Thursday, September 07, 2017

What Makes an Indie Novel a Success?

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series

The roads to success in both indie and traditional publishing seem limited.

All things being equal, I see four principal ways in which an indie book can be a success:

1. You painstakingly build your fan base, always staying within one genre, possibly writing series works, and releasing books frequently and predictably. Somewhere after book three or four, maybe, things take off.

2. You write something that so totally catches a zeitgeist or captures a large group of readers’ attention that it goes viral and breaks out; this can also happen to a book that’s been published but not doing much until a random event occurs that directs focus to it. (Variant 2a: Your book is so controversial, prurient, or scandalous that large numbers of people buy it and tell others.)

3. You write for a very specific audience and begin publishing your book in chapters either on your website or as fanfiction for free, inviting people to get involved in its development in some way. This is essentially what Andy Weir did with The Martian, and how Fifty Shades of Grey got going.

4. You’re already a celebrity, or at minimum well-networked, with a large social media following, and a great many of these people buy your book because they already like you, trust you, or are fascinated by who you are. (Variant 4a: You’re already a successful traditionally published author and make the switch to indie, either publishing new books or your backlist as an indie author.)

In an ideal world, or at least a better one than this, great writing and storytelling alone would be enough. Sadly, it’s not, as I’ve seen over and over in fifteen years in this game, and as any editor or agent will tell you.

Still, since we’re talking about ways to succeed as an indie author, some definitions are needed. What constitutes success for you? For me? Not all of us are going to define it the same way. For some, nothing less than hitting the NYT bestseller list, an annual income well into six figures, and interviews on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air will do. For others, modest sales of a few thousand books and a few dozen four- or five-star reviews on Amazon will be enough.

It’s important to calibrate our expectations. Failure to do that leads to self-doubt, disillusion, and funk.

It helps a great deal to talk to fellow indie authors when trying to decide what a realistic benchmark or expectation set is. I’ve certainly gone through periods where it felt as though everyone else was doing better than me. My two novels — one released four and another two years ago — have just fifteen and twenty-one reviews respectively, and sales in the hundreds. This feels to me like abject failure; and yet, the majority of indie authors I know have less than a half-dozen reviews on their books, often one or two, and sales of under a hundred.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t compare our numbers to other authors at all.

When I was crying on our very own Janice’s shoulder a few weeks ago, she gently pointed out to me that I’d taken a crazy path, changing not only genres but bouncing between fiction and nonfiction with each of my five books. “Each of your books is essentially a first book,” she said (I pictured her handing me Kleenex over the phone line). And of course she’s right: if I’d stuck with one genre, as per success path #1 above, I think I’d be selling way more books than I am.

My first book, the nonfiction memoir Aegean Dream, which completely by accident followed path to success #2, did very well indeed. Did that set my expectations that anything else I wrote would do equally well? You bet. Yes, I was that naïve. But the audience for a bittersweet travel memoir didn’t translate to an audience for a crime caper/thriller with a twist of the fantastic. And even then I didn’t learn. My next novel was a supernatural suspense/thriller. I totally failed.

Except…. Perhaps for me, the freedom and ability to write what I want is in itself a component of success. Sales of both my novels may be much lower than I’d like, but those who read those books loved them and — in several cases — asked for sequels. That’s success of a sort, yes?

We’re conditioned to think of success in narrow terms (copies sold, dollars earned), but realistically, given that the chances of any of us making a full-time living by writing are not stellar, maybe we should give greater weight to other, perhaps less measurable, metrics in defining success. Like freedom, job satisfaction, the raw pleasure of creation. Add to that the knowledge that we’ve written books nobody else could have, and that we’ve touched, perhaps deeply and in a lasting way, those who’ve read them…these are successes.

What are your expectations for your own work? How do you set benchmarks and get reality checks?

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

His fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing and copyediting services to indie authors.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads

About Drown The Cat: The Rebel Author's Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules

Drown the Cat is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems.

Drawing on fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. Drown the Cat gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Whether your interest lies in novels or screenwriting, Drown the Cat shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse


  1. Hi Dario

    Congratulations on ‘Drown the Cat’ (although I have to say the title rankled my animal rescue tendencies). I highly recommend it.

    Personally, as I’ve done it too, I consider ‘bouncing’ from genre-to-genre as positive. It’s exploring. It’s creative. How else can we know if our storytelling will click with a selective niche audience. We cross genres to find our ‘zone’… and hopefully, several zones. Storytelling is expansive. Therefore diversely inspired writing adapts to capture whatever the muse sends. A successful muse is never stingy.

    Completing several manuscripts to a professional publishing standard, is commendable. You are a success. You are a successful editor. This I know from personal experience. So, many thanks for your insight over two years.

    I don’t ‘read’ versatility as a reason for lack of sales. The immense competitive field for published books is hardly conducive to being discovered. It takes one special reader to break the invisibility spell and create a buzz. And there are far too many ‘brightly-colored’ books with no ‘scent’ to distract the bees.

    But speaking of ‘reality checks’… I have to say, I would like a few that I could deposit in my bank account. Tangible income is an important aspect of the business of producing novels. Yes, I would (and do) still write for the joy of words, but it would be my definition of success if writing paid my way. I’d settle for that, and continue to dream infinitely higher.

    I’ve enjoyed writing time-travel adventures for middle-grade to young adult, and a fanciful biographical series about the true ‘Mona Lisa’ where my formal studies of art history merged with fiction, and paranormal time-slipping to the Italian Renaissance initiated encounters with lost portraits that speak.

    I’ve created a liminal world at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall where a sentient building opens a door to Ancient Egypt for teens.

    I’ve been inspired by a pair of baby shoes from a Titanic exhibit in a museum and allowed a unique romance of reincarnated children to evolve over several years. This ‘Titanic’ novel is considered literary fiction according to one famous agent I pitched at the Surrey International Writers Conference (Vancouver) last year. And although nothing contractual came of it, I gained a huge unexpected boost of confidence. Pitching and hearing positive feedback from several distinguished authors of bestselling books on writing, made that a hugely successful conference for me.

    I am attending the same conference this fall to pitch two new manuscripts (one for middle-grade and another Renaissance historical). Let’s see what happens. Success begins and continues with a positive mindset that I continue to produce worthy self-published books that span several genres, from manuscript to designing professional cover art.

    Most days that makes me feel successful… now about those ‘reality cheques’.

    1. Hello Vero ~

      Thanks for your comment. Yup, I agree some reality CHECKS are Sales *are* a validation, and an important one. But the act of creation and exploration and creating worlds and charcyers nobody else would have, and chronicling their story is hugely rewarding in and of itself. But we all need to eat.

      I know that Janice, among other authors I know, has been to the Surrey conference and found it hugely helpful. Unusual and imaginative as your literary work is, I think this is a really good venue for you to network.

      As for the genre-hopping...*smiles*... I'm glad I'm in good company. Although it's not the easiest way to build a fan base, at least we are writing what we care about and what interests us. That's worth a lot.


  2. Just a quick note...Dario is currently out of the country, and he tried to respond and the internet apparently ate it. He says that he will reply when he has more a stable wifi connection :)

  3. In a perfect world, right? Since we don't live in a perfect world, it's nice to at least have a path to follow. I floundered a bit while starting out - publishing in multiple genres, never quite finding my foothold - but now I think I've finally found my path, and I'm happy to see sales improving. Thanks for the reminder to keep at it!