What I’ve Learned In Six Years of Growing An Indie Author Business

by | Apr 19, 2021 | Articles | 0 comments

As someone who’s spent the better part of the past 20 years making his living as a writer, I definitely have some opinions on what works and what doesn’t in this business. However, there is a subset of that 20 years, and that’s the novelist part of the equation. Some of my author income for the past six years has been that of a writer of fiction. In short, I’m what’s casually called an “indie author” these days. 

My adventure toward becoming an indie author wasn’t entirely my own idea. Thanks to my literature background—a Master of Arts in English from a university with a fairly prestigious Creative Writing program—I knew I wasn’t going to be creating light reading or escapist fiction. The idea of literary excellence on which Sahno Publishing was founded goes back to a high school education in classics, which my university years only solidified. I might miss, but I’d always shoot for greatness.

Unfortunately, the book business is a highly commercial one. Writers who aren’t already somehow known quantities (i.e., celebrities) may not find it so easy to get book deals of any kind. After years of rejection letters from traditional publishers who just didn’t think they could make a buck off my work, I found myself reading a book about starting your own publishing company and thereby being the one to pay yourself the royalties. This concept fascinated me.

And one of the reasons the indie author approach fascinated me so much was that the author of the above mentioned book was, in fact, a known quantity. He’d written for major publications for years, but couldn’t get a single traditional publisher to pay him an advance for a book he’d written. Even that guy’s impressive byline meant nothing in the world of commercial publishing.

So I launched Sahno Publishing, which serves not only as my own imprint but also as the corporate entity I use for the freelance writing and editing side of my business.

 

Not Just A Journalist

Bob Dylan infamously told fellow songwriter Phil Ochs, “You’re just a journalist,” during the time Bob was expanding his art while Phil continued to write “topical” songs. With all due respect to the journalism field, I have a little story about an actual journalist I’d like to share.

When I started Sahno Publishing as a new business entity, I did so with press releases and the simultaneous release of my first three novels. My fifteen years of marketing writing experience would serve me well, I reasoned. If you’re going to make a splash, you’ve got to make a big splash. Get people’s attention. If you publish it, they will read.

Ever see someone jump into the deep end of an empty pool?

Yes, it was an epic failure. I sold some books, but not nearly enough to even cover the costs I’d incurred for an editor and designer, much less the press releases or other marketing. 

To add insult to injury, I also made enemies right out of the gate. An embittered former journalist who’d written one unsuccessful book discovered me on social media or via my press releases, and decided to write all sorts of horrible things about me and the work I was doing. He had the effrontery to call me a “hack writer,” since I wasn’t already a known literary quantity and all my bylines were for marketing articles.

It probably didn’t help when I noted that all my submitted article drafts had to be camera-ready when clients received them, unlike a journalist whose articles would automatically go to an editor—and, therefore, my experience as a writer was far more valuable than his—a position that didn’t exactly turn my new enemy into a friend.

 

The Big Six

From the beginning, I’ve tried to help my fellow indie authors by passing on my experiences, good and bad alike. With that, here are six things I’ve learned as an indie author.

1) Nobody cares about your book except people who like that kind of book—and even a lot of them don’t give a damn.

It’s easy to say, but hard to comprehend. The wonderful book that cost you years of sweat is not for everyone. In fact, it’s probably only going to be found, bought, read and loved by a select audience. Find that audience.

2) If you don’t write serial fiction, be prepared to adjust your sales expectations accordingly.

Serial fiction is all the rage these days. But if you write something that falls more into categories similar to what I write (literary, metaphysical, and so on), you can’t expect every reader to buy every book. Your mileage may vary.

3) Don’t be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find your niche, and stick with it if you can.

As much as my wife probably wishes I would, I can’t bend myself into the shape of a potboiler writer. Literature is where I was born, and it’s where I’ll die. Some is comic, some is tragic, but I know what I am and what I can—and, more importantly, can’t—do.

4) Ultimately, you are the head of your own Marketing Department. 

Even if you were traditionally published, you’d still have to do a lot of the heavy marketing lifting. As an indie, be prepared to do it all. You can hire someone for some things, but not everything. Which leads me to…

5) There’s only so much you can do.

Every book is a little business entity of its own. At some point, some may have to be more or less abandoned as you focus on your latest and/or next book. It’s part of the game. I relate it to music: few people are working hard to promote music that came out ten years ago. It’s always about the present or the future.

6) Your family, friends and colleagues are not your audience. People who like that kind of book—maybe—are your audience.

This brings me back to point #1. If there’s an audience for your book, you’ll need to find it…and keep looking to expand it. The majority of your best, most loyal readers will be people you’ve never met. That’s as it should be.

Sure, you can host a book launch event like the one pictured above. Invite all your friends if you like. But once that’s over, forget about the “friends and family” plan. Find your readers where they already hang out, and entice them to check out your work.

That’s it. Have a great week, everyone!

Whizzers

Authors’ Pandemic Sales and The Dubious Metric of “Necessities” Vs. “Luxuries”

​Considering everything going in the world, the past week was a pretty good one for me. Almost a year after its initial publication, my novel Whizzers—which had flatlined in the Kindle store—suddenly spiked to #179,500. When one of your babies jumps that much, it gets...

Taking a Page from the Dylan Playbook?

Although he doesn't use the term himself, recent Nobel winner Bob Dylan's relentless touring has been referred to as the Never-Ending Tour. Taking a page from the Dylan playbook might seem like a weird idea for an author, but recently I have thought about doing just...
cost

What Books Cost Their Authors: A Tale of Blood, Sweat & Tears

…”Books that cost more to write than their sales ever could repay.”  - Alan Paton   Lately I’ve had my nose in a couple of books. One is a history book on the JFK years, the other, Alan Paton’s most famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country.  I have a curious, even...
Cataloging-In-Publication

What’s the Risk to Not Having A Cataloging-In-Publication (CIP) Data Block?

Over the past few weeks, I've been writing about "book-building" for indie authors. By that I mean putting a book together from your perspective as an author. So I haven't covered topics like cover design or interior design - you may choose those, but you're probably...
French

Those Tricky French Authors and Their Obsessions

Today’s blog post was originally going to be Write Whatever the @#$% You Want, Pt. III. However, after seeing parts I and II lined up, I decided to call an audible and make it something less repetitive. Somehow the SEO gods have gotten into my head. As I’ve mentioned...
Whizzers

The Glories of Language: Making Stuff Up and Other Fun Things I Do

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” - Pablo Picasso   One thing I was never especially afraid of was breaking the rules. What I was afraid of was getting caught. When I was young, I got into a tiny bit of trouble, but not much....
networking

Networking Tips for People Over 60

It’s easy to understand why seniors are reluctant to network – especially when it means meeting strangers who happen to be younger. After all, some seniors may ask themselves how they can benefit from a relationship with a younger person in their field, believing they...
censorship

Write Whatever the @#$% You Want

I’ve been stewing on this for a while. It’s been brewing for quite a while. I could probably write a song about it (how about a rap?), but I don’t think I will. This is more of a blog post topic, and it might even deserve a series. And that’s the title and topic of...
insomnia

New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #1: Insomnia

A few weeks ago, my wife and I got a limited time offer subscription to HBO Max. I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to rewatch the 2003 Robin Williams/Al Pacino vehicle Insomnia, which I’d originally seen in the theatre when it came out. Williams plays an...
copyright

Does Copyright Still Matter in the Digital Age?

One thing about working as a full-time freelance writer: it’s usually feast or famine. That means exactly what it sounds like. Sometimes you’re so busy that you almost forget to market your business, and other times, you’re looking for more projects. This month is one...
self-promotion

What’s The Problem With Shameless Self-Promotion?

While I still find it somewhat hard to believe, I've been on Twitter for almost eight years. I know this not only because Twitter shows Joined March 2015 on my profile but also because, even if they eliminate that feature, I use a tracker called Who Unfollowed Me? If...
MLK

MLK Day 2023

Here’s wishing everyone a safe, sane Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For many of us, today is always something of a day of mourning: not only mourning the loss of a great civil rights leader, but also mourning the turn our great nation seemed to take in recent years....

Twitter Tips for Authors in 2023

If you follow my blog, you probably connected with me via Twitter, whether you’re a fellow author or not. In 2020, I wrote a post about Twitter for fellow writers that got a good response. Three years later, the landscape has changed, but some Twitter best practices...
rails

Going Off The Rails (But Not On A Crazy Train)

Last April, I wrote a blog post called Back on Track With a Work-In-Progress. Part of that post was to talk about the difference between a “plotter” and a “pantser” (and to describe myself as a hybrid of the two, a “plantser”). Another, less obvious motive, was to...
French

Those Tricky French Authors and Their Obsessions

Today’s blog post was originally going to be Write Whatever the @#$% You Want, Pt. III. However, after seeing parts I and II lined up, I decided to call an audible and make it something less repetitive. Somehow the SEO gods have gotten into my head. As I’ve mentioned...
scared

Write Whatever the @#$% You Want, Pt. II

In last week’s post, I mentioned a pretty well-known author who has publicly reported his publisher “wouldn’t touch” a new release, in part because a character in his novel referred to herself as “fat.” I heard this story on a podcast, and I remember thinking, “Wait...
censorship

Write Whatever the @#$% You Want

I’ve been stewing on this for a while. It’s been brewing for quite a while. I could probably write a song about it (how about a rap?), but I don’t think I will. This is more of a blog post topic, and it might even deserve a series. And that’s the title and topic of...
gratitude

Should Every Month Be Gratitude Month?

When I was a kid, I loved Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. I read it daily and collected nearly every paperback volume of the cartoon, so I could see what I’d missed since the comic strip’s inception in 1950.  Certain things stuck: quotes like “happiness is a warm puppy”...
robot

More Thoughts On Robot Writers and The Tech Dystopia

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post here called When Will the Robot Overlords Replace Us? Apparently, I’m fairly obsessed with this stuff, because every time I come here and empty my brain, it seems to come up again. Today is no different. Part of the reason,...