From the Bottom Looking Up (or “Lessons from The Haven’t Made It Yets”)

I’ve spent the last two years or so closely studying the maneuvers and strategies of various other self published writers, hoping to find some sort of formula that will work for me. I have been blessed to have made internet friendships with a few writers that have “made it” in terms of self publishing and while I have learned a lot from them, I still remain on the lower end of the self publishing ladder.

While I’m not quite so transparent as to provide numbers, I will preface this post by saying this: I have not made it in terms of self-publishing.  Sure, I make enough to knock out a utility bill here or there, but the freelancing puts the food on the table and keeps the lights on (in addition to my wife’s income).

I thought I’d finally share some of what I have learned (or, perhaps more accurately, what I have not learned) in the event that there are any writers out there on the cusp of giving up. Because here’s the thing…reading all of those posts from the successful writers can be inspirational but they can also be depressing. While it’s unhealthy to compare your own success to another writer, it’s an impossibility not to do so. So when I read that J.A. Konrath made $100,000 in 4 months, I automatically ask myself why I had trouble pushing 100 copies in that same amount of time.

So, here’s how I see it all. Here’s the writing world from an author that had his absolute worst month to date in July but has also managed to get more involved in all levels of The Business since February.

If You’re About to Throw in the Towel, Get More Towels

There have been two instances in the last three years where I almost stopped writing. One was when I lost my job last August. That month, I sold a whopping 22 books on Amazon. You do the math…for someone that just lost their job, that’s not a great motivational statistic to hunker down and make a go of this writing thing. We had two kids and one on the way at that time. To say “hey, I think I’ll keep plugging along at writing until it finally sticks” would have been irresponsible and borderline naive.

The other time was when I first started. When I released The Masks of Our Fathers, I was still dumb enough to think I’d sell at least 1,000 in the first two months. That didn’t happen…not even close.

A certain thing happened in both of those cases to convince me to stick with it. In the case of just having lost my job, I used the fact that I had won Amazon’s Write a Dead Man contest and that I had coaches and other writers like Lee Goldberg (whom I don’t mind name dropping from time to time now that he’s a NY Times best-selling author) at my side. In the case of The Masks of Our Fathers, it was seeing the success of writers I had never heard of…normal people kind of like me that were making enough to write full time.

Granted, things have still not panned out the way I wanted them to. But I made another decision recently that has me hoping things will swerve upwards sooner rather than later.

Going the Small Press Route is Not Blasphemous

The self-publishing successes are cringing at that headline, I bet. But what works for one is likely going to cause another to fail. Again, not giving numbers, but I will tell you this much. In the last nine months, I have received two advances from small-to-medium sized publishers. Those advances were indeed smallish as the self-publishing purists will be more than happy to tell you. But in terms of my own writing, those advances offered more money than all of my self published earnings in the last two and a half years.

And if you total up all of the advances I have received from small presses and money from short stories since I started writing with intent 7 years ago, this figure FAR exceeds what I have made with self publishing.

More than that, these small presses took/are taking care of something I hate: self-promotion.

So for the self-publishing starter that is having trouble with getting sales going, maybe think about small presses. The royalties aren’t as good as Amazon, but some are pretty competitive.

Speaking of Hating Self Promotion, Let’s Face Some Realities Here

At the risk of pissing off some of the writers at the top of the pack, here’s some more honesty. Whenever I see a writer that is bringing in four figures a month on their writing that lists a “professional cover” as a ticket to sure success, I get a little angry. Have you priced a “professional cover” lately? It’s not something that a struggling writer that just lost his job can afford.

But here’s the thing: they’re absolutely right. Which is why it pisses me off. Oh, and even if you’re the best editor on the face of the planet, they are also right in saying that you need the services of a professional editor. And formatting. And this, and that.

Self-publishing costs money up front. That’s why it took me so long to come around to it. At first, the fact that you had to pay for these things made me put self-publishing in the same sloppy bucket with vanity presses.

Another reality…that self promotion crap is a necessity. I’d like to think it’s one of the reasons my writing hasn’t done better. I don’t post here enough and when I do, it’s nothing that anyone in The Business doesn’t already know. I also hate Facebook and while I do enjoy Twitter, I’m probably not doing it right.

So given all of this, I do take a long hard look at my goals every now and then and ask myself why things aren’t quite working out as I’d like them to. The answer to this has evolved over time but the list looks something like this for most writers that are still struggling.

The Real World: I have to provide for my family. I have to spend time with my kids and be a husband. Sometimes that means making up stories has to take a back seat. (A big thanks to someone as successful as Brian Keene for pointing this out to a wider audience).

Covers: I’ve been fortunate in this area. I work with an exceptional artist that I have known for quite some time. He doesn’t charge $400-600 like those “pros” which is weird because the dude is a pro in every sense of the word. So check out Keith Draws. You can tell him I sent you, although I don’t think it will do much good.

And if you’re not as lucky as I am in this regard, this is an answer I just don’t have for you. Scrounge, dig in the couch cushions, maybe even hit up Craigslist for a college art student that will do your cover for peanuts. But yeah…this is one of those areas the “made it” writers are 100% correct on. Bastards!

Pricing: From what I can tell, the $0.99 price point is dead. I have a few titles at that price, but they are short stories that are under 10,000 words. Everything I have read claims that the sweet spot is $2.99 – $3.99 but I think this varies. The few minor successful months I’ve had have come from the $1.99 price point. This, I think, is just something that fluctuates more than anyone realizes.

About the “Going Free” Thing: I saw a post on Facebook a while back from an author that I greatly respect and admire that was bemoaning the fact that indie authors are getting successful by giving their books away for free. This stung because at that time, I had The Hollows set up on a free promotion that did okay.

The thing here is that I find it hard to listen to an author that has made it when they start bitching about any strategies that up and comers have to endure to get to their level. Some may feel differently, but again, this post is all about transparency.

On the occasions where I have set titles to free for 3-5 days, I have seen a slight surge in sales for about a week afterwards. For someone that is a few levels above me in terms of sales, I’d imagine this could be pretty significant. So as far as I can see,free does work but it also needs to be based on a platform that is already slightly established.


I understand that there is a question standing at the end of this post like a dead elephant in a clown car. Why bother listening to the “lessons” learned from a writer that can barely make enough sales to cover all the coffee you drink?

I don’t know. Maybe because every now and then you need to see the industry from the bottom looking up rather than the top looking down.

I’m going to keep writing with the hope that one day, the cards are going to fall in my favor. The ideas keep coming, and I am just the conduit. Maybe one day soon I’ll be able to write a similar post, only from a bit higher up the ladder and with answers that make more sense.

So for writers big and small, what can you add to these ramblings?

12 Replies to “From the Bottom Looking Up (or “Lessons from The Haven’t Made It Yets”)”

  1. Keith, no problem, You deserve all the work you can get. And Brian, thanks for the kind words. I’m rather humbled that you took the time to swing by and check it out. I have recently beaten myself up a bit for not giving you a chance much sooner. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of your blog and your work for the last few months.

  2. Excellent post. I’m a hybrid author: one genre with a small press, another as an indie. I pay attention to the little things my publishing house does, and I try to implement them myself for my indie works. I’m gratified to see another hard-working author who possesses a broad view and isn’t afraid to say so. Like you, I’m more focused on continuing to write than on what today’s industry shenanigans might be. Stick to the craft; we’ll always find ways to reach our readers. Carry on, good sir.

  3. Hi Barry, As a writer just beginning the publishing process, I stand arm-in-arm with you looking up at the road before us. So, thank you for articulating what you see, as well as voicing your frustrations. And, definitely congratulations for the hard-fought advances you have made.

    That being said, I guess I have a different view of road before us. Rather than a distinct Maginot Line separating “those who made it” vs. “those who haven’t,” I see a lot of uncharted area between the two.

    Perhaps a salmon ladder analogy might be the best way to describe it. Those self-proclaimed “successful” writers must still struggle with promote their writing, and finding balance with his or her family life. The difference is really that their writing is meeting their financial and/or emotional goals. And, at some rung of the salmon ladder, if you keep at it, you will get to that point, as well.

    Thank you for the great observations, and keep swimming!


  4. I feel I’ve been very lucky to be making four-figures a month at this. I’ve experimented with different pen-names and different strategies in different speculative fiction genres, but I’ve found that a steady publishing schedule is more effective than any amount of self-promotion. Keep writing, keep publishing, and if you’ve got the talent, an audience will find you.

  5. Thanks for the responses everyone. Tim, I think you are right in that self publishing does indeed offer a gray area of sorts where many people are finding moderate success between the “haven’t made it yets” and those that are doing very well. This group doesn’t stand a chance with trad publishing, and that’s the sad part.

    MCoorlim, I am actually currently writing some things under a pen name outside of my genre because I have read that same bit of advice a few times now. It’s incredibly fun but the way my schedule is going as of late, it will likely be several months before either of those names sees the light of day.

  6. There’s a lot of good things about self-publishing. I wish I’d taken the time to self-publish my earlier books that hadn’t made it through the slushpile–I’d at least have generated some earnings, however small, while improving my skills. And it would have helped build up my platform. There’s nothing quite like the black hole of struggling to break through the slush pile putting in over 10 years of effort and multiple books that just don’t get anywhere, and knowing that a book that took 1-3 years to write and revise can be rejected in 30 seconds.

    You mentioned the price of a good cover… so, I’ll add that the amount of editing I’ve gotten with my agent and Thomas Dunne is a lot, and would cost A LOT in terms of freelance editing for a self-publisher.

    If one gets interest from publishers or an agent, I kinda feel like, unless you’re already earning a lot from self-publishing, you don’t lose anything by trying to put some books in through a publisher. If the deal terms are lousy, you can just say no, and at least they might check out your books occasionally to see how they’re doing and possibly offer better terms next time. Also, as much as e-books have gained tremendous ground in North America, it hasn’t in a lot of the world, and foreign rights deals and print deals can still expand one’s audience quite a bit. One side can help push the sales of the other, and there will always be some readership that doesn’t overlap.

    I eventually want to be hybrid, writing books that get more input from others (and with less control on my side) for trad publishing. And books where I can let go more and with which I can make less commercially friendly creative choices for self-publishing.

  7. It’s so refreshing to hear about someone’s less than spectacular experiences in self publishing. I also hate self promotion. Going the self publishing route has been a valuable experience, but it will probably be a last resort for my next book.

  8. A good article. I’m a hybrid author and have been successful in all three routes: small press, self, and big-five. There is no right or wrong publication path, but the secret to writing success is and has always been.

    1. Write a good book that will have an appeal to a fair to good number of people (i.e. not too niche). If possible write an ongoing series so people can return to favorite characters.
    2. Get it in front of a few people who are vocal and will start spreading the word (bloggers, big reviewers on Amazon, active goodreads members.
    3. Rinse and repeat.

    The problem of course is #1 is really, really hard to do. And #2 will take a fair amount of elbow grease from the author (even if published from a big company).

  9. Good post. I’ve come up with similar dilemmas as well — it seems virtually everyone I run into with an experience to share in self-publishing is presenting success stories — and this has made me leery. It’s difficult to get a handle on the reality of the self-pub market with so many conflicting reports from different sides.

    There should be more reports of middle-of-the road stories — ones where people aren’t self-pubbing billionaires, but they aren’t starving artists either. And the lack of any thing in between makes me highly suspicious and privately wondering if all the cheerleading I hear from the self-publishing industry is the happy noise from a successful few over the silence of the discontented many. Who can make accurate decisions for their career under such distortion?

    I’m aiming to be a hybrid myself; I’m about to see what this “traditional publishing” thing is all about through Skyhorse, but I’m beginning to realize it’s a game of diversification. I think in the future writers will have to be flexible free agents, not tying themselves down to any one thing, if they aren’t already . . .

    Also, it’s nice to find your blog, I lost track of you after the Shadow of the Emerald City antho 🙂 I remember your story. “Tin” I think it was . . .

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