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A Full-time Indie Author Answers Your Questions: Part 1

| Posted in New Author Series |

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I’ve gotten a lot of nice email since Forged in Blood II came out, but I’m woefully behind in my responses. A lot of them are related to my books, but because of this blog, I often get questions related to self-publishing and book promotion too. I thought I’d try to whack two birds with one stone (if you’d seen me throw, you’d be snickering at this notion) and share some of my answers here. Then the next time someone emails with one of these questions, I can point them to this post. (If you have any questions of your own, feel free to leave them in the comments below.)

Lindsay, I found your old post on earnings (here: March 2011 or here: “What Does It Take to Become a Full-Time Author?”) and was wondering how you’re doing now. It’s been a while since you posted sales numbers. Are you able to make a living writing now?

The short answer is yes. Because I’m writing quite a bit and publishing frequently (three novels and a novella this year), my earnings have continued to grow. My sales per individual books aren’t necessarily any better than they were a year or even two years ago, but I’ve managed to keep them fairly steady (about 400 sales per novel per month at Amazon, with another 100+ from other stores). Naturally the sales on a new release are higher and will be so for a few months, but it’s the steady sales of one’s back list that keep the income up between releases. For that, I credit my perma-free Book 1, the occasional advertising stint, and word-of-mouth recommendations from my awesome readers. For more details, check out my post on “How Do You Keep Your Book Sales Momentum Going Over the Months and Years?“.

As I often point out, I’m a mid-list author who writes books that appeal to a specific audience (those who enjoy female protagonists and an action-heavy mix of swords & sorcery and steampunk). You don’t have to chase the hottest genre or write for mass appeal to make a living as an indie author; you do have to write well enough to appeal to the people who enjoy your niche, and you do have to publish regularly to keep your name out there, especially when you’re first building up your fan base.

I don’t think I’ll be sharing exact sales/earnings numbers anymore, because my readers would probably stop sending me chocolates if they knew, but I’m making more now as an author than I used to in my day job. I’m sure sales would drop off a lot if I slowed down with the writing and publishing, but I enjoy telling stories, and I feel like quite the slacker on days where I don’t knock out any words.

I appreciate the time people like you and JA Konrath take to update your blog and offer advice to new authors, but you guys already have a fan base. I don’t know how helpful your advice is to those who are starting out new today.

I got a kick out of this comment, because the person mentioned me and JA Konrath in the same sentence. He was a big author earning six figures a month when I got started, and I’m not in his league, but I get the gist of the comment. And here’s my response:

Bull.

:)

Trust me, I get it. When I published my first book in December of 2010, Amanda Hocking had made her bazillions, JA Konrath was raking it in, and Michael J. Sullivan was about to make a big deal with Orbit. Even though I’d just gotten my first Kindle, I realized I was coming into the game late. The 99-cent price point wasn’t working the magic it apparently had six months earlier, and there was more competition in the Kindle Store than when Hocking and the others first uploaded their ebooks. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the whole idea of self-publishing appealed to me so much more than playing Agent Hunt and Wait, so I got started anyway. I sold about 30 ebooks that first month, most to people I’d begged or bribed to pick up a copy. A year later, I had four novels out, along with some short stories and novellas, and I’d hit my first goal (1,000 ebook sales in a month). I was starting to think I could make this my full-time job.

For those of you starting now, the tricks that worked six months ago don’t work now, and there’s a ton of competition in the Kindle Store. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. But I promise you that the same core things I did to gradually build a fan base still work. I never used KDP Select or any tricks to get ahead (it’s not because I’m above that sort of thing — it’s just that I wasn’t willing to go exclusive with Amazon, and none of the iffy gimmicks seemed wise to pursue to one who wants to make a career out of this).

My core marketing philosophy has been to give away stuff for free (on Podiobooks, on Wattpad, on Smashwords, on Amazon, and anywhere else I could), to make sure the free stuff is an obvious lead-in to my other books (AKA a Book 1 in a series), and to promote the freebies through advertising, guest blog posts/interviews, and social media. If you’re trying this and it’s not working, get some outside advice on your cover art, blurb, and novels. And keep writing. I published Book 3 in my series before I really started gaining some traction.

If you need more inspiration (and marketing ideas), check out the interviews I’ve done with folks who published for the first time this year (2013) and sold tons of books right out of the starting gates:

It can happen. Not everyone is going to hit it big with their first book (most won’t), but I know that a lot of the people who are starting this year will be making a full-time income by 2015 or 2016. You can be one of those people, or you can take a defeatist attitude that it’s too late now to jump in.

How many ebooks do you have to sell a month to make a living?

How much you need to “make a living” is a different number for everybody. If you’re single without any debt and live in an inexpensive part of the country, it’s not going to be a very big number. If you’re married with children and want to support a spouse while you live in a coastal metropolis, it’s a different story.

You can do the numbers for yourself pretty easily though. For ebooks at 2.99 and above, you earn about 70% at Amazon (it’s less at Barnes & Noble and more at Smashwords). So 1,000 ebooks a month at 2.05 gets you a little over $2,000. Sell your books for $4.95 and you’ll make more than $3,000. Get up to 3,000 ebook sales a month, and now you’re talking.

That can seem like a ton of ebooks when you’re getting started, and it is if you only have one title out. It’s less daunting when you start thinking in terms of having 10 or 20 ebooks out, and if you want to make a career out of this, that’s probably where you’ll be eventually.

But as far as feeling like you’ve “made it” and you’re ready to quit your day job, it’s more important to cultivate your 1,000 true fans than have a good sales month here or there (as many who’ve been there can tell you, success can be fleeting if it came as a fluke and you didn’t take advantage of it by turning casual readers into true fans). When you have a certain number of people who will buy anything you publish, that’s when you can start to feel secure in your continued ability to write for a living. Publishing tends to be a cyclical business, but when you start to know that a book release is good for X sales, then you can predict what your income will look like for the next and beyond.

That’s enough for this post. Any comments or questions you’d like to see addressed in the future? Please chime in below!

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Comments (28)

You say “I’m a mid-list author who writes books that appeal to a specific audience (those who enjoy female protagonists and an action-heavy mix of swords & sorcery and steampunk)”, but I think you’re underselling yourself there.

I’m pretty sure that most sci-fi/fantasy readers don’t care a jot what’s between the protagonist’s legs. These days the dinosaurs who refuse to read about heroic women are as rare as the feminist extremist loonies who refuse to read about heroic men. Your books sell well not because people want to read stories with female protagonists, but because they’re damned fine fantasies which avoid all the usual dull cliches.

It also helps that what I’ve read of yours so far hasn’t suffered from series-itis and either jumped the shark or run out of steam after a few books.

Thank you for the kind words, David.

I know there are lots of guys who don’t care, but judging by emails and online interaction the majority of my readers are female. I’ve come across numerous studies on the web that say that women are willing to put themselves into the shoes of male or female protagonists, whereas men in general prefer male protagonists. Here’s a blog post with links to a few studies: http://goodmenproject.com/newsroom/the-harriet-potter-effect-or-why-we-prefer-male-characters/ If you look at the Top 100 for the epic fantasy genre, too, you’ll see it’s dominated by male authors.

I certainly don’t mean my observations as a complaint (there’s nothing stopping me from writing male protagonists, and I could use a male pen name if I really wanted to); I just wanted to suggest to other authors that you don’t have to try and write what’s popular. You can be stubborn and do your own thing and still find an audience. 😉

Thanks for commenting!

Hmm, interesting. I’d love to perform that sex-swapped character study on people who I know think of themselves as being enlightened and egalitarian and see what the result is. Hell, I’d like to have it performed on *me*!

A little over a week ago Richard Stooker did a guest post on Konrath’s blog in which he tried to analytically determine the secrets of big-earning authors. One of the ideas he put forth was that the majority of book-buyers are female, and that successful authors often feature strong female protagonists.

I don’t mention this as a counterpoint to what you say in your comment above, Lindsay. I mention it because I think it actually works in favor of your larger idea: writer’s don’t have to try to write what’s popular, they can (and should, I think) write what they want to write.

I have the feeling that there are studies and statistics that can support pretty much any theory of “how to be a successful author.” We could all drive ourselves crazy trying to crack that code. In the end, I’d rather follow your advice and write the stories I want to write. The greatest success, in my view, is creating something you’re proud of, not something that makes a lot of money.

Of course, if you somehow manage to do both at once (stay true to your artistic goals AND make money), that’s wonderful, too.

Studies show that women use the internet more (just check the Alexa demographics on just about any site, especially sites for books), spend more time online than men, and tend to read more books more often. This is the perfect equation for nearly all ebooks being read by more women than men.

Also, all of your EE book covers (except the last book in the series) look like romance novels, not fantasy or steampunk, so that means even more females than males will be interested.

(Write for women, have girly covers, get more sales? Probably.)

As a male reader who has to judge books by their covers, I wouldn’t have never been interested in your EE series if they hadn’t been free on Podiobooks, but now I like them.

(I’d cite my sources, but I’m lazy and at work, so Google will work if you’re curious.)

* “would have never” (that’s embarrassing)

Thank you for the feedback! Having all new (illustrated) covers done for the EE series is on my wish-list. Just trying to find someone whose work I adore and who is also fast and affordable. I really like the fellow who did Republic, but I’m not sure if he wants to take on 8 covers all at once, lol.

Wow. Like you read my mind. As a writer interested in self publishing (Strangely steampunk too) I was going to go through all your articles and find out how you did it.

Thank you for putting it all together. Very helpful and looking forward to part 2!

Having come into the self-publishing world about a year ago–at the time when Indie became “sexy”–I knew from the outset I’d have to work pretty hard to get noticed. To do that, I wrote the best book I could, had it professionally edited and invested in engaging cover art.

That was the easy part. But it’s not something you can cut corners on. After that, I learned about advertising, blogging and marketing. It took six months (of <150 sales/month over 2 books and a free short story) to gain real traction. When my third book came out, I sold more copies in a week than I sold of the first book…in the first three months. Honestly, it shocked the crap out of me. : ) I guess what I learned is that you're always building a readership. You may not see them until a big release, but always work toward engaging readers even if you aren't getting feedback. They may be there, and you just don't know it.

I need to interview you again, Kendra! 😉

Anytime. You know where to find me. :)

Excellent and encouraging post as always!

Thanks Lindsay! 😀

Terrific (and helpful) post, Lindsay! Thank you, as always, for your honest advice and tips! I know we all appreciate it SO much.

Congrats, Lindsay, on your continued ability to make a living and be awesome. But a quick FYI–I think, according to Amazon’s rules, etc., you’re actually not allowed to publish sales figures. You may want to check this out if you ever feel like sharing that info. In the meantime, continuing enjoying your reader chocolates. 😉

Konrath and a lot of others have published sales figures without repercussions, so if that’s in their TOS I doubt it’s enforced. Regardless, you could always say how many you sell across all platforms without going into specifics on Amazon.

Konrath has mentioned though that he cannot disclose the titles published through Amazon, only his self-published titles. However he has hinted at those figures as well. :)

Those are the ones published through Amazon’s publishing imprint, not through Kindle Direct Publishing. Most of us don’t have deals with Amazon. 😛

This was a great article for those who are still looking uphill at that point in their writing. I’m hoping that, like you, my third book will be the one that turns the corner (it’s due out this fall). I can particularly relate to that first-book push, when you’re basically finding everyone you know and foisting it on them to seed that (theoretical) groundswell.

Hey Lindsay!

Two questions:
What (other than chocolate) do you find yourself using as inspiration for writing? I tend to use songs as inspirations for everything from places to characters, even scene occasionally.

Second, do you do a lot of research into the science (no not “that” science) behind the technology in your books? Like, what it would take to have an actual steam powered trolly?

Anywho, looking forward to the continued updates on Wattpad (and buying your full series once I actually have money)!

You are always an inspiration. I enjoyed reading how you’re doing and wish you continued success. :)

Lindsay, since you said in this post to ask you something I would like to see answered, my question is this: (I will be honoured if you answered. :)) )
About the competition in the future… I just wandered, what are you thoughts about it? I mean, there will be more writers in the future to compete with, but also more readers to catch. Is this going to find some balance? What do you think?

Not Lindsay, but I’ll still comment (you just try and stop me).

It seems to me like the main effect of this development is all about visibility. With even more books in the store, it will be that much easier to get lost, and even with more readers, we have to assume that their buying habits will not change drastically, and therefore readers will still be drawn to two things: Ranking and Marketing. So to me this makes promotion and marketing in general evn more important for an author as time goes on, since the chance of being found among more and more books without already being established will be close to impossible.
It will probably mean that self-publishing authors will have to dip into promotions no matter what, because it will be the only way to get far enough up the rankings to get recurring sales.

My two cents…

Amazon Author Rank
#48 in Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Fantasy
#57 in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy

Lindsay, you’re amazing. Thank you so much for all the information you’ve shared with the rest of us over the last couple of years, and congratulations on your well-deserved success.

Now plant your butt back in the chair and get the next Fool’s Gold sequel cranked out! :)

I love reading your blogs (and your books!) – thanks so much for the consistent inspiration! Now how about tackling “how to do your taxes as an indie author”? Because that freaks me out. :)

Someday I’m going to get a tax pro on here to answer our questions, Aly. I’ve been self-employed for ten years and still use TurboTax. 😛

Wow, after discovering your blogs a couple weeks ago, every new one I read is more inspiring than the last. This one takes the cake. Hi, I’m a first time self-publisher. I’m about to put out my first book “Glimmer In The Ashes”, in paperback and kindle, in the next couple weeks. It’s been a hard road since I started nearly 6 months ago, but I’ve learned so much from people like you and Joanna Penn. My modest goal right now is to build a readership strong enough to allow me to at least go part-time at my day job so I can write more. Thank you for opening yourself to newbies like me. Remember, do what you love!

I know I’m late to the game in reading this post, but I just have to say that am very encouraged by it. I published my first novel around the time this post was written, and only recently started getting some reviewer attention. Your story gives me hope that I might actually find some traction after the sequels get released. I figure that I would continue writing whether I was in the self-publishing game or not – at least this way there’s a chance that someday my professional hobby will turn into a fanbase and the financial support that comes from it.

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