Indie Author Survey—Stories from the Trenches
Lou is a self-described ‘publish ‘em and let what happens, happen’ kind of indie author who’s making fifty thousand dollars on his books each year. Melanie had great success with Kindle Unlimited but wants to change her strategy for attracting and keeping readers. She knows it will be difficult.
Colin knows what it’s like to be a wildly unsuccessful author and a better-than-moderately successful author. Jessi got an unexpected gift when her traditional publisher was sold to a large New York firm.
What does success as an indie author mean to you? Is it having an adoring fan base wait breathlessly for your new release? A burgeoning bank account? Doing what you love and learning each day how to do it better? Becoming untethered from the day job?
Nearly 2,000 indie authors recently gave a glimpse into their writing and publishing life by participating in an Indie Author Survey, sponsored by successful indie author Marie Force, that asked about how much they wrote and what type of books, the challenges and joys of being an indie author, how to make their business work and a host of other topics. We contacted several of the authors who gave intriguing answers to some of the open-ended questions, and they shared some additional thoughts on what has worked for them—and what hasn’t.
Many spoke of the importance of hard work, continuously improving their craft to produce high-quality books and specific marketing techniques that turned their careers around. And some, like Colin, stress the importance of finding your own measure of success and being clear about it.
Colin started indie publishing in 2014, releasing a series of cyberpunk/technothriller novels and trying his hand with serialized work. “I had a few sales here and there but barely saw the needle move unless I was spending money to make it do so.” In 2015, he released two more books in the series, “but I’d become disillusioned. I’d expected more.” After all, he was writing in a genre he liked and was putting what money he could into it. Sure, there were things he could have done better, but so much of the advice he’d read said to do your best and try to get better with time. But nobody was reading his work, and he was losing motivation, barely publishing that year.
Re-inspired in 2016, he put together a plan. “I still didn’t have expectations of selling a million (or a thousand) books, but I wanted to give it my all, and provide the best chance to see if it might pay off. He wrote three urban fantasy books in a series, got the best covers and professional editing for them, bought launch ads and set up reader magnets to get people on his mailing list. He tried to do everything right, leaving as little as possible to chance.
It worked. The series sold very well right out of the gate, he recalls. “I was on a cruise when the first book released, and I ended up spending quite a bit of money on wifi so I could track my sales and marvel at the difference of a bit of purposeful preparation can bring about.”
The sequels increased sales and gave a lift to the neglected cyberpunk novels. He was writing as fast as he could “to keep up the momentum and keep milking the franchise.” But he found out that after the initial trilogy, he wasn’t enjoying himself as much as he expected. “I had created a complete story, and while I could continue if I wanted to chase the money, I was more interested in branching off and doing something else. I had achieved the success I’d been after (and more), but now I realized I was less interested in the money than I’d anticipated. I just wanted to be read, it seems.”
So now Colin has two more series launching next year. Sales have dropped off since he stopped releasing new titles. While popular wisdom says to chase the money—and he may do that in the future—“for now I’m happy that people like what I’ve written. As long as the sales keep covering the costs…I’ll be happy.”
Once you find what makes you happy and you pursue that, you may realize happiness has a cost, too, according to Jessi, an author who has documented her journey from traditional publishing to indie on her blog, Jessi Gage.
She was traditionally published with a small, digital-first press. Her first book with them was a genre bestseller. When the press was sold to a large New York publisher, she was offered a choice to either have her rights reverted to her or to transfer to the NY publisher. She decided to have her rights reverted for the two books she had published at that time and the two others in the pipeline. The decision was made largely because she’d already had a bestseller under her belt. It was a good decision. As an indie author she now makes twice as much per book sale as when she was traditionally published, and her readers spend two dollars less when they buy her books.
As great as those benefits are, there’s a down side. “Indies have to spend money to make money,” she says. “This concept completely opposes the usual ‘never pay to publish your book’ advice that applied to traditional publishing.”
Publishing platform choice and the ability to gauge emerging reader trends can also determine whether a book is successful. Melanie went from having some success on all platforms to huge success with Kindle Unlimited. But she’s afraid it’s getting too crowded with 99 cent releases. Now she wants to go back to publishing ‘wide,’ meaning on all the digital platforms, but knows it will be difficult to gain traction on the others.
When she couldn’t land a traditional publisher for her young adult novel, she tried self-publishing. The new adult (NA) genre was getting hot, so she rewrote her book, upping the ages and increasing the heat, learning in the process that she loves to write sexual tension and emotional conflict. Reviews were great, sales not so much (they were actually half of what she’d invested to publish the book). Seeing that contemporary romance was a much hotter market, she published in that genre. This, she believes, was her breakout book. In addition to the book, she credits her success with cross-promotion with other authors, creating good relationships with authors and bloggers, and taking advice from more experienced authors on topics such as covers, titles, price point and more.
“A very successful friend loaned me money for a BookBub ad twice that year, and both times I was able to pay her back within a couple weeks,” she recalls. She continued to write and self-publish more books. Sales were great and she was growing, but she wasn’t hitting lists. She hired someone to help with her social media presence. She did takeovers and online giveaways and hired a part-time personal assistant. She released a box set for 99 cents and hit the USA Today bestseller list.
She said going free with book one in a series did wonders for her. She didn’t want to make it free. She’d worked so hard on it, and it was a good book. But she knew good books failed all the time.
In the fall of 2015, she began a new series and hired a publicist who had her think more about branding. She also recommended trying KU to increase her visibility and income. Since 96 percent of her sales were on Amazon at the time, she thought about it. “I would release wide and then move the book to KU a week later.”
The strategy worked. She hit the USA Today list for the first time with a single title at full price and the book went to #3 in the Kindle store. She ran a lot of ads on Facebook, used BookBub to pump up her backlist, did a lot of takeovers and stayed very active in her Facebook fan group. She put all her books except the freebie on KU. She went to approximately one book signing per month and made $90,000 in 2015. This year was better.
“I cleared six figures by February.” About two-thirds of this income was due to KENP (Kindle Edition Normalized Pages).
By the spring of this year, Melanie was getting nervous about exclusivity and wanted to try releasing wide again. In June, she released a book wide with no preorder. It struggled to break the top 100. She panicked. She felt humiliated and scared. She put it in KU two days after the release. It “exploded.” It shot to #2 in the Kindle store within two days.
“However, I realized I’d ‘trained’ my readers to wait for KU. They weren’t buying my book at release because they knew I’d put it in KU fairly quickly. Also, buzz and reviews were fantastic, but my rank dropped really fast.” In discussing this with author friends, she said it was clear that Amazon’s algorithm and/or strategy had changed, and it was impossible to sustain rank/visibility like she had in months past. She decided to go wide again, putting all her books on all retailers and scheduled a BookBub ad.
“I am making a fraction of what I made in KU, but I believe I made the right decision. Going wide will be a big hit to my income, but I am thinking long term. Problems with KENP reporting this fall reinforced that decision. KU was great for me, and I still think it is a powerful marketing tool, but I don’t want to be known as a ‘KU author.’ I know I will likely have to ride out some crummy sales on the next few releases while my readers adjust their expectations. I have also adjusted mine.”
Lou has been an indie author for two-and-a-half years. He’s earned a living at it for the past 18 months and has done almost no marketing. “Word of mouth plus ease of discoverability at Amazon has driven 99 percent of my nearly 50,000 sales, and during a time when the general indie belief is that one needs to advertise all the time to stay visible,” he says.
Lou previously published short stories, essays and poetry for 25 years under pen names and with traditional publishing. He’s been ranked in Amazon’s top 100 list of authors in three genres (thriller, SF and action) at various times. He said his experience may be helpful to other indie authors who loathe the idea of marketing and social media because he attained a high four-figures-a-month income without those things. He does, however, answer fan mail and has a mailing list signup on his website, what he calls passive public relations activity. He’s never offered a book for free, but when he releases, he releases at half price so his modest mailing list gets the benefit of a discounted price for a few days.
Why he’s had such success is a matter for debate, he says. He suspects “hot genre plus dumb luck plus competent writing explains it.” It certainly wasn’t the covers of his bestselling series back when sales took off, as those covers were awful, he says.
“I may be an outlier, and it may be true, as some have told me, that with marketing I’d have done better,” he says. “But we’ll never know for sure because I can’t re-run my life to prove that claim right or wrong. I focused entirely on the craft of writing and on working every day, and I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams by doing only what I love best: research and writing and revising.”
By: Cheryl Serra, Director of Publicity for Marie Force