Choosing between self publishing or traditional? Sounds like an easy choice, doesn’t it? Well, it does until you actually try to sell that manuscript to the highest bidder. With the odds stacked against new authors, here are some tips to consider. Remember, success is not instant!
Tom (T.B.) Phillips has published six titles in his first twenty-four months. He is a self-published author and has achieved Amazon #1 Best-Seller many times in several countries. He recently won the 2021 Independent Press Award for his debut novel, Andalon Awakens: Dreamers of Andalon Book One. This title was also a finalist for the International Book Awards. He out-performed expectations, having distributed and sold more than 7,500 digital and paperback books in his first twenty-four months .
Check out this contributor’s website and work at tbphillips.com
I began this journey three years ago when I ventured into the world of writing. At the time, I was just like every other author in the world – nervous but daring and bold. I never thought I’d be choosing between self publishing or traditional, and actually believed the traditional route was easier than than it is.
Eager to display my work, I found myself ignorant of the process. Luckily, I had more experienced authors around to offer sage advice. I also found the internet full of wisdom – both good and bad. Needless to say, despite their combined help, I truly had no idea what I was getting into. I literally strapped myself into that emotional rollercoaster of querying and came away disappointed without feedback. Choosing self publishing was still an option, but I found I had even more to learn. There were many routes and I chose Amazon KDP.
With this blog I will share much of my experience in hopes I save you the headaches I met along the way. But don’t get me wrong, the process is also a lot of fun, especially when you do find success! I hope you learn enough in the words below to find it as successful as I have.
Congratulations! You Wrote a Manuscript! Now What?
You basically have two options at this point. You may attempt to master the query letter writing art and blast out a million or so letters. Or you may choose to cross over to the murkier side of publishing by diving into a pool of self-publishing. If you choose the first option you must be prepared for the inevitable no-news isn’t good news. Mostly though, you will get the bad news given nicely in a form letter. You can query publishers directly, but I highly recommended you seek out an agent to act on your behalf. The second option has a few more steps, but places your work in front of millions of customers directly. Both are as easy as learning to write that query letter!
Traditional Publishing Option
Let’s assume you chose the traditional route. You sent the first chapter, literary resume, and best written query letter to every agent you found on the internet. Agent representation is a good thing, since they only get paid by brokering a deal (usually 10%). Agents also work in your best interest to receive the highest offer possible. Essentially, the more YOU get paid, the more THEY get paid! That sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Prepare yourself for true rejection, as the odds are only 1 in 6000 (literary-agents.com) you will be picked up. In fact, most experts agree that ninety percent of manuscripts are weeded out in the initial process. Most send their denial via form letter. The process takes some time so don’t worry if you’ve heard nothing back after a reasonable amount of time. Yes, I know two or more weeks feels like a lifetime, but give them six or eight. Eventually, you may feel like you hit the grand slam and someone (maybe two) requested a full manuscript. That only means you are up for consideration, so don’t buy that house in the countryside just yet. Eighty percent of these are rejected as well.
Let’s say you do attract an agent, and a deal is struck. You sign the paper and take the money – called an advance on initial printing royalties. The big dogs like James Patterson often earn advances upwards of six figures. Most first time authors are lucky to bring in $3,000 – $10,000. I know what you’re thinking – I put too much time into this story and that number is too low! If you accept, you may get a second printing with bigger royalties. Just know the first figure is usually all the author ever sees for their hard work.
Sound frustrating? I’m sorry to bear the bad news, but it’s all true. But you do have another option, and that’s to take the self-published route.
You’re here! You either played the traditional game and came away frustrated, or you chose to skip the line. Now it’s time to get your work out there! Whatever the reason, you’re here and ready to publish that book!
Not so fast!
This is where the hard work comes in. Though I just typed, “hard work,” I need you to read, “most important” work.
In 2020 Amazon reported more than 1 million new self-published titles. True, a pandemic happened, but even in a normal year that number is upwards of seven or eight hundred thousand! But it’s not fair to call it a big ocean of self-published works – I would call it a cesspool. That’s right. There’s a sea of horrible writing out there. Just by association with this cesspool, legitimate self-published writers fight against a label. If you don’t believe me, offer your services to the web as a book reviewer. Then, return to finish reading this article. I’ve reviewed over three hundred self-published works and some were down-right abysmal while others were true diamonds in the rough. Some readers label the entire industry after reading just one of these bad attempts at self-publishing. That makes a bad name for us all.
Step One: Ensure your Work is “Quality”
The first step in ensuring your work is quality is to learn industry standards. This is the “hard work” I mentioned earlier. You must understand what people want to read. Know how it must be presented and what makes a great cover. Then, somehow wrap it all up in a beautiful package. Remember, people do judge a book by its cover, but they also want eye-catching fonts and easy to read formatting. But before you even get into book dimensions, you must spend a little money.
Step One: Hire a Professional Editor/Proofreader
I have two master’s degrees and partway through a Ph.D. I also taught English and Social Studies to High Schoolers. Still, I made this crucial mistake when I first self-published.
I released Andalon Awakens in June 2019. I call the few surviving copies of this release my “Collector’s Edition” for good reason. Excited to have a published book, I sent a copy to my English Professor friend and waited for his critique. He called me two weeks later. He said, “Tom, I love your story but I always give feedback as two positives and a negative. The story,” he said, “was magnificent! I rank it with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings! You skillfully wove six plotlines into one epic conclusion! And third, fire your proofreader, unless he’s you.”
I was, actually, that proof reader as well as editor. The author is always too close to the story to find the necessary issues, typos, and errors. I hurried out and hired a proofreader to sweep it clean. The resulting tale did okay. But I still did not have a professional editor to guide me through certain pitfalls good writers fall into. One year later I released a polished Andalon Arises, and cleaned up Andalon Awakens for a second release. I removed nearly all profanity, and made it more inclusive to a broader audience. Within a year my sales jumped and I broke all my goals in only six months. Most importantly, it was that version that won the Action/Adventure category of the 2021 Independent Press Awards.
Take the time and spend the money for a professional. Don’t edit and proofread your own work. You can find a professional in several places. Try networking on social media or hire a freelance editor from sites like FIVERR or Upwork. A great editor will preserve your voice as an author, but will bolster your writing and smooth out troubled areas. Don’t skimp in this regard.
Congratulations! NOW you have a manuscript!
Step Two: Decide HOW to Self-Publish
Take that manuscript and make the big decision. Will you hire a service to do all the work, or will you take true ownership of your project? My advice is to treat it like a business!
The first option costs a bit of money, but promises an easier process. You may hire a service like LULU or IngramSpark, or a myriad of other options. Many of these may cost dearly in the long run (both in cost and access to creative tools and rights).
Most importantly, be wary of “Vanity Publishers” who offer to do all the work but charge high fees for what you can do much cheaper with the right people. In the past two years I’ve come across and befriended several self-published authors who paid these services to format their manuscript, make a cover, create their author accounts on various distributers and retailers, and then provide a limited duration of assistance. The concept sounded great to them at first, but after sales diminished, they realized they didn’t receive the support they needed.
One of these good friends had a four part series, but the service never updated his Amazon KDP data when the site offered series linking – a must have for algorithm triggering screen time with buyers. He doesn’t even know his log in information with these retailers, and has to call the service to make changes! The other authors were in a similar boat, but had to jack their prices to exorbitant prices to break even with publishing costs – something none of these authors have yet achieved. I must also point out that none of them even own the formatted files to upload on their own if they decide to part ways from the service! Worse… They didn’t even own the ISBN #s assigned to their titles! They would, have to start over with their manuscript in hand if they wish to try again with second editions.
What did I do different? Why am I having some success and have recouped all my investment and now making profit in only a year after learning the industry? It isn’t a secret and I don’t mind sharing – I did my due diligence. I found a trustworthy freelance formatter to create my paperback and kindle files, and I keep them safe and sound. If I wish to later upload them to a new or different retailer I don’t have to go through anyone but myself.
The entire cost is not as expensive as you’d think, and I can create a book for less than $750 using freelance help. In contrast, these services are costing authors upwards of $1800 or $2200 per title (sans editing). The other option is to learn industry standards for formatting and cover design, then do it yourself at cost of software (some is free like calibre for formatting and canva for covers).
With that said, and with the potential to make hundreds of thousands off the sale of your book, why not pay the extra premium?
Simply put – The average self-published book does not EVER pay for itself. You are considered a success if you sell 200-250 books in the lifetime of the title – not nearly enough to break even in most cases. Your goal should be to keep your initial investment as low as possible until you grow your marketing base.
Don’t get me wrong – there are many success stories, but they are truly the exception and not the norm. They mastered the most critical step in self-publishing – building that marketing base. I will write more on this later.
Step Three: Decide where to Self-Publish
The easiest place to self-publish is Amazon. Their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) process simplifies every step, and the author need only fill in every blank and upload their cover and formatted digital and paperback files.
During this process, the author will make several decisions. The most important of these is the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Digital books no NOT require an ISBN, but paperbacks do. You may choose one provided by Amazon or other print on demand services if you wish, but that gives you less control over your product (cannot sell outside of that retailer or at conventions/events). I recommend you purchase your own through Bowker, a website dedicated as the maintainer of the ISBN database. An individual may purchase a single ISBN or in bulk. You must be a publisher to purchase them in bulk.
This brings up my next point of advice. If you wish to retain full rights both creative and publishing, I recommend you create your own publishing company in the state you reside. The price varies, but this allows you to not only purchase ISBN numbers, but also to sell and collect sales tax on books at events and conventions (or on your own website). You only need a sole proprietorship, but an LLC grants you more legal protection. Speak with a lawyer to decide what is best suited for your needs and goals, and also to assist with paperwork filings.
Now that you have an ISBN or have decided to use the print on demand service’s, your second important decision is whether or not to choose Amazon Exclusive Distribution, or Expanded Distribution. On a kindle book this choice equates to choosing your royalty and limitations. If you accept a 70% royalty on kindle books, you receive the higher payment per title, and must price it between $2.99 and $9.99 but can only list it for sale on Amazon. If you accept the 35% option, you may price it as low as $0.99 and as high as you want, as well as list it for sale with other retailers.
You have similar options with the paperback version, although royalties are much lower and are figured on top of and after the print cost. They are 60% for Amazon Exclusive and 40% for Expanded Distribution. For example, assume your title is 333 pages on white paper and with black ink. The price of your printing is $4.85 in the US Marketplace. Your royalty is figured based on the price you list the title (let’s assume you are charging 14.99).
Amazon Exclusive: (.60 x 14.99) – 4.85 = $4.14
Expanded Distribution : (.40 x 14.99) – 4.85 = $1.15
As you can see, there is more profit when you choose Amazon Exclusive, but you can reach a potentially larger audience by also selling paperbacks and digital copies elsewhere. But remember! Amazon alone accounts for more than 50% of all book sales in the world, so most new authors starting out choose Amazon Exclusive. Once you have name recognition or a hot selling book, you may consider expanding your options.
I have tried and did not like expanded distribution through Amazon, finding it offered much but delivered little. Worse, my paperbacks kept popping up on and off online retailers like Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble for more than a month. After weeks of frustration, I opted out and chose to sell my paperback directly on B&N, only to learn there are now ISBN conflicts I must resolve for their process to accept my work.
Other options for digital distribution are Apple Books, Google Books, Gumroad, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and Kobo… just to list a few.
What Comes Next?
Once you upload your files into Amazon or another distribution site, you merely have to wait up to 72 hours for your book to be available on each site. In the case of Amazon, it won’t be searchable at first, since the algorithm has no idea who you are much less how to find your book. You will need to send the link to others when you market your title for the first few days, since it won’t be easy to find. After about a week, you will see it popping up in searches. After a few good steady weeks of sales, you will even see it popping up on the search bar of perfect strangers!
During that 72 hours you have a lot of work to do. Even if you are not selling on Google Books, you need their Search Engine Optimization (SEO) power! Go into the Google Books Partner Center and create your book and upload content and cover. Choose what percentage you want available to buyers to view (I choose lowest available), then decide whether you are selling it here or simply making it searchable. No matter which you choose, your title will begin showing up as top search in Google within a few weeks. This helps with visibility and visibility sells books!
Congratulations! You are now a self-published author, and you will hopefully see sales and reviews rolling in!
But guess what? You won’t see those without the HARDEST part of the job – marketing!
My next blog will cover that and more, as I do whatever I can to make self-publishing easier for any and all! In the meantime, stay tuned and follow my page and social media. I would also be honored if you signed up for my newsletter on my website at tbphillips.com.
Until next time, I wish you fair winds and following seas!