I have been in the publishing game for five years now, during which I have released six novels, four short stories, and two box sets. It’s been a brutal learning experience, as self-publishing can be an unforgiving endeavor. After many trials and tribulations, I am still in the game and fighting for every sale. And so, I thought it would be useful to share the biggest lessons that I have learned so far.
Writing is the easy part.
At this point, the actual “writing” part of my author life feels like a vacation. I remember the stress of drafting my first novel, which seems almost quaint now. I stewed over edits, fretted over layouts, all with the foolish assumption that crossing the finish line (i.e. publishing) was the ultimate goal. Little did I know that it was only the pregame.
Once a book is out there, that’s when the real work begins. Marketing is a ceaseless marathon that I was wholly unprepared for. I have since devised my own effective practices, but climbing that hill was much more daunting than publishing the book. It’s a massive time sink, which is easily the biggest blind spot for new authors. After five years, my authorship is now an 80/20 split between marketing and publishing.
The brass ring is not Trad-Pub. It’s BookBub.
Speaking of marketing, I was stunned to learn where the power actually lies. I had assumed that securing a traditional publishing deal was the key to getting in front of eyeballs. Nope. Even trad-pub authors bow to the ultimate gatekeeper: BookBub.
For anyone needing an explanation, BookBub is a paid advertising platform that promotes discounted books to targeted readers. Securing a BookBub promo is the single most effective investment an author can make. They are very expensive and hard to get, but also provide the best ROIs in the game. This is why authors go to great lengths to increase their chances.
In fact, securing BookBub promos was the sole reason why I decided to abandon KDP Select and publish wide (make my books available everywhere). It’s a giant pain in the crack, but the potential returns are worth the effort. Which brings us to:
Everything is broken, non-standard, and ever-changing.
As a newbie author, I had this naïve assumption that publishing my book meant uploading a Word document. Ugh, if only it were that easy. When I learned about all the different formats required by all the different distributors (not to mention all the different software needed to create all those different formats), I started to question the appeal of publishing.
Everything is broken. Everything. Prepare to lose days of your life trying to figure out what setting in Calibre allows you to tweak ePub data to satisfy Apple’s requirements.
Going “wide” is a convoluted game of whack-a-mole where you are constantly adjusting to shifting standards. Publishing to Apple Books is worlds different than publishing to Google Play. And to Kobo, and to Nook, and to … (sigh). Thank goodness for bundling services like Smashwords and Draft2Digital, else I would have flipped the table long ago.
And even if you stick with KDP Select (Amazon exclusivity), Kindle has its own special hell of standards. Amazon even created its own proprietary software (Kindle Create) to help lessen the burden of generating MOBI files. Which, ironically, it doesn’t do. It generates KDF files for KDP publication that cannot be converted to MOBI. (facepalm)
Despite this never-ending masochistic nightmare:
It’s very, very, very hard to make a living from writing.
Know this: writers who make a solid living from writing are exceptionally rare. It borders on winning the lottery, and that’s not hyperbolic. If you hate the process, then prepare to piss away mountains of cash for shots that always miss. Publishing is a big investment of time, money, and sanity, one that you are almost guaranteed to never make back. If you get into writing to make money, then you’ve already lost.
Most of us have regular jobs. I started my writing career as a Web Apps Developer and I remain a Web Apps Developer. Any hope of hanging up my programmer hat got quashed shortly after releasing my debut novel. The publishing industry is a cruel and remorseless beast that takes hedonistic pleasure in crushing dreams.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly possible to earn a respectable income. But if the “writing” part is what cranks your gear, then don’t expect to make a dime. The most successful authors in the game are also branding experts with paid staffs. More often times than not, they have created their own industry within the broader industry.
In other words, they have elevated themselves above the main pool where:
Nobody knows what they’re doing.
After years in the trenches, I have learned that the publishing game is more dodgeball than chess. Unless you’re a top executive at a major firm, chances are high that you have no idea what you’re doing. I have yet to meet a single writer, agent, or promoter who has the slightest clue as to what makes an author successful. For every James Patterson, there are thousands of authors and agents just spinning around in circles. Once you understand that fact, the glamour of publishing fades in a hurry.
One moment in particular stands out for me. I was fortunate to hang out with a very famous author, someone you would no doubt recognize. “Finally,” I thought. “I can pick the brain of a wildly successful writer, someone who can point me in the right direction.” (sigh) Nope. Their answer to my burning question was, and I quote, “I dunno. It just kinda happened.”
Over the years, I have chatted with other notable authors who echoed the same experience, revealing a clear pattern: “I stuck with it and shit happened.” A disheartening insight, as luck seems to play a very big role. I have since embraced the folly because exploring new avenues is part of my DNA. The next event or promo might be the spark that “makes shit happen,” so I keep calm and carry on.
One thing is for certain, though. To use a poker analogy: “Yes, luck plays a factor, but you have to be good enough to get to the point where luck can take over.”