Ken Lozito is the author of fourteen science fiction and fantasy novels across four series. Ken has been independently publishing his own books for over four years, going from “hobbyist with potential” to a full-time author career. What started out as a love of stories has turned into a full-blown passion for writing them. (And it’s clear that readers have a love of Ken’s stories, because he has sold over two hundred thousand copies of his books.)
Ken is joining us today to talk about his decision to write full time, what his experience has been so far, and any tips he has for others thinking about making that transition.
But first, tell us a little bit more about you and your books!
How much time do you spend on promotion?
How has the pressure of needing to be creative to pay the bills impacted the experience of writing?
How did the fact that you’re an indy publisher impact the decision to go full time?
Do you think there are genres that lend themselves more or less to writing as a full-time career (like maybe romance)?
Did the switch to full time change (either increase or decrease) how much you invest in your work for things like cover design, editing, etc.? (Let me know if that’s something you’d rather not discuss.)
What advice do you have for writers who are considering making that leap?
Tell our listeners where they can find out more about you and your books.
Matty Dalrymple: Hello. Welcome to the Indy Author Podcast. Today, I am here with Ken Lozito. Ken is the author of 14 science fiction and fantasy novels across four series and has been independently publishing his books for over four years, going from hobbyist with potential to a full blown author career. What started out as a love of stories has turned into a passion for writing them, and it’s clear that readers have a lot of love for Ken’s stories because he has sold over 200,000 copies of his books, which is very exciting. Ken is joining us today to talk about his decision to write full time that he made fairly recently, what his experience has been so far and any tips he has for others thinking about making that transition.
Ken, welcome to the Indy Author Podcast.
Ken Lozito: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Matty: I am very pleased to. Before we dive into a discussion about going full time as a writer, just tell the listeners a little bit more about you and the books in your series.
Ken: I’m so bad about talking about me. I have a pretty common writer story that I’ve been doing it on and off for a while. Until 2013, I’d made the decision that I wanted to finally write the book I’ve been kicking around for a while. I told that story and now, I write other stories that I think is interesting pretty much.
Matty: And all in the science fiction fantasy area, correct?
Ken: Yeah. Right now, that’s what I’m doing.
Matty: Just give a brief description of the four series that you write.
Ken: The first series I wrote was called the Safanarion Order Series, which is an epic fantasy with a dash of science fiction in it. It’s four books long. It basically starts with the main character from Earth that goes to a magical land, which is kind of like my teenage fantasies. I wrote that story.
The other stories are more science fiction based. I found that I like writing those stories better than epic fantasy and fans resonated with those stories better than epic fantasy. Those are would be more science fiction space opera books. I had one called the Ascension Series that I’m writing the final book in it now. It takes place about 30 years in the future and essentially Earth is getting pulled into an inner galactic conflict and we’re completely unprepared so it’s fun.
My most recent series is called the First Colony Series that takes place a few hundred years in the future and Earth is sending its first interstellar colony out. While the colonists are traveling 60 light-years away, they go to sleep for 200 years and they wake up and they’re not where they thought they’d be and there’s no more Earth. It has a lot of mystery and my main character of that is a military elite officer who shouldn’t have been in the colony in the first place. It’s a bit of a fish out of the water life story and it’s really fun to write.
Matty: That’s great. Last year, you decided you were going to do that full time. What was your day job before you made that decision?
Ken: I have been working in IT security for almost 20 years and I had spent the last 10 years at this one company. In that field, at least in that place, the layoffs were common and I’ve been through a few rounds where I made it through. I just knew my number was going to come up so, either I was going to have to go and find another job or change careers.
My decision to go full time, even though I was working towards it, it came a little sooner than expected because I was lucky to be laid off last spring. They told me my end date would be at the end of the summer so I was like, “Well, I’m on a spot now, as far as book sales where it became a viable option to replace my salary.” I’m sure I’m going to talk a little bit more about that but that’s the high level.
Matty: Two hundred thousand copies of books in four years is pretty extraordinary. We’re not going to be delving too much into the promotional side of indie publishing here but that’s a very respectable accumulation of readers in a relatively short time. Just give us a little bit of background on how you did that because the fact that you had such a large following was obviously something that made it much easier for you to make the decision to go full time than if you were still building that following.
Ken: Essentially, what happened was each series I wrote, I got a little bit better, as far as writing and narrowing down on my target reader and giving them what they want. One of the reasons and this is how I sold it to my wife to be full time is l have a progression of each series a little bit better and selling a little bit more books than previous series over the course of the four years.
Essentially, what’s important to the decision was like, “Yeah, I have wrote a whole book and it’s smashing out of the park with the first book, although it didn’t exceed my expectations but it wasn’t until I had already been releasing books for about three years that the money that was coming in was enough to take notice that this could replace the salary.
Matty: As I was thinking about this discussion preparing for it, I was thinking mainly about the writing activities but obviously, if you’re focusing on your writing full time, you also have that extra time to focus on promotion. How much time do you think you now spend, percentage-wise, between writing and promotion?
Ken: Writing is my top priority. The marketing stuff takes maybe 15% of my time. I run ads through Amazon. I’ve done Facebook ads. I will delve into BookBub ads in the future. But landscape has changed since I started where you used to have certain services to help promote your books like Freebooksy and you run promotion with them and some of the other ones like Ereader News Today, which I’ve used over the course of the years. I don’t use them so much anymore but when I was starting in, it did help to get some exposure to readers. One of the biggest hurdles is getting in front of people or getting in front of the right people who would be a good match for the type of story that you write.
Matty: What made you decide to rely less on those services like Freebooksy?
Ken: I had more success writing my own ads, plus you can also exhaust the audience for you. I was running, maybe once a quarter like a discount and sending it to them but eventually, it was diminishing returns. I wouldn’t get as many downloads—at the time, it wasn’t worth the cost of running the promotion.
Matty: Do you publish in print, as well as e-book?
Ken: Yes, I do.
Matty: I would guess that most of your sales are e-book. Is that correct?
Matty: The family and friends like the print books, right?
Ken: Yeah. I like them on my shelf. I do sell print books. There are still people who that’s all they read on and they’re willing to pay for them but it’s not a significant amount.
Matty: One of the things that I think it’s interesting from a financial point of view for print books is, it seems like the investment is higher. You can make a pretty decent looking cover or have someone make a pretty decent looking cover for an e-book, it’s relatively easy. You don’t have to worry about things like getting someone who understands spine width considerations and things like that. It’s a more complicated formatting process to make a print book look really nice. Now, that you’re relying strictly on the earnings from your writing, have you had to rethink investments you make in the actual production of your books?
Ken: I will say on print book formatting, it’s gotten a lot easier. I used to do the formatting. I learned how to do it myself but there’s a lot of other authors sharing how they do the interior formatting on print books through Scrivener, which is a steep learning curve. Now, I used Vellum on my Mac and that makes it so easy to just put together a pretty decent format out there that looks good, whether it’s e-book or print. Again, it’s a novel. It’s just words on the page that you can have interesting chapter headings and makes it look nice and stuff like that. It is not as hard as it used to be.
As far as production cost, when I decided that I wanted to do this full time a few years ago, I decided that I had to emulate the author’s success that I wanted. That meant, getting it professionally edited, getting it proofread and having a cover. The other things I can do myself, which is the formatting, that’s just the skill set that I acquired but I’ll never be a cover design but that is something else that I pay somebody else to do.
Matty: I think that’s such an important message because one of the messages I try to carry forward about indie publishing, the reason I like to say indie, rather than self-publishing is self-publishing suggests that you’re in it on your own and indie suggests a somewhat more business-like approach to it and recognizing when you need to get other people involved, in order to put out the best possible product.
Ken: I noticed about the people who are doing well in this phase, have come from running a small business. They had that mindset and it’s something I have now that I didn’t have before but now I do.
Matty: What I find, and I’m representing the still-working-a-day-job perspective on this and what I appreciate about it is one of my book sales are not 200,000 so I wouldn’t be in a position to be looking at going full time anyway but I like being able to make the upfront cost for a cover design, for example, and not have to watch every penny because I know I’ll be able to still pay my rent, even if I’ve paid someone else to do the cover design.
When I first started out, I thought I would try to build my sales and then pay for help with the proceeds, which I realized is sort of silly because it’s like if you wanted to open a restaurant, you wouldn’t go about it saying, “Well, I’m going to scrape together the money to buy two pieces of bread and ham and cheese and that’s going to cost me a dollar and I’m going to sell it for $2 and then I’ll have a dollar and I can buy some napkins with it.” You make the upfront investment and so, I think the benefit of getting started when you do still have another source of income is being able to make that upfront investment as you would in any business.
Ken: It’s fun being the hobbyist with potential because there’s no dependency on your working income. You know, you’ll be a little bit more experimental. I budget projects now when I have what I called bread and butter projects, which catering to my core audience and I’ll budget, at least one or two projects that might be a little bit more experimental. I mean, that’s how I’m tackling 2018. There are some advantages to being that part time writer, where you can experiment and you learn in place. You know, learning on the fly is over rated when you can’t downsize to a one-bedroom studio apartment, which I can’t.
Matty: How frequently do you publish a book and how are your books divided between the bread and butter books and the experimental books?
Ken: Last year, I published six books. Last year was a little bit different because I knew I was getting laid off and I was going for a strategy of releasing new series close together because it would have a better impact than months apart. I learned that a couple of years ago, when I’ve done it previously, I wrote these two books close together and the sales build off of each other.
It’s a strategy that is extremely hard to do because in writing books, it’s a lot of outlay of money because you pay for all the editing and proofreading and I got my covers all done before and until you put the book out there, you don’t know how well it’s going to do. It is almost like synergistic, where you put the book out there, you reach the right readers that are going to read it. I like that feedback loop to say, they validated me. Not an editor or anything. You know, if my readers are happy then, I’ve done my job right. I think I have wandered from your question now.
Matty: The other part of it was just how do you split the bread and butter from the experimental. Is it like, one bread and butter and one experimental?
Ken: For this year, my release schedule will be about every two months and I’ve left a couple projects open at the end of the year. My first half of the year would be in series that I’ve already established myself in and one new series that caters to that audience. Then, depending on how the sales of those books go will determine just how experimental I get at the end of the year. I write down story ideas in a document and then I’ll go back to it once a week just to see which ones weren’t fanning the flames to become an actual good premise. I’m still putting that together.
Matty: It does seem like, if I look at your statistics—14 books over four series and more than 200,000 sold—it seems as if that’s a recipe that would lend itself more easily to a full time gig. The other one that I think is probably like that is romance, where you haven’t sold 200,000 of one book, so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket. You’re spreading it over and I would think that also, it’s easier to know, for science fiction fantasy or for romance, what your core audience is looking for so you can deliver that in a sort of efficient way, as opposed to if you’re doing literary fiction and it’s much more of a crapshoot as to whether it’s going to appeal to people. Does that resonate with you? Does that make sense to you?
Ken: On the one hand, having a good backlist help your sales so if you’re committed to one particular genre like in science fiction, when I released a new series in the fall, it did really well and those readers read my other science fiction series so it had that kind of cascade effect. But for any genre you write in, you should read in the genre so you’d know the tropes that readers want from their books and that’s what you should be delivering to.
I used to say, “I want to write this story because I think it’s a really good story.” I still have that but at the same time, I had a specific type of reader in mind that I want to entertain. I notice that it’s easier to market those books, write the blurb and all those things that put a book together. It’s having your target in mind to cater to.
Matty: Now that you’re relying on your writing for your income, have you noticed any impact on your creative life? When you have that idea that you think would be cool to pursue but you sort of have to say no because it’s not going to appeal to the core readers, what has that experience been like?
Ken: It’s just prioritizing. It just happens that the books that are my bread and butter are the stuff I like to write and because if I didn’t like to write it it’s going to show, it’s going to bleed through. You know, in the end, I have a mortgage. When I talked to other writers about this and even when I made my own decision to do this, I clearly define what do I want out of this. The first thing is to make a living and earn a certain dollar amount and I fit the other creative pursuits in that. I still do, if I want to write a book however I wanted and not take things like tropes than stories that mixes genres and accept the fact that it might not sell as well as something else.
Like my first series, [inaudible] audience, but it will never be a USA TODAY bestseller, but I continuously market that book, and that series does earn money each month because I take steps to put it in front of people to read them.
Matty: Have you ever thought about pursuing traditional publishing, instead of or in addition to indie publishing?
Ken: I think the hybrid model is nice. I’m not pursuing anything. My mindset is the more I grow, as far as readership of my books goes, that those opportunities will come to me, much like audiobooks. I don’t produce my audiobooks. I use an audiobook publisher to do that.
Matty: Who do you use for that?
Ken: I have two series with Podium Publishing and one series with Audible Inc, which is the division for Amazon and those are coming out hopefully at the end of the month, so that would be cool.
Ken: Thank you. I wouldn’t had any issue giving my print book rights away but I would not give my e-book rights away because there’s no way they can match the royalty. If I project this series is going to earn me for the duration of the contract, they would have to pay me up front. I don’t think it’s a good fit for either of us. It would be something I would consider but it’s just not something we’re going to pursue in immediate future.
Matty: Based on the experience you’ve had, from going from hobbyist with potential to the full time writer, what advice would you offer to other people who are thinking about that decision?
Ken: When I need my own decision, this is the criteria I used — a proven track record of selling books and making a consistent income. I track my sales each month. In my day job, I had to do what’s called monthly metrics to prove that my service was delivering what the business needed. I do the same thing but for myself now. A proven track record that the books are selling or making money, being able to market those books so sales remain consistent, and to be able to write books consistently.
The other stuff would be able to measure success and that means, having it clearly defined. There is no way I could ask my wife to take this leap with me if I didn’t have some concrete data to back up that this is viable, we’re not going to lose our house and I have two kids in high school. They’re going to go to college. I’m not in a position where I’m going to really downsize my life at this point in time. It’s more pragmatic—my approach to this.
The other thing would be, and this is really practical. It’s having a full year of savings before I would consider going full time because I see a lot of people who’ve done it too early and this business has ups and downs, where you can have a few months that are not as great as other months. I’m able to write books in a consistent way, where I’m going to be able to deliver a new book roughly every 60 days and they’ll sell relatively well to keep paying my mortgage.
Now, it took me four years to work up to that point. I certainly wasn’t doing that in the beginning. It was like one book every seven months and as I wrote more, I got better, I streamlined my process and it improved because I don’t want my back against the wall financially. I’ve read other traditional authors when I made the jump to full time is having that year worth of bills paid. Me and my wife works so it’s my half of the bills, basically and you avoid that tension.
There are some people who lightning strikes at the first book that they write and I think can be dangerously tempting, unless it really strikes where you suddenly become a seven-figure offer, which would be awesome but there’s no guarantee that your next book is going to sell that well. There’s also no guarantee that you’ll be able to write consistently. I just take the more practical approaches that have those things in a row, which takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, which is what a lot of people say to be successful. It’s what I think you need to do because I see a lot of authors who are there at any moment and then, they’re not here next year.
Matty: I really like the business-like approach you’re taking. I’m working on a nonfiction book. The working title, although this is a bit of a mouthful, is “The Craft in the Voyage of the Indie Author: Practical Advice to Achieve Your Creative Goals,’ and I’m taking 20+ years of project management experience, some in the IT world and saying, it’s not as separate from the author journey as you think it is. You have to do that cost benefit analysis to understand exactly the kinds of considerations that you’re talking about.
Ken: Yes. The whole planning of the year, that’s new. I used to just do one project at a time and I’m like, “Well, if I’m going to do this full time, certain things can overlap.” The other thing I’m keen to avoid is burn out so I need some of that work-life balance. Last year, I was putting a lot of hours because I knew the end was imminent and I didn’t want another IT job, I wanted to make a serious go of this.
Matty: Do you plan in time between books to have that down time?
Matty: Oh, a very good tip.
Ken: You know, because my kids are in high school at the time, I plan around other people’s vacation time. My wife works in the school district so she’s got summers off so I try to plan around that stuff so we have that kind of time. Basically, I took the amount of vacation time I got at my old job and said, “I’m going to maintain this in my new job because that’s the lifestyle I want. I don’t want to work more.” I love writing but it can’t be a 14-hour day, Monday through Saturday, so I do budget in some time off.
I do try to tweak my process and see what I can improve, as far as writing and producing because again, I know like at the end of last year, I was tired. My brain was tired. It took a lot for me to actually finish the last book I wrote because mentally, I was getting exhausted so I have to work to avoid that but at the same time, I do put out six books, which was good.
Matty: Yeah, that’s great and I like the tip about keeping in mind that you’ve got to plan out, both the work and the play to be able to optimize your work.
Ken: Yeah, because otherwise, you will start taking days. It’s okay once in a while to take that mental health day but if you do then, you won’t feel as guilty about it.
Matty: That makes total sense to me. This has been extremely helpful, Ken. Thank you for sharing all those tips and why don’t you tell our listeners where they can go to find out more about you and your books.
Ken: You can find out about me on my website at KenLozito.com. I put out there what I’m working on. It’s got some links of the books. I’m also on Amazon.
Matty: Great. Well, thank you so much.
Ken: You’re welcome.