Self-Publishing in the Digital Age: Worth the Try?

The stigma attached to self-publishing has gone, but is that reason enough to self-publish?

True, the stigma has been removed by the digital revolution, but the hype about self-publishing has risen to such dangerous heights that it threatens to explode and carry with it every aspiring writer in America!

Can you really repeat the success of J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke? They're the golden trio on every newbie's mind.

Up until three years ago, J.A. Konrath was a published mid-list author with many titles to his name and a fair amount of success but no New York Times best-selling star. Then, he woke up to the opportunities of the digital revolution and started to self-publish on the Kindle (and on other digital platforms).

His success was immediate.

Why? One can always argue he already enjoyed a fan base, a known name and it was reasonable to expect he'd make a fair number of e-book sales. And his blog attracts some 500,000 visits/year, a good "platform" or Internet presence, by any means, and a sure way to promote one's books!

But the other two? They were classic black swans: no one had heard of them, they swooped in from the cold and both sold millions of copies of their books in just a few months. Amanda Hocking famously went on to land a multi-million deal with a major legacy publisher (St. Martin's Press) and Locke is now working with Simon & Schuster. Enough to get any newbie drooling.

We're in late 2011, and things have changed a lot. There's a tsunami of fiction titles on Amazon's Kindle (at least 750,000 and rising) and, for the first time in history, e-book sales are outpacing printed book sales. A range of new e-readers are about to hit the market, chief among them Amazon's Kindle Fire touted as a cheap version of the iPad. Since they are cheaper, they will presumably further expand the market (more readers, more books sold). On the printed book side, after Borders' collapse, more bookstores are closing (though some local ones survive). Thus the Big Six publishers have to deal with various game changers, not least of them the bid Amazon is making to become the Next Big Publisher.

So it makes sense to publish e-books, right? Let's all go and self-publish and live happily ever after sunning ourselves on Caribbean beaches! According to J.A. Konrath (always him!) the outlook is more than rosy, it's positively exploding fireworks! Lately he's opened his blog to other writers who are successfully self-published. The latest is David Gaughran who waxes enthusiastic about connecting with readers on Internet and recounts how he's known instant success in 6 months, with 20,000 visits/month to his blog plus stratospheric sales for his two novellas.

How likely is it that you, a newbie, can duplicate John Locke's and Amanda Hocking's success?

A lot of people aren't going to like this, but the likelihood of duplicating their success is very slim.

We hear about the success stories, we don't hear about the (countless) others who sell few copies or none at all.

Why is that?

Because there are pitfalls in self-publishing that Konrath and his writer friends tend to gloss over (no doubt because they were so successful and didn't fall in any pitfall themselves).

He's moving in a restricted circle of successful self-published writers and doesn't know what the world looks like on the outside - particularly if you are a newcomer to the world of publishing. And I think that the kind of hype you find on his blog and on so many others could be quite dangerous and misleading for aspiring writers. It's just the sort of message that can mislead you into making life decisions that will really hurt you.

Four Pitfalls in Self-Publishing

You're on your own and you need to behave as an entrepreneur in all aspects of the publishing process from production to marketing. The only thing that's easy? Getting an ISBN number: it's cheap and anyone can get it for you.

The rest is full of pitfalls:

1. MS Editing and File Conversion:

Not as easy as you might think. If you've been reading e-books lately, you must have come across an incredible number of formatting errors (too much space, lack of it etc) and typos galore.

So you have to find the best editors to assess book structure, language etc including of course proof-reading. And since this is an e-book, you need people technically able to convert your files into e-books and upload them on all the major platforms (Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Sony Store etc). There's plenty of advice on Internet and you'll find other writers with self-publishing experience all willing to recommend you names. Fine and good, and I'm sure that many of these free-lance people you find in the market are excellent. The only trouble is you can't be sure... not until you've actually tried them, and spent your money on them only to find you've wasted both money and time!

Why? Because free-lance experts come and go; they don't work within the framework of a publisher's organization, with career prospects to cater to. Those who work within such an institutional framework have to be good to avoid a slowdown in their career or being fired. So when you hire a free-lance expert, you don't have the guarantee of work well-done that normally comes with an editing job done by the staff of a legacy publisher.

When it comes to file conversion, it's even more difficult and at times (judging from the errors in e-books) even legacy publishers seem to run out of capable staff. You don't have too many options: DIY (I know I can't, I'm a famous digital dunce) or turn to experts like Smashwords (they take a percentage cut) or BookBaby (they charge for the service).

BookBaby might be the better option since it's only a service charge and not a percentage; also their prices are lower than those of the usual free-lance expert, except that you end up being published by BookBaby (!) because Amazon et. al. recognize the entity that has uploaded the e-book file and not you, the author! Very inconvenient, because as a result, Amazon will not share sales information with you. They share it with BookBaby and the latter is ill-equipped to display the information on-time and in a user-friendly manner. (I know because that's what I did - I wanted top notch file conversion quality and got that - at the expense of not being able to follow closely my sales.)

Of course, you can get around this inconvenience and check your sales on NovelRank or other sites that use a variety of sources, chief among them Amazon and Bookscan sales data. But this has drawbacks too - more on that in a minute.

2. Book Covers

As a self-published author you have a big advantage here: you're in charge and you have none of the problems of your published fellow writers who often find that publishers impose on them covers they hate. You have the last word since it's yours, but that can be a problem too. Because how much does an author know about book covers, what sells, what attracts a reader's eye, what is fashionable and what isn't? A professional designer asks himself all these questions all day long; he monitors trends, a writer doesn't.

Also a professional book cover is essential for your sales. Don't believe you can do it without expert help. Everything I said above applies here too. So, once again, it's a jungle and if you want to survive (and get a smashing cover) you had better act as a savvy entrepreneur! My job was half done because I used my own paintings for my book covers but I still couldn't for the life of me do the cover design as such (choose the lettering, shading, correct spacing etc). Once again, BookBaby did that for me charging for the job a very reasonable amount taking into account I provided the illustration.

Now do my covers "work"? Only time (and sales) will tell. They're very unusual and it is rather improbable that I could have convinced a legacy publisher to do it in this special way? Maybe or maybe not (because they have their own standards they like to upkeep and, naturally, their own preferred artists). But one thing is certain, being on my own I was able to bring to its conclusion what is essentially a rather complex idea for my book covers.

3. Book Promotion

Marketing is by far the hardest part - everyone agrees on that. And it's bound to be particularly hard for any newbie. Marketing has different dimensions - the first one is price.

Regarding the price you should set your book at, there's plenty of good advice around - so it's probably relatively easy to decide. You'll find that most agree that for a self-pubbed author, 99 cents is a good price to launch a title (think of it as a "loss leader") and that $2.99 to $3.99 may well be the "sweet spot" for indies, where sales are maximized. And there seems to be a movement among readers - at least on Amazon - who attack books that are priced above $10, showering them with bad one-star reviews. I don't know how strong this movement is, but that it exists at all is indicative of the readers' mood: since they see digital publishing as practically cost-free, they are not willing to pay a price close to printed books.

There's also a lot of discussion as to whether it makes sense to let a title go free for a time. Some say it boosts sales but no one's been able to prove it. Personally, I'm not sure it does: I can't see that much of a psychological difference with a 99 cents price. And it is certainly a hassle to organize because it makes sense to put up your book for free only for a short time (making sure it is the first of a series) and then stop it so as not to damage your writer's reputation (bargain books = poor quality writing).

Be that as it may, the real problem is book promotion. A direct promotion doesn't work: you can't tweet like mad "buy my book" - no one will! As John Locke advises, use an indirect marketing method - so called "loyalty transfer." Align yourself with some major cause or concept or whatever ideas you think your books stand for and can fit in, then promote them on that basis to "like-minded" people. A "loyalty transfer" will occur as readers recognize you the author as "one of them" and maybe, just maybe they'll buy your books! John Locke swears that's how he made his sales.

Or you can do what Amanda Hocking did: ride on the tail of a best-selling author. Amanda followed in the trail blazed by Stephanie Meyer's books that opened the royal road of teenage vampires. But make sure you find the right "trail" to follow!

Or you can pay for a book publicist. I haven't yet and I might, but it's expensive! And once again, there are no guarantees it will work. Some fashions and ideas are always floating about, ready to take shape and become stronger. If you have a savvy publicist with the instinct and intuition to "smell" them out and fit your book in them, then you've got it made. But it certainly is a lottery!

DIY methods for writers all start, according to market gurus, with having a lively blog full of "valuable" content and spreading yourself all over the place: from social networks (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Stumble Upon etc) to readers' communities (Goodreads, Shelfari, The Reading Room etc).

Now, it seems that this is something publishers don't do for you (unless you're their star author of course). Nowadays, as a beginning writer published by a legacy publisher, you're expected to do all this yourself. So why would a self-published writer be at a disadvantage?

Oh, but he/she is at a disadvantage, believe me.

Once all that Internet promotional work is done, he/she is still nowhere in terms of landing on a NYT bestseller list, getting reviews from big literary critics or obtaining book prizes (I mean, those that count, like the Pulitzer). All that glorious stuff is reserved to writers published by the Big Six.

Let's face it: Big Six publishers make "book discoverability" easy.

So, yes, choosing the self-publishing road means foregoing all that. If you sell a lot and make a nice percentage - indeed a better percentage on sales than if you're traditionally published, no doubt about that - then, as Konrath says, you're a free person, you make more money, you're not any publisher's "slave."

But... there's always a "but" somewhere:

4. Your Sales Numbers are in the Public Domain.

This means that if you don't sell well, that's the first thing a would-be literary agent will find out. And so will a publisher. Unless your numbers are good, they won't take you on.

And don't kid yourself that you can hide your numbers. NovelRank and other similar sites uncover them and make them available to anyone looking for them. Your only defense is to change your name the next time you send that query to a literary agent and hope he/she won't discover who you really are!

Poor sales are a very big risk. It could cost you your career. Because to promote your books on the sole strength of your blog and a few customers reviews on Amazon and Goodreads isn't going to get you very far, contrary to what Konrath et. al. are telling you!

And don't lose sight of one simple thing: the traditional printed book market still accounts for eighty percent of book sales! Yes, e-book sales are rising faster (they're some 18 percent ahead this year), but they still account for a relatively small section of the whole.

That will change over the next five years, but not now. Not yet.

So think about it. Do you really believe you've produced an outstanding book? Because in the end, it's content that counts. Sure, if one book doesn't work, you can always put up another on that virtual shelf, and another and another. And every time, make sure you do all that hard work to ensure quality production and book promotion.

Do you feel up to it? If yes, bravo! Go ahead. If not, then a few additional rejection letters until you land that perfect agent who supports you, who believes in your talent and helps you get a decent contract with one of the Big Six should still be one of your career goals. I know it's mine with regard to the manuscripts I'm presently working on and that (for the moment) I have no intention to self-publish. But I also know that the sales for my books that are now up on that virtual shelf could affect my chances of ever landing a contract with one of the Big Six.

In other words, self-publishing could reduce your options. So think about it well before going ahead!