Image Credit: Entrepeneur.com
Self-publishing has gained popularity for many reasons. It’s exciting. It puts nearly full control (and responsibility) into the hands of authors. And the royalty rate is about 70%, with a few caveats. That can be a pretty percentage compared to the usual rates for the traditionally published. Yet, another thing that drives the self-publishing craze is that writers and scam artists alike are drawn in by catchy headlines and book titles that scream, “I made a million dollars in two hours by publishing my own book, and you can too!!”
If someone is just dying to tell the world how making a fortune can be so easy, most of us have the good sense to realize that they’re only trying to make things easier on Number 1: themselves. Still, scammy books like that sell by the crate because the fantasy they offer is undeniably appealing, regardless of how deeply we understand that nothing worth having is free.
Finding professional success takes effort, skill, and lots of persistence, and doing it all by your lonesome takes even more of all that. Just ask a successful self-published novelist.
I mean, don’t ask any famous “Billionaire Romance” authors who have practically Forrest Gumped their way into a bottomless pile of cash. Those people most likely got lucky, pure and simple. But almost any other self-supporting, fulltime author will do, because most self-pub writers will never see that unlikely level of good fortune. The authors featured in this post have worked hard to put themselves in the way of luck, and their results have been encouraging.
Rachel Abbott: From the article “14 Hour Days, Marketing and Dealing with Snobbery: my life as a self-published bestseller”
Rachel Abbott has sold over 2 million books throughout her career, and yet, she has only written six novels, and I think it’s safe to assume you’ve never heard of her. Back in 2011, after Rachel couldn’t find an agent who was interested in representing her first novel, she turned to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing website.
She knew that her work wasn’t yet good enough to win a contract, but she wanted the experience and feedback that a publishing author receives, and she wanted to live the life of a writer. However, when she began her self-publishing endeavor, she quickly realized that the life of a writer wouldn’t be quite as glamorous as she had imagined. “My initial vision of days spent doing nothing other than plotting and writing were way off the mark.”
When Rachel published her 2011 novel, Only the Innocent, she was working 14 hour days, 7 days a week just to give her work a proper chance at success in a crowded marketplace. For three months, she says, “not a word of a novel was written.”
Two million books later, not much has changed about Rachel’s weekly work schedule. She is still busy keeping up with spreadsheets full of a million sales data points, corresponding with design and editing specialists, staying engaged with her readers, and so many other things that an independent publisher cannot afford to ignore.
“Self-publishing isn’t for everybody,” she says. “There are some overwhelming decisions that have to be made: who should design the dust jacket? Who should edit? Which title is the right title?” Furthermore, there is the question of how much an author should pay up front to have all of this done.
Nonetheless, Rachel plans to continue her current profession and her current workload well into the future. “In the end…it’s been an amazing experience, and not one that I could possibly regret.”
Mark Dawson: From the article “Amazon Pays $450,000 a Year to this Self-Published Writer”
Again, it’s likely that you’ve never heard of this author, but as the headline above states, Mark Dawson does okay. Mark had published a title with a traditional publisher in 2000, but it turned out to be a major flop, because, as Mark says, the publishing house he had signed with wasn’t able to publicize it hardly at all. Sales were so bad, and Mark was so ambitious, that he would visit bookstores where he’d sneak his book off the shelves and place it somewhere more visible in the store.
The idea of self-publishing was fairly new when Mark took the initiative and released his second book, The Black Mile, on Amazon. At first, sales were abysmal. He was close to giving up. Then, one day, he realized that authors could give books away for free on Amazon as a promotional tool. Imagine how this completely unknown author felt when he realized that, over the course of a single weekend, his book had sold more than 50,000 copies.
People liked his work, a lot–they just hadn’t noticed it before among the thousands of other titles available on Amazon and elsewhere. Nobody had told them that Mark Dawson the author existed, and nobody had yet demonstrated that his series could be a good use of readers’ time.
“It was a wasted opportunity,” Dawson says of his freebie strategy, “But it did give me a kick up the arse and proved to me that this is legitimate and that I should write a new book, so I did.”
What carried Mark into his current tax bracket was his vigilance with marketing his work and making real connections with readers and other writers. Since that first massive free sale, he has gone on to conduct many writing and publishing seminars, and he sticks to traditional strategies as well, like approaching bloggers with requests to review his books. He also makes certain to respond to all messages from his readers and keep them in the loop with whatever he’s doing. You could say Dawson is a fulltime writer/publisher/publicist.
Through the process of all this, he has been steadily building an email list that now consists of about 15,000 readers who are willing to engage with him in some way. It is the loyal network he has built, his constant contact with fans, and his heavy, $350 per day use of Facebook advertising that now keep Dawson cozy at the top of the heap.
Polly Courtney: From the article “Why One Author Chose Self-Publishing Over Harper Collins”
Many authors who self-pub are called “hybrid publishers”. They offer a mix of some books that were traditionally published and also a few that they DIY’ed. According to Hugh Howey and his associates over at AuthorEarnings.com, hybrids are the writers who bring in the most income overall.
With the marketing clout and high-quality editing and packaging offered by traditional publishers (and not to mention the wide-open channels for bookstore stocking) these authors get better exposure than most indie publishers. Yet they also get that self-pub, high-percentage payday.
Polly Courtney began her life as a published author at Harper Collins, one of the “Big 5” largest publishing houses in the world. Unlike Mark Dawson who was mentioned above, Courtney found that the effort her publisher put forth to market her work was tireless and valiant. The result was that sales for her first two books, It’s a Man’s World and The Fame Factor, weren’t half bad. Some would say that, regardless of the drawbacks of her traditional publishing experiences, Courtney should have just smiled and gone along with whatever Harper Collins was gracious enough to do for her.
But Courtney was less than thrilled with her publisher.
Harper Collins slapped covers on her books that, while very handsome and statistically likely to sell, did nothing to say, “This is a Polly Courtney book.” Her covers had nothing in common with one another, and had no author-specific branding whatsoever. The cover images said, “These are Harper Collins books,” and radiated the impression that each novel fit neatly into a category of Harper Collins’ usual offerings–for women. Of course, that’s business. A publishing house must do what it can, especially right now, to ensure its continued existence.
But the main issue was that, as Courtney later stated, the books didn’t fit with their covers at all. Courtney’s book about a woman competing in a male-dominated business was given a cover that made it look like ditzy chick-lit. Her title about the harsh realities of a young punk singer’s life comes off as a starry-eyed romp through girl-pop glamour, à la Jem. After the launch of her third book, the Daily Mail ran this headline: “Novelist Fires Publisher for Putting ‘Fluffy and Degrading’ Covers on Her Books.”
While Polly does have a serious advantage in self-publishing because of the publicity drummed up by Harper Collins, the work she does in publishing her own titles is most often focused on her audience–a component of the equation which she felt the big publisher had often ignored. “When I talk to people about publishing the book,” she says, “I keep slipping into saying ‘we’re doing this’ and ‘we’re doing that’, which I never did while I was with the publisher.”
Courtney now launches her own books after focusing on crowd-based work, like testing cover images with her readers, appointing beta-readers, responding to critical feedback, and generally staying in contact with her fans to keep them engaged. Time-consuming as this may seem, readers are an integral part of her process, and to Courtney, they represent the most important part of it all.
The Stereotype of the Lazy, Unskilled Self-Publisher
Many discerning readers and academics have been known to describe the act of self-publishing like this: “You just point and click Publish.”
But the next time someone tells you that self-publishing equates with low-effort, low-quality work, and is nothing short of the death knell for literature as we know it, remember that this isn’t necessarily true. Many more writers than the three mentioned here have demonstrated that, in the long term, self-publishing can favor serious writer/publishers of original mainstream and literary fiction, and also non-fiction.
The point is this: when a writer sets out to control their own destiny, they will most likely only get back as much as they put in. This is a fact of life for authors who have no multinational PR departments or expensive developmental editors at their disposal. An independent publisher’s potential is only developed if they pursue personal and professional betterment, but the dream is attainable.
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