An Honest Look at Self-Publishing

I almost wrote this post several months ago, or a version of it anyway. This was right after my Kickstarter went down in flames and I was feeling a little defeated and lost as to where to go next, and it was coming out a bit whiny, so I scrapped it. Since then, I’ve taken a tumble over the wall into the land of traditional indie publishing, which has given me some perspective, and more thoughts, and now I think I’m ready to write them down properly. So here goes.

After a lot of research, some deep thought, and trial and error, I published my debut novel, Restless Spirits, in 2011. I followed that up the next year with Dominion of the Damned, which was intended to be a trilogy. After that, life got kind of bumpy for a while, and instead of doing what I probably should have done, immediately writing and publishing the next Damned book (as opposed to the next damn book), I floundered, letting myself get distracted by those aforementioned life bumps and shiny new ideas. Knowing that I needed to build up my publishing offerings to have any real hope of sustainable sales, I put out some shorter works, i.e. a couple of novellas and a short story collection.

So that’s my first–and probably biggest, mistake: not building a strong foundation.

At any rate, I definitely qualify as a self-published author. I also do freelance work (mainly editing and book formatting) to help other self-published authors produce their books. All of which is to underscore that I don’t have a traditional publishing axe to grind–in fact, self-publishing helps me make my living in more ways than one. But I feel like self-publishing has a tendency to be romanticized, or seen as the magic bullet to making all your publishing dreams come true.

And I’m here to tell you, it’s not the easy road. Far from it.

There’s a tendency to think that if someone has a good story, all they need to do is put it out there on Amazon and the readers will come. But that’s not the case. I’m going to risk sounding immodest by saying that Restless Spirits and Dominion of the Damned are both good stories. Sure, I’m biased, but they’ve both got a respectable number of positive reviews telling me I’m not delusional to think so. But sales, while greater than zero, have been far from what I’d hoped they’d be. Once in a while I get a royalty deposit that’s big enough to order a pizza or fill the car up with gas, and that’s a really good month, is what I’m saying.

These books also have pretty good production value. They’re well edited, and while I did the covers myself, I have a background in graphic design, and I put a lot of hours into studying book cover design and what tends to sell best in my genres. They might not be the greatest, but they’re far from the worst.

So what’s the problem? Apart from my error in not immediately continuing my series, as best as I can diagnose it, I believe it’s that I’m terrible at marketing myself.

Don’t get me wrong. Some people have found phenomenal success with self-publishing. Many more self-pubbed authors have developed comfortable and respectable mid-list careers. The biggest difference between them and me, as far as I can tell, is that they’re a lot better at marketing and getting people excited about their books. They also have more time and money to invest in book promotion than I do.

My point is, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. If you’re trying to decide whether or not it might be for you, these are factors you should take into consideration.

Does this mean that self-publishing is no longer for me? Honestly, I don’t know. I thought it was six months ago, but since then serendipity (or as I like to call it, Providence) put Restless Spirits in front of the right person and now I have a multi-book publishing contract. But it remains to be seen whether traditional publishing is a better fit.

I will say that the main thing that tipped the scales toward me signing the contract is the help that the publisher will provide with marketing. They won’t do everything, and will expect me to do a lot on my own that I didn’t even think to do before, but I’ll have an unseen hand behind me, pushing me to step outside my comfort zone and get it done. I expect that this will be a big help. I really hope I’m right about that. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The other benefit I’m finding to having signed a traditional contract is that it’s keeping me motivated and focused. With self-publishing comes a lot of freedom, and sometimes too much freedom is crippling. I could write whatever I want whenever I want, but knowing that led to decision paralysis and jumping around from project to project without finishing anything. Now I have a legal obligation to stay focused on this one book (and then write the next one) until my contract is fulfilled. For someone who does best with structure, this is certainly a plus. But some people might find this too stifling.

If you’re on the fence about self-publishing, the advice I can offer (out of my admittedly limited experience) is this: if you just want to be published, to have a book (or e-book) to hold in your hands and show your family and friends, or to point to your cover on Amazon and say, “I wrote that!” then go for it. However, if your dream is to have an honest-to-God writing career that actually brings in at least a substantial portion of your income, you should approach this as a business decision, and approach self-publishing as a business. Create a business plan that includes how you’ll handle book production costs, and that also includes a marketing plan, and be honest with yourself about whether or not it’s realistic and sustainable. If not, give traditional publishing another try. Self-publishing isn’t going anywhere, and it will still be there when you’re ready.

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5 thoughts on “An Honest Look at Self-Publishing

  1. Having an outside entity who really understands book marketing and will even just help guide you through what you need to do is amazing. Getting books in front of people is their business. Also, one less thing for you to worry about. Coming up with your own plan can be very stressful (as you of course already know).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They don’t do it all for you, though. They still expect me to come up with my own plan and do a lot of the marketing heavy lifting myself. But they’ve already given me a lot of guidance, and on their part they can open doors that are locked to just me, like getting me reviews and award nominations in places that don’t accept indie. I think it will be a big boost, and goodness knows doing it all by myself hasn’t gone so well.

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      1. I know that most publishers don’t do it all for you. But having the guidance and someone to bounce ideas off of is infinitely better than figuring it out by yourself! Can’t wait to see how it goes for you!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. For a moment there, I thought you were describing my self-publishing journey. I started out publishing the first in a series of fantasy novels. Then I got side-tracked, published a few shorter novels and a collection of short stories before I got back to the second book in the series. Royalty cheques–when they come–will buy a pizza and a tank of gas, but they won’t keep me going through the year.

    Marketing is one thing I’m tackling in 2016. I’m forcing myself to get better. That second book is coming out May 6th. I set the date a few weeks ago. Now that I’m promoting on all over my website, I feel obligated to get that book out. Then it’s on to book three.

    Will I take a stab at traditional publishing? No, not yet. My non-fiction gets published, so it buys my food. I’m giving self-publishing another five years. If I’m doing no better, then I’ll reevaluate my plan. Like you, sometimes life gets in the way, so I haven’t been able to give this my full attention. I’m hoping as my kids get older, I’ll be able to do that in the years to come.

    Good luck with your publishing contract. I hope it works out great for you.

    Diane Tibert
    Fantasy Author

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    1. Announcing an official release date sounds like a smart way to keep yourself motivated and accountable. I wish I’d thought of that. 🙂

      My second novel was also supposed to kick off a series, and I still want to write that series. I’m still debating whether I want to self-publish the rest of it or shop it around to publishers. But I haven’t completely given up on self-publishing.

      Five years sounds like a good amount of time to give it a fair chance, which is about how long it’s been for me. I’m ready to try something different and see how it goes.

      Thanks for the luck, and good luck wishes back to you for your own series!

      Like

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