Writing My Novel: The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 2

For those of you just joining us, we talked last time about the different kinds of self-published authors we’ve had contact with. Today, I want to talk about my decision to lump myself in with those folks and the logic behind it.

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot about the publishing industry. What it takes to be an author (number one rule, kiddos: put your butt in a chair and write), what it takes to be published, how to get an agent, what kind of money debut/established authors make, and almost any other topic I can get my grubby little hands on.

I’ve read horror stories about the Big 6. I’ve read success stories about the Big 6. I’ve read tragic tales of how self-publishing ruins careers before they start. I’ve heard tragic tales of how New York publishing ruins careers before they start. I’ve seen middle of the road logic applied to both. I consider myself fairly well-read on the subject, and I try to stay as current as I can.

And through all my research and reading I realize one thing: making a living off writing is probably a pipe dream. Or is it?

Dreaming that you’ll make a six-figure advance is nice. But in reality, making it with traditional publishing is not about writing a good book as much as it is about luck (and hard work, too, but even hard work and a good book can’t guarantee a contract with the Big 6). And even if you happen to be/get lucky, a $5,000 average advance for a debut novel does not pay the bills.

And for me, that’s the kicker.

Not that I’m money hungry or greedy, but my goal is to eventually make my living through writing. And if any of what I’m reading lately is true, then self-publishing may be the way to do it. (Not that it’s any easier to make a living wage by self-publishing, but it puts more of the control in the author’s hands.)

But How?

Joe Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing recently ran a series of guest posts with both established and up-and-coming self-published authors. Joe himself has been posting Kindle numbers for a while, and he makes more most months than I do in a year. Seriously.

But what really strikes me is that while this series focuses on an obviously small sample of authors, they are all selling well over 1,000 books each month. With current (and I say current because of the tumult over Apple’s recent ridiculousness) ebook royalties, that’s about $2,000 a month, which is fast approaching better-than-livable income.

Those kinds of sales don’t happen overnight, and they don’t happen for everyone. But they do happen. They take a lot of online promotion, a lot of revision, a lot of design, a lot of toying with prices, and a lot of work that doesn’t necessarily involve putting words on a page.

In the end, it might not be any more realistic to make a living self-publishing, but a dedicated writer who wants it bad enough will put in the blood, sweat, and carpal tunnel to make it happen.

There’s none of the disconnected discontent that comes from the “I got rejected for the 300th time despite this being my 37th revision” blues. You write it, you work it, and you just might make a few more pennies on it self-publishing that you spend sending snail mail manuscript packets addressed to slush pile hell.

So What’s Changed? Why Now?

Well, a lot’s changed actually. Even in just the last year. Ebooks present the same kind of paradigm shift that pulp novels did in the early 20th century. They’re inexpensive to produce, have wide circulation, and the allow for more experimental writing in terms of both content and format.

Will I pay $10-15 for a print novella? Not unless it’s from one of my favorite authors, and even then, I might grab it from the library. That’s a lot of money for a 90-pager.

Will I pay $2.99 for an ebook novella that has an interesting premise, even if I don’t have a clue who the author is? Perhaps. Maybe. Permaybehaps. And with free sample chapters to sell me on the book, the odds only get better.

The thing is, though, there is still an awful lot of crap out there to weed through. I agree with Chuck Wendig on this. The best novels and self-published books will not just rise to the top because of the reviews and sales. People buy crap all the time–(sorry, couldn’t resist)–and it’s still crap. It was crap at 1 sale, and it will still be crap at 1 quadrobazillion. Authors and readers have to make a choice to both not produce crap and not accept crap.

By choosing self-publishing as a route, authors need to hold themselves to to the same standards that traditionally published books have: good writing, good story, good editing, good proofing, good book.

Only then will self-published authors beat the stigma of being subpar versions of their Big 6 counterparts. The problem is that given how open to changing paradigms most people are, it’s unlikely to happen soon if ever.

Taking the Plunge?

More than likely, yeah. I am. But not until the books are ready. That’s the important part. Not until. The books. Are ready.

I expect to have one manuscript to beta readers, revised, and ready to upload by Christmas. I also expect to have a collection of shorts revised and ready by then, too. But if they’re not ready, then they won’t be online. It’s going to have my name on it, after all.

I want more control over my future, and that’s what I see self-publishing ebooks as. I don’t see it as a way to “beat the system” and “bypass the gatekeepers.” I like the system…in theory. It works. I mean, most if not all of my favorite books come from that system. And there’s still an awful lot of great books being put out by the Big 6 that I spend my money on.

I just don’t know if that system is the right fit for me.

The conclusion I’ve come to is this: I don’t have a problem being a self-published author if it pays the bills, nor do I see myself having problems writing and editing a library of publishable content. I’m fairly egotistical, and I crave validation. But what I like more than that validation is the ability to live a dream I’ve had since I was a small child. Ebooks allow for that. I want it enough; I just have to work pretty damn hard to get there.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I consider myself a hobbyist writer. I love the writing track at Dragon*Con (even spoke on it last year about game writing), and learned a lot from there. I’ve heard variations on the same thing you’ve talked about.

    Thinking about it a bit, I think “self-publishing” written work sounds a lot like indie game development. Going with a publisher is hardly a guarantee of success. Unless you’re in the top 0.1% of super-successful authors (or game developers), you’ll probably just barely manage to squeak out a living. By going indie you take your own risks, but you can reap your own rewards, too. Your chances of superlative success are probably lower since you won’t have big marketing to help you out, but we’re talking a tiny advantage.

    Of course, from a consumer side the publishers can still be a wonderful thing. I think a lot of people are wary of indie games (and self-published books) because there is a lot of crap out there. Usually there’s something to recommend a book if a publisher cared enough to pick it up and publish it. Even for something as vapid as the Twilight books, they stand head and shoulders above some of the truly abysmal crap in the same genre out there. (On the games side, though, I think the publishers are a little to restrictive in that if you don’t have tastes that match their current audience, you’ll feel underserved.)

    In the end, it seems to mostly be about how “well known” you are which determines your success in creative efforts. Publishers can make an author or game development team well-known enough to give them future success. Alternatively, most indies with a hit game can go to a publisher and dictate a better deal than an unknown. Perhaps it’s best to treat your first few works like freeware, getting the stuff out there and hoping that someone cares enough to eventually start paying you. Build a following, then see if the traditional model is a better match.

    You might consider heading to Dragon*Con (http://dragoncon.org/) later this year if you want to rub shoulders with fantasy/SF writers and get more inside information on writing, etc. At any rate, good luck with your writing. 🙂

    1. That’s a really good idea. I doubt I’ll be able to go this year, but once I get a few out there and start publicizing hard, Dragon*Con wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. There are also quite a few SF cons that come around my area, too, just within a few hours. Given that I plan on going through CreateSpace for print copies, too, when I get to that point, I’ll be able to make an investment for that kind of gathering and have some boxes to sell. Thanks for the idea!

      You’re right, though. As much as I give Twilight crap, it’s still–God help me–better written than so many of the knock-offs out there that tried to cash in on it. The “gatekeepers” are keeping the gates very well, and I have no problem with that. In fact, I respect it. My main concern comes from the lack of control writers have. I’m kind of a control freak. That’s why I’m looking at e-publishing. Whether it’s a good thing or not, I’ll be the one most responsible for success or failure.

  2. I have just recently decided to go this route as well, and this is with some moderate small press success behind me. I actually just finished uploading everything to the Amazon/Kindle dtp site. Tomorrow, I’ll get it on Smashwords and Nook as well.

    Best of luck in testing the waters!

    1. You, too. I just went through the process of putting some short stories on Kindle and am waiting for the review process to be finished. I don’t expect to make much, if any, from them, but I have to start somewhere, and I figured stories I post on my blog are a good starting point.

      I haven’t decided if I want the singles to be on Smashwords/nook yet. I don’t know if there’s much of a market on them for individual short stories.

  3. It took a lot of research, but I believe I’m going the same route.

    However, I’m thinking that maybe some sort of a “writer’s co-op” would be a really great way to get the collaboration of a traditional publishing house, yet the independence we indie wannabees are seeking.

    If you were to gather two or three other authors that write in the same genre, and edit/beta-read each other’s work, I think that would be a great way to get another perspective on your work while ridding yourself with jealous/crazy peers in so-called “writer’s groups.”

    Then when it came to marketing and such, you were on your own, but under a co-op banner to be able to drum up more readers.

    1. That would be a fantastic community to be a part of. I know that the super-successes all have that. Konrath, I know, has a group of writers he collaborates with on a regular basis.

      I hesitate only because of bad experiences in creative writing groups in the past. I’ve rarely gotten any good feedback from classes I’ve taken, as everyone seems to be working from some different angle. Like you say, the jealously (or, let’s face it, lack of talent) from such peers can limit the usefulness of those groups.

      I try to keep up with different marketing platforms and groups, but I’m almost too shy when it comes to asking for people to read my work and give me comments.

  4. I hate creative writing groups, as they are filled with vain and negative wolves in sheep clothing. They do all they can to put others down.

    I think if you create an intimate circle that have some sort of vested interest in your work, then it will be a true collaboration.

  5. I’m recently self-published – I like the emerging term “independent author” – and I am absolutely glad I went that route. I had hoped to be traditionally published but that didn’t work out, and I wanted my book out there, so I jumped in.

    It is a LOT of work. It’s not just about a good book. It’s about a lot of good marketing. Be prepared to promote promote promote. You have to persevere. You have to believe. You have to plug onward. Overnight success stories don’t happen overnight. 🙂 Be determined, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it – including yourself!

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