Six Tough Truths About Self-Publishing (That The Advocates Never Seem To Talk About)

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Self-publishing advocates would have you believe that even considering a publishing deal is idiotic, when you can just put the work out yourself and become the master of your own literary destiny.

Look at all the advantages: No crazy contracts to sign. You get full say over everything, from content to cover. There's no web of editors and agents to wade through. No publication dates set for years in the future. And the profits! Did you know that the split with Amazon is 70-30? Did you know that you get the 70? And setting up a Twitter account and a Facebook author page and a Wordpress blog is dead simple. It's a wonder anyone still goes through publishers, right? 

But a lot of this stuff is not nearly as easy as they make it sound, and if you're going to self-publish, there's a couple of harsh truths that you need to understand before you start. 

1. Stimulating sales is hard

Cartoonist Lars Martinson submitted a webcomic to Reddit, and as a result his website jumped from 100 visitors in one day, to 48,342. Given the 25,000 percent increase in traffic, he figured he'd sell a ton of eBooks. Stands to reason, right? 

Nope. He sold 23. That means a 0.048 percent boost in sales. You can read more about this over at Boing Boing.

And this is the funny thing about the internet; you can tweet and Facebook and Tumblr and Pinterest and blog tour and shoot book trailers and beg for reviews on Amazon. You can do all of those things and still barely move the needle. This is a long game; there are no immediate results. On top of that, the market is flooded right now, which makes it that much harder to stand out. 

2. Many self-published authors earn less than $500 a year.

A lot of the self-publishing advocates like to talk about how much money they make from their ventures (some bragging numbers upwards of six figures). But a recent survey of 1,007 self-published authors, recounted by The Guardian here, found that average earnings were just $10,000 a year, with half of the respondents earning less than $500.

As with all things, the self-pubbed authors hitting it big have a few things going for them. Many of them started with traditional publishing deals, so they already had a following and experience in the business. Some of them are savvy, experienced marketers who know how to sell themselves. Others have churned out so many books that the odds are in their favor for a higher payday. And some have just hit upon the biggest contributing factor to sales: Luck. 

3. The biggest contributing factor to sales is luck. 

Seriously, this stuff is unknowable. Regardless how you feel about Fifty Shades of Grey, it's beyond dispute that the quality of the writing is pretty low. And yet it's sold 10 millions copies in six months. That's staggering. The more attention it gets, the more attention it generates; this book is the perpetual motion machine of publishing. But why this book? There's been scores of erotica novels before Fifty Shades. Why is this the one that took America by the hand and ushered it into the red room of pain? 

Who knows. Seriously. Who the fuck knows? It just did. That's how these things break down. If there was some secret to this, we'd all be millionaires. There is one guarantee for sales: Get Amazon to make your book the deal of the day. Can't do that? Then good luck. 

4. Designing a cover and editing is not easy. 

Spend a little time reading excerpts of self-pubbed books on Amazon, and wow. I've seen some start out with typos in the first sentence. I saw one where the third word was wrong. Editors play an important role in the process of making a book; they catch all the things you can't help but miss. You are the worst person to copy-edit your own book. In order for a self-published author to be taken seriously, the work needs to be flawless; every typo robs you of legitimacy.

Besides hiring an editor, you really should hire someone to design the cover. Oh, your friend knows how to use Photoshop? Not good enough. People do judge books by covers. And a bad cover will almost certainly result in lost sales. The point is, self-publishing isn't exactly as DIY as some would have you think (and $500 a year isn't going to do much for covering these expenses). 

5. Kiss movie and foreign rights goodbye. 

If you were planning to one day sell the film or foreign rights to your book, think again. In order to attract the attention of a movie studio, you need to move hundreds of thousands of copies. Otherwise, you'll have to start calling your contacts in the film industry for help. Oh wait, you don't have contacts in the film industry? Then that's pretty much off the table. 

As for foreign rights, it is possible to sell your book to a foreign publisher (which you'll need to do if you want it translated). But that's a long, arduous task, one usually undertaken by a literary agent or a publishing house--which you don't have. I'm not saying selling these rights are impossible, or that you'll even want or need them, but your chances of getting them are monumentally harder without the guidance, support, and rolodex of an industry professional. 

6. The advocates aren't selling a new paradigm, they're selling themselves.

People on the internet spend an awful lot of time writing about writing. Writing about writing means being perceived as an authority, and exposure, and building a base (and I'm not even going to pretend to be innocent of that). There is an entire cottage industry built upon writers churning out articles and guides and essays about the benefits and how-to's of self-publishing. Notice, nearly all of those articles include links to the books they've self-published.

I'm not saying these people are dishonest. I'm not saying they're trying to take advantage of you. I'm just sayings its in their best interest to portray self-publishing as a good thing. Always consider your source.

Caveat

I want to be very clear about something, because this is the internet, and things need to always be stated explicitly: I am not against self-publishing. It is a legitimate option, one I've considered, and it could be the best path for you and your work. 

But if you're going to do it, you need to go into it with the right expectations. And those expectations are: It's really fucking hard. Anything worth doing is really fucking hard. Some people would have you think it's dead simple, and only when you really push will they begrudgingly admit that it's not the land of sunshine and honey. 

Go into self-publishing with realistic expectations and you'll be fine. Just don't accept the snake oil as gospel. 

Image of New Yorked (Ash McKenna)
Author: Rob Hart
Price: $9.90
Publisher: Polis Books (2015)
Binding: Paperback, 304 pages
Rob Hart

Column by Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor, as well as the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. He's the author of New Yorked, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose and the upcoming South Village. Short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, All Due Respect, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Birth.Movies.Death, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at www.robwhart.com

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Comments

Bret Valdez's picture
Bret Valdez May 31, 2012 - 12:38pm

great article, Rob! I have a friend who's considering the self-publishing route, so this is a serendipitous read! thanks for your input on the subject.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading Ember by Madison Daniel May 31, 2012 - 12:46pm

This was a very useful article. I'm still torn on which route to go with publishing, but this definitely gives me some great insight to couple with Kelly Thompson's "Long & Winding Road" series. 

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore May 31, 2012 - 1:01pm

Spot on. It is extremely difficult to break through that second degree of separation, to get your friends to tell theirs and intersect those circles. Anyone who's ever been in a band knows how hard it is to drag new people to gigs, or to an art exhibit, much less purchase a CD or painting. Not to mention that hardly anyone actually reads. . . . But sometimes all it takes is that one influential individual with the huge platform to get their eyes on your work, and things can blow up.

Meanwhile, nothing's more onanistic than amateur writers professing about writing (can't believe I didn't go blind several years ago, myself). I liken it to all the guitar lessons on YouTube taught by 15-year-olds. Yo, try again after your 10,000-hour apprenticeship. . . . My biggest promotional fear is people clicking Hide on Facebook, so I keep the signal-to-noise ratio pretty high when it comes to whoring, and never, ever update the status of in-progress writing. It's pretentious to think anyone's clamoring in anticipation. Just tell us when you've got something tangible to share, maybe a cover design or synopsis or tour dates.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading Ember by Madison Daniel May 31, 2012 - 1:05pm

@Gordon - I agree with your opinion on the whole Facebook thing. I do update on stuff I'm in progress on, but I only update, at most, twice a week because I don't want to over-saturate everyone's feeds and get the dreaded hide button blues. I feel like if you don't put something out, at least, once a week that people will tend to forget about you. It's a really tough line to walk, in my opinion.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore May 31, 2012 - 1:55pm

By all means, yes, you gotta stay active and keep your name out there, but I prefer it be things that are informative or amusing. It's the "got another 1200 words written today" updates that get my Hide trigger all itchy (because it might be another two years before that actually means anything as far as interested Friends are concerned). Now if it's an annoucement about an upcoming publication or event, or pimping a friend's existing work, great. Otherwise I'd prefer to keep that kind of progress inside the captive-audience walls of writing communities like this one. I could be wrong, and I suppose you could gauge that external interest by the number of comments one receives about such micro-updates.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading Ember by Madison Daniel May 31, 2012 - 2:04pm

Good point. I'm definitely going to take that into consideration for all of my future status updating shenanigans. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 31, 2012 - 7:01pm

For me it is more of a hoping to find way to increase my income just a touch for something I do anyway. I don't see much work like I write being published and/or doing well if it is so I'm of the mind  it won't draw much interest from publishers. I'm going to write. If self publishing can take that from a cost to at least paying for itself all the better, yay! I might even get lucky and be able to not work so much overtime.

Genevieve Graham-Sawchyn's picture
Genevieve Graha... June 1, 2012 - 8:32am

Perfect. Every point you made is terrific.

1) It IS a long game. I'm fortunate to be published with Penguin, but even then there's no guarantee. Promoting is a slogging, painful enterprise no matter what audience you're grasping at. Those are really cool numbers you quoted.

2) $500, huh? That's not quite enough to call writing a profitable hobby. With all the work that goes into writing & promoting, the trick is to write a damn good book so publishers will consider it and do a lot of the work themselves. And pay you.

3) I can't bring myself to comment on 50 SOG. Just can't.

4) So true. There are some very fine artists out there who charge for their services, and they are usually worth every penny. Covers really do make a difference. Tell me you don't judge a book by its cover and I'm pretty sure you're lying.

5) This is SO hard. Could be my book's just not at that level, but even the big publishers aren't doing much of that these days.

6) YES. So so so true. Well meant advice, I'm sure, but you'll get ALL THIS AND MORE IF YOU BUY MY BOOK. There's a reason people self-publish, folks. They haven't got the product publishers are seeking. Keep working on finding and perfecting that nugget and you might get lucky.

As an editor I see dozens of books that I pray won't make it to the self-publishing machine - not before they consult a professional. Don't give the public that kind of impression - that you don't know the difference between they're and their; you believe … is a valid form of punctuation; it's okay to use robotic dialogue, among other things. 

Awesome article. Thanks.

Michael J. Sullivan's picture
Michael J. Sullivan from where unlikely heroes dwell is reading Under the Dome June 1, 2012 - 5:00pm

So, let me guess. The author of this article has never ....
a) successfully self-published
b) successfully traditionally published.
So exactly why should anyone listen to him? I on the other hand have done both. And I think this article is filled with so many holes and biases that it has me livid. Is one better than the other...no. They are different, period. It depends on what you want as an author. Next time, try posting an article by someone who can state both sides fairly because of firsthand experience. Not a bunch of assumptions.

1. Stimulating sales is hard
Not a bad statement, but the problem is what makes you think that traditional authors don’t have the same issues to face as self-published when it comes to stimulating sales? “Well traditional houses have marketing departments,” you might say. Yeah, and they are focused on selling to bookstores, not readers. And guess what, they have next to no budgets, and many authors all competing for the same limited resources. And as soon as the next catalog comes out, there is a whole new crop of books to promote and your time in the limelight is over.
I used the same techniques for self-promotion when self-published as I did when traditional published. If you want to be successful, you can only rely on yourself as only you are 100% dedicated to your project.
Therefore this bullet has no business being on this list.

2. Many self-published authors make less than $500 per year. 
And most authors on the query-go-round make $0 per year…I don’t see your  point.  Not to mention the study that was recently done is VERY flawed ( too much so to get into here.  But let’s look at this how it should be looked at.

Let’s compare apples to apples and consider a book that is “good enough” to be picked up by a traditional house.  All other books, either stuck in the slush pile or the self-published morass (i.e. low sales) don’t count because in neither case will they have what is required to find an audience. So considering this, the average advance for a debut traditional author is $5,000 - $10,000 and only 20% earn out.  To earn similarly, considering a $3.99 ebook the self-published author has to sell 1,795 – 3,570 to earn similarly.  Assuming a “shelf life of 36 months) that’s 50 – 100 books a month which is peanuts when priced at $3.99.  Amazon itself states that more than 1,000 DTP authors are selling more than 1,000 EACH month!!  I’ve sold more than 11,500 books in a single month (price $4.95 - $6.95).  I know more self-published authors earning five-digit and six-digit incomes than traditionally published ones.  Bottom line for the “average midlist author” the income potential is 3x – 4x greater in self publishing than traditional…assuming equal amount of promotional efforts for both as in #1 above.

3. The biggest contributing factor to sales is luck. 
Sorry that’s just plain BS.  Luck is not what makes books successful.  Success is tied to two things and two things only.
a) Writing a good book (meaning one that people love enough to buy multiple copies of and tell all their friends about)
b) Getting the pump primed with a fair amount of people from a) above

That's EXACTLY what 50 shades of grey did, and Twilight, and every other successful book on the face of the planet. This is not "some mysterious confluence of events" that no one can figure out it's extermely simple.

4. Designing a good cover and editing is not easy
Nor is it rocket surgery.   When you talk about the badly edited books on Amazon…you are cherry picking.  Go back to what I said before.  The book has to be of publishable quality (regardless of who does it – self or traditional) first.  So if you can write at that level then finding someone to fix your typos and comma placements is super simple.  There are thousands of freelancers, many laid off by the traditional publishers who would be more than willing to do this for you. Cover design can be had for $150 - $500.  That’s 53 – 175 books. Which can be made back in no time whatsoever at a $3.99 price point.

5. Kiss movie and foreign rights goodbye.
Again the person writing this article doesn’t know what they are talking about. I had MULTIPE foreign contract sales while self-published, and I’m constantly referring my foreign rights agent to other self-published authors who are being approached for deals.

As to movies, most won’t get this anyway so not worth mentioning…but oh yeah, there’s this little title called Wool optioned by 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott is attached to the project.  What about that?  Or Hocking’s deal? I also personally know two other self-published authors that have deals. So no it’s not impossible

6. The advocates aren't selling a new paradigm, they're selling themselves.
Okay, but so what? I know of very few people who are making any money out of evangelizing self-publishing. A few have books explaining what they did, but they sell a fraction of those as compared to their fiction work, and no one puts a gun to anyone to buy them. Are there lots of people talking about it? Sure, mainly those that can’t believe how much times have changed.  I know Joe Konrath is brash, but so what? Many people who are talking are doing so to combat biased posts like this one.  But what skin is it off your nose? If you don’t like what is being said, here’s something don’t listen. I’m not sure what this has to do with anything.

Go ahead ask questions, I'm more than happy to respond.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 1, 2012 - 4:51pm

I'm trying to come up with a term for people on the internet who skim articles, barely comprehend them, and then use them as a launching point to rant about how smart they are, when in reality they're just making points that are specious at best, completely ridiculous at worst. 

Anyone want to help? 

Michael J. Sullivan's picture
Michael J. Sullivan from where unlikely heroes dwell is reading Under the Dome June 1, 2012 - 4:59pm

Almost there... then snark away. Done... go.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading Ember by Madison Daniel June 1, 2012 - 5:10pm

Am I the one to have to point this out?

 

I want to be very clear about something, because this is the internet, and things need to always be stated explicitly: I am not against self-publishing. It is a legitimate option, one I've considered, and it could be the best path for you and your work. 

But if you're going to do it, you need to go into it with the right expectations. And those expectations are: It's really fucking hard. Anything worth doing is really fucking hard. Some people would have you think it's dead simple, and only when you really push will they begrudgingly admit that it's not the land of sunshine and honey. 

Go into self-publishing with realistic expectations and you'll be fine. Just don't accept the snake oil as gospel.
 

Robert Gregory Browne's picture
Robert Gregory ... June 1, 2012 - 5:47pm

Self-pub advocates talk about this stuff all the time. Here are  some observations about your post:

1. Stimulating sales IS hard. But then it's also hard in the traditional publishing world. More traditionally published books fail to sell through than succeed. And more and more, publishers are expecting their authors to do the lion's share of the promotion. So this point is probably a wash.

2. Yes, many self-published authors earn less than $500 a year, just as MOST midlist, traditionally published authors get low advances, don't make a living wage, and have to have day jobs in order to survive. Again, the point is probably a wash.

3. Yep. Luck is a huge factor in any creative venture. And again, going the traditional route doesn't really improve your odds of selling. If it does, it's only slightly.

4. Designing a cover, etc., isn't easy, which is why smart self-pubbers hire out for such tasks. There are very talented cover designers and editors working freelance who don't charge a fortune and certainly don't continue to take a percentage of your sales, like the publishing houses do.

5. Kiss movie and foreign rights goodbye? Absolutely wrong. At least one self-pubbed book was recently sold in a major deal, and I myself have sold movie rights twice--not on self-pubbed work, but certainly on work that had far less than 100,000 copies distributed. Movie producers are looking everywhere for material, and as quality self-pubbed books appear, they'll certainly come calling. As for foreign rights, I have self-pubbed friends who are already working on such deals. 

6. I'm not sure what your point is with this one. Of course there are advocates writing books about self-publishing. Traditional publishers and authors also write books about how to break into traditional publishing. I see nothing wrong with either. Aspiring writers need to get their information somewhere, even if the hype--in both cases--is often a bit over the top.

The truth is, with the advent of ebooks, Amazon and Kindle, midlist authors who once were either scraping by in the industry, or couldn't make a living at all, are now making many times the amount of money they earned through traditional publishing. 

Self-publishing is NOT a lazy man's game. But then neither is writing. And if you don't give it 100%, you'll fail. Just as in any other business.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated June 1, 2012 - 6:33pm

@Rob - You'd call them 'illogical'. Ad hominem deals with the speaker, not the content. Regardless of who you are or are not you ideas should stand on merit.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore June 1, 2012 - 6:37pm

Movie producers are looking everywhere for material, and as quality self-pubbed books appear, they'll certainly come calling.

I was going to say, "by which you mean popular self-published books," as the only time stuff seems to prick up their ears is when it's already sold obscene quantities in novel form, regardless of whether it's any good or not (by which I mean the actual substance, not Mr. Sullivan's definition). But thinking on that, it's not entirely true. I've heard of smaller authors having their work optioned—very few, but I have—and I always wonder how their work ever makes it across producers' desks other than sheer flukey luck that someone's nephew just happened to be reading X and you'll never guess who they bumped into, yadda.

It's also worth discussing the divide between genre publishing and general fiction publishing (notice I didn't say "literary"?), as the audience potential tends to be quite different. Most of us around here aren't writing to filling a market gap, or to churn out a demanded product. It's the opposite approach of wanting to create our best work and then trying to find an audience for it afterward. Your typical self-publisher who isn't a career author would probably dance a jig if they sold 500 copies of a title. They'd have to sell 10,000+ per year to quit their day jobs, anyway.

Robert Gregory Browne's picture
Robert Gregory ... June 1, 2012 - 8:27pm

I was going to say, "by which you mean popular self-published books," as the only time stuff seems to prick up their ears is when it's already sold obscene quantities in novel form, regardless of whether it's any good or not (by which I mean the actual substance, not Mr. Sullivan's definition).

Actually, no, that's not what I mean. My book, Kiss Her Goodbye, was made as a TV pilot for CBS Television because one of the producers walked into a book store looking for potential new material, found an anthology of crime stories, read one of mine, then subsequently sought out one of my novels and optioned the rights. Neither the anthology or the novel sold in massive quantities. The producer was simply looking for good, cinematic stories.

I guarantee you that other producers are scouring the Kindle lists looking for material to adapt. If you've ever spent any time in Hollywood, you know that books and stories are discovered in a VARIETY of ways, not always having to do with popularity or sales.

My book, The Paradise Prophecy was optioned based on an outline I wrote before the book was even written. So again, yet another route into the producer's hands.

To make any blanket statements about how Hollywood gets material is absurd.

Oh, and I don't differentiate between genre fiction and "general" fiction, as you call it. A story is a story. A good story is a good story. There's cream and crap in both categories.

 

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore June 1, 2012 - 9:21pm

Of course there is. I'm just suggesting that the path to success for someone who writes, say, fantasy or legal thrillers is different than for someone who writes, say, southern gothic or transgressive. As are the definitions of said "success." Not talking skill or persistence or promotional door-knocking, I just mean because of the markets for them and the way business is done. I think genre writers are less likely to hear "I don't know how to sell this" from those within the system, as well as probably standing a better chance on their own than the rest of us.

I haven't yet heard any major self-publishing success stories about the types of books I'd actually enjoy reading. Hopefully some exist, and just aren't making headlines on my radar. But that's consistent with the traditional marketplace for the most part as well. It's exciting when I see that rare lit-fic title break through. It seems that so many books that blow up from out of nowhere are only being read because other people are reading them: a buzzing, snowball effect for water-cooler talk or whatever. We've all gotten those lame, lowest-common-denominator recommendations from non-readers once they learn you're a writer, the same way everyone is compelled to mention their niece who plays clarinet when you hand them a flyer for your band's gig.

Wait, what the hell was I talking about? I think it got away from me . . .

Robert Gregory Browne's picture
Robert Gregory ... June 1, 2012 - 9:44pm

LOL.

You'd be surprised how many times I've been told, "I don't know how to sell this," and I'm certainly what would be defined as a writer of "popular" fiction.

To a degree, of course, you're right—in Hollywood today, if your protagonist isn't wearing tights, a cape and wailing on bad guys, you have less chance of getting their attention. But that goes for everyone—not just "general" fiction authors.

There are, however, outlets for non-genre stories in Hollywood—independent filmmakers, certain cable stations, etc. And Hollywood can often be unpredictible. Keep in mind that ninety percent of what's optioned never gets to the screen. But that doesn't mean there aren't people out there at least TRYING to get a green light on the type of stories you love.

 

Michael J. Sullivan's picture
Michael J. Sullivan from where unlikely heroes dwell is reading Under the Dome June 2, 2012 - 9:28am

@Gorgon said, "I'm just suggesting that the path to success for someone who writes, say, fantasy or legal thrillers is different than for someone who writes, say, southern gothic or transgressive. As are the definitions of said "success.""

I agree with this 100%. Self-publishing is a great route for those in popular fiction, but I would not recommend it for someone who writes literary fiction - which really needs the cache of an established press to get it entered in the various awards and what not. 

Definitions of success are also an important component.  For me, my definition of success is that I can support my family by doing something I love.  For someone in the literary side of the house it may be a smaller audience, but high accolades.  Nothing wrong with either desire.

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter June 2, 2012 - 8:30pm

All the things mentioned in the article have some truth among them, but you're also faced with the exact same truths when you sign with an Indie or small press. Or even if lightning strikes and an unknown lands a big six contract.. You still have you're work cut out for ya. 

"Publishers are notoriously bad at promoting their authors." This quote had been said to me face to face by a 30 year writing veteran, national bestselling novelist and screen writer, with one produced film. He's published with small press' and big six. He's known success and he's known the other, I'm sure.

I've turned down several small press contract's mainly because...I can't find their fucking current books anywhere, they have no marketing department to speak of, they have no distribution or sales departments. Sound familiar?

That's not to say i don't consider offers, I'm considering two now. I might take em and I might not. But it had nothing to do with legitimacy, or calling myself a "real" writer. I don't give a shit that. I care about writing and the reader, even if it's only one. That's why I do it.

I think people can do what ever the hell the want. But it ain't over with ,"The End," no matter how you publish or with who.

It's just a reality of fucking books and writing. If you're in it for the money, 99.9% of you had better get used to disappointment or find another line a work.

These are tough truths about being a writer, not self publishing.

Kevin McLaughlin's picture
Kevin McLaughlin June 3, 2012 - 6:28pm

I'm going to agree with the Kevin above me (we Kevins need to stick together!) - "These are tough truths about being a writer, not self publishing."

1) Stimulating sales is hard. And because major publishers do almost no work on this for most books they produce, this is hard for ALL writers. Regardless how they are published. Want to splash? Get out and sell. Whether you're published under your own imprint or under Penguin, doesn't matter for most writers. The best way to be noticed, however, is always to write good stories.

2) Many self published writers make less than $500 per year. Sure. But the average income from books submitted to publishers is just barely above $0. Why? Because most of them are not accepted for publication. Leaving aside that the methodology and sample size of the survey in question are both poor, and therefore suspect, the fact remains: most submissions to major publishers sell zero copies. Likewise, most indie books sell very few copies. The ones which sell bunches are generally the stories people want to read. The solution? Write good stories.

3) The biggest contributing factor to sales is luck. This is also the biggest contributing factor to whether you get trade published. Or to whether you get and/or keep a job. And to buckets of other things. Of course, it's not ALL luck. Doing good work improves your odds immensely. Doing lots of good work even more so. The answer is simple: write good stories, and lots of them.

4) Designing a cover and editing are not easy. Agreed - this is why major publishers screw up this element so often. Lots of writers these days are complaining about a lack of editing. That's not new. I had a book published by a mid-size publisher back in 1997; they threw out all the corrections I made on their piss poor job of editing, and then somehow managed to insert errors that hadn't been there on the original manuscript as well. Ugh. Other writers I know have said their books go direct to print without anything more than a couple of cursory changes. Yeah, editing and covers are complex, but luckily indie writers have built an excellent pool of professional contacts who can handle that work for you, should you need it.

5) Kiss movie and foreign rights goodbye. Like you have any serious chance of those going through a NYC publisher, anyway. ;)  Several hundred thousand books a year come out of traditional publishing. How many are made into films? Talk about bad odds! On the flip side, Amanda Hocking had a series optioned *before* she was picked up by Simon & Shuster. So it's clearly not impossible. Oh, and the "Wool" series just got snagged as well - that's two self published ebooks by two different writers in two years. If anything, it's possible that's *better* odds than trad pub, and I'm not sure I haven't missed some other writers who've been optioned. As for foreign sales, you missed the new Big Thing: splitting royalties with a translator to get your ebook into foreign languages as an ebook for those sites. Some writers are doing well with that. Others are, as Michael sai above, doing just fine with an agent selling foreign rights for them. Basically, your odds of either foreign sales or movie rights are never good as a writer - but there is zero evidence that it's any less as an indie. If you want those things, you need seriously good sales. Which means, of course, that you need to write good stories.

6) The advocates aren't selling a new paradigm, they're selling themselves. Good. I'm glad. Of course, they're also selling their experiences, their mistakes, their failures, successes, and the reasons for both. People read material which is valuable to them (or irritating to them, but usually not more than once). For example, I have bought some Dean Wesley Smith books because his advice is useful and I enjoy his writing style. Michael Sullivan's fantasy books are superb, and I might not have found them if he and his wife were not so helpful to other writers. But I'm unlikely to buy anything by the author of this peice, because not only is his article poorly informed (and therefore I'm spending time here debunking his bunk), but he's been rude and impertinent to folks with quite a lot more experience than him who've come here to discuss their views on his article. Helpful sites are awesome. I like helpful writers. Telling everyone about the flaws in something is rarely useful; doing so when you don't know what you're talking about just makes you look silly.

Scott Nicholson's picture
Scott Nicholson June 3, 2012 - 6:33pm

I agree success is 90 percent luck, no matter which road you take.

 

However, I disagree with pretty much everything else you say. Even when I had an agent, the movie deal I got was all MY work and contacts. Same with the three foreign deals I got. Now, on my own, I have more than a dozen foreign editions out. The avenues multiply as a self-publisher; they do not become narrower. 


What's narrow is thinking that stuff in the bottom drawer is going to gain value while you're sitting there waiting for some unconcerned stranger to call you back and solve all your problems.

 

Scott Nicholson

http://eBookSwag.com

Indiana Jim's picture
Indiana Jim June 3, 2012 - 7:23pm

@Rob - I'm trying to come up with a name for people on the internet who write relatively easy to read content, then when confronted with a reasoned rebuttal from someone with experience on the topic, would prefer to grandstand suggesting the person didn't read it, then quotes a questionable and biased survey (http://kriswrites.com/2012/05/30/the-business-rusch-not-a-real-survey/), and dismisses the points out of hand without an equally reasoned response, THEN enlists everyone else's help in marginalizing the respondent.

Christine Leov-Lealand's picture
Christine Leov-... June 4, 2012 - 7:59am

Traditional publishing has lost me forever:- Here are my reasons - I quit submitting books to publishers when I discovered that I was being paid for less than half the books my publisher was printing. Another publisher who walked in the top circles told me this.

When I found that there was no way I could - without bankrupting myself in court - take any action to prevent myself being defrauded by my Big 6 Publisher.

When I look at my royalty statements and find mistakes in them - which means to me that they really do NOT CARE about me or my books.

When I am notified of a reprint 6 months after the reprint! 

When I make efforts at marketing my novels and my publishing house don't back them up with financial or any other kind of help.

When my books sold out at bookshops and weren't replaced promptly with new copies for the eager buyers.

When the digital book issue came up I asked for the percentage I was to be paid for sales - the same 10% I was told, with the same lack of accountability MAGNIFIED because who counts how many ebooks are sold anyway? MANY International Authors are doing what they can to find out how their books are selling and the numbers do NOT stack up - why? Because their publishers are stiffing them.

Check out Kristine Kathryn Rusch here on this topic http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2012/05/04/the-business-rusch-royalty-statement-update-2012/#.T8yQwbBKor0

I asked my publisher what their marketing plan was for my novels to be sold as ebooks - they a major Big 6 Publisher - had no marketing plan. 

When faced with this kind of humiliating fraud, dismissal and generally being treated like a doormat for making this company a LOT of money - I'd rather do the hard work myself and trust that my book retailers internationally are more honest and value ME more! 

This is WHY self publishing looks good - and the reason why those who have been stiffed by publishers are telling anyone considering wasting their life trying to get traditionally published to give it a miss - and to publish themselves or find someone they can  work with who has a transparent and auditable accounting system that they are entitled to audit as part of the contract. 

But please DO learn the HARD WAY as I have because it was the only way there was when I started out writing - spend years trying to catch the attention of Random House, or Penguin, S&S, Hachette etc....That may take you forever, or a minimum of five years at least. Then sign your rights away forever, gratefully receive the pittance they pay you, work really hard for years to promote your precious book and see how well they back you up. Oh - and be happy with 10% of the proceeds - they get the 90% and share that with the retailer. If you have an agent be happy with your cut less their cut - oh! and are your agents working for you or the publisher?

When the betrayal becomes too much - discover how you simply can't get your rights back for your wonderful books no matter how few they admit to selling per annum - because these days books just don't go out of print.... not ever.... so you will never get your rights back as per the terms of the usual publishing contracts - which have no laws governing them to protect the innocent - in this case always the author.

When I look at my options - I know that while self-publishing may not have the presumed support of a publishing house behind me - however I don't have the guaranteed soul-destroying hyprocrisy and betrayal of a traditional publishing house behind me either. 

 I find I write better without the latter - I have hope and will make my own luck.

Good article but you gotta deal with the fraudulent aspects of publishing to really compare publishing issues Rob. 

Being thrilled to sign a contract with a company who will defraud you of your rightful income is equivalent to signing a contract with the mafia - anyone who does it is bound to regret it.

Lillian Archer's picture
Lillian Archer June 4, 2012 - 2:07pm

It's a tought sell out there, no matter what route you are taking. THanks for the insights!

Claude Nougat's picture
Claude Nougat from Belgium is reading non fiction: What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets by Sandel June 4, 2012 - 2:47pm

Excellent post - I agree with everything you say Rob! Luck, alas, is the key to success. And of course it helps if your writing is good. Self-published vs. traditional? Neither is good these days. The hype around self-publishing is dying off, and about time too. 

I'm totally convinced that with the on-going DOJ antitrust case against Apple and several big publishers we are going to see real changes in the market: trad publishers already have started lowering their ebook prices on big name authors/NYT best sellers.

This means that soon we'll have real price competition with indies - and that means self-published authors will have to compete on QUALITY (something a lot of them haven't done so far - what with all this selling at 99 cents and giving out free books).

Blogged about this here: http://claudenougat.blogspot.it/2012/05/is-it-end-of-self-publishing-success.html#axzz1wo7Y1YYD

DGSandru's picture
DGSandru from California is reading Tic toc by Dean Koontz June 4, 2012 - 5:00pm

Theory is always easy. Practice is hard. And the more you practice the less hard it gets, but never easy.

DGSandru's picture
DGSandru from California is reading Tic toc by Dean Koontz June 4, 2012 - 5:20pm

Luck exists, but you must look for it.

nigelpbird's picture
nigelpbird June 5, 2012 - 6:50am

There are a lot of salient points here.  I can't knock any of them and nor do I want to.

There's something I like about the self-publishing side of life to balance some of that.  It's something relating to a philosophy of doing-it-oneself. 

I have nothing against publishers when I say that and am proud to have had work put out by some of them.  The thing is, they exist in a world which relies upon economic gain, which restricts their output.  It's the maverick-minded that are accepting of less popular items.   Self-publishing and the boom has allowed a number of things to happen.  Yes, a lot of crap has escaped the flood-gates, but there's also been a rise in a number of forms out their, which I find refreshing.

From my own life experience, this reminds me of the independent music boom around during and following the punk-movement, as well as the re-emergence of such things as the fanzine and the poetry mag.

It's all to the good.

It's also to the good that articles such as this point out some of the home-truths.  Keep the day jobs and write your hearts out, folks.  Or not.

Nice piece.

 

nigel

Laura Watts's picture
Laura Watts June 5, 2012 - 11:26am

You have touched on a most vital topic. For everyone who thinks indie authors are just traditionally published rejects, they are SO wrong. I chose to come down this path on my own. And yes, it is hard work. It is extremely hard work. It's definitely not for people who aren't prepared to work hard, long hours. You have to realise that writing is only half of it. There's everything else to consider, like marketing. Especially marketing.

Michael J. Sullivan's picture
Michael J. Sullivan from where unlikely heroes dwell is reading Under the Dome June 6, 2012 - 7:26am

@Laura - I congratulate you at choosing a path that works for you and for recognizing the hard work that it will take...but all things worthwhile are worth hardwork, which I'm sure you already know.

Nely Cab's picture
Nely Cab September 14, 2012 - 11:06pm

I'm self-published, and I can say that marketing through social networks is vital. In April of this year, I was extended an offer for the foreign rights of my book by a leading YA publisher in Romania. I'm happy to say the contract was negotiated and closed in May.

How did I do it? It was a whole lot of non-stop social networking. It all started with one blogger who caused a chain reaction among the blogger community. These bloggers began a petition and presented their request to the publisher, who in turn contacted me asking me to allow them to review the mansucript. It was quite shocking when they sent the email telling me they were ready to negotiate.  I never expected to be published abroad before being published in the U.S. To be honest, I know the chances of this happening to a self-published writer are extremely slim, but now I know it's not impossible. 

Ed Dugan's picture
Ed Dugan from Married 40 years and moved 34 times Take your choice is reading Light of the World June 27, 2014 - 12:12pm

Although you alluded to it I think the hardest hurdle to overcome with self-publishing is the marketing angle. The main advantage to having an established publisher is they pick up that burden for you. Anyone can get a book printed but marketing is the only key to success.

I've found the standard publishing business is like joining a private club and the hardest thing to get done is have a real person actually read  and critique your work. Anyway, there are many other steps to be covered but your article is a good start.

Allen Bagby's picture
Allen Bagby August 7, 2014 - 10:38pm

Rob,

Great post. Here's  my abbreviated story.

Having been a sales guy, I totally get the marketing aspect of self-publishing. I was going to go the traditional route but after reading so many books about marketing, I decided I could self-publish.

Pro book cover and editing is VITAL. I judge a book by its cover nowadays because resources are out there to get a decent cover. If you don't take advantage of them then I have concerns about your love for your craft. Same goes for editing. If you don't get pro to edit your manuscript then I have serious doubts about your love of your craft. If you don't show some love for you cover and writing then I doubt you can hook me with your story. 

If someone downloads your book after the cover or story description impressed them then you better have written a story worth reading. So the next and MOST vital part of gaining a fan is to study the craft of writing / story telling. If you've not done that, then I have no respect for you as a writer and I can usually tell immediately if you have studied the craft. I have stacks of books on writing. 

Luck is also a VITAL ingredient. I don't buy LOTTO tickets but you can't win (get lucky) if you don't buy one. But as the old proverb states, "The more you practice the luckier your get." So you can't stop marketing. You've got to learn to do it. Make it a part of your life. If you've written a great book, market it. It means you believe in it. I believe in mine: Blood & Soul.  

It's not a breakout novel, but the sales are steady and its ranked in a best seller category and has been for weeks. I know it's because the cover and description sells it. That's all I want now. It's epic. So, I know it will take time for feedback/reviews. I have 9, 5 star reviews from beta readers.

I feel very fortunate but this is ONLY the beginning. I've got a lot more books to write. And, a lot more marketing to learn and streamline.

Allen G. Bagby Author of Blood & Soul. 

 

P.S. ALSO ...getting a subscriber list to your Mail Chimp (Constant Contact or whatever) is the best marketing. I found this out too late and I'm building a list now. But this is permission based marketing and NOTHING beats that. I was lucky because I have a lot of facebook friends. I got deep into the best sellers list the first day. But for the long haul you NEED a website and an email list. 

OhReally's picture
OhReally October 29, 2014 - 5:44pm

You're cute.  I made just at $46k this month self-publishing.  And I have an agent handling film and foriegn rights.

But you're cute.

Also, there is .1% of the luck involved in self-publishing that there is in traditional publishing.

Stimulating sales actually isn't all that hard...when you're writing what people want to read!

Since you're a publisher, with all your expertise, how many of your authors are doing that well?  Hmmmmm?

Guess what?  I'm hiring co-writers with better terms than traditional pub can give.  I'm the next wave in publishing--the one where writers themselves become the publisher.  There is literally no place for an outfit like yours anymore.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this October 29, 2014 - 6:39pm

Congratulations. You are the latest in a long line of people who had an atypical experience and misread what I wrote in order to display a sense of smug superiority. 

Cheers. Nice to meet you. 

Jeff Nichols's picture
Jeff Nichols February 10, 2016 - 3:17pm

Good article. Self- publishing is hell for most.

 

YOu would think I won the lotery.

I self-published THe little YEllow BUS, later made into film Trian Wreck/American Loser, released by Loinsgate, {Wide dvd} and shown on HBO last year as a feature presentation. and the book rights were picked by Simon and Shuster. Bot the movie and the book were bad/ mismarketed. Pople hated film. I sold no books of TRain Wreck. ( 1700 tatal)

 

two years later tried it again with an Expose on a fishing town called Caught: no movie, no book deal: sold close to 4,000 on own, via, fish expos, lecturing, Goodreads.. book signings/book parties/ Got all my own press. www.secondchoicecharters.com 

 

Jeff Nichols's picture
Jeff Nichols April 22, 2016 - 12:51pm

 This seems on topic: I just wrote a book called My life Direct to DVD .How to Sell Your Self Published book to Hollywood...and other dysastor stories. Its on Amazon..loa: I sold six copies so far, shows  what I know. waiting on press.  One thing I know for sure: LIkes on FB don't traslate into sales.

But thruth be told, I have published three books, all got optioned, one was made into a horrificaly bad movie American loser and later published by Simon and Shuster. I made close to 200k plus speaking gigs. MY second book about fishing: Caught...sold better than my first that went through S@S. They dropped me. I was in every book store in America and only sold 1300 ..( book sucked by-the-way) but still had some good reviews, and blurbs. Caought sold close to 4,000 . I did all my own press. 

THe sad unbelievable reality is that people just dont read as much any more.

-Jeff NIchols

 

  

Jeff Nichols's picture
Jeff Nichols April 22, 2016 - 12:56pm

 This seems on topic: I just wrote a book called My life Direct to DVD .How to Sell Your Self Published book to Hollywood...and other dysastor stories. Its on Amazon..loa: I sold six copies so far, shows  what I know. waiting on press.  One thing I know for sure: LIkes on FB don't traslate into sales.

But thruth be told, I have published three books, all got optioned, one was made into a horrificaly bad movie American loser and later published by Simon and Shuster. I made close to 200k plus speaking gigs. MY second book about fishing: Caught...sold better than my first that went through S@S. They dropped me. I was in every book store in America and only sold 1300 ..( book sucked by-the-way) but still had some good reviews, and blurbs. Caought sold close to 4,000 . I did all my own press. 

THe sad unbelievable reality is that people just dont read as much any more.

-Jeff NIchols

 

  

Jeff Nichols's picture
Jeff Nichols April 22, 2016 - 12:56pm

 This seems on topic: I just wrote a book called My life Direct to DVD .How to Sell Your Self Published book to Hollywood...and other dysastor stories. Its on Amazon..loa: I sold six copies so far, shows  what I know. waiting on press.  One thing I know for sure: LIkes on FB don't traslate into sales.

But thruth be told, I have published three books, all got optioned, one was made into a horrificaly bad movie American loser and later published by Simon and Shuster. I made close to 200k plus speaking gigs. MY second book about fishing: Caught...sold better than my first that went through S@S. They dropped me. I was in every book store in America and only sold 1300 ..( book sucked by-the-way) but still had some good reviews, and blurbs. Caought sold close to 4,000 . I did all my own press. 

THe sad unbelievable reality is that people just dont read as much any more.

-Jeff NIchols

 

  

Jeff Nichols's picture
Jeff Nichols April 22, 2016 - 12:56pm

 This seems on topic: I just wrote a book called My life Direct to DVD .How to Sell Your Self Published book to Hollywood...and other dysastor stories. Its on Amazon..loa: I sold six copies so far, shows  what I know. waiting on press.  One thing I know for sure: LIkes on FB don't traslate into sales.

But thruth be told, I have published three books, all got optioned, one was made into a horrificaly bad movie American loser and later published by Simon and Shuster. I made close to 200k plus speaking gigs. MY second book about fishing: Caught...sold better than my first that went through S@S. They dropped me. I was in every book store in America and only sold 1300 ..( book sucked by-the-way) but still had some good reviews, and blurbs. Caought sold close to 4,000 . I did all my own press. 

THe sad unbelievable reality is that people just dont read as much any more.

-Jeff NIchols

 

  

Jeff Nichols's picture
Jeff Nichols April 22, 2016 - 12:56pm

 This seems on topic: I just wrote a book called My life Direct to DVD .How to Sell Your Self Published book to Hollywood...and other dysastor stories. Its on Amazon..loa: I sold six copies so far, shows  what I know. waiting on press.  One thing I know for sure: LIkes on FB don't traslate into sales.

But thruth be told, I have published three books, all got optioned, one was made into a horrificaly bad movie American loser and later published by Simon and Shuster. I made close to 200k plus speaking gigs. MY second book about fishing: Caught...sold better than my first that went through S@S. They dropped me. I was in every book store in America and only sold 1300 ..( book sucked by-the-way) but still had some good reviews, and blurbs. Caought sold close to 4,000 . I did all my own press. 

THe sad unbelievable reality is that people just dont read as much any more.

-Jeff NIchols

 

  

Jeff Nichols's picture
Jeff Nichols April 22, 2016 - 12:56pm

 This seems on topic: I just wrote a book called My life Direct to DVD .How to Sell Your Self Published book to Hollywood...and other dysastor stories. Its on Amazon..loa: I sold six copies so far, shows  what I know. waiting on press.  One thing I know for sure: LIkes on FB don't traslate into sales.

But thruth be told, I have published three books, all got optioned, one was made into a horrificaly bad movie American loser and later published by Simon and Shuster. I made close to 200k plus speaking gigs. MY second book about fishing: Caught...sold better than my first that went through S@S. They dropped me. I was in every book store in America and only sold 1300 ..( book sucked by-the-way) but still had some good reviews, and blurbs. Caought sold close to 4,000 . I did all my own press. 

THe sad unbelievable reality is that people just dont read as much any more.

-Jeff NIchols