7 tips to help you make a living as an Indie self-published author

There’s a certain allure to self-publishing your books. As an author, it gives you power to take charge of your brand. You are able to connect to your readers and grow your audience over time.

There’s no waiting and “aspiring” when you work at the keyboard. When you’re writing, you know you’re producing, and have a sense of where it fits. You get to make your own timeline, create your own production process, and analyze reviews and sales to help you know what to write next.

The challenge then is: how do you make a living doing this? How do you define yourself so you can get to the point where you feel like a successful Indie self-publishing author?

Tip #1: Believe your book has readers, and go find them

The thing that holds most writers back is what I like to call “gatekeeper syndrome”. You obsess and obsess (and obsess and obsess (and obsess some more)) about that first book and just what it will take to be perfect. You submit and submit (and submit and submit (and submit and…)) and get rejection, rejection, rejection that tells you nothing. Is it getting better? Are you getting closer? Are you writing the right thing? What is the right thing to write? Why have half your beta readers told you something completely different than the other half, and why can’t agents just tell you what’s wrong so you actually know what direction to take?

Don’t get me wrong. For the fortunate writers who happen to write the book that happens to be the big craze that editors in the Big Publishing World are buying, getting a 5-6-figure starting book deal and kicking off your career with that baseline security is wonderful.

But not all stories told from the heart and rendered with care are going to get the attention of the gatekeepers. That’s not because they’re bad. It’s just because, in terms of market data and sales predictions, those things won’t sell right now, or even more generally, they might not sell, or at least we’re not sure enough to take a chance. It’s also a case of the things in the top 99.9th percentile eclipsing all fantastic work in the 99.8th percentile and lower.

Self-publishing has been called the Wild West, but let’s think about what that means for us:

Not that it’s rugged and unpredictable and you might get shot in the head. What this really means is it’s a wild open space with unclaimed land and opportunity for those of us who confidently set out to establish our hold.

Go out as a self-published author and believe in your book. Believe in your brand—your author voice, your message, your vision. Put out that message and connect with the people who show up. Develop those relationships.

When those tough times come and you need to fight a duel at high noon, stand your ground. When your debut novel falls on an empty field and only dust devils show up, shrug your shoulders and move on. There’s plenty of ground to cover, and endless opportunity, because you call the shots, and book 1 is just the beginning…

Tip #2: Diversify

Making a living as an Indie self-published author doesn’t mean what you might think, and here’s why.

I quit my job more than 4 years ago. I’ve had no employer since then. I decided I’m going to make a living out of my dream.

What a wild ride it’s been, but here’s how I managed to keep doing what I’m doing:

I diversified.

My goal is to invest time in my writing craft. This means I’m making progress in the writing projects that are going to become published works and ultimately, units for sale that readers can buy. Already, I’ve seen that happen and I have a real sense of value on all the work that’s on my plate right now. Eventually, like any good investment, that value will go up and up until I can live off it.

But month by month, as I’m building this, I have to pay the bills.

I started a business on the side. I took on whatever small jobs I could. I dug into my savings and took on debt. At one point, I had more than 10 revenue streams, covering everything from tutoring to editing to residual profit-share payments to casual coverage work in a group home. I always made sure that, whatever I took on, I could still keep up my writing routine and meet my writing goals. I bent myself in all sorts of shapes to make this work. Eventually, things settled down a little as I expanded my editing company, then added a cover art company, then co-started a publishing company.

But in none of these did I go wholly in where I lost my focus. I could have become a full-time editor, but I chose not to, because it was against the stream of what I’m really trying to do. I could have become a full-time tutor because I had enough demand to fill my days from sunup to sundown, but in the end I chose to walk away from that.

They key thing for me was to get out of a day job that tied me down. Suddenly, all the pressure is on for me to define myself. I’m a writer, I’m laying the pieces of my career. All I have to focus on is paying the bills so I can be a writer this month, and making sure I can repeat next month.

This year, I’ve made a considerable amount just from writing alone. This has been rewarding for me. I’ve been able to cut back several revenue streams and spend more time writing. I’ve finally been able to cement a reading routine to complement my writing time, and it’s upping my writing skill exponentially, progress I notice in my work on an almost weekly basis.

It’s insane, but the moment you do it, there’s no looking back.

The big thing though is, you’re looking ahead. You’re no  longer “aspiring to be a writer” from your day job which you hope to one day quit. You are a writer, and you’re now pushing everything you’ve got into making it work.

When you take on additional jobs to diversify and add revenue, these are, specifically, additional jobs to diversify and add revenue. It’s moonlighting to pay the bills.

And even if you still hold a full-time job while you do this, you can still apply this inner logic: all that time at the office is just time in to diversify and add revenue for your career as an Indie self-publishing author. Like any other revenue stream, you’ll eventually drop the day job when your writing makes you more money, but until then, that’s what it is: a means to an end.

Tip #3: Diversify what you write

When I decided I wanted to be a full-time writer, I was focused on a work of epic fantasy. I used to think my goal was to be an epic fantasy writer, but I’ve since seen that’s not the case:

My goal is to be a writer.

I came to this realization when I pushed myself to write a lot every single day. When I was waiting between drafts of my epic fantasy novel, I had to find something to write. And that’s when things really opened up.

I’ve written courses for Highbrow. I’ve started publishing nonfiction relating to my journal system, the first of which is now available (Your Daily Journal: 100 Day Starter). I’m presently working on a related book about my productivity system. I’ve ghostwritten for other self-publishing authors. I’ll be reconnecting to my science fiction stories eventually (right now scheduled in early 2019 before I begin the 1st draft of A Thousand Roads‘ sequel, Blood Dawn). I’ve also started a crime fiction novel which I anticipate will be coming out near the end of the year under a different pen name (final plans for all that in the air right now). None of this is aspiring. All of it is stuff in the works with publication plans and a production timeline. I’m a cog in the wheel.

The point here is if you force yourself to write every day, then it’s inevitable you’re going to write other things. But this brings me to the next tip, a caveat.

Tip #4: Write from the heart, and from the market—both at once

Don’t write something just because you think it’s what you need to write to sell. It will come out stilted, and readers will be able to tell.

But don’t just write from the heart either. We all can fall in love with our prose. But if we’re the only people who love it, then if we’re trying to make a living as an Indie self-publishing author, that’s valuable time wasted.

Find the middle ground. That’s the place where heart and market intersect.

Right now, as mentioned, I’m working on a nonfiction book about my productivity system. Originally, I was going to just write a book about my planning system, after I finished putting out my journals.

But I’ve been hearing from people as Your Daily Journal: 100 Day Starter has started connecting to them. I also learned a lot about writing for a self-improvement audience as I was completing my latest Highbrow course on logic puzzles (publication in progress). This all went together and my plans for this planning book evolved into something else. Something from the market, and—stronger—from the heart.

I’ve never been so on fire with writing as I have been with this book. It’s a book whose premise is derived entirely from knowing the market. It’s never something I would have written if I didn’t already have my feet in the water self-publishing fiction and learning from readers. I’ve found a place where market intersects with passion, and that ignites the voice and the prose that are coming together.

There are literally trillions and trillion of writing ideas you can latch onto. Your heart is the size of the universe. The space where market can live within it is its own planet. Find it, and center yourself there as a writer.

Tip #5: Hone your writing time with laser focus

Your time is valuable when you decide you’re going to make a living as an Indie self-published author. Everything you spend your time on should either be part of that means to an end that’s allowing you to keep investing in your writing career, or else the writing that defines your career.

Take this blog post, for example. It actually began 3 weeks ago as a “how to edit your own book” post. Entirely from market, as I was basing it on some of my most popular posts (which are the ones on editing techniques).

But my heart wasn’t in it. I knew I was wasting my valuable writing time, so I put it away. Then, I had a Eureka!

What if even writing blog posts are just like publishing fiction or nonfiction? What if I treat even this post as a publication? What are the stakes? Who is the reader? What do they want to hear?

That question helped me find the center where heart and market intersect. I tapped into the same voice I’m finding in my current book on productivity, but applied it to what I knew about writers who might want to read this. I’m not just coming up for air to fire off a blog post before I “get back to writing”. I’m writing, and this is as serious to me as larger fiction or nonfiction. I’m not just writing a post that I hope will become popular. I’m adding a publication to my archive of articles on my blog for access for all time by any reader who might stumble upon it—just like a book for sale.

Apply this concept to your own writing time, especially with blog posts or shorter fiction. If you have an author website you have to update, how can you reorient that to be part of your writing time? Can you get a friend to be in charge of the website and bake them cookies in return? Treat each web page as a page in a Word document then write it like a small publication that counts toward your writing time and writing output for the day?

Leave no stone unturned. It might mean having to say no to some things, or, even better, finding the middle ground.

For example, I am in charge of production for a small publishing company, Deep Desires Press. One thing that takes me a long time is the copywriting. It used to feel like a chore and I wondered if I had to delegate, but this is an added expense so I could not completely delegate everything right away.

But then I realized this is writing. I changed how I look at it. I now approach copywriting as a part of my writing day and block off concrete time periods to focus on it. The production wheel turns with the publishing company, and as a result of my writer focus going to this task, there’s real synergy in the copywriting that’s coming together and we’re selling more books and putting out products we’re more proud of. Doing this also helped me define a new process for more effective copywriting, such as developing a procedure that begins with an in-depth synopsis with the author and back-and-forth collaboration to really get at the core of the story premise and understand it before developing the jacket copy, log-line, and ad splashes. It’s also allowed me to bring on board a new team member who I’ve trained in this method, and who is now helping me with the copywriting (shout out to M.S. Wordsmith, a past blog guest).

Tip #6: Constantly self-improve

I decided I should spend as much time reading as I spend writing, but I didn’t want to just “read”. I wanted to be as deliberate in this practice as the time I spend writing. So, I developed a curriculum. In fact, I wrote a blog post about about how to become a better writer through reading. (And while you’re at it, you might also like my article about my Wikipedia reading technique that will make you a better writer.)

What I didn’t explore is the rationale. Since writing that post, I’ve gained a lot of perspective from the act of doing.

Ultimately, as a writer, you want to self-improve. We can only see so far when all we’re churning is the words on the page. It’s a bit like leaving a plant in a dark room. If you have high word counts but you aren’t reading a lot as well, then a good chance a lot of what you’re writing you might not have written if instead you balanced your pace with reading that reshapes you on a weekly basis.

We need to learn, constantly. As a writers, the best way to learn is through reading.

Why is that? Because when you read, you are seeing the inverse of what you’re doing when you’re writing. You spend your time at the keyboard typing words that make sentences and paragraphs and then scenes and chapters. Plots and settings and character arcs come together like weft between shifting warp threads. You conjure voice.

But you are one tiny leaf on a vast network of branches. When you read, you wander across the expanse of boughs, you see all the many leaves, all the angles. Then when you write, you write with the overall shape in mind, what you are, what the world around you is, how you can be a little different, channel a deeper message.

I also learn in other ways. If I’m doing anything that doesn’t require my undivided attention, I hit play on my podcast queue and I learn. I listen to information podcasts relentlessly, half of which are balanced news sources, the other half historic or academic series. I watch math videos on YouTube, usually to relax before bed.

I also learn through courses delivered by email, from Highbrow. You can read more about this method and how you can learn something new every day in just 5 minutes.

Whatever you do, continually self-improve and that will help you up your game as an Indie self-publishing author. You have a message to share with the world, and the world and the knowledge, as well as the many voices of other writers (be it authors of books, article writers, blog writers), will only compound that message further.

Tip #7: Don’t churn

You might begin your Indie author career fixated on one dream. Maybe you have a book that you want to make into a series like Harry Potter. You want that book to take off, and you’re already working on book 2. You’re visualizing all 7 books of your series.

But book 1 comes out and you get crickets. You’re already getting book 2 together, and you just have to write the whole series.

This is churning. Don’t do it.

Instead, reorient: book 1 and book 2 are gateways to a different kind of dream. This series you’re envisioning is just part of it. You might write it all, but in between books…

Diversify. Follow the tried-and-tested rule that you should always put a draft away and work on something else before picking it up and writing the next draft. Always work on something else.

You might be a romance writer who’s passionate about a book series idea. In between book publications, you might get other ideas based on what you hear your readers like. There might be other book ideas you would explore if you were done your series. Use this space between to write those books.

Some things might surprise you, but this is all part of the power you have as an Indie self-publishing author. You plan your publication dates, you plan what books you want to write,  you define for yourself, based on learning as you go, who your readers are and what they want.

The Wild West is open, and unclaimed. Go out now and claim the place where your author brand will live!

Last up…

If you want to learn more about how to start and maintain your author career, why not take my 10-day course through Highbrow, How To Begin (And Maintain) Your Career As An Author.

This course is FREE when you sign up, as you’ll get a month of the Premium for free. But I highly recommend after you take it that you check out some of the other amazing courses in the Writing section. If you have other interests, like how to be more productive, how to start a business, how money systems work, or anything really, Highbrow covers it all, and their catalog is growing.

If you love it and want to keep going, you can get $18 off the 1-year subscription ($30, reduced from $48), if you enter my coupon code: JOHNROBIN.

Like I said, there will be another course by me up there soon in the Mathematics section, a tour of 10 compelling logic puzzles and how to solve them. So go check it out, and thank you for reading this today. I hope you’re inspired to kick off your career.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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