Monday, August 31, 2015

Let's Talk (Someone Else's) Numbers! Is $500,000 the New Midlist?

Guys, this is going to be a crazy huge and awesome post. But first and quickly, some old business:
  1. Nice Dragons Finish Last was the Audible Daily Deal last Saturday, and I hit #1 on all of Audible! I even out sold The Martian for, like, 5 hours, and it's all thanks to you guys. Thank you SO MUCH for being my readers/listeners! The sequel, One Good Dragon Deserves Another comes out in audio in October and is up for pre-order now. (Spoiler: I talked with the NDFL voice-actor Vikas Adam on the phone this weekend about all the voices and it's going to be awesome!) 

  2. I wrote a guest post for Fantasy Book Critic about Julius and the entire point of writing a Nice Dragon! I talk a lot about the inner workings of the books, so if you're a fan of my Heartstriker series, you definitely don't want to miss out. Go read it!
Okay, announcements over. Let's get on with the show!

Let's Talk (Someone Else's) Numbers! Is $500,000 the New Mid-list?

Forgive the click-baity title. I tried really hard to think of something less sensationalistic, but I'm going to talk about today actually is pretty sensational, so I decided to go for broke!

So as someone who's in the book business up to her neck these days, I'm a semi-regular on KBoards, an old school message board for self-publishing writers to talk shop and share numbers on promotions and so forth. This last part is really why I go there. One of the things I've always loved about the indie community is how open its authors are to sharing their numbers--bad, good, and amazing--for the benefit of everyone. 

This last week, though, an author posted a detailed thread about her monthly earnings over the last three years that blew my mind called "How I Made $500,000.00 Self-Publishing Romance eBooks."

I'll admit, I was skeptical. I've seen a lot of "How I Made $X Self-Publishing!" threads that were nothing but pyramid scams using farmed-out writers from overseas to produce mountains of schlock. When I actually read the post, though, I didn't find a scam or even a new trick. I found a classic success story of an author who wrote what she loved and made smart business choices while thoroughly documenting her experiences so she and others in the community could learn from them.

That, my friends, is impressive, as were her numbers! So, naturally, I sent her a frantic message asking if she'd let me interview her about her success and how she achieved it on my blog, and she agreed! Before we get to the questions, though, here is her original numbers post in all its glory, (reposted from Kboards with her permission).

(Note: The author of these numbers has requested to remain anonymous since posting success is a fast way to get a lot of negative reviews. This is a very real and sad phenomenon in the Indie world, and it needs to stop. Authors posting numbers is for ALL our benefit, and the fact that so many feel they can't share their sales under their real names without bringing down the ire of the hater brigade is sad and shameful. We are better than this.

For now, though, it is how it is, so until this problem is fixed, I will respect the author's request and refer to her through this post by her KBoards handle "Sela.")

So, without further ado, here's Sela!

How I Made $500,000.00 Self-Publishing Romance eBooks

In the spirit of Annie B's post showing us the tale of two approaches to writing, I thought I'd share my story. I will likely pass the $500,000.00 in career income next month, unless Amazon implodes or an asteroid strikes. ;) (And I'm not really a big seller or big name author in my genre)

Here's my chart, chronicling my income from the start of my self publishing career in June 2012 (data for 2012 and 2013 are combined in the first row, with December 2013 average for comparison, because I didn't start keeping monthly income records until 2014):

(Click to enlarge)
How I did it:

1. I started planning in April 2012, when I read JA Konrath's blog and decided to quit submitting to agents because no one wanted to represent me with my vampire romance novels. So, I read several books and blogs on self-publishing and researched book blogs that reviewed and promoted paranormal romance novels.

2. I started working on my social media platform, creating a Twitter and Facebook account under my future pen name. I cultivated readers and authors who were in my genre, and spent most of my time talking about television shows and movies. At the time, I was polishing my first novel and finishing my second.

3. I hired a cover designer and got two covers for $99 each, plus two $5 stock photos, so $104 each.

4. I had someone edit my books for typos and obvious grammatical mistakes. I didn't pay my editor until I made serious money and then I went back and paid her for her earlier work. I have paid her for each book since, costing between $600 - $1000 per book depending on length.

5. In June 2013, I published the first book on Amazon, listing it for sale for $4.99 and signed up for KDPS.

6. I submitted my book to several book review blogs and lucked out, getting a couple who gave my book decent reviews.

7. I announced that I had released my first book to my several hundred Twitter and Facebook followers and friends and had 6 sales in June and then 26 sales in July.

8. I ran some free days in KDPS and gave away several hundred copies of book 1. I listed my books at Goodreads and created a blog and profile.

9. I released my second book in July, listing it for $4.99 and had 59 sales.

10. I released book 3 in the series in December, listing it for $4.99 and had sales of 2800 books in total for the year and made $9,750.00

11. In 2013, I released 2 more novels in a new contemporary erotic romance series. All were in KDPS.

12. I released the first novel in my contemporary romance series in April 2013, deciding to try my hand at another romance category since my paranormal romance series was selling fairly slowly, at least in my opinion. I had my first 5-figure month that release, earning $17,642. The previous month I had earned under $1,000.

13. I released the second book in the contemporary romance series in September, and had another solid month in sales, selling 12,000+ books.


14. I had my first 99c Bookbub in November 2013 and broke $20K for the first time. My book hit #5 in the Kindle store and was #2 in Romance. An agent wrote me and offered representation. ;)

15. I wrote book 3 in the contemporary romance series in January 2014, then released the boxed set two months later.

15.5 I went into a 99c boxed set with several other romance authors and hit the USA Today list. My book was the headliner. I was in three other 99c boxed sets in 2014 /2015. This required that I pull out of KDPS with that book and over the summer, I pulled the other books as well and went into wide distribution.

16. I had my second Bookbub for book 2 in the contemporary romance series in February 2014. I hit #12 in the Kindle store and #8 in romance. I ran two more 99c Bookbub promos in 2014 and released a novella and a short story as well as Book 4 in the paranormal romance series.

17. You can check on the graph what happened after Kindle Unlimited 1.0 struck in July 2014. My income dropped considerably and consistently due to loss of visibility. I put my books into KU in response and saw no benefit. In fact, my income kept falling relative to my average monthly income.

18. I pulled out of KU 1.0 at the end of February, went permafree with the first books in my series, and went into wide distribution.

20. I released several books this year and have had 3 Bookbubs so far. I will have 12 full  length novels, 3 boxed sets, and 2 novellas and a short story self published in total since I started by the end of the year.

21. I started to advertise on Facebook in April and Apple promoted me in March and again this month.

You can see my income has increased considerably over what it was while I was in KU 1.0.

I made $107,286 in 2012 and 2013 combined. I made $154K in 2014. So far in 2015, I have made $212.406 and am on track for $300,000 for the year.

Glad I found Joe Konrath's blog in April 2012 and followed his advice. :)

Rachel here again! Sela was gracious enough to answer some questions about her career for me, and I've included them below. First, though, I want to talk about why I reposted this in the first place.

As you can see from the above, Sela's story is almost a textbook example of self-publishing success. She writes in a popular genre (Romance), she publishes quickly, she keeps her expenses low, and she takes advantage of advertising opportunities to reach new audiences (Bookbub being the obvious favorite).

If you follow self-publishing at all, you've heard this story or stories like it before, and that's exactly why I wanted to post it on my blog so badly. Because the career Sela so generously lays out above isn't some crazy, shoot-the-moon outlier. She isn't a household name, she isn't (by her own admission) a bestseller or even a big name within her own genre. She is, by every definition that counts, a midlist author with decent but midlist sales, and yet she's making bestseller money.

Or what used to be bestseller money.

When we talk about the sea-change happening in publishing, authors like Sela are exactly who we're talking about. When I got my first book deal back in 2008, no one talked about money. With good reason, too, because unless you were a big bestseller, you were making crap, and who wants to talk about that?

Still, going by the publishing blogs I was obsessively reading at the time, many authors talked about $30,000-40,000 a year (generally as a mix of royalties and advances due to having several books out) as a number to aim for. That was job quitting money, the pie-in-the-sky goal every writer dreamed of, and most didn't make. Back when I started writing seriously in 2004, the most frequent piece of areer advice I saw was "don't quit your day job." They might not have talked about money directly, but everyone was in agreement on the general principle that writing, even for the moderately successful, was an art of genteel poverty.

Oh, how the times have changed!

Whatever your opinion of self-publishing--whether it's right for your or for the writing industry as a whole--the one truth no one can argue is that the self-publishing revolution has made earning a living as a midlist writer exponentially easier. There are those who would dismiss this fact as trivial, saying that improved compensation for authors is just part of Amazon's scam to take down the publishing industry, and that such a small thing isn't worth the loss of the paper publishing tradition. To those people, I say: you've obviously never tried to pay bills as a writer.

I have. I've successfully paid bills as a traditionally published, moderately successful author. It is possible, but it's hard. I've also paid those bills as a self-published writer, and you can click on any of our Let's Talk Numbers! posts to see how well that's done for me. (Spoiler: it's awesome!)

This is not meant to be down on trad publishing, which has a lot of upsides. (It's not always about money). The reason I posted these numbers isn't to laugh in anyone's face or try to bring anyone down. That's not what my blog is about. We're about uplifting here, and that's what this repost is for, to show how you how, thanks to these new changes, the odds making a good living as a writer are now in our favor. The chances of becoming a bestseller are still terrible, but that's fine, because you don't have to be one anymore.

The numbers Sela reported above and the numbers I've reported for my own sales on this blog aren't the numbers of big bestsellers. We're not outliers or rockstars or breakout success stories. We are midlist authors, the once working poor of the writing industry, but no longer. Thanks to self-publishing, the barrier for selling enough to be financially stable and support yourself and your family as a writer is lower than it's ever been, and that's a fantastic thing.

That $500,000 of income Sela gathered over three years of self-publishing is quite impressive, but it's no longer out of the ordinary. It's the new truth of the midlist. Obviously, Sela has a lot more books out than I do and has run more promotions, which helps enormously. I have a very different business model with far fewer titles, but I'm still better than I ever expected. By the time I've been self-pubbing as long as Sela has, I should be closing in on the $500,000 mark as well. Not because we're both freaks of nature who've won the self-publishing lottery (that's Andy Weir and Hugh Howey, both of whom are fantastic authors who deserve every bit of their success), but because making $500,000 over a few years in a good mid-list career isn't weird anymore. I won't go so far as to say it's the new normal--most authors still don't make enough to quit their jobs, much less see the six figures--but it's also not crazy. It's just good, midlist money, and that's why I wanted to post this. Because that is awesome.

So, that's my side of the story! Now, let's go back to Sela, who graciously answered my extremely nosy questions about the details of her career.

All the Deets - Rachel's Interview With Sela   

RA: Thank you so much for letting me interview you!

You have a very aggressive release schedule! I know you're keeping yourself incognito, but could you tell us a bit more about your books? For example, how long is your average title? Also, are your series consecutive (as in meant to be read in order), or are you doing the Romance new-couple-every-book, can-pick-up-anywhere type of series?

I have four series right now. 2 are paranormal romance and 2 are erotic romance.

With the exception of my novella series, my full length novels are all 90K+ in length. I have one that is in the 70k range but it is the exception. I think my books may be a tad too long for some and I have considered trying to pare down to the 80K range instead. It all depends on the story and how long it takes to get there, but I believe in the adage that you can always cut 10% to make your book a better read. So in the future, I am shooting for 80-90K range instead of 90K+ and will see how my readers respond. I think it's more important to give a satisfying read and if it's shorter by 10% it may have a better pace. Not too quick but not dragging.

My books are meant to be read in order, but for the erotic romance series, you can stop at the end of any book and not go on as I left it with a HFN (Happy For Now) for each series installment. I got huge flack for the cliffhanger ends to my paranormal romance series and so I thought I would do HFN ends for my erotic romance to avoid that. It meant that some people stopped reading after book 1 but that's OK. The ones who felt satisfied at the end of book 1 might be miffed at having to read more so I figure the ones who keep reading are real fans of the work. They are the ones I want to cultivate for the long term.

I stick with one couple for each series. I like to dig deep into their characters and into the relationship and feel like one book isn't enough.

RA: It's obvious Bookbub is a huge part of your strategy. Have you ever had problems getting your books accepted, and do you feel it's harder now than it was? Also, do you use any promotion services other than Bookbub?

I recently applied for a 99c Bookbub for a book in my best selling series that has had 2 already in the previous 2 years and was turned down. I don't know if this means they will no longer promote it or it was just an issue of timing. I will keep applying though. Bookbub is too useful to reach a larger audience and so it is worth the rejection if you get accepted now and then.

My acceptance to rejection ratio seems to be about 1:3 overall. I was rejected for 3 years for my paranormal romance series until I went permafree with it. I just ran a successful Bookbub for the series starter and made a fantastic ROI so was very pleased. Waiting 3 years ended up being a good thing since the series has four books out now and a high percent of those who downloaded the starter went on to buy the second and third and fourth books.

RA: I see you went wide after KU launched! Many authors, including myself, have had a hard time gaining traction in non-Amazon marketplaces. How did you solve this problem, and, if I may ask, how much of your income do you attribute to sellers other than Amazon?

Going wide was scary but I have hopes for Apple as an eBook retailer and want to support the other retailers as a curb on Amazon's huge power in the book marketplace. Don't get me wrong -- I LOVE Amazon and think it is the best platform to sell books, but I also think a competitive marketplace is in an indie's best interest in the long term. I hope Apple will become better at selling books. It is a great indispensable platform for music so they should have a clue about how to sell and promote books and I want to be part of that. But I went wide because, in the long term, and I am in it for the long term, I don't want to rely completely on one retailer. I want to be diversified.

I went wide in 2014 when I was invited to take part in a multi-author boxed set and so my book had to come out of KDPS. It took a while to gain traction and my sales on the other retailers were low at first. Bookbub was the factor that got me traction.

Then, after the KU 1.0 bookpocalypse I went back into KU 1.0 (big mistake). When I went wide in March 2015, it was around the time I was eligible for Bookbub again, so I applied with my permafree series starters and was accepted. Going permafree and going wide was the best decision at that time. Then Apple promoted my permafree and I had a stellar month as a result.

So it took a while and it took promotion to gain traction. An author has to be strategic and think about what it will take to get noticed. With the exception of a very small number of authors, most books ain't gonna sell themselves. ;)

RA: Are your books available in formats other than eBook, like print or audio? And if so, what kind of success have you seen from those sources?

I have just started to get my books in print so no. I did so after several readers complained that my books are not in print. I don't expect to make more than pizza money from print sales, but it is for the odd reader who prefers print that I am doing it. Luckily, D2D is making it far easier to do and get it to Createspace so that has made all the difference. When I went through Createspace directly, I HATED it. I had so many problems getting my books formatted properly for print and didn't think about hiring someone to do it for me at the time. So I stopped. Now, all my books will be in print as well as digital.

I have not managed to do audio yet. I am a Canadian and unfortunately, ACX makes it hard for us furiners to get accounts so I am considering going through this service that provides foreign authors with a US address so they can access ACX. Argh... I hate that us Canucks get treated like we're invisible sometimes. Is my money not as good as US money? Wait... I take that back. It's not. LOL

RA: Wow, I never even thought about that. Why do you hate the lovely, polite Canadians, ACX?!

Last question! You say in your post that you decided to self-publish after getting tired of the agent hunt, and that an agent later contacted you to offer representation once you became successful (congratulations!). Did you accept the offer, and if so, would you ever consider going trad?  

I did accept the offer and would definitely consider going trad pub if the advance was huge. I mean really huge. Like 7-figures huge. Since I know that is practically impossible, I don't even think of trad publishing except that I would love to see my books in a brick and mortar bookstore. I believe my books could sell, but the way the industry is and the way the economics are, I doubt that will happen to someone as small potatoes as me. My agent understand that I wouldn't accept anything but a huge deal so isn't even trying because my numbers aren't high enough to attract a publisher. Maybe with a future book or series but I doubt it.

The authors in my genre who get big book deals that make going trad pub worth the loss of control and rights sell way more than I have. I mean, they sell millions of eBooks, not hundred thousands and I am not there by a long shot. Even though I've made half a million in 2.5 years or so, I am not a big name author. Romance is very crowded with huge sellers. I am a drop in the bucket. I have a small slice of a very huge market. It is a nice slice and I am very happy with it but I know I am not big when compared to the really big sellers.

Sure, I would take a 7-figure deal in a heartbeat and move to Florida. :)

One can dream... :)

RA: I'd say you're already living the dream! Thank you again for letting me interview you (especially since we have to do this anonymously, which means I can't plug you, 'cause I totally would!). 

If you enjoyed this deep look into an author's numbers and career, please be supportive of authors you see posting their numbers. Knowledge is a great gift, and we shouldn't squander it.

That's it for the interview! Thank you all so much for reading. I really hoped you enjoyed it!

If you like reading about the biz side of the publishing industry, check out our previous business posts. In addition to posting numbers and shop talk, I also do writing craft posts every Wednesday and new writing posts whenever I have stuff! The best way to keep up with it all is to subscribe directly to the blog via RSS or follow me on the social media of your choice (Twitter / Facebook / Tumblr / Google+)

A huge thank you again to Sela for sharing her information, and thank all of you for reading! I'll be back on Wednesday, but until then, keep writing!!!

Yours always,


Sela said...

Hi, Rachel -- thanks for the interview!

I wanted to plug your book, From 2,000 to 10,000 because I bought it a while ago and used it so thank you! I would highly recommend it! :)



Virtual Stranger said...

I'm a little confused by those first few steps.

First I quit submitting to agents because nobody wanted to represent me, then I decided to polish my first novel and then I had someone edit it for typos and obvious grammatical mistakes. This strikes me as completely backwards.

I don't fault the eventual success (which is fantastic, congratulations), but what this says is "no agent wanted my unpolished, unedited first novel, so I said 'screw the system!'" Not a great lesson for aspiring writers.

E. C. Ambrose said...

This was interesting--thanks to Sela and Rachel for sharing it.

As a trad-published midlist novelist, I often wonder if I made a mistake committing to New York publishing, but, as you say, there are other compensations beyond the money. Still, I am toying with some indie concepts, and it's great to have information like this to consider my options.

And yes, I second the plug for 2K to 10K good stuff! said...

Fabulous blog post that comes at a perfect time for me. Thank you so much for your time and talent in posting it, and in Sela's generous responses. I *ADORE* your 2k to 10k book...I recommend it to everyone! Great stuff.

I'm officially a hybrid author now, so it's wonderful to know what's possible out there!

Thank you again!


Julian said...

Congratulations for the success (and for choosing that very catchy title that led me to click on the link).

Kai Herbertz said...

Hi there,

congratulations on the reception of your novels! It's also great that you made the time to write down how you went from 6 sales to $500k - thank you very much for that!

"6. I submitted my book to several book review blogs and lucked out, getting a couple who gave my book decent reviews.

7. I announced that I had released my first book to my several hundred Twitter and Facebook followers and friends and had 6 sales in June and then 26 sales in July."

Number 7 is very encouraging considering where you are now - I sold 14 copies of my book in the first month (August 2015), which tempered the excitement of having written a novel somewhat. Good to know that writing the next novel is the way forward.

As for number 6, I looked at fantasy book review sites and found six that ruled out even looking at indie books and six that were inclined to do so. I wrote to the latter and received only one reply, which said that the person had too much on their plate and couldn't review my novel.
I now notice that you wrote "book review blogs" - perhaps "blog" is the operative word here. Thanks, I'll have a look at review blogs then.

All the best,


Pharosian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pharosian said...

Thanks for the great info, Sela! And congratulations on your success. Your numbers give me hope.

If you respond to any comments, I'd like to get clarification on your statement that you initially got into Bookbub with your permafree series starters. My understanding is that Bookbub only accepts books where the Bookbub price is a significant (at least 50%) discount off the regular price. So if an author has a book that is normally free, there's no point in running a special offer through Bookbub. This information comes from their site, so I'm curious about how you got ads for permafree books.

Nick Green said...

Rachel, you're mistaken I think. Earning that much is still weird. It just doesn't seem weird from where you are, but you are in an exceptional position. I would bet that 95 per cent of the indie authors out there (and just the readable ones) are earning less than a thousand dollars a year from it. And that's a very optimistic guess. I applaud your success, but please... Don't act like it's normal. It's not. And nor can it ever be.

Travis Bach said...

@VirtualStranger - Paid content and copy editing isn't something most new authors do when shopping for an agent. Those are services that publishing houses provide once a manuscript is accepted. Sending a self-edited first novel to agents is pretty much THE way new NY authors have been picked up for a long time now. She only bought an editor and copy edits once she had decided to be her own publisher. I don't personally see anything unusual or strange about this pattern.

Travis Bach said...

@NickGreen so mathematically I agree with you. There are hundreds of thousands of aspiring authors out there putting books up on Amazon only to never earn more than a few bucks for their efforts. By the median performance of the population, anyone selling more than 100 books is 2 or more standard deviations out.

In the spirit of this post, I disagree. The point of showing you all this is to show that you don't have to be an outlier to make good money. You do have to learn the craft and learn the industry. Its to show how strong the basics of self-publishing are. Publish a good book. Market it efficiently. Repeat.

Before KDP, "Publish a good book. Market it efficiently. Repeat." was enough to get you into the mid-list. Breaking out beyond that took exceptional skills, brilliance, or luck. Things that are hard to dial up in a deterministic way.

Now though, the skills and diligence that earned a barely living wage in the NY mid-list can now earn $100k+ per year as indie. Also, the breadth of skills, topics, and interests which can do that have been almost tremendously expanded. That's what we're seeing happen to authors every day and that's what's so exciting.

Nick Green said...

@Travis Okay, so... Can anyone tell me what I'm doing wrong?!

Nick Green said...

BTW, @VirtualStranger, I'm with you on this one. Authors should strive for the highest possible quality standards before showing the book to anyone. We'll never spot every typo or clumsy line ourselves, but nor should we rely on others to do that job for us. Sending in half-baked work is the quickest route to rejection.

Travis Bach said...

@Nick Green

I can try ^_^. Lemme take a look at your stuff.

So, my quick evaluation.
-I see you have many books out. Looks like you publish at a good rate. That's good.
-The books all have good ratings, but the number of reviews is so low that I cannot easily say if you are a good or bad writer without taking the time to actually read them. I don't mean that as good or bad, just that I'm not able to weigh on on the quality of your writing as a factor here.
-You're eBook only (for recently published books) in YA and Children's which, and I conceed this point, are print heavy sectors. People don't like to give kids kindles.. they destroy them. That is definitely a disadvantage.

None of that is really saying anything though. What jumps out at me the most is things like,
1. Your covers don't look much like YA covers to me. Are you covering for parents or for your target audience?
2. Your website and web presence need work. Issues include: website isn't modern looking, website has no calls to action to buy your books, website has no links to follow you on social media. You do not appear to be running a new release newsletter, at least I saw nothing on your website for it.

Normally the order of importance is 1-Good Book, 2-Good Title, 3 4 5 .... Web stuff. But you have a lot of books out already, so inadequate marketing is likely showing its compound effect. You have received some interviews and web attention, but I wonder if you are holding onto that attention given the lack of ongoing reader outreach.

Things that I can't see are dark-web advertising you might have done. Things like free promotions, count-down deals, email marketing like bookbub or booksends, etc.. I also can't see your back matter, so I don't know if you are asking readers for reviews, cross-promoting your other books, directing them to your website, etc...

I only had 30 minutes to do this, so there's plenty I could miss. This is my first glance take though. I hope that you find it helpful.

Nick Green said...

Thanks - that was a stunningly in-depth answer to what was in the first place a semi-rhetorical question. I really appreciate that you took that trouble. Those are all interesting and valid points, too. I'm impressed that there are people out there who'll give a free marketing audit to a stranger. :-)

Travis Bach said...


you're most welcome. We love to help out here on Pretentious Title. Good luck with your writing. ^_^

Bokerah Brumley said...

Oh, my goodness! So much in this that is on my To Do list this year. Aiming for mid-list. <3