Fiction Addiction: How to make a fortune from self-publishing

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Self-publishing ebooks may seem promising, however, there are a few steps needed to make it a successful venture. Photo / Thinkstock
Self-publishing ebooks may seem promising, however, there are a few steps needed to make it a successful venture. Photo / Thinkstock

Before you click "upload" on that self-published e-book, certain you're about to become the next EL James, consider this: half of all indy authors earn less than $US500 ($NZ630) a year for their efforts.

But there are simple ways to boost your chances of making a fortune, according to a survey of 1007 self-published writers for an American website, Taleist.

Number one: Write romance. Self-published romance writers earn, on average, 170 per cent more than indy writers in other genres.

Number two: Don't attempt sci-fi, fantasy or literary fiction. The earnings in these genres are way below the average.

Number three: Try to get a track record in conventional publishing first. You'll earn 2.5 times more than the average self-publisher.

Number four: Get professional help. And I'm talking editing, proofreading and cover design, not psychiatric (though that could help too). All (except psychiatric) will increase your earnings.

One local author playing exactly to these rules is Wellingtonian Bronwen Evans. Bronwen writes regency romance (tick), and decided to dabble in self-publishing after landing a two-book contract with conventional publisher Kensington Publishing (tick). Her contract called for a book a year, which was, she says, "a long time between books and not enough to earn a living off". So she decided to self-publish a couple of 40,000 word e-book novellas through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords - after getting them professionally edited and designed (tick).

"It's been a real eye-opener," she says. "I've sold more than 10,000 copies of my first novella and I'm on the way with the second. My third novella is due out in August this year. So far, since February 2012 when it was released, I've made around $US23,000 of the first novella, which took me six weeks to write."

Bronwen predicts the self-publishing market will become very crowded in the next 18 months, as traditionally published authors try to emulate some of the "amazing" results that their indy peers are getting.

"However, self-publishing is driving book prices down and it's making it harder again for non-traditionally published authors to sell in self-publishing. Who would you buy - a New York Times-bestselling author at $2.99 or an author you've never heard of for $2.99?

"The self-publishing market is going to get even tougher over the coming months. Those who treat it like a business, who have a sound marketing strategy, and of course have a fabulous book too, will do well."

Of course, rule number three - getting a track record with a conventional publisher first - is a bit of a chicken and egg argument, as Whangaparaoa historical writer Winston Cowie has discovered with his debut New Zealand historical novel, A Flame Flickers in the Darkness.

Winston, a former lawyer and Oxford graduate, initially followed the conventional route. He sent the manuscript to about seven New Zealand-based publishers. "Some replied, others didn't. The feedback I got was that the New Zealand book market was very depressed and no publisher was willing to take a risk on a new author. The advice I got was self-publish it and if it goes well they may take it on."

So Winston self-published, both online and in print. It's early days yet, but he's scored a coup by breaking into Whitcoulls - a notoriously hard feat for self-publishers. He's still keen to get picked up by a conventional publisher, but is happy to see how things go.

"It's not about the money. It's about having a story and wanting to tell it. I'm hopeful that it's going to be one of those things that grows from the bottom up."

The reigning queen of the (ahem) "bottom-up" method of self-publishing is, of course, EL James, writer of the love-it-or-hate-it Fifty Shades of Grey "mommy porn" trilogy.

For the record, I'm in the hate-it category. All that talk of sating her inner goddess - bleugh - and the chauvinistic relationship - shudder (and not in a good way). But you can't deny that her success has been astounding. She's estimated to have earned about $NZ8 million since self-publishing the first instalment of the trilogy two years ago, and getting it picked up and distributed worldwide by conventional publishers.

I've asked a few other local self-published authors about their experiences on the road to emulating her success (in sales, if not subject matter). I'll leave you with some of their comments.

Made your fortune from self-publishing yet? Or earned less than $500? Share your experiences below.

J H Baker, Hamilton author of action-adventure novel Mr Something:

"eBooks are, to use a cliche, the next big thing. They are also a great way for new authors to get discovered by readers. Because they can be priced much cheaper than normal books, a reader is more likely to gamble on a new author ... The main issue to figure out is marketing - how to do it in a way that reaches people effectively, without costing too much."

Vicky Adin, Auckland author of historical novel Daniel and children's adventure book Kazam.

"It is always a dream to be picked up by a big publisher and be recognised as a worthy author, but most of us understand the reality. You have to be known to get known (or know someone). Meanwhile, I go independently rather than wait. No one writes a story to hide in the cupboard."

Cassandra Gaisford, Wellington author of Happy at Work: for mid-lifers.

"Initially it wasn't about the money - it was about the creative process. There's no reason it can't be about the money now! The best thing about self-publishing is the total control I have over the process."

Jean Louise Allen, author of two New Zealand historical novels.

"[When I began writing fiction around 1993] publishing houses were dwindling in New Zealand and seemed centred on known writers, how-to books, cookery books and factual experiences. I found they took far too long to reply 'yay' or 'nay', and New Zealand is a small market."

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