For Most of Us, Self-Publishing Should Be A Hobby

If you’ve read my Twitter bio, you know that I’m a self-described “very little-known author.” That isn’t from lack of trying. Every year, I’ve released at least one new ebook exclusively on Amazon’s Kindle Store. I even have a new one on sale this week. The trouble is getting anyone to notice so that I can become a slightly-known author.

When I entered the world of self-publishing in 2016, it felt like I was already late. I read about a boom in the late 2000s and early 2010s for independent authors upon the initial launch of the Kindle Store. Apparently, I’d missed it. By the time I was ready to self-publish, meaning I had a novel that I believed was ready for the world but wasn’t ready for the world of traditional publishing, the ebook market was becoming oversaturated. But I decided to dive in anyway.

Given Amazon’s market dominance, enrolling in their KDP Select program was an easy choice. Signing up and uploading the novel was a straightforward process, and the royalties offered in return were generous. Plus, the book is free to all Kindle Unlimited subscribers, which removes a potential barrier to reading the book. To this day, I am still part of KDP Select and see no reason to leave the program. The issue stems from how many other authors out there see things the same way.

My initial research into self-publishing made me aware of how difficult it was to stand out in the market. Following in the footsteps of the many authors that came before me, I launched accounts on multiple social media sites intending to promote my novels. I retooled my Twitter account, started a Facebook page, created a blog on Tumblr, began a mailing list, and even bought and set up my own website. For most of 2016, I posted regularly to them. And I learned just how hard it was to find followers in the vast online universe.

The only real success I had in 2016 was when I paid for it. There are a plethora of promotional sites and newsletters out there that authors can advertise with, though it’s best to do some research on them beforehand. Most are reasonably priced, but the cost quickly adds up. And some are so selective that there’s little chance of a first-time author with a never-reviewed book getting picked for a slot. But my first self-published novel, The First Kingdom, was approved by enough of them, and I was noticed for the first time. However, it didn’t last.

In the months before the ads went live, The First Kingdom received 2 sales and 1705 pages read via Kindle Unlimited. During the promotional period, when the price also dropped to 99 cents, I sold 79 units and had 4674 pages read. It was a marked improvement, but when the ads stopped, the sales stopped.

In 2018, in an attempt to gain a larger audience, I took advantage of one of KDP Select’s offerings and made The First Kingdom free for five days. On top of that, I purchased ads to run while it was free. 3371 copies were downloaded in that period. But once again, when the promotions ended, the sales ended.

So it has been every year since. When I have the money to promote my novels, they sell. But when I don’t advertise, there are zero sales. From what I’ve read online, this is not a unique situation. Most authors are searching for a way for their writing to be noticed. Advertising can be expensive, but even those with money may eventually hit a point of diminishing returns. There just aren’t a lot of options for independent authors to get their name and work out to a large audience.

There are over 6 million ebooks in the Kindle Store, and that number increases daily. At least 50,000 are published each month, with approximately 1,670 ebooks published every day. Is it any wonder that it’s so difficult for just one to stand out? Sure, there have been announcements from Amazon that over 1,000 authors made more than $100,000 in a year. But that would only be about .01% of the authors out there. Most aren’t making anywhere near that kind of income.

By removing the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing world, sites like Amazon have given every author a chance to put their work out there. And almost every author has. With so many self-publishing their work, the ebook market is flooded with books of varying quality and little chance of success. While going the traditional route can be nearly as difficult in some cases, having a known publisher at your back is like having a certification mark. Readers have a better idea of what they’re going to get from them than from some unknown, self-published schmo only available in the Kindle Store.

While I am grateful for the opportunity Amazon gives me, I am well aware of the drawbacks of self-publishing. Being an independent author has taught me plenty. Enough so that I made a post on my website last year covering ten things I believed I’d learned that were worthy of sharing. Included on that list is advice to keep your day job, which, ultimately, is also the point of the article you’re reading now.

Due to the number of ebooks out there and the small probability of success, most independent authors should not count on self-publishing as their primary source of income. Doing so would surely be a direct path to poverty. This is especially true for those just starting out. If you want to write, even if you have a day job, you will find the time to write. Do not quit your job just so you have that time. Instead, set a schedule so you devote certain hours each week or each month solely to writing. Commit to it like you would any social occasion. Once you’ve completed a book, do not assume anything in your life will change because of it. Just keep writing and keep your job.

The only possible exception to this is if you’ve already established a fan base and you’ve already made enough money from writing which you can survive on. But until you reach that point, writing should remain a hobby and your main occupation should stay unchanged.

I’ve only been doing this for five years, but if I had quit my day job simply because I was self-publishing my one completed novel, I would have little income to survive on, let alone run ads with. Of course I’d like more time to write, but if I want consistent wages, I need to stay employed.

The reality for so many of us independent writers is that our primary source of income is not and will never be writing. And maybe that’s because there are so many of us.

Write because you want to, and write for yourself. Do not write to make money or to make up for a lost job. The Kindle Store and other online markets give us the ability to put our work out there. But they offer little guarantee of anything more. Only an infinitesimal number of self-publishers will reach a dreamlike level of success. Never assume you’ll be one of them until you are.

In the meantime, you can call yourself an independent author, but make sure it remains a hobby.

Current independent author and IT professional. Former NJ political operative.