I attended several writer’s conferences this summer, and was surprised by my findings.
I’d been picturing writers as teenage girls writing Twilight fan fiction; turns out they are (mostly) 40 to 80 and usually tech-averse. I’d thought self-publishing had become the obvious choice for a plethora of reasons, but here were these authors who didn’t know anything about preparing their books for publication, print on demand or ebooks, setting up an author platform or book marketing.
I met many authors who have already had several books mainstream published, but the publishers refused to take on the newer ones and they are “forced” to consider their options. I also met people who were sitting on five or six completed manuscripts and they had been for years – because they were trying to figure out how to hook an agent and sell them to a publisher.
My advice to these writers inevitably sounded something like this:
Publishers are hurting, the market is changing in profound ways and they no longer know how to make a profit on books. That means they are extremely unlikely to accept any books by new authors who haven’t already built up a sizable audience.
Instead what most of them are doing, is creating new sites that let readers decide which books they like and then publishing the crowd favorites. It’s much less risky for them.
Even if you followed all the directions perfectly, and even if your book is pretty damn good, 99 times out of 100 the publisher will pass anyway because they aren’t in a position to make bets. They want a sure deal. The breakout 1 in 100 needs to have a compelling personal author background story of diversity and tragedy. If that’s not you, your chances are slim to none.
But that’s actually good for you
Because you don’t need a publisher anymore. A publisher will mostly just help you format the interior of the book, hire a cover designer and use an in-house copy editor. You get that stuff “for free” but you end up paying much more than you should in royalty losses. Sure it’s easier to let them handle things, but very often authors hate their cover design and can’t do anything about it.
Just as often, publishers do zero publicity and marketing for you (ask any published author) and book sales are up to you anyway. Publishers can’t get your books in bookstores or guarantee reviews by big newspapers, and although they can sometimes snag a big media blitz or spot on the Colbert Show, these appearances don’t always generate a lot of sales.
The way to be successful is to sell a lot of books, which is about connecting with readers. You can do this with a blog, guest posting, interviews on other blogs or local media, social media profiles, and lots of other tools. Sure it sounds scary and it’s a pain in the ass (at first), but here’s the truth:
Mainstream publishing and self-publishing aren’t very different anymore. Both depend on the quality of the book and the quality of the book design. Both depend on your ability to build a platform and sell the book.
But not only does self-publishing give you a lot more control (which can be both a blessing and a curse – hire excellent help and trust their judgment) but if your book is successful you’ll keep much more of the money.
But wait, there’s more!
Self-publishing also gives you unique and powerful publishing options that mainstream publishers can’t consider: you can publish your book in serials (shorter ebooks) or put the content up on Wattpad to start building your platform. You can be sleek and responsive and fast – rather than waiting 2 years for your book to see print, you can have it up and selling in under one month.
We are in the age of “Guerrilla Publishing” – you shouldn’t be trying to play the game that big publishers use to sell books. You need to be clever, sneaky, daring and courageous. You need to be a publishing terrorist – taking advantage of situational opportunities and small wins.
I just put a book I’m writing about this stuff on Kindle for pre-sale, check it out if you want.
The main challenge for would-be authors is probably the money; searching for a publisher is free, while self-publishing can cost a lot of money. But it doesn’t have to – you can grab my free books to learn about publishing on the cheap. You can pick up a handful of Kindle books to learn about marketing and book promotion. Hire help on Fiverr.com for everything you can. You can spend years learning about publishing and networking and pitching to agents…. if you spent the same time, effort and money on learning how to self-publish, you’d be able to start putting your work out into the world and earn money.
Plus it’s an easily repeatable skill. Your successes will become more and more frequent. You’ll get better at publishing micro-content quickly and build up a huge catalog of published books.
That publishing dream you have of being a New York Times bestseller? It’ll always be just a dream unless you start taking responsibility of your own author platform. Build a website. Write amazing articles. Guest post and build an email list. Learn the skills or hire out cheap. Building a platform gives you tremendous power – you don’t need permission or help from anybody else, which means you also don’t need to share the profits.
The world we live in
Your publishing dream was probably something like this: spend 5 years, write the perfect book, get a 100K advance, then earn enough royalties to live like royalty (duh – why else do they call it that?) for the rest of your life.
But that shit just doesn’t happen any more. Or when those big advances do happen, almost always the publisher loses money (which is why they’ve stopped doing it). Instead the success stories you hear are about that nobody who suddenly started selling tens of thousands of ebooks on Kindle (Amanda Hawking, Hugh Howey), or somebody else who was writing fan fiction in a public forum and somebody got in touch to help her publish it (E. L. James).
Your publishing dream is almost certainly about 30 years out of style. But that’s OK, because the new publishing dream is so much freaking cooler!
You don’t need gatekeepers. You don’t need a ton of preproduction. You can write and publish immediately. You can do it chapter by chapter. If you don’t have any money you can use pubslush.com or unbound.co.uk/ or Authr.com, although I strongly recommend getting a simpler cover and cheap/automatic ebook conversion so people can start buying and leaving comments. If you write something and it starts earning real money, then you can afford a nicer cover or to upgrade to a print version. Write, publish and keep doing it until you’ve got 10+ books up online. Then take a step back and see how things are going.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.
Yes! Yes! Yes! I echo many of your thoughts shared above! I love for people to realize that they can write their book and self-publish it all while cashing in on a big dream to write a book!
Also, I’m excited to see your new book (and love that you are utilizing Amazon’s new pre-order feature!).
Thanks Ashley – I love writing and I’m getting better at it. I haven’t found a mix yet between my research in literature and history, since I’ve been putting out pretty simple how-to’s, but those are coming. I think the “Passion” people talk about will be more apparent in some of my future books, where I’m obviously much more excited about the subjects. But I had to learn to focus on things that have a very popular appeal rather than extremely specialized niche topics that not everybody cares about. I’m very positive I’ll start making 10K a month in book sales over the next few years.
I have to be a little controversial sometimes. 😉