Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Half of self-published authors earn less than $500

While the article cited below came out back in May, 2012, I never posted my reaction. Therefore, this untimely post.

So it turns out indie writing isn't the get rich quick scheme some people may have thought. From an article posted in The Guardian:

Despite the splash caused by self-publishing superstars such as Amanda Hocking and EL James, the average amount earned by DIY authors last year was just $10,000 (£6,375) – and half made less than $500.

The article states that "a small percentage of authors [brought] in sums of $100,000-plus in 2011". That by itself is inspiring. It fuels hopes and dreams, but, unfortunately, also adds to the noise of self-publishing. Suddenly anyone with a modicum of interest in writing is putting books out there. Nothing wrong with that per se, except that it's created a market that is highly competitive and even more difficult for writers to achieve monetary success.

Now, this is an interesting tidbit:

…self-publishers who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy editing and proofreading made 13% more than the average; help with cover design upped earnings by a further 34%.

It's common knowledge that book covers are important. Now we have some hard data to support that. I learned about the editing thing the hard way after receiving a couple of less than glowing reviews citing grammar and editing issues in The Five Elements. I've since had the book professionally edited and those sorts of reviews have gone away.

Some sobering info:

Half the respondents failed to reach $500 in royalties in 2011, and a quarter of the books are unlikely to cover the direct costs of production.

Tell me about it. Production costs—book cover creation, editing, proofs, and I'll throw in marketing—can add up fast. Next thing you know you're $2000 or more in the hole and your book is only selling 1 copy/day. It takes time to earn those production costs back, if ever. I'm still working on breaking even in pure financial terms and I'm well over the $500 average in earnings.

Last, some sage wisdom:

Readers are excited by having access to new voices, but they've not been waiting for unedited, unproofread and amateurish books. There's more to being a successful author than finding the 'Save and publish' button on Amazon.


Getting Sucked In by Marketing Efforts

Writing a book is a long, hard process. It's never-ending, too: As soon as you finish one, you really need to get started planning, outlining, and writing the next. But you also need to spend time selling and marketing. Very few writers, if any, are in it for the money. It's too much work with not enough return. Especially if you're an indie writer. Still, we try to sell our goods with the hope that one day we might support ourselves with our writing and therefore have more time to spend writing.

The biggest problem with selling: it takes a lot of time. Sure, you can release your book to the world and hope it gets traction on its own. I tried that for a while. For me, it didn't work. It wasn't until a combination of enrolling in KDP Select and implementing various engagements on Goodreads (advertising, giveaways) that my books started to get in front of people and start selling. But not only does the KDP Select rankings boost fade, Amazon also tweaked the algorithms so the whole process of going free just isn't as effective anymore. Goodreads is more of a slow, steady burn, not a bonfire. Slow and steady is a good long term strategy, but I like having a bonfire every once in a while, too.

Other marketing strategies include tweeting about your book like the world is about to end and getting others to re-tweet your tweets (how effective is this? This guy doesn't think it's very effective at all), letting every site possible know about a sale or free promotion you're running, paying for a sponsorship with Kindle Nation Daily (I've got one coming up in a couple of weeks) or other site, or hoping one of the mega-sites like Pixel of Ink will pick up your book whether it's on promotion or not. Selecting dates and coordinating all of this isn't a huge amount of effort, but when you're working a day job every hour counts. Typically when I schedule a promotion and advertising to go along with it I lose a day of writing (a day of writing for me is a couple of hours in the morning or evening before or after work). Add into the mix time spent engaging with readers (and other writers) on various forums and Goodreads, too.

The bottom line is that marketing is an ongoing process that requires time and effort that ultimately gets sucked out of the time and effort spent writing.

That's why I've decided to take a break from it all (the marketing, not the writing). Besides for an upcoming KND promo and my usual Goodreads self-serve ads, which run pretty much on auto-pilot, I'm stepping back and re-focusing on just writing. I'm about 40,000 words into the next book in The Alchemancer series. I got side-tracked a bit with a few changes in the outline. Ultimately those changes make the story much more concise and engaging, so time spent reworking that was well-spent, I think.

Hopefully if this works and I can resist the marketing temptation I should have this next book done in rough draft form within a couple of months. That's really my goal at this point: getting another book out there. I hope to have it complete by the end of the year.

The Failure of Free

As an unknown writer, I adopted early on the Cory Doctorow mantra that "for pretty much every writer -- the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity". Doctorow gives away his novels via his web site even as they're sold through the usual retailers. Apparently, this model works well for him. I thought it was something that, for me, was at least worth a try.

Sometime after I finished writing my fantasy novel, The Hall of the Wood, and had put it up on the various online retailer sites, I decided to also start giving it away via this site. I figured while I was busying myself with my next writing project I'd be, worst case, spreading the word about my work, name, etc. Best case, I'd surely get some reviews out of it or at least some (hopefully) positive feedback. Maybe someone might even go out and buy a copy as a show of support.

What were the results?

In all, I must have given away about 2,000 copies in between the time I first made it available as a download and when I finished my next (unrelated) novel, The Five Elements. Since that time, with very little promotion, I racked up another 7-800 downloads. All told, not great, but not bad considering the audience on this blog is somewhat limited (audience is key; I'll touch on that next post). So, out of 2700-2800 downloads, how many reviews or emails with feedback do you think I received? How many sales?

I got 1 review and a handful of emails for HOTW. Sales… so miniscule not even worth mentioning.

About a year ago I did the same thing with The Five Elements, except this time I put a nice note in the front of each PDF saying something to the effect of "Thanks for downloading. I'd love it if you could give me a review." Almost 1,000 downloads later, no feedback and no reviews.


So what went wrong?

Hard to say, but I suspect people were downloading the novels and never reading. I do this myself. I have a "folder of forgotten eBooks", either in Kindle or PDF format, which I've downloaded, categorized, and then never looked at again. Some people think this sort of hoarding goes on with eBooks priced at $0.99, too. I believe them. Whether free or 99 cents, both prices are cheap enough that most people aren't going to feel guilty enough or obligated to actually read the book. Pay $2.99, $4.99, $9.99 or even more for an eBook and I think the reader is much more likely to follow up the purchase with a read (and maybe even a review). It is for this very reason that some authors will not price their work at $0.99. I have to agree with them. If you think about it, by downloading a lot of free or 99 cent eBooks, a reader has simply transferred the hoard of cheap content from Amazon to their own personal device. Picking out what to read (or to read anything at all) becomes no less easy as a result.

With this in mind, I changed my strategy. No more freebies and no more of my eBooks priced at $0.99. Given the apparent correlation between price and the quality of the reader, I mapped out a blueprint of which I will discuss next post. Believe it or not, but this plan (so far, anyway) is working and I'm making sales every day.

KDP Select Promotion 1 Wrap-up

I just ran both of my books as freebies via the KDP Select program. The results? Outstanding.

My original plan was to have The Five Elements go free for 1 day, then do the same with The Hall of the Wood on Day 2. I changed my mind when I saw how well TFE was doing on that first day, extending TFE's free promotion into Day 2 so that both eBooks were free on that second day.

Here are the results:

The Five Elements, Day 1: 754 downloads
The Five Elements, Day 2: 1703 downloads

The Hall of the Wood, Day 2: 278 downloads

During the two day run, TFE rose as high as #2 in the Free "Best Sellers in Epic Fantasy" category:sshot-1

It also climbed as high as #136 in the overall Top 1000 Free category! A 3rd day free and maybe it would have broken the Top 100.

Something interesting happened to TFE on Day 2 around noon which I believe contributed to the increased download number: First, it made its way onto the Top 100 in Free Epic Fantasy (eventually climbing as high as #2 as shown). Second, it made its way onto the Top 100 Free Fantasy (overall) list, climbing as high as #36. From around noon on until I stopped checking later that night, it was getting about 100 downloads/hour.

HOTW didn't do as well. I do have a theory on that, though. HOTW was previously free for almost the entire month of December (I had it listed at $0.00 on Smashwords and Amazon noticed). During that time, it was getting 200 downloads/day until it finally went back to non-free. There's no way of telling if this was the reason I only saw 300 downloads for it. Maybe it takes a day to get things primed and another to really hit it big. Results for TFE would seem to support this.

It's great to see this kind of "interest" (yeah, I know, a lot of people probably just downloaded because it was free; who knows if they'll ever read it). But let's face facts: free doesn't pay the bills, and so no one was more interested than I to see how or if this would turn into any real sales. Turns out, it did.

Before I jump into those numbers, though, let's take a look at the ancillary effects of listing a Kindle eBook for free.

1.) Free makes your eBook show up on more "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" lists.

Before going free, TFE had about 20 or so titles in its own list. Once it came off free, it had 100. While there isn't a direct, one-to-one link between all books, having more items in your list would seem to mean your eBook will get listed on the other side more often.

HOTW already had a lot of links because it was free for most of December.

2.) Free makes your eBook show up on more Top 100 listings.

Before going free, TFE was anywhere from #100,000 to #200,000 in the "Paid in Kindle Store" category. After free? Take a look:


TFE is now appearing on 3 different Top 100 lists. Showing up on these lists makes it easier for readers to find your book. If you're not on a list, you're relying on Amazon's search, or customers to just blindly stumble upon your eBook.

HOTW didn't do too bad, either:


3.) Free (might) get you more reviews.

I don't know if this is true or not. I haven't see any one who said, "I got your book for free and now I'm writing a review." But it stands to reason that the more people who have your book, the more likely you are to get a review out of some of those readers.

Now, on to some sales numbers!

The free promotion ended on 1/25, so 1/26 was the first day both eBooks were priced at $0.99.image

There seems to be a notion that "Day 3" is the highest volume day when an eBook comes off a KDP promotion. My data supports this, though with the 27-29 being Friday – Sunday, I think that also had something to do with it.

The bottom line here is that with these numbers I'm not going to be able to quit my day job anytime soon. But considering neither book was getting much in sales or getting noticed prior to the KDP promotion, I consider this a big step forward. As I write this, sales volume has dropped off a lot, but I'm also not seeing any huge drops in the Top 100 listings (for TFE, in particular). This makes me think the middle of the week is just a slow period for sales. Either that, or the "KDP effect" lasts only for a few days. I'll know more as I continue to track sales and, eventually, offer both eBooks for free again.

Kindle Direct Publishing: Error in conversion… resolved!

2011/12/2 Update: Big thanks to the Amazon rep who reached out to me after I tweeted my issue with uploading The Five Elements to KDP as well as to Amazon's engineering staff. It looks like there was a combination of things going on here, but all is well now. I was able to upload the latest version of my book after a software glitch was fixed and the rep ran through some things which ultimately showed the error as being a false positive.

2011/12/1 Update: I've tried many formats: .docx, .doc, .rtf, .html. None work. I even tried uploading an old version of my document since it *did* work previously. Even that won't upload/convert. Bummer. I sent the rep the .doc file that was previously working to pass on to their engineers. Hope they find something.

2011/11/29 Update: A representative from Amazon saw the tweet I posted giving a shout-out to this post and contacted me via email. We went back and forth a few times, the end result being that while Amazon thought they had the problem fixed I'm still unable to successfully submit anything through the KDP interface.

I've been trying to upload the latest version of The Five Elements to the Kindle store for the past day and a half, but keep getting an error stating there has been a conversion error.


Not particularly helpful, and entirely unexpected considering I haven't changed the format of my submission. In fact, that exact format has worked flawlessly for some time now.

I'm assuming Amazon is having some issues on their end. I'm not the only one experiencing this issue, either. Unfortunately, the error is so generic there are many reasons one might hit upon it, legitimate or not.

Given that we're just coming out of Thanksgiving weekend, I'm going to give Amazon's guys a break here. This post is really just to document the error for my benefit or yours. Hopefully they get back in bright and early tomorrow and take care of the problem.