Defying the Odds (And the Naysayers)

I keep hearing that breakout success is harder and harder. I’ve even heard that it isn’t possible, not like it was two years ago when WOOL took off. Don’t tell that to A.G. Riddle, whose ATLANTIS GENE debuted last year and has sold several hundred thousand copies. And don’t tell that to Matthew Mather, whose ATOPIA CHRONICLES has sold hundreds of thousands as well and was picked up by 47 North and landed a film deal.

That’s just two examples in my genre. And from the last two years! In that same time, I’ve watched several others in the mystery/thriller and romance genres go from nothing to the top of the bestseller lists. How about Jasinda Wilder, who I watched go from publication to world dominance in just a couple of years? Or Blake Russell, one of self-publishing’s superstars both in terms of success and as a spokesperson?

I rarely comment on the outliers like this. My focus has usually been on the indie midlisters who are finding readers and paying bills and who otherwise wouldn’t be published at all. But I keep hearing that no one can go from unknown to bestsellerdom anymore. And yet I see a new name on the lists every couple of months and across a wide variety of genres. (Look at the science fiction list on Amazon right now. It’s Card, Martin, and indies. Amazing).

When I worked in a bookstore, I saw perhaps two new names a year have moderate success. Every year or two a single author would come out of nowhere. If we (booksellers) were lucky. The Stieg Larsson stories are vanishingly rare. The A.G. Riddle stories seem to be occurring with much greater frequency. Several indies a year are now breaking out and making hundreds of thousands of dollars (I estimate Riddle has made close to or over a million). The traditional book industry would go nuts over this many new bestsellers a year. It’s usually the same old names over and over.

Yes, more and more people are self-publishing these days. And so yes, the odds are against all of us. But don’t listen to the naysayers. There are still millions of readers out there looking for a good story at a fair price. So keep writing great books. Keep winning over one fan at a time. Keep improving your craft. It may not happen to you —  I sure as hell didn’t expect it to happened to me — but it’s still happening. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Again, this isn’t a “Everyone can do it! Write a book and get rich quick!” post. This is a “The people who say the goldrush is over and that indie authors can no longer come from nowhere and have success are idiots” post. There’s a huge difference. :)

COMMENTS (47)

And 20 years from now Haldeman, Card and Heinlen will still be on the best seller lists for Sci-Fi. Set your watch to it. But who else will be there? I love that Hugh’s bought up this point about sci-fi bestsellers. I think it’s a genre that has severely stagnated on the Legacy side and has been relegated to cookie-cutter decision making on what a “real” sci-fi story is and isn’t. This has always struck me as odd because the SF community is supposed to be the forward thinking and new visionary types. To me anyway.

In all fairness I don’t read every TradPub sci-fi book that’s released (so I could be missing some new classics) but other than Scalzi and the last few works from Banks there’s almost nothing new that I’ve heard excited chatter about on the Trad side.

But sticking to Hugh’s central theme, indies finding success, check out this soon to be huge thread:

http://www.kboards.com/index.php/topic,175303.0.html

I love hearing about all the successful indie authors, the ones that make it big. It’s inspiring but it can also be misleading. Most writers who don’t make a living from their craft don’t talk about their numbers but yesterday I posted mine. For all I know I might be an outlier at the other end of the spectrum, but for anyone interested is seeing what a not-yet-discovered author might expect please check out my post at http://drivelingon.blogspot.com/2014/01/sharing-numbers.html.

Thanks for sharing your numbers. I agree it isn’t easy or likely. But some people are saying it’s impossible these days. But it was less likely 5 years ago. Self-publishing has increased the number of break-outs, even if the odds are only slightly better (because of the sheer number of people participating).

Self-publishing has completely changed the game; without it my books would never have been downloaded over 4000 times. And it has definitely increased the possibility of making a living from writing, but with only two books out I have not yet reached that level.

Thank you Kevin for sharing your numbers. I published my first book in November, 2013 and have sold 23 (paperback and Kindle books) mostly to my friends – I can almost plot each friend to a sale. I was getting discouraged because it seems no one else will ever find me, but these discussions have given me hope. I like the idea of having more books available and will concentrate on writing, that is the part I love.

I noticed you gave your book away free at times and I would like to offer my first book on the new series for free for more than 5 days (the Kindle amount). Is there a way to do that?

I’m glad to share my numbers, as uninspiring as they may be. Each giveaway was through KDP select and it may seem strange, but I don’t plan on doing any more giveaways longer than 2-3 days again. My books have seen the most downloads on the first and second days, after that there’s a more drastic drop off. I know some people talk about not seeing a sales boost after a giveaway, but with the last one I did (at the beginning of December) I saw continuous sales for the next month (slightly more than 1/day), so I definitely encourage new authors to give it a try. Unfortunately the giveaway and sales don’t seem to have resulted in any more reviews yet.

Mary,

Barring a change in Amazon policy the only way (that I am aware of) to maintain an ebook at $0.00 is to price-match it with another service that allows you to prive the work at $0.00. If you are enrolled in KDP select, you cannot presently do this.

What I did is also publish the work I wanted to be free on Smashwords.com (they distribute ebooks -only- to a ton of other etailors, including B&N, Apple, Kobo, etc.). Once its listed there (and possibly on a few other sites) you just go to your book’s page on Amazon and use the price-match option (or “found a lower price”, I don’t remember exactly what it says).

Sometimes you have to submit multiple links over multiple days (I did), but eventually they price matched to $0 and the ebook is essentially free.

Perhaps Amazon may eventually allow authors to price pieces of a serial story free, but at present I do not believe they do.

Great post, sir. I think indies get discouraged too easily for a couple reasons: 1) the sheer number of authors out there; 2) Amazon’s non-ad driven recommendations (“Best-Selling Kindle Thriller/Mystery/Romance/SciFi/___” emails) favor Traditionally Published books. This morning’s email from Amazon was 8:1, Trad/Indie. While those factors make it seem difficult, you’re absolutely right that a well written, good story will always beat the odds. More authors means more good stories.

Peace, Seeley

I have to confess, I’m getting discouraged reading the kboards threads. There are a lot of people with a lot of books who sell essentially nothing. And I personally don’t believe the strategy of rock-bottom pricing and free giveaways is proving to be very successful for a lot of them.

I would love you to weigh in on the “debate” between folks like Kristine Katheryn Rusch, who advocates for significantly higher prices, more careful discounting and ZERO promotional effort until an author has a decent backlist; and the Mark Coker types whose promotional guide champions a multi-pronged, full-force marketing plan worthy of a multimillion dollar corporation. Who is right?

One thing I am realizing is the supreme importance of genre and subgenre. Seems that if you want to sell, before you hit the publish button you must know the genre your book fits into (if any), the size of that market and whether your work–and your cover!–fit the genre’s expectations.

I’m in the middle. I believe in low prices, a little bit of an online presence early on, and not worrying about sales until you have 10 to 20 titles available.

What does “a little bit of an online presence” involve, and how does it help?

One book I read recommends against investing time in what it calls “author platform building”. Having built a following myself for a non-writing focused blog on Tumblr in the past, I’m inclined to agree. Getting to just 15K followers took 2 years and a lot of sweat and tears (time and effort I’d rather put into my next book). Personally, I’d be surprised if an equal effort on an author blog sells as many more copies of my book than my friends and family bought. Perhaps, I’ve swung the social effort pendulum too far the other way.

What are your thoughts about the role that your online presence played in your success and the amount of effort this is worth to unknown indie break-through hopefuls as well as the contented mid-list hobbyists?

Never mind, I found your answer to my questions in another post:
http://www.hughhowey.com/discoverability-and-donald-rumsfeld/

Thanks!

Yet your own books are priced the traditional way. Did you raise prices after you made it big?

I think my most expensive books are $5.99. I have a handful at $2.99. And my shorter pieces are 99 cents. That seems reasonable enough to me. Traditional publishers debut their ebooks at $12.99 or $9.99. Only recently have they started selling for less.

OMG 20 books! I’m 45, it’s taken since I was 20 to write four, OK, 5 if I count the anthology. Right then. Better get on. I will return. When I’m 70. Gasps and keels over in a dead faint.

I work for the IT department at the University while I’m saving up money for law school. I’ve been calling self-publishing a hobby of mine for the last two years. The first year, I barely made a profit ($2 after you take out my expenses for covers, editing, etc.) In 2013, I actually made several hundred dollars when all was said and done. I’m pretty happy with how my travel photo books have done and the money I made from the few fiction novellas I have out right now.

I’m glad that you pointed out the Sci-Fi category is being dominated by mostly indies. I think I might try my hand at that with some more short stories soon. While I’m nowhere near even a midlister at this point, I agree that its good to share out our sales info. Here’s my data (minus the royalty amount I made) for 2013 in case anyone wants to check that out: http://randyjmorris.blogspot.com/2014/01/book-sales-breakdown-2013.html

On a final note, thanks for posting regularly, Hugh. I enjoy reading your blog on lunch breaks at work right before I pull up a good book on my phone and start researching (I mean reading… :-P)

Maybe one of the secrets for indie success is working with brilliant cover art designer Jason Gurley (Hugh, A.G., and Matthew did) ;-)
Well, that and awesome books…

A quality cover is important (or at least avoiding a bad one). I know they say you should not judge books by them, but when I’m scrolling through page after page on Amazon the cover and title are all there is to make me decide whether or not I’ll click on a particular novel and take a closer look. A great cover can draw me in, and something badly cobbled together in five minutes by somebody who has no idea what they’re doing will chase me away.

I hope that’s the secret. I have a book coming out April 1 with a gorgeous J. Gurley original cover. Now my challenge is to dig deep in editing, and make the insides as good as the outside….

I need to see if that guy’s covers will work for my books…

ha ha… nice plug :)

I hope Hugh’s right. At the moment, it’s a helluva lot of effort for pocket change.

Every author is looking for that x-factor that will take them over the top and make them a sensation, but the only x-factor an author should focus on is their own writing continuing to improve.

What Peter said … also go Hugh :D

Agreed! It can still happen and is happening. Genre plays a big role – that was my key. If I had stayed in romance I doubt I would have seen the same success.

I’ve read a lot of press about the great majority of writers earning meagre amounts with their self published works. This never put me off though and I self published my first historical fiction novel in December 2013. I elected not to go the KDP Select route as I want to make the book available on other platforms as well. This is my first fiction work so I was blown away when Warhorn reached #1 in Paid Kindle UK War Fiction and managed to hang in there for x4 days. Total sales are approaching 2k units and the book is still in the top three in the above category. I have not given a way any free units. I am constantly hopeful that this book gets noticed in the US as this is the only way these figures are going to shoot up. In the meantime I am hard at work on the next book because writing books is even more rewarding than reading them.

Thank you so much for this! After a hiatus from writing, I’ve just returned to it and was wondering if there was still any chance of new self-published books succeeding. Good to hear that that option is still a viable possibility for writers!

Thanks for this post Hugh. It is always good to have a boost and remind ourselves that people are doing well. I was interested in what Kevin Riley had to say above about sharing his numbers. I also did this last week on my blog and shared the post with a few of the writing groups I am in. To date, it has been the most popular post on my blog.

It seems we are all about the number crunching game, and I am no exception in many ways. It’s good however to hear you say above that we shouldn’t be worrying too much about sales. I am just about to publish book four, and have a series for five-seven/eight worked out in the grey matter and in a rough draft. I do worry about promotion and think, ‘Michelle you can’t market yourself if your life depended on it’, but it is after all a long haul effort, and I think it is always easy to forget that.

Your posts always help with the act of focussing, thanks!

Thanks for sharing your numbers as well, Michelle. My numbers post has also been the most popular on my blog, but most of that traffic has come from this discussion. I have heard/read many places that an author needs at least 5 (or 6) books before they will start to see any real sales so hopefully things start to pick up with the next few books.

With the exception of books that are just poorly written, I believe that every indie author has the capability to make it in this industry. Most will be mid-listers, but even that provides more than what was offered 10 or 15 years ago by self-publishing.

In 2013 I made around $1000 off of my book and that was only between April and December. I gave a lot of copies away, because I understood that in order to get your name out there, you have to be willing to give your book away. Luckily, I’m writing a series, so the following books will see the benefits of the 12,000+ copies that were downloaded/purchased in 2013. Based on the positive feedback I’ve gotten from the first novel, I’m hoping to convert at least that many downloads into sales of the second book in 2014 (while I continue to give the first one away for free) which would put me in the ballpark of $20,000 in sales. That might not be enough to quit my day job, but it will certainly help me pay off some student loans and my car.

The question we have to ask ourselves is what is our personal measure of success? I feel that anyone who looks upon every sale or referral as a success will find a great deal of fulfillment in life. Little by little they will climb the ladder and eventually end up near the top. Isn’t that what you did, to a degree, Hugh? Sure “Wool” shot you upwards pretty far, pretty quickly, but that wasn’t your first writing. You’d been in this industry for at least some time before that before you became a sensation. That’s how it will work for many, I believe. The matter at hand is to just keep writing and stop worrying about who you’ll be in 5 years. I struggle with this because I’d love to leave my job in the legal field, but I know that the novels take time and need love and attention before they can be best sellers. So I persevere. I take that $1000’s I made and I set a new goal, a higher goal and I work for it and when I inevitably achieve that next goal, I’ll set another one even higher.

If all writers could do that while constantly trying to master their craft, they’d all find some piece of that breakout success. Maybe it will only be for a week or a month, but there is enough to go around, especially now that the publishing companies aren’t sapping 85% of the royalties.

Great post, Hugh. I always appreciate your no B.S. honest approach to information. Stay awesome. :)

Stumbled across your books on Amazon and I’m really enjoying them. Honestly, theclosest I’ve come to your genre in the past is Stephen King and the Hunger Games books. I really only bought Wool because of your last name. However, I am really enjoying it and can’t wait to read the others.

Hugh,

I’m late to the game here. I’ve only recently discovered your work and I’m happy that I did. Then to find out you self published…all I can say is wow! It made me wonder if publishing is in the same situation as the the music industry when music started getting downloaded (in many cases for free) and the uproar that caused. Or when online traders starting making waves in the stock market…in your opinion are we in the same place with publishing? I read an article a while back by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Maybe you already read this and touched on this in the past and if you did I apologize, as I stated I’m late to game but I would be curious your thoughts on the article, when and if you have time.
http://kriswrites.com/2013/10/30/the-business-rusch-unintended-consequences/

Wait a second. I have to push back whenever I see claims like this.

You, Hugh Howey, are an outlier and a great success story. But as far as I can tell none of the other names you mention are. A.G. Riddle is a venture capitalist. Matthew Mather owned his own tech company. Russel Blake was a retired construction magnate — there’s a WSJ article about how he threw away $15,000 dollars just playing with publishing.

These are all rich people who are dallying in writing fiction. It has always been possible to buy yourself enough marketing to put yourself on the bestseller lists; Amazon has just made it easier.

If you look closely at the super-successful indie writers you’ll find that most of them are rich people who have found an outlet for their money and their time, and even most of them don’t make it big. For us middle class stiffs who are trying to scrape together editing money while working 9 to 5, it’s a difficult game to break out in indie publishing and it’s getting harder as the competition multiplies.

Hi Remus,
First, thanks for your comment. I don’t agree with some of the conclusions, but I do appreciate when someone says something that a lot of people might be thinking. Here’s what I would say to any aspiring authors scratching their heads, wondering if they can still break out in the current environment.

Marketing:
For the first six months, I spent a total of $18 marketing my book. To date, I’ve spent a few hundred total. I’m sorry I don’t know how much. I’m on the road and don’t have the data handy. I don’t think you can market yourself to success in the current environment.

I think the only way to break out is to write a story that people instantly tell friends and family about when they finish the last page.

I think I spent a few thousand on editing, from David Gatewood, after the book became a success in the summer. I also paid an artist to do some illustrations this fall ($950).

Before the book launched, I spent maybe $50. I did the cover myself. my mother edited the book. my girlfriend beta read it.

My biggest investment was my time, but I will admit that my success in business did give me the opportunity to invest a lot of my time. I spent two years learning about writing and planning my story. To authors out there, I would say that investing your time in getting better is the smartest thing you can do.

Sometimes it feels like there’s no justice in this market. Things aren’t fair. Luck plays a role. Timing is important. But, I honestly believe that if you commit to being a writer, and getting better, and putting the best books you can out there, you will find your audience–eventually.

Ps: Sorry for the typos, wrote this on my phone

A.G., the fact that you admit that luck is a big factor puts you in a better light than most of those other authors. Some of them have delusions of grandeur and refuse to admit luck had anything to do with their success. Thank you for your honesty.

$18 is about half of what I spend per month advertising my webcomic, and my success there can best be described as ‘undiscovered’. I’d love to know what social connections or networks you would attribute to your first novel’s breakout success. Maybe when you get back home you could write a blog post about it? I’ll find it if you do.

Remus. When AG Riddle or Hugh say that they only spent a few dollars on marketing it is true. But they got help from within Amazon…Getting a special feature like Select 25 or kindle Daily deal, gets you to the front of the page of your major category if you get enough of them. I lost count how many times Hugh Howey got kindle daily deals and Select 25 features, and today AG Riddle got I believe his 3rd select 25. Almost everyone who gets select 25 or kindle daily deal can get to the top 10 bestseller on amazon…and the results of that, you get push in the algorithm in the “New and Popular” list (which is the default customers go to on amazon) and soon after they get contact by agents, movie rights….

“I think the only way to break out is to write a story that people instantly tell friends and family about when they finish the last page.”

Yup. The challenge is how to do this? But your recipe sounds identical to mine.

Very cool that you use David Gatewood and Jason Gurley now. We need a tree house.

I’m not Hugh Howey, A.G. Riddle, or Matthew Mather. I am a self-published author, who hit the ‘publish’ button on Amazon for the first time almost a year ago today (1/27/2013).

In that year, I published 4 books (3 in a series). The series is urban/contemporary fantasy, and the other is a traditional fantasy.

In that year, I’ve sold ~24,000 ebooks.

In that year, I’ve made ~$60,000.

I had a couple of short jumps to the top of the category best-seller lists on Amazon, but they haven’t lasted more than a week at a time. Most of the sales have come from being in the 3,000-10,000 range, at $4.99.

My upfront cost was… $0.

The point is, I’m sure any writer would love to have the success of any of those guys. It’s a thrill just to be read after all. But… you don’t need to be those guys to make a living. You don’t need to be those guys to consider yourself a success. Just hitting the ‘publish’ button makes you a success, IMO.

You can have the 10,000th most popular book on Amazon, and still make $900/month or more. Or you can get 3 books into the 30,000 range and make ~$900. It isn’t enough to live on, but it will pay some bills. Slow and steady wins the race.

I’m not Hugh Howey, A.G. Riddle, or Matthew Mather.
That doesn’t mean I can’t be.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be either.
If you’re like me, you’re going to be writing anyway. You might as well hit ‘publish’.

WOW!!! These are the stories we need reported more often. That’s an AMAZING year, M.R. Amazing.

If you wrote something up about your year one, I’d be happy to let you guest blog it right here. Unless you’ve done this elsewhere.

I’d be interested in reading that as well, sounds like a good story and I want to know your secret formula!

I tried to get the gif to show. It didn’t. Now there’s a link. *sigh*

The Atlantis Gene…such a good book! I can’t wait to read the sequel…it’s on my list. I think that anyone can be a published writer in this day and age and be successful at it. Make your dreams come true. There’s really no excuse now to not get your work out there. God knows I’m still typing away :)

Also Blake Crouch…The Pines.

Many of the authors who complain about it being impossible to breakout, are also usually not doing any sort of marketing to help them to breakout. People need to know about your book, and the key to people knowing about your book is marketing.

Writing a great story is only half of the battle… letting people know about the great story is essential to success.

I agree AG Riddle had tremendous success…but NOT on his own, Amazon has given him tons of help…same thing with Mathers tons of help. Now you’re wondering what do you mean they had help. Well Today Sept 19th, 2014 AG Riddle got his 3rd Kindle Select 25 feature on Amazon…That’s a HUGE push from within Amazon, how many times all of this authors got push from within amazon (Kindle Daily Deals & Kindle Select 25). They get selected over and over again by the same people inside amazon (those sales pushes you to the front page of your category..in which case you get; agents, film rights..etc). So to say they did it on their own is a lie. I would love to see how these authors do without getting push from Amazon. Even Hugh (I love Wool btw) got push with Select 25 feature the day “Kindle Unlimited” came out as being “amazon exclusive” But you have your books all over the place…I thought you needed to be exclusive with amazon…You see all of these authors get special treatment from amazon…and that’s fine. But they need to start picking new authors too, don’t just fall on the same ones over and over again.

I don’t want you guys to hate on me, I thought you guys should know a little what’s going on behind the scenes. Check out the front page of any category and ask yourself if they been pushed with a special featured from amazon.

To conclude; write well, plan well, have a plenty of time and people who are interested in your writing even if they are your relatives and family. I believe it’s all coming down to destiny or karma. If it’s mean for you, it will happen no matter what. I know some folks don’t believe in destiny but it’s true.