10 Obsolete Beliefs that Can Block Self-Publishing Success

by Anne R. Allen

New writers contact us every day, asking questions about everything from how to start their first short story (answer: butt in chair; hands on keyboard) to how to deal with trolls and bullies (don't respond; walk away; report abuse.)

We answer them allas time permits—but there's one kind of writer we can't help much: self-published writers who ask us to help them become best-sellers.

It's not that we don't empathize. We'd all love to be rocking the bestseller charts.

But unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to make a book a bestseller, whether it's self-published or trad-published.

At least for those of us who left our magic wands at Hogwarts.

The closest thing I know to a magic wand for marketing self-published books is David Gaughran's LET'S GET VISIBLE. And no, I don't know Mr. Gaughran and he's not paying us any kickbacks. He's simply got sensible, up-to-date, no-BS advice for self-publishers.

If you want an overview of publishing in the digital age so you can decide what publishing route is best for you, you'll find it in a book I wrote with #1 Amazon bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE.

It can help you navigate today's publishing business whether you self-publish, go with a small press as I have, or are holding out for the agent and the Big Five contract.

You can also find a wealth of information on marketing in a post Ruth Harris wrote for this blog in her Writer's Toolkit series: How to Move the Merch.

David's book costs $4.99. Ours costs $3.99. Ruth's post is free. That's under ten bucks for all the information you'll need.

But an amazing number of people say they would rather spend thousands on a professional publicist than spring for that $10.00 or even read a blogpost. 

Needless to say, Harry Potter himself could not help those folks. They are ripe for scammers, and getting ripped off may be the only way they're going to allow themselves to learn what they need to know.

I was once told by a wise friend that "we are all prisoners of our unexamined beliefs."

A lot of writers have fenced in their own careers by hanging onto beliefs about this business that are no longer true.

They are trying to make it as self-publishers while still thinking in terms of traditional publishing routes: bookstores, speaking engagements, and paper books. Some even pay for pricey hardback copies.

If seeing your own hardback books in a store window is the most important thing to you, then you probably shouldn't self-publish. Keep querying agents. Use AgentQuery and QueryTracker and make querying a priority. Authors usually have to send out hundreds these days before they find the right agent. But with persistence, you may become one of the handful of authors who get to debut between those dust-jacketed covers.

If you want to be traditionally published, don't give up on your dream because self-publishing is all the rage. The dream came true for my friend Mary Webber.  (Congrats on the August 19 launch of your YA novel Storm Siren, Mary!) It's the first of a trilogy coming out in hardcover with Thomas Nelson (with great reviews from Kirkus and PW.) Here she talks to Writer's Digest about how she got her book deal.

But if you've decided on self-publishing (or want to go with a small digital press), here are ten pieces of old information you need to erase from your brain's hard-drive if you want a successful career.

1) You're not really published unless you have paper books.

I'm going to write this in the simplest way I can, hoping you guys will spread the word to self-published friends who obsess about selling paper books.


Full stop.

E-Books. Not paper books. Especially not hardback paper books.

The e-book is the new mass market paperback. Even though sales are leveling off in the US, the market is expanding worldwide. Here's a recent Yahoo Finance article, complete with graphs and statistics on how genre writers are getting rich with e-books,

If you don't have an e-reader or tablet, and you're planning to self-publish, get one. You're not going to succeed in e-publishing if you don't read e-books and understand how people use them.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have paper books. Most readers still prefer them. But if you're self-publishing, paper will only represent a fraction of your sales. So you want to concentrate your marketing efforts on selling e-books, which is mostly done online.

I'm also not saying print is irrelevant. I'm totally jazzed to be featured in a print magazine this month. I'm interviewed in the September issue of MORE magazine, where I talk about "bag lady syndrome" and the fear of homelessness that plagues even successful women: the subject of my novel NO PLACE LIKE HOME.

But guess how Laura Sinberg, the features editor of MORE found me? Google Plus. It was a link to a guest blogpost I wrote on "bag lady fears" to promote NO PLACE LIKE HOME that came up when she Googled the phrase. The book only exists as an e-book. (Although it will come out in paper in September: YAY!) But my point is that I made a big national print magazine with an e-book (and a little help from Google Plus.) It can happen.

2) You need books in brick and mortar stores to be successful. 

Paper books cost a lot to produce. And ship. Even when you use CreateSpace, the cheapest, most popular digital printer, and order 25 books at a time, the book's cost to you won't be much less than $7. When a bookstore adds its 40% mark-up, the book will cost the consumer at least $12.

Your profit on that sale? 20c.

But an e-book priced at $2.99 gets a royalty from Amazon of 70%, which comes to $2.09. Other retailers pay a little more or less, but it's safe to say you'll average around two bucks.

Two bucks  vs. twenty cents. You don't need an MBA...

Of course what that means is you should probably charge more than $12 for the paper. Especially if you factor in all the time, money and energy you spend promoting bookselling events.

So you will probably want to price the book at about $15. But that makes it hard to compete with mass market paperbacks, which still sell substantially lower than that.

Then remember that without a Big Five publisher buying the expensive "co-op" real estate at the front of the store for you, your pricey book is probably going to be spine-out on a bottom shelf in the back of the store unless you have a personal friend working there.

That's assuming you can get into bookstores at all: most indie shops will only take self-published books on consignment, and big chain stores won't stock them, period.

See why successful self-publishers focus on online sales?

I know it's sad not to see your book on a shelf in a real store. As readers, we love bookstores. But there's change afoot in retail shopping that is way bigger than the book business. The Wall Street Journal reports shoppers are fleeing the malls and even WalMart is in decline.

So it doesn't make sense for indies to put much energy into in-store book sales. Leave that to the Big Five, who have to take the books back after they don't sell, and pay to ship and pulp them.

3) Personal appearances and book-signings are required of the successful writer.

Book events cost money. Usually quite a lot. Especially if you have to pay for the venue. You're also going to have the cost of your transportation, the de rigeur refreshments, the new outfit, the time spent preparing (and cooking, if you do the refreshments yourself) and all that time taken away from working on your WIP.

The average book signing done on the cheap might cost about $500. Say you sell 50 books (which would be way more than I've ever sold at a book event.) If you're charging $15 a book and you've got cheap CreateSpace books (which many bookstores won't carry, alas) at $8 profit per book, you've made $400.

That's a best-case scenario, and you've lost $100 bucks plus all that time and energy.

I'm not saying you should never have a book party. As I have written before, they can be a fabulous ego boost and a lot of fun. Plus if you're media savvy, you can send out press releases and maybe get it covered by local radio and newspapers, so they're good publicity.

But that's publicity in your hometown only. Great if you live in a large metropolitan area, if you're in little rural town like mine, not so much.

What if you put that $500 into a Bookbub ad instead? If you advertise a 99c sale on your thriller in the Bookbub newsletter, it will reach 1,250,000 targeted readers all over North America. (And other less expensive newsletters like EBookBargainsUK can reach the growing international markets.)

If that 99c sale is on an Amazon countdown, you get to keep most of that 99c on every book sale. And I have yet to hear from an author who didn't make back the cost of a Bookbub ad as well as getting a huge bounce.

This is why most successful self-publishers skip the personal appearances unless they're at the huge national conventions like RWA that raise their profile in the entire industry.

4) Book swag sells books.

I see so many self-publishers begging to give away stuff on their blogs. They've got pens, post-it notes, hats, tote bags, tee-shirts, and even jewelry with their book covers on them.

I know. They're shiny and fun and they're…TOYS!!

But they cost money. And their influence on book sales is minimal. Even if you're at a convention and hand out a ton of them. Thing is, everybody else is doing the same thing.

A cheap, simple bookmark or business card will remind people of your title just as well. (And yes, you need those: take them with you everywhere!)

I got some really cool business cards that advertise my books and this blog for $10 for a hundred from Vistaprint. And I understand some printers are even cheaper. They're all you need.

Toys don't sell books. Word of mouth from readers sells books. Especially word of mouth online, where people can simply click through to a buy page.

5) If you price your books high, you'll show you're the equal of Big Five writers.

I see many self-publishers pricing themselves right out of the market. I was asked to review a book some time ago that I really liked, but I haven't been able to bring myself to recommend it because the author is charging $9.99 for the e-book. I consider that high, even when it's a must-read brand new Big 5 bestseller. For a self-publisher, it's the kiss of death.

The average price for an ebook on Amazon is between $2.99 and $6.99. That's for self-published, small press, and much of the Big 5's backlist. Nearly every day the Bookbub newsletter has a Big 5 classic bestseller for $1.99.

Successful indies usually offer the first book in a series for 99c or even free. The later books are usually priced from $2.99-$4.99. Some price their newest release a little higher, but if you price over $9.99, your Amazon royalty goes down.

The Fussy Librarian provides a  page on his site detailing how to price your ebook for optimum success.

I have heard so many self-publishers claim they "have" to charge top dollar for their book because "I spent years writing it."

We all spent years on our first novels. It's called "learning to write."

Besides, it's better to sell lots of books at a lower price than a few at a higher price. Many indies give away tons of books. That's because they want tons of readers who will come back for more.

Charging over $5 for a self-published e-book  by an unknown shows nothing except the author has no knowledge of the market.

6) Paying a publicist guarantees more income.

Unfortunately, the old ways of selling books don't work very well any more, so even the efforts of the hardest working publicists can be hit or miss.

As Mary W. Walters said on her blog last month, "…we have traditional book-promotion strategies that no longer work – and people who have been trained in those strategies who are no longer useful."

And the Book Marketing Buzz blog predicts that book promoters will soon become extinct.

I'm not saying all publicists are a waste of time and money. A top-notch publicist can get you interviews and appearances that would be closed to you otherwise, and they can plan a campaign around an issue or something in your bio that you might not be able to think up by yourself.

But most of the successful indies you read about did NOT use publicists.

7) You can start a career with one book

The most effective method successful self-publishers have used to sell their books in the digital age is the liberal use of free and discounted books.

They give away the first book in a series to get people to buy the others. If you don't have any others…um, you can figure it out.

Amazon algorithms also favor authors with more than one title.

In fact, indie superstar Liliana Harte suggests you hold back launching your book until you have five in the hopper, so you can launch one a month. Apparently that's the best way to get noticed by the "also bought" algos.

That's precisely what my publishers did with me in 2011. I won't pretend it wasn't exhausting, but after I re-launched my backlist books with Popcorn Press, MWiDP took on three more books I had in rough draft. Yes, we did some marathon editing, but I launched five books in four months. Plus two anthologies. It worked pretty well.

If I had only launched one a year, I'd probably still be taking on editing work to make ends meet.

8) Self-publishers need to attend lots of book fairs and industry events.

The reason to attend trade fairs is to sell to vendors. But as an indie author, you want to sell direct to customers. Of course readers as well as vendors do attend some of the big book festivals, but they generally don't buy a bunch of books to lug around all day. 

If they're interested, they're more likely to pick up a card or bookmark and order your book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble when they get home. But during the ordering process, they might forget and order something else Amazon suggests to them. And it could very well be a book from an author who didn't just spend thousands of dollars to attend a convention.

Somebody who's at home in her sweats, pounding out that next book.

It's important to remember that a booth at a festival is so expensive you can't get back your investment unless you get a huge contract or sell in tremendous volume. Add to that the price of transportation and a hotel room, and you're spending a large chunk of change you will not be seeing again. 

So only go to a book fair because you want a fun, fabulous vacation, meeting big name authors and schmoozing with industry movers and shakers. If that's why you're going, then by all means book that ticket. Networking in person is always exciting and it can build lasting relationships.

But you can also network and become visible online at no cost.

Book fairs are also used by shady vanity presses to scam newbies. David Gaughran has some hair-raising stories of wildly-overpriced booths and worthless promotion packages sold to newbie authors who are still trapped in this old-publishing-world mindset.

Note: I'm not talking about writers' conferences here. A writer's conference isn't a trade fair. It's a place to get a mini-course in writing craft and marketing as well as network with other writers, agents and editors. They can be a valuable experience, especially for new and pre-published writers. I have the details about our local Central Coast Writers Conference in the "Opportunity Alerts" below. 

9) You need to pay for a lot of advertising to be successful.

I have mentioned BookBub ads, which get results but are pricey. However there are lots of bargain-book newsletters that cost less and are effective. Ruth Harris's post I mentioned earlier has a great run-down of the bargain newsletters and other online ads. We recently had success with The Fussy Librarian.

Set a budget and keep to it. Slpurging doesn't always pay off. When Catherine Ryan Hyde and I put our book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE on an Amazon countdown a couple of weeks ago, we did no paid advertising at all. For most of the week we were on three Amazon bestseller lists. We often were just behind another writing book. When we were #4, it was #2, and we stayed in the same ratio most of the week.

The difference? The #2 book had an expensive BookBub ad. We spent nothing. So I'm willing to bet our bottom line was higher.

How did that happen? Catherine and I both have a strong social media presence. We spend a little time every day building relationships with our readers. Slow and steady. That's how writers build their audiences these days. Catherine gives away tons of books on her blog and Facebook. And she almost always has a book in the top 20.

We both think the Amazon countdown sale is a good promotion tool, whether or not you pay to promote it. If you're in KDP Select, you get one every 90 days. (See my current countdown sale below.)

Keep in mind the most successful self-publishers, like Hugh Howey, did not make their phenomenal sales by using pricey advertising. They did it by making lots of friends on social media and hand-selling those units one at a time.

10) E-books need to be launched like rockets.

Before the age of the e-book, launches were all-important because print books are given only a few months on valuable book store shelves before they are sent back to the publisher to be remaindered and/or pulped.

All print books are in stores "on consignment" and can be returned at any time for lack of sales. So with the old print/warehouse/bookstore paradigm, you have a very small window in which to get your book noticed. (Even smaller if it isn't one of the lucky few who get "co-op" space at the front of the store purchased by your publisher.)

But e-books are forever. An e-book is just as valuable five years down the road as it is the day you launch it. Retailers don't have to return it in order to make room for new merchandise.

Most Amazon bestsellers I know launched their first e-books quietly (what's called a "soft launch"), then waited for buzz to build. Many bestselling indies didn't sell at all for the first few months—or even years. Here's Dean Wesley Smith on why you don't have to sell a lot of books quickly to be a success.

So what's the best way to launch a book in this new publishing world? Nobody really knows. Sometimes books take off and the author doesn't have a clue why, as Sean Cummings blogged this week.

But there is one thing that will not cost you a penny and is pretty much guaranteed to help sales. Get to work on the next book.

Scriveners, do you think you might have an unexamined belief that's holding you back? Do you still have to see your book in the window of Barnes and Noble to feel successful? What advice do you have for the newly self-published author? 

NEWS: Check out the September issue of MORE magazine, where I talk to Laura Sinberg about "bag lady syndrome" and the fear of homelessness in successful women: the subject of my novel NO PLACE LIKE HOME. It's on newstands now: the issue with the amazing Viola Davis on the cover. 


The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is on a 99c countdown 
from August 24-August 31

 Who shot rock diva Morgan Le Fay? Only her childhood friend Dodie, owner of a seedy small-town diner, can find the culprit before the would-be assassin comes back to finish the job.

Boomers, this one's for you. And for younger people if you want to know what your parents and grandparents were really up to in the days of Woodstock and that old fashioned rock and roll. Plus there's a little Grail mythology for the literary fiction fans.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself."...Kathleen Keena

"I borrowed this book free with my Amazon Prime membership, but I enjoyed it so much that I don't want to give it up. I'm buying a copy to keep."...Linda A. Lange

"In The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. And yet, in the end, love does conquer all. If you're of an age to remember Woodstock and the Moonwalk, don't miss it. If you're not, well, you won't find a better introduction." ...Deborah Eve of the Later Bloomer


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. September 19th-20th

Xchyler Anthologies. Currently taking submissions of FANTASY stories of 5000-1500 words. Royalty-paying. No entry fee. Deadline August 31st. 

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