This Is What It’s Like As A Self-Published Author

Rachel Thompson
May 14, 2020 · 8 min read

The challenges and joys of publishing on your own

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Photo by STIL on Unsplash

“Don’t self-publish, whatever you do. It’s where your book will go to die,” an older gentleman advised me just the other day on Facebook. He hasn’t published anything yet and appeared to be unaware that I have six books out (plus two more about to be released).

“Thank you for that wise tip,” I responded, chuckling at this old argument, yet acknowledging it’s not completely without merit. According to Alexa Bigwarfe of Write.Publish.Sell,

Most first-time authors who do not have a significant author platform will sell less than 500 books in the lifetime of their book.

Why? Taking into account that the book is well-written, professionally edited, designed, formatted, and produced (for the sake of discussion), this is mostly due to a lack of pre-marketing, author branding, and strategic, effective book marketing/promotion.

Why Me?

To help give you some insights into my experiences, here’s my deal:

I self-published my first two books, went with a hybrid for my third and fourth, had an agent and small boutique publisher for my fifth, and went back to self-publishing for my sixth. In my business, BadRedhead Media, I work with authors who are all three as well.

I made the most money as a self-published author, particularly when I first published with Amazon KDP, back in 2012 and 2013 — I could literally pay my house payment (in Southern California near the beach, no less) with my monthly royalties.

Amazon quickly caught on to how much they were paying out and cut their payouts way, way down by now paying also on pages read, not only sales. This means authors make far, far less than we did before.

Now I’m lucky if I can buy a bag of groceries (nice groceries, but still) with my monthly royalties — and that’s on the royalties of four of my books.

For a great breakdown on Amazon and payouts, I suggest you read pretty much anything by David Gaughran. He’s a beast on this stuff.

Positives of Self-Publishing

Depending on who you are and your level of knowledge, time, and money, here are what I feel are the positives of self-publishing:

  1. Control. It’s completely up to me when I release, how I go about getting the word out, marketing, advertising, budget…everything. I love that. Maybe it’s the Capricorn in me, but if I’ve put in all the work to create my books, I want to see it to fruition my way.
  2. Marketing. Because I spent over two decades in marketing and sales (Big Pharma — recovered now, thanks), and my own company is all about marketing, branding, and book promo, this is my comfort zone. I love book marketing. I don’t love book spamming. Huge difference.
  3. Branding. We brand the author, not (only) the book. I say this probably once a day to an author or client. Authors can get so caught up in the ‘buy my book!’ mentality, we can forget how to authentically connect with people. I’m a big fan of providing value and building relationships with readers.
  4. Budget. This is a biggie for many reasons. It’s tough to accept that every dollar you spend on social media ads, marketing, and advertising will likely not result in 1:1 royalties. The ROI on book marketing vs sales conversions is pretty low.

So, why bother? Well, if you don’t do anything, you won’t reach that 500 sales. And remember, you’re investing in your future as well.

You definitely need to invest in yourself to market YOU, the author, and yes, your book(s). There are many ways to go about author branding, book marketing, and book promotion; though the concepts are similar, how you employ them will be different based on your branding.

My advice is to research, heavily. Read anything by Jane Friedman, ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors), IndieReader, IBPA, anything here by Shaunta Grimes, and of course, my articles here and on my website,, or my 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge (great for beginners) to give you bite-size instructions on how to create your author platform.

5. Pricing. Probably the biggest point of flexibility in being self-pub’d is pricing. We can set our book prices at pretty much whatever we want to, run sales or freebies, go exclusive with Amazon KDP Select for one ebook title if we feel like it (or not), raise and lower our prices in times of trouble (e.g., right now), etc.

When this pandemic hit, all of my author clients wanted to know how they could sell their books without appearing to capitalize on something so horrible. So I came up with some ideas (see below).

6. Promos. Most traditional publishing houses will not lower their book prices for any reason, unless they’re doing some kind of previously planned promotion (aka, a BookBub) they’ve booked long in advance or for a new release.

So we got creative: giveaways (gift cards, Kindles or tablets, ARCs, free, signed books) are terrific, generous ways to connect with readers without shoving “buy our books” in their faces. If possible, we lowered the prices — I did so on all my ebooks.

If budget is an issue, gift your readers in some way: with one-on-one interviews, Facebook Live chats, free digital copies of your books (no shipping), free short stories, lists, or anything you come up with that helps you connect with them authentically.

7. Royalties. You absolutely make way more self-publishing: typically, 70% of the sale price depending on how you price your book, whereas if you are with a traditional publisher, you’ll see about 10% royalties. And with POD (print on demand), you don’t have to worry about a garage-full of print copies, so no huge upfront costs, either.

Challenges of Self-Publishing

1. Marketing. Regardless of how you publish, you will still have to do the bulk of your marketing, so you might as well make friends with the concept, strategies, and tactics.

If you’re uncomfortable marketing and think it’s all about spamming and selling your soul going in, you will likely find it difficult, distressing, and probably be pretty bad at it. Change your paradigm.

Marketing is not constant ‘buy my book!’ spam and if you think it is, you’re doing it wrong.

Social media, blogging, your website, promotions, giveaways, email newsletter — these are all ways to connect with your readership.

2. Branding. This is the number one concept most authors run blindly away from in terror when in actuality, they’re already doing it anyway. Authors want readers to read their books yet don’t want to interact with them. How does this make sense?

What’s wonderful about social media is that it’s the great equalizer. I can chat with Neil Gaiman or Barbara Delinsky about their books, cats, or music (and I do!) which only endears them to me even more. Your readers feel the same. Talking to them about topics other than ‘buy my book!’ spam makes you human.

It’s a different way of thinking and strategizing than you normally would, and that makes it difficult, not impossible.

3. No advance. Paying for everything ourselves can be expensive — and I recommend you do it all topnotch or don’t bother. Taking a Word doc and uploading to Amazon isn’t a book — it’s a book report. You’ll be crucified in reviews. Can’t afford it? Save up. Crowdfund. Find a way.

However, this can also be a positive. According to Derek Murphy of Creative Indie:

A typical advance is less than $5,000, and publishers and agents are increasingly picky. Even if you get published, most authors don’t earn out their advance. Since authors make less than 10% per book sold, even if they publish a book a year (at $5,000) it’s a long way away from making a living as an author. Even very successful authors often need a “real” job on the side.

If you don’t earn out that advance, you have to pay it back (or make it up to the publisher in some way with a future book or less of an advance going forward). Read more about that here.

4. Distribution. With traditional publishers, you’re definitely guaranteed wider distribution, particularly in brick and mortar, than self-published. This doesn’t mean our books aren’t available to order — they are — you simply won’t see them on the bookshelves of your Barnes & Noble or other chain bookstores.

This is a much longer conversation, however, there are plenty of distribution options for self-published authors. By far, you’ll sell most of your books (in the U.S.) on Amazon, regardless of format. Amazon does offer an exclusive option called KDP Select only for ebooks, and only for three months at a time. It gives you the option of taking your book free for up to five days, if you choose, which can help improve your rankings.

Some writers love this option, others despise it. Completely up to each individual author to decide. They can also choose to put one book on KDP Select and not others. Remember, this does not affect print or audio.

5. Prejudice. As mentioned at the beginning, some folks still feel that self-publishing isn’t real publishing, and they have every right to feel that way — even though many self-published authors (and publishers and agents) disagree.

It’s an old argument, and many, many self-pub’d authors have had enormous success; The Martian by Andy Weir is just one example. One way to avoid the stereotype of ‘all self-published books are terrible’ is to go about it professionally from start to finish.

I’ve met with several agents (signed with one), and each time, they want to know the size of my platform, email subscriber list, and how many books I’ve sold as a self-pub’d author. Agents and publishers are absolutely interested in this information.

To learn more about the differences between self-published and traditional, here’s a super guide from Self-Publishing School which I highly recommend.

There’s nothing like the deep satisfaction I feel when a project I’ve imagined becomes real and I’m holding it in my hand, or when a reader shares with me their reaction to my work.

Ultimately, whichever way you publish, making a living as a writer is hard work, beyond the writing itself. Most working writers I know still have a day job of some kind, regardless of how they publish, and, this is only my observation, it often takes to the number TEN to ‘make it’ — whether that’s 10 books or 10 years.

Writing is the first step to your publishing career but it’s not the only step. Publishing is far more than writing. It’s a business, so learn how to become business savvy for the best chance to succeed.

To learn more about Twitter, Facebook, and book marketing in general, visit Rachel’s site, or connect with Rachel on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or join her Street Team for insider tips and general book nerd fun.

Join her #BookMarketingChat on Twitter every Wednesday at 6 pm pst/9 pm est. Just type in the hashtag to join the conversation!

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Rachel Thompson

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Author, 6 books. Writer: The Every Day Novelist, PS I Love You, Ninja Writers Pub, Writing Coop. Assault survivor/advocate. Marketer

The Every Day Novelist

An Experiment in Reading + Writing

Rachel Thompson

Written by

Author, 6 books. Writer: The Every Day Novelist, PS I Love You, Ninja Writers Pub, Writing Coop. Assault survivor/advocate. Marketer

The Every Day Novelist

An Experiment in Reading + Writing

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