Self-Publishing: Is it a Valid Way to Publish?

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Of all of the questions tossed around in the publishing world, this one, “Is self-publishing valid?”, is posed quite often in any number of writing groups, critique circles, and halls of publishing houses. Often, we are given the views of people who started in traditional publishing and later went to self-publishing. That is all well and good for authors who had already established a readership, for obscurity is the biggest enemy of any writer. However, the viewpoint from someone who chose to start in self-publishing–and who has subsequently succeeded at it–is hardly ever seen. Here, I present that viewpoint as an author who has sold tens of thousands of copies of books and who, for now, brings in enough income to be a full-time writer.

I’m not a full-time writer, despite the fact that I could be, and that brings me to my first point. Sales volume is an unpredictable factor in any business, and when you have a mortgage, a wife, and two children, your desire to maintain a steady paycheck–something that will always pay, like clockwork–is rather high. For now, I must maintain security instead of freedom, no matter how much Benjamin Franklin might have objected to such a sentiment.

I’m an outlier and a freak of nature in the publishing business. I’ve been working, writing, and publishing for a bit over two years, and I have sold more books than I would’ve ever expected. My first month, I made barely enough to cover my cell phone bill, and I was absolutely excited about that. I didn’t think it was possible for a high school graduate to write, publish, and earn on stories that hadn’t passed through the ivory towers and Ye Olde Halls of Publishing Mastery in New York. I was just a guy sitting behind a keyboard pounding out a story, and my fans were people just looking for something to read.

What began as a short story written for fun turned into a novel-length horror story, which I published in November, 2010. After releasing the third book, I pulled them all and decided to think about what I wanted to do with them. By then, I had written the first in my fantasy series, The Circle of Sorcerers, and my skill, knowledge, and craft had improved considerably. I don’t recommend that people go back and rewrite already-published books, but those really needed the work. I wasn’t ready then, but people somehow still enjoyed the stories and downloaded and purchased them by the thousands.

So, you couldn’t get a contract with New York?

Hey, stop being so judgmental! Contracts are only signed between those who are seeking them, and I am guilty of not seeking one. When I started writing, I wasn’t concerned with selling my books; I was just telling a story that I enjoyed in a way that I liked, careless of what anyone else might’ve thought. I didn’t care because I didn’t intend on selling any of it. Then, some folks told me that they enjoyed them, so I decided to try them out. I worked through them, edited them, hired proofreaders, and so on, and went to market. Would it have been possible five or ten years ago? Probably not. But Amazon’s KDP, Barnes & Noble PubIt!, Smashwords, and the rest of the distributors made it easier for me, a nobody, to put out a book and deliver it into the hands of eager readers.

Thus, I’m one of the people who circumvented New York, not one who tried to get in and failed. I submitted a query letter to an agent after I released my third book just to see what it was like, and afterward, I shrugged and started writing my fantasy series.

So, you would recommend this for everyone?

I would recommend self-publishing to those who have a lot of patience, a lot of courage, and a lot of will and resolve to work hard for little reward, at least in the beginning. Publishing is a tough business. Yes, I’m succeeding, but the road to this point was fraught with obstacles and hardships. It’s put my marriage to the test. It’s put me at my wit’s end a number of times. I’ve rode the natural high of the upswings and hit the bottom of the pit in the downswings. But I can tell you that I was glad to make the trip. It has paid off.

I don’t guarantee that it will pay off for anyone else. As the old wisdom says, write a good book, work hard on it, get an editor, proof it, and promote the heck out of it. During that process, start on the second. Then the third. Write the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. And now, I’m writing my eighth with plans for a few dozen more over the next ten years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. If you want to get rich quick and you have the skills, lots of authors need people with strong technical abilities, like formatting, cover art, editing, and proofreading. Above all else, be professional and run your business like a business.

What have you done to be successful?

The question should be: what haven’t you done to be successful? I’ve tried nearly everything. Review in the local paper? Check. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit? Check. Giving away copies for review? Check. Guest posts, book bloggers, advertising, publicity, promotion, and the rest? Check, check, check.

Does luck play into it? A little bit, but not in the way you might think. Luck is the blamed cause when the unprepared reaches astounding levels of success. Some who reach those levels of success don’t know why or how they did it, but only that they did. The luck comes into play when the lucky cannot find any other likely cause. I’m not saying that it’s not a valid explanation, but I am saying that those who only claim to be lucky simply cannot spot the reason. There is a reason, and here are a few of the possibilities:

  1. Readers spreading word of mouth.
  2. Good reviews in the marketplace.
  3. Good reviews in high traffic areas (of the Internet, media, or wherever).

And the next natural question is, “How do we get those things?” The only formula that works, time and time again, is:

  1. Produce a good book. Focus on entertaining people, provoking thought, provoking emotion, and provoking a reaction.
  2. Make the people, places, and experiences in the book feel alive.
  3. Edit and proof until it shines. Those itching, burning problems you recognize in the manuscript will be noticed by others. (Fix everything that you see.)
  4. Get a good cover. Professional covers sell books.
  5. Find a promotion method you like. If you enjoy Facebook, set up a fan page. If you like making podcasts, get on YouTube or distribute podcasts relative to your subject. Like blogging? Get WordPress or Blogger. (And even if you don’t like blogging, get a website. It’s like an online business card.) If you hate Facebook or Twitter, don’t use them. People have bought books for years even if they couldn’t connect with their favorite authors in a nanosecond. It’s okay. It’s not mandatory, and a tool that isn’t used is only going to waste your time.
  6. Write the next book in between Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and podcasts. Move to step one and repeat.

Notice that the first four points are about making your book stand out? Yes, that is the most important thing. All of the promotion and advertising in the world can’t sell fecal matter in a to-go box. Well, the kind of advertising that a self-publisher can pull off won’t do it.

To conclude, it’s all about the little things.

A kilogram of matter is made up of one thousand grams of the same matter. In other words, a thousand little things put together can equal one big thing. For those new to publishing, this idea is critical to casting off the veil of obscurity. It takes more time, but doing lots of little things can pay off the same as one big thing, or even more. For instance:

One Book Review on the New York TimesViewed by millions of people, the NY Times review could rocket you into the spotlight. Of course, the entry requirements are quite steep, and the chance of getting there is slim.

One Thousand Book Blogger Reviews
Each blog might pull in a small readership, from a few dozen to a few hundred, but the exposure adds up. With 1000 guest posts/book reviews spread across the Internet, you could be exposed to thousands–perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands–of people, and book bloggers are friendly, approachable, and more accepting of self-publishers. Check submission guidelines prior to submitting, of course.

Every little bit counts. Until next time.

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