The Trials And Tribulations Of A Self-Published DIY Penmonkey

Irregular Creatures Cover, By Amy Hauser

Caveat: I am no self-publishing expert. I am not claiming to be any manner of self-publishing guru, Sherpa, wizard, shaman, or swami. I am just a guy with a self-published book asking you to love him. Uhh. No, wait, that’s not it. I’m a guy who’s had a self-published digital short story collection out for like, three weeks.

And, I figure, why not talk about it?

I wouldn’t call any of this “insight.”

I’d instead think of it as, “Shit I happened to notice that may be accurate, or I might just be drunk.”

Let my gibbering and wailing commence.

It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp

Right now, I suspect one of the biggest challenges for the self-published author is promotion. If I go with a traditional publisher, I have a fairly wide array of options in regards to getting my Please Buy My Awesome Book It Is Not Shitty And You Might Dig It message out into the world, and a lot of those options are not options I personally have to enact. I mean, yes, the traditionally published author still has to get blisters signing books and still has to drag her ass to the far-flung corners of Fuckbucket, Indiana to do a convention or a speaking engagement or whatever. But at least those options exist.

The self-published author has…

I mean, seriously, what? The Internet? Pretty much just that. The Internet. A traditionally published author might get a review in a magazine or a newspaper. Might get an interview in the same. Might get on NPR. Will likely get her book in bookstores and maybe get herself in bookstores. Will have posters and blurbs and all that good stuff.

The self-published author has the Internet. Right? Am I missing something?

Further, it’s just me and my audience, an audience who pimps the book out of genuine interest or loyalty or pity or payola. But for the most part, it’s me thinking about how to create a message online somehow that convinces people, “Hey, you need to lay down your hard-earned three bucks for nine short stories of dubious quality. Please take a risk and throw your money at my word-spew.”

There exists the trouble of discoverability — sure, someone could be surfing around Amazon and find my book. And they might click the magic button and procure the collection. But I don’t suspect that’s likely. Amazon is home to (beware: incoming fake number) one fuzzillion books. Minimal filter exists. I went looking specifically for my book just by searching around — it wasn’t easy.

Now, again, I recognize that it’s hard for a traditionally-published dude, too. But I’m a lot likelier to stumble on a book on a shelf than I am by clicking around Amazon. Further, again those writers have other vectors of discovery: reviews, interviews, ads, what-have-you.

Thing is, if I want my book to sell, I have to sling it. I have to work that ass. I have to shake it. And I worry that it crosses over into “annoying” territory. (By the way, if you feel like I have officially crossed into that territory, then you need to tell me. Please be nice about it, but tell me. Honesty + tact = a wonderful thing.) I’m not even sure what the best way of getting the message out there happens to be.

Slow And Steady Might Just Win The Race

If I earned no more sales from this point forward, I’d be okay with that, but I also wouldn’t be rolling in dough. Hell, I couldn’t even make a living wage. To earn the low end of my freelancing rate, I’d need to make over $2,000 on this collection.

At present, I’ve gotten over $500.

And that’s only across a three-week period.

Assuming (which yes, makes an ass out of you and Ming the Merciless) that I am able to quadruple that over the remaining 49 weeks of the year, that means the collection will earn out.

Should I go beyond that, it moves slowly and steadily toward a living wage. And, for the record, it’s hard for the traditionally-published author to make a living wage on their own creative endeavors. So, it is a little heartening to see a glimmer of financial possibility here.

This isn’t even a novel we’re talking about. It’s a measly piddly poo-poo short story collection. Nobody likes those. Those are the pariahs of the reading world. I’ve seen homeless men spit on short story collections. True story! Ahem.

So, considering the possibility of earning more on a novel is, admittedly, intriguing. It means that a qualified and capable self-published author could actually not starve to death. Conceivably. No promises.

Sales Farming (How Different Fertilizer Yields Bigger Sales Crop)

One thing I do like: seeing sales. I’ve been a freelancer for a dozen years and I had my first short story published when I was 18, and for the most part, I don’t have access to any sales numbers or how well my work is “doing” out there within the wordmonkey jungle. But hey, now I know.

A remaining tricky bit: knowing where sales come from. I did this contest last week, and to be honest, it didn’t pull a lot of participants. Nobody’s fault but mine (it was likely a shitty contest, but I thought I’d try something a little different).Now, to be fair, this last week did really well overall in sales, so… again, hard to see if there’s any correlation between “contest” and “people buying my nonsense flying cat stories.”

Also not certain how well reviews contribute overall.

The one time I can see sales jump up is also the simplest:

I tweet about it.

I say, “Hey, short stories, evil vaginas, $2.99,” and bwip, my sales bump up by a couple-few. Like, within 10, 15 minutes. Yesterday, Sunday, I hadn’t earned a single sale. So I tweeted about that. My briny tears apparently soaked through the screen and into the fingertips of my Twitter followers, and within ten minutes I had four sales. Half-hour later, two more. Pretty neat.

Twitter offers the plainest glimpse of “action –> reaction” in terms of sales.

Don’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover, Except When It’s Supremely Shitty

I’m sorry, self-published authors, but here’s the poop.

You want respect. I want it, too. I’m a good writer. I know other DIY writers who are good, too (hell, some are even great) and damnit if they don’t deserve respect.

But the reality is, self-publishing does not command a great deal of respect.

And, frankly, the practice doesn’t deserve it. Not yet, at least. Go on. Poke around the self-pub books on Amazon, on Smashwords. Download some samples. Gaze at the covers.

You’re going to see a lot of dreck. Dross. Muck. Swill. Filth. Sewage. Crap-burgers. Stink-blossoms. Shit machines, jizz sandwiches, temples built out of garbage and other assorted nonsense.

It’s not good! You’re pumping a lot of bad juju into the ecosystem. And because it’s a big fat-mouthed pipe open to public access, anybody can contribute their own individual streams of effluence.

Okay, I get it, this is by design. But by the same token, it’s because of that utterly forgiving filter-free sewage pipe that the very practice of self-publishing gets a cruddy rap. Gatekeepers get a lot of guff, but sometimes, we don’t want everybody running through the gate, you dig? Right now, publishing could damn well stand to let some new talent through the gates. They could open the gates wider.

But that doesn’t translate to blasting them off their hinges with C4 and letting any crazy cat lady or tinfoil-helmet dude into the party. Bouncers need to keep out the riff-raff.

You want respect, self-publishing community? Then it is time to earn it.

Up your game. Learn to write a hook. Learn how to sell your book. Hire a cover designer. Hire an editor. Edit! Rewrite! Be a writer. Do all the things that being a writer entails. Don’t just vomit forth endless searing gouts of word-bile and story-puke. You’re making a mess in here.

I know that if I decide to do this again, I intend to up my game as well. Hey, my shit stinks, too.

(But, c’mon, look at that cover. My shit doesn’t stink that bad.)

I Still Want My Books In Bookstores, Goddamnit

No matter what happens, I still have that old-fashioned knee-jerk reaction of — “I really want to see my book on a bookshelf somewhere. Preferably in a bookstore. Licked by a stripper with knife scars on her midriff.” All right, fine, ignore that last part, but the lingering sentiment still stands: I want a hard copy of my book, and I want that book sold by places that aren’t Chuck Wendig, Incorporated.

I’m a practical guy. Pragmatic to a fault. I know that money is important.

But as a practical guy, I’m also a guy who likes brick-and-mortar reality. I don’t want everything to live on the magical “cloud.” I want a book in my hands, and not just in my hands, but out there, in the world, where my mother could accidentally find it in the wild and point to that and say, “Hey, that’s my son’s book.”

Self-publishing just isn’t to that point, yet. It may never be, I dunno.

All In All, Would I Rather Be Writing?

I would rather be writing.

I wish I wasn’t my own publisher. I wish I didn’t have to figure out layout and how to convert to ePub (which, far as I can tell, involves sacrificing a white stag on a pyre of burning willow-bark at just the right moment of the vernal equinox — otherwise, the output will look like a burlap sack of mashed assholes), I wish I didn’t have to think about sales numbers and pimping the work and all that.

I would rather be writing.

Now, to pull back a minute, this is a naive wish. It really is. We can spout that old platitude all we like — “Writers Write” — but the truth is, writers always do more than write. At least, they do if they don’t want to be dilettantes. Writers edit, writers market, writers talk, writers build their audiences, writers work the business. Writers don’t just sit in the dark and write brilliant words. Same way that carpenters are more than “dudes who can hammer nails.”

Writing should always be primary, however.

And being your own publisher dings that a little bit. Not a lot. But just enough where it means I’m wearing yet another hat in addition to all the ones the writer must normally wear.

It doesn’t mean that self-publishing is a no-no. Or that it’s splashing around in the gutter. But it does mean that it comes with complications that must be considered. Would I do it again? Maybe. I’m noodling it. I’d like to continue the experiment and put a novel and a non-fiction piece “out there” just to see.

But I still want my books on shelves. That may make be vain. It may mean I need to molest my quivering self-esteem. But it’s true just the same.

18 comments

  • As far as the reviews and possible interviews in periodicals is concerned, that’s what a press release if for. I got to learn all about it in art college! But again, that’s something the traditionally published dude has someone else to do for him, and it is a certain amount of work that will eat into your writing time.

    Books on shelves? DIY publishing for print is a whole other kettle of fish that I’m not even half-qualified to tackle. Not that I want to tackle fish. They’d slime up the tweed…

  • I know doing it yourself has got to be hard, but the fact that you’ve generated your sales so far from direct personal connections is something very cool. I’ve been thinking a lot about advertising lately and I’ve come to realize exactly how much weight I give a personal recommendation over an advertisement. All those blog posts and retweets make a difference.
    The trick is to achieve some kind of critical mass of interest. Unfortunately I’m not entirely sure how that happens. Even in the “real world” of publishing it seems like books need something beyond simple advertising to get meaningful traction.
    All I can say is, keep pimping this thing. It’s totally worth the icky feeling you get. I’ll be cheering for you all the way.

    • @Albert:

      Traditional publishing doesn’t guarantee success, definitely. It does offer greater opportunity to get meaningful traction — right? I mean, if I read a review in Entertainment Weekly — hell, if I just see the book cover — that’s one more chance to nab a devoted and interested reader. Self-publishing doesn’t offer the same number of “in-roads” in terms of picking up random reader interest. Which is why, I suspect, self-publishing often sells to its own community first. Not a bad place to start, but definitely a bad place to end.

      — c.

  • Welcome to the world of self-publishing can suck big hairy donkey balls. LOL The most profitable self-pubbers in fiction are writers of…ahem…filth. Let’s be honest, sex sells. You want to make a living wage? Write sex. Lots of hot, steaming piles of it, the pervier, the better.

    But day-amn, respect for those sales numbers. (And I actually like your cover.)

    • @Lesli:

      Heh, yes, sex sells. But so does romance. And certain types of books — horror, thrillers — seem to do well, too.

      And thanks, re: cover!

      On my sales numbers: are they respectable? I mean, okay, yes, I know I’m probably doing better than most of the hastily-thrown-together self-pub works out there. But not many self-pubbers list their numbers from what I can tell (outside a few who report big generalized numbers), and so I have little perspective.

      — c.

  • Total groundling amateur wannabe perspective here…

    I think you’re doing it right.

    Self-publishing seems a good way to get some cash flowing. Get your words in front of eyeballs. Get noticed. So when you query something hefty that might end up on a shelf in a big bad bookstore (that will never ever die, shut up, get outta my cave) the agent will say, “Hey! Chuck Wendig! Isn’t he the haunted vagina guy?”

    Nothing wrong with that.

  • Nice post, and I agree with Josh there, I think you are doing it right. Though you may have hit that point where you’ve tapped all the folks you know in your circle, and they may have influenced some in their circle, and so on and so forth, which is why sales have slowed.

    I think one of the biggest weapons any self-published writer who is descent can have in their arsenal is their catalogue. The more books they have out there, the more likely it is that someone you don’t know will find them, buy them, like them, and then go tell others.

    Sure you can rock it with just one book, but that will only take you so far. Having multiple titles out there increases your chances, though. And as much as I hate to say it, those titles have to be novels, and not short story collections. I don’t know any self-pubbed author that has had great success with shorts, at least not the kind of success where they can quit their day job. I could be wrong there, but from all the stuff I’ve read, I don’t think so.

    I say keep doing what you’re doing, maybe put out a novel/lla or two like you said, and see where it goes, while still trying to go the traditional route to get some of your other titles in bookstores.

    • @James —

      I’ve tapped the folks I know, I suspect (though in sales terms, I continue to see sales from people I do know — I, for instance, don’t always pick up stuff right away, I picked up Chris Holm’s collection weeks after its initial release, so too with Terminal Damage), and actually, my sales haven’t really slowed. (Last two weeks saw 42 sales apiece, actually.)

      Not sure where I’ll jump from here. I’ve got DOUBLE DEAD to finish, and that goes to the publisher. My next planned book is also one for the traditional market because frankly, I think it’s a commercially-viable winner. But I do have some more “niche” ideas that may go roaming into DIY territory.

      — c.

  • I think you’ve hit on something that I realised just over the past few months, as I’ve decided to go indie too… the best thing we can do to get those earnings up is to write more books. Because if people like one book, they’ll be looking for more with your name on the cover. That way, when you whine on Twitter, you get a few sales, and then a few days later (when folks have finished that book), you get a few more.

    Honestly, with the big publishers limiting authors to releasing one book a year, and it taking 2 years (or more) from the time an author finishes a book before it gets to shelves, it’s really no wonder trad published authors have to have day jobs.

  • @Chuck –

    Excellent! Forget what I said about sales slowing, then. I’m an idiot.

    Although I suspect that you should hurry up and write that commercially-viable winner of a novel fast, though, since things are a changing, and there might not be a commercially-viable market to sell it to as publishers tighten their wallets and rely on their big guns to bring in the dough while they sit around in their situation rooms and try to figure out the correct price of an eBook…

    • @James —

      Heh. Yeah, maybe. The novel won’t take me long to write — it’s all outlined and ready to roll.

      I think publishers are going to want it, and I don’t consider publishers the enemy.

      That said, if I try to put this out there and they don’t want it, hey, I’ll reel it back in and (presuming it’s not a piece of shit) get it out in some fashion or another.

      I will say that I think one of the dangerous of self-publishing is that it damages a much-needed skill for writers: patience. It is in part why so many half-baked efforts are out there: because instead of having the patience to put the work through its paces, they instead want it now now now out out out and next thing you know they’re birthing the equivalent of a preemie baby out into the world.

      — c.

  • @Chuck –

    Oh, I agree. Patience is a big factor in all of this. My novel was bought by New York in June 2009. I’m still waiting for it to come out (December 2011). Has that taught me patience? You bet your ass it has. People need that to keep them from putting out garbage to the masses. Mind you, I have seen a lot of garbage out there that is selling like hotcakes *shrug* That’s not the kind of writer I want to be though. Mediocracy sucks, in my mind.

    And I don’t see publishers as the enemy, either. I just akin them to my drunk Uncle Herb who always tells tales of his days in Indonesia hunting Komodo Dragons. He’s living in the past and doesn’t know how to face the future with a clear head on his shoulders…

  • Had a conversation with a publicist friend last night and we were talking about review websites and how there are some that aren’t going to review a self-published book or, if they’re going to they need to follow certain criteria, like being professionally edited.

    Kirkus, for example, doesn’t review self-published titles. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/about/submission-guidlines/

    Now it might not get you a lot of additional sales but getting reviewed will at least get you additional exposure which (may or may not) up the chances in the long run.

    I look at it kind of like awards. They’re more cachet than they are great sales tools. The bulk of readers aren’t even aware of them. Which I think makes the ones they are aware of, Amazon reviews, more powerful, but that’s a different conversation.

    As self-publishing gets more popular I suspect that we’re going to see more freelance editors cropping up and making names for themselves within writer’s circles much like cover artists.

    They’ll be, hell they are, a necessity, but a lot of people will be turned off by their cost. Editing is time consuming and expensive, which it should be. An editor isn’t something that should be picked based on lowest bid.

  • Where do you think the future of self/epublishing is? I’m a wannabe who just wants to be able to make a living writing (being able to make at least as much as I make with my day job, really, would be ideal right now), and I can see ebooks as a way to do that. Do you? Where do you feel previously unpublished writers stand, especially given the difficulty in breaking into traditional publishing and the low average advances for debut novels?

    I can really see the current ebook rise as paralleling pulp fiction in the early 20th century: cheap production allows for low prices and mass distribution, which allows more writers to make a living by doing what they love. Is there any pragmatism to that perspective?

  • @Chuck,
    Sounds like sales are great, by self-publishing standards. Keep pimping. I hate doing it myself, and it cuts into my limited writing time, but the only time I’ve seen any sort of almost-spike myself is when I’ve as good as said, “Hey, you: buy my book”.

  • I’d say you’re doing really well; I certainly had a slower start. I bought Irregular Creatures, though I haven’t had a chance to open it yet. If it’s even half as entertaining as your blog posts, I’ll be a happy reader.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds