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Let’s get real about self-publishing

I used to be an ardent fan of self publishing. I thought that the extra money you’d get out of making your own business choices, along with bigger royalties, would offset the extra work of publishing yourself. You could be rewarded with sales because no one cares as often about your book (every day) or as much as you do.

Then I self-published nonfiction. Books like my Stealing Home can be easier to sell than fiction, especially since mine’s about Little League baseball and fatherhood. But mine also has an art component. Out of all of the nonfiction created, memoirs have the greatest amount of art. My nonfiction book has plenty of dramatic scenes. Good memoirs can get away with that level of entertainment.

Self-publishing meant more than just hiring good editors and coaches, or getting a great cover on the front of a book that has no typos inside. It meant getting good reviews, then finding a way to get publicity for the book. Making choices about contests to enter (not free) and the shows to exhibit at (ditto). It meant discovering that bookstores are a lot less likely to stock your book for sale if you have only yourself and your plans to market it. They want customers coming into the store who have heard about your book before they discover it on the shelves. Two kinds of bookstore customers: those who come to discover and those seeking a particular book. The latter will buy more often, so long as the book is for sale on the shelves.

Bookstores might only represent one-third of all books sold by now. When was the last time you bought a book inside a store? Bookstore sales have prestige, but that prestige will not get your books sold. Once you’re for sale in a store, your results are tracked by Bookscan. That’s a grade card, the kind of measure that will keep publishers from investing extra money after your release as well as following through on promises to market more. It can prevent booksellers from re-ordering, too, or hanging on to your books for months instead of weeks.

Now when authors ask me about self-publishing, I reply, “How much do you like marketing and publicity?” By publishing yourself, you sign up for all of that work. If you’re a good writer but have not done marketing before, you need to polish a new voice.

I advise the authors to have a publicist lined up for their book release. It’s a major cost with a questionable return. That’s earned media. Paid media is advertising. The ads for Amazon are a huge gamble. You bid for a keyword and Amazon charges you Per Click. Not Per Sale. You only win the bid with a higher figure. Facebook can drive readers to your website, or to the Amazon page. The latter destination offers the readers 8-20 other things to buy at the same time they’re judging your product.

There are no perfect answers out there for the dilemma of getting a book noticed, discovered, read, and recommended. The publishers do their best, but they often approach the task with too few resources to well-support every author in their list. Us writers and teachers approach our work as communicators and storytellers. The extra layer we hope to reach is commercial success. It’s a different and difficult victory to win the sale. We keep creating and invest in professional help, just like the publishers do.

Mike Shatzkin, who’s a genius at understanding publishing, wrote a column about how most publishing these days is produced by freelancers. If you know what you’re doing, you can hire these pros, too. Right down the line, until you make your way to the distribution (sales) gateway. If your pros have done the needed work, you’ll pass through. At that point, you’re more traditionally published than self-published. Self-publishing gives you more control — and puts the commercial risks in your hands, too.