Authors Can Be Stupid: A Brief Note on Self-publishing

This post was written by Michael A. Stackpole. It originally appeared on his Stormwolf website on 2/8/10, is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission, and is the seventh installment in his series on common myths and distractions in authorship and publishing. The first installment is here, the second is here, the third is here, the fourth is here, the fifth is here and the sixth is here

It strikes me that in long essays, certain facts get lost. I wish to break them out here.

1) The purpose of writing for commercial distribution (electronic or print) is to make a profit. This means you have more money coming to you than you have flowing away from you. As with any business, you may have some start-up costs. Create a budget. Set aside an amount of money which you do not need, and use that for your business. Create a business plan, analyze the avenues for generating income. Hit those which have minimal costs and higher payoffs first, and work your way down. If ever you tell yourself, “Well, this won’t cost me that much,” stop. Do not do that thing. Once you start making rationalizations like that, you are being foolish.

Once you are foolish, you will soon be penniless.

2) My support for self-publishing in these discussions has been for digital publishing and digital publishing alone. It is true that I have mentioned services like where one can do a limited run (10 or less) copies of a book. I have used and the like for extremely short runs of books which I can bring to signings. This is so I have an inexpensive item for people to buy when they come up to the table and say, “I don’t have anything for you to sign.” I am fairly confident I can move ten copies of such books over a convention season, so I’ll be making a profit (see point 1). Never print more books than you have pre-sold. Volume discounts for printing don’t mean anything when the excess inventory is sitting in your garage.

3) I do not believe that even digital self-publishing is easy. I believe it is simple, and there is a world of difference between those two things. Establishing your own business is hard work. If you don’t put that work in, you will not reap the benefits of your business, pure and simple. To me, spending twenty hours scanning and preparing a novel for ebook publishing is “negligible,” because it’s only an expenditure of time. In my opinion, time is cheap compared to the money that will be returned by that effort. But then, I don’t own a television, so I may have a bit more time on my hands than others. Everyone will decide whether or not they will spend the time to enter the digital marketplace. I tend to think the cost of not entering is the greatest of all, but I expect others will disagree with me.

4) Publishing in the digital age is about more than files, formats, devices, DRM and shopping-cart software. It is about using new media for locating, building and sustaining an audience. In business, companies gear their publicity expenditures to accomplish one of three things: Customer acquisition, customer retention, and customer re-acquisition. Everything you do when it comes to new media should fulfill one or more of those criteria. All three would be nice.

I heartily recommend the book Crush It! by Gary Vanyerchuk for his discussions of using new media to find and build your audience and brand.

5) There is no get-rich-quick-scheme. You will be working your tail off. (This is the reason most of us get those chairs with the pneumatic lifts in them. As our butts get smaller, we have to raise the seat.) While doing the marketing and file prep and website coding may be tough, it won’t be nearly as tough as the writing itself. But once you’ve done the difficult work, you owe it to yourself and your work to get it out to your audience in a manner that lets them support you in your efforts.

6) Established authors do not have a leg up on new authors in this digital world. My previous post on The Myth of the Established Author makes my feelings very clear on this point. Those who would dismiss everything I’m saying because I have been previously published would do well to read that essay. They might also want to consider the following: it may not be the fact that I’ve got a following that allows me to be successful in the digital age, but that my experience in the pre-digital age is what allows me to see the ways to profit in the post-paper era.

7) One last point, which goes back to the first: money flows to the author, not from the author. Whenever anyone offers you a deal, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” If you can’t see a return in one or more areas as affects your career, it’s probably not a deal that works in your favor. People get taken by all sorts of scams simply because the scammer offers you an opportunity that is too good to pass up. One such is publishing a novel which, deep down in your heart, you know is not of professional quality. It might be close, but it isn’t there yet. Don’t let your desire to be published prompt you to open your wallet and give money to someone who promises you the moon, but can’t even deliver a moon-pie.

Whatever you do, do not trick yourself or allow others to trick you into believing that self-publishing—especially of print books in any quantity beyond a dozen copies—is the way to make you the next J. K. Rowling. Writing is not easy. Getting good at it takes years of hard work. Do the work. Do it on the writing. Do it on the business side, and the promotions side. Learn as much as you can and then, and only then, can you make the correct decisions about when and where to invest your time and (extremely reluctantly and penuriously) a tiny sum of money.

Learn from the mistakes of others. A garage full of books will not pay your mortgage. A solid, profitable business will.


©2010 Michael A. Stackpole

Michael A. Stackpole is a New York times Bestselling author with over forty novels published including I, Jedi and Rogue Squadron. He was the first author to have work available in Apple’s Appstore. He has lectured extensively on writing careers in the Post-paper Era and is working on strategies for authors to profit during the trying time of transition.