New Struggles in Self-Publishing

New Struggles In Self-Publishing

I hesitate to mention problems with self-publishing. In some genres, such as romance or self-help books, the industry is doing great. But for those who are trying to sell fiction, it seems that the markets are contracting, and it appears that things will go from bad to worse.

If you’ve been self-publishing for the past few years, you probably remember the good old days. For example, a few years ago I put my novel The Golden Queen up as a free e-book for a week and forgot about it. I was going to mention on my social media what I had done, but seriously got busy with something else. Three days later, I got an email from someone who said, “Why don’t you take your free e-book down and let someone else have a shot at the #1 spot.” I’d given away 15,000 copies in three days, and had sold thousands of dollars in inventory on the other two books in the series.

Today, even getting readers to look at a free book is nearly impossible. People have seen so many promotions for bad books that they stay away in droves. In this past year alone, I’ve read that nearly three million e-books were created, and another three million are anticipated this year. With so much “white noise,” how is a good author to be heard?

With e-books, you can’t sell them unless you can advertise them. Of course, the folks at Amazon try to set their rates at about $1.70 a click on their advertisements. If every potential buyer who clicked on an advertisement actually bought a book, that would be a good deal. But in most cases, fewer than 1 in 10 people who click on a book ad will actually buy the book. Unfortunately, in my studies, Facebook ads don’t pay for themselves, and neither do any other kinds of ads that are sold online. That’s why we don’t see a lot of ads for books from major publishers online.

So new authors who are looking for visibility need to get on bestseller lists by electronic publishers. But how do you do that? The answer is, it’s nearly impossible.

Let’s say that you put your new book up for sale on Amazon. You tell all your friends and family, and get folks to announce it to their friends. You do a big blog party and get blogs up on twenty sites besides your own. Your book comes out … and it’s a blip on Amazon’s radar.

Amazon has lots of other books for sale. You’re a little blip. How do they know to promote your book?

Well, they have to look for independent verification. So they look at the number of reviews that you have on Amazon and on Goodreads. They try to make sure that the reviews are from real buyers instead of sock puppets. They look at the ratings given to the book in the form of stars, and then they decide whether to begin cross-promoting your book.

If you’ve got a book that has a high velocity of sales and an extremely high customer satisfaction rating, they’ll help promote your book, and that can be a great thing.

But here’s the problem: The people who get the highest velocity of sales almost always already have a pretty good customer base. They’ve got say 50,000 fans. If you’re a brand new author, you might have a great book, but you very likely don’t have 50,000 fans. So even if you do get picked up for promotion, you won’t get promoted heavily or for very long.

Meanwhile, let’s say that a new author comes out with a traditionally published book in hardcover and it gets put on the New Release shelf at Barnes and Noble. Hundreds of thousands of book buyers will walk by the shelf and see it. That book has visibility that your book doesn’t. Indeed, if people like it, they can take a picture of the ISBN number and order the book as an e-book right away. That’s how many e-books are bought.

Of course, the big publishers charge more for your e-book than you would like, but Amazon respects that. In fact, their algorithms will place higher-priced books onto the bestseller lists above books that are sold above deep discount. Thus, if you put your book online for 99 cents and promote it widely, you might make lots of sales, but you won’t make traction onto the bestseller list.

So the books that are sold as physical hardcovers by the traditional publishers tend to dominate the bestseller lists in most genres.

Yes, there are exceptions, but on any given day, if you look at thrillers, mainstream, young adult, fantasy, or science fiction, etc., the bestsellers on the lists will be from traditionally published authors.

In the past year, I’ve seen some data that suggests that the number of sales on e-books is dropping. I’ve heard from a lot of authors that it’s getting tougher and tougher to stand out and build an audience as an indie. However I’m also seeing some authors, like my friend Doug Dandridge, who are still managing to break out as indie authors.

So it’s worth trying, I think, but just realize that the competition is fierce, and it will most likely just get fiercer. If you plan to go indie, go indie with a great plan. Try to get several books lined up so that you can publish and promote rapidly for several months, and give it your best shot. And sincerely, good fortune to you!


While Dave takes a sabbatical from the online workshops so he can work on a couple big projects, enrollment is still available on a limited basis. Check out the online workshops here.

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