Timothy Ellis lives on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia somewhere in the future. Well, at least when he’s writing books in “The Hunter Legacy” series. His first novel of the series, “Hero at Large” was the start of combining three loves in his life: the space genre, spirituality, and cats. After publishing book three of the series his sales were sent into orbit, and after releasing book four he’s been making a full-time income with his writing ever since. Timothy shares so much about the indie publishing world that the interview had to be split into two parts.
Join Timothy and me in part one of the interview as we discuss:
- The moment his series took off and what caused it.
- His approach to finishing a novel in 31 days.
- How he handles writing consistently with a disability.
- Why you have to treat your writing like a job.
- Dealing with pressure from fans.
- His favorite part about being a full-time author.
- When it’s a good time to release an audio book.
- His take on going wide versus being exclusive to Amazon.
When did you make the leap to become a full-time author? How long ago was that?
I’d say it was around the transition to book three because book one sat there and did very little. It was maybe a book sale every couple of days originally, nothing to really bother thinking about. Book two came out and between them I was sort of averaging about a book a day sales-wise. This was back in the days of kindle unlimited version one. So I was getting an odd sales bar every now and then, but it was like a bullet. So it was nothing really there, and then book three was released. Suddenly, I got 16 sales in one day. And this came primarily from people that had bought the first two books and were eagerly awaiting the third. And that blitz of 16 books in one day was enough to boost my rank on Amazon to the point where the books were actually visible. So people found them. Over the course of July, while it wasn’t what you would call an earth shattering amount, it was like, “Wow, my God, I’m making some money. There’s actually some money here.”
And it was a huge surprise that it took off the way it did because at that stage all I was doing was getting the stuff out from my head. It’s like a lot of it pops in as I write. A lot of the chunks of the really good scenes have been kicking around in my head for 20 years. It’s like I couldn’t get this stuff out. It wasn’t until about book five that I’d exhausted the majority of the stuff that I had in my head. For book three to suddenly take off was a huge surprise and a really good one of course. Then it just flowed on. When I released book four a month later I got another huge spike out of it, and while it looks a little like a heart monitor going absolutely crazy on a cardiograph, it progressed upwards. From about August 2015, which is when book three transitioned into book four, I was suddenly making enough money to live on.
Now, my idea of living is different from what other people are living on because I’ve been living on very, very small income for about 12 years. I’ve managed to pin my life down to the very bare basics. Now suddenly I have some income where I can actually afford to spend some money on things. It’s made a huge difference to me, and once I got to book five, I found that I really did have a livable income that exceeded what I used to get in the corporate world. Now in the intervening time between when I left the corporate world and now, salaries have gone quite dramatically upwards. So, it’s not as good as it might sound, but for me being able to make a living as an author with more than I used to make as a systems analyst is such a great feeling. It’s a great thing to be able to do, and the only thing though is that income varies from month to month. Because what you find is when you don’t release within a reasonable timeframe your ranking starts going down again. With book seven I managed to make number 15 in the science fiction category on Amazon.
General science fiction?
Yup, in the Kindle science fiction category I managed to get number 15. And I mean that is above most of the science fiction authors that I’ve been reading all my life. That was huge, but it lasted only two weeks. The boost I had there was from releasing the book at the beginning of December, and I was able to catch the Christmas wave. If you can get that immediate boost in ranking to get you really visible then you catch that wave. Because we’re all looking for books to either read over the Christmas break or to give to people. So I caught the huge wave for that, and I was able to earn in one month what used to be my yearly salary.
You earned your yearly salary all in one month?
On December 27, I actually got one of the kindle all-stars payouts. They have a reward for people who are getting really big read numbers. I picked up one for the UK. So that was a huge buzz as well. On Kboards I have the thread about what’s happening with my books where somebody converted the numbers into dollars, and said “You got this?” “Yeah I did.” “That’s amazing!” So, when did I become a full-time author? I would say it’s between roughly books three and four but definitely by four. By book five I don’t need to do anything else as long as I can keep the momentum going. Being a full-time author is what I am. What’s interesting about this is the fact that I don’t sit down day after day and write like some people do. I guess on average I probably have three or four hours a day. In that time I can usually turn out about 3000 words and 3000 words for 31 days a month turns out a novel.
That’s what a lot of authors actually ignore. They think it’s going to take so much time to write a novel. But what it takes is a habit. You need to establish a habit that you sit down and write for a certain amount of time. You do it every day, and you do it regardless of what’s going on around you if you can. Even if you’re only writing 1000 words a day you can turn out a 90,000 word novel in three months. And one month to three months is a good cycle for releasing because then you retain some level of ranking on Amazon. It keeps your momentum going. It keeps you visible to both people who buy and people who read through Kindle. Or if you go what they call “wide” it also keeps you visible on Apple, Kobo, and all those other sites. But visibility is one of those things that you have to have in your mind. Where a lot of authors scratch around wondering why they’re not achieving anything it’s because they’re releasing, say once every six months or once every year. In the mean time they completely lose their momentum. Getting that momentum back once you’ve started is very difficult unless you’ve got a springboard organized. That’s part of the mechanics of marketing and that sort of thing. I don’t know when you want to talk about that.
Yeah, we’ll definitely get into that a little bit later. I actually had a few questions when you were talking about when you made the leap. So you were writing pretty quickly and consistently. Now were you in your corporate job at this point, back in April?
No. The corporate world for me then was about a dozen years ago. So, I have actually in fact been on a disability for most of the time. The main health problem I have is migraines, and I get them every day. And consequently a large chunk of my day is taken up by the down transition into a migraine, and migraines itself and side effects of the migraine. The interval between them is never the same, so I can go for a week where I’m constantly shuffling around the times of the day as to when it happens. If I get my migraine at five in the morning I’m usually good. I can edit in the afternoon, I can write in the evening, I wake up in the middle of the night, have a migraine tablet, and then go back to sleep. If I get it at four or five in the afternoon it completely buggers up my evening schedule, and if I didn’t do anything during the day because of external life affecting me then I can lose a day completely. I quite often do, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m writing lightly with my migraine. I had a couple of weeks where I was writing very, very little because I couldn’t. Then again, that’s part of establishing a habit. The more you’ve got a habit in place, even if you feel like crap, you can still sit down and try and write. Sometimes it’ll come, sometimes it won’t. But, if you don’t sit down to try and do it, you’re not going to get anything done. And that’s where a lot of writers fail because they allow things to stop them.
Yes. I totally agree with you on that.
So, the corporate world has been long gone. Basically I had the time because I wasn’t working. Also, because I wasn’t committed to things I was just able to sit down when I felt OK and just start typing. And for three to four months I sat down and typed madly. There’s a thread on Kboards where people are talking about the most number of words they’ve written in a day. And I think one guy did about 20,000. I think he started around 11 o’clock in the morning, stopped for lunch, later afternoon stopped for tea, wrote all evening, and finished about 3 o’clock in the morning. The following day was a complete write off. A regulation, 2-3000 words down the following day, and that was it.
But, that’s the other thing is that if you can, when that happens, you go with it. Just so you can get the words out unless you need to get them out the days that follow. These things do happen so it’s very important that you also don’t limit yourself. Once you get into the zone, if you can keep that zone going, you can get things written faster. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what you write will end in the final draft of course. At least you get it out of your head. I had the ability to just sit down whenever I could and write. I still retain that ability. Once you make the leap as a full-time author that’s what you’re supposed to do. Technically speaking, if you look on Kboards on the authors who really claim to be full-time authors they treat it like a job. It’s an 8-hour-a-day gig five days a week, and probably more work on the weekend because there’s so much they’ve been doing. If you treat it like an 8-hour job, you can get a lot written. For me at the moment, full-time basically means it’s the only thing I’m doing to get towards an income.
So there is a distinction, you can earn enough to live on by working three to four hours a day or you can work eight hours a day or 10 hours a day or 12 hours a day (if you’re a workaholic), and you’ll turnout a lot more books and make a lot more money. It comes down to your situation, and if your mind doesn’t allow it at the moment. If I can get my migraines under control I’ll be back in a state where I will edit for probably three to four hours, or write in the afternoon, and then I’ll do another three to four hours in the late evening. Across the day in a couple of different sessions I’ll do seven or eight hours. At that stage I hope to get back up to the six week release schedule that I prefer.
In the science fiction genre, the overall science fiction genre, particularly space opera, the expectation of getting out a book a month or six weeks is very high. In a lot of the other genres it doesn’t matter. The expectation is a novel every three months. If you’re in traditional publishing it’s one book per year. The expectations of people are a lot different for an eBook than a paperback. For paperbacks you traditionally have to wait a year for the next book. But with eBooks, I have people now that with book eight they’re just discovering the series. So they find book eight, they read the sample, and they think, “Great, who the hell are these people?” They get back to book one, and they read books one through eight in almost a single session. It’s like some of those people don’t even sleep. It totally amazes me how fast they can actually read a book. So then they say, “Where’s book nine?” Now they’re hanging out for book nine, and it’s right at the end of the month after book eight was released. Then somebody posts on my Amazon forum, “How’s book nine going?” Then I said, “Oh, you read eight already? Book nine is halfway through, not doing too badly, but it’s been having a few problems.”
But yeah, the other thing about being electronic is that you do Facebook groups and pages and you have your Amazon forum. Your fans can actually talk to you. Once they start talking to you then they start asking when the next book is coming. You get this pressure to get the next book out. While I have to say my fans are very, very supportive of the health problems I’ve had because I basically just said, “I’ve had health problems. I hope you guys understand.” They’re very supportive and say, “Health first; book second. But where is it?” It’s like, “We don’t mind if you go to 3 months, but tomorrow would be better.” But once you get to that point, you actually feel the pressure to get the next book out anyway. But it’s a two-sided thing. On one hand you get your fans that really want that book, and on the other hand you’re looking at your sales and your reads figures, and it’s “now” because it’s been just over a month from the last book release. At that point the cliff where you drop off the new releases list has just occurred. So, one of the major things for visibility has now disappeared. So book eight has now dropped to the same level of sales as the rest of the series, and so the whole thing is just slowly going into what I call “the abyss”.
That takes about three months. It takes about three months to drop off all of the margin lists and visibility. So, early on in the series, or early on in your major writing career when you don’t have many books, there’s not much flow through. That’s because there’s nowhere for your reader to go after they finish the book you’ve just released. Then the angle of losing your rank is fairly steep. The more books you have, the more flow through you get, and so the angle is a lot less steep, it takes longer to go down. And as some people who have done this a lot longer than I have hanging out on Kboards, the more you have, the higher the end point you sort of settle out at. Once you’ve got enough books out there you do reach a stage where even if you don’t release for six months or a year your residual sales and reads still stay at a high enough level where you’re making reasonable income.
That’s a really effective system to think about in terms of staying visible in the marketplace.
Yeah, and so I’m not quite there yet because although I’ve got 23 books on Amazon at the moment, only 7 of them are novels, and one is a novella. And then I got two short stories in the same universe. Short stories in space opera don’t do all that well. It’s not a wide enough backlist to give me confidence that the income will always be there now, but it’s getting there. Each new book that you release just boosts you up a little, and that’s why you keep writing. It doesn’t matter what your book does, you just keep writing. The more that’s out there then the more people have to choose from when they go visit your author page.
Once you get fans, they will start reading your other things. I built a spiritual side into my main character, and I talk about spiritual issues throughout my novels. I’m actually mentioning one of my own non-fiction books as one of the books that the main character was brought up with as a kid. It flows through and back into some of my spiritual work. I suppose it averages somewhere between 20-30 books a month. So it’s not very much, but there’s a flow through, and it’s all extras. That’s the object of the exercise is once you get something working if you can get people to flow through your other work it all adds to the bottom line, and that’s what keeps you going as a full-time author.
So what’s your favorite part about being a full-time author?
I get to spend so much time in the future. Past aside, literally when I’m writing, I completely zone out the rest of the world. For somebody to actually interrupt me while in the middle of typing is a huge jolt because I write first person in the novels. It’s literally me in the situation describing it as a main character. So having always been a science fiction person, read, watch, play, particularly in space opera, it’s a very big part of the way I think. It’s a fairly big part of my life because when I eat I’m also watching something or reading something. This is all part of my life, and what I do when I’m writing is that I disappear into it, and I really enjoy being out of this time. I guess it’s disappearing into the make-believe, but that’s the best part of it. It’s being able to vanish into this world that I’ve created and leave everything else behind.
So currently today, you’ve kind of touched on this a little bit, but in terms of revenue, how are you generating revenue in terms of different mediums that you have? So you have, based on what we’ve talked about already, some non-fiction, you also have fiction, and is that just eBooks or do you have hard covers, paperbacks or audio books?
At the moment I only have the eBooks. I’ve been thinking about paperbacks but just haven’t got there yet. It will happen sometime down the track. Audio books is a different thing. The major player in the audio books market is ACX, and they only do it for people who live in the UK and US. So, there are a few ways of getting around this, but I’m a little wary of them because there are tax implications, which I’m not sure if the people doing it have fully explored. I mean it might have worked out. I don’t know. I have a niece, and she doesn’t read books. She spends a lot of time on the train, and she said, “Yeah, I’d listen to your books if they were on audio.” There’s the incentive to do it, but audio books are also a great deal more expensive to do than anything else. In fact, there was a thread recently on Kboards with people talking about their audio book experience.
There are two ways of doing it. One: you can either go on equal share with the producer, so you only get 50% of the royalty because you’re sharing with the people who do the recording and are putting it together. Or two: you hire a narrator and actually do it yourself. But the rates of hiring a narrator by the hour versus how long the average book is and you’re standing at a couple of thousand dollars to put it together. Depending on how many sales you get, in some places, people don’t make that back in a year. It’s an interesting thing to look at. I’m at that point where I’m considering it, but I don’t know which way to go. I’m actually blocked from doing it properly anyway being in Australia.
I get the impression that a lot of people do audio books too soon. Audio books, like everything else, you’ve got to have visibility. If you don’t have enough visibility then you won’t get enough sales to cover your costs. Unless you go the sharing route then you get your salary. So a lot of people I think go too soon. The consensus of opinion, or should I say wisdom, seems to be at the moment that if you are getting good sales of a series, then it’s worth going the audio book route which adds to it.
But I know at least one author, who is a well-established author, who has been writing for about 20-30 years or something. For one other series that I read of his he always did the audio book first. That’s because the paperbacks used to take so long to get out. Now with kindle and eBooks generally, you can get your eBook out immediately, and then wait for your audio book to come. So some of what you might call “the old guard of authors” are now having to change the order in which they do things because the eBook is so much easier and quicker to get out than the old paperback was. I think that’s the mistake that a lot of new authors do; they try to expand too fast. Now, I might be too slow and missing out on mine, but in Australia there’s no easy way of doing audio books for us. So if there’s somebody out there who does audio books there’s a lot of Australian authors here who want to know how to do it!
Hopefully we can get someone to reach out to you!
You never know. As I said, there are a few scams around where people in America are actually acting as the middle man to do this, but I’m a little hesitant to go that route. I’d rather do it through somebody who’s like Amazon and has all the taxes worked out with the tax year to Australia. So, it’s like you’re giving me the documentation, and they only take out a small amount of tax. You don’t give them the documentation, and they take out this huge whack of tax. For the beginning author that huge whack of tax is significant. You don’t want that to happen. You don’t want this huge amount of tax taken. I’d rather wait until somebody has gotten it all worked out so the absolute minimum of anything gets taken out of it. Then it’s OK to do. I’m waiting for that mechanism to appear.
For me, I guess the other, as far as revenue goes, is the eternal argument between “Do you go all in with Amazon” or “Do you go what’s called wide”? Amazon has this thing called Kindle Unlimited, which is a reader subscription service, and it’s widely counted that it’s free books. But it isn’t. Readers pay a monthly subscription. In America it’s $9.95 or $9.99 or something a month. It’s a more or less an all you can read buffet, and Amazon is banking on the fact that the average person will read two to three books a month, and the people who get the subscription are banking on the fact that they’re going to read 10 or 20 books a month.
The authors don’t care as long as they get paid. So what’s actually happened with Amazon is that if you put your book into Kindle Unlimited, that book must be 100% with Amazon. It cannot be in any other location, and that includes on your website, being given away for free, or being sold off of your own website. It must be sold through Amazon only. For that commitment as well as the royalties you get for sales you also get paid per page read if the book is “borrowed”. That varies every month. You never know from month to month how much they’re actually going to pay you, and it has been going down since they first brought this particular program in. They call it KU2. It’s one of those things that concerns a lot of people, and there are always arguments going on about whether you should be in KU or go wide.
For a lot of people, Kindle Unlimited really works. For me, it’s about 2/3 of my income. It does vary from month to month as to what they pay out. Last time it was $0.0048 per page, so less than 0.5 cents per page. If you have a successful series, like mine’s been doing, it’s possible to get hundreds of thousands of pages read a month. In a good month it might be up to a million. The really successful authors are doing multiples of millions of pages of reads per month, and that is definite money in the bank.
On the other hand, a lot of people can’t get traction in Kindle, and they go what’s called wide. They spread their books across all the platforms, and they don’t have Kindle Unlimited. What they don’t have from Kindle Unlimited they get back from being on other platforms. They get all the people that only shop through Apple’s iBooks. Well they get people who prefer Kobo or Barnes and Noble or what have you. And if it’s not in there they don’t buy. There are people who don’t like Amazon at all. There are people who buy from everywhere, and they just, if it’s in some places, they’ll buy it from there as a preference. Sometimes they’re cheaper than Amazon and sometimes they’re more expensive, but a lot of people shop around.
I’m finding that being all in with Amazon works. I’ve got no real reason to go wide at this point because Amazon is actually paying me some income. If at some stage the payout per page drops like a stone then it’ll be like a flock of birds with a cat jumping in the middle driving in and out of KU and going wide again. I’ll address things then, but for a lot of other authors they find that being wide works. Now for anybody reading this you have to basically figure this out for yourself because it’s something that varies from author to author and from genre to genre. Even subgenres can be different.
So, I predominantly work in space opera at the moment, and space opera is doing very well on Kindle Unlimited. Some of the other genres don’t do as well at all. Those people go wide. What you have to do is trial. So if you’re an author that’s just starting out, and you’re releasing your first book what I’d suggest is: add a second and a third book, get them up on Amazon, put it in Kindle Unlimited for the first 90 days, because you’re guaranteed a 90 day spot with Kindle Unlimited when they lock you in (wide locking for 90 days). After that you can take it back out again but see what happens. Don’t limit that to one book. Try it for two books. If you’re writing a trilogy put your trilogy in and give it time because chances are your third book will be what sends the trilogy into orbit, which is what we all hope for, of course. The series will really take off, but a lot of the time it’s the third book where this happens. So don’t give up too early. If you get Kindle Unlimited with the third book then stay there. If you don’t, then after the 90 days of the third book you can think about going wide.
On the other hand, do your research. If you’re writing in a genre where other people in that genre are mainly wide then pay attention to them and go wide to start with. So there’s a lot of good advice out there from people who are doing very well. If you go looking for it you will find it, and if you follow their advice it might work for you. There’s too many variables to say it will, but if it works for one person there’s a good chance it’ll work for you. For me, I’m basically 100% into Amazon at the moment and Kindle Unlimited.
Stay tuned for part two of the interview when it gets released next week!
If you want to lose yourself in a gripping space opera that’ll transport you to the 27th century then go check out Timothy’s “The Hunter Legacy” series here.
If you enjoyed the interview then please let me know! Email me at Brandon@buildyourauthorcareer.com or leave a comment below. I read every email and comment.
Feel free to check out some of my previous interviews with other inspiring authors:
To your consistent progress,