Different Pathways to Self-Publishing Success
This is an extract from my forthcoming book Creative Self publishing, which will publish in September 2020. If you would like to pre-order the book, sign up here.
People talk about self-publishing as if there is just one way to do it. Yes, there are certain set processes that must be understood and followed, but once you understand the craft of publishing (as outlined in Part V of this book), there are countless ways to succeed as an indie author, and many different pathways to self-publishing success.
So I’d like to begin by pointing up some self-publishing success stories. We’ll meet many more as we progress through the book.
As a self-publishing author, you’ve probably heard people say that getting your book found is impossible these days. There are just too many books. Do not believe this. The “problem” of book discoverability in the new publishing ecosystem is a fear instilled by emotional or financial investment in the old publishing order. Good books are actually easier to find than they’ve ever been, including good self-published books.
From a reader’s perspective, you have a book description, other reader reviews, and a sample you can read before you buy.
Online search algorithms are very effective and getting better. And book searches through categories and keywords are probably more effective discovery tools than (though admittedly less pleasant) the old method of bookstore browsing.
Book bloggers in every niche point up great books, and they don’t tend to distinguish between self-publishing and trade-published books. Neither do readers. Indeed, few outside the industry (authors and publishers) think about it much and many read self-publishing books all the time without knowing that’s what they are.
We know this to be true because of the numbers of self-published authors that have books sold in the past 10 years and by how indie-authored booksales are increasing at a rate which is, in the word of veteran publishing commentator Mike Shaskin, “staggering”1.
Consider just these facts – there are 1.4 billion Apple devices and 2.5 billion Android users around the world. Not to mention the readers who go and visit Amazon each month (more than 197 million people around the world get on their devices and visit Amazon.com). – Indie poetry with good keywords and description can do very well on Amazon, and Apple as well.
We don’t know the full extent of author-published work yet. Not all indies use ISBNs, and increasing numbers of authors are trading a variety of books and book-related products directly from their own websites. But what’s on the record is revealing enough.
Today, hundreds of thousands of book buyers spend real money to buy and read untold pages of books written and uploaded into the cultural bloodstream with no judgement, mediation, review, or pitching by the traditional keepers of the gate.
Mike Shatzkin. 2019. The Book Business
Here are some facts at the time of writing:
• Within five years of self-publishing becoming possible for authors, they were accounting for more than 30% of all recorded booksales. The real figure is higher, including books sold without an ISBN, through author websites, in special consignments and many other ways.
• On Amazon alone, thousands of independent authors earned more than $50,000 in royalties for books, audiobooks, and ebooks, with more than a thousand authors surpassing $100,000 in book sale royalties. This is not counting the $260 million+ paid out last year from the Kindle Direct Publishing Select Global Fund. Authors have earned more $840 million authors since the launch of KU in July 2014. 2
• 8% of members of the Alliance of Independent Authors have sold more than 50,000 books in the past two years.
All of this, which only scratches the surface of how book distribution is being changed by authors-publishing, is indeed “staggering”. It belies the doomsayers and bodes very well for the future.
Here’s how these facts and figures play out in some very different authors’ lives. As you read through the stories of these seven successful authors, notice the breadth of their opportunities and options.
1. The Record Breaker: LJ Ross
Ex-lawyer L.J. Ross tells everyone that deciding to self-publish a novel was the best decision she ever made. Her first novel, Holy Island, was an instant success on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) and at time of writing—just a short five years later—Ross has published 19 more books, sold around 4.5 million copies, and topped Amazon’s Kindle e-books bestseller list seven times in 2019, a record for the platform.
Ross also has her own print imprint that supplies paperbacks to UK bookshops. Her books straddle two genres, romantic suspense, and crime fiction and though “everybody” advised her against mixing it up, she went ahead. “The benefit of remaining independent is that you can take your own creative and business decisions”, she says.
Despite approaches from traditional publishers, Ross has yet to be tempted. With the exception of audiobooks and some foreign rights (rights to publish in other countries outside the UK), which she says she publishes along more traditional lines, she wants to remain within the self-publishing sphere.
“In my case, it’s been a very sustainable means of income and has allowed me to work as a full-time author from the beginning,” she explained. “I know that there are thousands of [other authors] out there who have been able to … work part-time as an author, alongside all of the other full-time indie authors who have been able to give up the day job. Self-publishing has been a liberating, life-changing experience for many writers.”
2. The Fiction-Activist: Lisa Genova
The neuroscientist and novelist Lisa Genova writes stories that are equally inspired by brain science and the human spirit.
Her breakthrough book was Still Alice, a moving story about Alzheimer’s Disease and how it affects relationships based on Genova experience of watching as the disease “systematically disassembled the woman I knew as my grandmother”.
It was self-published in 2007, having spent a year on the pitch-and-rejection cycle. The last agent who looked at the manuscript warned Genova not to self-publish, telling her that it would kill her career forever. The author went ahead, publishing the book and “selling it out of the trunk of my car… trying to create a buzz on Myspace, Goodreads and Shelfari and local book signings.” She invested in a PR agent and Still Alice subsequently sold well and went on to net lucrative publishing rights deals, including a movie starring Julianne Moore.3
At time of writing Genova has published four other novels, signed trade deals with a number of publishers, and received many awards, including the Pell Center Prize for “distinguished storytelling that has enriched the public dialogue,” the Sargent and Eunice Shriver Profiles in Dignity Award, The Global Genes RARE Champions of Hope Award, and The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Media Award. Just as well she didn’t listen to that agent.
3. The Movie Blockbuster: Andy Weir
Andy Weir is a computer programmer and self-described “space nerd” who, having been repeatedly turned down by literary agents, initially published his science fiction book about a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars in serial form on his blog. Requests from his readers led him to make the book available in its entirety and it quickly became an Amazon bestseller within the science fiction genre, selling in excess 35,000 copies in less than a month thanks to the author platform Weir had built on his blog.
He licensed the audiobook rights and it became a bestseller too. A subsequent hardback edition hit the Top 20 in the New York Times bestseller list and the film rights were sold to Twentieth Century Fox. The movie starring which was adapted to a major Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon 4 and Weir received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2016.
4. The Trade-Publishing Escapee: Adam Nevill
Adam Nevill has 19 trade-published books, all of which sell respectably and some of which have won awards. His 2011 novel The Ritual was recently adapted into a movie by Netflix. He switched to self-publishing because he was frustrated by dwindling earnings for his books in trade publishing and also by the industry’s view of the horror genre, which he fount to be “outside [their] comfort zones”.
His first self-published novel, The Reddening, was released in Oct. 2019 and it’s already out-sold a number of his trade published books, for which he credits the sort of ACCESS marketing campaigns you’ll read about in Chapter 23.
In 2016, his first year as a self-publisher, he wrote a revealing post on his blog. “The learning curve was steep, and the process of acquiring new skill-sets, setting up the company, and publishing three books … consumed my mental capacity and nearly all of my time [for] eight months). What I ended up with at year’s end was an automated author platform… It pretty much runs itself now.
My entire time as a professional writer, that began around 1995, has been defined by risk, and risk management, being patient, and remaining consistent – this year felt like a confirmation of the past twenty.”5 Neville continues to thrive as an indie author.
5. The Business Owner: Daniel Priestley
Daniel Priestley started out as an entrepreneur at age 21 and built a multi-million dollar event, marketing and management business before the age of 25 and is the founder of Dent, an accelerator programme for small enterprises that works with 500+ entrepreneurs each year to develop their businesses. Priestly also raises up to $100,000 for charity each year and has written four best-selling business books. His first two books were trade-published but then he turned to working with ALLi Partner Member Rethink Books, to help him plan, write and publish.
Like most business writers, for Daniel, a book is a calling card. “The reason I write books is to get a message out there to connect with a lot of people. For me, it’s more important that the book is out there doing its job, as opposed to just simply trying to sell the book. The books fit within a broader context of a bigger business.”
6. The Booker Prize Lister: Jill Paton Walsh
Jill Paton-Walsh was a self-publishing pioneer in the 1990s, another story born out of rejection by the trade. “My third adult novel was rejected by the publisher of the first two and I could not understand the criticism offered… the book in question, Knowledge of Angels, felt to me the one I was born to write.”
Paton-Walsh and her agent did succeed in licensing it to Houghton Mifflin in the US but try as they might, they couldn’t find a UK publisher. Before publication day, her US editor phoned: did she want a few extra copies so her British friends could read it? “The 19th London rejection was on my desk,” says Paton-Walsh. “My husband said: ‘Fuck them all – we’ll do it ourselves.’ We rang back and said: ‘Can you make that 1,000?’ In a burst of furious activity, we got an ISBN, mocked up a British title page and swift-aired the books across the Atlantic.” With the help of indie publisher friends, they organized a sales rep, an invoicing programme, a warehouse, and a publicist.
The book was distributed and began to sell in significant numbers for a literary philosophical novel. It went into reprint, foreign rights began to sell, Transworld bought the paperback rights. And then it made the longlist for the 1994 Booker Prize. And then the shortlist.
“I didn’t win the Booker, but by then I really didn’t need to; our action in self-publishing the book in Britain was vindicated.”6
7. The Poet: Rupi Kaur
In 2016, a young Sikh-Canadian poet outsold Homer with her first collection, milk & honey, which famously stole the position of best-selling poetry book from The Odyssey.
The poet, Rupi Kaur, takes a punctuation from her Punjabi heritage’s Gurmukhi script in which there are no uppercase or lowercase letters. “ i asked a creative writing professor once how to get published but i was told it was too difficult. poetry basically never got published. when i asked about the self publishing route- i was told no: to surpass the gatekeeper would be looked down upon by my literary peers.” But in November 2014, Kaur self-published a print book through Amazon. “it didn’t occur to me to even reach out to publishers to submit unsolicited manuscripts because of years of being told ‘there was no market for my poetry’. creative control was most important. i wanted to design the cover. i wanted to lay the book out. it was my heart on paper. i wanted to pick the size. font. and colours. years of study in visual rhetoric and design lead me to fall in love with print and graphic art.”
In 2019 she made the Forbes “30 under 30” list, sold out stadia in a world tour across India, the U.K and US. Trade publishers have publicly dismissed her work as “not poetry” but she has a following of millions on Instagram, many of whom now enjoy writing workshops and shared writing time with her and completely understand her writing mission.
These are just seven of hundreds of thousands of self-publishing success stories. They are here, at the start of this book, to inspire you and show you what’s possible. It’s important to notice the differences and similarities in such stories and most important to realize that there is no such thing as cookie-cutter success for authors. Different authors and different books require different pathways and plans.
The more you know about the possible pathways, the more options open to you. Inspiring as these super successful authors are, I’m equally excited by the authors we never hear about who are quietly finding their readership and growing their author business, book by book, eventually getting to the point of transitioning into full-time.
It’s difficult to get accurate data about the growth in self-publishing as the self-publishing platforms like Amazon and Apple do not release their sales figures and many self-publishing authors don’t use ISBNs or other traditional publishing measurement methods and may sell directly on their website or through special sales. Research by Written word Media has demonstrated that it is possible to earn over ¢100,000 annually without appearing on any bestseller list. In a May 2016 snapshot of 142 such “invisible” authors on Amazon.com, 105 were self-published indies.7
Today more than half of Amazon’s daily bestseller lists are self-published. In April 2018, in one of the company’s rare public revelations, CEO Jeff Bezos divulged that over a 100,000 authors earned more than $100,000 in KDP royalties in 2017. In 2019, Amazon paid out $300 million for subscription reads through their exclusivity program, Kindle Unlimited.
And that’s just one platform. Contrary to popular belief, the self-publishing world is much bigger than Amazon. Hundreds of thousands of books are sold on many other platforms—Apple Books, Google Play, IngramSpark, Kobo Writing Life—and on authors’ own websites. When we did a recent informal survey of our members fewer than one-third of the members surveyed were Amazon exclusive, with many more including “going wide” in their goals for this year.
An Enders Analysis in 20168 which found that 40% of the top-selling ebooks on Amazon were self-published concluded that the option is “only going to grow more attractive”. Self-publishing is naturally the first choice of younger writers who have grown up sharing their words on Wattpad or Instagram. After some years of this, the next logical step is putting a book together and publishing it to the following they’ve amassed on social media, who’ve made it clear that they can’t wait. The book soars to success because all the marketing work has been done upfront.
There are so many ways to succeed—and to fail—as an indie author. In this book, I want to take you deeply into my own journey. I’ll share what I’ve learned as director of ALLi but mostly what I’ve learned as an author and poet. The world presents us with the success stories but behind those details are the failures, the missteps and mistakes, where most of the learning lies.
Self-publishing has been the right decision for me. I’ve created a range of books and other creative assets, chief of which is a growing band of readers, some of whom I now know really well, as they become reader members on my website or poetry patrons on Patreon. I’m growing a body of work that fulfils my intentions and is yielding me growing income and impact.
But I make writing and publishing mistakes, all the time.
I go down wrong pathways, take on too much, try too many things at once. I’ve had to unpublish a whole series that I put out too soon. It has taken me far longer than it should have, knowing what I know, to sell books. I’ve told myself it’s because I’ve been busy running ALLi but that’s only partly true. Why have I been so busy? Why have I not prioritised selling the poetry and fiction that I long ago decided was the form I most wanted my words to take. The deeper forms, that don’t just change minds, but hearts too, and even souls.
Our relationship to our work as writers runs very deep and to our publishing work too. It’s psychological sure, but it’s also deeply emotional and possibly even spiritual. We have all sorts of motives for writing and publishing—and the motives may even conflict.
They did for me and it held me back for years. Let me take you behind the scenes of one of self-publishing’s success stories, so we can get a bit more real.
1 Mike Shatzkin. 2019. The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know
2 Amazon Report: https://d39w7f4ix9f5s9.cloudfront.net/61/3b/1f0c2cd24f37bd0e3794c284cd2f/2019-amazon-smb-impact-report.pdf
3 “Still Alice (novel) – Wikipedia.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Still_Alice_(novel). Accessed 30 Jun. 2017.
4 “The Martian (Weir novel) – Wikipedia.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(Weir_novel).