I was talking with another author, who does extremely well as an indie, and we started comparing numbers. He/she will earn close to two million dollars this year. Most have never heard of him/her.
I had an email exchange with another indie a few days ago who clears a cool half mil a year. You’ve likely never heard of him/her, either. He/she is friends with another author who works the same genre, who does a little better than he/she does – probably close to three quarters of a mil this year. We all trade tips and help each other – there’s no competitive snarkiness between any of us.
I’m part of a group of authors on Facebook, have been for about two years. In that time, more than a few have gone from earning a few hundred a year to tens of thousands, and in several cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. You’ve probably never heard of any of them, either. As with the above buddies of mine, everyone is supportive of each other regardless of the stage of their career. One of the reasons might be because we’ve all been alive long enough to have learned that you meet all the same people going up as you do coming back down. Another might be that we don’t feel competitive – there’s no limit to how well any of us might do, other than the market’s fickle nature and our own abilities and drive.
I thought it was fitting as we wind up the year to comment on this, and to point out that as much as we whine about the impact of Kindle Unlimited on our sales, and on the dearth of decent ad sites, and the constantly shifting marketplace, more of us than ever before are earning decent, and in some cases, magnificent, incomes, from writing and publishing, without any help from the traditional channels that used to have the book selling business locked up.
What do all of these authors have in common, though? All these indies who are making serious, and in some cases, insane, bank? First, they publish regularly. As in once every few months, and in some cases, once every month. Second, they work in genres that will support them. While most of the top earners are in romance or one of its offshoots, others are in science fiction, which voraciously consumes indie work; some are in my genre (action thrillers), some in mystery, some in fantasy. Third, they all work long hours and take this extremely seriously. Fourth, they operate their publishing businesses like businesses, not like hobbies. They have production schedules they stick to. They market and promote. They invest in professional help when necessary and grasp that you have to spend money to make it. Fifth, they write books readers enjoy reading, as opposed to books their muse dictates they write. That’s an important distinction, because what we as authors often want to write might not be all that marketable. So we compromise based on our understanding of the market. And sixth, they’re constantly adjusting their sails to best negotiate treacherous water and ever-shifting winds. They’re pragmatic. And most have great senses of humor, as well as a keen appreciation of irony. That goes with the gig, I suppose. As does pragmatism.
Some of them write magnificently original novels that push the envelope. But most don’t. They write genre fiction that supplies what their consumers want to buy. Some do it with remarkable prose, some with workmanlike sentences, but the point is that it doesn’t matter to their fans – they write the prose their audience wants.
I’ve been extremely lucky in my career thus far. Writing with Clive Cussler, I’ve learned a lot. Working with my agent, I’ve learned still more. But mostly, being paid by readers to write as many novels as I have has allowed me to hone my skill in a manner most couldn’t only a few short years ago. And seeing what readers respond to has shown me where the path to growth lies.
Most have never heard of Russell Blake. Probably 99% of my target audience has no frigging idea who I am. I find that exciting and motivating. It means that there’s a whole world out there to conquer, of potential readers who might enjoy one or more of my yarns, and might tell a friend.
Most importantly to me, I’ve been able to write novels that I would read, the way I like to write them. The good news is there are plenty of viable styles, and all of them sell well, if delivered with conviction. Certainly, as with reality TV, some fiction is written for folks who can barely make it through TV Guide, and that’s fine. I don’t read that style, but that doesn’t make it inferior. Other fiction is written so densely I can’t get more than a few pages through it without yawning. That can sell well, too. Whether you favor prose that’s more monosyllabic, or that pushes the boundaries of what language is capable of, it’s all good – do it well, and there’s someone who will buy it. In many cases, a lot of someones.
That’s my early wrap-up for the year as I wind it down in preparation for 2015. It’s been a hell of a ride, starting with being above the fold in the WSJ in early January, and continuing from there. How many authors are ever featured on the front page of the WSJ? That alone I could retire on (and some hoped I would). Fortunately, folks still buy my stories so I don’t have to, yet. But the point is I’ve already surpassed any expectations I had for this little writing thing I do.
I find it humbling, as well as inspiring, that so many authors, some of whom were traditionally published and have all the usual horror stories that go with it, but most of whom who never were, are earning incredible livings publishing their own work. It’s a wonderful and ever-evolving literary world that I’m glad to be a part of.
Here’s to 2015! Now get to work. 2015 could well be your year, but if you look at the six things the bestselling indies I know all have in common, you’ll see that hoping doesn’t feature. Hard work, application, being very smart about what you publish and how you publish it, constantly striving to improve your craft…these are the things that make your career. Sure, luck plays a role, but not nearly as large a role as many seem to believe.
There are no guarantees, except that if you don’t do whatever it takes to succeed, you won’t.
That’s been my life lesson so far. I see nothing to change my view now that I write for my dinner.
We live in a magical time, when self-determination as authors is within reach. Revel in it.
And of course, buy my crap.