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Self-Publishing Update

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach

firstwriter.com – Monday August 7, 2023

According to an April 2023 survey by the (UK) Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), income of self-published authors increased substantially in 2022 over 2021, coming in at a median amount of $12,749, a figure actually higher than those of authors at traditional publishers. The 2,200 respondents to the survey were from all major English-speaking countries (with more than half from the U.S.).

A quarter of those replying had released their first book in 2020, while 60 percent reported first publishing in 2015-2022. Over half said they’d published more than 10 books on their own, while 20 percent had published more than 30 titles. Romance, fantasy/sci fi/speculative, and crime/thriller/detective novels were by far the most prevalent genres in which self-publishers were active.

Author M. J. Rose may have started the drive to self-publish, or some of it, when in 1998, she self-published her erotic-suspense novel Lip Service about the world of phone sex, a novel that had been rejected by all the agents and publishers she’d queried. Online, she sold 2,500 books (which is quite a lot), and the novel was after that acquired by Pocket Books. Other authors jumped into the self-publishing arena, or tried, and later Rose said, “I couldn’t do it now.” She did it because then the field was ripe and not yet harvested. However, Rose did set a model for other authors to imitate; and following persistently, some authors flourished. Not all thrived, however, and though self-publishing became and stayed “a thing,” the niche not too long after seemed to have lost its luster.

But now, something appears to be going on. Authors are self-publishing again. Some are bringing out their backlists, and others are simply spending a little money and getting into the game. I talked to four self-publishing authors. See if you can identify with or be inspired by any of their paths.

 

Joy V. Smith

Joy V. Smith (http://www.joyvsmith.com/) began writing as soon as she could hold a pencil in her hand. She made her own little books because she wanted to write stories. Recently, she published a number of her own out-of-print and new novels so they would be available to readers.

GMH: Why did you decide to self-publish? How did you decide what platform to use to self-publish?  

JVS: I always planned to go with traditional publishers, and some of my novels have been published that way. Eventually, I realized that waiting for acceptances and rejections takes too long. Strike ThreeSugar Time, Taboo Tech, and Detour Trail were all traditionally published and the last three are still in print from the publishers. When Strike Three went out of print, I republished it myself because I wanted it out there with the others. I only wrote non-fiction and short fiction (short stories and sequels) until I discovered the popular NaNoWriMo event (https://nanowrimo.org/) and began writing a novel every year each November.  

I found Smashwords first for self-publishing in ebooks and later KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) on Amazon. 

GMH: Are all the books you’ve now self-published reprints from traditional publishers, the rights having reverted to you?  

JVS: Rights have reverted to me for some of my traditionally published books, and I self-published Strike Three when it went out of print.

 GMH: Are all your novels within the same genre—science fiction or fantasy? 

JVS: No. Detour Trail is a western. 

GMH: All your novels are now ebooks? Do you ever intend to do print books? 

JVS: I have ebooks and print books. Strike Three is available in print. Sugar Time, traditionally published, is available as an audiobook from the same publisher.

GMH: Which parts of the process cost you money, such as for covers or converting formats? 

JVS: All of the above! And promotion. 

GMH: Was doing this fun? Satisfying? Anything frustrating about the process? 

JVS: Having the books formatted and then working at having them accepted by KDP and Smashwords was very frustrating. I'm not sure about the fun part, but being published is satisfying. 

GMH: Now, the big question. How do you promote? 

JVS: I believe in papering the planet! I use social media, press releases, and spreading the word in writing newsletters and blogs, also newspapers, alumni bulletins, etc. And then I do interviews; sometimes interviewers track me down, and sometimes I track them down.

GMH: What are your expectations of outcomes from this current self-publishing venture?  

JVS: To sell lots of books and the movie rights!

GMH: All the best.  

 

Keenan Powell

Keenan Powell (www.keenanpowellauthor.com) moved to Alaska the day after she graduated from law school, then jumped into criminal defense and writing legal thrillers. Based on her first manuscript, Deadly Solution, she won the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic grant, which led to a three-book deal with Level Best Books. Published in January of 2018, Deadly Solution was nominated for a Lefty, Agatha, and Silver Falchion.

GMH: Why did you decide to self-publish? What do you like about it?

KP: I decided to self-publish because I was frustrated with the rigmarole around getting an agent and a publisher. You can work on a book for a year and then have a series of agents say they “just didn’t love it enough” and “please send us your next book.” A year is a huge investment. I’m not willing to put my books in a drawer. Or you can end up at a small publisher that gets the lion’s share of the royalties but doesn’t do any marketing, so that breaking even on advertising is impossible.

GMH: What’re the themes to your legal thrillers?

KP: The theme to my Maeve Malloy Alaska Legal Thrillers series is social justice. Deadly Solution is about the homeless problem. Hemlock Needle is about how Alaska Native cultures are destroyed by westernization. Hell and High Water is about the Roman Catholic Church sex scandal. My Maureen Gould Legal Thriller series opens with Implied Consent, a story about workplace abuse. My Liam Barrett Gilded Age series is about immigration, nativism, and organized labor. All the above are both print books and ebooks.

GMH: Which parts of the process cost you money, such as covers and converting formats? Do you mostly hire others to do the various aspects of the work? What do you do yourself?

KP: I pay for the cover art. I format the books myself on Atticus.

GMH: Is doing this fun? Satisfying?

KP: The process of publishing is very fun and satisfying.

GMH: Now, the big thing. How do you promote? Do you feel that the time spent pays off?

KP: I promote on Amazon and Facebook mostly. I also run Bookbub New Release promotions. When I offer free days for my ebooks, I promote on Facebook, Free Booksy, and Fussy Librarian. I also do newsletter and Bookbub follower promotions on Booksweeps. Prerelease, I run a Netgalley review. Becoming obsessed with marketing is easy, but that passes, and you can get back to writing.

GMH: Anything else you might want to say?

KP: Self-publication provides me the opportunity to interact with readers more directly. If readers email me that they spot a typo, I can fix it and have the revised epub and pdf uploaded in an hour. I very much enjoy interacting with my readers.

 

Cynthia D. Bertelsen

With three Master’s degrees (three!), Cynthia D. Bertelsen (https://turquoisemoonpress.com/) leads an incredibly active and productive life, studying and cooking the cuisines of various countries, serving in the Peace Corps, studying at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, and knocking it out of the park with her prolific award-winning literary output. So naturally she had to self-publish.

GMH: I know you originally published nonfiction mainstream. What made you decide to self-publish? On what platform do you offer your work?

CDB: Mushroom: A Global History took three years to come out. The publisher did a wonderful job, though, with beautiful paper, full color, etc. I had a $300 budget for photos, which didn't go far. Happily, the book still hasn’t hit the remainder table, while some of the others in the series have done so. But I kept thinking that if it had to spend all that much time waiting for one book to come out, I'd probably be dead before I saw the final books in the future! I’d been blogging for a few years when I submitted the proposal for Mushroom, and had also written book reviews and such for minor publications. Amazon is the main platform.

GMH: Are the books all associated in theme?

CDB: Except for Mangoes & Roosters: Stories and Tales of Haiti (2022), all my books concern food, cooking, and the history of society and food. Even my novel, In the Shadow of Ravens (2019), does.

GMH: Are all available as ebooks? In print?

CDB: All are available in Kindle versions and paperbacks. I had several of my books listed with IngramSpark for a while, but they kept raising the printing costs, plus if you want to make even a small correction, it cost $25. And it cost $49 to upload the files initially. However, IngramSpark no longer charges a setup fee to post a title on their site and publishers have free revisions on their titles up to 60 days after the book's first production date. I no longer list my books with Ingram, though if authors want to sell quantities to bookstores or libraries, they should sign on despite Ingram's poor customer service.

GMH: Which parts of the process cost you money, such as covers or converting formats?

CDB: Since I upload my books solely to Amazon now, the costs to publish involve the fees I pay my designer, Cathy, who worked as a designer/graphic artist for thirty-five years for Ebony magazine in Chicago. She  does both the covers and the interior layouts. But other costs are involved: marketing materials and advertising, conference fees, membership fees, etc.

GMH: Was doing this fun? Satisfying? Anything frustrating about the process?

CDB: The most frustrating thing is the disdain with which a lot of people view self-published work. Granted, some work looks utterly amateurish, and the storytelling fails. For example, I have an acquaintance who has published one book about a trip she took in the Amazon in the 1970s, truly Indiana Jones stuff. But she should have asked people other than a few local writers to read it, because it is more a chronicle and not an adventure story that gets people's blood racing. Some people are now producing work that looks every bit as professional as anything from major publishers, though. In fact, I've been reading of prominent people in the food field now publishing their own books. A lot of book awards won’t allow authors to submit self-published books, though. And even the local newspapers can't be bothered to announce anything about local writers. 

GMH: Now, the big thing. How do you promote?

CDB: This is the biggest issue of all. Yet, aside from sending out some review copies, Reaktion Books (which put out Mushroom) provided no marketing help at all. I paid for a few reviews with Kirkus, though, and couple of others such as Midwest Review. I sent out ARCS (advanced reading copies), review copies, etc. I’m not much for public speaking, as it makes me nervous, and I don't think it does that much for sales unless you’re already a big name. I’m not doing this for money or fame (though money would be lovely!). In essence, I make more per month in royalties from Amazon sometimes than I do for a whole year from Reaktion for Mushroom. So expecting traditional publishers to do the marketing is a myth.

GMH: Are you glad you're doing this? Any regrets?

CDB: Yes, I am glad I'm doing this. I’ve published nine books since 2013 (eight of them since 2019), three of which have won the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in three different categories, competing with prominent writers. A few of my other books have also won awards via Florida organizations. This suggests to me I’m doing the job I intended to do: make my books be every bit as professional as a traditional publisher would. The internet, etc., has opened up the gates for more voices to be heard. I’m glad for that, as I always wrote, but my circumstances while living overseas before the internet, etc., made getting anything published virtually impossible. I regret not writing more articles for publications that might steer people toward my work.

GMH: Anything else you'd like to say?

CDB: It's never too late to get started. Be sure you get a Library of Congress Control number, an ISBN from Bowker (not Amazon), and keep writing the next book after finishing the current one. 

 

Matthew Cox

Matthew Cox (https://www.matthewcoxbooks.com/wordpress/) has issued more books in print than anyone who has to eat and sleep has a right to have. And furthermore, his novels are incredibly well plotted—and well written. (I know because I’ve read several of them.) I would usually not issue such a request, but please someone make him famous. (He is modest—and he loves cats.)

GMH: I know you’ve been a popular and successful author having others publish you, so why did you decide to self-publish?

MC: I didn’t know much of anything about the world of publishing when I started with a small press publisher. Being signed was a moment of validation, of excitement, that feeling of ‘wow, someone likes my stuff.’ As time went on, however, publishing with a small press started to feel a little less of a dream. A sense of being just another cog in the machine crept in. Then, of course, the royalties weren’t terribly impressive. The marketing support also verged on nonexistent. The authors were doing almost all of the promotional work.

I ended up engaging in a writing arrangement with J.R. Rain, co-writing some books with him. He was the first person to really give me that push to try for self-publishing. So, I decided to start up a new book series to be self-published and not send to my then publisher. This would end up being my Vampire Innocent series, which far exceeded my expectations as to how much readers liked it.

As bad rumors and such mounted in regard to my former small publisher, I decided to ask for my rights back and go exclusively self-published. Now, I’m not talking about major cash here… but I got my rights back in August of 2018. In the three months left in that year, my books earned more self-publishing them than they had in the preceding nine months of that year.

GMH: Are you now self-employed?

MC: I probably could survive on the income from my books at this point… but I’m too nervous to take that plunge. Having a day job offers too much security to just willingly toss aside. Book sales are a fickle beast… and having a ‘real’ job has the added benefit of health insurance, which is prohibitively expensive otherwise. So… for now, I’m balancing both worlds. Maybe that will change if I’m hit by metaphorical lightning and one of my books is ever optioned for a movie or television.

GMH: Once you had your rights back, did you then just republish?

MC: I had quite a few books out with the small press I published with, and most of the older ones went through a re-editing process and got new covers. A few are still essentially the same… probably three or four.

GMH: Are all within the same genre—science fiction or fantasy, or what?

MC: I’ve written mostly science fiction, though my books also span fantasy, urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic, paranormal thrillers, humor, superheroes, and a couple that are probably horror. I’ve also written books in adult, young-adult, and middle grade categories.

GMH: Are all now ebooks as well as print?

MC: Yep. They all start off as ebooks and then I do a print version.

GMH: Which parts of the process cost you money, such as covers or converting formats?

MC: The parts that cost money are primarily buying the Vellum software, editing, having a cover made, and promotion. By promotion, I mean Amazon Advertising as well as services like BargainBooksy or BookGorilla or Fussy Librarian and so on that help advertise promotions.

GMH: Was doing this fun? Satisfying? Frustrating? Any regrets?

MC: Sometimes dealing with Amazon’s interface can be a bit frustrating. Like, if the cover is .0025 inches too small, it will be rejected. Other than that minor annoyance, I’d have to say the most frustrating part of the process is not having any of my books explode and start making gobs of money so I can live off writing exclusively.

Going self-publishing was fun. I write as much for the fun of it as for the hope of making a living at it. I don’t have any regrets going self-published away from being with a small press. In my opinion, a “small press” is just some other person self-publishing other people’s work and keeping half the money. Having never been signed with a big publisher, I can’t say if I’d prefer to be with one of them compared to self-publishing—though I’ve heard being signed by a huge publisher is not like winning the lottery. People may have this expectation of making six figures as soon as they’re signed with a big publisher. Alas, I’ve read only a select few authors with a major press get the ‘royal’ treatment, while the majority are still not much better off than being self published. That’s probably why the major publishing houses have been so anti self-publishing.

GMH: Now, the big thing. How do you promote?

MC: Promotion is my weak point. I don’t understand marketing. As an author of dystopian sci-fi, I also have a modest degree of contempt for ‘sales weasels.’ I don’t enjoy being spammed and I always hesitate about promotion because I don’t want to be a spammer.

I use AMS ads through Amazon. When I started off, the cost per click there was considered ‘high’ past 20 cents per click. Now, the site routinely suggests per-click bids of over $2. That the cost of an ad click (that isn’t even a guaranteed sale) can approach more than 50 percent of the royalty we’d earn for selling that book seems insane to me. I suspect that the big publishing houses are probably abusing the AMS ad system to drive the prices out of reach of self-published authors. I can’t imagine many self-pubbers have the money (or the intention) to make the advertising cost so much.

Other than AMS ads, I’ve used services like Freebooksy, Bookgorilla, and so on. Sometimes, I’ll get a BookBub promo, but getting accepted there is so damn difficult I’ve kinda given up trying. The few times I’ve gotten an ad there, it cost several hundred dollars and resulted in maybe 2,000 book sales at .99 cents each, which only barely earned back the amount of money the promotion cost (if it even did). At .99 cents for an ebook, I’m only making about 30 cents after Amazon takes its bite.

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I admit I took a stab at self-publishing myself, but not having marketed the way the above energetic authors have done, I pretty much failed. However, as everyone above knows, traditional publishing is pretty much a mug’s game. I hope to speak to some authors soon who prefer to publish traditionally. I’ll let you know what I find out. GMH

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is a short story Edgar winner. She teaches a mystery writing and a thriller writing and other writing classes at Writer's Digest online university. The third edition of her Writing the Mystery is available through Amazon and other good bookshops. She is also the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.

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