The one where DC Kalbach earns six-figures writing romance novels for Kindle Unlimited

I’ve been debating what I want to do with my book when it’s done serializing on Substack. Do I leave it on Substack and require a subscription to read it forever? Or do I put it on Wattpad, Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, Kindle Vella, etc. to extend its reach as I start serializing my second novel on Substack?

To answer this question, I know I need to learn a lot more about those platforms and how they work for authors, so I asked around my discord server for Substack writers whether anyone had success writing on those platforms—DC Kalbach did.

In addition to writing a science-fiction/fantasy newsletter called The Sprawl, Kalbach earns a six-figure salary writing romance novels—under another pen name—for Kindle Unlimited. He was willing to share with me exactly how the platform works and how he earns a full-time living as a self-published fiction author.

Here’s what he had to say.

You said you are working full-time as a writer. Would you be willing to share how much you earn monthly?

I don’t want to say exactly how much I make per month, but it’s a comfortable six-figure yearly income, and enough to support my wife and two little kids, plus pay all the bills and the mortgage etc. etc., entirely on my writing income.

I live in a moderately priced suburb, so I’m not rich, but we’re comfortable. And I’m not even one of the top indie authors! There are plenty of writers making more than I do, and I know more than a few making six-figures yearly doing nothing but writing books.

I should mention that indies pay for all their own covers, their editing, their marketing, and their advertising, etc. etc. And our tax rate is slightly higher, plus the cost of health insurance, daycare, all that good stuff. It’s really easy to forget about taxes when you get that first paycheck!

There’s no real safety net, so diving into full-time writing can be pretty terrifying. Tracking expenses was something I had to learn early on and now I have some complicated-looking Excel spreadsheet that logs basically every penny I spend related to my business.

My income is almost entirely from my romance pen name, which is 95 percent on Kindle Unlimited (KU). I have some books wide (which means published on all the major platforms: Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, etc.) but not very many, and the wide income’s just a small percentage of my total monthly numbers. 

I briefly wrote a men’s adventure fiction pen that was earning around $10,000 per month on KU, but I got sick of writing it and quit around the end of last year. Overall my readers are heavily into KU, so a big chunk of my money comes from that program, and I’ve received a small KU author bonus almost every month for the last few years, which is nice I guess.

How long did it take you to get from $0/month to your current income? And when did you decide to take it full-time?

I wrote my first novel, which also happened to be my first romance, in January of 2015 and threw it out into the world the next month. I made about $213 that February of 2015! 

I know that’s not a lot, but just starting out it felt sort of magical. I have a poetry background—I got my MFA in poetry, so the idea of getting paid to write words was crazy. It took me five months of steadily writing and releasing, learning how to do covers and how to write blurbs, how to actually structure a romance novel properly (still learning that one), how to do all that good business stuff, to finally break through. Then in July of 2015, I made a little under $8,000 and was like, “oh my god, this is real.” 

I remember freaking out about it. I know the specific title that took off and honestly started my career. I showed my wife the numbers and was like, this is happening. The next month, August of 2015, I made around $16,000 in a single month—and you can probably imagine how absolutely freaked out and excited I felt. 

I kept going, doubled down on writing, threw myself into it, kept on growing, and quit my (very bad) job early 2016. It was the best decision I ever made.

I just realized I didn’t answer the question. So to go from $0 to my current income, it took me about a year, maybe two. Indie publishing is not a steady thing, the paycheck isn’t guaranteed, and so much can go wrong at any given time. That said, I’ve actually been growing year-by-year—though by around 2018 I was near where I’m at now. It’s always changing—there are slump months and there are good months—it just happens. You learn to deal with the inconsistency.

How did you attract your audience?

This is a super hard question to answer! There are a million things that had to go right for me to get to where I am now. I think early on, the willingness to learn and hustle was a big deal. Not only did I have to learn how to write novels, but I also had to learn how to self-publish—the business of it all. 

I used to do things like message random readers on Goodreads and beg them to review an ARC of my books in those early months (which is a terrible thing and I don’t recommend this at all). I wrote standing up in my kitchen during my “lunch break” while working from home and made sure I released at least one book per month, and when I went full-time I started writing two books per month.

I write about 2,000-3,000 words seven days a week during my morning session, and 5,000-6,000 words Monday-Friday during my afternoon session. So I'm writing something like 150,000-200,000 words per month. That's not the high end of what some indie authors are doing, but it's definitely a lot.

I read a ton of romance in those early days because I wasn’t super familiar with the genre. I learned how it works and what readers expect from it, and I figured out how to write stories that I love to write, while also giving my readers what they want. I also dove into Facebook ads around 2017 and they’ve become a massive part of the indie publishing world, for better or for worse. I worked on covers and blurbs and actively worked to build my newsletter and my fan base. I gave away tons of free books!

I think the biggest thing for me was, I found a group of like-minded writers very early on that were dedicated to making a living by self publishing, and we really pushed each other hard, critiqued covers and blurbs, discussed trends and tropes, really taught each other how to be a professional in this business. I would say that was probably the best thing I did, just finding that group of people. 

Some of those original authors I started out with aren’t writing anymore, some of them have gotten very popular and successful, others have joined different groups, we drifted apart and met new people and expanded into new Slack channels and Discords etc. etc., but I firmly believe having that community is so helpful and important, especially if you can find people taking it seriously and are at the same stage in their career.

I know that’s not easy, believe me, I’m not an outgoing person at all, but it’s worth the effort.

So the only thing you did was a good cover and some Facebook ads? You must have had a lot of organic traffic??

Early on, it was a lot easier to get organic traction. And you have to keep in mind, romance is a HUGE genre, and Amazon is like 60 percent of the ebook business or something absurd like that. Romance drives the whole industry, so there are a ton of readers hungry for good books. I guess I just found an audience! But if you write good books and understand how to package them, you will find readers—if you're writing to a big audience. 

However, doing all that is actually super hard. It sounds simple, like here's a three step process! But there's actually a lot going on in there. I'm entirely self-published, so all my books are up on KDP. I don't have any traditionally published books, but I'm always open to it!  

In terms of advertising, I spend the majority of my budget on Facebook ads. There are also book-specific newsletters—like Bookbub—and I'm always applying for those, especially Bookbub. My advertising budget is about a fifth of my total gross or around there. I know authors who make six figures and spend almost nothing on ads—they found a really amazing, small, dedicated niche and don't really need to spend dollars because their readers are always looking out for new books to read, and there's not a lot of competition yet. 

I also write contemporary romance which is the biggest of all the genres, so I have to spend some money to keep my books out there!

Can you explain how Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) works exactly? And specifically how Kindle Unlimited works?

This is weirdly complicated so I’ll try and be as concise as I can. Quick history lesson (so much for being concise): Originally, KU paid out around $1.35 per borrow when the reader reached the 10 percent mark of a given book. That meant shorts could earn a ton of money!

Imagine writing a 2,000-word erotica “book” and getting paid $1.35 every time someone read to that 10 percent mark—which is really not very far in for a book that short. It was the golden age of erotica and honestly, I still think it was a better payout scheme, but whatever.

The way it works now: Each book you uploaded is given some insane and arbitrary KENPC (Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count I think—god what a nightmare) number which represents the “page length” of an ebook. How does Amazon calculate KENPC? Great question! Nobody knows. It’s not based on straight up word count, that’s for sure.

Anyway, when a reader goes through a book, their page turns somehow equate to that KENPC number (as I type this I’m realizing just how little I know about the system that pays me—god what a nightmare). You get paid something like $0.0045 per page.

Does that sound insanely confusing? It’s insanely confusing! It’s a terrible system! But okay, imagine a book with 300 KENPC. That’s like, I don’t know, roughly 60,000 words? (Guessing here because Amazon is unclear.) So your lovely reader gets from beginning to end of your masterpiece, paging through all “300” KENPC. That 300 KENPC x 0.0045 = $1.35 (getting that number was a total fluke btw). 

Now KDP is just a general term for Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s the overall self-publishing platform. Anyone self-publishing on Amazon goes through the KDP system. Some of them are in KU and are therefore exclusive to Amazon, and some of them are not in KU and can publish on like Kobo, Apple, Barnes and Noble, whatever. Those people get paid a straight royalty per buy. For prices from $0.99 up to $2.99, that royalty is 35 percent. For prices from $2.99 to $9.99, that royalty is 70 percent (and now you might understand why so many books are priced $2.99). Anything above $9.99 goes back to that 35 percent royalty rate again.

It’s much, much simpler and transparent getting normal royalty buys, but the KU program boosts the visibility of your books a whole ton.

Here’s a little lesson on how the Amazon ranking algo works: First of all, nobody knows how the Amazon algo works, and if they say they do, they are straight-up lying to you. People have good guesses and are probably right to an extent, but nobody knows 100 percent for sure. If they did, they’d be selling a ton of books and getting super rich.

Okay anyway, rank basically works by taking your sales and comparing them to the sales of all the other books in the marketplace. So, in theory, a book ranked 50 overall is selling more copies than a book ranked 100 overall. But wait! KU borrows are (probably?) weighted the same as a straight buy, even if the reader doesn’t actually read the book (and you don’t get paid). Since a KU borrow is “free” for a reader, they’re much more likely to borrow your book even if they don’t plan on reading it. All those extra borrows add up, and can really launch a book up into the rankings. Higher rank means more visibility in the Kindle store, and more visibility means more sales. 

There are certain genres that are very heavy into KU—romance is a huge one. If you’re a romance reader, and a really serious, intense one, you probably go through multiple books per day (yes, day). In this case, it makes economic sense to use the KU program instead of straight buys, since you get as many books in the KU program you want for the monthly flat fee.

Genres with serious, intense, voracious readers do very well on KU, but there are plenty of authors working in romance that are wide (wide means not in KU and available on all marketplaces, i.e. “widely available”) and do really well. There are trade offs for both methods and I can’t say which is better. I personally am in the KU program, though I have been moving my backlist wide slowly but surely.

That was not a concise answer. Sorry!

Looking at your KU analytics, what have you learned about how people are engaging with your books?

Oh man, you touched on something authors hate! There actually aren’t any KU analytics.

Here’s the thing, Amazon has all the data in the world, but they give authors the bare minimum. They tell us how many pages read we get per day and how many buys we get per day. That’s it. We don’t even know how many people borrow our books. Seriously, let that sink in. Amazon doesn’t tell you when someone borrows your book in the KU program!!!!! It’s a serious sore spot.

I really, really wish Amazon would release more reader data, but I guess there are issues with privacy and stuff? I mean, I’d LOVE to know if like 60 percent of readers finish a book, or like if 13 percent stop reading after the first chapter, or like ANYTHING—and Amazon knows, obviously. I’m sure they have good reasons for not telling us, but yeah, this is a long way of saying that authors don’t know a thing about anything at all because the data’s locked up in a big black very, very rich box. It really stinks.

Writers have been complaining about it for years and I don’t see Amazon ever budging on this point, mostly because the general wider publishing industry seems shockingly uninterested in hard data as a whole, but that’s a different issue and maybe not even true anyway.

Okay, complaining aside, I’ve learned that romance readers are frankly amazing. They are voracious, generous, and overall very kind. I sent out an ARC of a 47,000 book yesterday (on the short end, been a rough couple weeks) and, yep, two reviews already, like eight hours later. 

I also should say, as much as I complain about Amazon being opaque and difficult etc. etc., they basically gave me a job so I really do appreciate them. They could decide that indie author are way too much work than they’re worth and nuke us from orbit at any point, but but haven’t (well once, sorta) and I hope they never do.

I love writing books and I want to do it for the rest of my life, and if it weren’t for Amazon, I probably never would’ve gotten anywhere near the levels of success I’m at now. So thank you Amazon! But please tell me how many borrows I get. 

Is there an ideal number of pages/words for a KU book?

There’s no real answer to this question unfortunately, though in general longer books make more money under the current KU payout system. KU2 (vs. KU1 with the 10 percent rule) basically destroyed the shorts market.

I experimented with l30,000-word books for a little while, and it wasn’t really feasible. You’d have to be able to write one per week—or something like that. I also found that two weeks is the bare minimum I need to get covers made, to write a decent blurb, to come up with ideas, etc. etc., so while I was writing shorter, I wasn’t releasing faster.

Now I’ve settled into a decent 50,000-word range and that works for me. I can release one book every two weeks, and 50,000-words gets pretty close to that 300-KENPC length and can net about $1.35 per borrow. This is all very roughly speaking by the way, like ballpark numbers. But definitely longer means more money, like a 100,000-word book ranked 60th overall will make more money than a 50,000-word book ranked 55th overall, assuming they’re both priced $2.99 per normal royalty sale, even though the shorter book is selling more (in theory, who actually knows). 

I should probably say at this point that I’m not a data guy. That’s probably super obvious by now.

BUT, if you can write 50,000-word books really fast that rank well, and maybe that 100,000-word book takes much longer, then it might make more sense to do shorter books for reasons of momentum. New releases get prioritized in the Amazon system, or at least that’s the general thought (might not be as true as it once was) so getting more shorter books out faster means each of those get a little boost from the other one because they’re all still visible— you can kind of see why releasing short and releasing fast would work.

This strategy is called “rapid release” and it’s what I’ve been doing for years. It really does work, but it’s not easy to do it over and over.

What have you learned about the publishing industry as far as what works/what doesn’t work?

My experience skews indie, since that’s how I’ve made my living and I don’t know if my experience applies to traditionally published authors. But I’ve learned a ton.

I’ve had huge, massive successes, and plenty of equally massive failures. I’ve learned that your cover and your blurb are very important, even if they shouldn’t be, because it doesn’t matter how good your book is if nobody’s enticed to read it. 

I’ve learned that romance readers are seriously incredible and voracious and generous, and that the indie community is complicated and sometimes difficult but overall shockingly supportive and kind. I’ve learned that making a living writing words is very, very possible—if you’re willing to do the work and prepared to learn and fail a whole ton.

The indie world is also very isolating, since again, you’re doing it all on your own, so I really can’t recommend finding a community enough.

What advice do you have for new/emerging writers who are just starting out?

Here’s some random advice for someone that wants to write fiction professionally, in no order:

Find your community. I mentioned this like three times now. It’s super important.

Write for an audience. Assume someone’s going to read your book—and write for them. This can be as simple as writing the best book possible, or as complicated as seeking out a specific niche and writing stories for those readers.

Finish the book. Can’t be a working writer if you’re not finishing stuff. Finish the book then do it again.

Write the best books you can as fast as you can. Succeeding in the indie world means writing good books that people want to read on a regular schedule. Maybe that’s every month, or every week, or every quarter, or year, or whatever—just write good books as fast as you can.

Be professional. Remember, you want this to be your job, so treat it like a job. Work every day, set a normal schedule, figure out a routine that works for you. I write in the morning from 6:30am to 7:30am and again in the afternoon from 3pm to 5pm. Then I’m done with work and it’s kid time. I do other writing-related stuff in between those two sessions (and also help with the kids when they’re home). I don’t work on weekends. Figure out what works for you. Find your schedule and stick to it.

Learn from your failures. This is incredibly important and very hard. You will mess up, make mistakes, put out books that don’t perform the way you hoped. Learn from the failures, but don’t internalize them. Figure out what went wrong—cover, blurb, trope, whatever. Improve and move on. 

Finally, question the gurus. There’s a lot of publishing advice out there and some of it is really fantastic. Just be careful. Learn everything, read everything, get obsessive and take in as much as possible. There are some universal fundamentals you can’t get away from—nailing the cover, blurb, genre expectations, etc.— but for everything else, only keep the stuff that works for you and leave the rest, including everything I just said above.

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