On Writing : Self-publish? Don't Self-Publish? by Jeff Lyons

Jeff Lyons

Self-publish? Don't Self-Publish?

The math settles the question. "We live in exciting times. Today it’s possible to be a full-time professional author, quietly earning $50,000+ a year — even six figures a year — without ever sending a query letter to anyone. On Amazon alone, the data shows over a thousand indie authors earning a full-time living right now with their self-published titles. The only gatekeepers that matter now are readers." From the May 2016 Author Earnings Report http://authorearnings.com/report/may-2016-report/

David E. Gates

I've self-published three books and a short-story. Getting noticed ain't that easy. :-)

Dan MaxXx

David Have you done 'book tours?" I know some self- published Writers who do Comic Con/geek conventions and seminars (I think they had paid out of pocket for venues)

Aray Brown

Even if you go with a traditional publishing company, you'll still have to put in the hours and the time. Only if you're a bestselling author or have a HUGE fan base, can you make a living or either make a profit

Jeff Lyons

Aray-- first statement I agree with, not the second. I'm a good example of how anyone can do it. It's taken two years, but with consistent work and just being "out there" you can get a foothold and make sales. I'm selling books and my visibility, even if not bestseller status, is leveraging other things like consulting and workshops. I'm not talking "get rich quick" but you can make a living, or certainly increase your income as a writer--which is more than I can say for screenwriting. This report is good news for any writer.

Aray Brown

I feel like you can make a living at anything as long as you put in the work though. Just have two books out so don't have that much experience. However, I do recommend Nick Stephenson's video training to anyone who needs help on gaining readers/traffic

Jeff Lyons

Aray--True... everything except screenwriting ... :) (ouch) Re your recommendation... I've done a ton of these online marketing guru classes designed to build lists, increase traffic, etc... and now they just send me screaming down the hall. But, what about his stuff do you like? Have you used his stuff? Did it work? I'm skeptical of all these marketing gurus now. Kind of like all the story gurus... shoot me now.

Aray Brown

I've used it some of it, and found it to be helpful. Using the right keywords on Amazon to your advantage, it worked but i got an email from them later saying one of my keywords did not go with the book. Under his advisement, I put my book permafree and have more eyes even if some of my reviews are negative. I usually don't listen to them but he seems legit. It was my first novel so I wasn't expecting big sales out the gate. I did the free promo days after I published it through CreateSpace and promoted it as best I could. He provided a road map so to speak. I would still take his advise if I still wanted to be an author

Richard "RB" Botto

Great post, Jeff. And I agree, exciting times. Creating a brand and knowing how to market yourself (crowdsourcing anyone) is as important a factor in self-publishing success as the content. To the dedicated and educated go the spoils.

Jeff Guenther

First off, we should distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. Marketing a novel is very different from building sales for, say, a how-to or a history book. Fiction has always been harder to sell. Second, we should look at the big picture: "On Amazon alone, the data shows over a thousand indie authors earning a full-time living right now with their self-published titles." But there are about 11,000,000 titles on Amazon. A thousand authors equals (roughly) one ten-thousandth of the total, maybe a bit more to cover the Indie-to-Legacy author ratio and the books-per-author ratio. At best, full-time Indie authors are maybe 1 in a thousand. One site says only 40 Indie authors have hit it big. Not good odds. So the question (depending on your career plans) is: are the odds better than for screenplays? I'd have to agree with Jeff, above, screenplays are an even tougher nut to crack than novels. My book (not named here) started as a stage play, got reformatted for film, and is now ramping up as a 260 page paperback novel via CreateSpace. It's yet to be determined whether it will get any traction in mass media. Sales have been satisfactory for this stage. Getting reviews is about as easy as getting teeth from a live shark.

Jeff Lyons

You can't look at all this self-publishing stuff as a get-rich-quick scheme or "hitting it big." (THE BIG MYTH OF THE AMERICAN DREAM) Very few people will ever hit it big as writers--EVER. But, unlike with screenplays we can at least make decent extra money to add to our day jobs. The vast majority of writers don't have the will, inclination, or desire to learn all the self-promotion and publishing crap you have to learn to build a real business out of book writing. They just won't do it. But, they can find satisfaction writing, find a real audience, and not have to worry about gatekeepers gumming up the works. It's all a tradeoff. Less than four percent of the writers guild makes "big money," just like in SAG-AFTRA... average actor in SAG earns 5K a year!!! Most other WGA writers, IF THEY'RE LUCKY, sell one script a year--good luck feeding your family on that (and even with all the TV work out there, the number of TV writers is small). And it's not much better in the indie world. Indie writers make 1.5-2.5% of the production budget of most indie movies that get produced (as salary--and there is never or rarely any backend). And most indie movies are under 800K. Do the math. Good luck making a living on that, when you will only sell one script a year--IF YOU'RE LUCKY. (all these figures, BTW come from WGA or other sources I've seen... I'm not making up numbers). Bottom line, you can't think about getting rich as a writer, just know you can get paid for doing what you love now and not answer to anyone other than your readers. How much money you make will depend on how ambitious you are and if you can run a business. most people dont' want to do that... so any money they get is gravy. Not bad, not wrong... but that's how most of us will fare in this new publishing world.

Jeff Guenther

That sums it up nicely, Jeff. You have to love it or not do it at all. :)

Jeff Lyons

Yep. :)

David E. Gates

To Dan MaxXx - Unfortunately, Book Tours cost money. Petrol, Accommodation, etc. I tried to get into the Hay Festival (big UK book/writing festival). They didn't even read my work. They had a whole section on Travel but said my book of Travelogues "didn't fit" their category. God knows where it would fit then! I think they're just a bit snobby especially in respect of self-published authors. In fact, the responses I had to emails were so riddled with poor grammar and spelling, it made me wonder how someone running a writing event got the job! Hey ho.

David Taylor

THIS is a thread that really matters.

Aray Brown

I agree, there is a lot of red tape regarding screenplays. But if it's your bliss, it shouldn't stop you. A little bit offtopic, after I've taken a much needed break I've started working on another book and fell back in love with prose writing again. Jeff any marketing advice? I'm all ears

Jeff Lyons

Aray ... Good or you :) I love prose to ... It's pretty amazing. Re marketing... I'm still trying to figure it out myself. Three years ago you could just do all the book blogs, pay for some reviews (like Kirkus), build a mailing list with free giveaways and promotions, and leverage social media to drive traffic to your site... but I think it's much harder now and social media is not as effective as it used to be. the competition is exponentially bigger than three years ago. I've followed several of the "superstars" of self publishing like Hugh Howey (love him) and about all I can tell at this point is that the one thing they all have in common is that they are always publishing soemthing. Most of them didn't get any real buzz until they had 10 or 15 titles up on Amazon (and all the other retail sites). Not full novels, just stuff (short stories, novellas, whatever). There seems to be a critical mass that starts the buzz ball rolling. Hugh Howey hit it big with Wool and he says he didnt' to anything special. It was just a novella and suddenly took off. No reason. He was smart enough to leverage that and build on it, but even he was scratching his head. So... I think the key is just keep writing, publish every quarter if you can--something--and dont' stop. it's all a crap shoot as far as I can tell.

Jeff Guenther

David: I checked out the program for the Wales Hay Festival, and it's not very factually oriented. The emphasis seems largely socio-political. Unless you're prepared to eat tofu, wear hemp, and sing Kumbaya, you won't fit in. Jeff: Again, you've summed up the situation neatly. I agree about publishing quarterly. Things changed rapidly starting about 3 years back. I blame the situation on the huge increase in unedited, self-published crapola. Readers used to seeking a needle in a haystack are now forced to look for that needle in a much larger crapstack. I have serious reservations about paid reviews, too, but that's another subject.

Jeff Lyons

Jeff: yes.. paid reviews are useless. the review problem is a big one for self-pub'd writers. I don't think there is a good solution out there yet for that. Amazon reviews suck and dont really mean anything, except internally for their algorithms. Goodreads is better and Literary Hub just launched a review aggregation platform for existing review (see another post I did here), but reviews are really problematic for self-pub'd writers.

David E. Gates

Jeff [Guenther] - they [The Hay] didn't even read by fiction pieces. Bunch of snobs methinks and I suspect your description of them being somewhat hippy-ish is probably correct. What I don't understand is how such a narrow-minded festival has gotten so big and gets coverage from the like of Radio 2/Chris Evans (chances are he has a stake in it). But then Glastonbury started in much the same way. :-) Jeff [Lyons]: Amazon also removes reviews written by people on your Facebook friend's list. There is a "petition" of sorts to get them to stop this, but I don't know if it's working or had an effect yet, as it is terribly unfair. One way around it is to stop Amazon from having permission to look at your contacts/friends etc.

Jeff Guenther

David: To cut to the chase, the festival likely got big because of Radio 2 (et al) coverage, and it got that coverage because it (apparently) matches the BBC's political agenda. If one of your pieces had been entitled, "How I Discovered the Quantum Wisdom of Rainbow Marxism on My Polycultural Trip to Uttar Pradesh in My Sustainable Birkenstocks," you'd have been in like Flynn. As Flynn. But it's also possible that some/many/most/all entries were solicited by the organizers, well in advance. Look for less biased venues. . Re Amazon reviews: Getting broader readership requires reviews. But it's another platform-related catch 22, as you've noticed. Everyone knows that a book's first devotees are friends of the author, especially if they're the only people in his/her platform. . Readers, on the other hand, want unbiased reviews to assist their purchasing decisions, so it's understandable that Amazon would want to (at a minimum) deemphasize friend reviews. I've reached out to other sources--book bloggers & Amazon Top Reviewers with some success. Try it; there are lists on the Internerd. . I'll warn you to (1) read samples of candidates' reviews before asking for their opinion, (2) figure on 6 hours of digging thru lists, screening, and contacting reviewers PER actual review received, average. Most people just call a friend and ask for a review. If they're smart, they tell him: "[a] Be brief. [b] Pretend you don't know me. [c] Say what you honestly liked about my book. [d] Say you got a free copy to do the review, (if applicable). [e] Don't gush." If he posts a review, thank him, even if it's not as positive as you'd hoped. I think Amazon is less likely to remove that kind of review. If he doesn't post one, don't nag, just forget the matter, ask someone else. Good luck! :)

David E. Gates

I've reached out to other sources--book bloggers & Amazon Top Reviewers with some success. Been there, done that. Mostly just got people offering a review in exchange for me giving them money. :-( I'll keep plugging though, so thanks for the suggestions.

Henry Van Zanden

It can be a difficult decision. I self-published my first two books: 1606 Discovery of Australia (sold out) and The Lost White Tribes of Australia Part One: 1656 The First Discovery of Australia. The second book cost me quite a bit of money to publish but I have no regrets. It was and still is quite controversial. However, it is just one book in a series of at least six. To publish the six books would cost me well over $200,000. Therefore, I decided to publish my latest book, 1629 Mutiny on the Batavia, as an ebook with Kindle through Amazon.com. Another reason was that I needed to have the book published as soon as possible to attract the attention of Russell Crowe who recently optioned to purchase the rights to another book on the Batavia written in the 1960's.

David E. Gates

@Henry - My last three publications cost me very little to publish. I released them via Createspace / Smashwords and Amazon etc. Paperback and eBook formats. Only thing I actually paid for was the artwork licensing. Are you including marketing/advertising/etc. in your "publishing" costs? $30-50,000 to publish a book sounds like a lot of money - even professional publishers offer services with marketing thrown in for anything from $1-5,000 per book.

Henry Van Zanden

Hi David. Thanks for your post. The $35,000 included the printing of the books and payment to the publisher and travel costs to Western Australia. Cost per book worked out at about $10 per book printed. The ebook cost me very little to produce although I had to travel to the Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia to better understand the conditions of the Batavia survivors.

Jeff Lyons

David/Henry: Yikes... it should cost more than a few thousand dollars to publish a book on Createspace and an e-book. Even if you hire a professional PR person to book interviews, etc. that's only going to be 5-10K. And no need to print hardcover books anymore. I'm publishing all my own stuff and it's very inexpensive--using Createspace, Lightning Source and all the digital distribution platforms. BTW.. book tours are really useless, by and large. Unless you are a celebrity and have a lot of advertising money to get the word out, nobody will show up for book events. I've learned this the hard way... with B&N in Los Angeles. Anyway... if you're spending more than 3K to publish a book you're throwing money away. Honestly.

Jeff Guenther

The only author I know personally who hired a publicist (at ~$3500) didn't get a blip in sales as a result. Nothing. Again, this was a novel; non-fiction is different, with greater opportunity to get SEO synergy, plus effective (specialist) ad media. Book tours and book signings are rare, except for celebrities, as Jeff L. indicates, above. The store expects YOU to bring your own throng. Average books sold per book signing? Eight. Ocho. 8. My "throng" consisted of 20 friends. The store sold 15 copies of Silver Dream and was very pleased. But book stores are not your best market, anyway. You might get 4 books placed on consignment, for a gross of $60, maybe a net of $25, less gasoline, your time, and so on. Great if you live next door; not so good if you have to drive 5 miles to stock books, assuming they'll give you placement.

Jeff Lyons

Jeff--Agree... PR is pretty useless for what you get. Only reason to do PR is if you want to do radio or TV spots and get into that media... but most author's don't have that kind of money. It's a marathon, not a race :) The main thing I've noticed is that the people who sell more books and make money are those who have a lot of product up. 10-15 titles. don't have to be full books, could be novellas. This seems to be the "cieling" where real buzz starts happening. Ive followed a bunch of writers who have "taken off" like Hugh Howey and this is pretty common for all of them. You need product. BTW... Hugh Howey said when Wool took off and started selling he didn't do swat. It just happened--out of the blue. He wasn't promoting or anything. It just all changed for him. He's not the only one I've read where it "just happened." I think its more about having a professional site, haveing product up and some good reviews on the site, etc... anyway... a voodoo doll might help too.

Jeff Guenther

I've been thinking of finishing several projects, one a month, and putting them up on amazon this year. Voodoo dolls work both directions, so maybe not.

David E. Gates

"it should cost more than a few thousand dollars to publish a book on Createspace and an e-book." - Thank goodness it doesn't. Otherwise I'd never be published. All three of my books cost less than £150.00 to publish each. And that was mostly because of the cover art I was using. And I thought the idea of a publishing house publishing your book was that they pay YOU? No way would I give them $35,000 to publish my book - that is a massive gamble. What do you exactly get for that kind of money? I've also advertised in The Metro - 2.5million readership. The ad was in the paper twice, on two different weeks on different days. Total sales I made that I can directly attribute to that effort: 2. I think the culture we live in - of a something-for-nothing bent - is attributable to this. I can't even give away my books - radio comps, newspaper/online comps, all result in little/no entries. I've even had people say that £5.00 is too much for my book. People will spend £3-4.00 on a coffee, which lasts minutes, yet won't spend less than that on a novel. It's mad. Jeff - I heard about that product numbers perspective - I heard that the tipping point is seven items. I should reach that number by the end of the year hopefully. :-)

Jeff Lyons

David--my typing was bad.. .I meant to say "it should NOT cost" ... Createspace publishing is cheap... it's all the other services that you have to hire that add up. A good editor alone will be 1200$US ... trust me I know that one. I went through 5 editors before I found one who knew what she was doing. Then, a good cover will cost you 450-750 for a good artist, and interior design another grand... etc etc... so if you're spending 150 pounds to publish your books you either do all these things yourself (which I can't do) or your doing very bare-bones... not bad and wrong, but really good artwork and book design costs some money... and the editing is essential. Anyway... I think we're all in agreement that it doesn't have to cost you tens of thoussands of dollars!!! :) Re the tipping point.... I'd love to know what happens when you reach that point... very curious to hear what happens... :)

David E. Gates

Hi Jeff... I did wonder if you'd made a typo. LOL. I do pretty much everything myself - except for the proofreading (it's impossible to proofread your own work). As for book cover costs, if you have an idea of what you want then it's fairly easy to design yourself basing it on similar books out there and trawling the stock photo/picture sites to find something that works for you. A licence for up to 500,000 copies will cost around $100-200 depending on the photo. The Roots of Evil was a piece of artwork that exactly matched my book - I got lucky. Access Denied was an adjustment of the cover and some additional elements I added, based on what I was thinking of as I developed the cover. I share covers with friends to get their view on what works and what doesn't - ie: Would they buy it, would it pique their interest? My latest book, The Wretched, has an entirely different cover (and title) to that which I was working on originally. Proof-reading (not editing) is something I have a friend do - they are completely anal about grammar and punctuation and spelling, which is money saved. They do give me some "editing" advice and I either make changes or not based on whether or not I agree with them. Proper editing - that comes down to me as to pay someone is just cost-prohibitive. I do get a couple of people to read and feedback - on just one of my books, I re-edited it based on the feedback I received. I create time-lines based on key events in the books I've written, to check the flow of narrative and story. This helps immensely to identify where edits are required. I restructured a lot of The Roots of Evil based on using this method. And yes, all agreed that if you're spending more than a few thousand, you're being ripped off most likely. :-)

Jeff Lyons

David--thanx for engaging me on this... it's really interesting stuff... and fun to talk about with other authors.

Jeff Guenther

The only major expense I incurred for Mouth of the Lion was a full professional edit, for which i paid several hundred dollars. I'm not sure that was necessary, but it did give me an assessment from a different POV, along with some bad advice. I did my own front cover and interior text files. If I really hump, I can have seven total books/novelettes/booklets on Amazon by the end of the year. I'm pretty sure I can't do that and market MOTL at the same time.

Henry Van Zanden

It depends on what type of book you are writing. For instance, writing a novel is far cheaper than writing history. Writing history involves a lot of research and quite often visiting the sites where artefacts exist. One of the books I am writing requires two return airfares to the other side of the country, another two airfares to a remote town; four-wheel drive hire, filming, equipment to recover the artefacts, accommodation and food. However, the result will be amazing as I will be recovering unique artefacts from a lost white tribe that assimilated with another Aboriginal tribe. The artefacts are hidden in a vertical cave and have been there for about 200 years. The risk, of course, is that the Aboriginal descendant of the Dutch shipwrecked sailors / Aboriginal tribe may not be able to find the exact location again. Sometimes it is not just about the money but the quest. Still another book I am writing would require a minimum of $15,000 travel which I can't afford.

Dennis Kitainik

I wouldn't put it this way -- rather, the gatekeepers are now the advertisers and not the publishers.

Jeff Guenther

I'm not sure I understand that, Dennis.

Dennis Kitainik

I mean that the hard part is now not getting the book published, but marketing it to the readers -- so now it's the advertising which is the make-or-break part of the process.

Jeff Guenther

Thanks for clarifying, Dennis. Yes, there are no gatekeepers; the obstacle is being noticed among the kajillion other books. Advertising is part of marketing, but most first time authors don't use advertising, preferring to employ more or less free social media to get the word out. It's a frustrating challenge, and I don't know of any perfect answer.

David E. Gates

Dennis/Jeff - You're absolutely right... Marketing is by far and away the hardest part of getting a book noticed. I've tried advertising - even in a daily newspaper that had 2.5m readership - I sold just two copies of the book advertised. Unless you have the money to constantly advertise to bring an awareness over time that pervades into the consciousness, it's very difficult. I've done social media to death. The best success I had, oddly enough, was in local regional magazines - they're always crying out for content and if you can format it so they simply cut and paste into their magazine, they'll publish it and you'll get sales. Even my own local newspaper, The News, here in Portsmouth in the UK won't do a feature on me, a Portsmouth-born and bred author who's now published four books! Yet they'll do a feature on someone who lives hundreds of miles away because the ONLY local connection is the story refers to a submarine that's sitting in dry dock! Mad! My mate had no exposure for his apps until he employed a PR lady - since then, because of who she knew at places like the Daily Mail etc., he was able to get mentions or articles "into" the hands of people who had sway to enable publication/coverage. It really makes a difference if you know someone. They (the Daily Mail) deleted ALL my emails without even reading them. That's what you're up against.

Dennis Kitainik

You can count yourself lucky compared to me -- in my cast, the local magazines won't touch my work with a lineman's pole because I'm an American patriot and they're as anti-American as they come! So for me, advertising is the ONLY way I can market.

Henry Van Zanden

Combat Aircraft is America's best selling military aviation magazine. It might be worth a shot.

Dennis Kitainik

Would they be interested in a book about civilian aviation?

Henry Van Zanden

You won't know unless you ask. I recently asked an online magazine of they would like an article about my book, 1629 Mutiny on the Batavia. She was so happy and enthusiastic, she made herself the author of the article which is even better. You could write an article COMPARING military sea rescue to civilian or an article on "Where to after the military? " That's where you come in about your story about civilian aviation.

David E. Gates

It is about targeting, for sure. Anything advertising aviation materials would be fine in a magazine about military aviation I think. Plane nuts aren't just nuts about military planes. :-) I joined just about every social media group I could relating to the subject matter of Access Denied. It made a small dent and raised awareness but you have to temper it just right - too many "mentions" and you run the risk of people getting fed up with it - just one person on one group complained and that resulted in my having to remove myself and my mentions from the group because that one person seemed to hold so much authority. :-(

Jeff Guenther

David: I ran a small corporation back in the early 70's and learned a lot about advertising then. I could have warned you about the large circulation papers. Buyers of any particular product, including books, are (usually) spread too thin to reach that way. Don't play the percentage game blindly. ["If there are a million subscribers and 10% of them actually read the paper and 10% of those see my ad and 1% of those buy a copy, then I'll sell 100 books!" If it's the Guardian, more budgies than book buyers will see your ad.] That's why first-time authors don't advertise there; they already know that mass media aren't generally cost effective. (We didn't make that experiment; we saved ourselves hundreds of dollars by just calling up one advertiser for a similar product and asking how many sales he got from his ad in the LA Times. "None. We got two letters from people trying to sell us something!") And you're right, David; targeting is mandatory. So don't write anything that doesn't lend itself to keyed, targeted ads. Social media are a decreasingly effective venue, and there are some really malicious sharks out there on the Internerd. You have to swim with the school for a long time before you can market to the fish. You may find that the time required is almost equivalent to one-on-one marketing down at the library. Any strategy that works well is soon over-used to the point that it stops working. You have to not only write a better book, you have to write MORE books and market them better and longer. Continue to build your on-line platform, but join a local writer's workshop and share methods, experience, resources, etc.

Dennis Kitainik

"You could write an article COMPARING military sea rescue to civilian or an article on "Where to after the military? " -- Except I can't, because I haven't served.

Dennis Kitainik

What about targeted advertising through social media platforms (such as Facebook ads)?

Henry Van Zanden

You can set up your own facebook page for free. I'm not sure about the effectiveness of facebook ads. I have an adblocker so it would not reach people like me.

Jeff Guenther

Per click ads let you put a limit on your expenditure and may be worth a trial.

Dennis Kitainik

Already doing this -- targeting is to aviation fans, veterans, conservatives and Russian-Americans. Got a lot of clicks already, but haven't got the sales report yet.

Jeff Guenther

Good. Please keep us in the loop, Dennis.

David E. Gates

Thanks Jeff Guenther - I learnt the hard way, re: Advertising. Luckily, it didn't cost me much but it was still wasted money. As for Facebook ads, don't go there. I tried it out and they completely messed it up - they charged me even though I had cancelled the ad prior to completing the submission, because I heard before I clicked submit that the support and impact was next to nowhere. Their "helpdesk" is useless - no-one replied despite several attempts at direct contact - which, back then, was ONLY via messaging the Facebook group and it took several weeks to get a response from someone though they did, eventually, refund the money.

Jeff Guenther

I'm glad you didn't get too badly taken by advert sellers, David. I find Facebook rather mean-spirited. People there feel perfectly free to "other" entire classes of people, including soon-to-be-former friends, without the least hesitation. The whole thing is divisive, not an atmosphere that's conducive to new relationships and marketing good products.

Dennis Kitainik

Of course, certain classes of people DESERVE to be othered!

Dennis Kitainik

Because SOME of the others MUST die -- and I mean specifically EVERY SINGLE MEMBER OF AL-QAIDA, ISIS AND OTHER TERRORIST GROUPS, as well as ALL who support them in ANY way!

Jeff Guenther

AMEN!

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