Career

These Authors Are Earning A Living From Self-Publishing – Here’s How

If you want to publish your work yourself, it doesn’t necessarily mean having to live a life that’s less than comfortable. It is totally possible to make a decent (even successful) living without taking the conventional publishing house route. These authors have done it and share with us how.

Self-publishing has been around for a while now, and has launched mega success stories like Hugh Howey and E.L James – but for most authors, even earning a decent living is impressive enough.

But for every successful self-published author, there are thousands of struggling ones. We’ve asked some authors who make a living from their writing how they manage to do it.

Treat it like a business

Writing books for a living sounds like it could be a romantic career – lots of montages of tapping out a few sentences on a computer and then staring dreamily out a rain-spattered window. However, the reality is that self-published authors need to be more organised and professional than others in the business, as they need to utilise a whole host of skills and knowledge that are usually provided by a publishing house, such as marketing, cover design and editing.

USA Today bestselling author, Annie Bellet supports herself and her husband after she started self-publishing in 2010. She says, “You have to divorce all sense of ego from the process and treat it like a business, because that’s what publishing is. I see a lot of people fall down on this step. They pick a cover that they think is amazing but doesn’t fit the genre or look professional, or they skimp on things like editing because they aren’t making money yet.”

“You have to divorce all sense of ego from the process and treat it like a business, because that’s what publishing is.” – Annie Bellet

The costs involved in self-publishing, especially when beginning your practice can seem prohibitive – but like all businesses, the old maxim of ‘you have to spend money to make money’ applies. Bellet confirms this: “I liken this to opening a restaurant by setting up a pot of soup in a cardboard box. The soup might be the best thing ever, but telling potential customers that you’ll get bowls and tables and spoons later after you’ve sold enough soup is a good way to never sell the soup.” Folks, you’ve got to sell the soup.

Get true fans

The greatest strength a self-published author has is direct access to their readers. They are able to bypass all the gatekeepers, like bookshops and publishers and sell directly to their audience. And once an author has found a reader, it’s up to them to make sure they stick around for the next book.

Author of the space opera series Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Nathan Lowell, earns double the amount from self-publishing that he used to make from his day job. He credits part of his success from following a strategy called 1000 True Fans, which is about focusing on appealing to a specific group of people, rather than wasting time and money by trying to reach everyone at once.

The strategy describes itself as “the secret key to raving fans – it’s your ability to make people feel like they belong. That they’re part of something bigger. It’s your ability to build a tribe around what you do.” Apparently, anyone producing works of art (so musicians, artists, writers, photographers, animators, performers etc) only need to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

It’s basically the point before your work is classified as ‘popular’. So you need to convert lesser fans into true fans, and how you do this is by connecting with them directly.

One of the most important ways that authors can adhere to strategies like this is by being consistent and prolific with their books – without new content, readers will drift away. Nathan claims, “it takes five or six books (novels, not novellas or shorts: novels) to really get going. It helps if they’re in a series. Stand-alones mean you have to sell to a new audience with every single book. I just published my 11th novel and I have 12 and 13 on my word processor. They’re all in various series.”

It’s also important not to lose your readers by being overly pushy or dogmatic on social media.“Too much social media marketing advice is terrible,” warns Nathan. “It makes it hard for a new author to find the people who will love his/her work when they do some of the things that pass for ‘best practice’ in social media marketing.”

Don’t be afraid to share your work, network

Unlike a lot of businesses, self-publishers don’t really have competitors. Readers are generally ravenous for finding new books that they enjoy, and will happily hop from one fandom to another. It just makes sense to try to connect with other authors and share networks – nobody loses.

Nathan agrees: “Fellow indies are not competition. They’re allies. Too many new authors fear the wrong things – piracy, somebody stealing their ideas, fellow authors taking all the readers. Your network can do things that you can’t do for yourself – like offer to beta read, provide a cover blurb, and introduce your work to their audiences. They also can serve to distract your own audience while you work on the next book. ‘Hey, Merlino’s new book is out; Jack of Souls. It’s good. You should go read it while you’re waiting for me to get the new story written!'”

It’s also just really nice to be friendly to people, but maybe I’m a starry-eyed optimist.

Learn how to market your stuff

The biggest weakness of the self-publishing industry is its immensity. On Amazon alone – the biggest self-publishing medium – there are millions of self-published books, all clamouring for attention. Making your book more than a needle in a haystack is the biggest task that authors have to overcome.

Joseph Lallo is the author of The Book of Deacon Trilogy and writes in sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk. It took him four years of self-publishing before it became his sole source of income and he could quit his day job. He believes learning how to market efficiently is the only way that a self-published author can be successful, but is also the largest hurdle for new authors to overcome.

“I think marketing is the biggest hurdle. The cost of entry is low – pretty much zero, if you’re able to self-edit and do your own covers – but the market is so flooded that getting your book noticed is exceptionally difficult,” he says. “There are some fairly effective marketing outlets, like Bookbub, but they require a book with a good reputation, which is hard to get if you haven’t got many readers yet. Basically, you need readers to get readers, and thus that first batch of people can be a major struggle.”

My recommendation is to spend an equal amount of time learning marketing techniques as you would writing skills – there are also professionals who can either teach you the skills or provide services which can help kick start the process.

Joseph also has this hint: “Start a mailing list immediately, and make sure you control it yourself. I had a huge and inexplicable burst in popularity in my second and third years, and if I’d had a mailing list properly set up, I would have probably been able to gather a few thousand die-hard fans. By letting that spike of popularity slip away without having a list, I have no way of letting many of those people know that more stories like the ones they enjoyed have arrived. They’ve simply moved on to other authors.”


Patrick Lenton is a writer and digital marketer. He runs Town Crier, a social media and marketing consultancy for authors.