What is it you really want to gain from your writing?
If you’ve been successfully publishing for a while, I can almost guarantee that right now, you’d happily settle for just enough income from writing to be able to quit the day job. It’s not until you’ve been writing full time for a few years that best-seller ambitions re-awaken. So let’s assume that every anchored author’s goal is simply to quit the day job…for now.
Just how does one go about doing that?
Today’s marketplace is made up of thousands of books available at brick & mortar stores, and tens-of-thousands of books available on-line.
Amazon.com is a unique bookseller, because they collect many of these titles in one place, and offer readers a chance to review those titles. This provides a way for the overwhelmed book-reader to decide, based on the personal recommendations of other readers, if they’re willing to take a chance on an unheard-of author.
The Internet also provides review sites, discussion groups and blogs, where readers can also provide their personal recommendations and reviews, on any book available anywhere, published by any publisher in the world.
In summary, you have hundreds of thousands of books, millions of readers around the world, and the Internet, which connects the two and helps them decide what to buy.
While the New York publishing model makes it possible for only a few dozen authors to sell mega-quantities of books per title, the Internet allows thousands of authors to sell a handful of books per title, and continue to publish books.
Just selling a few copies isn’t nearly enough. On the other hand, you don’t have to sell millions to make a living. Consider some simplified math.
If your publisher is selling your title for $15, and you get 5% of the cover price in royalties, and you sell ten copies, that’s 75c x 10 = $7.50.
Then scale it up: 100 copies gets you $75, 1,000 provides $750, and 10,000 adds $7,500 to your bank account.
20,000 copies is grossing $13,000. Now you’re starting to look at serious revenue.
You also need to consider the timescale. New York publishers expect to see this sort of revenue within a month or so. POD publishers only hope to see this sort of revenue over the lifetime of the book, which is expected to be years.
If you release two books a year, you’re earning $26,000 from 20,000 readers. Bear in mind that this is a simplified scale. POD prices range, and so do the royalties paid on them. E-books earn far higher per copy, sometimes as high as 25% of the cover price. New York publishers pay lower royalties, on average. The actual numbers differ, depending on your book’s royalty terms. If you release more than two books a year, the number of readers you need for a sustainable income lowers.
However, even with this simplified scale, 20,000 fans is not even close to the hundred thousand or million readers that New York would prefer you reach. Finding 20,000 fans is do-able. Even if the number of readers you need to reach is higher, it’s still a number you can handle.
Very few authors reach 20,000 fans with their first book, but thanks to the Internet, and the long life of POD/e-books, you can grow your readership with each new book. Using the Internet and on-line bookstores like Amazon gives you almost complete control over the success, or not, of your career.
Even if you are published by New York publishers, you still have the power to make a big difference to the success of your books.
Growing the number of readers you reach with each book is the key, and there’s four strategies to ensure that happens. In roughly the order they must be managed:
- Build a niche
- Nurture a publisher
- Keep loyal fans
- Build your Transition Fund.
- Everything in your life will have input into one of these four elements. Everything.
It’s not enough these days to simply write within a genre, or even sub-genre. For the sake of quitting the day job, you need to narrow down what you write to a single niche. Niches are sometimes called brands, although a brand is actually a function of your niche. For now, for the sake of simplicity, consider your brand and your niche as the same thing.
Branding is actually an advanced marketing concept, and there is a ton of information about branding and niching available via books, websites, and blogs. If you’re curious about exploring these topics further, I encourage you to do so – it will give you a more thorough grasp on the ideas I’m using here, and will help you hone your career strategies.
Try plugging “Branding” “Fiction” and “Authors” into Google or your favourite search engine, to give you a dozen places to explore.
At its simplest, your niche is the sub-genre and image/feel/style of your writing that most readers will think of once they are familiar with your work. A brand is the “value” that a consumer feels they get from your products, every time they buy them.
For instance, Stephen King generally writes in the horror genre. He’s written in a few different sub-genres inside Horror, but at his level of success, shifting sub-genres is something you can get away with. Let’s pick The Shining for this example, though. The Shining slides into the psychological horror sub-genre. King’s niche is far more specific, though. He writes very long, deeply characterised horror novels most usually set in New England. There’s other subtleties to his brand, but that captures the guts of it. When King produces books, you know what you’re getting, and you’re assured of a certain level of quality. He’s a good bet.
Desmond Bagley, an English adventure novelist, wrote thoughtful thrillers that featured unusual locations or occupations. Running Blind was an espionage novel set in Iceland (and made you want to go there!), and Night of Error had a plot that hinged on the unique aspects of being a marine vulcanist (someone who studies underwater volcanoes).
Anne McCaffrey writes soft science fiction that features strong heroines and female characters, and always have some sort of romantic relationship in them.
Think of the elements common to all the books of your own favourite authors. What is it that brings you back to that author over and over again? That’s their brand, and it’s a brand that works well, or you wouldn’t keep buying it.
You must determine what your own niche will be…or already is. If you have two or more genres you’d like to write in, you’re going to have to pick one, for now, and figure out your niche.
I fought the idea of cramming myself into a single niche for the longest time. My sub-conscious just didn’t want to limit the appeal of my books to a tiny sub-set of an audience. And that’s where I made my mistake.
Although a niche narrows the definition of what you write, it actually opens up your books to more readers. Readers are loyal to authors they like. If they like your style, they will tell all their friends, recommend you to total strangers, and will come back over and over again, buying anything you write for them…so long as it is in the niche you’ve already built.
As soon as you move away from the niche, or <gasp!> the entire genre, you will lose readers hand over fist.
You can probably name at least one of your favourite authors who has done this to you, too. Did you buy any more of their titles? Have you ever gone back to check if they had returned to the old style? I’m betting you didn’t, because I never have.
As an author, I’m guilty of genre-hopping, and it has been a major factor of why I’m still an anchored author. I started out with a contemporary romance, wrote a Sherlock Holmes pastiche (mystery), then wrote an historical romance, then a romantic suspense…. Well, you get the idea. I had to promote my books to a completely new set of readers each time out of the gate. No momentum, no velocity build-up. And teeny little cheques. I confessed all in a previous post about the evils of hopping genres (“How I Performed Hara Kiri on My Career”).
So pick your niche. Make sure it is a style of story you could happily write at least a dozen novels in, because that is how you are going to build your readers.
It’s possible that you’ve already started to develop your niche, quite without realizing it. You’ve written a few books, and they all happen to have the same feel and common elements, and they’re all in the same sub-genre. If this is a niche you’re willing to stay in, you’re a long way ahead of the game.
However, if you’ve written a few books, and they’re all over the popular fiction map, like mine, now is the time for remedial action. Settle on a niche, and if the books haven’t sold yet, yank the ones that aren’t in your chosen niche, and keep them in your attic for another day.
If you’ve sold two or more books in different genres and they’re released and out in the world, you may already understand in your bones why hopping genres can kill your career’s momentum. The fix for you is the same: Pick your niche, and settle in to build that niche for the next few years, and grow your readership up that way.
Will you always be stuck in this niche? Not always. If you do get to quitting the day job, you will have time to spare to build up a second readership around a different niche, genre or even a different pen-name. Nora Roberts wrote romances for nearly a decade until she broke out and wrote thrillers…and she released them under the pen name JD Robb – smart lady!
For now, remember that time is your critical resource. You don’t have time to work the day job, and write and promote in two different niches. Save your other writing ambitions for later, when your circumstances have changed. And circumstances always change. Just wait and see.
If you were paying close attention, you may have also picked up that the non-negotiable element of your niche is quality. Don’t dash off your novels, just to get another one out there. Readers will only stay loyal for as long as they feel they are getting a fine product. If the quality waivers, so will they.
Aim to enjoy yourself, to always improve, and to give every book you write the best you have in you at that time. If you’re authentic, your books will be, too. Your readers may not be able to distinguish the difference, but they will respond to it.
Anchored authors who have not yet sold their first book may well think that any publisher will do – they’ll be grateful they sold at all. It’s an understandable attitude, but a short-sighted one.
Your basic requirements are:
The publisher publishes your genre and niche.
This is not the time to write to market, despite the age-old adage. You have to be able to continue to write this style of book for many books to come. Don’t switch genres or niches just to get published. You should, however, adapt to other submission requirements, such as length, if the publisher is one you’d like to sell to.
The publisher must distribute widely
Their distribution could be via traditional method, or else they list their titles on Amazon and other large on-line stores (Indigo.com, Barnes & Noble.com, etc).
The publisher must pay advances and/or royalties.
Profit-sharing schemes don’t reward you for each title you sell, and working to increase your readership only indirectly benefits you.
The publisher has a good reputation.
Check for positive reviews on the titles that they put out, Google the publisher’s name for industry feedback, ask fellow authors what they’ve heard. Buy some of the publisher’s titles for yourself, including at least one print copy, to check for quality. Do you like the feel of their website?
They put out decent covers.
Covers, in particular, are very important for helping sell a book, and this is one area where you don’t have a lot of control. If the covers the publisher issues are uniformly horrid or unimaginative, move on.
They have reasonable royalty rates.
New York publishers don’t tend to advertise their rates, but they don’t vary much between publishers. POD publishers, on the other hand, can range widely. They often publish their rates on their websites, and as you research publishers, you’ll get to know what is a reasonable rate for the various formats.
Once you have found a publisher that suits your needs, your niche, and your career, you need to keep that publisher happy with your work and your professionalism, and your relentless marketing, so that you can continue to sell your novels to them.
Changing publishers can be almost as damaging as changing genres. (And yes, I’m guilty of this one, too!) Really loyal fans may follow you over to the new publisher, but don’t bet your career on it.
Especially with POD publishers who sell one type of genre (such as Ellora’s Cave, who only sell erotic romances), readers can be publisher-loyal rather than author-loyal.
Another problem with changing publishers, even if you’re staying within your niche, is that you will eventually lose your back-list. All the previous titles you published with your former publisher will sell some copies each time you bring out a new title with your new publisher, but because you are no longer producing books for your old publisher, they will be more inclined to not print any more copies, and your back list will slowly slip out of print.
Depending on the manner of your departure, the old publisher might well yank your back titles immediately. It sounds childish and unprofessional, but it’s happened to too many authors for me to pretend it’s not a risk you should take into consideration.
Sometimes you can find yourself orphaned and without a publisher through no fault of your own. The publisher went out of business (it happens a lot!), or your editor has moved to another publisher, and didn’t bring you with them…and the new editor doesn’t care for your books (this also happens). If you lose your publisher, then your back-list is in jeopardy.
If you do find yourself in this situation, locate another suitable publisher as quickly as you can and resume your publishing schedule. There is a chance your new publisher will pick up your back-list and re-issue them, especially if they’re in the same niche as the new books they’re buying from you (another good reasons to stay in your niche). But if they don’t, a pay-for publishing service can help keep your back-list alive.
You should always work to keep your back-list available to readers, even if it does mean spending money for a pay-for service. The books you have completed and published are a money-making asset, and your intellectual property. When readers discover you via your latest title (that you are heavily promoting), they will happily go back and buy your older titles…if they are available, and in the same niche as the latest one the reader loved.
Out of print titles are losing money for you.
If you don’t already have a publisher you’re happy with, consider the types of publishers available to you, and start doing your research.
New York or POD?
For most fiction authors, pay-for and self-publishing are not worth considering as a means of getting your books into the hands of your readers, which means your choice is between New York publishers and POD publishers.
Don’t automatically point at the New York boys and say “there!”, because it’s possible that your niche simply won’t sell to them. It might be too unique, too unusual – there’s too many factors that can cause a New York publisher to say no.
On the other hand, New York publication comes with a useful advance, and makes you inarguably “legitimate.”
If you’re absolutely certain New York is where your niche will thrive, then go for it. Do your market research, polish your book until it shines, and see how it is received.
Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have to have massive distribution and print runs to make good money from your writing. You just have to be published so that Amazon and the other big aggregators can get your book into the hands of your readers.
POD publishers are easier to sell to, and not just because they’ll print anything. The fact is, they’re willing and economically able to take chances on books that aren’t last month’s best-seller warmed over. If your writing is strong, polished and your story engaging, you’ll sell to a POD publisher.
You may also fear that POD publication means you can’t reach as many readers because most readers prefer print, and lots of people are resistant to buying on-line. It is true that most readers say they prefer reading print books, but as most POD publishers are releasing books in print format these days, this is a diminishing concern. And as Amazon, Microsoft, and other technology companies bring out more and better reading devices, the numbers of readers who will read e-books will climb, too.
Readers resistant to buying books that aren’t available via their local bookstore do exist, however. Many of them. Yet the number of people afraid to conduct business on-line are dwindling each year. And even if they represent a large portion of the book-reading public, the advantage of POD publishing is that you’re reaching the portion of book-readers receptive to e-books and POD around the world. Not just your own country. I’ve had fan mail from readers in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Turkey and the Middle East.
The number of readers that are happy to buy, or even prefer to buy on-line are significant, and that number possibly matches or is greater than the number of potential readers you can reach with a New York publisher’s typical distribution. There’s enough for Amazon to reach a $14.8 billion annual turnover. There are certainly more than enough on-line readers to support your full time writing career.
Plus, your book remains on sale for years, while New York titles are swapped off the bookshelves in a little over a month unless they’re a best-seller.
Don’t write off POD publishing until you’ve weighed all the pros and cons. Make sure you’re not resisting because of out-of-date prejudices.
This gives you two overall career directions: Aiming for New York, and the traditional publishing model, or aiming for niche markets, and building a loyal pool of fans.
If you’re really not sure which way you want to go, then do both – although this will extend your time as an anchored author by years.
Most authors I know would much rather sell to New York not just because they aren’t aware of the new ways to build a career, but also because they’ve spent years dreaming about being published, and all those dreams include seeing their book on the shelves of their local store, and being on the New York Times best-seller list. If this is you, too, then give yourself a shot at your dreams.
Write your first book in your chosen niche, get an agent, and start shopping your book around New York. While your agent trying to sell the first book, continue to write more books in your niche.
If you sell a book, congratulations! You’re at the very start of a new career. Your new publisher will absolutely want you to keep writing the same sorts of books, and as long as you do write them and continue to sell well, they’ll keep publishing them. The rest of this book will help you solidify your footing in New York, and make the jump to full time writing faster.
The more common scenario, though, is that after a few years, you’ll have exhausted every suitable market in New York, with no takers. Shift that book from New York to the POD publishers, and look for a sale there.
You must not consider this as dumping a New York reject on the remainders table of POD publishing. New York is a next-to-impossible arena to break into, and it takes quantities of luck and perfect timing to pull it off. Your book must fit into a very narrow range of “suitable” novels, or you won’t sell.
Something as simple as a foreign setting can earn you rejections. The towering slush piles that editors must work through mean that they are looking for reasons to reject you, and whittle down the pile, so any excuse will do in order to get your manuscript off their desk.
A well-established New York author once told me of the day he went to lunch with his editor. They had arranged to meet at the editor’s office, and while his editor was waiting for him to arrive, she had been going through some manuscripts in her slush pile. He watched her work her way through five manuscripts in thirty seconds, placing all but one of them on the reject pile. She picked up each one, glanced at the first and second page, and put them aside.
Shocked, he asked her what she could have possibly seen in a single glance that was enough to reject the novels. She explained that she was looking for white space: the white areas around the paragraphs. Lots of white space means lots of short, choppy paragraphs, which usually implies dialogue, action, active writing.
The four manuscripts she had put aside were solid pages of heavy, long paragraphs – a sure sign of passive writing.
Apart from this being a great warning on the perils of passive writing, it’s also a perfect example of the way your manuscript is handled in the New York slush pile.
If you do find yourself shifting from New York to POD publishers, you must look at it as evidence that you’re not writing within the very narrow New York parameters, and that is all.
New York rejection doesn’t always mean your books are weak, badly written, or otherwise hopeless — unless they really are weak. This is a different problem, one that will be eradicated by conscientiously working to improve your writing, and writing the best book you can, every time.
There’s hundreds of award winning manuscripts that New York unanimously said “no” to (including mine). Even JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, was soundly rejected by nearly every publisher in London before selling for a measly £2,000 advance.
POD Publishing is a different model of publishing, one that gives you unique opportunities. You can’t afford to consider it as inferior to New York publishing, because the two models are only distantly related to each other.
Whichever publisher you eventually sell to, your general strategy is the same: while you’re trying to sell, keep writing more books in your niche. Aim to improve with every book, so that the quality of your writing continues to rise. When you have finished a manuscript, send that out into the marketplace.
And write another novel.
When you do sell, keep writing more books in your niche.
Taking a while to find a publisher and sell a book can actually work in your favour. By the time you make your first sale (or the first sale in your new niche), then you will have a number of manuscripts ready to sell to your new publisher, who can then release your books in a semi-spread cluster. This gives you a strong surge out of the starting gate.
If you sell to a POD publisher, work with your editor to ensure they don’t release all your books at once (yeah, that happened to me, too). You need each book to come out on its own, and far enough apart from each other that you can properly promote each new title, and build up momentum for the next book.
I suggest that the absolute minimum period between releases be at least two months. The first month a title is out, you’ll be heavily promoting it. There’ll be lingering promotion efforts in the next month, but you’ll also need that second month to gear up for the promotion of the next new title.
Are you already published?
Would your current publisher buy novels in your new niche?
It’s worth staying with your current publisher if you can – even if you’re heading off in a new direction, genre-wise. The relationship is in place, and your back-list will be preserved. Have a conversation with your editor about your new plans.
The biggest part of building loyal fans we’ve already covered: Keep writing in the niche you’ve chosen, so they get the quality product they’ve come to expect from you.
The secondary part of growing your fan base is carefully selected PR and promotion of your novels and your brand.
You also have to communicate with your fans as directly as possible, so they know when your next product is coming out, and to keep your name constantly in front of them. In order to do this, you’re going to have to embrace the Internet, and use it to reach your fans.
Build your Transition Fund. (aka “Your Escape Stash“)
Even building a pool of only 20,000 or so loyal readers can take a good long while. It could be years before you’re earning enough to quit the day job.
The Transition Fund is a secondary escape hatch – Plan B, if you like. You sock away small amounts of your day job salary, every pay day, and let the fund build. You also funnel all your writing income, and any “found” money, until the fund reaches a level that will cover your basic living and writing expenses for a year.
I wrote a long post about escape stashes/transition funds that will fill in the details for you.
If your Transition Fund fills up before your writing income reaches a level that will support you outright, and all the other criteria for quitting are positive, you can still jump to full-time writing. Then you have a year to make up the difference, by building your pool of fans, and writing more really good novels.
Once you have settled on the strategies for your career, and understand where you’re aiming, it’s time to sort out the day job that will help get you there.
First appeared on Anchored Authors on August 14, 2008