How Do You Successfully Self-Publish?

Last week, a friend of mine took a look at my non-fiction and said, “I couldn’t find much on your blog about indie publishing… I’ve traditionally published before but always on the look-out for interesting posts on how to successfully self-publish.”

Her point was well-taken, I do lean heavily toward the author side of the publishing equation, and maybe my site navigation could use some work. But her observation also points up a distinction that isn’t always clear: What is the difference between “indie publishing,” “traditional publishing,” and “self-publishing”?

Possibly the easiest of these to define is “traditional publishing.” No one disputes that Hachette and Penguin Random House are traditional publishers. There was no such thing as “the internet” or “the ebook” when these publishers first sprang into existence, and their overall business strategy is not digital-dependent. If the internet crashed tomorrow, these publishers would have the infrastructure in place to continue to make books.

But what about “indie publishing” and “self-publishing”? My friend used the terms interchangeably, as if a self-publisher was by default an independent publisher, and vice-versa.

I tend to think of “indie publishers” as the small presses, publishing operations that survive and flourish in the niche markets where the Big 5 deign to allow some sunlight to penetrate through the stifling canopy they have built over the world of books. Regional presses and specialty print-shops fit this definition nicely, as do bloggers and literary magazines. They may very well be “traditional” presses in the sense of being primarily print-oriented, offering contracts to authors, and operating within a fairly well-defined and time-honored workflow from manuscript to printed page to distribution, but what makes these “indie publishers” non-traditional is that they are not as beholden to the forms of publishing as are the Big 5 houses and their near relatives. They may be willing to put more emphasis on digital publications or take chances with unusual technologies or workflow patterns in order to maximize their efficiency or their market reach. Or they may not have much of a profit motive at all, being more willing to take losses on heart-felt projects just to get good work “out there.”

But this is not the same as a self-publisher. Indie and traditional publishers both share one feature in common: they assume the majority of the risk for a book’s commercial success, and participate very little in the creative process from which the book is born. By contrast, a self-publisher (aka an independent author-publisher-entrepreneur) assumes both the creative and the commercial risks of publication.

So to come back to my friend’s question: How does one “successfully” self-publish?

First, one has to know what “success” looks like. If you create a magnum opus of 300,000 epic words, with full orchestration and 8″x10″ color glossy photographs, and you are content that only 5 people in the world will ever read it, then you have “successfully” self-published when Reader #5 finally puts down that monster.

By contrast, if you are willing to market the s**t out of a 40-page piece of badly-edited, “Plot? What plot?” erotica in exchange for a thousand free downloads from Kindle Unlimited, then you have “successfully” self-published when the Kindle counter rolls over to that first millennium of downloads.

To put this in perspective, my friend has 4,900 views and 663 votes for her ongoing book on Wattpad. Compared to the zero views and nil votes on the work I haven’t yet published on Wattpad, her accomplishment seems fairly substantive. Yet she seems to think she isn’t a “successful” self-publisher.

Second, if your idea of success is “commercial success,” by which I mean “sales,” then it should be fairly easy for anyone to understand what “successful” self-publication looks like. It’s not the self-publisher who has the most sales. It’s the self-publisher who achieves the best profit margin.

If you can produce your book for a cost of $10,000 dollars, sell it for $1 a copy, and return at least 10,000 sales, you have been successful at selling 10,000 copies, but you have made no profit. By contrast, another author with the same production costs, a mere 1,001 sales and a cover price of $10 per copy has earned a profit of $10. So, who was more successful? For many, it will seem obvious: $10 profit is greater than none.

So, by this estimation, one’s success is determined by one’s business plan, sales forecasts, and actual revenue, and the question of “how to successfully self-publish” is a question about bean-counting and ledger-keeping. You are successful when the black numbers outnumber the red numbers on your balance-sheet.

Third, one can judge one’s success or failure by less traditional measures. How many people are on your mailing list? Can you exchange books for subscriptions to your list? If so, than each subscription is the “price” you earn from your “customers.” So even if you make no money, if you can grow your mailing list from zero to 100,000 subscribers, maybe you could be considered successful.

So What is Success?

I asked my friend to explain a bit more about what she considered to be “success” in self-publishing.

I don’t really think of wattpad as self-publishing… for me it’s putting out an ebook or paperback through amazon etc. Wattpad is, for me, a way of getting awesome reader feedback – seeing what works, what needs work etc and hopefully getting fans that will be keen enough to rate the book on amazon/ goodreads when/ if I self-publish and maybe even buy other books in the series. Wattpad is also excellent for motivation! People are already reading and responding to what you’re putting out there and that is totally awesome, but as a broad goal I’d like to earn a living from my writing! (Which would be why I’d want to self-publish on amazon or whatever rather than just stop at posting the book on wattpad.) As for rating success on wattpad, that’s kind of hard… But there’s nothing better than seeing someone whizz through the posted chapters and be sitting there waiting for updates!

Ahh. So this is where we come to the crux of the matter. Success in self-publishing would be, in my friend’s measure, earning a living from her writing by way of sales through Amazon.

There are No Self-Publishers

A lot of authors forget to take the “Self” out of “self-publishing.” They don’t understand that they aren’t authors who happen to be publishing, but instead are publishers who have only one author-client. So they approach the enterprise of publishing as a problem in “how to earn a living by writing.” In reality, almost no one earns a living by writing.

Publishers earn a profit by carefully controlling the costs of acquisitions, production, distribution, sales, and returns. And they typically do this by working with multiple writers on multiple books at the same time. They don’t “earn a living.” They earn a return on their investments.

Think of writing like dairy farming. Writers are the cows that produce the jugs of milk that get distributed to supermarkets. They are not the farmers.

Publishers are the farmers. Farmers make milk production and distribution profitable by keeping cows at a minimally viable level of existence. Their cows get enough food to survive, a warm enough place to sleep in cold weather, and sufficient medical care to keep them productive. The farmer provides land on which to graze, machinery by which to milk the cows and bottle their product, and trucks to move that milk from farm to market.

Most publishers don’t even do that much for their authors.

Now imagine that the cows start “self-distributing” milk. They cut out the middle-man, the farmer. The cow wants all the profit for itself. The cow dreams of “earning a living” off its milk, by which, of course, the cow means it wants a brand-new high-end luxury sports car and a hot-tub in the back yard.

But what does the cow know about bottling, labeling, government regulations, marketing, promotion, distribution, sales, revenue, and earnings before interest and taxes? What does the writer know about publishing?

So with all of that said, where is the information on my blog about “indie publishing”? I’d recommend starting here, an overview of the business of publishing in general and internet publishing specifically. If you want to be a successful “self-publisher,” take the “Self” out of the equation and learn what it means to be a publisher. Then apply those principals to the work of your one client.

  • The Business of Publishing: A Brief History. Because once upon a time, Gutenberg was an “indie publisher,” and the story of publishing has always been the story of technological disruption to previous industrial paradigms.
  • The Recent History of Book Publishing. The pace of change accelerates, and an industry matures before it begins to decline.
  • How Do You Get a Book Published? A look at what “publishing” even means, and a brief introduction into developmental editing.
  • Today’s History of the Publishing Industry. An exploration of the year 2014 in traditional publishing, because to understand what “indie” success looks like, you should have a baseline of comparison.
  • The Internet Publishing Frontier. This article provides an exploration of the business model of internet publishing, where small, independent operators were largely responsible for the 8.3% estimated annualized growth in the industry, compared to the stagnation of traditional publishing models.
  • How to Get Paid to Write. Whether you measure success by number of dollars earned or number of books put into customer hands, you can’t get paid if you can’t get the word out to your audience.
  • The Power of Small Press Publishing. An interview with the Publisher of a Midwestern regional small press, whose success as an “indie publisher” goes beyond dollars and cents and brings value to communities, schools, and non-profits.

I would also suggest becoming familiar with The Business of Creativity. Because honestly, the bar to “success” is set pretty low from a business perspective.

Beyond that, I recommend studying and practicing the craft. Discipline, craft, commitment, passion, character, setting, conflict, structure. As the indie publishing and indie author markets continue to grow, quality is going to increasingly be the thing that sets one book apart from another. The days of slipshod quality and production are coming to an end. If you want to be successful in the next generation of self-publishing, invest in craft and quality. Your readers will thank you for it.


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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