successful-authors

What are Successful Authors Doing? (And how can you be more like them?)

  |   Author Blog, Tips and Tricks   |   29 Comments

Have you ever wondered how some authors manage to make it to the top of the best-seller charts and stay there? Ever wondered what tips, tricks and strategies go into building a successful indie author career? At Written Word Media we are incredibly fortunate to work with a wide variety of authors, over 19,000 of them at the publishing of this article, from those just starting out to those that are living the dream. To figure out how to get from newbie to dream-liver, we polled our author base about their strategies, and found some interesting correlations in their answers.

A Note on Methodology

The following conclusions are based off of self-reported survey results from our author base. We did no heavy statistical analysis on the data, but rather took the raw data, cleaned it up, and made some logical inferences from what we saw. If you are a crazy market research pro, or a stats geek, please try not to hyperventilate.

 

Our Two Groups: Financially Successful Authors and Emerging Authors

Each author defines success differently. For some it’s notoriety, for others it’s financial independence, for some, it’s the joy of putting their work out in the world. We focused on the financial side of success, because it was cleaner to define, and we know that being able to write full time and support yourself through your writing is a common goal for authors. With this in mind we divided authors into 2 groups:

Financially Successful Authors (FSAs), who earn over $5,000 per month from book sales

Emerging Authors (EAs), who earn less than $500 per month on book sales

Throughout the article we’ll call them FSAs or EAs to keep it simple.

 

Finding 1: Financially Successful Authors Write More

On average an FSA has published 13.75 books, compared to 7.4 books on average for EAs. That’s double the backlist! Anecdotally, we can support this with what we see during a book promotion. When you acquire a new reader, and they love your work, they often go on to buy all of your work. You’re going to make more money off of a single dedicated reader if they can buy 13.75 books, than you would if they can only buy 7.4 books.

We see this again when we look at the total number of hours spent writing per week. The average EA spends 16 hours per week writing, while the average FSA spends almost double that at 31 hours per week.

If you are an emerging author, the prescription is simple: Write twice as much as you write now with the goal of publishing double the number of books. Easy, right? (Hint: We know it’s not). Most Emerging Authors have day jobs, and have to squeeze their writing time in around the other aspects of their lives.

While increasing writing time can be overwhelming when you’re juggling a day job and additional responsibilities, it doesn’t have to be. Baby steps are key. Think about how much you wrote this week, then try to add an extra 30 to 60 minutes next week until you’ve slowly worked up to a point where you are finishing projects and publishing books faster. If your dream is to make a living through your writing, then writing more will assuredly move you close to this goal.

It might me cliché, but it’s true: All good things take time. When we looked at the number of years since first publication, 60% of FSAs had been writing for 3 or more years. As with most success found on the internet, it takes years to find your voice, build an audience and hit your stride. Comparatively, 69% of EAs have been writing for less than 3 years. So remember, it takes time to write, package, and publish books. If you don’t hit success within your first year, that’s ok, and honestly to be expected. The most important thing to keep in mind? Don’t get discouraged.

 

Finding 2: Financially Successful Authors Have Professionally Designed  Covers

We’ve written a lot about cover design (here and here), and continue to believe that a good cover is the key to unlocking the door of potential for a book. Of FSAs surveyed, 68% spent more than $100 on a cover design, compared to only 39% of EAs. As marketers we see a lot of book covers and we know that professionally designed covers perform better. The good news is that $100-$500 seems to be the sweet spot, and while that may feel like a bit of an investment up front, the higher volume of sales that a good cover generates will have a good cover paying for itself within the first 6 months.

cover-design-graph

Graph of spending on cover design for Emerging Authors vs Financially Successful Authors

 

For both FSAs and EAs the most common response to ‘who designs your book covers’ was a professional. FSAs are more likely to chose a pro than EAs (63% vs 44%) but both groups tended to go that direction. What was surprising to us is that almost 37% of EAs design book covers themselves vs. only 16% of FSAs.  We think writing and design are two very separate skills and should be treated as such. Are there people out there who can do both? Absolutely! But most people can’t and it’s important to be honest with yourself about your skill level. For something as important as the cover, the “face” of your book, it’s best to go with a pro.

Finding 3: Financially Successful Authors Use Professional Editors

The results were fairly clear on this point. An overwhelming 79% of FSAs hire a professional editor to edit their book, compared to 56% of EAs. Even if you consider yourself a great editor (and lots of authors are great editors) it’s a good idea to get a new set of eyes on your novel. Considering Amazon’s new restrictions on quality, it’s not something you want to play around with.

How much should you plan on paying for a professional editor? Well in our survey most FSAs (53%) spent between $100-$500, and 32% spent $500 or more. EAs definitely tended to spend less on editing, with 42% of FSAs spending less than $50, while only 11% of FSAs spent less than $50. Like with cover design, while hiring an editor you pay for quality. Remember that, also like over design, you’ll make any money back that you put into creating a good finished product after a few months of sold sales.

editing-graph

Graph of spending on editing for Emerging Authors vs Financially Successful Authors

 

Finding 4: Financially Successful Authors Believe in the Power of a  Free Promotion

We’re biased, we strongly believe in Free as a marketing technique. So it isn’t a surprise that when we polled that authors that work with us, they agreed with us on the power of a free promotion. Overwhelmingly both FSAs and EAs thought that free was still an effective promotional technique (79% and 70% respectively).

Digging deeper, we wanted to see what the consensus on permafree was. For FSAs we found that 42% of them had at least 1 permafree book, compared to just 11.6% of EAs! When we analyzed the explanations from FSAs about free, the pattern was that most FSAs that do have a permafree title, have one that is the first book in a series. The permafree series model is a strategy that we have seen working for years, and we’ve written about it before.

Finding 5: Financially Successful Authors Write in Popular Genres

We wanted to take a look at the genre breakdown of FSAs vs EAs, and there some interesting takeaways. Some points are better made with a graph, so here’s a graph of EAs vs FSAs broken down by which genres the write in.

graph2

A couple of things jumped out at us right away. The prevalence of Romance is the first and most noticeable. Surprised? We weren’t either. A much larger percentage of FSAs write in Romance compared to EAs. When you really look at it, we see the same with Paranormal Romance and Erotica. We wanted to see what happened if we just combined those genres since they are all ‘Romantic Sub Genres’, and re-graphed this puppy. Here’s what we saw:

graph3

The results show just how sharply FSAs skewed towards the romance genre.

Besides the overwhelming dominance of romance as a trait of successful authors, there were a couple of other takeaways. Thriller and Science Fiction were the only other genres where FSAs focused more than EAs, but not by much. Additionally, some genres weren’t enticing for FSAs at all, they generally steer clear of Literary Fiction, Children’s, Horror, and Religious Fiction.  If you are planning your next book, and considering one of these genres, know that you are signing up for an uphill battle.

Conclusions

We hope that you found some of these findings useful, and were able to pick out some actionable takeaways to help you on your quest to become a financially stable author. We were fascinated by these results, but largely not surprised. Didn’t take notes? Don’t worry, here are the main takeaways:

Becoming an author takes dedication.
Success only comes after you’ve written and published a decent number of books. The more hours you spend writing, the sooner you’ll get there.

Trust the professionals.
Hiring a cover designer and an editor to help you create the final published product is highly recommended. You will probably spend $100-$500 per service, but it’ll be worth it because you’ll be selling the best book possible.

Pay attention to pricing strategies.
Offering your book for free for a limited time is a great way to gain the highest quantity of new readers. If you’re writing a series, the permafree strategy works for the first book, and you’re likely to make more money offering one book in the series for free, than you would if you charged for all of them.

Genre matters.
Some are more popular than others; know where your genre stands on the list.  If you’re writing for a niche audience, know that niche often means “small” which makes it more difficult to make a lot of money from your writing.

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AUTHOR - Ferol Vernon

Ferol is the COO of Written Word Media. He reads Sci-Fi, Mystery, and Biography. He loves technology and building things.

29 Comments
  • marty@martyneary.com'

    Marty | Feb 24, 2016 at 10:43 am

    Hi Ferol,
    Great article which I will be coming back to again.
    I wonder what you think about book length, too? You state most authors have a series of books, yet how many of those books are over 200 pages?
    I’ve noticed that a lot of these authorpreneurs release a series of short books at around 90 or so pages, even less. Plus established authors are releasing Kindle Singles now at around 90 pages that also sell well. I wonder if a good strategy is to write quick and publish fast with shorter books ( good title for a book?)

  • Ferol | Feb 24, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Hi Marty,

    The survey we put out didn’t ask about length of book, but that’s a good idea for a follow up article. We’ll look into it!

    Thanks for the comment.

  • sturgeon3736@yahoo.com'

    K. Rowe | Feb 24, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Interesting article. I have been a self-published author for 6 years now. I have 15 novels published (on Amazon, BN, and Smashwords.com) quite a few in the popular genres along with two series of 4 novels each, I use a professional editor, and most of the time a professional artist for covers. I do free promotions, and yet, I do not make $5,000/ month. Yeah, that’s a total pipe dream! Heck, I’m lucky if I make $5K/year off my writing- and one of my books was a bestseller, and two are award winners. So, what’s a person got to do to make $5K a month? I seem to be doing all 5 points, but yet the bucks are not rolling in.

    • angelwhitewrites@gmail.com'

      Ann | Feb 26, 2016 at 10:45 am

      I’m looking for the same answers, too! I have 8 books out (last week’s release makes 9) and my royalty payment last month for all 8 books was under $100!
      I’ve done everything listed in this post. Nowadays days when I see bloggers reiterating the same stuff over and over I just roll my eyes and mumble, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Been there, done all of that, have yet to see any results or return on the money I spent.. What else you got?”
      The way I see it, it’s about who you know and who endorses you. If you get the right blogger to rave about your book, you will shot to the top one hundred just like that. But bloggers these days are not as helpful to ‘small’ authors as they used to be. It’s more about money and popularity now than it is about a love for books. So they only promote the already successful authors that will in turn rave back about these “awesome bloggers”, which helps to grow their following. The larger their following, the more readers click their Amazon associates links, and the more money they make in commissions off authors’ books each time someone clicks “buy”.
      So if we think what is listed in this article is all it takes, then we are kidding ourselves.
      Terribly written, terribly edited novels, with terrible covers are making the USA and New York Times bestsellers list. How do you supposed that’s happening?

      • jsharbour@gmail.com'

        Jon Harbour | Jun 24, 2016 at 11:40 am

        It’s not about who you know and who endorses you, it’s about how well you write and market yourself to reach the tipping point. I’ve gone back and revised extensively too, to improve the quality of my first novel. Don’t be so cynical. A terrible novel does not get onto a bestseller list, that’s just your opinion of that particular novel. I personally thing romance in all forms is absolute garbage, but obviously that’s not true.

  • hop@hophopproductions.com'

    Faleena Hopkins | Feb 24, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    Great job, Ferol.

    @ K. Rowe – because this blog is in response to a poll, it can only hit what was polled. I’m one of the FSA’s who filled out the survey, and there are some other important things that can help you hit that 5K mark you’re aiming for. 1) Not just writing more, but writing fast. You’ve got to keep them when you get them. Putting out the next book quickly, and emailing them about the release (see point 3.)
    2) Writing a series, and having the first one free (even permafree, like my Werewolves of New York: Nathaniel) and if you don’t write fast, consider publishing two books at once and having the third set up as a pre-order while you write it. That way you can attract loyalty and excitement for your next book.
    5) Get as many eyes on them as you can. Have free promos, and when you do, offer them something in your backmatter, and even in your front matter offering a free book for mailing list signup (point 3 again). As you build your list, let them know about the next promo. You have 15 books so you can promote the heck out of them. (see point 4)
    3) Mailing Lists are crucial. Loyal readers want to hear from the authors they love (just don’t email too much, or about things that don’t interest them) Best way to build one? I’ve found that offering a free book when they sign up works like a charm. Also offering the next book in the series, during a free book promo of the FIRST book in that series, boom. Gold. They will most likely move on to book three… and then just might grab the rest of your backlist library.
    4) Repackaging. If you books aren’t selling, get new covers and run a promo. Research the bestselling books in your genre on Amazon and study their covers. Find a cover artist who is that good. Notice fonts, images, layout before hiring them.
    5) Goodreads Giveaways. Offer one paperback – you only need one because the same amount of people will request whether there are 1 or 5, I promise – and watch how many people list your book as a to-read. Do this when you have a promo. It will drive more people to your book, and when they see it’s only .99 or free, they’ll grab it. Goodreads giveaways are free, and will cost you the printing and mailing the paperback. Cheapest promo ever, aside from Bknights on Fiverr. You can even change your description on GR to say “ebook on promo for a limited time!” after the giveaway is approved.
    6) Places to promote: I made a list here on my blog of ones I’ve used that worked. There are others, this is just my personal experience: http://goo.gl/usN9jq

    Scratching the surface here, but this will get you jump-started. Don’t lose heart. If you love to write, keep writing. xx, Faleena

  • blair1807@gmail.com'

    Blair Evans | Feb 24, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    What I found strange about this article is that it didn’t take into account the majority of authors that earn practically nothing at all. I’m not that bothered about what keeps a $500 a month author from becoming a $5000 a month one. I’d like to know tried and tested ways of getting a niche title in front of a niche audience, or how any of the above found their first 50 readers. Also, in some genres like Literary Fiction, ‘One does not simply write 13.75 novels’. By setting the EAs and the FSAs so far away from the typical self published author’s experience, any findings become irrelevant or absurd: Religious Fiction and Religious Non-Fiction have opposite success rates … Literary Fiction has the lowest success rate … switch to writing Romance of any kind.

    It was a bit like reading a career advice article that compared millionaires to billionaires.

    • Ferol | Feb 25, 2016 at 11:11 am

      @Blair, thanks for the feedback. We wrote this article to try to help authors improve a writing career, but your point is well taken that we didn’t focus much on launching a brand new writing career. We will take that into consideration for next time.

  • jessicaaspen@rocketmail.com'

    Jessica Aspen | Feb 25, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Hi Ferol,
    Looking at the breakdown of EA vs FA by genre it sounds like you think those genres with the high bars (romance) are the ones to focus on, but given your data do you think that it could mean that the romance authors have been using sound marketing strategies for years and that there are actually openings in the other genres for success focused authors? Or do you think that romance might be saturated by FA’s and so actually difficult to switch from an EA to an FA? Just wondering if you looked at the data from that direction.

    Great article! Thanks for all the data. 🙂

    • Ferol | Feb 25, 2016 at 11:22 am

      @Jessica you bring up a great point. It is definitely possible that romance authors are more effective marketers, not that romance is a better genre to write in. There’s a lot of romance authors out there who are incredibly successful, and they have really figured out what sells in that genre, but I do not think it’s saturated. There’s plenty of reader demand to go around. I also believe there’s tons of opportunity in other genres right now, but authors will need to work at it, and actively market those books to unlock the potential of those genres.

  • hello@helenahalme.com'

    Helena Halme | Feb 26, 2016 at 6:40 am

    What a great post, and one which gives me hope. I’m doing all the above, apart from making one of my books permafree. It’s such a scary step top take.

    • hello@helenahalme.com'

      Helena Halme | Feb 26, 2016 at 6:43 am

      Oops. I obviously meant, ‘step to take.’ Didn’t show the comment to my editor. 😉

  • authorpalessa@gmail.com'

    Palessa | Feb 26, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Honestly, I can’t even begin to compete with the FSAs and I don’t feel like I have to. I like your tips and I’m working on writing more in a smart way. But I can only do what I can do and really, building a mailing list I can work, that’s solid and doing more giveaways so that I can get my reviews up and then do perma-free is my goal. Kudos to the FSAs. I’ve decided to just focus on what I need to do to build my brand first and foremost. THanks for the insight!

  • marty@martyneary.com'

    Marty | Feb 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Hi, Is building an email list really worth it?
    After all, it takes months to build a sizeable list to around 500 people.
    Even if you send a great email broadcast only around 20% of your audience
    will bother to read it and then only 10 % of that 20% will actually click on your product link , if you’re lucky..
    That’s ten people who’ll click through and then they have to decide to buy your $5 book, if they are interested.
    Most might be on Kindle Unlimited anyway and get it for free.
    Sorry to sound a little negative, but email marketing is annoying for most people & can be unproductive for authors…

    • Ferol | Feb 26, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      @Marty, building an email list for an author is really worth it, but you are right , it IS very hard, and it does take time. Those 10 people you mentioned who might buy your book, those might be the crucial early reviews that gets your book started, or one of those people might be part of a book club and share your book with the whole club. Email marketing gets a bad rap for being ‘annoying’ but for most people, email is their preferred method of communication for things they want. Fans of your books WANT to know when you have a new book out, or when your book goes on sale. If you keep your message clear and short, and don’t send emails too often, you will be rewarded. Don’t get discouraged!

  • success101coach@yahoo.com'

    Ernie Zelinski | Feb 26, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    This article misses two very important factors for becoming an author who earns over $5,000 a month.

    The first is: You must write a great book.

    I like what Mark Coker (owner of Smashwords) recently said relating to being successful at the game of publishing:

    “Good isn’t good enough.”

    In other words, your book must be much, much better than good. The problem is that most authors don’t have the critical thinking skills to know what a “great book” is.

    This piece of advice has helped me to be successful at the game of writing and self-publishing:

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

    Second, your marketing must be better than good. Your marketing should be such that you pulverize the competition.

    For the record, I have come up with 75 to 100 of my own unique marketing techniques that 99 percent of authors and book marketing experts are not creative enough to come up with. I have used similar unique marketing techniques to get over 111 books deals with various foreign publishers around the world. These techniques involve what my competitors are NOT doing — instead of what my competitors are doing.

    Book marketing guru John Kremer recently mentioned that he was looking for more ideas for the new edition of his book “1,001 Ways to Market Your Books.” So I emailed him a few of my marketing techniques — which I didn’t think he would use. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), he did a blog post about some of them. Check the blog post out at:

    http://bookmarketingbestsellers.com/ernie-zelinski-creative-book-marketing-strategies/

    Of course, sending John Kremer some of my marketing techniques was another of my marketing techniques to get me publicity in the new edition of his book. As it turned out, I got publicity on his blog post too.

    As Jean de La Bruyére stated, “The shortest and best way to make your fortune is to let people see clearly that it is in their interests to promote yours.”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 290,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

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  • jasonchapman-author@hotmail.com'

    Jason Chapman | May 25, 2016 at 10:45 pm

    Its all very well if you can afford an editor, but what if you can’t?

    • Ferol | Jun 24, 2016 at 12:46 pm

      Jason, that can be a problem for authors on a budget. If you can figure out how to get a professional editor, we’d recommend that, but if you can’t maybe you can barter with another author. Get them to edit your book and in turn, you edit theirs. Just something to think about.

  • jpmacolino@gmail.com'

    Joseph Macolino | Jun 23, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    Thank you so much for this article! It is extremely helpful. I have two questions that I am hoping you can help answer. First, how do you actually get a book to be permanently free? I understand the KDP offer on Amazon Kindle, but that doesn’t let me choose to price it at $0. Second, can I use this strategy if I have already published the first two books in the series? I.E. I am thinking of releasing a prequel to the first trilogy (a single book) via Kindle and using that as the “free promo” book. Yes, I will have that book receive a professional cover and professional editing as well. I have the entire story drawn out already, but I am worried about executing the release properly.

    • Ferol | Jun 24, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      Joseph,

      To answer your first question: we actually just wrote an article on that exact topic and it has a handy dandy flow chart to help you out. Here’s the link, hope it helps! https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/2016/06/22/amazon-kdp-publishing-make-book-free/

      Second, sure you can still use this strategy to market your prequel. We do typically see authors write book 1 or the prequel first and then release the paid sequels, but it should still work the way you are proposing. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

  • jsharbour@gmail.com'

    Jon Harbour | Jun 24, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Your second graph combines romance sub-genres but does not combine any others. Fantasy and Horror are sub-genres of Science Fiction.

  • jackieweger1940@gmail.com'

    Jackie Weger | Jul 2, 2016 at 2:30 am

    Well, Hello, Ferol. I don’t know how I missed this article first time around…Found the link on KDP Facebook page on July 1, 2016. The data is interesting. The comments from authors even more so. The more successful authors suggesting ‘do it my way’ and less successful trying to figure out any way at all to success. I usually turn away at once when bloggers and authors speak to series. Because the inference is if one does not write series characters or series of any kind, one won’t see success. I write stand alone romance novels. It takes patience but I walk and promote my units to a level of success that satisfies me. I hire cover artists. I have changed the covers on one book five times because the artists, while talented, did NOT capture the essence of the story arc. Took me a couple of years to figure that out. The artist who finally nailed the cover for that particular book could not manage to capture the essence of another. Paid him a kill fee and moved on. I hire professional editors and proofreaders. I take that one step farther. Once we deem the book suitable for publication and it lands on Amazon, I hire a second editor to read the Look Inside feature on line. The second editor always finds some small errors~a dropped quotation mark, or a missing article such as ‘the’ or ‘a’. I repair that within 24 hours. I do NOT listen to folks who insist one must churn out books to create a list before one can be successful. My motto is: If I write and publish the thing, I’m gonna sell it. I put that book in a promo pipeline and go for it. Patience counts. I often allow my units to lie fallow while I plot strategy and design a promotion or a Rafflecopter. I do one other thing. I stay away from authors who are filled to the brim with negativity. That stuff is catching. Indie authorship is a tough business to learn. It is an acquired skill set and it does NOT happen overnight. Thanks for the opportunity to have my say. Best to you and yours.

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