Exactly one year ago today, I posted the final chapter of my last epic, In the End (which you can read here if you are interested). It was the big grand finale of the Shikaverse, my own Bionicle fanfic universe, as some of you might recall.
Since then, I have published eleven original novels, four short stories, one novella, one collection, and one serial (which is five episodes), with even more works on the way before the end of 2015 and going well into 2016 and beyond. I even started a new pen name and have plans to create another in 2016. As you can tell, I have been very busy since I stopped writing and posting fanfics here, and with good reason.
Why did I decide to stop writing and posting fanfiction? Simple. I counted the costs and realized that if I was going to make it as a professional fiction writer, I would have to put aside fanfiction, at least for now, so I could devote my writing time to my original works. After all, I can't make money off of fanfiction (well, unless LEGO ever decides to give me permission to sell my fanfics, but LEGO, as great a company as it is, ain't that generous with its intellectual properties).
I have not talked much at all about making that transition from hobbyist fanfic writer to professional fiction writer on this blog. This is mostly because I've been too busy writing, publishing, and marketing my original fiction to blog about it on BZP; after all, I want to be paid to write fiction, not blogs. Nothing against professional bloggers or people who want to be professional bloggers. I just don't like blogging nearly as much as writing fiction and don't care to make a career out of it. That's all.
But I know that many of you write fanfiction and that at least some of you want to eventually move on from fanfiction to original fiction. Many of you would like to write fiction for a living; and not just for a living, but for a lifetime career, full of the ups and downs that every career in every industry has.
That's an awesome goal that I completely support no matter who you are.
But it is definitely not a simple or easy goal. Despite the rise of indie-publishing (which some of you may know as self-publishing, but I prefer to call it indie-publishing), making a full-time living as a professional writer is still very hard. It requires an almost completely different way of approaching writing than writing fanfiction as a hobby, and making that transition is by no means smooth or without its own challenges.
For this blog post, I am going to discuss indie-publishing; that is, independently publishing your own work through your own publishing house, without any of the big publishers or any of the established smaller publishers publishing your work for you, usually using websites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble (or aggregators like Smashwords or Draft2Digital) to distribute your work to readers as ebooks, paperbacks, audiobooks, etc. You typically pay for the covers, editing, formatting, marketing, and whatever other expenses you have associated with your publishing business or learn to do all or some of it yourself. You will probably end up registering your business as an actual publishing house with an actual publishing name (mine is called Annulus Publishing, for those interested).
I am focusing on indie-publishing because that is the path I chose and the one I know best. I do not recommend new writers go to the traditional publishers at the moment because of their draconian contracts and shady business practices; at least, you shouldn't submit to traditional publishers without first thinking it through, doing your research, and being aware of how they deal with new writers nowadays, as well as knowing what your own goals as a writer are. Knowing how to negotiate is important as well if you choose to go that route.
With any potential confusion on terminology now out of the way, let's get onto the actual meat of the essay. Please note that much of this is just my own personal experience and opinions and may not necessarily apply to you. Every writer is different, so don't be afraid to reject some of my advice while accepting other parts of it. That's how writers learn, after all, because good advice and bad advice are usually mixed together pretty well in writing and publishing and can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another without thinking it through first. (NOTE: If you're here for the free ebook drawing, just scroll down to the bottom of the post to learn how you can win a FREE copy of my novel Reunification in any ebook format you like!)
Having said that, for me, the transition from fanfiction to indie-publishing was not quite as drastic or uncomfortable as it could have been. While much of my writing time over the past eight or nine years has been devoted to fanfiction, I also wrote original novels and short stories between fanfic projects in order to prepare for the day when I would make the leap from fanfiction hobbyist to full-time professional fiction writer, although I never shared them with anyone and will probably never publish them, at least in their current forms (some of them are still really cool ideas that I'd love to write again at some point, though not sure when).
Thus, when I decided to make that leap, I already had some experience writing original fiction, which really is a different game from writing fanfiction. If you want to make that transition, too, I suggest writing original fiction now, perhaps in-between fanfics, in order to get used to it, because that is primarily the kind of fiction you will be writing as a professional writer (unless you become a media writer or write a ton of Kindle Worlds stories or something, but that's a whole different ballpark from self-publishing, one I will not get into in this essay, so don't ask me about it).
In many ways, fanfiction and indie-publishing are similar in that you are usually responsible for posting (for fanfiction) or publishing (for original fiction) your work. For some writers, the idea of actually publishing their own work is extremely foreign, but for me, it is as natural as posting the next chapter of my most recent epic or comedy on BZP.
But publishing a book, even through the self-publishing platforms provided by Amazon and other ebook stores, is much more difficult and time-consuming than posting a fanfic online. I had to learn how to format my ebooks and layout my paperbacks, but even that was not terribly difficult. Ebooks are made using HTML, which is similar to the BBCode used on BZP and other forum sites, which I was already used to, so learning HTML was not nearly as hard for me as it could have been. As for paperbacks, that was trickier, but I can now make a paperback novel with a professional-looking interior, so that's not an issue anymore.
The hardest part of the whole publishing process, for me, has been book cover design. I know some indies design their own covers and are pretty dang good at it, but I am just not all that great at graphic design and don't really care to spend the time learning it. I therefore hire out my covers to professional cover designers, which has worked out pretty well for me. I recommend every indie writer hire out their covers unless they already know or are willing to learn how to make good covers themselves.
But once the book is actually published and out there in the world, that's where marketing and promotion come in. Typically, when you post a fanfic, you do zero promotion for it outside of maybe mentioning it on your blog, making a banner for it in your signature, or having it featured on a site that features fanfics (a good example of this is how the BZP front page sometimes features notable fanfiction from the community). There are probably other ways to promote your fanfics, but there aren't too many.
In indie-publishing, however, you need to do some actual marketing and promotion. You don't need to spend months and months and thousands of dollars throwing together a nationwide book tour or anything like that (unless you want to or think it would be financially viable). But you do need to understand the basics of marketing and promotion and be up-to-date on all of the latest marketing and promotional techniques other writers and publishers use to get their work in front of readers and know what's worth your time and money and what isn't. Like every business, you need to have a marketing plan, which may
This leads into what I believe is the most important difference between indie-publishing and fanfiction: One is a business. The other is a hobby.
In early 2014, I founded the independent press Annulus Publishing. I have several different reasons for doing so, but the primary reason is because it allowed my CreateSpace print books to get into bookstores (if you don't understand how that works, please refer to professional writer Dean Wesley Smith's post on getting your indie books into bookstores). In my early dreams of becoming a professional writer, I honestly did not see myself founding a publishing company; however, I believe it is an important step for any indie writer to take, again for a variety of reasons that I will not get into right now.
As an independent publisher, I have a publishing schedule I try to follow as best as I can. In fact, I have my publishing schedule figured out through 2019. That may sound far-off, but as a small business, I can't just finish my books whenever and publish them when I feel like it. One of the most important factors in making it as a professional fiction writer is regularly putting out work for readers to buy. You don't need to write and publish a book a month; however, you can't publish one book a year, either, and hope to make anything more than coffee money, if even that, from your writing (unless you get fantastically, stupidly, astonishingly lucky or are a marketing genius).
And as a small business, I have expenses that I need to keep track of. This actually isn't as hard as it sounds. I have a simple document on my computer where I jot down every expense I make (for example, if I pay $80 for a cover, that goes into the expenses document). I need to make sure I don't spend more money than I have and to spend money only when I am sure I need to or when it would be a good investment. Unnecessary expenses can hurt any business, but especially small businesses, which is what my independent press is.
Furthermore, I need to keep track of how much money I earn from my books every month. Right now, this is manageable, because I am not selling many books per month, but if I ever start to sell really really well (as in, bestseller-level), then this will most definitely become a chore. I need to remain aware of how much money I am making from month to month in order to figure out how well (or badly) I am doing. Fanfic writers don't ever have to worry about monthly income like that.
And then there's everyone's favorite topic to discuss over a romantic late-night dinner in France: Taxes. As a small business owner, I have to keep track of my expenses and income in order to figure out how much tax money I owe to the government. Again, it's not nearly as scary or hard as it sounds, especially if you keep good records of your expenses and income and have a good CPA to help you figure it all out, but it is definitely something you need to do lots of research on so you can understand it better. You may also need to hire a CPA to help you file your taxes, depending on how complicated your situation is (note: I am not a certified public accountant or tax person or whatever, so don't ask me for any advice on your personal tax situation, as I am not qualified to do so).
Also, the publishing industry is constantly changing. Old marketing techniques fall out of favor, new ones surge into popularity, publishers open and close, Amazon and other self-publishing platforms make changes to their algorithms, new laws and regulations come out of nowhere, old scammers go out of business, new ones come in to take your money, and the income of writers can rise or fall drastically on a whim.
In order to keep your head above water, you must remain on top of the changes in the publishing industry at all times. Never, even for a moment, think you have it all figured out and don't need to learn anything else ever again. As soon as you do, you're done. You can kiss your writing career good bye and go back to your day job, if you have one.
I recommend following as many blogs and websites on writing and publishing that you possibly can. Join Facebook or other social media groups devoted to writing and publishing. Talk to other writers about any changes they've heard about or noticed. Read good books by successful writers and never stop learning.
Never. Stop. Learning.
Because while you can remain ignorant of the general fanfiction community without any real problems, you remain ignorant of the changes in publishing and you are in danger of being screwed out of your money and rights by unscrupulous publishers, agents, and really anyone who knows they can make a buck or two off ignorant, naïve newbies who are too afraid to learn about the industry they've chosen to make their living in. Trust me, there are a TON of scam artists out there who make their entire living scamming new writers. Do not be ignorant.
Speaking of scams, I cannot emphasize the importance of understanding copyright. Copyright is what writers are actually selling whenever they sign a deal with a publisher, whether big or small. You don't need to understand copyright as well as an IP attorney in order to be a writer; however, you must understand the basics and what copyright is.
If you do not understand that every book, every story, every article you write is property—regardless of whether you publish it or not, regardless of its quality, regardless of whether you sell a million copies or no copies at all—and that it can be very valuable (as in, the hundreds of millions of dollars valuable, depending on how popular it is) property, then you will get screwed over by publishers and agents and anyone else who wants your money.
Don't think that copyright is irrelevant. It is one of the—maybe even the—most important things anyone wanting to become a professional full-time fiction writer must understand in order to make a living. A good book on the subject is The Copyright Handbook by Nolo Press, a book you will need to read and reread several times before you understand it all. Take your time to understand copyright. You will thank me later after your understanding of copyright helps you make wise business decisions and a lot of money. Trust me.
Fanfic writers never talk about copyright except when we are worried about infringing on it. Even then, I see a lot of misunderstanding in the fanfic community over what copyright actually is, which is probably why I was shocked to learn what it really is in publishing and writing.
As an example of how important copyright is: Let's say you've written a novel. You license (not sell, which is different) First English Hardcover Rights to one publisher, First English Paperback Rights to another, First English Audio Rights to yet another, and First English Electronic Rights to a fourth. Each of these publishers pays you some money for the right to publish your work in the aforementioned formats, but if you're smart, these rights will revert to you at some point and you can sell them again and again and again to whoever wants to buy them.
And this is just English language rights I'm talking about here. You can do the same with French language rights, Russian language rights, Chinese language rights, and so on and so forth. One of the most amazing things about copyright is that the sky is the limit for how you can divide it and license it to other people.
Yet if you sold the entire copyright of this same book to one publisher, then you can't do anything like what I just explained. Well, I guess you could buy the copyright back from the publisher or maybe invoke the 35 year reversal clause, but those are unlikely to happen, so it's better to license only a part of your copyright to certain publishers or individuals with a clear reversion date written in a legally-binding contract.
See how important copyright is now? I hope so. Dean Wesley Smith has a good post explaining it better than me for those interested (and of course, you should absolutely pick up a copy of The Copyright Handbook, published by Nolo Press, for even more detail on copyright).
This ties into another difference between fanfiction and indie-publishing. Indie-publishers, whether newbies just starting out or veterans who have been around for a while, are constantly talking and thinking about business. Constantly. In fact, sometimes all of this endless business talk makes me weary (as fun as the business of writing is, I like talking about the craft of writing a bit more, to be honest).
Fanfic writers, by contrast, never talk business. Ever.
Which makes sense. Fanfiction—unless it is officially licensed or sanctioned by the original creators—is a hobby. I cannot sell my 300,000+ word Zaktan and Kotu shipping fic (which doesn't exist, BTW, as it's just an example) to any publisher, nor can I self-publish it for money (unless I pull a Fifty Shades of Gray and change the characters' names, obviously). It makes no sense to talk about income or marketing or expenses or taxes or business in general when talking about fanfiction.
But it is important to learn business if you want to make it as a writer. The most successful writers are both great businesspeople and great artists. You need to understand both the business and craft of writing in order to succeed.
Fanfic writers generally understand the importance of craft (though even that understanding is usually pretty amateurish), but there is zero understanding of the business of writing among fanfic writers. Zero.
This ties back into what I said previously about having a publishing schedule for my publishing company. Every publishing company, big and small, has a schedule of some sort. Very, very few fanfic writers have even the vaguest publishing schedule for their works. Most fanfic writers can't even handle a chapter a week. Asking them to plan out months, even years, in advance what books they will publish, and when? Might as well be asking them to speak Klingon for all the good that will do.
Now there is nothing wrong with this sort of “I'll get it done whenever” attitude toward fanfiction, but it's a huge problem if you bring it with you into professional publishing. As I said before, one of the secrets to making it as a writer is to publish often and regularly, and a good way to ensure that is to have a publishing schedule figured out. It needn't be completely full—there's nothing wrong with leaving a few blank spots for those kinds of books that come to you out of nowhere but which you need to write desperately—but it should be full enough to give you a general guideline for what you will write and publish over the course of the year.
And feel free to change the schedule if necessary. Fail to get Book A published in January? Publish it in February, then, and move on. No need to obsess over a missed deadline.
But do try to avoid pushing back releases too often like that. Especially for books in a series, where it is crucial to get each new book out in a timely manner so your readers don't forget or get impatient and frustrated with you. If you have a habit of delaying releases all the time, that will definitely hurt your reputation more than it will help it.
I know all of this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. No matter whether you choose traditional publishing, indie-publishing, or a hybrid of both, making it as a full-time professional fiction writer is not easy. There is no publishing one ebook with a shoddy cover, priced at $0.99, on Amazon, and kicking back and waiting for the money, sales, and accolades to pour in. Nor can you expect to get a seven figure traditional publishing deal by submitting one book to one publisher and doing nothing else (you'd be lucky to get a high four figure advance, actually, considering the current state of traditional publishing, but that's irrelevant at the moment).
But trust me when I say that this business is fun. Even more fun than writing and publishing fanfiction. To me, all of it is fun. Writing books is fun. Formatting is fun. Seeing what kinds of awesome covers freelance cover designers come up for me is fun and even paying them to do that is fun. Uploading my books onto Amazon and other stores is fun. Holding the proofs of my paperbacks in my hands is fun. Talking with other writers about the craft and business of writing is fun. Seeing a book I published sell even just one copy the next day is fun. Getting money deposited into my bank account from my book royalties is fun.
I am not yet making enough money to live off of. Nor am I selling many books. I don't have many true fans just yet, and I am pretty unknown to the vast majority of English language readers in the US and in the world at large.
But here is another secret about writing and publishing: Despite the overnight successes and breakout hits you always hear about, it truly is a long-term business. I can't get obsessed with the success or failure of one book. My success or failure as a writer is not dependent on any one book or series I write.
What matters is whether I will keep going, keep writing and publishing, keep learning and improving, and never looking back at my failures except to learn from them. I must walk forward always.
I will, however, say that I am seeing my sales increase. I've sold more books and made more money this year than I have last year; and, God willing, I will do even better next year, and the next, and the next. Or I won't, as writing income can be rather erratic and unsteady. Some years you get more money than you know what to do with; other years, you wonder how you're gonna put bread on the table for yourself.
But hey, who knows? Maybe by this time next year, I will actually be making a full-time living as a professional fiction writer.
But if not, that's okay. I'm in it for the long haul, so whether it takes me one year or ten, I will keep writing and publishing always.
And I highly recommend that strategy to every writer who wants to make a living at this crazy business, no matter what genre you write or way you publish.
If you made it this far, that's great, because to celebrate my one year anniversary from quitting fanfiction, I am currently running a BZP-only random drawing to give away one free ebook copy of my science-fantasy novel, Reunification*, to five randomly-drawn names.
To enter the drawing, simply comment in the post below saying that you'd like to join and I will add your name to the drawing. Next week, on Tuesday, September 8th, I will announce the winners on my blog in my next blog post, who will then receive a special Smashwords discount coupon that they can use to download a free copy of Reunification from Smashwords in whatever ebook format they like.
So if you want to enter a chance to win a free copy of Reunification, simply say so in the comments below and I will add your name to the drawing. Good luck!
*Reunification, along with all of my other books, are available in ebook stores everywhere. A full listing of my books can be found at my website here.