Six Truths About Self-Publishing You Don’t Want To Hear
6 Truths About Self-Publishing Publishing You Don’t Want to Hear
by Seattle Times bestselling author Raven Oak
If you were to compare the publishing industry of today with the one of 1890, the differences alone could fill a paperback book. From technological advances to changes in genre popularity and readership, the publishing industry is no longer comprised of authors renting typewriters at a dime an hour. The line between traditional publication and self-publication continues to blur as more and more authors choose the hybrid route, a route encompassing both methods of publication.
This isn’t an article about which route you should take. There are tons of books on that topic—everything from Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran to Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book by Tim Grahl—so I’d rather focus on some truths about self-publishing, and honestly, publishing in general, that I feel every author should hear, whether they want to or not.
- Publishing is hard. Really hard.
I spent twelve years as a public school teacher in Title I schools, working 50-60 hours a week. Many days I came home exhausted and broken, due to too many students falling through the cracks of a system set up to fail them, not to mention all the abusive, power-tripping administrators and absentee parents. I used to think I worked hard. Then I became a writer.
I work longer hours now than I ever did as a teacher. Hell, I even work holidays and weekends because I write every single day. (Case in point, I have a migraine right now, but since this article is due, I’m writing it. This is what happens as a professional writer.) The only time I get a “vacation” is if I make in the time for one by working harder the rest of the year.
Even if you choose the traditional route, publishers expect authors to do more and more marketing and promotion themselves these days. That doesn’t mean you spend all day on Facebook, though social media is a part of promoting your work. It often means attending conventions as a guest/panelist (on your own dime), book tours and signings at bookstores (also on your own dime), writing guest articles and blog posts like this, doing online events and interviews, reading colleagues’ work for blurbs, teaching writing workshops, doing social media events like Reddit AMAs or a podcast appearances, and all of this while writing and/or editing the next book (and yes, that important. See #4.)
If you want to succeed as a writer, be prepared to work hard. As you improve, you’ll find ways to work smarter, in addition to harder, but that’s another article.
- Publishing probably won’t make you rich.
The only writers who tend to make the mainstream media are those making good money, so when someone decides to write a book and become an author, they often think it’ll be easy. That when they hit the publish button on their project or get picked up by a traditional publisher, they will suddenly become rich and famous. They read Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings report that states that “more indie authors [are] now earning a $50K-or-better living wage than all of their Big Five and Small/Medium publisher peers put together” and think they have a shot.
And they might.
But the reality is that most books never sell more than 500 copies in their lifetime and most authors will never earn more than $15,000 from their writing. When millions of books are published every year, the competition is fierce. While the only gatekeepers may be readers, they have to find you first, which goes back to #1. In order to be found, you have to work insanely hard, and do so with the understanding that you may never strike it rich.
Some of this is luck based. Some of it is who you know (see #7). Some of it is knowing what you’re getting into if you choose this career path.
- Publishing requires discipline.
Remember #1—Publishing is hard? Part of the difficulty in writing, especially if you decide to do so full-time, is that you are your own boss. The temptation to watch Netflix all day or lay out at the beach rather than write is always in the background. I’ve spent the last year in home-ownership hell while contractors have rewired the entire house, fixed a major water leak (which included new carpet, new walls, new studs under the walls, and a complete bathroom demo and remodel), rebuilt a deck, and a few other things. There’s nothing like babysitting contractors to remind you of a writing deadline.
To be your own boss, you need to be relentless and disciplined. Set a schedule. Keep your schedule. Use a time sheet for accountability and post a word count daily on social media. This comes in handy when deducting work related expenses because you can show your work schedule as proof this is a job, not a hobby (I’m looking at you, IRS). Reward yourself for writing daily or meeting goals. Write in the same place each day (like a home office) or if that’s too boring for you, try coffee shops or writing groups at someone’s house. Whatever it takes to keep yourself working and honest about it.
Even if you decide not to write daily, be consistent in what works for you. Keep the creative juices flowing.
- Publishing requires you to write.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many writers say one thing, while doing another—full-time writers who spend their days doing everything but writing. It’s difficult to have a writing career if you aren’t writing. It certainly won’t pay the bills.
I’m not perfect. There are days where I’ve written 500 words because I really needed a mental health day and 3000 words seemed impossible, but the best thing I can do for myself and my career is to write anyway. Put my butt in the chair and type something. It doesn’t have to be brilliant—that can happen in editing and revision—but write the words so that my brain is thinking on the project.
The majority of the time, if a writer isn’t writing, it’s usually because of the writer. The good news on that is that there are ways to get unstuck. If you find yourself distracted by everything under the sun, you may need to write somewhere where there are no distractions (such as a secluded cabin or a room without windows or pets or Internet—yes, I unplug my Internet). If you find yourself unable to write a scene, you may have a plot hole or other issue blocking you. Writing a different scene, outlining the scene further, or even taking a walk can sometimes unblock us.
There are a ton of books on this topic, not to mention writing groups online, friends, therapists, and other means of unsticking ourselves.
- Publishing is a job. Treat it like one.
#3 and #4 touch on this some, but something to remember is that your writing time is sacred. This is your job and when you are writing, you shouldn’t be doing anything other than writing. This gets tricky with children and families, but it can be done. Work out some time with your spouse (if possible) for writing, and during your writing time, you’re to be undisturbed. No phone calls, no interruptions. If that doesn’t work, try and get a sitter once a week (or however often you decide) for some uninterrupted writing time away.
Before I wrote full-time, I used to dictate my writing into a recording app on my phone via Bluetooth on my hour commute to and from my teaching job. It was uninterrupted writing time. Even if it’s fifteen minutes in the shower, it’s fifteen minutes of writing. The most difficult part of this was getting my parents to understand that if it was between 10 AM and 7 PM, I was working. Unless it was an emergency, I wasn’t going to answer the phone because this was my time to work. To write. Just as if I were working in a corporate office somewhere, I was unavailable. Sometimes I get voicemails anyway under the thought that “you’re home all day so you have time,” and I ignore them. This is my sacred time. Sometimes you get stuck with family who don’t understand that writing is a job, but don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have a real job.
But how do you convince people around you that this is a job? By treating it like one.
- Publishing can be expensive.
Yes, even if you’re going the traditional route, publishing costs. From traveling to conventions and doing book tours, to upgrading your laptop and attending a writing workshop, there are costs associated with being a published writer. Doubly so if you’re going the self-pub route.
Self-publishing means you are your own publisher, so you need to act like one. Hire a real editor—someone to do developmental and line edits, someone to proofread. Beta-readers aren’t editors, folks. Most of the time, neither are your fellow authors. Hire a real cover artist/designer. Do not smash together a photoshopped monstrosity from your photo collection. Unless you have a background in design, it will scream newbie and folks won’t buy your book. Plus, you’ll give the rest of the self-publishing world a bad rep, which never wins anyone any favors. You’ll be doing your own marketing and promotion, which often has a cost associated with it as well.
Beyond this, there is the costs associated with running/maintaining a website and possibly a mailing list, business cards (never leave home without them!), books on writing, postage, and so on. If you decide to sell your books at conventions, you’ll also have the costs associated with vender tables and possibly shipping books to conventions. While most of these costs are deductible, they do add up.
- Publishing requires you to be social.
Long gone are the days when a writer could spend all day writing and never have to talk to a single soul. Part of your job as a writer is to make connections with your readers. That requires you to use social media (or at least your website) to talk to people you don’t know.
Beyond that, networking at conventions and workshops is also important. I’ve had several publishing contracts come my way because of networking—times when an editor met me at a convention, read something I wrote, and then told someone else about me, or times when I found out about an anthology call for stories because a colleague thought of me when they read about the project. These opportunities might not have come my way if I had not talked with people in the industry, conducted that writing workshop on deep point-of-view, or served as a panelist at a convention.
I’m an introvert. As a general rule, I write better alone. After a convention, I tend to hole up and avoid people for a few days until I feel normal again. But I’ve had to learn how to fake it—that extrovert nature that allows me to stand in a room full of people and pretend I’m completely at ease.
It appears like I’m saying this is easy, but I know it’s not. I have anxiety, and situations with strangers make me want to vomit (literally). Being social is part of the job though, so I find quiet moments to just breath in and out and push through. You can, too, I promise.
While all of this sounds scary, I wouldn’t pick any other career. I love my job and love the knowledge that readers enjoy something I’ve created. It’s a feeling unlike anything else.
The things worth having in life are never easy, and writing certainly fits into that idea. So pick up your pen or plug in your laptop, and Write On!
Award-winning and bestselling speculative fiction author Raven Oak is best known for her epic fantasy Amaskan’s Blood (2016 Ozma Fantasy Award Winner and Epic Awards Finalist) and her space opera Class-M Exile. Raven spent most of her K-12 education doodling stories and 500 page monstrosities that are forever locked away in a filing cabinet.
When she’s not writing, she’s getting her game on with tabletop games, indulging in cartography, or staring at the ocean. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband, and their three kitties who enjoy lounging across the keyboard when writi