Punching Self-Publishing Stigma in the Face

Successful novels that were self-published - The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan - My Blood Approves by Amanda Hocking Wool by Hugh Howey - Fifty Shades by E L James - Eragon by Christopher Paolini - Daniel's Gift by Barbara Fr

First, a bit of a summary of what I’ve learned about indie publishing over the past six months, and then a glance at some indie successes.

Indie publishing, not self-publishing.

One thing I’ve learned about non-traditional publishing is that many prefer to call it “indie publishing” as opposed to “self-publishing” because the latter carries an outdated, negative connotation.

Traditional and indie publishing: neither is clearly better than the other.

In an older post, I analyzed a number of pros and cons for traditional and indie publishing for a new author. To paraphrase myself: Indie publishing allows for greater freedom in the content of your writing, the cover design, and much more. However, going indie generally requires substantial out-of-pocket costs for the author. Traditional publishing, on the other hand, takes away some freedom but the publisher would provide professional editing and a cover design, and potentially aid in marketing and an advance on royalties. My ultimate conclusion was that new authors should at least chase traditional publishing first because it allows time to understand the market as well as an opportunity to properly edit the manuscript before rushing to print (impatience is one of the worst traits of a self-publishing author).

Manuscripts without a high concept have a tougher time getting published traditionally, but there’s no such bar for indies.

As I’ve previously discussed, high-concept fiction is highly original, widely appealing, easy to visualize, and easy to sum up in three sentences or less.

These days, agents and publishers generally look for high-concept work. Thus, if an author’s query (or even just the hook) fails to demonstrate enough high-concept qualities, traditional publishing folks will be very unlikely to even look at the manuscript. It makes sense considering the quantity of material that goes into their inbox and the fact that a book without a high concept will result in less impressive sales numbers.

If you’re indie, you can publish just about anything—there’s no requirement of a high concept. However, you’ll run into the problem that agents and publishers anticipate when they see a “low concept” book: it’s going to be much more difficult to get people to buy that thing.

A book doesn’t need a high concept to be awesome.

While a book which lacks a high concept may be difficult to market, it isn’t necessarily a bad book: a book that doesn’t seem original on in a three-sentence summary may be original in its details; wide appeal is helps for quantity in sales, but books which cater to smaller, niche markets can great; visualization for high-concept fiction generally should be somewhat of an “action” scene which will be non-existent in subtler works; and there are plenty of awesome works out there that are difficult to sum up in a few sentences while demonstrating originality, wide appeal, and provide a strong visual.

Indie authors should utilize professional editors as well as beta readers.

A lot of the sucking found in self-published titles can at least be partially attributed to a lack of professional editing. At worse, these novels require drastic revisions under the guidance of a developmental editor. In the not-too-bad scenarios, these books merely need another read-through by a copy editor.

Many indie authors probably don’t bother with professional editors due to the considerable cost. In those cases, the author should alternatively gather a substantial amount of beta readers (including a mix of casual readers, other authors, and English Major-y people to provide feedback), and take time to seriously weigh their suggestions.

I’ve seen at least one indie author admit to ignoring all beta reader feedback and simply rushing to print. While it’s a good idea to critically analyze feedback and avoid rushing to change your book based on the opinion of a single reader, you shouldn’t take any feedback too lightly—particularly when the same bit of advice is repeated by several readers.

Too many indie book covers look like stuff I made in seventh grade (some are even worse).

Seriously, I’ve seen covers that look like they were slapped together by some kid in the late 90’s on MS Paint. If you aren’t considerably gifted with graphic design, find someone who is (i.e., a professional with a relevant degree). If you really want to get away from the old stigma of being self-published, it should look like it belongs on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

If there’s an image, the resolution should be high—I don’t want to see pixel-y blocks unless your book is about 8-bit video games. Also, the book title and author name should be easy to read with genre-appropriate fonts (this article by Derek Murphy may be helpful, though some of those fonts are a bit too flamboyant and illegible for my taste). I’ve also read an article which suggests to use a serif font and sans serif font for the title and author name, but to avoid using the same type for both—one is serif, and the other sans serif.

Book sales will require dedication to marketing endeavors—platform building, book reviews, pricing deals, appearances, interviews, and conventional advertisements.

You can’t just slap your novel onto Amazon, B&N, Lulu, Smashwords, and Kobo and expect sales to magically happen. You’ll need to market that thing. Personally, marketing my book is what scared me into chasing traditional publishing. However, reading about different avenues for authors to get the word out on their books has made it less foreboding.

The first thing an author needs is a platform: a means with which the author can reach an audience.

If you’re a celebrity or a renown expert in some field that relates to your book, then you’re pretty well off. Having none of that, it may be a good idea to make some noise on the internet (e.g., blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). I’ve read some articles that bad mouth the effectiveness of social networking as a means to advertise your book, but I’m of the school of thought that believes some reach is better than none.

Ideally, your platform should be substantially built well before your first book is published.

If you’re that afraid of marketing on your own initiative, there are book publicists available for a fee.

Book reviews are great for marketing and sales.

Find book bloggers, Amazon and Goodreads reviewers and the like, and ask them nicely to read and review your book. ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) should be helpful to get some reviews as early as possible before the official release.

I’m not a huge fan of authors mutually reviewing each other’s books. If both reviews are filled with nothing but praise there’s an appearance of impropriety (unless, of course, the review breaks things down in a very logical and convincing manner). On the other hand, if you give each other scathing reviews, then what was the point? I’ve read elsewhere that certain authors will honestly review the other’s work but will only post the review if it’s of a certain rating (e.g., only three to five star reviews go public).

I’ve also seen some very suspicious-looking reviews on Amazon that are very likely paid-for reviews or reviews by the author’s family or friends. The praise is just so generic, it seems like the reviewer didn’t actually read the book. If a family member or friend is going to post a review, tell them to make sure they write something that demonstrates that they read the thing. If a paid reviewer is writing that crap, you should get your money back (and you definitely shouldn’t seek dishonest paid reviews; there are people who take payments to read and honestly review your book—those are okay).

Freebies and discounts to market your books.

For the most part, giving your book away for free is most useful if you already have several other books available for sale. For example, if you have three books in a series for sale, you can make the first book free on Amazon to get people into your series and entice them to purchase the rest.

I’ve read that sales on Amazon while your book is free will help make it appear as an item that other customers have “also bought” which would be an increase in visibility. However, it seems Amazon might have changed their system to avoid that (not sure). As for freebie sales to improve your book’s spot on Amazon’s charts, they’ve since split charts for free books and paid-for books, so your increase in rank will be less impressive than it once would have been.

Also keep in mind that it’s possible that random folks will “purchase” your book simply because it’s free while they would never otherwise spend a dime for a book in your genre. Subsequently, they may read and hate your book because they’re not used to the genre and write a horrible review.

Readings at bookstores, and propping up booths at conventions.

Showing up at the right places can be good for marketing, particularly if you’re charismatic in person. Readings and Q&A at local bookstores and throwing your book at people at relevant conventions and conferences seems like it’d be pretty useful to boost sales (but, please, don’t literally throw books at people).

Interviews—more talking to people

Whether it’s blog interviews where you generally don’t meet the interviewer in person or a live interview, both seem to be great marketing tools, assuming you’re not prone to saying dumb things. Try not to pull a Joey Tribbiani (of course, as a writer, it’s probably safe to say you write a lot of your own lines).

Paid advertisements shouldn’t be completely out of the question.

You can try to be creative with your marketing, hoping something will go viral and avoid spending any money, but I wouldn’t ignore old school advertising. I’d say, wait for a few good reviews on your book, then shell out a bit of cash to put ads up on some relevant publications (both in print and online). If the reviews were well-written (and by respected critics), you could even quote them in your advertisements.

Referring to your other books and social media at the end of your books.

Stick it in there. Drive traffic to your site. Let them know you have other works they might like.

Successful indie authors do exist.

Over the years, indie authors have seen commercial success and/or critical acclaim. Though it’s rather wishful thinking for new authors to assume they will find success in the same way as the following exceptions, it’s nice to at least see indie success is possible (however inimitable they may be with the current market).

Hugh Howey:

Hugh HoweyHowey initially wrote Wool as a stand-alone short story and published through a small press (technically still independent publishing) before self-publishing it on Amazon. After Wool gained popularity (first 1000+ sales per month, and then 20,000 to 30,000 a month after he’d written some additional installments), Howey sold certain rights for international publishing and film rights to Fox, and then signed with a traditional publisher (Simon & Schuster) while retaining rights to e-books. Reading this article on how Wool became a success, it seems it was the quality of the work that drove sales (though Howey states it also had to do with luck and timing), along with the resulting positive reviews and word-of-mouth praise.

Notably, Howey initially submitted Wool directly to publishers and received offers from several small publishers which was an early indicator of quality and marketability (beyond the earnest praise from his friends and family). Also, once sales picked up on the first stand-alone story, Howey quickly wrote the subsequent follow-up installments and created the Silo series. Good writing, good luck, and smart moves.

E.L. James:

Most should know by now that Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fanfiction. Back then, it was called Master of the Universe and featured characters from Stephanie Meyers’ renown sparkling-vampires series. In 2012, Jane Litte used Turnitin to compare Master of the Universe and Fifty Shades of Grey (Turnitin is generally used to check student work for plagiarism) and found the similarity index to be 89% with “whole swaths of text wherein just the names were changed,” presumably from Bella and Friends to Ana and Company. So, it could be said that after substantially changing 11% of her fanfiction and adopting a new pen name, E.L. James hit the jackpot with her Fifty Shades series (evidently, the 89% of similar material deviated enough from Twilight so it didn’t really need to be altered). After success in the e-book market as an indie title, Fifty Shades was picked up by Vintage Books (an imprint of Random House).

Fifty Shades gets a lot of flack from critics, authors, and other randoms for not being “good” writing. I haven’t personally read the series, but I figure it does its job as an erotic romance series (as Joey Tribbiani might say, “You got porn”). I doubt it was ever intended to be a literary masterwork, so it seems a bit foolish to judge it as if it were. I’ll reserve judgment to the erotic romance aficionados.

Christopher Paolini:

Christopher Paolini in CostumeChristopher Paolini began writing the first book in his Inheritance Cycle at the age of fifteen, after finishing his high school education through home schooling. After two years of writing and editing the book himself, Paolini’s parents published Eragon through their family-owned publishing company.

Paolini admirably went from school to school to promote his book to, apparently, little effect. Eventually, he got his big break when author Carl Hiaasen heard praise of Eragon from his stepson and approached Alfred A. Knopf with it. Eragon was subsequently republished by a major publisher and Paolini saw immense popularity among his target audience of young readers.

Many critics have noted that the Inheritance Cycle resembled Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings too closely in terms of plot (and, apparently, the film adaptation of the first book did not get any sequels due to similar criticism). Due to its apparent lack of originality, Eragon probably wouldn’t have made it past a literary agent’s desk and doesn’t do much to break the stigma on indie publishing. However, you can’t argue against Paolini’s considerable commercial success.

Like the Silo and Fifty Shades series, Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle began as a self-published book before rights were handed over to a big publisher.

Amanda Hocking:

Amanda HockingBy 2010, Amanda Hocking had completed drafts for seventeen novels in her free time while working as a group home worker and what-not. Hocking started self-publishing her works as e-books in 2010 and made $2 million from her indie endeavors alone by mid-2011. She began with a vampire-centric paranormal romance series, My Blood Approves, releasing the first three books within one month from one another, and subsequently released many other books and other series within a relatively short span of time.

Hocking signed with a traditional publisher, St. Martin’s Press, in 2011, giving them publishing rights to her Trylle Trilogy. So, at the moment, Hocking is in hybrid publishing with some of her work self-published, and others under a traditional publisher’s imprint.

Part of Hocking’s success seems to stem from a practice that many preach to new authors: write many books, and then write some more.

Barbara Freethy:

Barbara FreethyRomance writer Barbara Freethy, “the best selling Kindle Direct Publishing author of all-time,” credits some of her success to having a back-list of books to self-publish as she continues to churn out more. It would seem her means of success is somewhat similar to Amanda Hocking’s. Like Hocking, Freethy also released her books in a relatively frequent basis.

Freethy’s advice to other indie authors is to keep writing, book after book. She believes many indie authors spend too much time publicizing their first book(s) when, really, having a larger library of books under your name will do more to market your earlier work.

Darcie Chan:

Darcie ChanAfter Darcie Chan’s debut novel, The Mill River Recluse, was rejected by “[a] dozen publishers and more than 100 literary agents,” Chan self-published her novel as an e-book in May of 2011 . Doing her homework, Chan also bought ads on specific web sites and paid for a review from Kirkus Reviews (though she seems unsure that any of this was particularly effective). Within a year, her novel sold over 400,000 copies (got most of this info from this Wall Street Journal article).

Chan’s success story is quite different from Amanda Hocking and Barbara Freethy’s, and more akin to Hugh Howey’s: in Chan’s opinion, her sales were generated primarily from word-of-mouth referrals. Essentially, it was due to the quality of the single first novel that brought her success. Chan’s tip to indie authors is to “be careful not to put a book out into the world until you are sure that it is your very best work and professional in all respects (writing, editing, cover design, formatting, etc.).”

And now, I’ll go back to waiting on agents, and prepping materials for another round of beta reading and querying. On top of that, I suppose I may start looking for professional editors and seeing if my Photoshop skills are up to snuff to make my own cover. Self-publishing is rather enticing. And, yeah, this post was really more for me to organize my own thoughts while, hopefully, providing a helpful summary of indie publishing issues and commentary. Meheheh.

26 thoughts on “Punching Self-Publishing Stigma in the Face

  1. Pingback: The Self-Publishing Stigma? Pfft. | So, I Read This Book Today

  2. Pingback: The Booketry » Punching Self-Publishing Stigma in the Face | A.D. Martin

    • As I understand it, Kirkus reviews are still honest reviews. So long as the reviews are honest, I think they’re totally fine.

      Whether it’s effective as marketing is up for debate, but I assume it’s a nice jumpstart if you aren’t getting any other reviews.


  3. Excellent advice; thank you so much. Having started both tweeting and blogging this year, I have found that one needs tremendous discipline in pursuing those, quite addictive, activities. This is not to say that they are not useful, but I have now resolved to be much stricter with myself. It’s quite possible that my blog will generate greater interest in my books (I don’t write about them, though, because I don’t want to put my followers off), but what I have, so far, found more effective were press reviews (brief, but still). Thanks again for a well-thought-out piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This looks very useful and fits pretty well with what I took from a London Meetup group addressed by three successful self-published authors.

    I was misled about the terminology for a while when an Indian internet friend brought out an book published by an Indie publishing group.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great info here! I have thought about self-publishing, but like some of the authors you noted, I think I’d like to have a few novels completed rather than just focusing on the one. Finding time to develop those novels, well, that’s proving to be the ultimate challenge right now. All of the other aspects (cover design, editing, marketing) can be a bit overwhelming.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Good article! I’d give a (metaphorical) arm and a leg to have a day inside Amazon’s database of sales. I’d love to know the relationship between sales and time between releases, number of books and marketing channels used. It would be especially interesting to know if there are any “magic” sales thresholds that move you from one tier of automated promotions up to the next.

    On a related note, I have a friend who wrote a book and found that Facebook ads were one of the most effective marketing channels he tested. He said it was very easy to track how many people were driven to buy the book when he tried different descriptions and target demographics. Something to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Facebook does give you a lot of detail on engagement and clicks and what-not. Once I have a book to sell, it’ll be much more exciting to track my Page. Right now, it’s just a handful of people clicking on links to my blog. Haha.


  7. Pingback: Punching Self-Publishing Stigma in the Face | Jim's Jumbler

  8. Self publishing success depends in large part by the amount of work the self publisher puts in. The self publisher has to put in a lot of work, spend a lot of money to hire people to help – editors, artists, etc. The self publisher has to go that extra mile to make everything perfect.

    Unfortunately, some self-publishers don’t put that extra work in and put out shoddy product. But every self-publisher shouldn’t be punished for that.

    It’s definitely a tough road, but I imagine also a satisfying one when it pays off.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Right on! I couldn’t agree more! I’ve long thought that the stigma around indie publishing is totally fabricated. Granted, some indie publishers have earned it (wince) through poor production and lacking attention to detail. But there are so many high-res images out there freely available (and unencumbered by copyright) as well as graphic artists on sites like fiverr.com who can whip something up for you quickly for very low cost, that a lousy cover isn’t a given anymore.

    With regards to writing and proofing quality, those can be solved, as well. I wish the mainstream publishing business would pay more attention,as well.

    In the past years, I’ve seen the quality of mainstream-published books decline. The text is too small to read comfortably (perhaps to save ink or lower the cost via page counts), there are typos in the most unexpected places, and the production quality leaves something to be desired. Outsourcing editing and proofing offshore is happening… and work is going to people who don’t speak English as a first language… so what can we reasonably expect?

    In the end, what makes a book a success (and what keeps the publishing world going) is readers — not just writers. And if readers can get access to the kinds of books they want to read, versus only the kinds of books that editors and publishers deem investment-worthy, and the quality is good, then what difference does it make *how* the books get to them?

    With the web, as well as real distribution options from Amazon, Lulu, and doing your own “thang” via Paypal/Gumroad/e-Junkie, Mailchimp, WordPress, etc, it’s possible to get out there for very low cost. You just have to have a plan. And the willingness to work and learn.

    And another thing — although successful indie publishing is now considered a route to a mainstream book deal, I wonder why someone who has been successful as an indie publisher would hand over their success to a mainstream house. Will their overall experience better? I’m not so sure… And if you’ve figured out how to do it, and do it well, why not keep on doing it?

    Just my take.

    Liked by 1 person

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