I’m a best-selling Amazon Kindle
author and I crush some
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we spoke with authors who left behind substandard careers to peddle their words on Amazon.
Author, as told to
Author A is a former drunk punk turned early Amazon Kindle Singles partner.
Author B leverages Amazon as her primary distribution platform for post-erotica musings.
Author C is a Los Angeles-based creative.
Author D is a New York-based writer with a refreshingly reasonable perspective on online publishing.
AUTHOR A: In sixth grade, I wrote a story that made my teacher cry in front of the class. I found that I really enjoyed making people cry.
Then, when I was 16, I was laying in bed in my dorm room with my girlfriend and a bottle of wine. My pal from across the hall walked in, and said “You need to read this.” He threw a book at me. It was Women by Charles Bukowski. That kind of ruined my life. But it also made me think that I may be able to write for a living, and not do anything else.
AUTHOR B: I first fell in love with reading as a child. Literature became my escape from an abusive family. I started writing poetry and short stories soon after, but I kept them to myself and rarely shared them with anyone. It didn’t occur to me that I could get paid to write until I had spent most of my life wasting away, working mostly clerical jobs while I raised my daughter. When I was 43, two years ago, I stumbled upon a random post online about someone self-publishing erotica and making a thousand dollars a month. It was just one of those, “Hey, I could do that” moments. After contacting this person, they showed me the ropes and hand-held me through the process. I never expected it all to turn out so well. It changed my life.
AUTHOR C: I used to hide in my sixth grade social studies class, handwriting stories in a notebook. I’m pretty sure I failed the class, but I fell in love with writing. When I was in college I won some awards for papers and had multiple professors tell me they loved reading my work. I always addressed the subject matter with my own voice instead of just regurgitating whatever I had read. I was even accused of plagiarism at one point for writing a paper so well that it was submitted to a contest without my consent as an apology once I systematically proved I had written it. I had also just paid $2,000 to a writers conference, which helped my case. When I showed them I was serious about writing, they backed off. Being accused of plagiarism is pretty flattering if you have the right attitude about it. I never got paid as a writer until I was in my mid-twenties: I took a job in the mailroom of a website and was so disgusted with their poor content that I started writing my own for them in my downtime. I was promoted to full-time staff writer with a salary and benefits within a month; a coveted position to be sure, but I just took the mail job to pay bills and wrote for the fun of it.
Author D: I was doing the same thing six years ago through Lulu.com which is a self-published, on-demand print service. A month later they were bought by Amazon, so I got access to their self-publishing outlet. The first thing I put up was a book of short fiction.
One time, this small publishing house in Belgrade, Serbia got in touch with me. I thought it was spam for a while, but it turns out it wasn’t. They had seen my books on Amazon and wanted to publish them in Serbian. We worked together to translate them over the course of a year, and they’re currently being released in Serbia, which is cool. That said, I’ve probably made $400 or $500 over the course of several years.
AUTHOR A: In 2011, David Blum invited me out to breakfast. I had written for him over at the New York Press and he had just gotten an editor job at Amazon. He said that Amazon was going to be publishing writing for the Kindle. It would be available on all platforms—any smartphone, tablet, or computer—but it wouldn’t be printed in any form, and it wouldn’t be available on the Internet. I told him it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, that it would never work, and that if it worked for anyone, it wouldn’t work for me. Besides, I told him, I was sober now and didn’t have any more stories. “You have one more story left,” he said. I was like, “Well, I did get shipwrecked that one time.” He goes: “You asshole, that’s the story!”
My account of getting shipwrecked in 2001 was published in April of 2011. It did nothing... Then, did nothing... And then, it crept up to #1. Then, it dropped down again and went back up, and stayed there. I got my first check 60 days later, like clockwork. I had hoped to make $500. The check was for over nine grand.
I told my boss the next day that I quit. He asked me why. I said “Look at this fucking check, man!” He said “Shit, I’ll quit, too!” I thought I had just gotten lucky. But my next story went on to quadruple the success of the first one. I was crushing some huge checks for a minute there. It was a scary time.
AUTHOR B: It’s been almost two and a half years since I published my first short erotica story. After nine months of writing longer and longer stories, I wrote my first romance novel. It did pretty well, which was surprising to me. But the money was coming in, and I adored writing them, so I decided to quit my day job to have more time to devote to it. I was making twice as much at self-publishing at the time, and it's only grown from there. It’s been a whirlwind, but in total I’ve written 12 novels now, and about 70 short stories.
AUTHOR C: In 2012, I was living on a boat that a wealthy magazine publisher owned after quitting my full-time writing job. I was doing some work getting the company’s medical journals online when I discovered how easy it was to place products on Amazon. I created a “book” out of some blogs I had lying around just to test it out, and a few sold. I’ve been doing it ever since, among other projects.
Author D: Amazon lets you select your royalty rates. Back when I was doing it, you could literally choose how much money you wanted to make, and they would just take out out the manufacturing costs. Now, they have two different options: you can either choose 35% royalty rates or 70% royalty rates. With the 35% royalty rates, you decide on your own price and distribution. With the the 70% royalty rates, you can only price it within a certain range unless you sign up for another program of theirs. Also, you can only sell in certain countries because of copyright laws. You don’t have to pay to be self-published on Amazon unless you have something really specific in mind.
At the end of the day, it’s the same as any other profession: if you’re good at it and hit on the right thing at the right time, you can make some money. But it’s not a get-rich quick scheme by any means. If you look at what’s selling on Amazon and you’re writing a trashy romance novel, you’ll probably do ok.
The percent of all paid ebook unit sales on Amazon.com that are indie self-published ebooks.
The percent of all consumer dollars spent on ebooks on Amazon.com that are being spent on indie self-published ebooks.
The percent of ebook earnings generated on Amazon taken home by indie-published authors in 2014
The percent of ebook earnings generated on Amazon taken home by the “Big Five”
publishers in 2014
The percent of the US ebook market controlled by Amazon.
Skill or luck?
AUTHOR A: The way I explain it to myself is that I was “just lucky,” that it was a fluke, that I was in the right place at the right time, that sort of thing. But that self-deprecation is part of my experience with alcoholism. All six of my Kindle Singles have been bestsellers. I got a book deal. Some people I esteem very highly have said some very nice things to me. I can’t chalk all of that up to “luck.” At some point, I’ve got to get right with it in my head and say: “Weird, funny shit has happened to me, and I’m a decent writer who’s able to turn those experiences into stories people want to read.”
I think it would be harder for an unknown author to have the success with Kindle Singles that I had, in part because people like me have been incredibly successful and word is out now. I was lucky. Would you like to be lucky, too? Here’s how to be lucky: work your fucking ass off. Take chances. Be brave. Burn bridges, if you have to. Always have a Plan B—you’ll end up using it. Care about things, and write about what you care about. David Blum knew who I was because I had taken a chance in the past. I’d written him a totally unhinged pitch letter and then wrote some crazy narratives about the drugs I was doing, waking up in abandoned lots, etc.
AUTHOR B: Honestly, I feel like I came to the game a little late. But I don’t think it’s too late for anyone at all. The way Kindle Unlimited is paying by pages read now definitely makes a difference for people who self-publish short erotica stories, but by the time KU even began I was already writing novels. So, while I think it’s completely possible for someone new to have success self-publishing, I think the era of making a lot of money writing short pieces has passed. A lot of my friends who still write erotica are forced to bundle a bunch of stories together in order to get paid decently now. Novel writers are doing much better than short story writers. Of course, I’d like to think it has to do with the quality of my storytelling, but I think any decent writer could begin now and do okay. I’d love to start over, and apply all the things I’ve learned over these last two years. I’ve often thought of starting a new pen name to do just that, but I’m attached to my name so much that it almost seems like a betrayal to all the work I’ve put into building this one.
AUTHOR C: I respect it all. I think the indie author is really put to the test with whether they want to be a writer since they have to write without being paid in advance. There are no deadlines, no editors, no accountability. When you still can’t wait to get to the laptop in the morning and write, I think you’ve found something special. I never wrote full-time for a blog but I’ve done a few guest entries pertaining to specific topics. Writers are artists. If a writer is writing about something they’re not passionate about, not only does the prose itself suffer, but it’s not sustainable in the long term. I don’t care if it’s music, politics, or even marketing a product, I want to read something written by someone with passion and conviction. As far as grabbing an agent, until you’re writing with enough verve and skill to attract an agent, don’t bother. Do good work and they’ll come to you.
Author D: Very little of it is luck. It’s more about strategy, specifically figuring out what sells at any given point. If you’re going to make money on self-publishing on Amazon, you’re not exactly going to be expressing yourself in the most artistic way possible. And you’re definitely not going to be writing what you want or what you think is good. The mentality is: “Here’s what’s hot right now—I’ll just mimic that.”
It’s more of a craft than an art. The top 30 Amazon direct publishing titles at any given time are romance or fantasy novels. They’re these weird creature novels like “I was kidnapped by centaurs and became the queen of their village.” That’s the format that seems to work if you want it to be at all lucrative.
Amazon’s 120,000 ebook titles by publisher type
Small or medium publisher
Big Five publisher (imprints of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster)
Uncategorized single-author publisher
AUTHOR A: I’d compare the battle between publishing on Amazon and taking a number of other writing gigs to the music business framework we’re more familiar with. Self-publishing is like putting your music up on Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, etc., directly with no middleman. Being an indie author is essentially the same thing as signing to a small, independent record label run out of some dude’s basement. And then, with each release, trying to work your way up to bigger and better labels. Getting a book agent is similar to getting a band manager and trying to get signed to a major label. I should point out that my experience isn’t really pure self-publishing. It’s more like I partnered with Amazon for my Kindle Singles. They edited them, provided cover art, and promoted them, as opposed to Kindle Direct Publishing, in which anyone can put anything up. But I have some friends who are making good money doing that, as well.
I’d like to think that my career has involved aspects of all of those models. If you’re a smart writer, I think that’s the way to go. If you have a great idea, by all means, you should submit to Kindle Singles now. If you have a strong sales record and a memorable personal brand, that won’t hurt, but Amazon, and David Blum in particular, has shown a lasting commitment to launching new writers. As a platform, they have the reach, you know?
AUTHOR B: My entire experience has been with self-publishing. I haven’t begun to explore the traditional method of publishing or look for an agent at all. I hear stories, though. I have lots of friends who have explored both sides and based on what I hear, I like where I am. I like having the freedom to put a book out when I’m ready, to have control over the cover, and not to have to share the profits. There’s no pressure if a book flops. You can just repackage it, change what isn’t working, and put it back out there. So, I’m in no hurry to go the professional route, although lots of people tell me that’s the way to do it. At this point, I’m just not ready to relinquish total control.
I’m a huge control freak, and I think that’s why the idea of being self-employed appeals to me so much. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to shoot up at the crack of dawn and rush to a boring and repetitive job that barely pays my bills. I wake up in the morning, have my coffee, hang out with my husband, take care of my dogs, and get to work when I’m ready. The thing about self-publishing is that you make money every day. There’s always people buying books somewhere. I can take off for the week, and work from anywhere, or not work, and still make sales on my books. That doesn’t mean I don’t have to make time to work, though. If I stop putting out new content, the money slows down, so it keeps me motivated to keep writing and publishing new content.
AUTHOR C: Amazon is the online equivalent to selling your band’s album on consignment at a local record store. Yeah, they’ll carry it and if any random happens to walk in and pick it up they won’t turn them away from buying it, but you’re not going to sell any unless you promote it. So go promote it. Do guest blogs, do podcast interviews, know your target market and invest a bit. Then study what’s working, and what’s a waste, and adjust. Or if you’re just “not good at all that,” then hire someone to do it.
Author D: If you don’t want to write supernatural creature erotica, you’re pretty much fucked. In some ways it’s just a quicker microcosm of the publishing industry in general. What agents and publishers are looking to sell is what seems to be doing well. There’s more leeway than what brick-and-mortar bookstores have, because Amazon self-publishing is a monolithic market. They’re the biggest and best way to publish online because there’s no competing option really.
To make money self-publishing on Amazon you have to adjust your style and themes to what works for the Kindle market. A bunch of people publish vanity titles, which is fine if you just want to get a physical object out there and make a small amount of money. But you won’t be able to support yourself unless you’re conforming to the dominant trends.
Amazon recently unveiled an asinine new payment structure, which will compensate authors per page read vs. per book download. They have powerful algorithms that determine whether the page has actually been read, not just viewed. I really hope it doesn’t continue in this direction. I get the idea that it’s an experiment because we’re so used to paying for streaming content, but I think it’s bad for writers, readers and literature in general. From the author’s standpoint, if you sell a book you sell the whole book—you shouldn’t be at the mercy of people who decide they don’t want to finish the thing. It’s like Uber for books.
Part of the job
AUTHOR A: When it comes to marketing a finished product, I’ve never worked with a publicist, or even so much as had a strategy. I hate talking about marketing shit. I hate selling as much as I love writing. My buddy always sends talented writers my way like, “Oh, he’s the promo guy. Talk to him; he’s all about promotion.”
I personally hate self-promotion, but I hate it less than working a temp job. So before a story goes up, I hit up ten or so readers who have been fans of my other stuff. I send them a free copy and ask them to write a review as soon as the piece is published. I do not pay for reviews, I have never paid for reviews, and I will never pay for reviews. But it’s just good business to send some samples to people you think will like it and are willing to write a little about how much they did. Then, I promote the shit out of it on every social media platform: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it. I try not to be a tool about it. I try to make it pretty clear to people that I hate being “that guy.” Most of my feed when I don’t have a new story is dog pics and dick jokes, so I don't feel too bad about annoying folks a little bit once or twice a year. I fucking hate it, but I know it's part of the job.
AUTHOR B: Is subject matter or marketing more important? That’s the million dollar question. Everyone has their own formula. I have a community of self-publishers that I consult with on a regular basis, and we share a lot with each other. My personal formula is to send it to my editor, format the book myself, research the keywords myself, write the blurb myself (with the help of some other author friends). My daughter has an art degree, and she does my covers after I select the art myself. Then I just hit publish. It’s a simple process, for the most part. I don’t allow myself to fret over it too much, or make endless changes because I could easily get sucked into doing that. I have to really keep my indecision in check during this process.
With romance, different genres are trending at different times. I try to write towards those trends, and I think that helps with sales. I also believe that the community of readers and best-selling romance authors I’ve found online have helped tremendously. Amazon’s algorithms connect books in their “also-bought” feature, so I think rubbing elbows with New York Times and USA Today best-sellers doesn’t hurt. In the end, I think it’s pretty equal. Readers are smart, they won’t keep reading your work if it isn’t good, no matter how well it’s marketed.
AUTHOR C: Plenty of times, I’ve wondered whether my voice or my ability to market myself gave me the edge up. I think they go hand in hand. It’s a “chicken or the egg” situation. As a writer I have to say content is king, but if no one knows that king, he has no real power. Do good work, then shamelessly promote the heck out of it. Or if you’re not able to brag, then hire someone else to promote it for you. Without eyes on it, all your hard work and passion is worthless. Which is another reason to actually give a shit about what you’re writing. When you care, you promote. Without both there is no conversation.
Author D: Amazon does a good job of promoting titles on their site. When people search for and purchase books on internet, it’s almost entirely within the Amazon ecosystem. Self promotion doesn’t really make a difference in my experience.
Chuck Tingle is a unique case, but an increasing number of people are making money doing strange, hybrid stuff on Amazon. Typically, as I said, you figure out what’s selling—spoiler: it’s primarily weird erotica—and adapt your writing to reflect that model. I think he’s the only one also doing self-publishing as performance art, but he’s definitely making money off the critical backlash, too.