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Top 5 Myths About Self Publishing

I talk to a lot of writers and editors about self publishing, and I hear a lot of wildly unfounded opinions. This article addresses the top five myths that come up, over and over. I’m writing from experience — as a profitable self-published writer and niche publisher, I can separate the facts from the fiction.

1) Self-publishing is easier than getting published traditionally.
It’s easier for your publisher to accept your writing, since they’re both you. This is the attraction of self publishing to a lot of writers, especially ones who don’t fit comfortably into the mainstream publishing business. But creating the book is only half the job of a self-published writer.

Self publishing requires a lot more work than getting published by someone else. You have all the responsibility of creating a good product *and* you’re responsible for selling it! That’s more than double the workload, and not everyone is cut out for it.

Obviously, though, there are some things that are easier with self publishing than traditional publishing. You can put out a book really fast — the only release schedule you have to worry about is your own. You’re not limited by traditional text lengths, so your 30,000 word stories are commercially viable. You have complete creative control over your writing, format, cover art, and everything else, and you don’t have to wait for revisions to be approved.

2) Every writer can self publish.
If you’re the kind of writer who hates promotion and marketing, if you resent every drop of time that takes you away from writing, or if you just want to be “the talent” and leave the business stuff to other people — self publishing is definitely not for you unless you have no other option. It will be an uphill battle, and you’ll hate every minute spent on business. This isn’t bad or wrong — it just means that you are a dedicated writer and want to give 100% of your energy to writing.

On the other hand, being in complete control has its rewards, especially if you believe that traditional publishers aren’t pulling their weight. If you like the business side of publishing, and you look forward to learning more about selling, marketing, and branding yourself, then self publishing could be a very valuable experience.

For some people, it is satisfying to interact with readers both as a writer and as a business. But you have to think of it as two separate activities: writing, and owning a business. For many self-published writers, working around the clock is the reality. If you don’t have the time to both write well and perform the business tasks, self publishing may yield more frustration than rewards.

3) Success in self publishing is based on luck.
I want to laugh every time I hear this. Luck has very little to do with your success! Before I even wrote my book, I researched, spoke to people in the market, and started promoting myself. I asked, “Would you buy this, and for how much?” I looked online to see how popular my genre and topic were, and if there were any forum discussions about it. If you’re writing in a genre with an established and thriving market, such as romance, you’re than much farther ahead than I was, starting out.

Success in self publishing is no different than success in any other kind of business. It is based on having a product that is desired by enough people, your own disciplined efforts, and good enough application of some basic marketing principles. As your own publisher, you have to make everything happen. People who claim that it’s based on luck are usually either naive about business, or they’re looking for an excuse for why they personally didn’t succeed at self publishing, calling it “sour grapes.”

4) Getting started in self publishing is really cheap.
It is not “really cheap,” but it doesn’t have to be really expensive, either, especially with the current technology available for little or no money. Your startup cost depends on what skills you can leverage, and what you have to hire out for.

For my own company, I was able to start for very little money up front because I had a lot of vocational skills. I knew how to do basic web design, I could write and lay out my own books, and — most importantly — I had decent basic marketing skills, which improved as time went on. My books are in PDF format, so there was no printing cost.

But starting was not free. Even though I didn’t invest a lot of dollars, I still invested a lot of skill, time, and knowledge capital, all of which have cash value. If I didn’t have any of those skills, I may have spent $1000 on design for the books and website alone. And to market the books may have cost a high monthly fee if I hadn’t been aware of some basic good marketing techniques for small businesses. This brings us to the last, and most important myth of all:

5) Marketing your self-published writing takes a ton of money.
If it does, quite honestly, you’re probably doing it wrong. When people think about promoting their writing, they think of publicity, book tours, and mass campaigns. These can be effective, but they are not smart choices for a small startup business. That’s what you are: a small startup business, and you need to look outside the publishing industry for the best ways to leverage your marketing dollars.

My marketing is all done online. Initially, my online promotion budget was around $100 / month in carefully-selected banner opportunities, article distribution services, and AdWords campaigns. That’s tiny, compared to publicist’s monthly fees and tiny space ads in magazines.

I didn’t just sit around and wait for people to either buy or leave — that would waste at least 95% of the traffic, which means 95% of my ad money would also go to waste. No business can afford to do that, especially selling low-cost items like books.

Instead, I captured as many visitors as I could by giving them the opportunity to sign up for my email list. As my list of members grew, I was able to give them more chances to buy the book they were interested in, but not ready to buy the first time.

This method alone is responsible for my earning a profit the very first month. Any writer with their own website can easily do this! It does cost money, but it’s far less than spending $40,000 per year on book tours (not uncommon) and thousands per month in publicist’s fees. The whole idea of self publishing is for you to be in control, and this is the most direct way you can do it — by being able to reach interested potential readers directly with an email list.

I know I keep talking about this, but I really believe that building an email list (and knowing how to use it) is the most powerful technique for controlling the future of your career.

21 thoughts on “Top 5 Myths About Self Publishing

  1. […] Top 5 Myths About Self Publishing3 hours ago by admin  I talk to a lot of writers and editors about self publishing, and I hear a lot of wildly unfounded opinions. This article addresses the top five myths that come up, over and over. I'm writing from experience — as a profitable … […]

  2. I have been a self-published author since the late 1980’s. My 17 books sold 2 million+ copies, in 20 languages. I am very impressed with your insights, and can see that you are an author with experience. Please let me add 2 more myths to the list:

    6. In order to sell books, you must have a strategy to sell books. NO! You need a strategy and plan to build a community of Readers, Buyers and Influencers. I did not have 2 million buyers of my books, I had maybe 400,000 unique customers who bought an average of 5 books each.

    7. An author and a writer are the same thing. NO. As I say in one of my podcasts “If you want to become an author, you have to become an author”. Writers put words on paper. Authors package ideas. I urge my clients (fiction and non-fiction) to visualize themselves as multi-media generators of ideas. Use every outlet at your disposal to create your platform.

  3. It was hard to limit myself to just 5 — the post was already quite long. For #6, no business is exempt from this. Businesses that practice “relationship selling” vastly outperform businesses that just sell products. And as for #7, I do see your point, though it seriously annoys me when people say they “authored” a solution or “authored” a strategy. Authors have status where writers don’t, and a lot of writers insecure about their market status do hesitate to call themselves authors…

    Anyway, thanks for commenting. I’d love to have you guest post or do an interview, just to make contact with a like-minded individual — are you interested?

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  6. A brilliant article – thank you! And as a fairly successful author who’s self published (over 15,000 books sold – not in the league of the first commenter though!) I agree with what you’ve said. I find the writing/PR dilemma a hard one. My marketing skills have flourished over the past couple of years, resulting in successful sales of my trilogy, but at the expense of writing further books in the series. It’s not just the time factor, it’s more of a head thing. I can’t be those two different people simultaneously.

    Because of this I’ve finally succumbed, got myself an agent, and hopefully will sell the rights to my series to a major publisher. But I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world, as it’s helped me to not only understand the industry in a way I could never have otherwise, but also meant that I’ve built a personal relationship with my readers. I’ve a huge (1000+) list of subscribers to my regular newsletter and have built an online social network site, based on my books, which has 500+ members. They meet up regularly and have formed local groups – this would never have happened if I’d been published in the ordinary way. It’s been a fantastic experience.

    On a final note – what’s with all the bitterness from so many published authors and writers towards self-published ones? I find that hard to take – really nasty, vindictive comments on all sorts of publishing-advice blogs. I know many self-published books are rubbish – but so are many books published traditionally. Is it a kind of elitist snobbery thing, or just sour grapes that we didn’t have to jump through so many editorial hoops?

  7. I liked your reply, because many times, all I get is a “thanks for commenting” with no substantive message. Sure, an interview would be great.
    I also downloaded your report on building a list for authors. I have not had time to read it yet, but will do so today. Thanks for the hard work. It will help a lot of people.

    I think there are some real interesting areas to explore together, and I look forward to learning more about you and your site.

  8. “…because many times, all I get is a “thanks for commenting” with no substantive message.”
    The comment-conversation is the entire reason I started this site. Well, and for my friends who were tired of my putting my uninvited oar in during critique group. I welcome your suggestions for improving the list building tutorial — you are further down the publishing road than I am, and I am sure you have some valuable insights.

    As for the interview, great! I’m looking forward to it. I’ll brainstorm some topics after looking at your site some more. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

  9. Kit, thanks for commenting! You’ve hit on some points that I’m also thinking about.

    #1 – I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to be both talent and marketer, at least in entertainment/art publishing. Nonfiction is different, and this is one of the areas I’m thinking about. If you don’t mind, I’d love to ask you questions about your experiences.

    #2 – The understanding from doing your own marketing is so vital. I have a similar experience with selling — I started as a cold caller at a graphic design firm! I have understanding of salesmanship now that I wouldn’t have, had I not had that intensely sucky experience.

    #3 – The bitterness / sour grapes thing. In my opinion, it’s an intense fear reaction — not fear of the self-published authors, but fear of the world order changing. It feels like a toddler having an attitude because of a major life transition. (And adults are just grown-up children, and far less adaptable…) They’re lashing out because the way they’ve been taught to believe is turning out to be not true, but they’re doing everything they can to make it still true.

    So, even if a self-published writer has met with great success, they try to put it down, find a way to invalidate it. “Well, it’s not a Real Publisher, so it doesn’t count.” Writers grow up thinking that Real Publishers are The Authority. If they’re accepted by a RP, it means they’re Real Writers. If they’re rejected by a RP, it means they have more work to do. Easy and simple.

    But now, when the possibility exists to control your own future, and you’re faced with the reality that marketing matters…when all artists want to believe that their stuff sells simply because it’s awesome… it’s like giving a toddler too many significant choices and no guidance. The authority is taken away, and the writers are at sea. Confusion, fear, and tantrums result. My thinking, anyway.

  10. […] Top 5 myths about self-publishing […]

  11. This was a great post, much appreciated by this newbie self-publisher. Between the original post and the comments that ensued, many of the self-publishing myths have been put to bed. I was happy to see Kit’s comments, since she’s fellow fiction self-publisher. Kit – your success gave me great hope today!

    There was a time when I thought it was impossible to self-publish fiction. I told my husband you could only successfully self-publish non-fiction (like Bill) and after several conversations, I couldn’t satisfy the devil’s advocate in either of us. I actually started doing a little research to prove my point. The first book I read agreed with me in the first few chapters; it advised gently against self-publishing fiction. But the more I read, the more I began rethinking my original position.

    After a lot more research, a few months later I did a little soul searching and decided to take my literary fiction directly to readers. You’re absolutely right it’s not easy. I’ve worked myself to exhaustion for months on end but I am looking forward to my pub-date at the end of the month.

    In the meanwhile, I’m curious if you all have any thoughts on the effectiveness of giving away content in order to increase sales?

  12. Hi Wanda! Thanks for your comment contribution. I think that publishing fiction is *harder* than nonfiction — this is one of the issues I will post on when I’ve worked out my reasoning.

    “In the meanwhile, I’m curious if you all have any thoughts on the effectiveness of giving away content in order to increase sales?”

    Giving away free content has *always* has worked for me, and I believe that it will always work. I’d love to hear from Bill and Kit on this subject, but one of my books is absolutely free and will always be free. I’m actually working on another whitepaper/tutorial about building an effective author website, and I’m going to address free content directly.

    Free content helps build that bridge of trust between a reader and an unknown author. Indie authors definitely need to do this, to make it easier for readers to decide if they like the author’s “voice” and story. As a buyer, it certainly makes my decision easier, and I’m not talking about just the first 3 chapters of the latest novel. That’s the minimum. I like to see short stories, that “unsellable” novella, blog posts — all of this is free content that leads to a buying (or list-joining) decision.

  13. The biggest obstacle to selling books (fiction or non-fiction) is risk. Buyers hate risk. Who can blame them?

    We see this at work in the larger economy right now as buyers save their money instead of spending it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Smart consumers do not want to buy a new car, for example, if they are afraid of losing their jobs.

    “But wait” you are saying. “I am only asking them to buy a $20 book. There isn’t much risk in that!” Let me give you a few thoughts to contradict that argument

    1. To paraphrase Donald Trump “$20 here and $20 there – and pretty soon you are talking about real money”
    2. Readers put more at risk than the money. They are giving up their time when they buy a book. They are giving up the opportunity to read another book.
    3. Readers and authors build a relationship through the book. Relationships are fraught with risk. It takes time to understand the way an author thinks and writes. Readers are hesitant to risk that work against the possibility of dissatisfaction.
    4. If you are selling online, most consumers still have uneasy feelings about trusting online sources.

    What is the solution? One action is to give free content. Nothing reduces risk more than experiencing the material first. This might mean short stories, free chapters, or blogs. Another factor is a guarantee. This reduces risk, but the buyer must believe the guarantee, and over-delivering with free material first will set up confidence. Finally, testimonials from trusted sources are also excellent risk-reducers. By giving free content for others to SHARE with their friends, you build confidence through viral promotions.

  14. I’m looking forward to the 2 future posts you mentioned – re: the difference between fiction and non-fiction self-publishing and re: building an effective author website. I’m am particularly passionate about the first topic and believe believe fiction authors need to learn from non-fiction authors. It’s not the same market space, but many of the techniques can be repurposed to suit the sale of fiction.

    Glad to hear free content is working for both of you and Bill made a very good point about risk. In my case I’m in a higher risk category than Bill who’s titles can speak for themselves. There’s nothing riskier than a debut novel which is why I’m leveraging free content to spread the word.

    Best regards to you both and keep the advice coming.

  15. Wanda, to your point about fiction writers learning from non-fiction. I have to admit that I believe marketing non-fiction is a bit more straightforward. So, let me share a market segment that is often overlooked by fiction writers and non-fiction authors alike. It is the gift market.

    I divide markets into two broad categories – single-copy buyers and bulk buyers. Most people understand this. People who go to a bookstore, or buy online, buy one copy of the book at a time. However, to further divide this market segment, we need to look at WHY they are buying the book. Are they buying it to read themselves, or are they guying it for a gift? The gift market is often overlooked, and it can be very lucrative.

    Now, there are several complications. For one thing, in today’s marketplace, many people give gift certificates instead of an actual gift. In addition, many people give the book they bought for themselves as a gift after they read it. (Although, this is more likely to be a “book exchange” between friends and family members.) But, both of these seeming negatives are actually opportunities – particularly for fiction writers.

    Do you offer gift certificates on your website? Or, do you have a gift-wrapping option, with the book sent to a third party? (How about designing a special email that is sent to the recipient, from you, that also mentions the name of the person buying the bift? Have you considered a “Buy one get one sent as a gift” idea?

    I don’t like to get too tactical (specific suggestions of ideas) because most authors are not ready for ideas yet. They need to create a plan first, with specific information about their sub-mnarkets. Once they make the decision to attack a sub-market like the gift market, THEN they are ready for ideas that might work for their book.

    Last week, I was helping a debut author who is Jewish, a doctor, and a novelist. This is a great combination. We began to explore sub-markets that would be attracted by these characteristics. One of them was the gift market. She is now looking for specialty retailers who might display her book in time for graduation gifts.

    One final word – encourage book-swapping. It puts your book into circulation. While it may not give you more sales immediately, it is just like displaying free content on your website – it builds your community, reduces risk, and generates gift sales.

  16. “Readers put more at risk than the money. They are giving up their time when they buy a book. They are giving up the opportunity to read another book.”
    “Readers and authors build a relationship through the book. Relationships are fraught with risk. It takes time to understand the way an author thinks and writes. Readers are hesitant to risk that work against the possibility of dissatisfaction.”

    Agree with these, totally.

    This is huge with fiction / entertainment buyers. There is an abundance of entertainment available, and a lot of it is from already-trusted sources — for example, Stephen King’s latest or upcoming book, Joss Whedon’s latest project, etc. The uncertainty of whether the source (author) will deliver a quality experience is what stops a lot of people, especially when they don’t need to look very hard for alternatives.

    It does take work to get into a book. There has to be a really compelling reason to choose an unknown source over the “greased neural slides” of trusted sources. My answer is always to make yourself into a trusted source, and free content is one of the ways to do this. Not the only way, of course, but one that delivers results in advance. People buy my other books because they love my free one and want to learn more from me.

  17. These aren’t going to be single posts, but probably more like white papers. I’m doing active research into them both, but it seems obvious to me that there are fundamental differences between fiction and nonfiction. Or, as I look at it, entertainment and information. But you are also right — there are basic business practices that are sound no matter what you sell, whether it’s chocolate hearts or lug nuts or whatever.

    Like Bill, I don’t like to get too tactical without the proper background. It’s far too easy to focus on specific techniques, especially ones you’re irrationally hopeful for or attached to, and feel completely at sea when those tactics fail. Most important is a flexible strategy that will spawn any number of workable tactics… The trouble is, to form the strategy, you have to be in a strategic (business) mindset, and that is something of a problem for many artists. More on this later!

  18. Thanks for the discussion, Bill and Wanda.

    Right — encouraging the gift market and book swapping are unfamiliar areas for fiction marketing, but stuff like this is exactly what is needed. So many people are unwilling to step beyond their property lines.

    Of course, the same exact tactics may not work for all writers in all markets, but the same principles of staying open to new ideas, staying flexible and willing to look for outside opportunities, knowing who your readers are and how they will consume your books… those will work for any writer.

  19. I’m looking forward to the white papers and Bill, thanks for opening the door in my mind to the gift market and book swapping. Conversations like these have sparked many useful ideas for my project. Thanks again to you all.

  20. I have to say, it’s really fun to get commenters like you & Bill. If you have any specific questions, just ask me — it’ll help make my white papers better.

  21. It was really fun being part of the string. Thanks to all and I will send any questions I can think of.

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