The secret to making a living as a self-published author

A couple of months ago, I wrote an in-depth article about how to land a book publishing deal, and I got a flood of questions from people asking about how to achieve success as a self-published author. I think you should read that article and this one together, and much of the social media building in that article is relevant to this one.

Since I have been a self-published author for years and a full-time self-published author since 2015, I think I am qualified to answer this question.

But I’m going to do it the Russell way, so be prepared for getting into the data, and over-analyzing the minutiae, before coming away with so much data that will make your head spin for a week before you sit down, read this article again, and come up with a solid plan. This article isn’t going to be filled with big, grand ideas that are designed to make you feel good. It’s all about the tactics and strategies I have found by studying, speaking with, and interviewing hundreds of successful (and unsuccessful) self-published authors.

Now, the question becomes can you make it as a self-published author without following this strategy? Of course. There is no one path to success. It’s possible to do anything if you get lucky. However, my job in this article is to show you the commonalities between lots of self-published authors and what they have in common, so you can use them for your own success.

Does this mean that every self-published author became successful this way? No. It doesn’t…because every self-published author is different and every case is different. However, when taken as a whole, this is the most common way that most self-published authors have built their career.

Being a self-published author isn't easy, and you don't need no bull to be a success.

A word before we get started

This article is not meant to bum you out. However, there is no doubt that when you first read this article it’s going to feel overwhelming and daunting.

That is not my intention. It is simply a byproduct of telling you the truth…and the truth is that it’s a lot of work to become a success. Even “overnight successes” worked incredibly hard to get to the top, and work even harder to stay at the top.

No, bumming you out is not my goal.

My goal for this article is to give you a blueprint, just like an architect hands a foreman the blueprint for a house. The foreman already has all the tool to build the house, but they don’t have the blueprint to know how to make to specification. I believe you have the tools and the knowledge. I’m just giving you the blueprint. Anybody, and I mean anybody, that works hard enough can make it as a self-published author. I truly believe that. However, the keys to the castle have been guarded for a long time.

Too long.

It has led self-published authors to give up or abandon their dreams because they didn’t think they were good enough. But the truth is that one point in every successful self-published author’s career somebody shared a tip with them that changed everything and set them on the path to success. That is my goal with this article. To give you the keys to the castle so you can unlock every piece of potential you already have. That being said. This will be harder than you ever thought possible, and you will have to suffer greatly to get there. However, you will come out the other side a warrior, forged in fire, and made of steel.

writing 15-20 books is important for a self-published author.

Plan to write 15-20 books

The most important thing that self-published authors have is a backlist of 15-20 books. This is because most self-published authors make the bulk of their money on their backlist.

The backlist are the books which are not being released right now (those are frontlist books), but that they have released in the past. I’m going to give you the secret to writing faster toward the end of this article, but first I want to talk about why the backlist is so important.

It all comes down to the cost of a book.

The average cost of a book is between $.99 and $4.99 on Kindle. I’m going to take the average book cost as $2.99, because historically this has been the price point that most self-published authors use when it comes to books and the one that offered the best revenue potential. If you only have one book out, the most you can ever make on a potential reader is $2.99, right? However, if you have a series of books, let’s say 5 books, then the most you can make on a person is $14.95, which is five times more than $2.99. This is not hard math, but it is math.

Now, your distributor (Amazon, Apple, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, etc) will take 30% of those funds, leaving you with only 70% left. Meaning that if you have that 5 books set, you will only see $10.46 of that money, and on a $2.99 book you will only ever see $2.09. For the sake of cleanness, I’m going to use round numbers, so we’ll say that a 5-book set will return you $10, and a single book will return you $2.

I’m sure you can already see where I am going with this, but by having a five-book series will mean that your potential revenue is five times greater than for having a single book. And if you have 20 books, then your potential revenue is 20 times more than having a single book, meaning that you can make a potential $40 on one customer, where you could only make $2 before. It is hugely important to understand this concept because it is why self-published authors can create $.99 or free specials for their books. They are relying on something called sell-through to make money.

Why is sell-through important to a self-published author?

Sell through is the percentage of people who will finish one book and then continue to buy other books in the series. Numbers vary, but a standard sell-through percentage looks like this:

50% of people who buy book one will buy book 2.

75% of people who buy book 2 will buy book 3.

90% of people who buy book 3 will buy book 4.

95% of people who buy book 4 will continue with the series to its conclusion.

A little simpler a five book sell through would look like this:


That means if 100% of your buyers bought book one, then 50% of those people will buy book 2, and so on. The number of total buyers drops off after each book, which means that you need to have a lot of people buying book one so that enough people read through the rest of your collection to make a decent profit. Let’s take a real-life example and say that 1,000 people buy your first book. Using the metrics above, your sell-through readership would look like this.


That means that if you have 1000 people buy your first book, you should see 320 people buy your fifth book. How much money would that net you? Well, let’s say those books are all $2.99 and you make $2 after fees. What do those revenue numbers look like?


Using the projected sell-through above, you would make a total of $5064 if you had 1,000 people buy your first book. Looking at those numbers, it’s easy to see how sell-through can add a massive amount of money to your sales every month.

Now I know what you are thinking. That’s great, but I can’t get 10 people to buy my books, let alone 1000. Well, this is where marketing comes in, and why people often offer discount or free books to people through Facebook ads and other mailing list services like Bookbub.

Advertising doesn’t usually turn a profit when you only have one book, or even three because you don’t have the ability to utilize sell-through on your books to make promotions powerful…yet. However, once you have 3-5 books in a series, then you can start running ads to the first book in your series and stop losing money on your ads. This is because cutting the price of your first in series to $.99 still allows you to generate revenue from the rest of the books in the series. Even if you cut that $2000 to $0 and offer the first book for free, you would still make over $3000 on books 2-5 alone. Sell through is the most important metric you have when determining your marketing budget. If you know this number it’s easy to scale up your marketing spend. Without it, you are shooting in the dark.

How to test sell through as a self-published author

How to test your sell-through

To test your sell-through, you would first need a series of at least 3 books. Then, you can log onto your KDP dashboard (or Bookreport if you have it) and see how many buyers bought book 1, and then how many bought book 2 about a month later, and how many of those bought book 3. If you aren’t getting very good sell-through numbers from book 1 to book 2, you might have a problem with the writing of the book, or you might need to add back matter content to the book to push people to book 2.

What is back matter content?

Back matter content is the information in the back of the book, found in the pages after the book is over. Most people end their book, give a short acknowledgment, and then leave it there, but back matter content is one of the most important parts for marketing your book. You can find some more great times on marketing your book through this article on Chandler Bolt’s Self Publishing School.

Effective book marketers utilize back matter to drive people to their mailing list, give extra details about the book and themselves, and, most importantly, give a preview to the next book in the series to help convince readers to buy the next thing. If you are having poor sell-through now. It might not be the book at all. It might simply be poor utilization of your back matter content. If you use it correctly, it should drive people to your next book.

Writing interlocking series is important for a self-publisher author.

Write 4 interlocking series of 4-5 books each

Now that you understand the principles above, it’s time to go through the mechanics of how to write these books, and the strategies you should use to be most effective. The first thing I will caution is not to have 20 books written in the same series—writing in the same world is fine, but not the same specific series.

Why is that?

Because fans burn out on one series. More importantly, advertising one series will cause fatigue with the people seeing your ads. If you keep promoting the same series for a year, eventually you are going to exhaust all the potential buyers and your ad costs will skyrocket. You need some variety, which is why it’s best to have multiple interlocking series, each with 4-5 books in them. This allows you to get all the sell-through of a series without having to worry about burning out the same readers.

Each of these series needs to be an entry point to your universe, which means people don’t need to read the previous books to understand what’s happening in this new series. However, each of your series should interlock together with weak bonds and strong bonds, and you can drive people to other series through utilizing your back matter content.

Why do I recommend four books? Because once you have the fourth book, you can make the first book free or $.99 and attract more readers to the series. Generally, a series isn’t profitable until the fourth book, and you want to give yourself the best chance for success with a series, especially if you are going to run ads to it.

What is a bond?

Let’s talk for a second about the mechanics of a bond. A bond is something that connects one book to another book and one series to another. A weak bond might be that your new series takes place on the same planet as your previous series, or in the same town. A strong bond might be that your new protagonist is the brother of the main character in the previous series.

Using these weak bonds and strong bonds help bridge series together, and give readers a reason to keep digging deeper into your universe.

Why is this the case?

Because once somebody finishes one series, then some of them will migrate over to your other series to find more information about the world. The nice thing is that once somebody reads three of your books and loves them, you can almost guarantee they will be a fan for life, or until you piss them off. Therefore, if you get them into one three-book series, they will likely check out another series, and another series, and another series, until they have exhausted your catalog.

Let’s talk about that last point a minute because it’s incredibly important. Readers will keep reading you until there is nothing else to read. Once they have exhausted all your books, they will move on, and it will be incredibly hard to win them back. This is why having many books is so important, because it will keep a reader busy for a long time, and by the time they are done with your backlist, you will have more frontlist books to keep them entertained. Additionally, if you allow them to read twenty books, they will become more devout fans, and the chance of losing them will be greatly diminished. Now, back to why you should have multiple series set in the same universe.

The reason why I like the idea of having four interlocking series is this—you can rotate your promotional calendar every three months, and keep books fresh for people. If your series interlock, then it doesn’t matter where somebody comes into your universe, you will give them at least nine other books to explore, and if you create the correct backmatter to drive them to your new series, readers will follow you.

If you notice, writing four interlocking series of 5 books each will equal 20 books in your arsenal. I personally like to write 3 book series, and make 2 series connect strongly while crafting weak bonds between them as well, so that some series acts as 6-book sets, while still maximizing my entry points into the series while also maximizing my read through.

I will note that romance works completely differently than this. To be categorized into the romance section you technically need to make sure every book ends with a HEA (Happily ever after) or HFN (Happily for now). That means each romance novel is technically a stand-alone book, but they use the same tactics we discussed above. Romance authors often take a secondary character from one book and make them the lead in the next book. For instance, having three brothers each become the lead in one of your books would make it a three-part “series”. Or making the best friend the lead in the next book, and giving a “cameo” appearance to the person from the first book, would also work. Christopher Moore and Stephen King both utilize this strategy outside of the romance genre.

How to write 20 books as a self published author

How to actually write 20 books as a self-published author

By now I hope I’ve convinced you that you need to write 20 books, but the real question is how do you write 20 books in an efficient amount of time. I want to give you a statistic first. The most popular book-length is 85,000 words, and the most popular price point is $3.99 for those books. I say that to tell you I don’t think writing an 80,000-word novel is an efficient use of your time right now. I recommend writing a series of 50,000 to 60,000-word novels until you build out your backlist.

Here is the reason why.

You can write a REALLY GOOD 50,000-word novel in a month. Like a really great one, as long as you focus on ONE point of view and ONE objective. You can’t make an expansive George R.R. Martin style novel at 50,000 words, but you can write a killer single POV story in that length of time. And at the beginning speed is your friend.

But there is another reason.

Having shorter novels means less editorial investment. If your books are only 50,000 words, you can create an entire three-book series for the cost it takes somebody else to write one 150,000-word novel, and with the same quality level. Your books will be different than that 150,000-word epic, of course, because you are cutting out secondary characters, storylines, and plot points. You need to get in, tell a great singular story, and get out, but if you are okay with that, you can craft an excellent, quick, fun experience within 50,000 words.

There is a financial reason to writing a 50,000-word book as well, instead of one that is shorter or longer than 50,000 words. It comes down to pricing. While there is no perfect pricing method, here is my general rule.

0-14,999 words – $0.00

15,000-24,999 words – $0.99

25,000-40,000 words – $2.99

50,000-90,000 words – $4.99

100,000+ words – $5.99

You’ll see a gap between 40,000-50,000 words where there’s no pricing, and that’s the nowhere zone. It’s a 10,000-word gap that doesn’t seem to have an easy price to match with it. So, I would avoid that range when possible.  If you’re writing a 45,000-word book, it doesn’t take much to bump that up to 50,000, and that is my recommendation.

The thing I really want you to notice, though, is the price difference between a 40,000-word book and a 50,000-word book. While a sub-40,000-word book shouldn’t be sold for more than $2.99, you have the flexibility to sell a 50,000-word book for up to $4.99, especially if you write YA, urban fantasy, or romance.

This means that people value a 50,000-word book considerably more than a 40,000-word book. The extra effort it takes to create a 50,000-word book compared to a 40,000-word book is minimal, but the returns are significant.

Plus, it gives you much more pricing flexibility. A $4.99 book can be marked down to $2.99 or $.99 or even free, while a $2.99 book does not have nearly as much flexibility.

In order to get to a place where you can comfortably charge $5.99, you’ll have to write 50,000 words more and get your book up near 100,000 words. That extra dollar is nice, but is it worth the extra time investment to write an additional 50,000 words? I mean, you could write an additional book with that time and have the second book in your series ready to release. If you do that, then you’ll have two $4.99 books and be able to make a potential $9.97 with the same effort it took to write a longer book which will only return $5.99.

I will say that readers generally prefer longer books, so in the long haul it might make sense to write longer, but when you’re getting started, it behooves you to focus on speed and repeatability.

There one more reason I like writing short.

It’s easy to figure out ONE plot point. It’s easy to focus on ONE character. What becomes hard is focusing on twenty characters, their motivations and goals, and making it all coherent, all in a short amount of time. Writing short was a tactic I used at the beginning of my career, moved away from, then came back to doing recently because of all the reasons above. When you are writing a book in a month, every month, then you don’t have a lot of time to sit and craft a plot. You need a formula that you know works every time.

And that’s what I do. I write one book a month. I learned the strategy for how to do this from the best post I’ve ever read about outlining. Outlining never worked for me before, but after reading this article about writing a GOOD book in three days, I was a convert. Then, I modified and tweaked the outline to fit my needs, and even put up a sample on my own Facebook group.

This outline gave me the tools I needed to write fast, cogently, and well, while still having a great book at the end which I knew had a market. People like Lloyd Alexander wrote great, prolific books, over a long period of time, and all because they were short. His books tended to be less than 60,000 words, but people loved them.

If you can tweak the above outlines to work for you, I’m confident that you can write a book a month, or every two months, that you can be proud of, but it won’t happen overnight. You need to train your brain to write faster than you ever thought possible. I can now bang out 5,000-10,000 words in a day, but I wasn’t always that way. At the beginning, I couldn’t even write 1,000, but over time I learned and evolved into the kind of writer who could do more, faster, and while still maintaining the quality I expect from my books.

And I’m confident you can do it too.

How to release books as a self-published author


The two most popular categories are thrillers and romance. Thus, it behooves you to write in those two genres. However, that doesn’t mean you have to only write in them. For instance, if you write fantasy, then you can write either supernatural suspense or paranormal romance, and the same is true with science fiction or horror.

It just so happens that those two genres are also the two easiest to write in the manner I discussed above. Both have a standalone story structure and are fast-paced. They have a lot of rules to keep readers turning the page, and those conventions also allow authors to keep the story driving forward.

Yes, you can write in other genres, but you will limit your market reach and earning potential if you do. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write that historical fiction book. I know plenty of very successful authors who made a good living in underserviced categories like that one, but if your goal is to write books quickly and earn the most money out of the gate, I recommend those two genres.

Releasing your self-published books

Now that you have the strategy to write the books, and why having 20 books is important, let’s talk a little about your release schedule.

Most people release books…well frankly without a plan. I see hundreds of books a day where I wonder…where are the rest of the books? Why is this book free? What are they driving me to do? Why did they waste their money?

So, I’m going to talk for a second about the best strategy I’ve found for releasing a book, which is to not release your first series until you have at least three books complete and ready to go. Personally. I would like to get ahead of that even more and get six books done, but I know people generally can’t float editorial costs for that long, so at LEAST having three books done and ready to show, especially if it’s a complete series, will allow you to maximize your sales.

That last point is important to remember. People don’t like buying books until the series is complete. It’s a weird hang-up of readers, but they don’t like cliffhangers, especially from new self-published authors. This is one very good reason why writing short, interconnected series works so well, because you can capture the completionists very quickly.

The next thing I will say is that you should attempt to release a book at least once every three months. This is because of a phenomenon called the Amazon Cliff. The Amazon Cliff is when your book drops off significantly in the Amazon algorithm and Amazon stops pushing it to new customers. These cliffs happen at 30, 60, and 90 days after the release of your book.

By knowing this, you can “trick” the algorithm by always having a new book every three-months which bumps you back up into the top of the feed. Obviously, this isn’t really a trick since you really are releasing a new book, but if you don’t keep up at least a 90-day release schedule you will fall down the author ranking and have problems crawling back up.

So, my recommendation is to hold off releasing until you have enough books to release at least every 90 days and keep up with producing content regularly. Consistency is incredibly important when trying to build a following

If you plan on releasing 4 books a year, and it takes you 3 months to release a book, I would wait until you have at least 3 books out there before you start your first book schedule, because then you can “get ahead” of your writing and make sure you have a buffer. The more often you release, though, the better your chances of hitting the algorithm and making a splash. If you can release every 30 days, then Amazon will always be pushing your new book because you have released before the first “cliff”.

My goal is to release one book a month for two years to make Amazon work for me, and get readers accustomed to buying my books, and then pull back to a more modest schedule afterward. The quicker and more often you release the better life will be for you. However, you want to make sure you are releasing quality books, because people can get lots of books for free. They will keep coming back to you because you give them something better.

Writing to market

There is a lot written about writing to market for self-published authors (Chris Fox even wrote THE book about it), so I won’t take a lot of time here, but it’s important to understand that if you can write fast, and write a book that is “hot” on the market right now, then you will have the best chance of having your book take off and sell well.

Writing to market means you need to write fast. Trends come and go every few months, so if you can’t write a book in a couple of months, then you will miss the trend. Writing to market is a great way to ride a trend and capitalize on the market right now, but if you don’t want to do that you can still make a lucrative career. However, it will be tougher because you lose out on the benefit of all of those voracious readers.

Covers are really important as a self-published author. You need brand consistency.

All the covers I’m using for my releases until 2019. Most of them cost less than $200, many less than $100. 95% are premades.

A word about covers

Before I go, I want to talk for a minute about covers. Most covers I see for self-published authors are ATROCIOUS! Covers are the #1 most important thing when it comes to selling a book. Yes, it’s even more important than writing a good book, because when it comes to finding new fans, they will gravitate towards a cover FIRST, and then they will read your book.

This is not to discount writing a killer book as a self-published author, because people will only stick around and become fans if you write an excellent book, but getting a great cover is the easiest thing you can do right now to increase your sales.  I know that covers can be expensive, but they don’t have to be very costly. There are some excellent cover designers who make good, exclusive, reasonably priced premade covers. Premades have a bad reputation, but they’ve come a long way since the horrors of 2010. Now, getting an excellent premade cover can be as cheap as $50-$100, and well below $200. Yes, they can range much higher, but I’m going to give you a list of some of my favorite premade cover places that offer great premades for a reasonable price.

One thing to remember about premades is that if you are constructing interlocking series you want to find a cover designer to do ALL your series covers so they can make sure the font and logo are consistent. This consistency is key to making your covers look like they are part of a set. Don’t buy one premade from one designer and then another from a different one. Find one designer who has the right aesthetic for all your covers in the set. You can change premade designers between series, but keep each series consistent as best you can.

Alright, so here is my list of premades that I know are great, and exclusive.

Creative Paramita – I am almost scared to give this one out, b/c I think she is one of the most underrated designers out there. She is amazing, and nobody has ever heard of her. I’ve used her for more than a dozen covers.

Book Cover Designer – This is a repository for lots of different designers. There are thousands of designers on this site. Some do exclusive and some do not. I have personally bought a series from betibup33 that was fab.

Rebecca Franks – I have never bought from her personally, but everybody I know in the Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy space LOOOVES her stuff. I’ve seen some of it and it is stunning. She runs premade auctions once a quarter from her Facebook group and that’s where her best stuff is found.

Covers by Combs – Another person I have not used, but hear very good things about this designer.

Goonwrite – James at Humble Nations makes exclusive designs, but he starts with existing stock imagery, which means that you might see the image on other books, but the logo design is exclusive. When I found out about that I stopped using him, but he’s a good budget person, though he charges extra for everything.

One final note about covers. It’s important to tailor your covers to your genre. Go to the Amazon top 100 in your genre and see what kind of covers are selling, then model your cover to that. It’s the easiest way to ensure that your readers will know what kind of book they are buying, and to make sure the right readers buy, to maximize sell through.

If you follow this article, you will have a solid road map for creating a writing career that works for you. I know it seems daunting now, but the best part about having information is that you can synthesize it and figure out how to make it work for you.

Is it possible to become successful another way?


You might hit it out of the park on your first go around, but the changes are not bloody likely. This creating twenty books in this fashion allows you to have the BEST chance for success. Heck, it might take you 40 books to break. However, if you play it right, you can create a career that works for you.

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