This article is based on my experience writing and self-publishing two titles to date. My research cuts across many sources: published books, online learning, social media groups, verbal sharing of experiences and lessons learned at the coal face. It is my intention to ‘tell it how it is’ and of course this is my perception to date.
1) You have complete control
You can choose what you write, how you package, how you market. Everything. And you can retain all your rights, provided you are wise to not signing them away to a vanity publisher or service company along the way. You don’t need to, so don’t. Read every letter of every agreement and if it looks ‘bad’ for your interests find a better route to market. Self publishing means that you own all of your book rights, that’s the deal. If you decide to sell some of them, make sure you take legal advice and receive payment.
2) You can sell your own product in the market
No one can stop you selling your works directly to the public. For example, if your ‘Memoirs of a Frog Prince’ is complete, you can publish pretty much everywhere via Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords etc. without anyone else approving your work. You can also publish for relatively little outlay in e-book and print. (But that does not mean you will necessarily sell many copies, most titles sell less than 100 ever).
3) You can sell product to readers (almost) directly
It is possible to sell product from your own website, but you will probably reach a far greater audience via Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords etc. These platforms will take a cut, but that cut is far less than a traditional publisher would take if you were signed-up. (However, your book would be likely to reach far more sales outlets and territories in print with a good deal at a good traditional publisher).
4) It is possible to succeed
If your work is good enough and you work hard enough to find your audience, you could succeed all by yourself. However, not all books will be good enough and not all reader audiences can be found online. The proportion of ‘winners’ in this game is relatively small. You will need luck, a strong sequence of products and a lot of hard work to succeed commercially.
Before you write I suggest studying BookBub’s advertising rate chart for several days. See it here: http://www.bookbub.com/advertise/pricing.php
I wish I had seen it a lot earlier. Basically, this is as close as you’ll get to understanding the real potential market for your books, pro-rata. Of course the total world market is bigger than this, but the proportions are valid and representative for the UK and US markets. For example, you may wish to compete in a more widely read e-book genre than ‘Teen and Young Adult’ if you are just starting out. (I wish I had).
5) You can achieve commercial success without the gatekeepers
The definition of ‘success’ is probably a case by case matter by writer and genre. Certainly, there are (some) professional self-published writers who make a decent living from writing books. They tend to be writers of multiple books for adult genres. They tend to be very hard working and strong minded, as well as good, solid writers.
For many writers, self-published (or indeed traditionally published) books are likely to be an additional source of income rather than a primary source, at least for the early part of their careers. And this is not unusual historically. Many famous writers held substantial jobs while writing their major works. J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis being two notable examples.
1) It is all down to you
The flip-side of control is that you have to do it all yourself. Or you need to find people you can pay who can assist you. Editors, cover artists, e-book designers and print book designers being essential services you will need. Most of your competitors will be using professional help as well, so be aware. You are all competing for repeat readers!
You also need to learn as much about online book marketing and promotion as you do about how to write a quality book. Omit this step at your peril. If you hope to sell in volume, you need to know how to oil the gears of your own selling machine. And that learning continues for years…
2) Big companies will block you
It is a fact of the world we live in that big businesses will block out smaller businesses until the start-ups somehow ‘breakthrough’. At which point, they will consider buying them out, if they can. Sorry to kill off the romance, but you are basically selling a product which the world does not want to know about until it sells a lot of units. Yes, it is a catch-22. So to slay some more dreams in the bud while I’m on a roll:
- Chain stores will resist all attempts by you to stock your books in preference for their deals with established publishers and authors. (Independents are still an option.)
- Libraries will resist attempts by you to stock more than a handful of ‘local books’ in their county.
- Online libraries will refer you to their partner – probably Overdrive – who will refuse to deal with you directly and will refer you to an ‘aggregator’ such as Smashwords.
- Bookbub will refuse to take your advertising unless you meet their criteria or are very fortunate. (They won’t elaborate on why) This is because they have plenty of other paying customers for their advertising space and can afford to pick and choose their customers (lucky them).
- Agents will send you standard rejection letters (or emails) unless you are incredibly diligent and lucky. Because they have plenty of other books to sell. By the way ‘Not suitable for our list’ means ‘we don’t think we can (or want to) sell your book’ . It’s a sugar coated ‘no way’. (And many of them also rejected J.K. Rowling – so what do they know?)
- Publishing companies will likewise reject your work, unless you are incredibly diligent and lucky. Because they also have plenty of other books to sell. And they listen mostly to Agents.
- Publications will blank your attempts to request reviews in print or online. Because they have plenty of other published books to review and are (probably) paid in kind for such reviews. (It’s easily done in this world).
- If you have personal contacts in any of the above use them!!!!!!! (And then share them with me please)
3) You will have to give away and heavily discount your product
Because everyone else does. Therefore you will end up giving away hundreds or thousands of units in the hope of picking up ‘visibility’ on Amazon and climbing sales charts. The precise details of ‘why’ vary with the manner in which Amazon compile their sales charts. However, the premise is simple – your work is unknown and will remain so until it appears on some ‘best selling’ lists. If it is seen and reviewed well, people will buy it. To achieve that push you will need to give away some copies and discount some copies. (Ouch!)
You will also have to provide an incentive for people to subscribe to your newsletters. A discounted or free book being an appropriate ‘gift’. Likewise to gain those illusive online reviews, readers and bloggers will expect free books in exchange for their time and (hopefully) their kind words.
4) It is also possible to fail commercially
You may succeed in writing a great book, your best ever book etc. However, commercial failure is entirely possible. Even if you learn and work hard at marketing and promotion, it is not a certainty that enough people will buy your books to make you more than 100 sales. Life is not fair, there are no guarantees and it does hurt. Sorry, but that is the truth.
It is also possible that you may not be cut out to be a writer in a commercial sense. That is not to say that you have ‘failed’ as such. No. Simply, that you will need to have other income available to live on while you write for your own pleasure or for other goals. At some point, a competition win or a big name review could change your fortunes as an author, but until that time….
Consider this: A writer produces a quality book that is well presented and does not fit easily into an established genre. They try all the regular routes to self-publish and promote. However, what they may not realise (ever) is that their work might be an acquired taste or a niche work. That is not to say that their writing lacks merit. It simply means that – like the vast majority of books – it will sell in trickles rather than floods, because that book’s market is relatively difficult to find or is quite small.
Or this: A writer markets their work to the hilt and writes for a genre that sells well. They produce a few books, promote them well etc. What they may not realise (ever) is that their work basically ‘sucks’. It falls short of the standards their potential readers require to pass on a recommendation. This may be incredibly tough to accept, but it happens. And no one will tell you for fear of causing offence. (You may not believe them anyway). On the plus side you can always improve! And in time, you will recognise on reading back your own work how good it really is. Meantime, keep up the day job!
Luck, hard work and persistence remain key factors for any ‘overnight success’ and writing is no different. (I’m very much at this stage right now).
As an informed guess, you will need at least three titles to make a serious impact and probably four. The first will likely fail, but you will learn from it. The next two will be better quality and you will be better placed to promote them. By the third you have enough product to ‘sacrifice’ to giveaways and heavy discounts. And you will gain in cross-sales with your other titles. Plus, you will have built a name within your reader population. Blog followers, subscriber lists, twitter followers etc. all add up and provide better chances for you to directly promote your books to interested readers.
5) You will still need to negotiate with ‘gatekeepers’
It would be great to think that ‘gatekeepers’ with approved ‘lists’ will go away when you self-publish. (Agents, Publishers and PR people run a ‘list’ of work they represent or are trying to sell for). Unfortunately the ‘gatekeepers’ won’t go away, instead they morph and change.
To succeed as a self-published author you will still need endorsements and acceptance for your work from a number of people. Not all of who will be as open minded to the merit of your work as you are. These include:
- Book bloggers – generally they want genre and quality consistent with their values and interests. (Vampire bloggers are not ‘into’ sci-fi for example)
- Book advertisers – ditto with their audience goals and their income models.
- Amazon – can (in theory) reject/take down works which have reader complaints against them. It may be rare, but it can happen.
- Customer book reviewers – need an angle to want to like your work. It is not a level playing field (sorry) An ‘okay read’ will not usually result in a review. A high profile book will attract far more sales and therefore far more reviews. Not all of them good I hasten to add.
- Your first readers – will obviously judge your work against their own likes and dislikes
- Your social media contacts – will generally want to associate more with ‘rising stars’ than ‘unknowns’
- Your potential ‘fans’ – by definition will like the work that ticks their boxes. If they are ‘your’ fans you will want to look after them. Nurture them. Hug them even.
In conclusion, while there is no one recipe for success in an ever-changing world of book publishing (thank goodness), there are some truisms:
- The winners take almost all of the cake – see the published book sales figures for any given year
- The harder you work, the luckier you will become
- Success breeds success – fiction books (like pop music) is a very polarised market with a very ‘long tail’ of low volume selling titles.
- Successful titles come from the most popular genres – which is de facto a statistical certainty and relates also to demographics.
Good luck and happy writing