Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Will Self Publishing Work For You? Maybe... If You're Lucky

You can't turn on the TV news or check your social media feed without hearing about one more self publishing success story. Whether it's an author making bank putting out monster porn on Amazon, or a married couple saving their house with their steamy romance novels, it seems like self publishing really is shoulder-checking the big publishing houses out of the way and rendering them irrelevant. Soon publishing will be available to everyone, and sales will be based purely on the merit of the writer's skill!

Keep dreaming Skippy.
Sadly the world in which self publishing is the Rocky Balboa to Random House's Apollo Creed is just a fantasy. Does that mean you can't self publish and become successful? Of course not, because (in case you didn't notice) it seems there's a new joker every week that hits the publishing lottery and makes between $25k and $100k a year in book sales.

That isn't the norm though, and if you're going to get into self publishing there's some things you should know beforehand.

You Have To Do Everything (And I Do Mean Everything)

It should be evident just looking at the term self publishing that you're going to be responsible for every aspect of the process. Lots of authors think they understand what that means, but until you've gone through it you really don't.

Pictured: Everything
I'm not just talking out of my ass here, either. When I was having some trouble getting my stories placed I decided to take three of the better ones in my stable and publish them myself through the Smashwords platform (you can find my Smashwords author profile right here if you're curious). It looks easy; it isn't.

You know going into the process that it's your job to write the story. You have to handle the rear cover blurb, and you have to take care of the cover art (that gets complicated since you're limited to public domain images and royalty-free stock photos, unless you're a talented artist yourself). You know that you have to edit the book, and that it's your job to find beta readers. But you also have to format the book, you have to put it up on the platform, and you have to make sure the page displaying it is accurate and attractive.

There's more though because you're not just the author and publisher. You're also the publicist, which means you need to find ways to promote your book so you can get eyes on it. You have to come up with marketing plans, you have to keep your clicks up on social media, and you have to answer any questions or comments that fans and readers come up with. This is actually what leads into the second thing you should know...

No One Takes You Seriously

Because it's your job to promote yourself and your book you're going to want to talk to media outlets to try and get coverage. You're going to want an author page on LinkedIn and Facebook, and you're going to want an author website and a blog. Once you've set up shop you might set out into the big bad world to tell them about how great your book is. Maybe you go down to the local TV and radio station to see if they need guests. Or you call up your local newspaper and inform them you're an author who just released a new book. No matter what you do to though, chances are you're going to get the door slammed in your face hard enough to break your nose.

This is what you have to do in order to get an interview. From a college paper.
Something not a lot of writers know is there is a marked prejudice against self published authors (and to a lesser degree against those published by small presses). The general consensus is that self-publishing is a field with a few rebel geniuses in it, and a sea of talentless hacks who couldn't get their books past the gatekeepers at real publishers. This isn't an accurate view by any means, but if you regurgitate something often enough it becomes the governing view. As such the news media by and large does not care about your book unless it meets the following criteria:

- Is it a novel?
- Is it a physical book (mainstream media seems to hate ebooks)?
- Can you walk into a store and buy it?
- Are you generating a lot of attention with your book?

This is the catch-22 of being an author. Short of being struck by Internet lightning you aren't going to get famous without a lot of exposure and buzz about your book. One of the main ways to do that is to get coverage from media sources. Mainstream sources, of course, don't want to hear it unless you're already selling books.

Speaking of selling books...

Selling Books Is Damn Near Impossible

The public loves to read, and there are niches for all kinds of tastes and desires out there. Your problem is convincing readers to give your book a try, and most authors really have no idea how hard that actually is.

For example, have you read the samples for anything linked in this blog yet?
People read books based on a lot of factors. One is how popular the book is, the logic being that a hundred thousand people think it's great so maybe I should check it out. Another is a recommendation from a person they trust, like a good friend or a critic whose views they find insightful. Some people might read a book because its cover art is intriguing (and that kind of art takes talent and cash to make), or because it's free.

If all you had to do was write a book, post about it on your Facebook page and kick up your heels, everyone would do this.

As a self published author you have to build an audience, overcome prejudice, and get your book in front of new readers all without the support of mainstream media, or the staff and influence that comes with a traditional publisher. Even if you run a successful social media campaign, acquire some followers, get noticed, and manage to move up the ranks though, there's something else you should be aware of...

It Really Is Like Winning The Lottery

Becoming one of those people you see on the news is possible. Someone has to become the new sensation after all, so it might as well be you, right? After all you've honed your craft, created a compelling story, and you've come up with a unique way to market it to both niche readers as well as those outside of a given genre. You're a shoe in!

Know something? That's what the other several hundred thousand other self published authors are thinking.

Hate to disappoint everyone else, but that's my bulls-eye.
In the year 2012 there were over 391,000 self published books on the market. That's not counting the traditionally published books from all the other companies big and small, which you're still fighting over for attention like the smallest puppy in the litter. Those numbers aren't going down either; if anything they're only getting bigger.

Why? Because everyone thinks they can write, and with self publishing there's no one but sales figures to inform them they're wrong. To make it worse for every terrible indie book someone reads that's another black mark (in that reader's mind) against all indie books. They don't have a company or an editor to blame, so instead they saddle the whole of indie authors with the sins of the few.

Is it possible that your book will be the one chosen by lottery to be read by hundreds of thousands of people? Sure it is! But it's more likely that you're going to sweat buckets and strain your mental back trying to shove yourself through the ranks to get to the front for a few minutes in the sunshine.

Even if you are chosen though, you should really know...

You Need to Move Millions of Copies To Eat

How much would you make at the top of Amazon's bestseller list for a week? Well Patrick Wensick's novel Broken Piano For President spent a week in the #6 spot (partially because of a viral cease-and-desist letter that Jack Daniels sent him), and most authors assume that means Wensick made an absolute boatload of cash. After all he was placed higher than The Hunger Games, Gone Girl, and dozens of other bestselling books for seven days. Surely he's relaxing and writing his next book even if he isn't a millionaire, right?

Now Wensick might not be an ideal example, since he isn't an indie author. However, his case shows you just how hard it can be to make bank. If a viral news story and a week in a top spot on the biggest online marketplace nets you less than a year's worth of minimum wage pay, then what do you need to do to become the next Stephen King or Anne Rice?

Be lucky, for the most part. That, and keep your momentum going.

The Neverending Story

Being a successful author of any sort (indie, traditional, or otherwise) is a lot like being a shark; you swim or you die. Publish or perish. You need to publish more stories, tack another chapter onto your epic series, or offer your audience something new and shiny to devour at least once a year or so. Only once you've built up a library of published work can you experience the backlog effect; when a reader discovers you as an author and then decides to read everything you've written.

This is a key point for all authors, but indie authors in particular. If you only have one book on the market then no matter how much someone loves your work you can only make one sale (perhaps one or two more if that reader gives your book out as gifts). But say you have 10 or 20 books on the market; you're going to notice a spike in your total sales every time one catches a wave and gets a little more popular.

That's how you really cash in.

Are You Up For It?

In closing it's true that self publishing is a viable way to make money. Self published authors have completed books, and they're working hard to find their audiences. However, it isn't the right path for everyone. People who don't want to handle every aspect of a book, or who want a traditional publisher's marketing muscle behind them may find that self publishing feels like more work than it's worth, and they'll be discouraged by all of the hidden work that comes with it. Other authors, who like to be at the helm of their own careers and who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and bang on doors till someone listens may find that self publishing is just right for them.

All of that said, there's just one more question. Did you check out Jungle Moon?

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