The Prosperous Writer’s Guide

This Friday, I’m recommending The Prosperous Writers Guide To Making More Money: Habits, Tactics, And Strategies For Making A Living As A Writer by Brian D. Meeks and Honorée Corder.

This book covers in a fun way why it’s important to understand the numbers involved in selling books. Also, and more importantly, the authors show you how to use those numbers to increase your sales. Focusing mainly on Amazon, the book helps you figure out whether the cost of an ad is worth it, whether your book description and cover are helping you sell your novel or hurting your chances, and how to choose keywords that can get your novel in front of the new readers.

Even if you are not yet publishing, or if your novels are published by a publishing company, it’s worth reading this book to better understand the factors that affect sales and how visible your novel will be on Amazon.

Much of the The Prosperous Writer’s Guide is helpful for other publishing platforms, too. The authors include tips on improving your book description and how to evaluate whether and how much overall sales have improved based on different ads or changes to your book description or cover.

I hope that’s helpful.

Until Sunday, when I’ll talk about the cost involved in creating an audiobook edition of your novel–


L.M. Lilly

If At First You Don’t Succeed: Iterate and Optimize

This Friday I’m recommending a book that’s a quick read with a mix of inspiration and business advice for writers: Iterate and Optimize: Optimize Your Creative Business for Profit by Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant, and David Wright of the Self Publishing Podcast.

What I like most about it is that it encourages writers to get started or to grow their business rather than being frozen by indecision and concern about doing the “wrong” thing.

Under this philosophy, let’s say you finished a novel you’re pretty happy with. You spent the last two years writing and revising in the early mornings and a few weekends carved out of your other job or profession. Rather than spending two more years tweaking it for fear of rejection or bad reviews, the Iterate and Optimize approach encourages you to start querying agents or to publish it yourself and to get on with your next novel. If you get rejections on the first, or it isn’t as well-received as you hoped, or you discover six months from now that the cover you got fairly cheaply doesn’t match your target market, you can both improve and update the first novel and use what you learned in your second.

The book also provides a lot of solid information not only about self-publishing but about growing a business. Even if you’re planning to stay focused on your current career and write on the side, and so feel you don’t need to worry about the business, this is worth a read. It’s quick and interesting and will give you context for the ever-changing publishing world where your books will live.

The Amazon blurb and the book itself suggest reading the authors’ Write. Publish. Repeat. first. I haven’t read it, so I can only say I got a lot out of Iterate and Optimize without having done so, though it’s possible I missed something in the process.

Until Sunday —


L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 4: Control

Skip this post if you don’t have any control issues.

Still here? Me too.

So let’s talk about control and the best way to publish your novel. So far, of the factors listed in Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1) that affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your fiction yourself, I’ve covered money and the desire for prestige or recognition.

Money is probably highest on my list right now because I’ve radically cut back my law practice, and my goal this year is to live on what I earn as a writer. (I have a long way to go, but that’s another post.)

If you’re planning to continue with your current career or profession, though, how much you earn from your writing might not be a driving force for you. As for recognition, for some writers, it’s the whole point. Others who have a first profession prefer to keep it separate from writing, so they use a pen name, particularly if they perceive their colleagues or clients may see their writing as a distraction.

Control, though, that’s another thing.

Who Needs Control?

Odds are, if you’re successful at what you’re doing now, it’s because you were able to manage your career well. If you run–or are a partner in–a business or firm, at the very least, you probably prefer choosing for yourself what you do with your time and how best to pursue your professional goals.

Also, and perhaps more important, most artists and writers want control of how their work goes out into the world. I once attended a horror convention where four novelists whose books had been made into films spoke on a panel. They agreed that helped them earn money, gain name recognition, and sell more books. Those of us in the audience wanted to know how they got those film deals and whether we could ever hope to get one. But three of four panelists spent most of the hour complaining about the hatchet jobs the filmmakers had done on their stories.

(F. Paul Wilson, the fourth panelist, declined to join the complaints. He said he hadn’t loved the film made of The Keep, but it prompted a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have found it to buy the novel, and that was all good. I really liked that about him.)

When it comes to control, traditional publishing is a bit like handing your fiction over to the film producer. I say “a bit” because you’ll have a say over revisions, unlike if your book were turned into a screenplay by someone else. The text of the novel is likely to be for the most part as you wrote it. You probably won’t, though, be able to choose which specific editor you want. And, as with a movie, as a new writer, you’ll have no control over how the final product looks, how it’s priced, or how it’s marketed.

How much does this matter? It depends.


At a writing retreat I attended, New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Wiggs showed slides of different covers one publisher had used for one of her novels. She wrote women’s and mainstream fiction. She had zero input into the first cover. It had a dark purple background, making the novel somewhat foreboding. It didn’t sell very well, despite her previous success and devoted audience. She pointed out over and over to the publisher that her readers reached for her books like they would reach for a box of candy.

Finally the book was re-released with an upbeat cover with pink edging that looked like ribbons. It did give the same impression as a beautiful box of Valentine’s candy. Her sales shot up accordingly.

As a self-published author, you choose your cover designer and your cover. Recently, despite that I loved the cover for my first thriller, The Awakening, I had it redesigned when a fellow author pointed out to me that it didn’t look good in the thumbnail size on Amazon. (I’ve pasted in both below—the original on the left, the new on the right.)

I also wanted the new cover to fit with the design for the fourth and final book in the series, which is coming out in May, 2017. Because I’m the one who chooses the design, I could make that switch without needing to convince anyone else.

Control has its downsides, though, because we don’t always have the knowledge we need.

I’ve seen indie authors choose covers that don’t convey the type of book or that don’t look professional. It’s also easy to get too wedded to your concept of the book without being a good judge of how that hits the reader. With traditional publishers, you’ll get a professionally-designed cover chosen by someone more objective who has more experience matching covers to genres.


Have you ever gone on Amazon to buy a book thinking you’ll buy it for Kindle and start reading that day, then changed your mind and ordered a paperback when you compared the prices? Take Louise Penny’s latest mystery, for example, because I love her books so much. A Great Reckoning as I write this lists at $14.99 for the hardback, $14.99 for the ebook, and $9.99 for the trade paperback.

If this seems crazy to you given that ebooks don’t require printing or paper, you’re not alone. What’s the deal? Traditional publishers a while back won a drawn-out fight with Amazon so that they can price their ebooks as high as they want. It’s one of the reasons a slightly higher percentage of print books v. ebooks were sold last year than the previous year. If the ebook costs the same or more to buy, a lot of readers would rather have paper.

If you’re Louise Penny, author of a popular, long-running series, this pricing is probably fine. Fans like me will run out and get the book as soon as it comes out no matter the price.

For most other authors, though, this type of pricing is not so great. If I don’t know who an author is, even a compelling cover and intriguing blurb won’t make me plunk down $14.99 or even $9.99. I’ll put the book on my Goodreads shelf if a friend highly recommends it. But I’ll probably buy it only if I come across it again somehow and the price has dropped, I find it in the library or at a used bookstore, or I happened to get a nice check in the mail and I feel like spending.

As a self-published author, most of my royalties come from ebook sales, then audiobook sales, then print. Because I get a larger share of the purchase price than do traditional authors, I can price my ebooks fairly low. In fact, right now, my first book in my series is free in all its ebook editions, then Books 2 and 3 are $3.99 and $4.99. At other times, I’ve priced The Awakening at anywhere from $4.99 down to $0.99—all much easier prices at which to entice a new reader.

Also, many of the email subscription newsletters that list bargain ebooks only list books at $4.99 or below. As a self-published author, I can choose to discount my book for the increase in sales or in the hope of selling later titles in my catalogue. Traditional publishers sometimes do the same, but the author has no say in when or how or why.

Marketing And Advertising

As an indie author, I pay for all advertising. Until this year, I wasn’t relying heavily on income from royalties, so I didn’t pay as much attention as I now wish I had to which ads result in the most sales. I know which ones were amazing—Bookbub and Ereadernews Today—and the ones that didn’t do much for sales, but for a lot in between I’m not sure. This year I’m experimenting cautiously and keeping better records.

Whether traditional publishers are better at knowing what works and doesn’t with advertising is an open question. But if you have a traditional publishing deal, the publisher is paying for the ads (and for premium placement in bookstores if you’re really lucky), not you, so at least you’re not directly bearing the cost.

Also, with a traditional deal, you can and should engage in marketing and public relations on your own. You can maintain your own email list, be active on social media, and contact bookstores about speaking there if your publisher isn’t doing enough for you. From what I hear, most small and medium-sized publishers expect authors to do quite a bit of that if they expect to sell.

Another sales issue is the summary on the book jacket or on line. As an indie, you write that book description yourself or engage a copywriter to do it. If you have a publishing contract, you give up that control. As with the cover, that can be good or bad. You may be able to do a great job writing your summary, and as an indie, you’ll be able to tweak the description to see what works. On the other hand, being a step removed, the traditonal publisher may do a better job targeting your market.

That latter point isn’t always the case, though. I’ve known several traditionally-published authors who felt their publishers missed the mark in how they described their novels.


What formats you make your novel available in is up to you if you self-publish. As I talked about in a previous post, as an indie author, I can make my books available as audiobooks, paperbacks, ebooks, and in any other format that comes along. I retain all my rights.

With a traditional publishing deal, often the publisher has those rights but is not required to use them. So you may give up your right to produce an audiobook of your novel, but the publisher may opt not to produce one even if you request it.

Righting The Ship

As in most other industries, it’s much harder for a large company to shift a business model than it is for one person. That’s part of why it’s taken so long for traditional publishers to begin marketing backlist titles as ebooks and to start email lists of their own when indie authors have used these tactics successfully for years.

That’s the main thing I like about publishing my own work. The books I’ve mapped out to write and publish this year may or may not be bestsellers, may or may not be popular, and may or may not earn as much as I hope they will. But if I’m not happy with my results, I can take different approach next year without any major upheaval.

So What’s Better?

As the pluses and minuses above show, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. Whether you’ll be happier having control over every aspect of your fiction or handing over much of it to a publisher depends on the pros and cons of the particular book, publisher, and deal. Also, it’s not an either/or situation. You can publish one novel or series yourself and seek a traditional publishing deal for another.

What will work best for you also depends upon who you are as a person. When I started my own law firm, despite that I had many of the same clients and did the same type of work as I had at a large firm, I enjoyed it much more because it was my firm. If I was working Sunday night, at least I was the one who’d chosen to take on that project or promised to meet that deadline. I also was the one who kept the profit. And, finally, down the road, I could adopt a different business model.

So far, I see writing similarly. If that changes as I move forward, I’ll let you know.

I hope this has helped you sort through your options.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful week.

L. M. Lilly


Do You Need A Publisher, Part 3: Money

Mary Higgins Clark was paid a $64 million advance for a five-book deal. The average advance for a first novel, however, is generally between $5,000 to $15,000. Most novelists, including published ones, don’t make a living writing. They supplement with other work, often as teachers of writing, speakers, editors, or non-fiction writers. Others write on the side and earn most of their money in another profession.

In Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1), I talked about the factors that might affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your work yourself. Those factors include:

  • a desire for prestige and recognition, which I talked about last week
  •  a desire to earn money
  • a desire for control over your work
  • a desire to run a business, and
  • what type of book you’re writing

You can make money no matter how you publish, but here are some differences in what you’re likely to earn and how it may affect your career:

The Big 5 Publishers

The authors who make the most money up front are the household names, such as Mary Higgins Clark, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King. Most authors in this league have been writing and selling novels for decades, but sometimes a debut novel will be bought for a six or seven figure advance. The Big 5 are the publishers that can pay these types of advances. An advance means the author is paid before the book is published. If the book earns enough in royalties to repay the advance, the author is then paid royalties as well. The upsides of this type of deal are obvious. Before the book goes to press, you have a good chunk of money in your pocket.

On the downside, the need for the book to earn back the advance is a lot of pressure. If it doesn’t happen, that may tank the chances of a contract for later books. More significant for most new writers is that the odds against landing a deal with a large publisher are near zero. First, you’ll need to spend time and effort trying to find a literary agent to represent you before the Big 5 will consider your work. Second, even through literary agents, the Big 5 most often enter contracts with established authors.

Given the potential large payoff, though, if you think your book will fit one of these publishers, don’t be dissuaded by the odds. Not only is there a shot at a large advance and the publicity and marketing that comes with it, much of what you do to pursue your goal will help you if you later decide to try another route. For instance, crafting a compelling query letter to agents can also help you write queries to publishers or write marketing copy if you self-publish.

Small and medium-sized publishers

Small to medium-sized publishers usually offer advances between a few thousand dollars and $45,000, though some very small presses may offer no advance. The financial upsides include possible up front money and the fact that the publisher pays the publishing costs, such as cover art and editing. The publisher also may help market and publicize the book, and most bookstores are more willing to carry a traditionally-published book than a self-published one.

The downsides include that the author has limited or no control over many factors that affect a book’s sales, such as the quality of cover art, editorial services, marketing copy, where and when the book is advertised, and the price. Also, the size of the advance usually matches the marketing budget. A $5,000 marketing budget won’t go very far, and you’ll likely have lost control of your work and rights that might help you earn more money.

One of my income streams is from the audiobook editions of the first three books in my Awakening series. I did a royalty-share deal with the producer/narrators, and the books were already written, so creating the audiobooks was a no brainer. If you sign a contract granting those rights to a publisher, though, you no longer have that option, and the publisher may not be obligated to produce audiobooks. Finally, royalties from a publisher range from 10-25% of the purchase price, while when you self-publish, your royalties range from 30-70% of the book’s price.

Publishers that charge the author/vanity presses

If the fee is reasonable and you’d rather spend money than invest time in publishing your own work, you might be the lucky one-in-a-million author able to earn money by paying a company to publish. You need to consider, though, how much you’re paying compared to how many books you’re likely to sell, keeping in mind that these types of companies, no matter what they say about marketing or publicity, rarely do much to sell your book. Publishers that pay the author an advance and hope to earn it back and then some through book sales have an incentive to see that your book sells. Companies you pay do not. They are making money off of you.

For that reason, in my view, it’s a very long shot that you’ll make money paying a company to publish your work. You’re also risking paying for services that will be inferior to what you could have contracted for yourself. The only time I suggest these types of companies is if:

(a) the fee is not that much more than you would spend if you found the services you need yourself;

(b) you get a referral from someone whose books are selling well and who is earning more than she or he spent;

(c) the person who referred you is selling the same type of book you wrote; and

(d) that author’s books are well-edited (no typos, good story arc) and have professional-looking covers that fit the books’ genre.


Some authors earn an excellent living by publishing multiple books themselves, by self-publishing and later being picked up by traditional publishers (as happened with The Martian), or by some combination of the two. A few authors that appear to have done quite well self-publishing include Hugh Howey, J.F. Penn, and Melissa Foster. Others earn enough to write full-time or have a decent side stream of income. Others, usually those who publish only one or two books and devote little time or money to marketing, spend more on self-publishing than they earn.

On the upside, as noted, indies earn a much larger share of royalties, particularly on ebooks, than do traditionally-published authors. That means you can generally price your books lower to gain readers while earning the same amount in royalties or more per book than traditional authors do. Indies also retain all their rights and have control over the covers, marketing, editing, etc.

The downside of indie publishing is that the indie must pay the publication costs, which range anywhere from zero (as all aspects can be handled by the author) to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. In addition, if you plan to market your book through paid advertising, you pay for that as well.

The Short Version

To pull this all together, the Big 5 offer the biggest potential for large advances and stellar advertising and marketing, indie/self-publishing offers great potential earnings if you’re in it for the long haul, and the likely financial rewards of publishing with small/medium publishers vary widely depending upon the advance offered and the publisher’s marketing budget. If you publish with a small or medium-sized publisher or you self-publish, a lot of your success will depend on how much time, effort, and sometimes money you are personally willing to invest. As for publishers who charge you, there may be some authors out there who made money that way, but in my opinion, it’s a buyer-beware proposition.

Stay tuned for posts on the other factors that go into choosing a publishing path.

Until then, best wishes for a productive, peaceful week.

L. M. Lilly

Why And How Self-Published Authors Offer Free Books

This Friday’s recommendation is an episode from the website that I find most useful on writing and publishing, The Creative Penn. (The double-n comes from host Joanna Penn’s last name.) Joanna interviews Damon Courtney, the founder of BookFunnel is one way authors can offer a free book for various purposes, such as providing review copies or giving readers a free book to sign up for an email list. He and Joanna also discuss the rise of indie publishing.

Joanna generally spends the first part of each show updating listeners on her publishing journey and commenting on tweets and emails. If you want to skip to the interview, click this link, hit play, and move to 19:30.

Have a good weekend! Stop back on Sunday for a new post.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Joanna always includes bullet points from and a transcript of the interview on the page with the episode, so scroll down if you’d rather read it or prefer to skim the content before listening.