Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Pros and Cons of Self-publishing, According to Me.

So you’ve written a book. You think it’s pretty good, send out queries to agents and small presses. Get rejection after rejection.

“Not right for us.”

“Don’t know where to place it on the shelf.”

“Too much like someone’s work we already represent.”

Yada, yada, yada.

I finally got an agent, but she couldn’t sell my books. I wrote a couple of erotic romances that were accepted by good online erotic publishers of the time, 2010, then decided to self-publish with Amazon the four suspense novels I’d accumulated from my previous years of writing. They made it easy and gave a good percentage. I was not sorry. Those first few years I sold a lot of books, got half dozen BookBub ads, gave a bunch away, which jump-started sales. 

There are a few things writers MUST do if you intend to self-publish your books.

      1. Write a good book (Duh!) 
    2. Hire a good editor             
    3. Hire a good cover designer     
    4. Learn how to market

The last one is the hardest. BookBub is still around, but it has priced itself out of my market. Yes, you make your investment back if you have the money to play with. However, they take on very few Amazon-exclusive authors now because it limits the click-throughs they get with a book on many different platforms, like B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc. When they started, they gave me a freebie for my mystery, Murder Déjà Vu. The ad did phenomenally well.I sold A TON of books. As time went on, the prices increased, big publishers caught on and now pay at least half of the ad for their clients. In 2012, I made more money with four books than I make now with ten suspense novels and four erotic romances published under a pseudonym.

Marketing is a full-time job, and it ain’t cheap. I admit, I'm terrible at it. You can run sales, but that comes with an asterisk. For example, the other day, someone on Facebook said that cutting a price to nothing or next to nothing cheapens a book. If an author doesn’t respect his/her book enough to charge a fair price, who will respect it? I don’t agree, but I understand the sentiment. That sale  or freebie  jump-starts more sales, and that's the bottom line. Readers find books they wouldn’t ordinarily find, and if they like the first book in a series, they buy the other books. It's a little harder for standalones, but many of my readers have liked a one-off book well enough to try others.

Times have changed. There are thousands of writers self-publishing. Some books are terrific; some are not. The biggest con is, and I hate to say this, there is still a stigma attached to being self-published. Writers who do well churn out books one after the other. (Actually, many well-known authors do that too, and they ride on their previous successes because some of their later books aren’t very good. My opinion.) Many of those writers who find success write 50-70K-word books, mainly series. That keeps them in the public eye. It’s smart, and I applaud them. My books run anywhere from 80-100K words. I might have to rethink my future writing. Amazon's new platform, Vella, might be interesting, and I will look into that.

Also, very few self-published writers win awards, no matter how good their books are. Part of that is the good-old-boy network of people who vote on books by authors who attend conferences and make friends. It’s difficult for someone outside that sphere to get a foot in the door. Part is the self-published authors don't get the traction unless they invest big time in the marketing, so it's really a vicious cycle.

Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Amazon and their publishing, can I say mini-monopoly? The authors of their imprints do amazingly well. They’re advertised on my Kindle, show up on their Monthly Firsts—a gift to Prime members—and amass incredible amounts of reviews with  Amazon behind them. You can forget the Big 5. I’ll take being an Amazon imprint writer any day of the week, but then we're back to getting an agent because Amazon only takes agented submissions. 

Amazon has changed how people read with Kindle. Is it a good thing? I don’t know. It was for me because I probably wouldn’t have a book in the marketplace without them. Am I doing as well as I did when I had only four books in 2012? Not even close.

Would I do things differently now, knowing what I know? Yes. Will I tell you what? No. Will I continue to write? I honestly don’t know. I know people say they can't not write. That's all well and good, but in the end it's like eating lobster: a lot of work for too little meat.



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.

28 comments :

  1. Good post. I agree with all you said. I still like the control I have with my self-published books, but there were a number of advantages that came with having a mid-sized traditional publisher. Marketing, though, is a necessity for either route.

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    1. Yes, control is key, but it used to be worth more. Writers and publishers have learned how to use their control, so self-pubbed writers have to compete with that now too. I think publishers have learned a lot from the self-publishing platform.

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  2. How did you get inside my head? My experience mirrors yours. When asked if I'm writing now, my answer is no and the reason I give is marketing. I don't write for myself. I write to share what I've created with others and to earn some money. Because getting eyes on your books is now as challenging and expensive as a climb up Mt. Everest, I doubt that my fifth book, a WIP, will ever be finished.

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    1. Great minds. And heaven forbid if you say you're writing for others to read your work and to make a few bucks. You're supposed to say that you write because you can't NOT write. I'm still writing, but my expectations are far below what they once were. I'd really like to finish the books I've started, about five of them, and then pack it in. But then I get another idea and write 150 words before I lose interest. Maybe I should just write novellas like The Last Heist. It's a full story, just shorter.

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  3. Polly -- I agree with all of this! It mirrors my experience closely. Ten years ago I got rights back to a novella that had been traditionally published and I self-pubbed it on Amazon. With very little effort, I quickly earned more than the original payment from the trad. publisher. That wouldn't happen now. I have many more books that I've gotten rights back on and a few I've self-pubbed and it's barely worth the effort I put into them. Five years I ago I started using Amazon ads and had pretty good success with them, but so many authors have jumped into that pond now it's almost impossible to break even. I'm one of those people who can't seem to stop writing even when I want to, but I keep asking myself why I'm doing it.

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    1. As I said to Ellis, publishers have learned a lot from self-publishers. They've co-opted how we work, how we publish, and how we advertise. They have the clout and more money to make money for themselves and their clients. Glad we could help, Big Five.

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  4. Right on for several things I've thought. At my age, I don't have the patience--or time--for the agent query process. And in a long career I've only "meshed" with one agent. A series of others have been a disappointment one way or another. I also don't want the pressure to produce on a schedule and sell a certain amount that comes with many commercial publishers. Like you I"m not making money these days, but I'm fairly content.

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    1. Glad you've come to terms, Judy. Also, agents aren't interested in writers who are more at the end of their careers than at the beginning. They want to find good writers with a long career in front of them. I did try for an agent for my last book, we are but WARRIORS, but it didn't take long to see it was a waste of time. I also think it would be hard for me at this point to write a better book, so I'm resigned.

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  5. I haven't self-published an original book yet (note the "yet") but did self-publish my out-of-print novels after I got the rights back. Busy writing new stuff, I bought rights to the original book covers and hired someone to do my formatting. But there's still that marketing to do, and I've been procrastinating.

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    1. I forced myself to learn how to do it all, except the marketing. At this point, it's hopeless.

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  6. I'm glad I read this, because I have some self-publishing to do soon. Great advice on everything--except the thing you won't tell us! It's hard and it gets harder.

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    1. Giving the answer to that question seems a bit disingenuous because it's based on what I know now, not what I knew then to make that change. Does that make sense?

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    2. Yes! Just giving you a hard time. It's a great article.

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  7. This is a fabulous post, Polly. Thank you for your honesty about the realities of self-publishing. Self-pubbing in a two-edged sword. Embracing it means accepting the pros that hold hands with the cons. Even though I have not successfully used the system in the past, the fault lies in my lack of marketing. Now I have help in that arena, and I look forward to a different outcome. We'll see how that goes. Thank you so much for sharing such detailed information. This is a keeper.

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    1. Wishing you all the best. Marketing is the key. Wish I were better at it.

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  8. You left out the necessary part about having a great critique partner...LOL. Publishing isn't for the faint-hearted, no matter which road they travel. I think the pandemic may have inadvertently helped some of us hybrid authors trying to live in both worlds, especially those like me who've been through the school of hard knocks. There comes a "life is short" moment when you question the time commitment that goes with writing/marketing. For some, their health makes the decision for them. Still trying to see my way forward post-pandemic.

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    1. Yes, I have an excellent critique partner who has helped me become a better writer. No one I know works harder at marketing than you do, Maggie. Wish I could absorb some of that from you.

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  9. Wow. Thank you for sharing. I too struggle with marketing.

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    1. There's just too much competition to make a mark in advertising. I've never done a blog tour and don't intend to, but I have had numerous sales. They do work, but I haven't had one in a while. Maybe soon.

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  10. Marketing is expensive. Bookbub works. If you have a series, it's probably worth using them. I did a few times. Got lots of downloads and sales, but didn't make back what I paid, except in recognition, which counts some. So many free books out there that many don't want to buy books anymore, myself included most of the time. Also, it's easier to read on the Kindle these days. Mine has over 200 books on it, and I can adjust the font, which is a big plus the older I get.

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    1. You are so right. I've actually had a friend say she wouldn't pay for books when she can get them for free. So what worked at one time, a free book, has become a curse for sales. I love my Kindle too.

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  11. This whole marketplace is so saturated with books, that ours get lost in the shuffle. Hardly seems possible but only 11 years ago when I did my first self-published release after getting rights back from a trad publisher, I sold a lot of books. A few months getting over $1,500 in royalty from Amazon. I did very little marketing, with the exception of jumping on the Read an E-book promos that were in March. I made the book free for that week, had 40,000+ downloads, and sales for the next few months were way up.

    That doesn't happen anymore in terms of numbers of downloads of free books and subsequent sales. Nothing has changed on my end. I think my writing is still pretty good and the books get wonderful reviews, for the most part. What's changed is the glut in the marketplace.

    I'm not going to stop writing, however. I'm one of those who can't just stop.

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    1. That's pretty much what happened to me. I had one month where I made enough to remodel my kitchen. I'm sure both of us thought it would continue. It didn't. But that's what we know now that we didn't know then. There's also an age factor. I'm not sure how many, if any, more books I have left in me. I'll be happy if I could finish the four or five I never finished. I do wish I had started my series earlier, but I really like to write standalones. Maybe that's one of the things I would do differently. But that time has passed.

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  12. You were on the forefront of self-publishing, Polly, and I followed your very successful journey while I was with my small publisher. Once they closed, I self pubbed in 2013 and had a windfall year with just 3 books in my humorous mystery series. I'm still making a decent income with 8 books but much lower, due to the competition not only from other authors, but all the great streaming shows now available. After my ovarian cancer surgery and chemo, I slowed down to releasing a book every 18 -24 months. But I have to say that all the emails I received from my newsletter subscribers situated all over the globe after I announced my illness made this journey so worthwhile. Their concern really touched me. Fortunately the best part of self-publishing is that you can set your own deadlines. And the book won't be released until it's the best it can be. Keep on writing those great stories, Polly!!

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    1. Cindy, you did everything better than I did, especially the marketing. I don't even have a mailing list. This is on me, and I can't blame publishing for my deficiencies. Also, my books don't have the wide appeal that yours do. They're darker and more noir than even traditional mysteries. Again, on me. But every time I start a new story, they turn out to be in the same dark genre. One reviewer said I make heroes out of damaged people. Maybe readers don't want damaged characters. That's my guess, and I'm sticking to it.

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  13. Your post comes at the perfect time for me - with one self-published book just out and three more in the pipeline, I am keen on everything you said. I found that a very good editor can make a good story even better, and a professionally-produced cover can be a grabber. But yeah, marketing - sigh...Thanks for a terrific article!

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    1. Wishing you great sales for your new book, Kate. Sounds like you did all the right things our of the a gate.

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    2. And, yeah, marketing. Gulp.

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