Three years to sustainable income from self-publishing (without a bestseller)

Reblogged from Patty Jensen’s blog. Originally written on the Writer’s Cafe at kboards.com.

Patty: I started self-publishing in 2011 by putting up some short stories from trade pub where the rights had reverted back to me. For at least the first year and a half, I published a lot of what we shall call “random crap”, most of which is still online in one way or another, but I knew squat about series and branding and all that stuff. I didn’t really understand any of that until late 2013-ish, when I started making a decent effort towards completing and branding series.

I write Science Fiction and Fantasy, everything under one name. I have no pen names to speak of, or at least none that I’m doing anything with. That may change, but I find it annoying to have to double up on everything.

dark-angels-bombardment-jake-murray
Dark Angel Bombardment by Jake Murray

On Amazon US, my books usually hang out between 50k and 300k. I’ve never had a book in the top 1000 on Amazon US (I have in the UK and other countries. France!). I’ve never had anything that you can remotely classify as a bestseller. But I have been #1 in Fantasy at Kobo, does that count?

I sell on all platforms and am direct where I can. My Amazon sales have varied from 5-50% of my total sales. Yes, you read that right, 5%. It was in the Kobo heydays when 80% of my income was from Kobo. I have no true dud platforms. I sell at least a few hundred dollars worth on each of: B&N, Apple, Google Play and Kobo. My current income is 3-5k per month and has doubled every year.

Enough about me.

For the purpose of the plan I’m going to make some assumptions:

  • That you can produce four books a year, or an average of 1000 words of edited fiction per day, averaged over the year. Not write 1000 words of fiction, but add 1000 words of completed manuscript every day, for 365 days a year average.
  • That you are willing to work pretty damn hard
  • That you have done the nitty-gritty about learning to plot, write and sustain interesting stories.
  • That you write in a genre that both holds your passion and that is reasonably popular.
  • That you are willing to edit you ebooks properly and give them decent, genre-appropriate covers, and pay for this if necessary.

A small word on the last point. I am not one of the “OMG, you must absolutely have this done by someone who charges for it!” crowd. It *is* possible to self-edit to an acceptable standard. It is possible that you have the skills to make covers that sell (my overall best-selling books still have covers I made). It’s totally possible to format your own books.

But. Big but.

All of it costs time. Is it the best use of your time to force yourself to read your manuscript backwards in order to find those last few typos? At some point, the answer becomes a solid: I don’t think so.

You need to write four novels a year after all.

If you have trouble reaching the four novels a year goal even without distractions, you need to write more. I know it sounds like the ol’ squeaky wheel, but it’s true. Write more = more skill, both in writing style and in plotting a story. And finishing the book without getting side-tracked, starting over ten times or writing meandering stuff that never goes anywhere (believe me, I’ve done all those things).

TL;DR:

Four novels a year.
Editing, good formatting, good, genre-appropriate cover.

OK, here goes the plan.

Part 1: the product.

Write a series of three books in a genre you like. It’s best if the books are full-length 70-80k at least. There are people who can get away with novellas, but selling well gets harder the shorter your books are. Unless, maybe, your genre is erotica or romance. Maybe. Just make the books full-length, OK? It makes life so much easier (insert whisper that sounds like Bookbub).
Make the first book free.
Play around a bit with advertising if you feel so inclined (I mean–why the hell not?), but don’t worry about stuff that takes you away from writing too much.
Make sure you have the following in all your books: a link to your mailing list signup form, and, at the end, a live link to the next book in the series.
When you finish the series, or even while you’re writing it, start a next series. Make it a slightly different subgenre, or use a different setting and characters. Make sure that people don’t need to have read the other series in order to follow it. Write three books. Make the first book free.
Repeat 5. Twice, if you can. Three years @ 4 novels a year = 12 books = 4 trilogies.
Advertise your freebies, but don’t fall down any rabbit holes that take you away from writing for major chunks of time (insert snort that sounds like Facebook advertising).

ancient_spaceship_by_radojavor-d471swo
Ancient Spaceship by RadoJaver

Part 2: the marketing.

After a while, your mailing list will start to build up a bit (see point 4 above). Get a paid account at Mailchimp or wherever you are. If you are not at a list provider that allows automation and segmentation, and most importantly, automation *based on* automatic segmentation, move your list. Yes. Mailchimp and Aweber & co are not the cheapest. The cheapest providers suck for the purpose I’m going to show you here.
Set up mailing automation. When people join your list, send them an email with the freebies, even tough they’re already free. Don’t email the freebies to them, but include download links in the email. Then booby-trap those links so that you can track who downloads what. You’ll be using this later.
Next, send your subscribers to an automated program that sends them something at regular intervals (Amazon genre newsletters arrive every two weeks, that’s good enough for me). What do you write about? About you, about your fiction, free short stories, you ask them questions, tell them about tidbits of research you’ve done, or places you travelled for your writing. Tell them about box sets you’re in, and even plug your friends with similar books. Anything. Boobytrap any links to your books so your mailchimp/Aweber/whatever account knows who clicked what.
Siphon people who clicked all the links to series 1 (and downloaded the freebie!) off to a side list, and say three months later send them an email saying: hey, this is book 2 in the series. Do this will all books 2 in all your series.
Repeat steps 3 and 4. Create new emails, use the links and who clicks them to segment your list and send them further information based on who clicked what.
Presto! You have now created your own marketing machine that crawls like a giant slug over your subscriber list.

Part 3: your tasks.

It’s now really clear what you need to do:

A. Keep writing new books that people want to read, continuing your most popular series, starting new series maybe (make book 1 free again). Add new emails about those books to your mailing sequence.
B. Keep feeding people into your giant mailing slug.

Doing A is pretty simple. Stop series that sell the worst and continue the ones that sell the best. Start new series.

Do, however *finish* each series, don’t abandon it. Series planning should include having several rest points where most plot threads are resolved and where you can walk away from it for a while or forever. Also, don’t unpublish the books. And don’t stop advertising book 1 (see below).

How do you do B?

Easy:
You advertise. Any old way will do. Bookbub is pretty good for getting new people on your mailing list. So are cross-promos. The more freebies you fling into the world, the more people will sign up. ENT is pretty good as well.
Put your mailing list signup everywhere on your web page and then drive people there using interesting blog posts, and linking your blog to Facebook and Twitter.
Advertise your list directly. This does not need to remain limited to Facebook. Be creative.

There you go. That’s the plan. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme (that’s where the “three year” bit comes in). In fact, it sounds an awful lot like hard work.

No bestsellers required. I would love it if one day I published something that went into the top 1000 at Amazon and stayed there for months, but the thing is, that’s a dream. I can try for it (I will with the planned launch of my next series), but it may fall flat on its face. I’ve seen that happen often enough to know that there is no such thing as a guaranteed success.

But even if I never have a bestseller, all these steps outlined here will guarantee me a pretty darn solid and even income.


If you liked this post, consider checking out Patty Jensen’s books.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s