Columns > Published on May 31st, 2012

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

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. 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at www.robwhart.com

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