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Self-Publishing: 70% of Nothing is Nothing

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Lately, I’ve run into a lot of new, inexperienced writers who have chosen or are preparing to choose self-publishing for their work instead of going through the usual (and slow) rounds of agents, e-publishers, small presses and the Big Six. Self-publishing has caused a tsunami in the book industry, flooding the market with thousands upon thousands of books all available on Amazon and other third party retailers. Supporters of self-publishing are waving the banner, yelling out, “Why pay percentages to anyone for YOUR work? Self-publish and keep 70% of the profits for yourself!”

Many new authors are rushing headlong to self-publishing sites, forking over their money to get their books on the market as soon as possible without consideration for what they’re really doing.

While self-publishing is a good choice for certain types of books from a debut author, like some non-fiction with a limited market or niche market fiction, I don’t believe it’s the best choice for fiction writers.

Let me put it this way: if all you want is to hold your book in your hot little hands, then by all means: self-publish. But if you’re thinking about a career as a writer, then make sure you research what you’re doing before you do it. Because when you do the research, you find interesting little tidbits like this:

“…Lulu.com, one of the most popular and cost-effective of the POD services and still independent despite the apparent trend toward consolidation among POD services, is explicit about its long tail business model. In a 2006 article in the Times UK, its founder identified the company’s goal: ‘…to have a million authors selling 100 copies each, rather than 100 authors selling a million copies each.'”

That quote was supplied by the blog How Publishing Really Works, one of my favorite go-to sites regarding the publishing industry. And that quote accurately defines the sales models of most self-publishing outfits. This model also allows them to publish anything and everything, without regard for the quality of the work.

It’s right there in black and white. They have no interest in how many of YOUR books are sold. They only care that there are ten thousand OTHER people just like you, selling their ten or twenty books.

Even more unfortunately, the self-publishing boom has also flooded the market with…well, no way to say this politely so…dead awful books. Right now there are so many unedited first drafts published as “novels” on the internet that the market is seriously glutted. As a result, many readers and most review sites avoid self-published books, and some very good books subsist in limbo without attracting any notice.

Or sales.

This problem was addressed by another industry blog I follow. The American Editor said in June of 2010, “One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.”

That’s what it all boils down to. A book can be beautifully written, well-edited and nicely packaged, but it’s not going to get the attention of either the self-publishing company or readers.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. Anyone who’s following current publishing news will instantly know about Amanda Hocking’s amazing success with self-publishing, one that led her to a big money contract in trade publishing and a worldwide readership. But Hocking sacrificed a great deal of her writing time to promote her books, and as any professional writer will tell you — you always have to be working on your next project. Sure, writers like J.A. Konrath, who already have a readership, are going to consider self-publishing.

After all, if J.K. Rowling decided to release an eighth Harry Potter book and self-publish it, her sales statistics would be ridiculous.

But the odds are that’s not going to happen to you, the unknown, previously unpublished writer. Rowling and Konrath already have readers. You, the unknown, previously unpublished author, don’t — outside of your family and friends. The sad fact is that most self-published books sell less than 50 copies — and many of those are sold to the author.

So before you dive into self-publishing the novel you’ve spent months or years working on, stop and think. Do you have an established readership already? If not, are you willing to spend a lot of time and money promoting and marketing your book yourself? Or, would it be wiser to go the traditional route — submit to agents and acquire representation, then have your book sold to a trade publisher who will edit, format, produce cover art, package, and promote your book, getting it onto bookstore shelves and into the hands of reviewers? Are you more willing to sacrifice time or opportunity? Is it worth risking your future as a writer just to get your book in your hands as quickly as you can?

There are other options available. Not feeling quite ready for the horrors of submitting to agents? Consider submitting to e-publishers, or some of the outstanding small independent presses out there. Then at least you can learn the editing and production process as the publisher prepares your book for release. And, as you can see, the final result can be quite spectacular; this is the cover of my last e-published book. This quality of artwork would have cost me hundreds of dollars if I were self-publishing. Or, use a service like Lulu to print a version of your books to give to your family and friends — that’s a nice thing to do, and will provide you valuable feedback as you develop and refine your story for submission.

Whatever you do, research your options thoroughly. Join a writers’ community and learn from the experiences of others. Keep an eye on watchdog sites like Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, or Absolute Write. It’s much better in the end to have all the information right at your fingertips than to anxiously watch your book sales every day, hoping that someone will find it in the millions of other options available. And that information is readily available – from the self-publishers themselves. For example, this from a New York Times article from January of 2009:

“…For many self-published authors, the niche is very small. Mr. Weiss of Author Solutions estimates that the average number of copies sold of titles published through one of its brands is just 150.

Indeed, said Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, N.C., a majority of the company’s titles are of little interest to anybody other than the authors and their families. ‘We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,’ Mr. Young said…”

Or maybe this perspective will help even more. Seventy percent of nothing is…


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About Celina Summers

Celina Summers is a speculative fiction author who mashes all kinds of genres into one giant fantasy amalgamation. Her first fantasy series, The Asphodel Cycle, was honored with multiple awards--including top ten finishes for all four books in the P&E Readers' Poll, multiple review site awards, as well as a prestigious Golden Rose nomination. Celina also writes contemporary literary fantasy under the pseudonym CA Chevault. Celina has worked as an editor for over a decade, including managing editor at two publishing houses. Celina blogs about publishing, sports, and politics regularly. A well-known caller on the Paul Finebaum Show and passionate football fan, when Celina takes times off it's usually on Saturdays in the fall. You can read her personal blog at www.kaantira.blogspot.com and her website is at www.cachevault.org
  • I’m a bit flummoxed as to your grudge against Lulu. I’m self-publishing a novel through them (ebook now, paperback whenever-I-get-around-to-it).

    While they do offer copy editing, formatting, cover art, and advertising packages, none of these things are required to publish with them. For the vast majority of people publishing through them, Lulu doesn’t get a cent until a sale is made.

    Their POD service is valuable to anyone who wants to see their work in print, not just starry-eyed noob authors who dream of being the next J.K. Rowling. There are countless examples of ‘use cases’ for small runs of books covering very limited-interest material. You imply that if a book only sells a few dozen copies it must be a failure.

    With Lulu, you’re making money off the very first sale. With traditional vanity publishers, you have to print out thousands initially, then shop them around until you get bored and stash them in the attic.

    I’ve never, in dealing with Lulu, gotten what I like to call “that PublishAmerica vibe.” They make no bones about the limits of their service and your potential for success. Every aspect of the business except “delivering the copy to the reader” is out of their control. I’m fine with that.

  • Great article! Thank you!

    I have been published by a publisher while living in Australia, and upon moving to the US I tried the Indie path. the amount of time I spent networking, prmoting, designing cover art, reviewing and getting reviews cut into my writing time so much that it just wasn’t worth it.

    I am now looking for a publisher. I want to go back to writing my books and collecting royalty checks.

    The problem is, that publishers are not always interested in your work. My solution is this – exhaust all publishing opportunites and if it comes to naught, it’s time to admit that your manuscript is no good. Write another, write it better than the last, and start the process again. Your persistence and continued improvement will pay off.

  • @Celina, in response to J Anne,you said: “Two hundred copies at 6.99 is 1,398 dollars. Seventy percent of that is 978 dollars…”

    But J Anne is dealing with 99 cents (LOL). So let’s do the math, shall we? After selling 200 copies, J Anne will have $70 (I subtracted Amazon’s cut of 70% at the 99 cent price point which left J Anne with 35 cents per copy).

    There is NO WAY to move/sell the amount of units you need to at 35 cents to even DREAM of earning a living( J Anne, for example, would need to sell 80,000 copies of her ebook to earn just $28,000 if she’s selling them at 99 cents per copy and thus earning 35 cent royalties. Being able to sustain selling 80,000 is something I’d expect to see from a major, low-end retailer like Costco or Walmart. THEY can manage those numbers regularly ).

    What you ‘will’ do is work yourself to death with that. To me, 99 cents is TOO cheap for a book of any kind, whether it be paper or digital. There is just no ‘need’ for it to be that cheap. In my mind, if people need free books they can just go to Project Guttenberg, or to the library. That’s what libraries are for. But for writers who are trying to earn a living, I just don’t understand that state of mind. Offering a full novel for 99 cents? I just don’t understand. Worse, e-reading consumers are starting to ‘expect’ all self published authors to price at 99 cents, making it impossible to earn anything other than peanuts, let alone a living. And then when you try to raise the price, sales drop off. When you get your fan base & start raising prices all hell breaks loose. I have read multiple comments by self published writers in these situations, including John Locke (he didn’t leave comments but some of his “fans” complained about his $4.95 price for his non-fic title on how he made a million bucks).

    If a SP writer charges 99 cents for the first novel in a series, how can they charge $4.95 and up for the 2nd book? People who hunt for 99 cents seem to stay in that price bracket (99 cent to free- not much of a stretch there). I’d imagine they would jump ship and the writer is back where they started, hunting for a fan base.

    My point is that this is starting to make traditional publishing look better and better to me. I had a request for my manuscript for an agent but decided to self publish instead (I’d sent out a few queries). I thought I was headed towards something better, not 99 cents. Traditional publishers take the ‘rights’ but at least they do more marketing than I feel I’m capable of online.

    And the book bloggers that trumpeted Amanda Hocking’s vampire & troll books are dead. They’re dead in the water, floating down-stream. They perk up for traditional publishers, though because they collect free books & their beloved ‘ARCS’. They’re not interested in SP authors. Amanda got lucky. That’s not to say her books aren’t good or anything like that but having a good book seems to be only a small part of the equation. The majority of the equation is plain old luck. The stars have to align themselves for you.

    99 cents in 2011 (going on 2012) is not (IMO) creating luck for a writer, it’s creating abject poverty. In 2010, it worked for Hocking but it’s a new day & I do not believe it will work for more authors, generally speaking (I’m looking at you, J. Anne).

    Summary: I’m re-considering going traditional. If the ceiling for me will look more & more like 99 cents with ebooks, I WILL go traditional and sell my rights. I believe I am good enough now, and like Hocking, I have done ‘everything’ I was supposed to do, and like Hocking, written multiple manuscripts. We’ve studied ‘Stephen King’s On Writing’, so what else can I do? Anyway, I’m talked-out now, so that’s it.

    Interesting post and I enjoyed reading it!

  • Blake

    I recently went to a workshop on self publishing and I learned a whole lot. I had no idea that there was a publisher so close to me! We got a slide presentation and, if we choose, a tour of the facility. It was amazing to watch the workers at work even thought it was late at night. We saw all sorts of different types of books. We heard stories of local people who’d published their own books and found ways successful ways to market them. Knowing the high rejection rate of submitting a manuscript to a publisher, your suggestion just doesn’t feel right to me. Other authors at the workshop wanted to keep the rights to their books! They didn’t want to sign over control to anyone! It all depends on what you’re trying to do. From what little I’ve seen of the industry thus far, few self publishers are looking to make their sole living from it-not yet.

  • Matt Williams

    I think Tim Ferriss is a great author to look at when it comes to self-publishing efforts. Though he did in fact go through a publisher with his 2 bestselling books, he built up a huge following through his blog before doing so and this was the real launchpad for his success. New media is the way.

  • Thanks for your comment, Dick.

    I’m not seeing where the bait and switch comment is originating. I’ve asked for some kind of statistic to indicate what percentage of self-published writers are making a living wage. Nowhere have I indicated that it’s EASIER to be trade published. The only comparison I can make between the two is this: in trade publishing, money flows TO the author; in self-publishing, money flows FROM the author at least initially. I’m really pleased to hear that your book has you in the black–that’s great news for you.

    My first book cost me no money. I paid no money for an editor, no money for cover art. I didn’t have to format and upload the book. I didn’t have to hang up my laptop and promote my book all over the place, and because I was published through a traditional venue, my book was reviewed multiple times by respected book review sites. Since the first check I received for my book seven years ago, I have continued to receive checks every month without fail with continuing royalty payments. Those royalty payments multiple books later pay my bills. Not all of them–but some. I’ve been in the black since BEFORE the book was published–and my books are just e-published; they aren’t even in print yet.

    Does this diminish your accomplishment? Nope–not in the slightest. The fact that a self-published author was able to have readers find and purchase his book is a great thing and I’m glad to hear it. But that doesn’t make self-publishing the right choice for hundreds of other people either.

    Does that make sense? Keep in mind–the purpose of this post is not to tear the self-publishing industry to shreds, but to hopefully convince writers to evaluate for themselves if it’s really the best option for them as opposed to the quickest or the easiest.

    And yes–Bill Gates is behind all my typos too. I have a voodoo doll of him on my desk, and he gets punished for every misplaced letter I write. Thanks again!

  • Thanks for the comment, Wolf. I really agree with what you’re saying here. One of the reasons I wrote this article was because of the slew of submissions I’ve read lately where the query letter is some version of, “I self-published this book in 20–, and it hasn’t sold any copies. I need to recoup my losses; are you interested?”

    Again–self publishing IS a viable option for SOME writers. But each individual writer needs to stop, evaluate and research ALL options and determine what best suits their needs, goals and expectations.

  • There is one other way to proof your work in these comment environments. You can copy what you wrote and paste it into Word. That assumes, of course, that when you select Preview Comment that it will actually do that instead of posting. In the Preview, I noticed that I had spelled formatting with one t. I then put everything in Word and determined that it was my only evident error. Alas, the Preview actually turned out to be a Post. I know Bill Gates evil twin and a guy named Murphy are involved.

  • You are baiting and switching here. You speak of one percent of queries resulting in representation in the same thought as a lesser percentage having a self-published blockbuster. Further, you ask for evidence of people making a living wage from self-published books. Well, have you ever done any research on the percentage of legacy-published authors who were able to quit their day jobs? You don’t need very many beads on your abacus, as it is a small number. My daughter took the picture I used for my cover, I paid less than $300 for an editor, and I did the formating and uploading myself. I’ve been for sale at Amazon since mid-January, I’m in the black for everything other that my writing already. The money IS flowing TO me, so I must be a professional. I appreciate your assistance in determining that.

  • I attended BEA last month and one of the things that struck me was the large “New Title Showcase” at the front of the exhibit hall. This area featured hundreds of works produced by AuthorHouse, Dorrance Publishing, and other vanity presses — and guess what…every time I walked by, it was always empty .

    Publishing is a risk whether you do it yourself or through traditional means. The question, like you so wisely noted, is whether you want to take time away from writing to become a business owner and the primary bearer of this risk.

    I meet with writers, many of them retirees, who are anxious to tell their stories. Some have invested a significant portion of their retirement savings on self-publishing and now have hundreds of copies collecting dust in their garage. When I was an acquisitions editor, my primary job was to assess the risk of publishing the submissions we received. From just a glance at many of these retirees’ works, I could immediately see that there was no way in the world that I’d publish their books, even with ample help from an editor or ghostwriter.

    But the sad thing is they never see it, even after they line their walls with countless rejection letters from publishers and agents. And many of them are extremely quick to pull out their checkbooks if they think it will get them a printed book before time runs out.

    Like you, Celina, I advise writers to decide on what their passion is and focus their energy there. If it’s writing, then focus on writing. If it’s making money, then focus on becoming a business owner who’s capable of making sound business decisions. Unfortunately, the latter is extremely difficult for a writer to do.

  • Thanks for your comment, Daniel!

  • Louis, thank you for your comment.

    And well, that’s not exactly true. Outside of self-publishing and vanity publishing, authors don’t pay to publish. In trade publishing, writers get an advance for their book. (Selling through on the first print run has to happen before you get royalties, but that’s another post) So before the trade published author makes it into print, he’s already made more money than all but a tiny percentage of self-published authors and it hasn’t cost him a dime. And his book WILL hit bookshelves in brick and mortar stores, where it will at least have a chance to be seen. The same’s not true for self-published books.

    If you’re looking for fame and fortune, writing is not the career for you. The chances of that happening are astronomical regardless of how you are published.

    A personal note as well–please, if you spend any money at all self-publishing your book, spend it on editing and proper formatting. Give your book the best opportunity you can; it’s money well spent.

    • Amber Skye Ferreira

      Yeah, but that author will have to pay back the advance, so said author may never see royalties for years. In the meantime, self-published authors will see royalties and might make the advance the traditional published made in the few years the trad author is waiting to start making royalties.

  • Thanks for saying it. I know way too many writers who are focusing on publishing way before learning the craft of writing. I just hope the gems, like Amanda Hocking, can rise to the top.

  • The opposite of your model is also equally true. A hundred authors selling a million books means a lot of execellent authors go unknown and undiscovered, and ten or fifteen percent of nothing is still nothing. The beauty of self-publishing e-books is the cost-free opportunity of breaking into an industry which often presents a ‘Saxon wall of shields’ to talented newcomers. At this time, the industry is firing, not hiring. Taking my cost structure into account, I don’t have to sell a million copies of anything. I can get the very best training in writing, editing and publishing, right here in the toughest school of all, the real world.

  • C Jones

    I wholly endorse everything you’ve said in this article. And I feel it’s worth adding that the production values of most POD publishers are pretty poor — nasty paper, thin covers, and horrible digital printing. They are like that for various reasons, mostly to do with the technology of the printing (thick cover stock won’t go through the printing machines, for example) and the printing process itself is basically photocopying which usually doesn’t look as handsome as offset lithography. But it all adds up to a sense of disappointment which can colour the reader’s response to the text as well (in my opinion).

  • I have also seen the glut of first draft novels ‘for sale’ and the needle in the haystack is probably best found by burning down the haystack.

    That said, every single independent author reading this (including me) will believe that their product is the exception to the norm, and is worthy of a real five-star review.

    We can only keep working toward perfection…

  • Thanks, Glenn. My background is in theater, so when I wrote my first book, I read it aloud to see if it had the same sort of flow that a play does. And as I read, I became progressively more horrified. The rhythm of my sentences were singsong at times, and as for the run ons! Also, when you’re reading aloud, you’re paying closer attention to the words and will notice when something is misspelled–whereas if they’re just reading, the writer is more likely to skim.

    Or, at least, I am. Other writers may be a lot smarter than I am in that context. I’m a notoriously tough editor for other people, and just as notoriously stupid when it comes to catching mistakes in my own work.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And Celine –

    Reading aloud is the best way that you can find errors in your own work. I swear by it, as do many other authors and editors of my acquaintance.

    I found that out completely by accident. This is the first time I’ve heard a professional say the same thing. That makes me feel a little better.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Celine –

    It’s really hard to edit yourself. You literally have to sit down with a style guide and go through every line word by word. I’m a professional editor, and I wouldn’t dream of not having an editor for my work.

    Quoted for truth!

    Even if one is able to catch all spelling and grammatical errors, it’s nigh impossible to catch the style, syntax, and contextual errors. Why? It’s like the old saying: “The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.” The author is simply too close to the book to see the problems that would be glaringly obvious to an editor.

    No author is eager to have an editor slice-and-dice his work…but even an unpublished hack like myself knows that a good editor approaches a manuscript with the same skill and care with which a master gardener prunes a tree that will bear fruit the following spring.

  • Thank you. Everyone’s allowed at least one accidental typo. I found one in one of my comments and literally cringed.

    Reading aloud is the best way that you can find errors in your own work. I swear by it, as do many other authors and editors of my acquaintance.

  • Tomorrow I will spell your name correctlie.(sic)


  • Well done, Celine. When I read an article aloud to my bride and secret weapon as an editor, it is well wrought.

    Thanks for contributing content, context and damn good prose.


  • You have an excellent point. 70% of nothing is in fact nothing. At this point I know more authors selling those 50 books you speak of than I do people making a living.

    But people will always try. We can’t fault them for that. If I hadn’t tried, I wouldn’t be selling the numbers I am today. I’m lucky. I know that. And I use every opportunity to improve.

    Two things that going indie gives you that traditional publishing never will is control and the ability to understand publishing like never before. There’s a heck of a lot of work that goes into publishing a book. And it makes me appreciate a good publisher that much more. Each time I send one of my books out I spend more hours than I can count formatting, distributing, and promoting and that doesn’t count the time my cover artist, editor, or publicist spends working for me. Nor does it count writing time, revisions, proofing, critiquing, editing, or polishing.

    At this point the best suggestion is education. That’s why writers like Konrath, Bob Mayer (hey Bob!), Zoe Winters and others (see my Adventures In Publishing blog) have dedicated blog space to educating those new to the Indie arena. If you want to see how it’s done, follow the folks who are doing it well. Just my $.02.

  • The success rate for self-publishing is akin to the success rate for getting and being traditionally publishing. Extraordinarily low.

    I’ve discussed the “gold rush” on my blog. The gold is for the author who has backlist that was traditionally published and for which they got reversion of rights. And a handful of exceptional new authors who hit that sweet spot that not even traditional publishers have the key to, but try to hit also.

    Essentially, I view self-publishing as akin to the big agent in-box on the internet. Except now readers sift through it rather than agents.

  • You’re absolutely right. The publishing industry is hard to break into and even harder to stay in. But let’s just look at the numbers. According to Bowker’s 2010 statistical report (PDF) in 2010 there were 2,776,260 non-traditional books published, up from 1,033,065 the year before. How many of those books were actually successful?

    Recommending that authors do their research and examine their options is solid advice, regardless of whether they choose to self-publish or to go the traditional route. And just as soon as someone provides me with figures that show high percentages of self-published books selling enough to give an author a steady income, I’ll be happy to blog about too. But until then, I’m going to have to go off what I’ve experienced and witnessed in the publishing industry as well as the research I find.

    Thank you for your comment.

  • If I understand the various arguments correctly, most people who self-publish will sell very few copies (a couple of hundred at best) and make very little money. A few lucky authors make it big that way, but most remain as obscure as when they started.

    However, is the same not true of most authors regardless of which option they choose? Most books published and marketed by traditional publishers (and many are not even marketed in more than a perfunctory way) still don’t sell more than a few hundred copies. For every J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer there are hundreds of authors whose books get withdrawn from the publisher’s list after one dismal print run. This is particularly true of non-fiction.

    I see the advantages (and peace of mind) to be gained by going the traditional route but I also don’t think they’re as clear-cut as the author makes out.

  • Thanks for the comment.

    Unfortunately, I am not associated with traditional publishing. I work for and publish with a small independent e-publisher.

    That being said, I find it interesting how often this topic leads to vitriol on blogs, writers’ forums and communities, with accustions on both sides and very little desire to get to the root of the situation.

    Nowhere in this post did I say that self-publishing was a BAD option, only that the writer should educate themselves, take a good look at their expectations and goals, and then make an informed decision that works best for them. I don’t see why this is such a bad suggestion for anyone. The publishing industry is complicated and difficult to understand for anyone. Would you sign a contract to buy a house without making certain everything is on the level? Of course not. So why is it such a crime for a blogger to suggest that perhaps researching the market might be a good idea? Or that perhaps self-publishing is a LAST option instead of a first?

    That being said, I would love to see some statistics to support any assertion that a reasonable percentage of new self-published fiction authors are selling more than 100-200 books, are making a living wage from doing so, and are actively building careers outside of traditional publishing methods. There are a few, but not enough to justify the blatant sales models of self-publishing companies and the huge numbers of self-published books on the market.

    Writing on any level is a hard career to make consistent money at–let’s be serious. Even trade midlisters have to hold down a regular day job while cranking out manuscript after manuscript at home once the kids have gone to bed. So how is self-publishing different? If, say, 10% of trade published authors can survive solely upon their earnings as an author, what percentage of self-published authors can claim the same?

    And as always, this doesn’t include authors who established a readership through trade publishing, like JA Konrath. For those authors, self-publishing is a wise financial decision in many cases. This conversation is solely in regards to the new, previously unpublished author that was addressed in my post.

  • “The sad fact is that most self-published books sell less than 50 copies — and many of those are sold to the author.”

    That’s just plain wrong. Myself and quite a lot of other indie authors I know are proving that every day.

    I have found much of the rhetoric against indie publishing comes from people associated with traditional publishing who are now beginning to fear the tsunami of indie authors who are forgoing the traditional route to retain control of their work and, in many cases, ultimately make more money.

    Yes there are bad books being written by indie authors, but there are bad books being published (even still) by the “big 6”. But the chance the reader takes on a $.99 cent or $2.99 book over the $19.99 book is a no-brainer. The public is always going to go the cost-effective route (unless it happens to be an author they already know and love.)

  • It’s really hard to edit yourself. You literally have to sit down with a style guide and go through every line word by word. I’m a professional editor, and I wouldn’t dream of not having an editor for my work.

    I’m glad to hear of your success with your book, and hope you’ll prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Best of luck to you!

  • I self-published after receiving a number of rejections and I’m actually doing well with marketing budget of $0.00. It’s been on amazon.com for 6 weeks and I’m lucky enough that I’ll easily beat the 150 average at the rate it’s selling. It was ranked as high as in the 15,000 range at one point. Word of mouth is doing wonders for me, despite agents telling me the novel’s concept was ‘not marketable.’ Someone on this site actually has a copy.

    My only regret was that I acted as my own editor, but I simply couldn’t afford a real one. Editing your own work is, quite frankly, stupid. Your brain knows exactly what you meant to write and skips right over the typos.

  • Thank you, Victoria. I was trying to follow the link on How Publishing Really Works and went to the Writer Beware website, but the link on HPRW is broken.

    And yes, HPRW did credit the article to Writer Beware at the end of the post. Writer Beware is the premiere spot on the web to discover anything you need and want to know about the publishing industry. Any trip to their site is well worth it.

  • Crediting the original source of the material quoted from How Publishing Really Works: it’s excerpted from Writer Beware’s Self-Publishing page, which includes a detailed section on POD self-publishing statistics.

  • Thanks for your comments.

    Amanda Hocking is not a typical case. Most self-published books sell well under 100 copies, usually around 10-15 copies. “AuthorHouse’s online Fact Sheet from September 2008, reported 36,823 authors and 45,993 titles. According to the New York Times, AuthorHouse reports selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008, which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 54 sales per title.” Later figures continue to support this trend.

    One of the things I like about Ms. Hocking’s success is how she hustled to get the word out about her book. It’s also hard not to ignore the fact that despite her amazing success, she recently signed a deal with trade publishers–for the exact reason I cite in my article. This interview might be of some help to you as you try to analyze why. “…It may be easier to self-publish than it is to traditionally publish, but in all honesty, it’s harder to be a best seller self-publishing than it is with a house.

    I don’t think people really grasp how much work I do. … The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which … terrifies me…”

    So yes, while Ms. Hocking is a golden standard within the self-publishing industry, she is also an exception to the general sales trends and now looking to be a writer instead of a publisher–which with her current success I consider to be a good move for her.

    In order to atract an agent, a significant number of sales are required–sales in the thousands, not the hundreds. The best way to secure representative is still to write a great book. I’ll add to that and recommend conventions or conferences for face-to-face pitch sessions. It’s far easier to garner an agent’s interest in person than with a one page query letter, and if they request your material you’re already past the secretary or slushpile reader. The bias against self-published material is changing–and changing quickly–but only to authors who have sales of 15,000 or so. And, by the way, you’re just as likely to attract the notice of an agent with an outstanding e-publishing career (e-published books are now accepted by many agents as professional credits) or indie book.But make no mistake–those episodes are rare and far between. I think I’ve read recently that fewer than 1% of queries lead to representation by an agency, but if you do the math with self-publishing I think you’ll see that the chances of blockbuster success with self-publishing are far, far less.

    Just take your time, research the facts, and make the decision that’s right for you and accurately reflects your aspirations as a writer.

    As I said, and let me emphasize it once more: for certain writers, there is no better option than self-publishing. But for the fiction writer especially, I BELIEVE that self-publishing should be the last choice, not the first one–which it was for Amanda Hocking, by the way. Agents aren’t perfect; they’re going to miss some jewels in the slushpile. But Hocking’s determination to make her books a success, the aggressive promotion and marketing she did in an environment where major reviewers still refuse to look at self-pubbed books, is just as attractive to an agent or a publisher as the undeniable quality of her books.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Celina –

    I really enjoyed your article.

    Self-publishing is so tempting. I had been under the impression that if I self-publish, and if I hold book signings at independent booksellers and at writing events such as the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s summer convention, that if I’m able to show a few hundred sales I might be able to attract the attention of an agent or editor.

    But if I understand you rightly, the time-tested route of approaching agents and editors is still the best, the most reliable route. In all honesty, sending out query letters feels no different from sending out resumes to prospective employers – the stress and the uncertainty and the waiting on pins and needles is the same.

    I’ll follow your advice, then – and thank you for the guidance.

  • I chose to self-publish several books about my late friends and former singing teachers, famous British duettists, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, on Lulu. I knew that the subject would have limited commercial appeal. I am a musician and did not aspire to make writing a second career at my relatively advanced age. If I had gone through the process of submitting these books to agents and publishers I would probably have died before there was any reaction to them!

    I paid to obtain ISBN numbers for my first two books but have published subsequent books on the site without acquiring ISBN numbers. Although my books will never become best sellers, I continue to sell a number of them despite the fact that the only publicity for them has been generated by me on my various blogs.

  • You mentioned Amanda Hocking but didn’t get into the subject of how her success was based on publishing ebooks for the Kindle, not a physical product.

    Do you have any opinions to add on this new channel?

  • Thank you for your comment.

    As I said in my blog: if a writer only wants the satisfaction of holding a book with their name on it in their hands, self-publishing is a wonderful option. For a minimal expense, they can pay a freelancer to edit their book, commission cover art and self-publish their novel through any number of reputable sites. If they manage to sell two hundred books on Amazon, then they’ve covered their expenses and put some money in their pocket too.

    But for a professional author, money flows TO the author, not FROM them. Two hundred copies doesn’t pay the bills. For those authors, self-publishing should be the last option, not the first. Let’s be frank: how many self-published authors have created careers for themselves? (Previously published authors with fan bases are not eligible for this discussion.) The 2009 statistics released by R.R. Bowker listed 764,448 self-published or micropress published titles. Of that number, how many actually made a significant amount of money? A living wage? Very few.

    Two hundred copies at 6.99 is 1,398 dollars. Seventy percent of that is 978 dollars. Let’s say you get outstanding cover art at a bargain price–maybe two hundred dollars. Depending on the length of your novel, an editor will cost you anywhere from 300 to 600 dollars or more. We’ll say 300 just for the sake of the argument. You’re down to 478 dollars. You can create your book at some sites for free, but there’s a small markup on the price of your book which hopefully won’t price you right out of the market. Those 200 sales won’t come all at once; they’ll dribble into your account at five or ten a month before you’ve exhausted your potential market. And 200 sales will only come to the author who promotes and markets. If you don’t do any of that, you’ll be lucky to sell ten books.

    So for the writer who’s looking to create a career in publishing, maybe those 200 sales aren’t the best option–which is roughly what I was trying to get across.

    Every author has choices when it comes to publishing their work. But why rush into something without the knowledge you need to make an informed decision? In the end, as with any business venture, the writer needs to ask themselves not what they have to lose, but what they have to gain. And taking the time to test the waters, to send out a few queries, to research the market isn’t going to cost the writer a dime. Only time and effort.

    Just think before you jump, and make the right decision for you based on what your priorities and needs are. Then if, at the end, you decide that self-publishing will provide what you need then go for it. You’ll have made an informed decision, will have reasonable expectations and will be happy with the result.

  • J. Anne

    I find it hard to swallow that people make nothing. It really isn’t that hard to sell a few hundred books when your market is the entire online book browsing world. And to presume that unpublished authors have any better chance of getting signed with an agent and selling their manuscript to a publisher over selling a 99 cent novel on Amazon is completely disingenuous. We all know the odds of actually publishing a novel…those haven’t changed. What HAS changed is the number of options a writer now has to make money. If you’ve got stories sitting around making you zero dollars right now, then what do you have to lose if you get them published on Smashwords and they sit around and make you zero dollars there? And I don’t want to hear anyone complain about shelling out $150 for a cover or an ISBN or any of that crap. Seriously, it’s a BUSINESS – expect to have some expenses.