Epic-to-Urban Fantasy author Ben Hale published his first book in The Chronicles of Lumineia series in mid-2012 and was earning a full-time income six months later. This week, I talk to Ben about how a long-term mindset helped him build a successful writing career in such a short amount of time.
When Ben was a kid, he hated to write and he especially hated grammar. But after reading a book that disappointed, he started working out his own story in bed at night, creating a sprawling inner universe in the muzzy moments before sleep would take him.
Ben continued to do this for years until one night, after he was married for about a year, his wife asked him how he was able to fall asleep so fast. So he told her about the story he carried around in his head. She wanted to hear it. It took four nights to tell it to her. She told him to write it down. So he did.
Up to this point, Ben had not committed one word of his story to paper, but he had been replaying it in his head every night like a favorite movie. Once he got 10 to 12 chapters in, he realized the story was four books, plus side stories and histories. Ben spent the next three years writing the first three books and preparing for his fiction debut. He spent $4,000 on editing and cover design and released Book 1 of The Second Draeken War in mid-2012, following up quickly with Book 2 and Book 3. Six months later, he was earning more from his books than his business. He’s been writing full-time since, publishing three books a year in the Lumineiauniverse.
The $4,000 Start-Up
“So all of it comes down to what your goal is. If you want it to be a business, if you want to be financially successful or financially independent based on your books, then the manner that you treat it from the beginning has an enormous impact on where it grows into.”
Although $4,000 may seem steep for an author just starting out, Ben says that his investment was spread out over the two or three years that he worked on the first three books. He did an enormous amount of research before he launched his series, so he knew about the dreaded 90-day cliff where Amazon algorithms will cease to push your visibility without a new release. Ben planned to release his books three or four months apart.
His plan paid off, selling 10,000 books in the first six months. Book 1 accounted for roughly 5,000 of those sales; Book 2 for 3- or 4,000 sales; and Book 3 was released in Month 6. By that time he was selling 350 books a day across all three titles. In Month 7, Ben earned $12,000 from his books.
But it hasn’t been all upward graph lines and roses. The summer slump is a real phenomenon, he says. The next month, Ben’s income dropped to $11,000. By the time summer rolled around five months later, his income had dropped to $1,200. In order to get past the slumps, he relied on frugality and good-sense money management by living on a fixed income of $3,000 a month and socking away any extra income for low-earning months. He also focused on writing the next book, letting book releases be his marketing plan. As his platform grew, his low months got better, moving up to $1,500, $2,000, then $3,000. This year, he says, his highest earning month is $14,000, and he expects his lowest earning month will land around $4,500. In total, he’s sold over 100,000 copies of his books so far.
KDP Select and Marketing
Ben started out exclusive to Amazon for about a year, then experimented with a second series going wide, but wasn’t able to find much traction and returned all of his titles to Select once the Kindle Unlimited program launched. Now all of his books are exclusive on Kindle Unlimited, a move that has proved lucrative for Ben. Last month, he says, he earned more money from pages read through KU than from sales. One month he had 1.2 million page reads from KDP, earning him a whopping $6,000.
While he admits there is certainly a risk to putting all his books in Amazon’s basket, he points out that that risk is inherent on all the existing publishing platforms. And given that he often makes more from KU page reads than he does from sales, the decision to remain exclusive makes sense for him.
His approach to marketing has been deliberate and thoughtful. The more books you have, the more amplified your marketing efforts will be. So he kept marketing at a low level at first, using promotional sites like Free Booksy and BookBub, then bumped up his marketing efforts as his catalog grew and he reached certain benchmarks he had set, eventually moving into more sophisticated paid promotions like Facebook ads, which he uses today.
Since his first series was already 100% worked out in his head, it didn’t take long for Ben to write it. He likened the experience to transcribing a beloved movie that he had watched a thousand times.
The second series he had 30% worked out, so it was similar to writing the first series.
But by the time he got to the third series, he was working in brand-new territory, having to plan the books from scratch, a process that he found challenging at first.
First series was already 100% worked out in his head. The second series was 30%. By the third, he had finally caught up with his midnight inventions and had to learn how to outline from scratch, a process he found challenging.
Two lessons he’s come away with:
- The size of a story is determined by the villain, not the hero. (Ie., Lord Voldemort)
- If you want to write in a multi-series world, it’s best to have one main plot thread that will ultimately link all of the books together. His own books take place in the same universe, the series’ storylines taking place sometimes thousands of years apart as he progresses through the historical timeline of his world, moving the story from epic fantasy to modern urban fantasy.
Given that Ben is a busy dad of five currently enrolled in a masters program on top of running his publishing business, time management is crucial to his continued success. When he started writing, he tracked his time and production to establish what he was capable of…then worked to slowly increase his daily minimums. He started out writing 1,500 words a day and editing 50 pages a day, and moved that slowly up to writing 2,500 to 3,000 words a day and editing 60 to 100 pages a day. That requires six hours to accomplish, he says. He also allocates an hour and a half a day to his masters program and another half an hour on marketing, rounding out his work day nicely.
Advice to New Authors Starting Out
Ben advises new writers take the time to figure out what things you’re good at and what things you aren’t, and then set out to improve.
“Understanding yourself is the first thing to becoming an incredible writer, just understanding the elements about yourself…which it sounds so funny, but it’s so accurate.”
He urges new writers to be patient. Writing is a long game. Don’t think your progress over a couple of years will define what your next 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years will be. Just be patient and keep writing.
He also advises writers to fight discouragement, one of the biggest enemies a writer must face. There’s always going to be someone who’s doing better or a bad review that can get you down. Don’t let discouragement sink into you and define what you do and are able to accomplish, he says. Just try to learn what you can, then leave it in the past and keep pushing yourself forward.
“If you plan carefully and you’re smart about it and you write and you write and you write, then a lot of people could build careers out of it.”
- Get specific about your purpose with your publishing efforts and then set goals that focus on getting you past the next step instead of comparing yourself to people three years and several hundred steps ahead of you.
- Track your time and production. Do you know how many words you can produce consistently each day? What about editing? How long does it take you to edit? If you don’t know the answers to those questions, now’s the time to find out. Start tracking today so that you can improve tomorrow.
- Be patient. It takes a while to build a empire. As things get bigger, more opportunities will open up. Case in point, once Ben started seeing solid success with his books, he was contacted by Podium Publishing to produce his first three books in audio format. One of the best decisions in his career, Ben says, is signing on with Podium. The audiobooks do very well for him.
- Do your research. Develop a solid understanding of the territory before china-bulling your way in. Instead, plan your way to success based on your research.
- Continue to practice writing with a focus on improvement. The better writer you are, the happier your fans will be. The read-through stats of his books increased from his first series of 72%-88% to 93%-96%, a direct result, Ben says, of him just becoming a better writer with each book.
What is the most important consideration to you in planning for a long-term career in publishing?
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