Thursday, July 26, 2018

So You Want to Self-Publish


Getting your book plucked from obscurity isn’t just a self-publishing nightmare. A writer can be with the best publisher, get solid reviews, or win awards, but it still doesn’t guarantee the kind of success that few writers enjoy. For most, after the buzz of an initial success dies down, getting back in the public’s sphere may take another push. It could be a second successful book, controversy, a movie contract, or such amazing writing skills that reviewers persevere until readers catch on. Few self-published books get there. Andy Weir’s, The Martian, originally a self-published book picked up by a major publisher, was then optioned for film. Fifty Shades of Grey, Eragon, Legally Blonde, and, coming soon, Hugh Howley’s Wool, were all initially self-published before Hollywood came calling.

However, a self-published author has to work twice as hard to get noticed as some believe that if she were any good, she would have had a publisher to begin with as validation of her talent. (This applies to men too, of course.) I do believe it's harder for women to achieve attention on a grand scale, which is why Sarah Paretsky founded Sisters in Crime to promote women mystery writers.

My first books were published under a pseudonym in the erotic romance genre, and though I’m proud of them, my first love was crime fiction. I'd already written a few hard-edged novels, queried hundreds of agents, and received “Your book is not quite what we’re looking for” responses. When an agent replied with positive feedback, I was elated. Though the agent worked hard, she was a relative newcomer (new agents tend to latch onto new writers) who wasn’t in New York. After some close calls but no editor acceptance, I decided to self-publish.

I had a great deal of success as a self-published author in 2012 and 2013, even 2014, but as the years passed, sales have dwindled. I attribute this to a few reasons, and this is what anyone contemplating self-publishing should take into consideration. Advertising is much harder and more expensive.

BookBub, the gold standard of promotion, was just getting its start back in 2011-12. At one point when I was advertising a free book to generate sales, BookBub GAVE me an FREE ad. Downloads went through the roof, and when the promo was over, the book rocketed to the top one hundred in sales. I even gave Stephen King a run for his money after one promotion. See above. (Note: his book was on pre-order, but so what!) Same thing happened with another book when I bought a BookBub ad. Who wouldn’t put out the money after seeing the success of the first ad? After fifty thousand free downloads, sales again hit the stratosphere, giving me another place in the top hundred, and that didn’t mean only on the sales charts but on the author charts.

So what’s changed?

All those free books that translated into sales a few years ago when readers were hungry for free and discounted reading material were now saturating their Kindles. Readers had hundreds, even thousands of books they’d probably never read, and if they ran out there were always ad pages that gave you a daily summary of deals. I use some of those ad sites to promote a sale, usually at $.99, but only a few of them generate numbers anymore, and I'm lucky if I break even from my costs.

It’s almost impossible to get a BookBub ad these days, especially if you are exclusive to Amazon, which I am. They get paid on click-throughs, and if readers are clicking on one platform only, in my case Amazon, BookBub doesn’t make as much money as if the books were on multiple platforms. Also, their price has skyrocketed. Why? Because they bring results. Also, and this is important, they now have major publishers promoting famous writers, buying ads for double and triple the costs of free book ads. A crime fiction ad reaches almost four million readers. Free it costs, $569, a $.99 ad costs $1,138, $1.99 = $1,970, $2.99 = $2,845, and anything over $3. is $3,983. Of course there are other genres that are less, but the more popular genres cost more. This might be fine if your publisher kicks in some money or pays the total amount, but few indie authors can afford those prices.

Now, after nine books in crime fiction (mystery, thrillers, and romantic suspense) and four in erotic romance, I’ll finish the fifth book in my series, but that might be all. I am trying my hand at a totally different genre, and if I think the end result is good enough and can be the first book in a series, I might try for an agent. Why? Because times have changed, and writers have to change with them.

Am I sorry about the route I’ve taken? If you had asked me in 2012 or 2013, and I’d have said no. It was a great decision. Ask me if I’d do it the same way in 2018, knowing what I know now, I’d have to think long and hard before answering, but I'd probably say yes. I'd just do things a little differently.


Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

22 comments :

  1. Lauren Dyer PelletierJuly 26, 2018 at 1:05 AM

    Interesting, in light of the recent literary agency embezzlement case that highlighted the risks authors take when they put their trust in literary agencies. More authors than ever before are walking away from traditional publishing.

    NY Post article: $3.4M Embezzled from Famed Literary Agency

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    1. There have been lots of cases where agents "cooked the books," especially in Hollywood. I remember James Garner's suit against a production company. I'm not saying to forego indie publishing. I'm saying know what the pluses and minuses are. What worked years ago doesn't work now, but it's still a viable alternative for writers to consider.

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  2. Great insight into your journey, Polly. I bought ads for my recent release and experienced good sales; however, rankings sorely affected by KU books.

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    1. I've had good luck with ads too, Vicki, but not like in years past. There are only a few sites that work. There comes a point where you have to choose which are cost effective.

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  3. This is a very enlightening post, Polly. Will it change my practice of indie publishing? Not likely. However, it may change my expectations (aka hopes) that have never been very high. I am now very fortunate to have someone handling my marketing. This is new for me, something I haven't done before. Back to those hopes and expectations. We'll see what happens.

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    1. I'd love to know how that works out for you, Linda. I would not be adverse to trying that, but the return would have to be really, really good.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this information. I've heard similar stories from many authors following the same path as you. I'm with a small press and sales are similar to self-pubbed.

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    1. Friends who went with small presses eventually left them or the presses went belly-up. Being in control is a strong incentive, especially after being with a small press. For that reason, I don't regret having taken the path I did. It was fun while it lasted.

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  5. Great information. I’ve shared a similar journey through the highs and lows of Bookbub and also had the bottom drop out if the cozy mystery market. Early indie success, in my opinion, got derailed when the bigs adopted the same marketing techniques. I surely don’t know the magic answer, only that all of us are looking for it.

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    1. Maggie, I guess all we can do is write the best books we can, which you are doing. There are still a couple of ad sites that produce that you don't have to take out a loan for, but it sure isn't BookBub, sadly. They've actually expanded by offering ads on their sites. Not sure it would be any less expensive, but it's worth checking out.

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  6. There seems to have been a wave that crested around 2011 that today's most successful indie authors managed to catch and ride at the time. I think that wave broke in 2014, when the ride became more difficult, though not impossible. Unfortunately for me, 2011's great opportunity co-incided with the birth of my second child, and by the time I was able to pay attention to what was happening in the publishing world it was too late to catch the wave.

    That particular wave, anyway. I'm really hoping either that another good wave will be along and I'll be ready to catch that one OR (more likely) that the water settles now and, though we may not see such stratospheric careers again, once the debris sinks to the bottom, well-written books will hopefully be able to find their readers and their authors a steady income stream. As you say, what works this year won't necessarily be quite as effective next year when it becomes diluted by wannabes and costs overinflated by business payouts.

    Sometimes I wonder if that wave was caused by the breaking apart of the iceberg of traditional publishers, and the subsequent big crash into the ocean of the book industry...

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    1. Yes, Elle, it was a wave. There was day in one month when I sold 500 copies. That's pretty heady stuff. The wave that was so profitable for some of us lucky to be in that time is exactly what is making it difficult for today's writers. Some writers have been able to continue the success. I wish I were one of them. Just keep writing good books. It only takes one to click big, though I believe my time has come and gone.

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  7. I still like indie publishing as a way to control your release schedule, ebook prices, and cover design. However, it gets costly to hire editors, formatters, cover artists, etc. not to mention incredibly time consuming. Do you want to wait a year and a half between books and for a price of over $9.99 for your ebook with a trad publisher? If this doesn't matter, than this route might be the path for you. As I get older, I'm not willing to wait so long.

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    1. Control is the name of the game. I think any writer can learn how to format. I do my own covers, but that's because my first career was as an illustrator/commercial designer. There was a learning curve, but I was determined. I have a great critique partner and I do pay for an editor, but doing as much as you can for yourself is a win/win.

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    2. You make a great point with the pricing, Nancy. A lower price makes it more affordable to lots more people.

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    3. Thanks for your insights, Polly. I'm very new to this game after years working in the newspaper industry. Which means I'm a late bloomer as a crime novelist. Which means I appreciate Nancy's philosophy. Time's a wasting. I want to write and I want to get my books out there.

      I'll be self-publishing my first book in a few weeks, and I am trying to keep my expectations at bay.

      All the indies I know say the key is to build a strong list of books so that when the time comes that one book really strikes a cord - or gets a jolt of publicity - you can earn off your backlist.

      I feel like all I can do is provide the best book I can writer (yes, editors and proofers), a strong cover (I hired a pro) and then get on with the next one.

      I look forward to trying a variety of marketing strategies.

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  8. Think of all of the readers you've entertained over the years instead of having your work lying in an unpublished file? If you do get the golden ticket, you already have people who love your work.

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    1. I certainly hope I've entertained people, Diana. It's clear that there are pluses and minuses in self-publishing. As Nancy said, pricing your own books makes them more affordable to a multitude of readers.

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  9. I entered the scene with a small press in 2011, and it's been a wild ride ever since. The last two months have been the worst ever. Now, I've transitioned from romantic suspense to mystery, but not because of the market...just what feels good to write. Who can know what readers will want next. My friends who write a version of light, humorous suspense seem to be doing pretty well. Thanks for the insight, Polly. (P.S. the sad political scene will prompt a new wave of escape reading...you watch)

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    1. Thanks for your input, Rolynn. It has been a wild ride down the hill lately. I can understand why we seek to write something different. I'm doing the same ... just because. Rather than reading to escape politics, I hope people become engaged in working toward changing the "sad state of affairs."

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  10. Thanks for sharing your journey, Polly. The self-publishing arena certainly has changed in the years since I put my first suspense book out for Kindle. Like you, with some targeting advertising I had downloads of the book when it was free in the thousands, and sales following those downloads were also topping 1,000 a month. That lasted three months, then it all started to slide. Like you said, part of the problem is the glut of books available, but also the quality of some of those books. Readers are getting wary of the self-pubbed books because they don't know if the quality of the writing is always going to be top-notch.

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    1. It has been quite a ride, Maryann. One thing Amazon offers is the "Look Inside" feature. They publish enough for a reader to see whether the writing is good or the story hooks them. I also have the first chapters of all my books on my website. Not sure if it helps.

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