Two years ago, Amanda M. Lee of Roseville worked a regular job as a newspaper reporter with a $45,000 salary.
Then she quit to become a full-time self-published e-book author. And her decision is paying off big time.
Lee says she made just under $1 million last year by staying home and writing novels and short stories on mysteries, witches and romances. Later this week, she intends to pay all cash for her new $359,000 house in Macomb Township.
She is among a handful of Michigan residents who suddenly struck it rich self-publishing e-books and left their regular jobs to become dedicated writers. The lucrative career path wasn’t available even 10 years ago before e-books and e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle became mainstream. Full-time writers generally had to work through traditional publishing houses and under less-lucrative deals.
Other members of this all-star authors group include
Boyd Craven III, 37, of Grand Blanc, a former co-op farmer who once flunked high school English. He now makes about $20,000 a month writing E-books about “preppers” who survive apocalypse scenarios thanks to stockpiled supplies. A real-life prepper himself, Craven said his E-book sales took off last year once he added romance elements to his post-apocalyptic tales.
“It is knowing what you’re going to write, knowing the market you’re writing to and what they’re expecting,” Craven said last week from the Tim Hortons in Grand Blanc, where he often writes.
These authors could be considered in the same nontraditional category as British writer E.L James, who originally self-published her erotic blockbuster “50 Shades of Grey,” and Andy Weir, whose self-published book “The Martian” became the popular 2015 movie starring Matt Damon.
Industry experts stress these Michigan writers with their six-figure incomes are rare exceptions in the self-publishing e-book world. Most authors, in fact, do not make enough money to support themselves just by writing.
“The realities of it from most of the writers that I’ve interviewed or know is that there isn’t enough money even to cover their workshop attendance,” said Dana Beth Weinberg, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York who studies the self-publishing market. “So what you see when you look at this market is there’s a few really successful best sellers, and then there’s everybody else.”
And making it is getting harder.
Aspiring self-published authors need increasingly creative ways to distinguish their work as thousands of new self-published titles flood the market each week. Their livelihoods also are at the mercy of e-book industry giants like Amazon, which can abruptly change their rules or payment methodologies and affect authors’ incomes.
Nevertheless, the rise of the e-book has produced extraordinary opportunities for a few determined and highly prolific authors such as Lee and Craven.
It’s all about romance
Their paths to success involved churning out book series in genres with voracious reader demand, particularly in niches that were somewhat under-served before self-published e-books. Although some of their genres — romance fiction in particular — have been hugely popular with readers for decades, if not centuries.
“The most voracious group of readers is romance readers,” Lee said. “They like their bodice ripping and they like men who act tough but who are really just big marshmallows.”
Lee self-published her first book in 2011 after being laid off from the Macomb Daily. The book dealt with the adventures of a plucky reporter at a fictional newspaper in Macomb County that she called the Monitor. “They always say write what you know,” she said.
Elements in the story were inspired by actual people and officials that Lee encountered during her nearly 15 years covering news at the real Macomb Daily.
The book’s title character is a reporter, Avery Shaw, who “is extremely snarky and she’s got a narcissistic personality — it’s all about her and she has to win at all costs,” Lee said. “I set up a county commissioner as her enemy and foil.”
That first book expanded into a successful series of Avery Shaw e-books, audio books and print books that continues today. However, Lee said her Amazon.com e-book sales really took off once she released her subsequent “Wicked Witches of the Midwest” mystery series. Again, her fictional characters were inspired by people she knows.
“I kind of turned my mom and her two sisters and their weird relationship into witches, and I turned two of my cousins into witches, too,” Lee said with a laugh, explaining that her literary decisions produced no real-life hurt feelings. “They’re fine with it; my family loves stuff like that.”
To date Lee has written about 30 novels and short stories under her own name in five different series. The Central Michigan University graduate also has about 20 romance titles under a pen name, which she declined to reveal.
Together, Lee said her books have been doing around $90,000 to $138,000 in total monthly sales, which includes her bonuses for high traffic on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program that offers an all-you-can-read buffet for $9.99 per month. Amazon.com rankings show Lee is currently a top-30 ranked mysteries author based on sales among all her e-books and print books.
Amazon allows self-published authors such as Lee to keep 70% of their royalties from e-book sales on title priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Sometimes Lee prices her books and short stories at just 99 cents, and she only gets 35% royalties on those titles. “I consider those loss leaders — they are to draw people in,” Lee said.
She also receives half a cent payments in the Kindle Unlimited program for every page of her books that gets read.
Amazon’s 70% rate is generous compared to the traditional publishing industry’s common 10% royalties for print authors on initial sales, and the 25% to 50% royalties offered by some digital publishers.
Amazon.com did not return repeated messages seeking comment.
In 2013 Lee was rehired by the Macomb Daily and assigned to cover high school sports, a beat that entailed working many evenings. Being a night owl by nature, she then got into the habit of writing her books after work between midnight and 5 a.m., then sleeping until about 1 p.m. Soon the size of book royalties surpassed that of her regular paychecks.
“I thought at $50,000 a month it never could go higher. And then it jumped to $70,000 a month,” Lee said. “I started panicking a little because you feel all this pressure, ‘Well, how am I going to keep this up?’ I kept waiting for the longest time for the bottom to fall out, but I seem to have stabilized.”
In January 2015, she finally quit the paper to became a full-time author. Lee disciplined herself to write for at least six hours every weekday with additional hours devoted to the marketing and administrative work that goes with self-publishing. She said she can churn out five chapters every day of 2,200 to 2,700 words each. Even with her substantial book earnings, some family members and former colleagues were nervous about her decision to quit her regular job.
“I think they pictured me sitting around watching soaps all day,” Lee said. “I don’t know where they think these books are getting written. You still have to sit down and do the work.”
Boyd Craven might seem an unlikely top-selling author. He said he failed English class at Linden High School in Genesee County and twice had to take English 101 at Mott Community College. Until last summer he worked as a co-op farmer.
Yet Craven always had an interest in reading, particularly books by Dean Koontz, Robin Cook, Stephen King and John Grisham.
His first attempt was in 2013, when he produced a zombie apocalypse story at the urging of his teenage foster daughter, who was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That book — “Dead at Last” — was entirely self-edited and did not sell well.
“It was very cringe-worthy,” Craven recalled last week. “But I’ve learned a lot. You can read some of my later books and go ‘This is not the same guy.'”
Craven’s breakthrough happened in March 2015 when he self-published his first E-book on a subject that he knows well and practices: “prepping,” or storing food and supplies for a future calamity. Unlike some other books in this genre, Craven’s protagonists in his “The World Burns” series are not commando-types but regular guys. He decided to add romance angles to the stories after discerning through Facebook ads that about 65% of his readers were likely women between ages 45 and 65.
“When I started writing stories about preppers and end-of-the-world scenarios, that’s when the publishing part really took off,” he said. “What I found is I hit a niche with a very hungry audience.”
Craven also is very productive — publishing a new novel or short story every three weeks. In June, he quit his farming job to focus on writing. To date, he has authored about 60 books and short stories and says he makes about $20,000 a month.
While self-published authors can enjoy a larger share of the revenue from their books’ sales than new writers with traditional publishers, they can miss out on the editing processed and marketing resources that are found at publishing houses. Readers can notice the difference in editing rigor very quickly.
That is why Craven and Lee, like many other top-selling self-published authors, now hire their own small teams of professional editors to help polish their writing and fix typos.