The Ups and Downs of Self-Publishing

Yes, I know, there are hundreds of posts about this subject already, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to write one as well. Also, this post will be entirely on a personal level, because I’m anything but an expert on self-publishing. All I know about it is what I’ve absorbed over the past few months on the subject.

I’ll apologise now if this post gets a bit angsty and/or whiny, but this is my way of getting my thoughts in order, and maybe help others along the way, since I’m sure there are plenty of other people in the same situation as me.

A year ago I knew next to nothing about self-publishing. I knew about e-books, of course, and that it was possible for authors to publish their own books without the intervention of an agent and/or publisher, but that was about it. I was determined to try and publish my book the traditional way first, and only when that didn’t work out would I get it out there myself. I deliberately say ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ there, because I had no illusions about the difficulty in getting a traditional agent or publisher to take notice. I would get my round of rejections, and only then would I investigate self-publishing.

Except I had failed to take my own impatience into account.

I sent off my first enquiry in late October, after having slaved over the synopsis for several days. This may not sound like much, but anyone who has ever had to write one will know that synopses are horrible, horrible things that need to die a long and painful death. How the hell is anyone supposed to summarise the entire plot of a 125,000 word novel in one page (and double-spaced at that)? And I’ve not even mentioned the hook and biography yet. You have one chance at grabbing an agent’s attention, so there really is no room for error. But hey, I’d cobbled something together, picked my favourite agent out of the Writers & Artist’s Yearbook and e-mailed it all off.

And then came the wait. Six weeks, it said. Six weeks passed, then seven, and I sent off another, very careful e-mail. Excuse me, terribly sorry to disturb Your Occupiedness, but – my novel?

The reply came more or less the same day. Sorry, we feel unable to represent you. To me this said ‘we’ve not actually even looked at it, but you wanted a reply, so here it is’.

I looked at the remaining list of possible agents (I think I had another six or seven on the list), calculated the time it would take to approach all of them, the amount of postage and paper it would cost me (since not all of them would accept e-mail submissions) and thought ‘fuck that shit’. I changed my plan to self-publishing my first novel, then trying again in, say, two years time, if I had some decent sales at that point.

Did I mention I’m really impatient? What it basically boiled down to was that I had a book which I considered finished. Not a masterpiece or a life-changing, earth-shattering work of literature that will last for the next three centuries, but a pretty decent, enjoyable novel that I wanted other people to read and lose themselves in for a few hours. Why on earth would I want to wait another year for that?

So I self-published the damn thing, then told my friends on Facebook and asked them to share it. Many of them did, because they’re awesome, and it netted me a number of sales. I’d probably have left it at that, except when I checked Amazon the next morning I had a five-star review. Not from any of my friends, mind, but from someone completely unknown to me, who had read the whole thing in half a day and absolutely loved it.

Bear in mind that up until that point I considered my novel, at best, decent. Nothing like the books from some of my favourite authors – I can read something as brilliant as Surface Detail by Iain M Banks and it makes me want to jack in all this writing shit, because I’ll never be that good – but decent. Plus there was always that niggling voice that said ‘EL James is a fucking billionaire, and her books are worse than yours!’

So that review was a massive ego-boost, and I figured that maybe my book was better than I thought it was. Still, after that initial push the sales dwindled to nothing, and my ego deflated with it. I began investigating ways of promoting my book, started a blog (hi everyone!) and began socialising on Goodreads. To my surprise I was enjoying both, but there is a massive stumbling block to translating that kind of stuff into sales, and that is that people get really annoyed if you constantly shove your book and general author-ness in their face.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand perfectly why that’s the case. I don’t want anyone else to constantly tell me how great their book is and to buy it now either. However, the other problem is that it is very hard for an author to not relate any topic being discussed to their own book. Someone will say ‘I love books with thieves in them’ and you want to go ‘my book has thieves!’ It doesn’t matter what is being discussed, any topic can somehow be tied to your own book – probably because you’ve been living and breathing it for so long that it completely permeates your brain.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, it requires walking a fine line. There are self-promotion areas everywhere, but they are flooded with other self-published authors, and you just get lost in the mire. So I investigated further. What have other authors done to get their books out there? What is the formula to success?

And that’s when I found out the depressing truth – there isn’t one.

I could have guessed that, of course. If there was one, everyone would be following it. I have learned a lot of things though, such as to embrace all reviews, good or bad. At first I was ecstatic to have several five-star reviews on Amazon, but now I know that having nothing but five-star reviews looks suspicious. It reeks of the author canvassing their family and friends and asking them to post up rave reviews. Personally I have asked people I know to post up a review if they liked the book; I never asked them to post up a five star one, so the fact that they did hopefully means something.

Then again, it could be that all it means is that they either don’t want to hurt my feelings, or think I’m too scary to be negative about the book. The latter is a possibility, because apparently I can be quite scary.

Anyway, the message here is that you don’t want just positive reviews, you want negative ones as well. Let’s face it, there isn’t a single book in existence that’s loved by everyone, so someone, somewhere is going to hate your book. You just want them to be in the minority. (If they’re not, reconsider your book, since it’ll probably need work.) If they let the world know by posting a one-star review that says ‘this book sucks’, then be reassured that no distinguishing reader will pay any attention to it. On the opposite side, they’re also not going to pay any attention to a five-star review that says ‘this book is great!’. No, what you need are detailed reviews that tell a potential reader why the reviewer loved or hated the book. Those are the ones that might net you if not a sale, then at least an interested peek inside your book, or possibly a sample download. And yes, even the negative ones can do that. If someone posts an in-depth essay on how they hated your book because it’s got too much rampant sex in it, then some other reader might go ‘wha-hey, bring on the nookie!’ and buy it.

While we’re on the subject of reviews, the general consensus is to never reply to them on public forums such as Amazon or Goodreads. Not the good ones (it makes you look needy) nor the bad ones (it makes you look like a dick, no matter how polite you are about it).

Lastly, and this should be a no-brainer, never review your own book. You are the author – of course you think it’s great and worth five stars, why else would you have published it?

Apart from that, what I have found out so far is that any number of the following things have a bearing on how well your book sells:

1) The quality of the book itself. This should be another no-brainer, but the depressing truth is that the majority of self-published books are atrocious. Not just in terms of spelling and grammar (which is bad enough), but also in terms of plot, characterisation and everything else that makes a book a good book. As a result, many people are very wary about buying self-published works, and I really can’t blame them, even if it is really frustrating for those of us who have made the effort to deliver a properly edited piece of work. All I can do about this is hope that people read a sample, or use the ‘look inside’ function on Amazon to see that yes, I can indeed spell, and I know the difference between your and you’re. Or past and passed.

2) Word of mouth. Another thing I can do very little about. I can hope that people who have read it and liked it tell their friends, but I can’t make them, nor can I make said friends buy my book.

3) The cover. This is such a difficult one. Does the cover stand out? If so, does it stand out for the right reasons? Does it match the contents of the book? I suspect mine is lacking in that regard – it really doesn’t look like the cover of a Romance novel, but there are reasons for why I went with this design, and I do like the overall look of it. It’ll look better once book two is out, but until then it’ll have to stand on its own merits. I don’t think it’s bad anyway, I just don’t know if it’s right, and no one (who isn’t a friend) has yet given me any feedback about the cover.

4) A lot of hard work on your part. There is one line which has stuck with me the most from everything I have read in the past months: The default position you start from is that no one gives a shit about your book, other than you. You have to make them aware, make them care, make them notice, and it requires a lot of slogging around, requesting reviews, making yourself known in various communities, etc. etc. You will have a lot of fun on the way, but that in itself doesn’t get your book sold. There are tips on where to go, what to do, where to advertise, but you’re still in a large part dependent on the first three points, and probably even more dependent on the next factor:

5) Sheer blind stupid luck. Lots of people have (done) all of the above, yet get nowhere. Two people can be doing the exact same thing, yet one is making a killing and the other one sells little to nothing. It’s down to luck sometimes, and that really is something no one can influence.

Some of that is mightily depressing, but the last piece of advice I keep seeing everywhere is don’t give up. If you’re confident that your book is good, that it’s worth reading, then just keep slogging on.

Yet I can’t help but have doubts. Is my book good enough? Plenty of people have said so, but I’ve not followed any conventional rules in writing it. I’ve never taken any creative writing courses or even read any books on the subject. The closest I’ve come to something like that was by reading a book called ‘How Not to Write a Novel’, and I mainly read that because it was hilarious. I don’t write plot outlines, don’t do whatever it is a writer is supposed to do – I just sit down and I write. It seems to work, but I could be just an overconfident, arrogant fuck who desperately needs a wake-up call.

Still, I’m not going to be deterred. I’ve had a blast writing The Ritual, had an even better time writing The Conspiracy, and I intend to enjoy writing The Coup. I may not have any other books left in me after that, but I’m determined to get that trilogy out there, and to try and get people to at least consider reading it.

And then, after all of the above, deep down there is still my restless bundle of impatience, and it says just one thing: “Hey, I published my book three months ago. Why am I still not rich?”


7 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Self-Publishing

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    Classes and books and all that stuff can’t compare with the actual practice of writing. There is no solid set of rules that guarantee a good book, just like there’s no solid set of rules that guarantee a good painting — otherwise all art would be Paint By Numbers. While it’s not a bad thing to know some guidelines, a lot of them — if not most or all — can be picked up just by normal reading (not how-to reading) and writing practice. At the end of the day, you as an author have to discover your own voice and style, and that can’t be taught by a class; it’s an organic process that comes from all your own prior reading, your personal analysis of that, and your decisions as to the right and wrong way for you to express your own ideas.

    Lemme tell you, I have a BA in creative writing and all it really taught me was how to take criticism (and how to spit out a short story the night before it was due).

    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      I can always rely on you to make me feel better, thanks. =) I know that what I write feels right, but there’s always that niggling self-doubt gnawing at me… I think I just need to keep smacking it down with a sledgehammer.

  2. Christopher Lee Deards

    Very good to read about the beginning of the journey of publishing. Like you did, I plan to try the traditional route first. If that goes poorly, as I expect it will, I may end up self publishing. But, regardless, I will continue to write.
    Patrick Rothfuss is great at the art. He’s my Iain Banks. Rothfuss was denied by every agent in the universe, but in the end he found a way. There is hope.

    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      Thank you, that’s what I always bolster myself with as well – the surprisingly long list of successful authors who were rejected multiple times. And in the end the fact remains that I had a wonderful time constructing a story, so that in itself has been worth the effort.


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