Home » PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing » Nobody Knows Anything About the Indie Book Business

Nobody Knows Anything About the Indie Book Business

3 October 2012

A couple of recent posts about Amazon sales, Watching the Numbers and KDP Select – Worth the Exclusivity?, generated lots of comments, some of them a bit heated. In PG’s experience watching the world of indie authors, this is typical.

The reason is that nobody knows anything.

Of course, every indie author knows about his/her own sales. Authors check sales numbers every 15 minutes except when they make a firm resolution to check only once a week. (Then check sales every hour.)

It’s like the old story of five blind men describing an elephant. Each author sees numbers from Amazon and Pubit and Kobo, etc., etc. For them, 78.23% of the indie publishing elephant is definitively comprised of ebook sales from Amazon.

The sales detail for each author’s own books is concrete and certain. They can see the numbers on the screen. One of the few certain things in indieworld is that if Pubit says you’ve sold 17 copies of  “Doilies for the Uninitiated,” this month, those sales are real. Nobody can tell you anything different.

Intellectually, indie authors understand that others’ mileage may vary, but they can’t really believe that other authors’ elephants look that much different than their own.

The certitude of small sample sizes leads authors to question or discount others who report much different sales experiences. If someone comments that 78.23% of their ebook sales happen on Nook, that person must be an outlier. Because, of course, I’m not an outlier. What happens to me must be what is happening to most authors.

And if I’m the outlier, I must be doing something wrong and I don’t like to think about that.

The simple fact is that the online market for indie authors is too new to have reliable market rules. And it’s changing very quickly so last year’s rules are so outdated, they’re barely worth talking about.

One of the reasons it’s changing is because new readers are coming into the market all the time. The early adopters came in a long time ago and they behaved in certain ways that gave rise to “rules” for success in selling books to them. Some of the early adopters entered the market because it was new and have exited the ebook market to spend their time with different shiny objects. Other early adopters stayed and became regular ebook purchasers.

We’re somewhere in the middle adopters stage right now. There are many more middle adopters than early adopters and they behave differently from the early adopters. Someone who waits in line to buy the iPhone 5 the first day it’s released is different than someone who is perfectly happy with an iPhone 3. For one thing, the line-waiter has at least 50 apps and buys more every week and the iPhone 3 person has five free apps and only uses one.

Speaking of iPhones, PG thinks the device a reader uses probably also has an effect on what they buy. He suspects that ebooks read on iPhones are generally different than those read on iPads are different than those read on Kindles. Owner demographics explain some differences, but there is media-is-the-message stuff going on as well. Does anyone doubt that the latest and greatest Kindles and Nooks are better for readers than Gen 1 and Gen 2 ereaders were? Is it reasonable to assume that owners of better ereaders buy more ebooks because of the improved reading experience? Jeff Bezos certainly hopes so.

The signals the market sends are also complicated by the strong seasonal pattern of ereader purchases. If there is a general rule for indie author sales, it’s that a lot of ebooks are “sold” (free or otherwise) in the few weeks after Christmas. However, as certainly as the sun rises in the East, there are indie authors who don’t see a bump after the holidays and are sure they’re not outliers.

Another problem – Once we leave our own sales numbers on the KDP screen, there is not much reliable and useful data about ebook sales. Amazon has gobs of data, but it’s not talking. Neither is Pubit. Smashwords talks a little, but not enough to create useful guidelines for what works and what doesn’t with ebook sales.

Yes, we get big picture information like ebook sales are rising and that publisher X now generates 30% of its revenue from ebooks, but that doesn’t help an indie author decide how to best market the seven books she’s written.

PG has no doubt that tried and true rules of consumer marketing also apply to marketing of ebooks, but even those may not provide reliable guidance for an indie author who is working with limited time and financial resources. Coca-Cola can do incredible things with its Twitter campaigns, but it’s in a different universe. The indie author is the CEO and janitor for a one-person business.

Absent real data, the indie author ends up with a collection of self-reported elephant stories from various successful authors. Author X did A and made $300,000 in a single month. Author Y did B and spent 20 weeks atop the Kindle regency-transgender-vampire romance list.

Authors who are searching for recipes want to be able to assiduously copy what Authors X or Y did and achieve the same results. In fact, at least for that magical period when Authors X and Y were the kings/queens of the world, they were outliers, not typical of the vast majority of authors.

There are a couple of basic certainties underlying these success stories:

  1. Every day, every week, every month there will be a single bestselling author overall and in every book category, and
  2. It probably won’t be you.

One caveat about any single success story based on “I did A and lots of sales happened.” The cause of all those sales might have been something other than A. In fact, if A was the real and only cause, everybody could replicate A and achieve lots of sales.

A second caveat is that, even if A was the cause of the sales, the market is constantly changing and A probably won’t work any more, particularly if a zillion authors are all doing A at the same time.

So, where is all this PG bloviation going?

Nobody knows everything about successfully creating, promoting, pricing, etc., indie books. The rules for success in the traditional book marketplace may provide some help, but online ebook sales are a different marketplace.

Every indie author knows something – the sales of their own books. That information may be useful for future marketing strategies for “Doilies for the Uninitiated” and “Doilies for the Uninitiated – 2,” but you’re a blind author describing an elephant. Before you hit the Comment button to blast someone else for preaching falsehoods, remember they’re another blind author describing their elephant.

As much as you would like to believe there really, really is a secret recipe for success that doesn’t center primarily on working very hard to write very good books, there isn’t one. Author X’s pixie dust success was an outlier. Outliers win the lottery and that’s great for them, but you don’t want to hang your writing career on winning the lottery. Most success for most people happens because they work hard and work smart to achieve it.

Pay attention to what people who seem smart about the indie book business are saying and determine if their experiences are useful for you. They may not have the same elephant you have, but theirs may be similar. You won’t find a complete recipe for success, but you might pick up an ingredient here and there.

Realize that indieworld has been changing rapidly and will continue to do so for at least several more years. Rules will change. What worked last year might not work this year. Don’t stop watching the market.

In some businesses, you have to fit in, but in indieworld, you don’t have to stay with the herd to find success. You can become your own kind of outlier, not the lottery winner, but someone who discovers your own rules to reach your own readers. And you don’t need ten million readers to be a successful author.

Despite all the digital regalia, the writer’s business still comes down to the fact that people will always like good stories. Whether presented on a stone tablet or an electronic screen, stories never happen without a story teller.

And finally a fact that didn’t fit anywhere else: According to Leonid Taycher, a Google software engineer who works on the Google Books project there were 129,864,880 different book titles in the world in 2010. There are more now.


PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

109 Comments to “Nobody Knows Anything About the Indie Book Business”

  1. Wait… there are people who check their KDP stats as slowly as every 15 minutes?

    You know, I think one psychological moment that makes everybody chase after marketing tricks is that “write a quality book” doesn’t necessarily make you rich either. Sometimes that book has a small, hard to reach audience.

    But when we say, “write a quality product and you’ll succeed” people run away from that because if they don’t succeed, does that mean their product sucks?


    But no amount of marketing will give you more than minimal success with a product that sucks.

    • Marketing tricks always seem easier than writing a quality book, Camille.

      You’re right about understanding the audience for a book, although there are sometimes surprises there.

      • What I was really trying to say there was this:

        People are afraid to trust their books and their talent. Because if they fail… that means they suck. There is no escaping it.

        On the other hand, if you trust marketing, then if you fail, it wasn’t you, it was the marketing trick.

        But that choice is false. It is perfectly possible to write a great book and not succeed. You’ve got to hang your ego hat on a different peg.

        • I so agree. If you have to hang your ego anywhere then the self-publishing lottery is the last place to do so. Good old respect, sincerity, truthfulness are much better pegs.

    • Just write more and more and more books. Preferably within a series.

      My wife, who is the prototypical fiction ebook buyer (midwestern, mid-30s, middle income female) has actually said to me “If they have 5 books in the series it must be good because otherwise they wouldn’t have written a 2nd through 5th book.”

      Don’t diminish the marketing potential of having the buyer see that there are 8 books in your series.

      Even better, once they’ve bought the first, there is a psychological urge to complete the set. People hate leaving things undone, especially when “doing them” only takes clicking the Buy It Now button.

      • I know that. I’m just saying that writers who get hooked on marketing are afraid to trust themselves.

      • Again Jeremy, you are giving advice that works for you.

        “Write a series” has become the new fashionable thing, like writing vampire romances. Everyone and their grandma is doing it.

        I hate reading series. They all fizzle out, and the writers try to end many books on a cliffhanger, which I find manipulative and dishonest. I paid for this book, I want the complete story here.

        And yet, writers keep advising others to write in a series, so the reader will be forced to buy all the books. No he wont. Many readers like me will dump your series rather than be tricked into buying more books.

        Actually, I avoid series completely now. As soon as I see the word “series” I press back on my browser and leave.

        • ““Write a series” has become the new fashionable thing, like writing vampire romances. Everyone and their grandma is doing it.”

          Erm….dude, where are you getting this from? People have been writing books in series for a long, long, long time. This is not new at all.

          • Yes, series maybe old, but they have become fashionable just now.

            Almost every blog I read nowdays says the same thing- Write in a series, that way you are guranteed a income. Readers will buy all the books in a series. Etc etc.

            I find hard to find a SF&F book that is not in a series….

            • That’s partly because that’s always been a path to success. (John Carter, anyone?)

              That’s proven, it’s not a fad.

              The thing is that you have to write what you write. You may not write the sort of thing that lends itself to series.

              And that’s been a major problem with traditional publishing for a while — not only demanding that non-series books become series, but demanding that they fit a formula (which, unfortunately, happens even with non-series books).

              Confusing this issue, though, is a misunderstanding of the advice “write a series” — most of the time, people are using “series” in a more general way here.

              For instance, the romance genre does not do series the way mysteries do or SF. With romance, a series is not the same characters over and over again, but rather the same theme/style of book. An author might write a series of books — with different characters in each — about city girls and cowboys.

              A literary writer might write stories around a particular community, or something like that. Or around the same theme.

              In those cases, the idea of “series” is that it’s a set of books which are branded so the reader knows that if they like one book in the series, they’re likely to like the others.

              If that works for you, yes, it is a very wise thing to do. It’s not just a strategy, and it’s not a gimmick, it goes to the basis of the relationship between the writer and reader. In the end YOU are the series, no matter how much you vary. Your name on the book connects the books up.

              And if you write well and consistently, the reader will trust you and buy more of your work.

              But if that doesn’t work for you…. then you have to find another strategy.

        • I agree with James – I rarely buy a book now that is part of a series. I want a full-length book that gives a complete story and I don’t want to be conned into buying more. If I like an author, I will continue to buy their books whether they are stand alone books or a series. But I don’t want to be forced into buying books to read the whole story. I agree that authors should worry more about putting out several great books instead of trying to manipulate the market.

  2. Great post PG!

    This is a conclusion I recently came to myself after having watched several different indie authors who I know all achieve varying levels of success with totally different strategies.

    However each of those different strategies were all built on the same crucial foundation stone: writing stories that readers wanted to read.

    Each of us as writers will have to try and find publishing strategies that suit our own goals and personalities. And I echo what Camilla said above: no amount of marketing will give success with a story that sucks.

  3. Baldur Bjarnason has just published a great article about this very topic (from a slightly different angle):


    The retailers give publishers absolutely zero useful information. Information that folks like Baldur and I, coming from the software/web world consider absolutely essential. As an example of what he’s talking about, can anyone answer the question “How effective is Pixel of Ink in promoting your Kindle Select free days?” Spoiler alert, no, you can’t. Some folks have generously shared their experiences, but nobody really knows how big a deal that site is. I suspect it is important, but is it more important for certain genres? Who knows?

    Folks should definitely go read his article.

  4. PG, once again you sum up quite a number of good points all in one post. As always, thank you for working to bring common sense back to center stage.

  5. I checked my KDP results only six times while I was reading your post, PG.

  6. “There are no self-publishing veterens.”

    From my last blog post. I cannot agree more with PG and William here. I think the best thing a writer can do for themselves is to aquire a business education. With that in their pocket the ability to sift through the available advice becomes much easier.

    Excellent post PG.

  7. YES! Thank you for posting this!

  8. Posts like this need to be repeated regularly as the churning mass of new authors scurry about looking for what they can do to make their book sell.

    No matter what experienced writers like Kris Rusch, Dean Smith or Joe Konrath tell them, they are certain that if they just do this one more thing, their own book will take off.

  9. This. A thousand times, this.

    What you were saying about formulas reminds me very much about what my husband says about dating. Dating is not a formula. Flowers + dinner + listening does not = nookie. One or more of those may correlate, but (say it with me) correlation does not equal causation.

    (I think so many people would be happier if they could remember that. Then they would not be running around frantically trying to cause things based on correlations.)

    I’ve always taken great comfort in the addage that “we know 50% of marketing works; we just don’t know which 50%.” I can’t control what marketing will work. I can control my writing output, making great stories, writing good solid blurbs, and trying my hardest to make appropriate, attractive cover art.

    I got a Google alert the other day that someone on a WRZ site was looking to pirate a copy of my novel. That tickled me pink. And I only do the most basic basic of marketing: blog, Facebook, Twitter, and putting my stuff up on Goodreads. I was half tempted to email him and offer a review copy if he told me where he’d heard about my book.

  10. I write historical fiction, U.S. at that. I know better than to check my sales figures more than once every three hours. Doesn’t count unless it’s in the past, don’t you know.

  11. Sales plays a big part in my confidence. I check my numbers daily. I realize the competition for sales is increasing.

    Another thing to add to your comments is as dramatically as the number of ebooks is increasing in the marketplace, so are the number of ebook authors who finally get a free shot at getting published.

    The reader has a real challenge ahead as this whole thing is increasing exponentially. Will there be a time when Amazon and the like need to pull the plug on some of the nonperformers or will each ebook be with us forever?

    • Amazon has the most sophisticated ecommerce system in the world, James, and they continue to improve it.

      My bet is that Amazon will continue to refine the shopping experience so the visitor enjoys it and finds what he/she is looking for and leave all the books in place.

      • I hope so. Only a change in technology or format could possible derail things. Taking what you said maybe we can call it the ‘elephant in the clouds’.

        • Why pull the plug on ebooks? How much space do they take up? And there is no telling when a non-performer might become a flavour of the month for some reason.

          I could see a sort of archive mentality spring up. A ‘Low Sales’ section of the on-line bookstore (though I assume they wouldn’t call it that). But I can’t see culling e-books as being a sensible thing to do.

    • Keeping a book on the Amazon servers costs nothing.

      I mean that literally.

      You are talking such an infinitesimal fraction of a cent that any reasonable rounding would be at zero.

      Some numbers.

      The average Kindle ebook file is about 600 kb.

      That’s 0.000572205 gigabytes.

      Amazon charges customers (so its internal cost is even less) $0.125 per GB/mth. That’s retail price for high end, redundant scalable storage.

      So, that’s $0.000071525625 book/month retail cost (like I said, it costs Amazon even less).

      It would take 140 months (11 and a half years) before storing that book cost one penny.

      As long as your book makes Amazon one cent every 11 years, it makes sense not to delete it.

      • It would take 140 months (11 and a half years) before storing that book cost one penny.

        And that’s ignoring the fact that the cost of storage is going down rapidly all the time. Absent a collapse of the currency, it will take decades for that cost to add up to a whole penny.

        • Okay, so I should have read down to the next comment before commenting :blush:

          There is the barrier to book discovery that millions of books will bring though. That is why some sort of sorting mechanism will have to be devised. I have a ‘lot’ of files on my PC so I put them into folders, I don’t leave them all on the desktop, because I wouldn’t be able to find anything. I also don’t bin any files. I just stick them in a folder called ‘Old Stuff’. Never know when I might need it, after all.

          So I can see something similar happening in on-line bookstores. Though I could easily be absolutely wrong too.

          EDIT: and at the last count I had 7500 bookmarks all nicely sorted into folders too. So if i want to look up something about land based combat drones or publisher contract terms I know where it is. (Yeah, my house is overflowing with books too 🙂 )

          • This is why Amazon sees itself as a search company (like Google) rather than a retailer.

            This is not the old brick and mortar retail model, this is the internet model. And it’s a model which has been proven as successful for a long time now: it’s the WEB model.

            There is no barrier to discovery. The point is to remove barriers… and then enable discovery.

            Here is where I think a lot of indies, and all publishing people, are missing the boat in focusing on the short term, and treating “platforms” as sales tools — like old time prospects lists.

            You can’t push any more. You can’t force people’s attention on your product any more. That’s gone and good riddance.

            Discovery in a web-based world is a whole different model. It’s about being measurable, identifiable and searchable. It’s about having enough material out there on the internet for search engines to assess what you are and who would be interested in you. It’s about having products which are literally “remarkable.” (i.e. that people want to talk about.)

            Everything else — all the stuff we do to get attention — is old school.

  12. PG, my favorite times here are times when you come out and make sense of it all (“all” in this case being something one can’t really make sense of). I know you can’t do this often, but I just wanted to say what a treat it is when you do.

    Oh, and that’s Doilies for the Uninitiated 2–The Revenge.

  13. Thank you, PG!

    I’d been successfully avoiding the temptation to spam my twitter feed (joking, joking – about actually spamming, I mean), and then this spurt of marketing posts arrived and severe marketing angst with it! The wave knocked me flat and stunned me. I dithered about Select, freebies, guest blogs, and reviews. What to do, what to do?

    In the end, I decided to experiment a little. My upcoming novel is now aimed at Select. (Oh, the horror!) I'm curious if anything at all will happen. I'm dubious, but we'll see. And in any case, Livli’s Gift will come back out of Select at the end of its 90 days to be distributed everywhere.

    And now I’ve refocused myself on the production end of things. (Finished a new short story yesterday.) But a smidge of angst lingers. Bottom line: I hate not knowing.

    This post has ushered in a deeper serenity. Love the elephant metaphor, PG. It’s perfect. Now, if you could just repeat your excellent points about once a week (so I don’t go back to checking my Smashwords stats every 15 minutes – I’m addicted to page views, of all things!), maybe I can stay calm. Grin!

  14. A perfect example of why I come here every day.

    I always love the commonsense nature and tone of PG’s comments and discussion pieces.

    I haven’t been a fan of the gimmicky approaches and fads that fade almost as soon as they appear (and now that I think of it, “fad” turns into “fade” with just the addition of the most frequently appearing letter in the English language).

    I tend to concur with Kris Rusch/Dean Wesley Smith and many others – establish a foundation by trying to write the best stories one can, and build on that.

    (oh, and your mention of KDP prompted me to check and apparently someone bought a book, so at least the month is starting off all right. I hope they enjoy it. And thanks for the reminder.)

  15. Nicely put and thoroughly explained. Thanks!

  16. Bingo on all points, PG. Also sounds like what I’ve heard from other sources, namely Dean and Kris. When I threw out my info, I did so knowing many authors had a different experience than me. I read them on that site. I don’t have near the success as some do. I make enough to go out to eat once a quarter. Long way from paying the bills. But focusing on the long term, doing what you do know works there, writing good stories, rather than relying upon marketing tricks, makes perfect sense to me.

    Maybe at some point in the future, I can come and report my outlier success. 😉

  17. Well said. Should we rename you the Wise Guy???

  18. In February I wrote an article on my site where I stated that I thought KDP Select was probably going to be a bad thing (you were actually kind enough to link to it around that time, which is how I discovered this site in the first place). It was an honest opinion at the time, based on my experience with a similar program in the music world, though based on what I’ve seen my concerns haven’t come to pass. I really don’t like the exclusivity requirement at all, but I’ve decided to de-list one of my eBooks on all the other sites and see how it does in KDP Select, basically because of the reason you list above–nobody really knows enough to definitively say, and all I can really rely on for my work is my own data, and I don’t have enough.

    My main concern at this point is that KDP Select will reject it because it’s posted on my site in full and won’t be taken down. If that happens, then that’s a piece of data I have and can continue to use (the data being “whether or not KDP Select works is irrelevant for my current distribution model”). Whether or not that data is useful to anyone else on the planet is… doubtful. I don’t think most of the self publishers are also doing web serials. But it’ll be another piece of information…

    • Hate to tell you this, but that is against the rules of Select. Not only will you get a harsh-worded email from Amazon if they find it, but could possibly be used to seize your KDP account and any moneys in it.

      Not only will Amazon not permit a full version anywhere other than on their site, you can’t even post excerpts. Might want to think about writing a new project to put through Select and see how that does to draw attention to the rest of your backlist.

      • Well I guess nevermind then. My Stuff goes on the web first and it stays there.

        … That was a pretty short experiment!

        • Yep, that’s exactly why Selects is a non-starter for me. I can say that most of my sales come from my websites and blogs. Forget other sales channels — Selects create a problem for my Amazon sales too.

      • As I understand, KDP Select allows excerpts, within limitations.

        People who have contacted KDP Select over this question have typically received the following response (this one is copied from this thread: https://kdp.amazon.com/community/message.jspa?messageID=296826):

        Hello Publisher,

        You may offer a sample, excerpt or teaser of your KDP Select-enrolled book on your website, as long as it doesn’t include a substantial portion of your book’s content. Up to about 10% of the book’s content is a reasonable amount.

        Keep in mind that a sample of your book is also available on your Amazon.com detail page, and we recommend linking to your detail page from your other sites.

        You may also put similar samples on other websites. We strongly recommend you clearly indicate in the title of your sample that it is a sample, so that there won’t be confusion regarding availability of your book on another sales channel.

        I hope this helps. Thanks for using Amazon KDP.

        • Ah, we’ll, I’ve seen emails and firm statements on their KDP boards that you can’t. At all.

          But even so, the restriction assumes formal sampling — with measurements and limitations and labeling, which is not what drives traffic for me. Still a major problem which puts it out of the question.

  19. Must be something wrong with me because I never check my stats. It’s like having a baby. Don’t want to know the sex. I want to be surprised – when the baby comes and when the direct deposit comes.
    Plus I’m busy. I really don’t have time.
    The secret to success? Who knows?

  20. I swear, PG, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Writers looked for the “magic bullet” long before indie publishing was in vogue. It was writing the perfect query, find the perfect agent, etc. Finding the perfect marketing scheme is just an extension of that mindset.

    OTOH I’m a sucker for a good elephant story. 😉

  21. This has to be the most realistic take on Indie Authors I’ve seen. Thanks. Nice to see a post without all the ‘must haves’ and ‘ultimate success’ BS.

  22. I’m finding that it’s one thing to logically know what could or could not happen and what you should or should not do, and then there’s what actually happens.

    There’s that scene in “Look Who’s Talking” when Kirstie Alley’s character is reading a book about pregnancy, and it mentions that pregnant women can often become moody and emotional at the drop of the hat and cry for no reason. She decides this is stupid and says, “Well, I’m not gonna.” Flash to the next scene where she is sobbing uncontrollably at a commercial.

    When I put out my first book, I was going to throw it out there and move on to the next one. That seemed to be the best marketing plan. However, it’s sort of like dropping a needle into a stadium-sized field full of needles. My friends and family bought some copies, and that was sort of it. I’ve been sending the book to practically every blogger I can find who enjoys YA and will review indie works. And it hasn’t made much of a difference. (And I think it’s a good book. Most everyone who has read it seems to really like it.)

    I’ve been hand selling the book on Goodreads, and that gets me a couple sales here and there. (And like Kirstie Alley, I was NOT going to look at my sales figures or worry about all that. I was just going to put out my book and move on. Flash to me obsessively checking my sales.)

    The problem here is that I literally can’t do the next book until this one makes some money. I couldn’t afford a cover for the last book, but did spring for the editing. I want a new cover for this book and to get editing and a good cover for the next one. I need some funds to do that.

    So I’m in that Catch-22 – I can’t afford to put out more books, but I can’t be found and bought until I put out more books.

    Which has made me consider Select. I know I missed that lucky window, but it has to be better than what I’m doing now.

    • Not necessarily. My Amazon sales have tanked recently, but my sales in other channels are doing fine.

      You can also try trading services with someone for a cover and/or editing. Format their ebook or mow their lawn or something. Or try your hand at making your own cover, and swap it out for a new cover when you can afford to hire someone. Go for simple; large text, maybe one image on a colored background. You can get images for free on morguefile.com and sxc.hu, just read the usage agreement.

      • Yup. Last month I got a rather lovely colophon design in exchange for a week’s cat-sitting. Barter is our friend.

      • I’ve been thinking about trading cover work for even amateur editing. (Just another set of eyes when I’m too busy to get involved in a full out manuscript exchange.)

        Of course, how much work a cover is depends on the genre partly.

      • Seriously, Sariah, trading is your friend! Pizza money to the neighbor’s kid because she needed practice for her Photoshop class works too.

      • Depending on the image one wants, it may even be possible to take a photo oneself and manipulate it a bit. I’ve got one of those which I’m fond enough of; it’s not what I’d want to have forever if I were selling that story, but it’s a decent placeholder. (And for a freebie, it can hold that place… Oh, forever.)

    • Actually, Sariah, I’d highly recommend getting your next title out there no matter what. AND giving yourself more time (a couple months, published during the summer slump, isn’t enough to go on). 🙂

      TIME is crucial. Give it time, and keep writing. It’s *also* of key importance to have more titles available.

      In September 2011, I had one indie-published title available. I sold 17 copies.

      In September 2012, I had 7 indie-published titles available (under 3 pen names) and sold over 800 copies.

      What will next year look like? 🙂 I’m liking how my elephant is growing~

  23. Excellent post, PG.

  24. Thanks all, for the kind words. I’m happy you’ve found this helpful.

  25. Exactly.
    No two writers are in the same place in terms of platform, product and promotion. So everyone is in a unique position. While there is much lambasting of “legacy” publishing, we often act as if it were run by fools for decades, rather than a lot of very smart people who grappled with similar problems.

    The issue has shifted from distribution to discoverability which brings its own different set of problems. I’ve stopped blogging about indie publishing, legacy publishing, how to do it, how not to do it, because there are plenty of people out there doing that. And they’re as often wrong as they are right. And if they are right for one person, they’re wrong for another.

    I’ve settled down to a couple of basics after three years:

    Number one priority is good content.
    Number two priority is more good content.
    Number three priority is focus on readers, not writers.

    • Very true, Bob. I am seriously tired of people (including some supposedly knowledgeable ones) telling me there is only one way to do it. Hell, there isn’t only one way to do it even for my own novels, much less all the authors in the world.

      All we can do is keep trying to find what works for us with the awareness that what works now may not work in six months.

  26. Excellent post, PG.

    Speaking of Google books, have you authors put your books into the Google play store? I uploaded all of mine last week. It’s not intuitive–definitely beta software. But for you authors that want to be in every market, everywhere, the installed base of android tablets and phones with play books pre-installed is a pretty big market to ignore.

    • How did you do it?

      • The details of the program can be found here: http://support.google.com/books/partner/?hl=en

        There are two programs, google preview program (google books) and google ebooks (play store). Google books is the indexing of books that google is being sued by the author’s guild over. You need to enter your books voluntarily into google books if you want to play with google play. Currently, google does not allow an opt out of google books.

        You can get your books into google books by mailing them hard copies, which they will scan, or you can upload electronic files, like epubs or pdf files. If you don’t see your files show up after a while, send them an email. Google will pay you royalties via adwords on your books. They only show up to 10% of the book. You can list a link to purchase a hard copy. I set mine to the createspace page of the book. Google will also provide a buy button into the google play store version of the ebook. For a while, mine wouldn’t show up in my account pane at all. Once I sent google support an email, they fixed it–and then my pane showed “processing” as a status message for a couple of days. You also have to swear under pain of death and dismemberment that you are the one and true copyright holder of the works you uploaded.

        You do not need an ISBN for your ebooks. Google will provide a google key and a free ISBN if you don’t have your own.

        Once your book is set up in google books, you can activate it for sale in the google play store. This is where things get a bit confusing too. You can set a default pricing scheme that will be applied to all your books. You can override all the defaults on a per book basis in the properties of the individual ebook. Another confusing aspect is that you can set the price of an ebook to be a percentage of the lowest print list price available. I’m not quite sure how they calculate this. I have a novelette that is listing as $3.03 on google play ebooks, which isn’t price matching to Amazon at $2.99, not my set list price $3.99, nor 60% of the print list price ($5.49) at create space. (My stories include illustrations).

        Another confusing part is that you need to enter your bank and tax information twice. Once for google books and a second time for google play ebooks. From what I gather, they are two different systems. Google books is connected to adwords in some manner. There was actually a glitch where if you had an adwords account you couldn’t create a partner program account (with the same email address). If you used a different email address you circumvented the problem. I’m not sure if google has fixed this bug yet.

        Compared to KDP, DriveThruFiction, Pubit, Kobo and Smashwords (not including formatting), the google partner program is the most onerous and confusing of the systems to learn. At least, that’s my opinion.

  27. Yes! As I get ready to launch four (more to come) M-M romance erotica short stories this week, I’ve been looking for “rules” to follow. Looks like the only rule is to write well and improve. I feel pretty confident about that one.

    “Doilies for the Uninitiated”? That was going to be a title of one of my erotic shorts. Doh!

  28. PG, your blog made me think about basics of selling, and I went back to my little knowledge about this subject. The old saying “don’t sell refrigerators to Eskimos” is applicable to us as well. Many times we’re trying to sell our books to a large audience, but not necessarily to the right audience. The Indie authors that sold boatloads of eBooks may have hit the right audience. I don’t know if they know it or not, and even if they can replicate their success with another book. The magic bullet is offer your book to the right audience and you’ll sell. Now, finding the right audience is the trick. Book stores channeled the readers in one spot and the audience was there. On the Internet we are in an immense bookstore and finding the audience is a lot trickier. So, we need to find the right audience. Any ideas?

    • This:

      “Many times we’re trying to sell our books to a large audience, but not necessarily to the right audience.”

      I know his name is not fashionable at the moment due to the ‘paid reviews scandal,’ but in John Locke’s ‘How I Sold a Million eBooks’ he talks about his target audience.

      In my ‘dayjob’ I deal with online marketing, and we use a concept called The Target Profile.

      The Target Profile isn’t a persona – it’s a real person. Pick one of your audience, someone who you’d like to attract 10 people like that. Or 100. Or a thousand.

      And interview them. (Bribe them with a free story, or name a character after them or something). Find out what they like about your stories. Don’t go in with preconceptions….listen to what they have to say (and record the answers).

      Use their words and phrases in your blurbs and marketing material – it will help ‘attract’ the other people out there who are just like your target profile.

      On the other side of the coin – and Locke also writes about this – if you get negative reviews those reviews don’t mean your writing is bad (unless you get a gazillion of them, in which case back to the drawing board!). Instead those negative reviews are from people who don’t conform to your target profile – AND you can use THEIR language and words to help drive away those kind of readers.

      This is powerful stuff when implemented properly…and I can’t cover all the nuances in a short comment on a blog post. But the information is out there….used correctly it is very powerful.


  29. This is excellent. It’s so cool when you share your thoughts with us, PG. You are a very clear thinker, and I love your perspective.

    This should be required reading for indie authors. If only to help them relax and let go for awhile.

  30. Thank you so much for saying ‘nobody knows anything.’ After a year of closely watching the industry and six weeks (hey, nobody’s been at it very long) as a self-published author,I’ve come to the same conclusion. I now mentally roll my eyes when I hear the words, ‘you have to have a strong marketing plan to succeed as an indie-author.’ It’s apallingly easy to get sucked into wasting too much time and money trying to find the golden road to indie-success. I’m not saying that it’s not important to learn what our resources and options are, but there’s a limit to how far those resources will take us.
    There’s also the danger of constantly defending the self-publishing process to the nay-sayers–that eats up time that would be better spent writing. I love what I’m doing and I’m encouraged by my numbers so why should I waste my time defending it?
    In my very-limited experience as a self-published author I’ve decided that indie success isn’t all that different from finding success in other businesses.
    1. Produce what the public wants.
    2. Make it good, but don’t try to make it perfect.
    3. Accept that you can’t do everything and will need some help.
    4. Don’t forget that there’s no buffer between you and your readers so provide good customer service.
    5. Then do it all over again.

  31. The mystery is why we think we can *know* what tactics will lead to certain self-publishing success, considering the business continues to move at warp speed.

    So yes to this:

    “In some businesses, you have to fit in, but in indieworld, you don’t have to stay with the herd to find success. You can become your own kind of outlier, not the lottery winner, but someone who discovers your own rules to reach your own readers. And you don’t need ten million readers to be a successful author.”

    Great post, PG. Love this blog!

    EC, off to feed her elephant

  32. Here’s how monumentally good this blog post is:

    I’m reading it instead of checking my sales.

  33. I may be an outlier in getting almost all my sales via Amazon whether the book is in or out of Select–but if so, there seems to be an awful lot of outliers around. And you’ll have to admit that makes an odd definition of an outlier.

    We have very little data. That’s true. Things change. That’s true. But we know nothing? I’m not so sure of that.

  34. Kindle regency-transgender-vampire romance

    I’d like to see that one.

    • They exist. I’m not sure why that would be so extraordinary.

      • Hmmm.

        ‘Your search “regency-transgender-vampire romance kindle” did not match any products.’

        Oh, gotta remove the hyphens…

        Okay, we can get Regency Vampire Romance or Transgender Vampire Romance. I don’t see all three adjectives yet.

        Therefore! I repeat! I’d like to see that one. 🙂

        • Sorry, if you want “Regency Vampire Transgender Romance” it only comes up under “Graphic Novels” sub-set “Manga”.
          Okay, probably not even there. But it sounds like it would…

  35. Great post. I think we can “try” to replicate the success of others in some ways, and to market our work, find reviewers and fiddle with prices and programs such as Select, but time, hard work, word of mouth and more than a smattering of luck are the true “hit makers” of this game. We’d all like to find the “secret formula” but it’s most likely elbow grease.

  36. run this article on a regular basis. There’s an old saying in advert: three times in order for it to sink in. I think that’s the same as the old gradeschool teachers; hear it, see it, say it. lol

    Thanks for a good rational viewpoint. Matters.

  37. Hi PG.

    Great article.

    82 comments! I think that whatever I’ll say it will be repetitive. 🙂

    Quote:”Despite all the digital regalia, the writer’s business still comes down to the fact that people will always like good stories. Whether presented on a stone tablet or an electronic screen, stories never happen without a story teller.” Perfectly said.

    It seems that e-books market has somehow stagnated lately.

    1. It was the boom of new technology, flooding the market, which sky-rocketed the sales. A great part of it. Avid readers still buy at the same pace they used to in the beginning. But they are not the greatest market share.

    2. Too many new authors appeared, so the market pie is divided in smaller and smaller parts as time passes.

    3. New reading devices do not raise sales. The devices made two years ago are perfect for reading e-books. The people standing in huge lines to buy the iPad 5 are not buying them for reading e-books. Most of them are technology geeks who buy every new device that comes on the market. The rest of them buy them for other applications. So no sales raise will come from there.

    Still, the most important thing is good writing. If a book is well-written, it will sell and sell well.

    Great post P.G.

  38. PG – You’re such an intelligent and well-spoken person who seems to think a great deal about things before voicing your opinion on something. You scold when you can find insightful ways to put it, and aren’t afraid to use sarcasm as a whip when appropriate. Your even-handedness and intelligence is one of the many reasons why I keep coming back here, even if I don’t comment quite as often as you make me think.

  39. I think my elephant is a mouse. But I haven’t checked in the last 15 minutes so it might be a manatee now.

  40. So, when can I buy this book about doilies? 🙂

    My experience after a year and a half of self publishing is that Smashwords is a great path to many outlets, but offers little control over what happens on those outlets. Thus, I have never tried taking down books that have already been published via Smashwords in order to enroll them in KDP Select; it would take too long to happen! New books, however, I have launched in KDP Select and I have found it helpful in breaking the “no sales without reviews/no reviews without sales” cycle, but not enough to stay in beyond one 90-day enrollment period.

  41. I’m a little tired of people claiming that their success was because they worked hard and worked smart whereas apparently everyone else just doesn’t get it or isn’t good enough. Yes, hard work and making good decisions obviously play a huge role in whether you are successful or not, but plenty of other people work hard and smart as well and never reach the level of success they’d like to reach. There is *always* an element of sheer luck to being successful and in the writing profession this probably more true than in MOST professions. Who knows how many other people had similar ideas to yours that were possibly even better executed but for whatever reason they didn’t have the same success as you? Maybe your book managed to reach the right person who gave it just the right word of mouth at the right time. You just never know. It’s not feasible to get feedback from every customer/reader about why they bought your book or ask to why others passed on it. So we’re all just feeling around in the dark here to some extent.

    I find this ‘blame those who fail’ attitude so unattractive about my fellow Americans. It’s unfortunate that we spend so much time criticizing others for *not* being successful instead of actually trying to help others *become* successful. But I think that it takes more empathy than many of us have to just try to be supportive of other people.

  42. Thank you for this wonderful post!

    “…In PG’s experience watching the world of indie authors, this is typical.

    The reason is that nobody knows anything.”


    But, like others have said, I think it boils down to this: discoverability.

    Whether that be engineered by KDP Select, luck, or showing up on a best seller list (no matter how obscure the category) it really comes down to someone seeing, reading, and liking your work and telling someone else.

  43. Excellent post! I’ve experimented with different pen names and different genres, so I’ve seen two of the elephant’s toes. I know more than I did. I know enough to not have any faith that I’ll be a hit or an outlier. My writing style is incompatible with being a broad-appeal hit. That sucks, I guess, but I’m going to keep going for my niche. My two toes tell me I might have a shot at that. 🙂

  44. I posted this over on KB and it is my reaction to this article expanded a bit from my original post here:

    I didn’t agree with some of the points or the tone of the article. If I haven’t learned ANYTHING in a year and a half of doing this, there is something wrong with me. I don’t think there is. While things may change, a number of us have at least some knowledge about the current status of self-publishing. A lot of what I have learned, I learned from people here [at KB] who are generous enough to share what THEY learned. When someone who knows the toes and someone who knows the trunk and someone who knows the tail and the sides all put their knowledge together and SHARE it, they may come up with a pretty good picture.

    That doesn’t mean the elephant may not morph into a giraffe six months down the road, but for now…

    No. I didn’t agree with the article.

  45. This is a terrific article on not blindly reaching for the ‘next big hit’ based on the achievements or say-so of others.

    I’m not sure though that indie authors have difficulty believing that other author’s elephants look different to their own. I’ve met an awful lot of incredibly smart indie authors since starting this journey mid-year and there haven’t been many whom I’ve seen making that kind of mistake.

    I see indie authors generously sharing knowledge and experience – which has been extremely helpful to myself and many others. Indie authors who spend time communicating with other indies know full well that some do great at Barnes and Noble and not at Amazon, or some built a fan base way before they ever published, and a million other variables.

    I do very much agree with your urging indie authors to ‘discover their own rules’ as every individual has their own style and ways of doing things that work best for them.

  46. Am I trying to learn from others’ ebook marketing experiences? Hell, yes. Am I trying to apply everything someone else says will work? Hell, no. Too many factors to take into consideration: genre, work ethic, luck, inclination, etc. …

    Of course no one has a sure-fire formula for how to be successful in this business, or we’d all be using it. Every marketing strategy has to be individual to the writer, her temperament, and what she’s writing, but that doesn’t mean she can’t learn from the experiences of others.

    And for the record, I only check my sales once a day, when I add them to my free-form database, along with any info on promotions or ads or interviews or anything else that might have an effect on sales.

  47. I write Epic Fantasy with gay main characters.

    I haven’t a clue who my target audience is or even could be. Gay novels seem to mainly about coming out, aids, and recently bullying. My books are too gritty for the average M/M-Romance reader. Most Fantasy readers will happily suspend disbelief to accommodate talking dragons and wizards, but will think a gay prince who wins battles too much of a stretch.

    Yet I manage to pay some — not all — bills with my writing.

    You’re right. Nobody knows anything about this business. I certainly don’t. I just keep writing.

    • I don’t know. Mercedes Lackey seems to have pretty good success with fantasy with gay main characters/heroes. Now, she writes more “romantic fantasy” than something called “gritty”, but I’ll bet there are a lot of readers looking for exactly what you write.

  48. Great post, PG. I was on a panel at WorldCon a few weeks ago about indie publishing, and I said the same thing to the audience. We are all equally expert and equally ignorant about what’s going on. And the data we do have is too anecdotal to be helpful.

    I get emails all the time asking me how I’ve had success in this climate. I’m the first to admit that I have no freakin’ clue!

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.