OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
There's been much teeth-gnashing in the indie community in the last month with lots of posts about quitting, about income dropping with Kindle Unlimited and the new EU Tax Law, about this or that changing.
There's also been a rash of super blog posts, and in this article, I want to round a few things up and add my perspective to the mix.
On the end of the gold rush and the year of the quitter
Kris Rusch has restarted her excellent Business Rusch posts, so immediately go and read them and subscribe. In her musings on what indie authors learned in 2014, Kris names 2014 as the ‘year of the quitter,' when many authors discovered that writing is hard, publishing is hard and making a living with your writing is hard. Achieving real success is also difficult, the gold rush has ended and that there is definitely a mid-list indie.
My take on this is to nod my head in agreement.
I never thought writing was easy, and after 6 years of blogging and creating online, and 3 years of doing this full-time, I know that success is hard. I still haven't met my initial goal of matching my income from the day job. But then I was 13 years as a business consultant, and the first 5 years of any new business aren't exactly boom years!
I've never seen a gold rush on my own books, and I know most of you won't have either. It's certainly more common with romance writers, or those few who made the 99c jump before others. There will always be those who hit the zeitgeist, but you can't count on a lightning bolt or lottery win.
I self-published my first book in early 2008 – pre Kindle, pre mainstream print on demand. I've self-published fiction and non-fiction and I've seen a trickle of income that has slowly ticked up to an average $1500 – $2000 a month. My highest income month has been around $3500 from book sales. I think that makes me a mid-list indie and I'm pretty darn happy with that after only 6 years in the business. Many authors have been writing for many more years and make a lot less than that.
I'm grateful for every day I don't have to work in a cubicle [cue happy dance!]
All I have done since 2008 is write, put my work out there and build a business online by attempting to offer education, inspiration and entertainment consistently over time. It's what I intend to keep doing, because I love it!
Change is the only constant and all that. Luckily, I am a change junkie and surfing the stormy seas is fun for me. If it's not fun for you, then try traditional publishing, or stick to writing for fun. Otherwise, time to adapt.
Things will continue to change in 2015, there will be bumps and bruises, but some things never change for creative entrepreneurs. Here are some principles that will help you survive, whatever the conditions of the market.
(1) Write what you love for people who love to read that type of thing
I don't do rainbows and kittens and happy endings.
My books are filled with supernatural power, international locations, explosions and high body count. They are based on my own travels and in-depth research.
My fiction is about good vs evil – that's the theme that obsesses me. So I will continue to write what I love to read, and the fact that it doesn't sell as well as romance or sci-fi or fantasy isn't the point.
Russell Blake had a post on the new landscape of books where he talked about the cheaper price phase being over.
That means you need to up your game, that suddenly story and craft will matter more, and that simply being cheap, with a homemade cover and lackadaisical or no editing, won’t cut it.”
Again, this is not news. It's what many of us have always said and always practiced, eschewing the fast money for the long term quality product that will sell over time and make customers happy.
Blake also says, in his 2015 predictions:
“The importance of brand will increase … Authors who want to have careers doing something besides chasing the next fad will have to develop a brand in their readers’ minds that’s worth paying for.”
That's my aim. Grow a list of readers who love the books I love and want to read more books in a similar vein. When I find an author I love, I don't really care how much the book costs (within reason). I just pre-order immediately a new book is announced. That's what I want readers to do with my books. That's what you need to do as well.
You will get what you focus on.
If you focus on writing, improving your craft, on learning more about the best practices in the industry, in building relationships, on positive enthusiasm and helping others along the road, you will build a career as an author slowly but surely, and for the long term.
(2) Think global. Think multiple streams of income.
For anyone concerned about income, this is for you.
Along with many others in 2008, I was laid off from my day job. 400 of us in my department were handed a piece of paper saying goodbye, two weeks pay and that was that.
I swore then that never again would I be dependent on ONE stream of income.
As much as I love Amazon, if sales on one platform is your only stream of income, be concerned. If you have a day job, by all means, stick with one distributor. But if this is your business, being dependent on one retailer means things will eventually get difficult.
But I take this even further for 2015.
If selling ebooks in the US is your only stream of income, be worried.
As a UK resident who has lived in many countries around the world, and with family members from Hungary, New Zealand, Nigeria and Canada, I always have an international viewpoint on things.
It makes me crazy when I read blog posts, tweets and comments that focus only on the US market.
Sure, it's the most mature digital market but there is a HUGE world out there that has barely discovered digital. The rest of the world is the next big growth industry for ebooks.
Stop being so short-sighted. Think 5 years ahead. 10 years ahead.
I was talking to someone recently about how many African nations have skipped desktop computers and have gone straight to mobile. The cellphone business is booming in some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Do you want to bet that these people read on their cellphones? I saw the same thing in India. People want to learn, they want to be inspired and entertained. They want to read.
On a more personal level, I spoke in Stockholm in September. They haven't even got Amazon yet, let alone
KDP or other ways to publish. The Swedish authors and book reading audience are raring to go!
A few weeks ago, I spoke in Auckland, New Zealand at the first cross-genre indie author event. The blog posts and tweets afterwards expressed excitement at finally finding a like-minded community in a country that still has $35 print book prices and a restricted literary culture.
I also gave my 9 year old nephew (also in NZ) some money for Christmas books. He said to me, “I love reading print, Auntie Jo, but I can get four times as many ebooks for the price of one print book so I will buy them on the tablet instead.” He also uses an iPad for school.
Yes, NZ is a small market but it's used as a test market for a lot of new technology for the English speaking world so it's worth watching.
My book royalty income 18 months ago was mainly concentrated on sales from the US, UK, Australia and Canadian stores. Now, my books sell in 62 countries and my income streams from smaller markets grow every month.
I am SO super-excited about the growth in the global market. I hope you can be too.
Create multiple streams of income from your books
I've gone into this model before, but read this post if you need a refresher. Your income streams can be:
- Print – print on demand through Createspace or IngramSpark
- Ebook – by distributor e.g. Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, NOOK, Google Play, Smashwords/Draft2Digital for subscription models and smaller vendors
- Audiobook – ACX.com for US and UK authors. Other options for authors in other countries – see Making Tracks by J Daniel Sawyer and Audiobooks for Indies by Simon Whistler
Multiply these formats by country. So I am selling in 62. How many are you selling in?
Multiple these formats by language if you are getting into translations. I have German, Spanish and Italian and the moment, for print and ebook, with my first German audiobook coming in 2015, along with Portuguese and more in Spanish and Italian. More on translation here.
Think wider. How can you create more income streams from your books?
I've recently read and highly recommend Tony Robbins' new book, Money: Master the Game. In it, Tony discusses the All-Season investing approach which anticipates the various market changes that inevitably occur in economic cycles. The idea to to have your investments in different quadrants so you can weather any type of market. The same approach can apply to our creative businesses.
If you only have one product (or one book) and one market (or one distributor), you won't be able to weather the changes will HAVE to occur, since status quo is never an option. I've always taken this approach to my business and will continue to diversify in 2015.
My business card and email signature say: Author Entrepreneur. I do not make a full-time income from books. It could be a full-time income if I lived somewhere else, but I live in central London! You can see my last income analysis here if you're interested in the split.
In my experience, unless you are one of the very few making hard core cash from writing alone, you either need a ‘day job,' or you need to make income from other sources. I love writing books, but I don't want to lose the love by forcing myself into a crazy production process.
My muse loves research and travel and that adds to my creation time. I'm happy with that, but I don't want to go back to the day job, so while I write books at a reasonable clip, I also have other streams of income.
Multimedia courses, merchandise and affiliate income
Many non-fiction authors offer multi-media courses through sites like ClickBank or Udemy. The Self-Publishing Podcast guys are now doing this for Write, Publish, Repeat, as is J Thorn, with his Finishing a manuscript in 60 days course. I have been selling courses for the last 4 years but have recently moved away from them to focus on more evergreen products that don't need updating. I may revisit that decision at some point.
Some authors are also doing merchandise. My favorite example is comic creator and author, XKCD, since my husband has been a fan for years and has lots of his t-shirts. Hugh McLeod has a similar model at GapingVoid with Motivational Art for Smart People – brilliant branding!
Lawyer and indie commentary blog, The Passive Voice, now has a good selection of pithy t-shirts as well. I've had a look at Zazzle before and have thought about a ‘creative' range – this is something I am certainly considering but the quality needs to be good. [I'd love to hear about other merchandising examples or service providers that you think are good for authors. Please do leave a comment below.]
If you have a content-rich website with decent traffic, you can make an income stream through affiliate links, which is a commission payment on sales. I have a small income stream from this method, but I am scrupulous about only recommending things I both use and am happy to recommend.
Currently, I recommend the Learn Scrivener Fast training, Joel Friedlander's Book Design Templates, Jim Kukral's Author Marketing Club and I use Amazon affiliate links for books. If you want to look at the affiliate method in detail, I recommend Pat Flynn's Smart Passive Income blog.
Professional speaking and audiobook narration
One of my other primary income streams is professional speaking, which also feeds my travel junkie soul. I've written extensively about this in my book, Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives and Other Introverts, if you want to look into that as an option.
In 2015, I will be adding another income stream from audiobook narration. I've been podcasting for 5 years now and after narrating my own non-fiction books, I'll be opening up for royalty share deals with other authors with decent platforms. Audiobook income has been a revelation for me in 2014, and I believe this is a growth market so I want to be involved. I also LOVE the royalty split deals as it means ongoing revenue for the long term, which is what we all want.
There is a technical barrier to entry with this, but if you fancy giving it a go, Audiobooks for Indies by Simon Whistler is a must. You can also listen to the interview with him here on this topic, including the moment I decided to become a narrator!
There are many other creative ways to make money from your skills, from your books and your knowledge. But in the end, it all comes down to creativity. I love all these other ways to make a living but I'm an author first, so I want to …
(3) Write something magnificent
This quote from Penelope Trunk caught my eye in a post about workplace revolution.
“I want to be writing the ideas people read late at night, with a glass of wine, to dull the searing impact of the life they’ve already chosen.”
Personally, I write for those people who are still stuck in the cubicle jobs that I once was. For those people who cry with frustration and unhappiness as I used to. For those who spend their commute plotting escape and their lunch hours reading escapist fiction to get out of their heads for an hour or two.
On my wall I have a sign that says, ‘Create a body of work I am proud of.‘
Yes, I want to make a good living but I don't want to write books that are a waste of my time and yours. I want you to wake up thinking about something I have written.
I want to keep you up all night.
I want you to remember me when I die.
I hope we can all do this in 2015! Happy writing and all the best for your creative business this year.
Please do join the conversation and let me know what you think about all this in the comments below.
Images: Flickr Creative Commons uphill climb by James Jordan, reader by Pedro Simoes, create by Jacob White
Timo Kiander says
Very interesting post!
I have couple question to ask you:
First, how would you sell your book in a country with a smaller audience?
For instance, if I’d start selling my e-books in Sweden, I could of course translate the books I have written and sell through my own web site. Or would you be using Sweden’s own distributors to sell your books there?
Also, you mentioned that you sell your books in 62 countries. How do you do this? Through various platforms like Amazon, Nook and such?
Joanna Penn says
Hi Timo, I spoke in Stockholm last year about this topic 🙂 I wrote a bit about it here: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2014/09/21/self-publishing-revolution/
There are some self-publishing opportunities in Swedish but you can publish on Amazon KDP and I don’t think it will be long until the Kindle takes off in Sweden – so expect to wait maybe a year or two.
I would suggest translation into English in the meantime, as then your market is global.
My books are for sale in 150+ countries and have actually sold copies in 63 now – and yes, that’s through Amazon, Kobo, iBooks – all of which are available to customers globally. All the best!
Kitty Bucholtz says
Great post, Joanna! I love mornings, Mondays, and New Years because it gives you yet another chance to stop and think about the best way for YOU to proceed, and then GO! I’m writing in a couple different genres that I love to read and write in – romantic comedy, superhero urban fantasy, and yet-to-be-published urban fantasy with angels and demons. Love the good vs. evil stuff! (Can’t figure out why I’ve never looked into your fiction, but heading to your books page now to take a look. 😉 )
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for checking out my fiction, Kitty!