The self-publishing experiment

It’s been a little more than six months since I self-published my two latest books, and I think it’s time for a sum-up. The thing that prompted this isn’t exactly the books’ six-month anniversary. It’s actually a bad review, the second (of two) I got on Goodreads. Let me start by saying that I am not going to use this opportunity to complain about my bad review, nor do I expect anyone else to do so. There are too many examples of authors behaving badly on social media, and I’ve already discussed my opinion of dwelling on negative reviews. But the points that this reviewer commented on seem to shed light on my experiences with self-publishing, and publishing trends in general, and therefore make a good prompt for my summation.

Here’s the chronology again: I published three books with one of the Big Six starting in 2003. Market forces combined with the publishing crash of 2008 meant that my agent was unable to sell any of my other books, despite the positive feedback she gave them. After seven years without a sale, I dissolved my contract with the agency early in 2013. I decided to take this opportunity to try a few different things and compare my experiences: self-publishing one project, which was complete at two books, submitting another project to small presses, and trying my luck with a third, newly completed project by submitting to the very few Big (now) Five publishers that accept unagented manuscripts. Projects #2 and 3 are still out on submission. Project #1, the two-book set that I self-published, has sold a whopping 23 copies: 13 of book one and 10 of book two, across all three formats (KDP, Smashwords, Createspace).

There are a number of things that have contributed to these less-than-stellar results. (Yes, I’ll get to the things that are my own damn fault in a minute.) The self-publishing market is extremely saturated, and this makes it almost impossible to find any given book in the crowd without someone else pointing you to it. Review venues are similarly saturated; I spent weeks trying to track down fantasy reviewers who were willing to handle self-published books (many are not), and over half of them were closed to submissions because they’d become overwhelmed with review requests. I’m still waiting on responses from most of the ones I did contact, six months later. As for the author blogosphere, it’s as crowded as anything. The old advice was that you need your blog to get attention on your books. Now it’s a struggle to get attention on your blog.

Now, more to the point: my books. The reviewer whose comments prompted this whole summary noted several things that she didn’t like about the book (she only read book one of the duology), primarily that she felt I’d chosen the wrong characters, minor and unimportant people. Looking at this reviewer’s profile, I see that she’s a fan of adventure stories. Adventure readers tend to prefer heroic, larger-than-life characters, so it’s unsurprising that she didn’t care for my unimportant ones. But I’ve never been that interested in the heroes – I’ve always preferred watching the minor players, seeing how they get caught up in situations beyond their control and learning how they react. These are the kind of stories I prefer to read and they’re what I’m going to write. My own damn fault, yes. But I can only honestly write what I want to write.

Let me reiterate: I am not saying that this reviewer is wrong. She has her preferences; that’s fine. Her preferences are probably more in line with popular tastes; that’s also fine. But here’s where I see a problem with self-publishing. The self-pub revolution was billed as a path to freedom for the writers whose books aren’t considered popular enough, salable enough for the Big Six/Five. But as more writers flood the self-publishing market, it ironically becomes more of a popularity contest. If you’re only selling a handful of copies, if you’re not getting five-star reviews, if you don’t have book bloggers spreading the word about you, you’re never going to single yourself out from the crowd. You’ll be buried under a pile of dinosaur porn. (Sorry to mention that, but it’s become unavoidable in discussions of self-publishing. Sorry.)

This is not much different from the reaction my traditionally published books received. Again, I wrote about minor players rather than the typical fantasy heroes, I actually made my fantasy world a dystopia (unimaginable, apparently, outside SF), and half of the people who read Confidence Game hated it because it didn’t meet their expectations. But despite the poor popular opinion, it went into a second printing. I believe this was largely because of the independent bookstores that were able to handsell and match the book with the right reader, the kind of reader who likes something a little different, the kind of reader who also prefers minor players to epic fantasy heroes. With self-publishing I have the freedom to write the same kind of less-popular material, but I don’t have the support system to get it into the hands of the right readers. As traditional publishing becomes more threatened by ebooks, more concerned about their bottom line, and more anxious for bestsellers to keep them afloat, they’re even less likely to take a chance on books like mine. I certainly wouldn’t be able to sell Confidence Game today. It’s going to become even harder for less popular voices to get heard.

So, my conclusion on the self-publishing experiment: It’s a way to get your book published. It’s no guarantee of sales, much less of the Amazon Millionaire status that’s so popular in the press. You’ll do better if you happen to chance on a rising trend. (Like, for some reason, dino porn. Sorry.) Even if you work hard trying to promote yourself, there’s no guarantee that anyone will hear you.

I’ve been stressing myself out trying to keep up with blogging, Twitter, Goodreads, looking for reviewers, while trying to get new writing done (and, oh, working my day job and living my life). I don’t think it’s been a good investment, given the handful of sales, and I may not be posting to this blog quite as frequently. I don’t mean to drop it entirely – I’m definitely happy to have met other wonderful bloggers here – but I can’t justify putting the same level of effort into it. I might post some observations once in a while, maybe some poetry or even some photography. And I still have projects #2 and 3 out on submission, different kinds of stories with different types of characters. Maybe publishers will think they’re more salable. Maybe I’ll hear good news about them some day.


One thought on “The self-publishing experiment

  1. tmewalsh

    Very interesting post. At least your work is ‘out there’ – you’ve done well to publish something you should be proud of.
    As for bad reviews – it’s going to happen, isn’t it? Everyone has an opinion. Doesn’t mean they are right or wrong. I think if you got loads of bad reviews and everyone highlighted the same issues, then maybe there could be something in it, but don’t take it to heart.
    I also find it hard to keep my blog, Twitter etc. up to date and write my third book (and live my life). Concentrate on the writing – you never know what’s around the corner. I hope someone in the industry takes notice! Just don’t give up!


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