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Are More Authors Than You Think Making a Living Self-Publishing?

| Posted in E-publishing |

49

About this time last year, I wrote up a blog post detailing how I was doing, financially speaking, on my new e-publishing endeavor (I got my start in December of 2010). When it came to ebook earnings, my grand total for March of 2011 was $724. At the time, I had two novels out, a couple of 99-cent short story collections, and the first Flash Gold novella (it, and my first Emperor’s Edge novel, are free in case you haven’t checked out my work yet and are dying to do so).

I didn’t think that $700 was too shabby considering I hadn’t been at the e-publishing thing for long. But when you look at how much time I was spending on promotion and writing, it wasn’t exactly a huge income either.

A year later, though, things have continued to pick up steam. I have two more novels out, two more novellas, and a new stand-alone short story. In March of 2012, I sold more than 4,000 ebooks, not including downloads of the freebies, and will earn over $5,000 (my ebooks range from 99 cents to $4.95).

Those are estimates, since the month just ended, and Smashwords can’t offer real-time reports from their partner sites (I’ve been selling decently at iTunes, in particular, since I made my first novel free over there), but I’m tickled with the growth in sales (and readers!) over the last year. I decided to officially make this “the day job” in December, though I’d been neglecting the old day job and writing and promoting nearly full-time long before.

I’m sure my earnings will continue to go up and down (as you’d expect, one tends to do best in the months that new releases come out), but I’m happy that, thanks to the current e-publishing paradigm, making a living as a self-published author (and not a best-selling one at that) is viable.

Who else is making a living self-publishing?

As I mentioned, I’m not a huge seller compared to some (for most of March, my non-free novels weren’t even in the Top 100 of their sub-categories at Amazon), so I know there are a lot of indie authors making good money right now. Of course, we’ve all heard of JA Konrath and John Locke, but I promise you many others are earning $X,XXX to $XX,XXX a month.

If you browse the indie authors in your favorite Amazon Top 100 category and find some with multiple ebooks in there, especially multiple ebooks priced at $2.99 or above, you can bet they’re doing well.

What impresses me is just how many indie authors are in there, going neck-a-neck with well-established Big 6 authors. That we’re able to sell our books less expensively certainly doesn’t hurt, but the big boys don’t have as many advantages in online stores as they do in brick-and-mortar establishments. Publishers can’t buy table space or display stands at the front of the store, and Amazon’s algorithms will help anyone who’s selling well, regardless of publisher (the more books you sell, the more often Amazon automatically recommends those books to readers who enjoy your genre).

Here are a few authors in my genre (fantasy) that are doing well now and have been for a while (links go to their author pages at Amazon, so you check out their books):

Secrets to self-publishing success?

Now that you’ve taken a peek at some of those successful indie authors, let’s see what common things they’re all doing. The web is full of advice from book-promotion gurus, but, in the end, it probably makes most sense to simply see what successful people in your niche/genre are doing and emulate them. The folks I listed up above are all selling better than I am, and I’d guess most of them are in the midst of six-figure years.

So, what are the common threads?

  • Lots of books out — Careers aren’t made on one or two books. Being prolific counts for a lot. At the risk of stating the obvious, the more books you have, the more books people can buy. If you’re working your buns off on promotion, and you only have one book out, you’re only going to be able to make 35 cents to a couple of dollars (depending on your book’s price) from each customer. But, if you have an eight-book series, and that same customer you worked so hard to get enjoys your work enough to go on to buy all of them, the earnings potential is much higher. Also, more books means more ways for people to stumble across your work. (Note: Don’t get bogged down thinking in terms of full-length novels — some people are having success serializing long books and others are doing novellas or shorter-than-average novels. With ebooks, there are no rules as to length.)
  • Professional cover art — There aren’t too many best sellers out there with hokey cover art. It’s odd that it matters so much with books — digital books at that — but cover art is what catches someone’s eye in the Amazon listings and first gets them to click on a book to read the blurb.
  • Series, series, series — Most of these authors not only have a series, but they have multiple series going. You’ll see that some of their series do a lot better than others — the more work you have out, the more likely it is that you’ll have a book or series that takes off. And the advantage with writing in series format is that there are a lot of readers who enjoy following the same heroes for multiple books, to that extent that they’ll automatically buy sequels, regardless of the premise (I’m one of those types of readers, so I definitely get that).
  • Free or 99-cent first books — These guys are all kicking off their series with inexpensive lead-ins. Speaking for myself, my overall sales went up significantly when I dropped my first Emperor’s Edge book to free, at Apple and Barnes & Noble as well as Amazon. I thought it would be a temporary boost (I did this around Thanksgiving), but I’ve continued to do well with the second and third novels in that series.
  • Not big names in the blogosphere — Some of these guys don’t blog at all and are practically non-existent on social media sites. I think a blog can help, and it’s something I enjoy doing, but having a popular blog on writing or publishing won’t necessarily make you a fiction best-seller. Getting more books out is probably more important than blogging regularly in the grand scheme of things.
  • Publish regularly — I’m sure some of these authors started out with a “trunk” novel or two, but if you look at their publication dates, you can see that they’ve all been putting new work out on a regular basis for the last couple of years. I’ve seen some authors work the system and get to the tops of the Top 100 lists only to gradually fade away into obscurity after a few months. The simple matter is that it’s easier to stay on people’s radars if you’re putting out new stories every quarter or so (I can’t write novels that fast, so this is one of the reasons I’m trying to work in novellas and short stories between bigger projects — that and because I like having multiple projects to work on at any given time!).

Does all this mean that there’s no hope to make good money self-publishing if you can’t put out a lot of books on a regular basis? No, I’ve come across people who are doing phenomenally with one book (this tends to happen more often in broad-appeal genres such as thrillers and romances rather than things like epic fantasy and science fiction), but I have found those folks to be the exception rather than the norm.

In the end, you have to find what works best for you, but I think it’s important for one’s sanity to make sure sales and financial goals make sense relative to the amount of work we’re able to get out there. Expecting to knock it out of the park with one or two books is asking a lot. If it happens, great, but if it doesn’t then that’s okay too. You haven’t set yourself up for disappointment by having unrealistic goals.

In the meantime, keep writing!

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Comments (49)

Great way to look at things! Theory is all well and good, but It’s best to learn from people who are actually doing what you want to do.

I wish my co-author and I could write faster, but we don’t. It will take us longer to have a good body of quality books out, but we’ll get there eventually.

It’s hard to find that balance between being prolific and still taking the time to tell good stories. I’m always a little envious of the folks who can knock out 5,000+ words plus in a day. I just don’t seem to have that in me!

Congratulations on your continued success! I enjoyed “Flash Gold” a lot and have the next two on my digital to-read pile, along with “Emperor’s Edge.” It’s inspiring seeing how you’ve done well with steampunk and epic fantasy, two favorites of mine.

Your observations about successful authors track with mine, and those by folks like Kris Rusch, Joe Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith. E-publishing has given new life in particular to the novella, as well as short fiction. I agree that writing novellas and shorter lengths are a great way to put out new work for readers between novels.

The number and frequency of books an author publishes seem crucial to broadening readership. With Amazon and other e-book stores, every title under your name points to the other titles by you. They always are available, a crucial difference from the “old” print only days when an author’s backlist was often out of print.

Thanks, Dale!

I’ve got an interesting interview coming up tomorrow with an indie author who’s really taken off since he started serializing his work. It’s a great way to keep your name out there, with something new being published every month or two, while still writing the same amount. I think we’ll see a lot more of this in the e-publishing sphere.

Last year, I did pretty well, but the bulk of my sales occurred in June and July, when I had a spectacular run. Things settled down after that. I only had two books until just three weeks ago when I uploaded my third book.

I am not quite in the ‘making a living’ stage yet, and I’ll always need my day job for insurance purposes–but I’m looking forward to cutting back to part-time and think my sales have been doing well enough to do that. December I was just shy of $4,000, January was about $4,200, but Feb was bad–just $1300. It made me nervous, but March rebounded, in no small part because I finally uploaded the third book in a series. It ended up being my second best month ever at somewhere around $5,000 (depends what the borrows will bring).

As the main breadwinner, I’m very nervous about going part-time, but luckily, I’m in a profession where I can pick up extra hours when needed most of the time. I won’t want to though–I know that. lol

I am in a catch-22 of needing to write more, but not having time because of work, but having to work because I’m not selling enough to cut back.

Officially, I have taken the plunge by requesting a part-time position, only fate is against me because there is nobody to replace my hours, so I’m kind of stuck working full-time until they hire someone.

It’s definitely hard to find time to write a lot when you’re still working 40+ hours a week at the day job, especially if you have a commute to add in. I hope the part-time gig works well for you and that you’ll continue to have success with your books!

Lindsay,

I noticed you still turn out books pretty fast. How do you do it working full time? It’s taken me a year on my full length novel and I’m still not done editing. I was thinking about holding off on publishing until I have several short stories ready to go. Then I could publish the novel, wait a couple months and publish the shorts. Does that make sense to you?
Thanks for the great advice!

Hey Michael,

I actually have been doing this full time since last Christmas. Though I think I was more efficient when I still had other work that had to get done. Somehow writing 2,000 words a day can take the whole day if you have nothing else on the schedule. If you’re trying to squeeze it in, you can make it happen in a couple of hours. :P

Lots of my writer buddies with jobs and families get up early and do an hour or something each morning before anyone else is awake.

I think you can publish the short stories and the novel any time. Once have you more than one ebook out there, you can play around with making one (maybe a short story?) free to try and get more folks into your world.

Good luck!

Great post, Lindsay! Wish I could produce new works as quickly as you do, but I seem to be a tortoise. I tend to focus on one work at a time, though I did put out a couple of related short stories in between books one and two. Now that book two is out I’m experimenting by discounting book one and dropping a couple of the shorts to free – curious to see what happens.

Cheers

Michael

Thanks, Michael! There are definitely more opportunities when you have a series and can play around with free or inexpensive Book 1s. I remember Robin Sullivan did Micheal’s Book 2 as a freebie once to see if people would go on to grab Book 1. It worked for them, and I’d be curious to try something like that someday too.

Lindsay, I am so happy to hear that you are doing so well with your books! You continue to be an inspiration. Your blog was one of the first I read on self-publishing ebooks when I started last November and I appreciate all the information you share. So far I have three books out and they are slowly making their way up the charts. Thanks for all the great advice!

Thanks, Deanna. I hope the sales continue to go well for you!

Congrats, Lindsay! I’ve been following your blog for about six or eight months now. It’s been fun watching your progress. I published my first four novels last year with another two due out this year. But MG ebooks, it seems, don’t sell nearly as well as adult genres. So I may have to mix in some YA or adult. But here’s hoping the next few years sees Kindle sell truckloads of ereaders to kids! :)

MG is a tough crowd (my MG short story collection is by far my lowest seller) since kids don’t typically have credit cards and a way to shop online, but maybe we’ll see more kids with e-readers and parents hooking them up with gift certificates and the like. I know there’s a grade school around here that had a bunch of iPads donated for the kids to use. I would have loooved something like that when I was that age! :)

Congratulations, Lindsay. Great and accurate post. I just wanted to say that I am more or less the same position as you are with regards to e-book sales and income and that every single one of your common threads applies in my case. I certainly think it should be possible to make a living writing e-books this way without being a mega-seller.

Great post! I’m working hard on getting that next novel out, but I’m toying with doing more with short stories as well. :)

Thanks so much for posting your info, Lindsey. I love how you analyze what is working in the ebook market because that is so similar to how I like to work as well. In fact, I found you because I was looking at best seller lists on Amazon to try and figure out what was making it there, and have been enjoying your books and your blog ever since!

I wish I could write more words per day, too. I hope to be there with you one of these days. I’m launching two series this year… I hope.

With the higher earning rate, you don’t even have to sell all that many copies a month to “earn a living” with self-publishing, which makes it more easily viable, I think.

Frankly, the number of sales I’d need per month to be able to pay my bills is low enough that if I’m not hitting that number by the time I have 10 novels out, something’s probably wrong.

Also, folks who say they need the day job for health insurance… It is possible to get independent health insurance plans. It’ll raise your living expenses, but it’s doable. I have a genetic condition that raises my premium, but I did find a company to take me that has a pretty good plan.

I also have a genetic condition and I passed it on to my daughter, who is only 11. I have a feeling that my premiums would be incredibly high and probably wouldn’t cover anything but catastrophic medical bills. Luckily, I can work just 20 hours a week and still be eligible for insurance for my family. 20 hours a week is doable. Just 2 days one week and 3 days the next. :-)

Plus I take my own computer to work and during downtime, I do a little marketing. I’m too distracted there to write, but I can take care of some of the other things that would take time away from my writing at home.

Yes, I’ve been paying for my own health insurance for the last ten years or so. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s not insanely expensive for me either (I’m sure my roommate spends as much on gas for commuting to work each month as I pay for my premium).

I started my self-publishing journey last June and never anticipated that I’d be making a living so quickly. My first month I made a few hundred and like you was pleased with that. But the past few months I’ve made roughly $3000 or so, and my check from Feb’s sales will net me around $5000, my biggest so far.

I agree with you on many points. My series books are by far the most popular (I have 6 books right now, 3 under my own name and 3 under a pen name.) The third in a trilogy is due out in a couple of months, and I regularly get emails/messages asking when it will be released. People love series!

I also agree that despite the common wisdom, social networking doesn’t sell books… but more shelf-space does.

Great article. Congrats on your success!

Thanks, India. Congratulations on your improved sales, and good luck in the future!

[...] Buroker on Lindsay Buroker Are More Authors Than You Think Making a Living Self-Publishing? “What impresses me is just how many indie authors are in there, going neck-a-neck with [...]

Really interesting & encouraging. Quite releasing that i dont need to blog or get into social media to succeed online. Thanks Lindsay

My genre is non-fiction. What statistics or references do you have for self-publishers in this field?

Hi Jack,

You can check out an interview I did last year with Kate Harper: http://www.lindsayburoker.com/amazon-kindle-sales/kate-harper-making-money-publishing-non-fictio-kindle-articles/

She writes mini ebooks on non-fiction (instructional) topics and has done well for herself.

Thank goodness! I knew it was a tall order to emulate Konrath et al, but earning a liveable income without being a megastar sounds perfect! Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve got two in a series so far and one stand-alone, but I’m going to have to speed up my production!

Hi Lindsay, Just came across your blog. You’ve compiled a wealth of information for Indie writers. Thanks for reminding me, as fellow Indie author Bob Mayer often proclaims, content is king.

Hi Lindsay,

You’re echoing what I’ve been learning, it’s a matter of getting multiple streams of writings and products out there for your readers and customers to get ahold of. It’s a matter of taking your writing destiny into your own hands and making it happen.

Had you told me 10 years ago that I would write a book I would have thought you were nuts. But I did, and working on a second one. The thrill of seeing someone’s face light up seeing my name and picture on my book cover is priceless.

What a journey it has been so far, let’s keep it rolling and accelerating. :D

Thanks,

Kevin

[...] Are More Authors Than You Think Making a Living Self-Publishing? | Lindsay Buroker [...]

[...] Are More Authors Than you Think Making a Living Self-Publishing? [...]

Thanks for the post, Lindsay. A lot of writers I talk to are saying what you are: all the talk about “tweet, blog, network, tweet, advertise, network, tweet” either is a waste or only works for certain books or situations. Twitter in particular seems to have passed through a fad where now marketing spam accounts are being unfollowed left and right.

I’ve found Twitter can be nice for networking with other authors and for driving traffic to one’s blog, but I think it’s tough to sell a book on there. People come to hang out, not to shop.

An exception might be a freebie (I’ve had people say they tried my first (free) ebook or one of my free podiobooks after seeing a tweet).

[...] had an excellent time reading this article by Lindsay Buroker earlier in the evening late last night. It was an excellent time because 1. it [...]

Hello Lindsay thanks for your interesting post about making a living with Self-Publishing,

Currently I have a $2,50 priced tiny little (non-fiction) (e)Book published, that also actually got some buyer’s that wheren’t family :) Some of those buying readers also actually gave some positive feedback by email. Their Readers Feedback also gave me some new ideas to come up with possible future improved versions.

My tiny little book has to do with some of my experiences from working in the Music Business, and this brings me to your mentionings about Mutltiple Book Series I was wondering if you also might possibly done research on Books in Mutiple Versions?

Because I noticed when working in the Music Business you frequently saw from the same Music Multiple Tracks in all kind of different Versions, and I was wondering if – besides working on Series or Multiple Book Series - it might also help to be Successful to use a Multiple Versions Approach…?

‘What do you Think?’

[...] and has some tips on how to find more time to write. As we’ve discussed before, one of the self-publishing secrets to success is being prolific, so these ideas might come in [...]

Thanks and blessings.

[...] content-filled blog you’ll want to take time to peruse. Here are two to get you started: Are More Authors Than You Think Making A Living Self-Publishing? and Facebook or Twitter, Which is Better for Book [...]

As someone barely starting out, it’s encouraging to know that it’s possible to earn a living from self-publishing, though as with any business, having mutliple income streams is the key. I wish I could write quicker!

Great Post, I love reading about authors who are succeeding. It also helps seeing that the things I am doing is working for other people. I have multiple series out and can always tell when someone new finds one of them because with smashwords you get the invoice showing several books in a series sold. I love finding fans. Your advice here is something I keep telling writer friends, spend more time writing.
Write on!

Thanks for this overview! Great to know we’re going in the right direction. We currently have starts to two series and one stand alone full-length novel, plus two short stories out right now, with at least four more books in another series in queue. By the end of this year that may be 9 ebooks out there, which I’d personally be really excited to see. The biggest issue, of course, *is* marketing. Have considered a blog but it feels more like a time waster if used for much more than book/cover art announcements, etc.

One thing I want to avoid is spending much time trying to sell to other authors who are trying to sell books, too. That’s valuable writing time.

[...] self-publishing the next Game of Thrones through [...]

[...] Self-published Author Lindsay Buroker argues that more authors are making a “living” self-publishing than you might think.  To back up her claim… she points to a small number of authors who appear to be doing well (i.e. anecdotal data).  She goes on to offer advice for making it big based on doing the same thing that these folks are doing…. [...]

[...] over $5,000 in March of this year detailed how important being prolific is to earning in the post, Are More Authors Than You Think Making a Living Self-Publishing?, writing: Careers aren’t made on one or two books. Being prolific counts for a lot. At the risk [...]

Hey!

I like your insight on Self-Publishing and thanks for sharing. I certainly agree that having more than a couple of books out will have a better outcome. I guess I just needed to hear someone else with experience say it!

Thanks again and keep up the great work!!

Lisa

Great article. I am wanting to work more on my fiction work that I have started. But first, my goal is to finish my NONfiction series of books. My book MAKING SOAP FROM SCRATCH: How to Make Handmade Soap – A Beginners Guide and Beyond is the second edition of a book I wrote with a previous similar title. But this is the first time I’ve released something on Kindle and Nook at the same time as the print edition. (The first edition sold about 400 copies over the past two years). Now on to three more books on: aromatherapy, making bath products, and on the magical powers of herbs. After that, I’ll move back into my fiction writing chair. (Yes, I do have 13 years experience on the above topics. Have owned a soap company for 13 years and I am a certified aromatherapist)

I’ve had some minor success with traditional publishing, but I’ve been at the self publishing thing for nearly three years and I’m doing pretty well. Not rich, but let’s just say that all my bills are taken care of every single month. Okay, the income doesn’t cover the house or the car payment, but it covers three credit cards, electricity, gas, television, and phone with a DSL line.

What a great article! I love reading about others who are on board and sharing in the success of the Indie world. Yes, there are many of us who are, indeed, making a great living or just a fabulous part time income. As a result, I maxed out my IRA contribution this year. All that money that would have been spent on bills went straight to my retirement fund. What a wonderful world we live in today!

I don’t care what the traditional people have to say about it, either. I have a hard time believing that so many people would keep buying my books month after month, and sending me letters from all over the world, if my stuff really sucked! Maybe I don’t have the power team of editors, but I’ve got skills enough to stand out. That’s all and it’s good enough for me. I’m much happier than I was years ago – back when I was sweating it, thinking that no one would ever read work. Losing sleep over all the submissions and wondering if anyone would accept me.

Anyway, thanks so much for writing a great article. Thanks for such a great article!

[...] Responding to positive change is taking advantage of opportunities, like how the Amazon Kindle platform is making it easier than ever to become a published author. [...]

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