In the interests of full disclosure, I am a self-published author. I have three novels published in both print and electronic form, as well as a collection of short fiction on Kindle only. How are my sales? It depends on your definition. They’ve probably been above average for a self-published author working within the limitations I’ve faced. Compared to someone like James Patterson or Stephen King, my sales are miniscule.
So why did I self-publish rather than go the traditional route? And what did I learn from the experience?
Let me tell you a story.
In 2007, or thereabouts, I completed a novel I’d entitled Ni’il: The Awakening. Everyone who read it, including the professional editor who helped me revise it, said it was really good and I should definitely try to get it published. So, I wrote up a synopsis, outline, readied sample chapters, and sent about twenty queries to smaller publishing houses I thought might like my novel. (I didn’t try the larger “Big Five” publishers; they generally only accept queries from agents). And I waited.
To my surprise and delight, one of the publishers I’d queried responded and wanted to see the entire manuscript. Wow. I had the manuscript in the mail the very next day. And I waited.
And I waited.
A month passed and I waited. Two months, then three, then six and still no word. These things take time, I told myself, and the longer they take, the better for me. At least they hadn’t rejected my novel out of hand. So I continued waiting, trying to stay patient.
Nine months passed and still nothing. After ten months, I could stand it no more and sent them a polite email inquiring about my novel’s status. Within days I received and equally polite reply asking me to be patient, that, though it seemed like it had been a long time, it was not unusual in the publishing world. This was how the system worked.
Okay. Again, it meant at least somebody liked the novel. So I waited.
Eleven months, then twelve months passed. After nearly a year of waiting, I finally received a letter from the publishing company. “We’re sorry, but we decided to pass on your work. We wish you the best of luck in the future.”
They kept it for nearly a full year and then “passed on it.” At a year per publisher, I could be dead before someone decides to buy it. Even longer before they actually published it. So I decided that if I really wanted to see it in print, I would have to publish it myself and let the market decide whether it was good, or not.
As I stated above, I did moderately well, particularly with the first of the three books. And, as I also stated, I learned a lot, which will certainly help if I chose to self-publish my next novel. What did I learn? In particular, what do I know now that I would have liked to know before I started on the self-publishing path?
There is still a stigma attached to self-publishing. It’s getting better, but many bookstores and other venues will not stock self-published books, nor host events for self-published authors. We independent authors have to overcome the reputation of many really, really awful works that have been self-published through the years. Like I said, it is getting better, but be prepared for rejection out of hand.
It doesn’t matter how good your book is if no one knows about it. If you’re not prepared to spend some time and money marketing and promoting your work, you probably won’t sell many to people you don’t personally know. That means designing a coherent plan with a realistic budget and having it in hand before you ever start the publication process. You could get lucky and have your book take off on its own, but don’t count on it.
The standard time frame for a book’s success is the first six months after publication. Be prepared to work as hard during this time selling it as you did writing it.
Concentrate efforts on independent bookstores. They are much more willing to work with independent authors than big, national chains, particularly if you are a local author or the work takes place in their region/area. (This applies to brick-and-mortar stores only, online outlets are completely different).
Have a concise, well-written pitch ready. What’s a “pitch?” It’s a brief, one or two sentence description of your book, suitable for a conversation in a supermarket aisle when someone asks you what the book’s about.
Always carry several copies with you (such as in the trunk of your car). Never miss a sale because you couldn’t take advantage of someone’s unexpected interest.
Now a lot of the above also applies to publishing the traditional route because, unless you’re a household name, odds are the publisher is not going to spend a tremendous amount on marketing your work. Most of the effort will still have to come from you. With traditional publishing, the main advantage is the prestige that goes with having a big publishing house’s name on the spine of your book and the fact that the publisher pays for the layout, formatting and physical printing.
As a self-published author, you (or I) are responsible for all the costs of putting the book together, printing and marketing it. In exchange, we get more creative control: we control the content of the work itself, the design of the cover, the blurbs on the cover (or fly leaf); we even control when the book is published.
Now am I going to publish my new novel myself, or try the more traditional route?
I haven’t decided yet.