Self-Publishing and Sales

Today’s post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner made me think more about the topic of sales for self-published authors.

It goes without saying that there are a lot of stigmas for self-published authors to fight past in order to be taken seriously, and one of them is that the self-published work is of a lesser quality than a trad-pub.

The thing about this is, it may hold a bit of truth. I also won’t deny having had that fault previously (since resolved with having my wonderful editor on board). However, let’s also not disregard one unpleasant fact: traditionally published manuscripts are prone to the same range of errors as a self-published piece. I cannot think of any manuscript that came out that didn’t have errors at all. It’s just not possible.

Let’s also bring forward the fact that self-publication is still very new, and it’s a rush now. With the advent of e-readers and distributors like Smashwords, there is no shortage of mediums, which opens up a lot of room for people to showcase their stuff. As a result, the market gets cluttered with new entries, which in turn makes it that much harder for a newly self-published author to reach out to an audience. The competition is severe, and the majority of people are still of the opinion that the definition of “book” is still “printed on paper and watermarked by a major publishing house.”

A lot of authors who have self-published and then want to go the traditional route often hear the question of “How well did your book sell in the self-pub market?”

And that’s just it. Sales is the hardest part of the equation for a self-published author, and often it is because of the stigma of “not as good” that an author wouldn’t see a large number of books sold, or they would see the sales in a situation such as the Smashwords summer sale. I entered my books in the summer sale, and for the month of July, the books were free. I moved a good 100 copies in the space of three weeks, which I will confess is more than I moved over the course of the series’ existence.

Dismaying? Extremely. Because it’s not that my books aren’t good; I have invested an inordinate amount of time in fashioning a story that people would want to read. they may not be anywhere near as good as, say, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but I can say with certainty that I’ve written a good series so far. But, because I’m a self-published author, there’s a misconception that there’s no way that I could’ve possibly written a good enough story if I didn’t get picked up by a major publishing house, and therefore potential readers are that much more likely to ignore my work in favor of something traditionally published. The surge of sales on Smashwords tells me two things: 1. I do have a good story, and 2. People will buy self-published work only if it’s free.

During that time, I’ve actually heard from someone that self-pubs should have their work out for free, because since they’re self-published, it can’t possibly be as good as a trad pub. Which just outright pissed me off, considering the amount of work that goes into producing a book independently.

And you may say, the author should try harder to market their books!

The author already does market, and there’s only so much that they can do short of paying more money than they have into a marketing firm. Facebook, Twitter, even making own flyers and scattering them around town; there’s a myriad ways to market a book on a budget, and there is no self-published author that doesn’t do it all already. It’s still a matter of how many people will take a chance and shell out $3 for an independent author’s e-book, and while the stigma exists, the answer is “not many.”

I’ve thought about going trad-pub for a while, but if there’s an emphasis on sales, I know already that I’m out of luck. I may have excellent reviews of my books on, but I definitely am not as widely sold as, say, Mike Wells or Amanda Hocking. It’s a simple reality of life that it’ll be some years and a lot of backbreaking work before I’m sold anywhere near as well as those authors. It’s a simple Fact of Life in the self-pub world. Remember: getting taken seriously is the bulk of the battle. And that takes the longest of all, especially considering that you’re still trying to appeal to the public, and the public has its own misconceptions that you, the self-pub author, have to shatter.

And that’s the writing market right now. That’s an incredibly unpleasant state of affairs, especially for the self-pubs, but until the reading public changes its mind about how it approaches such a thing as an author who doesn’t have a major publishing house or marketing firm backing their work, that state of affairs will continue to exist for a long, long time.

The rub in the self-publishing world is that the state of affairs is not something that can be helped by one person or another; else it just wouldn’t be as it is. An author can continue to write until he or she is blue in the face, but until and unless the public is just as willing to read a self-pub piece above a trad-pub, nothing changes. It’s just logic: if there’s no audience, there’s no shift in perception. How much can an author reasonably pour into their marketing if the people who, for all intents and purposes should be reading this, are saying, “There’s no way that can be good” simply based on the publication method?

Look, I won’t discount that there’s a lot of crappy work out there. Because the market has become as accessible as it is now, people are putting everything up, regardless of what state it’s in. You’ll definitely have the poorly edited manuscripts with a great plot, and you’ll definitely have manuscripts that are so poor in content that reading them is impossible. And I won’t lie, this makes it twice as difficult for self-pub authors who had invested time and effort into their work to be taken seriously. And also, for every poor manuscript that a publishing house releases, the self-published author is getting yet another roadblock.

Let’s not judge a book by publishing method, but rather by merit. Yes, it would involve wading through a lot of crappy books in order to find the self-published works that could use the exposure, but the authors of those books will be all the happy that the readers took an effort to locate them and to see the merit in their work. The good books are nearly always overshadowed by the ones with an overabundance of fluff, but they are always worth the search.



4 thoughts on “Self-Publishing and Sales

  1. Good post Katherine. I read Ms. Gardener’s post too and saw it as a call to arms for indie authors to shore up their skills and have good editors. I think that indie authors have just as much talent as traditionally published authors, they just have more control over their book, its marketing and its “life in the world.”

    I like the spirit you have shown in your post and believe that you have a great deal of merit as an author. Your books will sell, they are well written. You are a good author. The readers and buyers will find you. Hopefully this will hold true for all others of your ilk who have also written good books.



    1. Thanks, Ardee-Ann.

      What got me was that the deciding factor of a self-pub making it in trad-pub is sales, but the fact that the stigmas that come along with self-publication are just as alive as ever is a huge factor in how many sales a self-pub gets. Many people regard Amanda Hocking as a fluke. Perhaps she is, perhaps she isn’t, but she’s proof positive that it is fully possible for a self-pub to sell.

      It’s why self-pubs keep at it. :)

  2. Wonderful post, as always. I haven’t read the other post, but I think you’ve hit all the important points in any self-vs-trad pub conversation. The idea that self-pub is somehow “lesser” makes me twitch like nothing else. I feel like it’s an idea carried by the same people who talk about how ebooks and ereaders aren’t “really books” and are somehow lesser because the delivery method isn’t a stack of dead tree.

    And sales being a factor? What crap. The number of books that get published in the traditional system simply to see only a few thousand copies and keep the lights on for a little while is really, really high. Look at a publisher’s backlist. Everything that’s not a best seller? Probably hasn’t sold a lot. There are hundreds if not thousands of authors with publishing contracts who don’t sell as well as some self-published authors, and the reasons for that is because they were picked up, most likely, because someone at the house recognized a good mid-list book that would be mildly popular and provide some income to the house. And those mid-listers? Probably won’t get picked up by another house later on because their sales (their traditional publishing sales) aren’t high enough to warrant a new contract. At least if you’re doing your own publishing, you don’t have to worry your previous sales will keep you from making a living.

    1. That’s actually the other bit of the reason why I went self-pub. I spoke to a couple of people I know who worked in publishing, and when I pitched my idea, I got told that it would be “good for mid-list.” It took me a bit of digging to find out that mid-list is a nice way of saying, “it has potential but don’t lose your day job.”

      Self-pubs have a long ways to go before they start being taken seriously. And I’m right there with you on the e-pub and e-reader bit. It makes me wonder, are the words of an audiobook also something less than a “real” book because they’re spoken, in those people’s heads? WTF. A book is a book is a book, whether it’s on a screen or in your headphones.

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