You want to make a living as an author.
It’s an alluring idea, the notion that you could spin straw into gold by turning dreams into stories and stories into assets that pay out on repeat, and for the rest of your life.
No publisher telling you what you can or cannot write, or what is and isn’t good enough. Without any barrier between you and the reader, the market can decide if your stories are worth buying.
But it’s hard. Especially now. I started self-publishing eight years ago. It was easier back then, and by an order of magnitude.
The market wasn’t saturated; the lines between professional and amateur product (especially on the surface) were more blatantly obvious; Kindle Select didn’t exist (Amazon is the largest bookseller in the world, it’s monthly smorgasbord is the second largest, making it a ghetto that’s expensive to avoid); and marketers weren’t all over the industry shilling cheap tactics that piss in the collective pool and make it harder for everyone.
There are plenty of other reasons, but those are the big ones. There is a big market correction happening right now, and it’s do or die for the majority of self-published authors.
Most writers can’t make a decent living writing only the things that they want to. But I can, and so can you. I’ve been at this for a while now, and have seen the industry from many angles. Not only have I written more than 150 books in that time with my partners Johnny B. Truant and David W. Wright, the three of us started the first big self-publishing podcast (The Self-Publishing Podcast) back in 2012, when the Kindle was still in diapers. We also wrote Write. Publish. Repeat., which quickly became — and has remained — the industry standard.
I tell stories, and have a ridiculous amount of fun. But our company, Sterling & Stone, has also moved 2.2 million books in the last six years, optioned our stories for film and television, developed software to help storytellers grow their best ideas faster, and freely shared strategies that were generating more than $50,000 per month of a single one of our series.
We know what we’re talking about. We also know that there is no way to succeed here, but there are straightforward steps that will get you exactly where you want to go.
I’m asked all the time, What would you do if you were just starting today?
It’s a great question. This is my answer:
Step 1: Decide if Self-Publishing is Right for You
Being an indie author isn’t for everyone. For some, it might be the biggest mistake they could possibly make. Every writer is different, and you should never follow someone else’s path without knowing where that person is planning to go. Heaven for them might be Hell for you.
Ask yourself the following questions:
How much control do I want over the content, editing, and cover design of my book?
How well do I understand basic marketing and funnel design?
How willing am I to learn?
How fast am I able to go?
Is writing a hobby or a business for me?
For Sterling & Stone, it doesn’t make sense to go Traditional. We’ve tried. Our four traditionally published books are like the redheaded stepchildren of our studio. We can’t control the content, the Calls to Action (CTAs) in the books, or a single element of our marketing.
Our traditionally published books have infuriating typos that we’ve begged our publisher to correct. We’ve been told that this is too “high touch.” Yet books we publish ourselves can have typos corrected in hours.
Our traditionally published books have CTAs at the back telling the reader where the publisher wants them to go, not deeper into the author’s catalog. Books we publish ourselves set our readers on a natural path leading from buyer to reader to fan to evangelist.
Our traditionally published books are poorly marketed, and there’s nothing we can do fix it. We can’t change the cover or the product description. We can’t adjust our pricing. We can’t do anything, so the (lack of) revenue on those titles mocks us from afar.
Most of the strategies we use to sell our own books don’t work for traditional titles — and even if they did, why would we try them? Why spend good money on traffic to a 15% royalty where we control none of the variables, when we could send that same traffic to a book that’s earning us 70%, where we can also measure, track, and improve our results?
We would never ROI – we’d just be flinging our hard-earned money into the publisher’s golden toilet. And that would be lunacy.
Besides, I want my fingers in the clay from beginning to finish. I love the entrepreneurial part as much as the artistry of what we do. So does everyone in our studio.
So independent publishing makes sense for us.
But for other authors — authors who want to write, write, write, going from one book to the next without worrying about any of the publishing minutiae — a traditional deal might make a lot more sense.
You have to choose the path that’s right for you.
Step 2: Decide What “Making a Living” Actually Means to You
The economics of self-publishing have flipped the traditional model.
I’m not suggesting that you quit your job today and make writing your full-time profession, but I can’t count the number of authors I know who already have. Some are making more than they were before — a few substantially. All of them are happier.
And isn’t that what this is all about?
The money can be great, if you treat your writing like a business. You don’t have to be a New York Times bestseller. You don’t even have to be in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Thousands of authors are making a comfortable living walking the indie path.
Fortunately, that’s not about luck. It’s simple math:
Let’s say you charge $2.99 for your book. (That’s the low end. You’ll probably charge more, but let’s play conservative.) At 70% royalty, you make $2.10 per book. If all you sold was five books per day, you’d earn $10.50, which is $315 per month.
Not bad for a sideline income. You only had to write the book once.
What if you sold 10 books a day? That’s $630.
What about 100 books? You’d make $75,600 per year.
“But wait,” you cry. “I don’t think I can sell 100 books a day!”
I bet you can.
Sixty-thousand words is a decent length for a book. Just 460 words a day will give you two full-length books a year, and you still get weekends off!
Let’s say you sold 10 copies a day of each book, and you added two new books a year to your catalogue. It wouldn’t be long before you could be up to that 100 books a day, and replacing your regular income.
And guess what? As an indie author, you aren’t limited to two books a year. You can release as many as you can write.
Think you can handle 1200 words a day, still taking weekends off? Why not write 5 books a year? Plenty of authors do. At that rate, you could be selling your 100 ebooks in just two years.
We know a lot of full-time authors who were born in less than two years.
You don’t need to get lucky to make a full-time career as an indie. You don’t need a home run.
You need to sell 100 books a day.
And the best way to hit 100 books a day without tearing your hair out?
Step 3: Research the Market and Know Your Genre
So few writers do this, indie or otherwise, but those who do, and do it intelligently, are killing it. Most indie authors will never even make a minimum wage return for the time they spend writing. But some are able to make six figures or more and make it look easy.
They’re writing books that people want to read.
That’s deceptively simple.
You’re probably thinking, Well, of COURSE they write books people want to read.
But for these authors that isn’t an accident, it’s research. They know exactly how their books will resonate with their audiences, because they took the time to find out.
“Writing to market” isn’t a bad thing.
Writing to market means writing great books that people want to read.
It’s shocking how few writers get this.
For most of the ones who don’t, writing is masturbatory: LOOK AT ME AND ALL MY PURTY THOUGHTS!!
Successful books should always be about the reader, not about you.
But then there are the writers who get it wrong on the other side. The sell-outs, trying to cash in on a hot trend with little affection for or knowledge of the genre.
Even when you’re writing for a specific market, you have to love what you write, or it won’t be sustainable. And besides, readers can smell an outsider. If you don’t belong, they’ll let you know – with poor reviews, anemic sales, and no buy through to your other titles.
The best way to make great money as a fiction author is to find the intersection between what readers want to read and what you love to write.
Chances are, that’s some of the stuff that you like to read, too. If not, start reading now. You must read your market. Don’t skip this step.
Maybe you’ve spent a lifetime reading thrillers, or romance, or fantasy, or whatever. You already know exactly what you want to write, and how you’ll connect with your ideal reader. Great. Pass GO, collect your $200, and start writing.
If not, start reading. Get familiar with the tropes. Learn what readers expect every time, and figure out where you have room to innovate and bring your special something to the page.
More than anything, take the time to ask yourself what you should be writing.
We have something in our company that we call “Genre Therapy.” It was born by accident when one of our authors who had been writing romance forever discovered that romance was not her right genre. Every one of us has gone through this process, and it has led to significant insights, one hundred percent of the time.
The process involves asking ourselves a lot of questions about why we are attracted to a particular type of story. Many writers try to create what they love to consume, and that is often a mistake.
Explore genre and find a home. Take the time you need to explore, without getting stuck. Because eventually, you do have to write.
Step 4: Write (and Professionally Edit) the BEST Novel You Can
Yes, you can hack the algorithms at any given time. But this will always be a short-term solution to a problem you are continuing to make for yourself. It’s like trying to build a business on black hat SEO tactics, hoping that Google won’t change the rules – when they always do.
Why would you want to constantly keep searching for water when you could take the time to build a well, then never look again?
Hacking Amazon — playing into their algorithms — can get you sales, but it’s a difficult way to earn diehard fans. Again with the SEO analogy: a gamed search result might get you some eyeballs, but it hardly helps you build a tribe.
So instead of looking for hacks, write books that resonate with your ideal reader. Write the book she wants to tell her friends about. Make her want to buy everything else you’ve ever written. THAT is how you build a sustainable career where you’re making more every month.
Think long term. Every book is an asset. When you build a strong catalog of quality work, you’re getting in early, buying high-value stock at a low price. There is no half-life to a well-told story. My grandchildren will be making money from work I finished last year. But if I took shortcuts, and worried about buyers rather than readers, I’d have a portfolio of penny stocks, and I’d deserve nothing more.
Step 5: Repeat. Repeat.
Nope. That’s not a typo.
This is one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned over the last few years, and one that’s helping to exponentially grow our business.
This article promised the exact steps I would take if I was starting out right now, and this is exactly what I would do myself, and recommend to anyone else just starting out, even though most authors hate this advice.
I hope you don’t.
I wouldn’t publish my first book until I had a few more already done.
It’s extremely tempting to immediately monetize your first book. It makes sense. You’ve invested a lot of time. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this endeavor, and you’ve finally finished. Now you want the confetti.
But hold on …
Truth is, you’re not as special as you think you are.
There are countless authors better than you. Not because there’s anything wrong with you, they’ve just been working harder and longer. If you don’t have another book, or someplace to send that reader when she’s just finished with your story, she will almost surely forget about you and move on to another author. No offense.
You don’t want a reader to fall in love with you then have no way to lead her to the next thing to read. Indie authors have been multiplying for years. The market’s never been more crowded, and readers have short memories. Prepared authors will go further, faster.
If any of us at Sterling & Stone was starting right now, we wouldn’t publish a thing until our first three books (in the SAME series) were all finished.
Why three books in the same series? Because that gives us an ideal funnel:
Book One: FREE. This gives our series maximum attention. We can send traffic to a book with zero friction. When you’re just starting out this can throw a tornado behind your tumbleweeds.
Book Two: FREE and PAID. Publish your second book for full price, but also offer it as an incentive to get readers who liked your book onto your list.
Book Three: PAID
Most authors are in such a hurry to monetize their first book that they can’t see how much they’re losing. Be the tortoise, and let the hare think he’s won (that guy is such an asshole).
And OMFG. We’ve heard SO many authors fret over giving their second book away.
To them, I say, “Wait a minute … you have a problem giving away a digital download that costs you nothing, in exchange for an email address that someone only gave you after agreeing that they liked your book enough to read the next one … and you can use this email address to tell that reader about every new book you’re going to write (and sell) forever?”
That lead is worth way more than a $2.10 royalty.
Never trip over dollars to gather a few pennies.
Create and wait whenever you can.
Believe me, I’m with you. I can be stupidly impatient myself. This wasn’t the easiest area of myself to grow, but I can’t argue with the results. I wrote about a million words in 2018, and published none of them. They’re all for this year, because they are all part of smart reader journeys.
We will make substantially more money, and give our readers more consistent experiences, because we have learned to create and wait.
Once you’ve finished your books, you must get ready to sell them.