What Makes A Financially Successful Indie?

Can you dream a blog post?  I swear I was dreaming about this question when my alarm went off this morning.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately given that I, of course, would like to be one of them.  All those idealistic inkslingers who want to live the starving artist existence and not sell out for commercial profit (do those exist anymore?)–yeah, I’m not one of them.  Doesn’t lessen what I do any.  It just means I’m realistic and honest when I say I want to make a living doing it.  Nobody grows up and says “I want to work three jobs to make ends meet when I grow up!” So it is of fundamental interest to me what makes a financially successful indie.

The first example that springs to mind is, of course, J.A. Konrath, who is perhaps the most visible poster boy for the indie movement. It is regularly tossed around that he’ll be making 100k from epublishing on Amazon this year.  Many naysayers prefer to attribute this to his already established fanbase from having been a successful midlist author with his Jack Daniels series and his lengthy and impressive list of publicity feats.  And maybe this had something to do with it.  But he also was able to release a number of titles fairly close together.  He’s prolific.  As he’s able to write full time, he has the time to be.

Then there’s Karen McQuestion, less well known, no prior following from an established backlist of titles. Yet she’s making comparable money on her assorted titles.  From what I’ve gathered, she simultaneously released several things at once (or perhaps really close together).  She had a number of pieces just hanging around that she decided to polish up and put out herself.  She has six titles out, last I checked.

And now the latest success story, which I was delighted to hear about, is Amanda Hocking, who, with her latest release rocketed all the way up to number 25 in the entire Kindle store. Amanda’s story I find particularly interesting.  She didn’t put her first Kindle book out until FEBRUARY THIS YEAR.  FEBRUARY!  Like 7 months ago!  And it’s looking like she’s going to make 9-10k JUST in the month of August.  She’s turned in notice at her job.  Congratulations, Amanda!  She has 5 titles out.  It doesn’t appear she just had a lot of already written stuff lying around to release.  She really does apparently write that fast.

So what’s the commonality here?

Well, presumably all of them put out well-written, well-edited stuff to begin with.  Crap is not going to sell well, at least not for long.  All of them have consistently good reviews.   So the quality of their work goes without saying as a given.

The other consistent theme here is multiple titles. Particularly multiple titles out in a short span of time.  I find this both unsurprising and a little depressing.  I’m not surprised because once readers latch on to an author they like, they keep an eye out for the next books out by that author.  The faster the author can produce said books, the happier readers are.  Indies, not being bound by the constraints of traditional publishing, can satisfy readers in a matter of months instead of a year or more.

It’s a little depressing because, well, I just can’t do that.  I’ve got too much on my plate to turn out more than a couple of titles a year.  And this year those couple of titles are both short.  Novella and novelette (though, if you’ve been following me at all, you know that this is not at all a normal year for me).  I have no idea how prolific I might be if I could write full time.  I haven’t been in that position since I was in college and still had time for daily afternoon naps (oh how I miss afternoon naps!).

One thing is clear, they key to making decent money at self publishing centers around having multiple, well-written, well-edited titles out–no matter how long it takes you to get there.

Of course there’s still the issue of effective promo, but that’s a topic for another post.

I need to get back to work.

16 thoughts on “What Makes A Financially Successful Indie?

  1. Another writer and I were just talking about this the other day (she’s published with small presses, I’m going indie). The key to both, it seems is backlist, backlist, backlist. From what I’ve seen, the indies making money at it have at least three books out (stories, really…length doesn’t seem to matter as much with self-pub). I like to think of it like perennial garden plants – first year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap (replace year with “book”).

    I hate to burst your bubble ’cause I know it’s a sore spot, but I’ve seen some less than quality work out there by indies who are making good cash on books that really should be run through another round or two of edits (IMO). These authors have developed a readership that is loyal…and as you said, they produce on a consistent and often basis. Who knows how large that readership is, but they have one that pays the bills. I like to think that means people who actually take the time to produce good, well-edited prose are going to do that much better.

    I’ve mapped out my plan for the next year to include three novels out by this time next year (just have my novella out now), and then under a pen name a host of short stories leading into two anthologies. I have no idea if that will get me to where I want to be (ahem, working for myself, at home), but that’s the plan.

    I don’t have three jobs though either, just the one day job plus writing. I really don’t think it matters too much how fast you publish though as long as you’re consistent…so I don’t see why that should affect you much at all – you’re already doing well with two titles out this year… 🙂

    1. Well not quite got the second one out. Must get off my ass and finish that last push this week! I’m hoping to have Devil’s Eye ready to release sometime in September. I like that analogy about perennials–sleep, creep, and leap. 😀

    2. I love the perennials analogy! I’m really frustrated by my creeper today, but there’s some inspiration to keep going.

      So, do you guys also believe there’s a major marketing component there too, or do you think it’s mainly good titles and lots of them?

      1. I think marketing certainly doesn’t hurt as long as it’s not annoying marketing, but in the long run the work sells itself. Kerry Allen is totally proof of that. She has wonderful fiction and her fans (myself being a big one) spread the word for her. I think there’s a happy medium in terms of getting the most bang for your marketing buck (or minute if time is money).

      2. I agree with Kait – obviously there needs to be some initial push to get the word out to your regular readers and friends, but after that, I think it’s largely word of mouth that does the selling. An occasional reminder certainly doesn’t hurt, but constant marketing just gets annoying (and I really don’t think it helps either).

        Social networking helps a lot though, IMO – just being yourself, and interacting with people. 🙂

  2. Part of my problem is that I’m so tired at the end of the day, I have trouble focusing on writing. Any suggestions to cure that little problem? Writers that work full time jobs (or more) have so many challenges. I also think when you have more time to devote to something, you can be so much better at it. Kait, you amaze me at what all you do. And I imagine you are really good at every bit of it. I know you’re good at the writing part. :0)

    And yay to Amanda for turning in her notice!

    1. One suggestion I have, if you’re able to write from an outline, is to break the work up into blocks you can manage in your schedule. So you know in the morning that today, the next block is going to be yadda yadda in which xyz happens, and you need to show blah blah blah. Keep that in your head during the day for your brain to play with. Not the whole story, but just one section. Hopefully, when you get home, that will be well simmered and ready to put on the table. (This is crockpot theory from the crackpot, but really, what would you expect from Pot?) Dive into it, write it down, put it away. You don’t have to do any more, nor do you have to angst over whether it’s good enough. File it and take a look at what’s up for tomorrow.

        1. Yes, we’re both outliney folks. So yeah, I know what I need to work on, percolate before I sit down to write and that helps a lot of the time. But yeah I get it. It’s HARD to focus after a long day at work. I try to get my words in during my lunch break or in fits and starts during the work day as I hit a lag. Obviously that doesn’t work for a lot of people depending on what their job IS. I live at a computer, so it’s easier for me to do that.

  3. Backlist is key, I think. This year, I will have one novella, one anthology, and one novel out. Next year, I almost triple that output. Luckily, I am able to write full time, and my co-author only works 20 hours a week, so we have a lot of time available to create that backlist. I’d like to see us able to draw a decent living by year three.

    It takes time. That’s what I’ve noticed. The successes weren’t really overnight successes. It also depends on genre. I’m genre hopping like whoa. This year, it’s all M/M. Next year, it’s M/M, poly (M/M/M/F), and F/F. Year three, it’s a complete mixed back with us finally embracing single M/F pairings in our fiction. I think having that range will work for us, so long as we produce consistent and quality work (which I’m committed to doing).

    I’ve a treasure trove of ideas, and I’m pretty prolific, but it’s this initial year that’s dragging. *chuckles* We produce all of our titles in e-book and print (though some later than others), and I think that also will help. I can’t tell you the number of times I was told when I released The Keeper, “Oh, if only it were in print, I would have bought it.” Well, wait a little while and it will be! I promise! XD

  4. I’ve been thinking about this too because I’m not an extremely fast writer-more of a fits and starts kind of gal. Also, I kinda suck at writing shorter fiction. I’m trying that right now and I just keep adding scene after scene after scene. What I do have are loads of humorous essays (David Sedaris type stuff), some even already compiled in a book and well edited. Do I put that out? They are far from the genre that I’m trying to build a fan base in…so do I want to spend the (limited) time I have to try to build another? All stuff to think on and worry over when I could be working on my next book. LOL

    1. If they’re done, put them out. Karen McQuestion has stuff in several genres and it hasn’t hurt her any. I think everything helps some in getting your name more visible!

  5. Ugh, I could have written this post! I can’t finish a thing this year.

    I actually think I’m blocking myself from finishing because I know that will lead to editing and I can’t afford to hire an editor right now. I spend more time stressing about finding people to help me edit than I do actually writing. It’s very sad LOL I actually write quite fast, it’s just the editing that stalls everything. Some people can get away with less than stellar editing but I’m not that brave. 🙂

    A lot of people are saying series sell the most. That’s pretty understandable but I think part of success is about the personality behind the books, how accessible they are to their fans and how they take advantage of social networking opportunities. I’m not good at “connecting” and I truly believe that would hold me back even if I wrote the best book of all time. 🙂

    Most important factor (imo) is probably word of mouth recommendations. Readers will sell more copies of a book with a mention than the author ever could.

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