How I sold 8000 books in my first year – and why it shouldn’t matter to you

bsA year ago today, I published on Amazon my first novel, “The Shadow of Black Wings” – book 1 of a planned long-running saga, “The Year of the Dragon“. Since then, I published a few more books – three more books of the series, a short story collection, a fantasy novella, and a bundle of the first four volumes of “The Year…” combined.

For the first three months I haven’t even sold a hundred copies; but eventually the trickle turned into a river. I have now sold 8000 copies of all my books put together; a vast majority on Amazon Kindle, about a hundred so far on Kobo and in paperback. That’s sold – not given away – and not for peanuts, either; my average royalty on these was about $2 per book, pre-tax. You can do the math yourselves.

Now, in terms of commercial results, this isn’t an indie success story people like to read about: not only I’m not the next Hugh Howey, or J.A. Konrath, I’m not even in the same league as the dozens of romance or thriller authors who consistently sell hundreds of their books every week. I am, however, quite satisfied with what I had achieved so far. This is, after all, my first year of publishing; these are my very first books written in English; the genre I write is not a bestseller genre – if you look at the Asian Fantasy lists on Amazon, my books consistently occupy the first places both in free and paid categories: there just doesn’t seem to be that many more readers interested in these kinds of stories. You could say I broke one of the main rules of making money off self-publishing: “choose a popular genre”.

8,000 copies sold is more than enough to pay the proverbial bills; it is an extra income that enabled me to embark on the summer journey around the UK coast that I’ve always wanted to make; it is an extra boost of confidence which enables me to continue writing more books (whenever I have the time :). It is, finally, a lot more than I had ever expected to sell when I started this journey, shortly after settling down in the UK.

If you are a starting self-published writer, you are probably constantly looking for advice on how to sell more books. I don’t know whether, in a world where some authors sell millions, a meagre 8,000 sales can interest anyone, but if it does, then sure, I can tell you how did it. But only if you promise me to read this post to the end, to find out why it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone else did to sell their books.

In the beginning, I tried many things; anything that anyone advised, I did it. I bought books, I read blogs, I studied business cases. Social media. Paid ads. Free ads. Blog posts. Blog tours. Guest posts. Short stories. Wattpad. Figment. Goodreads. Shelfari. You name it – I was there. The one thing I never tried was the physical part of book selling: I never did any signings, never pushed my paperbacks into bookstores. That was something I knew from the start I would not be any good at.

Almost none of it mattered, in the end. In hindsight, if I look back at what I’m certain I did right over the last year, it can be summed in the following 5 points:

  1. Write a series of good books.
  2. Prepare professional publishing package (formatting, cover, editing).
  3. Push the first book out with free and paid promos. Make sure you get what you paid for.
  4. Keep writing and releasing books, pushing each release forward with a set of promotions.
  5. Profit.



If I felt like creating some kind of rule out of it, I would call it “The V3 method“. The V3 was a Nazi super-cannon based on the principle of multiple charges: each missile was propelled along the way in the barrel with explosives in set intervals; the result was an artillery piece that could shoot at London from over the Channel.

I could do that; I could probably write a book about it, and try to hawk my “V3 method” as the “Only True Way” to sell books. But that wouldn’t feel right.

Because what I did worked only for me. And I have no way of knowing for certain whether it would work for anyone else, or indeed whether it will continue to work for me; this is, after all, a very quickly changing business. My books may stop selling at any moment, and I will remain just as clueless as I was a year ago.

Things work differently for different people. For some, using Facebook or Twitter will be a path to success. For a chosen few, it will be a place like Wattpad or Figment where they may find their audience. Many authors swear by Goodreads. Personally, neither of these did anything for me, and I count my time spent there as an author and publisher as very much wasted. I guess I just don’t have the right kind of personality. But that doesn’t mean I would go around dismissing any of these channels of publicity; obviously it works for some. And conversely, my way of doing things may not suit others. Perhaps not everyone feels comfortable with releasing a book every few months, or with scouring the internet for the best places to buy advertising from.

There is lately much talk of survivor’s bias in self-publishing, and I couldn’t agree with this assessment more. As with every new, emerging business, the tales of true success are still few and far between. The statistical sample is far too little to make any assumptions. Nobody knows for certain what works, and what doesn’t. I had offered you my opinion of what worked for my sales – but I could be wrong; it may have been something completely different that I did at some point, and now don’t even remember. Or – very likely – it may have been pure chance. In fact, pure chance may still account for all the success stories out there, including all the great ones; we may try to use hindsight to figure out what went right or wrong, but the truth is, we just don’t know.

So while it may sound depressing and underwhelming for somebody who’s looking for a quick way to win in life’s lottery, there is a positive lesson to learn here: do whatever you feel like doing. Stick to what you do best; if something just doesn’t seem to be working out for you, don’t push it. It may never work out, and you’ll only be wasting time. But, if your book is out, and you’re prepared to spend some time and effort to present it to the world in a professional manner – I’m pretty confident it will start selling in the end.

And when it does, I’m pretty sure deep down you’ll be as clueless as to how it happened as we all are.

 

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26 responses to “How I sold 8000 books in my first year – and why it shouldn’t matter to you

  1. Pingback: Wattpad, iTunes and more | James Calbraith·

  2. I am a little late to this post. But, I just wanted to add 8001. I just finished the combined books 1-4 of The Year of the Dragon. And it will be 8002 whenever you publish your next novel in the series.

    I found your work while I was searching for something else on Amazon. The short description prompted me to purchase the Kindle edition. I didn’t read any of the reviews on Amazon before I made my purchase.

    I am obviously not a writer. However, I am an avid reader. There are a number of authors whose works I will purchase as soon as they are released. Just because I know, and like, how they write. I will occasionally take chances in authors I don’t know. As in this case. Most of the time I do not read the reviews posted by other purchasers. Things I do look for when making a purchase on Amazon. The price, obviously. I will spend more on a novel from a mainstream author I know. The word count. I have been bitten a few times by not checking this. And paying a relatively high price for what amounted to a short story. The title has to catch my attention. I don’t know how many books I haven’t bothered to check out because the title didn’t seem interesting to me. But mostly it is the description of the book that makes me decide to make the purchase, or not.

    I have found some very good books by new or self published authors on Amazon. Usually at random when I am looking for something else.

    As a side note. I do not frequent chain bookstores very often, since Borders closed. Most of my purchases now are for Kindle. Which is the app I have on my phone. As well as on my PC. Try to carry a few hundred paperbacks with you wherever you go. And I do reread books I have on Kindle.

    Well there are is my input as a reader, not an author.

  3. I’ve tried all sorts of things, too, and haven’t yet seen your level of success. For a while I was feeling pretty down about it, but recently I’ve started to pay less attention to the number of sales, and more attention to the good things that writing has brought me: the joy of getting lost in my own imagination, and the rare miracle of hearing from a grateful reader.

  4. The covers of your books are gorgeous, by the way. And very distinctive. I noticed your book the first time I saw it and then never forgot it.

  5. Thanks for this. I appreciate that you say you don’t have all the answers – it’s a refreshing change from some of the blogs I’ve read. And I think 8,000 sales is fantastic.

  6. Pingback: Book Bits: ‘The Flamethrowers,’ ‘Sandman’ series to return, Edward Norman, Hemingway Festival | The Sun Singer's Travels·

  7. Excellent stuff.

    It seems we’re in similar boats. I uploaded my first novel just over a year ago, a sequel since then in February, and as of last month had capped around 8,200 sales. I’m glad I’m not the only one that sees success in such numbers. Numbers which are, frankly, probably more indicative of self-publishing success than the outliers and lucky few who break into the millions of sales, seemingly overnight.

    Your five points should be embraced and understood by all expecting any measure of success from this business. A few more years of this and, if the current trend I’ve seen holds, this side income project may become my full career. Who knows? But having had a taste of the freedom such an income can provide, I know only that I need to keep writing and getting quality product onto the e-shelves!

    Thanks again for your perspective.

  8. Great post… There are so many theories on how to “break in”, but the one, all-encompassing piece of advice that seems to span every success story is this: write well, and when you’re done, write more.
    Thanks for sharing, James. Here’s to 8,000 more!

  9. With all the marketing advice chaos out there, this is a very encouraging (and clarifying) article. Thank you, and congratulations on your success.

  10. I didn’t find this post depressing or underwhelming at all – I found it encouraging. Congratulations on your success! I’m working on my first novel and intend to self-publish also. I don’t know where that road will lead, but I do know it’ll end with more than one book available.

  11. I didn’t find this post depressing or underwhelming at all – I found it encouraging. Congratulations on your success! I’m working on my first novel and intend to self-publish also. I don’t know where that road will lead, but I do know it’ll end with more than one book available.

  12. Thanks for the great post. I love hearing about other writers successes, and everyone’s story seems to be quite different. But, I’ve also found they all have a few similar threads. A good production package (editing and cover design), and more than one published work.

  13. Very glad to see a humble post on sales numbers for once. As an author that’s 2.5 years into it and still hasn’t seen 8,000, that’s a figure that is at least obtainable to some degree…much more motivating that Konrath’s “I sold a bazillion books this month” posts.

    A question about your series…about how long between each book were your releases? I am in the middle of a series and am averaging about a year (hey,gotta work and pay the bills, too).

  14. It’s extraordinary how little idea most of us have of what actually works for us. This is frustrating as if we knew, we’d concentrate on what we know works!
    I think that the first and most important thing is to write a good book. And equally important, enjoy writing it and the rest. That way one person will always be happy at some level with what’s done: you.
    Well done for your success. And may the river turn into a flood.

  15. I guess this is a topic for another blog post, but how exactly do you pull together a professional publishing package? I am sooo impressed by your covers, so i’m wondering how should an indie author go about finding a cover artist.

  16. Great post. I published my first book and 8 months later (in two days), I begin my first promo for free and discounted books (so July 2-6 inclusive help yourself to a free thriller at http://bookShow.me/B007X84DRS. (A post you did a few months ago first put me in this direction, and helped identify the sites to use, so thanks.)
    One thing you don’t mention is reviews. My flagship novel has over 200 unsolicited reviews on goodreads, and 81 on Amazon.com. Some say that helps with promotions, but no-way of knowing.

    • I found reviews do very little for sales, both mine and other authors I know. Strangely enough, there seems to be almost no correlation between the number of good reviews and sales.

  17. Very nice post. I, too, began a year ago, but I went very slow out the gate and haven’t published anything since the first short story. I guess I need to step up my speed at writing. :)

  18. Great post and something to aspire too. I’m at the end of week one and I have twenty sales. I’m planning on having 3 books out by the end of the year and 8 by the end of next year. I like read about people’s success stories and I think this is a success story.

  19. I think “keep writing until you build enought of an audience to support yourself” is a viable strategy for all except those who write one book and never write another.

    I do think that growth in the self-publishing arena isn’t linear. Someone will find one of your books, like it and buy them all. This could happen years after you write the book. The more you have for them to buy when they find you, the better.

  20. This was a good post. I’m almost exactly in your position. Only my one book has been live six months while I work on two more. I write slow, among other factors. It took me six months to realize there are different ways of approaching discoverability, but in the end writing the next good book is the best way. Someone once said this is a marathon, not a quick dash.

  21. I truly believe that some books are made to sale and some are not. It doesn’t matter the chances of said book selling. Although making a profit is a plus, I write because I want to , If I wanted to be a billionaire I would not have used writing as my source. I am with you. What works best is what works best for each individual. I offer my congratulations to you. I hope you have many more successes!

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