Joe has been a professional writer for 7 years, and a six-figure indie author for the last 2. He loves helping other writers succeed!
The Journey of a Six-Figure Author
Hi, there! If you clicked on this article, you're probably thinking, "Great, another piece of clickbait." I can't say I blame you. Self-publishing is one of those areas where scams abound, and it seems like everyone is looking to sell a course telling you how to do it the easy way. Fortunately, that's not what this article is about. Unless you happen to have a time machine (so you can go back to 2013 when the self-publishing market was just beginning to flourish and any old manuscript could easily turn into a bestseller overnight), there is no easy way to make a living as a self-published writer. That said, there are simple steps you can take. Trust me, if you're willing to put in the hard work, it's well worth it.
Who am I? I'm just a guy who's been writing for fun most of his life. In 2016, I made the jump and published my first three books in a series through Amazon. That first series was rough, unpolished and I wince every time I think about how many typos got left in, but actually taking that action step to hit publish was an invaluable learning experience. While my first series did well (back then, $1,000 per month wasn't quit-your-day-job money, but I was feeling pretty great!), I learned a lot about the publishing industry, writing to market, and building a sustainable platform for years to come. As far as the specifics of what I learned, I came to realize that any successful launch, regardless of the genre you've decided to write in, boils down to these 5 steps, which we'll get into in more detail later.
How to Become a Six-Figure Author
- Research Your Platform (KU vs. Wide)
- Build a Mailing List
- Write to Market
- Publish Often
Like I said, none of these steps is "easy." If it was easy, a million other authors could recreate the same method and you'd be drowning in the competition. Like everything in life, sift out the easy opportunities and look for those that are within reach and, most importantly, replicable as long as you're willing to put in the hard work that others aren't. If you are, then there's no reason you can't build a career as a self-published author just like I did.
How Do You Become a Six-Figure Author?
When I first started writing, it was simply to tell the stories brewing in my head. I never dreamed anyone else would actually read them, because I thought that the big publishing houses were the ultimate gatekeepers in the writing industry, and we all know the process of getting published through them requires about as much lucky as it does paperwork. You have to have a finished product to submit for consideration that just so happens to match whatever "hot genre" the publishers are looking for at the moment, and what they say they're looking for on their websites doesn't always line up with the books they save from the slush pile. As someone with a full-time job who was also trying to run a household and care for a sick family member, it just wasn't something I had the time or the energy to do in exchange for a high probability of hearing, "Sorry, we're looking for something else."
If you're anything like me, the prospect of writing only what publishers happen to want at any given moment, defeats the whole purpose of writing. So what if vampire romance isn't "in" right now? If you have a mysterious vampire and his sassy love interest chatting away in your head, you're going to have a much easier time telling that story than you would forcing yourself to write a starcrossed Regency romance, if that's what the publishing house is looking for.
It's no surprise that some of the most passionate and creative writers end up never taking the plunge to submit their work for publication. After all, who else would put so much energy, effort and time into something that may never see the light of day?
If this sounds like you, and you're convinced that you'll never be able to make a living as an author, let alone a six-figure income, I'm here to tell you that it is possible. It takes work and strategy, but the good news is that unlike traditional publishing, this strategy to becoming a six-figure author does not rely on luck! Nor does it rely on writing in a certain genre that doesn't interest you. In fact, these 5 simple steps to becoming a six-figure author can be replicated in just about any genre that already has a solid audience! As long as you're looking to write something that fits into that category as opposed to a super-niche topic like crafting paper mache spaceships for rabbits, you're good to go!
So... How do you become a six-figure author? You could absolutely go the traditional route of submitting your work to publishing houses, and hope for the best. Many authors have succeeded that way, but many more have fallen into obscurity. If you want to maximize your chances of being in the former group, I recommend taking the route chosen by thousands and thousands of other authors and self-publishing your own work.
Step 1. Research the Platforms (KU vs. Wide)
So, you've decided to self-publish. Awesome! Let's jump right in to the greatest debate within self-publishing at the moment, which is Kindle Unlimited vs. Wide. If you're completely new to the world of self-publishing, you're probably asking, "What the heck is that?!" Fair question. Here's the simple answer.
Amazon is the platform for both traditionally published and self-published authors. While there are always exceptions to every rule, the vast majority of author income comes from Amazon. Years ago, Amazon developed the Kindle Unlimited program, known as KDP Select on the author side. This program allows readers to download as many books as they like from within the Kindle Unlimited library, and thanks to the fact that Amazon shares a cut of pages read from each book with its KU authors, the choices are more than enough to keep hungry readers satisfied for ages. The catch? Those authors have to keep their works exclusive to Amazon for each 90-day period of enrollment in Kindle Unlimited.
When you see people talk about "going wide," they are simply talking about not being a part of KU and thus being able to publish their books on Amazon as well as other platforms, such as Kobo, iBooks and the Google Play Store. If that doesn't give you an indication of the dynamic at work in the publishing industry, nothing will. Everything is defined in terms of Kindle Unlimited for a reason. The payouts can be generous, and there are many self-published authors now earning six- and even seven-figure incomes thanks to the visibility provided by the platform.
On the flip side, there are other authors who succeed by having their books available on as many platforms as possible. It really all depends on your individual experience, the genre you're writing in, the behavior of the readers who are your target audience and, of course, luck.
I won't pretend like there is a right answer to this question, because there isn't. What I will tell you is to research this decision carefully, especially when it comes to the market you're looking to sell in, because it could make or break your self-publishing career.
Step 2. Build a Mailing List
"What? Surely that can't be Step 2 when I've barely got my feet wet at this self-publishing thing!"
I get it, I started out thinking like that. Building a mailing list is hard and there are more than a few steps to doing it the right way. It may be tempting to just put your first book out there and hope the sign-ups come in with the form you link in the front and back of your books, but the best piece of advice I got as an author was to start a mailing list yesterday. Yes, even before your first book hits the theoretical shelves. Why?
It's all about rankings. Whether you're exclusive in Kindle Unlimited or wide at every distributor who will accept your book, you need to have people buying your book as soon as it's published in order to start gaining visibility. How do you do that if you have no idea who your target readers are or how to let them know your book is out there? You could spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on book marketing services, but I'll let you in on a little secret...
They're all using mailing lists. Yep, even Book Bub and Bargain Booksy. They work because they have huge, segmented lists of readers who have opted in to hear about the books authors pay these platforms to share. I'm not knocking these services, as they can each be effective at boosting a book during those crucial launch hours, but why not build your own highly targeted mini-Book Bub by creating a mailing list before your book is launched?
The easiest way to build a mailing list is by having something free to give away, whether it's a whole book, a short story, or even exclusive cover art. I've seen authors give away cleverly rendered character sheets, so it's not absolutely necessary to give away a free book in order to build a mailing list. Research Facebook ads for writers and authors to learn how to set up a high-performing ad with your mailing list magnet, or choose one of the services set up to help authors attract new subscribers, such as Bookfunnel or Instafreebie. The time you spend researching and setting everything up is well worth it, since it's writing the book that takes the most time and effort! Wouldn't you rather give all that hard work the best possible chance at success?
Step 3. Write to Market
There are a ton of books on how to write to market, so I'll make this section brief. First of all, what does it mean to write to market? We touched on this a bit earlier, but it means to write books that an eager audience is already waiting for. It's easier than it sounds! First, you need to identify a hungry market that you actually enjoy reading and writing about. There's no point in writing as a career if it makes you miserable, and writing in a genre you love will make it easier to sustain the kind of production schedule you need to succeed in self-publishing (more on that later.)
This is where it gets hard. There are a lot of writers out there who refuse to label their work and insist on writing between genres. The unfortunate news for those writers is that there's already a label for any work which "transcends genre," and that label is literary fiction. If you want to write literary fiction, that's fantastic! However, it's incredibly difficult to become known as a self-published author this way. Genre fiction is the lifeblood of self-publishing and it thrives on things like labels, tropes and archetypes. If you find this stifling, I'm afraid you're going to find building a career as a six-figure author all but impossible.
If you are willing to be flexible and write to market within a larger category that you have a passion for (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Romance, etc.,) then you are already past the hurdle that stops most people from being able to earn money by writing.
How do you find a hungry market once you're ready to write for one? There are a variety of tools on the Internet made for authors to do just that, and my personal favorite is KDSpy. If you're not able or willing to invest at the moment, a good rule of thumb is to browse Amazon's bestseller categories and look at the sales rankings of books in the top 20, 50 and 100. The lower the sales ranking, the better the book is performing. For example, #1 in the Kindle store is...well, #1. Books in the top 100 that are also in Kindle Unlimited (as most of them are) also receive special bonuses. Your goal is to launch as high as possible and keep your book there for as long as possible through a blurb and cover that appeal to the market, great content that makes readers come back for more, and a steady output of new titles. This is infinitely easier when you have a niche Kindle category in mind (Paranormal Romance about wizards and witches, Space Opera, LGBT+ Fantasy, etc.).
Step 4. Network
I know, I get it. We introverts seem to be far more represented among writers than in the general population, and we want to write, not make small talk! The good news is, there are plenty of ways you can minimize the amount of time you spend on social media and human interaction in general, but unless you are able to hire a personal assistant to do it on your behalf, you are going to have to do some networking. Especially in those early days while you are still building your brand and your platform!
Word of mouth is everything in the author community. Other authors recommend books just as much as readers do, and they can be invaluable sources of advice and warnings of the industry pitfalls to avoid. Once you have more experience under your belt, you can pay it forward by helping new authors along with a bit of hard-earned wisdom and insider secrets!
Newsletter swaps are one of the primary ways authors network. We've already established the importance of having a large, active newsletter. Imagine having 10 to reach at each launch! This is effectively how newsletter swaps work. Authors agree to include each other's books in their weekly or monthly newsletters, usually at the bottom of the email after the new release alert or other update the author originally sent out. As long as authors engage in newsletter swaps with other authors in the same genre, readers tend to appreciate these recommendations of similar works while they are waiting for a new book from the original author to come out.
Another less stressful way to network is to visit author Facebook groups and message boards, where candid conversation on the ins and outs of the publishing industry tends to flow freely. These message boards can be another invaluable source of wisdom and even cross-promotional opportunities!
The most important thing to remember when it comes to author networking is that this isn't a "one winner" industry. There are more readers out there hungry for great content than you could possibly imagine, and there's plenty of spotlight to go around for high-quality books! Put a bit of time into helping and learning from other authors and you will be surprised how far that cooperation can take you! On the flip side, you always want to be careful to avoid authors who always seem to have some "insider trick" that seems too good to be true, especially if they're sharing that information at a price. Even tangential connections to industry manipulators can land your career in hot water .
Step 5. Publish Often
This is everyone's least favorite six-figure author secret--tongue in cheek, as it's about as much of a secret as the sky being blue--because while it is simple, it's far from easy. The truth is that almost every self-published author who's made it big has a publishing schedule that would make any new author's head spin. A book a month is the generally agreed upon turnaround time for authors looking to compete in self-publishing in 2018, even shorter for some genres.
I know what you're thinking. "That's impossible!" And it may well be for some people. That's completely okay. Some people are able to create a full landscape painting in a matter of a few hours, while it would take me a whole year to create a painting that likely no one would ever want to buy! There is a barrier to entry for every field that boasts the promise of a six-figure income (or far greater,) and that barrier is the reason the people on the other side are so successful. It doesn't make you a better or worse writer to be able to put out a book each month, but it is going to make you much more competitive in the current market. That's just the reality of the situation, and there are exceptions. Some authors make it big with their first hit and are able to release books every few months, or even every few years. I wasn't one of them, and neither are most authors who earn a six-figure income from self-publishing. The goal of this article is to tell you what's working now for most six-figure authors, and this is it.
The good news is that writing, like any other art form, is about skill! Skill can be developed. I started out barely able to write a few chapters over the course of a year, and with multiple learning disabilities, I became very frustrated. Once I found a genre I knew like the back of my hand and figured out a schedule and routine that worked for my individual needs, I was able to progress at a much faster pace and today can very easily write a couple of novellas or a novel each month without sacrificing quality. This does not mean everyone can or should do the same. Everyone is different, and everyone has different limitations. Please never let anyone tell you that just because you aren't a fast writer, that means you can't be a good writer (or vice versa!) This is simply not the case. Many writers who produce on a much slower pace have succeeded incredibly. This article is simply about what works for most.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.