(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)
Are We There Yet?
There’s a reason the despots shoot the writers first.
In this section, I’ll strive to give you a terrain map, so you can know what’s ahead, not so you can spiral into a deep depression because you haven’t hit the NY Times Bestseller List yet. I’ll also give you tools to fight that kind of thinking, debunk a few myths, and talk about some of the freedoms you may not even realize you have. I believe in having a clear-eyed view of reality, as well as a heart full of hope. The two aren’t contradictions, and you’ll need both to survive as an indie author.
Until very recently, writing was a glory business, where success for most authors was measured by status, not dollars. Landing an agent and a book deal with a Big Six (Five? Four?) publisher meant you had “made it,” even if the advance was small, the sell-through was tough, and you had to keep your day job (Noah Lukeman cites 10,000 sales on a debut novel as a “success” on an advance of $3,000). Getting published was hard, but making a living off your writing was even harder. Glory was the coin of the realm.
Then self-publishing came along and destroyed that status quo like a brush fire through a drought-stricken forest.
Suddenly, it was possible to make money with your writing. Lots of money. Words like gold rush were thrown around as overnight indie successes came from (seemingly) nowhere. And while sales and rankings and money became the new barometers for success, authors were caught between two worlds – one where glory was everything and money was considered venal, and one where money was everything but the stigma of being “self-published” still slammed doors (to reviewers and distributors, if no longer to readers). Many arrows were sent over the ramparts as authors lined up on both sides, but slowly, slowly, writers began to realize:
They were in charge.
They could change the rules.
They could define their own success.
That’s when the indie revolution really happened, and for all writers, not just those who had (already) indie published.
What Would You Consider “Success” In Writing?
“A shelf full of my books.”
“Paying one bill a month with my writing.”
“Seeing my book in the bookstore.”
“Having a reader say my book had an impact on them.”
“Making enough money to write full-time.”
Pick the Right Goals For You
Success should be measured by goals that are meaningful to you, not someone else, but you don’t have to limit yourself to one (see Five Year Plan). For me, reader impact tops my list, followed closely by being able to make enough money from my writing to send my three boys to college. Somewhere last on my list is getting on the NYTimes Bestseller list and seeing my book in the bookstore. Would those be nice? Hells yeah. But I can be happy without them.
The goals of any writer will evolve with their career. In the past, writers could look to other author’s experiences, as they cranked through the traditional-publishing machine, for a map of sorts for their careers. Now, indie publishing has opened fresh trails, largely unmapped, with new ones being carved out each day. No one has been in the indie game for more than a few years, and authors with decades of publishing experience are (usually) the furthest from understanding the e-reader climate we have today.
How is a writer jumping in the indie pond supposed to know what to expect?
The Sales Ladder: Success for Indies
Here’s a guideline or snapshot of what kinds of success are possible for indie authors today. It will probably be out-of-date by tomorrow, but I hope it will help you set some (reasonable) expectations for your indie author career. These are all my opinion, based on my personal experience as well as the experience of the many indie authors who have been kind enough to share with me. This generally applies to genre fiction.
If you self-pub, you will have costs (editing, formatting, cover art, giveaways, marketing materials, ads). It’s tempting to skimp on these, but unless your DIY skills are professional grade, you are better off paying for those services. Your book needs to recover these upfront costs for your writing to be a viable business and not just a tax write-off. Most self-pubbers spend less than $1000 upfront to publish a novel, which means they need to sell about 500 copies (at $2.99) to break even. Selling hundreds of copies is a very reasonable thing for a first-time indie author, if you’ve done everything right (professional cover/blurb, good price, killer book). If your book isn’t on track to reach the hundreds of sales mark within a year, see Why Isn’t My Book Selling?
Breaking even means you’ve “made it” as an indie author – you’ve established a small business that pays for itself, and that’s no small cheese. Congrats! Have a latte!
Breaking A Thousand Sales
If you have a wide social network, you might have several hundred people who will buy your book just because they love you. Selling hundreds of copies is also possible with concerted hand-selling – I know one FB writer friend who hand-sold 1000 books in one year to book clubs and events across Ireland. But unless you’re a bonafide celebrity, or put Herculean effort into hand-selling, you are unlikely to break a thousand sales just because people like you (no matter how many FB friends you have).
If you do break into the thousands-of-sales range (single book, within a year of launch), it is a sign that you’ve moved beyond your direct sphere of influence – people are buying your book because they like the novel (not the author). This is your book selling itself – the cover is drawing people in, the blurb is enticing them, and the “look inside” feature or reviews are sealing the deal. You may have marketed well (or done no marketing at all), but no amount of marketing will sell in this range without having something a lot of people (specifically, thousands) deem worthy of buying. This is a very good thing.
Selling in the thousands also means you start to make money – how much depends on how your book is priced. If you’re selling thousands of a 99cent book (annual royalty $300 – $3,000), you can fund the start up costs for your next novel. If you’re selling thousands of a $2.99 book (annual royalty $2,000 – $20,000), you can start paying the electric bill, or even your car payment, with your royalty checks.
Breaking a thousand sales means you have the ability to write and package a book that will sell itself. This is awesome! Now get busy and write another one.
(Interestingly, the royalty on 10,000 sales for a 99cent self-pub novel is the same as the $3,000 advance on the 10,000 sales for a “successful” traditionally published novel noted above.)
Reaching Tens of Thousands of Sales
If you’re reaching tens of thousands of sales in a year, you’ve joined the over-1000-sales-a-month club and have substantially broken out. Your book has what I call “stickiness” – people read it, and it sticks with them. They rave about it, review without asking, and hand-sell it to their friends. This is word-of-mouth in action, and those steady sales gun the algorithms at Amazon, which then begin to sell your book for you, via also-boughts, email campaigns, popularity lists and other machinations that are mysterious but real.
If you’re selling at this pace on one title, you’re on the bestseller charts somewhere on Amazon (unless your category is extremely competitive). If your 1000+ sales a month are spread over several titles, you may not be on the charts, but you will still be making a nice income. Authors that sell at this pace are often ones with several titles out, for three reasons: 1) once a fan is earned, there are more books for them to buy, and 2) releasing a second book brings new fans to the first one (especially if they’re in a series), 3) having multiple books in a series allows authors to play with pricing (or go free) with the first book and still make carry-over sales on the other books in the series.
Regardless of how you get there, you are rocking the indie sales. At 50,000 sales on a 99cent book, your annual royalties are $17,500. For a $2.99 novel, you’re looking at a cool $100,000. You’re now paying the mortgage and possibly supporting your family on your royalty checks .
Selling over a 1000 books a month means you are earning a living with your writing. Congrats! You’ve done something many, many writers (trad-pub and indie) wish for. I call this the “indie midlist” – they’re not the indie rockstars, but they’re selling a ton of books and making solid bank every month. It’s like the trad-pub midlist, only the indie midlist author (typically) makes more money.
Amazon Top 100
If you’re selling 1000 books a month, that’s 30 books a day. To get into the Top 100 of all books on Amazon, you need to sell at least 500 of a single title a day (15,000 books a month). If you’re selling at this pace, your book has gone viral – something about it resonates with the book-buying-public in a fierce way. Maybe you’ve touched on the zeitgeist of the moment. Maybe you’re riding the wave of an uber-crazy-popular genre (the hot genre of the moment is sexy New Adult contemp romance, just in case you were wondering). I’ve seen authors get in the Top 100 with a specific promotion for a day or two, but to stay there for a week or more, you’ve got some serious mojo going on.
You are no longer midlist; you’re officially an indie rockstar.
Agents and editors sit up, take notice, and start offering you print deals (glory) in exchange for your e-rights (money). Hollywood and foreign rights editors come knocking too. The problem is (if you can call this a problem) that if you’re selling 15,000 books a month, you’re making $30,000 a month, or the equivalent of $360k a year. Even a six-figure-advance on a print deal with a NY publisher starts to look short-sighted. This is where having a firm grasp of your goals and what makes you happy as an author is important (see Five Year Plan). Some indie authors give up their e-rights to get the print deal – because they’ve always wanted to get in the bookstore or they hope the print channel will boost them even further into rockstardom. Some indie authors turn down the print deal and happily rock-on as an indie author with crazy large direct deposits to their checking accounts.
If you’re here, you might think there’s no where else to go. But there is!
NYTimes Bestseller List
If you’re in the Top Five titles on Amazon, you’re selling 3,500+ books a day. You’re in the stratosphere. If you maintain that for any length of time, it’s likely you will get on the NYTimes Bestseller List. Yes, this happens to indies. More than you might think, lately. Two Indelibles (Chelsea Cameron, Addison Moore) made it onto the NYTimes Bestseller list, and indie rockstar Hugh Howey has hit it multiple times. But they didn’t get there with their first books – all three had several indie books out prior to that, then wrote something that went viral. These three are far from alone – last week, I happened to check the list, and 5 of the top 25 NYTimes bestselling ebooks were indie authors: Maya Cross (twice), Hugh Howey, Elizabeth Naughton, and Tess Oliver. Fifteen of the top 100 best-selling Kindle books of 2012 were indie.
Indies are gaining marketshare at every level – from midlist to the very top. And once you’re on the NYTimes Bestseller list, the interest of NY publishers becomes even more intense.
If you’re Hugh Howey, you turn down three rounds of courting from NY publishers before you negotiate a print-only deal (keeping the lucrative e-rights) that makes you the hero of indie authors everywhere *cough* not just me, I swear *cough*.
(Note: Hugh isn’t the only author with a print-only deal. Colleen Hoover and Bella Andre have also inked deals. But, for now, the print-only deal has been restricted to NYTimes Bestsellers, with indications that publishers are trying to pull back from that ground-breaking achievement.)
How Do I Climb The Indie Sales Ladder?
Have you ever looked at a well-selling author and burned with envy? Wondered what you were doing wrong? Congratulations! You’re human like the rest of us.
I’m solidly midlist on the indie ladder and happy (and grateful!) to be there. I’m generally not an envious person, but being in a hyper-achieving author group like the Indelibles can tempt even my green-eyed monster out of his cage. We have two NYTimes bestsellers in our group (so far), and several others making serious bank, as well as authors who are mostly breaking even. It’s a tribute to the awesomeness of the group that we get along as well as we do: encouraging each other, sharing information, and celebrating each other’s success. It’s been a great experience, because it keeps that green-eyed monster at bay. It’s hard to feel anything but love when one my Indelibles experiences success, because they’re my friends, and I want all my writer friends to succeed.
I wouldn’t spend time writing books like this if that weren’t true.
It’s fine to have financial goals for your writing, and climbing the indie sales ladder can be part of those goals, to no ill effect. But if you’re focused on who’s ahead of you on the sales ladder (or behind), you’re using Hierarchical thinking, and that can have an adverse effect on your creative ability. In the next chapter, I’ll talk about Hierarchy vs. Territory, and how focusing on mastering your writing domain will unlock your potential to actually reach those goals you’ve set.