On Unrealistic Expectations In Self-Publishing

Books, Books, Books

On his blog, author Tobias Buckell has posted an interesting counterpoint to some of the HUZZAH! of self-publishing out there:

I love this quote from the recent marketing guide that Smashwords published:

“we cannot promise you your book will sell well, even if you follow all the tips in this guide. In fact, most books, both traditionally published and self-published, don’t sell well. Whether your book is intended to inspire, inform or entertain, millions of other books and media forms are competing against you for your prospective reader’s ever-shrinking pie of attention.”

(From Smashwords — Smashwords Book Marketing Guide – A book by Mark Coker – page 7.)

This just does not get emphasized nearly enough. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal since I published The Apocalypse Ocean. One, because so many rah rah eBook advocates have been indicating to me that if I’d only just publish digitally first I’d keep 70% of the profits and *obviously* make more than I would with ‘traditional publishing.’

Since 2001, I’d been involved in selling eBooks…I lay down my bonafides, because usually the first thing I get is a lot of ‘booksplainin,’ by which I mean people lecturing me about what to do as if it’s self evident, obvious, and usually based entirely on their own anecdotal experience.

In fact, the self assured expertise of anecdotes drives me nuts…

I recommend reading the piece. Buckell makes some solid points, and his larger point — that big success in self publishing is rare, and we tend to hear only about the outliers who win big — is true. Of course, that’s also the case with traditional publishing. Even for those who score a publishing deal with a big New York corporation, most make relatively little when compared to “real” jobs that grown ups have. And the average result for them is skewed just as much by the big successes in traditional publishing.

His figures, provided by Smashwords, are interesting, but are themselves only anecdotal evidence because the numbers all come only from Smashwords, not from the far more successful ebook venues like Amazon, B&N, iTunes, and Kobo (all of whom are stingy with such data). And every self-published author I’ve talked to, or who I’ve seen write on the matter, has said that the number of books they sell on Smashwords, as compared to the other venues, is so small as to be nearly insignificant. Some of them say it’s barely worth publishing to Smashwords (I’ve only just begun this journey, so I have no opinion on that; I want my books up everywhere they can be).

Also, when looking at publishing figures like this, and comparing results between traditional and indie publishing, the comparison is meaningless unless the figures you run for traditional include all the authors who are attempting to publish traditionally and failing to do so. There are many traditionally focused authors who are making ZERO dollars, but they will never be counted. Their counterparts in self-publishing, however, *are* getting published, because they’re doing it themselves, so they get counted, and the vast majority of people who don’t actually make anything off their self-published book, for quality or whatever reasons, skew these figures just as much as the highly successful folk at the other end of the charts.  The extreme low-performers in traditional publishing don’t get counted in statistics like this, whereas the extreme low-performers in self-publishing do.

And if you have a thousand authors on the traditional path who make zilch, and a thousand authors on the indie path who publish their own book and make just a dollar, you know what? The indies are doing better. Something is better than nothing.

3 comments on “On Unrealistic Expectations In Self-Publishing

  1. The main argument thay finally swayed me toward self-publishing is that even if your books don’t sell well, you’re “doing the work”. Traditionally published authors like to romanticize the agent/query/slushpile/rejection-letter paradigm, and say that gathering rejection letters is akin to “putting in the hours”. But it’s not. You can make a hundred queries, get a hundred rejection letters, and you’ve literally gained nothing (except experience, obviously). There’s nothing to show and no progress made.

    But publish 10 novels on Amazon, and even if they’re not all that successful, you still wind up with TEN NOVELS, finished, available, and out there in the world, actively representing your name.

    Not picking THAT, in the year 2013, seems insane to me. It would be like trying to make it as a musician and refusing to make use of Youtube, insisting that people will only hear your songs once you sign a record contract. Or trying to get work as an artist, but with no online portfolio — or any portfolio at all.

    • Tim Byrd says:

      That’s a very good way of looking at it. Of course, that’s taking the point of view that you’re writing to be read, not to be personally validated by some higher literary authority. If you need the pat on the head, probably best to put all that effort into crawling through the traditional gantlet (which is, itself, satisfying and ennobling to some so that they can brag about their scars).

      • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I framed my first rejection letter.”

        It’s like, hey, good for you. Want the link to my first 5-star review?

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