Self-Publishing After Trade

Dear Liz: I have trade published some of my books, and am now considering self-publishing. Is this a good idea?

Curious About DIY

Dear Curious,

My friend. What a good question!

The answer, of course, is “I don’t know.” But I know some of the things that have caught me off-guard about it, things I didn’t recognize until I was in up to my neck. Coming from a trade publishing experience isn’t like starting off self-publishing your first work. And depending on your reasons for considering self-publishing…it might not work for you.

On the other hand, it might work brilliantly. So read on.

(Disclaimer: I’m in the US. I sell internationally, but my experience is based on tools and platforms available here. YMMV. Your friendly neighborhood search engine is your friend.)

Whether or not self-publishing is right for you is going to mainly depend on the answer to one question:

Why do you want to self-publish this particular book?

To be very clear: there’s no right or wrong answer, but you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you can understand your motivations before you take the plunge. From the very start, when you have to choose who you’re going to use to manufacture and distribute your book, your goals will make a difference.

My mom, for instance, has a couple of photo books up on Blurb. She did this because she liked the quality of what Blurb produced, and they offered an easy way for distant friends and family to snag copies. Numbers didn’t matter to her; she wasn’t looking for general distribution. Blurb was just an easy way to share with her social circle.

On the other hand, there are self-publishers who work 24/7 to market their work and make a living wage (sometimes a very good one). This is also a valid motivation! But the work involved, beginning to end, is going to be very different for this person than it was for my mom.

Survival Tactics, my anthology, started out as a free download advertised in my newsletter. A decent number of people downloaded it…but because of how I was distributing it, people who weren’t familiar with side-loading ebooks didn’t grab it. So I added a few stories and self-published it through more official channels. I’m happy with the sales numbers–for one thing, they’re damn nice for a single-author antho, and for another, numbers were not the point for this book. The point was to make it one-click simple for interested people to read.

Know your reasons. It doesn’t matter what they are. But reasons inform strategy, and you don’t want to be working out strategy after the fact. You will never understand how much a publisher puts into a book until you’re doing all that work yourself. Which brings me to perhaps the most important thing you need to do:

Check your ego at the door.

Wait, you don’t have an ego around your work? Hooray! You can skip this whole section.

Hello to those of you still here.

Writerly egos fall all over the map, but most of us, I’ll wager, have at least a little of this, or we wouldn’t be holding our stories out to strangers. And when you get a trade deal, someone’s told you you’re good enough for them invest in. You get an advance, and they pay for all the marketing and distribution. It’s a huge vote of confidence. It feels damn nice, at least until those sales tank and you start to realize maybe you won’t be interviewed on Oprah any time soon.

(Does Oprah still have a show? Am I ludicrously dating myself here?)

You may find yourself walking into self-publishing feeling–however faintly–some variant of “Don’t these people know who I am?”

No, my friend. They do not.

Which isn’t to say your name won’t help you. I am blessed with a memorable and uncommon name. I have no doubt that I’ve picked up a self-pub sale or two because of name recognition. But when you’re trying to sell your self-published book to new readers? They do not care that you got an advance. They do not care who you did a panel with at Worldcon. They care if your book is worth their $0.99–and if you price it higher, you have to work harder for their attention.

There’s a whole set of conversations the book trade has around books they’re publishing. Most of these avenues are inaccessible to self-published work. Your name recognition, to the extent you have it, is a tool in self-publishing, but like most tools it won’t do a damn thing if you just drop it on the floor and expect it to work on its own.

If one of your aims is to actually sell copies, you are going to have to swallow your pride, figure out what tools you have, and get into the messy, murky guts of it all.

You are going to be sharing that space with books sporting 5 minute Photoshop covers. You’re going to be taking advice from people who churn out barely-edited novelettes every two weeks. You are going to be advertising alongside people who toss up their unedited NaNoWriMo novel on December 1 every year. The fact that you were once plucked from the pack and given a trade deal is utterly irrelevant. They may know who you are, but guess what? They don’t care.

But if you listen to them, they can teach you. A lot. Because some of these people sell buckets, and it’s worth listening to every experience they’re willing to share.

If you’re self-publishing under a pseudonym, you might find yourself subject to similar feelings, oddly enough. There’s nothing quite like realizing how much having someone else doing your marketing really matters when you’re trying to sell books. Even if your marketing was sub-par or mis-targeted, you had someone else doing work you’re now going to have to do yourself, and it’s going to be weird. Selling can feel pushy–surely if people really want to read this I don’t have to push it at them, do I? It feels terribly rude sometimes. One of the pleasures of trade is the publicity people can start all the conversations, and you can give everyone a self-deprecating smile and be modest.

Modest self-published authors sell nothing.

It helps if you can think of it as a task completely independent from actually writing the book. You need to imagine yourself selling someone else’s work–someone whose sales will be paying your bills. Note I don’t say you have to like the book–I know how many of us struggle with self-doubt. Trying to make yourself think objectively about the quality of your work expends a huge amount of energy with dubious return.

If you are self-publishing, congratulations! You are now in sales. Your job is to sell, not to pass judgement. You will need to talk about your work like it’s fucking Shakespeare, and do that with an absolute straight face, no matter what kind of impostor syndrome you might be struggling with.

You need to listen to that guy who’s selling a get-rich-quick book with a cover that’s a screen shot of some mimeographed thing he did in grade school. Because if he’s moving copies, you can move copies.

But if you’re sitting there, feeling like readers should somehow intuit that your work is better than Mr. Mimeograph, you are going to be disappointed. Because here’s another thing: among all the self-publishers you’re swimming with, some of them have written books as good as yours. Better. You’ll pick them up, look at their Amazon sales ranking, and wonder why the hell this one hasn’t rocketed to the top and earned the author Andy Weir notoriety.

The answer? Marketing.

If you can’t choose selling over your ego, you probably shouldn’t try self-publishing.

So you’re still here, and you’re still wanting to do this. The next thing you’re going to have to accept is this:

You will need to spend money.

“But Liz,” you cry, “Kindle Direct Publishing is free! They’ll even give me a free ISBN!”

…Yeah. I don’t recommend the free route.

KDP is a topic all its own, and I’ll touch on it further down. But even there, you’re talking about production and distribution. The free version of self-publishing assumes you’ve already got a fully-designed book.

There are two ways to get yourself a professional-looking book package: do the work yourself, acquiring the skills and knowledge to do so, or pay somebody else.

If you’re an artist and can design a killer cover, go you. That’s a skill that’s going to pay huge dividends in self-pub. Covers sell books.

Interior design doesn’t show on your point-of-sale page, but it’ll show in your sample, and it’ll affect the reader’s experience once they’ve bought the book. I have set aside books with wonky formatting. You don’t want to be That Author.

If you already know book layout and design? Again, that’s fantastic. It’s just a matter of taking the time to do it.

But if you’re not already a book packaging expert…your choices are to learn, or to pay somebody else.

Learning is never a bad idea, especially if you’ve got interest and aptitude. But it’s a time investment. And if you’re going to be serious about it, probably a software investment as well. As recently as 5 years ago, InDesign was still the go-to software at some publishers. These days there are other, equally versatile options. None of them cost zero dollars. And it takes a long damn time to get good at layout, and if your book needs anything weird it takes even longer.

Covers are a whole separate conversation. I’ve seen beautiful, professional covers built with free stock photos, good fonts, and a good eye. But if you’re not the sort of person who can do that, you’re probably going to want to buy a cover from someone else. There are a lot of ways to do this (google “custom book covers” if you’re curious), but you’re going to have to pay for them.

And you don’t want to skimp on your cover. A good cover sells books. More than that–bad covers, or even just mediocre ones, turn buyers away.

How much money are we talking about? Well, that’s going to depend. You can get something professional-looking in almost any budget, but if you want it to be unique, or if you have a particular vision, the price is going to go up. Decide how much you’re willing to spend, and start your search there.

(But pay your artists. Really. This should not need to be said, but I see so many artists who end up with people arguing and trying to stiff them. Get a contract up front speccing out the work to your satisfaction, sign it, and send your artist a deposit. Be crisp about what you want. Pay promptly. Resolve disputes like a fucking adult. Be a professional, and remember they are also a professional. Do not be a jerk to your artist. They are helping you. Treat them accordingly.)

I pay a cover designer, and a book designer. I have never regretted a single penny I’ve paid either of them.

And now that you have a beautiful book to offer people:

You will have to spend more money.

Advertising. I’m talking about advertising.

This, as I mentioned above, was a rough one for me. There’s this idea–perpetuated, I think deliberately, by the book trade in general–that good books naturally sell and rise to the top. Too many self-published authors pour their heart and soul into their work, produce something amazing, drop it on Amazon, and wait for the riches to roll in.

You, my trade-published friend, are well aware that’s not even close to how it works. So how do you let people know your book exists?

When you have a trade publisher, they use their media contacts to get books mentioned in blogs, magazines, newspapers, or on radio shows or podcasts. Their sales people buy drinks for bookstore buyers and negotiate how many copies a particular store is going to stock on release day. They contact other authors they have, authors with high profiles, and get you blurbs for your cover. They can stimulate social media chit-chat among the sort of people who can get your work some viral attention.

As a self-publisher, you can’t do any of that. It’s not a matter of money or will–you don’t have access. You can’t get there from here.

Which means you have to advertise.

Effective advertising is an entirely different topic, and I strongly suggest you gird your loins and start learning. BookBub ads work differently than Facebook ads which work differently than Amazon ads–but one big thing to remember is they’re all driven by software. They don’t care who you think your comps are. They will take your inputs and feed them into their system, and you’ll get clicks or you won’t.

You are not going to figure out advertising that works for you without trial and error. And that means you’re going to be spending money without getting much return, at least at first. Based on my experience, you’re probably going to need to spend a few hundred dollars per platform to figure out how to make ads work for you.

And on top of the price? If you don’t get your ad inputs right for your book–and you won’t, at first–you’ll see an ad run with few clicks and no sales. And that, my friend, feels kind of lousy. You need to remember it’s normal for ads to underperform while you’re figuring them out. None of this is a reflection on your book. You’re in sales now, remember? This is just figuring out what language to speak on the platform you’re dealing with. It’s not personal, not ever.

Just sometimes expensive.

For most ads, too, you’re going to need to put your work on sale. (For full-price books, I’ve found Facebook marginally effective; I wouldn’t bother trying on the others.) You might have your eye on BookBub, famously an excellent place to list a sale book–but they refuse most submissions (I’ve heard acceptance numbers between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5; genre and price also play a part). You may catch them if you sub over and over, month after month (which is free, so why not, but it’s also a near-guaranteed rejection every thirty days, oh joy), but you don’t want to wait for them. To get other platforms to work for you, you’ll need to play with pricing, with graphics, with comp authors (the ones that work are almost never the ones you expect), with things like cost-per-click and cost-per-mille.

You might find it fun. (I do, a little.) You might hate it.

But if you want to sell, you need to advertise.

A quick note about sales newsletters: you can find, all over the net, lists of “good” newsletters you can use. The truth is, though, some will work for you, and some won’t. It’s going to be largely genre-dependent as well, and it’ll cost you some money to figure out which newsletters make sense for you to pay for. Just understand:

  1. They expect your book to be on sale – usually $0.99, but not always
  2. Most newsletters run for one day only, and you may not get your investment back.

More money. Self-publishing is not free.

And speaking of Amazon…

You are going to be dependent, at least in part, on Amazon.

If you care about sales numbers, you’re going to have to bring Amazon into the fold.

I get it. I do. They’re all evil, somewhat, these big media companies. Amazon uses books as loss leaders. They’re responsible for a lot of downward pressure on what writers get paid.

But if you’re self-publishing? In the US, at least, for fiction, they’re likely to be your biggest sales outlet by a large margin. For both my self-published books, Amazon Kindle accounts for 2/3 of my total sales, including print.

You don’t have to use Amazon. There are other services, which you’ll need to use anyway unless you choose to be Amazon-exclusive. And you can sell print books through Amazon if you’re distributing through IngramSpark; there’s often a shipping delay, but they’ll get listed. But staying away from Kindle is going to lose you readers. That’s just the reality of it.

If you do decide to go with Amazon, there’s an argument to go exclusive. Some of their features, like paying you for page reads, are only available if you’re exclusive with them. Again–this depends on your goals. Page reads and free downloads don’t always convert to sales. But it might be something you want to try.

One quick note on “extended distribution”–in theory, this allows bookstores to order your books. In practice, though, bookstores almost never stock self-published books. You may find a smaller bookstore willing to take some on consignment, or a place willing to give you a break as a local, but in general? There’s no way to duplicate the bookstore presence of a trade published book.

Libraries, though, are a different matter. Libraries stock self-published books. Support your local library. They may someday pay your bills.

My last observation is far more generic–but if you’re a working writer, it’s worth paying attention:

You are going to be spending a lot of time on not-writing tasks.

Trade publishing is a lot of work: revisions, deadlines, blog posts, promotion, appearances.

It’s nothing compared to the time suck of self publishing.

When you’re self-publishing, you’re not just writing the next thing. You’re watching sales. You’re advertising. You’re working your web site. You’re blogging, managing a mailing list, learning, learning, learning.

It’s a lot. And if you’re not careful, your creativity will suffer–not from lack of ideas, but from lack of time. If you’re a procrastinator? There’s nothing like refreshing that KDP sales chart all day, or checking to see if the CTR on your ad is settling down!

My point being: there are endless things you can tweak and change and monitor. You’re in sales now.

But you’re also still a writer. That’s still the most important part of what you’re doing. You need to protect that part of you.

Maybe you’re terrific at compartmentalizing, in which case I envy you a lot. But if you’re not? You’re going to find a whole lot more business nonsense competing for your attention than you did with trade, and it’s not unlikely your writing routines are going to have to change to handle that.

Taking on self-publishing is taking on a new business. The writing part you’ve done before. This? This is different. This is end-to-end. When you’re new to it, you’ve got a big learning curve. When you start getting the hang of it, you begin to understand how much you really need to monitor just to keep things moving. And you can’t slow down, and you can’t stop, because if you do, it’s likely your sales will do the same.

So that’s the gist of it, Curious. I’m sure I’ll think of other things after I publish this, but basically: Self-pub is not trade-pub; you are now in a pond with a lot more fish; sales and marketing are not writing and you can’t assume you’re a natural; your grandma isn’t going to find your book at her local Barnes and Noble; you’re not going to be the Talk of your Favorite Genre Website any time soon.

What you can get is a beautifully-packaged book that’s out there available for sale, just like your trade books. Whether the knots you’ll need to tie yourself into would be worth it or not, only you can say.

(If anybody has questions about any of this, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a note.)

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