How Do You Successfully Self-Publish Your Book?
And how is self-publishing different from traditional publishing?
Since 2003, I’ve published nine novels with traditional publishers like HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. Since 2011, I’ve also self-published eight more.
In short, I’m a hybrid author, finding success — and failure! — with both publishing methods.
But a lot of people have tried self-publishing and found only failure.
“It’s all hype!” they say. “Self-publishing is like the Gold Rush: it’s the people who sell the services — the book jackets and marketing services — who make all the money, not the authors.”
But I’ve made more money from my eight self-published novels than from my nine traditionally published ones — and two of those traditionally published books even became feature films.
I also have plenty of writer-friends who’ve done very, very well with self-publishing. But I do know plenty of people who’ve made no money at all.
What makes the difference? It definitely has something to do with random chance — this is the arts, after all. And quality, of course.
But I think it’s mostly because successful self-publishers clearly understand the very big differences between self- and traditional publishing.
How does traditional publishing work?
Agents solicit manuscripts from writers, selecting the ones they think are “the best” — and, just as importantly, the most marketable. Then they submit those manuscripts to editors at established publishing houses, who again select the ones they think are “the best,” and also the most marketable.
This is a business, after all.
Publishers then work with these selected authors, thoroughly editing and packaging their manuscripts, turning them into “books.” The point is to make them as good — and, of course, as marketable! — as possible.
Once done, publishers send the finished books to the traditional review outlets; to the book and mainstream media; to award committees; and to certain high-profile literati. In turn, these groups and people recommend individual books to bookstores, libraries, schools, and ultimately, readers. The last decade or so, traditional publishers have also successfully targeted prominent social media influencers, who also recommend books directly to readers.
Gatekeepers? You bet! The whole point of the traditional publishing ecosystem is to take the great wash of manuscripts produced by writers in any given year and deeply vet them. At every point in the process, the group of books becomes narrowed, and what’s left at the end are only the very best books that are being written at any given time — at least in the opinion of the industry elites.
Self-publishing, needless to say, works very differently. If an author wants to publish a book, they do. Voila, it’s published! As writer Clay Shirky says, publishing is now no longer a job or an industry; it’s a button — or at least it can be.
But of course just because something is self-published, that doesn’t mean anyone is going to buy or read it. So how does the self-published author get the word out about his or her work?
More than a decade ago, in the early days of self-publishing, there was a bit of an open question about how the book and traditional media would deal with self-published books. A few break-out successes, like Andy Weir’s The Martian and Hugh Howey’s Wool, were forcing media outlets to at least reconsider their longstanding policies about rejecting out of hand anything that is “vanity” published.
But in the years since, the old attitude has hardened: most traditional and book media won’t even consider covering self-published content. Such books will get no legitimate reviews (unless the author wants to pay for them, in programs like Kirkus Indie). They will not be considered for “best of” lists or any award with any real impact or cache. There will be no literati buzz, which also means no mainstream legitimacy or respect.
As for those all-important “bestseller” lists, the most influential, the New York Times, flat-out rejects self-published books on their list. The Wall Street Journal did include self-published books, but their list has been discontinued, and USA Today recently configured their list, making it much harder for self-published books to register (too many self-published authors were gaming their rankings).
Even social media influencers are increasingly hesitant to review self-published books.
At first blush, this seems, well, discriminatory. Why such massive prejudice against “indie” authors? And some of it is prejudice. Many folks in the traditional book business are confused and threatened by self-publishing, which directly threatens their livelihood.
But it’s mostly a question of numbers.
Estimates of “books published every year” always vary widely. But we can safely say that mainstream publishers release and seriously market at least thirty thousand new titles every year.
And even among that number, the vast majority of mainstream books get almost no attention.
So how are traditional institutions and review outlets supposed to deal with the two-plus million self-published books that are now being created every year?
Self-publishing has almost no barrier to entry. No media outlet or award committee has the resources to vet the non-stop deluge of self-published content, the vast majority of which is, by almost all agreement, amateurish and awful.
These days, the only way a self-published book ever gets traditional or social media traction is usually after it becomes so successful on its own that it no longer needs the attention — like The Martian or Wool.
But I said earlier that I and many other authors have done quite well self-publishing. How have we done it?
It’s partly by embracing a “business” mind-set. A lot of people mistakenly claim that traditional publishers don’t really do anything for their cut of the money a book earns, but they actually do a lot — all the editing and marketing stuff I mentioned above.
They don’t always do this well, but they definitely do it.
To have any chance of success, self-publishers need to do all this themselves — and they do need to do it well. The more professional a project seems, the higher its odds of success.
But I think the most important factor is the book itself — and it's not just about “quality.” I think almost all self-publishing successes have one thing in common: they involve books that mostly sell themselves. They don’t need the imprimatur of an established publisher, a glowing review in Publishers Weekly, a nomination for major award, or buzz among the book literati. They might not even need that much marketing.
How exactly does a book “sell itself”? I can think of three ways:
(1) The book is part of a popular genre or sub-genre.
Successful self-publishers pick very popular genres, like romance, urban fantasy, mystery/thriller, or erotica. And their chosen sub-genre — vampires, zombies, dystopian, fairies, or multiverses — almost always has a large and enthusiastic fanbase. They might also appeal to some large but underserved demographic.
The successful self-published book isn’t necessarily creating trends or tropes; it’s more likely to be riffing on or responding to some existing cultural trend or trope. On the other hand, since self-published books can be published much faster than traditionally published ones, smart authors can and do respond to subtle cultural shifts faster: more graphic sex, for example.
In short, these books tend to be “easy sells” in general. They’re “guilty pleasures,” books with hooks, something whose core identity is easily understood and easily pitched on social media to a large pool of very receptive readers.
Readers buy self-published books because these works appeal to them on some very basic level. They want it because they want it — not because someone told them it’s “the best” in any given year. Fan reviews and “buzz” are important, but no one is choosing the book because it’s been vetted by members of an elite book industry.
I’m sure there’s an example somewhere, but I can’t recall ever seeing any successfully self-published literary fiction.
(2) The book is part of a series or a very clear author brand.
The second way self-published books become successful? They’re part of a series or a clear “brand” that the author has worked hard to establish.
In part, this is simply an addendum to the first rule of publishing in a popular genre. It’s Marketing 101: the more familiar something is, the easier it is to sell.
But there’s another even more important reason to make a self-published book part of a series or clear brand: readers can be skeptical of self-published books too. Since these books receive absolutely no vetting, who’s to say it’s not a piece of amateur crap? After all, every author thinks their own book is amazing — as do their friends, and also their mom.
But that doesn’t mean it is. Many of these books have almost no editing at all — sometimes not even proofreading.
To counter this, successful self-publishers offer readers one of their books very, very cheaply — or even for free. This lets the reader “test-drive” the author. If they like what they read, they buy more books in the series or brand — which is how almost all self-published authors make the big money these days.
Same author, wildly different outcomes.
(3) The author has a large and active platform.
The last way I see a self-published book becoming successful? The author has a strong platform with lots of enthusiastic followers to whom they can directly market the book.
Again, this just makes sense: with absolutely no vetting, it will be extremely difficult to get any attention for your book.
So you provide your own attention via your massive newsletter email list or social media platform — and, of course, any media contacts you’ve cultivated through this large and vibrant platform. At least your colleagues will give you the time of day.
But when it comes to self-publishing, it should be noted: your platform needs to be directly related to your book. Your email list for your pest-control business is very unlikely to move any copies of your vampire romance.
So there you have it: my informed take on the current self-publishing landscape.
Bottom line? Be professional. And write a book that mostly sells itself. Practically speaking, I think your project needs at least two of the three above-mentioned ways books become easy sells.
Honestly, I think the single biggest mistake that self-published writers make these days is writing a book for the traditional market, not landing an agent or book deal, and then simply self-publishing that same book as a one-off.
That’s simply not how self-publishing works, and I think the resulting book will almost certainly sell very modestly. In my opinion, self-publishing is a bad alternative to traditional publishing. After all, it’s an entirely different beast.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong! And even if I am right about things up until now, maybe you’ll be the one to finally prove me wrong.
After all, there’s a famous quote from an Oscar-winning screenwriter named William Goldman, who once gave his observation on how truly crazy the entertainment industry can sometimes be:
“Nobody knows anything.”
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out his other newsletter about his travels at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com.