Self-publish fiction successfully by ignoring the trad-pub rules.

 by Anne R. Allen

I wrote a post a few weeks ago that some people found discouraging. I pointed out that a number of changes, especially at Amazon, make it more of a challenge to self-publish fiction successfully than it was a decade ago.

Back when the new-fangled Kindle was flying off the cybershelves and Amazon had no imprints of its own, indie authors were Amazon’s darlings. That’s no longer the case, so selling self-published books is more difficult than it was.

But “more difficult” doesn’t mean impossible.

Plenty of indie novelists are starting out right now who will make the bestseller lists.  Some will make considerably more money than their traditionally-published counterparts.

A Note About Nonfiction.

If you write nonfiction, self-publishing can often be the better choice. Hot topics have often faded into history by the time a traditional publisher gets a book into the stores.

Indies can publish quickly and strike while the topic is hot.

Nonfiction books are getting shorter, so it’s easier to turn out a bunch of books per year.

Plus people are reading more nonfiction these days, so nonfiction is more lucrative for both traditional publishers and indies.

Self-Publishing Means Opening a Business.

But novelists can thrive as well as nonfiction authors, as Elizabeth S. Craig told us last year in her piece on how to make a living when you self-publish fiction.

However, the indie path to success is different from the trad-pub path.

You can’t cross your fingers, pray for a rave review in The New York Times or Publishers Weekly, put on a book launch party, and wait for the money to roll in. (Which hardly ever happens except in the fevered dreams of aspiring authors.)

Self-publishing means opening a business.

That means indie authors need a business plan before they publish, the way any other business does.  Self-publishers who succeed are the ones who provide a lot of inventory, cater to an existing market, and know how to use social media to reach their target audience effectively.

They do need to buy some advertising. But throwing money at a writer’s debut book is not going to pay off. Build inventory before you pay for pricey ads.

1) Wait to Publish Your First Novel Until You Have Several Waiting in the Wings

You can see the tragic laments of first-time self-publishers every day in writing groups and forums. “I spent $1000s marketing my book with nothing to show for it. I am a complete failure and I’m going to unpublish my book, give up writing, and I guess I’ll go eat worms.”

Well, okay, I lied about the worms.

The point is, these people are miserable. They put their hearts and souls and savings into marketing a singleton title. It didn’t sell, so they’re sure they’re failures.

But guess what? No matter how much money you throw at a singleton indie title, your business is not going to take off until you have inventory.

These authors haven’t failed at writing.

They have failed at launching a business.

They were probably seduced by those marketing predators who show up at least once a day in my mailbox. These people offer to market “my book”–always in the singular–for a hefty fee. The predators know their most likely prey is the newbie with only one book out there. Those are the pigeons who can be talked into throwing more and more money at a hopeless cause. Here’s one of my posts about those predators. Authors beware!

The indies who have made it to the big time got there by selling in quantity. Hugh Howey, Marie Force, Amanda Hocking—the indie superstars—made a splash by releasing a whole bunch of books in quick succession.

Authors who self-publish fiction fail when they imitate the snail’s pace of traditional publishing.

“But I need feedback!”

…sez you.  Or “how do I know I’m on the right track if I don’t publish?”

That’s like saying, “How do I know if this dress makes me look fat if I don’t wear it on national television?”

Um, how about asking a friend or two to come with you to the dressing room?

We learn from failure, but you don’t have to fail in public.

There are plenty of ways to get feedback without publishing. Use beta readers and sites like Wattpad. Join a critique group. Go to writers’ conferences. Participate in online writing groups.

“But I need to make money!”

This is a silly reason to self-publish fiction when you don’t have several other novels in the wings.

Those debut novelists who are writing the despairing laments — they’re losing money, not making it. Just read the sad stories.

Would you open a store that only sells one product “because you need the money”? Remember that vintage Saturday Night Live sketch about the mall store that sells nothing but scotch tape?

Don’t let that be you.

Publish one book without another ready to go, and you can pretty much guarantee your bottom line is going to bleed red.

2) Release the Books in Quick Succession.

This is how the famous indie authors got their names known. I’m talking about authors who started out to self-publish fiction—as opposed to novelists who were already well known in the traditional publishing world, or people who were famous for something other than writing novels.

Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey released a large number of books very quickly.

I’m with a small press, so I’m technically ”indie,” but not entirely self-published. But I’m sure the reason I hit the bestseller lists with my first ebooks was that I had six novels and a number of short pieces all ready to go. Two novels had been previously published and the others only needed editing. Five came out in the space of three months, along with three pieces in some well-regarded anthologies.

And yes, it nearly killed me, and I wish they’d already been edited. Those were some long days and late nights.

3) Write in a Genre that People Read Voraciously.

You’re going to do best if you can target readers who gobble up several novels a week. That usually means “escapist” reading—what people call “beach books” or “airplane books.” These are the genres that do best as ebooks, and indies make most of their money from ebooks.

The most successful indie books are crime, thriller, cozy mystery, fantasy, and romance. Especially romance. 45% of all ebooks sold are romance, but only 4% of print.

That includes all flavors of romance: paranormal, steampunk, time travel, historical, Jane Austen fanfic, erotica, chick lit, and commercial women’s fiction.

If you write YA, you’ll be more successful if you write in those same genres for young people.

If you write frankly literary novels, you’re going to have a harder time. I have three more literary mysteries that I happen to think are wildly entertaining, but they don’t sell as well as my Camilla series. (We have one on sale right now. The Lady of the Lakewood Diner–see below.)

That’s because people who buy literary fiction tend to base their reading choices on reviews—professional reviews by respected, trained reviewers. The ones who write for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. The marketing that’s available to indies is generally not going to reach that demographic.

If you want to be a literary fiction writer, the best way to build your reputation is to write short stories and send them to university literary magazines. (It also helps to have a day job teaching at a prestigious university. ? )  Literary writers often do best with a small literary press rather than self-publishing. (Although here’s a post from a man who’s proved that adage wrong.)

4) Write Lots of Books. Preferably in Series.

That means write a bunch more books after you self-publish fiction that first barrage. Don’t rest on your laurels

Mystery author Carmen Amato — a friend of the blog — recently attended Killer Nashville mystery writers’ conference. She got to study with bestsellers like  J. A. Konrath, Anne Perry, and Jeffery Deaver. She said in a  blog comment that this was her big take-away:

“Consistent, high quality production is the name of the game. The best known authors in the mystery genre have 30 or more books to their name.”

Thirty books. The worm-eaters can hardly declare themselves failures because they’re not making a living with one title.

5) Write Shorter Fiction.

Indies do not have to follow the stodgy rules of the traditional publishing world. They can self-publish novellas, novelettes, and shorter fiction. They can divide one epic into a trilogy of cliff-hanging short books. (Although it’s best to resolve the main storyline of each book. Readers have soured on cliffhangers.)

And don’t turn up your noses at short stories.

Hugh Howey’s first ebook of Wool was essentially a short story. It sort of ended, but you knew there was more, so you wanted to buy the next episode.

Short stories can be golden, because you can use them to get into anthologies that will raise your profile enormously. And they can be published again and again. You can also use them as freebies to get subscribers to your blog or newsletter. Or issue them as stop-gaps between novel releases.

The forward-looking Fuse Literary Agency helps their clients self-publish short pieces to release between trad-pub books to keep those readers interested. Their “Short Fuse” program has really taken off.

Here’s another quote from Carmen Amato from the Killer Nashville conference. “J.A. Konrath has written dozens of short stories besides his horror thrillers and the Jack Daniels series.” She says he does it for “discoverability.” (See more about this in #7 below.)

6) If You Self-Publish Fiction, Ignore Advice for Nonfiction Authors.

A whole lot of the marketing advice you see online is aimed at nonfiction writers. Most of that stuff about “make millions with ebooks” that you saw a few years ago was about nonfiction, even though the gurus may not have made that clear.

Nonfiction sells. Especially How-to and Self-help. People love to read books about how to become more successful, safe, sexy, and happy.

Nonfiction can be sold with a soundbite sales pitch. People are much more likely to buy a book when they read “Become a happier person in 10 Days!” or “Get an ideal body in time for your class reunion!”

Going on the lecture circuit, sending out press releases, teaching webinars, presenting at book fairs and conferences, making YouTube videos and podcasts—those are all powerful tools for selling nonfiction.

But for fiction…not so much.

You can write a great pitch: “Lisa has inherited her Great Aunt Ermintrude’s Bed and Breakfast in beautiful Buttonwillow! Will she uncover her family’s dark secrets?”

But that’s not going to appeal to people who don’t read fiction. And it doesn’t promise to soothe or improve the way self-help does.

A fiction audience is simply smaller. And you need to intrigue and charm that audience, not hard-sell.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t move “The Buttonwillow B&B Mystery” and make good money. What it does mean is that you need to do more work pinpointing your target audience. And you need a lot of Buttonwillow mysteries in the pipeline.

7) Get into Anthologies, Boxed Sets, and Joint Promos with other Authors in your Genre.

Again, this means writing more short fiction. As Carmen Amato said in the quote in # 5 above, J.A. Konrath writes short stories for “discoverability.”

Discoverability means getting your fiction in front of as many readers of your genre as possible.  A short piece can sell a novel. I know I’ve bought novels because I read the author’s short story somewhere.

Short fiction in magazines, websites, and especially high profile anthologies will expand your discoverability and bring in new readers better than 100s of ads pushed in front of people who are not in the market for a novel.

Yes, you may be giving away a lot of these stories for free or very little payment. But compare that with the cost of paid advertising, and your bottom line looks pretty good.

You also might look for chances to get into a boxed set in your genre with a full length novel. These have been very lucrative for me.

But BEWARE: There are some unscrupulous scammers who put together ridiculously huge boxed sets (35 Vampire romances for 99c!!) There’s often an even more absurd buy-in charge and organizers may even promise you’ll become a “USA Today bestseller.”

These tend to be money-making enterprises for the promoters. There are also stories of horrific bullying by promoters and their minions that would make you cry. Don’t go there.

The  successful boxed sets I’ve been involved with have been put together by one of the authors and the buy-in price is only what’s needed for a cover, formatting and the agreed-upon advertising budget.

How do you get involved with one of these? Join groups of authors in your genre and network, network, network!

8) Don’t Expect to Make Big Sales in Brick and Mortar Stores.

I meet way too many potential indie writers who talk about self-publishing in terms of print books and brick and mortar bookshops.

This is not how successful indie authors make their money. They sell mostly ebooks, and sales are mostly online.

Spending your time trying to get paper books into bookstores can be an exercise in futility. Big box bookstores only do business with big publishing. That’s because they have a system in place where books are easily returned if they don’t sell. Big publishing also pays a fee to the big boxes for prominent placement of their books. Even if you could get into the big box, your book would be spine-out on the bottom shelf of a dark corner of the store.

Some indie booksellers will take self-published books on consignment. They ask for a consignment arrangement because they want to be able to return them if they don’t sell the way they do with big publishers. But many of them won’t take anything unless they can order the books through a distributor.

That means they won’t take books published through Amazon’s POD wing (KDP and the former CreateSpace.)

If you hope to sell paper books in bookstores, get your print books through Ingram Spark. Ingram is a book distributor. Amazon is a book seller, and therefore a rival to the local book sellers, who are usually not Amazon fans.

If your dream involves a paper version of your book on a shelf in Barnes and Noble or Walmart, you’ll want to go the trad-pub route.

9) Think Globally.

The US-UK market is pretty saturated at the moment. The last 10 years have added millions of ebooks to the retail cybershelves in the US and the UK, and the pool of readers isn’t growing.

But there are growing English-speaking markets all over the world.

Ireland also has one of the most vibrant publishing climates around. And don’t forget that in much of Africa, and India, English is the common language. This month I’ve sold more books in India than in the UK.

Write Regencies? Pakistan has one of the world’s largest Jane Austen societies and you can join the Pakistani Janeites on Facebook.

Thrillers are popular in China, where UK author Mark Williams’ thriller Sugar and Spice topped the bestseller list for months.

Do some research and you’re likely to find a niche your trad-pub counterparts haven’t filled. If you want to find out more about global markets, subscribe to The New Publishing Standard, which is celebrating its first year anniversary this week. TNPS is read in 180 countries and sends out global publishing news every day.


Yes, the days are gone when you could load your half-edited first draft to Amazon, slap on a homemade cover and sell 100 copies a day.

But that doesn’t mean self-publishing is dead. Far from it. It has grown up. Self-publishing is a growth industry because a lot of top indies are putting out consistently good product.

Be one of them, not one of the miserable ones who didn’t do their homework before they published or got taken in by silver-tongued marketers who care a lot more about separating you from your money than they do about selling your book.

If you want to know about how to advertise your book wisely, there’s an in-depth article by marketer Nicholas Erik on David Gaughran’s blog that does all the math and offers charts and stats so you can make informed decisions about where to put your advertising money.

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about email lists, newsletters or superfans. I’ll be writing about them next month. Stay tuned….

by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) September 23, 2018

What about you, scriveners? Have you become discouraged after publishing one book? Were you talked into spending a ton of money marketing it? If you self-publish fiction successfully, how many books did you have out before you started making good money? 


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