If you've hung around the Alliance of Independent Authors for any amount of time, you've likely heard the term “creative self-publishing”. Today, with the launch of the second edition of Orna's book Creative Self-publishing, we dive into ten stories of creative self-publishers, the breadth and range of which is astonishing.
By 2014, within five years of digital self-publishing taking off in the US, it was accounting for more than 30% of all recorded book-sales there. Many books dismissed as “slush” by corporate publishers have gone on to be beautiful, much loved, highly successful author-published books.
Indie author sales continue to increase globally at a rate which is, in the word of veteran publishing commentator, Mike Shatzkin, “staggering”.
Today, hundreds of thousands of book buyers spend real money to buy and read untold pages of books written and uploaded into the cultural bloodstream with no judgement, mediation, review, or pitching by the traditional keepers of the gate.
On Amazon alone, thousands of independent authors earned more than $50,000 in royalties for books, audiobooks, and ebooks, with more than a thousand authors surpassing $100,000 in book sale royalties, in recent years. This is not counting the more than $840 million paid to authors through the Kindle Direct Publishing Select Global Fund since the launch of KU in July 2014.
Neither does it count all the books sold on other platforms. Contrary to popular belief, the self-publishing world is much bigger than Amazon. Hundreds of thousands of books are sold on many other platforms—Apple Books, Google Play, IngramSpark, Kobo Writing Life—and on authors’ own websites. When we did a recent informal survey of our members fewer than one-third of the those surveyed were Amazon exclusive, with many more including “going wide” in their goals for this year. Eight percent of these members have sold more than 50,000 books in the past two years.
Self-publishing sales figures are higher than anyone knows, or can know, as many self-published books sell without an ISBN, on author websites, in special consignments, at weekend markets, back of the room events, and many other ways that go unrecorded.
Research by Written word Media has demonstrated that it is now possible to earn over $100,000 annually without appearing on any bestseller list. In a May 2016 snapshot of 142 such “invisible” authors on Amazon.com, 105 were self-published Indies. Again, that’s just one platform—albeit the largest.
An Enders Analysis in 2016 found that 40% of the top-selling ebooks on Amazon were self-published. It concluded that the option is “only going to grow more attractive”, at home and abroad, wherever you live. Many consumer trends are moving in the indie author’s favour. Consumers are tired of big brands pretending to be human, pretending to care. The economic tide is turning in favor of the smaller, more personal outlet, we who really are human, who really do care.
Self-publishers are no longer underdogs, unable to get a “real” publisher, paying for an unearned privilege. We are working indie authors, empowered by technology to treat trade-publishers as one service available to our independent author business, rather than the other way round.
All of this is indeed “staggering”. It belies the doomsayers who say self-publishing is not a viable way to reach readers and it bodes very well for the future of author-publishing.
Before looking more closely at your personal definition of self-publishing success, let’s see how these facts and figures are playing out in the lives of some indie authors. As you read through their stories, notice the breadth of their choices and pathways.
Successful Self-Publishing Examples
1. The Record Breaker: LJ Ross
Ex-lawyer L.J. Ross tells everyone that deciding to self-publish a novel was the best decision she ever made. Her first novel, Holy Island, was an instant success on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) and at time of writing—just a short five years later—Ross has published 19 more books, sold around 4.5 million copies, and topped Amazon's Kindle e-books bestseller list seven times in 2019, a record for the platform.
Ross also has her own print imprint that supplies paperbacks to UK bookshops. Her books straddle two genres, romantic suspense, and crime fiction and though “everybody” advised her against mixing it up, she went ahead. “The benefit of remaining independent is that you can take your own creative and business decisions”, she says.
Despite approaches from traditional publishers, Ross has yet to be tempted. With the exception of audiobooks and some foreign rights (rights to publish in other countries outside the UK), which she says she publishes along more traditional lines, she wants to remain within the self-publishing sphere.
“In my case, it’s been a very sustainable means of income and has allowed me to work as a full-time author from the beginning,” she explained. “I know that there are thousands of [other authors] out there who have been able to…work part-time as an author, alongside all of the other full-time indie authors who have been able to give up the day job. Self-publishing has been a liberating, life-changing experience for many writers.”
2. The Fiction-Activist: Lisa Genova
The neuroscientist and novelist Lisa Genova writes stories that are equally inspired by brain science and the human spirit. Her breakthrough book was Still Alice, a moving story about Alzheimer’s Disease and how it affects relationships based on Genova experience of watching as the disease “systematically disassembled the woman I knew as my grandmother”.
It was self-published in 2007, having spent a year on the pitch-and-rejection cycle. The last agent who looked at the manuscript warned Genova not to self-publish, telling her that it would kill her career forever. The author went ahead, publishing the book and “selling it out of the trunk of my car… trying to create a buzz on Myspace, Goodreads and Shelfari and local book signings.” She invested in a PR agent and Still Alice subsequently sold well and went on to net lucrative publishing rights deals, including a movie starring Julianne Moore.5
At time of writing Genova has published four other novels, signed trade deals with a number of publishers, and received many awards, including the Pell Center Prize for “distinguished storytelling that has enriched the public dialogue,” the Sargent and Eunice Shriver Profiles in Dignity Award, The Global Genes RARE Champions of Hope Award, and The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Media Award. Just as well she didn’t listen to that agent.
3. The Movie Blockbuster: Andy Weir
Andy Weir is a computer programmer and self-described “space nerd” who, having been repeatedly turned down by literary agents, initially published his science fiction book about a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars in serial form on his blog. Requests from his readers led him to make the book available in its entirety and it quickly became an Amazon bestseller within the science fiction genre, selling in excess 35,000 copies in less than a month thanks to the author platform Weir had built on his blog.
He licensed the audiobook rights and it became a bestseller too. A subsequent hardback edition hit the Top 20 in the New York Times bestseller list and the film rights were sold to Twentieth Century Fox. The movie starring which was adapted to a major Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon 6 and Weir received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2016.
4. The Booker Prize Lister: Jill Paton Walsh
Jill Paton-Walsh was a self-publishing pioneer in the 1990s, another story born out of rejection by the trade. “My third adult novel was rejected by the publisher of the first two and I could not understand the criticism offered… the book in question, Knowledge of Angels, felt to me the one I was born to write.” Paton-Walsh’s agent did succeed in licensing it to Houghton Mifflin in the US but try as they might, they couldn’t find a UK publisher. Before publication day, her US editor phoned: did she want a few extra copies so her British friends could read it? “The 19th London rejection was on my desk,” says Paton-Walsh. “My husband said: ‘Fuck them all – we'll do it ourselves.’ We rang back and said: ‘Can you make that 1,000?’ In a burst of furious activity we got an ISBN, mocked up a British title page and swift-aired the books across the Atlantic.” With the help of indie publisher friends, they organized a sales rep, an invoicing programme, a warehouse, and a publicist.
The book was distributed and began to sell in significant numbers for a literary philosophical novel. It went into reprint, foreign rights began to sell, Transworld bought the paperback rights. And then it made the longlist for the 1994 Booker Prize. And then the shortlist.
“I didn't win the Booker, but by then I really didn't need to; our action in self-publishing the book in Britain was vindicated.”7
5. The Trade-Publishing Escapee: Adam Nevill
Adam Nevill has 19 trade-published books, all of which sell respectably and some of which have won awards and been made into movies. He switched to self-publishing because he was frustrated by dwindling earnings for his books in trade publishing and also by the industry's view of the horror genre. In a nutshell: “outside comfort zones”.
His first self-published novel, The Reddening, was released in Oct. 2019 and it's already out-sold a number of his trade published books, for which he credits ACCESS marketing campaigns you’ll read about in Chapter 23.
In 2016, Adam’s first year as a self-publisher, he wrote an excellent sharing post on his blog. “The best strategy I tried initially seemed both counter-intuitive and counter-productive and that involved producing free books and linking them to my website and author newsletter. I feared devaluing my own writing, but in all of the courses I studied from professional and successful indie authors, they recommended this marketing strategy.
“I then watched my mailing list surge and even saw one of the free eBooks downloaded 30K times in a couple of months. These were mostly new readers too, who'd never read or even heard of me. I'd never, so quickly, reached so many new readers of horror.
“The learning curve was steep, and the process of acquiring new skill-sets, setting up the company, and publishing three books … consumed my mental capacity and nearly all of my time [for] eight months). What I ended up with at year’s end was an automated author platform… It pretty much runs itself now.”8
Adam continues to thrive as an indie author today, with an ever-growing list of fans and a semi-automated marketing system.
6. The Millionaire Poet: Rupi Kaur
In 2016, a young Sikh-Canadian poet outsold Homer with her first collection, milk & honey, which famously stole the position of best-selling poetry book from The Odyssey.
The poet, Rupi Kaur, takes her punctuation style from her Punjabi heritage’s gurmukhi script in which there are no uppercase or lowercase letters.
“i asked a creative writing professor once how to get published but i was told it was too difficult. poetry basically never got published. when i asked about the self publishing route i was told no: to surpass the gatekeeper would be looked down upon by my literary peers.”
But in November 2014, Kaur self-published a print book through Amazon. “it didn’t occur to me to even reach out to publishers to submit unsolicited manuscripts because of years of being told ‘there was no market for my poetry’ [and] creative control was most important. i wanted to design the cover. i wanted to lay the book out. it was my heart on paper. i wanted to pick the size. font. and colours. years of study in visual rhetoric and design lead me to fall in love with print and graphic art.”
Critics have publicly dismissed her work as “not poetry” but that is to misunderstand her mission and her modus operandi. “all the dozens of poems together were themselves one poem. all the parts/poems came together to make one body. to pick off pieces isn’t right.”
Kaur’s fans get it. She has a following of millions on Instagram, many of whom are poets themselves, now also enjoying writing workshops and shared writing time with her.
From that first poetry pamphlet, Kaur has gone on to make the Forbes “thirty under thirty” list, got picked up by a Big Five publisher. Today she sells out the stadiums more commonly associated with rock stars for her readings and launches a new book with world tours across India, the UK and US.
7. The Business Owner: Daniel Priestley
My business mentor, Daniel Priestley is founder of Dent, an accelerator programme for small enterprises that works with 500+ entrepreneurs each year to develop their businesses. An entrepreneur at 21, he had built a multi-million dollar marketing and management business before the age of 25, and raises up to $100,000 for charity each year. He is also a prolific self-publisher. His first two books were trade-published but then he turned to working with ALLi Partner Member Rethink Books, to help him plan, write and publish his books himself. (Which is how I found him).
Like most business book self-publishers, for Daniel a book is a calling card. “The reason I write books is to get a message out there to connect with a lot of people. For me, it’s more important that the book is out there doing its job, as opposed to just simply trying to sell the book. The books fit within a broader context of a bigger business.”9
8. The Children’s Book Bestseller: Karen Inglis
UK and USA bestseller Karen Inglis first started writing for children when her sons were toddlers. The three books written then sat in a box for over ten years while she went back to her day job but in 2010 she decided to rewrite and edit them, and prepared them for self-publishing.
Since then, Karen has seen 250,000 sales across her titles, mostly in print. In addition she has made over 550 book app sales and several foreign rights deals, with more in progress.
9. The Gamer Turned Author: Paul J Bennett
Paul’s interest in writing started in his teen years when he discovered the roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons (D & D) and began to create realms, worlds and adventures that pulled other gamers into his stories. In his 30s, Paul started design his own roleplaying system and his first book originated from a fantasy game that he ran like a TV show, with seasons of twelve episodes, and an overarching plot.
When the campaign ended, he knew all the characters, what they had to accomplish, what needed to happen to move the plot along, and was inspired to write his first novel. Like many indie authors, Paul is self-taught, and has spent many hours researching how to write and self-publish. He is now working on his fourth successful series based on his fantasy world. An ALLi authorpreneur member, he makes an excellent living from self-publishing.
10. The Self-Publishing Adventurer: Anna McNuff
A self-described adventurer and mischief maker Anna McNuff is best known for her attempt to run 100 marathons through Great Britain, in her bare feet. Her books chronicle her adventures, from exploring the wilds of New Zealand on foot to cycling through every state in the US.
Her fourth book, Llama Drama, in which she and her friend Faye travel the Andes, “with a limited grasp of Spanish, and the hope of meeting as many llamas as possible”, won the Kindle Storyteller award in 2020.
She’s been named one of the 50 most influential travellers of our time by Condé Nast Traveller, is the UK Ambassador for Girl Guiding, and co-founder of Adventure Queens, a women’s adventure community.
“Some of the best things in my life have come from spontaneous moments and that’s how I started self-publishing,” McNuff says. “It’s brought me to this place in time. I can’t wait to go on my next adventure.”
These are just ten stories plucked from hundreds of thousands of possible success stories to inspire you—to show you what’s possible and also to show that success for indie authors takes many forms. Different authors and different books require different pathways and plans.
Creative Self-Publishing: ALLi’s Guide to Independent Publishing for Authors and Poets is the first book in the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Publishing Guides series, a foundational guidebook for writers who publish their own books, and those who aspire to this dream.
ALLi members can download their complimentary ebook copy of Creative Self-Publishing in the Member Zone. Navigate to allianceindependentauthors.org and log in. Then navigate to the following menu: BOOKS > GUIDEBOOKS. Other formats are available to members and non-members in ALLi’s Bookshop
References From the Article
Mike Shatzkin. 2019. The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know, Amazon Report, Written Word Media's Report, The Bookseller's Book Market Report, “Still Alice (novel) – Wikipedia.” The Martian” (Weir novel) – Wikipedia. Jill Paton Guardian article, Adam Nevill article, Extraordinary Business Books episode 72.