How To Find Success as a Self-Published Author

16 Jul

Guest blogger August Wainwright weighs in on the definition of success as a self-published author in today’s ever-changing marketplace. Enjoy…

I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone for the great response to the 50 Best Sites for Indie & Self Published Authors post. The reaction has been amazing and many of the writers and sites on the list have weighed in to say thanks. I’ve also learned about a few new sites that are worth a regular visit. Unfortunately, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed answering emails and spreading the word, so I haven’t gotten around to posting a new article for the last 2 weeks. No bueno.

Recently, I’ve been struck by a recurring conversation that continues to pop up everywhere I turn. In various forums, on websites, and in comment sections, it seems to be what so many indie and self-published authors are thinking (and complaining) about right now.

So what is it?

Well for me, it’s a discussion about success. It’s a discussion about how to define what success looks like and a discussion about how to achieve that success.

However, on all of these sites, the argument is framed as one of failure – not of success. Here are just a few examples of what I’ve recently heard:

“Now that Amazon has changed their algorithms to target indie authors…”

“Now that free is dead…”

“Last year, with the post-free run bump in sales, I could count on getting at least “X” sales after it went back to its regular price. Now I’m barely getting any post-free sales. Either free is dead or Amazon is targeting authors like me…”

“There’s no way to sell books if you don’t use Bookbub…”

“Bookbub won’t feature my book because I don’t have enough reviews, but I can’t get enough reviews if I’m not featured on Bookbub.”

“No new authors in 2013 are finding any real success…”

“I published my book last week and only had 5 sales, this is ridiculous…”

No, sir, you are ridiculous!

(Sorry, that was an outburst).

The point of highlighting these arguments is to show the thinking of some self-published authors. And, seeing as how this site is quickly turning into a place to help writers perform better in the current publishing marketplace (which I love the direction it’s taking), I believe this is a conversation that needs to be openly, andtruthfully, discussed.

So let’s dive into a few of the issues surrounding the success of a self-published author…


You are NOT an outlier

I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but you aren’t Hugh Howey. You aren’t. Statistically speaking, it’s an extremely safe bet for me to say that you, the one reading this post, will never sell a million copies of anything you write – especially over the course of just a few months.

This idea that because one out of every ten thousand writers finds overnight success (that’s a completely made up stat; it’s probably much more rare than one in ten thousand), that it somehow translates to the idea that overall success as a writer is framed by these outliers is so wildly off-base that it’s comical.

The idea of a brand new author showing up with their first work and finding major success with no pre-established base was just as absurd in 1983 as it was in 2003 as it is now in 2013.

This skewed idea of success has led so many new authors to believe that if Brad Thor does it or Russell Blake does it or Joe Konrath does it, then they’re simply a click of a “Publish” button away from doing it too.

You aren’t that writer.

But what you probably are is a good writer. You might even be a great writer. So how do you attain the success that you’re seeking?


Slow growth is the sustainable way to success as an author

Let me ask a blunt question, and I want you to really think about this for a second:

Do you really want crappy books with crappy covers and crappy amateur blurbs to be able to get post-free sales bumps? Do you really want poor products to represent indie authors? Do you really want YOUR marketplace to be that easy?

You’re entitled to your own opinion, but my immediate answer is NO. I don’t want things to be that easy. Either way, you should stop to think about what the marketplace of 2011 and 2012 have done to the thinking of new authors.

The algorithms and marketplace of the last 1.5-2 years allowed unknown self-published authors to become overnight successes, sometimes regardless of the quality of their product. That 18-month period of the “free” gold-rush WASN’T the norm; it was never going to stay that way. Now the systems and algorithms are starting to normalize.

Is Amazon perfect? No. Is B&N or Kobo or Apple perfect? No. But the technology is still amazing and it’s still unbelievably liberating.

And yet, I’ve actually watched multiple authors on various forums publish their first book, with absolutely no prior following, openly discuss their first and second week sales numbers with smiling emoticons, and then after the sales fall off over the next few weeks, they post about how they are barely staying afloat and that they don’t know what to do and that it seems like the time of the indie/self-pub author is dead.

I say – GOOD.

As much as I want to help other authors that are on a parallel journey to mine, I have no time for the people who think that if success doesn’t come in less than 30 days, then it’s not coming at all.

Real success – the lasting kind – takes a tremendous amount of time and effort.

Whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hours idea or Dean Wesley Smith’s thinking on slow growth, true success as an author takes years, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words.

Did you know Issac Asimov is believed to have written or co-written 512 books (a New York Times article from 1969 credited the then 49 year old Asimov with 108 books and over 7.5 million words). Ray Bradbury published more than 30 books, close to 600 short stories, and numerous poems, essays, and plays. Stephen King has published 55 novels and close to 200 short stories, and probably has many more that are yet unpublished.

So here’s the path to success:

Write. Edit. Re-Write. Re-Edit. (Do this a few more times). Get a great cover. Write a great blurb. Publish. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Notice the three repeats there at the end. That is the key. Most series don’t find success until at least the third book. Most authors don’t find success for the first few years, maybe even the first decade.

But what’s really worth discussing when it comes to “success” in today’s marketplace is what that success looks like when it finally comes.


A real example of a brand new author (with numbers)

Look, if you’re one of the lucky ones who hit it big because of a free run or the hot ad-company-of-the-week, well then great. But the idea is to keep writing, get better at your craft, and plan for the future.

That is what self-publishing allows for. I entered the industry full-time somewhere around late February of 2013, with no writing experience other than as a hobby. I’ve been writing off and on my entire life, but I’ve never approached it as a potential career.

Last year, my wife deployed, my other business was doing well, and I had a lot of free time on my hands. I started writing letters to mail to my wife (a dying but extremely valuable art) and she eventually asked me to send her a few stories. (You can read my first ever post and a little more about the start of my journey here). That’s how I initially got into writing on a semi-regular schedule.

I never submitted to agents or publishers; I also never submitted a single story to competitions or magazines. I published my first book via Amazon in late May 2013. I just finished publishing the 2nd in my current series, a short 12,000 word novella, in late June. The 3rd is due out in the next few days. I’m not yet on any platform other than Amazon.

And now I’d like to take a minute to talk specific numbers. I know most people frown on the idea, but I’m not begging and I’m not bragging, so I see no issues with discussing real numbers.

So far, in the month and a half I’ve had books available to purchase, I’ve sold roughly1 book per day, per title (full disclosure: those sales are both as myself and under a single pen name where I have two books published). Just a single sale per day, per title.

So, again, I ask: what is “success”?

Because under almost any metric you’ll find online, I’m a complete failure.


Yet, here’s the reality for someone who is a completely new author in 2013:

  • In roughly 4 months (beginning of March to present day), my website has attracted close to 500 subscribers who are actively engaged in the articles I write.
  • In the roughly 2 months of being “published”, I have 115 subscribers to a newsletter specific to my book series. (The cross-over between these lists is minimal, roughly 4%).
  • In the those 2 months, I’ve averaged about 1 sale per title released, per day.


This is what those numbers project to be by the end of 2013:

  • My website subscriber list should be somewhere between 1000-2000 people.
  • My book series subscriber list could be anywhere from about 500 up to “who knows”. The reason this is hard to quantify is because I only have 2 titles out right now in the series (and an additional 2 under a pen name), whereby the end of 2013 I plan on having 8-10 books out.
  • I plan to publish to all platforms later this summer. Should I be able to bump the 1-sale-per-day-per-title up to a modest 3 sales per day (across all platforms) and, accomplish my goal of releasing 8 titles by years end, I would be selling 24 books per day. 24 books per day at my current avg. profit price of $2.35 would equal just over $20,000 in 365 days.


Also, it’s worth noting that I have a KDP Select run scheduled for July 26-27th, but as of right now, all my current numbers are with no free runs and no advertising. I’ve yet to use a KDP free day, and as of writing this, I’ve not submitted my books to Bookbub or any other major advertiser (but I do plan on doing so).

Are those numbers blow-the-roof-off amazing? I don’t think so, but what IS amazing is that they are completely attainable.

Is it “success”?

To me, it’s a damn good start. To you, I don’t know, I guess that’s for each individual to decide. But for me, the idea that a very realistic minimum of $20k in 2013 with ZERO pre-established base before March of this year, I have to say that I think that’s quite amazing.

With the right marketing (which is something I plan on discussing in great detail on this site), a mediocre free run (regardless of what that means right now), or a well-placed ad, my numbers could be well in excess of that projected minimum.

And the key is still the long term. Look at what happens if I publish 8 titles a year, for the next 3 years and STILL only average 3 sales a day per title at an average sales revenue of $2.35.

8 titles per year X 3yrs = 24 titles
24 titles X 3 sales a day per title = 72 sales per day
72 sales per day X avg. sale profit of $2.35 = $169.20 per day
$169.20 per day = $61,758 per year

With 50 titles available and STILL only 3 sales per day per title, that yearly income becomes $128,662.50.

So from writing 1000 words a day on my laptop over the course of the next 5 years, I could possibly end up making an additional six figure income doing something I love. That’s “never hitting it big” – never selling more than 3 copies of any title on any given day.

And that income should continue on forever. In the digital marketplace, my books never go out of print.

To me, it’s amazing what is possible for a new author in 2013. The technology and networking at our fingertips is nothing less than incredible. But you still have to write. Sit down, every day, and write. Write a little; write a lot. Just keep writing. Keep turning out great products and, eventually, you’ll find an audience.

Success isn’t something achieved overnight – it’s earned over a long period of time, with a tremendous amount of effort. But it’s very attainable – now more than ever before.

by August Wainwright on July 10, 2013


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Posted by on July 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


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