What does it take to be a successful Indie writer?

successful indie author pixabay suit-869380_640That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? Because first, we need to determine what makes a successful author, and that is an entirely personal question. More importantly, the answer is likely to evolve over time. It certainly did for me — it took me five-and-a-half years to write my first book, so on many levels, I felt successful just being able to type “The End” after 80,000 words. A few months later, that seminal author moment when I held a copy of my own book in my hands definitely felt like a success.

Comparative analysis is not a great way to judge success. As an indie, there’s always someone who is doing worse and someone who is doing better. I have writer friends who had sales I used to dwarf who have zoomed past me now. Feeling smug when I was ahead of them or depressed now that I trail them isn’t the path to creative equilibrium.

Which is all a way of saying that your definition of success needs to reflect where you are on your journey and what you want out of your writing. Is it just an outlet for your endless creativity? There’s nothing wrong with that. A nice way to support your latte habit? Or, maybe, a potential income replacement for a job you’ve wearied of. I think a lot of writers don’t put enough time into this question, instead writing like little hamsters on a wheel, churning out words without focusing on what they are trying to accomplish. Many writers seem to aim at nothing and hit it with unerring accuracy.

I want to be able to write full-time, but I’m not there yet. And that’s okay, too. I’m on my way, and I have a plan to get there. Last month, I wrote about what I would do If I was starting my Indie career over. Those things — building a platform and street team, potentially writing shorter, and, mostly, staying nimble and reacting to inevitable change — are a good start. But, once that’s in place, what comes next? I’ve been studying what successful authors do and I think these are the best steps if you want to have a sustainable income from writing:

First comes the story. I don’t mean that first, you have to write a high-quality book. High-quality books languish all the time. I mean to give yourself the best chance of success, you should focus on a story that hits the tropes of a popular genre/subgenre while still managing to bring something new to the table. Characters and setting are important, but it’s the story — danger, uncertainty, conflict, a need to know what happens next — that will keep readers turning the pages and wanting more. Those page-turners are more important than ever if you’re considering being in Kindle Unlimited since Amazon has changed the way they are paying authors who participate.

Use a team to make it the best you possible can. This isn’t a matter of effort. It’s a matter of hiring professionals who can help you with this. Personally, I work with the same editor/proofreader/cover artist/formatter on each book because I hate reinventing the wheel. Sometimes you have to experiment until you find the right people, but the thought that you can be a brilliant writer, incisive editor, talented designer, and proof your own prose is highly unlikely. I never know which book or story will serve as my introduction to a new reader, so I want to make sure whichever one it is, it’s the best I can make it.

Study the successful books in that genre/subgenre. I don’t mean take a casual glance through the Top 100. I mean break down the elements of the covers of books that are selling. What primary colors are being used? Are there people or faces prevalent on the covers being advertised on Bookbub? How closely are the bestsellers hewing to the tropes of the genre? The only way to know is to read them, so that’s what I recommend. It’s worth studying what’s working. Not to copy, but to help set parameters for what you want to write.

Write a series. Yes, I am aware that last month, I recommended not writing a series. That advice was intended for someone just starting. My thinking was that too many new writers immediately launch a series. If it doesn’t catch on, you’ve wasted a lot of time and energy when you are most vulnerable – at the beginning of your career. However, once you’ve found what works for you, a series is invaluable. You can make the first in your series permafree and advertise that, knowing that a certain percentage of people who read the first one will read on and on through the rest. I’ve only just now stumbled into my first series, and it happened organically. I wrote a short story, it sold better than I ever thought it would, and people kept asking what happened next. That gave me a leg up, because I already knew the genre/subgenre (innocent romance) was popular and that these particular characters were clicking with readers.

Write more books, more often. Honestly, this is where I fall down. What I write sells, but I just don’t write enough to get the real momentum and back-list I need. We all have leaks. That’s mine. What’s yours?

Author: Shawn Inmon

Shawn Inmon is a full-time author who lives in the bucolic town of Seaview, Washington. He is married to his high school sweetheart, and they are privileged to share their home with two Chocolate Labs and a schizophrenic cat named Georgie. Shawn is the author of the twelve book Middle Falls Time Travel series, which has been produced in audio by Podium Publishing. He has eight other books, including travel books, romances, memoirs, and a collection of short stories. He promises to settle down and write in one genre. Someday. Learn more about Shawn on Facebook or his Author Central page

16 thoughts on “What does it take to be a successful Indie writer?”

  1. Great post, Shawn. I fall down the same place you do. I seem to average about one book per year. I lurk through forums in which I see people posting about writing one book per month. but that’s unfortunately not a skill of mine. That was true even when I was writing articles to sell on sites that no longer exist. I could produce maybe three articles per day (on a good day) while others could churn out fifteen. Ah, well. It’s still fun. 🙂

  2. I concur that how we define our success can mean many things. There are times when I feel I am a success, others when I feel I have a long way to go yet. Ny sense of my own success fluctuates. I suspect I am not alone in that.

    It takes me two years for each book I write, with my fourth coming out the end of this year. That makes me a slow writer. But it also means that it will be the best I can make it.

    I agree with staying with the same professional editor. We have learned what each one expects and that makes our negotiations so much easier.

    1. When it comes to editors, it’s like what my wife says about me. She says she’ll keep me, because she can’t imagine having to start all that training over again with someone new. 🙂

  3. Shawn, I’m bookmarking this one because I’m still undecided on going indie or try to get into traditional with my next book. Very good stuff here! Oh, and I loved this: “Many writers seem to aim at nothing and hit it with unerring accuracy.” 🙂

    1. One of my favorite thoughts. 🙂 I am a huge believer in going indie, but even more than that, I am a believer in each person determining their own path. I know you’ll do well, whichever one you choose.

  4. There are so many ways I feel successful at any given time: I get a good review on one book, I get a good payout from Amazon (just had my best ever), I’m on a roll with my latest WIP and the words are flowing. It’s like looking at a diamond where one facet sparkles today, a different one tomorrow. That’s the beauty of being indie; we can shine (or not) in a zillion different ways, and they don’t have to (but they can) compare to anyone else. I much prefer these non-competitive ways. I have more control and less frustration. Good food for thought, Shawn.

  5. Thanks Shawn for including the link to your last month’s post. I intend to follow your advice for someone starting out. I have some short stories and poetry published in Anthologies and on a blog site. I’ve established a website, but have nothing on it–yet. You’ve motivated me to take time to develop my platform while completing the two novels and two short stories I’m working now. Thanks again for the help.

    1. So glad to have assisted. Good luck with your projects – sounds like you’re on the right path. 🙂

  6. Thanks, Shawn. We have sprung the same leak: I can’t force myself to opt for quantity over quality, and that’s what I would have to do. In my case, when it comes to writing, “haste makes waste”–word-wise, anyway! My backlist will grow, albeit slowly over time.

  7. You say, “Write more books, more often.”

    I disagree. Yes, I have heard several authors give this advice. My opinion is that it is the wrong advice.

    Richard Koch in his book “Living the 80/20 Way” stated,

    “Look at where your success is coming from. It is no mistake.”

    To me this means that if I have a book that is doing well, I should spend a lot of time promoting it and forget about writing new books.

    In the same vein,

    “Those who make the worst use of time most complain of its shortness.”
    — Jean de La Bruyère

    Richard Koch also advises, “Chuck your ‘to do’ list, make a ‘not to do’ list.”

    And one last piece of advice that has resonated with for over 25 years:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    Incidentally, following these words of advice has paid off big time for me. My books have now sold over 875,000 copies worldwide and I am pretty confident that they will reach the 1,000,000 copies sold mark. This I can achieve by working only half an hour or one hour a day.

    Ernie J. Zelinski

  8. Thanks, Shawn, for addressing a ‘moving target’ like ‘success.’ An ironic thing I’ve observed over time is that during the most unmistakably successful segments of my life, the ones I look back on and say, “Wow, I did that,” I didn’t feel successful during the effort. Though doggedly focused on the outcome, and even on long- and short-term goals, in the actual months/years of the ‘success’ itself, I was usually working extremely hard, struggling, reaching, doubting, worrying, wondering, and often feeling totally inadequate. Almost to the extent that I now link creative uncertainty with probably being more on track than I realize.

    An example (not particularly apt): the most financially stressful period of my life was when I found myself so deep in debt I couldn’t fathom ever finding my way out. But looking back at that time, my net worth was higher than it ever was before or since. When I felt the poorest I’d ever been, I was actually the richest.

    Sometimes ‘going for it’ becomes so overwhelming we lose sight of where we’re going and why—even though we KNEW from the get-go it wouldn’t be easy.

    I must say that these indie publishing blogs and hearing from all you other writers out there blazing this trail into the unknown, remain my beacon in the sometimes dark seas. I may not be purchasing your books and you may not be purchasing mine, but we share hope and information, and we guide each other by communicating what we’re learning. It’s fantastic and I’m excited to be part of it. May the force be with you all!

    It can get discouraging trying to map out success, and disappointing when those self-proclaimed time-lines dangle out of reach. But my primary job is to do the creative work, do the hard work, wrangle this beast, and stay strong. ‘Success’ and ‘shortcuts’ usually equal ‘short success.’ I suspect all of us will one day look back at this time and say, “Wow, I did that. I wrote and published my books.”

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