I first started publishing in 2011. It was an exciting, vibrant time when the sky was the limit and the world was your oyster.
There were a couple of well published cases of writers who started making a lot of money that got a lot of publicity from the news. For us, the writers still submitting to publishers, self-publishing was an ever more attractive option.
I published my first book in January 2011, and I have watched this industry grow and evolve. While there are still a lot of positive stories, negative stories have gotten a lot more screen time recently. People are saying the self-publishing space is too crowded, people are saying the deck is stacked against them.
At first, those types of stories only came out during the months of the northern hemisphere summer. This is the time where traditionally not as many books are sold as in the months after Christmas. People were seeing a downturn in sales and started wondering if the industry was declining.
However this year the negative stories seem a lot more pervasive.
Newsflash: it is hard to make a living as a writer.
It seems like the industry’s boundless positivity has finally caught up with reality: most writers won’t succeed.
So here are a few things that nobody talks about. This is not a negative post, just an attempt at putting a few things in perspective.
1. People talk about 2009 or 2011 as being the golden time of self publishing. As if when you published back then, your manuscript would instantly turn to gold. But nobody talks about is that there are a lot of us around, myself included, who did not get easy sales and did not make millions. We were doing just exactly the same thing as new writers are doing now: figuring out what works what doesn’t.
But nobody talks about those writers. And nobody talks about the complete lack of services or knowledge that was available to people self-publishing at that time. At the time when I came to self-publishing forums, it was still extremely common to see people with the most horrid covers on their self published books. While it is still happening, most people realise that as soon as they come to forums and see the covers on the books of the writers who are selling well, that these are things that need to be fixed first before you can sell. The tools to do this are so much more easy to find. The many ways of marketing your book are also easy to find out about. So no, for the individual writer it has certainly become a lot more easy to put out a book of quality that will have a chance.
2. While we’re on quality. Nobody talks about it. It’s considered downright rude to tell another writer that their book isn’t very good. Good is a sliding scale anyway and what is good to someone is complete rubbish to someone else.
But even with gorgeous covers, there are too many books that fail the most basic concept of quality. No it’s not that they’re free of grammatical errors, it is that they fail to tell a story that enough people want to read to give the book viable market.
Now to be honest, this also applies to traditionally published books. But because with a traditional publisher a lot more people look over the book before it’s published, someone who wants to publish this book through a publishing company has to convince a lot more people that the book is worth spending money on. With self-publishing, the only person who is going to make that decision is you.
While writing by committee is in general not a very good idea, marketability by committee is almost mandatory. When you self-publish, you bypass this process, and you may well be publishing a book in which the first three chapters are so insanely boring to most readers that nobody will go and buy the second book.
So at the risk of being crucified by the comments, I will say that a lot of self-published writers spend far too little time in their early careers figuring out how to write books that more people want to read. This is not about grammar and it is not about editing except to say that you could be helped by developmental editing, but even a developmental editor will not fix your story. You have to learn the craft of storytelling.
3. The marketing slide. If you have a book that doesn’t sell, marketing may make little difference or it could make a lot of difference. Books that require absolutely no marketing and just sell themselves are quite rare. Books that cannot be made to sell with any amount of marketing also not terribly common although more common than the first.
Most books fall somewhere in the middle, where some marketing is required to make them sell on a continuous basis. With every book, there is the point at which the return just isn’t there in terms of money and time spent.
4. There is no magic trick. Yet, we see new and less successful writers searching for the one trick that will make them a bestseller. The one secret that they can do that will suddenly drag their books out from the bottom of the charts. The one marketing trick that will make them a lot of money. Many of these people start becoming bitter when they don’t find that trick, and some of them will never stop looking for it. They blame the bestsellers for holding it back, they hang onto the skirts of those that they perceive as more successful than them and hope that some of the magic will rub off.
In a way, they’re right: there is a magic trick. It is called: write a book that readers want to read. It is called: do the work. It is called: learn continuously to write better fiction and serve your audience better.
But sadly, that is not the trick that these people are looking for. They want an easy fix, and they demand that it be given to them by those they perceived as more successful.
There is no magic trick.
Sometimes when you hang around for long enough and participate in enough different things, you will find something that works really well for a little while. It may be a new promotion site with a particularly engaged audience that buys a lot of books. It may be a particular ad platform that suddenly starts delivering some good results. But not only are these tricks often short lived, they rarely make or break a writer’s career. What does make or break a career is for a writer to throw themselves into learning how to apply themselves best to their chosen tools.
There is no magic sauce. Don’t waste your time looking for it. Definitely don’t antagonise people by demanding that they give it to you.
5. There is a perfectly good living to be made from your fiction without ever having a bestseller. There is even a very good living to be made without any of your books ranking anywhere in any top hundred listing in the Amazon US top lists. Ever.
In the first place, the world is much bigger than just that particular market. In the second place, you often have to run promotions to hit those charts with regularity. Promotions require you to mark down your book.
You make a lot more money from selling at $4.99 than at 99c, although it is much easier to rank with the latter.
If it’s about money in the bank, and ultimately, it always is, then worry less about rank and more about the dollars and cents on your sales dashboard.
6. What goes up must come down. It is very rare that book starts selling and keeps selling at an amazing level for very long time. I think we can all name those books in our genre and count them on the fingers of one hand. There are many more books that did well for a while, and then disappeared from sight. There is nothing wrong with that. But let’s acknowledge that it happens. So ride the highs and then put away money for when sales are less. Manage your income through advertising your backlist during the time that you don’t have any new releases.
7. The good part. Around the year 2000, I ran an Internet business selling non-fiction books on very specialised academic subjects. At that point in time, this was a gold rush. I bought books new from publishers or as batches secondhand, I marked them up and sold them on online platforms which were only just starting to gain popularity.
It was in the pre-Amazon days, and people were looking for places to buy rare books. There was one time that I flew to New Zealand to buy two books in an auction, which, when I sold them the week I got home, funded my entire trip. I was constantly thinking but what if these book buyers learn how to look online for themselves and find these bargains?
Which of course they did.
Not only that, but selling print books and carting them to the post office is heavy and time-consuming business. There is a lot of investment needed in terms of storage space, stock, furniture to put the stock, accounts at the post office, for running this type of business. Our entire house was full of books. In my best year I sold multiple six figures, but most of that went into buying new stock. A lot of it also went to the post office.
You need almost no investment when you self-publish online. Even my online book business never saw as much investment as some other business types, because I did not need to rent a shop, although I considered it, and I never needed to employ any people.
Self-publishing is at the low extreme in terms of the capital investment slide. The only stock you might need is a handful of copies of your books to give away to people you meet or maybe to sell at cons. You can even choose not to do this.
The other prior investment you need is a decent website and editing and covers for your first books. It baffles me that people even complain about this investment. Make no mistake, self-publishing is extremely easy to get into compared with just about any other business.
It is also extremely easy to get your money. We are dealing with a couple of large retailers who pay regularly and pay on time. All you need is a bank account and Bob’s yer uncle. You may need some tax numbers, and again self-published authors complain their heads off about this, but it is nothing compared to what you need to set up a business with a storefront.
Not only that, but you don’t have to chase non-paying customers. The only fraud you’re going to have to deal with is that of those annoying serial returners on Amazon. They’re not even costing you any real money.
So step back, and appreciate how easy this business is.
8. You need to keep changing and reinventing yourself. You need to keep learning. If you keep doing exactly the same thing year in year out, you die. You need to keep improving your fiction, you need to keep on top of underlying trends, you need to give your readers something new to look forward to all the time. You need to make sure that you’re not caught unawares by certain trends or closures of certain businesses like we have just seen with Pronoun.
One of the main advantages that we have over businesses with employees and offices in New York is that we are agile and can completely turn around a business strategy in the matter of days.
This may well be the golden time self-publishing, and it may well be, as doomsayers say, that it will only get harder from now on. It will get harder because everybody is doing it, but it also means that the rate of attrition is going to be huge. Many people will try self publishing but give up after they have found that it’s hard work.
And frankly that has never been any different in the world of writing. So don’t fear, if you’re doing your work properly and you’re learning and you continue to learn about business, and have persistence, then I guarantee that you will have a reasonable career.
Ironically, this is exactly the same thing I heard as a new bright-eyed and bushy-tailed writer at my first con: the ones who succeed are the ones who do the work and persist.
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