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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.