How Publishing Really Works: From an Indie Writer’s Point-of-View

Everyday I'm in my writing chair by seven a.m. and reading yesterday's output. I do my editing as I read, so that, by the time my book is written, it is in final draft form, not first draft. After the daily edits, I begin my writing (cup of coffee number two). I generally try to get down about 2,000 words for the day. Unlike all the “write 10,000 words an hour books,” I violate one of their cardinal rules in that I also research as I write. Why? Because I have found that research so often flows into another plot twist or follow-through that I hadn't been thinking on my own.

So I Google this or that as I go, and I download eBooks that provide background I need as I go (I write legal thrillers, so there's always something new for me to be learning about forensic chemistry or DNA banking or cyberdata or some other cutting-edge manner of evidence acquisition). I can scan an ebook in about fifteen minutes to nail down the particular area I want to include in my book. Borrowing the book on my Kindle Unlimited account costs me nothing. By the time I'm ready to move from spectography to facial recognition software I have maybe thirty minutes invested and no dollars, which makes my reseach all but free. This was all impossible before Google and KU and these repositories make for much more fun and accurate writing.

My 2000 words take me all of about two to three hours and I'm done writing for the day. My books are targeted for 80,000 words so my calendar for finishing the final draft is forty days. This means that I can put out about nine novels a year. Yes, nine. Unlike tradpub's goal of a book a year for its top-drawer writers, I don't have to wait weeks and weeks for editing, re-editing, proofing, cover art, and the like. It takes me at most one week to accomplish all these things when my final draft is finished. By then I'm 20,000 words into my next book.

Editing takes my editor five days. I receive the book back in Word markup and it takes me about three hours to revise as advised. Then the book is proofed by software I'm subscribed to, and at the same time my cover artist is finalizing the cover. Covers are an incredibly important part of book sales, so I have searched around until I found the perfect artist for my novels. It takes him about four days (he works days at his FT “real” job) to get a finished product back to me. All told, moving my book from final draft to ready-to-publish inventory takes one week. My wife then reads the final item one last time and makes her suggestions, which I follow. She's a common-sense reader and gives me common-sense feedback. This is an important step. She does her read-through and makes her notes for me concomitant to the days when the cover is being done, so there's no delaying the process for my wife's read. I format the ebook for publication using Vellum; formatting takes less than the ten minutes, including the addition of front- and back-matter, which mostly is copied and pasted from earlier books. Then we're ready to put the book up for sale.

I put one copy of the book up on book funnel and send an email to my mailing list select group, which is a group of about 150 of the most active participants on my mailing list (8000 strong and counting) and I ask the 150 to please download the freebie from book funnel. If they want, they will review it on Amazon when I send them the second email in a day or two announcing publication. My participation from this group is about 70%. Which means that within a matter of a week or so from first publication my books will have anywhere from 50-100 reader reviews.

Publishing my book on KDP takes less than an hour. Publishing my book on Createspace takes even less. Now my electronic book and my paperback are both up for sale. Once they are, I announce the publication to my full mailing list. My book is not discounted during any of this. It usually will hit the Amazon Top Twenty for legal thrillers within about 24 hours and copies start moving out the door as the Amazon algos take over.

Compare this to what you know about how tradpub works. Compared to those “real” writers, we're living and writing and publishing in two different worlds. Two months after publication, Amazon pays me my first month's 70% of sales. Tradpub writers get something like 15% maybe a year after publication. Most of those brothers and sisters have day jobs. I don't–not since I started DIY on Amazon.

After I've finished up my 2-3 hours of writing every day, I spend maybe an hour a day doing marketing. This consists of checking my Facebook ads for cost-per-click values, and maybe applying for a Bookbub or buying a Bargain Booksy listing. I don't do much more marketing anymore. My name is pretty well known among my genre, my niche, and my books fly out the door accordingly.

Tradpub can't compete with me. If I don't like how a book is moving in the market, I'll rewrite the blurb or tweak the cover. Fifteen minutes tops on blurb re-dos. Cover change-ups are rare; my artist and I pretty much know what will move books and we put that into practice with each book. I don't mess much with keywords anymore; I used to; now that's refined down to what works best for me.

I have an assistant. She runs my author's Facebook pages. This consists of daily posts of this or that article about books or publishing, and consists of interacting with readers, which I also do through reader emails I get every day. Everyone's inquiry or complaint or compliment gets a response. She gets paid for two hours of effort a day and she's excellent. She also does occasional newsletters to the mailing list but I really don't paper those readers like every week or two weeks, like some writers do. I hate signing up for stuff and getting victimized by some over-the-top seller and I know my readers do too. But every now and then we'll give away a free book just to say thanks or talk about a day at the beach–something personal that I hope connects.

That's my process. The results are astonishing. At one time I was a pretty well known trial lawyer and handled some pretty impressive clients. I never, however, earned as much as I do now with my books. I sell about 10,000 books a month and gather in about 7 million page reads a month, and I'm only just starting my third year. This year I will earn in the mid-to-upper six figures.

Thank you, Amazon. Thank you, Bookbub. I got into this in January of 2014 as a way to supplement my Social Security. Even after forty years of law practice I hadn't managed to save very much for retirement. But there was also a time in there of a complete medical disability which required me to shut down my law practice for two years and basically start over in my sixties. Savings were depleted by this. So remaking myself into a thriller writer has been a godsend and I am very grateful. I try to pass this along by helping other writers with their questions about marketing, etc., keeping in mind that as JAK says this is not a zero-sum game. The fact that I sell a book doesn't mean that you won't. We will both sell if we have what readers want to read.

While my methods and run-times differ dramatically from tradpub, both those writers and I must reach the same goal: we must write books that readers want to read. There is no secret ingredient, nothing that can be learned or taught.

You either write books that readers want to read, or you don't.

  • April 4, 2016
admin - June 15, 2016

WordPress, if I understand you correctly, Chris. We link to our own website, squeeze page, then the click takes the new signup to the mailchimp signup form. Hope this helps.

Chris Phipps - June 15, 2016

I tried adding a link to my e-mail sign-up form in the back of my book, but MailChimp won't allow a link. What provider do you use?

Woelf Dietrich - June 15, 2016

I just collaborated with a couple of awesome writers on an anthology and working together like we did, it reminded me how much I love this racket we're in. We're all searching for eyeballs, of course, but before the eyeballs, you need a good story. Your daily routine proves yet again how being productive and consistent will deliver results.

Although I used to be a lawyer (barrister), I write speculative fiction and, like you, I also do my research as I write. Well, I do a little before hand to get the juices flowing and then as I write something always crops up that requires clarification. You always learn new things and sometimes those new things take your story in a completely different direction, or plant the seed for a new one.

Thanks for an awesome article and congratulations on your success.

Alex Dire - June 15, 2016

Hello. This story is indeed inspiring and I've taken a lot from it. I'd love to hear how your process was different for your first book or few books. How did you get started before you had a mailing list?

Thanks for this post!

admin - June 15, 2016

Hi Nathalie, I'm only trying to describe my method. Everyone's method is different, I'm sure. But if you can pick out some guidelines or tells here that help, I'm happy for that. Thanks for writing!

Nathalie M.L. Römer - June 15, 2016

Hey John,

I am pretty much similar to how I work on my book writing. What you posted here allows me to validate that I am working "in the right way". Was interesting to read. 🙂

Nick Thacker - June 15, 2016

Fantastic post! Thanks, John

admin - June 15, 2016

I always love your posts on TPV so that's very nice of you to say. Thanks so much!

admin - June 15, 2016

Yes, I like to edit as I go, like you say. At one time I taught English and the devil inside, poised with the red pen, is a hard exorcism!

admin - June 15, 2016

So good to hear from my old friend. I hope all is well with you.

admin - June 15, 2016

Thanks Alice. I always read carefully your posts on TPV. You are one of my favs.

admin - June 15, 2016

Like all writers, I guess, there were hundreds of rejections from tradpub. But that's all in the rearview now. Just keep writing.

admin - June 15, 2016

Grammarly is my go-to proofing software. Yes, Vellum is really that simple: just drag your final Word document onto it's interface and you immediately have a perfectly formatted ebook in epub, mobi, etc.

admin - June 15, 2016

Patrice, you have always been so supportive. Words aren't enough to tell you how much that means to me.

admin - June 15, 2016

Thanks Darren. I am referring to Grammarly, which I use both for proofreading and for simple grammar mistakes, which I am easily prone to make. It works for the type of errors I always include in my mss.:)

admin - June 15, 2016

Hi DK and God bless your efforts and the process, my friend. Yours is an extremely heart-warming story. Here's hoping you sell a million of those books. I'll pick one up and start reading right away. Thanks!

Justin Fike - June 15, 2016

Hi John, thanks for the candid and practical window into your process. I'm in the middle stages of editing my first novel, and I found this extremely helpful. I discovered this post through a link on PG's blog, if that's useful info to you.

One specific question: you mentioned "the book is proofed by software I’m subscribed to." Any chance you'd be willing to share the name of that program? It sounds like something that might prove extremely useful in about two weeks.

Again, many thanks

Margaret Watson Hopkins, RN, MN - June 15, 2016

Mr. Ellsworth:

Wonderful and helpful blog post. My daughter, the writer, recommended it to me as I am writing my first book. I'm also retired, but still working per diem as an RN at a job I enjoy, with people who keep me fresh and out of my pajamas (and into scrubs) two days a week.

I'm writing my first great American novel – about a flight nurse (I was one with a university hospital based program for 12 years. It's like being a marine. Once a marine, always….) at a hospital based rotor and fixed wing program in Fairbanks, Alaska. it's about her adventures (based on mine) and, of course, her feisty romance with an Alaska State Trooper/SERT member (not based on mine).

My daughter said to write it how I would have liked my life to turn out. So, I am.

Thank you for the tips about publishing, formatting, editing, cover picture, etc. Extremely helpful to me. Truly, truly appreciate the information. At this point, my "book" is with the beta reader – all 100K words. I also edit as I go, though my daughter says to "always write forward." I'm better at editing as I go.

Again, thank you for taking the time to help the rest of us who are just beginning (I have 12 years worth of blood, horror, carnage, sorrow, and laughter I can still share).

Margaret Watson Hopkins, RN, MN

Darren Sapp - June 15, 2016


Thanks for the details. It' very motivational.

What is the proofing software you mentioned?



Des Torres - June 15, 2016

Hi John and Congratulations!
Couple of questions: If you can answer, that would be great
1- your online proofing software?
2- What is 'book funnel'? I'm not familiar with the term

Kevin Riley - June 15, 2016

Thank you for sharing your process! I really need to look into book funnel and starting a mailing list. The few reviews I have a great, but I really need to find a way to get more.

antares - June 15, 2016

You are my newest hero.

Patrice Fitzgerald - June 15, 2016

Congratulations on your phenomenal success, John. Your reputation is only going to grow from here. Thanks for sharing your process!

Kristian J Michael - June 15, 2016

Congratulations John! You are an inspiration to writers and your success is well-deserved. You have provided many valuable tips I intend to take on board. All the very best for your future books!

robert bucchianeri - June 15, 2016

Hi and thanks for all the information. Interesting to see your obviously very effective processes. And congratulations on your success.
Would you be able to tell me what proofreading software you use?
And you say you can format an ebook in ten minutes using Vellum. Is it that user friendly?


Dale McIntosh - June 15, 2016

I am a 78 year old retired criminal defense attorney who came to the law at age fifty-two after taking early retirement at IBM and attending Willamette University School of Law. My plan was to graduate and then go to work for one of King County Washington's four public defender agencies. Alas apparently my age got in the way of that so I went to plan B and opened my own solo practice during the twenty or so years I plied my trade of criminal defense. In the fall of 2012 my wife Shirley became very ill and it was one operation after another. I shut down my law practice and became a full time care giver for Shirley. On October 12, 2014 one month prior to our 59th anniversary Shirley passed away. During this time we lived on our Social Security and a small retirement from IBM. As a result of this I am heavily in debt and with my hearing so bad that even with state of the art hearing aids I can no longer do court work. As a lifetime avid reader of police procedural's and legal thrillers I decided what the heck if I can start law school at 52 I can write novels in my 70's. . I was blessed to be introduced to a woman who lives in Morristown, Tennessee who edits my books. She took me under her wing, taught me,cajoled me, supported me, encouraged me, and was simply there for me in my darkest days. Additionally, I was introduced to a cover designer In Genoa, Italy that is exceptional. To date I have three books on Kindle, one perma free and two selling for 2.99. My first two books published on June 24, 2015 the third December 24, 2015. I am now about three quarters complete on book 4. I need to pick up the pace and cut down on the distractions. I also research and edit as I go. I have read some of your books the Thaddeus Murfee
books, The Trial Lawyer and The Defendants come to mind and truly enjoyed them. I am encouraged as my three books are doing very well and have from the first day. I am slowly building a following and look to a bright future. I really appreciate this article by the way. I find it to be inspirational and thank you for it. Maybe someday I'll write one of similar ilk who knows. Hopefully I haven't bored you with all of this. Well I better get to work. My protagonist, Brady Flynn has a trial to finish and he has just learned his 17 year old daughter is in a coma suffered from a motorcycle accident. My Best to You, Sincerely D.K. McIntosh

Walt Socha - June 15, 2016

Sounds easy… Except for all the hours/days/months/years you put in to get to this point!

Robert - June 15, 2016

An inspiring story for all authors. Thanks for sharing

Anne R. Tan - June 15, 2016

I just want to say this is so inspiring. Thank you for posting it. I hope to join the ranks some day.

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt - June 15, 2016

I hope you don't mind – I'm reading your wonderful success story, and cribbing ideas.

Way to go!

cinisajoy - June 15, 2016

Great blog. Keep up the good books. 🙂

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