Writing is a tough gig. Honestly, it’s such an subjective field that even if you’re a best selling author, or screenwriter, or whatever, people are still not going to like you. But, if you’re at that point, you’ve probably got as many, or more people who dig your work, so it’s all gravy. But what about those of us who have been at this writing thing for more than half of their life without any success?
And I don’t just mean commercial success. I mean artistic success, where people have read your work when it’s available for nothing. If you’re like me, you’ve probably written dozens of shorts, hundreds of poems, and a few full length pieces. Out of all those works, how many people have read your work? I don’t mean self-published works that are open to the public, but just people in general; friends, family, interested parties, etc… Again, I can only speak for myself, and asking an indie author might skew results. I’m sure there are plenty who have had minor, moderate, or great success, but personally, it’s not been an easy or well traveled road. In this post, I’ll go over the pros and cons of self publishing vs traditional publishing, and I’ll tell you my experience with both.
First though, to those of you who read this blog often, you’ll know I have a slight bias against traditional publishing. For those of you who might be new to me, you should know I’ve been writing for at least 15 years, with my first actual published piece being accepted when I was 18, so I’ve been at this for quite a while despite my relative youth. Again, this is mostly personal opinion, but I feel that it can be applied somewhat universally.
Since that first piece of published work, which was a poem, I’ve had one other piece accepted into a magazine – another poem. I’ve shopped my two novels to various agents with little to no response. I’ve also dipped my toes back into the short and poetry markets in recent times with nothing but rejections. It’s hard, I’m not going to lie. When somebody you’ve never met tells you that what you feel is your best isn’t good enough. Everybody will tell you that rejections aren’t personal, and to that I agree. It’s a business, and even if you have the most well written work in the history of man, if there isn’t a market for it, you probably won’t get a nibble. Besides that, agents and publishers get hundreds of submissions a week, so it’s possible they don’t even see your stuff.
Think of it as applying to a job. If you apply somewhere that gets 1000 applicants, do you think that they go through each and everyone with a fine-toothed comb to get the best candidate? Probably not. Most managers will glance at the aesthetic and format and judge from there. Others will simply throw a handful down some stairs, and whatever lands on the ground floor they’ll review. Depends on the person, and the same goes with agents. Sure they want the best work they can get, but sometimes the best may get shuffled and lost. It happens.
With that said, you’ll hear a lot of authors, or wannabe authors say “If it gets rejected. Rewrite it. Do it again, differently and better.” For the love of God, don’t do this. Unless an agent or publisher comes back and says they like it, but want something changed in order to progress with publishing, don’t change a word. I’m not saying don’t edit. Editing is key. Read it over yourself, and maybe things will make more sense if you swap some lines, or change a plot point. But rewriting it is a colossal waste of time. Just because agent A doesn’t like it, doesn’t agent B won’t. Remember, subjective. It’s your work, if you’re happy with it, that should really be all that matters.
Every writer has a level of skills. Some are master wordsmiths that can make you feel like you’re in a setting, and you get the atmosphere surrounding you, but they might lack storytelling abilities. Think of these writers like the Michael Bay’s of the literary world. A lot of flash, but not a tonne of substance. It can work though. Others are masterclass storytellers. They leave the setting and world to the reader’s imagination and focus on character development, pacing, and theme. These are the Spielberg’s of writing. So by you getting a rejection, and changing your romance novel into a horror, or simply rewriting will probably land you in the exact same spot, so it’s probably not the greatest of ideas. It might work, but only if you think it does. The most important thing to do is identify your skillset. Take note of what you’re good at writing, and stick to it.
But isn’t it more useful to, ya know, improve upon what you’re not good at doing? Yes and no. In this case no. Writing is a very specialized profession. There’s a reason Stephen King only writes horrors and thrillers. That’s not to say he couldn’t write a comedy, but he’s probably much better at the former. Think of it like a baseball pitcher. They are, generally, the worst hitters on a team, so why shouldn’t they practice stepping up to the plate more often? Simple, it’s not what they do. And writing something out of your skill level, while might be cathartic, probably won’t benefit you in the end. Stick to what you know, and master it.
So, to wrap that up, again on personal level. I have had two works published and made zero dollars off of them. I’ve been rejected from dozens of agents, magazines, and publishers – and never heard back from countless others. So what’s the alternative?
Self-publishing. Self-publishing has but two guarantees. A: Your work will be out there depending on the platform on which you publish. B: You hold all of the rights to your work. Both are fantastic. But both require a lot of work, and a lot of know-how. You’re a writer, not a marketer or a publicist; well, you might be, and if you are, this is the route for you. But for me, I’ve published two full length novels over the last few years. I’ve sold, combined, in 5 years, seven online copies. I don’t count my friends and family who bought one just to be nice. In terms of raw marketing and advertising, the return has been miserable. So, don’t expect to make millions just because you hit the publish button.
People in general are creatures of habit. They have their favorite authors, and they’ll stick to them. Why on Earth would somebody, without any previous experience or exposure end up on a New York Times best seller list? They won’t. All you have to do is think about yourself. How often do you go on Amazon and buy books from indie authors you’ve never heard of? Probably not too often, if ever. Again, there are people who do it, but it’s few and far between. Self-publishing is all about what you put into it. All the costs are on you. You can choose to not spend a penny on it. You can edit and market yourself by word of mouth, and hope for the best. Or, you can go the other route and spend thousands up front on an editor and advertising, and hope to Hell you make it back.
I’ve run the numbers, and if you want a professional editor from say Reedsy, you’re looking at about $2000 dollars for an 80k word book. Then you’ll want to send it to as many people as possible, these are known as ARCs (advanced review copies), which can cost you hundreds depending on how many you send out. A lot of reviewers, who do reviewing for free and will post on Amazon, Goodreads, blogs, etc… will want a physical copy for the their trouble, which is perfectly fine. They don’t want payment, so a free book is fair. So if you send out 25 of those to get the ball rolling, that’ll cost you roughly $3.50 a book on Createspace, plus shipping. We’ll call that an even $100 for maths sake. Then you have to send those to reviewers. For me, it was a bit inflated because I live in Canada. Everybody I sent to lived in the USA. So shipping for each was between 11-17 dollars, so for that we’ll average it out to 14 dollars, and if you’re sending to 25 people, that’s another 350 bones.
Great, so far you’ve spent $2400 and you’re book isn’t even out on the market yet. What’s next? Well, you have to promote and advertise. There are free avenues to go down, such as Facebook, Twitter, other social media sites. There are also blogs and forums you can go to to promote, but if you want a wide-scale audience, and reach as many people as possible, you’ll need to spend some more cash. Facebook has a fairly reasonable advertising scheme, and for $100, you could get about 150-200 likes on your page. BUT, those likes don’t translate into sales. Some will be bots, some will just click for the sake of clicking and liking a page, etc… Expect to get some exposure, but don’t expect sales. Amazon, too, has an advertising campaign section, the minimum is $100. Expect one or two sales from that amount. Then there are Google ads. These are alright, but again, for 100 bucks, you can expect to see maybe one or two sales.
So you’ve done all that, the books ready to launch. You hit that publish button and wait for the cash to roll in, right? Well, not exactly. If you go through Createspace and Amazon, depending on where you live, and where the book sells, you’re look at between $0.05 on Amazon’s expanded distribution network (pretty much anything other than Amazon’s American site.) and 4 bucks, on the Createspace direct store. I’ve found that it averages to roughly 2 dollars per sale (including digital version). Let’s break down the math, shall we?
In pre-publishing you’ve spent in the ballpark of $3000, if you only spent 100 on marketing and advertising on three different platforms. You’ll need to sell in the range of 6000 books to break even. That’s a big number, and I mean a big big number. I know people who have spent that in pre-publishing costs and in their first few months sold about 500. 500 is an astronomical number, in my mind, for an first time, or even indie author. But they would still be in the hole in terms of cost and time spent.
Like I said, the world of publishing is a horrible mine field, riddled with lepers waiting to eat your face, even those that’s not a symptom of leprosy, they’ll still do it. Trust me. You have two roads, really. One is filled with heartbreak and disappointment. The other is filled with false hope at the bottom of a money pit(if you let it get there). So why in the world would anybody want to be an author? Simple. It’s who you are, it’s what you love, and you’ll do it no matter what. And even if you only sell seven books like me, it’s damn rewarding when you see somebody’s made the leap and bought it.
Until next time, folks.
PS. I didn’t spend anywhere near 3000 bucks on my books, combined.