Self-publishing in the digital age

Please note: This article was originally written for the Writer’s Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador’s quarterly publication: WORD. It appeared in the Spring, 2014 issue.

E-books. Love them or loathe them, there’s no denying the impact they’ve had on us authors. Let’s skip over the debates around how we like to read and the fate of brick-and-mortar stores. Instead, let’s talk about the very real impact e-books have had on our ability as authors to make a genuine, real-life, livable wage as a writer.

Digital publishing has stripped away all the reasons why authors could not realistically make a living self-publishing. For the career-minded author who is interested in approaching their writing career as a business, the road to independence is paved with—well, not gold, not for all of us—but with the potential for financial stability if not all- out success.

There’s been considerable debate in the self-publishing community about earnings and sales. For the most part, we hear the success stories of the now rich and famous like Hugh Howey and Bella Andre. And we also hear the tales of woe from those who have not seen that success. The problem is that none of the booksellers have offered quantifiable data on the state of the self-publishing industry in the digital age. That puts the onus on authors to try and piece together actual evidence of what we think we know of whether it’s possible to live off the wages garnered from self-publishing.

Two recent reports are setting the indie publishing tongues ablaze with their findings, not because we are surprised but because we are finally seeing some evidence of what we believe to be true.

What are these “truths?" First, that genre fiction, especially those that can be serialized, are the current moneymakers. Second, that there are authors out there making a living wage as full-time writers.

In January, romance author Beverley Kendall released her 2013 Self-Publishing Survey. While she is the first to admit that her data is likely to have a higher number of romance authors as respondents since that is her genre, what’s significant is this finding: more than forty-eight per cent of her 822 respondents reported incomes over $10,000 for 2013. Twenty-four percent reported more than $50,000 for the year. She also made a correlation between earnings and number of books published, showing that the more books published, the higher the earnings. I’d like to insert a cheeky duh! here. Still, these findings are based on a small pool, and rely on self reporting.

In February, Hugh Howey released what might be the first earnings report based on analytical data. I’m not an expert in the science behind it, but Howey claims that he was approached by an author with coding skills who had developed some way to pull and analyze public data from Amazon. Howey’s report is full of tidbits on the self-publishing industry, and again draws the genre-fiction- equals-success conclusion, citing romance, mystery/ thriller, and science fiction/fantasy as the biggest sellers. His findings on revenue are very similar to Kendall’s. And bringing the two ideas together, marrying genre fiction with earnings, Howey says the data shows that “Indie authors are earning nearly half the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon.” 

This is where I make my full disclosure. I’m not making a living as a self-published author—yet. However, I’ve spent the past year researching, writing, planning, writing, editing, writing, learning, writing and basically working my fingers and brain to the quick to see if I can find some of the success that other authors in my genre (contemporary romance) are experiencing. That said, I know of at least one local erotica writer who recently told me that the household rent and bills are now being covered monthly by the income from her indie publications. That’s one person locally I know. (I suspect there are more out there, but it’s my experience that genre writers in this province hide themselves away in fear of stigma. But that’s another article.) I also met dozens upon dozens of others in this genre this past summer at the Romance Writers of America national convention.

Now that I’ve painted such a rosy picture and you’re wondering how to get in on this great opportunity, let’s talk about just how hard it is to self-publish and why it’s not for everyone.

I’ve devised a checklist to help you determine if self-publishing is for you:

Are you capable of writing three or more novels a year?

“Publish or perish” was never more true than in the self-publishing industry. You must be a content creator. And not all of us are. Self-publishing is a business. Not an art form.

Are you capable of either creating your own covers or paying someone who is skilled at cover creation to do this for you?

There’s nothing that screams amateur faster than a terrible cover. It takes more than knowing Photoshop to make a cover. If you don’t have the skills, pay someone who does.

Does the idea of marketing make you sick to your stomach?

If you have a checkmark next to that question above, self-publishing isn’t for you. Unless you’re prepared to take a big dose of Gravol and do it anyway. If you don’t sell your book (and by sell, I mean create buzz) no one else will. There are thousands of indie authors out there trying to find readers. A savvy indie author keeps up on current marketing trends, and isn’t afraid to promote.

Are you a multi-tasker?

Some of the most successful indie authors I’ve met work all day, every day. At the RWA Nationals, Bella Andre said her day begins with writing her daily word goal. Then it’s on to marketing. Cover creation. Editing. Talking with her editor. Meeting with her audio book team. And the day goes on.

It comes down to this. Self-publishing isn’t just about being an author. It’s about being a business owner. You need to do so much more than write, although that’s what you should be doing the most. You need to determine what’s worth the cost and what isn’t. Find ways to reach new audiences. Maintain your current readership. Juggle the business of publishing with the art of creating. 

Personally, I can’t see the traditional publishing industry disappearing. They offer a valuable skillset to the authors who need them. Frankly, I’d hate to see them disappear. Likewise, small digital presses have their merits as well. A good friend of mine, also a local romance author, is published by one of these small presses. It’s perfect for her. It’s not for me. And the beauty for us as authors in today’s publishing environment is that we have more options than ever at our fingertips to find our niche for success.

If you’re curious about self-publishing, I’d love to have a chat. Feel free to contact me. And if you’ve already started your indie journey, I’d love to talk with you, too. I believe the strength of this publishing option lies in our willingness to share our knowledge.