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Indie Publishing: Manage Expectations

Today, I want to talk about expectations. It’s easy to set expectations way too high or way too low. Success has a different meaning to each of us, spanning from just seeing our work on Amazon to Brandon Sanderson-level stardom and income. So, let’s talk about expectations.

As always, take what I say with a grain of salt. After all, what do I know? I’m succeeding according to my expectations, but those could seem stupidly underwhelming in terms of dollars or stupidly overwhelming in terms of effort. I’m not here to push an agenda of what you should or shouldn’t consider success, but to think about it so you set and reach your goals. After all, most of us are authors because we want to be, not because we have to be.


More than eleven thousand new books are published every day. That’s new books, not the total number of books. That makes over four million new books a year. This number has exploded because platforms like Amazon, Apple Books, and Barnes and Noble keep making it easier for people like you and me to publish. Add on the new flood of books generated by AI, and we’ll see so many books for sale for pennies that it will be nearly impossible to be seen.

This isn’t meant to discourage you from trying to stand out from the masses. You can certainly do it. Authors become wildly successful every day. There are plenty of authors who make six figures a year off their books, so why not you? It’s just important to set the stage.

DATUM: “The average book sells 200-250 copies a year.” This includes books from publishers.



As I mentioned above, success looks different to everyone. For some, it’s a quantitative value like the total number of books sold. For others, it’s having their book in the store down the road. Still, others need it to be their sole source of income. There are a ton of factors that go into the psyche of an author. Most of us belong to a weird class of book-centric hominids. As a result, we come with all sorts of expectations and dreams. So, let's talk about what makes us tick.


If you click “publish” on any platform, you set yourself as being part of a group that is less than one in six hundred people. Therefore, you are a success story. Your seventh-grade English teacher was right (or wrong) about you. If that’s the extent of your effort, good on you. You succeeded. You won the game of, “What did you accomplish in your life?” Your words are uploaded into the ether and will remain there for as long as digital records exist. You are as eternal as they come.

FYI: As an author, you are six times more uncommon than a Ph.D.. That’s something.


Maybe you want to belong to an author community, a cool kids club if you will. By getting in contact with other writers on X, Facebook, Reddit, or in person, you are part of an elite crowd. Own it and love it. Enjoy the perks–finding out about other authors' perspectives and hearing their stories. It's awesome to know what makes them tick. I feel lucky to count myself as part of several communities.


There are plenty of ways to win an award. More and more contests pop up every year. Some are “more prestigious” than others, but an award is an award. If this appeals to you, submit your work to as many competitions as you can as often as you can. It’s a validation of your writing prowess from people who know and understand words. Sometimes, the younger and more indie contests are more rigorous in their judging and more inclusive of non-traditional writing styles, meaning they are a better fit for your work. It doesn’t mean one is better than the others. It’s a matter of where your manuscript belongs.


It’s hard to ignore how readers rate your work on places like Amazon and Goodreads. I’m guilty of checking all too often. We all have different values in mind for what our rating should be. Remember that some of the greats have ratings in the threes. Many books have no ratings at all. Getting a single rating means you have impacted someone’s life. You swayed them with your words, even if you upset them.

Badge of Honor: I took my first one-star review as a sign that I made it as an author.


It’s one thing to get a rating. Tapping one star or another is easy. Getting an actual review means someone had to go out of their way to write something down. You had to affect them enough for them to put in the effort. Only a small number of sales lead to reviews. So, if you get one, even if it’s from a friend or acquaintance, you win. Testimonials are like gold to an author. They not only make us feel good, but they also help potential readers have confidence in purchasing your book.

Some people think that Advance Copy Readers don’t count because you gave them a book. They’re wrong. Not all ARC readers leave reviews. They rarely want to leave a bad review for a new author, so they’d rather not write one. This is most common if the ARC reader doesn’t care for the genre or sub-genre of your work, so don’t view that as a negative. If they write a review, it means you won.


That first book sold feels so good. Sure, it might have been my Mom or my cousin, Cathy. It’s still a sale. It’s an achievement. You earned money for what had been a hobby up to that point. When you get the seventy-cent royalty from that purchase, you have succeeded at being a paid author. That’s not a small achievement. It means you put in the effort to make your book available through a marketplace, set up the cover, fill in the details, format the book, set a price, and someone thought, I should buy that.


If someone you don’t know buys your book, it’s a big deal. It means you enticed them through social media, advertising, a book signing, or word of mouth to purchase your book. Do you know how hard that is? You and your words stood out enough to be seen through the four million new works out there. Do you understand how cool that is? It means you did something well enough that an unbiassed person decided to pick your title, cover art, description, ratings, and reviews as the victor. Even if it was just for a moment, you were king of the hill.


This is a big one for a lot of people. Most of us are taught from an early age that wealth and success are synonymous. They can be. They can also lead to utter failure. Those best suited for making millions aren’t always the ones who are best suited for enjoying the wealth or time they have. Sure, we’d all love to sell a bazillion copies. Sure, it would feel validating to hit the jackpot. Sure, we wouldn’t walk away from overnight success. It’s just a matter of how hard are you willing to market, advertise, hustle, learn new skills, hustle more, write dozens of books, and keep doing all the things for each one until you keel over from exhaustion.

Me? I try to strike a happy medium. I engage on social media, write a blog (this one), go on the occasional podcast, advertise with a few coins, and write as often as I have energy, time, and creativity. As long as I stay in the black on any given month, I feel like I’ve succeded. It’s discouraging when I spend more on advertising than I earn, but the algorithms constantly change, so you can’t always win.

Suggestion: How would you feel about a friend who turned their hobby into a money obsession? I’d be proud of them if that was their value system. I’d be bumbed if they just wanted to write and not put up with the rest of everything.


Some people are all about their score on Amazon. Did their book hit 98 in their sub-sub-sub-genre? Are they ranked above Kurt Voneget’s seventh book (ranked #42,570)? This is a tough one because rankings are constantly changing. One week you may have sold more than usual (or some at all) and your ranking will skyrocket. The next week, with zero sales (because the winds are fickle) your ranking drops. If success is about rankings for you, then I hope you like the rollercoaster ride, because that’s what you’re in for.


There is only one Stephen King (trad pub), one J.K. Rowling (trad pub), one Hugh Laurie (self→trad), one Brandon Sanderson (hybrid), and so on. Fame and fortune require writing skills, non-writing skills, hard work, luck, knowing the right people, more luck, lots more hard work, witchcraft, and did I mention luck? If stardom is your goal, I support you in achieving it.

All I ask is that you go into it with an understanding of what is required. Most authors who achieve star-level success are completely obsessed with the writing and non-writing aspects of the job. And a job it is. You don’t write just when you feel like it. You write whenever you can reach a keyboard. You advertise wherever you can get your face. You network with people you may or may not like.

If that is what success looks like to you, then shoot for it. You are worthy. You are amazing. Remember how rare you already are? All you need to do is keep going.

Note: The path to stardom is different today than it was a decade ago or the decade before that. Advice from King, Rowling, and Sanderson isn’t valid for new self-publishing authors.


This is my big motivator. I always want to learn new things and improve. Every day is a new adventure that teaches me what to do (and often what not to do). I’m improving my writing craft and my publishing craft. Today, I looked back over the thirty-some-od indie publishing posts I wrote over the last seven months and realized how much I’ve grown as a publisher. The research involved in each gave me new tricks and insight. Not only am I improving as a publisher, but I think by leveling up and helping others, I am a more well-rounded person.


Very few people get into writing because they want to suffer. So, success should include joy, happiness, pride, pleasure, excitement, and any type of emotion you want to feel. Plenty of writers suffer for their art, though I don’t recommend it. Life’s too short to do a crappy job that is so far below minimum wage that it usually costs more than it makes. So, please include joy as a measure of success. If you aren’t reaching it, perhaps change how you’re going about it or learn to shift your perspective. You deserve this kind of success.

Say It With Me: I deserve to enjoy writing and publishing.


The amount that I feel like I’m succeeding swings back and forth. The muse practically takes over my mind and body sometimes, and I feel like I’m the most successful author on the planet. Other times, when I find I’ve been losing money on advertising because of an algorithm shift, I feel like a dolt, not suited for the job. The goal is to feel more positive than negative. This means that I need to take the long view, not judge myself in the moment. In the short term, I need to take the good with the bad.


Overnight success is unreasonable for self-publishing authors. Here's my recent take on going slow and steady.


In short, success is worth it. It’s very worth it. The problem, as you can see, is that there are a bunch of levels of success measured in a bunch of different ways. So, the real question is, “What level of success is worth it?” 

Ask yourself, “Am I happy with my publishing trajectory?” If the answer is no, then accept one of two things. Either you need to change what you’re doing or you need to change your definition of success. Otherwise, you’ll eat away at yourself and reduce the achievements you have made to negative burs in your mind.


Your publishing story is your own. Don’t let anything I say get in the way of your dreams and goals. I wrote this in part as a reminder to myself that I need to manage my expectations and in part to let you know that stardom isn’t most people’s goal when they think about everything involved. Keep writing. Keep enjoying the process. Keep your spirits up.


As always, I appreciate your support of indie authors. In the name of putting myself out there, here are a few of my works.

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