I was on a Lethbridge Wordbridge panel yesterday about self-publishing, and I just want to share all that I couldn’t say because of time restraints. To recap my main points, the advice given to self-published authors to succeed were formulated a decade ago at a time where there was only about 200,000 books being published that year. It was still possible, though even then, extremely hard to do, to get your gem of a book noticed from all the other self-published books out there. As I said on the panel, I’m going to be a Debbie Downer and not a Debbie crusher of all hopes and dreams here, but I think something has to be said for the millions of self-published of authors who tried and failed at it who think they failed because they didn’t try hard enough and not because they had an infinitesimal chance at it to begin with. The only people you hear touting the process are the winners and the people changing their dollars to tokens to start playing the slots. Everyone else is dead silent.
And I want to repeat, there are lots of legit reasons to self-publish. Poetry books almost have to be self-published but for some exceptional exceptions. Family history books that aren’t meant for beyond the family or cook books or niche market books or stories about narrow regional interests make great self-published titles. If you already have an existing following who would love to read what you write, go for it. If you have a great platform and can sell books to those who listen to you as well. What self-publishing isn’t is a quick and easy short cut around the dread-pirate “gatekeepers” set up between you and your loving fans on the other side of the fence.
In 2016, 800,000 books were released, in 2017, a million books were released, in 2018, 1.3 million books were released and, this year thanks to the most recent numbers from Bowker.com, if the rate of increase hasn’t gone up since the 2017 numbers (and it has been on the increase for a decade now), 1.6 million books will be self-published in this year and almost 2 million books will be released next year.
That is a rate of almost 4,500 books a day or 183 books an hour each hour of every day. I’ve been told that the key to self-publishing to guarantee success is using Amazon analytics and using social media, but I told them that wasn’t the key, that was the bare minimum needed to be done. With so many writers desperately trying to do the exact same thing as any other self-published author using the exact same channels, how much attention can you really draw to yourself? I’ve seen writers on writing boards complaining of throwing ten thousand dollars into a marketing campaign and not having anything at all to show for it.
And let’s go back to all the authors who have a standard or typical outcome of the process, instead of being in that lucky 1% that can make decent money at it, or the top 0.1% that can compare their income to any traditionally published moderate success story, I would really like to see self-published authors newly into the game stop dismissing the outcomes of those who have come before them as personal failures instead of system failures. If the new player has that typical outcome too, what are people going to say about you when they step up for their shot?
And you really have to avoid those self-published authors who are–or say they are–a huge success at it that encourage you by focusing on how much money they make, or how much money you could make if you just do what they do without telling you exactly how much work and effort went into their fortunes. If their sales pitch sounds like an MLM where it doesn’t matter what the product is, all that matters is how much they make by working the system, you’ve got a real problem. It’s unsurprising to me that the success rate of MLMs and self-publishing seem to pretty much be on par, and the self-published guru isn’t making a dime on those they recruit. Unless, of course, that’s their platform for selling more books.
I want to make it clear that publishing is hard. It is difficult to get something that you’ve made to a level where someone who doesn’t love you loves it. People are exceptionally busy and money will always be tight. Getting your work to the point where it will be worth not only $10 and 4 hours but $10 spending money after all the other taxes and expenses the person has and 4 free time hours after all the work, sleep, social and family time that is filling up their days, you’re asking for something extremely precious from your audience. If you want to have a good working relationship with people who want to keep coming back and reading your stuff instead of spending all that extra time trying to find people who haven’t read your first book and judged it to be not worth their time and money, you need to give them something precious in return.
When people tell you that the first thing you need to do is hire an editor, they’re telling you the actual third step of the process. They’re skipping the bit where you need to learn how to write at a level that other people will find value in your work and the step where you learn how to do that consistently. This is true no matter which path you choose to go down, traditional or self-published. It can be taught, and you can learn it. Once you get to that point though, traditional publishing bent writers just need to find an agent or editor who actively is looking for that book that ticks all the boxes that the writer has learned to tick. The self-published author with that exact same book has to throw it into the millions of books that have been released over the past three years and hopes theirs, somehow, gets chosen.