Money. A dirty word in some circles and the elephant in the room whenever there is a discussion about self-publishing. So let us start with a question, are you writing purely to earn money?
If the answer is ‘yes’ then forget self-publishing, in fact forget most forms of fiction altogether. Go out and research what magazines are publishing and try to get an idea of what they will be wanting in six months time, write articles and pitch them to the magazines. Go out and research what the hot trends are in non-fiction books, again try to look ahead of the current curve (this time by a year or two), research and write your book and start pitching it to agents. If you can write decent copy and get to the bottom of the subjects you are writing about you have a chance of making some money. If you are lucky your self-help/cookery/diet book will be a hit and you can repackage the material in different ways for a few years and make a fortune. If writing fiction is how you plan to make your money then changing your name to Stephen King and trying some identity theft might be your best shot, I don’t recommend it as he probably has the sort of lawyers who can get him everything you own and some essential bodily fluids in a settlement but go ahead if you like.
The simple truth is that most of us fiction writers are not going to make a lot of money out of this so if that is your motivation you may need to think about a backup option. Sure, there are many interviews out there with self-published authors saying ‘I sell x-thousand books a month and make a good living’ but they are the minority. I know we all think we will write the next bestseller and it will make us into the next Stephen King (what’s with the Stephen King obsession today, I don’t know) but the reality is likely to be very different.
If I remember correctly a recent poll of writers suggested that even those who consider themselves professional writers (i.e. those that spend more than 50% of their working time writing) earn an average of £11,000 a year from writing. That is what I earned working in a call centre in my first real job 16 years ago answering phones in a call centre. It wasn’t enough to live on then, it wouldn’t even be close now. I suspect if the poll were done again just of self-published fiction writers that figure would plummet.
If you are going to self-publish you have to do it for the love of writing and for that alone, otherwise you will be living with a lot of disappointment. When I am honest with myself I know I will probably never make a living wage from my writing and I am ok with that, I have always written and always will – just getting things out there that a tiny group of people read is enough for me if that is all I will ever get. The best I hope for is that eventually, when I have written enough and improved my writing, I may be able to make a little extra money each month from my writing. Do I wish I could make enough money to be able to hire Stephen King to fetch my tea from Costa every morning? Of course! But I recognise this is as much a dream as winning the lottery or suddenly waking up looking like George Clooney.
There is, of course, the old saying that ‘you have to spend money to make money’ and it is probably true. Spending money on your writing is a way to increase your chances of making some money back from sales, but it only works if you have the money to spend in the first place. So, where to spend the money?
Many, many sites out there will tell you that the first thing you should spend money on is an Editor for your work. Even if you just choose one to check spelling, grammar and the like rather than someone to help the shape of your story they are probably right. I know my three books could all use the touch of an editor. However, the cheapest editors I could see charge around $500 for a 50,000 word manuscript – the majority charge more. I don’t have $500 to spend on editing, I don’t have $500 to spend on anything. It is likely my books will not fare as well as those that have been professionally edited but the reality is that I just cannot afford it. If you can, go for it. I genuinely believe it will increase your book’s sales potential.
Next up on just about every article I read on this subject is the professional cover design, another great idea. Yes, it is also something I cannot afford either. The covers of my books are designed by me, using pictures I have taken myself. Do they all work really well? No, they don’t but they are the best I can do on a budget of nothing. However, if you can afford it then do it. Book cover design is an art and learning it would take a long time, it is not impossible but just about every successful self-published author gets people to design covers for them.
Finally there is marketing and promotion. One of the best marketing tools for a book is reviews, they are also notoriously difficult to get. Yes, there are companies out there who will review your book if you pay them anything from $100 dollars upwards. They all claim they will give honest reviews – if they do it seems a lot of money for something that may actually hinder your chances of selling if it is bad; on the other hand, if they don’t bother with honesty and just give 5 star reviews then how useful is a review that may mislead your readers (honestly, how many of us are really capable of writing 5 star books)? There are review swaps as an option – write a fake review of someone’s self-help book and they will write an equally fake review of your novel. Trust me, the whole thing will just leave you feeling a bit grubby. This leaves us with the option of sending out requests for reviews, there are different options for this:
1) Check on Amazon for people who have reviewed similar books and ask them for a review (if their profile gives contact information). I tried this, emailed a large number (about 100 I think) and got one review. 4 or 5 others promised a review but 5 months later none have come through yet. If you are going to do this it will take time. Ensure that each email you send is a personal one, if you just cut and paste a standard email they will be able to tell and may react against you, which can do a lot of harm.
2) Post in groups devoted to reviewers on sites like Goodreads and Facebook. I have done this several times and so far it has led to one review.
3) Email a request or make a submission to book bloggers. I haven’t really tried this yet but every one I have looked at so far has a warning up about how they already are overwhelmed with reviews so it may take months to get one. Many will not accept self-published books so ensure you check their guidelines carefully.
4) Giveaways. I ran a giveaway on Goodreads (physical books only, they do not allow ebooks) and eventually got 2 reviews from the five books I gave away. A better hit rate than some of the other options but as it means giving away printed books it ends up costing more.
Next up comes the real marketing and promotion. You can email around for chances to be interviewed, find ways of advertising your books, create a social media presence and create a blog – or you can pay someone to do most of that stuff for you. With my budget I have done it myself, mainly through creating a blog and posting in Facebook groups – neither has exactly led to a landslide of sales just yet. I have so far managed to secure no interviews and my one attempt at advertising through Google Adwords was a dismal failure, this may be another area where hiring someone is a good plan if you really want it to work.
Despite all of this I will keep going with my writing, ok so my grand total of copies downloaded is probably somewhere around 400 for three books so far and my total income would barely buy me a cup of team and a biscuit in Costa, but I am not in it for the money. I love writing and I love the freedom of self-publishing and I will continue with both as long as I am able.
Now, all I need to do is to work out how to get someone to offer me a couple of million for the movie rights . . .