One of the most common myths is that if you self-publish you will never make any money.
The usual reasoning is that most self-published work is crap and readers know it is crap, and they avoid it like the plague. Self-published work is poorly formatted, has a terrible cover, no editing, and – worst of all – it’s not ready for public consumption.
And, even if you manage to avoid all of these pitfalls and you have written a good story, readers will never be able to find it in the sea of crap that’s out there, and you will only sell a handful of copies to family and friends.
I come across this misconception all the time. Usually from people who either work in trade publishing, have a trade publishing deal (and no interest in self-publishing), or those who are pursuing one.
There are a number of things in the above argument that need to be teased out.
There Is A Lot of Crap Out There
I don’t deny this, and I don’t think anyone denies this. There is a lot of work which isn’t presented professionally. There may be a good story in there somewhere, but the writer hasn’t taken the time to learn how to format properly, or hasn’t employed a professional editor.
Or maybe they have, but no-one will ever read the story, because the cover looks like something someone did in their first five minutes learning how to use Photoshop. Or maybe they have done all the right things but the story just isn’t good enough.
There are nearly a million items in the Kindle Store. I have no idea what percentage of it is crap, because it doesn’t matter.
The Amount of Crap is Irrelevant
Now we getting to the core of this myth, the false assumption that everything else rests on. I have been told that the amount of crap out there will “taint” even a good writer.
First of all, do self-publishers have some kind of “S” branded on their foreheads? I don’t think the average reader knows whether a book is self-published or not.
While some imprints and small presses in some genres might have a loyal fanbase, I don’t think the same can be said for the average imprint or the average reader.
How many imprints and small presses are there in the US alone? How many readers are familiar with even 5% of them?
The purveyors of this myth say that it’s easy to spot self-published work because of the aforementioned poor presentation or poor writing. But, if you have a top cover, a great editor, perfect formatting, and a good story, you are indistinguishable from a trade published book.
Second, this idea of poor self-published work tainting the rest is clearly rubbish. Will my perfectly formatted e-book become corrupted by sharing a virtual bookshelf with unprofessional self-publishers? Will the colours bleed from my cover? Will I begin to dangle my modifiers? Will my characters turn to cardboard?
The defenders of this myth usually respond as follows: the mountain of crap makes it impossible to find the few good self-published books.
How Do Readers Find Books?
Self-publishing has always been around in one form or another, but since the launch of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) in 2007, it is now easier (and cheaper) than ever to both self-publish, and to match the digital distribution of a trade publisher.
Because of this, there has been a marked increase in the number of self-published books. The myth-believers argue that this increase (of what they believe is mostly crap), makes it difficult for readers to find the few good books.
These people seem to view Amazon as some giant warehouse of books. They seem to picture readers wandering – confused – through the aisles, flicking through piles and piles of poorly published dreck. They worry that readers will eventually tire of this, and leave the store without purchasing anything.
This has no basis in reality.
Even before KDP launched, there were several million books on Amazon. How did readers find what they want? How do they do it today? The same way they always have: they tell each other.
The #1 reason why readers buy any particular book is because they have read something by the author before and enjoyed it. The #2 reason is a recommendation from a trusted source (friend, reviewer, etc.).
The only thing that has changed is that “telling each other” has gotten much easier. People review books on Amazon, book bloggers share discoveries with the world, people tweet their favourites, they post on Facebook, they email each other, they press a book into a friend’s hand and say “you have to read this”.
It doesn’t matter if there are 10 self-published books, or 10 million, people will still find books the exact same way – by telling each other.
I don’t have any problem finding good books on Amazon. Do you?
You Will Only Sell To Family & Friends
I have a little secret to share. Your family and friends won’t buy that many copies. I don’t mean this in a bad way, I don’t expect anybody to purchase my books, and I am grateful to anyone who does.
But, most of them either haven’t made the switch to e-books yet, or don’t want to, and you can’t expect them to do that just for you. That’s fair enough.
In any event, your family and friends help you and support you in endless ways that are infinitely more valuable than simply purchasing your books, and I wouldn’t trade that for thousands of sales.
And they are great at getting the word out, helping you make a little noise around the time of your release. Those that do purchase will tend to so in the first few days after it is released, after that you are on your own.
You Will Never Make Any Money
So who will buy your book? Readers. Why? Because readers love new books. If they didn’t Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens would be top of the charts all the time.
For a few days, my first short story was outselling “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka – one of the all-time great short stories. Most people I meet haven’t read it – there is no way the market is saturated for that short story.
There is also no way that my story is better. But it does have one advantage – it’s newer. People love discovering new writers and new stories and they love sharing their discoveries.
As long as you tell people your book is there, as long as you promote it beyond telling your family and friends, you have a chance.
Readers will hear about your book either from a friend, or they will see a review, or they will see some of your promo on a forum, or on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter, and they will check it out.
If they like the cover, they will read the blurb. If they like that, they will read the sample and/or purchase the book. If they enjoy it, they will tell more people. This is word-of-mouth, and it’s the only thing that has ever really sold books.
Just this morning I got a message from a stranger who had heard about my book (somehow), and decided to purchase it. They enjoyed it so much, they wrote a lovely review (and my sincere thanks to this reader).
Their blog seems to get a decent amount of traffic, and there is a good chance that someone else will read this review, and decide to check out my book. This is how word-of-mouth works. I’ve no idea how they first heard of my book, but now they are telling other people to buy it.
But what chance do you have of enough readers doing this leading to enough sales? The fact is that achieving success is very difficult. Out of all the people that want to make a living from writing, the percentage of people that actually do is very small.
This is true whether you self-publish or pursue a trade deal. It’s a tough game. But if you write a great story, present it well, and tell people about it, you have a chance.
The myth-peddlers would have you believe that only a handful of writers make a success of self-publishing (Hocking, Locke, Konrath), and that everyone else is doomed to fail.
At the end of my forthcoming book Let’s Get Digital, I will present the stories of 32 self-publishers in their own words. Most are selling over 1,000 copies a month, but some of them are selling over 1,000 copies a day.
Most of these writers have no history in trade publishing, and had no platform starting out. When you hear these writers speak – one after the other – about their self-publishing journeys, the effect is extremely powerful.
And it’s the best possible response to the naysayers.