Sunday, February 16, 2014

Guest Post by Joshua Guess

I am a full-time writer today because of Joe Konrath. I know he would disagree, but I'd have never had the balls to publish my first book without a year of reading his blog under my belt.
It's been a strange trip. I started by creating a fictional blog set in the zombie apocalypse. I'd read Joe's thoughts on piracy and how giving your work away was the most efficient route to creating interest. That's what I did. I wrote a free-to-read blog about living in the zombie apocalypse and updated it often.
So often that after six months I had enough material to collect into a book and sell.
Those early efforts were rough. I never saw Living With the Dead as anything but writing practice. That came through in my work, if I'm being honest. The first few months were an exercise in sharpening my skills, which was easy because I had very little in the way of skills to start with. I put out that first collection and forgot about it.
The first month I made $70. I was surprised, because I was just this guy blogging after work, sitting on his couch and mainlining the morning repeats of SVU. Month two brought in about $400, a fact I was unaware of until the following month, because I never checked my sales. Month three doubled that number. By then I was nearing completion of a second collection of my blog.
Let's fast forward and summarize:
The first full year, I made $6,000 from selling eBooks. It wasn't life-changing money. I couldn't pay off my house with it. But for someone working in a nursing home making $11 an hour, it was nice. The second year brought $12,000. I was stunned stupid by this. I knew this as a rough estimate when I did my 2012 taxes, but seeing the number on the screen kind of blew me away. Because my wife and I are religious about overpaying, we got a nice fat return.
When I got my return back in March of 2013, I quit my job.
Which was a stupid thing to do. I swore I would keep working and only go full-time as a writer if I already had the sort of income from it that would allow me to do so. A combination of other factors forced me to finally take the plunge, and I'm glad I did.
I took that money and lived on it, along with an IndieGoGo campaign. I had written two novels outside my LWtD collections, the first of which I deleted because it was terrible. The other was an urban fantasy, a labor of love, that made me about ten bucks in a good month. My readers clamored for actual novels written in the zombie universe I created for the blog, and I decided to take a few months and grant their wish.
 Victim Zero was the result. Published in early June of 2013, and with help from a fellow author, the book did very well by my standards. Since then I've worked with that author, the excellent James Cook, on a collaboration set in his own apocalyptic world. The Passenger remains my favorite work. I got to write from the perspective of a thinking man trapped in the body of a zombie. Being along for the ride sucks.
In December I released Dead Will Rise, the sequel to Victim Zero. When I quit the nursing home last year, I expected to put out one novel and have to go back to work. Hell, I still might have to.
I haven't been back yet. My financial situation will take me through the anniversary of going full-time at the least. In 2013, I made $32,000 from writing. More than I made at the nursing home by $7,000.
And you know? I could have survived on less. I'd have been happy on less. My wife works and is very supportive. I'm living the dream because I took a stupid risk, one that (thankfully) paid off. My sales might taper off tomorrow and I might have to go back to a normal job. I recognize the fluctuations in the market. For now, everything is sunny.
I've been reading over Joe's recent spate of arguments with people in the legacy publishing industry, and I can't help but wonder how many people like me are out there. Instead of waiting for a short rejection letter—I have never submitted my work, and rejected two unsolicited offers for my work from publishers—to know whether my books were worthwhile, I let the readers decide.
More than that, putting my work out there was the best possible way to grow and improve as a writer. I tell my Facebook fans that the best part of this job is interacting with them, and it's the truth. Without their support, I'd still be working nights and wearing scrubs. But it goes beyond that. Because of the constant feedback from them, I've been able to learn and grow as a writer magnitudes beyond any vague criticism from a rejection letter.
My gatekeepers aren't some harried agent or editor sifting through the slush pile. They are the readers, many of them happy to give constructive, concise thoughts on where and how I can improve my game. The reason it's becoming harder for readers to immediately tell indies apart from legacy authors is because we have that edge. With on-the-ground feedback in real time, we can fix and improve much faster than they can. Victim Zero has been re-uploaded at least seven times since June, every time tweaked to be a better book.
I spend a lot of time on my Facebook author page, talking about projects and bouncing ideas off people. I'm at a place in my career where I have a small but dedicated fan base that isn't too big for me to handle. I can answer messages, reply to comments, and stay connected in a way Stephen King or another big name would have a hard time managing. Right now I'm hosting an open chat thread on my author page about my next novel, a book about superhumans. The feedback I've already had helped me catch flaws I would have otherwise missed.
Why does this matter? Because as indies, we don't have a buffer between us and the fans. There is no giant, approval-giving publisher accepting our books. I've read a lot of interviews with a lot of legacy authors, and on the whole I don't see them as active with their fans as most indies are. I think that's a shame, because it's super fun and one of the best ways to build loyalty.
It's the strangest thing—and Joe has been spot-on about it lately—that every time someone from the industry speaks up about eBooks, sales, and all the rest, they always seem to ignore the actual people creating their content. Joe is right, as he usually is: there is a revolution going on, and the industry is just now beginning to realize it. While it frightens them that people like Joe and Barry, who have been a part of the industry and ran from it toward huge piles of money, creative control, and self-respect, people like me should scare them a hell of a lot more.
I never even considered querying. I never for a moment thought it was a good idea to submit a book. I am not alone or in the minority of this generation of aspiring and new authors. It won't be long before the legacy system begins to shrink by means of implosion. There just won't be enough authors to support their massive and outdated infrastructure.
I won't cheer for that. Like most of the people that read this blog, I've been a voracious reader for most of my life. But I won't shed tears when it happens, either. 
Joe sez: Congrats on your success, Joshua, and I hope it continues.
I'm reminded again of the old song "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paris?"
There are still scads of newbie authors who write a book and are clueless what to do with it. Some may wind up at the Authors Guild blog, or an agent blog, or the woefully anachronistic Absolute Write forum, and think the only way to reach readers is to submit to the legacy system. Others, who have heard of self-publishing, may come across AuthorHouse and likely get ripped off, leaving them with a sour taste and an empty wallet.
But a few authors will find this blog, and find outspoken authors like Dean Wesley Smith, Joanna Penn, David Gaughran, Bob Mayer, Courtney Milan, Kris Rusch, and Hugh Howey, and hear stories about Amanda Hocking, HW Ward, Brenna Aubrey, Blake Crouch, Barry Eisler, HM Ward, Marie Force, Bella Andre, Selena Kitt, Liliana Hart, Chris Culver, TR Ragan, Russell Blake, Darcy Chan, BV Wallace, Michael J Sullivan, and so many others. And they will be inspired to self-publish.
Two things helped legacy publishers maintain a quasi-monopoly on the marketplace (a cartel engaged in kabuki competition) for so many years.
1. They controlled distribution to bookstores and libraries, and there was no simple, direct way for authors to reach readers without them.
2. They indoctrinated whole generations of writers with the nonsense that they had to find an agent and submit to a publisher in order to be considered a real author.
Magazines, how-to books, conferences, conventions, all perpetuated and glorified that path to success: Get an agent. Sell your book to a major publisher. Become a bestseller.
The propaganda they used, and still use, is pervasive, insidious, and widely believed. Vanity presses are making a fortune.The Authors Guild and the AAR are steadfastly pro-legacy. Industry pros try to marginalize the self-publishing option by crowing how 70% of books are sold in bookstores, stating that self-publishing isn't really publishing, pontificating that no one takes self-pubbing seriously.
Self-publishing is a shadow industry that has grown without anyone fully understating how big and powerful it is getting. Yes, every hears about the huge successes, but very few hear about authors like Joshua, quitting their day job, paying bills. How many like him are there? How many more who make just a $1000 a year, but that's enough to take the family to a nice meal once a month? How many are paying their electric bill, or affording an iPad, or simply smiling ear-to-ear because some complete stranger gave them 5 stars and a glowing review on Amazon?
This revolution isn't about Konrath making a million dollars a year. 
This revolution is about writers, for the first time ever, having power.
We have a choice. And it's our duty to make ALL writers aware of this choice. 
Visit Fill out the survey and petition. Link to it. Tweet it. Discuss it on Facebook. Speak out and tell your peers what your experiences are. Even if you make $10 a year, you're not a failure. Failure is giving up. Failure is handing your fate over to someone else. Failure is not arming yourself with information.
Ebooks are forever. Understand what copyright is. Understand that money flows toward the writer. Understand that the more control you have, the less likely you are to be at the mercy of others. 
The first step, in any revolution, is making the exploited aware of how they're being exploited. We have a growing body of evidence that shows self-publishing is good, and legacy publishing is exploitative. 
We need to share that evidence if we want change to happen. 
Tell your stories. Be proud of your accomplishments. Stop succeeding in silence. 
I used to tell an old joke about Smokey the Bear. His catchphrase was, "Only you can prevent forest fires." And I was going broke, spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without sleep, running around the country preventing forest fires. Because only I can."
In 2009, I began to live that joke. I blogged about Kindle, and self-publishing, and was met with disbelief, disapproval, and outright scorn. I was called a liar, an anomaly, and outlier. My success was falsely attributed to my legacy background. When I suggested others try self-pubbing, I was met with fierce resistance. I was despised. 
But some people listened. Others figured out what I had without me. And soon there were a whole bunch of us, posting our numbers, enlightening each other. 
It took five years, but the legacy industry is finally engaging us. And they're scared. As they should be. Because without authors, they have nothing to publish. And the more authors who know how easy it is to self-publish, and how unconscionable those legacy deals are, the better off we're all going to be. Legacy publishers, when faced with fewer and fewer quality submissions, will either have to change their terms, or perish.
The more writers who understand this, the better off we all are.
Talk about it. Be proud of it. Fight bullshit when you see it. Educate those who don't understand it. 
The exploitation of writers stops, right now.


w. adam mandelbaum esq. said...

Looks like you guessed right about what happens when Guess writes. Continued success to you even beyond the coming zombie apocalypse. A real horror story would be when the dead come back from the grave as literary agents or Big 5 editor/publishers. Of course they would not eat brains, they'd just exploit them. The publishers could be identified by having their "spine out" and the literary agents would be covered in unread query letters.

kathie said...

Congratulations on your fabulous success! You are the writer who is overlooked in many of the arguments against self-publishing. You are living off the work you love. Earnings with a bonus!

T.R.Roach said...

Great job! It is encouraging to know that there are others out there that want to publish but have not gone the traditional route. Quitting your job to write full time was a huge decision and I am sure you questioned yourself about it many times.

You are doing all the right things. Continue to write, take criticism and fix your work, publish, market, write, repeat...

It is admirable that you had the guts to take that step of the seemingly large cliff. I wish you great success.

One more comment: Your book covers are awesome! Who designed them?

Joshua Guess said...

Thanks, all. I'm happy with my success because it's mine. I'm not living in mansions or driving a new car (yet!) but I make a living at my dream job. That's the definition of success, to me. Quitting my job was absolutely a nerve-wracking experience, but years of physical and mental stress made it possible. I was at a point where uncertainty and the bare possibility of writing full-time were more appealing options than the job I had.

And T.R., the three covers above were created by the excellent Keary Taylor, herself an author who supplements her income by providing inexpensive photo-manipulated covers for indie authors. I've only been using her services recently, and the experience has been stellar.

P. S. Power said...

Succeeding in silence...

Okay, I guess.

I started writing in November 2011.

In January 2012 I put up my first book on

Since then:

I made, before taxes, only from book sales:

2012: $109,000
2013: $152,000

(So, over a quarter million dollars in my first two years.)

I write at least one full novel a month, often in series, but not exclusively.

I've never even tried to get an agent, and wouldn't know how. Nor did I waste that time trying to get a Big Five publisher.

My works are a bit strange, hitting themes that most publishers might be a little afraid of. Oh, and my books are well received.

People really don't need gatekeepers, just good books.

Alan Tucker said...

Josh, congrats and i wish you heaps of continued success! Great story and thank you for sharing it with us!

Serena Grey said...

Congratulations Joshua!

I self-published my first book in June 2013, and by the end of the year I had made more than $10,000 in royalties. Like you, I never considered submitting to agents.

The funny thing is, I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and had been writing since I was a teen, but for a long time, I didn't write seriously enough to finish anything because the idea of facing the jungle of agents and submissions was discouraging to me.

It's a new world, one in which we have so many tools to get our work out there, and the best part is the readers don't care how a book is published, only that it is good.

Anonymous said...

*raises fist*


Congrats, Josh! So nice to see you were able to quit that job and write for a living. Great to read your success story. :)

Since we're sharing info, here are my stats: (I'm not revealing my pen name until I'm big enough so that internet trolls can't bother me)

Year One (2012): Published 3 books. Sold 1,000+ copies. Gave away 10,000 through KDP select promos. Before tax income: $3,000. Off to a slow start and not yet ready to quit my day job, but I'm building a readership and learning how to do this self-publishing thing. Getting checks from Amazon every month ROCKS!

Year Two (2013): Published 2 books. Sold 60,000+ copies. Did not give any away as freebies, but held two 99c sales. Before tax Income: $130,000. Holy COW! Totally shocked... Both books reaching top 10 in their category and top 20 in Kindle Store during sales, and top 100 outside of sales, rank fluctuating between 1200 - 3500 in Kindle store. Did a lot of promotional work with book bloggers in the genre. That is key, in my view, to getting your book in front of new readers. A few 99c sales to get new readers. Amazon's algorithms help as well.

I quit my day job in November 2013.

Year Three (2014): Published 1 book. Before tax income to date: $36,000.

I have two books and 1 novella on the schedule to publish this year. What will the year end balance sheet look like? If I maintain current sales, maybe close to $200,000.

I'm not nearly as successful as Joe or Barry or Hugh but I'm a happy camper and it was all done as an indie, with the help of my beta readers, editor and graphic designer.

Reading Joe's blog is a MUST for all aspiring and established authors.

Write on, fellow indies!


Joshua Guess said...

I'm excited to see so many indies making so much money. That's pretty crazy, Susan! You've made more money this year than I did last year. I'm hoping to approach that level of success by hitting some new genres.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Joshua et al,
Well, I'm not making money. My costs are minimum (website, ebook formatting, cover art, and editing and proofreading), but I haven't even recovered that. But I love to write (14 books and counting), so what the hell?
I consider myself lucky. I don't have to make a living off my writing. I'd like to recover costs, but I'm not greedy when I have so much fun writing. I suppose some people would consider it intellectual masturbation, but I have a long list of what-ifs my banshee-muses want me to exhaust (the Irish storyteller in me?).
I started out trying to find agents. I think my number of rejections beats Joe's plus agents just sitting on manuscripts, wasting my time. Along with Joe, I've learned that Maass and his ilk really aren't interested in entertaining the reading public--they're interested in control.
Hmm, this a wee bit of ramblin'--must be all the winter storms! So sorry, folks.

Jessica L Buike (AuthorJess and Operation Relax) said...

Thank you for posting this!! It was incredibly helpful and inspiring, as I remind myself that self-published can be just as good as "traditionally published" if well done.
I linked to this post in my blog today, hope you don't mind:

Joshua Guess said...

Steven, I'm the first person to say that half the reason I write is because I love it. I don't think you get past your first book otherwise. The other reason is because I wanted to make a career out of writing, and I got *very* lucky. I'm aware of that.

I'm sure you'll recoup your costs and more in the long run. The thing about having a backlist is that the one lucky break where one book sells tends to create interest for the others. That has been my experience, at any rate.

Trevor said...

Joe, I'm curious why you care so much about what Traditional publishing is doing. I mean, I get it, you don't like them, you feel as though you were mistreated, blah blah blah, but really, who cares? You've made a bunch of money self publishing. Why not just move on? I'm sure you'll tell me it has to do with saving other people from having to go through what you went through, but it seems more like you have a personal vendetta.

For instance, look at what Hugh Howey is doing. This guy is the undisputed leader of the self publishing movement (if there is such a thing), and he seems to be having fun posting his cute little articles on what authors make, and he bases it on incorrect, or at least incomplete data, and he knows it. He's just throwing some guess based numbers around to start a conversation. He's having fun, and I'm sure it's because he realizes, on some level, how little any of this matters.

So, why so angry, Joe? You don't want a traditional publisher, and they don't want you. Why keep such a meaningless fight going?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Steven -- I agree with Josh -- keep writing because you love it and WHEN you get a hit, people will go back and look at what else you have written. Then that backlist will be welcome.

My first three books, which did not take off, keep selling every month enough to pay the mortgage so I am happy I published them. They are in a different genre and transgress genre norms a bit and as a result, the series is not a big seller.

Was it worth it to write the series, even if it doesn't sell well? I think so. I have a small group of dedicated fans of the series, nagging me to write another book in the series. That feels good.

You can always revise your books, swap out covers, and change price - try different promotional tactics that don't cost much, like reaching out to book bloggers in your genre. That's the beauty of eBooks. They don't get pulped after 3 - 6 months and can become more popular later.

Everyone should write because they love it and will do it even if they don't earn a cent. Life is too short to give up doing creative work because you don't meet some financial goal. If I hadn't made as much money off my series, I would have kept writing because writing is necessary for my well-being.

That I am making a living doing it now blows my mind every day.

Keep up the good fight!


Anonymous said...

Josh, I'm lucky that I write in romance, a genre with a large group of hardcore readers, who read several books a week, some of them a book a day most days. EGAD. They are hungry for more all the time, and are always looking for new reads. That helps a lot. Indie eBooks provide them with that supply of good reads at a decent price, easy to download and read fast.

While I have done pretty darn well, the audience for my genre is HUGE compared to how many books I've sold. The potential audience is 100 to 1,000x what I have sold so I am small potatoes. But I can live off the small bag of spuds I've been lucky to collect. :)

And that's the thing, right? You don't have to be a blockbuster to make a living as a writer. Midlist as an indie eBook writer is nice in itself, primarily because I get to write for a living which has always been my dream.


Anonymous said...

Trevor, It's not a meaningless fight.

Joe speaks up because so many authors are still getting taken for a ride, financially, and every other way.

Perhaps if organisation that are meant to support authors actually did their job, Joe and others wouldn't need to.

Lizzie said...

Quit trolling, Trevor. Joe has gone over this issue many, many times. You clearly didn't bother to read the blog you're commenting on.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Joshua, congratulations. i meant to say it in my previous post, but I was distracted.

You're joining a merry band of indies, some happy to drop their chains and others, like you, who never had to wear those chains in the first place.

JA Konrath said...

Joe, I'm curious why you care so much about what Traditional publishing is doing.

Because all evil needs to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Joshua Guess said...

I just imagined Joe with a Bane mask on:

"I am publishing's reckoning."

"After you watch the big 5 collapse, then you have my permission to die."

John Erwin said...

I self-published my first novel (here's a link to a free sample) a little over a year ago. I have made enough from it to buy a pizza or two. It is apparently not in a high-dollar genre (western historical fiction), but I wrote it because I had to write it, not because I expected to make much money from it. I consider it a great success, though, just because of the unexpectedly glowing responses I have gotten from almost everyone who has read it -- ranging from people in their early 20s to people creeping up on 90. That kind of response is worth a lot -- and it is inspiring me to write at least one new novel per year until my brain wears out. And, maybe I will end up making some money along the way.

Chris W. Martinez said...

Add me to the chorus of congratulations for your success, Josh. As a super-new author (self-pubbed my first novel just a month ago), it's really inspiring to read about these successes, but especially ones like yours that are relatively new and growing.

I also really appreciate the humility with which you tell your personal story and talk about your writing. That's an admirable (and occasionally rare) attribute.

All the best to you.

Joshua Guess said...

Thanks, Chris, and everyone congratulating me on my success so far. While I sincerely appreciate it, back-patting wasn't my goal. I have wanted to tell my own story for a while, because it serves as an example. Average people with no experience who have the drive to write and a willingness to be self-critical and improve CAN have success the ways Joe has preached.

As for humility, my wife would probably argue the point :D

T.R.Roach said...

Just wanted to mention that it is refreshing the way you wrote your bio on Amazon. Staying away from the 3rd person was a smart move.

Joshua Guess said...

T.R.--It's the same approach I take with my fans on my author page. In all honesty, the tradition of being aloof seems pretentious to me. It's another holdover of the legacy publishing system. I'd rather be myself and talk to people than try to write something about me.

Mario Jannatpour said...

Very cool Josh!! Congratulations! I think it's great what you've been able to build with your writing career.

One thing I have noticed is the successful self published writers are doing well in certain niches.

I have a full time job and I wrote a non-fiction career book a couple of years ago for Real Estate. It has been selling well. My royalties for paperback and Kindle in 2013 are $14,000. My book fits in well in its niche.

I wrote and self published a second book last year. A very personal book I have been working on awhile now. A motivational/inspirational book. Sales are very slow to start, I am ok with it. Zero sales in Jan/Feb this year. This book does not fit a specific niche so now I am paying the price on the back-end.

One of the commenters above talks about the Romance niche and how sales are so strong in that category.

It would be helpful to identify good niches for aspiring writers. I remember Joe wrote before how Nicholas Sparks researched categories on Amazon and then he wrote his style of books to fit into that category.

I wonder if that is how some of us need to start off to get sales going. I have a work in progress now and again it does not fit a specific niche but it is important to me and I will write it through to the end and self publish.

Once I am through writing books that are important and meaningful to me I am wondering if I should start writing books in the Romance niche to make some money.

Thanks for listening.

gpstberg said...

Good post, thanks for sharing your numbers. Living on $11 an hour is tough and I'm glad you're doing something you like now, which nursing didn't sound to be.

I'm always thrilled when I get an email or a comment on one of my posts, and it sounds like you're the same way. I hope that never goes away!

Anonymous said...

Mario, you are right that it is easier to self-publish a book in a high-selling genre for eBooks. Romance is one genre that sells well and indie authors do well in it.

SF appears to be good as well. I always thought SF wouldn't do well, because it's a very niche market, but Hugh has shown that not to be the case. His success shows there is a hunger for well-written SF books and short stories.

I am going to dust off and publish a few of my SF manuscripts that I didn't publish because I thought legacy was the way to go with them. We shall see how easy or hard it is to sell them. :) Of course, it helps if you write a book that people can't put down, and that describes Hugh's books, so keep that in mind.

If you are considering it, why not pick up a copy of one of Nicholas Sparks's romance novels, read it and see if you could write a novel with the same kind of themes and feel. As long as you understand what romance readers want, the basics, I think romance is a genre that both men and woman can write well and succeed.

Good luck!


Mario Jannatpour said...

Thanks so much Susan! I appreciate the advice, very helpful. Yes, I will pick up a few Sparks books at the library.

Interesting point about SF books. I had never thought of that as an option. Some of my most favorite books are Sci-Fi. Good luck to you with your SF manuscripts.

Andreas said...

"I never even considered querying. I never for a moment thought it was a good idea to submit a book" And that basically sums it up for so many of us. Why in the world would we NOT self publish?

Thanks Josh, for this post, that basically says it all. And to Joe, who is by far the staunchest advocate for writers, and an inspiration to all of us.