I have been on this self-publishing journey since October 2014, when I decided to take myself down the self-publishing route because I was tired of waiting to be picked; waiting to be published. I could pick myself — I had all the tools, and I could learn what I didn’t know how to do. So I did. I learned how to format ebooks, how to design (and redesign covers), the importance of front and back matter, and why a launch is crucial. I learned about beta readers and Kindle Select and free days and promotions and reviews. I learned about keywords and SEO and categories and rankings. I learned that being an indie author is easier than it looks and harder than it seems.
I wrote about my first six months and the lessons I learned here, but I thought it might be worthwhile examining a few key truths about self-publishing that have cemented themselves in my brain. These truths are contradictory, and rarely examined in any great depth by those preparing themselves for the self-publishing journey (namely, me!) and mainly because no one has a clue what the obstacles are UNTIL they start self-publishing.
1. Anyone can self publish and therefore, anyone does
The internet and Amazon et al have made it incredibly easy for you to publish your work. You don’t have to wait to be picked by a publisher or literary magazine. Or win a short story competition, or curated on Medium. You can publish yourself. You just upload a Word doc and a cover. Seriously, it is that easy. It’s so easy that anyone can do it… and anyone does. The internet has irrefutably disrupted publishing, and that’s a good thing. I (for one) am pleased that I can completely bypass the subjective selection processes of the middlemen and women of traditional publishing. None of this waiting around. You write. You publish. You keep on writing and you keep on publishing.
This easy disruption, of course, means there is a lot of crap out there. Some crap is easy to spot: bad covers, awful blurbs, SEO-filled product descriptions that capitalize on the latest trends (with the latter aimed purely and simply at separating readers from their cash). Some crap is less easy to spot because the cover is more professional, the blurbs have been massaged for readability and keyword-filled SEO descriptions are less obvious. These ebooks look like decent reads and therefore fool readers into downloading or buying them, even to the extent that a few of these books have snuck into my Kindle library… the horror! The horror!
It is only when you start reading that you are hit with the reality of material that is poorly written or edited or both. It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating. It’s annoying. The reader, sick of downloading or buying so much crap disguised as a good book, ends up being turned off digital publications altogether. Or buying and downloading fewer. And this includes freebies, which authors use to entice readers into a product funnel.
2. Amazon is your best friend and your worst enemy
Mark Coker (CEO of Smashwords) wrote that he believes Amazon — in particular Kindle Unlimited — is devaluing books. I’m kind of inclined to agree with him. Amazon is the main (and some would say ONLY) player in ebooks… their market share is HUGE. Every author I know wants a slice of that pie. Except (and I’m going back to my first point here) there are so many books in the marketplace (of varying quality), the author reach and cut-through is difficult. Not impossible, mind you, but difficult. Visibility is one of the major problems new authors have to overcome if they want to get anywhere as indie publishers.
In order for authors to try and clamour for some kind of visibility, they enroll their ebooks in Kindle Select; readers benefit from being able to read as many books enrolled in this program as they like as part of their $9.99 Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription. Great for avid readers, and (I’ve heard) it used to be great for authors before Amazon switched to paying authors a pittance for pages read.
Authors have to give Amazon exclusivity for the enrollment period (three months — during this time the book can not be published on another platform, including blog posts) and in exchange, they are given marketing tools to help promote books. These tools include five free days (which I have used) and Kindle Countdown Deals (which I haven’t). The idea behind the free days is that “free” will give you exposure, and then funnel readers into buying your next book. I can say with absolute certainty that this hasn’t worked for me. At all.
In one of the self-publishing groups I’m in on Facebook, a number of well-known authors are unenrolling their books from Kindle Select, preferring to take a dive in income as they establish themselves on other platforms. Their main beef is payment from royalties has decreased to the point that it’s not worthwhile staying in the program. Others aren’t keen on exclusivity. Still, others maintain that there are so many free books clogging the system that free is no longer a carrot for readers. And with books in Kindle Select turning up on the freecycle regularly, why would readers even bother buying books in the first place? Free has become meaningless and devalues the hard work of authors, which is Mark Coker’s point.
3. You can make a lot of money and you can lose a lot of money
In past times (before digital publishing was so easy), vanity presses allowed people to publish their work… at a cost, of course. While vanity presses are still around (taking advantage of the less tech-savvy among us), self-publishing has spawned an “industry” that is only too happy to take the cash of unsuspecting authors wanting to make a name for themselves and build alternative, location independent, careers as professional writers.
This “industry” is predominantly promotional: spend X amount of dollars and we will make sure your book is seen by X amount of people… and infinite variations on that theme. Some of these promo sites work incredibly well (Book Bub, for example) and authors who are accepted (albeit after jumping through a number of hoops, and often at great expense) record the highest number of downloads ever for their books (in the tens of thousands), with long-tail benefits more than recouping the cost of the promotion. Other authors have experienced excellent results with other promotional sites in terms of downloads, but it largely depends on genre, and generally speaking, your book needs to be free for the promotion period. Download numbers, however, are never guaranteed.
Other sites (there are so, so, SO many promotional sites out there, as well as promotional sellers on Fiverr) claim to have high numbers of subscribers, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and blog followers, and because their fees are nominal (anywhere from free to $10 and upwards), authors part with cash, hoping for the excellent results promised from so many followers, only to be disappointed that the number of downloads didn’t meet expectations.
I think saturation is to blame (there are too many free ebooks available ALL the time), as well as traffic — many of these sites may not get the traffic they claim they do. If you’re an author, check the site’s Alexa rankings before handing over your marketing dollars, and make sure they do have the traffic and rankings they say they do. Buyer beware: there are a lot of people making a lot of money from indie authors chasing success.
At the same time, in a self-publishing Facebook group that I’m in, there are a number of (well known) authors doing exceptionally well from self-publishing (and publishing-related activities), to the tune of thousands of dollars a month. Thousands. Some make it big with their first book; others have a huge catalogue or raving fans and have built sustainable incomes up over time. Others make a decent living consulting and selling training courses, coaching, and advice (many are generous and give information away for free to help other indie authors) and presenting at conferences. Others have set themselves up as independent publishers — in the true sense of the word — and publish and distribute other people’s work. Still, others provide ebook and book-related services (formatting, cover design, editing, marketing, author websites) and make an income THAT way. Many authors who choose these alternative routes and writing adjacent activities do very, very well, or so I hear.
I maintain that it really is the best of times to be an indie author… and the worst of times. After being in the self-publishing game for six years, I am convinced that being a successful author is (more than ever) about having a strong author brand, building a tribe of readers who love your writing, and respecting this tribe by producing regular, quality work.