Self-publishing for Newbies: Risky but Useful

Last week's post, "Newbies Self-publishing: No Longer a Good Idea" must have resonated with a lot of people because I never got so many reads for a post in a single week (over 2,000 views) and so many thoughtful comments. Thanks to everyone!

There was one comment however that forced me to look back at my own experience, it came from someone calling himself (or herself?) "Bookshelf Battle", a great looking avatar:

And he (or she) concluded:

"I suppose the question boils down to 'Will you start with traditional publishing queries or just go directly to self publishing?' As a newbie, I'd love for a traditional publisher to take my hand and guide me through the process.On the other hand, I'm a nerd from Podunk, Nowhere and the likelihood of me jet-setting off to NYC or LA to charm the literary world into making my dream come true lies somewhere between slim and nil. For me and a lot of people like me, self-publishing may very well be the only path towards being a professional writer (with it fully understood that there's no guarantees in life, even in self publishing)."

Indeed, there's no guarantee! Publishing is risky, self-publishing is riskier. People like Konrath, David Gaughran etc are totally right in their guidebooks for newbies when they say that as a self-published author you are fully in control of every aspect of publishing - from editing and formatting to marketing - and that the returns are much, much higher (70%!) than in traditional publishing (you're lucky if you get 20%). But for that to happen, it still remains true that you need to get that return. A successful writer, whether traditionally published or going at it on his own, is always a "black swan", to use Talim Nasseb's famous metaphor: highly improbable.

So I was moved to give Bookshelf Battle a long answer based on my own experience - an answer that was way too long for a comment thread - and as I was writing it, it occurred to me to share it here as a post: my hope is that it would be useful for anyone contemplating self-publishing their first novel. Learn from my mistakes!

So what I wrote is this:
"I'm with you on this all the way, and it's exactly what I did! I started to query in 2009 and by 2011 I was desperate with rejections from literary agents! I'd done my "due diligence", the first two books of a trilogy were done (edited, formatted, good cover - I'd used BookBaby's services). Since the third was in progress and nearly finished, I figured I would publish all 3 within 3 months of each one, and I started with the first in May 2011. By December, all three were out. I had tweeted, facebooked etc, as well as announced and talked about on my blog (which I had started in 2009). In short, I had done all that one can reasonably expect to achieve success. I knew of course that success is elusive, it's a "black swan" and the chances of making it were slim! But it started very well. I had 30 sales in my first month, 47 in the second, reviews began pouring in, good reviews too, and so I figured, ok, I'm on my way! But by the third month, sales had petered out. I thought, no problem, I'll release the second book and do a promo on the first. And that's exactly what I did in September, and got over 2000 downloads. That looks like not much today, but back then, it was a respectable number. And in fact, my sales for both books again took off - though never exceeding (alas!) 50 per month.

Then the cycle repeated itself: the sales petered out, so I figured on doing another promo, which I did in January 2012, if my memory serves me right. With similar results - by that I mean a short spike in sales followed by a petering out...Very depressing, all the more so that the third book of the trilogy didn't take off. So I figured I'd release it in a single volume, an omnibus edition, in order to "force" readers to get to the third book (which I thought was in some ways the best and most fun) and also create an event to draw attention to my work. But I knew I needed to write another book and I did. Published it, same cycles were repeated. So I published yet another, and another. Always the same story, exhausting! So yes, I'm exhausted and turned off.

But it's been a fantastic experience. I've interacted with my readers, I've improved my writing - because I always read all my books' reviews, including the bad ones: if the criticism is constructive it can be enormously helpful. If it's not constructive, of course it should be simply ignored!

So now, after 5 years of doing it, I've come to the end of the road of self-publishing. Why? Not because I don't have more books up my sleeve - hum, wrong metaphor, shall we say writing hand? - but because the marketing cycles are getting less and less rewarding. In fact, I haven't sold a single copy in a whole year in spite of doing marketing campaigns (99 cent sales, giveaways, blog tours etc). Something happened in August 2014: KU started! And then I realized that Facebook and Twitter, for a writer like myself who's very present on Internet, had started to act like "echo chambers".
Indeed. Social media doesn't work the way it used to. I was reminded of this when I looked at my Twitter analytics for last week's post (I use Buffer, I highly recommend it, very useful). Here's the Buffer dashboard and the way they report on the results of one's tweets (screenshot of two tweets I sent out on 15 May):

Overall, in the course of the week, I sent out a total of 8 tweets regarding this post and I got 126 re-tweets with a potential outreach of 1,167.7k (yes, over one million!).

How many clicks? 98.

Looks good? Not really, if you analyze it further. The high number of  re-tweets was caused by the hashtags I used and the very effective "power scheduling" used by Buffer (i.e. picking the best time of day to send them out given my own timezone and my "audience"). Now these hashtags are pertinent to the world of writers, things like #amwriting or #writetip or references to writers' associations like IAN or ASMSG. Hashtags, as we all know, ensure that tweets get re-tweeted.

But are the links to the post actually clicked? After all, that's what one wants: to get traffic to one's blog. But something strange actually happens: with a few exceptions, the clicks are lower than the re-tweets. I got 98 clicks for my 126 re-tweets.  The shortfall was 28: that means 28 people re-tweeted without bothering to check the post and see whether it was worth sharing. They just clicked because of the hashtag. That's almost 25%...I worked the numbers out: to get one click, you need to reach out to at least 10,000 potential readers.

Then there is the "echo chamber" effect caused by the use of hashtags: people who re-tweet and click are (in this case) writers like myself. Now, as long as I'm clicking about an article like this one on a blog, people are likely to flock to it if they like the title and it sounds like something interesting to them (hey,  titles for posts are important, remember to use keywords!). But if I'm clicking to draw people to my book page on Amazon, forget it. These people are writers, their Kindle is full to the brim, their TBR list is a mile long (I know, mine is!). We're all overstuffed with books! And when we want to relax, we go look at a TV series like Game of Thrones, right?

So this is the kind of environment in which a new writer must do battle. Small wonder it's hard to sell! You need all the help you can get of course. And that's where publishers can help newbies. They can get behind you and give a hand in all the phases of book production and promotion. That is...if they want to! Much depends on the kind of contract you eventually negotiate and then...It's a matter of luck. The Black Swan again...

But hope never dies, right? Besides, it's fun to write, isn't it? I wouldn't do anything else in the world. How about you?