Self-Publishing Success?

A few self-published authors have been highly successful, which shows that indie success is possible. But the odds are very long, as the vast majority of self-published books don’t even sell a copy per day on average.

What have the top indie authors done differently? Is it just dumb luck?


Self-publishing isn’t like buying a lottery ticket where the odds are incredible. With the lottery, every ticket has the same odds. But all self-published books are not all equal.

Not every book has a chance of winning the self-publishing lottery.

The top selling indie authors have some things in common:

(1) They followed good business models. Some authors, like Amanda Hocking, actually researched business strategies in their traditional publishing pursuits.

Most self-published authors do one or both of the following:

  • They get an idea, carry it out, and publish it. Business-minded authors won’t write and publish any idea; they will develop the idea as an integral part of the business strategy.
  • They want to do something significantly different than what is traditional. This is great for authors who want to write as artists and aren’t concerned about lack of success. The problem from a business perspective is that the existing readership has well-defined expectations in each genre and the vast majority of books that they purchase meet those expectations. More of these readers will explore something significantly different if the author first publishes a couple of traditional books and then attempts something new after building an audience.

Some authors genuinely prefer to write as artists, knowing full well that sales might be considerably less than what they may be if they approach writing from a business perspective. There is much to be said for the writing artist. It’s just very challenging to get noticed this way and to establish a large readership.

I’m not saying that you should write for money and not write as an artist. Rather, since highly successful self-published authors follow good business models, let’s follow the logic behind business-minded book development and see where it leads. In the end, I will explain how an author might write as an artist – not for money – and yet benefit from some of the same logic.

A business-minded writer doesn’t just write a book, but develops the book idea as part of a business strategy:

  • Start out considering possible subjects and genres. Of those genres which are a best fit for your writing, which are most popular? What experience or expertise do you have? What needs are there on the market?
  • Research each of these possible book ideas. What books already on the market are most similar to each of these book ideas? Look at their sales ranks. What are the best books like these that don’t have a big-name author or publisher? The business-minded author chooses a book idea with the best potential in a genre or subject that he/she is most qualified to write.
  • Research the top books in the genre similar to the book in mind. Can you compete with the writing in these books? Read these books to learn the unspoken rules of the genre. For example, the business-minded author won’t allow the protagonist to act in a way that will upset much of the potential readership and will create an ending that will please the target audience. The business-minded author develops an idea and writes a book geared toward the largest possible target audience that he/she is likely to attract with his/her writing skills.
  • The business-minded author is thinking about marketing throughout the writing process. This author is seeking input on the cover, title, and blurb for two reasons: to help generate “buzz” about the upcoming book and to see what features please or upset the target audience. (In contrast, too many indie authors disregard important criticism that they receive and focus mostly on feedback that coincides with what they wanted to hear.) They develop a great cover – often hiring a great cover designer – knowing how important this is to marketing. They wrote their blurbs and first chapters to be captivating, knowing how strongly this affects sales.
  • Pinpoint the target audience and discover where to find them and how to reach them. The business-minded author is thinking long and hard what marketing strategies will be most effective for them. Those who have a knack for business tend to be the most diligent, motivated marketers. They also know how to use price, discounts, giveaways, and series to their advantage. Everything from the cover to writing to marketing is part of an overall business strategy.

We’ll return to writing artists at the end.

(2) Most tried diligently to get traditionally published, but didn’t succeed in this until after becoming successful as indies.

Although they didn’t get traditionally published (before they broke through), they were doing all the right things toward achieving this, which helped them develop the skills that they ultimately used to thrive on their own.

  • They tried to improve their writing to get traditionally published.
  • They spent much time studying readerships in an effort to identify their target audience, since publishers are very interested in this.
  • They researched business plans to develop book ideas and write proposals that would help them get traditionally published.
  • They learned about marketing in order to convince publishers that their books would succeed.
  • They attempted to meet people who might help them with their writing careers.

These are all valuable skills that any authors can benefit from, self-published or not. In the last point, they also developed handy contacts.

(3) They were highly motivated to become successful writers. You have to be highly motivated to learn about business strategies when your initial goal is becoming an author. All those rejection letters from traditional publishers fueled their motivation. The best place for those letters is a bedroom ceiling or bathroom wall that you’ll see every morning.

Never give up. Constantly strive to improve.


Back to my earlier point: You don’t necessarily have to write for money to be successful.

You can be a writing artist and succeed.

The pure businessman who develops the perfect business strategy to write and market a book is highly motivated to do the marketing, but must find the passion to put into the writing and learn to write well.

The pure writer who writes for art’s sake naturally writes well and puts the passion into the writing, but must find the passion to do the marketing in order to be successful.

There is a limitation from the pure business perspective – i.e. how well can you write, how well can you tell a story?

The limitation for the writing artist is that not all book ideas are good ideas, not all stories have a potential readership.

Almost nobody is a pure business person or pure writing artist.

Determine which side you’re on – those are your strengths. The more you’re willing to improve your weaknesses, the more balanced you’ll become as a self-publisher, which will increase your chances of success.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volume 2 coming in mid-April)

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