If you’ve ever attended a writers’ conference, chances are you’ve run into Dale T. Phillips, who makes friends as easily as most people make mistakes. Years ago, Dale made the decision to go indie, that is to publish his own books. Recently I caught up with him and asked him to share his secrets for sustaining a long career and making money while doing it. Even those of us who are traditionally published can learn a thing or two.
Take it away, Dale.
Sustaining a Long Career and Making Money At It
Although the publishing world has changed completely due to disruptive technology, major business shifts, and new paradigms, any writer today has multiple convenient means of getting their stories into the world without waiting for strangers to give the “go-ahead”—a wait that may take years or never come at all.
Now, since there are millions of titles on the market with more coming every year, the trick is how to sell books and make money at it. While it may seem daunting to become your own promoter, publicist, marketer, seller, and agent (in addition to writing the books), the odds of success are actually better than ever for having a successful, long-term writing career.
Why is that? For one thing, your books no longer have a short shelf life or go out-of-print. And you no longer must depend upon bookstore orders and sales with middlemen taking most of the profits. Some authors currently make more money from books they published years ago than they did when the books were originally published. Today you can sell your books worldwide, 24/7/365, in multiple formats while making as much profit on a $3 ebook as the traditional author makes on a $32 hardcopy. Today you can succeed by learning and adopting the selling techniques used by successful authors. This information is readily available. Here are a few examples:
- Run a coordinated campaign with targeted ads, all running at the same time.
- Write a series in a popular genre, and with five or more titles already published, offer the first for free or at a discount
- Engage with fans and develop a robust email list.
- Leverage Amazon algorithms to appear at the top in specific targeted search terms.
THE TRADITIONAL WAY of doing things is to seek an advance and then turn the rights to your work over to a publisher, hoping they will believe in you enough to spend money to push your book into the world. This works out fine for a few, but most writers can’t make a decent living this way. The result? Many good books and good authors never make it.
HERE’S THE ALTERNATIVE: Rather than expecting someone else to help you make money, you need to learn to do it yourself. Bookselling success today is based upon how flexible you are and is limited only by how hard you’re willing to work. Yes, getting people to notice your books and buy them is difficult. Yes, constant promotion is time-consuming and tough. But the good news is, there are dozens of tools and techniques you can learn and adopt to increase your sales. Many of these are free or very affordable. And you don’t have to learn them all at once, or before you start.
While I never wanted or intended to be a businessperson, these days I find it exciting to run my own publishing company and to constantly learn new ways of increasing my revenue streams. It gives me great satisfaction to consistently get checks in the mail as well as online deposits into my writing accounts. My works are available in print, as ebooks, and as audiobooks, and I also sell at live shows, conferences, workshops that I give and attend, and panel talks about how to do this and be happy and successful. Each year my business grows, with more books published, more sales, and more appearances. Each year I learn new and better selling techniques.
Best of all, I only have to deal with one difficult person in the business—me. I’m one of the happiest writers around because I do everything on my schedule and deadlines. I work as much or as little as I want, and I put out any kind of work I’m in the mood for, whether or not I think it will be a best-seller. I don’t write every day, and I don’t feel guilty about it because I still publish more than about 98% of all writers. More and more, I’m saddened to see talented writers dropped by publishers because although the author won awards and sold books in the thousands, it still wasn’t enough for the bean counters at the publishing houses. Having the career rug pulled out from under you when you’re really good at something is jarring, and some long-term authors have come to me for help deciding what they should do next. Many of them turn to publishing in the Independent (Indie) world.
Why the term Indie, and not “self”? Because It’s not just me (myself) getting the book out. I get to hire my own team rather than take whoever is assigned to me by a corporation. I pick my cover designer, editor, beta readers, formatter, and sales/publicity people (if I want them). I choose my release schedule, my pricing, the narrators for my audiobooks, and all my sales and distribution channels. Why would I leave all those decisions to someone who might give me a lousy cover, bad editing, wrong pricing, terrible release scheduling, and interior mistakes?
With Indie publishing, you’re not counting on long-odd lottery wins and a comfortable retirement with a book or two. Instead, you’re building a body of work to increase streams of income over the years, relying on good work over time to achieve discoverability for your works. Each book and story published is a boost to your potential readership and sales, so it’s up to you to put out as much work as you see fit. Best yet, you can cross or mix genres and styles to appeal to any niche you might want to explore.
In terms of money matters, a successful modern writer is a small business and has to act and work as such. You need to track and control expenses, be aware of tax implications, and learn how become profitable. If you don’t have that as a natural ability (I certainly didn’t), no worries; there are many books, websites, and people to help. A quick internet search will point you to options like these:
- Discoverability by Kristine Kathryn Rusch—and her business blog
- Rethinking the Writing Business (a WMG Writer’s Guide) by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
- Taking the Mystery Out of Business by Linda McHenry
- Tax Savvy for Small Businesses by Frederick W. Daily
Since many people ask similar questions about these topics, I wrote a book to help: How to be a Successful Indie Writer. The follow-up book, coming soon, is 87 Ways to Sell More Books. My hope is to help other writers by answering questions and by reducing the angst of choosing a path and the fear of not selling enough books to pay the light bill.
So there it is folks—it’s all in your hands. You can be as happy and successful a writer as you want by making your own career decisions and working to the sustainable level that matches your artistic side with your commercial needs. Indie publishing isn’t for everyone, but it is a viable option.
Dale T. Phillips spent his formative years in Maine and has lived and worked in a number of places over the years. He graduated from the University of Maine at Orono, studied writing with Stephen King, and has worked for over thirty years as a technical writer. Dale has published novels, short stories, collections, articles, and poetry and has appeared on stage, television, and in an independent feature film. His latest book is How To Be A Successful Indie Writer.
Author Connie Berry
Connie is the USA Today and Amazon Best-Selling author of the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the UK and featuring an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes. Her debut novel, A Dream of Death, won the IPPY Gold Medal for Mystery and was a finalist for the Agatha Award and the Silver Falchion. Her latest, The Shadow of Memory, was a finalist for the Edgar’s 2023 Lilian Jackson Braun award.
Besides reading and writing mysteries, Connie loves history, foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British. She lives in Ohio and Wisconsin with her husband and adorable Shih Tzu, Emmie.