Gary Gibson
8 min readMar 27, 2024

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Surviving as a formerly traditionally-published author: things I’ve learned about building a sustainable writing career.

This post is something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while; how to survive without the support of a traditional publisher as a formerly traditionally-published author. I know there are quite a few sf and fantasy writers out there who are in the same boat, and there are a few things I can pass on that might help them.

I’ve been posting certain milestones recently on social media, such as hitting another 100 reviews and ratings for a book on Amazon, but over the years I’ve seen more than a few posts by other writers, mostly other formerly pro authors, talking about the difficulties of getting traction without the support of a publishing company.

And sometimes I feel like writing a bit about how this can be done.

MY OWN SITUATION

I haven’t been under contract to a major publisher since 2015, yet right now I’m probably doing as well, and arguably better, than I was back then.

Getting here required a lot of experimenting and a lot of head-scratching, but in the end, I learned a lot of things I wished I’d known when I was writing about a book a year for Tor.

WHAT AUDIENCES WANT

One lesson I learned: what readers want often isn’t the same thing that writers want. Most writers I know are fairly eclectic in their reading choices. They’ll read just about anything and everything. Most of the ones I know may default to sf and fantasy, but it’s by far not the only thing on their shelves. That’s sometimes reflected in what they choose to write.

Your audience, however, aren’t quite the same.

When you wander away from the style of books for which you built an audience while under contract, most of that audience isn’t likely to follow you. I found this producing a couple of books I still consider to be among the best things I’ve ever written.

Their sales, however, were very low. The low sales weren’t a measure of quality: they were a measure of how much the subject matter interested what audience I’d built up over the years. And only a relative few of them were interested.

THE PROS AND CONS OF RISK-TAKING

This isn’t to say you’re doomed if you produce anything new or different, but there’s definitely an element of risk involved. I seem to recall a TV Interview with Paul Lynch, who won 2023’s Booker Prize for Prophet Song, in which he mentioned not being sure whether he was risking his career by writing something which was quite so different from the rest of his work.

Obviously, in his case, the risk was worth it. A few years ago I was corresponding with another writer, Gus McAllister, who’d produced a few sf novels over the years. I was sceptical of his chances at success when I discovered he was self-publishing a murder mystery set in a Glasgow tenement, but it went on to be very successful, proving me wrong.

At that time, I didn’t know there was a vast market for ‘cozy mysteries’. I’m not sure Gus did either: he was just writing the book he wanted to write, but he struck lucky. Also, the book had what they call local interest, and sold particularly well in Glasgow.

But if you want to build a sustainable writing career outside the world of traditional publishing, and with a minimum of risk, that likely means focusing on what audience you already have.

So far, this strategy has worked for me. Echogenesis came out in 2021, Proxy in 2022 and Europa Deep in 2023. The first and last of these have done well, but Proxy less so.

Why? Proxy is near-future sf that might broadly be categorised as cyberpunk, but it’s not hard sf/space opera. I like to think it’s good, but good, as I said, isn’t part of the equation: it’s whether it appeals to your existing audience.

FIGURING THINGS OUT

I knew absolutely none of this when I started out in traditional publishing because nobody, least of all anyone at my publisher, told me. I might have made some very different writing choices if they had.

My first novel was fairly straightforward space opera, but my second was near-future body-horror sf set in the jungles of South America, and while it remained one of my favourites for a long time, the sales tanked.

I produced numerous proposals for third books, none of which registered with my publisher until I gave them one that was much more like my first published novel. Suddenly they were interested, and that third book went on to do very well indeed. By this time I’d figured some things out, but I’d had to do it on my own.

MARKETING AND BOOKBUB

Now: marketing. In the screengrab below, Europa Deep and Echogenesis are both ranking high on Amazon UK. This is not an accident: it’s the result of careful strategy and experimentation.

The only marketing tool I’ve found that really makes a difference is Bookbub. It’s a newsletter and website that lists books on sale, typically for 99p/99c, or free. It has millions of followers. It gained all these followers by carefully vetting the books they select for promotion to be sure that their followers were getting books that were genuinely good. That meant books that already had good reviews, great cover art, and were well-written or, at least, up to a certain standard of expectation.

There are many newsletters of this type, but with most, it’s first come/first served. They don’t consider whether the books involved are any good or not, and hence, they don’t have nearly the number of followers. Most of them aren’t worth the investment.

Bookbub’s strategy has paid off so well that many major publishers now list their books on sale with them. It’s not cheap, but I’ve never failed to make my money back.

Because Europa Deep was already selling pretty decently, I got an offer from Amazon to put it into a Kindle Monthly Deal this month in the UK. I accepted, and that’s why it’s currently ranking high — it’s just 99p until the end of the month.

Bookbub only let you promote the same book twice in a year. I’d already run a BB promotion for Europa Deep in January, so couldn’t run another this soon. So I chose to promote Echogenesis instead, to see whether it had a knock-on effect to the sales of Europa Deep. That strategy appears to be paying off. People are seeing Echogenesis, buying it and reading it (or reading it through Kindle Unlimited), then seeing Europa Deep and moving on to that.

Of course, BB are under no obligation to select one of my books for promotion. When I last promoted Europa Deep, in January, I was offered a UK-only deal, probably because it still had only one or two reviews in the US — but many reviews and high ratings in the UK. For some reason, my stuff has always appealed to British readers more than the American ones.

PROMOTING ON YOUR OWN VS PROMOTING WITH A PUBLISHER

The advantage here is that were my books under contract to a publisher, I would be unable to promote them in this way. I’d have to just cross my fingers they’d be willing to put in the effort and the expense. Most often, they aren’t.

I hear of traditionally-published writers being told they have to do a lot of promotion themselves, but the reality is, the promotion that matters, like Bookbub, is off-limits to them, leaving them hamstrung and unable to do much more than send out the occasional tweet.

COVER ART: DON’T DO IT YOURSELF

One other point: for God’s sake, don’t design your own cover. I don’t care how poor you are, borrow or steal the money from somewhere and get a trained cover artist with experience producing commercial cover art and who is familiar with your genre to produce it. If you’re looking for recommendations that won’t break the bank, email me.

Cover art is a HUGE part of the sales equation: it’s literally an advert designed to catch the attention of a potential reader despite being the size of a postage stamp if viewed on a computer. If you’re paying attention to your audience, and to your genre, you’ll absolutely make your money back.

I’ve seen one or two exceptions. Greg Egan self-publishes his books and still does okay, despite them having absolutely terrible covers. But, his books are very much written for the exact same audience he already had, and that likely makes a big difference. It makes me wonder how much better they’d sell if the covers were more professionally designed.

The publishing scene is constantly evolving. What works now may not work tomorrow. You have to keep a close eye on things and be willing to move fast if necessary.

AMAZON VS WIDE

Right now my books are mostly exclusive to Amazon: love them or hate them, the vast majority of books you sell are going to be sold on that platform, although this equation, to my knowledge, does vary depending on genre: if you’re writing sf, it should be on Amazon.

It’s the same with Audible and audiobooks: as a company, they have serious problems. But if you want to sell audiobooks, that’s where you need to be. There’s a few other things I could add, about, for instance, owning all the rights to your audio and how to promote it, but this post is long enough already.

I know I’m not the only one who’s taken books out of Amazon exclusivity only to see their sales plummet as a result. So: focus on Amazon if you want to sell your books.

Yes, there are people out there who do very well selling wide, but I’ve no idea how they do it. Whatever they’re doing, it didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for most writers I know or follow on Facebook or elsewhere. So find them, and see what their advice is.

Kindle Unlimited is also a huge part of the equation and absolutely should not be avoided. It’s a risk-free way for hard-core readers to try your stuff out and you still get paid. It’s a win-win. A huge chunk of my writing income comes from KU.

Could all this change tomorrow? Yes. Do I trust companies like Amazon? No. If and when they screw me and other writers over, I’ll deal with it when it comes. But tomorrow is tomorrow, and today is today. And right now, this is what works.

So get writing.

Crossposted from whitescreenofdespair.blogspot.com

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Gary Gibson

Scottish author of more than half a dozen science fiction novels for Tor, including Stealing Light, Against Gravity and Final Days. More at www.garygibson.net.