If you google the words "self-publishing stigma," you'll find enough material to fill a book.
The search results for this phrase are packed with articles and blogs, many of which pose similar questions: Where does the stigma around self-published fiction come from? Is it justified? And as the years roll by, is it finally starting to fade?
While questions over writers' and publishers' attitudes to this type of fiction may be up for discussion, though, one thing seems pretty clear: A whole lot of people read self-published books.
And a whole lot of writers are making money from selling them.
According to Amazon's 2019 review of its Kindle sales, there are now thousands of self-published authors taking home royalties of over $50,000, while more than a thousand hit six-figure salaries from their book sales last year.
So who are the authors earning a living from self-publishing, and how have they managed it?
We spoke to three writers, all of whom are currently full-time authors, to find out.
Lawyer-turned-writer L.J. Ross told Mashable that self-publishing is the best decision she's ever made — and when you look at the mind-boggling levels of success she's achieved, that statement makes a lot of sense.
Since publishing her debut novel, Holy Island, on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) in 2015, Ross has gone on to publish a whopping 19 novels — and sell a total of around 4.5 million copies. She hit the top of Amazon's Kindle eBooks best seller list seven times last year (a record), and has now set up her own print label in order to supply paperbacks to UK retailers.
"Looking back, I think Holy Island represented a ‘perfect storm,'" Ross said. "The cover was bright and eye-catching, featuring a strong landscape which, at the time, was a little more unusual for a crime fiction novel. The story taps into my own predilections for old-fashioned, closed room murder mysteries, but with a modern twist. It’s unusual, because it straddles two genres: romantic suspense, and crime fiction."
Ross said that everybody advised her against mixing those genres, and told her it would never work. But she pushed ahead anyway.
"The benefit of remaining independent is that you can take your own creative and business decisions, so I chose to leave them both in because I preferred the story," Ross added. "As it happened, readers did too, and I was very fortunate to capture a kind, loyal readership, some of whom tended towards crime fiction and some of whom tended towards romantic suspense, but all of whom found a middle ground in Holy Island."
Holy Island ended up being the first in a series of novels to revolve around the character Detective Chief Inspector Ryan. Ross said it's easier for books to "cross-fertilise" on Amazon KDP if you have a series, because of the way the platform signposts an author's other books. If a reader enjoys one, it's very easy for them to find the next.
Recurring characters aren't Ross' only tool, either. She keeps marketing simple, making her books' descriptions minimal and limiting quotes from other writers, so that potential purchasers never stray too far from the "buy" button. She has a mailing list, which enables her to market directly to readers. And she only contacts subscribers when she has news of an upcoming release.
"It’s been a liberating, life-changing experience for many writers."
"However you choose to market, I think it’s important to let readers know a little about yourself, so they can feel connected with the author and understand more about the person behind the stories they enjoy," Ross added.
Despite some approaches from traditional publishers, Ross has yet to be tempted. With the exception of audiobooks and some foreign rights (rights to publish in other countries outside the UK), which she says she publishes along more traditional lines, Ross is happy to remain within the self-publishing sphere.
"In my case, it’s been a very sustainable means of income and has allowed me to work as a full-time author from the beginning," she explained. "However, from speaking to and hearing from many other independent authors, I know that there are thousands of people out there who have been able to supplement their day job with a very healthy income, or work part-time as an author, alongside all of the other full-time indie authors who have been able to give up the day job.
"In short, it’s been a liberating, life-changing experience for many writers."
The instant success
Like Ross, Rachel Abbott found her self-publishing success quickly. Her first book, Only The Innocent, reached the top spot on the Kindle store three months after she published it in 2011. By 2015, she'd been named Amazon's bestselling independent author in the UK for the previous five-year period. She now has 11 novels under her belt, and has sold over four million copies in the English language. Every one of her books has hit six figure sales in its first year of publication.
So how did she manage to get it right first time, while so many authors take years to build up a following?
"Only The Innocent’s cover line was 'Women are rarely cold-blooded killers' and I think that is the key to its success," Abbott told Mashable. "I wanted to explore what it would take for a woman to commit murder and readers really responded to that."
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Like Ross, Abbott built on her initial success by serialising her books — bringing back her main character, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Douglas, for an additional nine novels.
"I never intended to write a series," she said. "Tom Douglas was invented for the first book, and initially he wasn’t in the second one at all. But then readers were asking for more Tom, and so I went with it. I do think that readers like characters they are familiar with, and even though my books aren’t about Tom but more about the victims and perpetrators of the crimes, he feels like a friend I can really rely on, and I hope my readers feel the same."
Ross and Abbott's career paths have their differences too, though.
While Abbott continues to self-publish her Tom Douglas thrillers, she now also has a second series of books — and although she's kept the digital rights, she opted to sell the paperback rights to a traditional publisher.
"As a self-published author, even though my books are available in print, there was no one shouting about them (except readers) to bookshops," Abbott explained. "I wanted to see my books in Waterstones and WH Smith at the airport. I wanted to reach another type of reader, and I also wanted to experience a traditional deal, to see what I could learn. It’s been excellent in many ways, and not something that I regret at all."
Abbott says successful self-published authors will make more money from their books than if they go through a traditional publisher — but that there are ups and downs to both approaches.
"It is easier to publish traditionally in many ways — the stress is taken away, and if you are paid an advance you have some guaranteed income. But for a self-published author who is prepared to do extensive marketing and devote at least 40 percent of their time to that activity in the early days, it can be extremely rewarding financially."
The horror master
Horror author Adam Nevill is a slightly different case — although he's currently self-publishing his work, he wasn't always. Nevill has been writing professionally for 20 years, and has 19 traditionally published books under his belt. He's won awards. His 2011 novel The Ritual was recently adapted into a movie by Netflix.
Before moving in to the self-publishing sphere, in other words, Nevill was already a successful writer.
So why the change?
Nevill said he switched to self-publishing partly for financial reasons, and partly so he could have control over how his books are packaged and marketed. After growing frustrated with dwindling author earnings and the publishing industry's perception of horror (Nevill described the genre as "outside comfort zones" in traditional publishing), he decided to make the switch.
"I took matters into my own hands in 2016," Nevill said. "I spent the entire year studying indie publishing and embellishing what I had learned from 11 years' experience as an editor and editorial director in traditional publishing. I haven't stopped studying indie publishing and the wider industry since — you have to keep up to date."
So far it seems to be going well, too. Nevill's first self-published novel, The Reddening, was released in Oct. 2019 — and it's already out-sold a number of his traditionally published books.
"I will say I would have to go all the way back to 2013, when one of my trad' published novels had a London Underground campaign, to have matched The Reddening's level of sales," Nevill said. "The Reddening is closing on becoming my fourth most successful novel, commercially, but in only four months. It's my ninth novel but the only indie published novel; my other indie published titles are short story collections."
Nevill's short story collections have also been a success, as well as a key part of his marketing strategy. He's self-published two now, both of which he foreshadowed with shorter — and crucially, free — preview collections.
"The best strategy I tried initially seemed both counter-intuitive and counter-productive and that involved producing free books and linking them to my website and author newsletter," explained Nevill. "I feared devaluing my own writing, but in all of the courses I studied from professional and successful indie authors, they recommended this marketing strategy.
"I then watched my mailing list surge and even saw one of the free eBooks downloaded 30K times in a couple of months. These were mostly new readers too, who'd never read or even heard of me. I'd never, so quickly, reached so many new readers of horror."
So, what's the catch?
After reading these three stories, the obvious question that arises is: what are the downsides? If self-publishing is working out so well for some people, why aren't more doing it?
Well, that's the first thing to note — a lot of people are doing it. In recent years, the number of self-published books has increased massively. There are millions of self-published titles going up on Amazon every year, but (crucially) the number of people writing those books that take home $50,000+ a year is still only measured in the thousands.
Despite the low odds, and the enormous amount of work involved, it can be done.
Basically, the odds of making enough from self-publishing to do it full-time are not high.
There's also the time cost. Nevill said that when he has a book out, it's not unusual for him to work from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., day after day.
"I'm a one-man-band with help from my clever wife — my work has now become a part-time job for her, and often a full-time job, but I am still stretched thin," he said. "As well as producing three editions of each new book (audio I sell to a third party), including a limited edition hardback, I also hope to write a new book every 12 to 18 months. I promote and launch my books consistently, so am a marketeer too. To me, this is almost two full-time jobs: writing and publishing."
Abbott and Ross have similar stories. The latter receives editing help from her husband, as she explained in a recent webinar, while the former has a PA who helps with the promotional side of things. Being a successful self-published author clearly requires a huge time investment.
But despite the low odds, and the enormous amount of work involved, it can be done. And with the right combination of careful marketing, hard work, and (of course) good stories, it has been done.
These authors, and the thousands more who join their ranks each year, are the proof.