The recipe for indie publishing success is well known. To become a bestselling author who rakes in the dough every month, you need to obey the following principles:
- Write in a hot genre that readers want and you can do
- Create a deep series — at least 5, preferably more books
- Produce high-quality cover for each book
- Have the manuscripts professionally edited and formatted
- Design a website to capture emails for your mailing list
- Build a mailing list by luring leads with a reader magnet
- Connect to readers using your mailing list and social media accounts
- Set up passive marketing channels: Amazon profiles, blurbs, social media accounts
- Prepare active marketing campaigns: emails, interviews, blog posts, social media posts
- Rapid release schedule: publish a book at least once a month, no less than once every two months
- Boost numbers and grab attention with marketing and advertisements
- Run promotions on a semi-regular basis
- Write MOAR!
- Repeat the process
It’s a complex process, but it’s been proven to work for many authors. With a deep enough backlist, you can scale back your publishing schedule and make up the numbers with targeted advertisements and promotions. However, this approach has a few drawbacks.
The first is cost. High-end custom-illustrated cover art starts at USD 500, possibly double or triple that for complex genres like science fiction and fantasy. You can halve the costs by working with stock images, but you might not necessarily get the results you want.
Editing, formatting, and advertising costs also add up. If you want quality work — and you should, if you’re swinging for the big leagues — then budget another five hundred USD on editing alone. More if you have a longer book or need more complex edits. Throw in at least five hundred more to cover formatting and advertising.
All told, expect to spend between two to four (even up to five) thousand USD on a book before launch.
The second is time. All this non-writing work takes time. You need to organically build engagement on your blog, website, Twitter, whichever social media accounts you use to interact with others. You have to do it, because nobody will buy your books if they’ve never heard of you. Time you spend on non-writing stuff is time you are not using to build your deep series.
Concurrent with time costs is energy costs. Energy spent on anything outside the core business cannot be used for anything else. If you commit to this process, you need to rearrange your life so that you have the energy to build your brand and write your books and do everything else you need to do.
The third factor is luck. More precisely, external circumstances outside of your control.
This system is built upon a current-day understanding of Amazon’s algorithms and processes. Rapid release is crucial because Amazon’s algorithms will only support a book through its first 30 days of launch (and now I’m hearing it’s just 14); after that, the book’s sales ranks will plummet in favour of new books. Advertising compensates for this by boosting awareness after the initial period, and by heightening awareness during the 30-day window.
If Amazon changes its algorithms, this system may not hold any more. If you fail to grab a coveted Bookbub promo spot, your advertising efforts won’t go as far. If you land a spot with a second- or third-tier advertiser but see no returns on investment, you’ve just thrown money down a hole.
The modern indie author is therefore in a precarious situation. If he wants to go big, then he must start his publishing blitz thousands of dollars in the hole, and after investing how many hundreds or thousands of hours in his book. He is staking that his advertising and marketing efforts will cover his costs and deliver huge profits. He is hoping that the external environment will remain more or less stable when he hits the publish button.
He is pursuing a high-cost strategy in hopes of an even higher reward.
He can reduce that cost by going to a publisher. However, these days, it is very difficult to land a contract with Big Publishing. If you don’t have an agent, don’t have connections, don’t have the right skin colour and politics, and don’t care about high royalties, this is not an option for you.
Small publishers, on the other hand, face the same constraints as you. The publishers I’ve worked with have tight production budgets for every book. Don’t expect them to create awesome covers — though you should demand that they produce good covers and edit in-house.
Publishing houses take on the costs of editing, cover art, formatting, and marketing in exchange for a cut of the royalties. However, these days, the author must also share the marketing burden.
Indie presses may be an option for some authors, especially those fortunate enough to sign up with a well-resourced publishing house capable of following the system described above.
But for the rest, making money is going to be difficult.
And for me, it’s even more difficult to follow the system.
Singapore does not have a tax treaty with the United States. Taxes on income from royalties is calculated based on the laws of the country where these royalties originate from. This means that royalties from Amazon and other major book distributors are subject to 30% tax withholding.
Not only that, Amazon does not perform Electronic Funds Transfer to Singapore. They send paper cheques from Chase Morgan in the mail. When I do deposit a cheque, my bank will take no less than twenty-one working days to process it.
And it charges a fee for currency conversion.
All told, it could take up to three months for me to receive royalties from Amazon. Where Americans receive 70 percent of the royalties, I will only receive 49 percent — less currency conversion fees.
This is not a recipe for financial success.
Amazon’s closest competitor, Smashwords, pays monthly using PayPal. But it is again bound by American tax regulations, and issues only 49 percent of royalties to me. The same applies to all other American-based ebook retailers.
If I’m going to make a career out of writing, I can’t do what everyone else is doing. My circumstances are not the same as theirs. There is certainly much I can learn from them, but so long as I am tied to the Amazon infrastructure, I will make much less money and will need much more time than those authors.
If I’m going to succeed at writing, I need to change the rules of the game.
The Rules and the Principles
The game is to make money. Enough money to achieve financial freedom for myself and my family. To win at this game I need a business. To figure out my business model, I need to start with strengths and weaknesses. In the plus column, I have the following:
- Pulp Speed: facilitate rapid release
- Higher quality of writing than the average indie writer
- Intimately familiar with various SFF and thriller genres: able to write to market in these genres
- In-depth knowledge of violence and combat: supports action and adventure stories
- Connections to other authors and influencers
- Creativity: able to place a fresh spin on old tropes
- Ability to bridge cultures, peoples, genres
- Geoarbitrage: USD earnings are worth more than SGD equivalent
On the minus side, I have these limitations:
- Lack of funds
- Small and inactive mailing list
- Lack of experience with advertising and marketing
- Lack of time to focus on backend stuff
- Geoarbitrage: USD costs are far higher than SGD equivalent
A lot of these issues can be solved by the simple expedient of having more money. Money buys the ability to attract more people, and the time I need to build my brand.
A situation analysis would include an assessment of opportunities and threats as well. I’ve described the threats above. As for opportunities:
- Indie publishing is still more financially rewarding than tradpub contracts, especially in Singapore
- Ability to write in several hot genres, to adapt writing to those genres
- Current publishing environment favours pulp speed and profligacy
- Current Internet environment favours the use of social media
- Rise of other distribution platforms
Making money is simple. Leverage your strengths to capitalise on opportunities, shore up weaknesses, and minimise exposure to threats.
To do this, you need to obey the following principles:
- Do not lose money. It is far harder to recover from loss than it is to make more money.
- Asymmetric advantage. Identify and exploit opportunities that allow you to make outsized gains for minimal costs.
- Value. Always seek to deliver value to your audience.
- Growth. Always seek to grow your skills, audience, product catalogue, etc. in line with the above principles.
- Compound effects and funnels. Create positive compound effects through careful curation and develop of portfolios and backlists
- Be unlimited. Never place limits on your own abilities and growth.
Armed with knowledge and principles, I can outline my business model for the future.
Crowdfunding will continue to be a huge component of my publishing strategy. I am not in a position where I can confidently plunk down thousands of dollars on book publishing. If I did that, I’d only be able to publish perhaps once or twice a year — or I’d have to compromise the quality of my cover and formatting.
The allure of crowdfunding is that if successful, it satisfies the first rule of wealth: do not lose money. By starting a publishing run in the black, I have far more options available to me than if I started in the red.
With that said, if all you do is focus on not losing money, you will not make money either. The mindset needed to make money goes beyond just not-losing.
My Kickstarter campaign for Dungeon Samurai was a reasonable success, with 29 backers pledging $1105. With the funds, I commissioned three covers, print and ebook; hired a professional formatter; and shipped the print books. I had a small surplus at the end of it, enough to motivate me to continue writing (and cover some other expenses.)
The campaign for Babylon Blues was an even greater success, with 43 backers pledging $1282. However, costs had sharply escalated, as I chose to commission some of the higher-end professionals in the field. Between that and shipping, I spent every last cent I received from the Kickstarter.
These campaigns were instructive. To make money, not just not-lose money, I need to adjust my price strategy, costs and funding goals going forward.
With that said, crowdfunding books this way isn’t necessarily optimal for me. My plan is to publish a series in 2020. It will be crowdfunded — the only question is how.
If I crowdfund it one book at a time, then I can only push out maybe one or two books this year. With such a long downtime between books, Amazon will not boost visibility of the entire series. Without visibility, there goes the possibility of easy long-term profit. I will need to rely on advertising and price promotions instead — but advertising is also out of the question, courtesy of current finances.
If I crowdfund the entire series at once, then I can embark on a rapid publication strategy, which is more likely to attract higher revenue. This also comes with increased risk, however; I will have to hit the funding goal before I can see a single cent of the money.
I’m still working on the answer, in between editing the series. Going forward from this, I’m thinking of changing the game.
Patreon, Buy Me A Coffee, Ko-Fi and other platforms allow people to back a creator on a regular basis. At this stage in my life, having a regular income would be a very nice thing to have.
By leveraging Pulp Speed, I can quickly pump out a huge amount of prose. I can marry the update schedule of a Chinese or Korean webnovel, with the length and sophistication of an old school pulp serial. With Steemit and other related blockchain-based platforms, I could also earn additional income through cryptocurrency for little extra cost.
Switching to webserials posted on a regular schedule, as opposed to pumping out full-length novels one at a time, might be a viable alternative. It is something I intend to explore further.
If you had to choose between receiving 49% royalties after 3 months, or receiving 95% of royalties (less processing fees) in an instant, the choice is obvious, right?
Which is why I am restarting my ebook store.
Payhip pays 95% of the list price, less processing fees. It’s much better than Amazon or Smashwords. Of course, going direct means that I don’t benefit from Amazon’s other features, just as starred reviews or series or search engines.
I’m not an Internet guru. I can’t point people to my website and confidently expect to make a lot of money. Amazon and Smashwords will still be part of my distribution platforms, but I will direct my traffic to my direct sales page.
Going forward, I’ll likely need to switch to a more user-friendly platform. But for now, it’s good enough.
Kobo is interesting. It offers the same 70% royalties Amazon does. But, being a Canadian company, it isn’t subject to the IRS’ 30% tax withholding rule.
On the other hand, even with Smashwords’ expanded distribution, Kobo currently constitutes exactly 0% of my book sales.
Kobo is an interesting option to explore in the future, but it’s not a priority right now.
Author Services and Nonfiction
Now we step outside the fiction box and fully explore what else I can offer to others.
With a Hugo and Dragon Award nomination, and seven novels available, I have a wealth of experience and expertise to share with others. Branching out into nonfiction and other services is a natural fit.
Enter my author services page. Currently I offer manuscript reading services, one-off coaching calls and long-term coaching programmes. I have helped a number of my fellow writers to achieve greatness in their stories, and now I offer this same help to any writer who wants a leg up in their work.
Be it an authenticity reader, a problem-solving consult, or a long-term coaching program, my services are scalable and suit the needs of any author out there.
In addition, I will also work on a series of writing guides. Focusing on the craft of fiction, each book will be an inch wide and a mile deep, passing on the wisdom of the ancient pulp grandmasters and interpreting them for the modern market.
I’ve been told that there isn’t much demand for such guides and services. I intend to prove otherwise.
Win the Game
The goal is to win the money game. It’s to create a life of financial freedom, allowing me and my loved ones to live life on our terms.
Writing — fiction and nonfiction — is only a small part of what I do, of course. I don’t expect it to make a huge amount of money off the bat. But I can set things up now to reap the rewards later.
The do this, I aim to implement Brian Niemeier’s neo-patronage model in alignment with hard-won wisdom from other marketing experts. Reduce reliance on Amazon, establish a position on other platforms, and speak directly to patrons — to the readers I write for.
Tradpub is broken. The conventional indie publishing wisdom won’t work for me. The only thing left to do is to change the game and find something that works.
Faith, firefights and demons in neon-drenched streets. If cyberpunk action horror is up your alley, check out BABYLON BLUES here!
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