I discovered writing when I was nine-years-old. A fourth-grade creative-writing exercise by my teacher, Lark McGuire, was an absolute epiphany for me. And I mean the Biblical scale kind of epiphany, where the rest of the world fades away and you are standing in beams of heavenly light while angels are singing kind of epiphany. The more I read, the more I wanted to write. By the time I reached fifth grade, I pretty much knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
Over forty years later, I haven't grown up yet but I still want to be a writer. More than anything else. I literally and figuratively have bet the farm on this. I've pretty much lost the farm, but I'm still writing. Throughout my professional career I have put my creativity, intuition, imagination, and intellect in the service of making others wealthy. Now, I want to put my efforts to my own benefit. Even though my financial situation has forced me away from writing full time, I will still write.
A lot of pundits—most of them I note are squarely on the anti-self-publishing side of things—have been declaring that the gold rush period of self-publishing is over. I say, it never existed.
Sure, successful self-publishing authors were a rarity just five years ago. When digital publishing opened the gates and more and more people began to become successful independent authors, it made good copy for newspaper articles. And getting good and free publicity helped sell more books. I would say it wasn't so much a gold rush for self-publishing as it was a high point for free and easy marketing. Well, now that successful self-publishing authors are more common, it isn't so much of a public interest story anymore.
Though, another way of looking at it shows that self-publishing has been a gold rush of late. Many people jumping in and trying to succeed at it, only to discover that it isn't as easy as they thought it would be. The actual gold rushes in the 1800's were very much like that. Dreamers jumped at the chance for adventure, imagining they would just be scooping gold off the ground and become wealthy with no effort. And many of those hopefuls were spurred on by sensationalistic journalism that pumped up their hopes with misinformation. When you think of it like that, then yes, self-publishing has become a gold rush.
Where the press has done a disservice to self-publishing hopefuls is they have concentrated on the overnight successes. Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, Steve Robinson, and several others.
The articles all tell the story about how each of these authors put their books online as ebooks, hoping for a few sales and how the books suddenly took off and made them wealthy overnight. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Hocking, author of My Blood Approves, tried for a number of years to sell her manuscript to several publishers and was rejected every time. It was an act of desperation that she self-published her book through Amazon, and then she pushed like crazy on Facebook to get her friends to spread the word. That big marketing push is what got people looking at her book. The more people read her book, the more other people got curious about it and they read it too.
Hugh Howey, author of Wool, admits he wasn’t entirely sure just what triggered people to start buying his book. It had been languishing for over 18 months before sales suddenly started to pick up. He attributes his success to getting lucky. However, Howey is constantly maintaining an online presence, engaging with his readers and encouraging other writers to take the leap. He is also an excellent writer.
Steven Robinson, author of In The Blood, says his “overnight success” was eight years in the making, at least. He struggled to get his first books accepted by publishers, but kept getting rejected over and over. Finally, he gave up on getting traditionally published and put his books for sale as ebooks. Over time, readers noticed, and began to buy.
In each of these cases, the press touted them as being overnight successes. The press made it seem like they sat down and quickly typed out their manuscripts, then uploaded their manuscripts, and suddenly the books started flying off the digital shelves. The truth is each of these authors worked their tails off to write and market their books. There is a bit of luck in each case; one never quite knows when readers will discover a “new” book. But to get their books positioned where that luck could happen, they worked hard. (And they are still working hard at it.)
Self-publishing is very hard and it takes a lot of work to get it right.
Each of those books was years in the making. Each of those books took months and years to be noticed by the readers once they became available.
The gold rush to self-publish may be over as many wannabes are discovering that self publishing isn’t easy. But the golden age has yet to begin.
The truth is, it is only a small percentage of writers who actually succeed in the market. This is true for both self- and trade-published authors.
There may be near a million self-published books out there available as ebooks. But less than 15% of those sell with any regularity. It’s because most of those ebooks are simply one-shots: books put out by their authors to fulfill a daydream of writing something and who then did nothing beyond that.
It’s that top 15% where things get interesting.
Two-thirds of that 15% are still trying to make it—to get noticed by their audience. The other third has made it. They found their audience and they are selling books like crazy. Many of them, outsell trade-published authors. Many of them don’t, but they have enough of a following that they can sell enough books to make a living at it.
And the numbers of those authors who are succeeding is increasing.
The one common factor behind all the writers who have succeeded at self-publishing is that they are all working at it. Even when it looked like they just weren’t going to get anywhere with it. They kept working at it in spite of that. When things get discouraging, they don’t stop working at it. Even now, they continue to work at it.
The reality is, self-publishing is hard. Very hard.
All the functions that a trade publisher can do for an author must be done alone by the self-publishing author. The hardest is trying to get the word out that a new book is available. There is no magic formula for this. You have to hit the pavement and go talk to newspapers and reading groups and beg them to give you a chance. Get online and engage with other people to try and entice them to take a look at your work. You have to pay for a table at regional fan conventions (such as Boskone) and hope that attendees will have enough pocket change on hand and willingness to part with that money for a copy of your book.
For the self-published author, there is no advance check. Editing, cover art, printing, copyright registration, travel, shipping, and other business expenses all come out of your own pocket. There’s no safety net.
And on top of all that, it could be years before people start to notice your book on the digital shelf of a website that sells hundreds of thousands of other ebooks. That means there is no income to offset your expenses.
Not for a long time. For all that investment of your time and your life into that book, there may be no return for a long time, if at all.
That makes self-publishing even harder.
Your book not selling can be crushing to your motivation. There are a lot of self-publishing authors who do give up. All that work and no reward does begin to wear out one's motivation. Some just fade away and disappear. Others post their misery online for others to contemplate—or perhaps to have others talk them out of quitting.
Why bother trying?
The answer for me, it is because I enjoy writing. I enjoy telling stories.
But more than anything—even the occasional check for my share of the sales proceeds—there is the joy of knowing that somewhere out there are people who enjoyed reading the story that I created.
For that, I will keep on writing.
And that, it turns out, is the key to succeeding as a writer: keep on writing.
Eventually, readers will come across one of your books. It will catch on, and then your other books will be read as well. The more books you have out there, the more likely one of them will be discovered. The only way to create more books is to sit down and write them.
Remember why you started writing in the first place.
Then write for that reason.