The Lure of Self-publishing: Can Amanda Hocking's Success be Replicated?

A Black Swan adult with chicks swimming on a l...Black swan on a lake in Australia Image via WikipediaThe stigma attached to self publishing has gone, but is that reason enough to self-publish?

True, the stigma has been removed by the digital revolution, but the hype about self-publishing has risen to such dangerous heights that it threatens to topple over!

Can you really repeat the success of Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath and John Locke? 

J.A. Konrath was a published mid list author when he started to self publish so one can always argue he had a fan base, a known name and could reasonably expect success. Indeed, his blog, so he says, attracts some 500,000 visits/year, a good "platform" or Internet presence, by any means! 

But the other two? They were classic black swans: no one had heard of them, they swooped in from the outside and both sold millions of copies of their books in just a few months. And Amanda Hocking famously went on to land a multi-million deal with a major legacy publisher (St. Martin's Press) and I hear reports that Locke is now working with Simon & Shuster. Enough to get any newbie drooling...

We're in late 2011, and things have changed a lot. There's a tsunami of fiction titles on Amazon's Kindle (at least 750,000 and rising) and e-book sales are outpacing printed book sales. New e-readers are about to come to market (chief among them Amazon's Kindle Fire) and they will presumably further expand the market (more readers, more books sold). On the paperbook side, bookstores are closing, Big Six Publishers have to deal with various game changers, not least of them the bid Amazon is making to become the Next Big Publisher.

So it makes sense to publish e-books, right? Let's all go and self-publish and live happily ever after sunning ourselves on Caribbean beaches! If you read the grand-daddy of bloggers providing self-publishing advice in this new digital age - I'm talking about J.A:Konrath's famed Newbie's Guide to Publishing, the outlook is more than rosy, it's positively exploding fireworks! 

Lately he's opened his blog to other writers who are successfully self-published. The latest is David Gaughran who enthuses about connecting with readers on Internet and recounts how he's known instant success in 6 months, with 20,000 visits/month to his blog plus stratospheric sales for his two novellas. If you haven't read his account and enthusiastic call to all fellow writers to follow him on the glorious road to self-publishing, click here, read it and come back here for the discussion.

How likely is it that you can duplicate Amanda Hocking's success?

In my view, and I know a lot of people aren't going to like me for saying this, I think it's very, very unlikely. 

We hear about the success stories, we don't hear about the (countless) others who sell few copies or none at all.

Why is that?

Because there are pitfalls in self-publishing that  Konrath and his writer friends tend to gloss over (no doubt because they were so successful and didn't fall in any pitfall themselves). He's moving in a restricted circle of successful self-published writers and doesn't know what the world looks like on the outside - particularly if you are (to use his favorite term) a "newbie", a newcomer to the world of publishing.  And I think that the kind of hype you find on his blog and on so many others could be quite dangerous and misleading for aspiring writers (I apologize for singling him out but I did so because he's the best - the others tend to  follow him, echoing the hype). It's just the sort of message that can mislead you into making life decisions that will really hurt you...

Four Pitfalls in Self-publishing

You're on your own and you need to behave as an entrepreneur in all aspects of the publishing process from production to marketing. The only thing that's easy? Getting an ISBN number: it's cheap and anyone can get it for you.
The rest is full of pitfalls: 

1. ms editing and file conversion: 

Not as easy as you might think. If you've been reading ebooks lately, you must have come across an incredible number of formatting errors (too much space, lack of it etc) and typos galore.

So you have to find the best editors to assess book structure, language etc including of course proof-reading. And since this is an e-book, you need people technically able to convert your files into e-books and upload them on all the major platforms (Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Sony Store etc). There's plenty of advice on Internet and you'll find other writers with self-publishing experience all willing to recommend you names. Fine and good, and I'm sure that many of these free-lance people you find in the market are excellent. The only trouble is you can't be sure...not until you've actually tried them, and spent your money on them only to find you've wasted both money and time!

Why? Because free-lance experts come and go, they don't work within the framework of a publisher's organization, with career prospects to cater to. Those who work within such a framework have to be good to avoid a slowdown in their career or being fired. So when you hire a free-lance expert, you don't have the guarantee of work well done that normally comes with an editing job done by the staff of a legacy publisher.

When it comes to file conversion, it's even more difficult and at times (judging from the errors in e-books) even legacy publishers seem to run out of capable staff. You don't have too many options: DIY (I know I can't, I'm a famous digital dunce) or turn to experts like Smashwords (they take a percentage cut) or BookBaby (they charge for the service). 

BookBaby might be the better option since it's only a service charge and not a percentage; also their prices are lower than the usual free-lance expert, except that you end up being BookBaby (!) because Amazon et. al. recognizes the entity that has uploaded the e-book file and not you, the author! Very inconvenient, because as a result, Amazon will not share sales information with you...they share it with BookBaby and the latter is ill-equipped to display the information on-time and in a user-friendly manner (I know because that's what I did - I wanted top notch file conversion quality and got that - at the expense of not being able to follow closely my sales.)

2. Book covers 

As a self-published author you have a big advantage here: you're in charge and you have none of the problems of your published fellow writers who often find that publishers impose on them covers they hate. You have the last word since it's yours but that can be a problem too.

Also a professional book cover is essential for your sales and don't believe you can do it without expert help. Everything I said above applies here too. So, once again, it's a jungle and if you want to survive (and get a smashing cover) you had better act as a savvy entrepreneur! My job was half done because I used my own paintings for my book covers but I still couldn't for the life of me do the cover design as such (choose the lettering, shading etc). Once again, BookBaby did that for me charging for the job a very reasonable amount taking into account I provided the illustration.

Now do my covers "work"? You tell me! The lion is a hieratic statue in Book 1 Forget the Past because precisely it deals with the past that cannot be changed (hence it's a stone statue); Book 2 Reclaim the Present is a lively lion with a honey-colored mane because it deals with the present that can be changed if you work at it; Book 3 Remember the Future is the outline of a lion (you can't quite see him because he's somewhere in the future) and he holds a...tablet computer in his paws. Why remember the future? Because the future will be what you make of the present...The whole trilogy Fear of the Past is focused on the weight of family inheritance and the lion is a symbol of destiny (hence his scowl...). The whole issue the book addresses can be summed up in one question: is heredity destiny? And it takes three books and three lions to answer the question!

Here are the original paintings I did for the book covers (I've set them on the mantelpiece in my studio) and you can compare with what BookBaby did to turn them into book covers (look at upper left angle of this blog page): 

Could I have convinced a legacy publisher to do it in this special way? Maybe or maybe not (because they have their own standards they like to upkeep). But one thing is certain, being on my own I was able to bring to its conclusion what is essentially a rather complex idea for my book covers...

3. Book promotion  

For me, marketing is by far the hardest part. And it's bound to be the hardest for any newbie. Regarding the price you should set your book at, there's plenty of good advice around - so it's probably relatively easy to decide. You'll find that most agree that for a self-pubbed author 99 cents is a good price to launch a title (think of it as a "loss leader") and that $2.99 to $3.99 may well be the "sweet spot" for indies, where sales are maximized. 

There's also a lot of discussion as to whether it makes sense to let a title go free for a time. Some say it boosts sales but no one's been able to prove it. Personally, I'm not sure it does: I can't see that much of a psychological difference with a 99 cents price...

Be that as it may, the real problem is book promotion. A direct promotion doesn't work: you can't tweet like mad "buy my book", no one will! As John Locke advises, use an indirect method - so called "loyalty transfer". Align yourself with some major cause or idea or whatever you think your books stand for and can fit in, then promote them on that basis to "like-minded" people...And maybe they'll buy your books (John Locke swears that's how he made his sales). 

Or you can do what Amanda Hocking did: ride on the tail of Stephanie Meyer's books that opened the royal road of teenage vampires. But make sure you find the right "tail" to ride on!

Or you can pay for a book publicist. I haven't yet and I might...but it's expensive! 

DYI methods all start, according to market gurus, with having a blog (such as this one) and spreading yourself all over the place: from social networks (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Stumble Upon etc) to readers communities (Goodreads, Shelfari, The Reading Room etc).

Now, it seems that this is something publishers don't do for you (unless you're their star author of course). But as a beginning writer published by a legacy publisher you're expected to do all this yourself. So why would a self-published writer be at a disadvantage?

Oh, but he/she is at a disadvantage, believe me. Once all that Internet  promotional work is done, he/she is still nowhere in terms of landing on a NYT bestseller list, getting reviews from big literary critics or obtaining book prizes (I mean those that count like the Pulitzer). All that glorious stuff is reserved to writers published by the Big Six.

Let's face it: Big Six publishers make "book discoverability" easy.

So, yes, choosing the self-publishing road means foregoing all that. If you sell a lot and make a nice percentage - indeed a better percentage on sales than if you're traditionally published, no doubt about that - then, as Konrath says, you're ok. You're a free person, you make more money, you're not any publisher's "slave" (as he puts it).

But...there's always a but somewhere:

4. Your sales numbers are in the public domain. 

This means that if you don't sell well, that's the first thing a would-be literary agent will find out. And so will a publisher. Unless your numbers are good, they won't take you on.

That's a very big risk. It could cost you your career. Because to promote your books on the sole strength of your blog and a few customers reviews on Amazon and Goodreads isn't going to get you very far...contrary to what Konrath et al. are telling you!

And don't lose sight of one simple thing: the traditional paper book market still accounts for eighty percent of book sales! Yes, e-book sales are rising faster (they're some 18 percent ahead this year) but they account for a still relatively small section of the whole. That will change over the next five years, but not now. Not yet.

So think about it. Do you really believe you've produced an outstanding book? Because in the end, it's content that counts. Sure, if one book doesn't work, you can always put up another on that virtual shelf, and another and another...And every time, making sure you do all that hard work to ensure quality production and book promotion.

Do you feel up to it? If yes, bravo! Go ahead. If not, then a few additional rejection letters until you land that perfect agent who supports you, who believes in your talent and helps you get a decent contract with one of the Big Six should still be one of your career goals...I know it's mine with regard to the manuscripts I'm presently working on and that (for the moment) I have no intention to self-publish. But I also know that the sales for my books that are now up on that virtual shelf could affect my chances of ever landing a contract with one of the Big Six. 

In other words, self-publishing could reduce your options...So think about it well before going ahead!

Do let me know how you feel about this and what decision you've taken!

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