Following is an absolutely fantastic article from an author I both greatly admire and deeply respect. A couple of years ago, I exchanged several emails with David and found him to be the ‘real deal’—genuinely nice and earnestly interested in helping other authors. On top of that, he is incredibly hard working, yet down to earth.
I realize his post is long, but it’s well worth the read for any aspiring author hoping to chart a course to success. Obviously, not everyone can write twenty books in four years (I’m still amazed that anyone can do that), yet the fundamental message remains the same—pursue your passion with your whole heart, work hard, never give up, and good things will happen. —Scott
Due to the explosion of ebooks and the destruction of publishing barriers, there are now literally thousands of Indie authors all screaming at the top of their lungs that their books are worth reading. That’s pretty daunting if you’re trying to make your book(s) stand out amongst the crowd. When I started seriously writing four years ago, I was CLUELESS as to what I was really getting into. And yet, somehow, some way, I’ve managed to “make it” after a zillion mistakes, a lot of hard work, and plenty of good old-fashioned luck. Although I don’t pretend to have all the answers or the magic bullet for success, here’s my story along with a few tips that have helped me get from bored fulltime accountant who liked to write stories to fulltime Indie author. Roll back the tape of my life. I hated being an accountant. Desperately hated it. Long hours, high stress, corporate politics. So I quit my job and switched to another desk job that I’d heard would be less hours and less stress. I had two weeks off in between, and my Aussie wife asked what I was going to do with my break. “Uh, sit on the beach?” I said. She gave me that raised-eyebrow look and said, “Why don’t you start writing that book you always talk about?”
Although the thought of even looking at my laptop during my vacation gave me a stomachache, I listened to her pointed advice. I did it. I started writing. She hasn’t been able to get me to stop since. In four years I’ve written twenty books and published sixteen of them. Two years in I was able to quit my boring day job to pursue my dreams: I became a fulltime fiction writer.
My first trilogy was a huge success, right? Um, no. Not even close. When I published The Evolution Trilogy (a unique non-religious spin on angels and demons) a year after I started working on it, I was ready. Ready for success. Ready for a big payoff from all my hard work. I’d been reading about Amanda Hocking’s success as an Indie author and I said, “Hey, why not me?” Well, because my writing wasn’t good enough. My book idea was awesome and unique and had huge potential, but my writing was amateurish, sloppy, and in desperate need of a good editor. While I wouldn’t say The Evolution Trilogy bombed (it has sold 3,000 books in 4 years), it didn’t come anywhere near my expectations, and it most definitely wasn’t paying any real bills. The reviews were mediocre at best, which was a major reality check. Writing wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. At first I was heartbroken. Thousands of hours of hard work down the drain. All that hope dashed on the rocky coastline of failure. I didn’t have what it takes—never would.
I’m the type of person that hates failure. I don’t like losing, especially at something that I love. And I LOVE writing. That’s a major key to success as an Indie author. If your goals (like mine were) are to make millions and be rich and famous, then you’re in the wrong business.Most of us will make a few bucks here and there, and a lucky few will be able to scrape out a living. Even fewer still (the Amanda Hocking’s, Elle Casey’s and Hugh Howey’s of the world) will hit it big. Right now I’m in the middle category—scraping out a living. I’m not complaining, I’d rather scrape out a living as a writer than be earning six digits a year in some job I hate. I’m happy.
My second series was the one that allowed me to quit my day job. Originally I planned another trilogy, but eventually the project turned into a 7-book epic series that combined two separate trilogies, The Dwellers Saga and The Country Saga, in a 7th book that brought characters and plotlines together. So far it’s sold in excess of 30,000 copies in just over two years.
That brings me to another key for success: Building your backlist. Unless you’re extremely lucky and far more talented than me, writing one book a year like most traditionally published authors simply won’t cut it as an Indie. I wrote and published the 7 books in the Dwellers/Country Saga in 20 months. By that point I’d written 1 million words in three years. There are a few good reasons for writing and publishing like a fiend. One, practice is the only way to get better. By having a crazy-aggressive writing schedule you’ll force yourself to improve. Two, every new reader multiplies your potential sales. Suddenly a new reader doesn’t mean just one sale. It means a potential sale for every single one of your books, particularly if your books are in a series. It also means you can magnify the impact of giving away free copies of your books. I’ll pretty much give away an ebook of The Moon Dwellers to anyone who wants one. Why? Because if they like it, they might buy the other SIX books in the series! Quick side note: the BEST way to give away free ebooks is buy making your book free on Kindle through Amazon’s KDP Select program. The BEST way to advertise that is via BookBub, which seems extremely expensive but which is WELL worth the money. As an example, I advertised The Moon Dwellers for FREE on BookBub and had 30,000+ downloads in three days. Then I did Fire Country a month later and had 27,000+ downloads. Obviously, I made zero royalties from these downloads, but sales of the sequels took off, and I had four straight months of 2,000+ full price sales. These months changed my life. You might have tried BookBub. You might have been rejected multiple times. I was too. They are extremely selective, which is also what makes them so valuable. Keep trying. Continue to build your reviews on Amazon. If you can get over 100 with a decent average rating, that’ll give you a chance at being accepted by BookBub. Don’t give up!
So you’re probably thinking the Dwellers Saga was an instant success, right? Try again. My third year as an Indie was decent, far better than I ever could have expected. Although I wasn’t making enough to live on, my wife and I had savings and we decided to quit our jobs to make a go of my dream, with her as my editor. A big risk, but that’s what life is anyway: one massive risk. My writing was improving, and I wasn’t going it alone anymore. I’d learned the hard lesson that good writing takes work. It also takes serious criticism from serious critics. I started using a beta reading team, and I stopped brushing negative feedback aside as “Just one person’s opinion.” I realized my writing sort of sucked and that I needed to learn how to improve it. I focused on every single sentence, every single chapter. Making them tighter. Making them better. I read books on writing, like Stephen King’s On Writing and Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel. I improved with each book, and my readers noticed. They appreciated my efforts. They were fully along for the ride.
Partway through the third year I started a Goodreads fan group. Right off the bat I had 300 members. Woohoo!! I was ecstatic. Over the moon. Six months later I was churning out the sequels to The Moon Dwellers and I still had around 300 members. What? I couldn’t understand why my membership wasn’t growing. The Dwellers Saga was getting great reviews, but my fan group was dead. No activity. No interest. I decided to change things up. My biggest problem was that I made the group all about me. And who was I? Nobody. Just another person who writes books, another tree in the forest. So I changed things up. I made the group all about books. My books, someone else’s books, reading in general. Anything was fair game. It became a place where anyone could hang out and talk about their interests, passions, and experiences. The group started growing and now has more than 2,600 members, many of whom have never, and may never, read my books, which is perfectly fine by me, so long as they read other books. You see, it’s NOT all about you as a writer. It’s about READERS. The more readers we have, the more readers enjoy reading, the better it is for everyone. Become part of a book community, not for the purpose of selling your books, but because you love books like all the other people. I recommend Goodreads, but there are many others out there. Take it seriously. Participate in discussions. Make friends. Don’t spam about your book. Readers will realize you’re a valuable member of the community and they’ll click on your profile and discover you’re an author and get EXCITED about that fact and potentially try your books. I’ve had numerous people message me on Goodreads to say they’ve been my friend for over a year and never knew I was an author, but loved all the book recommendations I gave them (books that weren’t mine!). In most cases they said they’d give my books a shot.
Year four. The best year. Part luck. Part hard work. Part good timing. The Dwellers Saga was listed as one of 15 Series to Read if you Enjoyed The Hunger Games on Buzzfeed. Sales shot up. A couple movie inquiries came in, as well as a TV inquiry (nothing has panned out so far, but it’s still cool!). An agent contacted me and eventually signed me. I wrote another trilogy, Brew, and although it had interest from publishers including a purchase offer, my agent and I decided to sign on with Amazon White Glove. Brew, and its sequel, Boil, hit the top ten on genre bestseller lists almost immediately. I stopped eating away at our savings and started paying bills with my royalties—ALL our bills. It could happen to you, but don’t expect it to. Expect to have to fight for every reader. Treat every reader like your ONLY reader. Be generous with your free books, especially the first book in a series. Never stop writing. Never. Do it because you love it and good things will follow.
Never give up.