How One Indie Author Reached Professional Sales with His First Book

“I’d heard enough tales of the publishing industry to decide that I didn’t want to put in the effort of writing a book only to have it spend a decade or two being rejected. . . . Less than two months after being published, Torchship had earned enough to qualify for membership in my genre’s professional association.”

I’ve always enjoyed storytelling. Mostly I’ve expressed this through role-playing games, leading a table full of people through an adventure. Telling stories the old-fashioned way at a historical reenactment was another joy, though those were usually old Celtic myths rather than stories of my own. I’d heard enough tales of the publishing industry to decide that I didn’t want to put in the effort of writing a book only to have it spend a decade or two being rejected.

The ebook revolution changed my mind. I could write a story, and even if no publisher wanted it I could make it available for readers. In January 2013 I sat down on the couch, picked up a pen, and started writing a novel. Which meant working on the background first. I had characters and events lying around from previous work but a novel of my own would have to be in a new setting, not recycling someone else’s.

I had various writing experience to draw on for this—fanfic, RPG adventures, military operations orders and after action reports, engineering white papers, and grad school papers—but translating it into a working novel was a significant effort. Torchship has an episodic structure because it was easier to segment the plot into separate adventures than to create a single integrated plot.

Looking for help I found David Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines and later Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing. Outlines made me rethink my approach to parts of the book. I discarded the opening and wrote a new one to make the initial promises match what I would deliver. I used Resonance to polish the story, making sure I was aiming at the feelings of the stories I was inspired by without actually copying any of the elements directly. I also subscribed to the “Kick In the Pants” (now known as David’s writing tips) newsletter. Sometimes I just needed it for the kick, as my writing output varies.

I finished the first draft of Torchship in 2014. After getting feedback from beta readers I added a few scenes to explain more of the setting and sent it off to the publishing house I thought it was the best fit for. Then I went back to writing—a sequel to Torchship, some short stories, and a few scenes from a fantasy novel that are sitting in the “someday” file.

The publisher sent a polite rejection note. I contemplated submitting it somewhere else but decided I’d rather self-publish then spend a year or three waiting on someone else’s decision. My wife has a sharp eye for typos. She spent many hours scrubbing my manuscript. An artist I knew through local science fiction conventions made a beautiful cover painting for the book. I set a target publication date of Thanksgiving 2015 to keep myself from endlessly polishing.

I attended David Farland’s workshop in Houston in October. The exercises focused on sharpening writing skills I was weak on. I used them to create more material for the sequel. Meeting other aspiring (and some successful) writers was very motivational and has given me some good people to network with.

The book went live on Amazon on December 9th. I promptly had to reload it a couple of times to fix problems with the internal graphics. Someone bought a copy then, even though no one outside of my house knew about this. I checked. That buyer went to New Releases Last 30 Days -> Science Fiction -> Hard SF -> Page 10 of 11. There’s some hungry readers out there, people.

After a few days of dithering over how to best announce it, I posted on Facebook and some other social media sites. Many friends shared my post, producing a big spike in initial sales and putting my book in the “Top 100” Amazon list in two categories. Some later spikes came from posting in a closed FB fan group and a couple of posts by bloggers promoting the book. Most sales came at a steady rate from people seeing it on the Amazon best seller list. The “Hot New Releases” list has a big impact. When Torchship aged off that list sales had a noticeable drop. The first week of delay probably cost me a hundred sales.

Less than two months after being published, Torchship had earned enough to qualify for membership in my genre’s professional association. The royalty checks still haven’t landed in my account but that’s a nice milestone to hit so early out of the gate. Earnings from Kindle Unlimited make up about a quarter of that, and they’re holding steady as the ebook sales numbers dwindle. Paperback sales are only a few percent of the total, but I don’t regret the work in learning to format the hardcopy book. It’s a lot of fun to wave around a copy of your book.

So is Torchship a success? I think so. I was braced for much lower sales. Most marketing advice for indie writers assumes you already have two or three books published. I was prepared to let Torchship be a “foundation building” book and focus on preparing the sequel for publication. Instead I’ve not just made back the expenses of publishing the book but made some profit. It won’t let me quit my day job any time soon but it’s a business, not a hobby.

The next steps are preparing the Torchship audiobook for publication (my wife has added Narrator and Sound Editor to her roles as Muse and Editor) and then the sequel novel. I’ve started on the third (and hopefully final) book in the series. After that I have some unrelated novels I want to write. I’ll be doing a bit more marketing effort when I release the next book, and avoid the most obvious errors. I expect to be writing professionally for a long time. I’m looking forward to a workshop at an upcoming SF convention and planning on more professional development to improve my skills.

Get Torchship on Amazon

Connect with Karl Gallagher on his writing blog, kelthavenpress.com

Karl Gallagher has earned engineering degrees from MIT and USC, controlled weather satellites for the Air Force, designed weather satellites for TRW, designed a rocketship for a start-up, and done systems engineering for a fighter plane. He is husband to Laura and father to Maggie, James, and dearly missed Alanna.

Karl has written white papers, engineering proposals, blog posts, fanfic, trade studies, rants, graduate school papers, RPG adventures, operations orders, forum flames, conference papers, short stories, after action reports, wargame rules, satires, and a sestina. Torchship is his first novel.

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