Are You Prepared to Self-Publish? A Managed Expectations Checklist

Publishers Weekly just announced today that there have been 400,000 self-published books released in 2013. In light of that staggering number, as well as some recent discussion about how reviewers choose not to review self-published books simply because it's a numbers problem (meaning, there just aren't enough people to review the glut of traditionally published books every year, let alone the tsunami of self-published stuff that hasn't really been vetted at all), I figured it was time to gather folks around and talk about what the average person can expect from having a career in self-publishing. Because the more popular of an alternative it becomes, the more noise we'll have to fight through in order to be noticed.

Some of this isn't easy to admit, but these are the questions you must be prepared to ask yourself if you're deciding to forego the drudgery of traditional publishing in favor of the drudgery of self-publishing. Hybrid authors will probably note some overlap, but no matter.

If you answer YES to most of these questions, you may be ready to self-publish.

1. Are you prepared to sell anywhere between 0 and 15 copies in your first month, with a buying audience comprised entirely of people who know you?

2. Are you prepared to sell about the same or less than that in your second month as you exhaust the People Who Know You list?

3. Are you prepared to feel victorious when your Amazon sales ranking has 5 digits instead of the more common 6?

4. Are you prepared to feel like Stephen Fucking King when your sales ranking reaches 4 digits after the debut of your BookBub ad? Or maybe like Stephen Fucking King Conjoined To James Goddamn Patterson when that rank hits three digits?

5. Are you prepared to peak out when you've sold several hundred (or thousand) steeply-discounted copies and then watch your ranking precipitously fall back into the 5-6 digit rank tank about five days later after you raised your price back up?

6. Are you prepared to celebrate when Smashwords can finally pay you because after six months you exceeded the $10 payment threshold?

7. Are you prepared to celebrate when you get your first review from someone not your best friend and/or mom?

8. Are you prepared to wonder if you still have to claim earnings at the end of the year if you only made about $37 from Amazon? (The answer is yes, you still should claim your earnings).

9. Are you prepared to spend about nine hours combing through a database of book reviewers and bloggers, sending out query letters to no fewer than thirty people begging for reviews, only to hear back from two of them? One of whom can't post a review for you any sooner than 8 months from now because their reading list is about three dozen books high?

10. Are you prepared to give thousands of books away with the hope that dozens will pay actual money and that you'll get enough reviews that maybe a couple dozen more will pay actual money?

11. Are you prepared for people's eyes to dull just a little when you tell them, "I'm self-published"?

12. Are you prepared to feel like a raging success story because after plugging away at your endeavors for five years, you've managed to sell an average of 50-100 copies a month, with maybe a couple bad months in the middle of summer, because hey that's publishing for you?

13. Are you prepared to take your whole family out for a celebratory steak dinner when your yearly earnings cross over into the four-figure range? What about the first time your monthly earnings are enough to cover a decent basket of groceries? Or a tank of gas?

14. Are you prepared to accept that most people don't agree on what a fair price for your hard work is (though they're pretty much unanimous on the whole $.99 or less price point) and no number of boorish "daily latte" arguments will persuade them to spend that four or five bucks on your thing?

15. Are you prepared to hold your breath before reading every review, because if it's one or two stars, and you only have 5 reviews, it will be visible on your product page and could adversely affect future sales?

16. Are you prepared to hold late night discussions with yourself about the moral implications of purchasing only a few reviews? You know, just to bump up the enthusiasm factor a little?

17. Are you prepared to become unnerved and a little jealous at how well some of your friends are doing at this thing, even though you just KNOW your stuff is totally better than theirs?

18. Are you prepared to be perpetually ENRAGED at Stephenie Meyer or (insert some other highly successful author you consider a hack) because, again, your stuff is totally better?

19. Are you prepared to stare at sales rankings like they're tea leaves, trying to divine why it was so much higher the other day when you only sold 3 copies, but it's in the toilet now that you've sold 6? Have you Google searched already on how to crack and/ or game the Amazon ranking algorithm?

20. Are you prepared to seek solace in the words of the self-publishing pioneers who insist that if you just do what they do, if you believe in the paradigm hard enough, if you just keep releasing every single book you write, you too can dine at their gold-plated trough?

21. Are you prepared to feel like, at any moment, the few people who have discovered your work and have diligently reviewed it, will leave you because you haven't released anything new in a few months, and irrelevance is just one more nail bite away?

That should about cover the basics. I hope this was helpful in getting your brain into the place it needs to be in order to be your own publisher. No, it's not easy. No, the money doesn't flow. I have said it before, but most times you get out of self-publishing what you put into it. If you make promotion a second full-time job, you can wind up doing pretty well for yourself. Or sometimes, magic does happen, a perfect storm between the right book and the right tastemaker getting your book in front of the right set of eyes, and you can be off and running in no time, racking up day job-quitting numbers after only a month or two.

But if you find that things haven't quite been the money-spooging success you thought they would be,  that for whatever reason, your book hasn't found its way onto thousands of Kindles despite all your hard work and monetary investment, take heart. You're not alone. There is plenty of solace in knowing there are tens of thousands of us planting our gardens and reaping our pennies. And then one day you might wake up to find something beautiful has sprouted, and it has your name on it.

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