We all know the trope of the penniless writer in a chilly garret – and indeed publishing advances at the moment can be dizzyingly low*. And yet a huge number of aspiring writers still think that writing a book is a good and sensible way to get rich quick.
Of course, the main reason for this hope is the great hullabaloo created whenever a debut writer achieves a six or seven-figure advance (which does happen, to a tiny handful of people, semi-regularly – alongside the great swathes of afore-mentioned dizzyingly low advances), or becomes an overnight sensation when her self-published book smashes all sales records (that’s you, E. L. James). You see an author shoot from shadows to stardom, their novel or memoir serialised, or better yet televised, or better still turned into a top-grossing film franchise. You know the figures, you know how unusual it is to be able to make a career out of writing books alone – and yet… you can’t quite help thinking that perhaps you’ll be one of those people.
But of course, it isn’t easy to get a publishing deal. It’s even less easy to get a huge advance and become a bestseller. And, unfortunately, it isn’t easy to get your self-published book noticed, either.
That said, a real writer wants to write regardless, financial rewards or not. And many writers will want to go ahead and self-publish, even if they’re aware that the chances of pulling off an E. L. James maneouvre are very low. In this article, we take an honest, unglamorous look at the problems of self-publishing – and point you in the direction of some useful tools to help you overcome them. We’ve already written about how to get an agent’s attention, and admit that this is where our expertise and experience lie. And we will openly acknowledge that we’re wary of self-publishing, principally because of the hidden costs involved, as well as the really staggering amount of time and effort you’ll need to be able to market your book and get people reading it. But if you’re determined on setting out on the self-publishing path, this article will help you see where the problems lie, and how to overcome or at least mitigate against them. There have been some phenomenal self-publishing successes; there will be more. (And of course, you may just want to self-publish for the satisfaction of having a hard copy of your manuscript, irrespective of sales or profit, and being able to share it with those close to you.)
The main obstacles of self-publishing, and how to go about overcoming them:
1. Marketing and more marketing
It is a cliché universally acknowledged that to be a success in self-publishing, you have to be prepared to commit 90% to marketing versus 10% to the actual writing. You ideally need a platform to start with – a social media following or popular blog, if not a couple of published books under your belt already – and you need to be prepared to market your book aggressively, and well. Being a strong self-promoter and self-publicist isn’t easy and will require a lot of work (and a lot of luck). You need to be honest with yourself: can you dedicate the time and energy to the marketing of your book? How will you make that time? Some people are born marketers and will take pleasure in doing this, and doing it well. But for others it can be a struggle, and a disillusioning one at that.
Be realistic before you start. It can be very easy to fall out of love with your own novel once you’ve spent a year hawking it on Twitter, at the expense of your social life, job and – most importantly – the freedom to write.
2. Agents know what they’re talking about
Rejection, whilst painful, can be good for your writing. Whilst agents aren’t infallible gatekeepers – yes, think of Harry Potter being turned away time and time again – they are experienced ones, and sometimes rejection just means you will up your game as a writer. As painful as it is, sometimes it’s worth listening to the feedback, putting your manuscript aside and focusing on the next project. Just putting some distance between you and your book can enable you to come back to it later with fresh eyes and the ability to hone, rewrite and get it “agent-ready”.
Or if you know that your book is perfect as it is – it’s just a bit different from what’s already out there (Eimear McBride), or cracking open an as-yet unexploited genre (Stephanie Meyer) – keep plugging away at those agents.
But if you’re really determined nonetheless to embrace the self-publishing route, just remember that if it is difficult to sell your book to agents, it may be even more difficult to sell it to the general public.
3. A litany of upfront costs
Even when a book is exceptionally brilliant, it will always be made even better by professional editors, copy-editors and proof-readers. You can hire freelance ones, but they aren’t cheap (or shouldn’t be if you want to get a good one); you might think they don’t do much more than read your book, but an experienced editor will read your book more closely than you can imagine someone can read a book. And then come up with remarkable ways to make it better, whilst staying true to your writing and your message. If you’re not sure what exactly an editor does, this lovely article sums up it up in their own words. So if you’re self-publishing, be prepared to invest in a good editor, copy-editor and professional proof-reader (i.e. not your mum, unless that’s her job). This is an upfront cost. If you are with a traditional publisher, they will cover it as part of their service. The same goes for professional cover designers, marketers and publicists.
4. Self-published books usually look, well, self-published
There are a lot of useful tools available for designing your own book and getting it printed (some good ones outlined in this article by Edition Guard, though with the caveat that we haven’t tested all of them – and please note that the final recommendation is for…Edition Guard). However, to do it well, you still need to put in a lot of hard work. For example, Lulu, the publishing house they recommend, does a good job creating a print book and e-book, but you will need to tweak it to make the book look truly professional – and this will require an elaborate process: type-setting your book, ordering a copy, comparing it to a published book, re-formatting, ordering a new copy, and again, and again. Most publishing companies such as Lulu have a base format to use, but it is worth checking it against this article to make sure it looks professional. It’s also worth googling “How to avoid the self-published look”. As before, this takes a lot of time and effort, and is an upfront cost.
If you are a writer – and not a marketer, cover designer, type-setter, editor, or proof-reader – self-publishing can therefore be deceptively difficult and expensive. There are a lot of tools and resources to help you, but they don’t come cheap – or don’t necessarily do the job as well as the traditional publishers do.
If you do decide to self-publish: before you start, be sure to investigate the different routes available to find out the best one to suit you, as outlined by this helpful blog, and be realistic about the upfront costs you might have to take on. If you do have a platform, or are a great marketer prepared to invest money and, most of all, time – and if you know you have a strong, interesting genre novel (genre fiction is the most likely to benefit from self-publishing) – then you may just be the next E. L. James or Meredith Wild (or Beatrix Potter, who self-published her first Peter Rabbit book, we discovered in the course of our research…). And you can read more inspiring success stories here (although this blog is written by a self-publishing business – and it’s worth reading the balancing viewpoint).
Most importantly, whatever you decide: focus on the writing first!
Important (for us) disclaimer: At Ink Academy, we strongly believe that you shouldn’t write to get published – and definitely not to “get rich”. That is not the way to write the best book you can, which is what we are most interested in. The best books will be written for their own sake, so it is worth focusing on just writing it and getting it finished, before dreaming of your publishing deals and future Netflix series. Write for the joy of it, the need to express yourself, even just to see what comes out. Only once you’ve finished writing – and rewriting, and honing, and rewriting some more – should you turn your attention to the next stage in the process: publishing.
*£1,000 advance for a novel that took you five years to write, anyone? Oh – and don’t forget that you won’t receive that whole grand in one go. It’ll be split into four payments, the first paid out on signature of your contract and the last on publication of your paperback edition – which can be two years after signature. So that £1,000 turns into £142.86 per year of that novel’s journey from first word on page to published paperback. (For a lovely, funny piece on not making money as a writer, see Ashleigh Young’s piece in Slate).