Self-Publishing Success? Yes! Self-Publishing Exception: No!: Why the charges of exceptionalism are just part of the old debate

In April 2009, after my historical mystery, the Maids of Misfortune, had been out for 4 months and I had sold 158 books, I asked on this blog whether I could call myself a “real author.” This was in response to the frequently stated opinion of those against self-publishing that people who took that route were only going to sell to family and friends and weren’t real authors. In fact, a year ago almost all of the blog posts on self-publishing revolved around the debate (and they were definitely heated debates) about whether or not self-publishing was good (because the traditional industry sucked) or was bad (because all self-published books sucked).

However, as the year progressed, I began to notice a shift in the tenor of the debate, as the majority of blog posts about self-publishing began to be devoted to what authors should do if they wanted to successfully self-publish. This was a healthy shift, not only for champions of the indie movement (since indie authors like Zoe Winters could get back to writing) but for authors who were contemplating self-publishing as an option (either as newbie’s or traditionally published authors) because they were getting concrete information that would 1) help them make the decision about which route to follow and 2) be successful if they decided to self-publish. The sharing of actual sales numbers has been part of that shift, and I particularly appreciated a recent post by Ian Edward where he pointed out how extensive this willingness to share information about self-publishing has been.

Yet, I was disappointed recently to see a version of the old self-publishing debate rear its head in response to recent posts by Konrath about the healthy sales numbers he and other self-published authors have been getting. See for example, the post by Richard Curtis and some of the comments to Konrath’s reply to that post.

What I saw happening is now that there is irrefutable evidence that self-published books actually sell, the anti-self-publishing argument has shifted from “all self-publishing books are badly written and none of them will make a dime” to “those successful self-published authors are an exception” and they are only successful because 1) they were already successful through the traditional route and therefore have a fan base in place or 2) they sell their books at such a low price (99 cents or less) they are really just giving them away or 3) they are genre writers and their readers have never been very discriminating and therefore will buy any old trash.

This irritated me. It irritated me because this argument seems to be designed to discourage writers from considering the path of self-publishing (based on inaccurate information) and it demeans writers who have been successful by suggesting that their success doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of their work.

Yet, based on my own experience, self-publishing is a viable route to success, and you don’t have to be exceptional to achieve that success.

First to the question of success. When I consider that April post and those 158 books sold, I have to marvel at how low my expectations were. I would have been delighted at that point if I had continued to average 1-2 books a day for the rest of the year, reaching perhaps a total of 500 books sold in 12 months. According to “accepted wisdom” at that time, this is what the average title sold in America in a year. But at the end of 12 months (November 30, 2009) I had sold 2693 books and made over $5,000 (which meant that I had averaged over 7 copies of my book a day-a tremendous increase.) As I have previously posted, this success was enough to convince me to retire completely from my teaching job to devote myself to writing. But I had no idea of how much the next two months would be a game changer, for me and many other self-published authors. Here the fact that 80% of that first year’s sales were on Kindle becomes important, because one of the key strategies of this generation of indie authors like myself has been to focus on ebook sales, where there is the greatest rate of growth and the highest rate of profit. I hoped that the rumors of Kindle sales would result in increased sales of my book, but I had absolutely no idea of how true this would be.

From what I have read, my experience was rather typical, in that sales began to rise over the Thanksgiving holiday and continued to rise throughout December, peaking in the week after Christmas. But while my day-to-day sales have varied, what has not changed is the overall trend. In December alone I sold 1932 copies of Maids of Misfortune, 94% on Kindle, and as of January 16, my average sales per day for January is 106 books a day. I have no doubt I will sell over 3000 books in January alone.

The point isn’t the numbers, but that in anybody’s estimation, Maids of Misfortune, a self-published book, has been a success. But I am not an exception and my success can be duplicated.

First, I have never published through the traditional route, and I have only one book out (and a short story), so my success cannot be explained by my publishing world contacts, extensive back-list, or already established fan base.

Second, I sell my ebook for $2.99, which seems a perfectly reasonable price for a book that is by a complete unknown and cost me only $250 to get a cover designed. (I did not pay a professional editor, interior designer, formatter, marketing publicist—so why should I charge the reader as if I was a big publisher who paid people to do this?) I do give my short story away through Smashwords (or charge 99 cents on Kindle)-but hey, it’s a short story!

Third, it is true that my book is a genre book, a historical mystery. But as a person with a PhD and a 35 year career as a history professor, whose favorite books to read are mystery and science fiction genre books, I resent the idea that I and the other people who read genre fiction are not discriminating readers.

One of the complaints lodged against Konrath and others has been on their focus on the number of sales. Yet it was Konrath’s honest discussion of those numbers over a year ago that helped me decide to take the self-published route, and every time I have reported my numbers, I have that in mind. I see it as paying forward the gift Konrath gave me.

Like Edward, I have felt that one of the great things about being an indie author has been being part of a community of people who are extremely willing to help each other, rather than being a competitor for the few precious agents, publishing contracts, or marketing dollars that are available to the author who goes the traditional route. Sharing numbers-good or bad-is one of the ways I help that community.

It is time for everyone to accept that self-publishing does offer a viable option for authors (not the only one, just a viable one), and to concentrate on making sure that those books that are self-published are the best they can be, and have the greatest chance of success they deserve. And I hope that sharing my unexceptional success will help that happen.

7 Replies to “Self-Publishing Success? Yes! Self-Publishing Exception: No!: Why the charges of exceptionalism are just part of the old debate”

  1. I’ve been making my living for twenty years by self publishing. I price my books between 12.95 and 14.95. I sell primarily in bookstores. Barnes and Noble is my largest customer and they treat me very well. My first book, There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings was rejected by 89 “real” publishers before I formed Clearwater Publishing and did it myself. It’s sold nearly 100,000 copies. I only have seven or eight titles in print (as I type this it occurs to me I really should know that exact number, shouldn’t I?) I remain an author who self publishes, not a publishing company that started small and grew.

    At first, i heard the same sort of arguments about self publishing being somehow inferior. Now, the only place I hear it is from a few authors whose fancy publishers sold three thousand copies of their book yet want to feel superior; and from some independent bookstores who just can’t gamble on small publishers. But the folks at Barnes and Noble treat me like my name was Steinbeck. My fans don’t seem to know or care who paid the printing company that produced my books. Now that I’ve begun selling ebooks as well, a whole new world has opened. You are doing much better in that arena than I am– so far. But I”ll be watching you, stealing tricks…

    I hope you and I are both inspirations for all the writers who might otherwise let stuffy snobs intimidate them. Write the best you can, write what you want to write, write because you love to do it. The size of your audience is NOT the most important consideration. If you write well, and then also work hard at marketing, you might develop it into a little business. A fun business, I might add, populated with some of the neatest people in the world.

  2. One of the things so refreshing about the Indie Author movement has been the willingness to share. How many share traditionally published sales numbers? Not many. There are only a few exceptions. The Indie movement is so much more open to sharing, helping other, paying it forward.

    That’s the way it should be, I think.

    The detractors have many reasons for trying to put it down (ranging from fear and wanting to hide, to wanting to feel superior). They don’t matter. Laugh all the way to the bank! 😀

  3. It seems to me like the Tall Poppy Syndrome at work, jealous of the indie success stories.
    I look at it this way, if my stories stink, word will spread and no one will buy them, but selling one (or more) copies a month is way better than continuous rejection from both agents and publishers. So far, I am grinning, because I am selling more than one copy a month.
    And I am still writing, and hopefully, getting better each story I complete.
    I am also thankful for the generous indie authors who take the time to spread the word, both on how to self publish and sales totals.
    Good luck with your future sales.

  4. Hi Louisa,

    I am a fellow indie author, and though my book has not been out as long as yours, I have seen similar signs of success. And thankfully, I’ve also seen a shift in the perception of indie books. I too was once against self-pubbing because I thought there was no way to reach readers without a publisher to help, but with the advent of ebooks and the popularity of Kindle, that roadblock has been removed. I am thrilled to be a part of publishing today, and I loved coming here and reading of your phenomenal success. Thank you for candidly posting your numbers; they give me hope for my future. I wish you many readers in the coming year!


  5. What a marvelous, encouraging post. Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story and for your openess with your numbers. You and Joe Konrath have helped many of us. I wish you well.

  6. I’m an author, and in a way I consider myself self published because my husband and I own the publishing house that published my book ( we also publish others). I’m also an editor and without good editing, a book sold to the public can be a liability rather than an asset.
    I have nothing against self publishing or people who self publish. People forget that Thomas Paine self published. Charles Dickens self published. Edgar Allan Poe self published–yet, ironically, if he were alive today the Mystery Writers of America wouldn’t let him into their club because of it despite naming their most prestigious award after him!
    But I will say that I’m against people who self publish thinking that it’s a quick and easy way to make a buck and flood the market with substandard work that makes ALL self published books and authors look bad. THEY are the ones people should vent against because many of them are the same people who may have tried to get published (traditionally or indie) but were rejected so many times that, instead of taking the time to improve their work/product decided to self publish.
    However, some people self publish because they can’t find a publisher willing to take a risk on their project. The author goes off and self publishes and becomes a success…Chicken Soup, anyone?
    Whatever your reason, if self publishing is the route you want to take–do it! But at least take the time, effort, and spend the money to make it the best book you can produce inside AND out because it will have YOUR name on it. If you’re trying to build a career out of publishing your work, if you don’t give the reader a quality product, they are not going to read anything else by you.
    Too many authors, no matter how they publish, believe all they have to do is get a book out there and the money and fame will follow. That is not true. I think it IS the exceptional self-published book that makes it because 1) the author produced a good product and 2) they are out there selling themselves and their book. They are out there marketing and promoting, trying to connect with their audience. They are not taking a passive approach.
    IMO, numbers only show part of the picture. It is the quality of the book that produces the number. “Quality” may be subjective, but if you’ve seen some of the self-published books I’ve seen, you will be quick to understand the meaning of “quality.”

  7. I bet 10 to 1 that the people saying genre readers are not discerning are not professional publishing people themselves. They’re not agents, editors, or the final sales people editors have to pitch the newest book to. Because commercial fiction sells like HOTCAKES.

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