Self-Publishing: Five Things to Know

What would my top five things to know about self-publishing be?

A reader asks:

What are the top five things I should know about self publishing?

First, for those who don’t know, I made my living self-publishing for years. I’ve talked to a lot of self-publishers, moderated panels about it, written articles and guides about it, and have tried to follow how the industry’s been moving even after my books got picked up by a publisher.

There is no doubt in my mind that it’s possible to build a solid, ethical, profitable career as a self-publisher. I was, and I know many other people who do.

But I often feel like the loudest voices about it online are promoting it as something much different than it is. Which is why the top five things I’m going to tell you are all going to be a little on the cautionary side — not because I think self-publishing is a bad choice (I don’t), but because I think it’s so, so important to be realistic about it. I see a lot of hard-truth-realism given about traditional publishing, and… self-publishing is just as hard, in my experience. It’s just hard in different places.

So here’s what I think everybody should know.

1. Self-publishing is a lot of work, not a get-rich-quick scheme.

I’m always gobsmacked when I see “publish a book on Kindle!!” on those “ways to make money fast” lists. Unless you’re in the top percent of natural marketers (or are very, very lucky), that’s not going to be how it is.

Self-publishing is hard. It’s a lot of work. A lot of self-publishers frankly describe it as exhausting — a common metaphor is the “treadmill” of constantly trying to publish another book fast to stay on top of the algorithms.

Be prepared for it not to be the easy high income some people sell it as.

2. Being a self-publisher means being a PUBLISHER.

It’s important to realize just how many hats you’ll be wearing as a self-publisher. It’s not enough to write the book. You will also be responsible for all aspects of production, distribution, and marketing, and you’ll either have to hire people or do all these things yourself. The administrative load can be high, especially these days when building advertising campaigns has become such a large part of many self-publishers’ commercial success.

And it’s really, really important to know yourself, and know how well equipped you’ll be to do all this administrative and other non-writing work. The people I see doing best over time are the ones who genuinely enjoy stuff like building ad campaigns — enjoyment’s not a requirement, but if you’re on the other end of the spectrum and that sort of thing actively drives you to dive into holes to hide, you’ll have a much harder time.

3. The self-publishing world changes extremely fast.

The useful strategies in 2011, when I first started looking at self-publishing, and 2014, when I first did it myself, were drastically different. The landscape in 2014 versus now is drastically different again.

What works in self-publishing changes so, so fast. Self-publishers are able to respond to these changes much faster than the machinery of a large publisher would be able to — in fact, that’s one advantage that some self-publishers like, that they’re able to turn on a dime to respond to market differences or top-down Amazon policy shifts. But self-publishers also often have to respond to these changes or risk sinking into obscurity.

You can’t sit on your laurels and keep the same publishing strategies year to year, unfortunately. It’s a lot of research, and a lot of expertise to keep up with and keep learning.

4. There is a TON of misinformation out there, and the noise to signal ratio is high.

I talked about this in my recent post about resources and communities to get started in self-publishing, but I find it consistently harder to sort through self-publishing advice and find what’s reliable, trustworthy, and ethical. Some people feel incentivized to sell self-publishing as easier and more lucrative than it is, and there’s also a lot of blanket advice out there that concentrates on climbing Amazon algorithms in the moment, including more cutthroat strategies that aren’t the right fit for every career (and that cross a discomfort line for many authors).

None of this is the only way to do things. Not to mention that I’ve seen a lot, a lot of flat-out misinformation.

I’m going to link to Smart Indie Author here again, who I’ve been really impressed with as an honest, realistic resource for the current landscape.

5. It’s possible to lose money doing it.

I don’t think this is talked about enough.

In traditional publishing, the publisher is the one taking the risk and making the investment. In self-publishing, you’re the publisher.

Self-publishing is a business, one that almost always needs start-up capital to do well, and one that doesn’t always make money. A lot of surveys show a long tail of self-publishers who make nothing, or close to it — and I haven’t seen any of these surveys take expenses into account. It is all too possible to make a negative amount self-publishing.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t self-publish — it’s to say you should plan. Be smart; make sure the amount you’re spending is an amount you can live without for significantly longer than you think it’ll take to earn back. Don’t run your finances into the ground chasing a dream someone else spins.

Treat it as the business it is.