Guest post by indie science fiction author Michael Hicks.
nrlymrtl asked me to put together a few semi-coherent thoughts about my life as an indie author, along with a few other questions she had, which we’ll get to shortly. So that’s what I’m gonna do!
First off, why am I an independent author? The main reason is that, when I finished my first book, IN HER NAME (what is now known as the omnibus edition), no traditional publisher would have anything to do with it. This was back in the mid-1990s when there were more than a handful of publishers around. Now, granted, I hadn’t written the book with the intention of ever writing as a professional author, so my expectations were a bit different than many folks might have. But after getting the typical handful of rejection letters, I figured my time was just as well spent playing the lottery.
I tossed the boxed manuscript, all one-thousand-odd pages (yes, over a thousand pages, double-spaced, containing 325,000 words), under my desk and used it as a foot rest for the next 14 years.
Spin forward to 2007, when I found out about this cool gadget called the Amazon Kindle. I’m a sucker for gadgets, and Jeff Bezos had me with this one (and my wife got one, too).
Then I found out about this crazy thing called Amazon Digital Text Platform (DTP), which is now Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP. Anybody – *anybody* – could publish a book for the Kindle! Even a yahoo like me. There weren’t any gatekeepers choosing which books would be published and which wouldn’t. That was really up to the readers, as it should be, based on some of the stinkers the traditional publishing houses have belched out over the years.
That was my project for the winter of 2007: preparing IN HER NAME for the Kindle. It was months of work, scanning in the manuscript (I’d long since lost the original Word files), correcting the OCR’d text, then editing, re-editing, then editing again, so many times that I was sick of the book.
I uploaded it to the Kindle store. Wow! I was published! I’ll freely admit that at that time, I didn’t care a whit if anyone ever bought it, and I really didn’t expect anyone to. It was just a major check-off on my bucket list that I’d actually published something.
Then an amazing thing happened: somebody bought a copy. It wasn’t any of my friends or family, because none of them had Kindles, except my wife, and she’d already read it.
Another copy sold. And a third. That was my first month of Kindle sales: three copies. And I was ecstatic!
I was even more amazed when the reviews started coming in: if you look at IN HER NAME (omnibus) now, there are 174 reviews, of which 141 are 5-star and 17 4-star. When I got the first review (4-stars), I was amazed.
The second month, I believe I sold 8 copies. Then it gradually climbed from there. I started getting a lot of feedback from folks, particularly on KindleBoards, that convinced me to start writing again.
So, with great trepidation, I wrote a prequel, IN HER NAME: FIRST CONTACT. Then another book in the series, LEGEND OF THE SWORD.
By that point, 2010, my royalties were ranging from $200 to $800 a month, although I’d estimate the average around $300 or so, with an average of around 200 books sold per month. Nothing to complain about, certainly, but not exactly enough to live on.
In February 2011, I released another novel, SEASON OF THE HARVEST, which was totally different. It was a sci-fi thriller that, for me, was really just a lark based on my research into genetically engineered foods after we’d had to change our eating habits for health reasons.
But with SEASON OF THE HARVEST, I did something different: I really focused on promoting the book, mainly through Twitter, which has been my gold mine. And when HARVEST took off, the IN HER NAME series did, too.
The result was staggering. Sales for February went up to almost 800 books (mind you, this is just Kindle sales, which account for most of my royalties) and $2,400 in royalties. March: 3,600 books and $2,400. April: 7,000 books and $7,000. May: 8,800 books and $15,000. Then we get to June and July, which were banner months. In June, 31,550 Kindle books flew out the door – most of those free copies of IN HER NAME: EMPIRE, the first part of the omnibus as a standalone novel – earning $29,000 in royalties. In July, it was 21,000 books and $33,000.
At its peak, SEASON OF THE HARVEST was ranked around 280 in the Kindle store, and both that and the omnibus version of IN HER NAME were selling well over 100 copies a day, each, with the other books selling between 30 and 60 per day.
As you can imagine, I fell out of my chair when I saw those numbers. That’s when I really contemplated leaving my day job at the National Security Agency, where I’d worked for 25 years. Let it be known that the Agency was very, very good to me and I was making a great salary, but I was no longer happy there, and God had thrown open wide the door to working full-time as an author.
So, I stepped through, leaving NSA behind. I have a lot more control over my life now, I don’t have to take several urinalysis tests per year anymore, and if I have a crappy boss (which happened quite a bit while I was at NSA), I have – literally – no one to blame but myself. In fact, I think I’m due for my first self-performance review soon…No, not really!
But it’s not a carefree, bon-bon eating existence. As I discovered not long after I left NSA, no matter how many books you may have on the bestseller lists, sales of current titles are eventually going to taper off. It’s just gravity at work.
The solution is simply to keep writing your butt off, which is what I’ve been doing. My motivation for writing used to be for enjoyment and to have a little extra spending money. Now it’s to feed my family, and I typically work 12 hour days. I’m hoping that someday in the not too distant future I’ll have enough of a backlist that I can maybe throttle back to 10 or even 8 hours, but working for yourself, especially as an author, takes a lot of commitment and a moderate dose of insanity.
On the other hand, it’s also a lot of fun. I’m doing something that I’ve always loved, I’ve met a lot of really cool people – mostly on-line, but some in person – and it’s a huge life challenge that, while frightening in many ways, is good for me. Assuming I have any hair left by the time all is said and done.
So, that’s my loony life right now in a nutshell. nrlymrtl also had a couple other questions for me. First, why did I decide to give away an entire novel – IN HER NAME: EMPIRE, which is also the most popular one one – for free as an ebook?
The answer is terribly simple: I want to get people hooked on the series. If they read EMPIRE and like it, they’ll have a good idea of how I write, and will want to find out what happens in the rest of the story. And it’s been effective: EMPIRE has gone as high as #28 in the free list in the Kindle store, with what I’d estimate to be around 40,000+ copies going out to readers since this summer. And many of those folks have gone on to read and enjoy the other books of the series.
And lastly, there’s the question of my avatar pic on Twitter. I’ve probably gotten more people asking me about that than anything else, believe it or not! The shot was taken in my cousin Wendy’s Piper Cub while we were flying over the Great Salt Lake. She did an over-the-shoulder happy snap of me in the back seat, and it’s one of my favorite pics of me: I was having a blast! I’ve always loved flying, and even flew some hours solo long ago, but life intervened and I was never able to pursue it. Wendy owns her own plane, “Flip,” and took me up when we were out visiting.
So, that’s my story! As for what’s in the works, I’m currently working on the next IN HER NAME novel, while also trying to get all my books recorded (I’m doing the narration myself) for release as audio books.
But now it’s time to go make some chocolate chip pancakes – breakfast calls!