Making stuff up for a living

In the film adaptation of Misery, there comes a moment when Paul Sheldon (James Caan) winds a page out of his typewriter, scrawls THE END on it, and carefully adds the sheet to a stack of other finished pages. You remember the scene: It’s a special day. There’s a bottle of champagne chilling. An afterglow cigarette. A single match.

When I was eighteen years old, I wrote my first novel. As you might expect, it wasn’t very good, but I didn’t know that then. I expected — quite confidently — to be a full-time writer by twenty-five. That gave me seven years — more than enough time, I figured, to write a few books and become a breakout success story.

I idolized other authors who had done just that — Michael Chabon, with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or Alex Garland with The Beach. I read novels about writers. I bought into the idea that novelists were special, that they were of a different breed than everybody else.

The scene in Misery painted a certain picture for me. In it, I saw my future: The mysterious, perhaps reclusive author, biding away his days in a cabin someplace, pounding out novels that captured the world’s imagination as never before. Maybe I would have little rituals that I would perform when I completed a novel, too.

Maybe the world would throw me a party.

The Long, Long, Long Haul

Twelve.That’s how many years it has taken me to not finish my great novel. Twelve long years of false starts, rewrites, hard drive crashes, do-overs, and even a detour into a graphic novel adaptation. Twelve years, with piles and piles of words, and no novel to show for it.

Oh, there were books before it — three of them. I finished writing those novels without any problems. Never published them, but that was okay. They weren’t really ready. The fourth book — that’s the one that was going to change everything. I was twenty-three when I started writing it. I’ll be thirty-five this year, and I’m no closer to finishing it.

Here’s another number: Six.

Six months is how long I’ve been a self-published author. It’s also how long it’s taken me to write my last four novels. That’s not only considerably less time than you might imagine writing a novel might take, but it’s also dramatically shorter than twelve years.

Six months is a whisper. It’s nothing. But in six months, I’ve found something that, for the last decade or so, I’ve only dreamed of.

Readers.

A Problem of Expectations

The gap between traditionally-published authors and the rising crop of self-published authors has been closing for a little while now. There are a few ‘indie’ authors (as we like to call ourselves sometimes) who have found enormous success, who have sold a million books without the marketing department of a big publisher behind them. Maybe you haven’t heard of these indie darlings — yet — but they’re out there, and soon enough, you will.

I’d always had a certain idea of what success as a novelist might look like. I would move my family into a beautiful house, and my daughter would grow up in a house of letters, and I’d have a little office in a separate building, perhaps down a forested path, a short distance from the manor. Yes, the manor. What would you call it? I would buy a sport coat with elbow patches. I would cultivate just the right beard.

Let’s deconstruct that image. Where did those details come from?

I read an interview once with the novelist Russell Banks. He described his writing space:

There is a physical writing space — in my case a renovated, century-old sugar-shack used originally for boiling down the sap of maple trees into maple syrup — and a mental writing space, which for me is shaped by the books, music, and works of art that are enclosed by that sugar-shack. The building itself is not large, approximately twenty-feet by twenty-feet, located in the forest about 500 yards from my home in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State. The physical building is incidental, merely something I inherited when I purchased the property in 1987.

There was something reclusive and magical about the idea, I remember thinking. I later read that Michael Chabon also writes in a separate space, in his case a cottage in the backyard of his Berkeley property. (My wife will confirm that I still, on occasion, talk about putting a yurt in the meadow behind our future house of letters.)

My daughter being raised in a writer’s home — that concept comes with all sorts of baggage, and plenty of origin points. In the movie One True Thing, William Hurt plays a distant father, an elbow-patch sport-coated novelist whose daughter lives at arms’ length while he writes celebrated books. In John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, the protagonist is a woman whose father was a writer, and a cantankerous, philandering one at that. There are probably wonderful examples of authors raising happy, well-adjusted children, but I confess I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of one.

I take that back. I saw Joe Hill at Powell’s recently, and he talked of growing up as the son of two writers. Around the table, he said, they talked about books. After dinner, they passed a book around and read aloud. His mother’s typewriter always had a page in it, and Hill and his siblings — and his parents, too — would type a bit, and add to each other’s story.

(Oh, and I think I can probably blame the beard I imagined having on Hill’s father, too.)

But I think my point remains. My identity as a writer was saddled with all sorts of expectations, all of them originating from any source but my own soul. None of them was really me.

At thirty-four, after years of struggling with my difficult novel, and nearly a decade past my self-imposed sell-by date, I threw all of that out, and changed my fate.

I self-published.

Your Friendly Ordinary Neighborhood Bestselling Author

Close your eyes.

Picture an author. Any author. Maybe you have a generic idea of who an author is, and what they might look like. Maybe you’re picturing a particular author. Maybe you’re seeing Russell Banks, with his precise white beard and piercing stare and sweater. Maybe not. Maybe that’s just me. But you’ve got an image, yes?

How much does that image resemble the photograph on the back of a novel? The author resting her chin on her hand, smiling, but looking rather serious about it. Is he wearing a sport coat with elbow patches? Is she wearing a scarf? Are they black-and-white? Standing in front of a fence rail, or a lake? Perhaps they’re pictured at their desk in their writing space, surrounded by books, lit warmly by a glowing fireplace?

Now imagine your next-door neighbor. He’s the one who you wave at while he mows his lawn, sweat stains darkening his armpits and back. She’s the one you see weeding the garden, waving back at you with gloved hands. Maybe you see them arriving home from work, looking exhausted, or heading off to their job in the city at seven a.m.

In the evening, you walk the dog one last time, and before you turn in, you notice that there’s a single light on in your neighbor’s house, and you can sort of see into their dining room from where you stand. And there’s your neighbor, pounding away at a laptop. They look tired. They should be. They’ve been at work for eight or ten hours. They’ve been on their feet, or stuck in meetings, or driving a forklift. They’ve just put their children to bed, just finished the laundry and washed the dinner dishes. The only thing they really want right now is to topple into bed, into those cool sheets, and not wake up for a few days. But that’s not what they’re doing. No, they’re… writing novels?

Yes, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re writing novels, deep into the night.

Let's Take it Offline

Michael Bunker has always done things a little differently.

He and his family enjoy a rather unusual lifestyle. “(We live) frugally,” he explains. “We produce most of our own food and materials for living. I’m typing on a solar-powered laptop. I don’t have an electric bill. I work from fourteen to eighteen hours a day, and only some of that is spent writing books.”

It started when, in the years before indie publishing shed its guilty stigma, Bunker self-published a book about theology.

“This was long before the current boom,” Bunker says. “To put it kindly, the book never sold. After an initial rush, I sold 3-5 copies per quarter for the next nine years.”

Nearly a decade after publishing that first book, Bunker has written and self-published over a dozen other titles. His post-apocalyptic series, WICK, has remained steadily in the top 20 of several Amazon book categories, while his fan fiction series, The Silo Archipelago, has recently stormed the charts itself.

In every sense of the word, Michael Bunker is off the grid — both in the real world and as a published author.

“I’m probably what Hugh Howey and others would call a ‘mid-lister’, only in the self-publishing realm,” he says. “I don’t have a breakout hit, but I make money from publishing books, and I make enough to not have to get a regular job.”

The average reader probably hasn’t heard of Michael Bunker. For every poster child for explosive self-publishing success, there are hundreds of independent authors just like Bunker, who sit down at their laptops — most of which probably aren’t solar-powered — at the end of a hard day, and write another novel.

Most of them aren’t bothered by their relative obscurity. After all, that just means their potential audience is that much larger.

Oh, and here’s the thing: An awful lot of them are making a pretty good living doing it.

The Plunge, and the Taking of It

I don’t generally enter contests, because I usually don’t win. Usually, someone else does, and since that seems to happen every time I’ve ever entered a contest, I’ve made it a rule.

Don’t enter contests.

I can’t remember how I heard about Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel competition, but it caught my eye. Anything over fifty thousand words qualified! There were different genre categories! Winners would be published by Amazon! And, ostensibly, sent parading down Main Street on a float, waving happily while ticker tape rained down upon them.

Because that’s what happens to writers in the movies. Remember those State of the Union episodes of The West Wing? There was always an after-party, people in ballgowns and tuxedoes, glasses of champagne. Then all of those well-attired, well-spoken people would burst into fervent applause, because Sam Seaborn or Toby Ziegler, the authors of the address, have just entered the room. Sam and Toby smile sheepishly, shake a few hands, and bask.

Does that happen in real life?

Here’s why I considered breaking my set-in-stone rule against entering contests:

By December of 2012, I hadn’t written a single word of Eleanor, my unfinished doorstop, in months. Maybe a year, even. I still thought about the novel every day, but thinking isn’t writing. (At least, not always. Sometimes it’s the best kind of writing.)

The Amazon competition sounded like the kind of deadline that might actually spur me into finishing my novel. When I found out about the contest, the deadline was less than two months away.

After twelve years, I was going to have to finish Eleanor in eight weeks.

My wife thought this was a terrible idea. “You should write something new,” she said when I told her about the contest. “Take a break fromEleanor and just tell a great story.” (To her credit, she’s been telling me this for years.)

This time, I listened. Writing without an outline, with just a shred of an idea, I completed the first draft of a bizarre post-apocalyptic novel that I called The Man Who Ended the World. It was weird, it was fun, and it was so thrilling to write something new that I found myself staying up late every night just to keep writing.

I finished the 51,000-word draft in a month.

But a funny thing happened as I worked on this book: The more I wrote, the more I thought about winning the contest. And the more I thought about winning, the more I thought about the long odds. And the more I thought about the odds, the more I remembered that I really don’t like competitions. Especially writing competitions.

I considered the avenues available to me: I could try to find an agent, or take the novel straight to a small publisher somewhere. But the idea filled me with dread. I’d spent years doing that. I had filled boxes with rejection slips. I’d even gotten an agent once, only to be cut loose a few months later. I’d even, in desperation, considered vanity publishing.

Then a friend told me about Woola self-published short story that caught fire, turned into a full-fledged series, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I read about the author, Hugh Howey, who was working in a bookstore when his world completely changed.

“I began writing as a hobby,” Howey says in an e-mail, “where the only pressure is what you choose to apply to yourself. You hope to finish the work. You hope to make it readable. Your dream is that one other person might find enjoyment in what you’ve created.”

Shortly after Wool blew up, Howey was able to leave the bookstore behind. A landmark publishing deal with Simon & Schuster followed. Ridley Scott optioned the film rights to the novel.

Howey skipped the mansion. He holds Google Hangouts with readers, makes YouTube videos of himself dancing like a fool whenever a new publishing milestone arrives.

“Writing professionally is different in a few ways,” Howey explains. “Suddenly, your fervent hope that a lot of people enjoy your work, that you can maintain a love and passion for this hobby as it becomes a business, and that you get to keep doing this thing that keeps you unshaven, in your pajamas, and making stuff up for a living.”

The Orange Button

In January, I self-published The Man Who Ended the World.

I didn’t feel a tiny thrill when I clicked the ‘publish’ button.There was no cigarette next to my computer, no bottle of champagne. I didn’t have a stack of completed pages. I had a digital file, and it sat on my desktop, just another tiny icon in a grid of other icons. My wife and daughter were asleep. My agent didn’t call. I don’t have an agent.

I wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t just made a mistake. Half a day later, when the book appeared on Amazon.com, I didn’t really know how to feel at all.

But the next day, somebody bought it.

Soon enough, more people bought the novel. People I didn’t know were writing incredibly kind things about my book (mostly), and in some cases, asking if they could expect a sequel. It didn’t matter to these readers that my book didn’t have a Random House logo on the spine, or that my book didn’t have a spine at all. After sixteen years of writing in a vacuum, people were reading something that I’d written.

By the end of January, I’d sold 64 copies. Most of them weren’t friends or family. Those sixty-four copies only earned me $119.87, but I wasn’t writing for the money — I’m very happy with my career. All I wanted was to share some good stories with people.

After all these years, it seemed like I was suddenly doing exactly that.

The New Success Stories

Writing The Man Who Ended the World in four weeks was fun. Writing hadn’t been fun in years. When people found out that I wrote books on the side, they often said that it sounded hard. I always told them that it was, and for a very long time, it really was.

Until it wasn’t anymore.

I spent a lot of time researching the exploding self-publishing field, and there seemed to be some common themes among those writers who were doing well:

  • They generally weren’t writing the next Great American Novel, if such a thing even exists anymore; they were writing horror stories, and love stories, and science fiction tales.
  • They were really, really fast, often publishing a book each month.
  • They didn’t often write standalone novels, but crafted series of books.
  • They relentlessly re-examined their books, studying what creative and marketing strategies worked, and which ones failed miserably.
  • They kept track of Amazon’s oft-changing algorithms, and made the most of a rapidly-shifting environment.
  • They got lucky.

I learned a lot from authors who experienced great success in self-publishing, and who talked in detail about their journeys. I spent time lurking in forums, absorbing everything I could. My next step was clear: I had to write another book.

And then another, and another after that.

Michael Bunker came to a similar conclusion after one of his books went nuclear. Two years ago, after serializing a survival book for free on the web, Bunker put the book on Amazon. Friends helped him edit it, design an eye-catching cover, and worked on a guerilla marketing campaign that he calls a “book bomb”.

It worked.

“The book went to number twenty-six position on Amazon.com,” he says. “Not just in its category, but on the whole Amazon.com. I made $10,000 in a month. I was staggered by it all. It was so unexpected.”

Traditional publishing came calling. “A guy emailed me and offered to represent me,” Bunker says. “He said he’d guarantee me a $5,000 advance. I told him that I had made $10,000 in my first month, and over $5,000 a month in the two subsequent months — why would I give everything away for $5,000 with no promise that there would ever be any more? He didn’t have an answer, so I politely said no.”

Two years later, while sales have stabilized, Bunker still earns between $500 and $1,000 each month from that title alone. Since December of 2012, he’s written and published seven more books.

During my own self-publishing investigations, I stumbled across a forum thread that asked a simple question: How do you celebrate when you finish a novel?

The answers were quite varied. One writer’s husband would take her out for a nice dinner. Another writer liked to take a weekend trip, preferably to a beach.

The answer that stuck with me was buried deep in the thread.

I start writing the next book.

Tracking and Adjusting

In February, I published The Settlers, the first novel in a science fiction series I’d been thinking about. For the moment, my stagnant, twelve-year-old novel was lost in my rear-view mirror. Stories were just falling out of my head, and I started writing them as quickly as I could.

For several reasons, that was an eye-opening month. With more titles available on Amazon, readers started buying more of my books. You wouldn’t call me a bestselling author or a runaway success, but the numbers were going in the right direction. By the end of February, I’d sold 378 books, and Amazon had sent me a check for $912.56.

I’d also discovered the free giveaway, one of the perks of publishing exclusively on Amazon. I tested the waters by making a few of my titles free for short periods of time… and nearly 13,000 readers snapped up my books.

So I started writing my next book. In late March, I published The Colonists, the second book in my sci-fi trilogy. At month’s end, I’d sold another 353 books, given away over 5,000 more, and I had another check, this time for $735.57.

By now I’d been self-publishing for three months. Readers had paid for nearly 800 copies of my books, and nearly 18,000 more had been downloaded for free. I was two-thirds of the way through a trilogy, and people seemed to like it. I was already thinking about what I’d write when I finished it.

From Readers to Writers

In March, Hugh Howey made an unexpected appearance at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. When his event ended, he invited everyone in attendance to join him for dinner at a brewpub down the street. Over dinner, one of the topics that came up was fan fiction, and the way that Howey has encouraged authors to write stories in his Wool universe.

The first story I ever wrote — at least the first one I can remember — was Hardy Boys fan fiction. I was six years old. I don’t often read movie tie-in novels, or Star Trek novels. I hadn’t ever thought of writing fan fiction, mostly because I had so many original stories that I wanted to tell, and those were hard enough to find time for.

But Wool was set in a dystopian writer’s paradise, an oppressive silo buried in a ruined Earth, and as I listened to Howey talk about the different ways other authors were pushing and pulling his creation, I found myself thinking about how I might do it. By the end of the evening, I’d decided to write a short Wool story, then return to my trilogy to finish it off.

What I ended up writing instead was a full Wool novel. I serialized the novel, and in April, published Greatfall’s first and second parts. The response was not only immediate, but — for me — staggering.

By the end of April, I had sold 2,007 books — two-and-a-half times the amount of books I’d sold in the previous three months. I’d given away another 4,000 more. This time the check from Amazon was $1,421.24. Greatfall accounted for the vast majority of those sales — 1,600 or so — as Howey’s devoted readers started tapping into my books.

This has become a developing road to success for new or indie authors: writing fan fiction. The form has been around for a very, very long time, and it’s not traditionally a moneymaking venue. Fan fiction is usually written for love of the subject matter, not for profit.

But this is changing now, with the open-source mentality of authors like Howey, and with Amazon’s recent foray into the space with Kindle Worlds. It’s early yet, but authors who exist outside of the mainstream are finding their way into the established fan-bases of popular franchises.

Howey’s readers have taken to the fan fiction invitation with gusto. Their books are often tagged with the moniker “A Silo Story”, and many of them have staked claim on Amazon’s top genre charts. (At the time of this writing, for example, Wool fan fiction novels and Howey’s own titles occupy 12 of the top 20 books in Amazon’s Bestselling Science Fiction Anthologies category.)

Writing fan fiction has paid off. Not only are authors like Michael Bunker able to pay homage to the original Wool novels, they’re able to open up their own original titles to an entirely new — and often passionate — audience.

The Silo Archipelago has been wildly successful in its own right,” Bunker says, “but it has also brought my work to the attention of a whole world of Wool fans. I can’t tell you how many have contacted me to tell me that they’ve jumped into WICK and are loving it.”

Parties are Overrated

My own numbers kept rising, and though nobody would call me an indie darling, I’m really amazed by the reader response so far. (I’m flattered to even have readers at all, to be honest.) These days, I hear from them all the time — they tweet to tell me that they’ve reviewed one of my books, or that they can’t wait for the next book in a series. They tell other readers about the things I’ve written.

As May ended, I released the final installment of Greatfall, and the readers haven’t stopped coming. By the end of the month, I’d sold 3,289 books, a little more than 100 per day. The check from Amazon hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s probably going to be a little bigger than the previous one.

Over on Kboards (formerly known as Kindle Boards), a determined author has begun the difficult task of tracking the book sales of an enormous range of indie authors. While her numbers are by no means bulletproof — she’s stitching this list together from any available data she can get her hands on — the rough list is almost intoxicating to read. At present, with over 100 authors accounted for, the numbers are encouraging. The author in the #32 position, for example, reports 60,000 sales… in May alone. Forty-four authors on that list sold more than 10,000 books last month.

I’m on the list, with my 3,289 books. Michael Bunker’s right there with me. Hugh Howey is far, far out in front of us, with numbers so large and widespread that they haven’t even been tallied yet.

It’s a truly amazing thing to see so many authors working so hard, and actually finding a foothold in the previously publisher-owned books market. More authors every day are making a living wage, supporting families by doing something they love.

As for me, June is on track to be an even larger month. Readers are buying about 165 of my books each day, which is just staggering to me. I imagine what that number would look like if I were sitting at a table with a stack of books, and 165 readers were lined up to buy them. If I could, I would hug every single last one of them, because I don’t know where they came from, and they want to read my books.

Who needs a party?

Quo Vadimus

Six short months ago, the list of people who had read my novels was quite abbreviated. My sister. My wife. Some old friends. But now, six months later, over 7,500 readers have bought one of my books, and if that pace continues, that number may be around 10,000 by the end of June. Linda from Spokane has read one. Jeremy from Sydney has read three. Each month, a few more people discover those books, and make a conscious decision to give an unknown author a try — and that feels really, really good.

Self-publication is a hot and divisive topic these days. Some traditionally-published authors lament the shift in the publishing landscape, while hundreds of newly-empowered independent authors just blink at it, as surprised as I am that their work is suddenly being read.

When I was eighteen, I had the dream all wrong — I wanted to be celebrated, and I wanted fame. Remember that scene from Wonder Boys where Q (Rip Torn) stands up in front of an auditorium full of MFA students and says, “I… am a writer”? In my younger days, I wanted to be James, the Tobey Maguire character, who ends up landing a publishing deal before he’s even out of school. I wanted to write important novels, and for the whole world to tell me how important I was for having written them.

Self-publishing strips away that layers of glory, in a way. It simplifies the dream, and makes it accessible to anybody with a bit of grit and patience. In this new world, you can create your own luck. Working hard and doing your best can actually get you someplace.

Nowadays my dream is simple, and much more modest: I just want to tell a good story, and know that somewhere, someone enjoyed reading it. This dream is attainable, and if it never gets any bigger than it is right now — well, it’s bigger than I ever thought it might really be. That’s really something.

In the meantime, I’ve got another book to write. And yes, I will finish that sci-fi trilogy this year — along with a few other things, I think.

First, though, I’m going back to Eleanor, that sleeping epic of mine, and I’m going to complete it. When I do, I won’t query a publisher or an agent, and cross my fingers that I ever hear from them again. I’ll click that orange ‘publish’ button.

After all, someone might want to read my book.

 

This article was also published on Medium. Thanks to Michael Bunker and Hugh Howey for their contributions!