To Self-Publish Or Not To Self-Publish (Guest Post by R.S. Ford)
Being a writer is a tough, competitive business. Even when you’ve ‘made it’ you haven’t necessarily made it. Many authors are consigned to mid-list hell for the entirety of their career, which means poor advances and scrappy royalties while they eke out a living at the coalface, and at the end of the day they still have to pitch for work on the traditional publishing circuit. For others it’s even worse. If you’ve written a novel you can’t sell through a traditional publisher, you might be wondering about what to do with that MS burning a hole in your ‘Rejected Works’ folder.
Well, there is another option. Doubtless you’ve heard about self-publishing. Just upload your book to Kindle Direct Publishing and watch the royalties come in, right? Er… not quite. I’ve discovered it’s a little bit more complicated than that, in fact a LOT more complicated. So if you’re thinking of leaping into the deep waters of self-publishing, here are a few things you should know:
Self-publishing works on a very different business model to traditional publishing. Traditional publishers will spend a lot of a book’s budget on printing and distributing to high street or online bookshops. Their marketing relies on press coverage and word-of-mouth to generate sales. But with self-publishing you generally won’t have the contacts, budget or storage facilities to make this viable. So how does it work?
It’s all about the e-books
If you want to make a go at self-publishing you’ll be relying predominantly on e-book sales. This is by far where the lion’s share of your profits will come from. Firstly, you’ll need your product, so that means writing a decent book, then paying for a professional edit, typesetting and cover design (though you can do these last two yourself). Then you’ll need a platform through which to advertise, so a website is crucial. Again, you can do this yourself with sites like Squarespace and Wix. Then you’ll need to upload your product to Amazon, which is still by far the biggest online bookshop in the world (though there are other options like KOBO and iBooks). For those of you outside the US this will require a US tax interview, unless you want the IRS taking 30% of your profits, so you’ll need to set up a limited company and obtain a US tax reference number. Once that’s all done, you’re almost ready to go… almost.
Don’t forget the marketing
Selling self-published books requires you to perform your own marketing. You can release a book and sit back to see what happens, but that will usually result in sales of zero. Your main weapon in the battle for sales is a mailing list. This will be your main platform for communicating with readers in the long term. So how to build it…
The easiest way is to offer something for free. By giving away a short story, novella or even a novel you can entice readers to subscribe to your list. However, getting these freebie offers under potential noses requires a long and sustained campaign of advertising on platforms such as Facebook, AMS (Amazon’s advertising platform) and places like BookBub. There are books and courses you can troll for more details on this, and it’s far too involved to go into here, but this is the basic principle. It takes a lot of experimentation and dedication to find the sweet spot, but a lot of self-published authors clear a tidy profit using such methods.
Pricing, volume and value
These aren’t the only principles intrinsic to self-publishing success though. There are two other factors that are key: pricing and volume of product. The ‘value’ of a book has been the subject of much debate over the past few years, especially since the rise in popularity of e-books, and I’m not going to get too embroiled in that here. However, if you hope to compete with traditionally published novels you’ll have to pitch your product at a lower price, generally £1.99 or $2.99. Novel readership, especially for fantasy and sci-fi, has changed its buying habits a lot over the past 10 years and a huge amount of SFF sold nowadays is written by independent publishers. Part of your USP will be to present a product at a bargain price.
It’s also relatively important that you start writing a series. Readers will be drawn to your first novel through advertising, but the idea is to keep them reading. Creating an ongoing series encourages an audience who will stick with you, and who you can communicate with via your mailing list. Every time you release a new book you can send out an email to every one of your subscribers – essentially the guaranteed readership you’ve already developed. This flies in the face of advice for traditional publishing, where it’s considered foolish to continue writing a series until you’ve sealed a deal for the first book, but remember, self-publishing works on a very different business model.
Consequently, you’ll also need a large catalogue of books to make all this financially viable. You’ll need to be prolific, especially at the beginning, or you simply won’t have enough product to make a return on your advertising investment. Many experienced self-publishers would suggest at least three novels in the bag before you can even hope to start seeing a profit from advertising, and that’s a tough ask, especially if you’re new to writing novel-length books.
Write a good book
You might think this sounds like a lot of work; and you’d be right. If you’re planning on making a go of self-publishing it needs to be approached like a business. It takes preparation, time and dedication, and like any other business there’s a risk of failure. It’s not for everyone, and most authors are more comfortable with the traditional model, where all the tricky business elements are taken care of for you. But ultimately, the key to success with self-publishing is much the same as traditional publishing: write a good book. And in the end, despite all the other factors out of your control, that’s down to you.