by Amanda Clay
Over the past few months, we’ve talked through some key foundations to the business of indie publishing—why you might consider it, the various platforms, and the basic upfront costs and earning potential. Hopefully you’re still intrigued about this creative and independent endeavor!
But a question you might be asking yourself is, what kind of books do I have to write to be successful?
You may be under the impression that you must write romance to make any money. It’s true romance does lead the charge in the self-publishing arena and there are many very valid reasons why. When self-publishing first came about, traditional publishing was turning its back on romance that didn’t conform to certain standards (e.g., racially diverse, LGBQT, erotica). The first self-publishing pioneers were in fact romance writers who took advantage of a way to reach hungry, underserved audiences. Romance readers BINGE books and the marriage of ebooks and a fast publishing model was winning. (Romance writers have also always been sharks when it comes to business and marketing. They’ve had to be—traditional publishing hasn’t always been fair to them).
Whether indie or traditional, the truth is romance is a billion-dollar industry. It’s going to lead the charge everywhere.
But now that indie publishing has matured, you don’t have to write romance, or even necessarily “genre” fiction, to be successful. With indie publishing you can reach smaller markets that may not work for large publishers. I have a friend who kills it in honey-badger shifter romance. (Talk about sentences I never thought I’d say.) I know another author who made seven figures writing how-to guitar manuals. There are even some authors selling consistently in poetry and literary fiction.
There’s a marketplace for everything, no matter how small, even in niche non-fiction.
Are genre books (romance, mystery, fantasy, etc.) still the most successful? Absolutely. But that has less to do with indie publishing and more to do with that’s the majority of what the market reads. Like any business, the more popular the product, the bigger your audience. But, along with that comes more competition. Yes, contemporary romance is the top seller in the country. There are also half a million titles in the Kindle store in this category. The more you can drill down and be specific or niche (honey badger shifter romance?), the more likely you are to reach an audience that isn’t getting what it needs.
With hungry readers comes whale readers—devouring multiple books a week, sometimes even a book a day. Now, if you’re a traditional author who can only publish once a year because of editorial calendars, your loyal readers might be hungry for more. I’d read a Karin Slaughter book every week if I could. Sadly, I must wait an entire year each time. An author who can produce a few books a year, or even one a month, can keep feeding those hungry readers book after book.
What if you want to write in more than one genre? You can do that! Again, one of the great things about being independently published is the freedom to choose your own path. However, it isn’t without difficulty. I can speak from experience as someone who writes across genres that it’s challenging. Your readers won’t necessarily follow you from genre to genre. It makes it more difficult to brand yourself. Marketing is more challenging because of the way the algorithms work. And while this can be creatively soothing for me personally, it can also annoy my readers, and drives both my agent and my husband crazy. (Yes, I am agented and there is a place for agents in self-publishing. More on being a “hybrid author” another time).
When you’re just starting out, my advice it to pick one genre in which you could spend writing at least four books, either in a series, or connected standalones. I promise this will help you establish a brand and a readership and make your life a lot easier.
Think it through because you’re going to spend a LOT of time there. What do you enjoy reading consistently? What do you eagerly binge on Netflix? What did you love as a kid? What’s something you can see yourself writing over and over and over without vomiting? Because trust me, even if you’re madly in love with your story, by the time you hit that publish button, you’re going to want to set your manuscript on fire and forget it ever existed.
This is one of the reasons I always drive home that to be successful in publishing you need a combination of business and passion. There are times you need to rely on your passion to fight through the setbacks, and there are times you need to be motivated by money to write one more word. Gotta pay the mortgage, gotta pay the mortgage.
It’s not to say that as you progress in your career you may find the thing you wanted to write isn’t a good fit. This happened to me. I started out with a young adult series, and while it did well and I’m still very proud of that series, it wasn’t an area I found I wanted to live long-term. But when I finally wrote my first mystery thriller? I knew that was home. Then when I thought about it, while I can read across the board depending on my mood, I always gravitated back to thrillers.
Keep in mind, even though you may choose to write solely in one genre at first, it doesn’t mean you can’t explore other genres or pursue passion projects down the road, or even write under different pen names. While I would suggest you wait until you have a bit of experience so you don’t drive yourself crazy, there will always be room for you to explore creatively. Not every project will make money—sometimes you’ll lose money—and that’s ok! A-list actors make Marvel movies so they can act in community theater. Sometimes you wanna write something for the pure pleasure of it. I’ll be releasing a book next week that’s completely different from anything I’ve ever written. I normally write dark and twisty thrillers. This is a light, campy romantic comedy set in Monaco. But you know what? During the pandemic I needed to distract myself from the dark for a little while. Will my current readers love it? Yet to be determined. I think some of them will! Even though it’s very different, I think it’s still my writing, my voice.
And while it was slightly derailed by 2020, I have a historical pen name that I plan on publishing under. Because sometimes, I need a break from my normal genre. They may never be my sole source of income, but it can be creatively satisfying.
Success in the self-publishing space has less to do with the genre in which you write and more to do with your business model, how often you can publish, and just plain old whether or not you can write good books. No matter the genre, if your book is professionally produced and top-quality in craft and story, it will be undistinguishable from a book produced by a Big-Five publisher. A reader isn’t going to know the difference or care. It really comes down to visibility and marketing. The reality is most newbie authors just don’t have huge marketing budgets or reach that a big publisher has, so relying on one big hit every year is tough. This is where publishing multiple books per year and really reaching readers through grassroots efforts can give you an advantage. I’ll talk more about grassroots marketing next month. Until then, keep this one word top of mind—newsletter.
As always, if you ever have any questions about the indie publishing path, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Until next month, happy writing!
Amanda J. Clay is the Amazon best-selling author of gripping romantic thrillers and suspense with unforgettable characters. A Northern California native, she currently lives in Nashville, TN.
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