Making Money From indie Publishing: A Guide For the Hopeful, the Optimistic and the Doomed

Among writers, particularly old hands, particularly old hands who have been stuck in mid list a long time, there’s this attitude towards Indie publishing that goes “We’ll never go hungry again.”

I have this attitude myself, of course, but I think it’s causing a lot of newbies, beginners and innocents to be confused.   (Which Is why I stole the spirit of the title from The Intransitive Vampire.)

I thought I had explained how it works, but I don’t think I ever did, not all in the same place.  I just assumed that people could sort of glean what was happening from my posts on things like covers and pricing and the sheer enormity of the market.

I did – I know – explain the compound-interest quality of indie publishing, but it wasn’t… uh… explicit and on the line, and so it might have been lost.  Then again, this blog’s readership grew (I think I added yeast) by about three times over the last month, so some of you might simply never have heard this.  (And we all know I’m so “good” at tagging posts.  Not.)

However, not only a reader’s assumptions in comments yesterday, but the fact that a friend of mine asked me practically the same question and the fact that another friend was discounting indie publishing as a means of getting out of her particular bind, made me decide to do a post on it.

Two years ago, at our local con, Kevin Anderson jokingly answered a fan who said she would like to publish her novel, and should she go indie or traditional with “Well, you can go traditional and make a few thousand three years from now, or you can go indie and make a few hundred a year.”

He said it in a tone that discounted indie.  At the time I didn’t know any better, and I don’t think he did either.  You see, he had almost no work out indie, as of yet.  Only a very few pieces, which means he was seeing a few hundred a year.    (Nothing to even come close to his traditional income.)

By last year his attitude had changed.  And so had mine.

Now, I’m going to be absolutely and painfully blunt: My indie experience on my own personal side is limited.  So far pretty much all I have out on my own are about 35 short stories.  On these I make about $200 a month from Amazon and $50 from Smashwords.  (Barnes and Noble is negligible.)  This is of course not enough income to replace my traditional money – OTOH hand note this is a little over ten percent of the short stories I have sitting around in drawers and hard drives.  And also that about half these stories were published and have already paid, and the other half were sitting around doing nothing.  There is labor involved.  Editing and putting them up takes an hour or so per story (including covers)  There is expense.  My most expensive cover art for these runs around $5 and it has to be spectacular to run that much – but it is still an expense and when you’re looking at slamming up 200 stories well… you pace yourself.

I do intend to bring out novels – to wit Witchfinder as well as a YA which I’m pulling out of a shared universe – but right now I simply don’t have any novels out except the odd collaboration on A Touch of Night aka Pride and Prejudice and Dragons.  But so far I haven’t.  Not on my own.

OTOH I have friends who have done so, and from what they tell me, it works sort of like short stories.

So, here’s the truism I’ve found:  You can make money from indie, but you need time and volume.

Okay, take a deep breath.  What I mean by this is that you can make money from indie and you can eventually make a living from it, but you have to allow yourself time.  (Particularly if no one knows you exist, though in indie the effects of “name” seem to be far smaller than in traditional.)

So, let’s say you’re unemployed and you have a novel written.  Can this get you through until you find a job?  Depends.  Have your benefits run out?  And how fast can you write?

Yes, yes, you can win the lottery.  You can get a novel up there, and it sells so much and so fast you never go hungry again.  I’m searching my brain for one example and not getting it.  (No, not Amanda Hocking.  We’ll get on that later.)  But at least theoretically it’s possible.

What you have to understand is that it’s possible as it’s possible to send a novel to the offices of one of the big six, have it picked up from slush the next day and have them call you with an offer of a million dollars at the end of the week.

If you don’t have some extraordinary circumstance (for traditional publishing, someone in the business, or a previous bestselling series, or the publisher has a crush on you.  For indie: a huge successful radio show, or a blog seen by millions, or…) I’d stick to the lottery.  Your chances are better.

For years the traditional lottery was all that writers had to pin their hopes on, and we did so.

Now there  is indie.  I remember when I lived in a mountain village infected by artists (Pipe down, art is my hobby, but… trust me) I used to envy my  neighbors.  Most of them were, in their avocation where I was in mine: producing pro-looking results, but not noticed by the establishment yet.  But while my stories went in the drawer, theirs could go up on sidewalk sales, on co-op stores, on street fairs.  They were making a living.

Indie publishing is our street fair.  (And like with artists, at this point, the best way to be picked up by and go big with the establishment.)

But if you think about the stories/novels you’re writing as the artists did about the pictures/sculptures they were making, you’ll understand it’s silly to imagine you can take a pot to a street fair, and shazam, someone comes along and pays you three million for it.  (Particularly if you have it marked at five dollars.)

In the street fair that is Amazon, you’re thrown in along other professionals and amateurs, and people stroll along and buy what catches their eye.

As a long-time buyer at sf and fantasy shows, I’ll tell you how that works.  The first time I buy an artist, it’s usually something that really catches my eye or – sometimes – something that is very cheap and shows promise (even though the rest of the artist’s stuff looks drab or ick.)  At this point, the artist isn’t on my to-look-for list.  However, at the next show, I’ll notice something that looks sort of similar to the picture I have hanging say over the piano.  Or something with a similar theme.  I buy it.  On bringing it home, I notice the artist is the same.  The artist is now on my “to look for list” and when going to a con art show I’ll find his/her panel first and see what I can afford.  Depending on what they’ve been doing (I don’t buy meaty skull art) and how much money I have, I can buy 2 or 10 pictures of what they have at one go.)

So… How does this apply?  Well, most people buying indie, are just strolling along, looking at wares.  They might be looking in sf/f, or they might be looking in historical, but if they’re browsing, they didn’t find something on their “must buy.”  So the first rule of attracting them is: have a big display.  Which in this case means mostly: have more than one story.  Your chance of pulling in someone just casually looking if all you have is one story is minimal.

This is not a reflection on your story, on you, on how you presented it (though more on that later) or even on the genre you’re working in.  It’s just, if you have one story only, you’re going to get lost.

Good covers help, because someone browsing up, fast, will arrest at a great cover.  But the best cover in the world will not help if your story doesn’t even appear in their listing.

One of the ways to game the system is to put the story free for some time.  But even then, if all you have is that one story… what do you expect to happen?

(Amanda Hocking made a big splash because she put up ten novels, one after the other.  If you have ten novels in your drawer, by all means do put them up and yeah, you can make real money quickly – though don’t count on a million.  There is an element of fairy-godmother in her luck, and also “indie was smaller then.”)

However, if you are like the rest of us (I only have the rights to four of my traditional published novels, and yes, I am working on getting them up) you don’t really have anything but a novel or a few short stories.

And with a novel or up to ten short stories, you will make a few tens of dollars a month, and that’s if people find you, which might take a few months if you don’t run free promos.

There is an inflection point where your money goes up dramatically at ten stories, then fourteen, then thirty – it might vary a little, but these inflections happen.  Novels, I understand are different from the beginning and make about 10 times more… once you’re found.

Look, if you only have ONE novel out and no one knows you, it might take you years to find that first batch of readers.  (Which is why I let people post their links here once in a while.)  And after the five or six or ten find you, it will take time to propagate under the “a friend tells a friend.”

The shortest I’ve heard, for up to three novels, for them to start selling steadily, is six months.  Even if they are utterly amazing novels and you’re capturing every reader.

At this point powerful friends can help, but the BEST way for them to help is to give you a link on a blog or an aggregator.  However, even the power of Insty is limited if you only have three novels out.  Let’s say you do unbelievably well and you sell 100 copies that day.  Um… that gives you $400 dollars in a month’s time.  You see how inadequate that is, to replace full time income?  And if you only have one novel/collection/ short out, you’re more likely to sell under a dozen. (You might get 1000 sample downloads, but most people don’t read it right away, some will forget it, and it’s more likely to be a slow trickle over months.)

If right now you’re saying “Stuff indie, I’m going traditional” you’re wrong.

You’re wrong because traditional will pay you up front – and as a new writer, with no connections, you max out at about 5k advance – but that’s likely to be all you ever seen.  And after about a year no one will buy your book in significant enough numbers to keep it making money for you.  (And we won’t get into why, or percentages, because I’m not writing a book here.)*

Meanwhile, if you’re writing indie, every story, every novel you put up there, earns you more money not just for that story, but for every other one already up.  People finding your novel/short are likely to come back and buy every single similar one… forever.

So, say you have ten novels and fifty short stories up and you get a friend who has a big blog to give you a link… It could translate to thousands of dollars, and it will grow your audience forever.

BUT first you have to have the novels and short stories up.

Which is why if you call me and say “I lost my job.  Can I live from indie publishing?”  My answer is “How much time do you have? How much have you sitting in the drawer?  How fast can you write?”

Some things to keep in mind is that “novels” are not as long as they used to be.  Depending on genre, of course, but we’re going back to “golden age” length in sf, so 40 to 50k words IS a novel.  You can serialize longer stories in a “novel series.”

Another thing is that series sell better, because people buying one will want them all.  So, if you can – aka if you’re not Sarah – do as much under one name/genre/story line as you can.  I don’t mean always — clearly I couldn’t, and I’m a great believer in experimenting in your craft – but if you’re strapped for money and need cash fast (i.e. six months to a year) do them all in a continuum or with a group of characters, even the between-novel shorts.  It will maximize your sales.

So, suppose you tell me “I need money this month” and you have less than ten novels.  I’ll tell you to try to get a second job (or a job) no matter how menial that pays the bare minimum, or look at making something you can sell at flea markets or… other measures of desperation.  It’s not that I want to discourage you or I think you’re a bad writer (particularly if I haven’t even read you) but that in indie it SIMPLY doesn’t happen that fast.  (And not in traditional, either, not if you start from submission.  Even with stuff that’s good enough to sell, it took me eight years for my first publishable short story to see print – collecting 80 rejections along the way – and Darkship Thieves was written 13 years before it was published.  No, it wasn’t in Baen’s slush pile the whole time.  Mostly various agents thought there was no point sending it out because SF doesn’t sell.)

OTOH suppose you’re someone I know can write a novel a month, and you’ve just lost your job, and call me and say “I need to be making 1k a month in a year.  More would be good, but 1k will see me through.  Is it doable?”  I’m going to tell you it’s more than doable and to sit your butt down and start writing.

Making $1k a month in a year is eminently doable, if by then you have ten novels, twenty short stories, and a book of essays on the heartbreak of unemployment up.

And if $1k a month is enough by then, you’re okay, because it will only grow the more you write.

And because — at least for now — the market is “flat” if you’re writing well enough, doing decent covers and blurbs (I’m taking a course on those.  Shuddup) and paying attention to pricing trends, your chances of doing that, if you can write that fast, are as good as anyone else’s chances, short of the mega mega bestsellers.

Which is why we old pros are excited about going indie.  Our success is in our hands and depends on how hard we’re willing to work.  We’ll never go hungry again!

* Given this, why am I bothering going traditional at all?  Well, there is a matter of reach.  I’m not a bestseller, I am not that widely known.  Going traditional gives me “reach” by placing me on shelves across the country where I can capture the majority who still read on paper but who will likely move electronic within the next couple of years.  That’s the practical side.  The other side is that Baen picked me up when no one else would, so they can have my stuff as long as they want me and they treat me decently.  (So far so good, and I don’t see it changing, unless everyone I deal with dies of a heart attack and is replaced by aliens tomorrow.  Which is, of course, possible… I mean, they make movies about chest-bursters.  In that case I reserve the right to give the middle finger to the new people and go off on my own because life is too short to work with people you don’t like.)

116 thoughts on “Making Money From indie Publishing: A Guide For the Hopeful, the Optimistic and the Doomed

  1. Indie is a developing market, which classically means that nobody as yet knows a) how big it will get b) how it will get big c) how to make it big in Indie.

    Back in the Reagan era, a desperately in need of capital Bill Gates offered to turn Microsoft over to IBM, only to be dismissively informed that IBM was not interested in “toy computers.”

    Blogs such as this need to revisit the market periodically if only to assess how the market is developing, what we have learned about the market that is new, what we knew about the market that we have learned is false and what we knew that we now have reason to believe is true.

  2. I’m not a writer. I am a reader though. I don’t know if it’s useful to know what goes through the head of one potential reader, but here’s my current approach to finding new reading material.

    I go to amazon, select the genre I’m interested in, sort by price (cheapest first). In SF and Fantasy, there are countless books that are free. I select one that has a catchy title, reasonable artwork, has at least 30 reviews, those reviews average more than 4 stars, IS PART OF A SERIES, and then I download it to my e-reader.

    The PART OF A SERIES is critical for two reasons. For me, I don’t want to invest in characters, a world, etc. unless I know that the investment will pay off in terms of continued enjoyable reading in the future.

    For the author, while the first book has to be offered for free, if I like it, I’ll be very willing to pay FULL PRICE for EVERY book in the rest of the series. The quality in the rest of the books has to be decent but it doesn’t even have to be as good as the first book.

    That’s just my current approach.

    1. Here are my own buying habits for contrast.

      I don’t look for series, but series are more likely to get purchases from me if I like the first one.

      I look for free books first since I am currently underemployed, but I rarely fill my reading quota with free books. I sometimes get free books even if I don’t think I’ll like them. In the worst case, it only costs me a few minutes to read a couple pages. I’ll pay up to $5 for an unfamiliar author if there are enough good reviews.

      If I like a book, I’ll come back eventually and buy more books from that author. Currently I will pay up to about $10 for a good ebook (and more for collections), but I won’t pay retail hardcover prices for them. If an ebook I want is $20, I’ll either buy a cheaper(!) physical copy or put it on my Used Bookstore list. I have “impulse buy cutoff points” at around $3 and $5, but I will spend over $5 for certain authors.

      My second purchase from an unfamiliar author generally takes at least 2 months from the first purchase. I get lots of ebooks in a few hours and then read them slowly over a couple months (or longer if I happen to get something that takes a while to read like a “Complete Works of So-and-so”).

      I get most of my ebooks from Amazon. I am less likely to purchase ebooks from other sites. For instance, I didn’t buy Darkship Thieves until last month, even though I was confident I would enjoy it, because the ebook version was only available on Baen, and I didn’t want to bother with signing up at Baen’s website, coming up with yet another unique password, setting up all my devices to receive books from Baen, etc. Of course, now that everything is set up, I’m more likely to buy from Baen again.

    2. Thanks Bret for sharing your way of choosing books. So many of us writers end up talking to each other and not being able to get data from readers. Trust me, it is very useful to know what goes through the head of a potential reader. Yes, I know they’re not all alike, but any actual feedback is always welcome.

  3. To reiterate – every book or collection that you have out there is an advertisement for every other book/story that you have out there. Someone who reads one of yours, and loves it – will most assuredly go back and read the others. Such is the wisdom of a long-time indy writer; Janet Elaine Smith, who is a retired missionary living in the midwest, and has something like twenty or twenty-five books out there (historicals mostly, some Christian romance). She markets her books infatiguably; does talks to church groups, schools and book clubs.
    I, fortunately, have my writing backed up by a military service pension so I do not have to be a total writing machine, but it’s a rare month that I don’t make at least a couple of hundred or three off my books. They say that the best way to become known is by word of mouth from fans, and that it usually takes about five years … and the book has to sell pretty consistantly over that time. And the marketing of the books is nearly as much of a job as writing it in the first place.

    1. Well… depends on what the “marketing” is — I do it here, and occasionally elsewhere, but I don’t do appearances, etc nearly as much as most. Seems to be working, but… we’ll see.

  4. I’m not certain how much “marketing” helps with making money as an indie. Because every guest blog, every signing, etc.; means time you’re not actually *writing*. The big thing, especially at the beginning, is volume. Having enough volume so that when people go to Amazon, for instance, the bottom row of “also bought” or “also by” is full of your other stuff. IMHO. I’ve had to take the last year off for health reasons. So I’m about ready to dive back into it 🙂

  5. Interesting take Sarah. We’ve often considered ourselves patrons of the starving artists because we buy from artists at cons, co-op galleries, and etsy. Now writers have similar opportunities. My wife just put up her short stories (24) as a collection, and I’d like to get around to putting up some of the stories individually. Working on figuring out how to do covers well and cheaply, but my day-job pays the bills, and my wife has dealt with a disabling illness for years. A couple of reasons the collection made sense. One is that a lot of the stories are very short (under 1500 words) although the collection as a whole is around 70K. The other is the effort in making the covers. I know I should take Dean’s online course on covers. It’s on my to-do list.
    Like you we had the, wait 13 years and get nothing but a lot of postage receipts, form rejections, and occasionally an, I’d like to buy it, but…. I’m really happy for new writers today to have the opportunities my wife and I never had early in our careers. If only I had had Amazon when I was 21!
    In any case we’re doing almost everything wrong of course. My wife has 3 books up now, an SF thriller novel, China Harbor: Out of Time, a Lenten devotional, Prayers & Meditations of a Lost Soul, and the short story collection, Facets. Most of the short stories fit into a unrecognized category she calls “strange”–basically what you found on Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock presents. So 3 works that probably don’t share an audience, but that’s better than years of frustration with negative return.
    Oh, by the way, we’ve stopped going to cons, now that we’ve realized that they don’t help us sell her books. That might change eventually, but at least you can see what types of marketing work, and stop wasting time and money on things that don’t.

  6. Whether indie or established you really need 3 things.
    2 you’ve already mentioned.
    1 Time.
    3. Volume.
    but more important than Volume is
    2. Word of Mouth. [or in the case of established publishers…Marketing]Although if you wanted to you COULD lump it in with time I suppose,, but it’s really a separate thing.

    And frankly without Number 2…1 and 3 don’t mean diddly. Which you already know on the established publishers level after the shit storm I had to inflict upon your editor at the Publishing Company which shall not be named about two of your series. Not to mention the nastiness I verbally inflicted upon it’s President.

  7. Thank you for a most helpful post. I was rather surprised when i brought out “Finding Time” that my sales for “The Aristotelian”–that had been lagging–picked up and matched my best month. Marketing for indie publishing is just different. The best advertising for my writing seems to be my writing.

    As a reader, I’d go to a bookstore and look for the next novel by Jerry Pournelle, or Robert Heinlein, or any of number of other guys whose prose I’d enjoyed before. As indies, we’ve got to create that with each reader we reach.

    After a decade or so of shopping by author, I noticed that if the book had Baen on the spine, I had a good chance of liking it, too. Enjoying “Darkship Thieves” made me more likely to buy “Monster Hunter International” despite the fact that I dislike horror… and despise sparkly vampires. Now, Larry Correia is not at all like Sarah Hoyt, but sharing the Baen umbrella was a value multiplier.

    I’ve been thinking that indie coops might be useful so that the reader would know that, s/he can count on everyone under a certain umbrella to share that same set of writing “values.” This is where Human Wave could serve as an umbrella. Or some other affinity. I’d gladly put my stuff under a Whig-affinity umbrella.

    We’re feeling our way forward in the dark and I appreciate learning whatever I can from your wisdom.

    1. I’ve considered the best advertisement might be to have the beginning of your friends’ stories at the end of yours. Or even just a link to “My friend’s stories” or “Stories I’ve enjoyed.” — but since that’s a personal guarantee, it involves time for me to READ things so I can certify them. Right now, I could buy a minute, if you know what I mean…

      1. I did that with my most recent self-pubbed story. Annie Bellet’s “Dusk and Shiver” just blew me away, and is a similar story (both involve traditional zombies). So I put a one-page endorsement and a link at the end of my story (complete with my Amazon affiliate ID, of course).

        I wouldn’t do this lightly. I don’t want it to look like my referrals are for sale. But that was a book I have been promoting every chance I’ve found. It’s my favorite thing I read in 2012. And I figured anyone who liked my story would love that book.

    2. I’m with you on the Baen logo going a long way to getting me to pick up a book. A lot I don’t end up buying, time/money constraints, but I do pick them up. The most exciting day I had this year was when I got an email from Baen telling me they had pulled my manuscript from the slush pile for further review. Nothing came of it, but that was a big rush anyway.

  8. Sounds like saving my pennies so I can launch the next story collection in the spring is the way to go. I’d sort of leaned going that way, but this is pushing me even harder.

  9. Steve, I’m also in the ‘if it’s Baen I’ll at least give a try’ camp. It’s occurred to me that one model that might develop is a ‘publisher’ putting their imprint on indie published books (as a quality/genre umbrella marker) in exchange for a small percentage of sales – an arrangement that might include some services (like copy edit) but might be no more than a ‘we read it and liked it’ marker. The value of such an imprint to authors would, of course, depend on how many readers a given imprint brings to its books. I can see such arrangements having greater value as the volume of indie published works increases and it becomes harder to winnow wheat from chaff.

  10. “I remember when I lived in a mountain village infected by artists (Pipe down, art is my hobby, but… trust me) I used to envy my neighbors. Most of them were, in their avocation where I was in mine: producing pro-looking results, but not noticed by the establishment yet. But while my stories went in the drawer, theirs could go up on sidewalk sales, on co-op stores, on street fairs. They were making a living.

    Indie publishing is our street fair. (And like with artists, at this point, the best way to be picked up by and go big with the establishment.)”

    This is the most incisive metaphor I’ve seen to explain indie publishing. You just made it easier for me to answer a lot of questions I get asked. Thanks!

  11. Found your blog thru WRSA – great posts he linked to.

    Excellent post. Very similar to JA Konrath’s blog. He’s an example of a traditional mid list author hitting it big through indie.

    Covers for $5!! Please tell me how you do it!

    I’ve been writing since July. Never written before; rank amateur. 2 novels, 2 novellas and a third novella to be released this month. My success is definitely above average and I am thankful for the help I’ve received along the way. I’ve also made some great friends in the process.

    You are correct – you can make money doing this, but it takes a lot of time. 10 novels is definitely a goal to shoot for. My shorts don’t seem to sell well; novels seem to do better. Amazons royalty structure also makes shorts less enticing as an author.

    1. Are you selling your shorts at 99c? If they’re over 3k words (most of mine are) put them at 2.99 each. It’s counterintuitive, they they sell more in absolute terms. Also, nothing over 30k words should be less than 3.99 and nothing over 50k words should be less than 4.99. If you don’t value your work, people assume it’s bad. (I’m cheap so I don’t get this, but it’s true.)

      Cheap covers — Dreamstime. If you want it to be drawn, unselect “photos” and select lower price to higher price. I actually rarely have to go above $3 — but I do the lettering, etc. myself.

      1. My current price schedule is as follows:

        10K wc = 1.99 – l’ll try bumping it up to 2.99
        15K wc = 2.99
        50K wc = 3.99
        80K wc = 4.99
        25K wc = 2.99 (work in progress)

        Dreamstime. Thanks! All my covers are hi-res photos I have manipulated and lettered using Picassa. Some look pretty good, others I know I could do better. Picassa is a handy tool to have.

        1. Dreamstime also runs specials and around this time last year I bought 100 credits for $50. I hope I catch the next sale!

          Simplify that — under 3 or 4k 1.99.
          Lower than 50k — 3.99 (unless it’s erotica where those get bumped another dollar up. Don’t ask. I have a lot of friends.
          50 to 80 — 4.99.
          80+ 6.99.

      2. Dreamstime. Thanks! I think I just found the cover for a certain story. (And will quite likely get eleventy-dozen letters complaining that it is the wrong sub-species . . .)

  12. Thank you for writing about this. Sometime in the future I would like to indie publish, both fiction and non-fiction, and I would like to keep those two endeavors separate as a writer. I would like to publish using pen names–do you have any advice for using pen names while indie publishing?

  13. I have five books up. Two are a series. Two are stand alone. One is a collection of shorts. By your reckoning they are doing very well. I have found when I have a free book day sales pick up for about the next two weeks. Reviews really help – but I think that if I held a gun to some folks head to force a review they’d just say “shoot”. I’m starting to think people are afraid they will be judged for liking a book. Perhaps they are right.
    The grammar Nazis are very damaging in reviews. Apparently one missing set of quote marks just completely ruins a book for them and there is no point in reading further. Perhaps I am just insensitive. I find errors in traditionally published books and just think – ‘Huh, they missed one.’ and go on. Crap, I have a book in a stack here on my desk and Baen couldn’t even get Mad Mike’s name right on the cover. They have him as Willaimsom…I’m guessing the really serious Grammar Nazis would never even pick that one up off of the shelf. They’d probably have to go home and lay down and sedate themselves with a stiff drink to forget it.
    I have another in my “April” series being copy edited – we’ll see if that helps sales any – and the fourth “April” book is currently at 74k words and growing. So I’ll have four books in one series. I agree that really helps sales. I DO have a lot of readers tell me they like a great honking BIG book as they expect to get some time relaxing out of it. I don’t find that hard to accommodate. I know a traditional publisher would almost never accept a big book from a new author because of the cost. So that is an advantage right there. I already have readers who mistake my characters opinions as mine. This is hard to understand when I have characters in conflict. How do they decide which view is mine?
    I do encourage you to start selling some books – because when I tried selling single shorts I did very poorly. I think you will be pleasantly surprised how much more rewarding they are.

    1. I intend to do novels. I have an sf that might or might not got o Baen (I think Baen right now would prefer I concentrate on the two twin series and this one is a thousand years in the future) which is almost finished (The Brave And The Free) and two fantasy novels (one YA.) I intended to have all this done this year, then I started getting sick. I really hope it’s the fires and the fact this was a very stressful year, and not that I’ve hit 50 and it’s all downhill from here.

      1. Hey, I hit 66 a couple of months ago. I didn’t even get STARTED until I was 57. I don’t think it’s hitting 5-0. It HAS been a very stressful year, and the coming years don’t look to get much better. I like what I read of yours, and will continue to visit this weblog and buy your books as long as I can afford to. Right now, we have to find a way to repair DW’s Kindle. Timmy ran the battery down so far it won’t charge. Does anyone know how to change the battery in a Kindle?

    2. I’ve given up with reviewers– for several reasons because a lot of people just don’t like to review. I finally got reviewers when someone trashed a couple of my books. It made a few of my readers mad so they finally wrote a review. So I am sure I will NOT get that 30 reviews that Bret requires before he reads a book.

      As a reader I don’t read reviews anyway– I look for the writer’s blog and decide if I want to read what they are writing by their blogs. I found about four authors including Sarah this way. Also, I am more willing to read an author if he/she/or it is willing to talk to me on their blog. If they want to just lecture, I soon leave and don’t come back. I have a few authors on my do not read list for that reason. Grammar? Well, I do get a few fainting spells sometimes, but I have learned that if I am diverted by the grammar that the story wasn’t strong enough to hold my interest.

      So yes— if Sarah’s Darkship series had any mistakes I missed them. The pictures in my head were pretty though–

      1. Cyn,

        I don’t look for reviews before I read. If the book is free I download a sample — if it’s not, too, now I think about it, and then decide. Few books nowadays have 30 reviews unless they’re by “names.”

            1. When I haven’t read in a long time, I will sit in the bathroom and read labels on the cleaning supplies so I know what you mean. I read so many different styles, etc from Romance to SF/Fantasy to Mystery. My favs are usually mixed genres. So I hear you–

                1. To be honest– I was a reader first (a rabid reader) until I decided that I wasn’t seeing what I wanted to read. The funny thing is that when I am finished writing a piece, I am extremely tired of it. I wonder if others have the same experience. It is very different from my poetry. Of course I was a poet first and studied poetry.

                  1. Oh no. You’re not alone.

                    I read and reread my favorite books all the time. I just got through with reading Tamora Pierce’s “Circle of Magic” series (meaning, all ten currently published books in the series). That’s at least the second time I’ve read those books, though the first four I’ve probably read three or four times. I lost track of how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and The Count of Monte Cristo and Misery.

                    But once I’m done reading something I’ve written, it’s a chore to give it that last-look. I can, I’ve found, read it again if it’s been more than a year, though. Anything sooner and I just can’t.

                    I’m a cyclic writer, though. I typically read and edit at least the previous chapter/section before starting to work on the new stuff, so by the time I finish, I’ve probably read the story five or six times. It’s just too much at once.

                2. When I was a typesetter, I used to read personals for the fun of it. “SWM looking for SWF. Walks on the beach. Loves dogs. Ready for commitment.” Translation–not really committed, but looking for a girl who has a beach house. LOL

                  1. LOL – I translate those, too. Back when I worked nights, when the Sunday paper arrived I was wont to look at the wedding/engagement announcement photos and add captions/thought balloons. Cruel but harmless.

    3. Mackey, Hah! Grammar Nazis. Yes the one review of my wife’s novel gives it 4 stars, highly recommends it, and mentions finding 3 typos. Well, in an over 400 page book, things happen. But I agree with your sentiment about taking a gun to a potential reviewer’s head being a losing proposition. I just wish more people would read the sample. That doesn’t get you found by search engines though. Ah well, there is no magic bullet. As Sarah says, price your stuff like you think it’s worth something and keep putting up work.

      1. There will always be typos. One of my best friends was an editor for years. He supervised a copy editing team. He says he made his underlings initialize each line, so they couldn’t space it and there were STILL typos.

        1. A 400 page book is (rough estimate) 200,000 words. If I recall correctly, an average word is considered 6 characters, maybe a little more or less. Very round numbers, call it a million characters. 3 errors in a million is an error rate most industries would brag about in their PR campaigns; and yet we see reviewers ding books for that.

      2. Grammar Nazis = ignorable reviewers. I long ago decided that most Amazon reviews were useless to my purposes, for several reasons.

        1) Most people only write a review if strongly motivated, therefore the 1 & 5 star reviews are not likely to inform particularly.

        2) Few people know how to write a proper review. (See G-N, above) Their focus is often on irrelevancies and tells me nothing about why I might (or might not) enjoy a particular story.

        3) I long ago learned my tastes are idiosyncratic in the extreme. Ask if a Chinese restaurant serves spicy food and I will shrug; I order my pad thai “Thai-hot” and consider a tablespoon of horseradish on a roast beef sandwich “a start.” I strongly suspect that when I use the word “mild” it does not mean what you think that word means.

    4. On reviews – I have not done any reviews for anything I have read, because I can’t think what to say. I’m terrible about describing something in third person. I do fine, one-on-one, because I can clarify things that the person I’m talking to doesn’t understand, but I always stumble over trying to do it without interaction.

      1. It is probably a duty — one I often neglect — to put up reviews of Indie-published work you enjoy. Especially if you read it as a free sample. It is probably not necessary to say anything more than “Held my interest start to finish” or “A rollicking good read” or even just “Good and scary” of “Funny? I almost peed myself!”

        Well, you probably want a more delicate phrasing than that last example, but I trust you get my point. Sadly, it would appear that star inflation is as rampant at Amazon as grade inflation in the schools, so that four stars is faint praise and anything less than that is damning..

        1. A friend of mine who writes romance and reviews got hit with the Amazon letter as in that link– She is afraid to write anymore reviews. I haven’t had any of my reviews deleted, but I haven’t written any more since that prohibition came out.

        2. That’s another thing I have had a hard time learning, because point inflation is rampant in other kinds of reviews, too. I no longer consent to do customer service reviews, because my baseline is 3 out of 5, and a 5 is rare. I had an argument with a Toys ‘R Us customer service interviewer over this. She insisted I tell her how they could get my score up to 5, and I told her flat out – “Hire twice as many employees, pay them twice as much money, and train them twice as much, but you can’t keep prices where they are if you do that, so I don’t think it’s going to happen.” Finally I had to tell her to throw out my review.

          Since then, I have bowed to the fact that such inflation is inevitable, mainly because my boss insisted I raise my self-assessment numbers for my yearly review the first time I did one.

      2. On Grammar Nazis – I only get upset with typos or bad grammar when it completely gives me whiplash, because it sounded like something different from what it really was, then the recoil from finding out how I misinterpreted makes my eyes cross.

      3. Thus far I’ve only reviewed non-fiction. My criteria: 1) is it factually correct to the best that I can tell? 2) Is it well written end edited? Not necessarily a thumping good read, but coherent and understandable without enormous numbers of typos. 3) Does it contribute anything to the subject? *shrug* Probably not helpful for reviewing fiction.

  14. I need this sort of blog post on a regular basis so I can stop angsting over my invisibility. All I can say, is thank God for my day job that supports those lovely, silent, pre-dawn hours that I write.

    And thank you to Sarah for the dose metaphorical castor oil.

      1. As nobody else has said it:

        I was once given a reality check but it bounced.

        A reality check is like a body check, only more painful.

        I keep hoping that if I am sufficiently pleasant and cute somebody else will pick up and pay my reality check. So far only my parents have been willing to do that.

        1. My working definition of reality is ‘that which bites you on the arse when you aren’t looking’. For me, reality checks generally take the form of asking someone to confirm that there is, indeed, a large, hungry predator immediately behind me, poised to take a huge bite out of my gluteus maximus. It always leaves me surprised and vaguely uncomfortable if I am told there isn’t one.

        2. I’ve found that a reality check usually comes complete with grenades and automatic weapons fire, whether real or metaphorically. Another good definition of reality check is balancing your checkbook and finding there’s only enough money to pay half your bills. That’s been happening to me all too frequently lately.

  15. I think indie is the best way, currently, to have the most control over your own destiny. The rise of ereaders and POD has made it doable for folks, and they can let the market decide.

    I only have five novels in my drawer, with another about to begin. I might be at 9 or 10 when I actually do bring them out in a couple of years. 😀

      1. I’m waiting for a few reasons. The first is that I’m simply not at a point in my life I can devote a lot of time to promoting them. I have some obligations I have to finish up, and that committment, while allowing me off time to write, doesn’t give me freedom to pursue this the way I’d like. The second is where I live – Hawaii doesn’t provide me a great deal of flexibility. When I no longer live here, which will be in a couple of years, my ability to get where I need to in order to promote will be much easier. Finally, I’m treating this as a business. I want this to evolve into a full time thing, and I’ve got a lot of planning to do before I go full bore into it, to say nothing of the money I’m saving to bring things into the fore.

        By the time I’m ready, I’ll have enough “stockage” to focus on the business aspect for a little while without having to worry when my next book will be finished, and that allows me to publish on the schedule I want. Just different strokes for different folks, I guess.

        1. I’m confused here. Why does the lack of time to promote them have anything to do with not putting them out there immediately? Even if you don’t have any time to promote, other than Sarah’s “Pimp My Readers” posts, they can go sit out there until you’re ready to do something to promote them. You might not sell a single copy in that time, but you will have already done the work to get them online and all you would have to do is start promoting them.

          1. I think RD is going on the “old publishing assumption” that books age. If you don’t promote the minute they come out, they “age” and won’t sell. This was partly because of shelf space, etc. In the new model they continue selling forever and the sooner you can get them up the better.

            But that’s all right. I shall beat RD about the face and head via private email, as soon as I’ve had enough caffeine. (BEG)

          2. I agree, Wayne. JUST promoting my new books on Facebook (once or twice) and having Sarah promote them on this site has increased my sales four-fold. The sooner the material is “on the shelf”, the sooner it will begin selling. In two years, RD could have a sizable readership, and a small but steady income. When there’s more time to promote, there may not be quite the pressure to do so.

        2. Hey, I live in Finland, my mother language is Finnish and I don’t even have the chance to practice speaking English more than a few times a year, if that, and I write mostly in English and am trying to sell to English speakers. So forget about promoting, at least in person.

          Well, it took me about four years to talk myself into putting these first shorts out, but anyway. I’ve got nothing to lose. If they, and what I will publish from now on, never sell in any meaningful numbers I’m no worse off than I was before. And if they start selling at some point I will be better off, even if it’s just a little money. And I can’t stop dreaming up the damn stories anyway, and the only way to get rid of them seems to be to write them (well, works for that story, not necessarily for the characters) so why not write them and then publish them…

    1. You have five novels in the drawer? I’d ask why they’re still in the drawer. 🙂 Because you are 100% guaranteed to be unable to ever make a living off a novel in the drawer. Even if the scoffer of Sarah’s story turns out to have been right after all in your case, it’d be $100/mo you’re not getting now, and the only price you’d pay for it is the time and effort you already spent and aren’t going to get back either way.

      At least Our Beloved Hostess(tm) has the excuse that her prior work is held hostage by the copyright trolls at legacy publishers.

      Of course, I’m also a terrible hypocrite, here. I don’t have anything like five novels in the drawer, but I do have _some_ prior work, which I’ve never published anywhere. Most of it is horrifically bad…the stuff I wrote as a teenager. Some of it is bits and pieces of what, if I ever got off my butt to finish it, would be (I think) a pretty good trilogy of novels…but it’s nowhere near being a coherent whole, and I haven’t actively worked on it in years. And some…well, a few bits of fiction are things that I could probably turn into publishable short stories without too much work, if I weren’t too consumed by the unique combination of being busy and being lazy that describes my existence.

      1. I’m worse than that. I’ve got I don’t know how many books in my head (which vanish into mist when I try to write them down), and one half finished one I’ve been working on since school started again. I’m hoping to have a rough draft done about the end of January. Maybe. If the characters cooperate.

        Then I’ve got that novel I wrote just after college which is sitting around in the drawer because I wrote it a kajillion computers ago, and would have to retype it (ugh) to do anything with it.

        1. Can you barter with someone to type it? Might be worth it.

          Novels receding into mist when you try to write — takes effort to bring the buggers out, er… I mean, the critters out (coffs) but if you keep pushing, you’ll get the knack of it.

          1. So, like Humpty Dumpty, you just have to show it who’s boss? 😉


            Facts are stubborn things, but not nearly as stubborn as fallacies.*

            1. To an extent. It’s more like finding a path in the forest. Each time is different, but if you keep doing it, you’ll get the knack and you can be a native guide… if that makes sense.

              If you haven’t read Dwight Swain, do. It will give you a map to the jungle.

              1. I heartily second the Dwight Swain recommendation. I got it because I’d seen Sarah mention it a few times, and the sections on story structure alone have been incredibly useful.

                Also, I was amused to realize that Swain’s book was the source of the plotting techniques Jim Butcher uses and talks about on his Livejournal. (I believe he acquired the knowledge through a writing program, but even so, it’s clear that either the program used Swain’s method or else there are several people who use the same method with the exact same labels for each step… possible, I suppose, but unlikely.)

            2. Ever learned meditation? I’m not talking about the deep, existential, navel-gazing kind, merely the relaxation techniques you can easily practice a couple of times a week for 15-30 minutes at a time, and still get fairly good results.

              A little relaxation, coupled with telling your novels they are welcome to join you, might help.

        2. “I wrote it a kajillion computers ago, and would have to retype it”
          So is it in dead-tree format at the moment? If you printed it out, there are several easy-ish options for getting it fixed up, some of which I would be willing to tackle for as little as a hearty attaboy. For trickier stuff (like handwritten) I take payment in beef, venison, obs, or souls, whatever suits your fancy. 🙂

          1. IIRC, it’s in a dot-matrix printout, about 200 pages. I’d have to dig it out of the filing cabinet again.


            Facts are stubborn things, but not nearly as stubborn as fallacies.*

            On Mon, Dec 10, 2012 at 9:34 PM, According To Hoyt wrote:

            > ** > Free-range Oyster commented: “”I wrote it a kajillion computers ago, > and would have to retype it” So is it in dead-tree format at the moment? If > you printed it out, there are several easy-ish options for getting it fixed > up, some of which I would be willing to tackle for as little as” >

            1. Eminently doable, though I may have to accept an ob from a friend to cope with dot matrix. If you like I’d be happy to take a look at it for you and see how big an ob it’d be. If you’re interested, shoot me an email at “free range oyster aht google’s mail service daht com” but without spaces or aliases.

              1. Did you read that silly story about the planet full of people who were supposedly followers of Gandhi? Is that where you got the term, “ob”?

                It was an interesting notion between individuals, but impractical for large, interacting groups.

                1. Yes, yes I did. And you’re right, it only works in small to medium sized communities, which is why the Gands gathered in such. As a side note, I love that story and its philosophy but hate Ghandi himself; the man was a pervert and a hypocrite.

                  1. I agree with you, FRO– He may have been an interesting character– but he had some quirks as well.. (and I am being nice)… I guess he needed a way to get rid of all that aggression.

              2. Ok, I haven’t forgotten your kind offer.

                I’m still looking to see if I have a better copy hidden away somewhere. Unlikely, but not impossible. The copy I have is double spaced, but missing chapter 2, and the last couple of pages have photo-copy errors.

                I also have a copy that is single spaced, double columned, but does seem to have the pages that are missing in the other.

                I’ll keep looking. Expect an email from jasini kc at gmail sometime before the weekend.


                Facts are stubborn things, but not nearly as stubborn as fallacies.*

                On Mon, Dec 10, 2012 at 10:47 PM, According To Hoyt wrote:

                > ** > Free-range Oyster commented: “Eminently doable, though I may have to > accept an ob from a friend to cope with dot matrix. If you like I’d be > happy to take a look at it for you and see how big an ob it’d be. If you’re > interested, shoot me an email at “free range oyster aht google’s mail” >

        3. What works for me, and I’m not some great famous novelist or anything, is just to start writing. I have a genre, and a hint of an idea of a character, and just start writing about that character, what is happening to him on any given day. By the end of a chapter or two i have a good idea of what motivates that one person, and some action has started. It is all very random, whatever pops into my head. That first chapter doesn’t need to be a part of your story at all, by the time you get done. It is just a fun exercise that gets you STARTED. I have one that started with a boy catching a handkerchief blowing in the wind. A whole novel built itself out of that random thought that occurred in the first paragraph I wrote.

  16. Ms. Hoyt,

    Thanks much for posting this. I had been getting ready to comb back through your posts for the advice, but you put it all here in one place. I had just posted one short story and was going to let it percolate, but now I see that I need to get cracking on getting several out there on Kindle.


    James Young

  17. I’m waiting for you to put your shorts into collections, as you said you intended. I much prefer to buy them in that form – so much less hassle than having to download and keep track of them all individually.

    I’m not sure Baen would reject any of your novels. They must know that you have a sufficient faithful following to make publishing your work a profitable proposition even if it is in a new series or even a standalone.

    And thanks for letting writers who post here pimp their work. I’ve tried 3 or 4 authors new to me from those posts and have now started buying their backlists as you described.

    1. You know — I WILL make those collections, it’s just I’m still getting over the flu AND doing guest blog posts with whatever energy I have remaining.

      I have a collection of stories set in the George just waiting to be edited, sitting in a pile next to me.

        1. AAGGHHH! Not a Rocky Horror quote! My brain is already seared beyond all hope of recovery by that movie!


                1. I suspect it was an inability to draw a connection between “Swiftboat” John Kerry and Rocky Horror … aside from a slight resemblance to Dr. Frank-N-Furter …

                    1. [SEARCHENGINE] “kerry magic hat”

                      Kerry Pressing Swift Boat Case Long After Loss – New York Times
            …allMay 28, 2006 – “They gave me a hat,” Mr. Kerry says. “I have the hat to this day,” he declares, rising to pull it from his briefcase. “I have the hat.” Three decades …

                      The “hat” was given to Kerry by CIA operatives he smuggled into Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968 during Nixon’s illegal bombing, operatives whose illegal incursion was commemorated by the souvenir hat the CIA spies gave to him … except records establish that the territorial violation “seared” into Kerry’s memory could NOT have occurred Christmas Eve because Johnny was nowhere near there. AND Nixon wasn’t likely to be doing much illegal bombing of a neutral country with LBJ still sitting in control of the Oval Office.

                    2. Ah, thank you. Sometimes the connections have to be beaten into my head with a hammer (a 2×4 is far too soft). Now I’ll make like the woman who used to work with my mother, who laughed at jokes three times: When you told it, when you explained it to her, and when she got it.

                      HAHAHAHAHAHA! 😀

                    3. In fairness, I don’t see the connection to Rocky Horror Picture Show.

                      OTOH, Kerry’s “magic hat” evidence is so much the punchline to an entire genre of Irish humour that it is always ripe for mockery.

                      For example, the drunken Irishman was entertaining the bar with a ghost story he swore was true, finishing with the assertion that the ghost’s appearance frightened him so badly that “my hair turned white”, following this claim by lifting his hat and proclaiming “and it is still white to this very day!”

                    4. sorry. I respond to certain words like Pavlov’s dog. When Wayne said it was SEARED… well…

                      Let’s say I’m at a point when if the waiter asks if I want the seared beef I’ll say “Is it a hat?”

                      Also, JK would look very good in the outfit. For a definition of “good” and considering this is “horror.”

                    5. Yeah, once RES posted the Kerry quote, I got that “seared” was the connection (though I had forgotten it), but I would never have connected the “magic hat” part, because I had never paid attention at all to his saying that he still had the hat.

                    6. Okay – I missed that “SEARED” connection, probably because when reading the reply I only glanced at the referenced comment. Which was foolish on my part, because I still have that brain. I have that brain to this day.

                1. We didn’t hear much of Kerry’s comments in Germany (I was there during that campaign). Plus most of us didn’t get our votes counted— again. I had to look it up to get it.

                  1. Oops.. my brain isn’t working this morning– I didn’t get much of it then (I was thinking first election) because I was on high levels of pred and chemo- I couldn’t even wipe my bum then.

                2. Aw, c’mon: Senator Kennedy died. Senator Byrd died. I don’t know of two worse political jokes in my lifetime.

                  Although, in defense of the senator from Chappaquiddick, he is responsible for converting Michael Medved from a liberal to a conservative.

  18. I’m with Kali–thanks much for doing this, as it certainly makes me ready to start posting more short stories.

      1. It put me as “Youngblai” which is an error. I thanked you twice because I didn’t realize the comment was just hanging out being moderated (it warned me on one but not the other).

  19. One of the things that traditional publishing always did badly was market books. In recent years, they seem to have completely given up. What has slowed me down from ebook purchases is the problem of finding books – my usual technique of skimming the bookstore shelves every other day or so has its obvious shortcomings in the ebook world … (Amazon has thrown out its attempt with its bizarre referral algorithm – a friend of mine likes to make fun of the results he gets from his eclectic reading choices on Amazon).

    So I’ve been thinking about the problem and I think what is going to be needed are gateway site(s) that have some system of book referral/reviews – probably by genre.

    There are three things stopping me from creating such a gateway book site: my inability to write a decent review (although I have a friend who does great non-fiction reviews ), my cluelessness about how to monetize it, and my laziness.

    1. Monetizing it is easy — become an Amazon Associate and get a % of every sale “portalled” through your site.

      I cannot help you with the other two items. The solution to each of them is the same but in each instance it would be too much bother.

    2. Reviews don’t need to be involved just “Liked” “Didn’t” or a rating system. We either trust you or not. Also, you can get other people to do reviews. Monetizing: advertisers pay and publishers might easily buy side-bar ads.

      Laziness I can do nothing for. I fight mine EVERY day.

      1. It would seem possible to compile a list of 100 SF tales which almost everybody with any interest in the field has read (or attempted) 60 – 75 of them. Put up the site with such a list divided into five columns — from one star to five — and then start listing every book you read with a rating of one to five stars, compiled below the baseline columns.

        Write a short post to the effect that all ratings are idiosyncratic and purely the opinion of the blogger, no guarantees and no justifications offered.

        You could even allow comments for folk to express their own challenges to your ratings, possibly with a 300 character limit.

    3. You’ve got 66% of your problem solved. Perhaps that’s enough momentum to over come the remaining 33%?

  20. I’ve been on Amazon and B&N for a couple of years now. My list of works has grown from four to eight in the last 18 months. I usually sell two or three books a QUARTER. Sarah’s mentioning my books here has increased that to thirteen sales on Amazon alone in the last six weeks. Now I need to get busy and write the six or seven novels that are banging around in my head.

  21. As one of your new readers, this post is just invaluable. Especially for the Dreamstime info. Thank you!

    One other point about traditional publishing: Back in the early ’80s, for instance, when I landed my first agent, “indie” publishing meant a vanity press, and every budding writer had it drilled into his or her head that once you went that route, your “real” career was over. No publishing house would ever touch you or take you seriously again. I think a lot of us middle-aged writers still struggle against that nagging voice in our heads whispering how we’re only “legitimate” if an actual publishing house picks us up.

    It took James Lileks going the Kindle indie route with “Graveyard Special” to finally get me over that hurdle. That was the moment I finally realized, deep down in my gut and not just in my head, that things really were changing, and a lot of us were going to get another chance to find our audience.

  22. Wow awesome blog. In the ever changing world of indie publishing, the folks that are hoping for quick and easy bucks are learning that you still have to produce a quality product and a lot of it to get noticed. Thanks for reminding people about this. Keep up the good work and good luck in your endeavors.

  23. > 40 to 50k words IS a novel

    Tactically, it seems, I made a bad decision by writing a 280,000 word novel that tells the story of a lunar libertarian revolution from a dozen points of view, touching on orbital mechanics, open source software, genetic uplift, free market security services, propaganda vs blogs, and more.

    …and doing five drafts of it to make sure that it’s as close to flawless as I can make it was also a bad decision.

    But on the gripping hand, it’s shaping up into EXACTLY the story I want to tell, it splits nicely into two 140k word books, and I don’t need it to pay the rent this month.

    1. SOMETIMES it’s like that. Look at Witchfinder — it’s going to be well over 100k — and I didn’t mean to do this. Actually my sweet spot is around 120k and I can’t change it…

      You tell the story you have to tell.

      Mind you, writing a couple or three 10k word stories in the same world and getting them up there with it will goose your sales more than ANY other publicity.

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