The Cold Hard Truth About Self-Publishing

Have you ever thought about writing and self-publishing a book?

how-to-self-publish

If so, you’ve got a lot of company. According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them, and that they should write it. As a self-published author of 8 books, with a 9th to be published next fall, I’d like to use this post to do what I can to offer them a healthy dose of reality.

This post is not aimed at discouraging anyone with the dream of writing and publishing a book. Instead, the intent is to provide some information that every person thinking about writing and self-publishing a book for the first time should be aware of.

Thanks to the Amazon Kindle Publishing Platform (KDP) and other eBook publishing platforms, self-publishing a book is now a goal easily within the reach of virtually everyone. It seems as though nearly everyone with the dream of writing and self-publishing a book has either done it already or is in the process of doing it. Consider a few rather eye-popping statistics.

  • July 13, 2010, eBook publisher and distributor Smashwords, published its 15,000th eBook. Just nineteen months later the platform released its 100,000th eBook. Woah!
  • A recent report from Bowker, the US company that issues International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs), shows that self-publishing is growing rapidly. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of ISBNs from self-published books grew by 375%.
  • While it’s very difficult to know for sure how many eBooks are out there, a recent estimate by experts states that there are over five million Kindle eBooks on Amazon alone. While Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Kobo, and Google Play don’t openly advertise the total number they have in their eBook catalogs, you can assume that collectively it’s less than the number on Amazon, but still a significantly large number.
  • Another report from Bowker states that over one million (1,052,803) books were published in the U.S. in 2009, which is more than triple the number of books published just four years earlier (2005). More than two-thirds of those books were self-published books.
  • We know that self-publishing is growing exponentially, but using just the dated statistics in the previous point (2009), we can very conservatively estimate that around 2,000 new eBooks are being published daily (60,000 each month).
  • A recent Amazon report states that only about 40, not 40 percent, but just 40 of the self-published authors on their platform are considered successful, authors earning a living from writing books.
  • Experts say that the average self-published book sells less than 100 copies. Using $2.99, the “sweet spot” price for self-published books on Amazon, that means the average lifetime earnings for an author from a self-published book is at best around $209.30 (assuming a 70% royalty rate). For a 100,000 word novel, that amounts to about 2/10 of one cent per word. Does less than a penny per word sound lucrative?

Sunshine or Rain?

The main takeaway from the above statistics is this. If you count yourself among those 81 percent of Americans who plan to write and publish a book, if you want to be successful, you really must first determine the true motivation behind your desire to become a self-published author.

People typically are motivated to write and publish a book for one of three primary reasons.

  • Money. If making money is your primary motivation for wanting to write and publish books, you will have to write a bestseller to make any real money self-publishing. Please understand that unless you are a famous celebrity, or have an existing and hugely successful blog (getting around 50 million hits), it’s not very likely that you will ever become a bestselling author. The odds are literally right up there with the chances of being struck by lightning or winning millions in the lottery. Yes, it happens, but not many people experience either. There are no two ways about it. You MUST have a significant pre-existing audience to become a best-selling published author.
  • Social. If your primary aim is to gain recognition from your peers by becoming a published author and financial gain is only a peripheral goal, you will find it much easier to succeed at self-publishing by defining success in those terms.
  • Self-Actualization. If you plan to write and self-publish a book simply to satisfy your own personal need to see a published book with your name on the cover on Amazon, this is the easiest path to success. Writing and publishing a book is a significant personal achievement even if the book is never successful regarding sales or financial gain.

Writing a Book is Not Easy

Contrary to a persistent and widespread but patently false notion, writing a book is not easy. At least, it isn’t easy to write a book that anyone will want to buy and read. If it were easy, all of us who write and publish would be living the high life right alongside the James Pattersons of the author world. Self-publishing is often touted on the Internet by a bunch of professional hucksters and charlatans as an easy way to make a quick buck. Nothing could be further from the real truth.

It’s a fact that there are some talented self-published authors out there who write books that are every bit as good if not better than those written by their traditionally published counterparts. But there are a lot of self-published books, an awful lot, that are absolutely dreadful.

I read independent, self-published authors almost exclusively simply because I love discovering new, talented writers, and I read a lot. For every really good self-published book I’ve read, I’ve read or at least attempted to read hundreds that I couldn’t force myself to read beyond the first few chapters, much less finish. It’s no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of self-published books are not worth reading, certainly not worth buying. This creates some real obstacles to success for those who dream of writing and self-publishing and who actually have the necessary talent and skills to write a decent book.

Selling a Book is Even Harder

Writing a book that will sell is hard. Selling that book is even harder. Consider the statistics at the beginning of this post, over a million new eBooks published annually since 2009, to name just one.

Assume you are the second coming of Hemingway and have written the best book in the past hundred years. You’re a new author, but you’re hungry for success. Lack of an author platform be damned, you eagerly publish your book on the Kindle Direct Platform and sit back to watch the book sales climb into the stratosphere and the book royalties roll in like a tsunami. But to your dismay, that doesn’t happen. Maybe you sell a handful of books the first week or so, but then nothing. You check your sales constantly each day, but no one is buying your epic novel. Why? Most likely it’s because no one even knows it exists. Thus, no one even sees your book, much less considers buying it. Your book is quickly buried under the avalanche of the other 20,000 new eBooks published during the week after you published your masterpiece.

Even if your book cover is such a work of art that it belongs on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Even if your book blurb is the wittiest, most irresistible and compelling piece of prose every devised by the human mind. Even if your book deserves to become an instant classic that belongs at the very top of Time Magazine’s All-time Best 100 Novels list, no one is going to buy it or read because no one beyond your circle of friends and family will even be aware it exists.

It’s sort of like the old tree falling in the forest philosophical experiment, isn’t it? If a book is written and no one sees it, was it actually published?

But advertising will cure the problem won’t it? The short answer is no. Advertising is not a magic bullet. If you write and publish a good book, advertising can help you sell more copies than you would sell if you didn’t advertise. But there is NO advertising scheme or strategy guaranteed to make a book financially successful.

Also, advertising costs money, lots of money. Even if you are long on writing talent and savvy, if you are short on cash, you are going to have a very difficult time affording the amount of advertising that will make any real difference in terms of book sales. Advertising is not a one-off kind of deal. You have to keep spending on advertising or your book sales will inevitably drop, maybe to even to zero. You have to commit yourself to constant advertising. The more you spend, the more books you must sell just to break even, much less earn a profit.

But I Still Want to be a Published Author

I’ve done my best to this point to expose you to the unvarnished truths about self-publishing. I’ve covered all the gloom, and doom, and agony that’s part and parcel of the self-publishing experience. But you’re the kind of person who bubbles over with optimism. The glass is always half full. For you, there is always a silver lining to every dark cloud. Surely you will succeed where most everyone else has failed. You still want to write and publish your book. If I’ve described you, here is my best advice.

self-publishing-adviceDO NOT self-publish. Jump through all the annoying, time consuming, but required hoops and seek a traditional publishing book deal. Write your book. Get it professionally edited. Carefully prepare your pitch. Spend the time to find a literary agent to represent you. Cross your fingers. Say your prayers. And hope for a book deal. Therein lies your best chance for success as an author and here is why. If your writing is good enough, you’ll eventually find a publisher willing to publish your work. On the other hand, if your writing isn’t good enough, you will quickly find that out. You really should want that more than you want to contribute to the mountainous slush pile of books that should never have been written already out there, produced by self-publishers.

Believe me, with ten years invested in self-publishing, if I could go back a decade and start all over, I’d do exactly what I’m am advising you to do. I’d go the traditionally published route instead of self-publishing.

But I Still Want to Self-Publish

Yes, I knew there would still be a handful of you left here even at the end, eternal optimists, still determined to self-publish. You’re stubborn, you have high self-esteem, and you believe in yourself too much to give up your dream. Sadly, one of the truths about the human condition is that we can never seem to learn from the mistakes of others. Instead, we have to make their same mistakes ourselves. If I can’t discourage you, I might as well at least leave you with a few pearls of wisdom gleaned from my own years of experience with self-publishing.

  • Go Cheap or Go Home. Ignore the experts who insist that you get a professionally designed book cover and pay a professional to edit your book. That would cost you, on the conservative end of the spectrum, around $1,500-$3,000, depending on the quality of the expertise possessed by the experts you hire. That means you will have to sell between 700 and 1400 copies of your eBook just to pay for the cover and editing. If you have to pay someone to format your book, the upfront investment in production costs grows even higher. Always remember, on average most self-published books never sell more than 100 copies. That’s no accident. Most of us only have about 100 close family members and friends who may be willing to buy our books. If you are an introverted type with fewer than that number of close family members and friends, then prepare yourself for the fact that you may sell considerably less than 100 copies of your self-published book.
  • Platform. Platform. Platform. In real estate, success hinges on Location, Location, Location. In the self-publishing world, it’s Platform, Platform, Platform. Go ahead and write your book. Make it the best book you possibly can. Design or get a friend to help you design your own book cover. Get your book edited the best way you can without spending any money on a professional editor. Then put it in the bottom drawer of your desk and forget about it. Don’t even think of publishing it before you do something else first.
  • Start Building an Author Platform. Put up a website. Start a blog. Build a mailing list. Launch a social media presence. Create a pre-existing audience of at least 1,500-3,000 people for your book and have them chomping at the bit to get their hands and eyes on it before you even think about publishing it. While you’re organizing that, start pitching your book to book reviewers. You want at least a dozen reviews, more if you can possibly get them, to go up on Amazon the day you launch your book. Don’t make the mistake so many new authors do (and yes I’ve made it myself), self-publishing a book without reviews. Doing so will permanently stunt the growth potential of your book. From now until the end of time you will struggle to get reviews for it.

The Chicken or the Egg Discussion

Don’t get caught up in the “what comes first, the chicken or the egg” philosophical discussion so many self-published authors love to indulge in. Platform ALWAYS comes before publishing, every single time. There are no exceptions. If you publish without having an author platform in place, be prepared for failure, and don’t even think about whining when it happens. I guarantee that publishing without a platform will be a big fail. That’s just that nature of the self-publishing beast. Throwing a book up on Amazon, expecting hordes of people who never heard of you to buy it is nothing but a pipe dream. It’s just not going to happen.

Advertise

Choose an advertising platform, whether it is Amazon Marketing Services, Facebook Ads, or whatever. Become an expert. Learn everything there is to know about using your chosen advertising platform effectively. Then put your money into it and never stop. Being a successful self-published author means becoming a full-time book marketer. Expect to spend the bulk of your time marketing your books instead of writing them.

DO NOT rely on free social media to sell your book. If that ever worked, it doesn’t work any longer. With the possible exception of paid ads through some social media platforms, social media does not sell books. The usefulness of social media to an author is limited to building social proof that he or she is a serious author and to build name recognition.

As one example, Twitter is perpetually swamped in book tweets, tweets from authors, from publishers, and from paid “book promotion” services. Unless your book tweet contains the image of a beautiful, naked or at least very scantily clad, scorchingly hot and desirable girl, no one will even notice it much less read it. If you use an image like the one I described, some may look at the image and salivate over it, but no one will click on your call to action link or give even the slightest consideration to buying a copy of your book. This should actually be appended to the Ten Commandments as number 11.

  1. THOU SHALT NOT TWEET YOUR BOOK IN THE EXPECTATION OF GETTING BOOK SALES

I do occasionally tweet about my books, but never while under any foolish impression that it will result in someone buying a copy of one of my books. In fact, disobeying the eleventh commandment will mark you as a rank book marketing amateur among your author peers. I do it only for the reasons given above, creating social proof that I’m a serious author and to hopefully gain some name recognition. I also try my best to tweet at least ten to twelve things my followers might actually find useful information for every tweet I post about one of my books. Facebook doesn’t work any better unless you’re paying for ads.

Beware the Snake Oil Salesmen

The dirge for self-publishing authors is the cottage industry that has sprung up on the Internet to help us *wink* “promote” *nod* our books, for a fee of course. Most book promotion services are worthless, some border on being criminal. Just like the dieting industry which preys on people’s desperate desire to lose weight, many paid book promoters for the most part prey on the earnest desires of self-published authors to publish a successful book.

With very few exceptions, paid book promoters overpromise and under deliver. Their prime directive is to separate you from your hard-earned cash, to shift money from your bank account into their bank account. In most instances, if you feel the urge to pay one of them to promote your book, you should consider just flushing your cash down the toilet at your home. That will save you lots of time, aggravation, and disappointment. My advice? Take any money you have to spend on book promotion and use it to buy effective advertising that might actually bring you some book sales. A paid promotion service tweeting your book to their billion followers is not going to bring you book sales.

Bottom line. The only one who makes money when you pay for book promotion is the book promoter you paid. Period.

Don’t Give Your Book Away Free or Sell it for 99 Cents

A lot of authors are going to vigorously disagree with this last piece of advice, but I stand by it. Many authors believe that making one of their books permanently free or permanently pricing a book at 99 cents will pay off huge down the road by building a big following for their future books. Wrong.

I’m not saying this tactic has never worked, but if it did, too many people started doing it and it doesn’t work now. Sure, it’s fine to offer your book free or for 99 cents for a few days here and there as a strategy to gain some readers and reviews, but it should never be used as a permanent strategy.

If you wrote a 100,000-word novel and you really believe that you should give it away free or sell it for a buck permanently, do the literary world, other self-published authors, and you a favor. Don’t publish it at all. Just delete it from your computer and forget you ever wrote it.

Permanently free and books permanently priced at 99 cents do many things. All of them are bad. This tactic can gain authors a substantial and loyal following, a following from people who only download free and cheap 99 cent books. If you can be happy with that kind of reader base, why waste your time writing books? Find something productive and profitable to do with your time.

Given the existing glut of permanently free and 99 cent eBooks, this wildly popular but misguided strategy also depresses the value of self-published books in the minds of potential book buyers and helps to ensure that the vast majority of self-published authors will never be able to price their books above $2.99. In fact, I predict the day is fast approaching when even accomplished self-published authors will be forced to price their books even more cheaply to get sales. As night follows day, the simple economics of it say that the vast majority of self-published authors will never be able to scratch out a living from writing books alone. It’s already happening. Those authors making real money from self-publishing are really earning very little from their own books. They are making a living by selling courses and hosting seminars that teach others how to self-publish.

One of my favorite traditionally published authors eBooks sell for $14.95. He is a very talented author with lots of name recognition and many great books to his credit. But are his books really worth eleven bucks more than some of the great books written by self-published authors? Not to me they aren’t. I don’t buy his eBooks. I wait until the print version has been out long enough to become available from used book resellers, and then I buy a used print copy for far less than $14.95. As a result, the author doesn’t make a dime from me nor does his publisher.

My point, $2.99 is far too cheap for a quality eBook and $14.95 is far too much. On average, all eBooks should probably sell for between $7.99 to $9.99. But the continual and ever-growing glut of self-published free eBooks and books permanently priced at 99 cents helps to ensure that self-published authors will never command anything near that for their work. If you follow that strategy you will be helping to cut the financial throats of all your fellow self-published authors and yours right along with theirs.

Permanently free and permanently 99 cent books promote the misconception that self-published books are of substandard quality, written by amateurs, and not comparable in worth to books published traditionally. As long as the misconception exists, self-publishing is always going to be regarded by the masses as the ugly step-child to traditional publishing. Don’t contribute to that by adding to the existing glut of free or permanently cheap eBooks.I predict that unless large numbers of self-published authors discipline themselves and stop offering perma-free and permanently cheap eBooks, the practice will kill self-publishing altogether.

Human nature being what is, I don’t believe the practice will stop, and I’m going to make a couple of other bold predictions. I predict that within the next 10 years the opportunity to make any money from self-publishing will have ceased to exist. No one will be able to get a book on Amazon or listed for sale anywhere else unless they have a traditional publisher. Self-publishing will go the way of the web content mills of the late 1990s and early 2000s that disappeared when too many writers started getting involved. Self-publishing is rapidly falling victim to its own popularity. The more people who jump on the bandwagon trying their hand at making a fast buck from writing and self-publishing books, the sooner the opportunity will disappear for everyone.

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If you are thinking about writing and self-publishing a book, you owe to yourself to go into it with your eyes open. You need to understand and accept that there are some cold hard truths about it that you better be aware of unless you want to suffer some real discouragement and disappointment.

Please tune in next time when I’ll present five signs that indicate the golden goose of self-publishing has probably already been cooked. Despite the ridiculous claims that abound in the Indie world that now is the best time ever to be a self-published author, I’m going to reveal some reasons why it’s actually the worst time.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Good blog. I googled and it’s not easy to find much about self-publishing reality. The optimists have cornered the market in publicity. I self-published a book of short stories that have been published in magazines (so not crap, presumably) and have been tweeting, blogging and facebooking like a mad thing for the past month. Result: 10 sales. I also have a novella out from a small press but I doubt if it’s doing much better. Thinking of opening a click farm.

    • Thanks so much for the comment Eamonn. Yes, it’s true. The self-publishing movement is a two-edged sword. While it does allow anyone who yearns to write and publish the opportunity to do so without suffering through the trials of attempting to go the traditional route, so many are taking advantage of it that it makes it almost impossible to gain the necessary visibility to have a successful book no matter how well-written it may be. Good luck to you.

  2. So glad I found this article. You have validated what I’ve been thinking for a long time. I published my first book in 2009. It was successful enough and fun enough that I kept going. But now with so much competition, reality has coldly set in. Eagerly awaitng the “five signs that indicate the golden goose of self-publishing has probably already been cooked.”

    • Sadly, that’s true charmaintdavis. I read this past week that a new eBook is uploaded to KDP every 5 minutes so doesn’t seem the situation is going to improve. Maintaining sufficient visibility to see a few sales trickle in these days has become essentially a full-time job for independent author/publishers. Thanks so much for your comment.

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