Home » Interviews » How to Actually Make a Living as a Fiction Author (Online) with Ernest Dempsey [TDI030]

How to Actually Make a Living as a Fiction Author (Online) with Ernest Dempsey [TDI030]


I’ve always been fascinated by the success stories with online authors who have done much of their publishing with Amazon (Kindle).  The thing is, just about every person I’ve met or read about in this space writes non-fiction, “how to”-type material.

That’s why I was really excited to interview Ernest Dempsey – he writes fiction.  Although I’ve read plenty of fiction in my life, I have to be honest: I know very little about fiction writing as a career.

I always assumed most internet authors wrote non-fiction because it’s not only easier to produce, but perhaps because it’s the only way to make any real money.  I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Little did I know, there’s a world of fiction writers out there who make a living with it, even if they aren’t writing the next Harry Potter series.

Even if you aren’t a fiction writer, Ernest Dempsey provides a lot of great tips in this interview that are applicable to anyone who writes, especially those who publish Amazon Kindle books.

Keep reading – this one goes into a lot of depth, and you’ll want to read every word.

(As always, questions from The Daily Interview are in bold.)

Ernie, you write a lot of interesting content over at ErnestDempsey.net, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m really interested to learn more about how you got into writing fiction and selling your books online.

Tell us a bit about yourself and you journey – how did it all begin? Where is your writing business at today?

It all started on a picnic about six years ago. We were visiting a historical site about an hour south of my home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While we were walking around, I found one of those historical placards and started reading it. There is a rock wall at that place that is thousands of years old, but no one knows why it’s there. The idea for an action/adventure story formed from that.

I started writing stories in high school but never finished anything. Years later, at a friend’s funeral, many of my English professors and teachers from college and high school asked if I was still doing any writing. I hadn’t been, and was shocked when every one of them told me that was a shame because I was good at it. That was when I decided to write the story about the mysterious rock wall from the picnic. And that is how my first book The Secret of the Stones was born.

It took me nearly two years to write, in my spare time, and when I decided to publish it, I went through one of the online publishing companies (who shall remain nameless). I got my book in paperback and also had it formatted for iBooks.

In total, I spent nearly $2,000 dollars on the project.  I built a website on iWeb through my mac (I didn’t know anything about building websites), and put my book out for sale. I sent out a few Facebook posts thinking that most of my friends (700+) would probably buy my book.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the year after I released The Secret of the Stones, I sold fifty copies, gave away more than that, and ended up a few thousand dollars in the hole from the project. I did speak at three book clubs, but that was pretty much the highlight. I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t a great writer and that I would likely end up working a regular job the rest of my life.

I work in a high school as a guidance counselor. And one day, near the end of the school year, a teacher came up to me in the hall. She asked when I was going to release the sequel to Secret of the Stones. It had been a year and a half since I’d released my first book, and I had all but given up the idea of writing. I explained that I hadn’t sold many copies and was probably going to give up on the idea.

What she said to me changed everything.

She told me that I was crazy and that I was a brilliant writer. She said she’d read my book through twice and had been waiting patiently for the next one. I told her I would begin immediately, though I was still uncertain. However, something in my mind shifted. I told myself that if there was one woman like that out there who loved my book, surely there had to be other people like her.

So, I wrote the sequel called The Cleric’s Vault. But this time, I wasn’t about to fork over two grand to produce a book that didn’t sell. I wanted to run an experiment to see if I could do it all at little to no cost. I Google’d and YouTube’d everything, figuring out how to format a book for Amazon’s Kindle (which my first book wasn’t on yet), how to set up a KDP account, and how to find new readers. Over the course of that previous year, I had learned a ton about WordPress and blogging, so I migrated over to a WordPress theme and changed the overall look, feel, and purpose of my site.

I also redesigned the cover of my first book using Gimp , a free graphics application, as well as designed the cover for my sequel. The only money I spent on the release of the second book was for ten ISBN numbers – $250 dollars. I planned the release of the sequel for December of 2012. I wrote a short story called The Lost Canvas to introduce a new character to the series as well as be a companion book for the sequel.

In December of 2012, I released my sequel and short story, and re-released the first book. I had set up a Facebook author page, separate from my own profile, created a Google+ page, and revamped my Twitter account. When I released the books, I put it out on those three places and wrote a blog post on my site to drive people to. I don’t openly pitch my books in my blog posts. If people are interested in them, they can see the books in the sidebar.

What happened was amazing. I checked my sales numbers every day and was amazed to see I’d sold a couple books each time. My best days in the end of the first month were selling four or five copies a day. I was thrilled by those little numbers because in just a few weeks, I sold more books than I had in eighteen months during the first release.

What really got me juiced was when I surpassed the hundred sales mark. At that point, I knew that it wasn’t just friends and family buying my books anymore. Total strangers were finding my stories and buying them on Amazon. It was honestly the coolest feeling I’ve ever experienced.

My writing business is growing now. I have a good subscriber base, and write a new blog post every other week. I’m currently working on two new books to release before April, and another that I will release at the end of May. I am currently still a school counselor but I am considering going full time with my writing at the end of the school year. I have five full length books in the market and two short stories, all on Amazon.

You may have touched on this already, but what has been your greatest success (or successes) so far with respect to publishing your writing? 

To make a long story medium-length, fast forward thirteen months from my sequel book release to January 2014.  In 2013, I sold over 8,000 books, and over 3,000 in the last sixty days. For the first time in my writing career, my royalties for a one month span will be more than my net income from my day job.

That is probably the most amazing milestone I have reached so far in regards to sales, because now I know I can make a living as a fiction author.

I don’t get a ton of traffic to my website, which is something I am focusing on over the next few months in addition to content creation. My numbers hover around 20-30 visits a day, and in the beginning were only in the single digits. But as you continue to build your brand, those numbers will start to go up.

My greatest success isn’t in regards to any sales or traffic numbers, though. It has been the connection I have been able to make with readers of my books and my blog. I have gotten tons of emails over the last year from people telling me how much they loved my books, how much my blog posts helped them, and how they can’t wait to read more.

I recently published a new book called Chasing Comets . It’s a modern day parable about a guy who desires a more fulfilling life than the one he has, and his struggle to make his dreams come true. One of the reviews on Amazon for this book said that the story was “life changing.” Seriously. Life changing. My words, in a Kindle book, changed someones life. There is no greater success than that, no matter how many books you sell.

Impacting the life of a person you’ve never met demonstrates how powerful the written word can be. That’s why when I write, and when I work with other up-and-coming authors, I always tell them to remain focused on one or more of these three things: entertain, empower, or educate. If you do that, you will always be successful.

All successful people fail throughout their journey to success. What do you consider to be your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?

I’ve failed at so many things. I tried starting an internet company at one point. Fortunately, I tried to sell the product before I spent much money on it. When the customers didn’t buy the service, I knew it was going to be a failure. But that wasn’t the biggest one.

I think the first twelve months after I released my first book was the biggest failure. When you spend thousands of dollars on something and end up only making a hundred back, that’s pretty devastating. I learned several things from that experience, though:

1. Your friends on social media are not your customers. Friends on Facebook will not buy your book. Some will. But don’t think because you have a thousand friends that they are all going to flock to your banner and help you out, no matter how much you may have helped them. It just doesn’t work that way and you shouldn’t expect it to. They are friends, not customers.

2. You can’t just put something out there and hope people will find it. Amazon helps, but you want to share your books with people, you need to find them and bring them to you. I once read that you shouldn’t make sales goals because whether someone buys your product isn’t put to you.

But what is up to you is how many eyes you can get on your product. So, I make presentation goals because that is something I can control. The more eyes I get on my books, the more people will buy them, and the more my stories will be shared with the world.

3. Multiple products. In the book business, independent authors have to make it easier to get found. The best way I’ve discovered to do this is to create books that can continue on as a series. My Lost Chambers Trilogy books sell ten times better than my science fiction book The Dream Rider. Now, there are some other factors that may come into play such as genre, audience, etc. But I’m confident that when I release Dream Rider 2, sales of the first book will increase exponentially.

That’s just how it works on Amazon, and selling books in general. Think about this: if you write one book and put it in a bookstore of ten thousand books, if a customer has never heard of you, they have a one in ten thousand chance of finding you. However, if you have two books, you just doubled your odds. You do the math from here. Creating multiple products in each genre is a great way to get more eyeballs on your products.

4. There are no lightning strikes. I watched a video about a self-published author who wrote a book and only sold sixteen copies in a year. Then he wrote a guest post for a popular blogger and suddenly got ten thousand visitors to his website. His sales went through the roof (40,000 in a few months), and he ended up quitting his job and signing a deal with a publisher.

I thought I could do the same thing. And when I landed a guest post for a major blog, I was so excited. I couldn’t wait for the traffic on my blog to explode. When my post went live, I got a hundred or so subscribers, and traffic went way up, but only by a factor of a few hundred visitors. Sales went up a little, but not much. And after day three, it was all back to normal. What had happened?

Well, what I experienced is actually normal. Those people who get those crazy lightning strikes of success are few and far between. And that’s okay. I’m fine with grinding out my success by writing dozens of guest posts, more books, and more posts on my own blog. Because when I hit the stratospheric level of success, it will feel incredible, and I will know I earned it without dumb luck.

Although I’ve never attempted to write a book for Kindle publishing, most of the Kindle authors I’ve followed have strictly written non-fiction. What’s it like publishing fiction compared to non-fiction? More specifically, how do you go about promoting your work?

Writing non-fiction is easy. Sorry if I’m offending any non-fiction authors. But it’s true. Writing non-fiction is simply relaying something that you already know to be true, or think to be true. All you have to do is write the outline and organize your thoughts then let your fingers do the rest, typing it out.

I’ve written some essays and the fact is I can write that stuff about 40% faster than I can my fiction content. Fiction is hard because you are creating every single thing from your imagination. You’re creating worlds, people, events, and conversations that never existed. And while that can be challenging, it is also very cool when you finish a project.

As far as promotion goes, I have a specific launch strategy I use that I learned from David Gaughran’s book Let’s Get Visible. It spreads out my promotional strategies over a four day span. I start with a new blog post on my site and an email to my subscribers on day one. Days three through four involve Facebook announcements, Twitter tweets, Google+ announcements, guest posts if possible, and ads relating to other books in the series that I discount for the launch.

After that, I don’t promote my books hard. I mention them from time to time. But I hate those authors out there who do nothing but scream “buy my books!” Be a person. Not a salesperson.

What advice would you give someone who is just starting out writing a Kindle book? What do you wish someone told you when you first started writing?

Well, I mentioned this before but I’ll say it again. Write books that connect to each other, and write lots of books. If you are writing fiction, that means create characters and a story that can continue on through multiple books.

If it’s non-fiction, I’d say write on a given general topic that can span several different disciplines or thoughts. And the more you write, the better. The more books you have in the store, the easier it is to get discovered by a reader. Also, don’t wait to set up your blog until your book is done. Go buy your domain after you read this, set it up with a hosting company like HostGator or BlueHost, then go to Aweber and sign up for a month of service for a dollar.

You can start gathering readers right away, and you should, even if your blog has no content. Just put up a “coming soon” thing on your main page, and an opt-in box there that tells people when your blog will launch and how to sign up to find out about it, and your books.

If you don’t think this is powerful, consider this story:

Two internet marketers were talking one day and one asked the other what one of his goals was. The other guy said, “to be a New York Times Bestselling Author.” The other guy laughed and said that was stupid. Offended, the guy with the lofty dream asked why. The first marketer then told him that he had hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and that by simply sending out an email that his book was available, he would hit the bestseller list within the day.

That is the power of the subscriber list. And you can start building it right now, without any books or content. Just put up your blog with an opt-in box, and start writing guest posts for other bloggers and websites. Then when you launch, you will have people already waiting for your content.

Also, don’t spend a lot of money to create your book. You can do it at little or no cost. It just takes a little extra work.

Let’s take a step back and look more generally at writing (either for a blog or a book). If you had to take your best advice and put it into one sentence or phrase, what would that be? 

This is one of mine but I kind of stole it from Chris Guillebeau (aka paraphrased):

It takes a lot of time and hard work to become an overnight success. [Click here to tweet this]


What are your favorite online resources?

  • Host Gator to host my WordPress blog.
  • Aweber, to collect subscribers and connect with my audience.
  • Amazon’s KDP program because they do a lot of heavy marketing lifting for me.
  • Also, I’m a member of an online community called Fizzle that has been invaluable as a place for great information exchange and networking with other people in various types of online businesses.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Some people ask me, “When you write, do you listen to music? If so, what kind?”  Sometimes I do. When I do listen to music while writing, it’s usually Trance Techno like Armin Van Buuren or Above and Beyond. I’m also on a heavy Tritonal kick right now.

Finally, where can people find you online? 

You can find me at http://ernestdempsey.net, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ErnestDempsey, and on Twitter @ErnDempsey. I’m also on Google+ if you ever want to look me up there.

If you are interested someone looking for some inspiration, motivation, or a little more fulfillment in life, read my book Chasing Comets. Like all my books, it’s only $2.99, and it might just change the way you see the world. I can be reached by email through my website, and I currently answer all emails in person, so feel free to ask me a question if you want.

Thanks for the in-depth interview, Ernest! There’s so much good advice here for aspiring writers.

What’d you think of this interview? Have you ever tried Kindle publishing before? Leave a comment below!

(Also, I’d greatly appreciate you sharing this interview on Facebook or Twitter using the buttons below!) 

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