3 Years of Self-Publishing, 2 Years of Writing Full Time, and Lessons from 2013

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It’s the beginning of a new year and I just had my three-year self-publishing anniversary, so it seems like the appropriate time for a summing-up/what-I’ve-learned post.

When I started in December of 2010, I published my first novel, The Emperor’s Edge, and a collection of short stories for children, The Goblin Brothers Adventures. I was originally only going to self-publish the children’s stories and look for an agent for EE and Encrypted, the other novel I had finished at the time. But I had stumbled across the blogs of some authors doing well with e-publishing and decided to try the novels too (also, I was dreading the Agent Query Game). I’m glad I decided to publish more than the Goblin Brothers, because I’ve sold fewer copies of those children’s stories than anything else I’ve published, even though the ebook is only 99 cents. Meanwhile, I’ve been making a living from the sales of my other works (the collection has greatly expanded) for the last two years.

Lesson #1: Fiction for middle-grade and younger remains a tough sell in the e-book world.

Nice reviews and early interest in The Emperor’s Edge led me to focus on those characters, creating a series that ended up being seven novels long and which I completed last summer (though I’m working on a new novel with many of the same characters). Having a series that people were invested in is what allowed me to eventually turn this into a full-time job. I published other things in the meantime (my Flash Gold novellas, a sequel to Encrypted, and a handful of short stories), but the EE books were my breadwinners.

Lesson #2: A series with dedicated readers is what leads to reliable income.

Over time, the numbers tell you how many people go on to buy subsequent books after trying the first, so you’ve got a good idea how many buyers you’re going to have each month if you can get X number of new people to pick up the first book. You also get an idea of how many people will buy the next installment before you even start writing it. With unrelated works, things are more hit-and-miss. You might get lucky and attract an all-new audience, but you might also find that fewer of your dedicated readers will try the new characters/new world.

Since I finished my core series this summer, I’ve tried a couple of “pilots,” stories that could be developed into a new series (Torrent, a contemporary fantasy, the Swords & Salt tales, prequels for an epic fantasy trilogy I want to do, and a contemporary mystery/love story that’s coming out later this month). It’s a little scary when your money-making series ends, but you don’t necessarily want to commit to something new until you see if there’s potential. Will people like it? Will they buy it? Will they want to see more from the characters? The nice thing about e-publishing is that you can get this feedback quickly. That said…

Lesson #3: You should give a book time on the market before giving up on it or making hasty decisions regarding series-potential.

Based off early reviews, I almost scrapped Torrent and the notion of doing a subsequent series. At one point, I was going to take it down from the store altogether. The only reason I didn’t was because it was clearly set up as a Book 1 and I felt compelled to write more in the series at some point, so people wouldn’t be left hanging. Because of those early reviews, I did rearrange my writing plans, and instead of immediately going into writing Book 2, I jumped into a new novel in my old world, using most of the characters from the EE series (along with the Encrypted folks).

One of the cool things about writing full-time is that OMG, you get to do this for your day job! But one of the trade-offs is that you have to continue to write things people want to buy, because it doesn’t take long for sales on older novels to drop off.

So what eventually happened with Torrent? I left it up there while I went on to my other stuff, and it’s actually sold well, quite well when you consider that I haven’t mentioned it anywhere since launch weekend back in September. Even for launch, I didn’t do more than announce it to my newsletter, and throw up a post on Facebook and Twitter. I haven’t spent a penny on advertising (I always figured I would wait until I had more books out in the series). I’ve also had some nice emails and comments from readers who enjoyed it and want to see more. In addition, I got an email from someone at Amazon last month, and they may include it in some kind of featured sale in a couple of months (no guarantees, but, hey, they’ve never emailed me about any of my other books). So that brings me to…

Lesson #4: Glowing reviews don’t always make for a best-seller and the book that gets hammered hardest might just sell well.

I should note that I agree with some of the critiques for the book, and I’ll try to address certain points and improve on things as I go forward in the series. However, it’s also worth pointing out that…

Lesson #5: If you publish something in a different genre, you risk displeasing people who prefer the old.

As authors, we sometimes like to jump around and explore new genres and different styles of writing. (Why of course it’s time to try something in first person!) There’s nothing wrong with that, but we have to realize that those people who really liked our old genre and old style of writing may not be excited about the new. I think the next time I jump to a different genre (there’s going to be a space-age SF series eventually, so look out!), I’ll mention it to the mailing list but won’t do the big discount to try and encourage them to try it. If they do and they like it, great, but I’ll go to the book blogs and genre-specific advertisers and try to first put it in front of those who really dig that type of book.

Income, Number of Books out, and International Sales

I used to do reports about how much I was earning from self-publishing and how many books I had sold. Long-time followers of the blog (yes, all three of you) might have noticed that it’s been a while since I did something like that. I don’t mind when others do it, but for myself, I feel there’s a point where it becomes a little weird to talk about money (probably the point where you stop earning less than the average income in your country and start making more than it). That said, in 2013 I earned more than I ever did from my old day job, so I’m enjoying the self-publishing gig and hope to be able to continue.

Interestingly, I sold fewer copies of each title on average in 2013 than in 2012. The increased income is more a result of having more books out than in becoming some huge blockbuster author.

I found that sales and big promos for my Book 1 were less effective in 2013 than they had been in the past. I sold/gave away fewer books in most of these promos and there was less sell-through into the rest of the series. I think part of this is a result of more competition — more books out there in the marketplaces — and also because many of the people on certain lists had already seen and/or tried my Book 1 if they were going to.

Even with fewer new people trying the series each month, as I reached the end, I had some great launches of those final books (IIRC, FiB1 & 2 both debuted in the Top 200 overall in the Kindle Store — not bad for epic fantasy). As I said, there’s a lot of power in a series, and even a slow build-up of readers over months and years can bring notable success in the end. (As some of you may remember, Forged in Blood 1 also made it to the finals for a Goodreads Choice Award in 2013.)

Launches aside, I’m relieved to have reached the point where selling a couple hundred copies a month of Title X, Y, and Z results in a good income. I have quite a bit of work out now. (For those who don’t want to count, I’ve published 10 novels and about that many novellas and short stories as well.) It all adds up, and even though I haven’t had a huge release since this summer (the “pilots” naturally don’t sell as well as the books in the proven series), my income has been fairly solid these last few months. So let’s make that…

Lesson #6: A mid-list author with enough titles out can make a nice income from writing.

There’s a lot of talk about how there’s more competition in the Kindle Store and elsewhere these days — more independent authors publishing and also more Big 6 backlist books being put out in ebook form, but if you can cultivate a fan base that enjoys your work and will try a lot of what you write, then you can do this for a living, providing you’re able to publish regularly and keep getting more stuff out there for readers to consume.

Something else that happened in 2013 for me is that my international sales grew. I started to gain some ground in the Kobo and Apple stores in 2012 (thanks, in large part, to having a perma-free Book 1 out there), and 2013 was the year that my international sales went from pocket-change to hey-that’s-some-nice-money. I just got paid by Amazon for October’s sales, and the earnings from the UK and DE stores each could have paid my rent. A year ago, it was pretty good if I earned more than a couple hundred dollars in each of those spots.

What’s changed? I haven’t done any extra marketing to those stores, so I’ll assume it’s again a matter of having more titles out (people who enjoy my first book have six more they can grab in the series, plus related works) and also of having a perma-free title there (though EE1 has been free in those stores for almost as long as it has been in the U.S.). Interestingly, Torrent has done well in those stores, especially in Germany.

You never know when one of your titles with okay sales in the U.S. might take off in another country. And, even as ebook growth is tapering off in the U.S., it’s just now ramping up in other parts of the world, so that income could become significant.

Lesson #7: Pay attention to foreign markets.

I haven’t yet taken the bite to have any of my works translated into another language (mostly because I’m busy writing new stuff, and that sounds like a lot of extra work!), but even English-language sales in other countries can be big, so I’ll be looking for more opportunities to promote my work in international markets.

I think I’ve rambled on for long enough today, so I’ll stop with that lesson. If you have any wisdom you would like to share, please let us know in the comments section. Thanks for reading!


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Comments (29)

Thanks for the update and Happy New Year!

Very interresting update, thanks Lindsay, and a happy new year!

Thank you for sharing such valuable lessons, Lindsay. I don’t sell all that well in the foreign stores (not surprising with only two books out), but I do get quite a few requests from readers for translations. I’ve not done much research, but that seems to be one area that is near impossible for those of us doing everything ourselves. Have you looked into this at all?

It’s pretty expensive, though I’ve heard of folks doing royalty splits with the people who do the translating. Joanna Penn has mentioned that she’s done this in a couple of her podcasts from this fall.

Grateful as always for the update, Lindsay, and congratulations.

On a personal note, it has always seemed to me that you’re a close advance scout for my own career, and it’s great to get some idea of how it might work out for me, with my 4th novel in series 1 out soon, and a few stories.

I’m going to do book 1 for series 2 next, though I’m leaving series 1 in an extensible-as-needed state, and I’m worried about lack of crossover fans but, hey, if you don’t expand and diversify, you become a one-trick pony.

It’s a bit less nerve-wracking when I can keep an eye on your doings and extrapolate from your reports about the road ahead.

Congrats on your success and a very Happy New Year to you!

Good updates, thanks!

Thanks so much for sharing and wishing you a great year in 2014! You’re a great role model for us aspiring mid-listers, especially the full-time writing part. I hope to get there someday.

Interesting update, and as always it encourages me to keep writing and revising! 🙂 The reception to Torrent makes me sad, though, I’m a sucker for urban fantasy and Torrent was an excellent read.

Thanks for sharing. Very interesting and encouraging!

I haven’t yet reached your level, but my core group of readers is growing. I’m paying attention…

I’m also working on a new series to launch this summer and have a plan to release the perma free and second book very close together.

It’s slightly different than my steady seller, but I’m consciously selecting elements to mix in to attract them. Some of them have already said they’ll read it. I’m sure some won’t. Yet I’m hoping to reach a wider audience and sell better than or as well as my space opera.

With that said, I’m already thinking ahead to what the next space opera will be so that I can continue to connect to my fan base.

No wisdom to impart, but boy, do I love it that you share yours. I’ve written for a long time, but I’m new to marketing, and not what I’d consider a natural. Thanks for all the guidance.

Hi Lindsay, I discovered your blog today. Thanks for discussing your experience as an indie author. This past week I read The Emperor’s Edge and absolutely loved it! I posted a review on my blog if you are interested in reading it. Keep writing, and I will be sure to check out your other books!

I love reading your thoughts and experiences with writing – as well as all your books – you really stand out in the sea of information offered as advice to writers. Keep it all up please and have a great year.

Hi Lindsay, this post was very interesting for me. I read all the EE books and can’t wait for new stories set in the world. I also am looking forward to read your other books. Normally I prefer single books but the EE series just let me read day and night. So thats I think the magic of series. You really get to know the characters and you just have to read on.
Also it’s very interesting, that you sell so many books in Germany. I am from Germany and I know many people who prefer reading in English. But I didn’t think so many people buy English ebooks. Also I am trying selfpublishing myself. Your experience is quit interesting. You are very lucky that you can make a living from it. I often wish I was born in an Englishspeking country so there would be so many more potential readers. I hope you keep writing so wonderful books, no matter what genre.

Thanks to you, your blog readers and your guest posts, I’ve taken the plunge and made a New Year’s resolution to post something each week on Wattpad. My first post was this morning (Havoc’s Daughters, by ACSmart).
Thank you for all your stories, inspiration, and insight!

This was great advice, I really enjoy reading your words, they always inspire me in my own endeavors.

If I could share a lesson I learned in 2013, it was that action definitely speaks louder than words. I’ve been planning on a career as a writer for years now, and as much as I planned and researched and studied (all of that research was actually how I found you lol), I noticed that I didn’t actually get any closer to having a book out. I could craft marketing plans for potential books all night, yet without the books, there was nothing more than a good intention. So for the last few months of 2013, I wrote every night after work on what would be my first book, determined to actually CREATE the product I had been planning for so long. On December 27, 2013, thanks to finally doing more action than planning, I finally uploaded my first novella, “Helldin’s Lore” to the amazon market, and now I’m getting the chance to try out all of those marketing schemes I’ve been so busy planning.

So essentially, my lesson for the year was just do it! No dream was ever realized without action 🙂

Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Lindsay!

It’s good to read what worked for someone as well as what didn’t. Sometimes people just never mention something again and you can guess it didn’t take off so well, but you don’t know. I really appreciate what you wrote in this post, thank you!

And good luck with all those new stories!

Great post, thanks for sharing! Wish you continued success for 2014.

[…] 3 Years of Self-Publishing, 2 Years of Writing Full Time, and Lessons from 2013 | Lindsay Buroker […]

Good post. This is the debate I’ve been having with myself for weeks now about two series I really want to write but I’m also dreading. It takes forever and I can see myself wanting to charge more than the $2.99-$3.99 range that I normally do, generally I think it would be better to continue doing series. I also have been working on a standalone book, but I just don’t expect it to do that well because there’s no good point of entry for readers.

I’m a bit late in commenting, first time on your homepage. I guess I am one of those people who are responsible for part of your foreign sales, bought the Swords and Salt series yesterday after enjoying the first 2 of the EE books.
Thank you for sharing your insights. I learned a lot about self publishing and working on a series from your posts.
Oh, and if you ever consider translating some of your work into German, I might be able to help you. It’s been a while since I did translations to pay my rent, but at least I could help you with proofreading 😉

I’ve followed your blog for a long time so I guess I am one of the lucky three! I enjoyed this post and appreciate your generosity in spending time writing posts like this, purely for the education of others.

To your point about it being “weird” to talk about money–I get that, but I also wanted to say that I appreciated your candor in 2011 (and I know from following you that you’ve gone up from there!).

Knowing exactly what you meant by “making a living” helped me put in perspective what I might expect if I followed such a path. That’s really important if you have kids to support or have to buy insurance, etc., and you’re trying to decide whether you can afford to leave cubicle life. I haven’t found anyone else out there who is as honest as you are about the income possible from self publishing, other than the “superstars” like Hocking or Howey, who make millions–and let’s face it, that’s not going to be me.

(Although, having written that, I may change my pseudonym so that it starts with an H.)

Anyway, thanks so much for all the information you share, both financial and otherwise! It’s entertaining and much appreciated.

A very encouraging read, thank you. It has made me more determined to get all those half finished tales completed and out there!

Fascinating! I just put out a single title. I hadn’t considered a series before, until a reader finished my book and said, “What’s going to happen to these characters next?” Maybe I’ll consider a series after all!

It’s awesome that your hard work is paying off.

I think I’ve found my new hero! I’m just finishing my first book in a series of 3 (sci-fi space opera), and I’m diving into the world of self-publishing in preparation. It’s really exciting to find someone like you, and I look forward to reading your books!

Thanks for stopping by, Cara. I hope you find the site useful and enjoy the books if you try them. Good luck with your own series!

Lindsay, an interesting read (the blog). I ended up here looking for a bibliography of what you’ve published so far, to see what, if any, I may have missed; in particular checking out if there are sequels to Torrent, S&S, and Decrypted.
The thing that strikes me first and foremost in your blog is: de gustibus non disputandum est! I have gobbled up all those books of yours that I’ve laid my hands on , which are Encrypted/Decrypted, EE(1), Torrent, Flash Gold, S&S, Blade … and the one you say you faced harsh criticism for I find perfectly fine – yes, the characters are a little comic book like but I enjoy them all the same, and you won’t hear the eight deadly words from me, I’m hanging out for more. Ironically, the Empire’s Edge sequels, which, you say, are your main breadwinner, are what I have the most trepidation about buying, just going on the ‘blurbs’ I have the feeling this is going to be like “our heroes win the battle, but fail in their main objective” for the sake of continued sequels – I don’t like series where the main protagonists keep chasing, and failing to catch, the McGruffin for the sake of volume – and prefer story-telling with development of story and protagonists (and possibly relationships) in the mix; anything from Kommisar Martin Beck to Miles Vorkosigan (and by the bye I most likely will get around to the rest of the EE series eventually).
Anyway, in my opinion: keep writing, and keep expanding in to other genres. It doesn’t matter if some folk get disgruntled because you don’t live up to their expectations – some others DO appreciate the variety, and you may find a new audience as well. Kudos 🙂

Thank you so much, Lindsay, for sharing your knowledge and experience. I am learning so much from you, and you gave me the inspiration to write all the more. I appreciate you!

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