Newbies Self-Publishing: No Longer a Good Idea

You've just finished your first novel, it's professionally edited - yes, you're a newbie but you know you've got to get everything right if you want to succeed in this cutthroat business. You've gone all the way, you've boned up on the latest industry news with Publishing Perspectives and the Passive Voice, you've absorbed all of J.A. Konrath's precious advice on his Newbie's Guide to Publishing.

You've used Reedsy, the latest, most up-to-date site to find professional help to edit and design your book - you chose among the best free-lancers in the industry and you just know you got the best.

Your book cover stands out, the pitch is arresting and everything you've done is as good as it could ever be.  Your beta readers love it. You're ready to go.

Ready to self-publish?

If you're a newbie, don't do it. Shocked? Don't be shocked. There's a truth about self-publishing - the truth that your likelihood of breaking through and being noticed with a first novel is practically zero - and that truth is unfortunately permanently obscured by the success of a few emerging authors. Very few in fact, no more than a dozen names, and among them, Amanda Hocking always gets mentioned. She's the classic model of a self-published success. If you click that link it will take you to her Wikipedia page. Take a minute to read it, it's illuminating.

Notice something?

Yes, her self-publishing success dates back to 2010. That's five years ago, the digital world has changed since, the conditions she faced no longer exist (more about that in a minute). Also note that  before self-publishing anything, she had already written 17 novels in her free time while employed as a group home worker. Have you got 17 novels already written and unpublished?

She simply self-published because over the years (she felt old, she was 26!) she had encountered nothing but rejection from all the literary agents she had applied to. Actually that's usually the main reason anyone self-publishes. You can get tired of rejections, year after year. And Amazon makes it so easy to self-publish: just press a button.

And, as the saying goes, the rest is History. She went on to unimaginable success, getting picked up by St Martin's Press that re-issued her self-published novels. And now, if you look her up on the Net, she has a brand new website that is both lean looking (gone is all that clutter of romantic curlicues) and highly inter-active, with videos, giveaways, contests, quizzes etc (take note anyone if you want to revamp your author website!):

Anyone who self-publishes of course hope to be another Amanda.

Don't kid yourself. But don't despair either. Amanda is simply no longer a model to follow. Back in 2010, Facebook and Twitter worked fine and she was able to use them as advertising platforms. She attracted attention there and got enough sales to hit Amazon's top 100 titles, and then hit Amazon's top ten.

People say that when they buy a book they don't pay attention to a book's ranking. Maybe not, but Amazon does pay attention! And the ranking is what determined the position of your book in the Kindle Store.  Just like in a real bookstore: if your book is not displayed on the table as you walk in, nobody will know your book is in there for sale. What you want (if you're traditionally published) is to have your printed book right there, up front, on that table:

And ranking plays the exact same role for digital books. If your book is among the first 10 or 20 titles that turn up in a search on Amazon - particularly in the listings that sell, like romance or thrillers - then people will see it and buy it (if the cover looks good, if the pitch is right). It's on that digital table!

And Amanda Hocking could get on that digital table because she was able to use Twitter and Facebook to gain traction. Back then, social media worked but as I explained last week on this blog (see here), the verdict is in: Twitter, Facebook (and other media like LinkedIn or Pinterest) no longer work the way they used to.

So if you self-publish, the way to go now is with a proper, advertising campaign - the old-fashioned kind because "blog tours" (paying to be reviewed/interviewed on book-reading blogs, setting up giveaways etc) are not enough. Blogs have become an "echo chamber" of sort, attracting traffic from writers as well as from readers - perhaps even more from writers than readers! Remember: there are over 4 million titles on Amazon alone, with hundreds of thousands added every year, a veritable tsunami - that's a lot of writers! 

What's needed in this world where advertising on the Net gets so few clicks is to hit all the major mainstream media (TV, radio etc). And you need to launch a concerted campaign, in the course of 2 or 3 months, prior and during the book launch. In short, you have to do what a traditional publisher does when they decide to spend money on book promotion  - as unfortunately we all know, that's something they don't always do: publishers only "push"a small part of their list... and usually bet on books written by celebrities!

It can be done but it's very expensive: upwards of $20,000, and of course, it means using professionals. Just to give one example: you need a Kirkus Review, you can pay for it and cross your fingers that they will like your book! Because if they don't, they won't mince their words and then you can't use the review. But it will set you back by about $450, and that's only a start.

Yet some people make it, their self-published books sell like hot cakes. But look at who these people are, just two kinds:
  1.  Those who made it as self-published authors in the "window of opportunity for newbies" that only lasted a couple of years from the time Amanda Hocking started and she began in April 2010;
  2.  Established authors self-publishing their back list - all those who made a name for themselves with traditionally published books and have regained the rights to their back list. People whose names are already known, even though they may not be making the current New York Times list - but the names are ever so familiar. Like J.A. Konrath with his fun thrillers. Names that ring a bell. Moreover, fans are only too happy to read long out-of-print books of their favorite authors, books they've heard about and haven't been able to get hold of. For all those authors, digital self-publishing is a boon! An unmitigated success story!
And of course they displace newbies. People only have a limited number of hours to read and a limited budget! So, if you have to choose between a name you know and you like and somebody unknown, what would you do?

That's why I think self-publishing for newbies is no longer a good idea. Your views?