Writing to market: or, can I make money self-publishing?

February 21, 2016 Publishing/marketing, Writing musings 0

There’s a lot of discussion amongst authors about whether it’s possible to make any money from writing books. Pundits suck their teeth and shake their heads and stroke their chins in gloom. Typical advances for a deal with a traditional publisher are only a few thousand, we hear, even if you’re lucky enough to get any offer at all. The average book sells only 500 copies, ever. Even modest successes sell only a few thousand in the book’s lifetime.

So self-publishing is the way to go, right? That lovely 70% royalty that Amazon offers – there must be money to made there, surely. More chin-stroking and tut-tutting ensues. Self-publishers, they’ll tell you, fight for visibility in the vast, shark-infested ocean of Amazon and what about average sales of a self-published book? Just 100. Ever. The classic advice is: think of it as a hobby.

Well, rubbish. Can you make money self-publishing? Yes. You can. Unequivocally.


Ah, you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you? There’s always a catch. Well, it’s not really a catch, so much as a couple of rules. Or maybe guidelines. Here they are:

1) Write something that people want to read

Well, duh! Talk about stating the obvious. Of course you have to write something that people want to read. If you craft poetry in iambic pentameter, your audience is necessarily going to be limited. If you put forth your highly original genre-mashup, you may well find the world isn’t quite ready for you yet. But how many readers are looking for another Harry Potter? Or Twilight? Or {insert bestseller here}? Must be millions, and that’s exactly what the big publishers are looking for, too – something that will sell a lot.

However, you’d be surprised how often an author’s first novel isn’t aimed at any particular reader. It’s the story that’s been burning inside the author’s brain for months or years, the one that has to be told, that won’t let up until it’s transcribed to paper for all eternity. It’s the one the author most wants to read herself, probably because she can’t find anything quite like it in bookstores. And that’s absolutely fine. However unusual it is, there are bound to be a few readers out there waiting for something just like it to happen along.

Just not very many. Sometimes an author just happens to hit a home run at the first attempt even without aiming at Harry Potter fans, but it’s extremely rare. As a rule of thumb, assume your magnum opus isn’t in this category.

So if you want to make money, whether it’s a comfortable income so you can give up the day job, a little extra to pay for a new car, or just enough to cover your publishing costs, your readership has to be more focused, and you have to give them what they want to read. What a lot of them want to read.

2) Publish often

This is where traditional publishing veers away from the indie brigade. With a trad deal, one book a year is the norm, and each book takes a year or two, maybe more, to reach the point of publication, even after the manuscript has been handed over. But that’s fine, because a committed publisher will drum up loads of publicity for each new release, so an author doesn’t have to worry about readers forgetting all about him.

But for indies, visibility is key, and one of the best ways to increase visibility is to release another book. And then another. If you could publish a book every month, you’d always have one in that honeymoon new-release phase. Even for notoriously slow-release genres like epic fantasy, two or even three books a year is a good idea to keep the pot boiling.

But… but… but… I hear you saying. But I can’t possibly do that! I have to polish every word until it’s perfect. I have to give it a thorough editing. I have to plan and plot and outline and develop my characters and then there’s all that world-building… If I write fast, it can’t possibly be any good, can it?

Ah, the quality issue. Here’s the thing. If you want to write exquisite prose, feel free to do that, even if it takes you ten years to produce something that satisfies you. But if you only aspire to prose that’s good enough to carry the story without being breathtaking, you can do that in a lot less than ten years. And experience counts for a great deal; each book will be finished a little bit quicker than the previous one, as you hone your craft and perfect your methods.

The solution: writing to market, and writing fast

For anyone who’s serious about making significant money from self-publishing, there are techniques that will make that outcome more likely. There are no guarantees, of course, but if you write to market, and write fast, you greatly increase the odds of a good income from your books. Writing to market means analysing the bestseller lists in your genre and identifying the key tropes (or storytelling conventions) in them. Then you write a book that sticks very closely to those tropes, package it in a similar way to the bestsellers and send it on its way. And then repeat, since a series is more effective than stand-alones. Writing fast means exactly that: increase your productivity. The fastest authors can write 10,000 words a day or more, which means producing a novel a week. But even 1,000 words a day will result in a 60,000 word novel in two months – that’s six books a year.

If you want all the detail of how to do this, author Chris Fox has published some books to help. 5,000 Words Per Hour will help increase writing speed, and Write To Market explains how to analyse the bestseller lists and target your book at a specific (but large!) audience. And Chris isn’t just talking about it: he’s currently committed to writing a novel in just 21 days, and documenting every step of it on video, starting today (Sunday 21st February 2016). You can follow along from Chris’s website here.


And there’s still the slow but steady approach

For those who don’t want to go the full-on writing-to-market way, it’s still possible to build a profitable self-publishing career. It may take longer, but it can be done. I don’t have the ability to analyse tropes, or to write to them even if I could, so I’m stuck with writing what I like and hoping it will fly, but I can still make sure I have genre-appropriate covers and blurbs, for example. And categories. When I released my first book, I mistakenly labelled it as romance. Now, it has a romantic element, it’s true, but it’s not something that a romance reader would expect, at all. And when I had a promotion that got it up into some sub-genre bestseller lists, it felt very uncomfortable to see it lurking amongst all the werewolves and half-naked men. So I took it out of the romance categories.

As for writing speed, this is something that generally improves with time and experience, but I’ve also been making a concerted effort to increase my productivity. I used to think 1,000 words in a day was a good effort; now I aim for 1,500-2,000. How do I manage it? One of the tips in Chris’s 5,000 Words Per Hour book is to write in short bursts, or sprints. You plan ahead what you’re going to write, and then you sit down and write it, fast, without thinking too much about it. I’m not much of a planner, and I can’t switch off the editing side of my brain as I write, but the idea of short sprints appeals to me. So I’ll set a kitchen timer and write for 15 minutes or half an hour between chores. To facilitate that, I bought a hybrid laptop/tablet to cart around the house with me, so I can stop and write wherever I am. There’s never a point now where I think: I haven’t time to write a few lines. I can always find time.

The other trick I’m trying is to write shorter books. My first book was 220K words, or enough for a complete trilogy (which is probably what I should have done with it). Then 151K, 157K, 164K and 137K. The next book, The Dragon’s Egg, weighs in at only 100K words, much leaner. And the Regencies I’m working on will be around 50-60K words apiece.

With an approach like this, it’s possible to write and publish at least three books a year. That’s enough to build a solid backlist that, even if nothing makes bestseller status, will still bring in a comfortable income.

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