Wednesday, January 13, 2021

How I Made My First $100,000 in Self-Publishing: A Reflection and a Road Map for Authorial Success

Let's talk about books! I mean, hey. It's not like I haven't dedicated my life to the pursuit of literary excellence or anything (I kid). And it's not like I've never talked about books before on this website (ahem, that's just silly!). Yet I was thinking about books and the book market this week and it struck me: I haven't really talked about the financial side of the publishing market in a long, long time. 

Today, I'm going to give you some insight into how the book market works (if you don't already know), how books are priced, why they are priced like they are, and what the real pros and cons of being a self-published author are. I'm going to be sharing a few of things I did in the past to reach my first big milestone of  $100,000 in royalties by choosing the self-publishing route - which I believe is ultimately the best choice for most authors today. I'll still be giving you the pros and cons, though. Let's get started! 

How Books Are Priced

A book is basically like a box of oranges. From the farmer to the grocery store, every person who is involved in the process of bringing that fruit to market takes a little piece of the profit. Books are brought to the market in much the same way. Traditionally, you begin with a writer. The writer creates a manuscript. They snag a lit agent (although not always), who sells it to a publisher (if lucky), and that agent gets a commission for the job they do in selling and representing the writer. The publisher will take a big old chunk of the pie, using that chunk to pay editors and publicists and cover designers. They'll use it to buy advertising spots and, in some cases (though not often), to fund book tours and traveling. By the time it gets right down to it, there's not a whole lot left for the author. Let's say there's a hardcover book in the store that's priced for 19.99. When all is said and done, thanks to taxation (without representation, I might add!), the book might ring up at around 23 or 24 dollars. How much does the author actually make out of that sale, you ask? Probably around 2-5 dollars. Honestly, the writer is probably getting the smallest chunk, even though they're the one who wrote the book in the first place! Yet that's how it works - remember the analogy of the box of oranges? Hopefully that makes a little more sense to you. 

So is it more lucrative to be self-published or traditionally published? 

In light of those numbers, a lot of people wonder if it's even worth it to seek traditional publication. I say, absolutely it is! If that's your dream, go for it. Remember, you're getting a little bit less money, but the publisher is marketing the book for you (if the publishing house is worth its salt, that is) and getting it distributed to book stores and libraries. It's a lot of work to do that yourself, and a lot of people just don't want to deal with that kind of stuff on their own. It makes the smaller royalty worth it. 

Does self-publishing REALLY make more money?

In my experience, unless you're Suzanne Collins or Stephenie Meyer, the answer is actually yes. For self-publishers, you're keeping more of the money off the bat, but you're also personally investing your own finances in editing, marketing, and graphic design. If you're not, you're doing it wrong! If you want to compete with the big boys, you have to create a quality product. For me, the profits I made from Cassidy Hart far exceeded anything I ever initially invested. Keep in mind that a twenty-thousand dollar advance check is considered quite a nice sum in the publishing world...but guess what: if that book doesn't sell, you may not necessarily get to keep that check. It's a holding sum, a binding agreement between the publisher and yourself, with the hope that the book will sell. With self-publishing, you don't get paid until you sell those units. Still, you've got to deal with the little issue of SELLING. For me, after my first cumulative profit of over $100,000 from Cassidy Hart's adventures, I thought, "Self-publishing is way better. I'm keeping all of my profits and sharing very little with the distributor. Plus, I have total content control over my books." In addition, a 100K profit threshold is a lot more fun than a 20K advance check that may or may not get returned. You just have to be more patient to net that money.

For me, content control is everything. I don't like being told what to do when it comes to the content of my books, because I know the story and I know my readers better than anyone. So, like I say, you have to weigh your odds. For me, attaining what I would consider reasonable success in the publishing world for so many years came because of two things. First, I hit a veritable gold mine of survivalist-fiction mania. At the time I published Cassidy's first series, there was basically nobody who was writing the stories I was writing with a FEMALE heroine. It was very unique. I had a niche, and I worked it. Second, I killed myself to maintain that niche. I was working darn near seven-days a week at times, working at night, and putting out multiple books a year. I was also managing my own brand and publicity. It was a heavy load. I don't pull those kinds of hours or pile the work on my shoulders so much anymore. I choose instead to produce a few less books and spend more time with my family. It's better that way, and now, I've already established my base of readers, so I don't have to worry about it as much as I used to. I just have to stay consistent.


Distribution is the big kahuna that traditional publishers will be able to offer you that you might not be able to pull off as a self-publishing writer. Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores will buy lots of your books from your publisher because they have preexisting relationships and agreements with those companies. As a self-published writer, you'll have to represent your books on your own, like a lone wolf. There are companies such as IngramSpark who assist with those situations, but it's just a lot more work. Doable? Of course? More work? Yes. I've done it. 

Kindle Profits - What's the Scoop? 

Okay, so Kindle has a few different ways these days to deliver royalties to their authors. If your book is less than 2.99 in the Kindle store, you will be taking away 30% of that sum. Not very much, right? BUT it adds up nicely if you're moving some serious volume. If your book is 2.99 or MORE, you'll be able to net 70%. That is an absolutely huge sum, in my opinion, and it's one of the things that makes self-publishing in the digital world worth it. Again, though, it's all about volume. You have to sell enough to really make any money. 

There's another option, too. Kindle Unlimited, if you enroll in that program, will offer your books as a part of KU readers' "free downloads," which will net more downloads for you, but instead of getting paid per unit, you'll be paid by pages read. I personally do not like this option, because many people will download a book and not read it for weeks, months, or even a year. It keeps your profits in a state of suspension, and I personally don't care for it, but it can work for those who want to get traction and publicity fast. 

In a World Dominated By Digital Readers, is Traditional Publishing Dying? 

Yes and no. I think traditional publishing will always have its place, and even more so, I believe that paper printing will be making a very big comeback. The digital realm can be too easily and arbitrarily altered, taking away authors' platforms with wacky algorithms or erroneous regulations. Right now, only one or two online hubs hold the cards, and it's only a matter of time before those monopolies start cracking down. I've already seen it happen since I published Cassidy's first book in 2013. Things are changing, and while traditional publishing may never be as big as it once was, it will evolve and change tact. The question is...what kind of books will they be looking for?

The Importance of Branding

Another factor that led me to netting the kind of royalties that I always dreamed of in the writing world was my recognition of the importance of branding. I kid you not, an author's name is as recognizable as the books they write. Your name as a writer is immediately connected to your characters in the minds of your readers. When people saw my name or even my head-shot online, they instantly thought of Cassidy Hart. Why? Because I built my brand to function as such. When you hear J.K. Rowling's name, you think of Harry Potter. Sure, she's written other books, but the brand that built her will always be Harry Potter. That is her legacy. For me, Cassidy Hart is my biggest legacy. I write a lot of books, but she will always be the most popular character among my readers, I believe, and she will likely always sell a large amount of books, even if the survivalist mania ebbs and flows at times. 

At the height of Cassidy Hart Craze (as I affectionately call it!), which was the time between book five and the finale novel of the first series, I was so connected with my brand that I could hardly go to the doctor or eat out without someone saying, "Aren't you Summer Lane? Didn't you write those books about that girl in the militia? The survival books?" I'm not joking! I'm trying to get this point across: I intrinsically linked Cassidy as a fictional character to my real-life existence, and I marketed that image ceaselessly, particularly in California, where I live. That's why people were making the connection, not just in the digital world, but in the local and regional area where I puttered around. In doing so, I doubled my marketing reach to customers. I made myself and my books one and the same, like a stamp of authenticity that screamed, "This is the real thing! This is Cassidy Hart! Read me, read me!" 

How to Branch Out 

The only downside of branding is that your readers often begin to expect only one type of writing from you, and they sometimes buck against you exploring other genres or characters.It's similar to what an actor might experience when they have been stereotyped after playing a single, explosively popular role. For myself, the way I introduced my reader base to books outside of the Collapse universe was by first writing novellas that existed in the same story world. That gave us some insight into characters that existed in that familiar, comfortable setting, but also expanded the character perspective. Then, I wrote a single fiction novel, a historical thriller set in 1898 Alaska called Running with Wolves. I peppered my new fictional releases within my regular Cassidy Hart-oriented launch schedule, and that kept everything fresh and safe all at once. 

Remember, your readers will always expect you to deliver on the stories that they grew to love you for. Don't ever betray them or stop giving them what they love. Feel free to add in new fictional worlds and series here and there, but if possible, always stay true to the characters and the heart that built you. 

Willingness to Dig In and Learn 

It's important to mention this, because I cannot tell you how many people I come across who try to write/market/sell a book and know absolutely nothing about the publishing world. There are expectations. There are things to learn. I'm not saying anyone has to be a veteran expert about it, but it's worth it to learn about what successful authors do in order to become one yourself. 

The biggest thing you can do as an aspiring author is to GET ADVICE. Write your manuscript and then let people rip it apart. Harsh, I know. But true! It's the only way you're going to learn how to 1) be a better writer and 2) prepare yourself for the public arena of trolls and haters. If you can't handle constructive criticism from friends or editors, you certainly won't be able to handle it from the general public. 

There is a technical finesse to writing that is important to grasp, and you can easily pick that up by reading. I tell this to my writing students every year: READ, READ, READ. If you read voraciously, you will absorb writing skills and techniques by osmosis. It is a fact. Writing a novel is so much different than writing academic papers. Do not think that the skills that you picked up in a college English class automatically equal mad writing talent. In fact, it's usually just the opposite. You have to relearn how to write after you've been creatively stifled in the collegiate writing realm. Academic writing is often astringent, formal, and meant to be read by teachers - not an audience who wants to be entertained. Novel writing is a whole new ballgame. It can take time to switch gears.

Not only that, but by simply pushing yourself to learn more about publishing as a whole, you will be better equipped to represent your work in the world when you publish your own books. 

Quantity vs. Quality? 

Here's the myth: quantity does not have to suffer from a lack of quality. In the traditional publishing world, there can be years between book releases. In the self-publishing world, you can release your books just as fast as your readers want them. I have noticed that, in response to the rapid-fire release schedules of the independent book market, traditional pubs are putting their authors' books out faster than they used to. Competition is stiff, and even the big dogs recognize that independent publishing is a wildly diverse market with millions of potential readers. 

With my own books, like I said before, I used to release 4-5 books a year. That pace was insane. I was living and breathing my books. I dreamed about my books. I barely thought of anything else. Sometimes I forgot where Cassidy Hart ended and I, Summer Lane, actually began. We merged into one imaginary being, almost as if I was method-acting within my own story world.

I managed the release schedule just fine, and as a result, I was able to grow my reader base at an insane rate. My books did not lack quality. I worked my BUTT off to get those books written, fact-checked, edited, and marketed. They were good books, and my readers have eagerly read them all. You can absolutely create a high volume of content without sacrificing quality - you just have to be able to devote an enormous amount of time to do so. 

Networks and Connections

Another area that's important is building connections. If you want to shake and bake in the publishing world, I suggest getting to know the writers around you. When I first started off, I got involved in the book blogging world, which was hugely popular at that time. I got to know TONS of other writers and editors. It was a great springboard to forming connections with other peers in the industry. I also picked up little jobs here and there with small publishing houses if I could. For example, I was a publicist for a while for a digital-only publishing house. I did press releases for a book tour company. I was on staff at the popular New Adult fiction hub, NA Alley for a time, and I met some really wonderful ladies during that time, too. I remember when we interviewed Jennifer L. Armentrout (I also interviewed her for my own website here on Writing Belle...the interview is somewhere in my archives), and now everybody knows who she is. 

I really learned how to make connections and keep them, staying up to date with people, swapping favors back and forth, and building my circles, stretching them, growing them. It takes a lot of time to build your writing community, so don't waste any time: start today! 

Wait...Do I Need a Lit Agent for Traditional Publishing?

The short answer is probably. The long answer is yes, but some publishing houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts. You have to check each lit agency, read through their rules, and make sure that you are not sending something unsolicited if they specifically request that you don't. That's a good way to get your manuscript thrown into the recycle bin. 

You definitely can get signed with an agent, but an agent will help you to shop your manuscript around to publishers and editors who will be a good fit for you. They will have relationships in the professional publishing world that you likely do not, so it's a good place to jump start your career as a novelist. 

Last Notes

I hope these little tidbits of information have been helpful to you. I could go on and on about writing and publishing, but I covered a lot of the basics in my book, Prolific: Writing a Hit Novel. You can find it in the Kindle store - it's a digital-only guidebook to writing. 

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me via Instagram @writingbelle. I use Twitter very rarely these days, and I'm working on setting up new accounts on sites like Rumble so that I can stay up to date on the latest growing social media platforms out there. I've always been grateful for social media, as it helped me to grow my brand, so I'm always wanting to keep growing! 

Have a wonderful week, everyone, and remember: 

Writing is work. 

It's wonderful work. 

Read, write, read, write, and read, read, read. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Get fictional - it's fun! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to see you again soon!