Self-Publishing: Is it a viable way to make money as a writer?
The answer to the question above is a resounding “maybe.” Or possibly, “it depends.” The factors involved include not only your skill at writing but also your skill at promotion. There are many reasons for that.
In the past, publishing your own book was a huge expense. In addition to the costs of editorial help, as well as page layout and typesetting, you had to pay a printer and a bookbinder to print thousands of copies, so that you would have them on hand to sell. You needed not only a big chunk of money, but also storage space for cartons and cartons of books. And once you had the books, you had to sell them yourself, either directly to readers or by persuading booksellers to do it for you.
The invention of the ereader (mostly the Kindle, frankly) and the tablet computer have meant an explosion in publishing. With print books, once a title sold out of available stock, if it wasn’t selling fast enough to justify the cost of a new print run, the book was declared out of print. In the past, most book contracts gave publishing rights back to the author after the book was out of print. Since an ebook is never in print, it’s also never “out of print.”
And in fact, another invention called the Espresso Book Machine has changed print book publishing, too. The EBM looks like an oversize photocopier, but it can bind the book as well as print it. With properly formatted PDF files for the cover and book interior, the EBM can create a single copy of a paperback book in a matter of minutes. This process is called print on demand (POD).
Between POD and the lower cost of ebook publication, a writer’s backlist has become a revenue source again—maybe not as much as his or her newer titles, but every little bit helps. Also, the creation of self-publishing platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook Press, Draft2Digital, etc., has meant a huge increase in the number of titles for sale online at any given time.
This means if you publish a book, it joins the ever-growing stream of titles available for sale. Millions and millions of books, all for sale.
So, writing the book takes time, but not that much money. Getting an already edited book ready to publish takes some level of technical skill; if you have the skill, the task can take more time than money. If you don’t have the skills, you can hire folks to do it for you. The one task that’s beyond most people (unless you’re a graphic designer) is the creation of your book cover; for that, you will need to spend money. But once you’ve got that book created and into the online marketplace, what is going to let readers know your book is out there?
A big part of the answer is promotion. If you self publish, promotion is entirely up to you. And promotion can take a huge amount of both time and money. Again, the question of skills is part of how promotion will work for you. Are you someone who is comfortable going to conferences and talking about your book? And are there venues where you know you will find an audience that would like your book? If you’re not comfortable with in-person promotion, there are other things you can do. You can pay for advertising, either the kind that appears to users on platforms like Facebook or Amazon, or you can pay to have your book featured in one of the many email newsletters that ebook readers sign up for, like BookBub, Ereader News Today, Robin Reads, The Fussy Librarian, etc.
Generally, the bigger their subscriber list is, the more expensive the service is, and the more stringent are their requirements for inclusion. As an example, some email services require a minimum number of reviews.
Another consideration is genre. Some categories of books sell much more than others. Remember that “marketable” and good” are not actually synonyms. It’s worth it to research the ebook best sellers in your genre and see if your book is anything like them. Self-publishing with POD is helpful, but the overwhelming volume of self-published books are sold as ebooks, and some genres are more popular in ebook format than others.
A handful of self-published authors have broken through with very successful books, like Hugh Howey with his post-apocalyptic Silo series, Amanda Hocking’s paranormal romances, and the huge hit Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.
A good number of writers make a living self-publishing, but by far the huge majority don’t support themselves from writing. You don’t want to quit your day job until you get a really good multi-book contract or a movie deal.
What it all adds up to is, self-publishing can work for you, if you have the right book(s) and the right skills (or a willingness to learn), but it’s by no means an easy way to make money.
A voracious reader since childhood, Carmen Webster Buxton spent her youth reading every book published by Ursula LeGuin, Robert Heinlein, and Georgette Heyer. As a result, her own books mix far-future worlds, alien cultures, and courting customs.
Sometimes a specific event from real life will trigger a story idea for her, but she always works it into a science fiction or fantasy setting. When her parents divorced after 28 years of marriage, this led her to ponder the nature of marriage and create a species that mated for life, in her novel Alien Bonds. But most of her books began merely as an image in her head of someone in a specific situation—a thief selling stolen goods to a fence, a man hunting game in a forest, or a young woman walking behind her father while he looked for someone to buy her. The urge to find out who those people were and what happened to them would almost always result in a book.
Carmen was born in Hawaii but had a peripatetic childhood, as her father was in the US Navy. Having raised two wonderful children, she now lives in Maryland with her husband and a beagle named Cosmo.