The argument about whether to self-publish has been debated in great detail both here and elsewhere. I don’t want to add to that general discussion today, rather I want to offer up my personal experience of self-publishing.
Given that this is an anniversary of sorts, I would like to look back over the last twelve months and examine the results of that decision, and compare it with what would likely have happened had I decided otherwise.
Regular readers will know that I broke my own impasse by deciding to publish some short stories, while holding A Storm Hits Valparaiso in reserve. It was still being considered by a handful of agents, and I wasn’t completely convinced that self-publishing was the right approach.
Publishing the shorts was an experiment of sorts, but the results far exceeded my expectations. I knew within a month or so that I would publish everything this way and I withdrew A Storm Hits Valparaiso from the agents still considering it.
Looking back a year later, I’m sure I made the right decision. In my first twelve months, I sold 3,482 books and made well over $8,000. Not all of that is profit, I estimate $3,000 went out the door in expenses (haven’t tallied those yet), but $5,000+ is a pretty solid first year.
Aside from those 3,482 paid sales, I gave away well over 30,000 books and had a story go viral on Wattpad, where it is approaching one million reads.
(Before anyone gets too excited with the above number, each chapter read is counted individually on Wattpad. I have 65 chapters, so that translates to around 13,000 people who actually read the book from start to finish, plus another 5,000 working their way through it right now.)
One fascinating thing about Wattpad is seeing around 70% of the people that start the book (i.e. open the first chapter) make it all the way to the end. Given the amount of people that would merely be rubber-necking to see why something got a million reads (I do it all the time myself), that number blows me away.
Whatever way you slice it, whether free or paid, thousands upon thousands of readers have been exposed to my work in the last twelve months. And I’ve made some money. Self-publishing has been paying my rent since August.
Things are looking up too. I’ve been growing month-on-month. I’ve sold around 500 books in each of the last two months. And, in a couple of weeks, my 2012 sales will overtake my total for all of 2011. I’ve already surpassed 2011 in terms of income, and I’m on course to more than double what I earned last year.
And that’s before I release anything new. I’ll have two full length releases over the summer, I’ll try and squeeze in another before Christmas, and there should be some shorter pieces too. If they perform anything like the books I’ve released already, income could rise significantly.
We also mustn’t forget that the market continues to grow, both in the US and elsewhere. I’ll be releasing a variety of translations to capitalize on this, beginning with the French edition of Let’s Get Digital in a matter of weeks.
I will also be focusing on the paperback side, releasing almost everything in paper as soon as possible after the e-book, and increasing the number of stores stocking my print editions. Depending on how sales go, I may start looking at using Lightning Source and/or doing my own print run. Maybe even a hardback. Who knows? Anything is possible. Maybe even audiobooks.
In summary, I’m pretty damn happy about my first year. I’ve sold books, I’ve made money, I’ve built a platform, I’m finding readers – all from scratch. I didn’t even have a blog or a Twitter account a year ago. And, rather than all these tasks leaving little time for anything else, I’m writing more than I ever did before. A lot more.
I couldn’t be happier. Okay, I could be selling ten times as much. I’m pretty sure that would make me happier. But I’m way ahead of where I thought I would be even on my most optimistic projections.
But the biggest change has been on a personal level. I don’t even recognize that guy who used to fester in slushpiles all over Manhattan. I have more confidence in my work and in myself.
For the first time that my destiny is in my hands. Making a living from writing is no longer a mere pipe dream; now it’s a possibility within reach.
But what if I hadn’t self-published? Where would I be now?
Let’s see. If I had listened to the advice I was getting on a certain writers’ forum, I would have either kept querying, or trunked A Storm Hits Valparaiso and started something new.
I had 300 rejections (including those that didn’t respond) from agents in Ireland, the UK, and the US, as well as a handful of rejections from editors. I had lots of partial requests, many full requests, and even got as far as the phone call twice, but always fell short.
I had started to write a new novel, but I was doubting every word and had been stuck at the opening for some time.
However, let’s cut this alternative scenario some slack. Let’s assume that I dusted myself off, continued to query A Storm Hits Valparaiso and, after three months, finally caught a break and landed an agent.
I’m sure the agent would have wanted some changes, so let’s assume we hammered those out over another three months before going on submission.
I severely doubt that an MS which attracted 300 rejections – many focusing on the difficulty of selling a historical novel from an unknown, unpublished Irish writer set during the South American independence wars – would attract a firestorm of attention from publishers, but let’s assume I got real lucky and landed a deal within six months. I’ll also be generous and grant this alternative me the average advance: $5,000.
In this alternative scenario – which is the best possible outcome on the spectrum of realistic possibilities, requiring a series of incredibly lucky breaks – I’ve also made around $5,000.
But wait. I don’t even have all that yet. I’ve probably only got a check for a third of that, and 15% is going to my agent. I would likely have banked just over $1,400 by now (or, more likely, be waiting on the check from the publisher or the agent).
My agent and publisher would be advising me to start blogging and set up a Twitter account. With the level of marketing I’m likely to get (on a book the publisher bought for $5,000), the promotional burden is going to fall on my shoulders.
The book wouldn’t be released until Fall 2013 (when I receive the final third of my advance, the second check being on acceptance of the manuscript), and I would most likely never see another penny from it either. I might catch a break and make a few grand from foreign rights sales, but that wouldn’t be for some time.
And that’s the best case scenario.
It’s much more likely that I would have failed to get representation for A Storm Hits Valparaiso, let alone a deal. I probably would have given up, trunked it, and continued to hammer away at something new.
I’m pretty determined, but the query grind was getting me down. I don’t think I could have pumped the book out that quickly, and probably wouldn’t have started querying again by this time. In fact, it might have been well into 2013 before I would have been ready.
And, of course, A Storm Hits Valparaiso would simply have gathered dust, rather than being my top-seller in 2012.
I think I made the right decision.