10 Steps to Making a Living as a Self-Published Fiction Author – Part Two

Write Craft with Sean and Johnny

Last week we began the journey on the 10 Steps to Making a Living As A Self-Published Fiction Author. Today we finish out those 10 steps, beginning with Step 6.

If you missed Part One, head on over there to read Steps 1-5.

Step 6: Build an Email List

We all know about the value of an email list for businesses or a non-fiction platform. But for fiction? Build a list before publishing the book? 

Yeah, sort of. 

You’re not really building the list so much as preparing to build it. But that’s not the sort of thing you want to be behind on. 

Before your funnel is launched, prepare for your traffic. This is non-negotiable. Even if you’re selling thousands of books a day through digital retailers, that isn’t good enough if you’re never bringing your readers home. 

Buyers aren’t enough. You want FANS. And it’s much easier to turn buyers into fans when you can communicate with them on your terms. 

If you’re only selling on platforms that don’t belong to you, then you’re digital sharecropping. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. Don’t overthink this. 

Your website needs to do a LOT less than you’re probably thinking, or than most authors realize. Don’t waste a ton of time, or thousands of dollars. Until you have a fanbase, you don’t even need a blog (and I’d argue that, even then, a fiction author never needs a blog). 

Your website needs three things:

  1. A simple landing page with a single job: to present a potential reader with your offer.
  2. Your offer. A short story, your free Book 2, your grandmother’s recipe for gumbo in exchange for an email. (That last one might actually work if you’ve written a Cajun murder mystery.) Just make sure it screams value. Put as much effort into your cover and description as you would anything you’d expect them to buy. Maybe more.
  3. A welcome sequence. Don’t invite your reader into your house and then ignore her. Send a welcome email and a simple autoresponder that welcomes this new reader into your world.

Step 7: PUBLISH

You’ve got your first three books ready to go. You’ve got your funnel built. You are ready to start the engine.

But there are three things you need to invest in before you hit the Publish button, things that will pay you back exponentially. If you skip these, you’ll be wrapping shackles around your books’ ankles, tying them into a chain gang, and telling them to run. 

  1. Invest as much as you can in your cover. Don’t be cheap. Not here. Your book’s cover is its number one conversion element. Spending $5 on a cover at fiverr instead of several hundred from a designer might be the most expensive mistake you can make. Trust me. We’ve made it more than once.
  2. Write a kick-ass description. Or, better yet, pay a copywriter to do it for you. Either way, take off your author hat. This isn’t a book report, it's a movie trailer. Drop tantalizing highlights so the right reader is ready to click BUY without even thinking. (ProTip: read the descriptions for the top ten or twenty books in your genre, see what they all have in common, and do that. They’re working for a reason.)
  3. Include super-compelling CTAs at the beginning and end of each book. Your CTAs should include the one, single, next step that you want your reader to take. For example, in the funnel detailed above, your first book should offer the second book, and your CTA should basically say, “Opt-in to my super amazing newsletter to get Book 2 — a $4.99 value — ABSOLUTELY FREE!”  Make sure you include the most compelling excerpt you can. This doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a full chapter. Think about a movie clip. Be intriguing.

NOTE: It’s important to set the stage that your book is “normally 4.99,” or whatever. You don’t want to train your readers to expect free books all the time. Also, please don’t ever use the words “super amazing newsletter.”  

Step 8: Do it Again

This is the fun part. 

Your books are finally live. Real people who aren’t your mom are reading and reviewing what you wrote. You’re making money as a self-published author. 

Great. Keep going. 

Many authors make the mistake of seeing publishing their book as a finish line. You’ll fly past them, if you see it as the starting gate for whatever’s coming next instead. 

You want to continue writing for your ideal reader, so don’t jump the rails here. Your reader enjoyed your book for a reason. If you just wrote epic fantasy, don’t all of a sudden change to military sci-fi. Romance readers expect a romance, not a cozy mystery. 

You can expand later. But while initially growing your author platform and bonding with your audience, you need to stay consistent and teach them what to expect. 

This was a hard lesson for us to learn. 

I LOVE to genre hop, especially when writing with my partner, Johnny. 

We’ve written fantasy, sci-fi (with a few different tones), horror, comedy, romance, literary, and stuff I still don’t know how to classify. 

We want to be known as storytellers, and telling the same sorts of stories over and over won’t serve the things we’re trying to build long term. 

But this is a very expensive decision, and we don’t advise anyone else to do it unless you really know why you’re doing it. We would be making many times what we are now if we had simply followed this basic advice. 

So yeah. Keep writing.

By now you should have rhythm in your writing, and you’re building a small but growing group of loyal readers to please. Keep going — writing, publishing, and repeating; producing a stream of quality books that build on each other. 

If a series doesn’t interest you, consider creating a common world where your characters and their lives can intersect. Readers bond with narratives and the people who inhabit them. They will naturally want to know what happens next with those characters they're invested in. 

If you’ve been smart with the above points, as your catalog grows you can start experimenting with switching tone or genre — if you really can’t stay in one place. Just beware, you will lose as many readers as you gain. 

If you’re determined to explore new territory, consider a pen name to parse your audience, but also know that adding in this new area will subtract from what you’ve already built. 

Step 9: Iterate

For me, this is even more fun than “doing it again.” 

At Sterling & Stone, we’re always seeing what works and what doesn’t, shedding old processes to make room for new ones. We iterate a lot. It’s core to what we do.

(Note: There is so much to this, next week we are going to give you the Iterate steps to follow-10 more steps to add to these 10 steps!)

Step 10: Appreciate All of it

Appreciate and learn from all the valuable mistakes you make along the way. 

Those are the gold, so please don’t leave them in the mine. We don’t just make mistakes – we fuck up big, and then we talk about it. It’s one of the reasons people like our podcast so much. We’re not afraid to walk around with egg on our faces, because sometimes it’s better to tell the story before we have the chance to scrub ourselves. 

Appreciate your readers and fans. 

Without them you wouldn’t have the things that you have. We love our readers and are constantly thinking of new ways to please them, and enhance their experience. 

Appreciate the people who help you to get where you are. 

I’m little without Cindy, my best friend and wife. She bought me a MacBook for my 30th birthday and told me to write. She’s championed every idea and all my mistakes. Without Dave and Johnny, I’m a guy with too many ideas and not enough brain. The storytellers at Sterling & Stone make me exponentially better than I could ever be otherwise.

Gratitude shouldn’t remain silent. Take the time to say “thank you” to the people who make your life possible. When you appreciate the good things, it will always feel like there’s plenty. 

Yes, that list is exhausting. But you only have to get there one word at a time. 

Please don’t underestimate what’s possible, or what you can do. 

You’re human, and humans tell stories. We’ve been doing it forever, and we can connect with even the worst story if it follows a basic narrative.

Keep telling stories and keep getting better – because the only way you’ll get better is by doing it. A lot. Cindy tried getting me to write for a dozen years before I managed to get a single word down. It took far too long to realize that storytelling isn’t about education, it’s about stories. 

If I did it, so can you. 

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