Self-publishing can sometimes feel like shouting over a crowd, desperately trying to have your voice break through the noise. When shuffling around the public’s periphery, dancing among the bustle of other indie authors, traditional published ones, and all of the other clamor that the internet provides, how does someone steal even an ounce of attention?
Well, for some, you fire up your camera. YouTube has become a launchpad for so many indie authors – enough that “AuthorTube” has become a recognizable moniker for this corner of the site – but few have had the success that Jenna Moreci has enjoyed. Wise as she is witty, Jenna has built herself up as a prime example for success in the AuthorTube community with her 215,000 subscribers and her self-published sophomore novel, The Savior’s Champion, rated as one of the Best Books of All Time by Book Depository. But it does take more than a sharp, sincere tongue (and one very cute puppy) to pull it off.
So what’s Moreci’s secret sauce? Well, she can tell you better than me.
Why did you decide to pursue self-publishing?
Like many writers, I started the game assuming I’d go traditional. That’s what “real” writers do, right? But the more I researched traditional publishing, the more I became disenchanted with it. I learned that – gasp! – a vast majority of traditionally published authors do not get the Stephen King treatment. I’d be doing the marketing on my own. My book would likely be pulled after two years, my advance would be piddly, and I wouldn’t be able to support myself off my writing for a long, long time.
After I got the bad news, I wondered what a publishing house could even do for a writer, so I researched that next. And the more I researched, the more I thought, well, I can do that. I have a business degree. I worked in finance, sales, and marketing. Obviously publishing is a different industry, but a lot of the concepts easily transfer over. It was starting to look like I didn’t actually need a publishing house as much as I thought.
The clincher was when I interviewed published authors – a lot of ‘em. Traditional or indie, 90% of them had nothing but negative things to say about the industry. They warned me to pick a new job. But there were two authors – one indie, one traditional – who stood out to me.
The indie author had just released his debut novel. Was he making enough to support himself? No, but he was making a lot more than he had expected, enough to encourage him to keep going. He was hopeful about his future and figured that, based on his sales, he could make writing his full-time job in roughly three years. He taught me advertising tricks I didn’t end up using, as they weren’t relevant to my target audience, but they were working for him. He was getting his sales, and he was excited about it.
The traditionally published author was equally happy. She was an elderly woman who had been traditionally published with one of the big five for several decades. She graciously recounted her story of being signed to them, having them ignore her, pass her over, and kill her books for five years, 10 years, then 15 years. Finally, with a great deal of persistence [from this author], her publishing house began to give her the recognition she deserved – after being signed to them for 20 years. They finally gave her an advance somewhat comparable to a living wage, and she was able to make writing a full-time career.
I was happy that she was happy, but I’ll admit, my eyes were wide for the entire interview. It took her 20 years for her publishing house to take her seriously? She was past the age of retirement at that point. She had waited so long to make writing a career, and, meanwhile, the indie writer I had spoken to was nearing his financial goal after one novel. These interviews solidified my decision. I was not going to wait decades for a massive company to deem me worthy of a living wage. I was going to put my future into my own hands.
YouTube has been arguably the biggest asset for you in terms of making your mark. But with all the other potential avenues you could take, why did you pick YouTube?
I’d be lying if I said it was my idea. Roughly 1 million years ago, I had a regular ole blog like all other writers. It hit about 200 followers, then plateaued. I also offered free critiques to fellow writers as a way to help the community and get my name out there. Many of them told me, “You know, you’re really funny, and your writing advice is really good. Have you considered making a YouTube channel? You have the personality for it.” I’d just laugh. I’d sooner jump in a river of boiling snot than plaster my face all over the internet.
Fast forward to my fiancé’s accident: He broke his spine, was in and out of surgery, and needed to relearn how to walk. I quit my full-time job in finance and signed on as his caregiver. My writing was put on hold, as was my blog. It was a terrible, traumatic time, and experiences like that change you. It helped me realize how fleeting life can be. I realized I wanted to spend my life doing the things I love most, and I was willing to take risks and make myself uncomfortable to make that a reality.
Once Cliff was well enough that I could tinker with my writing platform again, I decided to bite the bullet: I was going to start a YouTube channel. Everyone said I’d be good at it, right? Still, I had very dismal expectations. My goal was 100 subscribers. If I could reach that, I’d feel content. My farfetched, beyond-my-wildest-dreams goal was 1,000 subscribers.
Over 200,000 subscribers later, I am now a full-time YouTuber and author. It boggles my mind.
So many followers, so much success, and yet so little of your content is actually about your own work. Why not lean more into self-promo?
When people surf the internet, they’re not typing in “how can I support writers I’ve never heard of?” They’re searching for ways to help themselves. How to fix a flat tire. How to write a book. How to get laid. My channel helps with one of these problems.
The key to starting a platform, any kind of outward facing professional presence, is recognizing that people don’t care about you. They care about themselves.
The key to starting a platform, any kind of outward facing professional presence, is recognizing that people don’t care about you. They care about themselves. It sounds mean, but check your own search history, and tell me if it differs. We’re all looking for answers to our own problems, so you have to be willing to help other people and their needs first.
My platform is geared toward helping writers learn about the craft and industry. They come for the advice and stay for the laughs. And after a while, many become fond of me and want to know more about what I’m cooking up. That’s where my books come in.
There’s a general understanding of what “success” looks like in traditional publishing. How do you measure your own success as a self-published author?
I’ve always used traditional publishing benchmarks to mark my own definitions of success. For example, when I first began researching traditionally published debut releases, I learned that the average debut release sells 3,000 copies in two years (please note, this figure might’ve changed by now, as I researched this a while ago). So, as an indie author, my goal was to sell 3,000 copies in two years, or 1,500 in one year. I wanted to prove that even though I was indie, I could perform just as well as my traditionally published peers.
I sold my first 1,500 copies in three months and reached 3,000 copies long before the first year ended.
With my second novel, my goal was to pass the dreaded 10K mark, a figure many traditionally published authors are aware of, as it’s a hard number to beat. Once I passed that number, I was elated.
These are particular goals I set for myself, but my personal definition of success is being able to live off my writing. I’m making good money doing what I do, and that is enough for me. I don’t need awards or accolades – though I’ll admit, they certainly do help. Having my novel listed as one of the Best Books of All Time by Book Depository is something I’ll be bragging about for the rest of my life. I did that! Little ole me!
Living off your writing is arguably the all-time dream of most writers, and you’ve locked in that dream. What would you say has been your secret for converting a YouTube following into writerly profit?
First step: Dedicate your channel to your target audience. I write adult fiction, so my channel is for adults. I cuss, I make sex jokes, I talk about business, money, and other adulty things. I also talk almost exclusively about writing, and guess what kind of people love to read? Writers! Thus, even though my platform is 80% geared toward writing advice, I’ve still created it in such a way that it targets the kind of person who might want to read my books.
Second step: Pitch your books. I do NOT recommend starting a channel with the sole purpose of promoting your writing. No one will subscribe. But you can make a video about a topic that serves your target audience and mention at the beginning or end, “Don’t forget to check out my book, available at these fine retailers.” The more people watch your content, the more they’ll be interested in the written work you’re producing.
Third step: Pay attention to what your audience wants. My audience asked for merch, so I made a merch store. My audience wanted character portraits, so I hired a portrait artist. This does not mean you have to do everything your audience asks for, but their requests can open up additional lines of income for you. Hell, my audience specifically requested I set up a Patreon page, and now I’m making nearly an extra two grand every month.
Last point: Bouncing off what I’ve already said, diversify your income. YouTube offers many ways to do just that: ad revenue, affiliate income, sponsored content, etc. That way, if you have a lousy sales month, you have other income to fall back on. Just be careful when it comes to affiliates and sponsorships; make sure you’re only accepting offers from companies you use yourself or would recommend to your audience regardless of payment. Your readers deserve honesty.
Any last, particularly fruitful thoughts you want to feed?
My experience helping Cliff through his spinal cord recovery and acting as his caregiver has completely changed the way I see life and my career. I know many people have not gone through what we’ve gone through – that’s a good thing – so allow me to pass what I’ve learned onto others: Life is short. Pursue your passions. Try things. You don’t have to succeed – just try. If you crash and burn, at least you know you gave it a shot. And personally, I’d rather have a million failures under my belt than a lifetime of regret.
Kiss your loved ones, tell them they’re your whole entire world, and write some books.
—Zora Squish Pruitt is a QTPOC author exploring the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. They are currently pursuing a BFA at Ringling College of Art and Design. Find them online if you like at @humblesquish on Twitter or humblesquish.com.Originally Published