ALL self-publishing is a SCAM. It’s “impossible” to earn any money!

The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, but it highlights an important issue.

A lot of authors have been burned by predatory publishing companies, marketing firms or services promising the world and delivering little. Usually, authors spend way too much on their first book and see no results, then spend two years figuring out what went wrong, before finally learning how to self-publish well for much less. (That’s when they realize they’ve been taken for a ride… promised big results and often overcharged).

However, while it’s true that there are lots of companies that rip of authors, the following universal skepticism against everybody who charges anything is misplaced.

Lots of authors resist paying for anything and feel that all advice, knowledge and help should be free. They get this idea from supportive Facebook groups filled with indie authors sharing free advice (and those are BRILLIANT – I’m in many of them and I’m so grateful).

But there are limitations.

Free knowledge won’t solve all your problems.

You can spend years learning how to self-publish and still screw everything up by trying to DIY a shoddy book cover. Then you’ll waste hundreds of dollars in ads that don’t work, when you should have started with a professional cover.

You can ask for feedback, but you’ll never really figure out how to do things well without a thousand hours or so of practice (do you really WANT to spend that much time becoming a professional designer? Or do you want to be writing books?)

It’s much faster to pay for an expert to do some things for you. In my Facebook groups, the most vocal members are authors who are making a great living with their writing; that means they can afford the best designers, their covers look amazing, they grow big followings and when they launch a book, it’s easy for them to earn their money back. But that can seem “impossible” to new authors who are having trouble selling 10 copies a month – and sometimes success is met with skepticism (I’ve seen similar conflicts in groups for entrepreneurs… all these “lifestyle coaches” posting with pictures of rented Lamborghini, selling a dream lifestyle if only you buy their reveal-all course on how they did it. They ask “is anybody actually making money with a real business, that’s not just selling the dream?”). 

The difference is, authors aren’t selling other authors their books. We don’t want other authors to buy – they’re not our target audience. And you can’t fake it very long: if your book sucks, readers won’t like it and you’ll get terrible reviews, even if you do have a great cover. No, the big successes really are doing great self-publishing their books. Mark Dawson, as far as I know, was making about half a million a year on book sales, and now has a course on advertising for authors.

I have a course coming out soon too, and yes there are LOTS of tools, services, courses, and programs being made and sold to desperate authors who want to sell more books (and you probably won’t see results, if you’re just trying to MARKET the books you’ve written rather than writing books that have popular appeal).

But I don’t need to pose with a fake Lamborghini – you can check out my books on Amazon to see how their doing.

I give away TONS of free content and have for the last 5 years. My YouTube channel has over half a million views.

I’ve been hesitant to sell anything because I know how skeptical some authors are of being sold to.

But here’s the thing: business relies on supply and demand.

Authors are desperate to get help publishing, and then they’re desperate to get help marketing.

There’s a ton of demand. They NEED help. I’ve been publishing for the past decade, so I have LOTS of skills I can use to help authors publish and sell books. I don’t work very hard to get clients – I don’t try to get them on the phone and sell them overpriced publishing packages, but if they’re determined to work with me and see the benefit of my decade of knowledge and experience, I’m not cheap. (I try to make just enough to live on, so I can focus most of my time on my own writing).

The reason self-publishing feels like a scam is that most books are never going to make any money (because the authors wrote them without considering the market, and even if the book is well-written, the story probably isn’t gripping enough to hold a stranger’s interest). That means that the majority of author-related services are taking people’s money while also having a pretty good idea that they won’t see a return on their investment.

That’s basically the reason I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my business, and am trying to stop client work. Actually, a lot of my clients do really well (a few of the books I’ve designed are earning over $10K a month!), but most books won’t sell that well. However, I don’t want to be the guy who says “that book is never going to do well” – because I want to encourage you to dream big.

At the same time, I’m not going to sugarcoat things or promise you the moon – my advice is usually pretty jaded and cynical (based in the realities of the market and the experience of having helped launch over 1000 books). Absolutely I can make your book look good and get it in front of tons of people, and I can usually guarantee a #1 amazon bestseller status, at least for a few moments. But to keep your books selling consistently, long term, means building up an author platform and sales funnel (I’ve spent hundreds of hours building up mine… I can tell you what to do, but I’m not going to build yours for you).
I sympathize with people who have been ripped off by predatory companies.

You were probably sold into their slick sales funnel. You were conned. I know how that feels (I bought a timeshare and wasted a bunch of money on something that didn’t pan out like I’d hoped). That’s a shitty way to be introduced to self-publishing.

But not all self-publishing is a scam! There are beacons of integrity, constantly trying to protect authors from making publishing mistakes, like Mark Coker or David Gaughran or Joanna Penn and the Alliance of Independent Authors.

I’m continually impressed by how transparent and authentic much of the self-publishing community is – because the truth is, most of us are just writers who self-published early and learned the game (we made all the mistakes the first time around, got better at everything through years of hard work and practice, and now mostly try to help other authors avoid the same challenges).

And after spending years of our lives building free content to help other authors, we might say to ourselves, “gee, I get a ton of traffic and help thousands of authors, but I’m not making any money… I should put together a course or a coaching package and start charging.” And that’s fair. People have a right to ask for money when they’re providing value. You shouldn’t expect them to help you for free. Nevertheless, as soon as someone starts “selling” they’ll lose a lot of followers, who were only after the free stuff. That’s OK too. One of the reasons I’m starting to charge more, actually, is because I know those who commit to paying are more likely to follow through and see results.

And of course I’ll still be pumping out tons of free resources, because that’s what I do. But if you want my personal help or feedback, you’re going to need to pay for it. It’s not because I’m an asshole or because I don’t really care about you. It’s not because I’m a failed author and just trying to rip you off to support my writing habit (I’m already earning a living with my books, actually). It’s simply because there’s only one of me, and I get hundreds of emails from authors looking for free advice or feedback – I spend at least an hour a day replying to everybody, but that’s time I could be using to write more of my own books.

I’m a giver by nature, but I need to be more selfish with my time so I can be more productive.

If this seems harsh, you have two options…

Stay angry and cynical. Gripe about the devaluation of literature. Hate on the hardworking authors who are writing a book a month (often while working a job and raising children!), because you think quality writing needs to percolate slowly (that’s Romantic idealist bullshit – the majority of classical authors wrote quickly, for money). You can complain that “nobody gets your book” because nobody appreciates real literature anymore (hint: if you can’t entertain any readers, you don’t deserve to get paid).

Art is not a charity. Nobody should support your literary ambitions. Nobody owes you a living.

So what’s option two?

Pivot. Learn from your mistakes. Experiment. Write more books. I have dozens of friends who approached me a couple years ago, frustrated that they weren’t selling, and after lots of hard work and testing, are finally making a living with their writing. It IS possible. Writing books for a living is just about the coolest thing in the world.

It’s not easy, and most authors will give up after their first book is a failure (which it almost inevitably will be).

That’s why, even though there are hundreds of thousands of books being published a year, they aren’t really your competition.

Your only competition are the few hundred authors who really know what they’re doing. Luckily, most of them are friendly and happy to share their secrets, if you’re willing to listen and learn.

I’ve watched several new authors come out of nowhere recently and do really well – they just learned how to do everything right, paid for professional help, had popular books in hot markets, and are already planning to quit their day jobs.

It is possible.

First, you need to write a book in a popular genre that has lots of hungry readers.

And you have to satisfy them.

Second, you need to do everything right: great cover, great blurb, a bunch of positive, genuine reviews. (The majority of authors who are frustrated with book sales don’t have these basics in place).

Third, you need lots of books (usually 10 or so before the money gets really good). Don’t get discouraged, the first book takes a long time to write, then it gets faster and easier with each new project.

But don’t worry if it’s not perfect. Keep in mind most indie authors, even the really good ones, are still screwing a lot of stuff up. It’s not uncommon to see an indie authors do well and make tons of money despite having an unprofessional cover or website, and doing half of everything wrong (they’re nearly always writing books in very popular genres and doing things better than their competition… and it’s worth pointing out these books can often make MUCH more money than professionally published/traditionally published books, because they have control over their pricing, promotions and advertising.)

On the other hand, there are dozens of super friendly and helpful gurus who provide tons of free knowledge who actually aren’t selling many books of their own. That doesn’t mean you can’t still learn from them. But don’t expect favors or hand outs.

“Hard work” does not equal rewards.

There’s this ideology that authors who work really, really hard DESERVE their sales, income, fans, etc. Authors complain because they’re working really hard and not seeing results, but they’re doing everything wrong… working harder should not be your goal. You shouldn’t have to work very hard at all, if you’re doing everything right, making money publishing books can be easy. The trouble is, it takes years to learn how to do everything right. So you can spend those years figuring it out, or you can pay an expert or for a course or something that teaches you everything quickly.

If you’ve been working too hard for years and still aren’t seeing results, either:

A) you need new covers, more reviews and a better blurb or,

B) you are writing books that only satisfy a small genre, or worse, don’t satisfy anybody. You can choose to write something more people will enjoy/value, or stick to your guns and complain about the fall of civilized society.

Example: my books on book marketing don’t sell that well, because there isn’t actually that much demand – tons of people want to write a book, so they search for “how to write a book” or “writing prompts”. Far fewer people finish a book and are ready for marketing. My marketing books do pretty well in their categories, for what they are. But my fantasy books sell 100x better, because there are 100x more hungry readers who are looking for those kinds of books. Your sales will always be limited by the demands of the market. You can embrace facts of the market (to your advantage) or ignore them (to your detriment).

How to watch out for scams

I’m frustrated by two things:

  1. Authors who sign their rights over to a predatory, pain in the ass vanity press service.
  2. Authors who avoid using Createspace and go with a local printer (and end up with boxes of books in their garage).
  3. Authors who get a publishing package that includes design, and end up with a crappy cover.
  4. Authors who get a traditional publishing deal but have no control over their own pricing, promotions, Amazon page, and thus can’t really do any effective marketing (I know lots of trad published authors who chose to go indie because they could earn much more). Which isn’t anything against traditional publishing, I’d love to get a book traditionally published by a major publisher in the future – but I won’t expect to earn from it.
  5. Writing coaches and gurus telling authors to follow their passion because it will lead to money… that’s not how it works. The market doesn’t care about how much passion you have. Most writing coaches focus on craft and help you get the book that you wanted to write finished, which is great – but then authors try to take that book and sell it. This rarely works out well. It’s absolutely fine if you want to write for pleasure and passion, and you should feel proud of your accomplishment. It’s fine if you don’t want to make any money with your book. But it’s bad advice to tell people following their passion will lead to success (I have dozens of articles on this… it’s the basic foundation of my platform, CreativIndie – if you want to be successful, focus on providing value to others, not just what makes you happy). Of course you can do both eventually, but in the beginning, people will pay you for what they want, not what you want them to buy.

In the first case, these companies often stalk you, offer you a deal because “they loved your book,” then charge a lot of money to help you publish it. If you pay up front for any small press or publisher, you’re probably wasting money. They routinely have mediocre design, overcharge for everything, and won’t help sell books. All they’re doing is designing the cover and formatting, and uploading to IngramSpark (usually).

Formatting and cover design should normally cost under $1000. 

I charge more, but that’s because my packages come with marketing advice, and my covers are meant to sell (most people will give you a cover you like but not one that will stand out and actually work…)

I actually feel bad charging so much, because I don’t want to seem like I’m ripping off new authors who don’t know any better, but I also know a few emails from me about how to launch your book will help more than 95% of the marketing advice out there.

BUT STILL a lot of authors hire me for a cover, then turn around and work with a small press anyway, usually because publishing is overwhelming and they want someone to help them organize everything… which is fine, if you make sure you get the design you’re paying for and don’t expect them to do anything other than help you publish… but reporting will be slow.

There’s also a trend recently of small presses going out of business and not paying authors. There’s a lot of demand, there are tons of authors who would prefer to “get published” by a “publishing company” rather than self-publish, even though the only difference is it costs more and you have less control over the results and data (which you need to market effectively). Often small presses get in the game for all the right reasons, but get overwhelmed trying to take their small business into something that’s managing and paying out thousands of authors. A lot of them know the basics of book design and publishing, but very little about marketing.

My other pet peeve is people finding a local printer and ordering a thousand copies at WAY more than they would have spend using Createspace. That’s a rookie mistake. Do a LOT of research before you commit to anything. Don’t be fooled when someone contacts you out of the blue and say “we’d love to publish your book… you just need to help pay for xyz…”

Don’t assume a small press is better than self-publishing (it may seem easier because someone is helping you, but that also means you aren’t receiving the education that will be necessary if you want to self-publish more books and make a living as a writer.) The first book will probably fail, and that’s OK. Learn from it, get better, rebrand, relaunch.

Don’t search for a “self-publishing company.” That’s not what you need. You only need your book designed and formatted for print and ebook; then you can upload your files directly to Amazon, Createspace, and (if you choose to go wide) Smashwords or Draft2Digital (there are other options, but these are what I use).

Hire the best editor and cover designer you can afford, but don’t take out a loan or risk your savings to publish your book if you haven’t tested the market or gotten feedback from real readers in your genre yet. Lots of self-publishers have found success even with crappy covers. If you can’t get anyone to buy your book, give it away for free to anybody who will take it, until you start getting more positive reviews (don’t start marketing until you have at least 10… 25 is better).

Before you hire anyone, Google them and see if any other authors are warning against them. Always look at their portfolio of cover samples – if a website has shitty covers on it, you shouldn’t trust them to manage your publishing. (Cover design is huge. It doesn’t have to be too expensive. Most people just don’t know how to do it).

You got this!

Self-publishing is a rewarding and exciting challenge. Yes, it can be confusing and overwhelming. Yes, it relies on learning dozens of new skills. At the same time, if you persevere, you’re learning how to do business (product design, sales, web management) and it’s all cumulative, which means if you work hard for a year or two, everything starts getting easier and easier. Don’t get frustrated after one or two books, or after spending three years, and complain that you want to give up because “nothing is working.”

 

If you reached the point where you’re frustrated with your book sales, GREAT!

That’s an important milestone. Now you can realize that doing things the way you’ve been doing them doesn’t work, and you’ll finally be flexible and open-minded enough to pivot and start doing things better.

Perseverance alone is worthless; but if you’re prepared to learn, to grow, to adapt, then you’ll figure what it takes to make a living as a writer.

How great is it to sit around and think up new stories that other people will pay for (and enjoy!).
How great is it that you can “work” from anywhere and make recurring income every month?

 

PS) This is kind of a downer post, so my friends and I put together a giveaway. 27 paperbacks for authors that helped us do better. A few of these had a huge impact in figuring out how to write books that sell. You can enter to win here.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me
  • Lawrence Ambrose

    I appreciate the amount of thought you’ve put into this shit, Derek. I sometimes question your publishing strategies – particularly your partial book tactic, which I really find annoying – but I know you’re smart and working hard to find the “true path” to wherever the fuck it leads. 🙂

  • Neil Waring

    Another well thought out post and a most interesting read – again. I struggle along in a genre that is no longer popular and my covers need help, but, I enjoy it and do make enough to be somewhat satisfied. I keep reading your advice but seem too lazy to actually carry it out. Once again, thanks for a thought provoking post.

  • I always say, ‘the more I learn the more I realise I don’t know.’ That alone drives me on in my quest for knowledge (or as you say education). When Leonard Cohen said “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,”he hit the nail squarely on the head. You can pay others to do things for you if you have the resources. But you can’t buy experience, it takes time to acquire and there is no shortcut. Experience is where the value lies and when you have it things get easier. You are a good educator Derek and your advice usually makes perfect sense.

  • James Riggs

    Thanks for the article. Good things to hear and think about…AND act on!

  • wmateri

    Derek, I didn’t get a chance to attend your presentation at the Cuenca Int’l Writers Conference, but I’ve since read a bunch of your CreativeIndie blogs, watched some videos, and brought your “Book Marketing is Dead” book. You’re doing a brilliant job and providing great service and advice for free or cheap. I’ve learned a lot by reading your stuff. Thanks- Wayne.

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