Prolific Writer Timothy Ellis
[Timothy Ellis] Thank you Kim for inviting me to your Blog. I’m delighted to be able to talk about publishing novels, and what I’ve found works for me. I find myself answering a lot of author related questions on Quora these days, and the following represents a lot of merged answers. I hope some of this is helpful.
[Kim Staflund] How many books have you published? What genre are they?
[TE] I started writing in 2006, with a spiritual how to heal using meditation book, followed by a how to do Feng Shui book. Both were rejected by traditional publishers, but I must admit, I didn’t try very hard.
These were followed by 2 game handbooks for a PC space combat simulator style game. I’d been writing game guides for several years, before I suggested all the guides by everyone be put together into a handbook. The answer came back, your idea, you do it, so I did. It had 5 versions in pdf format over as many years, and now has 2 Kindle editions.
Once a long running thread on a spiritual forum vanished in a clean-up, I turned it into 8 Wisdom of the Ages books, based on questions and answers in the thread. The last three deal with Karma, Indigo’s, and Ascension, and include a lot of articles I’d been writing over the years, all brought together in one place.
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I was late to adapting to Kindle, somewhat accidently discovering how good it was to read in that format. Once I accepted it, I used the first of the game Handbooks to test how to publish this way, followed it with the spiritual and Feng Shui book, and then the 8 Wisdom of the Ages books. This was in 2014.
At this point, with practically no sales of anything but an occasional handbook, I started writing fiction novels. Even now, if I sell more than 20 non-fiction books a month, I’m doing well. So currently the count goes like this, if you break it down by genres.
- 1 Feng Shui.
- 11 Spiritual, including one 5 volume omnibus.
- 18 Space Opera Science Fiction books, which includes 14 novels, 1 novella, 1 Christmas story,1 Companion book, and 1 short story which was included in one of the novels a year after I wrote it, but is still available on its own.
- 2 Omnibus editions, covering 6 books.
- 2 PC Game Handbooks.
So a total of 34 books.
Technically I have 4 series now. The Wisdom of the Ages in the spiritual non-fiction genre, the X3 Handbook in the PC Games genre, and The Hunter Legacy and A.I. Destiny series in Space Opera.
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The interesting thing is, only the 2 Handbooks do not have a spiritual connection. So while Space Opera is my main thing these days, I am still a spiritual author, mixing genres quite successfully.
The Space Opera is by far my best sellers. But because I chose to mix spiritual into Space Opera through a spiritual main character, several of my novels link back to a spiritual book, and there is a small feed of sales as a result.
[KS] What do you do in terms of promotion for your books?
[TE] The single best way of promoting any book is to release another book.
It’s not enough to write a good book. It needs to be visible, it needs to be findable, it needs to attract the eye, and suck the reader inside.
Visibility comes with rank. I can only talk about Amazon’s ranking system, and it is very cut-throat. The single most important thing is release day debut rank. You achieve this with a mailing list and social media presence, where you already hyped up your readers to expect the new book in some time frame, usually short.
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The more people who buy the book on day 1, and the more people who download it to read using Kindle Unlimited, (remember, I’m only talking Amazon here), the higher the book debuts in the ranking system.
The book gets a rank in the paid store in a number of places. The whole book store, the Kindle store, the main genre, and the sub-categories of that genre. For a lot of genres, the sub-categories happen because of the keywords you use, and especially for Sci-Fi, there are specific words which put you in specific sub-categories.
The better your rank in all of these, the more visible the book is. How well all your books are doing determines your author rank. Getting your author rank high in a major category makes you very visible, but it’s quite difficult to do.
After the debut, ranks begin to slide. About a week later, Amazon sends out emails to your followers, and this can spike you up again. But at about 20 days, you start being cycled downwards unless you have promotions which can hold your sales up. At 30 days you fall off the new releases lists. By 60 days, your book is gone into Neverland.
The best strategy is to release a new book, before the 60 day abyss comes along. It used to be 90 days, and this is still a major accelerant into the abyss when you get there.
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For me, with a main series of 13 books with 3 extra books, and now into a spin off series, each time I release a new book, I get a small back flow to the first book in the first series, as people go looking for what else I’ve written. Some of those continue on to book 2, and a slightly diminishing percent continue on through the whole series. So each new book I release, keeps a flow of people starting my first series, and as long as I keep releasing in timely fashion, all of my novels sell.
And this is how you make a living, once you have a series people like. With each book, your mailing list gets bigger, your social media presence is bigger, and you have a solid group of fans to buy each book on day 1. The visibility brings your book before new people, and these feed back into your older books. With enough visibility, each book doesn’t have to perform all that well to give you a decent income.
Visibility isn’t enough though. Once it’s been seen, your cover has to attract the eye, so it must be good looking, and be what the genre expects it to look like. With the eye drawn, the blurb has to entice the reader into the sample.
Bad covers and bad blurbs are where most people fail. Too many blurbs give backstory and a synopsis, which I recommend are never used. Backstory should be in the story. A synopsis always gives away too much, and once I’ve read one, I have no need to read the book. Blurbs should be about who the main character is, what their challenge is about, and what the stakes are, put together in a way which entices the reader into the first chapter of the book.
The sample is the first 10% of your book, and it is freely available both online and as a download. The object of the exercise is to make sure a reader gets to the end of it immediately wanting to know what happens next. But too many books start with backstory and info dumps, and a bored reader doesn’t finish the sample. The sample must also be formatted correctly, with no spelling mistakes, bad grammar, or typos. A common mistake is releasing a book which needed an editor or proof-reader, or both, and didn’t get either. Such things bounce people out of a story, and stop them buying.
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So the art of not needing promotion is to write stories people want to read, and present them to the highest standard you can, in a time frame where you don’t lose the momentum of the previous book.
The days of 1 book a year are well and truly gone. On Kindle, although it varies by genre, more than 6 weeks between the release of say 75,000 word (avg.) books means you lose the momentum of the previous book. At 3 months, you need to jump start things again.
When you can’t release inside the 3 month expectation, keeping a steady income happening requires external promotion. Of these, the freebie Bookbub ad is by far the best in terms of results, but also the hardest to get, since Bookbub are very limited in the number of places on their emails, have hundreds of books for each slot to choose from, and are very picky about the books they put on them.
Most of the main promotion sites are for free or 99c books, which means you get almost no return on downloads of your promoted book. Which is where the back catalogue of your work comes into its own, and where writing series really helps. You offer your first in series for free, and make your money from it as people read down the series. It’s when you have few books to your name, or they are all stand alone, that the freebie promotion sites are ineffective for anything except getting your name out there.
I’ve been submitting to Bookbub for 2 years now, and am yet to be accepted. This is normal and should be expected. Since my third novel took off, I’ve only had to use a freebie service once, when I was over 3 months between releases, and this worked well enough to keep me going until the next book was released. But all the same, it was my worst month since that first take off month.
The bottom line here is, you either choose to write enough to release within a 3 month period, or you promote. The first costs time, the second costs money. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write enough to release regularly, and only needed to promote once.
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Bonus tip: The authors who release a new novel of a decent size every 4 weeks, never lose their momentum, and these authors make a decent income. It only takes 1 book to get the ball rolling, but you will never know which book it is until it happens. Once it does, a whole heap of things kick in to boost you up, and as long as you keep releasing, you can stay there and make a living from writing.
[KS] You’ve indicated you consider “3000 sales per month is a bad month” for you. This is phenomenal. How are you achieving this level of sales?
[TE] My first novel series was originally supposed to be 6 books. I started book 1 to get it out of my head. It took the longest to write, nearly 14 months, because of health issues, and the need to learn how to change from writing fan fiction and how-to books, into a novel writer. A lot of this was how to proofread and edit to a much higher standard, and initially being taught how by someone who used a great deal of red ink. It is worth the frustration of all that red to learn how to edit effectively yourself.
After release of book 1, I kept writing book 2. And the same with book 3. Book 1 was attracting maybe a sale every couple of days, with book 2 it became a sale most days, and occasionally two.
With book 3, I suddenly found the story wasn’t anywhere near finished, had taken on a life of its own, and 1 book turned into its own trilogy. So I was already well into book 4 before I completed editing of 3. And when released, 3 took off with 16 sales on day 1, much to my total amazement. This was enough, even without a mailing list at that time, to boost me into visibility range. Book 3 also had a much better opening hook, a substantially better cover, and people were reading it without having read the first 2. Then they went back to them, and between the sales of all 3, an upward spiral began.
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Now the key point here is book 2 was released about 5 weeks after book 1, and book 3 was about 4 weeks later. Book 4 was another 4 odd weeks after, and continued the momentum, with book 5 being 5 weeks later. So each one built on the previous one. Book 6 broke the momentum as I had a bad health period, and so it was released at 7 weeks, and was only a novella.
Book 7 was 5 weeks later, and hit the beginning of the 2015 Christmas book buying season, and I managed to get an author rank of 14 in Science fiction. It only lasted a few days, but this is the visibility you really need to do well. Being in the top 20 of a major category is where you have to be to do really well. I’ve never managed it since, but this was what gave me the biggest boost.
The series went for 13 books instead of 6, with diminishing returns after 9, indicating 9 books in a serial type of series is as far as you should go. But I’d locked myself into a time line by the time I reached book 10, and couldn’t stop.
I then began a spin off series, using the most loved secondary character as the main character, in a completely new setting, but directly following along from the first series. I’m finding the new series is feeding people back into the original series, even though it’s been designed to be read stand alone.
So at the moment, I’m getting the benefit of a new release in a second series, which is feeding back into the old series enough readers so all my books are selling consistently at a rate where the accumulation boosts me past the 3000 a month mark.
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I should also point out this 3000 a month includes Kindle Unlimited full reads. Amazon’s subscription service pays less than a sale, but in money terms, it generates more income than sales do. This has dynamically changed the eBook market place, and it works for some authors and not for others. It certainly works for me, and early on I had reader feedback they wanted my books in KU from minute 1. What this does for me is day 1 is almost all sales from my mailing list, Facebook Group and Facebook Page, and day 2 is mainly made up of the KU reads from day 1 appearing on the day 2 report.
There are 3 parts to a monthly income. The release that month, the flow-back from that release and its subsequent ripple down the back catalogue, and the base sales and reads from each book’s own rank and visibility sending people to book 1. From book 1, people can directly find all my books in order, from the links in the back-matter of each book, where I put both cover thumbnails, and the direct links. The months where I’ve had 3000 or less sales/reads, were when I didn’t release a new book in the previous 2 months, and was in freefall into the abyss.
The most important thing for sales on day 1 is the mailing list, and the link to it should be in the back of every book. You also put the links to your Facebook Page and Group if you have them, from which your fans will buy on day 1, sometimes before you even know the book is live, given you announced the upload as soon as it’s done. You also include links to your Amazon AuthorCentral page, where people can follow you, which gives you a boost a week after launch. You should also include your Goodreads page, and Bookbub page. Each of these helps people find your book rapidly after release.
[KS] What advice do you have for the other authors who aren’t selling anything right now?
[TE] Write. Write more. Write faster. Write more often. Keep writing.
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Making a living from writing novels requires you treat it like a job. You allocate a time each day to write, you write for a set amount of time, and nothing interrupts you. It becomes a habit, and the people around you learn to leave you alone.
How much you write every day is less important, but it determines how much momentum you can keep in the rankings.
The biggest comment people make is how long it takes to write a novel, with the assumption it has to take a year for a decent book. But it doesn’t have to take very long, if you look at it on a constant daily basis.
3000 words a day for 30 days writes a 90,000 word novel in a month. Plus editing and it can be released in 6 weeks.
2000 words a day for 40 days writes an 80,000 word novel inside 6 weeks, and you might get it out in 7, depending on its editing needs.
2000 words a day for 30 days writes a 60,000 word novel in a month, and gets it out under 6 weeks.
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1000 words a day takes 2 months to write a reasonable length novel, and you can get it out in 3 months before you fall off the 90 day cliff.
How long it takes you to write 1000 words is a different thing, and everyone is different. But if you do it daily, you can release a novel on a regular 3 month basis. A novel is 50,000 words or more, and while in some genres this is way too short, in others this a good length. Know your genre and its expectation. But also try to be consistent with book length so your fans build an expectation you can deliver.
What matters the most is writing something every day. Establish the habit, and try really hard not to break it. The habit will keep you going, when other things try to put you off. The habit only needs to be what you can do consistently. Even 100 words a day will write a book in a year. A small book, but still a book.
One thing I keep writing about on Quora is motivation. Anyone who goes into writing novels thinking they will write the next best-seller straight off, is delusional. One of the most often asked questions on Quora in the books topic is a variation on how do you write a best seller. You don’t! You write a book, get it out there, and a whole heap of hard work, circumstances and luck, might make it one. But so many things have to happen exactly right for this to occur, and most of the time, it only takes one thing wrong to make it certain it won’t. It can be the best book ever written, but just one wrong thing will doom it to the abyss. Unfortunately though, those who think their book is the best ever, are generally blind to reality. Sorry to be blunt. Blind and delusional are very common these days. Do yourself a favour, and don’t be. The advice you will need is out there, seek it.
I’ve yet to write a best seller. I’ve had books below 500 in the Kindle store a couple of times, and I usually debut below 1500. This is Woohoo territory, but it doesn’t make a best seller. To have a best seller on debut requires 1000’s of sales on day 1, and no drop off in the weeks following. It means debuting below 100, and keeping on going down. Once you get below 500 in the Kindle store, the sales curve to go lower is almost exponential. You can’t do this on a first book without having the movie first or pumping in serious money. And yet, this expectation is very common. Do yourself a favour, and don’t even think about it.
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It’s important to go into writing with the right attitude. You are writing the book because you love writing, you need to get the idea out of your head, and your characters are driving you to tell their story. You are writing a story in the hope someone will read it and like it, but the writing is the important part. Write it, edit it and proofread it as best you can, get as good a cover as you can, write an enticing blurb, and get it out there. Then forget it, and go on with the next one.
The authors who give up are the ones with unreasonable expectations. Any given book not only might not sell, but probably won’t. So give it the best launch you can, and then forget it. Even if this one does the rocket, you still need to finish the next book.
Pay attention to what the successful books in your genre are doing. That means reading them. It means looking at which sub-categories they are in, why they are there, what the cover looks like, how the blurb reads, and how they convert a sample into a buy. There is no real competition in eBooks. The competition for rank and visibility is major, but the average reader finishes a book inside 2 days and spends the next 30 to 45 days waiting for your next book, by reading someone else’s. Some people read multiple books a week, all in the same genre. So there is plenty of room for you, as long as you write what people want to read. And being the number one also-bought on an author doing better than you, is really helpful to sales, and you achieve this because your readers read everyone else. So your main competition is also your best friend, especially if they do better than you, but all your readers read them too. The flow-back from your book on the first page of another author’s performing book’s also-boughts, can be exactly what you need to boost your book.
In some genres, it’s common to write in trilogies, long serials, or a series of stand-alones with the same characters. Series are great because once any book in it takes off, the series itself will take off. And this is what you want. Any one book which converts into series sales, gets you the momentum to make a living. The trouble is, you never know which book it will be.
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My recommendation is to write in trilogies. Leave the door open for sequel trilogies, and spin offs, but see how it’s received at the end of the first one. Build a universe, and start filling it. So first trilogy is world building around a story. The spin off extends it with new characters. The sequel extends the original and maybe merges in the spin off. When you get to 9 books in the same universe, assuming the books are liked, you should have a fan base. If you use a Facebook Group to talk to them, they will tell you which way to go next.
If the first trilogy doesn’t work, start work on something different. But here’s the thing: Always complete your trilogy. Nothing annoys readers more than a trilogy which isn’t finished. In fact, a lot of people won’t start reading a trilogy until book 3 is out, just to make sure it is completed. I found a lot of people didn’t read my 13-parter until it too was complete. Breaking your covenant with your readers is a sure fire way of losing a reader forever, and by announcing this is book 1 of xyz series, you are making a covenant with your readers to finish it. So make sure you do.
A trilogy which doesn’t sell is not a waste of time. It’s part of your back catalogue. This converts to dollars when you finally have a book take off.
If you can, and you take longer to write than 6 weeks a book, hold off releasing book 1 until book 3 is in editing, and then release all 3, 30 days apart. This gives you the most momentum. On book 1, you include the series list for the other 2, noting they are forthcoming. You update each book as you release the next.
If the first series isn’t successful, as I said, it’s now part of your back catalogue. Get on with the next. And the next. And the next. When you finally get the surprise of your life when one book takes off, people will go back and look to see what else you wrote. And it’s how the whole catalogue performs rather than any single book, which defines income. What do trad publishers do when a new author hits the best seller list? They relook at their last decades’ writing, groom it, and then release it while the next book is being written. In eBooks, they are already out there, just waiting for the jump start. Your next book might be it.
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The last big thing to talk about is sample conversion. You have a good cover, an enticing blurb, the reader opens your sample, and what? When the reader reaches the end of the sample, they should immediately click on the book and buy it. But will they? This depends on you, and how you write the front end. The best way to do it is genre specific, and I can only talk about Space Opera. In Space Opera, you need a big hook. Your words need to reach out of the book, grab the reader by the throat, and drag them inside their own reader device. Way too many books in Sci-fi and Space Opera start with back-story, world building, and boring conversations. Somewhere around chapter 5, some action happens. WRONG! You lost your reader already, and didn’t get the sale.
If you have action, start with it in the first paragraph, and keep writing it until it’s over. Hit the reader in the face, and then keep on hitting them. Somewhere around chapter 3 or 5, you can slow down, go back, and show the reader how you got there, and start filling in details. But up the front end of the book, never explain anything. Drop the reader into the action, and carry it to its conclusion.
There are some very successful exceptions to this, but the main reason is two words. Bookbub ad. Forget it. You’re not going to get one as a new author or so far unknown author, so let’s get the reader hooked on the first page, and simply don’t let go. Yes the backstory is important, the world building is important, the info dumps are important, but they are no use if the reader gives up on page 1, or is bored at the end of the first chapter. By the time they end the sample, you want them invested in knowing what happens next, to the point they click the buy button without thought. Only the really established authors with very large mailing lists can ignore this.
Learning the craft of writing novels isn’t easy, but there is a lot of help out there. There are writer forums and groups, where it’s safe to ask questions. You won’t always like the answers, or the way they get delivered. But the people who do well, learn the lessons the successful authors are happy to teach. Sad to say, the ego driven people who ignore all the advice available, are the ones who crash and burn, then give up. So find a place you like, read everything posted there, and start asking intelligent questions. Someone will give you something which works.
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Bottom line on being a writer though, is to keep writing, and keep releasing. You can only get better with each new book, and at some point, something has to work.
There is no waste in not selling now. Stephen King’s worst books were the ones he wrote early on before his first trad published book was accepted, which all were released later on, and because he now had a name, they still sold well.
You are building a catalogue, and one day, it will pay off.
Stay positive, and keep writing.
As Douglas Adams once said on a totally different subject, “Go to it, good luck.”
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Timothy Ellis ranks (paid store), as at writing time:
1853 in the Amazon Book store.
1023 in the Kindle store.
180 in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
79 in Science Fiction.