Writing Excuses 15.03: Self Publishing
Key points: There’s money in self publishing! But it takes marketing to get it. Try Kindle Unlimited and get your page reads up! Pay attention to visibility. Your craft needs to hold people’s attention, and keep them reading. Romance has a lot of voracious readers, but there are niches for horror, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, all kinds of stories. Look at what readers want to read! Take advice from people who know what they are doing. Interact with your readers. Make sure that when readers start to read your book, they keep reading it! You can write to the market, and still write from your heart and write well. Have fun!
[Transcriptionist note: I tried to sort out who is talking, but I may have mislabeled some parts. Apologies in advance for any mistakes in attribution.]
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Three.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Self Publishing.
[Nandi] 15 minutes long.
[Victorine] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Tamie] And we’re not that smart.
[Bridget] But we are all self published.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Nandi] I’m Nandi. [Nandi Taylor]
[Victorine] I’m Victorine. [Victorine Lieske]
[Tamie] I’m Tamie. [Tamie Dearen]
[Bridget] And I’m Bridget. [Bridget E. Baker]
[Howard] We are all, in point of fact, self published. We are also all on stage at WXR 19 on Liberty of the Seas in the Gulf of Mexico. Give it up for us, live audience.
[Howard] Thank you so much. This is been great fun for me, and it’s been a huge learning experience for me. As longtime listeners of Writing Excuses are probably aware, I make my living by giving away the comic strip for free online, and then selling books, selling ad space, doing Patreon subscriptions, whatever else. Yes, that is a full-time living. When I say I make a living, that’s… Sandra making it into money. I just hide in the studio and draw pictures and write. It’s a joint project. It is not independent, it is very codependent. It is a very two-person project. It is a model which I’m very familiar with. But a couple of days ago, in the Olive or Twist Lounge up on deck 15 in the rear, I was talking to Bridget about Kindle Unlimited and self-publishing. As part of this episode, we’re going to drop some numbers. Bridget, drop some numbers on us. How are you doing with self-publishing?
[Bridget] So I published my first book last September, right before the Writing Excuses cruise that I went on. So I started, put my book out, and shortly after that, came on this cruise and had very few numbers to share. In one year, I put out seven other books, so I have a total of eight books out. I only made about $5,000 in the first four months. Then I’ve made about 89,000 since then. So, slow start, but as you start to get your books out and you learn marketing and you understand how to make the book that you had more visible, then you can earn a significantly higher amount of money.
[Howard] 89 plus 5 is… 94.
[Bridget] Yeah, 94 grand. That’s my total author income so far.
[Howard] That’s a solid number.
[Bridget] For my first year.
[Howard] That’s a very solid number for a first year. Victorine, how are you doing?
[Victorine] Well, I hit the jackpot with my first book. Because it hit the New York Times bestseller list. I would say the first probably three years of self-publishing, I made about $40,000 a year. Just with one or two books. Then I took a little time off, so I made some less money for a couple of years. Then I started really studying the market, and publishing books directly to a certain market. So, since then, I’ve been able to make about $50-$80,000 a year. I’m really close to hitting that over six-figure thing now. So, I’m hoping to do that soon.
[Tamie] I’ve been publishing since 2013. But it was really just a lark when I started. Actually, my kids published my book for me as a surprise for Christmas. So I really wasn’t serious about it, other than I just kept publishing them. Wasn’t really writing to market until I actually encountered Victorine and the Writing Gals. Got some good advice. Since I’ve been following that, I went from… I was probably making 30, $35,000 a year, and I just had my first $10,000 net month. So I’m pretty excited about that.
[Howard] That is amazing. Nandi? How are things going for you? Because I… Think you… When we talked a little bit in the preshow, you’re counting things a little differently?
[Nandi] Yes. The way I self publish is a little bit different. I’m actually published on Wattpad, which is a story sharing website. So the jury’s kind of out on how much money I’m going to make through this. Right now, it’s a nice goose egg, but that is going to change. Because my story did pretty well on Wattpad, and it was actually picked by Wattpad books. So while it was on there, it gained me about a million reads and 25,000 followers. So it’s being published through Wattpad books in January of 2020. It’ll also go… The Wattpad version will go behind a paywall once the story is published.
[Howard] The distinction there between reads and follows seems like it might be an important one. Because one of those numbers is way larger than the other one.
[Howard] Make sure I understand this right. Reads is the number of times the book was accessed and read?
[Howard] Follows is the people who have… What? Subscribed to you?
[Nandi] Exactly. Yes. Wattpad works a lot like a social media site. I almost like to call it like a YouTube for books.
[Howard] Cool. Is there a similar sort of metric for Amazon, for what you’re doing? Victorine? Tamie?
[Victorine] When you’re published on Amazon, you sign up for their Kindle Select, which means you agree to only publish on Amazon platform, they put your book in what’s called Kindle Unlimited. Then, people can read your book… It’s kind of like Netflix for books. They can sign up for this program and they can read it for free, if they pay the program the monthly fee. So we get paid per page read through that program. So if you have a lot of pages read, it can really add up to quite a bit of money.
[Howard] Bridget, I think you were doing the same thing, weren’t you?
[Bridget] Yeah, I did the same thing. What happened is when I first started, all my friends that I had met had told me, “Oh, we make most of our money off of page reads.” I think the only people who bought my first book were like my friends. So I had a lot of sales, but no page reads, because I didn’t have visibility. So I had to start learning techniques for gaining visibility. Then, my page reads went up dramatically. Now, I probably get about two thirds of my revenue is from page reads. The thing I think that’s interesting about page reads is that you can slap up a book that’s lousy, and you will get no page reads. Because people can check it out, read the first couple of pages, say, “Oh, this book is junk,” and check it back in. So your book needs to be in there, but it also needs to be good enough that it holds people’s attention and that they want to read your other books. Then, depending on the length of the book, you can make $0.20 you can make 2.50. If it’s really long, you’ll get paid more because they’re reading more pages.
[Howard] Victorine? Oh, sorry. Tamie. I’m… [vuogh] so many people at this table that it’s terrifying me.
[Tamie] Yeah. One difference with me is because I have… Some of my books are not exclusive to Amazon. So they are not in the Kindle Unlimited program. So I have one series that is five books, and the first book is actually Permafree, which means that I have made it free on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and those platforms. Then Amazon has price matched as free. Because you cannot set your price free on Amazon. So Amazon has price matched it as free. So that one is out there. Anyone can read it. Usually stays… I think right now it’s in the 700s in free books on Amazon. It usually stays up above 1000. Then, people hopefully will buy the rest of the books in the series and read them. If they actually read the book. A lot of people just download free books and don’t even read them. But you get a certain percentage of readthrough on there. Then the rest of my… Probably most of my money still comes from page reads.
[Howard] Okay. A couple of terms that I want to make sure we’re understanding. Wide means?
[Tamie] Means published in other places besides Amazon.
[Tamie] So, wide means that I’m published on those other channels. By the way, if… When Victorine made the New York Times bestseller list, her books were wide. You can’t make a bestseller list without publishing on all those channels
[Howard] Let’s pause for a moment for the book of the week. Somebody was going to pitch a book to us.
[Tamie] Okay. Yes. I’ll just recommend the last good book that I read by an indie author named Emma St. Claire. It’s called The Billionaire’s Secret Heir. It’s a really fun book. I don’t know if you like billionaire romance stories, but this one is a clean, or what we call a sweet romance, meaning that there isn’t any sex in it. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any heat. It’s a… They really are attracted to each other, but it’s a book that people who object to reading sex and their books would enjoy this book. It’s a cute idea, but the man and his wife were unable to have children and had used a surrogate mother to have a child. Then, many years later, I think his wife had passed away and the child is like seven years old, and he ends up meeting the girl who was the surrogate mother. She becomes the nanny, and you can just guess what happens. But it’s a really sweet book.
[Howard] I want to address the potential… Elephant in the room might not be the right term. I get the feeling that there’s a lot of romance in the genres that you guys are working within.
[Victorine] Yep. Yup.
[Bridget] I think in part that’s because you’re dealing… The three of us are all, at least to some extent, in Kindle Unlimited, and…
[Howard] When you say three of us…
[Bridget] I’m sorry, I’m…
[Howard] Bridget, Victorine, and Tamie.
[Bridget] Correct. That’s right. So, Kindle Unlimited specifically has a lot of people who subscribe who like romance. I think in part that’s because a lot of people who read romance tend to be voracious readers. So, paying 10 or $12 a book, if you’re reading two books a day, gets cost prohibitive. Cost prohibitive in a hurry. So they tend to sign up for Kindle Unlimited. That means that you get a lot of immediate audience who are interested in reading your books if you’re in that genre. So I write about half romance and half young adult. My romance is a much easier sell on Kindle Unlimited. I mean, obviously, it’s not technically a sale, because they’re just downloading it and reading it. But those get way more page reads for way lower ads spent. Whereas I get a lot more sales in paperback and in e-book on my young adult than on my romances. I almost sell no paperbacks in romance, but I sell a lot in YA.
[Nandi] I’ll piggyback on that. The trend is the same on Wattpad as well. You will see a lot of romance. You’ll see a lot of books titled things like The Bad Boy and the Nerd, or The Billionaire, or the Gangster’s Girlfriend and things like that. They tend to do really well. Kind of for the same reason, voracious readers like to read things at low cost. In this case, free. But, that said, I would encourage anyone who is looking for feedback or who wants to share their story to post on Wattpad regardless of what you write because, as long as you put it up there, there are niches for horror, fantasy, things like this. If you look, you can find them.
[Howard] I want to pose that question to all of you for our listeners. If they want to make a living on Kindle Unlimited or if they want to make a living e-books going wide, does it have to be a romance? Do you have to write seven books a year?
[Bridget] No, definitely not. I know authors who are writing in many different genres. They probably need to be genre fiction rather than literary fiction or middle grade. Those are the two that really struggle with self-publishing. But I know authors who write mysteries, who write thrillers, who write science fiction, who write fantasy. All of them six-figure plus authors. Doing really, really well in that field. My suggestion would be to go on Amazon and look at the top selling indie books in whatever genre you write in and you’re passionate in. Pick up those books. Pick up five of them, and read them. Look at the commonalities between… This is what the reader wants to read. So, if you can look at what readers want to read and you can write in that space, you can do very well as an indie author.
[Howard] We often caution our listeners against writing to the market. But with Kindle Unlimited, I have this sense that the market changes daily. A new book can come out and spike the list and you can pick it up and read it and understand what the market is consuming right now. Which is… You could be pretty agile in your production. Bridget, you said that you did some research about marketing and positioning your books and things like that. We don’t have a whole lot of time. Do you have some secrets you can share with us?
[Bridget] So, I don’t know if this is a secret per se, but my number one advice is even when it’s hard to take, take advice from the people who know what they’re doing. So, Victorine is sitting right here with me, and I’ll tell you that when I put out my very first romance, I said, “I don’t care what everybody’s telling me, I just follow my heart.” I got a photo shoot of a normal-looking couple because I said, “All these romances have models on the cover. I want normal-looking people on mine.” I put it out, and nobody bought it. I had like 10 friends reach out and say, “Your cover’s horrible.” I’m like, “What do you know? People want regular people.” It turns out they don’t.
[Bridget] So I had to change my cover, which meant I paid for a cover twice, and I paid for a photographer that I didn’t need, because I ended up using stock photos. So that’s just one example. But there are people in the indie community who, if you go find some groups, they are very willing to help you. Victorine is one of them, who is like, “Bridget, this cover’s not good. I know, because I’m a cover designer, and also I make a lot of money on my books. You need to change it.” It wasn’t until I listened to that advice that I did not want to listen to that I started to get progress and traction with the marketing end. You’ve got to have your book branded right. You’ve got to have something that hits the market, because even though it’s always changing, there are things that you can look at and say, “Oo, this is working,” or “this isn’t.” The great thing about indie is you can change it. So I had that cover that did crappy for a month, and I changed it. My book went whoosh! Straight up! After I got a better cover on it. So there is… The neat thing about indie is you don’t just put it out there and your publisher bought 50,000 copies. Too bad. You can put it out there and say, “Ho, this didn’t work. Let’s try changing my title.” If you own the ISBN, you go change your title, you give it to Amazon, Bam. You’ve got a new title, a new cover, it’s rebranded, and all of a sudden it can do dramatically better. So listen to the advice, even if you think you’re smart, you’re probably not at the beginning.
[Victorine] Find a group of authors that know what they’re doing, right? I’m part of a Facebook group called The Writing Gals. We give tons of advice. Just… When people ask questions, we tell them what to do in order to be successful. Because we want to give back, because we have been very successful at doing this.
[Howard] I’m looking right at Nandi. What’ve you got for us?
[Nandi] Well, in terms of… I’d like to give kind of advice on not necessarily secrets or tips, but one thing that was really useful to me on Wattpad specifically is that you can interact with your readers directly. I will do things like actually ask them questions, chapter by chapter. Whose side are you on? What do you think about this? I actually took that information and incorporated it into my edits. So it’s kind of a unique and amazing thing, is that I’m literally in my readers’ heads as I’m writing. It can be a benefit and a downfall. I mean, you don’t want to tailor your book too much to what readers think, but it can be a really cool thing that most readers don’t have access to.
[Howard] At risk of plugging the Writing Excuses retreat again, this morning… Was it this morning? I can’t even remember what day it is. Dongwon taught a class on the first two pages and the hooks. How important is that kind of thing for you in this market?
[Bridget] Fantastically important. You have to be as good or better than any other choices they have out there. On Amazon, there’s billions of books they can choose from, so your craft has to be on point. Definitely, people will look… Pick up a book and look at the first couple of pages. They have to be excellent.
[Victorine] In fact, I good friend who told me straight up when I asked her to join my street team that she doesn’t have time to read. So I said, “That’s fine, no problem.” A couple of days later, she contacted me and said, “I saw your book on Amazon, and I just read the sample pages,” that they let you read for free. I had already offered her a free book, guys. “I just read the sample pages and I could not put them down. So can I have that free book?” Then she plugged me on her group, which is like a deals page. I sold like 580 copies of my book that day. It was just because my sample pages were good enough that they drew her in, and she wanted to read it. Someone who doesn’t read. If your sample pages… If your first two pages are crap, you’re not going to sell your book. You’re not going to get page reads.
[Tamie] I want to say something about writing to market. I think when Victorine first was talking about it, I was a little bit put off by the idea, because I’m an author and I have things in my heart and I don’t want to compromise myself for money. Right? But you can write from your heart and write well. You don’t have to put down your standards, you can still get your message out there. Like, I have a billionaire romance series, which, you think is pretty corny, but my particular series is based on a group of men who met when they were teenagers at a camp for kids with disabilities. So each one of my heroes, even though they are billionaires and they do happen to have six packs and are really good looking, they also happen to have disabilities. Which I felt like was just underrepresented in romance books. So you can still do that and still make money and reach out to people while writing to market.
[Nandi] Absolutely. I would cosign that. My book deals with a character who is… Has a similar background to mine, which is Caribbean and kind of West African culture. I wasn’t sure how it would do on Wattpad. To my surprise and delight, it’s done really well. A lot of people have connected with my character. I think self-publishing and online publishing are great ways to kind of prove certain conceptions about what sells wrong and get your story out there.
[Howard] Last question. We’ve talked a lot about business, we’ve talked a lot about agility and market and whatever else. Are you all still having fun?
[Howard] They’re nodding. For those of you lacking the video feed, everybody’s nodding.
[Victorine] When I first decided to go indie, there was a lady named Elaina Johnson, who sat down and spent her entire lunch talking to me because I had an agent and was insistent that I needed to go traditional. She basically said, “Why haven’t you ever considered indie? You’ve been pursuing traditional for a long time, through a variety of frustrating obstacles.” I said, “Well, I write YA and people that are indie don’t do well with YA.” She’s like, “Well, they may not do quite as well as romance, but why don’t you try both? You might actually like writing romance.” I said, “Phtp. Like writing romance?” Well, all of my YA has a romantic subplot, so I don’t know why I was so obtrusive that I didn’t see that, but I now write both. I do a YA series during the course of the year and a romance series. So I put out several of each. I like the romance as much as I like the YA. So I am still having a lot of… I mean, I’m writing what I want to write, and I don’t have to argue with my agent about whether or not it’s something that someone will buy. Because I can put it up, and then people buy it. So…
[Nandi] I’m having a blast. I’m on a writing cruise, and I get to write the whole thing off.
[Tamie] I would say, on my day job… I’m a dentist. I’ve said before, but honestly, if I just wanted to make money, I would just work a lot of hours at the office and make money. So, I write because I love to write. If it wasn’t fun, I’d quit.
[Nandi] Yep. Absolutely. Actually, I started listening to this podcast in 2014, and I told myself, “Okay. One day I’m going to be on this podcast.”
[Nandi] Thank you. Thanks to the… Taking the chance of putting myself up online, now here I am today plugging my first debut book on the Writing Excuses podcast in this, the year of our Lord 2019. So…
[Howard] Nandi, you’re doing a great job, and I promise you right now, I’m actually more nervous than you are.
[Howard] Who’s got our homework?
[Bridget] That’s me. That’s Bridget. So, Tamie just explained that she’s a dentist. I’m actually a lawyer as my day job, I guess. Although I’m not doing as much. But I did a couple of podcasts for the Writing Gals, you can look them up on author taxes. Your homework is this, no matter where you are in your writing journey, you need to start thinking about how to be smart about the business of writing. That involves teaching yourself through the podcasts that I did that are way too long and way too detailed, or go out and do the research yourself. Talk to a CPA and start finding out what things you can deduct. There are two main ways you can deduct them, but I think that is beyond the scope of this. Start keeping track of those expenses. Whether you’re going to deduct them annually or whether you’re going to roll them altogether as startup costs when you first start making money, either way, you need to start getting your ducks in a row, so that when it becomes money for you, like $94,000 in a year, you know how to get it down so that you don’t pay the IRS a third of that.
[Howard] Okay. Before I say that we’re out of excuses, I would like to acknowledge the presence of the Writing Excuses cruise audience.
[Howard] We’ve had a great time out here. I haven’t done very much writing. But I know that some of us have written like 40,000 words while on a ship. We’re not going to name drop anybody. I’m just going to say, fair listener, you’re out of excuses, now go write.