My self-publishing journey
I’m based in the San Francisco Bay Area but moved back to India for a few years and wrote a novel. In 2012, Tell A Thousand Lies was short-listed for the now-defunct UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia prize. Self-publishing was unknown in India so I figured out how it worked, declined my trad (also known as traditional) publishing contract, and self-published.
I wrote about it for The Hindu newspaper. This led to interviews with major newspapers and magazines, and my own Wikipedia page. I was also invited to multiple literary festivals, including the prestigious Jaipur Literary Festival.
A few years later, Amazon flew me to New Delhi when they launched the Kindle in India. My latest book is Daughters Inherit Silence. I’m working on The Water Wives.
Myth: You Get Only One Chance At A Debut Novel
I was at a literature festival for South Asian writers when I heard this from a trad author. While this is indeed the case in trad publishing, with self-publishing there is no such pressure. Sometimes your first book is not your best book. Your 10th book may be your breakout book. Self-publishing will not penalize you for it.
Indie authors (also known as self-published authors) have known for a while that books often have long tails. Books aren’t necessarily dead in the water if they don’t sell enough copies in the first few weeks.
Case in point, Colleen Hoover’s books are dominating the charts now, but this wasn’t always the case. Passionate TikTokers drove her sales through the roof years after her books were first published.
Myth: There Is No Money In Self-Publishing
The recent anti-trust case by the Department of Justice against the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster merger was eye-opening. We learned that big publishers don’t necessarily have all the answers. They have no way of predicting which books will make it big. Acquisition of books is akin to throwing spaghetti at walls—they’re just waiting to see which ones will stick. The antitrust trial revealed that of 58,000 trade titles published each year, half of those titles sell fewer than one dozen books.
Indie authors don’t get an advance. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indies get paid month-by-month, and they don’t have to split their royalties with an agent and the publisher.
Indie authors are often very savvy about rights. Trad authors, especially newer ones, often sign away all of theirs. Many times, the publisher will acquire all your rights but not exploit them on your behalf, essentially locking them away. It is one thing to tell authors not to sign away all of their rights (some of which are ebook, print, audiobook, film and television, translation, merchandising, performance, etc.). But the fact of the matter is that newer authors often don’t have the negotiating power (or the savvy.)
Trad publishers are losing market share to independent authors. Romance, mystery, crime fiction, and sci-fi are genres that are driving this change.
“Two out of three books lose money, and 4 percent of those few books that make money drive 60 percent of profitability.” — Secrets of Penguin Random House.
The bigger advance from a trad publisher, the better the marketing budget for that book. This is often at the expense of mid-list authors whose books might be equally good, if not better.
Serialization of books is big business.
Trad publishers don’t exploit this, which is a missed opportunity because younger readers are driving this trend. Wattpad–Webtoon, for example, has multiple imprints, and an app available in 50 languages.
Michael Tamblyn, the CEO of ebook platform Kobo, said at the Frankfurt Book Fair that self-published ebook sales represent “a whole other Penguin Random House sitting out in the market that no one sees.” — Observer.
Late Random House CEO Carolyn Reidy noted that “the romance market, which used to be huge in mass market, has pretty much dried up and gone to digital original.” — Observer.
Romance writers lead the charge in Indie publishing. Romance is big business, and many, many indie authors, whose names you’ll never hear, are making six figures or more. Their sales are driven by their voracious fan base.
Trad publishers price their ebooks high because they are protecting their print book market. Indies are able to monetize both. Many indies put their ebooks into subscription services, making a solid living from them. For example, Kindle Unlimited pays out nearly a half billion dollars per month to independent authors/publishers.
Myth: Your Trad Publisher Will Do All Your Marketing For You
Many literary agents won’t even take you on as a client if you can’t show them you have a “platform.” Platform is a fancy way of saying that you have committed followers on social media who will buy your books. Even after you get a trad publishing contract, your job isn’t done. You will need to step up your marketing efforts. If your book does not earn out its advance, you may not get a second publishing deal.
What Is Self-Publishing?
So, what is this self-publishing thing, anyway?
Self-publishing is when you, the author, create an account on a self-publishing platform like Amazon, Apple, B&N, Kobo, GooglePlay, Draft2Digital, etc., and upload your book. You become the publisher on record; you set the price from the dashboard, and you get the royalties directly from the vendor. There is no third party involved in the entire book production process, which includes writing, editing, formatting, commissioning book covers, distribution, and marketing. While many self-publishers do much of this work themselves (not including editing and book cover design), as they get more successful, they hire out parts of this process.
Scams In Self-Publishing
Where there is money to be made, there will be scam artists. And so it goes with self-publishing. A few things to watch out for:
- Vanity presses, subsidy presses, hybrid publishers: These “publishers” charge authors to publish their books. In reality, all they’re doing is uploading your book to platforms like Amazon, Apple, etc., which anyone can do for free. The danger in allowing someone else to do this on your behalf is that they become the publisher of record. By doing so, they control access to your dashboard, which includes sales data and royalties.
These outfits often pressure the author to purchase additional services like editing, design, and marketing. They often make little or no effort to actually sell the books, and why would they? They’ve already made their money by selling you, the author, their services. They may also require you to buy copies of your own books.
A general rule of thumb in publishing: money should flow from the publisher to the author, and not the other way around. You have already put in the effort and written the book. If the publisher is to profit off your work, they must put in the effort, make money from it, and then share that money with you. Like legitimate trad publishers do.
- Self-publishing services that promise bestseller status: No one can guarantee this, not even trad publishers.
- Self-publishing services that promise book reviews: Some companies may offer to write or arrange for book reviews, often for a fee. This could get you banned on Amazon.
- Self-publishing services that promise to get your book into bookstores: Some companies claim to be able to get your self-published book into physical bookstores. All they do is buy an ISBN and upload your book (formatted for print) to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or a catalog like Ingram Spark. You don’t need someone else to do it for you. You can do this yourself.
Note: you can use formatting software like Vellum (for Macs) or Atticus (for PCs) to format your books. I format all of mine.
- Self-publishing services that promise to get your book into libraries: you can do this free by signing up for legitimate aggregator services like Draft2Digital.
- I’ve conducted various self-publishing workshops over the years and heard horror stories of stolen copyrights and royalties. Protect yourself by learning all you can about self-publishing. I have a list of resources below.
Successful Self-published Authors
Many successful indie authors make a significant income from their work:
- Andy Weir: Sci-fi author. His self-published book, The Martian, was later adapted into a movie of the same name, starring Matt Damon.
- Bella Andre: Romance author. The New York Times bestselling author has sold over 8 million her books and used a variety of marketing strategies, including launching her own publishing company, to achieve her success.
- Brandon Sanderson: High fantasy and sci-fi author. He asked Kickstarter fans for $1 million to self-publish four novels he wrote during the pandemic. His campaign topped $41.7 million from more than 185,000 backers. It is the most-funded Kickstarter in the crowdfunding site’s history.
- Colleen Hoover: Romance and Young Adult (YA) genre. She has sold over 20 million books as of October 2022 and had six books in the Top-10 bestsellers’ list at the same time.
- Rachel Abbott: Author of psychological thrillers. Over 4 million books sold.
The superstars in the Indie world are the ones who are six- and seven-figure authors. There are plenty of authors you’ll never hear about who are making a comfortable living (high five figures and low six figures) from their books.
Pros of Self-Publishing Your Book
- Control: You have complete control over the content, design, and distribution of your book.
- Speed: You can get your book out to the market faster than traditional publishing methods (which can take two years or more).
- Higher royalties: Because you’re not limited by traditional publishing contracts and royalty structures, you can often make more money per book sold than traditionally published authors.
- Flexibility: You can make changes to your book at any time, whether it’s updating the content or changing the cover design.
- Global distribution: You can use self-publishing platforms to distribute your book worldwide, reaching a wider audience.
- Branding: Self-publishing allows you to establish your brand and build a following of readers.
- Creative freedom: Self-publishing provides more opportunities to publish niche and experimental works that may not appeal to traditional publishers. You can express your ideas and creativity without having to conform to the requirements of a trad publisher.
- Ownership: You retain full ownership of your book and its rights.
- Marketing and promotion: Because you’re not constrained by traditional publishing schedules or budgets, you have more freedom to come up with creative marketing ideas. Even when trad authors do marketing on their own, they don’t have access to the dashboard to see if their efforts are bearing fruit.
- More responsive to market trends: Because you’re are not tied to a traditional publisher’s marketing schedule (which can be notoriously slow), you can respond more quickly to changes in the market.
- Early adoption of new technologies and platforms: You’re able to use these tools to reach new audiences.
- Experimental in your marketing: As an Indie, you can try approaches that may not be possible within a traditional publishing framework.
Cons of Self-publishing Your Book
- Financial responsibility: You pay for all the costs associated with publishing, such as editing, cover design, and marketing.
- Marketing: You are responsible for marketing and promoting your book.
- Quality control: You need to ensure that the book meets high editorial and design standards to be successful.
- Distribution limitations: You may not have the same level of distribution as traditional publishers.
- Credibility: Self-published books may not be seen as credible as those published by traditional publishers, though your readers are voting with their money, and self-published authors are doing quite well for themselves.
- Lack of support: Self-publishing can be a lonely journey without the support and guidance of a traditional publisher.
- No advance payment: You won’t receive an advance payment for your book, which may be a disadvantage if you need financial support during the publishing process.
- Limited bookstore presence: Self-published books may not be available in brick-and-mortar bookstores, though I don’t see this as a huge disadvantage. You can develop a relationship with your local bookstore.
- Legal issues: Self-publishing authors will need to handle legal issues such as copyright, trademark, and liability themselves, which can be challenging and time-consuming. Having said that, organizations such as the Alliance Of Independent Authors (of which I’m a member), provide help with such issues. If you choose the trad publishing route, they will help you vet your contracts, as well.
Resources for Authors
- Writer Beware: Victoria Strauss’ mission for this blog is to “track, expose, and raise awareness of scams and other questionable activities in and around the publishing industry.”
- Starting From Zero: David Gaughran’s free course covers topics like branding, platform building, etc.
- The Creative Penn: Joanna Penn, who is a thriller writer and a podcaster, has a lot of resources for authors.
- On YouTube
- Becca Syme’s QuitCast.
Useful for both trad authors and indie authors.
- A sample of guidebooks from ALLi (free to its members)
- Self-Publishing A Children’s Book on how to get book reviews, how to self-published members
- Your Book in Bookstores: ALLi’s Guide to Print Book Distribution For Authors
- 150 Self-Publishing Questions Answered: ALLi’s Writing, Publishing, & Book Marketing Tips for Authors and Poets
- How Authors Sell Publishing Rights: ALLi’s Guide to Working with Publishers, Producers and Others
- Book Prizes And Awards For Indie Authors
- Podcasting For Authors
- Your Book In Libraries Worldwide
- Helpful Facebook group.
- If you want to be trad published, ALLi provides a contract-vetting service.
- (Please note that the above is an affiliate link. If you use this link to join, you get a discount on your membership. You don’t pay extra).
Photo by Annelies Geneyn on Unsplash
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