THING 1. Balls, Cookies and Getting Lucky: Ask the Right Questions About Self-Publication
“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.
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.
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 Andre, Boyd 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.
- Strip the Market Bare and Whip It: Ten Things Authors Must Do To Survive 2013
- THING 2. Suggestive Seduction and the Naked Truth: Rethink Cover Design for a Small, Small World