The Three-Year, No-Bestseller Plan To A Sustainable Income From Self-Publishing

Copied from a post I made at the Kindleboards. Posted here to give it a more permanent home.

I started self-publishing in 2011 by putting up some short stories from trade pub where the rights had reverted back to me. For at least the first year and a half, I published a lot of what we shall call “random crap”, most of which is still online in one way or another, but I knew squat about series and branding and all that stuff. I didn’t really understand any of that until late 2013-ish, when I started making a decent effort towards completing and branding series.

I write Science Fiction and Fantasy, everything under one name. I have no pen names to speak of, or at least none that I’m doing anything with. That may change, but I find it annoying to have to double up on everything.

On Amazon US, my books usually hang out between 50k and 300k. I’ve never had a book in the top 1000 on Amazon US (I have in the UK and other countries. France!). I’ve never had anything that you can remotely classify as a bestseller. But I have been #1 in Fantasy at Kobo, does that count? 😛

I sell on all platforms and am direct where I can. My Amazon sales have varied from 5-50% of my total sales. Yes, you read that right, 5%. It was in the Kobo heydays when 80% of my income was from Kobo. I have no true dud platforms. I sell at least a few hundred dollars worth on each of: B&N, Apple, Google Play and Kobo. My current income is 3-5k per month and has doubled every year.

Enough about me.

For the purpose of the plan I’m going to make some assumptions:

  • That you can produce four books a year, or an average of 1000 words of edited fiction per day, averaged over the year. Not write 1000 words of fiction, but add 1000 words of completed manuscript every day, for 365 days a year average.
  • That you are willing to work pretty damn hard
  • That you have done the nitty-gritty about learning to plot, write and sustain interesting stories.
  • That you write in a genre that both holds your passion and that is reasonably popular.
  • That you are willing to edit you ebooks properly and give them decent, genre-appropriate covers, and pay for this if necessary.

A small word on the last point. I am not one of the “OMG, you must absolutely have this done by someone who charges for it!” crowd. It *is* possible to self-edit to an acceptable standard. It is possible that you have the skills to make covers that sell (my overall best-selling books still have covers I made). It’s totally possible to format your own books.

But. Big but.

All of it costs time. Is it the best use of your time to force yourself to read your manuscript backwards in order to find those last few typos? At some point, the answer becomes a solid: I don’t think so.

You need to write four novels a year after all.

If you have trouble reaching the four novels a year goal even without distractions, you need to write more. I know it sounds like the ol’ squeaky wheel, but it’s true. Write more = more skill, both in writing style and in plotting a story. And finishing the book without getting side-tracked, starting over ten times or writing meandering stuff that never goes anywhere (believe me, I’ve done all those things).


Four novels a year.
Editing, good formatting, good, genre-appropriate cover.

OK, here goes the plan.

Part 1: the product.

  1. Write a series of three books in a genre you like. It’s best if the books are full-length 70-80k at least. There are people who can get away with novellas, but selling well gets harder the shorter your books are. Unless, maybe, your genre is erotica or romance. Maybe. Just make the books full-length, OK? It makes life so much easier (insert whisper that sounds like Bookbub).
  2. Make the first book free.
  3. Play around a bit with advertising if you feel so inclined (I mean–why the hell not?), but don’t worry about stuff that takes you away from writing too much.
  4. Make sure you have the following in all your books: a link to your mailing list signup form, and, at the end, a live link to the next book in the series.
  5. When you finish the series, or even while you’re writing it, start a next series. Make it a slightly different subgenre, or use a different setting and characters. Make sure that people don’t need to have read the other series in order to follow it. Write three books. Make the first book free.
  6. Repeat 5. Twice, if you can. Three years @ 4 novels a year = 12 books = 4 trilogies.
  7. Advertise your freebies, but don’t fall down any rabbit holes that take you away from writing for major chunks of time (insert snort that sounds like Facebook advertising).

Part 2: the marketing.

  1. After a while, your mailing list will start to build up a bit (see point 4 above). Get a paid account at Mailchimp or wherever you are. If you are not at a list provider that allows automation and segmentation, and most importantly, automation *based on* automatic segmentation, move your list. Yes. Mailchimp and Aweber & co are not the cheapest. The cheapest providers suck for the purpose I’m going to show you here.
  2. Set up mailing automation. When people join your list, send them an email with the freebies, even tough they’re already free. Don’t email the freebies to them, but include download links in the email. Then booby-trap those links so that you can track who downloads what. You’ll be using this later.
  3. Next, send your subscribers to an automated program that sends them something at regular intervals (Amazon genre newsletters arrive every two weeks, that’s good enough for me). What do you write about? About you, about your fiction, free short stories, you ask them questions, tell them about tidbits of research you’ve done, or places you travelled for your writing. Tell them about box sets you’re in, and even plug your friends with similar books. Anything. Boobytrap any links to your books so your mailchimp/Aweber/whatever account knows who clicked what.
  4. Siphon people who clicked all the links to series 1 (and downloaded the freebie!) off to a side list, and say three months later send them an email saying: hey, this is book 2 in the series. Do this will all books 2 in all your series.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4. Create new emails, use the links and who clicks them to segment your list and send them further information based on who clicked what.
  6. Presto! You have now created your own marketing machine that crawls like a giant slug over your subscriber list.

Part 3: your tasks.

It’s now really clear what you need to do:

A. Keep writing new books that people want to read, continuing your most popular series, starting new series maybe (make book 1 free again). Add new emails about those books to your mailing sequence.
B. Keep feeding people into your giant mailing slug.

Doing A is pretty simple. Stop series that sell the worst and continue the ones that sell the best. Start new series.

Do, however *finish* each series, don’t abandon it. Series planning should include having several rest points where most plot threads are resolved and where you can walk away from it for a while or forever. Also, don’t unpublish the books. And don’t stop advertising book 1 (see below).

How do you do B?

You advertise. Any old way will do. Bookbub is pretty good for getting new people on your mailing list. So are cross-promos. The more freebies you fling into the world, the more people will sign up. ENT is pretty good as well.
Put your mailing list signup everywhere on your web page and then drive people there using interesting blog posts, and linking your blog to Facebook and Twitter.
Advertise your list directly. This does not need to remain limited to Facebook. Be creative.

There you go. That’s the plan. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme (that’s where the “three year” bit comes in). In fact, it sounds an awful lot like hard work.

No bestsellers required. I would love it if one day I published something that went into the top 1000 at Amazon and stayed there for months, but the thing is, that’s a dream. I can try for it (I will with the planned launch of my next series), but it may fall flat on its face. I’ve seen that happen often enough to know that there is no such thing as a guaranteed success.

But even if I never have a bestseller, all these steps outlined here will guarantee me a pretty darn solid and even income.

The Three-Year, No-Bestseller Plan To A Sustainable Income From Self-Publishing was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Should I self-publish, the 2016 edition

I’ve made two posts with the title Should I self-publish? before, a few years ago. The focus of the first post was shooting yourself in the foot with the publishing industry which, once upon a time declared you persona-non-grata if you self-published a single thing. Remember that time? Ridiculous!

The second post was about concerns of quality of self-published books, when we were all having “oceans of crap” conniptions and we wanted to stop the great unwashed putting up crap. You know what? Crap got published, a lot of it. We didn’t all drown in a vast sea of word-vomit.

Yes, you should be concerned about the quality of your book if you self-publish. But be concerned about the quality of books that other people publish? Nup. You have better things to do.

OK, so since this post is not going to be about those things, then what is it going to be about?

It’s about career choices.

It is about: if you want to have a shot at achieving an aim, should you self-publish?

First: define the aim.

What do you want to do achieve with your writing?

Let’s walk through a few scenarios that will hopefully make the choices and opportunities clearer.

1. Do you want to win awards?

The literary and award circuit relies heavily on a peer review network, even if this is not immediately obvious. Voters for voted awards are predominantly other writers. Judges in judged awards are often writers, too. Behind the scenes, everyone knows one another. Nor in a bad way, but simply because the scene is small.
It is incredibly difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to get into this circuit if your works have not been peer reviewed (as in: selected by an editor, who is also part of the network).
If winning awards is your game, don’t self-publish.

2. Do you want to see your book in a bookshop?

Often I see questions from people who have self-published who dream of seeing their name on bookshelves for the world to purchase.
I have my book on some very pretty worldwide bookshelves. They’re called Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google Play and Barnes & Noble. You can even buy a print book at some of these places, delivered directly to your door.
Oh, you mean real bookshops?

It’s not impossible. A number of years ago, before ebooks, I published a non-fiction book. It pitched it to publishers, but they all said no* and I thought screw it, I know where the market is, I’ll do it myself. So I did. I had the book printed in full colour in Hong Kong, and then manually wrote to 800 Australian bookshops. Sold a buttload of copies. My book is in something like 64 public libraries in Australia, and most university libraries.
Sounds like a lot of work? You bet it was! I was lucky because I wrote non-fiction in a niche subject where there were no other books. If you write fiction, bookshops have many other, similar books than they can stock and that are much easier and less risky for them to keep on their shelves. They have accounts with books distributors who give them at least 40% discount, and have this awful thing called a returns policy that allows the shop to return the book if it doesn’t sell within 30 days.

Schlepping physical books to bookshops is soooo 2001. Returns and accounts are an absolute pain in the butt. They might be interested if you’re an authority on a non-fiction subject, but they probably don’t want your self-published fiction unless you’re a friend or a local.
We have ebooks now. They cost nothing to send and nothing to print. Self-publishing means overwhelmingly selling ebooks.

Want print books on bookshelves? Find a publisher to handle all this crap for you. They have the inroads, they have the reps, they have the computer setup.

3. Do you see writing as a fun hobby?

One assumption embedded in this question is that you have sufficient income and have no necessity or great wish to make money from your writing.
You are totally free to submit to publishers to see if you can crack the door, or to self-publish and become part of the community.

Most likely, you will have a day job so not much time to devote to writing and publishing-related things. This will limit your sales, especially on the self-publishing side.
But, you know, you can publish a book and see what happens, or at least allow all your friends to get a copy.

4. Do you eventually want to pay some or all of your bills?

This article made some waves when it came out. Shock, horror! Authors don’t make a liveable wage! There was also this article for Australian authors, with even worse figures of only $12,000 per year. Both articles are about traditionally published authors only.

Author Earnings is attempting to fill in some of the strange omissions made by people who report on the publishing industry. About 30% of ebooks on Amazon don’t have ISBNs and get omitted from the publisher reports. The ISBN-less books are almost exclusively self-published. In one of the latest Author Earnings reports, they estimated the income of bestselling authors of all types on Amazon, without having to rely on self-reporting by those authors.

OK, this is about authors who already sell well. What about if you’re just starting?

This is a balanced view of your choices

I quote from the Huffington Post article:

7. Believing that “traditional” is better, no matter what.

This mindset will limit your publishing opportunities. I’ve seen authors languish for years (literally) in the space of trying to find an agent or waiting for an agent to secure a publishing deal. Traditional publishing is also suffering in two distinct ways: the barriers to entry are so high that it’s alienating its base; and it’s so focused on author platform and “big books” that it’s losing relevance fast. Many more authors than ever before are opting out of traditional publishing for more control and better profit margins on their sales. It’s cool to aspire to traditionally publish, but if you’re not getting bites, don’t let your book die on the shelf just because you harbor some sort of judgment about alternative publishing paths.

If it is your goal to make money from your writing, do you have the years and years it takes for a publisher to come to the table… to then be given a $3-5000 advance (or no advance at all)… that may or may not earn out… that may or may not be paid on time. And if, after a period of a few months, the publisher didn’t like your sales and stops promoting your book, do you have the years it takes to get your rights back?

Even if you get 70% of a sale of a self-published ebook and 25% less agent costs from a publisher?

An advance of $5000 is rare these days (well, in SF/F at least). It’s more like $3000. When I sell a self-published ebook at $3.99, I get about $2.50. If, instead of sending it to agents, I hire an editor and self-publish, I can have it available within weeks. If the book earns $100 per month, I need to sell for 30 months to earn out. Oh, add $1000 for cover, editing and formatting, so 40 months. If you submit to the traditional industry, you wait 6 months to find representation, and your agent waits six months to get the go-ahead from the publisher, and they take a year to publish it, after which it doesn’t do much and you take 5 years to get your rights back. That’s more than 80 months.

There is also the publisher-saturation issue. Publishers have many authors, which means that for each individual author, they will only buy a limited number of books per year or even ever. If you can write four or six books per year (and saying you want a $5000 advance for each, this is what you’ll need to earn anywhere near a liveable income–and yes I’m assuming a worst-case scenario that this is all the books will earn, which may be true a lot more often than it isn’t), you’re going to run out of publishers who want to publish your books pretty darn fast, especially if you were daft enough to sign non-compete clauses and right-of-first-refusal clauses.

There are not enough publishers to sell 4-6 books a year (in SF/F at least) who will pay you a $5000 advance and will not ask you to sign stupid exclusivity clauses. Which means you’re banking on your books to earn out. As much as we’d all love to believe we sell awesome bestsellers, the reality is that it ain’t gonna happen for most books, and you really don’t know whether your books will or won’t until you’re a few years down the track. You can’t pay your bills with hope and crossed fingers.

Want to pay your bills? Self-publish, or a least start off self-publishing. If it is still your wish to find a publisher, you are in a much stronger position if you can offer them just one of your series, and you know that your work sells, and you have your own mailing list.

But. And there is a big but.

How do you get your book to sell at least $100 per month? (actually, once it starts selling, it will probably sell a lot more).

Point one: product. A single book rarely sells. A series has a much better chance, and then only if you promote book 1. But it’s even better if you have more series.

Self-publishing = high production schedule.

Point two: marketing.

If you self-publish, you’re the front and back end of the business.

You need to have the interest in learning marketing. There are a lot of places on the web where you can do this either as paid course or for free by just being a fly on the wall. There are sites and courses that are geared towards selling fiction.

You HAVE to devote time to this.

Most books don’t sell themselves, at least not initially, and I seriously pity people whose first book takes off like there’s no tomorrow and have no idea why, have no idea how to capture those readers and hold their interest after they finished the book. Because when, inevitably, the time comes that the book stop selling, and you don’t know how to run Facebook ads without blowing your budget, you have no idea where to advertise, you don’t have a mailing list, you haven’t capitalised on ANY of the attention you got while your book was out in the sun and receiving algorithm love from the big retailer websites, then when your book stops selling, you’re up the creek without a paddle and it’s a very long, muddy and humbling slog back down.

You HAVE to learn how to do this stuff, not to make your book a great bestseller, but to determine what works for you and where you can reach your audience so that you can keep steady sales going.

If you produce books at a decent rate in series, and if you are happy to learn the best marketing practices and implement them, then the world really is your oyster.

If not, you can still self-publish, have fun and wait for lightning to strike while you treat writing as a hobby. Or you can find a publisher.

* Ironically, one of those publishers wrote to me last month, asking if I wanted to write the book I originally pitched to them. I told them no, they were about ten years too late.

Should I self-publish, the 2016 edition was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Why don’t my books sell?

“Why don’t my books sell?” I get asked this question a bit, so I’m making a post about it, so that I can easily refer to it.

Remember that I don’t have all the answers either, and there are people who sell a lot more than I do. How to sell well also depends on genre and the individual author’s circumstances. That said, I have spent a few years in the self-publishing scene and have picked up on a few things that are often associated with writers who sell very little at all.

1. The covers suck.

Anyone who tells you people don’t judge books by their covers is telling you BS and doing you a disservice. It could be that *some* people don’t judge a book by the cover, and they may not. And they’re often extremely vocal about it, as if they have to convert everyone else that what’s inside matters the most. Yes. We get it. And yes, what’s inside should matter the most, but people won’t get to the inside when they can’t get past the cover.

The cover matters. A lot. Like: A FUCKING SHIT-TONNE. So get a good cover as soon as you can afford it.

2. No branding.

Yes, I know. Branding is marketing speak and as self-published author you’re meant to just do whatever, Fuck Teh Ebil Gatekeepers. Marketing speak is anathema to that, but if you’re serious about selling, and you want to write to supplement your income, or even just to take your family out to a nice dinner once a month, then you should learn from people who sell stuff. Marketers. We all write for pleasure first, but there is very little that justifies your time spent writing as much as money. Welcome to the capitalist age.

Branding is nothing more than structuring your works in such a way that people can see in a second, without having to read anything, that these books all belong together. It’s what you do when you have series covers with a repeating element.

But branding is more than that. It’s also making sure that all your books have a certain feel about them, that this feel and design is repeated across your website, your Amazon page, your newsletter signup form, and wherever your books are displayed.

Branding is also having a clear body of work that consists of books of a certain length in a certain genre. It’s about numbering books in a series and about keep dissimilar material out.

One thing you tend to see a lot is authors who have a bunch of “books” to fill up their profile, but a good number are not books, they’re short stories. Short stories sell like crap. They detract from your novels and clutter up your page. Get rid of them by bundling them as soon as you can.

3. The writing and storytelling are just not ready for prime time.

I know it’s hard to hear this and it’s hard to tell someone, and there is a what-the-fuck-do-I-know element about it. And yes, it’s subjective as hell, up to a point. People (including me) swear by writer training through beta reading and workshops. Others are very much against it. I know people who never did any workshopping, published their books and started to sell like hotcakes. If this is you, awesome. But those are flukes. Most people are not born bestselling writers. They develop skills through learning.

Spelling and grammar are objective measures of quality, but it’s amazing how many people publish material that just doesn’t make the grade.

Plotting is a more tricky thing, and extremely important. It’s not immediately measurable, but if you do promotions, give away free books and have a very poor sell-through to other works, I bet my bottom dollar that the plotting in the promoted book is off.

If you have trouble with plotting, I highly recommend Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker. It’s an awesome summary of everything a good plot should have.

If, despite your best efforts in all the other points in this list, your books refuse to sell, poor craft is very likely the cause. People don’t mention it often because of the subjective and arrogant-sounding nature of comments about writing quality, but a book of a beginning writer is usually not good enough to sell in any quantities. Note the word “usually”, and also never, like, ever, assume that you will fall outside the “usually” demographic.

4. No promotion.

Ah, the dreaded P-word that has writers quaking in their boots. Many simply publish books and don’t even know where to begin in marketing them. Promotion is a lot more than buying the occasional ad slot on a promotion site. It’s not about book launches. It’s not about bookshops. It’s not about ISBNs or other tradepub gimmicks. Promotion is about setting stuff up behind the scenes so that readers can easily find your books.

But rather than me blathering about it, here are three books that capture the behind-the-scenes essence of selling stuff:

Launch by Jeff Walker is very salesy and sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s a really good blueprint for how to sell stuff. It deals with some of the psychology of why humans decide to buy and how to, sometimes quite subtly, get people to commit their credit cards.

Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran is a very good summary of how retail site sales algorithms work and how you can use them to your advantage.

Write, Publish, Repeat by Sean Platt and Johhny B. Truant is an excellent outline for how to capitalise on your readers, how to capture them so that you can target them and how to use what you love doing most–writing another book–as your number one marketing technique.

The painful fact is that none of any of the above guarantees good sales. Not the covers, not the branding, not the marketing. Yeah. The writing. The book and concept don’t appeal greatly. Ouch. But, and this is the beauty of self-publishing, if you publish well-crafted books with nice covers and set up all the marketing stuff well, then a promotion in the form of a paid ad on a single book will have so much more effect, even if your books are not hugely popular. Often not immediately, but in the longer term. And you will see your sales increase, in a slow, non-spiky manner. And they won’t fall completely flat as long as you keep writing new stuff, and all of a sudden, you’ll have gone from Macca’s once a month sales to nice dinner once a month sales, to paying the electricity bill kind of sales to paying the mortgage kind of sales.

Why don’t my books sell? was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Investing in your writing

Earlier this week, Wayne Stinett, fellow self-published writer at the Kindleboards, posted this in his blog (this post opens in a new tab, so this blog post will still be here when you finish reading.

You will probably know me as someone who advocates not to spend money self-publishing. Maybe, but that’s not true. What I advocate is not to spend too much money when you’re starting out. I totally advocate spending money once you learn where to spend it. In fact, the way Wayne, who sells far morethan I do, went about the process is just about perfect.

I advocate being really careful with your initial expenses because it is so easy to become utterly discouraged by the disparity in the number of zeroes between your income and what you spent.

Why this post? Because I’m spending up. I seriously don’t want to look at my selfpublishing income vs outgoing this month.

At this point in time, I have FIVE people doing things for me.

My awesome editor/formatter I’ve had for a long time. But these days there is not a month that he’s not doing anything for me.

I’m having a whole bunch of covers designed. This is because I want to have wraparound print covers and seriously can’t be arsed to redo the illustrations. It is also because I have a few new releases coming out and my ideas for covers are moving south. And most importantly, because I think I can do better.


Tom Edwards is an awesome artist who is doing the Ambassador covers.
Damonza is considered the single best freelance cover designer. He’s doing the ISF-Allion books.
Lou Harper is a very talented graphic designer with a lot of experience. She is doing the For Queen And Country series.

And the fifth person? The woman who is translating the Icefire Trilogy into Spanish. She isn’t actually costing me any money right now (phew), but she’ll be paid out of commissions.

For me, this is a gamble. I’ve sold enough books to pay for this giant splurge, but I’m not a mega-seller. What I’m hoping for is this: awesome, really professional cover design sells. It’s not that hard to whip up an acceptable design, but there is a difference between acceptable and awesome. Awesome sells books.

Expect a lot of cover reveals shortly. First up: The Sahara Conspiracy, which will be published with the new cover by Tom.

Investing in your writing was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

How to sell on non-Amazon platforms

People are constantly surprised to hear that Amazon doesn’t take up the lion’s share of my sales. They often ask how to get sales on those other platforms. Of course I do not have the definitive answers, but here are some thoughts about selling on other platforms.

It’s a big world out there

Amazon is very US-centric. When you sell at other platforms, you’re selling to the entire world. There are more people reading English outside the US than inside it, so there is great potential, if you can get it.

When you go wide, actually go wide

List your books everywhere, and if a new platform opens, list early. I was one of the first writers to register at Kobo. The month after I registered my book was pulled from the then small pool of self-published writers and put on display. I’m still reaping the benefits of that today. If you’re going to jump, jump early. You want to be a new fish in an almost empty pond.

When you go wide, advertise wide

I often see people complain about the lack of non-Amazon sales, yet when they link to their books (Twitter, Facebook, forums, website), they’ll only list Amazon links. If you want to sell books on other platforms, you have to be willing to advertise them there and to mention links to those books on other sites. As for formal advertising, there is an increasing number of sites that will include links other than Amazon.

Genre and reading preferences outside the US

Every country is different. Some types of works are not as attractive to non-US readers. For example people in Europe and Australia are less squeamish about sex but have more trouble with violence. They may like different subgenres and different types of covers. Study reading preferences in various regions to see what sort of book does well in which country.

Study the sites where you want to sell

The talk is all about Amazon algorithms, well, these sites have algorithms, too. Learn about them by studying the movement of books through their listings. You’ll find that there is less churn. This means books have a harder time breaking in, but once they are in, they will have an easier time staying there. How does each retailer site list their books? What sort of books are in the top 100 of your genre? How much do they cost? Look up some books like yours. Do you notice anything special about the listing?


Amazon is a bargain bin; other sites, in particular Kobo and B&N, do better with premium pricing. Just look at the top 100 in your genre. What are the prices like?

Write series, make the first book free

It’s not a sales gimmick and doesn’t work wonders. But it does allow readers to sample your work. If they like it, they will go on to buy the rest of the series, as well as your other work. This tactic has worked for as along as humans have bought and sold things and is not going to go anywhere soon.


This is the most important ingredient. It can take months of building up before you see anything like regular sales on some sites. You can use some advertising to help it along, especially if you have a free book. If sales disappoint, don’t forget to check your listings on those sites. Does everything work? Is your book in the right categories? Does the cover show properly?

A month, or three months, isn’t enough to build your sales. I appreciate that some people can’t afford to lose money on their Amazon borrows. It’s up for everyone to decide if that is worth it. The thoughts in this post are for those who have already made the decision that going wide is a good long-term strategy.

But once sales start rolling, they’ll keep rolling with fairly little help from the author.

How to sell on non-Amazon platforms was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Does my selfpublished book need an ISBN?

The question of ISBNs in self-publishing comes up a bit. Traditionalists are adamant that an ISBN is “essential” and that it make you look “professional”.

I have to admit to being a bit allergic to that latter word: “professional”. It’s a word that’s making a beeline for my list of hated words, because it’s so often used to put down “people who disagree with me”.

In the 1990’s in the heydays of my non-fiction bookselling, I dealt with a publishing company in Germany. They had about 40-odd books out and made  a living from this. None of their books had ISBNs. To me, it was a small pain in the arse, because I listed their books on websites that liked to get ISBNs and that put their books in the dungeon of the pre-1960s books that did not have ISBNs. Bookshops need ISBNs to enter books in their system, and so do libraries. Despite failing the traditional industry, the books sold quite well. They were books on diving and sea life and I suspect many were sold through specialist retailers. This was in the publisher-controlled, pre-ebook time.

Back then, I published some books and bought ISBNs for them, because bookshops needed them. I even bought a block of ISBNs for my first lot of ebooks. But after I did that, I found it impossible to register them through the Thorpe-Bowker website. They gave me no help, so I gave up and had a re-think: what do you actually pay for when you buy ISBNs?

Amazon doesn’t require it.

If you make a print version through Createspace, they will give you a free ISBN to satisfy bookshop systems. I’ve already pointed out that when you self-publish ebooks, the bookshop circuit is not your main focus. Besides, authors of popular books report that the Createspace ISBN does not deter bookshops from ordering. Anyway, bookshops are not your focus. If they are, seek a traditional publisher.

None of the other retailers require ISBNs. In fact, Hugh Howey’s latest  Author Earning report * looked at the ISBN situation for the top 120,000 books at Amazon. A whopping thirty percent do not have ISBNs. Earnings and sales do not suffer. In fact, the report shows higher sales and income for books without ISBNs. Now before we all draw conclusions from that, let’s just say that sales do not suffer.

Think about it: self-publishers say (and this has been proven right) that the vast majority of buyers do not care about who published a book. Certainly buyers can rarely name the publisher of books they buy. Why then should they care about whether or not it has an ISBN?

“Oh, but it looks PROFESSIONAL!”

Seriously, bollocks. All an ISBN does is line the pockets of an industry that, by self-publishing, we have already chosen to step out of.

Sure, buy an ISBN if you want, but unless your focus is print and bookshops and libraries, it’s money wasted.

In Hugh’s words:

What we can say for sure is that the clear lack of any material benefit in the marketplace makes the cost of purchasing an ISBN for an ebook very difficult to justify — the same money would be far better invested instead in better professional editing, proofreading, formatting, cover art, and the like.

* I want to make a note that I do not unequivocally endorse all the findings from Author Earnings. I’ve seen how they collected the data on the KU borrows vs sales reports and–uhm–I’m not going to say any more about it, but as Hugh says anyone can go through with a pencil and note ISBN vs no ISBN and the rankings vs daily sales estimates are pretty good. Note also that all this would be immeasurably easier if Amazon shared data.

Does my selfpublished book need an ISBN? was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Self-publishing: Weatherproof your sales

A lot of people right now are talking about their predictions for 2015. At the Kindleboards, well-selling self-publishers are talking about the year to come. Lindsay Buroker does the same in her blog, and planning for the future and selling on non-Amazon platforms was a big part of the Marketing SFF podcast that I just recorded with Lindsay Buroker, Joseph Lallo and Jeffrey Poole.

As we were talking about self-publising and marketing, something struck me about looking at the future in an author’s career: the most important thing you can do is to weatherproof your sales.

Weatherproofing your sales is:

  1. Diversification
  2. Taking control of your own audience
  3. Building an innate level of sales that does not rely on the vagaries of retail site algorithms

In the section of the podcast where Joseph asks his questions, he asks about the difference in marketing between romance and SFF. I think that traditional marketing has less effect on SFF audiences, because they tend to be more cynical. Almost every advertising site reports that SFF ads don’t do as well. The readers shop by author, and books don’t tend to go out of fashion as quickly. There is less author churn.

This makes that SFF is an excellent genre in which to weatherproof your sales. How?

  • Well, since SFF buyers seem less “sale” or platform-driven, list your works on whatever sites will have you. The hip SF readers are often fervent Amazon-haters, and it helps if you’re cool enough to list your books on Google Play or whatever site the latest cool kids shop at.
  • Since SFF buyers are more likely to shop by author, take control over your audience by making sure you have an up-to-date website, blog, that you are contactable on most social media, that you have a mailing list and that you are seen to be a “good egg”in the SFF community.
  • On the subject of mailing lists, I cannot over-state their importance. I noticed this even back in 1996, when I used mailing lists to sell second-hand academic books. Of course back then, there was no Mailchimp and none such nonsense as “opt-in”. I did it everything by hand, but it was very successful. Mailing list = your audience. These are people who have chosen to hear about your new releases.
  • Ad free selling! Do you get tired of the ad rollercoaster? You run an ad, sales are great for a bit and then a few days later, you’re back where you started. It’s exhausting. Ad free selling involves making book 1 of a series free or cheap. Then you grab a beer from the fridge and sit back. Don’t worry or get nervous about “sell-through”. Consider these freebies leaflets that you use to let people know about you.

What are my predictions for 2015?

  • Things will be harder? Yup. They have always been getting harder, ever since publishing started.
  • People will drop out? Yup. They always have. Many new, bright-eyed people will come in. Many will get disillusioned and leave. They’ve been doing that since the start of time.
  • Businesses will fail? Yup. Dunno which ones yet, but I’m sure some will.
  • Amazon will do something daft? Yup. They always have. Usually in the second half of the year.

OK, so the above is taking the Mickey. My point is that as self-publisher, you have to be flexible enough to weather the things that happen that kick you in the gut, and to take the opportunities offered by the things that don’t.

Only one thing I know: Ambassador 3 will be an awesome book. Because all I can do is produce the most awesome books that I can write, to publish them in a series and make the first one cheaper or free. That tactic has worked since the start of time, and no matter what daft things Amazon or anyone else will do, it will continue to work.

Self-publishing: Weatherproof your sales was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Should you self publish, the 2014 edition

Way back in 2011, when self-publishing was new, I asked the same question in a number of blog posts (some of which on my old livejournal). Mostly, back then, the question “Should you self publish?” was fraught with angst over scuttling one’s literary career and about quality.

No one really cares about self-publishing damaging literary careers anymore (because it doesn’t), and the quality issue… yeah. Meh. Crap gets published. Get over it. Sometimes it even sells. And some of it sells a lot better than my books. So there. *shrugs*

I did make one comment, though, that still holds, even if it does so for reasons other than those I mentioned when I first made the comment.

If you arrived at this page by googling “Should you self publish”, then you probably shouldn’t. Or at least not yet.

Because when you google this or anything about writing or publishing, you are very likely to end up with lots of links to vanity presses. Read David Gaughran’s post on vanity presses and how they’re becoming intertwined with reputable publishing companies (I’m looking at you, Random Penguin). And if you know so little about the publishing industry that you need google to tell you whether you should self-publish, you’re probably at risk of being ripped off.

This is related to the feeling that self-published writers have expressed: that they’re sick of doing all the non-writing stuff that is required to sell books: the editing, the formatting, booking ads, blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts. They would like to be taken care of, and let someone else do this work.

Well, I got news: it’s not called SELF-publishing for nothing. It means that you do all the work. It means that you make the decisions. And you have to keep making decisions and doing stuff all the time. There are many things that you have to do that you didn’t even know existed before you self-published. It’s a lot of work, and it’s relentless. You should be well-informed. You should continue to learn, because the ground is constantly shifting under your feet.

On the other hand, there is no person in the world who is going to bat harder for your books than you. If you have an idea, you can do something about it. You don’t need to ask anyone. You just do it. But you have to actually, y’know, do it. If you feel that you don’t want to do the work, you should find a regular publisher.

Should you self publish, the 2014 edition was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

How do you promote on Kobo?

FacebookheaderWhen other writers hear that I sell quite well on Kobo, the reaction is invariably: How do you do that? I don’t even know how to promote my books there?

Last month, this post appeared on the Kobo Writing Life blog. There are also a few Facebook groups that concentrate on sites other than Amazon. Kobo Writing Life and Kobo Indie Ebooks are two I can think of.

Invariably, a lot of these sites have the same problem in common: they are populated mainly by writers wanting to “promote”. You may sell a copy or two, but those books are bought by someone who came to the site wanting to advertise their own books.


So, maybe we need to step away from that tacky word “promote”.

What does promote mean? Since the start of self-publishing, it has come to mean spam the living daylights out of all your Facebook and Twitter friends, and pay big bucks for advertising that may or may not work, but even if it works, effects are usually very short-lived.

Many people seem to survive on this crash diet of expensive promos and free days and so many of them are becoming disillusioned with the process. It’s a draining and tiring and takes you away from writing.

The reason people do this is because they want to find people who will champion their fiction. The more books you have in circulation, the better the chance of finding people who will love your work. With free days in Select, Amazon offers an easy way to give away lots of books. Hang on, only if you can get mentioned on one of the main blogs, which don’t list as many free books as they used to, because of an Amazon crackdown in affiliate links (story too long to recite here). The free spots on those blogs have become competitive, which means that the blogs charge for them. Yes. To advertise a free book.

This may work if you have more books in the series, and it may not lose you any money if you discount your book a lot but don’t make it free, but still…

In my opinion, this is spiralling into all the wrong directions.

Some time, in some industry called the traditional publishing industry (remember that?) someone said something that went like: money flows to the writer. Not to the service providers. I do sometimes pay for advertising, but I’m starting to feel very uneasy about this whole free/cheap book blog money-grabbing business. You can bite me in the comments.


(yes, and I totally know that I exceeded the maximum number of allowable instances of “some” in that first sentence)


How DO you promote on Kobo? Because Kobo doesn’t offer this crash-course diet.

The same way as you can let people know about your fiction everywhere else:

1. Write a good book

2. Write a sequel. Make sure you brand books as a series. Make sure you number the volumes.

3. Write another sequel. Make book 1 free if you want, but that’s not really necessary.

4. Talk about your book on your author and Facebook page, and on Twitter. I mean talk about, not spam.

5. The three Be’s: Be there, Be genuine, Be interesting

6. Do a LibraryThing give-away (free), casually give away ebooks to whoever shows interest in reviewing.

7. Do an occasional guest post.

8. Make sure your author website has a page for each book that lists links to *all the places* where people can buy the book. Remember that if they use Google Chrome with adblocker, people WILL NOT SEE your links if you use affiliate codes.

9. The most important thing is that this process is a constant, low-key affair that need not take you away from the rest of your life for more than 15 minutes a day.

Right. Did I mention the word “Kobo” in any of these points? I did not. Because this method is a one-stop-shop and works everywhere. The most valuable thing an author can have is a reader base that’s not linked to any one retailer. Just in case one of them spits a dummy on you or goes broke.

Patty writes hard Science Fiction, space opera and fantasy. Her latest book is Trader’s Honour, in the space opera series The Return of the Aghyrians. If you’d like to be kept up-to-date with new releases, remember to sign up for Patty’s new release newsletter.

Guest blog: Brian Kittrell: Don’t Go Broke in Self-Publishing: 10 Ways to Protect Yourself in the Digital Revolution

My guest post today is a must-read, don’t-get-scammed post for all beginning self-publishers. I am deeply indebted to Brian for writing this awesome article. Brian, of course, is a self-publisher way more successful than me, so he knows what he’s talking about. For information on Brian and his books, please go to his website Late Nite Books.

Digital and print-on-demand publishing has created a new world of opportunities for the intrepid self-published writer, but all around this new industry, another group of people are eager to benefit: scammers, con artists, and others wanting to make a quick buck from the many uninformed authors taking to the online stage. How are authors being scammed and how does a writer, new to the whole idea of self-publishing, survive in such a hostile environment?

Publishing Service Providers

It seems like every day there are new service providers–editors, proofreaders, cover designers, formatters, and ebook programmers–hanging out a shingle. How is an author to know who is good or bad?

Tip #1: Vet, vet, and vet some more.

Always, and I mean always, vet your service providers. Don’t take the testimonials on their website as the only referral. Talk to people you know about the provider. If you have a more experienced author friend, have them take a look at the service provider, too. Memorize the Preditors and Editors link and check all service providers against it. Look at their gallery or portfolio from past work. Demand to see one if you can’t find one.

As a general rule, the best service providers will be people you don’t know who will render judgement and advice based upon the manuscript, not you as a person. Friends and family have a way of being supportive even when they know the book isn’t good or needs lots of work.


Tip #2: Know the normal rates.

Knowing the normal industry accepted rates will help you weed out those who aren’t serious and those who are overpricing. Strong editing (as of the time of this writing) can often be found for around a penny a word. Some charge fractions of a penny less or more per word. If a provider is charging considerably more or less for the job than what you’ve usually been quoted, it could be a sign of danger.

The only exception to this rule is if the service provider is very new and does not have an established base of clients. However, you should be very guarded about dealing with inexperienced service providers; treat your books like your own children and make sure they have the best.


Tip #3: Demand a sample of work.

Professional editors and proofreaders will provide a sample edit or sample proof of your work. This usually consists of several pages for a full-length manuscript. The idea here is to demonstrate the editor’s skill, to see if you think, based upon the edit, if the editor or proofreader will be a good fit for your style and voice, and to get an idea of how things will work during the process if you decide to hire them.

With artists, review their portfolios and galleries and discuss the intricate details of the project. Do NOT ask them to produce a sample cover for you to think about; asking an artist to render even a very basic drawing for free is in bad taste. Artwork, even sketching a concept, takes considerable time and effort, and their portfolios should be sufficient to judge if their style meets with your project or not.


Tip #4: Prefer Flat-Fee Deals to Royalty Share Agreements.

Whenever possible, pay flat fees for service providers instead of royalty share agreements. Don’t tie yourself to your service providers wherever you can get away from doing so. Think of it like this: if your book goes on to sell $1,000,000, is the cover you got from your designer worth $100,000? Most likely not. Additionally, what if you sell 100,000 copies of your book and a big publisher takes an interest in it? Would you be willing to give your proofreader 5% of your income for the rest of eternity? Do you have a contract which stipulates that a buyout by a major publisher voids the royalty share agreement?

Think forward on this kind of thing. Flat fees are best because you pay once and you’re free to go whatever route you like.


Common Scams and Cons

Outside of the flourishing field of publishing services, you may come up against a scam designed to deprive you of your hard-earned lucre. Here are some common ones and some tips about what you should do when facing a suspicious situation.

Tip #5: Avoid Gifting Scams

With my books, I give away lots of copies in hopes of garnering reviews and a little buzz. If my book is good enough, those who receive review copies may post up written reviews or give recommendations to their friends about my book. It’s a great practice for the author to get unbiased commentary while giving readers a brand new book at no cost.

In favor of explicitly describing the attempt I received, I have imported a post I made on into this article to relay a recent experience with a giveaway:

just got done with a giveaway through LibraryThing for ARCs. I do this with all of my new releases so that I have a chance of picking up a couple of reviews and maybe moving some books. Anyway, I have a very specific format for my giveaways which has been honed over a long period of time. I send this email (included in its entirety because, well, someone may find this thread while searching on ways to send out emails to winners):

“You are receiving this email because you entered into the Members Giveaway/Early Reviewer program through LibraryThing (, and you were selected to receive a giveaway/review copy of the title described below. Please do not reply to this email. Instead, direct any responses to or

Congratulations, and thank you for entering!

You may get your free copy of (BOOK) with the following steps:

1. Visit OF URL)
2. Click “Add to Cart” button.
3. Click “Checkout”.
4. Scroll down the page to Discount Code and enter: (CODE)
5. This will reduce the price of the book to $0.00 / free.
6. Download the book in PDF, ePub, and/or Mobi format.

You will also receive an email with links to download the books so you can save this information for the future. If you do not receive that email, please check your Spam folder.

This download link is active forever; you can re-download the book if you lose it. If you would like to read on multiple devices, you may download one, two, or all three formats. My books are not burdened by DRM technology. All I ask is that you do not redistribute them.

If you have any problems with the process, advise me and I will correct the problem as quickly as possible.

Thank you very much!

– Brian Kittrell, Late Nite Books

Please be advised: If you received this email in error, please disregard it. No further action is necessary on your part. Receipt of this email and/or signing up in the LibraryThing Giveaway/Early Reviewers program does not automatically add you to any Late Nite Books email list or program. I value your privacy as much as my own, and I do not share your information with other third parties. Coupon code is valid from (START_DATE) until (END_DATE). Please visit the Late Nite Books store and secure your copy prior to (END_DATE).”

Some write back and say Thank you or I’ll get to it right away! One person had some extreme trouble with the store, so I sent the file to them directly. But I receive the following email aside from the rest:

“Hi, I am happy to have won a copy – Your book sounds very interesting!
Is there anyway you could be so kind to send that to me as an Kindle Gift from Amazon?
I keep everything on Amazons Kindle activity webpage so I can store, organize, manage, take notes and higlights to help with my reviews using different Apps to help remember more of what I read.
For this the ebook must be purchased from for it to be added into my Kindle library page.

Thank You,

Don’t do it. I repeat, DON’T DO IT.

If you need reasons why you shouldn’t:
#1 Nondescript. Feels like a form mail that could apply to any book. Couldn’t even be bothered to talk about the book in the giveaway; probably sends hundreds of these out per week.
#2 Reader asks for you to spend money on the review copy after you’ve given a very easy way to get the book for free. You may have even attached the book to the email you sent out.
#3 Kindle activity webpage… I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen that before. My Kindle (as I’m sure most are) is equipped with highlighting, taking notes, and organizing books no matter if I side load them or get them from the Amazon website.
#4 Apps to help someone remember what they read? As preposterous as this sounds, I’m sure Apps can be used regardless of where a book came from.
#5 Yes, a book must be a valid purchase from to appear on’s library page. That, I cannot argue with. However, what do I care? The presence or absence of my book on the library page does not prevent it from being read, downloaded, or transferred to your device. ~50 people so far had no problem using the directions I sent, and the one that did have problems just asked for the ePub to be attached to an email. No problem.

Here’s the scam, from the scammer’s point of view:
– Convince author to gift ebook to me.
– Redeem the gift into a gift card instead of getting the book.
– If I really want to ream an author, I’ll send the convincing email from one address, wait for the gift, redeem it, then tell the author that the gift needs to be sent to my “Kindle email” so I can get the book. Two for the price of one.
– Further, the scam can be extended to a third email address. The chances are lower on the second gifted copy and even less so on the third, but it’s worth a shot.

Now, repeat this process with the dozens of books from independent authors having a giveaway ending each day.

Let’s say 3 authors fall for the first level of this scam each day from the same con. Let’s say that the books are $2.99 to gift. That’s about $9.

$9 * 300 days (because even cons take breaks) = $2,700 per year in Amazon gift cards.

What to do if you get a suspicious email?

Contact the service hosting the giveaway immediately. I sent an email to Jeremy at LibraryThing, and he told me that the subject who sent this email is “nearly a serial offender,” that they’ve gotten a few reports about them already. I leave the handling of the issue to LibraryThing because, on my end, it’s handled. The person won’t be scamming me.

What can I do to mitigate my risk?

Before you do your giveaway, establish ground rules that you will not break, such as the delivery method. I chose my own website. Smashwords coupons are a good choice, too. Do whatever you want, but gifting via Amazon is going to burn a hole in your pocket for very little–if any–reward. The gift redemption scam has been going on for a while now, and more and more people are getting keen to it. The method is explored on various shady forums, chat rooms, and so forth.

If you’re suspicious of any other potential scam, ask about it on KBoards. Chances are that another writer has heard about a scam (or, in the most unfortunate circumstance, was a victim of the scam). Look before you leap.


Tip #6: Literary Award Scams

You may have already fallen victim to such a scam or you may have seen these going around. The idea is that authors enter the contest for a literary award and pay a fee to apply. The winner is announced later and usually gets a shiny seal of approval and a letter or something. Always perform deep research on any contest you’re planning on entering. See how often the contest has been held and how long the organization has been running it. Do deep research on the organization. Search Google for the names of the people involved, the name of the organization, the name of the award, and any other identifying details you can locate (such as the mailing address; some fly-by-night operations change their names but keep the same mailing address, for instance). Search Google for all of these things.

Literary award programs have become a dime a dozen. The most respectable ones usually have no entry fees, too.

If a literary award contest seems shady, skip it. Awards do so little for your publicity that spending large sums of money on them is pointless.


Tip #7: Avoid Reading Fees

Avoid anything with a reading fee attached. If money flows out of your wallet, you had better be guaranteed to get something in return for it other than a form rejection letter. If an agent, editor, proofreader, or other service provider demands some kind of payment just to talk to you, run away as fast as your hooves will carry you. Consultations are free. Editors and proofreaders should provide a small sample of work (on YOUR manuscript) at no cost. Agents don’t deserve free money for looking your way, and neither do publishers.


Tip #8: Beware the Referral Monster

Lots of scams involve referring authors to third party services, deals, or opportunities which aim to plunder your vault and leave you high and dry. If you submit to a publisher or agent, that party advises you to seek editing or proofreading help, and then they refer you to someone they know, it’s probably a referral program. That party is usually getting a cut of the proceeds for referring you in the first place. So, you’re automatically paying a bit above cost plus a little profit to the service provider. Sometimes this is ten or fifteen percent. Sometimes this is considerably more.

If an agent or publisher sees promise in your work, they should secure the services of an editor (on their staff or otherwise) after the contract has been signed.


Tip #9: Scammy Publishers

Which brings me to my next point: scammy publishers. A publisher is a company or individual who makes it his/her/its job to publish books. This process starts where the author’s original manuscript ends, and the work continues all the way to the distribution of the final book. In this process, there are many steps:

– Editing
– Proofreading
– Cover design
– Formatting (interior and/or ebook)
– Distribution (to retailers)
– Promotion, publicity, and advertising
– Accounting
– Paying the author due royalties

A publisher should not ask you to handle any of the above yourself, with the exception of promotion/publicity. (You will be asked to do whatever promotion or publicity you can to help sell your book.) If a publisher asks you to cover any of the above costs up front, you’re not dealing with a professional outfit.

Watch out in your contracts, too. Sometimes some or all of these services may be put against royalties which means that your sales will pay for some/all of these services before you get paid. These deals are not necessarily scammy, but you should take great care in studying the contract to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.

In simpler language, you should not be paying anything upfront to a publisher to publish your book. That’s… you know… the point of having a publisher in the first place. If any of your production and ongoing promotional activities are charged against royalties, that should be clear from the start and you must understand the implications before you sign on the dotted line.


Tip #10: Step Right Up! Hurry, hurry, hurry!

In regular life, we see this kind of scam all the time: act fast! It won’t last long! Hurry, hurry, hurry!

My advice to you: take as much time as you need. Time-limited offers are designed to inspire impulse buying, and doing things on an impulse will not yield the kind of results you want for your books, your writing career, or your legacy. Take as much time as you need to decide. Ask opinions from the people you trust and respect. If the timer runs out, it wasn’t meant to be.


And Much More…

The idea of this article was to give you a primer, to help you protect yourself against common schemes and to save yourself some money down the line. It won’t protect you against everything out there or what will eventually come; for that, you need a skeptical, cynical eye cast upon every “offer” and “opportunity.” Your survival depends upon your ability to smell a scam, and I can tell you that you’ll run into them on an almost daily basis. If it doesn’t smell right, you shouldn’t bite. If it’s too good to be true, it is too good to be true.