Don’t Do It Yourself

November 14, 2019 § 11 Comments

A book in your hand, ready to sell. The satisfaction of seeing your memoir in print. A calling card at conferences. Sweet, sweet profit.

It’s the siren song of self-publishing, and it’s calling you.

Leap over the gatekeepers! Look at all the crap they publish every year!

How many more celebrity tell-alls do we need?

Good writing should be what counts!

Sometimes it feels like bad or even just average writing is published every day while one’s own quality work goes begging. We worry that it’s all about who you know—and it partly is. Whether we have an MFA—and it partly is. Whether we’re already famous—and it definitely is. If you’ve truly “done the work,” why wait for someone else’s permission to live the dream? Especially if you’re sitting on a stack of query rejections.

But the magic combination of quality and marketability that makes a memoir sellable to a traditional publisher is also the key to self-publishing success.

It’s very, very hard to sell a self-published memoir without a clear hook and a specific reader demographic. (For fiction, books must fit a narrow genre that sells ebooks like mad). Authors may self-publish because they believe “the establishment” is overlooking their vast talent or snobbishly closing the doors to success. But traditional publishing wants to make money. If a book is likely to make money, the establishment will buy it and try their best to sell it. Meanwhile, presses large and small buy quite a few brilliantly written, medium-marketable books, hoping sales will surprise them as they enjoy the warm glow of nurturing new talent. Tremendously marketable books may not be great from a literary standpoint—but saying a popular, badly-written book is a bad thing is like insisting everyone finish their broccoli before having ice cream. Financially, every ghostwritten celebrity memoir keeps afloat a whole raft of mid-level authors.

Maybe agents and publishers focus too much on “platform.” Why should you have to be a speaker or a widely-quoted expert or write op-eds or be a social-media star? Can’t you just write a good book? But the paradox is that if your book is truly fresh, well-written and strong enough to sell without platform, agents and publishers will snap you up. The horrible, unspoken second part of “sorry, you don’t have enough platform” is “and your book isn’t groundbreaking enough to spur me to overcome that challenge.”

Excellent and painstaking writers often miss that crucial variable, and it’s heartbreaking to pour tremendous time and effort into an unsellable book. And unless you hit big—50,000+ copies sold—self-publishing poisons your numbers. Low previous sales make it considerably harder to traditionally publish later; you also spend the “debut” excitement that sometimes sells a book.

A publishing deal is a corporate investment in your career, an endorsement that tells readers, “We bought this book and you should, too.” True, publishers aren’t bringing as much sales clout to the table as they used to. But if you’re not ready to hustle for your traditionally published book, self-publishing isn’t going to help.

Flying solo might still be right for you. Consider:

  • Do you have the money/skills to make a professional cover that fits the genre and serves as clickbait? Do you have the judgment to let your favorite image go in favor of a cover that sells books?
  • Do you have the money/skills to design the book interior and handle ebook conversions to multiple formats?
  • Do you have substantial personal clout in a field or organization strongly and specifically interested in your book, with 5000+ members who will purchase your books and evangelize on your behalf?
  • Do you have 10-20 hours a week to follow up on press releases, place supporting articles in mass media, chase interviews, and urge friends, family and strangers to review your book on Amazon and Goodreads?
  • Do you have the money/skills to build a website with a secure e-commerce portal?
  • Can you pay a PR person to do some of this stuff, or put in another 10 hours a week?
  • Will you wholesale to bookstores at the standard discount, even though intuition screams “why do I have to give up another $2/copy?”

There’s more—a lot more—to successful self-publishing, but contemplating this list is a good start.

The publishing world is not full of cruel gatekeepers, but people who genuinely value beautiful work and also need to make a buck. Very few writers create work of transcendent beauty surpassing the need for clear connection to an existing market. Ask yourself, is this the best book I can write? Do I know exactly who will want to read it? Do I have a realistic and extensive plan to reach those people? For both traditional and self-publishing, the gate is only open when the answer is yes, yes, yes.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats. Join her in Dubai Feb 26-March 4, or with Dinty W. Moore in Costa Rica May 18-24. Or follow her adventures in writing on Instagram.

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