Self-publishing is a big consideration for many authors, it can have so much to offer and there’s no doubt that it’s become a financially viable alternative to traditional publishing routes. You have the freedom to set your own prices and take a larger cut of the royalties; choose your own editors, cover designs and titles; set your own timescales and deadlines; and most importantly, write what you want to write. Of course it comes with a number of caveats and if you don’t approach the venture with prior experience or sound advice, it can be a potential minefield.
In this ‘The Write Advice’ post we speak with Lindsay Buroker, an accomplished author who has taken on the challenge of self-publishing and found great success. Find out why she choose to take this route, what she has learnt along the way and some top tips about how to make your own journey more easy going.
When did you start writing?
I started writing as a kid — my mom had me reading by the time I was three, and I was making up stories in my head long before I started writing them down at age six or so. Making up stories was the fun part. I often got stuck at the halfway point when it came to writing. I started and abandoned a lot of novels before finally knuckling down and learning the habit of finishing them!
How did you fit writing in around life’s commitments and do you have any tips for those with already busy schedules?
Like most authors, I was working full time when I got the bug to finally polish a manuscript and publish it. I found that word count goals worked great for me. I got in the habit of writing 1,000 words a day, no matter what. It didn’t actually take that long to write those words when I sat down, turned off all distractions, and did it.
I found that I could be fairly prolific at that rate and finished quite a few short stories and a couple of novels before I found self-publishing and started putting them out there. Along the way, I joined an online writing workshop where I critiqued the work of others and others critiqued my work. That made finishing something take longer, but I learned a great deal in the process and became a better writer.
As for tips, please read Rachel Aaron’s inexpensive 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love for better advice than I could ever give. Then, if you’re having trouble hitting your daily goals, turn off the wifi or work at a computer that isn’t hooked up to the internet. Whatever it takes to keep the distractions down.
I know a lot of prolific author moms and dads who work full time and take care of kids—a lot of them set their alarms to get them up early to make time for writing before the rest of the house gets up. I think it’s important to carve out some time each day. It’s much easier to stay in the flow that way.
When did you decide that writing would be a full time role and what influenced this decision?
I had the delusion of becoming a full-time author early on. I say delusion because that was when traditional publishing was the only logical way to go. I still had this hope that somehow I might make it. But almost as soon as I learned about the Kindle and the new viability of self-publishing (back in 2010), I stumbled across one of J.A. Konrath’s blog posts where he was sharing his numbers. I figured if I could do even a quarter as well as he was doing, I could be living the dream and writing novels for my day job.
Once I set my mind to it and started publishing ebooks, it only took about a year to get to a reliable if modest income. From there, things continued on an upward trajectory, and I couldn’t be more pleased with where I am now.
How important were the readers in the evolution of your writing?
I’ve had contests where readers can name characters and things like that, but I don’t otherwise ask people for input on stories. I do utilize beta readers, who will go over early drafts and look for inconsistencies or things they think could be better. I know that many of my stories are better because of the input they’ve given!
For the most part, though, I write the stories I want to tell. I’ve never been great at “writing to market,” which is a bit of a trend these days, since I’m rarely excited by the common tropes, but I trust that I can put out adventures that at least some readers will enjoy, enough of them that I can continue to make a living doing this.
Tell us about the release of your first piece of work and the lessons you learnt from the process?
The Emperor’s Edge was the first novel I released, and that series went on to have seven books as well as a few spinoffs. I didn’t publish and wait to see how things did—I just had a series planned from the beginning and was committed to that. Which is good, because I didn’t hit it big from the start (sales were very gradual that first year and usually a direct result of my marketing efforts). I did get some readers who enjoyed the characters, signed up for my mailing list (I knew to get one of those started fairly early on), and asked for more. I gained some momentum as the series continued on, and I tinkered with 99 cents and eventually free for the first book. More readers came aboard, and some people even made fan art and fan stories around the series.
I did gradually learn to think more like a publisher when it came to writing blurbs, branding books, and choosing covers. In fact, my Emperor’s Edge covers are in the process of being redesigned this year to be more in line with what people expect from epic fantasy and steampunk. It’s tough to gain any headway today without a really professional package, and all other things being equal, it’s easier to sell a story that fits squarely into the tropes of a genre.
Why did you choose the self-publishing route and what are the greatest benefits of doing this in your opinion?
I don’t have a lot of patience. I did try to get an agent for a brief time, but they were so slow in getting back to me that I was relieved when I stumbled across J.A. Konrath’s blog and learned that people were directly uploading books to Amazon and other stores. And making money! Almost immediately, I decided that self-publishing was for me.
I like that you can publish a novel as soon as it’s ready (and that it can be ready very quickly) and also that you have control over the cover and the price. Pricing control is so imperative if you want to run sales and participate in promotions and giveaways. It’s also beneficial to be able to get real-time results (daily sales numbers), so you can see which of your promotional efforts are effective.
Talk us through the sort of deadlines you set yourself when writing a book?
I usually have my editor booked well in advance, so I have to make sure everything is finished up and ready to go on time for her. She’s booked solid 6-9 months out now, so if I miss a date, I’m out of luck.
My goals will usually be X-thousand words a day when I’m writing a rough draft or XX-thousand a day when I’m editing. Deadlines are helpful, since they keep you honest, but I generally prefer to work straight through when I’m writing something new anyway. It’s easier to stay in the flow when I’m not taking days off in the middle or jumping around to other projects.
You have a number of short stories available on your website, how important are these in helping to cultivate and add to the worlds you create?
It’s something I’ve done in order to have something to release in between novels, to help people remember me and my characters. This year, I’ve started using them as bonuses for newsletter subscribers, to entice them to join and also to stick around. I’ve also done short stories for anthologies with other authors, which we’ve sometimes given away for free, as a way to get the word out about our respective series.
Marketing aside, they’re often a fun way to highlight a different character or explore some side adventure. I’ve also gone back in time and done stories that show some of the history of a character, something that influenced him or her later at a younger age.
Tell us about one of your own favourite short stories and why you like it so much?
Sure, “Shadows over Innocence” gives some background on one of my popular Emperor’s Edge characters, the assassin, Sicarius. He’s cold and aloof, and for most of the series, you have no idea what’s going on inside his head. This short story was set earlier, before he met the heroine and back when he was the emperor’s personal assassin. It was one of the first things (if not the first) that I wrote from his point of view, and the fans seemed to enjoy it. It’s free everywhere.
I see that you’ve compiled some of the Emperor’s Edge series into audiobooks. Why did you do this and what do you like about audiobooks?
In the beginning, I started publishing the EE audiobooks chapter by chapter through Podiobooks, so they were coming out each week, like a podcast. I made them free to subscribers, and I did this in the hope of gaining more fans and some exposure (at the time, there weren’t that many novels that had been turned into Podiobooks since they were time-consuming if you did the books yourself or expensive if you hired someone to produce them). I ended up doing the first three books this way, and eventually put them up for sale on Audible too.
My narrator got busy with life and had to move on, so I stopped at Book 3. But people kept asking for the rest of the series, so I’ve now got a great lady I met through ACX narrating them. We just put out Book 4, and the rest will follow. The first three are still available for free, but since I’m now working with ACX, the rest will have to be exclusive with them and only available for purchase (their audiobooks go to Audible, Amazon, and Apple). This is actually fine with me, because these are fairly long books, and the production costs are substantial!
The main reason I got into audiobooks was because it was easier to be found, since there were fewer titles available (as opposed to in the ebook marketplaces), but I’m also enjoying that they’re another source of income now. As I get more and more of my backlist out there, I get nicer cheques each quarter. I’m also tickled that people with visual impairments or who just don’t have time to sit down and read can listen to my stories. I even listened to a couple of my own older books on a recent road trip!
The success of your writing career is undeniable and this is plain to see from the feedback and reviews of your reader base. What are the main things you’d attribute this success to?
I think there are two things that have really helped. First, I have a fairly unique voice and sense of humor. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but for those who relate to it, they’ll often go through my backlist and buy everything. I know other authors who might have one series that does well but then others where readers just don’t switch over to try the new one. I feel fortunate that I’ve got some dedicated fans who will try anything I write, especially since I like to genre hop a bit!
The other thing that’s helped is the consistency and frequency with which I published. I’ve been publishing for six years now, and even though I wasn’t as efficient in the beginning, it’s been rare for readers to have to wait even three months between adventures. If I didn’t have a whole new novel ready to go, I would at least publish a short story or novella in the interim. I feel like in this fast-paced computer age, if you’re taking even six months between releases (or worse, disappearing for long gaps at a time), you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Finishing off with some words of wisdom, what are the three most important things for new authors to consider when taking the first steps on their writing career?
First off, don’t be in a rush to publish. These days, with self-publishing and ebooks so easy to get into, there’s the temptation to hurry up and get your first novel out there. Most authors who’ve traditionally published will tell you that it was their 5th or even 10th novel that finally got snagged by an agent and picked up by a publisher. Most first novels should never see the light of day. You have to learn the ropes first. Reading books, taking classes, and participating in writing workshops can be great experiences. As I mentioned earlier, I was a member of the SFF Online Writing Workshop for years before I had a couple of manuscripts that I thought were good enough to publish. By that point, I’d also sold some short stories to magazines and anthologies. Those sales gave me more confidence that my writing was on a professional level, and I got fairly good reviews right off the bat with the first couple of novels I published.
When you are ready, save up some money and get a good editor and an amazing cover artist. It will make that first book much easier to sell. I tried to save money on editing with that first book (I figured it had gone through that workshop, so it should be fairly clean), and I regretted it, and later paid to have it re-edited.
Lastly, read the self-publishing blogs out there, and listen to the podcasts with interviews of people who have done well for themselves. Authors love to share their tips, and there’s a lot to glean from them. It also takes a while to learn to think like a publisher at least as much as you think like a writer or an artist. If you want to make money (or even make your money back), you really do have to put out a product with some commercial appeal. Writing a good story isn’t enough. You have to put together a good package to hold it.
We’d like to thank Lindsay for the incredible insight into her publishing journey. I’m sure you’ll agree it has been most informative and the gems of knowledge will prove to be very useful. If you’d like to find out some more about Lindsay and her work then you can check out her website or follow her on twitter @GoblinWriter.