Self-Publishing Series Part 1: What is Self-Publishing and Why Do People Do it?

A post by Jess Gately

Image by Free Photos from Pixabay

Contrary to popular belief, self-publishing is not a recent phenomenon. Beatrix Potter originally self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901 and Margaret Atwood published her first book of poetry Double Persephone in 1961 to critical acclaim. Classic writers such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf all started their careers with self-published books.

What’s more, there is some absolutely fabulous self-published work out there. Andy Weir’s The Martian started out as a blog which he compiled into a book and sold on Amazon. By 2013 it had hit high on the New York Times bestseller list and printing and film rights had been sold (the movie was released in 2015 starring Matt Damon). Christopher Paolini’s Eragon was published by his parents who owned a small press before being republished by publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur was originally self-published before being picked up by Simon & Schuster and selling over 2.5 million copies.

But what pushed all these people to self-publish in the first place?

Reasons to Self-Publish

While self-publishing has often suffered criticism and bad publicity, the fact remains that it is a critical part of the book industry that bypasses ‘gatekeepers’ (like the commissioning editors at traditional publishing houses) and allows someone to share their writing with interested readers.

Traditional publishers are notoriously hard to land a contract with and often only have the resources to publish one book a year. What’s more, traditional publishers keep space on their lists for their existing authors making it harder for new authors to find a space in the publishing schedule.

Self-publishing allows you to write as many books in a year as you can manage. It also gives you an opportunity to build an engaged audience. If you do later decide to pursue traditional publishing and you’ve had relative success in self-publishing, showing you have an engaged audience and a history of decent sales can boost your chances (but it’s not guaranteed).

It’s also a great way to gain experience and help you to understand the publishing industry better. When you decide to self-publish a whole lot of choices are put before you about editing, design, printing, distribution, accounting and marketing. It’s a huge undertaking and gives you an insight into the sorts of decisions a publishing house has to make. You’re going to learn some serious project management skills!

For some, self-publishing is preferred because it gives them complete creative control over the project. While you should still be taking into account all the aspects of marketing and producing the book, you’ll have the final say on everything and won’t have to pick your battles with your editor or publisher.

Challenges of Self-Publishing

For all these positives it’s important to look at the realities of self-publishing. It’s hard, it’s time consuming, and, despite a few successes, the majority of self-published authors do not make a lot of money from self-publishing nor do they gain a particularly large following.

Self-publishing is often associated with a lack of prestige. Even if you haven’t approached a traditional publisher first, some ill-informed readers believe that self-published books are those that have been rejected by publishers simply because they’re not good enough. There is also a swathe of self-published work that is badly edited (if edited at all) which reinforces notions that self-published works have less quality. You’ll need to overcome these prejudices if you want to be successful.

It also requires a lot of upfront costs that you’re not guaranteed to see a return on. You’ll be expected to pay for editors, cover designers, internal designers, ISBNs, and if you’re producing hard copies you’ll also have printing and distribution costs. Then there’s also bookseller fees or commissions to take from the profits. Self-publishing your book will often cost thousands of dollars if you’re trying to be as professional as possible.

Should YOU self-publish?

This is the ultimate question and it’s an intensely personal one that no one else can help you make. There’s a few things to take into account here:

  1. Why are you writing and do you need to publish?

Just because you write doesn’t mean you have to publish your work. Many people write simply because they love doing it and have no interest in sharing their words.

Other people write and want to share stories but have no interest in making money from it. Platforms like Wattpad thrive off these people who share their stories and there are millions of readers who enjoy these stories despite the fact that they are often reading a first draft filled with inconsistencies, spelling and grammatical errors, and plot holes.

Some people are driven to see that final form of a book. For them, they want to hold their words in their hands, or feel the thrill of seeing their work in a final completed form. These are the people that often pursue publishing.

  1. Is your story just for you?

Maybe you’ve written a memoir or a family history that’s just for you and your family. Or maybe you’ve thrown together a cookbook of all your family member’s greatest recipes. Maybe you’ve written a children’s story or a picture book for your own child because they wanted a character named after them.

If this is the case, then self-publishing is almost definitely the way to go if you want that final book in your hands. There are lots of places that specialise in small print runs (even just a single book) that can help you through the final stages of your project.

  1. Are you prepared to share your story for just one person?

At the end of the day, when you put your book out into the ether, it may be picked up be millions, or thousands, or hundreds, or maybe just one. The question is, are you prepared for the eventuality that it’s just one person?

  1. Are you prepared for the amount of work involved?

We’ve already touched on this above. Self-publishing is a massive project. If you want it to be successful, if you want it to reach as many people as possible, you have to be prepared to spend the time and money working on it. You’ll need to do a lot of research and you’ll need to live and breathe your marketing. Do you have the time for this? And do you have the inclination for it?

Why earning potential shouldn’t factor into your equation

You’ll often hear self-publishing companies and successful self-published authors tell you that the earning potential is higher in self-publishing, and they’re not wrong in a sense.

According to the Australian Society of Authors, standard royalties for a traditional published book typically sit at about 10% of the RRP. Traditionally published authors will receive an advance on their royalties which is calculated by halving what they expect the royalties to be (i.e. half the royalties of overall estimated sales). According to the Macquarie University Australian Authors report of 2015, the highest advance earned by an author in 2013/14 was $5300 for a genre fiction author and the lowest was $100 for a poet.

So, with traditional publishing, if you get a contract, you’re guaranteed to make some money in the form of an advance and all those costs associated with editing, design, printing, distribution and bookselling are handled by your publisher.

While numbers may vary, the most commonly reported figure on average book sales for new authors suggest that you can expect to sell about 250 copies and no more than 2000 in a lifetime. So, if your book is selling at $25 you can expect to earn about $5000 over the course of 2 years. About the same as the average monthly income in Australia according to the Bureau of Statistics.

In contrast, self-published authors often take home a much higher proportion of their sales, getting up to 70% of RRP when publishing through Amazon, and usually about 60% from consigned sales in brick and mortar bookstores. Amazon even claims that they have one self-published author on their books whom they pay $450,000 a year. What’s more, because you’re not restricted to one book a year, you can release as many new books as you can manage which further increases your earning potential.

However, The Guardian reported in 2015 that the median annual income for self-published authors was a little under $1000, and that was including many authors who had multiple books and huge lists of fans. The reality for 90% of those self-published authors was that sales were less than 100 copies and royalties less than $500. Considering the huge outlay for editing, design and publishing services, that’s probably not the result most self-published authors are expecting, and it amounts to less than an average week of income in Australia.

So, what does this mean?

Don’t write for money. Don’t publish for money.

Successful authors on both sides will tell you that it was harder/worse on the other side. The authors that come out on top are actually the ones that do both but even then, they’re not earning huge amounts of money.

You need to write and create your book because it’s something you really want to do, not because it’s going to make you money.

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