The Hard Truths About Self-Publishing
The number of independently published books has exploded in recent years, but do their authors know what to expect?
“Anyone who says it’s easy to self-publish a book is either lying or doing a shitty job.”
— Nan McCarthy
It truly is an amazing time in the world of writing. You can publish an entire book — including an e-book — from beginning to end in a matter of days and the only money you pay is for copies of your book. Best of all, self-publishing is on all you. You are the entire book-creating process — for better and worse — in one single body. If you so choose, you are the author, editor, proofreader, fact-checker, designer, and marketing department. How wonderful!
You can finally publish your book exactly as you wanted to.
You were adamant that it be over 1400 pages and not have a clear resolution and, despite what everyone else told you, you knew that it was a great ending.
You know just how the cover should look. Why does a book need a title? That’s stupid. No title, no author name, no photo, nothing. Just a blank cover.
You know what should be blurbed on the back of the book. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it were something that had nothing at all to do with the book? Just like a recipe or something. Because on Amazon, everyone looks at the back cover and reads the description!
And, of course, you know how to market yourself. That’s easy. Your mother even said you were like your generation’s version of P.T. Barnum! I’m sure your 180 Twitter followers won’t be at all annoyed with you tweeting links to your Amazon page every twenty minutes. Instead, that’ll make them buy more books!
So, that’s the plan:
Step 1: write the greatest book in history
Step 2: design and publish it myself
Step 3: market it myself
Step 4: retire to the Maldives and count my fortune
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
- Helmuth von Moltke
How often does reality resemble the original plan?
I am a champion and a defender of self-publishing. I have repeatedly encouraged aspiring and would-be writers to stop waiting for gatekeepers to give them a chance and instead take control of their own destinies by creating their own works and putting them out into the world. I even penned a small book (self-published, of course) that is a complete how-to guide from beginning to end.
But I’m also extremely pragmatic and would never want to give someone false hope. So I think we should look at the hard truths about independent publishing because there is a flip side to this creative freedom.
First, It’s important to keep in mind that professionals are pros for a reason — they’ve been doing these things for a long time, they’re better at it, they have long-established processes and systems in place and, regardless of the problem, they’ve encountered — and solved — it before. This is true for the entire process of the book. An editor will find things that you won’t, regardless of how much time you spent poring over the manuscript. A professional will create a cover that looks, well, professional. These are the people that make books look and feel like books. I personally have stories about the difficulties in attempting to do these things yourself utilizing only free software and templates, from having to cut an entire section of one book after trying to get the formatting right for several days with no luck, to having multiple people tell me that my book didn’t sell because the cover was so horrible.
You spent all that time and energy on it. Now what?medium.com
Of course, all of that professional work comes with a cost and that cost needs to be balanced against your income. Self-publishing promises higher royalties, but part of that is because the publishing houses handles these costs. If you publish your book yourself, your reach will most likely be much shorter.
Can you make money off your independently published books? Sure. In fact, you probably will make a few bucks.
Can you make enough for it to be a full-time endeavor? Maybe. But it’s a crowded field. While it’s hard to know for sure, at least half-a-million books are self-published each year. If five thousand do well enough to cover the bills, that’s still only one-percent. So the odds of becoming the next Andy Weir are literally 100-to-1. Unless you already have a recognized name and a platform and a cadre of loyal fans, you’re more than likely not going to become another James Altucher. The reason we know about successful self-published authors is because it’s such a rare occurrence. The usual and expected does not make the news; “Local Man Goes to Work” is not a headline. Self-published authors have certainly had success in recent years, but I’d be willing to bet that there are a thousand books that never sold a copy for every one that was turned into a major Hollywood film.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
- Stephen King
Of course, it shouldn’t be about the money at all. That’s not what writing is about. It’s not a business card. It’s a calling. You write because you’re compelled to write — it’s what you do — and you publish because you know that it’s good enough to be packaged as a book, regardless of how many agents and publishers said no and how many people don’t read your stuff. The financial aspect of it is only a side effect. You’ll still be writing whether the number of people that pick up your book is one or one million. The results don’t change that and they never will.
So publish your book independently. Start today. Right now.
Just please do so with your eyes wide open and without any deluded notions of grandeur.