The Journey of a Successful Indie Author
You haven’t heard of me, but I’m a successful indie author. During the last twelve months, I grossed over $500,000 in book sales and Kindle Unlimited page reads, of which I kept better than $360,000 in profit after advertising, editing, book cover design, and proofreading. Several of my novels rank in the top-15 among various high-profile thriller and mystery categories on Amazon, and I’ve twice reached the top-100 in Amazon’s Kindle store.
Now here’s a fact that will surprise you.
No, I don’t have the power of Penguin Random House or another high-profile publisher to back me up. I accomplished this on my own. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Transition to Success
I penned my first novel in 2014, a creepy old-school vampire tale in the mold of classic Stephen King. It wasn’t the best story I would ever tell, but it sold a few copies every week. Over the next four years, I wrote several horror novels, all self-published on Amazon. I’m proud of those books, and I garnered a fair share of strong reviews, but sales languished.
By late 2018, writing horror had worn on me. Every day I immersed myself in darkness, while I craved to tell stories with stronger plots and deeper characters. Yet I love the art of suspense, and nothing makes me happier as an author than taking a reader on a frightening rollercoaster ride.
In 2019, I transitioned to dark mysteries and psychological thrillers. Between 2019 and 2022, I grew my earnings from breakeven to over $350,000, a number that astonishes me. I’d finally found success as an indie author.
Over the last year, several publishing companies offered me contracts, yet I remained independent. Not that I haven’t considered every offer and wouldn’t jump at the right opportunity, but it would have to be a special situation.
Though self-publishing has a bad name in some circles—we’ve all heard about unedited books rife with typos, stilted prose, and wooden characters—the success of indie authors is undeniable. Many of my self-published friends earn incomes an order of magnitude higher than mine. We employ professional editors, pay top dollar for eye-catching covers, and hire talented narrators to produce our audiobooks. In addition, we run our own advertising campaigns, build email subscriber lists, and manage day-to-day operations, ensuring we stay profitable.
We do everything a quality publishing house does for its authors.
But instead of giving the largest share of the pie to a publisher, we earn 70% commissions on book sales. Arguably more important, we set our production schedules. Once the editing process is complete, I can upload my book to Amazon and see it on sale within hours. With some mammoth publishing houses, I might wait a year or two before my book sees the light of day.
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It’s All About Creative Control
While the 70% commissions independent authors enjoy are sound reasons to self-publish, the greater allure comes from creative control.
I’m not just referring to the creative freedom to write whatever I want whenever I want. The power to control my publishing schedule gives me a powerful weapon.
When I transitioned from horror to mysteries and thrillers, I wrote several novels ahead of schedule, then published each book every few months. By doing so, I kept my name visible on Amazon. For thirty days, my latest book would rank among the top-100 new releases. For the next one to two months, my book would maintain enough momentum to rank in various categories.
After momentum waned, I would release my next book, again thrusting my name into the spotlight while drawing eyes to my backlist.
At the same time, I studied marketing and became a proficient advertiser on Amazon and social media platforms. These marketing tactics drew more readers to my books. I built my mailing list from 0 subscribers to almost 5000. And those subscribers are organic—they joined my list because they liked my stories, not because I ran a promotion to attract them.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Fair warning. Even the savviest strategy will fail if your books don’t meet reader expectations. Write poor stories, and no amount of advertising or release-strategy wizardry will save you. Bestselling self-published authors are terrific storytellers who hire top-notch editors and proofreaders.
As I like to say, you must be a talented writer to achieve success. Poor writers always fail. But unfortunately, there are too many great writers who readers never discover because their promotional efforts fell flat.
Be a Creative Entrepreneur
Which brings me to my most important point. I’m not just an artist; I’m an entrepreneur running a business.
As a self-published author, I wear many hats: storyteller, marketer, accountant, and strategist. I also run the quality control department and ensure my books are ready for prime time before I click the publish button.
Those are a lot of responsibilities. But if you want to succeed as a writer, whether you are traditionally published or independent, you must oversee operations like a CEO and ensure all departments perform.
I schedule blocks of time throughout the day to run my business. Writing takes up the largest block, but I also leave time to answer reader emails and check how my advertisements are performing. On any day, I might work with my cover designer on my latest project, format stories for e-book, paperback, and hardcover (I use Vellum on a MacBook Pro), or fix my manuscript after my editor sends corrections. There is something to do every day, and part of running a business means staying on top of my responsibilities.
I can’t forget an important task, so I use an app on my phone for daily reminders, which I set ahead of time. If I know my editor needs my manuscript a month from today, I enter the task into the app, and it reminds me when the time comes.
To achieve success, you must accomplish many tasks, and to remember what those tasks are, you need to stay organized.
Words of Advice for Indie Authors
I’m not here to sell you on the merits of self-publishing. Every writer should make her own decision. Self-publishing works for me, and I doubt I could have reached my goals under a publishing house’s umbrella.
However, I must point out that more and more traditionally published writers are claiming their independence. Andy Weir self-published “The Martian”, as did Jane Austen with “Sense and Sensibility”. Even Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was self-published.
In fact, the amazing Dean Koontz joined the party (technically, he’s under Thomas and Mercer, Amazon’s thriller imprint).
Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. But if you have exemplary attention to detail and a desire to steer your own ship, independence might be your quickest path to success.
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