The horrible hidden truth about self-publishing that nobody wants you to know

UPDATE: I made a video talking about this stuff but it’s down at the bottom of this post. Scroll down to see it. 

 

make money self publishing

 

I’ve been self-publishing for about a decade, and have sold thousands of books.

I haven’t made a living (yet), and like most self-publishing gurus and experts, I make my living in services rather than with my own books.

But after attending (and speaking at) dozens of writing conferences and publishing conventions, if there is one secret truth behind both traditional and indie publishing industries, it’s this:

It’s all about the money.

If I were to break that down and make it more personal, I could say it this way:

Nobody cares about you or your book (and you shouldn’t ask them to!)

This is important, as it reveals a bizarre rift between the creative, artistic side of writing and the productive, professional side. On the one hand, most writing experts and classes and books about creative writing will tell you not to consider the market, and not to mimic or copy other bestselling books in your genre to see what’s popular.

Instead, most coaches focus on the romantic side of writing, as a tool for personal exploration and emotional expression. Writers are told to write the book they are passionate about, and only to write what they find enjoyable, because if you don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point?

For many reasons, however, the book you want to write the most is the hardest to finish.

-If you start without any structure it’s hard to know what to write.

-If you’re writing without a purpose it’s hard to know when you’ve finished.

-The more passionate you are about the importance of your book, the less practical you will be (instead of making smart business choices, you’ll do whatever feels right.)

-The first book you write will probably be terrible, because you’re learning how to write… so you’ll end up with hundreds of files and folders and deleted scenes and plot twists. A big, messy pile of Story with no way to force it all together into a cohesive book.

Most authors, in the face of the pressure and magnitude of this passion project, often spend years devoted to this book. Many never finish. Those who do finish, have probably made a thing that isn’t actually that great and needs a lot of polishing.

If you object to this, consider that in every other case, you need to practice something about a thousand hours before you get proficient at using a new skill. If you’ve managed to finish a book, you may now be a perfectly adequate writer. After you write a few more books, you may become a pretty good writer. In most cases, the first completed projects of any author or artist (or learning how to do anything) may be a decent effort but will probably not be considered high quality craftsmanship. You apprentice and practice and develop a skill so that some day you can do it professionally – as in, charge money for it.

But authors skip all this. They finish a book and want to get it published. (Years ago, the practice work would all get hidden in a desk drawer, now it’s quickly put out on Amazon).

How to publish a book

There are basically two ways to publish a book. The old way is now called “traditional” publishing: you pitch an agent, they sell it to a publisher, and the publisher takes care of everything. You get an advance.

The benefits of traditional publishing are that you don’t need to do anything else besides write. And you get the respect of being traditionally published.

But there are many cons:

A typical advance is less than $5000, and publishers and agents are increasingly picky. Even if you get published, most authors don’t earn out their advance. Since authors make less than 10% per book sold, even if they publish a book a year (at $5000) it’s a long way away from making a living as an author. Even very successful authors often need a “real” job on the side.

But also: because someone else is taking care of everything, they never learn how to publish or market a book, which means, if eventually the publisher drops them because their books aren’t selling, they are starting over from zero, with no knowledge and no platform, and have to learn everything from scratch.

If you want to be traditionally published, good luck! There’s nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t earn very well for the amount of time you put into writing your book.

Some things to watch out for:

  • A lot of small presses will say “we want to publish your book” but actually make you pay for some of the services or split the costs.
  • A lot of small presses have good intentions but actually know nothing about book design or book marketing, which means you’re giving them the lion’s share of profits but they can’t help you sell the book.
  • Nobody is going to give up their own time and money to support your dreams, nor should they. (But there are “book coaches” who will take thousands of dollars and help along the path… they may be helpful for finishing a great book, but you really need to hire the best editor, best cover designer, etc rather than leave it up to one “expert”).

Most authors, because they’ve written a book they believe in, feel entitled to free help because they consider themselves a non-profit. Since they aren’t doing it for money, they think it’s fine to ask people to help them out for free.

But authors do not deserve charity.

In almost every case, if you come from a society where you can work to support yourself and still have enough free time to write a book, you’re in the richest percentage of the world population. You’ve chosen to write a book because you wanted to.

Just because you’ve successfully completed a book, does not entitle you to demand the time, energy and finances of your friends, family and strangers on the internet whose expertise you desperately need.

An agent or publisher, even if they like and believe in your book, even if they want to help and support you, fundamentally need to consider whether your book can be profitable. If not, they’re wasting their money and the company’s money to develop it into a product and market it. If they sign enough books that don’t earn any money, they may go out of business.

How to self-publish a book

Let’s say your book isn’t commercially viable: which means, it won’t earn enough for an agent or publisher to invest in. You can either continue writing and pitching until you have a great enough book that somebody wants to publish, or you can self-publish.

First, a warning: if you self-publish, it may be harder to traditionally publish later.

Publishers, like art galleries, want a clean slate – a biography they can work with. No history is sometimes better than an embarrassing showing. If you self publish and all your books are poorly produced and sell no copies, the next time you try to pitch a book, the agent or publisher is immediately going to Google you and see all these failed projects, with a few reviews and abysmal sales rank. That’s an indication that you don’t know how to market your books. It might have been better to wait until you get traditionally published.

However, publishers will often take on successful self-published authors, if they’ve sold between 5,000 and 10,000 books. A lot of publishers also watch to see what’s selling on Amazon, and make an offer so they can capitalize on your success.

SO, if you are going to self-publish, you should do everything you can to do it well. Set a goal of 5,000 copies, and treat your writing and publishing like a business.

That means, stop asking for help and support. Stop desperate, useless marketing tactics like spamming Facebook or blasting Twitter.

To sell 5,000 copies, you need to reach about 50,000 readers in your target genre or topic, get their attention with amazing content, and then convince them they need to read your book. You can do this with:

  • Blurbs or testimonials
  • An amazing summary or description
  • An amazing book cover or graphics

As for the production of your book, you’re going to need to learn formatting or cover design – which are unique skills that often take years to master – or you can pay someone to do it for you.

You will probably also need an editor to make your book good enough to be that successful. A line editor will fix your writing; a proofreading will correct your errors and typos… but before that you really need a masterful manuscript review to fix your story and organization. Story trumps everything. The little things and the writing are important too, but the difference between a mediocre book and one that sells 5,000+ copies is story (personally I get bored of beautifully written books that don’t go anywhere, whereas I’ll read a badly written book with an amazing, gripping story).

So first: study story and organization and plot. Then edit and rewrite and edit some more, then get as much professional help as you can afford (if you can’t afford any help, find beta readers who will read and give feedback).

If you ask for help, don’t be defensive!

People often ask me to review their book cover or Amazon page. Sometimes when I tell them what’s wrong with it they’ll become defensive and explain why they did everything like that (usually to “stand out” and “be different” – both really bad ideas).

After the book is flawless, get it designed and put it on Amazon and/or everywhere else that sell books. Make it available. Now it’s time to reach your readers.

Some of the ways I’ve reached my readers is:

  • doing book giveaways and getting 12,000 signups to my email list
  • using targeted Facebook advertising to reach fans of particular authors or genres
  • creating lists of “best books in X genre” and sharing it with the authors I mention, so they will share my list with their platform
  • starting a Facebook group around the subject or genre (groups have way more reach than pages).
  • making friends with people who have a large influence in my particular genre
  • putting multiple books on permafree (making books free for a long period of time)
  • creating content on my blog that is remarkable and gets shares and traffic.
  • Doing a 99cent promo and advertising on a dozen book promotion sites.

I reach about a thousand people a day on autopilot, with zero advertising or promotion. Out of that 30,000 a month, I get about a hundred reviews and about a thousand new signups on my email list.

I know that visibility is the biggest challenge for authors, so I used tactics that defeated it quickly (unlike most authors, I don’t have a visibility problem).

For most authors, especially if you only have one book, you’re going to need to leverage other people’s platforms, networks or influence… which means asking for favors or paying for access (two things I hate to do).

And even if you work really hard, and even if you spend lots of money, the vast majority of books fail. That’s why….

Publishing is a racket

Publishing is a racket because most self-publishing authors see their books as an investment, when it’s actually a gamble. It’s a gamble because they don’t know how to reach their readers (or who their readers even are). They don’t know whether anybody will really enjoy their books. They hope to make some money from their books but because they didn’t write it for the money, they are OK with continuously spending more and more time, effort and money into their books even when they get zero results.

Publishing is a racket because the majority of people making money in publishing are the people selling services to authors. People selling services (myself included) get paid for their time and expertise, but have no interest helping you to make your book successful. (That’s not exactly fair, I should also point out that it’s because, in this business arrangement the author calls the shots and most first time authors make terrible choices, even when the people they hire for help try and get them to make better choices. There’s a built-in tendency towards self-sabotage when the least experienced person gets to make all the decisions).

Part of the reason I’ve built a gargantuan amount of resources, tutorials, tools and training for self-publishing authors is because I want their books to be successful, but I don’t have time to actually do everything for every author myself.

If you get traditionally published, then yes, they will want your book to succeed so they can make more money; but traditional publishers can’t do most of the things indie authors can do to reach readers quickly and cheaply, which means you’re starting from a point of disadvantage in some areas (and advantages in others… if you’re traditionally published with a big publishing company, not one of the small press that suck at book design, then you’ll probably get a beautiful book, which will help with sales).

Most books lose money. Even traditionally published ones: and those are the ones they thought were good enough to bet on. Most self-published books are vanity projects, which means, the author paid for the privilege of having them published, and spent money getting professionals to help them edit, design and produce it, but they earn less than they cost.

*I realize that “vanity” is a strong word that offends people. I don’t mean to be offensive. But if you’re publishing the book you want to, even if you’re doing it for others or because it’s a project you believe in (nobody is paying you to publish, it’s a choice…) you’re still publishing for you. You are doing it for non-financial reasons. Which is totally FINE – if that’s what you want to do. It’s only “vain” in the sense that you’re doing it because it makes you happy, and that’s OK to recognize. But when you publish this way, and then try to sell the book to other people who don’t have your enthusiasm, it’s be so much harder to get any takers, which can lead to desperation. By pointing all this out, I only hope to demonstrate that there is another way. You can still write what you want, and do what you love, but you also need to consider and research your audience so you can aim to make them happy also.*

If your book earns less than it cost to produce, you’re a vanity author: you wrote the book because you felt like it, because you wanted to, but not to make money.

That’s fine – some authors still do tremendously well. I’m not saying don’t publish. I just want you to recognize that, if you aren’t writing for an audience and carefully considering the commercial viability of your project, if you aren’t expecting and planning to make more money than you spend, and learning exactly what it takes to achieve that, then you’re publishing for yourself, and it’s a big risk and gamble.

You hope to make money, and you might make money, but if you think it depends on “getting lucky” you’re publishing for yourself.

Making money is about providing a product or service people will happily pay for. To publish profitably, you need a book that people want; a book they will enjoy reading. Then, you need to produce it into a beautiful product that appeals the target audience and immediately conveys benefits; then you need sales copy and reviews that overcome objections and convince them to buy. Then you need ways of driving traffic to your product.

After all that, you continue tweaking until your conversion rate is high and consistent. Most authors think “writing to market” or considering your audience means writing shitty bulks to fill a need. That’s not at all what I’m saying. I want you to write better books that people actually enjoy, not the book that you enjoy writing. Write for others, not for yourself.

Also: When I say this authors whine and moan about how they would hate to write in a more popular genre and that they’d rather be flipping burgers. That’s a bullshit excuse. Stick with your genre if you want to, but make sure you find your readership and make sure your book is the best damn book in that genre; that it overdelivers on the promise and experience of that genre. You can’t be the best unless you clearly recognize where you fit in with the competition.

If it sounds terrifying and overinvolved, don’t worry about it – I have lots of friends who sell WAY more books than me and all they did was publish. If you have a good book in a popular genre with a nice cover, you can sell a ton of books (the key being “popular genre” – the less popular your topic or genre, the less number of books you should expect to sell).

But I didn’t want to publish and hope for success, I wanted to build a powerful author funnel to make my own success nearly inevitable. It may not be necessary, but everything you can do to build your platform and reach your readers will make it easier.

And the easier and smoother your book marketing becomes, the less maintenance it involves, the more you can relax and focus on your writing.

I’m not saying you aren’t a “real” author if your books don’t sell. I’m not even saying you aren’t a “successful” author (if you redefine success to mean only personal satisfaction). I’m not actually saying anything about you, other than this: if you aren’t as profitable as you would like to be, there’s a reason for it. After working with thousands of authors, I can say with some confidence that the most likely reason (apart from your cover design, book summary and lack of reviews) is that you’re trying to sell a book you made for yourself, to other people who may not want it. If you’ve already written the book, you can still improve your sales dramatically, but rarely as much as you could have if you wrote a book with a certain audience in mind – an audience you understand and respect.

Key takeaway: self-publishing demands long-term commitment and a focus on building your own platform. Most publishing services will take your money but don’t care about whether your book is successful.

VIDEO: 3 Things you can do to double your book sales.

Made this video to share some simple ways you can increase your sales if you’re self-publishing.

 

PS) I’m launching a new project in a few days for authors who want to take their writing career to the next level, you can find out more here.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Eddie Smith

    I disagree a bit with the idea that a self-published book won’t interest a traditional publisher because they want a “clean plate.” I’m sure that can be the case, however I have a couple of books (one I wrote and one my wife wrote) that I self-published, that did so well that traditional publishers wanted them and paid (it seemed to me) significant advance royalty payments. One of them turned down the book three times, then when I proved the sales potential, they wanted it. I jokingly told them, “Sure. Now you want it. But now it’s gonna cost you.” 🙂

    Today, nearly a million copies sold, 8-9 different languages.

    • That’s awesome, thanks for sharing! In the article I said publishers won’t be interested in an author with failed self-published books, but will pick up self-published books that have sold really well… so it can be risky to self-publish because if you don’t sell well, it might be harder to traditionally publish than it would have been with no public publishing history.

    • Hi Eddie, I took a look at your books (I didn’t expect demon cleaning! I actually might buy that one out of interest) – you are in the very lucky position of having a wide audience interested in your subject matter – and you are very compelling as personalities, too. Most people aren’t, unfortunately! I think that’s the difference. If someone only has their dog and their aunt to buy their book, they are going to be working incredibly hard to sell books! Congrats by the way!

  • I love your “Publishing is a racket!” Having offered services along with
    your good self for a number of years to self-published authors, the
    word “scam” and “racket” are bandied about far too much by authors that think they will succeed without paying for professional covers or marketing. It’s having your eye on your goal and realizing this is for your own creative outlet, and IF you want to enter the fray of making a business of it, there’s professionalism that needs to be bought into.

    However, also as a “small press” owner who charges upfront for marketing and covers, videos, etc., I think that’s fine as long as I’m making our products work, which I do. All our authors keep 100% of their royalties instead, and in return they get everything done for them including guaranteed marketing results and sales, so it’s just another model of publishing your book and nothing to be scared of if the right publishing house is approached. We all know there’s not many of them to be trusted, but Kwill does give a very personal service unlike some of the big places charging a fortune. There are authors that want this model, as I am finding out. Not everyone wants to be a renegade!

    And I think it’s worth mentioning that getting a traditional book deal is not easy at all. It took me 32 rejections to get an offer for my novel, from a fairly big press. I turned it down. Why? The advances are generally crappy (under 10,000$) and you are still expected to pay back your setup costs and marketing from sales before you make any money. This can be as little as 5 cents a book. If you look at websites of big publishers and browse the Amazon ranking of “published” authors the results are akin to a failed self-published book, but the author will not make any more money, nor get another publishing deal.

    It’s a total gamble in all cases. Dickens used to sell books by hand himself in the streets and constantly toured, and Dostoevsky had to beg in the street. Being a writer has always been a dud gig. My opinion is that hard work and professionalism is the only way to get there. Oh, and learning to write! And TALENT!

  • “If your book earns less than it cost to produce, you’re a vanity author”

    I think you’re painting the picture with too much black and white here. Not everyone who wants to make money on their books is actually turning a profit.

    Let’s flip it. You must turn a profit on every book you publish, otherwise you’re not a real author. That’s the message I’m getting from that and I don’t think it’s correct, much less fair.

    Authors need encouragement. You know this. This is judging, not encouragement. It feels out of place.

    Thanks for all your work tho. I have learned from you and hope to continue doing so.

    • Laurie Varga

      I agree that just because a book didn’t sell well it automatically creates a “vanity author”. Many of us, myself included, see our first attempts as just a learning opportunity and if the book isn’t commercially successful then we learn from it and move on.

      It’s far more humbling to have a book fail than it is vain. Of course, it depends how the author sees it and I suspect most of us are more self-depreciating than arrogant about our work. But there are always exceptions.

      • Indeed, very humbling. LOL. It’s true there are some authors publishing without a thought to making a profit, but some of us are aiming for a profit and still fall short. I dare say, a huge number of us.

      • It’s humbling because of vanity. And you’re totally right, after you fail with a few books, you usually figure things out. But the very first book of most authors comes with enthusiasm and excitement and expectations… which are often disappointed. And then we learn. But I’ll probably edit my article so it’s less offensive, that wasn’t my intent.

        • Laurie Varga

          I understand that is wasn’t your intent to offend, I’m not offended, anyway. I suspect the words “delusional” or perhaps “naive” are more appropriate.

    • You’re right, I’m being too critical, but I think it’s because the word “vain” comes across as too negative. For me it boils down to this: are you writing and publishing for yourself, or other people? Most authors may think they are publishing for other people, but aren’t really (because they are assuming what they are writing will be liked by others, but they never actually test their assumptions… they are projecting their likes and interest onto others). That’s me-centered writing. It’s critical and negative to call that “vanity” – but authors also need to be aware of this, and most aren’t. I agree authors need encouragement BUT I’m not going to encourage authors to keep doing things that are likely to fail. They’ll feel positive enough now to finish the work, but will be surprised later when they can’t sell it and they don’t understand why. I’d rather give tough love so they can stop making the common mistakes that most authors make, and become one of the few authors that can actually build a writing career. I don’t think calling self-publishers who don’t focus on the profit vanity authors is the same as calling them “not real authors.” I don’t think there’s any definition of what a “real author” is, though if I had to make one, I probably would connect it with income. If someone says they’re a fireman, or a teacher – we assume that’s their job, their income. An “author” these days means everybody who wrote a book, whether or not they’ve managed to make a living from it, and I think that’s a mistake. A “real” author, I would argue, has figure out how to build an audience, and make a living. This is not to say they are “good” authors. That’s something else entirely. But again, I would argue that “good” = good enough to satisfy a readership of a particular genre, which will probably result in income. But this article isn’t about whether you’re a good author or a real author. I don’t care. Do you want your books to be loved by readers? If so, you need to stop writing only for yourself and start connecting with what resonates with readers. It does not have to be a choice. You can still write what you love, and you can still enjoy the work. But you also need to have your readership in mind and know how to give them what they want… (if you want to make a living as an author). And I should add, YES there are lots of authors who ignore this advice and find success accidentally – so they will say this advice is rubbish. But those are outliers. The vast majority of self-published books fail because they have no readership. If you’re already selling books, you probably don’t need my advice and I can learn from you. But if you’re not selling books and want to fix that problem… those are the authors I aim to help.

      • I suppose I connected the word ‘vanity’ unconsciously with vanity publishers, which are definitely not real publishers. That’s why I got the “not real” message from it.

        I hear you. I think it’s the question of write to market or write what you want to write. It’s a fine line. I see authors selling tons of books and sticking in the top 1000 whose stories are generic (for starters).

        These successful authors have gone to the extreme of the write to market concept. If it works for them, awesome.

        I find it very hard to write generic stories, however. I just can’t find the motivation to do it. It bores me to tears.

        So perhaps the ideal place, at least for me, is a middle ground where I’ve targeted a popular genre, am packaging the book as the genre readers expect and touch on a good number of the tropes they expect as well. But, I’m doing it my way.

        That’s where I am right now, and no, I’m not selling well at all right now, part of which I think is because I haven’t finished any series. That’s what I’m focusing on now.

        Thanks!

        • Me too… all my first books are free so my platform is growing quickly, but I’m not earning since I don’t have any series. So definitely keep writing… on the other hand, if your book is invisible and not selling, you might as well make it free so it can be reaching your readers for you in the meantime.

      • Laurie Varga

        I think you could turn this reply into a juicy article!

        One of the reasons I like your work is your lack of coddling for overly-sensitive writer types. Although I’m one of them, I’ve been working in creative fields long enough, and been shot at so many times I’ve developed a kind of armour.

        There are more books being published than will ever be read and the numbers are only increasing. It’s disheartening to see so many people exert incredible energy and time in the pursuit of something they “love” only to have wasted their efforts.

        There’s already enough waste in the world, physical and digital. At the risk of sounding like an arrogant ass, there are, as in any field, very few people who truly have the skill and talent to make a full-time living as an author. I think giving everyone the “you can do it too!” pep-talk is dishonest and doesn’t serve the aspiring writer in the long run by building them up with false aspirations.

        So, thank you for NOT doing that.

        • Awesome, thanks for that. I know I sound like an asshole sometimes, and I used to be an enthusiastic, overly-optimistic author once too… but telling someone “just keep doing what you’re doing!” if they’re doing everything wrong and heading in the wrong direction… sometimes perseverance doesn’t lead anywhere, unless they are willing to learn what they’re doing wrong.

  • Laurie Varga

    Your honestly is always welcome and refreshing, Derek.

    As a designer, I grin each time I read lines like “There’s a built-in tendency towards self-sabotage when the least experienced person gets to make all the decisions.” The customer is often not right when they fail to recognize they are not the expert. As you know, this happens a lot in design as well.

    Despite being an experienced designer, I failed to create the right cover for my book and although it’s a good book and has been professionally edited, the cover is killing sales. Just because I’m an expert in brand development and non-fiction books doesn’t mean I know how to design a fiction cover. Thankfully your articles have been a godsend and I’m in the process of narrowing down the audience and re-desiging the cover to fit with their expectations and make it more commercial.

    I’m excited to see what they results are. I’ll definitely let you know how it goes.

    I would also add that just because a writer has written the kind of book they want to read, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for it because it fails to fit a pre-existing genre. How else would new genres have been created if it weren’t for books that didn’t fit? Of course, like all things, there still needs to be an audience greater than one, but it doesn’t mean the book is doomed. It simply means the author needs to work harder to find the audience and then find the right comparisons to existing work in order to get people to give it a chance. Most readers are not so shallow that they won’t try something a little different from time to time.

    Again, it all comes down to writing a quality book. A crappy book that perfectly follows a genre formula will sell better than a crappy book in a brave new genre.

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  • Christina Hermann

    Wow. I was SO enthusiastic after my book landed at #3 on Kindle’s Top 100 Free. But like that one person who stuffs their pockets with free hors d’oeuvres at Happy Hour instead of buying a meal…the actual sales didn’t transpire. It’s only been two days since the free promo (inspired by the useless Twitter storm I thought was terribly effective…emphasis on the “terrible” that I just learned in your other article about NOT doing that) and I had heart palpitations this morning at sight of my place in the line of paid Kindle books. Crushed.

    My subject matter is relevant, my friends who have been in the same situation bought it and loved it and even wrote a couple reviews. Still, the realization that my book ain’t all that unless I can convince people that it is, and doing that may take a while, takes the wind out of my sails. On the other hand, I only signed up with you a couple days ago to get your free books and emails. I’ve already come away with invaluable information that I’m ready to work on! I also learned that I probably have to get a real job.

    May I request that you take a quick peek at my cover and tell me what you think (Diary of a Future Ex-Wife)? When I did it, it spoke perfectly to me but now I want to set it on fire. Please and thank you!

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