5 Things Every Author Needs to Understand About Self-Publishing


So now you are either self-publishing or thinking about self-publishing.
         Yes, welcome to the world of everybody.
         I have a question for you. Do you actually want to make some money at it?
         Here’s the good news: your ficus can make money self-publishing. Your cat, Jingles, can make money self-publishing.
         Of course, by money we are talking about enough scratch to buy some Bazooka at your local 7-Eleven. Or maybe a Venti White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks. That’s not bad. It’s something.
         But if you want to make some real dime, and keep it coming, there are a few things you need to understand.
1. You are going into business
         The authors who are making significant money self-publishing operate with sound business principles. Which makes many other authors as nervous as Don Knotts.

         “I’m just not wired that way!” they’ll say. “I want to concentrate on my writing! I haven’t got the time or inclination to think about business decisions.”
         But guess what? Even if you have a traditional publishing contract, you’re going to have to give time and attention to business, namely marketing.
         What if you spent a little of that same time and effort learning the principles of successful self-publishing?
         Of course, a lot of authors now want to go right into digital. Well, don’t do it until you fully understand that it’s a business you’re going to be running. That business is you.
         Learn how. The basics are not that hard. In fact, I’ll have a book out soon that’ll help.
2. Your mileage will vary
No one can replicate another author’s record. Each author and body of work are unique. Innumerable factors play into the results, many of which are totally out of the control of the writer.
If you go into self-publishing expecting to do as well as author X, you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Instead, concentrate on being the best provider of content you can be. See # 5, below.   
3. This isn’t get rich quick
         In the “early days” of the ebook era, those who jumped in with both feet (Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, John Locke) and those who had loads of backlist (Bob Mayer) or caffeinated series ideas (Lee Goldberg) got some nice returns.
         Now, the future for the overwhelming majority of writers is about quality production, consistently and over time. A long time. Which is fine if you love to write. 
4. You can’t just repeat “buy my stuff” and expect to sell any of it
         We have left the age of sales and are now in the age of social. The way you market today is not by hard sell but by relationship. Even if you’re putting together sales copy, you have to think about how it offers value to the potential reader.
         What isn’t valuable is a string of tweets that are little more than “buy my stuff” or “please RT this” messages. Some authors think it’s a numbers game and repeating these messages will work over time.
         They won’t. They’ll annoy more people than they’ll attract.
5. It is first, and always, about the book
         I don’t care if you can out promote and out market anyone on the internet.
         I don’t care if you can afford to spend $100,000 to place ads for your books.
         If your book fails to catch on with readers or, worse, turns them off, you’re not going to do well over the long haul.
         Which is how it should be, after all. The quality of the writing itself should be the main thing in this whole crazy process.
         So you should concentrate a good chunk of your time, even more than you do on marketing, on a writing self-improvement program alongside your actual writing output.
         One of the reasons I’m conducting intense, two-day writing workshops this year is to take each and every writer who attends to that next level, where green is earned year after year.
          Now is the best time in history to be a writer. No question about it. The barriers to entry have been destroyed and opportunities to generate income have taken their place. But you have to think strategically. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, puts it this way: The biggest challenge faced by self-published authors, it’s not marketing, it’s not discoverability, it’s adopting the best practices of the very best publishers. It’s about becoming a professional publisher.”
       Of course, if you have trouble with that, you can always partner with your cat Jingles. 
We’re fast closing in on the Austin, TX 2 day fiction workshop, June 16-17. To get the special room rate, sign up with the hotel before June 1. Details here.
I’ve posted a new writing video on Agents. If you want to know what a pitch session feels like, tune in

19 thoughts on “5 Things Every Author Needs to Understand About Self-Publishing

  1. I wish more writers thought of these. A lot seem to just think of getting it online so the world can see and forget about the rest.

    When I first decided to go indie (I’m cross-genre, and in a way that hasn’t been done before), my first questions were how to market myself, and my platform, and what the heck was my platform anyway (Soldier, Storyteller). I started tracking my expenses and my time and looking at other parts of the business side.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been revising the book to make sure it’s my best effort. One of the things that came out of some indie writing workshops that I attended was that everything about the book has to match what we see coming from a traditional publisher. That includes shelling out the money for an editor and proofreader.

    So one additional point for you: If a writer isn’t willing to put out money, they probably shouldn’t be self-publishing.

  2. All of these points apply to authors even if they don’t self-publish.

    I know quite a number of author who have both been traditionally published and self-published. Authors who can’t make the best decisions about what to do with their books and their time and efforts are at a major disadvantage.

    Even “purely” traditional authors need to consider self-publishing their back catalog after rights revert back to them (and yes, authors need to be dang sure of when rights revert back before they ever sign on the proverbial dotted line.)

    The old business models for publishing are changing. All authors need to know what that means for them, and be very forward looking into all their contracts and agreements (such as w/Amazon and other distributors when self-publishing).

    In the log run, it’s about the books …and the people who buy them & read them.

  3. Thanks for the mention– yes, 20 years of sweat equity in publishing made a huge difference when I went indie. My first year as a writer I lived in a one room, un-heated apartment above a garage. Instant success in either legacy or indie publishing is very, very rare.

  4. what if you have an agent who is actively trying to get you a publishing contract?

  5. anon… you should TALK to your agent. Every agent worth his or her salt (salt going for 15% of author worth on the open market) knows right now the value of strategic self publishing.

    Heck, did you see the story last week in the NY Times? About how publishers want their A list authors producing short form digital works to help sell their next releases? Publishers see the value.

    So, strategize with your agent. If a certain project is being shopped, think about putting out something in short form that is in line with your genre. Make it clear to the agent (and later, potential publishers) that this is the best form of platform building there is for a new author. Plus, it will make you Starbucks money at the very least.

  6. Jim, This is such a great post, and will be eye-opening for many. An author is an entrepreneur, to be sure, gambling their time, effort, and erstwhile potential income that others will love their product.

    Given the way marketing demands have grown in this respect, though, I have to disagree with Coker. I know plenty of authors who believe they can do this better than any publisher. I think the greatest challenge is finding the time and focus to crank out quality material at an ever more frenetic pace, while multi-tasking on social media. To me, these two brain processes are at direct odds. Your thoughts?

  7. Kathryn, I think Coker’s quote is apt in context. He is talking about the best practices of the best publishers. Traditional publishing does some things really well because they’ve done them for so long. Design elements, for example. And having systems in place for every aspect of production.

    Vis-a-vis marketing, you’re absolutely right. Now it’s incumbent upon authors to do most of the heavy lifting, and many are doing it extremely well at it. Trad publishing is doing its best to catch on, hiring more digital staff (though sometimes at the expense of editorial…a hard tradeoff indeed).

    You’re also right on about balancing the need to produce more work with the whole social media/marketing agenda. Again, I think the book I’ll have out soon will help in this regard.

  8. Awesome Sunday post as always. I wish I could get to your seminar. I’m headed to Killer Nashville in August.

    I have a friend who took the plunge and started self-pubbing full time. She is making a modest living with her series of romance trilogies. Each book is about 50K words and each trilogy has a theme. I think she is on her fourth or fifth.

    She says she may have to go back to work part-time by the end of the summer unless she makes another breakthrough, but her days chained to a cubicle are finished.

    Her covers are gorgeous and her tales are fun. She is gracious and warm and builds readership with giveaways, samples, contests, short work, and her dazzling smile. In fact, she’s my hero.


  9. Terri, she sounds like she’s doing things just right. She has a strategy and is implementing it.

    In the “old days” the “dream” was to be able to “quit my day job” and write full time.

    Maybe her’s will be the new paradigm. Work part time at one thing, and generate writing income via self-publishing.

    What I want to help people with is generating a steady income stream from their writing. Steady is good.

  10. Having spent pretty much all of my adult life either running someone else’s business or owning and operating my own businesses all with varying degrees of success, I figured this writing / self-publishing gig would be the same. It’ll only give me back what I put into it first, and if I’m lucky it’ll give it back with profit.

    In the past the past the businesses I ran for others all seemed to do pretty darn well, especially the restaurants, wow that was a blast. The first one I owned, well lets just say opening a computer shop I hoped to compete with Gateway and Dell the year before Costco and Walmart both started selling PC’s was just bad timing. We almost survived…almost.

    In the end this writing thing will probably make a good living for me. Between it and the audiobook narration business I now own I figure books are going to be my future as long as I keep pumping out the stories in both formats.

  11. All good advice. What I have found frustrating is finding some way — on a zero-dollar budget — of just getting the word out that my book is even available. A dozen or so good review on Amazon and Goodreads and the usual social media circus is not enough to get word of mouth really going. Or so it seems. If anyone has any really clever matrketing idea, I’d love to hear it.

    Of course, if it’s really that clever, you’ll probably want to keep it to yourself!

  12. Steve, while I can’t speak for everyone here are a couple of tactics that drew a lot of attention to my books for little to no Dinero.

    Free Marketing
    1. Join Amazon Select and setup free promotional giveaways of your titles. I do this with one of my books weekly and it has two effects.

    A. Everytime the books are free they hit the top ten list for a day or two.

    B. There is a corollary between free books and paid books. IE. Whenever I give away a few hundred copies of the ebook, I get at least a few score sales at the same time adds up fast.

    2. Put the book in audio format and podcast it via the free podiobooks.com system. This was what really pushed my own works for many years before I even put them in ebook or paperback I already had an audience. Couple of potential hurdles here though.

    A. You have to be fairly decent at narration (both physical voice and acting skill) to get positive reviews. On this though, there are some budding narrators who would love to have a hand at narrating a book even for no pay just to test their chops.

    B. Gotta also have the equipment, a decent quality laptop and a good USB mic will do. Software is free though, Audacity is a great free software package that I even continued to use in the early part of my professional narration career.

    3. Start a blog Free way to get attention, but gotta really have something to say to get people’s attention.

    All of those principles applied consistently over a period of 6 years has gotten me to where I am today in writing. Which is to say still working my day job, and now narrating books for other folks as I try to make enough money with my writing to take my Missus to a nice dinner and maybe pay an extra credit card payment each month.

  13. Steven, that’s good, solid advice from Mr. Sands.

    Remember, though, that word of mouth and promotion works better the more books you have out. You have only one. This is a volume business.

  14. This thread has been great. I don’t yet have a finished work, but I’ve been working hard on building the business foundation. My thanks to all of you for sharing; you’ve given me affirmation that I’m at least on the right track. And thank you, Jim, for reminding us this is a volume business; that’s a very good thing to keep in mind as we (writers) set long-term goals. Also, I had never given a lot of thought to short fiction, but absolutely see the value in it, and I think it’s genius! I LOVED Force of Habit, by the way.

    One other tip I would add to this discussion: surround yourself with people who are succeeding in the area you want to succeed. Anyone who hangs out in how-to-succeed-in-business hears this all the time, and it’s just as applicable to us in the writing business. I’ve intentionally been building connections with people who are succeeding in the writing business, and the educational value is priceless.

    Jim — and Bob — thank you so much for being such great models for newbies like me, and thank you for being so generous with your help and advice!

  15. Agree x 100!

    It’s all about the books + sound business practices.

    Writing one book and talking about it forever is going to be more than enough for some people, and I won’t stand in the way of them enjoying themselves. But, when they complain about not making any $$, I let them know I didn’t start making regular sales until I had 5 books out. Five books or bust! Six are better! Or Seven …

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