Getting Started in Self-Publishing
Though I know many authors who are past the stage of “How do I self-publish my first book”, I am now meeting more writers who are new to self-publishing since I started exploring the world of screenwriting. We authors must write – whether it's for moviegoers or readers – and thankfully there can be crossover. Screenwriters can also self-publish to help pay the bills between movie contracts. AND for those authors who want to have their novels and short stories adapted for film, this opens more doors of opportunity. Why not do it yourself, right?
With all that being said, I find myself answering the same question with screenwriters – “How do I make an income from novels as well as screenplays?” This series of articles contains my advice for creating a plan to success to start selling your books and generating a livable income.
PLEASE NOTE: NO plan leads to overnight success. Such situations of sheer luck cannot be predicted or executed with a plan. BUT you can plan for success and be ready when Lady Luck (who is no lady at all) comes whoring at your door.
Part 1: KEEP WRITING
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many authors out there only write one book and then ask, “How can I make a living from my books?” KEEP WRITING is the answer to that question. Writing one book and waiting for the cash to roll in is like opening a store with one product. “If this product sells, I'll put more on my shelves.” You might as well close up the store and go back to your day job. That is a plan to fail. Period. You must keep writing. And if you groan at the thought of having to write more books and keep going…why are you contemplating the career of being a writer?
WHAT to Write?
- Series – My experience has proven that books in a series are more successful than stand-alone novels. So whether you write in the same world and feature different characters, use the same main character(s) for all their adventures in your series, or write them sequentially (must be read in order) or non-sequentially (doesn't matter which order you read them), readers love books in a series. Writing in series increases your chances of selling books. I've listed examples of TV shows that resemble a series for books, but TV shows can sometimes bleed into the sequential due to the development of the characters. Supernatural is a perfect example of how the episodes straddle the fence between standing alone and sequential viewing in much later episodes.
- Non-Sequential – Supernatural (at least the first 2.5 seasons – later episodes might confuse viewers since many of the angels/demons storylines require the backstory for understanding), The West Wing, The Big Bang Theory, Sherlock, the Star Trek TV shows in their many iterations (The Original Series, Next Generation, Beyond, Enterprise, etc.). There's usually a resolution to the main plot even though there can be an overarching storyline throughout the series.
- Sequential – Supernatural (spilling into season 3 and then beyond), Vampire Diaries, Blacklist, The Originals, The Flash, Arrow, and Daredevil. Viewing these out of order might cause confusion.
- Serials – A serial has a cliffhanger at the end of each episode and/or the main storyline continues throughout the serial. Serials are very much like a written version of TV shows like 24, Breaking Bad, Lost, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The 100 or The Walking Dead. Though each of these episodes do have some kind of resolution to an immediate goal, the main plotline could stretch across several episodes or the entire season (e.g., Though Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi may have caught up to Count Dookoo and captured him, the episode ends with them taking him into custody and heading toward the Galactic Capital of Coruscant and a hint they might not make it). These read/view more like chapter books and are part of a larger main plot that isn't resolved until the end of a season or beyond. Readers may bitch about cliffhangers but, in most situations, they generate higher sales because of the need to finish the storyline. And if the books are released weekly or bi-weekly, even better. WRITE the entire season BEFORE you start publishing any of them! You will thank me in the end for this advice. (Hint: less pressure)
- Short Stories – Though these might be easier to write (for some authors), short stories just don't sell. However, they're GREAT for giving readers a sample of your writing. We'll talk more about how to use short stories as a marketing tool later in this series of articles.
- Stand-Alone Novels/Novellas – These are much like short stories…sales on stand-alone novels don't do as well as those in a series. And you may argue that Stephen King (or insert your favorite author) never wrote a series, you're reading this article because you don't have a big contract with a huge advance and you're not a bestselling author backed by a Big 5 publisher. Your favorite author is. You have a steeper mountain to scale. Don't pick Mount Everest as your first mountain to climb. Make your first journey as easy as possible – write in a series. If you already have stand-alone novels, you might notice they're not selling, so I rest my case. However, it doesn't mean you can't use what you've written. Stand-alone novels are a great way to stimulate sales for your other books. More on that later.
What GENRE to Write?
This is personal preference and I urge you to write what you're passionate about! You want to enjoy your job as a writer. If you are writing the books you would love to read, then there's a good chance there are others of like mind. You can't be that unique in a world of 7.3 billion people. The odds are against it. Kevin Kelly is known for his marketing theory of 1000 True Fans. The basic concept is this: If you have 1000 fans who will buy anything you write, you can make a living from your books. Surely out of 7.3 billion+ people on this planet, you can find 1000 True Fans. It might take time to gather them, but it's time well spent…but we'll talk about that when we get to marketing your books. Right now, you need to write books.
Write what's selling – what has a lot of fans – but NOT if you don't know that genre or if you don't even like it. If you're trying to write what sells BUT writing in a genre you don't like, for example, then it will show in your writing. And you cannot fool the ravenous fans of that genre. Try, and they'll eat you alive. Trust me.
If you REALLY want to write in an unfamiliar genre, then READ what you want to write. Reading what's already out there – especially what's already selling well – will tell you what readers enjoy AND what's already been done. There are no original plots – only unique ways of telling the same story. So if you are NOT reading what you want to write, you'll end up repeating what's already been done.
Screenwriting vs. Novel Writing
A note for Screenwriters: You're used to writing by page count. In novels, everything is measured in word count. Here is a BASIC guideline about word count lengths and what the fiction piece is labeled, but these are ballpark figures and every publisher draws their own line in the sand about how many words go into a novella vs. a novel, etc..
- Flash Fiction – less than 1000 words
- Short story – up to 10k or 15k
- Novella – 15k – 30k
- Novel – 30k and up. Some publisher draw the minimum at 40k
A note for Authors: IF you wish to get into writing screenplay adaptations for your novels, PLEASE at a bare minimum devour the book The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier (full disclosure: affiliate link). His book covers everything from how to craft a screenplay and the structure of storytelling (as is expected by the industry), all the way through to marketing your screenplay. If you're not willing to dive into the world of movies, you'll still have enough knowledge under your belt to have an agent represent you and you won't be going in blind. AND I would recommend Trottier's book to any novelist just as a tool to learn a tighter and more concise method of storytelling. You'll increase your chances of selling more books if you have a fast-paced, tight story.
And one more note on crafting a screenplay – writing a PRODUCIBLE script will increase your chances of getting it sold. If your movie requires car chase scenes, stunts, explosions, large crowds and several locations, keep those in context with the length of the movie AND if the movie will make money. For example: If you're writing a short film with all those characteristics mentioned above, it will most likely not get made or bought because short films aren't meant for theatres and the charge of admission. They're usually used for showcases, festivals, etc., and may only win some awards or recognition. In short (ha), the money spent on making the short film might not be recovered. Save such larger budgets for full-length feature films.
Overall, however, I do not recommend screenwriters write novels and try to sell them to make money and vice versa because you can't just write something and expect it to sell. You must know your market, the industry, marketing techniques. These two areas of writing are like night and day when it comes to making money. What you do to sell a screenplay will NOT sell books…and the reverse is true. Unless you're willing to dig deep and study the industry (which will take a couple of years to grasp) with the goal of selling what you write, then stick with your current method of writing.
Part 1 Conclusion
You cannot make any money at books if you don't have a backlist. Sales from the books you already have in your catalogue is the very thing that becomes your bread and butter. So write, write, write and write some more. Imagine if you made $50 a month from one book. Now imagine having 10 books that make $50 a month – that's $500. Do the math…the more books you have, the more sales you can earn as they become multiple streams of income.
I would NOT recommend going on to Part 2 until you've written AT LEAST three full novels or novellas. I'd also recommend adding a couple of related short stories to use as marketing tools. In Part 2, I talk about how to package your book to increase the chance readers will buy it!