The other day I looked in on a writer’s forum that I used to frequent. One of the new authors was expressing her disappointment over her lack of sales. Apparently, she had published a book three months ago and had only sold three eBooks. She asked if any of the other writers had ever felt like calling it quits but stuck it out and ended up successful. She was looking for success stories to boost her morale.

What she got in return were a number of comments citing the depressing odds against any self-published author. Only a small fraction of self-published authors are actually making money. The dismal doomsday comments were coming from fellow self-published authors.

Basically, I felt they were saying—it’s not your fault—it’s not our fault—that we can only make a couple dollars as an author. The odds are just against us.

Not necessarily. Sometimes it is the author’s fault. I’m not suggesting making a living as a self-published author is a sure thing if you follow specific steps; it isn’t. Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, there are risks and challenges. Yet, sometimes the reason for a lack of financial success has nothing to do with the odds being stacked against you—sometimes it’s simply because the author failed to recognize what it takes to be a successful self-published author.

After reading that author’s post, I started asking myself—what does it take to make a living doing this? After all, I have been doing it for six years now.

I came up with the following list:

  1. Ability to Write Something Others Want to Read
  2. Business plan
  3. Hard Work
  4. Stacking the Deck in Your Favor

Ability to Write Something Others Want to Read

The old cliché “putting the cart before the horse” comes to mind when I think of some aspiring self-publishered authors. They have failed to hone their craft yet are anxious to push the publish button.  Mastering your craft might involve: writing classes, involvement in critique groups—yet most of all, writing. And more writing. Once you’ve learned how to properly string words together, the next challenge is finding the story readers want.

I remember when Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series was all the rage. At the time, I recall reading some posts from aspiring authors, harshly critiquing Meyer’s writing ability. Instead of accusing those authors of suffering from a severe case of sour grapes—I would suggest it isn’t sour grapes they should be ashamed of, but the fact they completely missed a valuable writing lesson.

Perhaps Meyer’s prose needed some work. But the fact was, she had the story readers wanted to hear. And I don’t care how polished and perfect your prose may be, if you don’t have the story, you have nothing. Those authors would have better served paying less attention to the technical imperfections of Meyer’s writing, and more to her storytelling ability.

Business Plan

When you are a self-published author you have two jobs. It isn’t just about the writing. If you hope to make money as a self-published author, this requires you to treat the endeavor as a business.  That author who was complaining about her lack of sales, she obviously had no business plan. She had published a 61-page book of erotica, overpriced it, and then sat back waiting for the money to roll in. That is not a great business plan.

Hard Work

Like anything worthwhile, it takes hard work. One of the more successful self-published authors I know is Russell Blake. Russell spent so many hours in front of the computer, hammering out one book after another, that he decided to invest in a treadmill desk. It was either that or fall over at the desk from lack of exercise.

Russell didn’t start making money on his first book. He didn’t publish one book and then sit back and wait for the money to come flowing in. No, he kept writing. I know of only one self-published author who hit it big on her first book, yet even she invested hours of hard work in the project.

One author friend told me he didn’t start making money until he had published the tenth book in his series. While I’ve had an amazing year, I also have more than twenty-five full-length books published.

Early on, I was taught by successful self-published authors that one essential ingredient for success in this business is to regularly publish. One book isn’t going to do it, and writing and publishing four or more books a year takes a lot of work.

Stacking the Deck in Your Favor

When I say stacking the deck in your favor, I am thinking of four things.

  1. Get the book professionally edited.

Even if the author is a professional editor, I believe he/she needs another set of eyes. Since I published my first novel in 2011, I’ve worked with six different professional editors. I’ve had some of my books edited three or four times. Even then, there have been mistakes and reviewers who have pointed out my errors. I shudder at those writers who hit publish without sending their manuscript through an editing process.

  1. Get a professional book cover appropriate for your genre.

I checked out the book cover of that author I mentioned—the one who was discouraged over her lack of sales. To be blunt, her cover was horrid and obviously homemade. And it went horizontal instead of the standard vertical format. Perhaps if it had been a stunning cover, the horizontal look might have signaled to the reader that this author had something special and different for them. Instead, it simply shouted, I have no clue what I am doing.

  1. Polish your blurb. This is the summary potential readers read to determine if they want to read your book. It’s what they normally read after the book cover catches their attention. You need a hook to reel them in.

To be honest, I hate writing blurbs. I kind of suck at it. Fortunately, there are other writers out there who are very good at writing blurbs and are willing to help.

  1. The final item in stacking the deck: re-edit the preview.

After the cover catches a reader’s attention, and the blurb reels them it, it is the preview that has to clinch the deal.

Double and triple edit the first part of your book—the section that will show up in preview. Because if your book has typos or other errors, you don’t want them to show up when the potential reader is previewing the book. That author I mentioned—well I didn’t just look at her cover, I read her preview. There were glaring typos in the first paragraph.

Of course, she is not alone. The first word, in the first novel I published—Lessons—was supposed to be Alexandra, the main character. Yet, it was typed Alexander. That book went through at least three editors before that error was discovered. And guess what? None of the editors found it—I did.  But for a long time, that glaring error remained in the preview—and the book.

I suspect I would not be doing as well as I am now, if I had ignored my mistakes, never re-edited, wrote less, refused to do those publishing tasks I disliked, and had ignored  the advice of some of my earlier mentors.

There are no guarantees an author will make anything by self-publishing. But I do believe, for a serious author who is willing to make the commitment and put in the hard work, it is within the realm of possibility.

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8 comments on “Is successful self-publishing just a matter of luck?

  1. Sam

    I found this article via a link in a FB group we both belong to. I’m a newbie to writing, currently working on my debut novel and will take as long as it takes to make it the best piece of work I can produce. Then I’ll seek professional help to make it even better. I couldn’t agree more with your blog. When I first joined the group it seemed everyone was churning out books at the rate of knots – how come I was finding it so challenging? And then I started digging into some of their books – well, not books – novellas, sometimes not even that, barely more than short stories marketed as books. And started to realise that there are a lot of people in there who think anyone can write a book with very little effort. Your blog piece hits the nail on the head. I went back to ‘Like’ it, only to find it had been removed from the group. Dare I hazard a guess that it upset a few people?

    1. Bobbi Holmes Post author

      I did find it odd they removed the post. I don’t think it violated the rules of that group–plus it was not a slam at anyone there or the general philosophy of the group.

  2. David A. Cuban

    Concise and to the point.
    Great advice for new writers; as well as for those who have been at it for a while.
    Thanks!
    Cheers,
    Dave

  3. Robert Thomas

    Anyone who wishes to write professionally needs to know this is a business. Writing is only half the battle. Bobbi’s words speak to those who are serious about their craft. If anyone thinks they can just throw ‘shlock’ up against the wall and it’ll stick and make them some money, you have some hard lessons coming to you.
    Bobbi is a pro who knows the ins and outs. Heed her advise.

  4. Billly Kring

    Wisdom from one of the best indie writers out there.

  5. Brent Jones

    Amen.

    Self-publishing, as with any business venture, is a process, and often requires following a long, hard, winding road to success. And what success looks like will vary for each individual author.

    It requires constant course corrections.

    And as in traditional business ventures, most fail. And most who do fail have a laundry list of entities to blame other than themselves.

    There are rarely lightning strikes in the world of publishing. Success takes daily focus, effort, and action. I don’t care how good your story is—if it even is any good—if no one knows it exists, it’ll never get read.

    Great article, Bobbi. And I, too, found it through 20BooksTo50K.

    —Brent

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