Every time I say, “I’m never going to do this,” I end up doing that very thing.
When I was an undergrad majoring in horticulture and minoring in writing, I kept saying, “I have no interest in writing gardening books.” Ever since I started sending out novels in 1995, I said, “No, I am not going to self-publish my books, are you nuts? I’m going to be traditionally published and have an editor.” And, of course, “Why do I need to write to market? People will love my literary YA novels.”
Well, now I have 21 self-published books out, and I make the bulk of my writing income from my nine gardening books. They’re outstripping, by miles and miles, my royalties from my one traditionally published book (on which I’ve earned $92 so far). And I’m releasing my first book in a series about Vikings! and dragons! whilst busily writing book #2.
I got into self-publishing because my faith in myself and my writing had been shot full of holes (as I said, I’ve been sending stuff out since 1995), and because one of my buddies said that one of his books took off and he was able to make a decent living off it for a while. If he could do it, I could too! I wasn’t getting any younger, and I had a crapload of finished novels sitting on my laptop doing nothing. What did I have to lose?
I came across two strokes of luck early on. One of my friends recommended that I join An Alliance of Young Adult Authors on FB, where I was surrounded by YA authors who were ranking up some serious sales numbers on their books. Here is a blog post about the differences between emerging authors and the authors who earn 100K. It contains some very useful numbers that have helped me set a few attainable goals: https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/2017/06/07/100k-author/
Here are the main differences. Authors who make over 100K:
- Have been publishing books for at least 3 years (i.e. they’ve been building a backlist)
- Are generally working in self-publishing, not traditional publishing
- Have professional book covers and professional editing
- Pay for advertising and do their marketing partly in FB and Amazon ads
- Spend about 28 hours a week writing!
- Average about 30 books in their catalog
When I was starting out in self-publishing, there were some things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t afford book covers. (I could at least do my own proofreading, as that is my day job). I could pay for a few Amazon ads, albeit small ones. I couldn’t do anything about writing for three years until I put in the time. But! I could raise my weekly writing time, and I could shoot for 30 books in my backlist. I could save up my funds and get a professional book cover for some of my books as I went along. I got a $200 cover for Butterfly Chaos, which I consider my best book.
In my quest to reach 30 books, I was already ahead of the game. I had all those old novels cooling their heels on my laptop. So I made covers for them on Canva, learned to format my book interiors (which I find to be a lot of fun), and just put them all out in the world.
My main sellers are my gardening books (which I’m really pushing hard right now, since it’s spring). In some ways, it’s helped that I have diversified, as those books are my bread and butter. On the other hand, it’s really snarled up my marketing. I probably should have written my gardening books under a pen name. But it might be a little too late now to change it.
Then my other lucky break came when I got an Alphasmart Neo.
These little machines are a writer’s dream. It’s basically a little keyboard with a tiny screen that is tough to edit on. It runs on three AA batteries and was built for schoolkids, so you can sit on it and kick it and it still works great. I can lay in bed and write while I’m going to sleep, I can write when I’m waiting for lunch, sitting in the car, everywhere that you have a lap for a keyboard. And that’s raised my word count considerably. Then I plug the Neo into my laptop and transfer my files for editing.
Whatever you are shooting for, I highly recommend getting one of these Alphasmarts for yourself. You can get a good one for $15 ($24 shipping and handling).
If you’re frustrated because you have a book you love that the agents and editors keep passing by, try self-publishing it while you’re sending out your other queries. Start learning how to make a book – how to market – start building a newsletter and audience. Each of these topics deserves a couple of posts on their own, and I strongly believe that even traditionally published authors need to learn these things. Traditionally published authors generally make 10 to 15 percent royalties after advance – I make 50 to 70 percent royalties, depending on which channel my paperback or ebook is sold through.
Stay tuned for my next post on building an audience and creating a mailing list and newsletter. Because if you have a mailing list, you can lose your publisher or Facebook can fold, and you’d still have your audience.
Melinda R. Cordell graduated from Hamline in 2012, and three weeks later had her son. It was quite a time. She has self-published 21 books since September 2016. Her next book, co-authored with Pauline Creeden, is called THE FLAME OF BATTLE and will be out on May 29. http://melindacordell.com/