Self-publishing success?

Like most authors who struggle to get published, or are at least getting ready to struggle to get published, I’ve been looking at self-publishing and eBooks as a potential option. I’ve listened to the Writing Excuses podcasts on e-publishing, where they warn you that while you can be successful at it, it’s going to take a lot of work–and a fair chunk of your own money up front. They emphasize that in order to produce a quality product you’re going to need other people–copy-editors, cover artists, layout designers–who will want to be paid. They pound home over and over that you will be doing all the marketing yourself.

In short, it’s a lot of work, and even assuming you make any money, it will take some time before that happens.

So when I saw an article on on “How My Book Became A (Self-Published) Best Seller“, I took notice. Perhaps the author had found some interesting shortcuts.

Nope. The article is, if anything, a veiled warning against self-publishing. The writer, Deborah L. Jacobs, was already successful in her field, and had published before, so she knew what she was doing going in, which most people don’t. She recites a laundry list of all the people who had a hand in her book, and I’ll bet most of them didn’t do it gratis. She outlines everything she did to market her book and drum up publicity. She had already partnered with a distributor. She even got access to a 90,000-person mailing list. She spent the better part of a year promoting her book full-time.

And sure enough, on the small-publisher book sales list she soon hit #4! She kindly put up a picture of the web-page. If you look closely you can see the number of copies she’d sold: 2145. My first thought was “that’s all?” The book retails at $25. Even if that was all profit (which I assure you it wasn’t), she made $54,000 on that. Printing 10,000 copies likely cost her $10,000 at the very least. And she worked so hard marketing the book that it’s unlikely she was able to follow it up with a second book (I see nothing else for her on Her actual profits were probably closer to $32,000. Spread that out over the time she spent writing, printing, and marketing the book, she could have made more working fast food.

The book went to press in 2010, after two years getting it ready (Jacobs made the decision to self-publish in 2008). Since then it’s gone into a second edition, so chances are she’s now sold through the original 10,000 copies. $150,000 is looking a little more respectable, but even then, it took four years to achieve that, for an average of $37,500 per year. She obviously wasn’t relying on this book for her income during that time.

This is a book she had offers on from publishers. She turned them down because they were too low for her liking. She never says what the offers were, but considering that non-fiction is the best-selling category in publishing, I’m sure it was higher than most sci-fi/fantasy writers get (I’d guess around $50,000). She never discusses whether or not she beat that original offer with her sales, but I’m willing to bet she did do better self-publishing than if she’s signed one of those contracts. And yet when offered her a job, she took it.

It’s hard to know just how well Jacobs did with her self-published book. But by reading the article it’s plain to see it wasn’t easy money. She paid out a lot of money up front to make sure she had a quality product–she emphasized that point rather clearly. She didn’t just write a book, revise it once, slap a cheap cover on it, and post it for sale on Amazon. She and her staff worked hard for more than three years to get the book sold. Had she accepted a contract from a publisher they would have handled most of that work themselves. In the end, I think it’s a toss-up which is more economical. She made more money, but it took her much more time. She might have used that time writing another book or two.

The bottom line is that it’s not as easy a decision as most writers might think. Jacobs made it work, but its clear she knew what she was doing before she even started. Had she not worked as hard as she did she would have flopped and lost a lot of money. I don’t think most writers know how to create a product of high enough quality to do what she did. But then perhaps making a few thousand dollars on Amazon with an ebook is as much as most writers aspire to. Hard to say.

But if you’re a would-be writer looking at self-publishing or ebooks, read her article. You’ll learn something about what it takes to be successful, which is always a good thing.

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2 Responses to Self-publishing success?

  1. Robyn Taylor says:

    My uncle just recently published his own book called A Wolf’s Moon (by Hank Sands). He spent a couple of years putting it together. He made the comment that when he went to a local publisher, the first thing they asked was “How are your PR skills?” He said it’s been stressful as he’s had to do so much self promoting, including giving speeches. But, I think secretly he loves it. He’s a natural story teller.

    I think the bottom line is, why do you want to publish? Do you think you are going to strike it rich or are you doing it because you love it?

    • Thom says:

      Exactly. If you enjoy it, and you’ve got the time and the money for it, why not go for it? I suspect too many people, however, that all they have to do is write an ebook, slap a cover on it, and put it up on and watch the money come pouring in.

      I think, right or wrong, that most readers have the idea that “self-published” means it wasn’t good enough for a publisher to buy it. There are obvious exceptions. I’ve heard of writers who were able to sell enough copies of their self-published novel themselves to get a publisher to notice them, but once they had that offer from a publisher they jumped at it and never self-published again. They just didn’t want to have to keep doing the production and marketing side of things–they preferred to focus on the writing.

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