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Are There Really “Secrets” to Self-Publishing Success?

| Posted in Tips and Tricks |

23

If you visit the Writers’ Cafe on Kboards in any given week, you can find authors plotting ways to engineer a bestseller or asking if there’s a way to work the system in order to “stick” on Amazon. Everybody wants success — of course! So, what’s the real secret to getting it?

Well, not surprisingly I’m going to tell you that for the vast majority of us, it involves thinking of this as a career, writing a lot of books, and accumulating more and more readers along the way.

The good news is that you don’t need to be anywhere within sniffing distance of the Top 100 on Amazon to make good money. Really good money.

If you find an indie author who has several full-priced ebooks (not 99 cents) in a series under a 10,000 sales ranking on Amazon, and they’re there consistently from month to month, that author is probably going to clear six figures this year. The more books you have out (that are selling at least moderately well), the easier it is to make that kind of money.

So what are my tips for making things sell moderately well?

I’m going to assume you’ve already read blogs and forums or have listened to podcasts and know the basics: write in a series, have awesome cover art, have a blurb that appeals to the target audience, have entertaining and well-edited stories, and pay attention to what’s working right now in the marketing world (we talk a lot about this on our Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, and most of the stuff applies to all genre fiction).

Beyond that? Here are my three suggestions:

Develop your own unique voice

I don’t think this gets emphasized enough in self-publishing circles. It’s what turns your books from a commodity into something that readers must have because no other author can deliver the same experience. It’s what gets people to not only read the book they chanced across on Amazon but to continue on and read your other books and your other series, as well. If you’ve had one series that sold well but then launched a second one to the sound of crickets, not having a compelling voice may be part of the problem (especially if those series are in the same genre).

So, how do you develop a unique and compelling voice?

Honestly, this mostly comes from writing a lot and from not being afraid to put your personality above the prettiness of the words. When you get started, your voice will often sound a lot like the voices of whoever your favorite authors are. That’s okay. It’s probably somewhere after your first 500,000 or million words that you stop emulating others and find your own style. Eventually, you internalize all of the writing rules and learn to stop worrying so much about whether your sentences have too many “to be” verbs. You just write, with the story flowing straight from the creative part of your brain to the keyboard, and it comes out in your voice.

Your voice has your sense of humor, it has your prejudices and passions, and it has your unique way of looking at the world. Essentially, it’s you on the page.

Will everybody love your voice? Of course not. But for those who have similar tastes, it will be an amazing match. Some of those readers will become lifelong true fans. You get enough true fans, and you won’t need to worry about paying the bills again (so long as you keep writing).

Publish consistently

I don’t think this gets emphasized enough either. For the most part, your six-figure (and more) indie authors of today are people who have been publishing the kinds of books their readers want regularly for years.

Not everybody can publish 10 books a year (few can!), but if you can publish one or two or three a year, and keep doing it regularly, you’ve got a much better shot at lasting success than someone who goes on a tear and publishes six books in six months and then disappears for three years.

Why?

With every new book that you put out, it’s like a doorway, a chance that someone can find a way into your world. And readers who have already found you will get used to thinking, ah, it’s November… I wonder if so-and-so has a new book out, since she usually publishes something in the fall. You’ll become a part of their regular schedule, something they look for at certain times of the year.

Time is on your side, too. Fans are accumulated over months and years. You’ll promote your books again and again, each time finding a few more readers. Even people who didn’t grab your stuff instantly will see your name again and again in the genre lists that they browse, and maybe it’ll be Series #3 that finally draws them in.

Also, the more books you publish, the more likely it is you’ll have something hit. Yes, you can write to genre tropes and try to engineer a bestseller, but that’s more likely to fail than succeed, unless you already have a big audience built up. The truth is that even the big publishers, corporations that have piles of money to throw behind advertising, don’t know ahead of time what’s going to hit.

In my own experience, it’s usually the book you don’t expect to be a hit that ends up sticking at the top of your category on Amazon for months. And the book you thought would push all the right buttons and become a big seller just does okay. Fortunately, for indie authors making 70% on each ebook we sell, steady earners are just fine. You can quit your day job once you have a stable of steady earners.

Consistently market your books

There’s that word consistency again. People really do underestimate the power of sticking around after so many others have dropped to the wayside.

I’m not one of those people who says you have to spend %X of your time marketing or that you have to do something every day, but I do try to do something every month that will result in a few hundred more readers trying one of my Book 1s. If I’m lucky and score a Bookbub ad, maybe that will be a few thousand. But that doesn’t always happen.

What are the things you can reliably do each month?

  • Play around with running sales on your Book 1 and buying a few ads.
  • Join (or create) a multi-author boxed set with your series starter in it, or do an anthology with all-new fiction that leads into your series.
  • Join (or start) a mailing list campaign with other authors in your genre, where you put together a list of everyone’s free or 99-cent books and then each agree to share the list with your subscribers.
  • If you’re in KDP Select, try rolling Countdown Deals where each month (or even week), you have something that’s on sale for 99 cents.

I’m a big fan of doing things that have lasting impact when it comes to marketing. Back in 2011, I had audiobooks made of the first three books in my Emperor’s Edge series, and I put them out there for free via Podiobooks. I still have people emailing me to tell me that they first found my books that way. Ditto for Wattpad. I don’t do anything to promote stuff there, but I have the first three books in that series up there, too, and people still find the posts and read the books that way, some going on to buy the rest of the series.

Try different things. Keep track of what moves the needle. Avoid wasting time and money on the things that don’t. Month after month, if you keep getting new people to try your work, you should be able to increase the number of fans you have, and you’ll get to the point where you always have people moving through your various series and buying your books. Income becomes steady and reliable. And voila: you become a successful author.

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Comments (23)

Thank you, as always, for your terrific advice and your willingness to be transparent with your publishing experience and tips. You’ve got a lifelong, true fan right here! I’ll read anything you’ve got headed our way! Happy writing. :)

Yes, thank you so much for all your advice! I have loved each and every one of your blog posts. They are so informative.

Hope you have a great, productive, and successful new year!

Yes, yes, and yes. Voice & consistency are very big assets, and a little bit of savvy networking helps a lot, too.

I hope you’ll have an awesome year, Lindsay. :)

Very useful advise, thank you so much!

Good solid advice as always!

You didn’t ask, but I just wanted to say that I discovered your books through StoryBundle. The first three books from the “Emperor’s Edge” series was in the Mini-Fantasy bundle in 2013, although I’m so far behind on my reading I didn’t get to them until October of 2014. Since then, I’ve read all of the books by “Lindsay Buroker” and some of the books by your pen name (although overall, I’m even farther behind on my to-read list).

Thanks for stopping by, Corfy! I remember that bundle. :) It’s nice to know that you found the books that way and ended up enjoying them!

Lindsay,

I’m adding my upvote to this post–great tips! I agree that voice is key, that’s what makes an author’s fiction her own. What you said about not everyone loving your voice is true for fiction in general, not everyone will like it. But as they say on MST3K, the “right people will get it.” :-)

I agree, writing to tropes isn’t a sure fire way to succeed, but how do you feel about simply writing to a particular readership, such as people who love steampunk adventure, or urban fantasy readers, or do you see that as no different than writing to genre tropes?

I took a couple of years to hone my craft after guest blogging here (thanks again for the invite), because I wanted to get a good handle on being able to put together a story. I also flirted with the idea of going after a traditional publisher, now I am focused on self-publishing–thanks again for these tips!

Hi Dale! It’s definitely easier to market the stories that fall firmly into a category on Amazon (and elsewhere), as opposed to the cross-genre stuff that’s hard to define. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to tweak things so you that you can confidently say, “This is urban fantasy” or “This is military SF.” That said, none of my stuff is traditional steampunk, but I still stick it in there. 😛

Lindsay,

Thank you for posting these helpful blogs. About three years ago I was putting the finishing touches on my second book and preparing to send the set (plus my outline for the next two books) to some agents/publishers.

I realized that would be an uphill battle and I thought the path might be easier if I just threw them up on Amazon for free and got a bunch of fans that I could leverage for a publishing deal. I went to google to see if anyone had done this whole free Kindle thing for their books, found your website, read every single one of your blog posts, and got really inspired.

Since then I’ve finished my series, written a novella, published that novella, and sent the other 4 books to the editor. I’m about a month or two out from publishing them all at once and I’m quite excited.

So thanks again and I wish you a great 2016.

Sounds like you’re doing well, M-S. Hope your 2016 goes well too!

Great post! I see a lot of people writing about how to launch your book, how to do a permafree, or how to maximize a Bookbub ad, but I don’t see a lot of advice as to how to consistently market a series. I think keeping up that kind of sustained effort is, in many ways, harder than executing a launch or a Bookbub campaign. Thanks for addressing it!

PS. You also brought it up during the podcast with C Goeckel. Thanks for that too. :)

It’s definitely tough to keep the momentum going! I’ve definitely found that to be true with pen name where I’m not publishing as often. You really do have to keep trying to get people to try that first book, so you can keep moving at least some readers through your series.

Another great and welcome post. Thanks, Lindsay. Your reflections and the experience that you share about self-publishing are always encouraging.

Thanks, Lindsay. This is also great advice for a musician selling CD’s.

As always, great information Lindsay! Any chance we’ll see you at the Smarter Artist Summit in March?

Thanks for reading, Daniel! I really haven’t gotten involved in too many of the cons and such out there, but maybe someday. :)

You keep inspiring. Thank you.

Lindsay, what a great and unselfish post. Thank you!

I think it took about 600,000 words before I started getting my voice. Even then, it took a few hundred thousand more to solidify. Yeah, I know, if you’re just starting out that sounds incredibly daunting. But it’s not.

Now that I’m over a million, there’s a difference in quality as well. The first draft writing I do is much cleaner and needs less work. Part of that, though, was a shift in attitude, not wanting to write rough drafts anymore. I’ve found for me that the old truth is the truth: It’s easier if you do it right the first time.

That’s helping me get stuff done a lot faster, and I’ve learned how to handle life when it throws punches. It threw a couple of good ones at me the last few years. So my production is ramping up. And you really can’t beat having more titles out.

Thanks, Lindsay, for a very encouraging post.

I’m not chasing three figures (although I won’t refuse them!) If you remember me, you’ll know I’m just about to launch my first series, the Dark Sea Trilogy. “Beyond the Starline” will be up for pre-order mid February and on sale in April. If I break even after 12 months (editing/cover art) I’ll be delighted, because everything after that, however small, will be profit.

I’ll be publishing the three books in that trilogy this year and maybe an anthology. Next year, I aim to double that output by turning the trilogy into a quintet and publishing a 6 part novella series, and maybe another anthology.

If overall I settle at a steady double figure income that matches what I currently earn doing something I don’t like and that then leaves me free to make even a humble living doing what I do like, I shall be overjoyed!

Lol. I mean three figures before the three zeroes, obviously! Been a long day and my brain’s a bit scrambled. :)

Sounds like a good goal, Austin, and that you have lots of books planned. That helps! :)

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