How Dakota Krout turned his side gig as a fantasy author into a multi-million dollar self-publishing Amazon businessView transcript
Dakota Krout’s dream was to be a writer. When he wasn’t writing code as a computer programmer (one of two jobs he was working to make ends meet), he would chip away at a fantasy series he’d been working on for months. After his first book took off, Krout decided to go all in.
Five years later, Krout is the head of Mountaindale Press, an independent publishing company that specializes in Krout’s genre of choice: fantasy LitRPG. Much like role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, LitRPG is based on a strict set of rules that writers must follow. The unique format has an avid fanbase on Facebook that caught wind of Krout’s first book, which translated into runaway sales.
Krout quit his job, hired professional book designers and editors, and slowly grew his brand. Mountaindale Press now has 25 writers on its roster and makes millions.
Krout spoke about how he grew a successful side gig into a business, the do’s and don’t of self-publishing, and why Amazon is actually good for independent publishers.
From side gig to full blown career00:00:00
The Business of Business: I would love to hear about where you're at now. Walk me through how you made it in self-publishing, and now with your own publishing house.
Dakota Krout: Sure, absolutely. And once again, thank you for the invitation to do this. So when we initially started Mountaindale Press, I had been writing for about two years. So back in 2016, I put out my first book, so I was going to college at the time, I had just gotten out of the army. I had large chunks of time that I didn't know what to do with, throughout my life, and it was always filled with work, with other things to do. It was almost like a mini retirement, it was very strange. So while I was at university, I started writing in those gaps of time.
I just really got into what I was doing. I've always been a huge fan of Piers Anthony. He was a huge author that I would read when I was a lot younger, just the puns and the things that make you groan, it always resonated with me. And I really think that has impacted my own writing really heavily. But I started writing, and I had so much experience with reading that it really just translated well into putting down exactly the words that I wanted to put out there. Which is nice, because when I'm editing, usually, it's a very quick pass. I usually get down almost exactly what I'm going to say on the first go round.
The Stephen King approach.
Kind of. I've seen people that say, “You want to throw out your first million words.” And I don't agree with that. I'd say, right, but you want to write and just make sure you want to write it. And if you do that, keep it, put it out there, make it better, whatever it is.
“If you are writing and you're trying to make it a career, then you are a business.”
Turning that into a career took quite a while. I say that, but it took a lot of work, for sure. The first book went out, and it started being picked up and well received in the genre that I had been writing for, which was really nice. And when I saw how well it was being received, I looked at various tactics for gaining readership. And doing better just as an author, and I've started writing faster, like more words. Faster is kind of my motto now. And more quality words faster, I should say.
So, over the next two months, to three months, from October of 2016 to November and December, I wrote two more books. So I wrote a book in November, wrote a book in December. I had all of those out by January of 2017. So my first book took months, I would say, probably four or five, six months. The second book took one month, the third book took one month, and it was just power writing fast. Lots of coffee, very little sleep.
Were you already gaining some recognition by them?
I had gained a little bit of recognition. And like I said, that first book had been so well received. I have a degree in computer science. So in building and creating, figuring out how algorithms work, computer programming is the thing. And so when I looked at Amazon, I said, “Okay, well, a lot of what they do in terms of rank, in terms of all this other stuff, is entirely algorithm-based.” And the best favor is to have quality content that people want, right? So if you are making money, that means Amazon is making money, right? And so what they'll do is they'll push your books. If you are the best seller, the top rated, you'll see that stuff first, because that has the greatest chance of selling.
One of the one of the things that we assumed is that if you have more content, and people go from book one, love it, read it, they’ll go to book two. Love it, read it, well, usually they'll go to book three, right? With the algorithms, what we were trying to do was get a book out, but it was getting book one, book two, book three, all within 30-ish days for what in the other communities is known as the 30 day cliff. That's the idea that after 30 days, if you have shown that you're prolific, if you've shown that you're well received with reviews, and all this other stuff, usually you maintain high positions on the search charts.
So the books were out within 30 days of each other, which was not super easy. Just just to get those out there and get those reviews in our favor, get those algorithms working in our favor. After I had those three books out, I looked back at all the comments, all the reviews, all the things that were negative, and I said, “Okay, well, what are people saying about this that I can use to make what I do better?” From that point, I got an editor. I hadn't had one before that. So my words were only my words and not rushed into prettiness. I had gone with hand drawn black and white covers for my covers. So I started working on turning those into what they are now, which is much nicer, prettier covers.
I saw that. Yeah, there's definitely a difference there.
Exactly. And that's really what we were going for, we had our niche audience that we had reached. If we wanted to expand further into the more general reading population, we had to be able to market to them. And that's where those covers came from.
We started with that, I saw what we could do better. I actually started a new series at that point after getting three books out. Because I always have two going at a time because that way, it's not done. “So the series is over, Dakota is writing no longer, it’s done. Okay, well, he has nothing else out there, I guess that's it,” then they go and then they move on to someone else. I always have at least one series, they know that I'm constantly working on the next thing. And they'll check back for updates. So while I have complete series, and we'll have more complete series as we go forward, people know that there's more coming soon.
That was the start of how we built up our marketing campaigns. It was with relational marketing — we go out there, and we try to get people involved. And we try to talk to people and really, truly become friends with them, and do nice things and be good people. That resonated super well with our community. Two years after I first started writing, we took all of that experience, all the courses that we took, all the research we did, and we looked at how much we actually spent on this, how much we like the current writing speed.
The idea behind that was not a huge amount, like we can't use the same marketing data a year from the first time we learned about it, because by then it's oversaturated, the market has moved on, there's better ways to do things. And so I said, “If we want to really use the effort that we're putting into learning this, we need to be putting out more books.” Since I can't write 100% of the time, if I want to have a business — if I want to be able to know what we need to do, what we should do is start putting out other people's books.
We took on authors right away, and we worked with them to mimic what I had done with my stuff. It's obviously their content, it's their IP, but using the methodology, the workflow, the ideas behind what we had researched for my own work, we were able to boost them high really, really fast. With those three people as the social proof that what I do doesn't work just for me, we were able to start pushing into our community as the premier LitRPG and game publisher in our genre, so it's really nice.
For those who don't know, what is LitRPG?
So LitRPG is a progression fantasy or science fiction that is bound by the rules of a video game. It uses a hard magic system that allows you to get those rules and ensures consistency and allows for the mitigation of power creep.
I've got a little bit of experience with Dungeons and Dragons. How does that compare? Because that's the closest thing that I can think of.
I use dice. But I am writing my books, so I really like to keep everything where the system matters more than the story. I can't break the rules as the author just to progress a scene. Because otherwise that's where power creep comes in. That's, “Oh, I'm the son of the game developer, and therefore, I have this special ability that allows me to walk through the biggest monsters to get the best—” no, that doesn't happen. It's supposed to be very realistic. If you play by the rules, and you push the bounds of them as much as you can just like, really trying to be the best character that you can be min-maxing whatever it is.
If they were writing in the same world, they should be able to follow those same rules and get the same result. It’s the scientific method with writing. I definitely started out as a dungeon master. I was big into D&D. When I was younger in college, I actually started writing after everyone else graduated and moved away. I joined University at 21, after four years being pretty active in the army, and then I had four years in the reserves after that, where I had a lot more free time than I was used to.
Then came this hobby, which definitely takes up a lot of time now.
Definitely turned into a full blown career.
Breaking through in self-publishing00:12:11
Speaking of that, describe that moment of, “Oh, I could actually do this instead of my day job.” Was there a breakthrough moment like that?
So I had been working at a company as a programmer for about two years by this point, as an intern at the start, and then full time. By the time I eventually left, two years at that company, one of the issues there was that they wanted me to stay on at intern pay and move into a salaried position. And I'm sure most people have had that experience where you start working for someone and you realize that you've moved up in what you can offer and that pay doesn't follow.
One month, four books in, I had sold thousands, tens of thousands of copies of these first four books. I got a paycheck from Amazon that was almost what I could make in a year at this company at my current pay rate. I went to the bottom, I was like, “Amen. I have my degree, I have all this stuff. I have all this experience,” because that's what I did in the army as well. So I was like, “I don't need you to blow me away with a salary, but I need you to meet me halfway or something.” So the short answer for that was no.
So I gave my walking papers and headed out to do this full time. Now, I probably would have stayed. But I was married. I had just had my daughter. So I have one kid. And she's wonderful. At the time when I was doing all this, she was three months old. And if you know what intern pay is like, it's pretty hard to have a lovely wife and daughter and house and live as an intern.
I would get a check and hand it right to daycare. That was almost to the penny of what daycare costs. I literally worked just so my kid would be taken care of by someone else. And I hated that. So one day I went home and I was like, “Hey, hon. I want to start my full time job and do this because it’s more fun and profitable.” And she said, “What?” So, you know, we had had that conversation.
I left my previous job and went full time doing that. And it was pretty fun for a three month old, easy. She slept most of the time, and I would write, and when she was awake, I'd play with her. I mean, I'm just living the life of a trophy husband, man, it was pretty awesome. So my wife came home one day, about a month into this, looked around at the clean house, dinner on the table. Happy baby, my next book halfway done. She goes, “Nope, nope, nope. You're living my dream? No, enough of this.” So she came home and left her career. She has her doctorate in research, molecular biology. So she's much more intelligent than I am.
She said, “Okay, well, I'm going to come home, if this works, and you can do it, I can be there too.” So that actually worked out really well. Because then we split what we were doing. Instead of me working entirely to write the books, publish them, do the marketing, do the market research, the advertising, finding keywords, all of the glut of stuff that actually happens to make a book go out, I just gave that all to her and just focused on writing.
That's what a publisher is for, the sheer amount of work that goes into the backend of getting a book out and successful, because there's a difference. I put out books, and they did okay. They blew me away, blew away all expectations. But also, when we did things right, the revenue increased by 300% to 500% in a month. When we were doing the things that were actually starting to capture audiences that have what I could manage to do in the spare time I could give it. It turned into a behemoth that I'm hoping it continues growing.
And you're no longer self-publishing on Amazon?
I am, it's through Mountaindale Press, which is my company. So to me, I'm still self-publishing. Still on my own research, still on my own time. So it's an interesting thing — I'm an independent publisher, but I'm also self-published. So it's kind of a strange thing.
How to self-publish on Amazon00:17:39
So you upgraded from the status that most people think of when they think of self-publishing on Amazon. What are the challenges of doing this? It seems like you need to be a one-person publishing company, when you first start out.
So what I tell people, and what I even tell our own authors, is that if you are writing and you're trying to make it a career, then you are a business. With Mountaindale, for every author that we have, each of them has to be basically their own business. In a literal sense, right there. Most of them are LLCs or self proprietors for payment purposes. But what actually happens when you're publishing a book is a lot of people look at it, and they say, “Oh, you wrote words, right? You put words on paper, you put it out there, how hard can it be to publish a book?” That's a pretty standard attitude and it's not wrong. And you could say that about most jobs, like, “Hey, you're an advertiser, you just make pretty images, put it up on the internet, and it sells for people,” and then you look at all of the experience and time that actually went into allowing them to be able to do that in a timely manner.
So with publishing, we do have the full service. We do ebooks, paperbacks, audiobooks. And working on hard covers — it's a fun thing. When you look at that, the actual process for putting a book out is you write the book, and then the author's job is mostly done. But you still have to have cover art, typesetting, which is making the image or the title and all that fun stuff, go over the art, look nice and work with the art. It's two separate jobs, which is just weird to me. Two different skill sets.
The actual manuscript itself has to be developmentally edited to make sure that there are no inconsistencies within the story and that it will reach the audience that it's intended for. After that, it still has to be copy edited to ensure that the words themselves don't have terrible grammar, so on and so forth. So that's two rounds of editing by itself, we also usually give it to a select group of fans of the genre to read through and give us feedback. There still might be more changes after those two rounds of editing.
From there, it goes to publishing for the book, and it also goes off to a narrator. So the narrator reads the book, we then have to go through our quality assurance and through our mastering process, to make sure that it's the best quality book that can go out.
So now the books are out. Hooray, the book is out. Now we start advertising on every social media that you can think of. We try to have a presence in every place that we try to do advertising, and that list grows slowly. We try to get really good at advertising on one thing, figure out what we're trying to do, and do it really well, then move on to the next one, build up over time.
For one person to have their book out, it employs something like 10 to 12 people, which is nuts. That's not even going into stuff, like buying ISBNs or copywriting our book, or all the contract work that has to go through with our lawyers to make sure that the contracts we give people are fair, and that they don't do weird things going forward in the future. It's a massive production pipeline, even for the small amount of authors that we have.
How many authors do you have now?
I think we're at 25 active authors, which is great.
At what point did you realize that you really needed to start Mountaindale and establish that as a business?
It was really when we were doing all the research, making all the connections. We made connections with editors, and we started getting to know them really well. And I would work with one for the series. And then all of a sudden, I had nothing for them to do, trying out so many different artists and getting to know them, so on and so forth, doing research on narrators.
I actually went to an audio awards convention just to meet narrators that I could eventually hire on. It's just building all of those connections, doing all that networking, it took a huge amount of time. And then if you don't talk to those people, if you don't offer employment, they move on. We had this huge web of connections of people that we were working with, that we wanted to work with. And to keep that satisfied, and to keep making sure they had income coming into their pockets, we had to be able to create books that they could make a profit on. So that's how that all worked. And so turning that into a company was good.
Amazon’s impact on independent booksellers00:23:29
You're an independent publisher, but you're also on Amazon. How do you feel about Amazon's impact on independent booksellers? Especially with the pandemic, you couldn’t really walk into a bookstore any longer.
The idea that you could self-publish is, frankly, a new one. Amazon started allowing people to self-publish their books back in 2011. It's just been 10 years since self-publishing became a market that you could actually succeed in. And that's crazy. When you think about it, it went from basically no one can self-publish, unless you are incredibly wealthy, to 20 million books on Amazon in 10 years. That's wild.
Standing out is a big thing. So with Amazon, I think it's awesome what they've done in terms of being able to self-publish your books. If you can write an email, you can publish your book, and that's huge. Doesn't matter how good or if it sells, but you can do it. That's a huge thing. Obviously, they take a percentage to publish on their platform, and it's a small enough percentage. So that is something that people are willing to do, which makes it a viable option.
I really think that Amazon has had a great impact on people. I know that a lot of publishing companies are unhappy about that. If you look at the really big booksellers, and the really big publishers, they're not probably super happy that one company came in and just swept up the vast majority of all authors ever.
But if one company is going to let me control what is my business, and use them as a distribution platform like that, absolutely. And I think that, especially with books like ebooks, and paperbacks, they've really made it simple and straightforward for people to be able to self-publish. By the way, even though I own a publishing company, I still recommend people to self-publish, for multiple reasons.
The main thing is, if you want it to be a career, it's probably the fastest way to earn large sums of money, if your book does well. The three different levels are with self-publishing, you have the most control. But obviously, that is the most risk. You have nothing built up, you have no infrastructure, you have no support team, it's 100% on you. So all the wins are yours, all of the losses are yours. And that can be really hard. It has the biggest opportunity to make the most money almost exclusively.
I really do push people, even when people come in, they say, “Hey, I want to work with Mountaindale.” “Have you considered self-publishing?” Because it really is the best option for a short-term career in all reality, because the fact of the matter is it’s a huge amount of work. If it's a lifelong career, like I intend it to be for me, I can't do that alone. I have a support squad just for me. I have employees that focus entirely on my stuff. And unless you make it really big, really fast, it's really hard to build that team up for yourself.
Independent publishing is a good middle ground because someone like me, we have good connections, we have good processes, we have standardized procedures that we can do, people that we can go to that we know return a high quality piece for us to use. And that means it's great for the author, because they make more money usually than they can alone. Unless they do something that makes them very, very successful, like it happened with me. It could happen with someone else, but even now it feels like winning the lottery to myself. It really does. The lottery — lots of work — but still the lottery.
If you were to go back and do it again, you would do it the same way, then wouldn't you?
I would do even more on my own actually. I had the knowledge that I had now for how to do things, how well it would be received, how profitable certain aspects of it could be, I would definitely do it 100% more on my own, but I would build my company in the same way. Absolutely, I would.
But when I first got started with self-publishing, I didn't realize how big of a market audiobooks would be, for instance. And so I worked with someone else to produce audiobooks. I don't regret that decision, I don't regret that I work with them, they're awesome people. I also look at what it could have been, if I had just trusted that it was doing well and done it myself.
But there's a lot of fear when it's when it's your dollar that you're putting in. If you put in $100 into advertising on one little thing, and you get $0 back from those sales, that's a hard thing. I mean, that can break a brand new business, like even that small amount, because you can lose confidence.
The do's and don'ts of self-publishing00:29:17
What are the do's and don'ts of self-publishing? What are some of the pitfalls?
There are a lot of people out there that make a lot of promises they can't deliver on. I know a few people that have put in just massive amounts of money to make their book awesome. But the people that they chose to do it aren't who they should have chosen. Whether that's a proofreader, or an editor, or an artist, something like that.
Most self-publishing authors think about publishing a book, write a single book. So they'll go to an artist, and they'll make a beautiful, amazing cover. And then they'll use that for their cover. And two things happen. First of all, they don't realize that you also need to own commercial rights to the piece of artwork, if you're going to use it for anything other than what you paid for it. So if you want to put that on shirts, if you want to put that on coffee mugs, anything like that, if you don't have the commercial rights, you can't because you can get sued.
Secondly, what if the book does well, and you want to turn that into a trilogy or into a longer series? Well, if you haven't worked with that artist to make a deal for multiple covers, they might not have time to make you another cover for literally years. And so you might end up working with a different artist who has maybe a similar style, but the likelihood is that you'll have to redo that cover, right? So that's a big thing. If you don't have art styles that are consistent throughout your books. You have to redo them, because they just don't look right when they're sitting next to each other on a shelf or they don't look right in the Kindle app, whatever it is. So that's a big don't, is don't think just one book out. Think of, “Hey, if this is something I want to do in a serious way, what is that actually going to look like if I'm doing it long term?”
So that's a don't — what about in terms of do’s? What are the positive bits of advice that you can give or any myths that you've seen?
Many myths. That's crazy. Even in my current lifestyle, I've mentioned meeting someone for the first time. One of the big questions that everyone asks is, “Hey, well, what do you do for a living?” “Oh, yeah, I'm an author. That's what I do for a living.” And I get a huge variation of reactions to that. But the big one is that there's a huge stereotype of authors being starving artists. Like, “Hey, I'm an author. And so therefore, I haven't eaten this month, because I couldn't afford food. And now I'm pursuing my craft. And so I'm really throwing myself into it. And I'm just suffering for my art.”
Don't give into fear. So one of my favorite quotes is, “Everything you have ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” And ripping away those safety nets is hard. Putting something out that you've really put a lot of yourself into with writing, with business, with anything, whatever it is, is hard, because you never know what the reaction is going to be on that other side. You never know. But you want what's there.
If you want to go out there and make money, and you want to own your business, you don't want to be beholden to someone else. You have to put in the work and you have to put aside the fear. Because if you get bogged down, you’ll stay bogged down. You’ve got to push forward and be awesome. And every day, you have to wake up and you have to be awesome. And that's a hard thing. Because there's always a voice that says, “Man, I'm afraid that I'm not as awesome as I'm telling myself.” You’ve just got to put it aside and drive forward. So that's a big deal. I think that is half the battle right there, is just the psychology.
Self-publishing comes full circle00:33:45
What predictions do you have for the future of this industry? Like you said, in 10 years, it's just exploded with millions of self-published books. What do the next 10 years look like for the self-publishing world?
It's an interesting thing, because it's trending back towards larger publishing houses. I think what happened is that the self-publishing industry blew up the traditional publishing industry as it stood. But now that there's tens of thousands of new authors, yearly, monthly, sometimes. The question becomes, “How do I stand out? How do I make my mark and be visible in the sea of people?” And so what you see happening is small presses like myself, independent publishers, rounding up people that they think can do awesome work, putting them in a company. And so it's kind of funny that it’s trending back towards larger publishing houses.
You mentioned having more leniency with your authors. How do you find them in the first place? Do you have an open submission where they come to you?
No, no, no. Tried that once. So what we do is we do have a time period of open submissions, a small window, where we're like, “Hey, guys, we're accepting submissions. And you can submit now.” It’ll be during our planning meetings, because we have to plan out the next fiscal year, we have to plan out the release schedule for the upcoming year, all this stuff. We say if you want to be considered, send your stuff in.
And then in that time period, we'll go over all those submissions, and see who might be a good fit. And then give them a call and tell them about our process and how everything works, and the requirements on them, deadlines and stuff like that. And I tell you what, if you walk up to a super creative person and say, “Hey, man, just so you know, we'd love to work with you, but there are deadlines.” 80% of them will say, “Nope, doing it myself.” So that's one of the big filters, actually.
The Independent Authors Guild put out a statistic in I think it was 2020, of how many authors on Amazon were making six figures or more. And do you have a guess what that number was?
Probably 100 or something.
No, it was 1000. I liked your answer a lot. Because most people are like, “Oh, man, there's so many out there doing so many things. There's got to be tons and tons like thousands.” But there are 1000.
What does 2021 hold for Mountaindale? And what are you working on right now?
With what we are going for this upcoming year, I have a plan to put out a massive series and complete it all in one year. So in one year, 12 books, and go from start to finish in one year. And that's kind of my current business strategy. It's like, what's the difference between a business plan and business strategy? Strategy is telling you how you're going to stay competitive and ahead of other people, your contemporaries in the field.
I'm trying to draw a large market share. So I'm trying to pull in a ton of people with my personal work, so that as they're focused on me, they'll look at what is around me and what is around me is Mountaindale, a company. And the hope then obviously, as the wave comes in and the tide rises, it brings all the boats with it. And hopefully, the tide coming in is lots and lots of new readership. And all the boats that are going up are not just by flagship, but also all of the other ships and schooners and whatever it is — I’m not a nautical person. And that's the hope, so that's 2022 in a nutshell.