The cover of Rick Gualtieri's Bill the Vampire, the first in his Tome of Bill comedy/horror series.
The cover of Rick Gualtieri’s Bill the Vampire, the first in his Tome of Bill comedy/horror series.

Conversations with self-publishing authors who have sold over 1.5 millions books, signed publishing deals and generated additional income.

Forget the dark old days of vanity presses – the new generation of self-published authors aren’t amateurs. They’re penning New York Times bestsellers, critically acclaimed fiction and beloved genre series. They’re also making money.

First thing’s first. Most prefer to be called indie authors, which doesn’t mean they’re strangled in skinny jeans, but that they’re going it alone. They’re spending just as much time and effort on their books as authors published by the big guys, it’s just that they’re taking their literary destinies into their own hands – from formatting and cover design to pricing. They’re all over the Internet and they’ve got communities of fans ready and waiting.

Take Bella Andre. The indie author has sold more than 1.5 million digital copies of her books. Her novels have climbed into the Top 5 lists at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. She’s just signed a seven figure print-only deal with romance publisher Harlequin MIRA, while keeping the digital rights for herself.

It’s a savvy move from the San Francisco-based author. Her series of romantic novels revolving about the love lives of the Sullivan family has made her a small fortune and it all happened on the Internet. The print-deal is icing on the cake but it’s certainly not trivial. Harlequin will release back-to-back paperback versions of the 10 books in the series from June 2013 through to April 2014 in America, Canada, the UK and Australia.

This has all happened in a few short years, but publishing success didn’t always appear destined. Before she went the self-publishing route, Andre had been writing for romance publisher Ellora’s Cave from 2003 and had two series’ published in trade paperback by Random House. But in 2010, her contract wasn’t renewed and considering her options, she decided to put her backlist from Ellora’s Cave on Kindle. Starting with Ecstasy, she soon found money was coming in from sales – $238 at first and $4000 the next month – though income wasn’t the first thought for Andre.

‘In mid-2010 I first decided to self-publish because I wanted to get my readers the book they’d been asking for quickly and professionally,’ she tells us. ‘I still think that’s one of the most exciting aspects of self-publishing – being able to get books directly to readers all over the world.’

That’s one of the great advantages of self-publishing – engaging a readership directly. While having a publisher promote and market your book is definitely a boon, doing it yourself can also provide opportunities. Andre has a huge following of fans online, and she interacts with them whenever possible, believing that they are ‘the key to her success’.

‘I have the best readers in the world!’ she says. ‘Once my pages are done for the day, I’ll usually pop onto Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads to say hello, give them an update on the current work-in-progress, answer their questions, etc.’

Julie Thomas, the New Zealand author who has just signed with HarperCollins USA after her self-published book, The Keeper of Secrets sold 40,000 copies, agrees that engaging your readers online is paramount to self-publishing success.

When we ask if she did any marketing for her book Thomas answers, ‘Everyday. Amazon and Smashwords are bookshelves, you have to make potential readers come to the shelf and look at the book.’

To get people to the bookshelf, Thomas interacts with readers via social media and online forums. She ‘joined lots of book sites’ including Goodreads, Your Book and Author’s Den, as well as ‘the forums for Kindles and Nooks’.

‘The important thing is that you must join in the discussions and earn the respect of the posters and then tell them about your book, otherwise they consider you to be a spammer,’ Thomas explains.

‘I didn’t pay for any of it, I did it all myself. I blogged almost every day and let people know how the book was going, I tweeted and had my own Facebook page.’

Rick Gualtieri, an indie author that made $25,000 last year from his vampire series The Tome of Bill, agrees. ‘Word of mouth is the most important marketing tool any small author can have.’

Another interesting tactic that Thomas used was to have her contact information on the back page of her book. Buyers could then contact her and she’d let them know about any new work. ‘I built a considerable list of people who loved the novel enough to email and tell me their reactions and who will buy the paperback.’

For Thomas, success has come quite quickly, but not without work. In September 2011, she uploaded three books, The Keeper of Secrets, as well as a book of short stories and a book of her father’s letters home during the war. In February 2012 she added a crime thriller novella and in May 2012, she was contacted by HarperCollins USA. That’s a lot of writing, and demonstrates how regular self-publishing, be it a series or unrelated books, can generate sales and keep your readership interested.

Denise Kim Wy, author of Behind the Story: Interviews with 20 Self-Published Authors Who Made it Big, concurs. ‘The more books you publish, the more people can find you, thus resulting in more sales and name recall.’

Another aspect of the self-publishing game that Wy agrees helps success is community engagement. ‘No one will read your book if you have no readers,’ she says. ‘If you have fans clamouring for your book even before it hits the shelves, then you can see how important it is.’

But then you’ve got to build your audience, and this can take time. Wy relates the story of author SC Stephens, who started off by offering the books in her romance series Thoughtless for free at FeedBooks.com. In the five years since then her fan base has grown considerably. By the time the third book in the series was released it landed on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Indeed, pricing is very important in self-publishing. You can afford to discount your book because you’re not cutting in a publisher and royalties are usually a lot higher.

‘We humans are cheap individuals. We love bargains and freebies. That’s why the $0.99 e-book is so popular. It’s a marketing strategy and it works. Once people discover how great your books are they won’t care about the price anymore. You can sell them at $20,’ says Wy.

While Gualtieri doesn’t ‘want to gouge people’ when it comes to pricing, for Thomas it was vital to the success of The Keeper of Secrets. ‘I had no reputation and if people were going to take a chance and ‘buy’ my work, then price had to be no deterrent,’ she says. ‘I priced it at 99 cents US, the objective was to get my name out there, not to make money.’

Not only that, but Thomas made it free on Smashwords and Amazon, then over the next nine months switched it between 99 cents and free, a bit like SC Stephens before her. This accessibility to readers helps generate reviews, and Thomas believes that ‘Good reviews and ratings make you climb up the Amazon lists and lots of people buy form the lists.’

It’s important to remember this is often a reciprocal relationship. ‘Trade reviews with people,’ says Thomas. ‘Do one for them and they’ll read yours and do on for you.’

Yet according to all the authors we spoke to, the key to success is the same as traditional publishing – quality. ‘If a book isn’t good it won’t get reviews or ratings, or consequently, sales. The first step is the quality of the work,’ says Thomas.

Though Gualteiri appreciates that authors benefit from books in a series like his, he’s also quick to confirm that quality is more important. ‘Being able to crank out a lot of books is a fine ability, but if the books are crap then they’re most likely going to fail plain and simple. Not to disparage my fellow authors, but the downside of the self-publishing ‘revolution’ is that there’s a lot of dreck that’s been released in the past few years.’

So how do these authors swim above the slush? Gaulteiri employs a freelance editor and cover designer to make sure he puts out ‘the best product I can’, while Thomas received feedback from editors on how to make her book stronger when she attempted the traditional publishing route in 2006.

Andre, likewise, dedicates countless hours to working on her books. ‘I write 10 to 25 pages a day until I’ve finished the first draft and then I revise each book more than a half-dozen times before publication,’ she reveals. ‘I’m also lucky to have amazing beta readers who give me their brilliant thoughts on the rough draft.’

Getting feedback on your rough draft from beta readers is also something that Thomas does. One of her tips for self-publishing authors is ‘have a beta reader you really trust tell you what they think’.

Of course, stories like these can make it seem easy, but it’s important to remember that there’s many people out there that upload their books into the ether never to hear from them again.

There are also a lot of dodgy self-publishing services that operate along the lines of vanity presses – they gouge authors for money and offer very little return. Penguin subsidiary Author Solutions is currently facing a lawsuit by irate authors over this very issue.

Gualtieri has enough technical skills to do the publishing himself, which he employs because ‘there are too many scammers out there’, which is good to keep in mind.

Indeed, Gualtieri represents one of the more interesting aspect of self-publishing. He doesn’t have a traditional publisher knocking on his door yet, but he still brought in $25,000 USD worth of sales last year. While he’s not like Andre selling over a million books, he’s still a self-publishing success.

‘The media tends to focus on the multi-million selling authors, but believe me there are many different levels of success to be enjoyed,’ he says. ‘I’m completely blown away by last year and how 2013 is progressing so far.’

 

To learn more about the self-publishing successes that aren’t yet millionaires, check out this article by Hugh Howey for Salon.

Find out more about the authors:

Denise Kim Wy

Julie Thomas

Rick Gualtieri

Bella Andre

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