These novel writers ditched their publishers for eBooks – and made millions

At the start of 2010, things weren’t going so well for San Francisco-based novelist Bella Andre. Physical bookstores were closing in droves, and after seven years, eight books and two publishers, she learned she had been let go from her last contract.

“I was clinging to my fingernails,” says André, 41, who was trying to carve out a place for himself in contemporary romance. Peers advised her to try another pseudonym, to change genre, to write something other than love stories. With a degree in economics from Stanford University and a background in music, she was not short of career options.

Then a friend suggested he turn to self-publishing. At the time, Amazon.com (AMZN) direct publishing platform, which allows almost anyone to publish and sell their books online, was beginning to gain traction among professional writers. After years of bending his stories to the will and opinions of editors, editors, and literary agents, André found the prospect of having complete autonomy over his material very appealing.

“As a writer, I wasn’t at the top of the publishing food chain and [my ideas] were rarely listened to, she says. “I took my friend’s advice and started self-publishing.”

Source: Bella Andre

His first e-book,

“Love me”, launched in the spring of 2010 for $3.99. Within a month, she had made $20,000, four times more than any book deal she had ever signed. A few months later, her second original ebook became the first self-published title to hit Amazon’s Top 25 list. She was addicted.

Today, like many independent novel writers, Andre has become a one-woman publisher. She has produced over 30 titles and sold 3.5 million books worldwide, the majority in ebook format. Revenue for Oak Press LLC, the independent publishing house she founded in 2011, has been in “eight figures,” she says. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly named him the fastest growing independent publisher in the USA

André is not the only one. Despite the fact that ebook sales in the United States began to stabilize, romance books are much more likely to be purchased digitally. According to a recent Nielsen report, nearly 40% of new romance books in the first quarter of 2014 were purchased as ebooks, compared to 32% as paperbacks. By contrast, e-books accounted for less than a quarter of total new book sales during the same period.

Say what you will about romance novels (bodice-rippers, Fabio covers and all), it’s hard to deny that some of the hottest entrepreneurs in America today aren’t app developers. wearing hoodies – these are women who write books for women and earn millions in the process.

There is very little official data on the earnings of book authors, which is why thriller writer Hugh Howey created AuthorEarnings.com, where he analyzes and publishes data on online ebook sales. According to its findings, nearly 30% of Amazon’s Top 100 Sellers were self-published in July.

And freelance romance writers are leading the pack. As of mid-July, independent romance writers accounted for two-thirds of total romance e-book revenue on Amazon, compared to the 18% cut traditionally published authors enjoy.

“It makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” Howey says. “It’s a huge power that self-published authors have.”

Source: AuthorEarnings.com

Source: AuthorEarnings.com

In one recent analysis of early Kindle authorshe found that many more new self-published writers earned more than $100,000 a year than those published by the top five traditional publishers.

“[Traditional publisher books] the advances are no longer high enough to support the first authors,” he wrote in the report. “And yet, at the same time, we’ve met and heard from hundreds of self-published authors who aren’t household names but earn full-time salaries from their works.”

Business is booming

As a genre, romance lends itself exceptionally well to digital publishing for a few notable reasons. Romance readers — 84% of whom are women — are a voracious bunch. Two-thirds of romance readers browse at least two books a month, according to RWA – twice as many as the typical american adultfound researchers at Pew.

“I think e-book sales have definitely helped the romance genre,” says Erin Fry, editor and publications manager at RWA. “And novelists have always been at the forefront of the digital revolution. Authors can make real careers by being self-published or by combining print and digital.

With the resounding success of the “Fifty Shades of Gray” trilogy, publishers leaned into the romance genre with dollar signs in their eyes.

Source: Barbara Freethy

Source: Barbara Freethy

EL James’ sexy story of a college student’s erotic romance with a corporate executive actually started out as wildly popular “Twilight” fanfiction. When a small Australian publisher picked up the buzz online, they asked James to swap out the main characters and produce the story as an original ebook.

These days, Rose Fox, editor of romance and erotica reviews at Publishers Weeklysays pitches for new novels written by fanfiction writers are becoming more common.

Another factor driving ebook sales is that, in romance fiction, series sell out. The most successful romance writers are able to churn out new material at a rapid pace to satiate their fan base. While a traditionally published author might wait a year to see their book in stores when finished, the turnaround time is less than a month for independent authors.

“People read the next romance series next week and need something else right away,” Howey says. “It’s hard [for traditional publishers] to speed up… as fast as people can read them.

With sufficient reader demand, some novel authors will release a new tome every few months. André publishes about six books a year, while Barbara Freethy, a freelance novelist based in Northern California, has published 10 in the past four years.

“Everyone goes to Netflix (NFLX) and watch the whole of ‘Homeland’ at the same time, and a lot of that happens in romance novels,” says Freethy, 55. “E-books are affordable and people can read as many as they want.

Like Andre, Freethy got her start in print before going independent in 2011. Since then, she’s sold nearly 5 million e-book versions of her self-published titles and more than tripled her earnings. made with traditional editors. She pockets 70% of her Amazon ebook sales, compared to the 25% she would get from a traditional publisher, which she would then have to share with her agent.

“It’s a lot more work than when I just wrote the books, but the payoff is so much greater,” Freethy says. “I basically run my own multi-million dollar business.”

Courtney Milan

Courtney Milan

Fellow freelance writer Courtney Milan, who writes historical novels, has gone from what she describes as an “average household income” at a traditional publisher to nearly $1 million each year publishing two books a year at its own costs.

“I just can’t understand how this is going to be economically feasible. [to go back to a traditional publisher] and do what I do on my own in terms of income, while protecting what I have developed and want to continue to develop,” says Milan, 38, who lives in Denver.

Of course, not every romance novelist – or any novelist, for that matter – can expect overnight success. What André, Freethy, Milan and so many other successful freelance writers shared when they started self-publishing is a built-in fan base from when they were in print.

“It’s unrealistic for a new author to expect overwhelming success, regardless of how it’s published,” Fox says. “Most new authors are new authors. It’s going to take a few tries to find what works for them.

Risk and Reward

To say that it takes more work to self-publish is to say it lightly. At their core, the successful freelance writers we spoke with are more like savvy CEOs with mini-companies to run than carefree writers telling love stories.

“Instead of getting money to sit and write, you invest money,” Fox says. “Yes, there’s more to be gained if the book is successful, but there’s also more risk, and that’s what being a self-publisher means.”

There are five major self-publishing platforms, including Amazon, Google (GOOG), Barnes & Noble (BKS), and Kobo. It takes time and effort to format a book for each company’s unique platform. And professional writers often need the same editing time as with a traditional editor. Between cover artists, publishers and proofreaders, it can cost between $700 and $4,000 upfront to publish an ebook, depending on how difficult you are, Milan says. It can cost even more when trying to translate your books for foreign markets and produce audiobooks.

Andre employs over a dozen contract workers in countries around the world. They help him edit, authorize his work in foreign countries, translate and monitor his sales. She handles the marketing herself and designs all of her own covers.

“I have a background in economics and I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” says André. “It’s the perfect place for me, someone who understands how to run a business, who really loves building a brand and marketing, but also has deep creativity.”

Last year, Milan hired a full-time project manager to help with everything from quality control of audiobooks to managing its sales figures and schedule. When a new book is ready, she assembles a team to work on the cover design and do several rounds of proofreading and editing.

When she needed help navigating the business, she turned to other novel writers for help.

“The true story of self-publishing [in romance] there is not a single individual who is doing well,” she says. “It’s several people working together to find the best way to publish digital books.”

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