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Self-Publishing Success

Last week I talked about what a successful self-published author I’ve become. I followed that up with a description of the strange stumbling block I’ve placed in my own path.

I suspect some of you would be a lot more interested in knowing how I found that success in the first place. That’s not so easy for me to spell out–to some unknowable extent, I just got lucky–but I did approach the whole process with a clear strategy, and I can at least share that.

Konrath’s Five Rules

I’ve discussed this before, but the foundation of my strategy was Konrath’s five rules. J. A. Konrath was a mid-list writer who walked away from his publishing contracts to self-publish and marveled at the amount of money he was able to make.

More importantly, he shared that information. Konrath dedicated his blog to informing other writers of the opportunities in self-publishing, and in the process he became the poster boy of the publishing revolution.

And he said the most important rules for self-publishing are:

  • Write a great book
  • Develop a professional cover
  • Prepare a compelling product description
  • Get 5-10 products up for sale (all meeting the requirements of 1-3)
  • Give the process more than a year to gain traction

(If you want to read more about Konrath and his five rules, check out my series, “Should I Self-Publish?“)

Keeping at It

The last rule is really the hardest. I released my first book in October 2010, and my total profits from books in the following year looked like this:

Month Income Expense Running Total
Oct. 2010
$0 -$500  -$500
Nov. 2010  $0 $0  -$500
Dec. 2010 $121 $0  -$379
Jan. 2011  $68 $0  -$312
Feb. 2011  $61 -$500  -$751
Mar. 2011  $16  $0  -$735
Apr. 2011  $82  $0  -$653
May 2011  $43  $0  -$610
June 2011  $36  -$500  -$1,074
July 2011  $26  $0  -$1,048
Aug. 2011  $79  -$500  -$1,469
Sep. 2011  $1,531 $0  $61

Those values in the “expense” column refer to the money I spent on cover art and promotion. Most of that was travel expenses for our out-of-state cover artists (who shot, edited, and supplied the actual artwork for free), and then the cost of the handful of printed books we ordered as proofs and to give away in promotions.

Eleven months in–even getting my covers, editing, and promotions assistance for free–I had invested $2,000 out of my own pocket and earned just over a quarter of that back. I was looking at a loss of $1,469.

Throughout those eleven months I had lots of opportunities to recognize the failure of my self-publishing experiment and give up on it. Instead, I stuck to my schedule, kept investing the cash and the effort to give myself the best shot possible at finding success, and in June I put out Taming Fire.

Then I started seeing sales. The first real check for Taming Fire sales arrived in September, and it was enough to get me positive. Ever since then, things have been improving.

Month Income Expense Running Total
Oct. 2011
$3,973 $0 $4,035
Nov. 2011 $5,790 $0 $9,825
Dec. 2011 $3,865 -$100 $13,590
Jan. 2012 $3,154 $0 $16,744

That’s Konrath’s five rules in a nutshell: sticking to it and putting out more books while the others still look like failures. The magic of that approach is cross-sell. Once Taming Fire turned out to be popular, it started driving readers to the Ghost Targets books. You can see it in my sales history.

So, yes, I invested time and money to publish a lot of flops before I found success. But once I found success, those flops were still sitting there, waiting to sell.

Write Another Great Book

One question my literary agents asked me when we first spoke was, “How did you promote the book, to generate so many sales?” I did almost nothing. I uploaded the book to Amazon and Amazon promoted it for me.

The problem with the fifth rule (“Keep at it!”) is the constant temptation to accelerate success. Konrath said it takes at least a year, but what do you do during that year? Do you take out ads on websites or billboards? Do you print up fancy bookmarks to hand out at conventions? What’s your bus bench situation?

If you look around, you’ll find people suggesting all those things. You’ll find some better suggestions, too:

These are all things worth doing. I prod all our Consortium writers to do every one of them.

But none of them will do as much to promote your book as writing the next book. That should be your top priority. It’s how you accomplish rules 4 and 5 at the same time. It’s how you find success.

Speaking of which…it was the release of the sequel to Taming Fire that allowed me to quit my day job. And I certainly haven’t slowed down since then. The next Ghost Targets book will be coming out next week, and once that’s out, I’ll be busy writing Ghost Targets #5 and The Dragonprince #3 and more short stories and another two standalone novels.

There’s the secret to success: Don’t ever quit. As long as you don’t give up, you’ll eventually get there.

9 Responses to “Self-Publishing Success”

  1. Heather says:

    Seriously? Zero comments? Really? Huh.
    Personally, I have a TON of comments on this! It makes me wish I had a blog so that I could blog about it!
    Thank you once again, Aaron, for your transparency. This is so helpful to those of us who are trying to decide “where to go from here”, regardless of where “here” may be for each of us. I had been estimating that it would cost the average self-published writer approximately $2000 a book to publish this way. Would you agree with that? I know your total was significantly lower because of your amazing team at the consortium, but for other lowly writers…

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      You don’t have a blog yet, Heather? We have to get that fixed now.

      Your guess is a good one. We’ve sat down and evaluated the cost of book production a couple times (trying to price our volounteer efforts into that), and consistently come up to right around $2,000.

      That’s us taking full advantage of the excellent resources we have available, though. I think a writer who was willing to learn the free ebook formatting tools (so you’re only paying for cover and editing) could produce a quality book for about $800-$1,000.

  2. Kaitlin says:

    Wow! Those are awesome graphs! Thanks for showing me that, it gives me some faith in the roll up! Congrats!

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks, Kaitlin! A lot of the reason I embarked on this adventure in the first place was the transparency (and the optimistic sales charts) that Konrath shared at his blog, so I’m thrilled to be able to carry on that tradition.

  3. P B Dillon says:

    I’m an author with a small number of publications available on Amazon, and even though I’ve worked in web marketing for some time, I’ve been struggling with how to effectively get the word out about my books.

    Part of the problem seems to be that the things everybody suggests listed in your article (twitter, facebook, blogging etc) are enormously time consuming – and, in part because everybody is doing them, are destined to result in a very slow increase in attention gained.

    I like what you’re suggesting here, and it matches what I want to do anyway, which is write – and publish – more books. It also reflects what those who are wildly successful self-publishers (I’m thinking John Locke and Amanda Hocking) appear to have done.

    However, I can’t help but wonder if this advice is like a lot of other advice I’ve seen, in that those who offer it absolutely know it to be true, because it has worked for them – but we never hear from the hundreds or thousands who have tried it and not succeeded.

    Time will tell. For me, it seems a logical option anyway. Here’s hoping it works. Only 10 months to go until I know if it’ll work for me.

    Thanks for the article, and well done with this site. It’s better by far than a number of similar sites I’ve stumbled across.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks for the compliment on the website. I’m actually scheming to make it even better in the next month or so. Keep an eye out.

      As far as the value of the advice, I think it depends largely on priorities. One of my personal starting points is that I want to write. It would be different if I were only getting into this at all because of the promise of future gain. I don’t have a lot of advice for people approaching things that way (not at all suggesting you are), just because it’s so far from my perspective.

      But for someone who was going to spend his life writing stories anyway, this gives me the opportunity to get that material public sooner and in a more profitable way than any marketplace that has existed before.

      Within that context, I was only deciding between self-publishing and holding out for traditional publishing. I think for most fiction writers, anyway, this ends up being exactly the answer they want to hear. It’s just remarkable how rewarding it is.

  4. Thanks for the words of wisdom. There’s a lot of good advice here–a lot of which is repeated over and over by successful authors (self-published or traditionally published).

    I think it also bears reiterating that the most important part of success is writing book after book after book. Most people who succeed have failure after failure to learn and grow from; then one day they hit it out of the park, and suddenly they’re successful. But that “sudden” success takes years of work to get to.

    And once the success comes, it’s propagaton depends on continuing to do what you did in the first place. People will have more success in the long run if after they write their first book, they immediately work on promoting it ruthlessly–by writing the next one. Nobody wants to read a one-off author. Authors establish a voice by a body of work, rather than a single book (unless that single book happens to be Angela’s Ashes….) After you’ve written three or four, you’ll start to create buzz from having a literary identity–which is why Konrath says “Get 5-10 products up for sale”.

    Well, enough pissing about on the internet–time to get back to writing!

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      I think I’ve mentioned this before in comments, but one of the things I love most about this new publishing marketplace is the opportunity for writers to learn on the job. It’s so much easier to improve by writing new projects than by endlessly reworking an old one in the hopes of convincing an editor to finally accept it.

      That’s been solid advice for a while now, and even agents and editors have been repeating it, but now there’s actually a financial incentive behind it. As I was telling Dillon above, it’s almost too good to be true.

      • No doubt! Being self-published lets writers keep writing–which is what they should be doing to begin with! Some of their stuff won’t be as good as it would have been a generation ago–we ALL suffer when we can’t afford professional editing–but moving on to the next project gives authors license to explore, instead of necessitating that they keep on kicking the same dead horse.

        A side note–I am reminded of Kevin Spacey’s character from the movie “Henry and June”, who is constantly accusing people of stealing his manuscript. Ten years trying to perfect a book, so that a publishing house will pick it up? Old paradigm.

        As for too good to be true–I’m on the five-to-ten year plan. Keep my day job for the next five years and see if my income on my side venture is enough to support me. If not, keep at it until I’ve been doing it for ten. “Too good to be true” would be a six month plan. :p