When most authors write a book, they go the traditional route: pitch it to publishers, wait months for a reply, shop it around, wait some more, go through rewrite, and wait some more… But when blogger Sramana Mitra partnered with Amazon’s BookSurge to self-publish her new book, she was taking a different route.
For a book about web technology and online business, she found self-publishing to be the way to go.
“I have partnered with Amazon, and Amazon is paying for all sorts of things,” said Mitra, who published her book “Entrepreneur Journeys“ through Amazon’s BookSurge service. “And, they have the ability to market and merchandise online. They can also easily reach the technology/business/entrepreneurship audience that I am interested in, because they’re all online.”
Mitra isn’t alone. Once dismissed as “vanity publishing,” self-publishing is today getting a second look from many aspiring authors as new technology makes it a more viable alternative to traditional publishing.
Traditional self-publishing essentially let you borrow a printing press: If you paid for it, they’d print almost anything. For several reasons, the process left something to be desired on the author’s end. First, it usually required an author to bear the costs of an entire print run — leaving that writer with several thousand copies of their own book and a vague hope that they might be able to turn around and sell them. Without the distribution and advertising might of a publishing house behind him or her, that could be a pretty daunting task. And since most bookstores were reluctant to take a gamble on an unknown, untested writer, the chances of making a profit were usually pretty grim.
Several things have changed in recent years to make self-publishing a more attractive option for some writers. First, a new breed of publisher, the “print-on-demand” service has come about with the rise of the Internet. These services only print copies of a book as they’re ordered, saving self-published authors from the potential nightmare of a garage full of unsold books. For a fee, services like BookSurge, Packt, Lulu, AuthorHouse, and iUniverse offer a range of options, including proof-reading or customizable covers. Another difference is that some of these services even offer packages to help authors with promotion and distribution instead of leaving them to figure it out on their own.
Besides simplifying the printing process, new communications technology has made it much easier for self-published writers to spread the word about their books. And while it might still be difficult to get a self-published book sold in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, many self-published writers now can sell their work on their own website or arrange deals with online booksellers.
Just because some writers have managed to make self-publishing work for them is no guarantee of success, but there are ways to increase your odds. Here are six ways that you can make self-publishing work for you:
1) Be more than just a writer.
Let’s say that you’ve just written your magnum opus. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this little tome and created the best book you can. What’s next? If you’re working with a traditional publisher, they’ll handle the business particulars from here on out. For most authors, simply writing the book is exhausting enough. But a self-publishing writer can never relax.
A self-published writer still has plenty more work ahead: What should the book’s cover look like? Who’s going to edit the book? Who’s going to promote it? Should they try to get bookstores to carry it or just sell it online?
“Self-publishing works best for those who can handle the pressure of being not only an author but also an entrepreneur,” said Mitra. “You are, effectively, becoming a publisher. Say that you write 10 to 30 books through your career — look at it as if you are creating a personal imprint, a personal franchise.”
If you’re the sort of tireless fanatic who wants full control over your work and isn’t afraid to tackle every step in the process, self-publishing is a fast, easy, and, these days, increasingly cheap way to go.
2) Self-publishing can lead to a publishing deal.
Some writers lament that there’s only so far you can go working alone. If you want to see your book reach the New York Times best-seller list, you’ll probably need to sell it to a traditional publisher. But that doesn’t mean a self-published book can’t get you on your way. Some writers see a self-published book as a way to get the attention of agents and publishers, hoping that it will prove that they’re capable of writing a best seller.
Of course, it only works if your self-published book actually does prove that.
“Just writing and self-publishing a book in itself isn’t what’s going to impress a publisher,” said Andrea Hurst, president of Andrea Hurst Literary Management. “If a writer tells me that they self-published a book that sold 3,000 copies in two months, I’d take a look at it. That’s what publishers are looking for: the highest sales numbers in the shortest time. But if this book has been out for two years and only sold 3,000, it’s old. Publishers won’t be interested in that. Books get old fast.”
First-time authors may be inspired by stories about books like “The Shack” or “The Celestine Prophecy,” which were rejected time and again by publishers but which hit it big after their authors took matters into their own hands. Once that happened, publishers were more than eager to work with them.
3) Be realistic about your monetary returns.
A self-published writer will almost always see more of the revenue going into their own pocket than a traditional published writer. Although some of the funds still go to the print-on-demand service, self-published writers generally receive a bigger cut of the profits than traditional writers.
“If I self-publish, then I make all the money,” said Hurst, “I don’t have to give any cut to an agent. But the big problem is I still need to find a way to sell these books.”
Mitra chose to publish with Amazon’s BookSurge partly because the BookSurge royalty rate is nearly three times the normal 10-15% that authors make in traditional publishing arrangements.
“I wanted to get the books out quickly, with maximum control over the production process, and with the most attractive financial deal,” said Mitra. Mitra said her royalty arrangement was possible because the publisher and agent were dis-intermediated.
But that doesn’t mean you should think you’re going to be rolling in money. If you’re looking for a quick buck, writing a book is not the way to go.
“Of all the things you can offer, a book has the highest status but the lowest return,” said Stephanie Gunning, creator of “7 Quick and Easy Steps to Write and Sell Your First Book Proposal.” Gunning is an editor and consultant who has worked with numerous self-publishers as well as having self-published a few of her own books.
“If you tell people you’ve written a book, it certainly impresses people,” she said. “It makes you an instant expert, but it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. If you’re looking for money, you’ve got to have another avenue.”
4) Write for a specific audience.
As a self-published writer, you probably won’t have the cash to mount a wide advertising blitz. And if you can’t convince people that they want to buy what you write, instead you’ll have to write what they want to buy.
In general, certain genres seem better suited for self-publishing — self-help and non-fiction books are usually an easier sell, since they can tap into a market need. Among fiction, genre works that appeal to a built-in fan base, like science fiction or fantasy, sell better than strictly literary titles.
“I think inspirational/motivational titles can do really well for self-published authors if the author is engaged in a lot of speaking, maybe to corporate groups who will take a bulk buy of the book when they have the author in to speak to employees or trainees,” said Stephany Evans, president of FinePrint Literary Management. “Usually these are business-oriented books, but they also might be spiritual or personal growth titles by an author who is work-shopping their message or program at various churches or other venues. Often in these cases, as the author finds a larger following, mainstream publishers will catch wind of their success and sometimes make the author an offer he or she can’t refuse.”
Many agents and editors are quick to point to first-time author Elle Newmark as a sign that even the most unlikely gambles can bear fruit. Despite conventional wisdom that self-published novels don’t sell, Newmark self-published “The Books of Unholy Mischief” with iUniverse, before recruiting an agent and landing a seven-figure advance from a traditional publisher.
5) Keep up-to-date.
If you want to write for an audience, you first have to know what they want to read. Keep your eyes open. What’s going on in the news? What are people talking about? Even in these uncertain times, when the economy is sagging, a savvy writer sees opportunities. A book about how to live through the recession or what to do if you’ve lost your home could do well hitting the market just about now. But if you’ve got an idea for writing a book on how to invest in stocks, well, it’s probably best to hold off on that one for now.
One of the advantages of self-publishing is its quick turn-around time — so you can capitalize on breaking trends. If you need it published fast, you won’t want to wait up to a year as a publisher reviews your manuscript.
“If you know yourself and your business, print-on-demand is a much faster method of getting published,” said Gunning. “Traditional publishers can take anywhere from nine months to a year and a half to get a book on the shelves. If your purpose is to take advantage of some timely matter like the market crash, then you might consider self-publishing.”
6) Get your name out there.
Most readers aren’t going to bother buying a book by someone they’ve never heard of — which is why many self-publishing success stories involve authors who strike out on their own after making it big in the world of traditional publishing. Popular fantasy author Piers Anthony self-published his controversial World War II novel “Volk” through print-on-demand service Xlibris after the book was rejected by publishers, and Stephen King experimented with self-publishing his horror story “The Plant” through his own website.
So before people will buy your book, they need to know who you are.
“The bigger the number of people in your database, the bigger the number of books you’re likely to sell,” said Gunning. “If you’re a first time self-publisher, and you have, say, 10 people in your family, 20 friends, and 100 clients, then you can’t realistically expect to sell more than 130 copies. But things change if you’ve already made a name for yourself. If you’re blogging and getting 20,000 hits a week, each of those readers are potential customers.”
First-time writers have to work especially hard to get noticed, but many have found a ready audience online. Hurst described the Internet as a level playing field, where first-time writers can build up an audience before publishing their books. In her business, Hurst recommends that the aspiring writers she works with read “The Author’s Guide to Building an Online Platter: Leveraging the Internet to Sell More” by Stephanie Chandler to get the most out of Internet recognition. Prior to publishing “Entrepreneur Journeys,” Sramana Mitra built up a regular readership through her online technology and consulting blog and a regular column at Forbes.com.
“Ideally, you should only start down this path if you already have a readership and fan base,” said Mitra. “Marketing and getting yourself known is hard. Easiest way to get there is through blogs these days. Blog for three years, build a readership, then start publishing books. And yes, you need a flair for marketing to do this. It ain’t for shy people. If you can market your work, you can self-publish. If you can’t, then don’t bother with it.”
Publicity still remains the biggest obstacle for self-published writers — yet there’s never been a time when self-promoting a book has been easier. While you might not be able to book any television appearances on the strength of your print-on-demand book, the Internet presents myriad opportunities for the dedicated self-promoter.
“I think a proactive personality makes the best self-published author, but that’s pretty much true, these days, of any author publishing,” said Stephany Evans. “Being an author in either domain takes a lot of hustle to ‘move units’ of their book — whether it’s online, flogging-by-blogging or using the viral marketing of YouTube or Facebook…Lacking the support of a publisher’s in-house publicity, marketing and sales forces, the self-publisher will have the full weight of all these efforts on her or his own shoulders so he or she needs to be organized, resourceful, and tireless.”
What do you think? Have you tried self-publishing and what worked for you (or didn’t)? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.