be instantly successful I’d go crazy.

Thanks again. And BTW, I find your 50 Best Sites very helpful too.

by Lois Browne on July 12, 2013 at 11:55 am. Reply #

Thanks Lois. Glad you liked the Indie 50.

by August Wainwright on July 12, 2013 at 3:45 pm. Reply #

Great post and I like that you broke down the numbers. It’s good to know what you can achieve through perseverance. Besides, If I’m going to work hard I rather do it for me and something that I love to do.

by Robert Price on July 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm. Reply #

I’m on a path similar to yours, except I started in January with my first book Everybody Lies, and I’m averaging ten sales a month. I’ve put two more books up since then. I figure when I have a backlist of 5-6 I’ll try KDC select, maybe do some advertising, or free days… But I think all of that only works if you have a backlist for new readers to discover. So my goal for 2013 is to develop that backlist.

I do use Smashwords to access its readers but more important to access the distribution system to Apple, Barnes and Noble, etc. So far, half of my sales have come from Amazon and half through Smashwords, so I think Smashwords is worth it. Smashwords also gives me a free ISBN number.

I consider this to be an experiment — what works, what doesn’t. Up until June, I taught journalism, including pub design, web design, copy editing etc. So I’m doing it all myself, including the cover, a blog and so on, which means that I have no upfront costs. A professional could probably do it better, but I can do it well enough if I keep everything simple.

But most important for me is this is a chance to be a part of a paradigm shift as great as Gutenberg’s press in how publishing is done. I find it exciting, even exhilarating. To be able to engage readers without a gatekeeper! The whole review and conversation with readers. To experiment with covers, word of mouth advertising. I haven’t had this much fun since I was hired as an editor to start a newspaper from scratch back in the 1980s.

So this is a longish post to say I agree with you. And the whiners need to take a step back and realize they’re on the publishing frontier. Work hard. Take risks. No one knows where this is going — isn’t that the fun of it?

by Lois Breedlove on July 12, 2013 at 2:56 pm. Reply #

I couldn’t agree more Lois.

It’s like starting a website in the early 90’s – to be a part of this transition and learn in the middle of the “storm” just means that when things normalize, those of us who are battling now will be much more likely to find ourselves well situated.

Thanks for the comment.

by August Wainwright on July 12, 2013 at 3:47 pm. Reply #

Yes! I was part of that too! Bought learn web design in a week, plowed through it in a weekend, and the next thing I know, I’m freelancing web design and teaching classes, borrowing code to see how others did it…. Heady stuff.

by Lois Breedlove on July 12, 2013 at 8:08 pm. Reply #

Hi, August. I loved this post. Too many people today are looking to self-pub or indy-pub as a source of quick bucks, when it isn’t that at all. Your numbers sound fantastic. I hope that my books will do that well when they’re put out.
I’m still re-writing my first novel, and working on building my platform while doing so. My blog is still just ‘my life’, as I have not yet found a niche for it yet. But I’m strengthening the habit, through my blogging, of sitting down to write something every day. It’s been very helpful.
I’ve added your blog to my Feedly, so I won’t miss any posts from now on. :-)

by Tammy J Rizzo on July 13, 2013 at 6:44 am. Reply #

August, it’s an amazing piece of encouragement to our fellow Indie Authors everywhere. I just published my first two novellas Prince of Nepal and Asian Boy and my main plan is to build a back list of short stories and novellas.

I liked the way you ‘computed’ future earnings especially when you projected an ideal number of novellas/short stories to make in order to have a good and realistic projection. I thank you for the encouragement.

by Raf Echanova on July 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm. Reply #

[…] too daunting for me at the moment. But in time (and after a lot of editing) I may just get there. August Wainwright has this to say about indie success and I think he says it […]

by What I’ve learned about writing and the publishing industry in the last year | Writing My Truth on August 12, 2013 at 6:36 am. Reply #

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