The Ploughshares Round-Down: Should You Self-Publish Or Not?

A few months ago, I met a self-publishing millionaire. In just eighteen months, she had gone from an underpaid office worker with a laid-off husband to a beloved romantic erotica writer pulling in $50,000 a month.  She was willing to entertain offers from a big publisher, though none were likely to pay her enough to make it worth switching. It was a Cinderella story that could only happen at this particular moment.

I won’t lie, I spent more than a few moments thinking, “I should give this a shot myself.”

In fact, all writers should ask themselves, “Should I publish this myself?” Amazon is paying out so many millions directly to authors, there’s clearly gold in them there hills. For this week’s Round Down, I’m focusing on one novelist who recently blew up the internet by announcing she’d turned down a six figure contract in order to self-publish her book. Corporate publishing raised its collective eyebrows so high, it dropped its monocle. Many of those applauding her still thought she was nuts. Some of them, though, said she’s just the newest recruit in a publishing revolution.

Everything I’ve ever read about self-publishing successes like her, though, leaves out one incredibly important fact.

What’s Gone Down

Brenna Aubrey is just the newest author to announce “you don’t NEED to make any kind of big list to make money as an indie author.” She turned down a three book deal from a big publisher because the $120,000 didn’t seem like enough money. She made twice as much money on each unit sold by self-publishing and didn’t think it was likely the publisher would sell twice as many as she could on her own. I think that’s a sensible gamble, and I wish her luck.  (There were other reasons, but let’s stick with the most logical and common one.)

She did an AMA about it on Reddit, and around the same time, another Redditor asked why he shouldn’t self-publish, too.

To get to the answer, first let’s talk about real estate. Have you ever sold your house in order to buy a new one? Why on earth would you do that? Why not buy a new house and rent out the old one? In fact, why not keep upgrading houses and renting out the old one until you own a whole bunch of houses? If you don’t, think of all the money you’re leaving on the table.

The answer is that doing so would be a full-time job, with a lot of responsibilities and knowledge to develop, and it’s not even a sure thing that it’s going to be better financially than just having your house and doing whatever else you do. Self-publishing stars are the same as the people you know who become landlords. (Here’s a writer saying more or less this, exactly.) They work really hard at something other people don’t have the interest or risk-profile to do.

Is that the one incredibly important fact no one ever mentions? No. I’m getting to that.

Stop Reading Now If Your Main Character Is Named Blake

Do you notice all of these writers are romance novelists? There are a few horror, sci-fi, and thriller writers in there, but it’s mostly all some flavor of romance/YA/New Adult.

Some fandoms are organized and know how to tell each other what to buy. Most readers are not. Romance is a huge, lucrative market, in which readers and writers have been connecting directly for a long time; no romance author has ever needed a good New York Times review to sell copies. So think of every objection you might normally have about self-publishing:

  • I don’t know how I’ll find readers.
  • It won’t seem like a real book to potential readers.
  • It won’t get reviewed anywhere useful.

These concerns aren’t as relevant to romance writers, or to other genre writers. (And if you meet someone who isn’t a romance or genre fiction writer, but they’ve sold more than a few hundred copies, chances are they’re writing for a niche as well. I met an engineering professor who had done very well with his self-published books on engineering.)

That isn’t to say that writing romance or genre fiction (or “niche” fiction) is any easier to do well than the kinds of writing published by the Big Five—just that the paths to commercial success are different depending on what kind of book you’re writing. And this is the fact nobody ever talks about: even very good self-published books, no matter what genre they’re in, will likely only see huge success if they can take advantage of established fandoms.

Of Course You Would Say Self-Publishing Is A Bad Idea—You’re An Agent

It’s not a bad idea! In fact, I’ve recommended it to people. But you have to go into this understanding that putting it on Amazon means your book is now published. It’s now a book out in the world looking for readers. If you want to sell more copies, it’s on you to sell more copies. It’s too late to start looking for someone else to help you.

Publishing houses look at an already published book like a hardcover they could buy the paperback rights to. If you don’t sell tons—like 50,000 copies—why would they want to buy the remaining rights? If your self-published book does great—like 15,000 copies—it might help attract interest in your next book. And if it tanks it might not kill interest in your next book. But don’t think agents and editors won’t be curious about why it didn’t work. And “because I don’t know how to promote myself” isn’t the answer they’re looking for.

The Race You Want To Run

Some writers have such a clear vision of their readers and their novels that agents, editors, and marketers are just going to slow them down.

They don’t need advice or arguments on what to write about next or how to write it. The editors they pay a few hundred dollars to are usually just correcting grammar and doing some Google fact-checking. They don’t need anyone to explain how to create or blog or build an audience for it. And they deliver exactly what their readers were hoping for.

How can you not love a writer like that? They’re a very tiny minority, and worth admiring. I think in most cases there’s an argument even they could make more with a mainstream publisher, but why bother making it unless it’s a huge difference?

The real question is: are you that kind of writer?

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