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.