This evening I realized I’m (now over) 100K in lifetime book sales, so I set up an “ask me anything” thread on Reddit’s largest writing group. I was nervous, because Redditors can be hostile, but having frequented the site more recently, I knew a LOT of writers were struggling with some pretty basic, common writing and publishing questions.
It was going well at first, got over 300 upvotes in a few hours and 60+ comments. Then a moderator shut it down and removed the thread. That’s OK, group monitors have an obligation to follow rules and be strict.
But I saved the post, and the questions and answers, so I could repost it here. The answers are really good, so I wish more newbie authors had had a chance to read it all, but I’ll leave them here in the hopes that somebody finds value in them.
PS. It IS a problem, that most online social forums become an echo-chamber of inexperienced writers giving each other advice, and aren’t welcoming to more experienced writers – not something I can fix but something you should be aware of if you’re trying to get feedback or answers: you may hear a lot of the same, crowdsourced, bad advice.
Key takeaways: I’m basically still a starving artist, despite having made six figures with my writing, because it’s spread over 5 years and I spend a ton of money. That doesn’t mean the advice here isn’t good, I’ve been building a wide and deep platform so I can scale fast once I finish some series.
MILESTONE: Almost six-figures lifetime earnings… AMA
100K+ in book sales so though I’d share some *insights*.
First, I spent a lot on ads, covers, editing, platform etc. Probably only 20% of that is actual profit. Second, I started publishing over 5 years ago, so… that 20K of profit represents about 4K a year. Not a livable wage by any stretch.
- hit 8K/month a couple years ago on the back of a sequel + bookbub deal for the next book on preorder… but got distracted, have *still* yet to finish a series so I’ve never really been able to scale/advertise profitably… but I do plan to change that this year and finish 3 series.
- I don’t publish frequently, probably about 4 books a year, even though I *can* write 3K words a day, I don’t most of the time.
- I spend a TON of my time in revision and editing, but I also plot/plan well. I can write 2K an hour, and edit about 2K an hour, but I go through at least 4 rounds of revision/editing.
- I self-publish on Amazon, in KDP, use my free days, book adstacking promos for new releases, usually. I will make audioboxsets once series are done and then I can really start scaling.
- I have about a dozen novels, but all mid-series without finished series (I know, I suck, readers hate me). Best book has 700 reviews, most have over 100.
- I get about 500 visitors to my fiction websites a day; free traffic, but doesn’t convert that well to optins or book sales. I don’t blog frequently but did invest in a lot of articles when I was getting set up.
- Built a ton of friendships in my genre (YA fantasy/scifi) by creating a genre-based FB group for authors; I never cash in on that but it’s been great for motivation and peace of mind: a lot of my friends are *much* more successful than I am but I’ll catch up eventually.
- Most authors ask about stuff like “what/how should I write” – it’s all about having enough marketable content to stay profitable; if you want to improve, make sure you have a goal (specific reception by specific audience) that includes quantity (writing several books instead of revising just one for years).
- The basics of publishing are pretty easy and simple; but there are big players with big budgets, and you can’t afford to get the basics wrong. If you don’t have a great cover, enough reviews, a great blurb, all marketing is a waste of time and money, so fix those issues first.
- I’m awkward on Reddit but have slowly starting trying to answer some questions; this is my first time with a post like this but happy to answer any questions, about anything.
- This sub is more about writing and not publishing/marketing, so happy to talk craft or writing process as well. Mostly just procrastinating from the prison fae novel I need to finish.
The first few comments were skeptical and asked for proof, but I wasn’t able to upload this screenshot. “I get a lot of people bragging about six figures is sketchy… I think explaining that six figures over 5 years after marketing costs = almost nothing is more approachable?”
“I don’t publish frequently, probably about 4 books a year“
Q: Lol… what WOULD you consider frequently? (Followed by a few suggestions that some authors crank out books in popular genres but they are “not very good.”)
A: I try not to give myself a hard time, but a lot of my writing friends write much faster, six to twelve books a year. I’m fine with 4 a year if it was finishing one series at a time, which I’ll try to do better, instead of always starting new book ones and series starters. The weird thing is, writing *full-time* is only an hour or two a day of actual writing, to finish a book every couple months… so it’s hard not to berate yourself for all that extra time you’re not using better. But writing is exhausting so an hour or two of progress and I’m brain toast.
2k a day, one every month or two, though I spend a month editing easily, and one of my novels is 150K. Some of my friends crank out 5 or 10K a day, have a team of editors and designers on standby, a whole launch system, and a virtual assistant.
They get burnt out, but I respect their work ethic and productivity. Writing can be a lot of fun; it’s a few hours a day of work. It’s a lot better than 8 hours at an office.
“Not very good” is a more complex discussion. Writers often ask me why some other book is selling so well even though it obviously sucks. You can’t sell a book people don’t enjoy. But many, many people can enjoy a book with a great story even if it’s not well written. If you’re an author who prides yourself in fine quality writing, you should acknowledge that your high end tastes in literature don’t sync up with the hungry readers who consume quickly. I’ve tried writing bloated, self-absorbed, painstakingly beautiful books… people don’t like those.
Depends on the genre. Urban fantasy wants fast paced action. They aren’t picky about “pretty writing” or even some mistakes, but they will drop a book fast if it’s boring.
Epic fantasy readers are often more patient, appreciate pretty writing, and will stick with it longer. BUT many epic fantasy writers write too much and fail to have a compelling story with stakes, conflict, progression.
I would argue… you need to write about 10 bad books before you start writing good ones, so quality leads to objective quality, in that it leads to experience and awareness.
Writing a book takes a certain amount of minutes putting words on the page; apart from idea creation/plotting/getting unstuck. Nobody really writes *faster* – they just spend more of the day putting words on a page until it’s done.
Q: 80k is a lot of money to spend, was there some spectacular failure along the way? Or was it just Facebook adds and stuff?
A: There have been big failures – if I forget to turn ads off or do something stupid. But mostly… just running my ads and platforms costs at least 1K/month (hosting, the online tools and software subscriptions, etc). I spend about $500 a month on premade book covers I don’t really really need (it’s a common addiction). I’ve spent 27K on AMS/amazon ads, showing 11K in profit – but that doesn’t take into account page reads (until recently); so actually I’m just over breaking even. I use book report (chrome plugin) to keep track of sales and try to make sure they’re bigger than my daily adspend.
I’m in competitive genres without completed series so I’m fine with how I’ve done so far, though never really focused on learning enough to get great with ads (yet). I’ll focus more on results once I’m more secure in profit, with completed series. I know people who get much better results… but most don’t. Most authors can’t get any ads working, at all, because their product doesn’t convert, so they say “ads don’t work” or is a total waste of money… but there really aren’t any better marketing opportunities, and it usually points to a reason their book isn’t converting.
I think it’s more common to make roughly 20% profit, so people spend 10K and make 12K. I have lots of friends who do much better, and triple their money (spend 10K, make 30K). It’s a balance of conversion, percentages, read through, content and prices, so it can vary a lot. Generally, it’s expensive to learn, but works great once you’re profitable.
Q: Could you describe a bit more on this idea of conversion?
Conversion = how many people take action at each step of your funnel.
A: If you’re advertising, you’ll pay for clicks.
Maybe you get 100 clicks.
10% buy, that’s your conversion rate. If you can make a profit, paying for 100 clicks, getting 10 sales, that’s great. Readthrough rate also matters… if 10% of those people also buy the whole series, that makes it easier to stay profitable.
Most authors have a negative conversion rate. They get 100 clicks and zero sales… because the cover isn’t professional, the blurb isn’t clear or captivating, they don’t have enough reviews for social proof. Or they get zero clicks because their cover is ugly and their ad isn’t attractive, or they’re targeting the wrong audience.
Q: Is it normal to feel embarrassed about my writing?
This isn’t exactly related directly to this post, but seeing as you seem to have a ton of writing experience, I’d like to ask. As someone who has always had a passion for creating stories and has pages upon pages of character ideas, plots, settings, etc., I’ve always been interested in writing a novel and started several excerpts of a story I’ve formulated over the years since age 10. I like to think my writing is somewhat decent, with a cohesive plot and likeable characters, but for as long as I can remember, whenever someone asked what I was writing about, I usually replied with something along the lines of, “Uh, nothing much. It’s not interesting.” I’ve never really shared my work with anyone, not even close friends and family members. Maybe it’s a fear of ridicule or embarrassment. Is this normal for writers when they start out? Additionally, is there any way to counter this fear? Thanks! Stay safe 🙂
A: Yup! Totally normal. It’s normal for it to be hard, to get frustrated, to hate everything. A few dozen times in every book I’ll get stuck and hate everything and think I’ll never be able to get unstuck or figure it out. When editing I hate how stupid my writing is. Pieces fall into place; in the fourth or fifth revision, I’m adding in the super powerful, deeper cuts or scenes that make it so much better, even if the first few versions of the scene were boring and empty.
Don’t share anything until you’re ready for feedback. Don’t worry (or look for!) criticism because you’ll get it: and nobody’s opinion matters except actual readers of your target genre, and they won’t be polite to spare your feelings.
Don’t ask friends or family, they won’t get it and are too personal. Post it on wattpad if you want to, or start a blog, there’s some catharsis in just getting it “out there” in public even if nobody is reading it.
Everybody is writing a novel, everyone is a writer. Few people finish a book and publish it, so make that your goal. After that, you can (if you want to) focus on writing books people enjoy, which is a very different thing from just enjoying the writing process for yourself.
It’s a learnable skill, not an innate gift, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel talented enough, if you’re insecure, if you’re currently not as good as you hope to be someday. All that matters is you put in the time and do the work.
Q: Considering the costs involved and the relative lack of profits in comparison overall, thinking on a year by year basis like you pointed out in the beginning: how did you afford to be able to start in the first place, and then keep going?
A: In the beginning, you’re mostly only putting in your time and effort, that’s free. You can publish pretty cheap if you keep costs down. I do my own covers and editing, so I save a lot there, though I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone. I got lucky a few times, but the rest of the time there’s a lot of competition and I’m not ready to focus full-time on marketing (I will be, once I have more finished series and it’ll be worth my time). With ads or marketing, you do a little bit and see what works; you can spend $5 a day and test ads until you find the profitable ones. Slowly, scale up, until you’re not profitable – that way you’re not *really* spending money. A better title for this could have been “I’ve made 20cents for every dollar spent AMA!” It doesn’t sound sexy, but there’s really no free or easy money, and 20% returns are pretty good in most businesses. I’ve haven’t spent 80K that I had, I made 1K, put into ads, got $200 back, etc.
Q: Is it possible to self publish and then, if you have some good sales, to have it published again by a professional?
A: Almost never. Trad publishers may be interested after you sell 10K copies in a short period of time but they’ll be looking for an upwards trajectory of sales, and even then it’s very rare. But if you’re selling that much, no publishing deal would be worth it to you anyway. In the early days, some authors suddenly made millions and publishers came knocking with deals that weren’t attractive when the authors could make more. If you sell a lot of copies, it’s not uncommon for a foreign publisher to buy translation rights, or for someone to buy up the movie rights early just in case it gets more popular.
Trad publishers may be interested in your *next* book and future project if you can show significant success self-publishing, or they may see that as a red flag and prefer a new author with a clean slate and no baggage. BUT – most new trad published authors get an advance of around $10K and most don’t sell out that advance. Even if it’s 30K, it’s spread over 3 years.
I won’t take less than a 100K advance, which I could request based on my platform size, because it would force the publisher to be invested enough to actually promote it.
My main complaint about trad publishing, is it’s an entirely different thing you have to learn: submitting queries, research, proposals – plus the years of submitting, finding an agent, sending to publishers, hoping for a deal. You could write a lot more books in that time instead of waiting for validation.
Q: What proportion of your expenses goes to advertising? Editing? Etc.?What are the best resources for editing and covers in your experience? What do they cost? What have you found are the best places or ways to advertise for return on investment? Have any ads that you’ve placed not resulted in enough sales to make up for the cost of the ad?
- I don’t personally use an editor, which I know is a huge source of controversy but I’ve written a lot about why. I use grammarly + prowritingaide to get it mostly clean before I publish. I don’t use developmental editors – and this will sound vain – but I don’t know/trust anyone else who has a higher level of craft and I don’t get stuck on story issues. I should use at least a proofreader and will start once I see more profit. Generally, a great developmental editor might cost a couple grand; a prooread/copyedit around $500 on the cheap side, but it’s hard to vet quality editors – and I think you can learn more about craft from study than from hiring a pro (still a good investment, in the early stages, if you’re learning to write… but most writers in all genres make common mistakes that you can learn to avoid without hiring someone to point them out for you personally).
- Covers cost around $500 for custom work. I’ve been an editor and cover designer, which is why I’m mostly hesitant about hiring help – though I also buy a lot of premade covers (at least 50 and counting) for around $200 each, that may or may not get used, but help inspire future stories. If you google “best cover designers” I have some resources and recommendations: but most good reasonably priced cover designers are booked out months in advance.
- AMS ads are best because it’s right there on Amazon… but it’s very competitive – it’s good to help you figure out quickly why nobody is clicking/buying, but hard to stay profitable unless you have completed series and are already doing everything right. Facebook ads is great, again if you have enough content and are ready to scale. All the usual suspects (“best 99cent book deal/book promotion sites”) are fine to launch a book into the top 10 of your genre categories, as long as you have a good cover and enough reviews. I’ve tested places like quora or bing or google ads but that’s not a great approach, at least to a book – if you have a squeeze page offer and a good email list series and a large backlist, it can work well. Many ads don’t immediately earn a profit, but may be worth it for a short term boost in visibility – it’s important to target well so that only the right readers are seeing and buying, so amazon learns who the right audience is and who to promote your book to organically.
Q: How did you set up your author blog?
Was it very difficult? Do you link any articles, short stories or other things you wrote?
A: I use wordpress and a theme; more recently Divi, which makes pretty landing pages – if you’re sending direct traffic, the design and offer matters; if you don’t have traffic, the content matters first, so I’d just grab any free theme and consistently add content.
Writing topics for authors:
– writing updates/lifestyle posts, what you’re working on, pics of your working desk, inspiration, etc whatever.
– work in progress- excerpts or scenes from whatever you’ve written that day that you feel good about, just a couple chapters
– book reviews for books in your genre; top 10 best books in x genre lists, industry news in your genre or other genre related media (video games, movies, TV series…)
Q: Everyone talks about mail lists and reviews, but how do you go about getting those when you are just starting?
A: Have something free to offer, probably a prequel or first couple chapters of your WIP – ask them to sign up for early release news and to get a free copy of the book when it’s done (you’re going to need ARC readers, so build a big list of potential readers who liked the sample; they’ll be there to help launch your book and get reviews if you offer them a free copy). Once you have a fanbase, you can raise prices/charge more, but in the beginning the challenge is to even convince someone to keep reading for free.
Q: Is it necessary to cook up multiple series at once? I’m currently starting college but am already done with the planning phase of my book and have begun on writing the manuscript. But I only have one series in mind.
A: Start with the first one and the one you’re most excited about. But… I’d get the first book out fast and start getting feedback, instead of committing to finish the entire series first. The series doesn’t matter if they quit the first book. I practiced writing book ones; then I’m practicing with book twos, now I’m getting pretty good at writing book 3s and finishing series. That’s not at all the way to do it, but I’ve learned a great deal about writing, and progressed faster.
If you have multiple series, do whatever is more exciting or fun, when you get stuck, switch to the other one. I think it can be a really good idea to write the first 3 chapters of multiple projects and see how they turn out, whether anybody liked them.
BUT – don’t get distracted and switch to whatever is easiest all the time. Often, when you’re stuck, you’re at the limit of your abilities and knowledge, you have to push forward and stumble through, you learn on the job, it’s not easy.
Q: What advice/suggestions would you give to someone trying to write their first book?
A: The first one is the hardest…. most people say it takes 10 years to write your first and a year after that. Most people don’t know exactly what they’re trying to achieve, for whom, and aren’t willing to follow any rules (plotting, structure, craft, etc). So they end up getting lost in the maze and rewriting it every few months as they get better, which almost never works. Also, the first book is usually the one they care about the most, so they’re going to obsess and be perfectionists and hate it, because it’s so personal to them. So, instead, if you’re willing… intend to write a shitty book. Focus on a super popular genre (that you have some interest in). Read the bestsellers. Read the reviews. Understand WHY readers like or dislike them. Without copying, anything, ever, make a list of common genre tropes or cliches.
The point: as Zizek writes, you can only break through the system with over-conformity. You need to learn the rules before you can break or transcend them. Aim to write a book at least as good as Twilight (because, if you assume you can do much better and try to write something “great” you’ll probably end up with something nobody wants). It would be better to get some practice, attempting to write something for fun in order to get your market and improve your skill, without putting your soul on the line, than spending a decade trying to express yourself with your Perfect Art.
Read Perennial Seller or Real Artists Don’t Starve or Big Magic.
Start with some simple plotting or chapter outline templates so you don’t get stuck.
Focus on finishing your imperfect ideas, not perfecting your unfinished ideas.
Q: How do you balance “writing what you want to write / what you want to put into the world” and “writing what will sell”?
A: I would really love to publish some day, but then I remember that publishing is a big capitalist monster that doesn’t care about my feelings or integrity. It cares how marketable I am, how much my stories can sell, and how efficient it is to sell my story.
So sometimes I get really far into a book, but then I get paranoid and don’t want the capitalist machine to rip that story from my hands because I’ve heard tons of stories specifically about POC writers and LGBTQ+ writers (of which I am both) who have so many elements of their stories changed in order to appeal to a broader audience (AKA White cis-het readers).
- Yes, which is why I self-publish. Publishers don’t get to decide what they think will be profitable based on who they think their audience is: they’re wrong most of the time anyway.
- I think there’s a hole in the market for wellwritten, POC on the cover, LGBTQ+ books, even if publishers can’t bear the costs because they think it’s a risk, but self-publishing is a lot of work and you won’t get the same kind of huge release push.
Q: On that note, if I do go the self-publishing rout–which is a very high possibility at this point for all the reasons listed above–do you think it’s worth it for me to first start off with some “safe” projects versus trying to self-publish my lifelong passion projects right away?
Personally, yes, so you’ll be less emotionally invested and can make smart decisions, if you’re viewing it all as practice/learning experience. That said, the book you get done is better than the book you don’t.
Q: Have you done any book giveaways on lists like Bookbub or CentslessBooks to get early reviews, or is it all just Amazon Ad spend?
Yes… bookbub only has ads and email features, I’ve done paid and free books. You can get reviews from other sites too, instafreebie, bookfunnel, netgalley, booksprout. I build an email list and facebook page/group to share ARCs, I use bookfunnel for those. I also routinely use my 5 free days I get with KDP select, with boosted ads, so I can pick up a few thousand readers into a book 1 each time.
Q: How do you make/find time to write?
I’m guessing, like most of us, you have a job to pay the bills, so when does writing happen?
A: I’m terrible with time management: I have trouble writing if I have to do anything else, so I try to do nothing. I’m happy if I write an hour or two a day, a couple thousand words; but I usually don’t, even when I’ve got nothing else to do. The pressure to change your circumstances by finishing books is attractive and motivating; but the stress can also be bad for creative productivity. I have a lot of tips about this stuff on www.writethemagic.com
Q: Do you use a launch strategy or do you just put it out and buy ads? I just took a class on how to launch a book, and it was mind-blowing. I learned a lot. I haven’t published in five years and this year my goal is to publish 2 books. But, the launch process should start 4 o 6 months in advance. And it’s also a lot of work.
A: I never plan my launches that far in advance: yes, it’s a good idea, if you’re reaching out to influencers/reviewers and want to have them commit you need to give them loads of time; some review sites want books 3 months before they’re published. Non of that stuff is worth the effort, in my opinion, and you can’t really promote until the book is done, up, with reviews. You can set a long preorder while you’re writing it, but it’s hard to calculate when you’ll actually finish in time so this is risky.
Q: I’m considering self publishing on Amazon. Any advice? I really don’t know much about it, so anything you can tell me would be helpful.
A: Do it! It’s pretty easy, you just need a cover + formatting, both of which you can DIY – there are lots of resources to learn. That said, you’ll always see better results with a real designer, especially a book cover designer. Formatting you can cobble together yourself decently enough; with draft2digital or reedsy’s book formatting tools, or Vellum, or just MS Word (convert to epub + PDF for print). Choose/request up to 10 categories (you can enter two in KDP and have to request extras). Fill in lots of keywords in the keyword boxes (each fits about 8 words). Also have keywords in your blurb for SEO – a lot of the times, people fail to specify basics, what IS this book, what’s it like, who is it for. Start with the hook and story questions, end with genre specifics and details. Answer questions, overcome skepticism. If they’re confused about what it is, they won’t buy.
Q: You’re also in the 3 most profitable genres with the most insatiable readers. That helps a lot. As flooded as the market is with those genres people are still selling books.
A: Yes, it helps. It’s what I enjoy reading, but it’s also not accidental. Genre is a choice. That said… very popular genres are much more competitive. Less popular genres, it’s really easy to get ahead because there is so little competition. But if nobody wants to read your book… that’s not a genre problem, it’s a craft problem.
Can you really make money as a writer?
Some people were surprised when I revealed it took about 80K in ads and expenses to hit 100K, meaning only a 20K profit spread over roughly five years. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound nearly as good. People ask what tragedy had befallen that I was failing so hard at publishing. I hadn’t really considered that, as I know most authors – even the big ones – aren’t making a full time living, and being at all profitable is rarer than it appears.
Someone else asked, how can I survive at all if I don’t make much money from my books? The answer is, a lot of my nonfiction books were used to funnel towards online products or digital services. I’ve never been able to scale up significantly or earn as much as I’d like, but I’ve had a pretty stable, passive income for several years that allows me time to focus on my writing.
Partly, I feel like I’ve failed or am not doing very well. Currently, with about 15 books, I can barely make Facebook ads work. However for the first time, they are *just* breaking even, which means I can leave them running, and basically promote for free at no cost. Now with slight tweaks and more books, I should increase my profit margin, and can spend a little more each month. In other words, slow, incremental changes with a small profit margin is sometimes about as good as a big, expensive book launch where you get a lot of sales but then everything dries up.
Another six-figure author interview: However if you’re ready for another Q/A from a very profitable and smart author, check out this one.