The Stark Realities of Self-Publishing

A cold dose of reality on the fanciful world of self-publishing:

I just self-published my first novel and am extremely disappointed

Most people on here seem to be having flaming success in self-publishing field, but unfortunately I haven’t been graced with such luck – it’s been out for nearly two weeks on Amazon and I haven’t sold even one copy yet. It’s cheap enough at 0.99 – I have no idea why I haven’t gotten even one bite.

But I thought those evil publishers, or as some call ‘gatekeepers‘, are supposed to be a hindrance. You’re supposed to ‘choose yourself‘, man. Whatever you do, stay away from those evil publishers who will try to stiff you on the royalties of your nonexistent sales.

The reality is, there is simply too much content (most of it mediocre or awful) being churned out and not enough eyeballs.

Both old-school publishing and self-publishing publish a whole fucking fuckbucket of books: in the United States alone you have about 300,000 new books added per year to the traditional pile, and Bowker claims the number for self-publishing is somewhat higher (~400,000 in 2012) if you count them by ISBNs, and many self-published authors do not use ISBNs, so when you add in other countries and territories, you could be looking at twice or more of that number.

The survivorship bias is huge, and all you hear are the successes, never the failures (although the Reddit thread above is an exception). To say EL James selling millions of 50 Shades of Grey is proof that self-publishing is viable is like saying the Powerball is good investment because some people match all the numbers.

When self-publishing, your competition are the gatekeepers. Because the barriers to entry are so low, it’s everyone else who doesn’t have much talent that is competing with you, each pushing their barely-readable ‘book’ unto an increasingly scarce pool of buyers that have likely already been burned on low-quality self-published books (grammatical errors are a feature, not a bug) and are more cautious about taking a dip of the wading pool of sludge [1] that all too often constitutes self-publishing.

Traditional publishing still has a role: being a firewall that separates readers from un-publishable bilge and promoting authors who have genuine talent and something worthwhile to say but may not have a platform to promote it.

From the WSJ: The publishing industry’s hunt for the next blockbuster has given rise to an elite new club: the million-dollar literary debut

In a whirlwind week as publishers read the manuscript last December, Harper Collins’s Ecco editorial director Megan Lynch made a pre-emptive offer to publish the novel for at least $1 million. “I never imagined people would respond that way in a million years,” said Ms. Sweeney, 55. The book, about four adult siblings whose anticipated inheritance has all but evaporated because of one brother’s bad behavior, is scheduled to be published next March.

But isn’t traditional publishing supposed to be dying…this should not be happening. Those evil, exploitative, bankrupted traditional publishers and their million-dollar contracts.

From How the left spreads misinformation, fear, and bad advice to ‘save/protect’ people:

…traditional book publishing houses are flooded with manuscripts, so apparently, I guess, despite thousands and thousands of articles slamming traditional publishing, word still hasn’t gotten out about how ‘evil’ traditional publishers are. Just another example of the paternalist left acting like they know what is best for everyone else, giving bad advice to ‘save’ people. According to the left, it’s not your fault your precious manuscript was rejected, it’s those greedy corporations and rich people who are to blame.

The average Amazon self-publisher makes a couple hundred dollars a year and that doesn’t include costs such as covers and editing, whereas 6-figure or 7-figure book publishing deals are not all that uncommon. For example, memory champion Joshua Foer received a jaw-dropping $1.3 million advance from Penguin to write his critically acclaimed debut book Moonwalking with Einstein. Poor guy. But of course, we can’t let obvious counter-examples stand in the way of the well-worn leftist narratives that ‘traditional publishing is dead’, ‘traditional pubishing gatekeepers are suppressing talent’, or ‘traditional publishing exploits authors’.

Bloggers like Mike, Aaron, Vox, and James are successful with self-publishing because they already have huge audiences. They wrote books only after becoming well-known through blogging and other mediums; they didn’t self-publish to build the audience – the audience was already there. Traditional publishing, on the other hand, puts the books in front of people’s eyes at the bookstores and on Amazon through professional promotions, which helps authors who have the talent to write quality work but have little or no pre-established audience. The audience is what matters – no audience, no sales. Period. The left doesn’t understand this fundamental rule.

There is a false victimhood mentality that seems pervasive in self-publishing…blaming others (like ‘gatekeepers’) for failing to get traditionally published. Aspiring writers need to accept the harsh reality that they likely have no talent and should pursue more fruitful endeavors. Don’t quit your day job.

But that doesn’t mean self-publishers can’t make money. Some make a lot, but these are authors who:

-got lucky. Sometimes a book with no redeeming qualities is a huge seller; other times, good books are ignored.

-have genuine talent at writing, and the people who review their books are real customers, not shills. Legitimate reviews tend to be enthusiastic and detailed, and through social proof persuade others to buy the book as word of mouth kicks in.

-produce a A LOT of books. These books tend to be of mediocre or poor quality, are often priced less than $5, and have low individual sales and few reviews, but the combined sales can be significant. The emphasis is quantity over quality.

-spend a lot of money to promote their books, including paid reviews. Due to the vast supply of books, getting reviews is very difficult.

-are really good at networking.

-already have an established brand/audience/newsletter. This is crucial. Tim Ferris, who originally was traditionally published, already had a huge brand when he went the self-published route with The 4-Hour Chef. Vox Day, Aaron, Mike, Altucher, etc..all have large audiences from blogging. Andy Weir had an extremely popular website and had achieved earlier fame with his short story The Egg.

Mr. Weir also has genuine talent attributable to a high-IQ, allowing him to quickly grasp the finer intricacies of storytelling and publishing that often allude many aspiring writers. It’s not like he was just some ‘average joe’ who woke up one morning and wrote The Martin. Not to make this into an HBD post, but again and again, the most successful of any intellectual-type endeavors tend to have high IQs.

[1] If you think I’m being too hard on self-published books, the evidence by writers and readers suggests self-published books are inferior to traditionally-published books.

A couple months ago, against my better judgement, I personally bought some self-published books. One was passable but boring to read, kinda like a school assignment completed by an unenthusiastic student. The second, essentially, consisted of articles cut and pasted from the author’s website and strung together to form a ‘book’. The content, overall, was generic instead of unique or truly insightful, based on my own experience in the field and my qualifications to assess said content. The third ‘book’ had maybe two paragraphs of useful, unique content; the rest was generic and copied from the author’s website. About half the ‘book’ consisted of cut and pasted transcripts of postcast interviews by the author that could be found for free and needed to be edited or summarized for brevity. A transcript may be useful, but it’s not a book. Marketing something as a ‘book’ (instead of a compilation) and then filling it with verbatim blog posts and transcripts seems somewhat deceptive.