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The Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors

Illustration for article titled The Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors

Everybody wants to be successful. And if you've ever told anyone that you're writing a novel (or screenplay, short story, comic book, rondel, etc.) you'll find out that most people you know are writing or planning on writing or want to write something too. This means there are a lot of people who want to be successful writers out there.

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Illustration for article titled The Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors

Image of Tor slush pile by [Cory Doctorow] Creative Commons License
But getting published is hard. Basically, new writers have to be better than the people already published. When I read slush as an intern at big publishing company, my instructions were to give the editors the pretty amazing pieces so they could write personal rejection letters. And even if a book does make it out of the slush and into the hands of an editor, writers are often asked for major revisions and rewrites with no guarantee of purchase or publication. If a book makes it past these hurdles it will still be 1-2 years before it hits the shelves. So it's understandable that people might want to skip the whole publishing thing. I wouldn't want my fate in the hands of an unpaid college intern if I could help it either.

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This leads a lot of people to self-publishing. Once a sign of slightly deluded grandiosity, self-publishing now looks like a reasonable move for writers. For some, it's better than reasonable. Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox just bought the rights to Wool a self-published sci-fi novel by Hugh C. Howley. That's pretty successful any way you slice it.
50 Shades of Gray by E.L. James started life as Twilight fan fic before being self-published and becoming a huge success. Amanda Hocking's self-published YA fantasy titles have earned her millions of dollars.

Readers of the Kindle Boards, a website for Kindle enthusiasts, have put together a list of [145 self-published authors ] who have sold more than 50,000 books on Amazon. This list is probably incomplete, as it is unofficial and doesn't include stats from other self-publishing venues like Barnes and Noble or iTunes. Some of these authors sell as many as 50,000 books a month which would be a very solid month for many best-selling authors. Just last month Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos, [told shareholders]

"More than a thousand [self-published] authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club."

Illustration for article titled The Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors

Amanda Hocking, queen of the self-published.

In case you're wondering, the Kindle Million Club's self-published members include Amanda Hocking and John Locke, who is not the philosopher but a thriller writer from Kentucky. Most of the Kindle Million Club, however, is made up of traditionally published authors like George R.R. Martin, Stephanie Meyer, and James Patterson.

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There are very successful self-published authors of science fiction and fantasy out there. Aside from Amanda Hocking, whose 17 titles have sold more than a million virtual books here's a list of some of the most popular authors:

Heather Killough-Walden whose 500,000 sales of her paranormal romances garnered her a book contract.

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J.R. Rain, a fantasy author, who has sold some 400,000 copies of his novels.

Tina Folsom's 14 paranormal romance titles sold 300,000 copies in 2011 alone.

B.V. Larson, who writes both sci-fi and fantasy, has sold some 250,000 copies of his 25 titles.

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H.P. Mallory has sold 200,000 copies of her paranormal romances.

David Daglish's fantasy novels have sold 175,000 copies.

Ellen Fisher, whose first book was published traditionally before she struck out on her own, has sold 100,000 copies of her paranormal and normal romance novels.

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Michael Sullivan's historical fantasy novels have sold 90,000 online copies and have now been republished by Hachette.

Illustration for article titled The Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors
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There are others, like 16-year-old Rachel Yu who has sold or "rented" out 60,000 copies of her offbeat children's books. Paranormal romance writers Denise Grover Swank, Penelope Fletcher and Sarra Cannon have each sold about 60,000 copies. Much like in traditional publishing, romance novels (including the paranormal kind) sell best.

Proponents of self-publishing like to point to these numbers as an encouraging sign that the market is strong, readers will gladly ignore copyediting errors (thank god they mostly do on the internet), and that big publishing is bad for authors. Successful authors like Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howley and E.L. James eagerly fled for traditional publishing as soon as they had the chance. We may see people return to being strictly self-published in the future, but right now it seems that the marketing power, editorial assistance, PR savvy and dare we say legitimacy of traditional publishing has a stronger lure than getting to set your own price. When asked why she moved to a traditional publisher Hocking said she

"wanted to reach more readers."

Quite the statement from someone who's reached hundreds of thousands of readers already.

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Illustration for article titled The Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors

There's also the fact that since 2008, there have been more self-published titles than traditionally published ones. In 2009 there were 764,448 [ self-published books. ] Without some way to tell that the books are good (or readable or not plagiarized copies of [plagiarized copies of Bram Stoker's Dracula ]) readers face an increasingly difficult time trying to figure out what to read. Self-publishing has very few sign posts for readers; if you pick up a traditionally published book you know an editor not only liked a book, but managed to convince several layers of editors, publishers and marketing people to like it too.

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Illustration for article titled The Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors

The self-publishing landscape threatens to become a vast wasteland for authors too. They have few ways to get recognition and little to no support. They risk spending years trying to sell books no one seems to want, when a good editor or few more drafts could have made the books successful.

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Widespread and successful self-publishing is relatively new. It's possible that many of the bugs in the system will soon be worked out. It's also possible that some combination of traditional and self-publishing will eventually be seen as the norm and writers will move easily back and forth between the two depending on the project. After all, William Blake was a self-published author. Who was penniless when he died.

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DISCUSSION

I'm not one of these best selling writers, but I thought I'd share some of my experiences slowly climbing the heap, in case anyone's interested in seeing what the other side of the curtain is like. I apologize ahead of time for the length.

First, a little bit of biography: I'm a half-latin kid from a staunchly liberal, middle-class family. I grew up in the SF Bay Area in a house where massmarket sci-fi books and copies of Omni were always kicking around underfoot, and it's no surprise that I've been in love with both science-fiction and fantasy since before I could read. Also being an excessively wordy little bastard, I knew from an early age that I wanted to spend the rest of my life making up weird worlds of my own.

My friends, family, and teachers all seemed confident I'd make it someday. No one ever talked about "if", but rather "when"... and in retrospect, knowing what I do now about the publishing industry, that's a hell of a thing to do to a kid. It's like casually assuring them they're going to win the lottery someday.

Like most new writers, I'd originally intended to go the traditional route. Everyone wants their book to earn its place on those dusty shelves, and I'm sure each of us have taken a moment away from browsing to find the spot where our own books will fit in. Mine was was just left of Melanie Rawn, and I used to push her books an inch to the side to make way.

So, I spent my late teens and early twenties trying like hell to finish an avant-garde fantasy novel that was doomed to failure (hindsight being 20/20 and all that jazz). When that book finally breathed its last breath, I kicked its bloated, pustulant corpse aside and started work on the space opera that would eventually be my first completed novel.

Fast forward to late 2007. After having chained myself to the desk for three straight months, I found myself in possession of a finished manuscript, a good attitude, and a hunger to get started. I did my homework, hammered out a synopsis and cover letter, and received my very first form-letter rejection from an agent in December of that year.

For the next month or two, I avidly followed agents' blogs and studied their mysterious ways. When one of those agents opened her box for submissions again (ooh, that sounds wrong), I fired my packet off (still sounding wrong) and waited. I was immensely pleased a week later to find a request for a 50-page partial manuscript in my email.

Sitting there with a drunken smile on my face, I was at that moment blissfully unaware that I would spend the next six months waiting in terrified silence for her to make a decision. I was on the hook, aware that I'd been incredibly lucky to attract an agent's attention on my second swing, and also adamantly set against simultaneous submissions for fear of ruining my reputation among the people who controlled the future of my career.

Those six months sucked. They really, really sucked. At the end of it, she sent me a very kind rejection letter that assured me the book was marketable, but just not for her. It wasn't me; it was her.

I remembered all the stories I'd read about the sci-fi greats of the '50s and '60s. Some of those books had been rejected forty, fifty, sometimes a hundred times before finally finding a home. I did some very rudimentary arithmetic and I realized I could die from old age before striking paydirt. Even if I'd written the greatest sci-fi novel in history (and I most assuredly hadn't), it didn't change my chances. I was playing a lottery, and I'm not a notoriously lucky guy.

I wrote some shorter fiction and submitted to magazines in hopes of starting a little lower on the ladder, but magazines were in the process of imploding, and it was difficult to even figure out which venues were open to submissions in any given month.

The picture kept getting more bleak. I watched a good friend go through hell traditionally publishing three books that never found any traction in the market. His last was published by a press owned by Barnes & Noble, and he couldn't even get Barnes & Noble to stock it. I'd like to say I became disillusioned with traditional publishing, but "militant" is probably a more appropriate word.

Then, in late 2009, I noticed the ebook revolution beginning to gain momentum. With my head all full of anger, resentment, and a bunch of Cory Doctorow's scribblings on copyright, I began to rethink my plan. I set my pride aside and gave up on the dusty bookshelf, and in return I got to be in charge of my own success. Such a thing is truly a blessing for someone with my luck.

I started small in 2010 with a novella, something simple that I could use to get my feet wet and figure out how the system works. Later that year, I ran a failed Kickstarter in hopes of raising advertising funds, but paying for banner-ads didn't capture the public's imagination for some reason. Then I released my novel that Fall under the terms of a fairly permissive Creative Commons license, and I've been plugging away at it ever since.

There are now more than 20,000 copies of my debut novel out in the wild, although the vast bulk of those (>95%) have been free downloads distributed through Feedbooks, torrent sites, and promotions at Amazon. In fact, my most recent free sale at Amazon (just this past Tuesday) served another 3,600 copies, briefly placing me at #1 for free space opera and #103 free overall in the Kindle marketplace.

A year ago today, I was making around $30 a month in royalties, plus an occasional $20 donation from generous readers who wanted to thank me for a free book. This year, I'm pulling down closer to $400 a month, and the numbers are trending upward. That growth has come about entirely thanks to Amazon's Kindle Select Program, and the free promotions that come with it. Every sale has been more popular than the last, and I see a huge surge in real-for-money-sales after each one. Bouyed by this last promotion, I'm currently #64 on Amazon's space opera chart, wedged between Lois McMaster Bujold and a Star Wars novel.

There are worse places to be.

Of course, the whole task still feels like pushing a big rock up a steep hill. Amazon's ecosystem is an echo chamber designed to maximize the visibility of already popular works, but it does virtually nothing to gain exposure for the vast sea of undiscovered books sloshing around at the bottom of the charts. As a seller, you're constantly fighting against the surge of other books' sales, and it seems like you're only ever an hour away from slipping down the hill and back into obscurity.

Other opportunities for promotion are thin or non-existent. Reviewers have little interest in self-published works. Forums that are popular with readers are sick and tired of self-published authors flooding the network, and they now enforce strict rules against self-promotion or else keep self-pubs safely quarantined from the rest of the site. I can't blame them at all for that, honestly; conversation and community suffer horribly under the assault of a bunch of self-obsessed hucksters.

I've experimented with buying ad space, but it's been about as effective as prayer. At least prayer is free if you skip the live animal sacrifice.

And that just about sums up where I am right now. Sales are okay and improving. I'll have another free promotion in three weeks, and another three weeks after that. Eventually, I'd like to transit away from Amazon's market and build my own system—something engineered to pull good books up out of obscurity, rather than promote what's already popular—but that's still a way off. In the meantime, I'll be here writing and looking forward to the day when my name pops up in one of these articles.

If you made it all the way through this gargantuan post, you might be interested in some of my work. You can find my Amazon author page here: [www.amazon.com]

If prices seem too high, you can always wait a few weeks for a sale, or just pester someone for a copy. It's all CC licensed, and pirate friendly.

Cheers!

~Chris