Happy International Woman’s Day to all our KWL authors!
Susan Kaye Quinn is a #KWLWonderWoman—a savvy entrepreneur building her writing career into a successful independent business. Follow the stories here and on Instagram. Do you have a story to share? Tell us here.
When I started writing nearly a decade ago, self-publishing had not yet arrived, and I knew nothing about traditional publishing—I had just put pen to paper. I craved readers, but I soon learned that being plucked out of the slush pile for publication was a grand honour that should only be bestowed on the most brilliant minds, that top 0.1% of all writers.
This was the first lie.
Seeing the long odds, my dream threatened to drown under a sea of doubt. I had a PhD in engineering, but I was a neophyte in the fiction realm—who was I to dream like this? And according to the rumor mill, the odds were getting worse—fewer new authors were being published, and publishers were shedding their midlist as “unprofitable.”
That was the second lie.
Publishers were definitely shedding their midlist authors, but I could see with my own eyes that books like mine (YA SF) were topping the charts. Someone was making money off them. That was the first sign there was more to this publishing story. Then, in 2010, self-publishing leaped into the public consciousness. Amanda Hocking sold 1.5M books, killing it in YA in 2010. Hugh Howey started his meteoric rise in SF, publishing Wool in July 2011. Susan Ee’s fantasy about post-apocalyptic angels was tearing up the charts in 2011.
And that’s when my eyes were fully opened.
Authors and readers were connecting in a way never before possible—and it was birthing practically instant writer careers in a brand new way.
By the fall of 2011, I was taking my own leap, publishing the first in my YA SF trilogy. Since then, I’ve written 34 novels and a flock of novellas across two pennames (SF and romance), making a living from my full-time writing from the start and entering that coveted “6 figure author” realm by 2014.
That I was a female author was merely incidental . . . or so I thought.
But as I watched, indie publishing changed both authors and readers, a huge fraction of whom were female. Mostly-female romance readers snapped up the new abundance of stories as fast as mostly-female authors could write them. In the SF realm, I joined with my fellow female SF authors to create an all-female anthology of science fiction—Dark Beyond the Stars not only killed it on the charts but spawned a series, all with covers by Hugo-award-winning artist Julie Dillon. Before, traditional publishers treated all-female SF anthologies like something in the zoo—a curiosity to be petted then relegated to obscurity. Beyond the Stars took female SF authors seriously and sold a ton of books—we didn’t need permission or pats on the head; we simply did it.
Spurred by our success, several more female-centered anthologies sprung up, including MOSAICS, a feminist anthology for which I wrote the foreword (proceeds support a charity to end violence against women).
Suddenly, the freedom of self-publishing and my empowerment as a female author were inextricably linked. There was no one to tell us we were unworthy or incapable or shouldn’t do a thing because that thing had never been done. There were just authors and readers, and whatever those consenting adults decided to do was fair game.
Which brings me back to romance.
Romance has always been written by women, for women. It is centred on stories of women—their loves, their lives—and can be very subversive in its focus on women’s pleasure. This was empowering women in a whole new way. Self-published authors were making small fortunes, and readers were enjoying tales about perfect soul mates who pleased them in every way—romance wasn’t just an escape, but a sexual education for millions. Women’s liberation has always centred on their ability to control their bodies and have agency in their lives—suddenly the unfettered production of every kind of romance novel, driven by reader demands, was bringing that agency into the bedroom.
Self-publishing has unleashed a tsunami of human potential. Every kind of story you can imagine is not only being written but published. Many will flounder and not find their audience; but many will soar. And readers have the great delight of finding your artistic expression, unfettered by an editor who says you have too much sex (or too little) or the wrong kind of protagonist. This empowerment goes doubly for women (and non-binary or gay authors and authors of colour) who historically (and still!) have to fight the headwinds of prejudice to get their voices heard. Self-publishing allows you to cater to whatever niche market you can dream up—there’s no guarantee of sales, but nothing stands in the way of producing and distributing your art.
There’s a vibrant middle class of authors now which didn’t exist before—lots of authors making six figures, but many just supplementing their household income, providing the edge to stay out of hard times, pay for those extra emergencies, or send their kids to college. (My indie publishing career is putting my three sons through college as I type.) This empowerment again goes double for women, providing a way to own their own businesses and drive their own success while juggling the demands of family and life—the flexibility of a career as an indie author is almost as valuable as the potential income. Women authors are making this happen every day.
No lies. No gatekeepers. Just you and your readers.
Empowering Your Journey
For as long as I’ve been publishing, I’ve been advising authors on how to succeed in the indie author world. I’m currently on a hiatus from the advice-giving business, as I go into the cave creatively-speaking to explore more of that Artistic Freedom I mentioned above, but there are a few, simple steps you can take to get on the path to success. If you’re writing just for love, ignore all of this and write what calls to your heart. But if you want to make self-publishing a career, here’s how to launch your own publishing story (psst, Dude-like People—this will work for you too):
How To Be A Wonder Woman (Author)
1 – Study the market: see what’s selling, what those stories have in common, then find where that intersects with your core competencies as a writer. Don’t compromise your values, see where your values intersect with the market. Be creative.
2 – Write a trilogy of novels: at least 50k long. Don’t start with novellas or shorts (unless you can write a short novella that’s a complete-story background-story for your main character which explains their current predicament and which you plan to give away free to subscribers—then you are GENIUS). Novels are still Queen, so plan on writing three.
3 – Study Marketing BEFORE you publish: learn the quirks of each of the retailers. Understand that covers and titles and blurbs are marketing that sucks the reader in, not some faithful recreation of that one scene in your novel. Look to the bestsellers, the top of your genre (self-published, not traditional) and follow their lead. Price well. Have a plan. Don’t get suckered into publicity efforts that do nothing, but plan on spending money on a professional cover, editing, and buying ads. You can launch a book well for under $1000—if you’re paying more, that’s a red flag. Network with other authors in your genre to see their best practices . For the love of all that’s indie, start a newsletter and collect up your readers along the way.
4 – Publish quickly: you don’t have to WRITE your books quickly. Write them first and then release them a month apart. This gives your shiny new career momentum. After that, you can publish at whatever pace you feel you can write. Or store them up and release them in bursts.
At this point, experimentation will be your guide. Try new things. Keep writing. Embrace all the freedom that comes with indie publishing, but don’t forget to breathe—all that liberation can get crazy stressful.
Meditate. Work hard. Embrace your power.
And you’ll shine like the Wonder Woman you are.
Susan Kaye Quinn is a veteran indie author who’s published over 30 novels under Susan Kaye Quinn and another penname. She’s a rocket scientist turned speculative fiction author who now uses her PhD to invent cool stuff in books. Her bestselling novels and short stories have been optioned for Virtual Reality, translated into German and French, and featured in several anthologies. Check out all her stuff on her website.