Today’s question comes from @thepoetjean on Twitter:
Welcome to the great challenge of self-publishing: being a publisher, with all that entails and implies. Your books don’t have to be pristine, but they do need to be of comparable quality to traditionally published work. As for sustainable income from self-publishing, that has to do as much with quantity as with quality.
Within the trad pub world, and even among the major imprints of major publishers, there’s a good deal of variation, and many books are published with significant flaws. I’ve seen books with terrible cover art, incorrect jacket copy, lots of typos, awkward factual errors, and egregious politics, plus gaffes like made-up words and names that turn out to be or recall real words with incongruous meanings. (I was tweeting about this and someone pointed me to Jack Vance’s novel Servants of the Wankh. Yeah.) So don’t stress too much about being perfect. But do create the most professional product you can given the budget you have.
The most certain way to make money self-publishing is to have a lot of books out. Each one advertises the others; each one has a long tail of sales that can add up; each one gives you another chance to have a surprise hit; each one teaches you more about writing and helps you make better books. Jim C. Hines’s 2016 novelist income survey shows a pretty strong correlation between income and the number of books published per year for primarily indie authors. “[Compared to trad publishing,] success in self-publishing depends more strongly on how many books you can put out,” he writes.
The median net income (income minus expenses) for the 212 primarily indie authors who answered Hines’s survey was $23,050. So you can definitely make a decent amount of money self-publishing, even with all the costs involved (and the 15% self-employment tax).
This brings us to the famous adage of “fast, good, cheap: pick any two.”
fast + good: invest money for long-term success. High quality will draw readers in and keep them coming back. Fast production will get multiple books out in a year. That means you’re going to have to invest in crucial services from editors, artists, designers, and publicists so that you can keep focusing on producing quality work in quantity. Hines found that median income was much higher for writers for whom writing was a full-time, primary job. That’s only possible with outsourcing. Investing in a good team—really getting into the business of being a publisher, and hiring professionals that any publisher would be glad to work with—will pay off in beautiful books with few errors that the right readers learn about and recommend to everyone they know. This is the best path for a sustainable self-publishing career.
fast + cheap: invest effort for short-term success. If your budget is small, save money by doing your own covers, design, and promo (hiring an editor isn’t optional), and write a lot. Write a lot. As much as you can. Publish a lot; consider publishing a bunch of short stories as individual e-books and then collecting them in an omnibus, or trying for a 30,000-word novella every month instead of a 90,000-word novel every three months. And invest your returns in quality and keep moving toward fast + good as a goal, because fast + cheap doesn’t get you the word of mouth that’s crucial for career success. People will eat at McDonald’s, but they won’t rave to their friends about how great the burger was.
cheap + good: invest time and play the odds of success. If you’re a slow writer, you will probably do better with trad publishing, at least in the long run, than with indie publishing. Publishers and agents provide vital services without costing you a penny up front. You have little control over how your manuscript is turned into a book or how that book is marketed, but your agent and publisher will (ideally) do a lot to shepherd your career while you’re focused on eking out your next book.
Regardless of which path you take, writing the best story you can should be your focus. Readers will forgive many things for the sake of a compelling story. It can be hard to keep that at the front of your mind when the business and practical elements of publishing demand your attention, but always come back to story; it’s the one thing you can’t outsource. Self-publishing means you get all the joys and stresses of being a publisher, but the writing comes first.