Self-Publishing Myths: You Will Never Make Any Money

There are a lot of myths surrounding self-publishing, and part of the mission of this blog is to try and dispel them.

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.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

81 Replies to “Self-Publishing Myths: You Will Never Make Any Money”

  1. Your feelings are all true… but for very Indie author with talent who sells 1000 copies a month, there are a 1000 who sell 10 a month. Like an author with a traditional publishing copy (many of whom can not make a living off writing alone), you need a good platform and A LOT of luck. Like it or not, luck has a lot to do with success. Remember the old Lefty Gomez quote: “i’d rather be lucky than good.” Hell, look at Twilight. From what I understand, its one of the worst written books ever published by a traditional publisher. But she got lucky.
    So, can you make money? Sure. Enough to quit your day job? Maybe. Is it likely? The odds are against you. 32 success stories. Awesome. 1000 copies a month at 2 dollars a copy is still only $24,000 a year. Is this success? It’s a beginning. And it seems to be the exception rather than the rule

    1. Success in any field is tough. Success in publishing is especially tough. What self-publishing has done is give more writers more chances to be successful.

      I don’t think it’s a magic wand, and I certainly don’t think that every self-publisher will sell significant amounts. But the fact is that most writers don’t make enough to live off. Most need a day job or some other supplement to their writing income. What self-publishing does is allow them to keep a larger cut of the book price. It may not suit everyone, but the point is that writers have more choices now, and that can only be a good thing.

      The point of the article was not to say that self-publishing is an easy path, or that there are any guarantees, it was trying to dispel the myth that you are guaranteed to fail.

      Luck is a big factor, for sure. I think it was Joe Konrath who said that achieving success is like being struck by lightning, but there are ways of increasing your chances of being struck by lightning. How do you increase your odds of being successful. #1 is to write a good story. After that you need to present it well (good cover, professional editor, proper formatting), and market it effectively. If you do all those things, there are still no guarantees, but I would argue that is the minimum requirement to have any chance at all.

      Regarding the numbers, 1000+ a month is the minimum that the guest contributors in my book are selling. Most are selling a lot more than that. But what you have to remember is that some of these guys have only been self-publishing for a few months. For many of them 1000+ a month is the beginning. As I said, some are selling over 1000 a day.

      What you also have to remember is that e-books have only captured (at most) around 25% of the market. It’s still early days. Plus, none of these writers have stopped writing. They all have several titles in the pipeline, and with each title, their sales will only rise.

  2. The other point is that self-publishing allows indie authors to define their own level of ‘success’. I was speaking to someone the other day who’s self-published his own translations of the Latin poet Cattalus. Let’s face it, someone so niche he’d never get a traditional publishing deal. But now he’s put it out, and it’s sold to maybe 100 likeminded people around the world, and keeps selling the odd one or two occasionally. For him, that’s success.

    1. Great point James.

      Some self-publishers have no interest in giving up their day job, it’s just nice to have an extra bit of cash from writing. Some even have no interest in selling huge amounts, they just want to share their stories with the world. “Success” is very different for everyone, and self-publishing allows all kinds of people to achieve their definition of “success”.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly, James. The aforementioned $24,000 per year was more than I ever made working an office job back in the US. If I still lived in the US, I’d be happy with that. More than happy. Living in London I’d need more like $36,000 per year. But that’s living off writing. Just bringing my novel to the market will make me feel successful. Selling it to someone I don’t know will REALLY make me feel successful. 🙂 Being able to quit my day job and live off my writing would be a dream come true.

  3. What if you loved to golf, but never had the money or good fortune to make it on the PGA Tour? Now what if someone said, “Hey, I’ll pay you $1,200 a month to play golf in your spare time.” Are you kidding me? If you love golfing, this is a dream scenario. That’s how I feel about Indie publishing. I was offered a print publishing deal over a year ago and was fortunate enough to have an honest agent convince me to turn it down and go Indie instead. Yes, he’s a Prince.

    Fast forward a year, my book is currently the Top-Rated eBook on Amazon’s list for Police Procedurals. It sells over 1,000 a month on Amazon alone and I make over $300 a month on the sales. My sequel just came out and is doing close to what the first one is doing. I can only imagine what my profit will look like when the sixth or seventh installment of the series is released. Will I be able to write fulltime in a couple of years? Maybe. But who cares. Now when I pound away at my keyboard I’m not doing it hoping an agent will like it and be able to sell it. I sit there knowing thousands of readers are going to read my work–and believe me that’s satisfaction enough for most of us–but I also know that I’ll be making a small divident each month for my work.

    Success for most of us is interacting with happy readers who cheer you on and constantly push you to release your next book. Getting a check each month is just gravy.

    1. Success for me is somebody reading my writing, rather than it languishing on my pc. Complete strangers (or even incomplete strangers) paying money for my thriller and enjoying it enough to write a review. How cools is that?

      1. It’s SUPER cool. Nothing beats getting an email out of the blue or a review from a stranger. It makes your day, and reminds you of the real reason why you are doing this.

    2. Hey Gary – that’s a great analogy.

      I’ve never felt as positive about writing since I started self-publishing – or as productive either. There is something amazing about the fact that I can write a story one week, publish it the next, and then people all over the world can buy it, enjoy it, then write to me about it.

      If I could live off this, that would be the icing on the cake, but I’m happy doing what I’m doing until then.

  4. One the things that appeals to me about self-publishing is that the books never go away. There doesn’t have to be a burst in sales when the book is released. Sales can build slowly and go on forever. It’s the ultimate slow and steady wins the race. It’s also cumulative – more books means more sales, and if they are good they will sell each other. As a self-published author you still have to find your way out of the slush pile, but when you’re found there is at least a little money instead of more waiting when you are out on submission.

    David, you did a great job of showing how people find books. Luck is overrated; I’ll take hard work everytime. You can increase your chances of getting struck.

    1. Hi Jen – you are right of course. Self-published book don’t have to prove themselves in the first 6 weeks before they get taken off the shelves. I think if that was the case, 30 of the 32 success stories in my book wouldn’t have made it.

      A lot of people say this is a marathon rather than a sprint. However, I think this is a hike rather than a sprint. Your sales can stop dead for a while, and you are not out of the game. Each sale is just another step up that mountain. And nobody can take those sales away from you. Each one is a new reader who could tell their friends.

      I’m not looking forward to any big checks any time soon, but I do know that 250 new readers have read my stuff in the last 6 weeks that never would have had the chance if it was still on my hard drive.

  5. Thank you for this piece — where everything is put into perspective. Would-be authors have different goals, as stated above. Sure, all of us would love to make a living doing what we love to do, but most of us would be pretty damned happy with something lesser. Supplemental income. Connection with like-minded people. Just having someone read your work. My reason for self-publishing? I want to tell stories, and I want people to read them. That was it. I didn’t want to wait three years before seeing ONE book in print, let alone several. I would have been perfectly happy to sell a few copies here and there.

    I’m very, very new to this, so I’m not sure and won’t even venture to guess how I’ll feel two, three years and several book from now. Right this moment, though, I’m happy. Extremely happy. I wrote the best book I could write. I revised and edited with critique partners (no professional editors needed if you are willing and able to return the favor to your partners). I had a dozen “beta readers” read the novel, looking for mistakes and inconsistencies, and I fixed every single one they found. My ex-programmer husband formatted the mobi and epub files beautifully — better than a few Big Six books I’ve bought for my Kindle. I was picky about the cover, and I looked at it in postage-stamp size because that’s what Kindle owners will see when they find it. I chose a release date based on the fact that my demographic are more active readers during summer.

    I made myself accessible, but didn’t market beyond requesting a few bloggers read and review, and switching my already-active account to author status. I’m stunned and grateful at the results. I know those results aren’t static, and I fully expect to have to work just as hard — or harder — for each book I put out. Hard work – bring it. Trusting my own instincts – hell yes. And luck? Absolutely, to a point. But I do believe readers will sift through a bunch of crap to find a jewel. Why do I believe that? Because I’M A READER, and I do it all the time.

    1. Hi Tammara,

      I think a lot of people feel exactly like that; I know I do.

      When I am asked for advice, I always tell writers to consider all options (querying agents, submitting direct to editors, sending stories to magazines, and self-publishing).

      I also try and remind them that they can decide on a per-project basis, and that the paths are not mutually exclusive.

      I think the people that spread the idea that there is only one path to success and that if you self-publish you will be forever tainted are doing writers a disservice. We should educate people on all the options.

      And the fact is, self-publishing is becoming a viable option for many writers. Of course, we mustn’t forget that some writers don’t have any other option other than writing another book and trying to hook an agent again.

      I’m not pushing one option over another. I’m pushing people to be honest about the options available, and let each writer make their own choice.


      1. I agree with everything you’re saying. I hope you aren’t assuming otherwise? I self-pubbed seven weeks ago after trying the traditional route unsuccessfully. I’m very happy with my choice. One of my critique partners is still trying the traditional route, and I fully support her in that decision, because it’s what she wants. For now. 😉

        One YA writer who’s done both successfully — and simultaneously — is Gwen Hayes. Her first traditionally published book (Falling Under — a paranormal YA) came out in March. I think it’s done very well, and she has a sequel due out at some point. Before Falling Under, though, she e-pubbed several novels. Her most popular self-pub is a YA contemporary called So Over You — it’s over a year old and STILL selling great! (It’s one of my favorites, and I personally in fact like it better than her traditionally published effort.)

        Again, I support and agree with what you’ve written above, and also several of the commenters had great points. No arguments from me on anything. I’m just a happy indie author! 🙂

        1. Hi Tammara – sorry, no, I just went off on a tangent – I do that sometimes!

          I think it’s smart to keep your options open. I write short stories as well as novels. I self-published my last two, before that I had a couple in magazines, and I have one coming out in a small press anthology this month. In the future, I will self-publish a lot of my stories, but some of them I will hold back for magazines if I think I have something the editor will like. It’s just another way of finding the widest possible audience. For books, I’m not sure if I will ever bother with querying again, and I am certainly self-publishing my next two, but I would certainly have the conversation if I was approached about a trade deal. Why not?

          I know lots of writers who have a mixture of trade published stuff and self-published stuff, and I think that’s going to become more common. I think it’s a smart move too, especially while print is still 70+% of the market.


  6. Excellent post, David. In response to a commenter above who states 1000/month at 2/book is only 24k and not enough to quit, that might be true, but it sure is a great second job, isn’t it?

    Plus, there is *always* the chance of getting lucky. My book suddenly took off a few weeks ago. So far this month, I’ve made as much on book sales as what I make in two months at my day job–and I have a good day job.

    1. Exactly. And most of these guys at 1000 per month only have a few titles out. What about in ten years when they have 15 or 20 books out? Each release is a shot in the arm for all your other titles. Each book on your virtual shelf is another way for a new reader to discover you and the rest of your work. E-books don’t go out of print. The sales will accumulate.

  7. David,

    This article came at a good time for me. I’ve been feeling low about my book sales which I lowered to $2.99 last week and have seen little in the way of results. Your post is a good reminder about staying in it for the long haul. I’m more convinced than ever about approaching this self-publishing endeavor as a business and being even more methodical. The truth is if I can manage to get the word out and people begin reading my novels that is what will drive forward momentum for people buying them as you clearly stated.

    More than anyone else, I have to stand behind my work. I don’t relish lowering to a 99 cent price level so people can load up their e-readers and yet never bother to read my book because they’ve downloaded so many bargains. I just read one of those 99 cent books today to better determine why the book has sold so well. It wasn’t from the writing, the plot, or character builds–these are all things I concentrate on being good at as a writer. My guess is the price point at $0.99 drew in the buyers, but not necessarily “readers”. I’m hopeful (naive) to think there is a difference.

    So, I’m taking my book pricing back to $4.99 and waiting it out, knowing full well that luck and timing are part of the equation just as much as price points and marketing.

    Katherine Owen
    Author of Not To Us and Seeing Julia

    1. It’s likely to be a long wait. Bite the bullet and sell your work at $0.99 – I buy a lot of $0.99 ebooks and I read everyone. Most of them are complete garbage – let yours be a real bargain by being a story that is worth more than what I pay for it.

  8. Katherine–as someone with one of ‘those 99 cent books’, I can assure you that many, many of them get read. The reviews, emails and subsequent sales of the second book in my series can attest to that. Also, I know I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that those of us with the 99 cent books didn’t sit down to write a 99 cent book. We all wrote the best damn book we could and we wanted to find an audience for it. I started out with my book at $1.99, but that was just before the 70% model came into play. When it did, I set the price at $2.99. I had fair sales, but nothing major. The thing that a 99cent price (permanent or even a temp sale price) can do is put your book onto many more ‘Customers who bought’ lineups so it is seen by more people.

    Most of us have played around with pricing until we found what worked for us. For you, it may be a higher price, for me, 99 cents is working out quite nicely as I’m selling a lot of books and my second book is selling without me having to do any seperate marketing for it. The first book sells the second.

  9. The ONLY firm conviction I have with regard to pricing is that you must be flexible. By all means have a starting price and give it time before you consider changing it, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

    I have a couple of short stories for 99c, and I will be releasing a non-fiction book soon for $2.99, and a novel at the end of the summer for $4.99. None of those prices are set in stone, however. The sweet spot for each book may be very different. Time will tell.

    Some people have had a lot of success at higher price points. If you can pull it off, there is a hell of a lot to be said for making $3.49 per copy. On the other hand, 99c can get you a lot of new readers and you can climb the charts pretty fast.

    Sometimes a mix can work. Vincent Zhandri cut the price of one of his books to 99c and then once he got into the Top 20, he jacked up the price to $4.99. The book dropped, but not that fast, and he hung on for a while in the Top 100, making ten times the royalties on each copy sold. I think when he settled down he was making a good bit more overall, plus he had a ton of new readers who would go on and check out the rest of his books.

    That won’t work for everyone, but the cool thing is WE are in control, and we can find the right price that works for us and each of our books.

  10. David, this is an interesting post. However, you say: “I don’t have any problem finding good books on Amazon. Do you?” – and I have to say the answer is yes. I find it extremely hard.

    I don’t own a Kindle and can’t read on screen for long periods, so don’t have the luxury of 99-cent downloads – I pay full price for every book I read. I still prefer to browse in a bookstore than online; and the very few books I’ve bought purely on the basis of readers’ reviews have been worse than disappointing.

    I am full of admiration for many self-published authors, but I think there’s a grave danger of confusing good sales results with good writing. (I posted recently about this at As a reader I am unimpressed with sales figures. I have read “bestsellers”, both self-published and commercially published, that are embarrassingly bad; I have read self-published and independently published books that may have sold only a few hundred copies, but stand out to me among the all-time greats.

    1. Hi Ben,

      You make some very interesting points, and with a laser-beam focus you have pinpointed the weak point in my argument!

      I didn’t really mean to say that just browsing randomly through the Amazon site or entering generic search terms is a good way to find books, and I would doubt that’s the way that most books are sold.

      When I go to Amazon, I have at least one book in mind that I want to buy. I search for it, up it comes, and I make with the click. Then I might search out another couple of authors that I have just remembered. Sometimes one of the recommendations Amazon shows underneath will be interesting, and I might check out some reviews or the sample. When I am done, I could have 8 books – most of those will be ones that I heard of somewhere else.

      The point is, I hear of books I want to read all the time. I never remember them all and I’m sure I only end up buying a fraction of them. I don’t think I am too unique in that regard.

      That’s what I meant by “I don’t have much problem finding good books on Amazon.” I’m not searching through piles of books, it has already been done for me by reviews, promo I have been exposed to, recommendations from friends and colleagues etc. etc. There are always more books that I would like to read than I have the time to get through.

      That aside, I agree with you. I actually prefer print books, I don’t own an e-reader, and the only e-books I have purchased are ones that I couldn’t get in print. I prefer to browse in a bookstore also, but now my nearest store is forty minutes away and it’s expensive and the selection is completely tilted towards new releases – not my usual stomping ground.

      My taste doesn’t usually run to the bestseller charts either – whether we are talking about self-published work or trade releases. Anything that can increase the diversity in selection gets a vote from me – whether that’s a rise in self-publishing or smaller publishing houses being able to get their books out there.

      But, I do try and remember that taste is subjective, and that I should restrain myself from objectifying my own pecadilloes. The guys at the top of the charts must be doing something right.

      When I highlight a writer that is at the top of the charts it’s because I want to find out how they get there, and to congratulate them for beating the odds. What I think about their books is irrelevant. I’m not a critic, I don’t do book reviews, and I save my personal reading preferences for when I’m being interviewed or when I’m doing a guest post elsewhere. That’s not what this blog is about.


      P.S. I would love to hear about those greats though, I’m always looking for recommendations!

  11. Love the post. There are many paths to reach a given goal. I’m delighted authors now have a choice. And after all, the “traditional” publishers send out crap to wade through, as well. I’m not sure anyone considers Snookie’s book to be high art. *shrug*

    I’ve self-pub’d my updated/rejuvenated backlist of cat and dog books and they’re doing very well. Of course, I have an established platform in that field. I don’t sell 1000 a month, but all the books are priced at $5.99 and when I dropped the price, sales went away. So pricing has lots of tricky nuances–too low (at least on nonfiction) seems to cause problems. Or maybe that’s just me. In the next several months I plan to publish original titles as well.

    I’m very new to Kindle. And I will take a chance on lower priced unknown fiction, then when I love it, happily pay higher price for subsequent books by that author.

  12. I think that a good book will sell, however, finding that good book among all the bad books can be a challenge, and I think this is where the writer really needs to step up with promotion and getting the book out there.

    I do think that it’s possible for anyone to make money writing if they are truly willing to work at it.

  13. David,

    I love this post. I will share it with my friends because I think you are right. I was just on a forum the other day where these myths were being passed around and as you said, they are usually passed around by those who are invested in one way or another in traditional publishing.

    I’ve added your blog to my bookmarks!


  14. Hi, Dave.

    The only point I’d disagree on even a *little* is that the idea that the crap out there is irrelevant. I’ve seen quite a few reviews of very poorly written self-published work that say the reader has HAD IT with self-published books and sworn them off. (So at some point the reader did realize they were reading something that was self-published…and really bad.) Several influential book bloggers have done the same. When a reader reads a poorly written traditionally published book, they don’t swear off traditionally published books, just that author (or possibly the genre). So, the amount of self-published crap out there (and just how bad it is) does make it harder for the next self-published author. Self-published authors are being held to a different standard by a visible number of people — as though we are all responsible for the poor reading experience a reader had with someone else’s work.

    That being said, there’s been an awful lot of self-published material released in the last few years. I don’t think anyone has attempted to look at whether the percentage of self-published crap is larger than the percentage of traditionally published crap (to the whole). The fact that there is a lot of crap out there might strictly be a volume issue. A small percentage of a LOT of books can still look like a lot of books.

    And, of course, in the end, there’s nothing we can do to stop some writers jumping before they are ready. It’s their right as much as ours. There’s no point in dwelling on it or lamenting the number of people who won’t promote or read indies because of some bad experiences with other work. We can just try to avoid turning out that ‘other work’ ourselves. Every professional, well-written, well-presented work one of us turns out is a chance to convince people that self-publishing isn’t the end of the literary world at the hands of self-published barbarians.

    1. Hi Margo,

      This is a point I am happy to debate (and I accept my views may be in the minority on this one).

      Let’s say you are right. Let’s say there is a mountain of crap, growing all the time, and it is affecting the sales of good self-publishers. If this is happening on a wide scale, shouldn’t we be seeing the effects?

      I think we are seeing the opposite. We are seeing people like Bob Mayer move from traditional publishing to self-publishing – selling 30,000 e-books a month and making more money than when he was trade published.

      We see people like J Carson Black, who in her own words had an “unspectacular history in trade publishing”, selling 75,000 books in May alone. We see two indies holding the Top 3 spots in the UK.

      It may be happening, but I don’t think the overall effect is that noticeable. And the reason for that is, if you have a good cover, pro editor, proper formatting, good sample, good marketing, good story, you are INDISTINGUISHABLE from a trade published book.

      Even if the reader has foresworn self-published books, how do they know if the book in front of them is self-published? For the most part, they don’t.

      I could list my 20 favourite books, and I couldn’t tell you who published any of them.

      I don’t think the mountain of crap is cutting into my bottom line, I think the mountain of GOOD books is what is cutting into my bottom line (whether they are trade published or self-published).

      And you know what? Each time someone publishes poorly, it just makes my book look better.


      1. Hi, Dave. A couple of reasons I disagree…

        Most of the self-published books I have seen are obvious *just* from the cover, frequently even when they have paid for a cover (usually from someone trying to break into cover design, but sometimes even when someone has used a professional). The most frequent issue with an otherwise good cover is the lack of certain visual aspects associated with genre that we are used to seeing on covers.

        Then there can be writing issues. When an author doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue… (I’m not making that up.) She has more than 30 books out.

        And some people have been burned enough times, they DO look to see who is listed as publisher. This can mean even a small press book can be mistaken for a self-published book.

        Does it affect sales? Amanda Hocking herself pointed out that after being featured in a couple of influential book blogs her monthly sales went from 600 to 4000. Sounds like this has an effect — I suspect it is stronger for some genres than others, due to the audience. So arguing that being shut out of book blogs with a couple of thousand followers a piece makes no difference doesn’t track for me.

        The fact that people *can* still sell (and sell well) does not negate the possibility (the *likelihood* with some genres) that even they would have sold more had certain doors not been closed to them. We shall probably have to agree to disagree on this point, as there is no way to look at what sales for huge successes in self-publishing would have been if those opportunities had been present. Would they have broken out three or six months earlier — or more? Would today’s sales be 5,000 instead of 2,000?

        There’s no way to tell, but it was the breakout point for Amanda. I can tell you as someone who has been trying to get reviews from blogs in roughly the same genre circles, some blogs that were happy to review SP work a few months ago no longer take them or are taking them very selectively (in some cases *specifying* their decision was affected by quality).

        1. Hi Margo,

          You make some excellent points. I have to say that I haven’t come across the same resistance from reviewers, but that could well be a genre thing. If that is the case, it is a very strong point against my argument – I accept that.

          I have seen SOME sites which now won’t review indie books, or that now only accept print copies, or whatever, and I just strike them from the list and move on to the next one (and there is always more). However, I haven’t come up against the problem where it was a particularly influential blog that was shutting me out.

          What I did experience was a couple of reviewers saying that they don’t review indie books as much anymore, but that they liked my cover and blurb so they were going to check it out. Maybe I won’t get that opportunity in a few months.

          However, I assumed going into this that there would be certain sites that wouldn’t review me because I was self-published. On the other hand, there are some influential sites that will only review indie books.

          That aside, my more general point was that the average reader cannot tell whether a well-written well-presented book is trade published or self-published. If the imprint is one of the well-known ones, then sure, it’s obvious. But there are so many imprints and so many small publishers, that I would be surprised if the average reader knew 5% of them.

          If the only effect any potential deluge of crap books is going to have on me is shutting out a few review sites, I’m not too worried. In any event, it’s something that is outside my control.


  15. Good post, and some really interesting discussion in the comments.

    Wholeheartedly agree that it’s important to bear in mind that you don’t have to commit just to one approach. I’ve self-pubbed my short stories because the likelihood of getting a collection published is next to nothing. I’ve self-pubbed a YA novel as although I think it’s decent, it’s not the core focus of my writing. And my novel has just been sent out to agents, because I’d still like to be published in print. I like the idea of having that kind of diversity, and several irons in the fire – makes life more interesting. If the novel doesn’t sell then at some point I will publish it myself, and knowing that option is there is great.

    And that fits in with the discussion about defining success – there’s a number of measures by which I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something. Sales, obviously. But equally, that note from a reader that tells you that your story touched them in some way means a lot. Because all of the short stories that I have available have been previously published in print or on websites that are no longer around, a big win for me is simply the idea that I’ve been able to put them back out there – it’s a little sad to think of stories hitting print for a couple of months only never to be seen again once the next issue of the magazine hits the newsstands. Even if sales never take off, knowing that they are out there for another set of readers to stumble on is important to me.

    1. This is a young industry in many ways (even though e-books go all the way back to 1971). The customer base is growing so rapidly and things are in a constant state of flux. Amazon could turn around tomorrow and slash royalty rates. The Big 6 could band together and publish all those backlists at 99c to try and flush the self-publishers out of the market. I don’t think either of those things will happen, but I’m just trying to say that there could be something around the corner which drastically affects the viability of self-publishing – you never know. I think it is smart – especially while print is still 70+% of the market, to have a mixed approach – if that option is open to you.

      And you are right about defining success in different ways. It’s not all about sales. While we would all like to be able to support ourselves exclusively with our writing income, the chances are it’s probably not going to happen for all of us. We shouldn’t lose sight of what we have achieved to date. Just finishing a book puts us ahead of the crowd (and for me at least, that’s one goal I wasn’t sure I would ever achieve). There are so many wonderful things about this other than sales. Reviews, messages from readers, and just the simple fact of knowing that your stories are on sale and anyone around the world can buy them. That’s huge.

      I remember when I got my first short story published. It was in a tiny UK literary magazine, and you couldn’t get it anywhere without ordering direct off them. I ended up just emailing the story to all my friends – and that’s really not the same as them seeing your words printed on a page in a magazine. Now, I can direct people to my Amazon listings! That is huge to me.

  16. @Margo: Every professional, well-written, well-presented work one of us turns out is a chance to convince people that self-publishing isn’t the end of the literary world at the hands of self-published barbarians. Well said; this is the only solution to that particular argument.

    @David: The greats –

    Magdeburg by Heather Richardson.

    Dan Holloway’s writing – A Company of Fellows is his latest (not for the faint-hearted), but he also writes excellent literary fiction.

    Harbour by Paul House.

    Currently reading Remix by Lexi Revellian – not my normal genre but am thoroughly enjoying it nonetheless.

    And the real great – Of Honest Fame by M.M. Bennetts. Yes, I am related to the author, but I don’t feel remotely ashamed about saying that this is the best writing I’ve read since Salley Vickers’s “Miss Garnet’s Angel”.

    1. Hi Ben,

      I like the sound of ALL of those. I think we have similar tastes. And I think you might like the historical novel I will be releasing at the end of the summer. It’s set in the early 1800s during Argentina’s war of independence from Spain and has been a labour of love for several years.


    2. This one went into spam (because of all the links) but I rescued it.

      Just as a side note, Lexi Revellian is doing very well with e-books (I think she has sold over 20,000 in the last year in the UK). As for the others, I don’t know why they are not doing well. I have noticed that historical fiction and literary fiction haven’t done as well as e-books (which is where self-publishers make the vast majority of their sales and revenue). Why? I’m not sure but I’m guessing that the readers of that genre haven’t made the switch to e-books…yet. You also have to remember that the market in the UK is still very small – ebooks account for around 8% of sales in the UK and 25% in the US – but the UK is closing the gap pretty fast. Also, out of the books you mentioned, some aren’t available as e-books, which must be hurting their sales.

      But as a plus point for all those guys, they will never go out of print (unless they want to). They are onsale forever, and that’s a long time for readers to discover them. In a couple of cases, I think they could present their books better, and that would increase the odds of discovery (one doesn’t have a great cover, and another doesn’t even have a description). Also, we have no idea what marketing (if any) these authors are undertaking.

      But the market will grow in the UK, and eventually literary fiction and historical fiction readers will make the switch to e-books. Then all of these guys have a chance.

  17. I’m not a huge networker. I avoid forums for the time-sucks that they are and am not a natural meet-and-greeter. Not surprisingly my first novel had a few sales the first week then dropped to nothing the next week. I could spend a lot of time pushing it, but I’ve decided instead to keep writing. As scary as it is to see my work drop into obscurity I know that it’s the first drop in the bucket. As with any small business I don’t expect to see a profit for five year and I don’t expect success for ten.

    It’s the same for a friend of mine who went with a publisher and got his first 6 month sales statement – a discouraging low number, but he’s like me and will keep going.

    It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

    But I can see why people think that self-publishers don’t make money and quit early on. If it weren’t for my long-term attitude, I’d also be tempted to quit.

    1. Bob Mayer (who is selling 30k books a month) thinks that new writers shouldn’t really bother with promotion until they have at least three books out. Until then they should focus on writing more and better books. I can see his point. I think a lot of my promo efforts are wasted because (a) I only have two titles out giving the reader less opportunity to discover me and less titles to snap up if they do, and (b) they are short stories, and many readers will only read novels.

      You are correct to take the long-term view. And as they always say, the #1 promo tool any writer has is new work.

  18. Thank you for sharing in your knowledge and dispelling the myths! It’s very true what you said about who the naysayers are when it comes to self-publishing vs traditional publishing. I was at a writers conference where I overheard two young ladies pass by a room where the speaker was talking about self-publishing. One girl said she’d never stoop this low. The other girl agreed, saying that only a writer who is desperate and whose work is so bad traditional publishers would never touch it, would take this route.
    I merely walked past them, but if they only knew! If I had not self-published, my first three novels of the Imago Chronicles fantasy series would never have been optioned for a major motion picture trilogy! The film producer happened to see an interview I did on MTV. She bought my books, read them, and fell in love with the stories and characters! Earlier this year, her production company optioned rights to the first three novels of my 9-novel series and pre-production is well underway. Anticipated release date? Winter 2012!
    Thank you again for sharing!

  19. On pricing:
    As the nobody-ever-heard-of-me author of a trilogy, I decided to price the ebook of Book I at 99 cents and offer it as a free download from my website. Books II and III I priced at $9.99 each. About half the people who buy Book I go on to purchase Books II and III, often together, which tells me that if a reader likes your work, s/he won’t balk at paying for it.

    On bemoaning the amount of crap being published:
    When all that was available was traditionally published work, I seldom found books that really spoke to me. Now that more voices are being heard, I find them all the time. I hang out online with groups of people with whom I share many of the same interests, and I hear about books from them. I follow blogs that review the kinds of books I like.

    Tammara Webber says:
    But I do believe readers will sift through a bunch of crap to find a jewel. Why do I believe that? Because I’M A READER, and I do it all the time.

    Me too.

    On weeding out the crap:
    One mustn’t forget that folks who buy Kindle books can download a free sample of 10% of the book. That’s enough to let me know if the writing is dreadful, the formatting is broken, or if the book just fails to grab me. That, along with the generally lower price of ebooks, has allowed me to get a lot more bang for my book-buying buck.

    On bemoaning in general:
    Though there are many things in this world we could bemoan, I prefer to take the good that is offered me with any new paradigm and leave the rest. The indie publishing phenomenon is the happening thing, and I’m not going to be left behind.

    Catherine M Wilson

  20. Dave said: “That aside, my more general point was that the average reader cannot tell whether a well-written well-presented book is trade published or self-published.”

    I do think it is getting to this point in an increasing number of cases, and I find that encouraging. I see this as a really good thing, because I think it is unwise for indie authors to assume we will always have a pricing advantage to help us overcome lower-grade production value. If we can bring quality as well as price…

    1. That’s exactly it!

      I think it’s a perfect storm for indies now. We can match the digital reach of publishers. We can match the quality of the product. We can beat them on price. We are quicker. And together, we are smarter. They can only move ahead with backroom deals, but we will always peg them back.

      They are the AT-AT. We are ewoks.

      1. I’ve been wondering where to jump into this discussion but this response just made me laugh! While it might take a while to topple the Empire, we have the heart and perseverance to triumph in the end!

  21. Awesome blog post! I found you via Twitter this morning, and I love the discussion this has generated. Lorna, what an awesome story! Congratulations on your success–stories like yours are so fun to read. I actually decided just this past week to use my novel “The Breeders” as a self-publishing test, for a number of reasons, none of which have to do with being rejected one too many times (actually, I’ve had full manuscript requests and GREAT feedback from two agents in New York). Part of why I’m choosing self-publishing is because I’m fascinated by the possibilities–even the not-so-good ones. It’s like a blind leap of faith, backed by as much hard work as possible–not much different than being traditionally published. What’s the worst that could happen? The book not selling? Well…then…write another one.

    I’ve had nothing to blog about for years, but this week, I decided to focus my blog on this self-publishing experiment from all angles — just made the first book-related post today ( — not sure how to do a hyperlink on here)…That way, I’ll have documentation of its success or failure. It’s going to be a learning experience. I love the book I’m using for this experiment, but I also have others in the pipeline I will still try to get a publisher for. Someone mentioned above “having many irons in the fire” — that’s exactly my view as well. As long as we put out our best work and make sure it polished and professional, it can’t hurt.

    Thanks again for this post!

    1. Hi Matthew – I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      It is a leap of faith, that’s for sure. I can’t tell you the nervousness I felt when I was uploading my first e-book. I think blogging about your experience is a great idea, and it has certainly helped me.

      I think you have the right approach. Self-publishing and trade publishing are not mutually exclusive, and there is no reason why you can’t do both – many writers do.

      Good luck!


  22. A fascinating discussion. I guess that things are moving so fast nobody can be definitive about the field. It does, however, seem likely that those old fashioned qualities of hard-work, perseverance, seizing opportunities and using your brain to be creative will have some impact.

    I like two things about e-publishing. The first is that, as one of the other commentators said, it gives people the opportunity to read your book. How great is that?

    The second is that I feel I am in charge of my own destiny. It I have success it is chiefly due to me, together with the support of helpful people in this fantastic new community we are forging.

    I also recall Thomas Jefferson’s quote:
    ‘I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.’

    And if you’re not having such a good day there is nothing more consoling than Jean Cocteau’s comment,
    ‘I believe in luck: how else can you explain the success of those you dislike?’

  23. Thanks David and everyone else for the awesome comments and advice you’ve left! It’s people like you who I value when it comes to this self publishing business. I’m very new to this but I continue to have the same thoughts that I see posted in this conversation. We have to push past the negative myths and keep doing what we love to do. I’m grateful to anyone who decides to read what I’ve written. I will not be discouraged by negative myths because in reality, anything that we do has a chance of being successful or unsuccessful! I choose to believe in myself and any stories that I write. My goal is to make the reader happy as well as myself by writing something that made them stop and take notice to. Thanks again everyone for your encouraging input!.


    1. Hi Lisa,

      There is a lot of misinformation out there from “self-publishing is a goldrush, it’s guaranteed money” to “you will never make money at it”. You have to keep your BS detector turned up pretty high. If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Self-publishing is very hard work. It’s not impossible to succeed, and if you adopt a professional approach, you give yourself a much better chance.


      P.S. If you ever have any questions, just drop by.

  24. I like this post. And I like the comments… success is in our own minds. Is it money? Is it fame? Is it number of books sold? Who knows…everyone is different.

    And yes, for everyone author that sells a 1,000 a month there are a 1,000 who sell none. The same goes for life… how many businesses open and close? How many people try to apply for the same job? The list goes on and on… the key is to believe in yourself and your writing and STAY THE COURSE.

    One of the best parts about ebooks is their low cost and low upkeep… Amazon doesn’t charge to store you ebook, only when a purchase is made. And look at Smashwords – all the hard work they do to distrubute and only take a cut when a book is sold.

    And in this crazy time of writing, I think it’s important to remember that today we all have options now. There are MANY paths to choose from instead of just one. And that’s pretty cool in my mind. 🙂


    1. You know what my favourite thing about e-books is? You only have to make them once. Then you can sell infinite copies and it will never cost you a penny. That’s amazing. And they think print will survive in any meaningful way? No chance.

      1. Print will survive in a meaningful way. I say that as someone who LOVES ebooks. Because books do not exist to make writers happy. They exist to make readers happy. Print books will continue to be given as presents and to be purchased as ‘items of desire.’

        Your favourite thing about ebooks is a producers favourite thing. What decides if something continues or dwindles is the demand from consumers. So yes, I can see that ebooks will probably end up with the lions share of the marketplace. But beautifully presented print books will always endure – because they are desirable.

        If a book is captivating enough, people will buy it in e-format AND in paper format AND in audio AND watch the film etc etc

        1. I don’t disagree.

          I see the future as e-books with maybe 80% of the market, and print with 20% or less. What remains for print will probably be a combo of POD and beautiful, expensive hardcovers.

          There is some evidence to suggest that once people make the switch to e-books, they drastically reduce their print purchases, and don’t tire of e-books and e-readers and switch back to print. The market penetration of e-readers is tracking the market share of e-books pretty closely.

          And I was speaking from a producer’s perspective. Personally, I prefer print. I don’t own an e-reader (yet). I have purchased e-books, but only because there was either no print version available, or the price difference was so drastic that I couldn’t justify it. I think this will become quite common, and many people will feel compelled to make the switch, even if there are things about print they prefer.

          I think superfans of any book will buy it in all formats. However, they don’t make up anything close to the majority of a book’s readers. Many frontlist titles from publishers are already selling more in e-books than in print, and of course for many smaller publishers and for nearly all self-publishers, this has been the case for some time.

          With each drop in the market for print, stores close, shelf space for books is reduced in the ones that remain, more books are warehoused, less are ordered from publishers, print runs are reduced, they become more costly to print, prices increase in the stores, less people purchase them… it’s a vicious circle. That’s what I mean when I say “print is doomed” – I mean that in a few years, e-books will have captured the vast majority of the market, and many titles will be appearing in digital form only – not that print books will disappear completely, I don’t think that will ever happen.

      2. Michele is absolutely right – both about the enduring appeal of print and about the difference between ‘producer’s favourite’ and ‘consumer’s favourite’.

        1. You are right Ben – but they both feed into each other. As e-books capture more and more market share, and print becomes more and more expensive, many titles will be released in digital form only. Consumers who haven’t made the switch to e-books yet will be faced with a restricted selection, which will force even more to switch over.

  25. Great post, David! I began self-publishing because:
    1-I was giving away a free weekly serialized read and fans wanted to purchase the stories.
    2-Fans wanted more of my stories faster.
    3-My traditional publishers don’t publish my works fast enough.
    4-I had a huge stockpile of already written books.
    5-I want to make enough to quit my day job.
    6-I wanted to reach readers who wanted something different that publishers wouldn’t publish.
    7-An agent recommended I do it!

    When The Dark Fae, the YA fantasy book, took off in sales, I was making over twice what I do on the day job. I am now working on the sequel, although I do have 21 titles up so far–I’m an eclectic writer and reader. I’m also traditionally published and love my publishers, so will continue to work with them on current manuscripts in progress.But this has given me the freedom to write in other genres that I can’t with my current publishers and I need to do so to maintain my creativity.

    Thanks for a great article! Like someone said, the books live on forever with self-publishing. They don’t have a shelf life that makes them obsolete before readers even know they exist. 🙂 Patience is the key.

    1. Patience is the key. It’s a complete reversal of the traditional publishing mindset where everything is geared for a big splash in week one, and that essentially decides the book’s fate. We have to think completely differently. Most success stories don’t show growth for six months.

      But with self-publishing, they don’t need to. There is no pressure to take your book off the shelf and send it back to the publisher.

      Glad to hear you are doing well. Keep it up!

  26. Great post, David. I think a good analogy is the music scene. How many bands are there in your city alone? Hundreds, thousands? Do the bad bands drown out the good ones? Hell no. People talk up the good stuff, elevating the better bands onto a level where we all become aware of them. Word of mouth, same principle works with books

  27. As a young, broke indie author I actually have to disagree with this. Self publishing for me has been a loss, it’s something that I now look at as a hobby (like my blog) because it just costs me money. I love to write and I want to find readers but I am not an expert in marketing and I don’t have the money to hire one. I paid for a professional cover, I didn’t have the thousands of dollars that professional editors wanted so I did my best self editing and getting friends and family to edit and beta read. I have done everything I can yet have made less than 50 sales in 3 months (and 99% of those ‘sales’ were actually free copies downloaded in read an ebook week). My only paid sales have been friends and family that insisted on buying it (I wanted to give them a copy I feel scummy selling to friends and family).

    So no, you will not make money as an Indie author unless you’re lucky, good at marketing, and write for the best selling genre. It is just another expensive hobby at the end of the day (or free if you don’t mind looking unprofessional). Maybe I’m just unlucky or a crap writer or both but that’s my view. I am working on my second novel and am worried that I won’t be able to publish that because I can’t afford it and all the hidden costs, but I still keep writing it, maybe I’ll give up on selling and just post a free PDF on my blog so I don’t have to pay for covers and edits and marketing. My 2 cents, don’t write to make money, write because you want to (because you won’t make nay money at it).

    1. Hi Craig, I’m sorry your sales aren’t going well, but you shouldn’t generalize based on your own experience. I’m making a living from self-publishing and so are hundreds of others that I have met. Not all of them write in the bigger genres, many of them didn’t know anything about marketing before they started self-publishing. I don’t know what you have or haven’t done in terms of marketing, but I wrote a post recently covering effective marketing that doesn’t cost much in terms of time or money. That’s here:

      1. Thanks for the tips I will keep at it, I’m always trying to market my work. I wasn’t trying to generalize but I feel that I represent the other side, the writers that don’t get noticed among the piles. It is probably something on my end, something I am doing / have done wrong maybe my material is no good, maybe I’m an awful marketer. I didn’t mean to generalize, I just feel that it might be a little optimistic to plan on seeing sales, I feel that even if one does everything right a lot still comes down to luck.

        I’ll stop lamenting my poor sales now, get back to pounding the pavement. Thanks for the blog, I’m glad I found it as I’m sure it will help on my never ending search for readers.

        1. Don’t let poor sales get you down on your writing. I’m reading a great novel at the moment – one of the best I’ve read in months. I checked the ranking, expecting to see it rocking the charts and it was down at #500,000 or something.

          Marketing is a different skill-set and writers often take a little time to get the hang of it. And there’s a lot of luck involved in this business. Persistence is probably the quality we need most of all. Good luck with your books!

  28. For the first two or three years after I published my trilogy (in 2008) I had what I referred to as my “towering pile.” It was a pile of marketing ideas, and every day I plucked a few items off the pile. I never missed a day. Sometimes it was just commenting on someone’s blog. Sometimes it was offering a freebie to an online group of readers. Sometimes it was helping other indie writers. But I did it consistently, every single day. The books had been out for less than four years when total revenue surpassed $100K. The ebook of Book I of the trilogy is permanently free everywhere I distribute (Amazon and Smashwords), so that was for sales of just two books.

  29. I’ve been trying to read anything about self publishing I can get my hands on. I’ve been writing for the simple love of it for years. When I do complete my book and self publish, I will have the joy of simply accomplishing something I love. If I make enough to help my kids through college or pay off braces….even better. Lol Anyway, thank you for a great read. I LOVE optimism!!

  30. Hi Mr. Gaughran,
    First of all, thank you for the post. It really inspired me to keep writing in hopes that I can make some money off of the books. I was curious on what the best editors were for the cheapest price. I’ve been hoping to get the trilogy out there, but I need a professional editor. Again, thanks for the encouragement!
    > Steven

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