My First Year as an Indie Author

On November 24th last year, a little over 13 months ago, I released my first indie title—Servant: The Dark God Book 1. That release was the official rise from the sideways swamp crash I had with Tor Books.

BTW, sideways swamp crashes in publishing, which can be caused by all sorts of reasons, are not uncommon. Most writers will take a hit or three in their career. That’s just part of the writing business. The question is what happens after the swamp crash?

In my case, I got to work. And, boy, was it a lot of work.

The results have been positive. It was not a phoenixian rise from ashes to glory; it was more like a damp crew patching the ship in the jungle with whatever they had at hand and then launching with nothing but a few birds making any noise. We are by no means past the many perils and obstacles on the path–right now a solid hit from just about anything could knock us out of the sky.

But we are airborne.

We are flying.

And by that I mean the business is delighting readers and generating income.

I’ll probably hit close to 23,000 paid sales since that launch. The large majority of them were for Bad Penny. To give you some perspective, a single title will make the official Publishers Weekly bestsellers lists (of traditionally published authors) hardback and paperback categories when the title has sold around 100,000 copies in the year. The top dogs report sales of a few million.

It’s clear the John D. Brown crew has got a ways to go.

But we don’t have to reach that lofty level to be viable. It would be awesome. At the same time, it’s helpful to be realistic. There are somewhere between 300-400 titles on the adult hardback and paperback list combined. The same on the children’s lists. So I estimate there are around 700 traditionally published books, fiction and non-fiction, that sell at those bestseller levels. That’s out of the millions of trade titles available on Amazon.

The good news is that the majority of writers making a living don’t appear there. The fact is that you don’t have to sell 100,000+ copies of a single title in a year to make a living. In the indie world, you can do just fine with what Russell Blake calls base hits and doubles.

So are we making a living?

Those sales have generated enough net profit to purchase us a nice used vehicle and a few other things. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick (as my neighbor Mike Carr used to say), but making $10-20k can’t replace the day job. Not even close. Still, it’s a beginning.

Will our crew make it?

Can they survive the ferocious flying monkeys?

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I want to summarize a few things I’ve learned about indie publishing and give a few shout-outs.

First, I want to thank all the readers who decided to give one of my books a shot. From the reviews and sales, it appears the majority found just what they were looking for (and there was much rejoicing).

Second, a big thanks goes to Larry Correia. Not only is he generous and enthusiastic, but his audience is as well. The Monster Hunter Nation made a definite difference for me this year.

I want to thank LL Muir and Diane Darcy, two romance writers who have been incredibly generous in sharing their indie insights and support.

Devon Dorrity and Dixon Leavitt spent hours, HOURS, of their time helping me with covers. I can’t thank them enough.

I also need to thank the Codex Writers. There’s a small group of us indies there, and they’ve all be very helpful in sharing insights about what’s worked for them and what hasn’t.

I’ve found other resources helpful as well. The Passive Voice kept me current on the industry. Russell Blake’s blogs gave me a clear-eyed opinion of what it takes to succeed. The Calibre ebook editor has saved me many times. And Anne-Marie Concepcion’s online course on using InDesign to publish ebooks was a very good introduction, as were Dean Wesley Smith’s online courses on interior and cover formatting.  I list other resources I found useful in my Resources for Indie Writers post.

Okay, so what have I learned?

1. Nothing happens without visibility

This is retail. If your product is not somewhere that people can see it, they won’t buy it.

I was in Wal-Mart the other day. My sister calls it the Evil Empire, but she’s a Tarzjay snob. I myself am a value shopper. I want what I want, and I want to pay as little for it as possible. At the same time, I’m not going to go out of my way to get it because searching around costs time and money. So if I’m looking for something in Wal-Mart and I don’t see it on the shelves, guess what? I buy something similar that will do the job.

Wal-Mart used to stock Marzetti’s Ranch Dip. The best vegetable dip EVAR. But then sometime this year, they stopped stocking it.

Why?! Why do they stop stocking stuff the moment I find it?!

(Hey, maybe that’s why they’re the Evil Empire . . .)

I mourned for a few seconds. And then I purchased the Lighthouse dip. It’s good. If they put Marzetti’s back on the shelves, I’ll switch back immediately. But the point is that if it’s not in front of my eyeballs when I go shopping, I ain’t gonna buy it.

And I’m finding retail is the same with ebooks as it is with everything else. You can have the best product in the world, but you aren’t going anywhere with it until you are visible to your buyers.

2. There are a couple of ways that I was able to make my stuff visible

The way to make my stuff visible was not by publishing on Amazon, Nook, and the rest.

Publishing means nothing.

Think about it. There are, right now, 3,079,561 books in the Kindle bookstore.

Yes, three million!

If those were physical books, and we lined them up spine-out like we do on a bookshelf, and we assumed the spines average about an inch in width, they would make a line 48.6 miles long.

For us Utahans, that’s a line of books that stretches from the Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake City, past Provo, and ends in Springville! (Look up your own local distances to get an idea.)

That’s the kind of visibility you get by publishing your book, which is nada.

So if getting it in the store that’s 50 miles long didn’t help, what did?

Getting on a bestseller list.

I sold thousands of copies of Bad Penny on Nook when I was on the Nook’s top 100 list. I rose to #3, in the entire Nook store, then hung out around #50 for about a month. And when that burst of sales that made me #3 fell out of the algorithm (30 days later), I fell off the list. My sales dropped like a stone. Not to nothing. But they were a fraction of what they had been.

How did I get that #3 slot to begin with? The same way I rose to #30 for a few hours in the Kindle store, then slowly dropped to the 1,200s for a few days. I got it by placing an ad with the king of book advertising services, aka BookBub.

How did I get onto BookBub? Here’s their requirements and tips. Please note that the reviews of Bad Penny were part of what made the book appealing to BookBub.

How did I get reviews? By using other ad services to make my book visible and getting mentions on blogs like Larry Correia’s and a few others. And by following recommendations in the book Let’s Get Visible and Your First 1,000 Copies and the suggestions of others who are selling well. And that’s a key thing too–looking to see what folks who are selling well are doing, not those who aren’t.

Of course, readers also liked the books enough create word of mouth. And I can track some of my sales spikes to specific posts or people. The ultimate goal is to have so much word of mouth that everyone’s talking about you. But until that time, I ain’t going to rely on word of mouth alone.

Why not?

Because I’d like to increase my odds of success. I’d like to accelerate them. And thinking that word of mouth alone is going to do that flies in the face of everything I’ve learned about retail. Read what I had to say about books and lemonade and tending your garden for more. Consistent efforts with methods that actually have some track record of success seem to have helped a great deal.

BTW, Bad Penny is currently in the top 10 of three of Amazon’s thriller lists. I guaran-dang-tee you that being on those lists is a big factor in me selling somewhere around 60 copies a day. I saw that with Nook. Being visible starts a virtuous cycle–more people give you a try; if they like the book, they spread the word, which leads to more sales, which keeps you visible, which prompts more new readers to give you a try. Yeah, you’ve got to be good. But you’ve got to be visible first.

3. In most cases, books in a specific genre are substitutes

When readers purchase a book, they are looking for a certain type of experience. And my book’s experience isn’t so singular that readers can’t get something roughly similar from another book.

I love Lee Child. But Robert Crais provides an experience that’s basically inside the same ballpark. So does Nelson Demille and a whole host of others, including me.

If Lee Child stops writing or slows down his production to one book every four years, I’m not going to stop reading thrillers. There are plenty of other authors that give me the general adrenaline, surprise, action experience I’m looking for. I’ll be sad, but there are a lot of good authors out there. And I’m sure a few will become my new Lee Child.

Of course, we aren’t all exactly the same. I provide a noticeably different tale than Lee Child does even though we’re in the same Lone-Ranger-vigilante-justice action genre. And so, if I produce the best tale I can, I will find some readers will come to prefer me to Child because I line up more with their tastes than he does.

In addition to continue to work on visibility and craft, this means I’ve got to up my production. I’m going to try for 2.5 brand new books in 2015. That’s nothing for some folks. But that’s a good stretch goal for me.

4. There is no one sure-fire way to success

Even though visibility and studying your craft helps, nobody I know who is doing well has a replicable step-by-step program that guarantees success. There are some activities that seem to make the odds better, but there is no guarantee.

For example, from what I wrote above about BookBub, you’d think that’s the brass ring. Nope. I know other authors who have run promos with them and didn’t have near the success Bad Penny did.

Russell Blake’s advice on this seems to square best with my experience. See the links to his blogs here to see what I’m talking about.

5. Figuring out how to make a living with this has a lot in common with Lean Startup principles

The basic concept behind lean startup is that when you’re in a market without a lot of info on what works, the company that wins is the one that learns what works the fastest. And you do that by conducting experiments.

You experiment to see if you’re offering any value to the intended audience. You experiment to see if you’re promo methods are actually feeding your engine of growth. You experiment to see if your audience really is big enough.

The experimental approach taught in the lean startup stuff has freed me from a lot of anxiety. Success or failure is not about me personally. It’s about my techniques. It’s about my craft and business skills. It’s about me learning how to learn quicker.

I’m approaching my thriller and epic fantasy properties as experiments. I’m approaching various visibility methods as experiments. My current state of craft is an experiment. If what I’m doing with my current properties doesn’t work, I can pivot and experiment with something new.

The question is whether I can learn what works–to find an opportunity to add value and provide that value–before I run out of runway.

If you’re interested in these ideas, let me recommend The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which explains the general principles, and Running Lean: Iterate From Plan A to a Plan That Works by Ash Mayura, which shows you how to start to implement them. These two books have changed how I approach the writing business.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I love developing stories and sharing them with readers.

I knew this already, of course. But having the ship up and flying again made it hit home in a big way. I enjoy the process of developing a story. I love the research, the story generation, the surprises that come along the way. And I love the emails I get and the discussions I have with readers who have read my books and enjoyed the heck out of them.

So that’s the big summary.

Year two stands before us. Let’s hope John D. Brown and company can learn and produce at higher levels than we ever have before.

Have a wonderful 2015!

Edit 1/14/2015: Here’s John Ellsworth, another indie author, with a similar tale. Although I’m jealous of his seven books in a year. I need to get cracking!

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to My First Year as an Indie Author

  1. L.L. Muir says:

    Congratulations on being airborne.
    I hope we all have good numbers to share at the end of this year.

  2. AndrewV says:

    Keep flying, John!

    Here’s to you find a bunch of success in 2015.

  3. AndyB says:

    Best of luck to you! So far I’ve only read Bad Penny, and plan on getting the rest of your books. Really enjoyed that book – great characters, clever dialogue and a gripping story. The action was fun to read and added to the story without being (too) over the top. Hoping to see more about Frank the Donut Man!

  4. Angus Trim says:

    Good news and good luck.

    Your blog is one of the few I look at before firing up the lathe and going to work for the day.

    Happy New Year

  5. John, Congratulations on your first year! I haven’t read you yet, but I followed this over from Larry Correia’s Facebook post and was struck by how similar my experience was to yours. I indie published in January of 2014 (but only the one book to your several — I am deeply impressed), and have had some pretty good success, but only by engaging through lists like Bookbub and others, and then plugging and plugging away. Definitely worth the investment. I heartily endorse what you’re saying here and look forward to sharing your post with the other aspiring indies in my area. Congrats again, and I’m off to add you to my Nook!

  6. John Brown says:

    Thanks, Gus.

    And congrats to you, Thomas.

  7. Widdershins says:

    I followed the link from The Improbable Author … congratulations on your year. 🙂
    Planning to have one like it for myself in 2015 … back to the keyboard.
    Happy New Year!

  8. Devon Dorrity says:

    I trust the years in front of you are bright with promise.

  9. Rachel Aukes says:

    Congratulations, John! Thanks so much for the thoughtful post. I hope 2015 is an even better year for you!

  10. John Brown says:

    Thanks, Rachel.

  11. Published my first novel 6 months ago. Really enjoyed reading about what worked for you.
    Best wishes for continued success.

  12. John Brown says:

    Thanks, Paula.