This is a guide for anyone who wants to make money selling fiction work but does not already have an audience. If you’re already famous, save yourself a couple of long years of work and just hire someone who already knows how to do this stuff. If you’re like me — which is to say, ahem, nobody — read on.
It is not hard to make money with books, but the path to fastest money has a lot of branches along the way. You have to make a decision for yourself, at each branch, whether you want maximum money or to trade some earning potential for artistic fulfillment. You also have to learn a lot about the book industry which will take a long time. There is a lot to know.
I’m going to stick to self publishing here. Nothing against the trad route, I am a traditionally published author myself. If you want to go that route that’s totally cool, but I think that’s a choice that puts your artistic goals above your immediate financial ones. Up to you.
Before we go any further, though, get the following into your brain: This is not a book-selling business. It is an audience building business.
That said, you can build an audience around a fictional pen name, which is great for separating your writing from you private life or your work life. If you think your books would sell better as someone totally different than you, try it.
With me so far? Good. Let’s press on. By the way, if you’re just starting out and you have questions about any of the below, feel free to email me at email@example.com. I want you to succeed. …and I want you to mention my work in your newsletter when your books are outselling mine 10:1.
The Basic StrategyAt a high level, the strategy is to write multiple books in a series, then use the first book as a tool to (a) get people to pay to read the rest of the books and (b) join your mailing list so you can let them know about new work when you finish it.
We will focus on Kindle e-books, and we’ll put them all into the the Kindle Select program. Later on in life when your audience is built to the point where big five publishers are courting you, you can consider what they call “going wide.” For now, stick with Kindle and Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited. That’s where the most voracious readers are.
A word on “Standing out:” much is made about how hard it is for authors to “stand out,” among the hundreds of thousands of books published each year. People love to meme about the dismally low average income per author on Amazon. I think a lot of those statistics are disingenuous.
Most of the people who write a novel will write one book with a bad cover and self-indulgent writing. They will not market the book well. Heaps and heaps and heaps of those non-starters come out every day. If you want to take this seriously and build an audience for yourself, it can be done. It will take a long time. If you don’t give up, and you figure out how to do the above things right, standing out becomes relatively easy.
Okay, let’s party.
Pick your Genre
First, think of your book in terms of its intended audience. On one end of the spectrum is a book with an audience of one: you. On the other end, there’s a book written entirely for marketability. On the “You” end of the spectrum, you might get greater artistic satisfaction out of writing a memoir, but making that into money will be harder.
Do not write a memoir if you want to make money. If you’re seeking the catharsis of writing all those experiences out, do it. It can work for that and it can be very helpful.
But, for money purposes, the only reason you should write a memoir is that you’re so famous/remarkable that someone is offering you a six figure advance to tell your story with the help of a co-writer. Did you land a plane on the Hudson? Cut off your arm in the desert? Act like a dumbass on a popular reality show? Then, maybe. Otherwise, no memoirs.
Nonfiction books are easier to sell than fiction, but their market is smaller. Nonfiction is especially good for someone who also has services to sell, e.g. a lawyer or accountant, because you can use the book as a marketing tool for your greater business.
Writing nonfiction as a comedy writer can be tough, but it is highly possible. If you have a specific skillset for example, you can write a funny howto book as long as you make sure the humor doesn’t obscure the howto part.
If you’re writing to be a writer who makes money, though, genre fiction is the choice and it’s a little easier to work in the comedy since people expect to be getting a story, not just information.
If you want to make money writing books as fast as possible as soon as possible, write romance. If you can’t stand romance, write MTS (mystery, thriller, suspense). If you’re damned and determined to write a SF/Fantasy novel, that’s fine. Just realize that you’re taking an earnings hit. SF/Fantasy are #3 on the list of books sold on Amazon and they share a category. So, by choosing SF/Fantasy over MTS or Romance you’ve just cut your available readership market down by a lot.
If you’re planning to write a humor book that’s just straight humor with no discernable genre, as in funny stories about your life, humorous essays, etc., it’s going to be an uphill battle selling that book unless you are famous.
As of this writing, k-lytics book marketing offers a free version of their kindle market trends report. Find that at k-lytics.com. It’s a good look into market trends.
[I’m told that the below paragraph is useless because DD is no longer accepting new user registrations. I’d still keep my eye on them if you want to write romance. They might open back up. – Jim]
If you decide to write romance, join the Dirty Discourse forums. It’ll cost you a few bucks a month to be on the forums, but you’ll get to talk to all the other self published romance writers who have figured this out. To say that the DD forums members have “figured out” self publishing romance is a wild understatement. They have it 100% dialed.
Once you pick your genre it is critical that you write a book for that genre. If you write a genre bender, it will make your life selling the book much harder. Not saying it can’t be done, just harder. You’ll make more money faster if you write a book that’s easy to market and understand.
Look at the top books in your chosen genre and write something that takes all the same tropes and makes a story with your style. Later on, when you’ve built your audience, you can write your passion projects that defy all norms, etc.
Start Writing Every DayPick a daily (or workday) word count target that you can hit every time. If it’s 250 words, fine. If it’s 10, also fine. Just make sure you can hit it every working day so you’re always moving forward. If you let yourself slack off because “life gets in the way” it will hurt your momentum. It’s better to be moving slowly than to be stopped.
Personally, I like 2000 words a day. I tried 5000 words a day for about 4 months, which was nice because I completed a ton of work but not so nice because I never got to hang out with my wife.
Find your word count sweet spot and hit it every day. Then double it.
If you’re really really taking this seriously, I think you need to get your word count up into the multiple thousands. It feels unnatural nigh unto impossible at first, but you can get there. It might mean skipping some binge watching or video gaming time, or some new habits like writing on your phone in the bathroom at work. A lot of people also use dictation software so they can speak their writing while they commute. You can find a way that works for you.
If you’re struggling to make word count and you’re wondering if only writing 250 words a day is okay, it is. Like I said, it’s better to be moving than not. But how long do you want to wait until this starts working for you?
Write a Saleable Book Part 1
This can take some time to understand. It’s the hard part. You need to understand good novel structure, character development, and all the other things that go into good stories.
Read up on story structure ideas like Save the Cat, Story Engineering, the Snowflake Method, Hero’s Journey, and the like. Jami Gold has a web site with some downloadable spreadsheets, complete with target word counts, to help you structure your novel.
As mentioned above, you also need to write a book for a genre that uses that genre’s tropes. If you write something that’s a blend of two genres, readers from genre A will roast you in your reviews for including genre B tropes. Genre B readers will do the same for genre A tropes.
It will not matter how “good” your story is if people who read it are expecting something else. Reviewers do not care. They will crush all your hard work in an instant.
Write a Saleable Book Part 2: How to Show Don’t Tell
One of the most frequent pieces of advice an author gets about writing is to show, don’t tell. The words “show don’t tell” are troublesome because while they’re true and good advice, they’re also not helpful because they try to boil down everything that’s hard about good writing into three words.
Rather than get into the details of showing vs telling in practice, since I think much smarter people than me have covered that already, I think I can help fill in some philosophy behind the rule. For concrete examples, I recommend Maria Snyder’s article on the subject here: https://www.mariavsnyder.com/advice/showvstell.php
If you’re like me and you’re frustrated because you don’t fully understand Show don’t tell, try to take it easy on yourself. To understand those three words is to fully master the art of fiction writing, which is not an attainable goal. But we can always improve, so let’s try that instead.
Just making a few strides in this direction is critical for getting your readers interested enough in your books to read through to the next one, and that is critical for making writing fiction into a career. Remember the high level strategy above? Good. This is part of that.
You Can Never Control The Reader’s Experience
My opinion is that new writers often think their job is to tell a concrete story, so that the reader has the same experience of the story as the author has in their head. But not only can you never control a reader’s experience, if you try, most likely readers will find your work boring.
Imagine an art museum where you can’t walk around on your own, and your guide explains at length every single piece of art, even the ones you’re already familiar with or don’t care about. That’s what telling is like for the reader.
The author’s job is not to tell a concrete story. It is to facilitate a reader’s experience with the author as a guide. If your reader cares about your work, their imagination will fill in any gaps you’ve left, and when this happens, your reader will like your story more because the filling they put into the extra spaces suit them perfectly. Why wouldn’t it? It’s theirs!
Think about this: Why is the book nearly always better than the movie? Because in the process of making a movie, the production team has to make choices about the look of the actors, the sets, the costumes, etc.. You, the viewer, are no longer free to imagine those details yourself.
I think if you write down a list of things you know about your favorite characters from your favorite books, then go back and re-read those books, you will discover that you inserted some of those details yourself.
Remember when black actor Noma Dumezweni was cast as grown-up Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play? Some stupid people were crying about having a person of color cast as Hermione until JK Rowling pointed out that Hermione’s only description in the books are “brown eyes, frizzy hair, very clever.”
I point this out because the Hermione character is one that I think most fantasy readers know. The Harry Potter franchise is undeniably a success. But the author can reduce the description of one of her main characters to six words.
Why do we read books? To be transported to some other world than our own, maybe? To be thrust into situations we’d never get to, or would never want to, experience in real life? We only need enough descriptions of scenery, costumes, and weapons to make the above possible. Any more detail is dead weight.
Have you ever ridden a roller coaster? If you described that experience to someone would you even bother to include the color of the cars, the employee uniforms, or the text of the warning urging you to keep your hands and feet in?
You might, if it served you for foreshadowing reasons. Like, if you stuck your hand out of the car and got it knocked off during the ride, including the warning would be justified. Otherwise, you’d probably just describe the anticipation of clicking up the incline, the thrill of going down the other side, looks on people’s faces, etc.
One of the things that makes Show Don’t Tell so hard is that it takes experience to know where the line (for you/your readers) is. But, in general, if you are starting out, I think it will serve you well to pare it back significantly.
I challenge you to write some work that has far, far less detail than you think it needs. I want you to write something that you think is nearly unreadable for lack of detail. Then, show it to some people without telling them what you want them to read for. I bet almost no one asks for more description.
Making your book funny
If you know me you know I’m a humor guy at heart so let me cover this for my humor peeps. Srs bzns authors can skip this part.
Just like with writing one-liners, if you’re writing a novel intended to be funny, you still have to put in all the story stuff any other writer would. Most likely people will not roll with you longer than a few pages if your book is just joke-to-joke.
There is a lot of humorous fiction work out there right now so I recommend reading every word of books similar to what you are working on. See how they handle story structure, but also pay attention to the way they present the story to readers. Is the cover wacky, or is it serious-looking? How do they let readers know the book is funny?
Consider this: does your favorite funny book let readers know, going by the cover and title, that the book is funny at all? Or do they let the blurbs/reviews handle that?
Get a Good Cover
This is one of the hardest parts of the process. Most likely for your first couple of efforts you will screw this up. The best thing you can do is hire a professional cover designer. A good cover is cool looking, it transmits to the reader what the book’s genre will be, and it lets them know what to expect in the story. This last part is critical beyond measure.
Your cover will cost money. But it will also better position your book to make money. Expect to spend at least a couple of hundred dollars on a good, original SF/F cover. For romance it’ll be cheaper. For a known fantasy cover artist it’ll be much more. Then again, if you spring for a known artist you are likely to get sales on the strength of your cover alone.
If you have a crappy stock photo cover you made yourself, no one will read your book at all. If you have a great looking cover that’s not a good fit for your genre, sales will suffer. Worse, you might get readers who expected one story but find something else in the book.
If you mislead readers they will murder your work in the reviews. Reviewers do not care how long and hard you worked or how much you want to be a writer. They will shit all over your book, tank your sales and never think twice about it. You can lose months, if not years, of hard work and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
At the same time, though, readers want to be entertained. They want your story to be good and they will fill in plot holes or other problems as needed. You just have to make sure you give them a chance to help you by having your cover and your story aligned so they don’t feel like they’ve been swindled.
Your book needs to be proofread so that readers aren’t taken out of your story by technical writing problems. It does not need to be perfect. There will likely be missed errors in the text no matter how many rounds of proofing you do but the magic of modern publishing is you can fix them and re-upload the book content. Also, readers will forgive minor mistakes. They want the story to be good.
If you are a new author, you should spring for more heavy editing because your writing is probably watered down with too much description and flowery language. It will take time for you to learn how to show vs. tell. Hopefully you can afford an editor to help show you exactly where, in your work, those changes need be made.
As I said above, in the show vs. tell section, if you leave all that watered-down description in your work, you’ll get comments from friends and family who say, “It was good!” but nothing else. Your sales will be lackluster. It will be hard to figure out what the problem might be.
If you’re in that situation, this might be the problem. Then again, if you’re writing erotica, as long as people get freaky every few pages it might not matter too much.
You might want to pay someone to do a developmental edit on your work to help you see where you can cut. For a novel-length work it’ll be expensive, so you might want to try getting some short stories edited instead. Then again, in general I think anyone who wants to write a novel should do so, regardless of their experience. Some people seem to think that waiting until they get some experience before tackling a novel is a good idea. I say tackle away and learn as you go.
Publish and market your book
People have to know about your book in order to consider buying it. If you are imagining yourself in a tower somewhere lowering your latest magnum opus to a slavering mob of fans by way of a rope, forget it. More likely you have to trudge to their hovels and shout about it.
At least 50% of your time as an author will be marketing. You’ll need to learn how Amazon ads work, and you should also investigate newsletter swaps, joining group giveaways, ads on platforms besides Amazon, etc..
You can read up on people’s book launch strategies on any of the various author forums. There are a lot of decisions to make, like, should I do a presale, should I price my book high or low, etc.. Pick a strategy and follow it. See what worked or didn’t work, and manage the strategy for next time.
When you launch your first book, put it on Amazon for Kindle and join the KDP Select program, also known as KU/KOLL. Why does it have three different names? Who knows? This will not be the last time you look at how Amazon works and think, “wait, what?”
With KU, you make it more likely that the most voracious readers will be able to find and read your work for free. It’s not really free, because they pay a monthly fee, and you will get paid in “page reads,” or a fraction of a penny per page known as KENP, but they won’t have to lay out a couple of bucks to read your book at the point of sale.
Repeat this whole process
The more times you do this, the better you get at writing, the more your audience will grow and the greater returns you will see. I don’t know about you, but when I find a new author I like I read through their whole catalog. People will do that with you too, so write every day to build your catalog.
Be prepared to spend 3-5 years writing and publishing several books before it starts to work. Be ready to put in 10 years before you can quit your job.
Just get out there and start working on it … and remember me in your newsletter.
Like I said, if you have questions, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m not promising I’ll have a good answer but I do want to help if I can.