Self Publishing: Two Years On, the Pros and Cons.

Retro Self-Publishing.
Retro Self-Publishing.

In the first week of January 2012, I self published my first short story to Amazon’s kindle store. It was called Christmas Past, and it was a fortnight late. It was still the best decision I ever made, I’ve had some good feedback about the book since then and I’m still really happy with the way it turned out. In the two years since I’ve published two more books, that’s a bit less than I hoped, but writing is not an exact science and a good book never resolves itself quite as quickly as you’d like. However, the last two years has been educational. Here are some of the Pros and Cons I’ve learned about Self-Publishing eBooks since 2012 began.

Pro: Self Publishing has let me learn while working.

The modern image of the traditional published author is a very recent myth. It is only in the last twenty or thirty years that we have seen a literary market so focused around the Blockbuster Novel. This is because they are the cheapest to produce and the easiest to recoup the costs. Unfortunately, the age of the novel comes at the expense of other avenues like the magazine. Before the decline of the fiction magazine, young writers would be able to train their skills by submitting to magazines that took shorter works for smaller niches. This was a valuable experience that provided feedback and reinforcement to new writers, now it is almost impossible to break into traditional publishing without writing a standout novel. That’s a big thing to ask, leaving many young writers in a position of writing without publication or compensation for years into their career.

In many ways, the eBook market has replaced the genre magazine. It has become a haven for short fiction, aspiring writers and part time scribblers to offer up their work for modest financial compensation and this has been of enormous benefit to me. I am someone who likes to jump in at the deep end, I don’t like to work on projects that might languish forever with no tangible results. Publication, even without the independent approval of a publisher, provides me with an attainable goal and makes me a better writer.

Con: Free-Market Gatekeeping.

Nobody  wants to sell a crappy book. If you’ve put the time into a writing, rewriting, proofreading and formatting a book, you must have a little faith that it’s a book someone wants to read. Crappy books are out there though. A common criticism of Self-Publishing is that it is overburdened by the world’s awful first drafts. I don’t mind this so much, I have a lot of respect for anyone that takes the time to write a book, and I’ve read a lot of books that could have used a decent editor but were still great reads. The problem comes when we look at the methods available for sorting the good books from the bad. Often the books that rise to the top aren’t the best written, but had authors with the most to spend. A trip to a decent editor, a cover design from a talented freelancer, a few verified reviews from a black-hat marketer; they all play a part in helping books rise to the top and they all cost money. Traditional publishers aren’t the best Gatekeepers in the world, but money is a far worse filter.

Pro: Short Fiction has a better chance.

It is very hard to get Short Fiction printed these days. Sure, if you’re an established author you can usually get a book of shorts out there, but if Short Stories are your bread and butter then you’re never going to launch a career with a traditional publisher. Don’t get me wrong, Short Fiction isn’t an easy sell in the eBook market. Novels are still the preferred read of most customers, but with no entry cost and a royalty rate of 35% on Amazon, a Short Fiction writer has more time to find their audience and great financial rewards per sale by publishing this way.

Con: Self-Promotion can be expensive, draining and pointless.

Like I said, Short Fiction is a hard sell. Unfortunately, that’s what I write. If you’re lucky, you’re a novelist and you’re working in a fashionable genre. That will give your book a kick up the backside that it will sorely need. If you’re trying to corner a quieter corner of literature, you’re going to have a hard time. Promoting an eBook is a never ending process of freebies, finding review sites, posting updates and hoping for Amazon reviews.

And I hate it.

This is more of a personal problem, I suppose, but I have a real loathing for advertising. I don’t like it, I’m immediately suspicious of it, and I don’t like it inserted into places it doesn’t belong. I don’t like its manipulative language or its sneaky tactics, I don’t like hype or teasing. But I have a product to sell. So, marketing always leaves me in this Rationalisation/Shame/Desperation loop.

Take my most recent book, The Octopus of Suspense. I’m so proud of this book, I think it’s well written and original, the feedback I’ve received has been excellent. I think it deserves to do well. (Rationalisation.) So, I post a few tweets trying to push it a bit and end up feeling like a shill. (Shame.) I stop promoting it for a bit, enough time goes by and the book’s fortunes don’t seem to be improving so I start itching to promote again. (Desperation.) And so I remind myself how proud of the book I am. (Rationalisation.)

Of course, it shouldn’t be like this. With a traditional publisher, you can loathe advertising and completely ignore that side of things. As a Self-Publisher, you need to be writer, editor, advertiser, PR and a whole host of other jobs too. I’m learning to swallow my pride on promotion, I’m going to need to learn about selling my books and coming up with a good marketing strategy, but I will never be particularly good at it.

Pro: People will read and enjoy your books.

I don’t sell a lot of books. It’s no big secret or shame of mine, writing is hard and selling books is harder. I’m not making a regular monthly income from my eBooks and I won’t be paying my rent with them any time soon. However, it has been so rewarding to find that readers have been finding my books anyway. I have had Amazon Reviews, emails and tweets from people that have read my stories and enjoyed them. There haven’t been many, I’m not sitting on a massive pile of fan mail, but they exist. And that is so unbelievably rewarding that it keeps me working on the next book.

Con: You’re working a second job that has taken over your life and you aren’t getting paid much.

Writing is often a full time job for me. It doesn’t always feel that way. When I’m working on a first draft I might just write for a couple of twenty minute sessions a day and forget about other things.  Other days I need to write one story, edit another, design a cover, rewrite a blurb, format a manuscript and then go do my real-world job in the evening.  When you sit down and make the decision to write for a living, you are choosing to do hours upon hours of unpaid work in the hope of being adequately rewarded much further down the line. This can be demoralising too. There will be days, maybe weeks, where you never really give writing the attention it deserves. There will be times when you think of nothing else. But you free time will never really be your own again. Until writing is paying the bills and you can quit the day job, every minute you spend watching a movie or reading tweets is time you could be writing.

Pro: Every book is a checkpoint.

When  I first decided I was going to seriously invest time in being a writer, I tried to think of a reasonable, attainable goal to aim for. The goal I settled on was pretty simple. I wanted to earn enough money from sales each month to pay my rent. I don’t need to earn enough to quit my job (if I did, I’d probably turn into a scary hermit.) and I don’t need to be a millionaire, but I do need to pay my rent. It’s my biggest bill, the one thing that always needs to be paid on time. We all have financial stones around our necks, my rent is the heaviest stone. If I could cover it with writing books, it would free up money to save and enjoy. I’m nowhere near that goal yet, and often it feels like I take two steps forward and one step back, but publishing a book is like a checkpoint. A magic step that can never be removed. I published three books since January 2012, and if I never publish another book, that will not change. Unlike traditionally published books which can go out of print, those three books will always be there as a foundation to build upon. When times are tough and progress is slow, those three books are a permanent reminder that I never have to start from scratch again.

Self-Publishing has been very rewarding for me. It’s hard work, and it can often feel like the time and effort you put in is irrelevant to what you get out, but at the end of the day the results (good and bad) are all your own. You have to deal with your failures, but when your successes come around, you get to enjoy them completely. It can be a slog, but the motivating side makes it worthwhile.

If you’ve been writing and self publishing, I’d love to hear about you experience with it too.

  • I think you’ve hit the pros and cons just about on the head. I especially appreciate you calling out the opportunity self-publishing affords short story writers. I’ve been following the short story market in sci-fi for years, and its trajectory is pretty much as you lay it out. Good post.

  • Mmm, I think part of the problem is that, outside eBooks, it’s big publishers and big retailers selling 90% of the books. The predictable result is that we’ve ended up with a sort of literary Hollywood, where the business will spend a huge amount promoting a book, but only the most marketable books need apply.

  • Even though I’ve only released one story on amazon, I feel like the inflated market is a blessing in disguise. Like it’s easy for a particularly poor outing to be lost in everything else, while your best tends to rise to the top. At least that’s my perception.