THING 1. Balls, Cookies and Getting Lucky: Ask the Right Questions About Self-Publication

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Shake them, but be gentle.

A man can hope, Anastasia, dream even, and sometimes his dreams come true.
―Christian Grey, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

I don’t subscribe to luck or chance, Miss Steele. The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.
―Christian Grey, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

(If you haven’t already done so I recommend reading the introductory post to this series: “Strip the Market Bare and Whip It: 10 Things Authors Must Do To Survive 2013″)

One Can Only Hope

Imagine you’re having lunch with a 22-year-old female friend one day, a friend who has somehow managed to get through adolescence and early adulthood and graduate from college without ever having sex (or owning a computer or a cell phone, but that’s another issue altogether). Over her bowl of clam chowder she suddenly confides, “I’m going to enter into a weekender BDSM relationship with an irritable, sexy, fan-fiction, billionaire control freak.”

Naturally, as a caring friend, you would hope that she has armed herself with information, so you say, “How much do you know about this non-vampire, non-sparkly, 26-year-old business titan who wants to deflower you and make you his sex slave? I mean, I hope you’re asking lots of questions before you just dive into this!”

Your friend smiles serenely. “Well, I did sign up for a BDSM workshop, and I had my question ready when I got there.”

One question?” you say, skeptical. “What question was that?”

She stares at you, as if it should be obvious. “‘How do I become a sex slave?’”

You shake your head, numb with disbelief. “Don’t you think you should be asking yourself if you should become a sex slave first?” You say this with such vehemence that you accidentally spit pieces of your BLT on her. Then you realize that you have no idea why you’re friends with such a brainless, naive, fictional character and you get up and walk away, leaving her to daydream about being suspended nude from a ceiling like some sort of Cirque de Soleil-meets-Boogie Nights performance art gone horribly awry.

I’ve taught people how to self-publish for two years now and I can tell you that The Question—whether it’s at a workshop, in an email, or by phone; whether it’s from a never-been-published author or a New York Times bestseller—is always the same: ”How do I self-publish?”

Here. Take this Magic 8 Ball. Go ahead. Now, ignoring for the moment that you’re supposed to be proposing a yes/no question, ask it: “How do I self-publish?” And then give it a good shake.

Nothing says “kink” like a BLT.

No doubt you’re probably thinking, ”Really? A Magic 8 Ball? That’s the best you can do?” Well, no. But what I call “The Magic 8 Ball Plan” seems to be the strategy most people thinking about self-publishing take (and even some who already are self-published). It’s as if they woke up one morning, grabbed their Magic 8 Ball and asked “How do I self-publish?”…and were inexplicably cheered when it served up a surly and indifferent “Ask me again later.”

“Well,” I can see them saying to themselves, “that’s not a no!” 

And besides, though not as exciting as fur-lined handcuffs, self-publishing sounds more titillating than, say, reading Anastasia Steele’s and Christian Greys “vanilla sex” scenes. But the reason your Magic 8 Ball Plan is no bueno is not because you’re talking to an inanimate object (well, that kind of is a problem, now that I think on it). No, the real difficulty is that you’re already asking the wrong question.

The question you ought to be asking is: “SHOULD I self publish?”

 

Because “How do I?” and “Should I?” are about as similar as BDSM and a BLT.

 

Keep Hoping

Let me guess…you’ve just put the final touches on a manuscript and you’re trying to decide between querying for an agent and self-publishing, right? Or maybe you already are traditionally published, you’ve just found out that you’re about to be dropped by your publisher, and you think that jumping ship for the self-publishing lifeboat is the obvious answer. Or maybe you already are self-published and you’ve been waiting for your book to hit it big so you can quit your day job.

Hold on tight to your Magic 8 Ball then, because there’s another question you should ask it, and that is: “Is it possible for me to successfully self-publish?” Your odds for a favorable answer from the 8 Ball (such as “It is decidedly so!” or “You may rely on it!”) are 33%.

Which is probably why most people seem to go with the Magic 8 Ball Plan;  Magic 8 Ball odds—much like the odds that a hot billionaire who gave you the best night of your deflowered life will propose to you three weeks after meeting you—are, well, magic.

Bottom line: most authors shouldn’t self-publish. Why?

In his piece ”The Publishing Borg Are Here: Lead, Follow, or Get the Hell Out of the Way,” Bob Mayer cites a sobering statistic: “The reality is 99.5% of self-published fiction will fail.”

That means that in the Real World, 99.5% of the time you will shake the Magic 8 Ball, ask if you will successfully self publish, and get something along the lines of “Here comes your spanking.”

If you’re still rubbing your backside from that, just wait–here comes a caning. A survey by Taelist.com revealed that out of a sampling of 1,000 “successful” self-published authors, a majority were earning less than $500 a year.

As Christian Grey informs Ana Steele, “It’s caning that hurts the most.” (Yes, Sir.)

Working Hard for the Lucky

Before you start shouting out a safeword or begin to believe that the answer to “Should I self-publish” is “no!” I want to tell you a quick anecdote.

In March of 2012, I was in Sacramento at Left Coast Crime to teach a two-workshop to mostly traditionally published authors. The day after my workshop, Bella AndreBoyd Morrison, and I met for lunch at a nearby P.F. Chang’s where Bella described the grueling schedule that allowed her to publish a book about every three months. She offered strategies and suggestions, illustrating specific points with examples. Her work ethic and her capacity for quick, creative thinking was mind-boggling–something that seemed beyond the reach of mere mortals.

After about two hours, we got the bill and a plate of fortune cookies. I have no recollection whatsoever what my fortune read (If I had to guess? Probably something super-inspiring like “You will die alone and poorly dressed.”) but I do vividly remember Bella Andre’s fortune, twelve words that would ring in my ears over and over throughout 2012:

One year from now, you will be reading this on your yacht.

[For those of you who have been blindfolded, gagged, and tied to an iron grid for the last twelve months, Bella's business model is transforming publishing as we know it, most notably with her recent seven-figure, print-only deal with Harlequin MIRA (she continues to retain her e-book rights).]

I remember that Bella laughed at the fortune and tossed the paper onto the table. And I also remember that that was the moment I realized that I wasn’t practicing what I was teaching anymore. If I had sat myself down that day and asked myself, “Should I self-publish?” the answer would have been a resounding “NO!”

The fact was that I had stopped working hard and my relationship with self-publishing was less that of a dear friend and more along the lines of an ex-submissive. Sure, I was still bringing in decent royalties for The Frog Prince and Sleeping Beauty, but compared to Bella Andre I may as well have been fast asleep. I hadn’t started a third novel, I was doing hardly any marketing, and I was spending way too much time teaching workshops, guest blogging, giving interviews, and basking in the limelight.

Did I remedy that problem? Let’s put it this way: it is now 5:50 AM in Colorado, and I never went to bed. I work, on average, 18-hour days. I wrote Alice in Wonderland (which came out November 7th) in 35 days. On Monday, January 7th, I will go into ”hibernation” in order to have Rapunzel written, edited and uploaded to Amazon by February 14th before continuing with the grueling, daily grind of marketing, blogging, public speaking, teaching and reading everything about the industry that I can in order to make informed decisions for my publishing business as I move forward.

On a final note, it’s very important that you don’t misunderstand me here. Unlike Christian Grey, I actually have no interest whatsoever in having a yacht (I get seasick just holding a glass of water). What inspired me about Bella’s fortune is the same thing that should inspire you:

“One year from now…” One year can change everything.

If you’ve read all this and you’ve asked your metaphorical Magic 8 Ball, “Should I self-publish?” and the answer is an unequivocal, unmistakable “Do it! Do it right now!” then it’s time to sack up, stop talking to inanimate objects, stop dreaming about it, quit hoping you’ll get lucky and do it!

As always, thank you for reading.

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Elle Lothlorien

About Elle Lothlorien

A “military brat,” Elle Lothlorien was born in Germany and spent her childhood in such far-flung places as Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., Italy, and Washington D.C. Sadly, the only language she ever became semi-fluent in is English. Elle’s first two self-published romantic comedies, THE FROG PRINCE and SLEEPING BEAUTY went on to become Amazon bestsellers. She is considered a “reluctant expert” on the business of electronic, independent publishing (also called “indie-publishing”), and frequently writes and speaks on the topic. Elle lives in Denver, Colorado. She keeps two dachshunds around the house to provide comic relief. Find out more about her and her books by going to her website, or by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

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11 thoughts on “THING 1. Balls, Cookies and Getting Lucky: Ask the Right Questions About Self-Publication

  1. Although it’s an excellent article and your final conclusion is inspiring me, a couple of comments bothered me.

    First, let’s deal with that Taoist survey. What does averaging my income with someone who throws up a novel with a homemade cover and no editing prove? Nothing. It doesn’t cause me to make less than I do. As usual, averages are pretty meaningless, and that average in particular since it is a flawed survey anyway.

    Second, you don’t have to write the next big thing to support yourself as a self-published author. I can’t tell you how much people would stop dragging trad publishing thinking into self-publishing. Unlike the Big 5 (formerly the Big 6) my books don’t have to sell 100,000 the first month on the store bookshelf to make money for me and pay the bills. In fact they don’t EVER have to sell that many. Sure if one does, that’s extra in the bank, but a good shelf of novels selling 500 to a couple of thousand a month (which Bob may consider being a failure for all I know) will do very nicely.

    I can tell you that because it’s what I do. And I can promise you that although I can’t afford a yacht, I do very nicely.

    • Thanks for the feedback J.R. A few things:

      “What does averaging my income with someone who throws up a novel with a homemade cover and no editing prove? Nothing.”
      *I agree, but since I don’t know which 1,000 authors were surveyed for this report, I can’t comment on what the CAUSE of their low monthly income was. My general point was that people shouldn’t rush to self-publish to get rich (not right away, in any case). I also left out the fact that a very small percentage of those 1,000 authors were making most of the money. I felt that the $500/year spoke for itself.

      “Second, you don’t have to write the next big thing to support yourself as a self-published author. I can’t tell you how much people would stop dragging trad publishing thinking into self-publishing.”
      *I was not looking at this through a traditional publishing lens at all. You are correct that it generally takes time and lots and lots of CONTENT in order to make a living doing this. Bob Mayer is right about that: “Content is key.”

      I would say that the focus of this piece was meant to be that self-publication is HARD work, and that you have to educate yourself about it before you jump in the way you would before starting any small business. The focus of follow-up pieces will be the other points you raise (book covers, quality, content, etc).

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

    • Writing every single day is key! I dictated about 50% of my novel The Frog Prince while I was driving to work (I had voice recognition software on my laptop, and a headset microphone on while I drove. Can’t imagine what people thought watching me yammer to myself as I sat in gridlock!) :)

  2. \A survey by Taelist.com revealed that out of a sampling of 1,000 “successful” self-published authors, a majority were earning less than $500 a year.\

    In that case, I’m wildly successful. Thanks for the boost.

    Margaret Lake

    • You’re welcome! Hell, even I was a little bit heartened by that. Listen: the first month The Frog Prince was out I sold *18* copies. 18. That’s a long way from a bestseller, but you have to start somewhere. And if I’d never sold any more than 18 copies/month, that wouldn’t be a lot of money perhaps. But if I had 20 books out–well, that would be different, wouldn’t it? I agree with Bob Mayer when he said, “Content is key.” The more books you have out, the more money you will make–regardless of how many you sell per month or per year.

      Thanks for posting!

  3. An entertaining and informative read! Another way to approach the question might be to look at the ENTIRE traditional route and compare it to the ENTIRE self-publishing route. You rarely see this done, and I believe it leads to an unfair comparison.

    What if we surveyed 1,000 random people who have queried agents? I bet we’d find 5 of them that landed an agent and 1 or 2 who got a publishing deal. (Those numbers felt AWESOME coming out of my butt, I’ll have you know!) The point is, we never factor the slush pile in with the traditional books. But with self-published books, we factor in every single work submitted, because they are all welcome into our wonderful fold.

    Any look at the two routes should keep this in mind: The slush pile exists for both types of publishing. If you take your craft seriously, you are already in the top 10% or so of self-published books. If you hire out editing and commission professional cover art, you are probably in the top 1%. Ignore the surveys, then. Success requires a lot of luck either way. The odds are long either way. I’d say the chances of selling some books are about the same with the two methods, but you’ll need to sell SIX TIMES as many books with the traditional route to make the same amount as the self-pubbed route. And you’ll need to make that money in six months rather than over your lifetime. That’s what tilts the scales to self-pubbing, and in a BIG way.

  4. ***Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    “Another way to approach the question might be to look at the ENTIRE traditional route and compare it to the ENTIRE self-publishing route. You rarely see this done, and I believe it leads to an unfair comparison.”

    ***Hmm…if it will only lead to an “unfair comparison,” I’m not sure why it’s a good approach. Or did I misunderstand this part? (Read: likely). :)

    “The point is, we never factor the slush pile in with the traditional books. But with self-published books, we factor in every single work submitted, because they are all welcome into our wonderful fold.”

    ***That is true, but how do you determine what is a “legitimate” self-published work and what is “over the transom?” You simply can’t without creating some sort of arbitrary measure. And if it isn’t going to be sales (which certainly doesn’t mean that a book is good or bad anyway), what will it be? Number of 4/5 star reviews? (I think the sock puppetry questioned the legitimacy of that strategy.) Number of books published? Manuscript length? The number of angels who can dance on the cover of a book? I don’t have the answer, but I do know that the gatekeeping system of traditional publishing didn’t (and still doesn’t) always save us from poorly written literature either. :)

    “Any look at the two routes should keep this in mind: The slush pile exists for both types of publishing. If you take your craft seriously, you are already in the top 10% or so of self-published books.”
    ***I would disagree with that and wonder where you got that figure from. There are plenty of well-respected, award-winning authors who have turned to self-publishing after being dropped by their publisher and who are definitely NOT in the “top 10% or so” of self-published books.

    “If you hire out editing and commission professional cover art, you are probably in the top 1%.”
    ***Again, I would ask you to direct me to wherever you are pulling this data from. I see no evidence that this is true, otherwise every traditionally published book would be on the New York Times bestseller list. If you are throwing out hypothetical figures was you did earlier in your comments, I don’t think it is clear here.

    “Success requires a lot of luck either way. The odds are long either way. I’d say the chances of selling some books are about the same with the two methods, but you’ll need to sell SIX TIMES as many books with the traditional route to make the same amount as the self-pubbed route. And you’ll need to make that money in six months rather than over your lifetime. That’s what tilts the scales to self-pubbing, and in a BIG way.”

    *** I am not disagreeing with you here. Not at all. What I am saying is that not everyone is CAPABLE (personality/temperament-wise) of doing this–no matter how good their book is. That’s because not everyone is business-minded. And if you don’t have a knack for business, you’re probably better off querying for an agent and going the traditional route because you will never make enough money doing this to make a living and you will be wretched.

    Thanks so much for your comments. I will revise part of my post to make my last point more clear.

  5. I was two seconds from clicking X and not finishing this article because I didn’t want to listen to someone bash on self-publishing yet again when you turned it around with your anecdote about Bella. THANK YOU. Not only for mentioning that it takes WORK to get your name out there, but that it CAN be done if you’re willing to not be ONLY a writer, but ALSO a business person and possibly give up caring about being a household name. I’ve worked many years in the music industry with independent recording artists who’ve managed to do very well without labels (you’ve never heard of them, but they make comfortable livings doing what they are passionate about) and I firmly believe as I step into a second career phase as a writer that I can make it happen on my own terms in this world as well. We make our own luck, I say. Carpe diem.

  6. There are three kind of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.

    I like your article, but ‘the average self-publisher earns less than 500$ per year’ says nothing, because it fails to show how this conclusion was reached. What was the sample? How many books had these self-publishers published? What genre? Novels, short stories, novellas? How active were these self-publishers in promoting themselves? Did they write stand-alone novels or series? Over how many years was the 500$ calculated, one year, five years, ten years?
    How many start-up businesses fail per year? And why do they fail? If someone earns less than 500$ per year, maybe they’re not cut out for self-publishing. That doesn’t mean self-publishing is a fool’s errand, but fools won’t make any money self-publishing.

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