Those of us who have already self-published are often amused by emerging writers who expect to make a living by publishing their first book. Given the reality of the market, such a stance is funny and a bit sad, but not entirely unexpected.
Many have high hopes of making easy money if they don’t take a deeper look behind the scenes and understand what it took for a majority of successful self-published writers to make it. Truth be told, there are always exceptions to the rule and some people, by some strange stroke of luck, indeed managed to win the self-publishing lottery the free & easy way.
One example is T.S. Paul who started to make thousands of dollars on Amazon in a matter of months. Amazing success stories such as his are at the core of the self-publishing goldmine myth. In reality, though, such cases are anything but a common occurrence.
The astounding financial success T.S. Paul has had with his short Sci-Fi stories on Amazon KDP is something even the well-seasoned SPF crew who published an interview with Paul has never seen before (or after). But while such cases may give us hope, they are also far and few between.
It’s not a coincidence that T.S. Paul was called a “miracle man” on the SPF podcast. Going into self-publishing fully expecting such a miracle is like buying a lottery ticket fully expecting to win big — that’s more than likely not going to happen and certainly not with the first book you’ve ever published. Even T.S. Paul had to publish several before he hit the jackpot.
Also, keep in mind that T.S. Paul’s overnight success happened several years ago while the competition in self-publishing keeps growing with each passing month. It’s now much harder to get as much as noticed than it was in 2015. In 2020, you’ll have to invest more time, money, and effort to succeed.
Self-publishing is thus not a way to solve your unemployment problem, and even less so if you are broke and don’t have a large following. The market is oversaturated and if you want to sell anything, the readers will have to notice your book among thousands of others. The book will have to look professional and you’ll have to promote it.
The need to invest in paid promotion is more relevant in 2020 than ever. Even if you are giving away free books, you’ll need to invest in marketing to get a significant number of downloads. Times when it was enough to simply upload a free ebook to Amazon and get thousands of downloads are long gone.
Space available for organic exposure is severely limited. With the increasing number of self-published books, it gets more and more limited by the day. Successful writers are prepared to pay a lot for ads and invest heavily in the promotion. If you want to compete, you’ll have to do the same. The lower your budget and following, the lower your chances of success.
Promotion is not the only factor that matters. The rule of thumb just a few years ago was that writers, on average, needed to publish between 5 to 10 books to start generating some profit worth mentioning. In 2020, the number has risen to between 20 to 30 books.
This means that if you only publish one book per year, it would, at this rate, take you between 20 and 30 years to make a living by self-publishing.
Prolific writers who consistently publish several books per year stand a much better chance of making it. But the greater number of books alone doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome. What matters is also the right (popular) genre and/or a profitable niche you need to discover.
Most writers would love nothing more than write whatever they like and get rich in the process. Very few, however, are lucky enough to have their personal preferences nicely aligned with the most profitable genres and niches.
The truth is, not every book stands an equal chance of success. In addition to everything already stated above, the genre or niche must be highly popular and sought after by the readers. The one thing that hasn’t changed much in 2020 is the list of the most popular genres — romance remains the undisputed leader of the pack, followed by action, Sci-Fi, fantasy, suspense, and YA.
The most popular genres, however, are also highly competitive meaning that you compete with a greater number of authors who are willing to invest a lot to stay at the top of their game.
Another option is niches. While the most popular genres are easy enough to find, the same cannot be said about niches. The writers who managed to find a profitable niche may publicly brag about their success but, as a rule, publish under a pen name and stay silent about which niche and categories they used.
For this approach, you’ll thus have to do a lot of research first and put in an effort to find a niche that has the greatest potential. Don’t forget that you’ll also need the expertise to write a decent book about the topic.
English novelist and poet Ros Barber wrote a blog post for Guardian in which she explained why she would never self-publish. One of the main reasons for this was her desire to write rather than promote books for a living. And she is right — self-publishing involves a whole lot of marketing and promotion.
Barber presented several other arguments worth reading too. Even though I am a self-published writer, I can appreciate her stance and have to admit she made some valid points. The one thing she forgot to mention, though, is how hard it is to get traditionally published. If I got an offer, I’d grab it in an instant. I’m still waiting for that to happen so I self-published instead.
Just like successful self-published writers, traditional publishers are, above all, interested in what will sell best and what stands the greatest chance of financial success.
Self-publishing didn’t make me rich and I currently make more money from locked stories on Medium than from royalties, but I don’t regret the decision to self-publish. It was in many ways an interesting and rewarding experience. If you are going to follow suit, though, better be aware of what you are getting yourself into and set realistic expectations.