The Secret to E-book Self-Publishing Success

As it’s been about five months since I published Blood Song in which time I’ve sold over 2000 books (admittedly most of them this month). So I thought it might be time to reveal the secret of self-publishing an e-book that sells. Don’t waste your time and money on how-to books or webinars, for I have the answer right here for free. Ready? OK, here goes:

Write a good book.

That’s it. There’s no mystery, no short-cuts and no substitute. If you want to write a book that sells, make it a good one. The advent of e-books has certainly opened the flood-gates to an enormous amount of unreadable dross, but it’s also brought about a new meritocracy in publishing. Put simply, if it’s good it will sell. If it’s not, it won’t and no amount of publicity will magically turn it into the bestseller you want it to be.

If you’re going to do this thing, accept the fact that you exist in a meritocracy, a real one. Not the pretend meritocracies of the corporate world where success is largely a matter of fooling gullible management into believing how great you are (read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test if you don’t believe me). In a real meritocracy all that matters is ability. Not popularity, not inter-personal skills, not a facility for spewing jargon and buzz-words. Just being good at what you do, and being good at something requires work.

Writing is hard and it takes a long time to do it well. I estimate it took me about 100,000 words before I got to a point where I wasn’t embarrassed to show people my work, and another 100,000 before I felt confident enough to publish it. So if you want to do this, get writing. Write every day, whenever you can. And, if you’ve never written before, accept the fact that you’ll probably write crap for the first 100,000 words or more. But having written 100,000 words you will definitely be a better writer than when you started. Writing is a craft and you can learn it, but learning requires doing, and no one is going to do it for you.

Worry about the mechanics of publishing when you’ve written something worth publishing. As you can learn to write you can learn to format a word file correctly, you can learn the basics of graphic design to produce your own covers, you can learn to write a blurb, you can learn to set up a blog or a website. But do it after you’ve actually written a book that’s worth someone’s time and money. And most of all, be honest with yourself. Deep down, you will know if the book you’ve written is ready for publication. Listen to that voice and don’t publish before you’re ready. Canvas second opinions from people you know will give you an honest critique and listen to what they tell you. If it’s not ready, don’t publish it. I’m eternally grateful for the fact that e-books came along after I’d gotten most of the dross out of my system, otherwise I might well have been tempted to publish it, with potentially ruinous results. Most pro-writers will have an anecdote about the terrible novel they stupidly sent out to publishers and subsequently burned so no one else would ever see it. You may have spent years on a novel only to find it’s just not very good – I did, more than once. Does that mean all that time was wasted? No, because I learned from it, I got better.

As writers we exist in a true meritocracy now. Publication is now open to all, but success is dependent on ability. It’s just about writing good books.

28 responses to “The Secret to E-book Self-Publishing Success

  • Catana

    Nope, that isn’t the secret. Write a readable book in a popular genre. That’s the secret.

    • Jan

      Readable books in a popular genre are a dime a dozen – mass market drivel mostly. Unfortunately really good, well written books (Book 1 of Blood Song) are few and far between.

      • Catana

        I absolutely agree. But if you want real financial success, then you have a better chance with the mass market drivel.

  • John Morber

    It starts with a good book, but marketing helps. If no one knows about it, it is hard to sell.

  • Michael J. Sullivan (@author_sullivan)

    It actually takes two things:

    1) Write a good book
    2) Get it in front of “enough” people so they can start spreading the word.

    A great book that no one knows about goes no where. I think of it as “priming the pump” once you get a few to notice it, and it is good, then they’ll become a grassroots sales force that get others excited with their enthusism.

  • Kirk Reeves


    You wrote a great book. I’m looking forward to the one.

  • Moses Siregar III

    Congrats, man! We were on a similar pace after five months. I hit 3,000 in 9 months, but it looks like you’re about to blow past me. I’m reading your book now and so far I’m thoroughly impressed. I appreciate the inspiration (it’s rare that I find polished, compelling indie fantasy) and look forward to writing a review when I’m done.

    Now let’s see if this WordPress login works …

    • Anthony Ryan

      Thanks Moses. Sorry your comment took so long to appear, it got caught in the spam filter for some reason. I’m a big fan of the Adventures in Sci-Fi publishing podcast so keep up the good work.

  • Deborah

    I am happy to help you promote this book but posting it online at my book club and all over Facebook for all of my friends to consider. A $ 1.50 steal. I am 71% through and loving every page. I’m losing sleep and sneaking in moments on my iPhone to read “just a few more pages”. It’s the first book to really grab me and hold my attention in awhile! Bravo!

  • Jules

    Loving this book! I’m almost all the way through, and popped onto Amazon hunting for Book 2. Found your blog instead. When is Book 2 due out PLEASE?!? The last book I enjoyed this much was In The Name of the Wind. Like Deborah, I’ve also posted to FB and LJ. This is a total steal and is worth the regular price so I can’t imagine it will stay at $1.50 for long.
    Not sure if you’re planning any book touring/signing yet, but hit up Greg at Between Books in Delaware. He’ll love this book!

    • Anthony Ryan

      Thanks Jules. I’m hard at work on Book 2 but haven’t yet pinned down on a release date. A signing tour isn’t on the cards at the moment, but you never know.

  • Evan

    I think “write a good book” is fairly useless advice. Not trying to be difficult but that’s like saying to someone who wants to win a gold medal for sprinting to “run fast”. It’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far and where it goes isn’t worth going.

    Another commenter hit on a better secret: write a readable book in a popular genre. There is no commonly accepted definition of “good book”, and if you think “a book lots of people like” is synonymous with “good book”, then we have an irreconcilable difference of opinion. That view assumes that the lowest common denominator is the arbiter of quality, which is not a view I share.

  • feanor

    Your suggestion one way – ant yet it’s not the only one, nor is it sufficient, it seems to have truly spectacular sales.

    I have, what could both charitably and clinically be called an addiction to reading fantasy and sci-fi novels. Everything from the major publishers along with many indi authors. I can unequivocally state that yours is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It is right up there with my favourites and in direct competition (or should be) with the major authors.

    Your sales should be many times your current number and hopefully they will get there – whatever helps with writing the sequel(s)!

  • Enrico

    hi, I’m not english mother tongue so sorry for any mispelling, then back to business :
    success / profitable books
    1 – write a good book,
    that’s for sure if you want to have at least repetitive sales, sometimes the marketing suceeded in making me buy some bad stuff but the writer was a dead one for me after that purchase
    2- write for a wide market
    well there is an obvious truth in the factt that a wide market makes bigger numbers

    your book I think is one of the best fantasy I’ve read int the last couple of years and it reminds to me a lot of David Gemmell’s books

    I hope book two will come soon, but if I’ve to wait for the book one quality I’ll wait do not worry

  • Marty

    I just want to thank you for Blood Song. I was transported and greatly disappointed that it had to end. Eagerly awaiting the next.

  • Matt Ridings (@techguerilla)

    I have an admitted addiction to the written word that no seven step program has been able to impact. I’ve read more self-published authors than I care to admit, some great storytellers and some not so great storytellers. But in general, the best are just that…great storytellers. And I enjoy every second of it, even when poorly edited.

    Here’s the thing, you’re a great WRITER. Yes, you still package up a great story, but my god man…the package that you wrap it in is so much nicer. I’m comfortable enough as a man to say your bow selection and the bold choices of your plaid wrapping paper stirred my loins (just a little mind you, let’s not test my manly boundaries). I hate making comparisons, but when I say some of your approaches remind me of R.R. Martin I mean it as high praise (you may not feel that way, I mean that beard *is* understandably offputting)

    Yes, as some have pointed out, your advice of ‘write great shit’ might be a little simplistic but let’s all be honest with ourselves here…it’s the only advice that matters until *after* we’ve finished writing great shit. At which point we can all go find some new, simplistic advice on marketing.

    Till next time, I bid my new bromance adieu

  • JP


    I felt compelled to share my appreciation of your incredible literary skills. Your storytelling is fantabulous. An amalgamation of the two words is really the only way I can describe your writing. Our language has no word that effectively communicates your ability.

    I find it hard to believe you only have two books out. A travesty. I hope this will soon be corrected. In my mind, you’re already up there with the greats like Gemmell, Cook, Martin, Burst, and the other great up and comer Abercrombie. I’m sure I’ve left out some other legends, but I believe you understand what I’m saying. Something akin to “You’re my hero.”

  • plannette

    I posted a review of Blood Song on Amazon. Your work is excellent, but it is marred by editing errors. As an editor myself, I just couldn’t help noting some of them for you in my review, not as criticism, but as a contribution to making a fine novel a better one. Looking forward to The Tower Lord–I assume the sequel to Blood Song?

  • Sailor

    To reiterate cracking good book. I was curious. Have you looked at publishing via a traditional publisher (i.e. Baen, TOR etc.) and does it being self published on Amazon prevent a book from being picked up by a traditional publisher?

    • Anthony Ryan

      Thanks Sailor. I collected rejection slips from agents for a year before deciding to self-publish. As I understand it there’s no barrier to traditional publication if you self-publish first. Michael J Sullivan got a six book deal from Orbit after self-publishing the Riyria Revelations.

  • Leslie Snow

    I’m a free-lance writer in Knoxville, TN so I know first-hand how nice it is to get feedback. Especially good feedback! So I wanted to let you know that I just finished Blood Song and really enjoyed it. Best of luck to you and hurry up with book two.

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  • Daxana

    Why are people comparing Blood Song to the works of George R. R. Martin? It baffles me. I was a huge fan of Martin when I was about thirteen years old reading his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I stopped being a fan after skimming through the third book. It bored me to tears. His first book in that series was fantastic, but the rest left a lot to be desired. The excitement I had from the first book withered and died as I continued to read all the long winded prose about very boring politics.

    Please stop comparing Blood Song to Martin. That does not mean I do not respect Martin. He is famous for a reason. I’m just no longer a fan.

    Their writing styles are not similar at all. NOT SIMILAR AT ALL. Please stop. It makes me cringe. Just because Blood Song is an epic fantasy and involves politics do not make Anthony Ryan’s style of writing to that of Martin.

    I am a huge fan of Blood Song, and I am excited to wait for the second installment. I normally refrain from sharing my opinions of such matters, but after the fifth time that I come across reading someone’s post comparing the two authors, it gets under my skin.

    I have read so many books in the sci-fi fantasy genre to allow myself the audacity to make such comments. I know this genre very well.

    Please please stop comparing Anthony Ryan to George R. R. Martin.

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