The Challenges of Self-Publishing: Why So Many Indie Authors End Up on Amazon or iBooks

In my previous post, Why Is It So Hard to Get a Book Published?, I discussed the risky nature of publishing and the shockingly low financial benefits that most traditionally published authors receive. But millions more authors never surpass the enormous hurdles that lie in front of selling a book to a publisher. Enter self-publishing.

The advent of eBooks and eReaders completely flipped the financial equation, as the cost to duplicate and deliver an eBook is almost nil in the Internet age. In 2016, it’s estimated that more than 600,000 books will be self-published. Any author can self-publish an eBook, but barriers to success exist: quality issues, publicity and marketing, getting your eBook into a salable format, and making your eBook available for sale to readers.

Quality issues. Trade publishers spend lots of money and time grooming manuscripts prior to publication. The average book is content edited, copyedited, and proofread before it is published. It’s never a good idea to edit or even proofread a book yourself—you’re much too close to the content—and asking a friend to do it will likely yield little benefit.

Good editors are expensive and worth every penny. They will thoroughly vet your book and ask hard questions. They’ll transform the language to make it as reader-friendly as possible. They’ll serve as the reader’s advocate and head off lots of cranky online reviews by addressing holes and inaccuracies before paying customers have a chance to. Plan to spend about $80 to $100 per 1,000 words for content editing (the initial developmental edit, which involves heavy author interaction, lots of back and forth, fact checking, and, frequently, extensive rewrites on the part of author and editor alike), $40 to $60 per 1,000 words for copyediting (a line-by-line check to make sure grammar, punctuation, and spelling are sound), and $20 to $25 per 1,000 words for proofreading (the final look, after the pages are typeset or placed in an eBook format).

Publicity and marketing. Remember, close to a million new eBooks will be either self-published or published by trade houses in 2016. Trade publishers have staff who relentlessly publicize each title they release. You can hire a publicist, but most self-published authors find doing so to be prohibitively expensive.

As a self-publisher, you must do that legwork yourself. It’s up to you to find avenues to your market—bloggers, websites, radio and television programs, speaking engagements, or any other form of publicity—and impress them enough to get your book noticed and written or talked about. You’ll need to flog your eBook on a near-constant basis using every social media channel you have (and create ones you don’t).

If the idea of badgering bloggers doesn’t appeal to you, consider Publishers Weekly’s (PW) BookLife website, which is dedicated to connecting self-published authors with the resources they need (editors, designers, etc.) and handling all the marketing and publicity for an eBook. PW knows publishing, inside and out, and BookLife provides a relatively inexpensive way to get your book noticed with professional polish.

Getting the eBook into salable form. So you have a manuscript in digital form (well, I certainly hope it’s in digital form). A reader can’t download a Microsoft Word file or Google Doc to her Kindle, so how do you get that manuscript into all the different formats necessary to view on different eReaders, tablets, smartphones, and computers (to name a few: AZW4 [Amazon Kindle], EPUB, PDF, iBook, MOBI)? It’s certainly possible to do it yourself, but most self-published authors pay vendors to do it for them.

Making your eBook available for sale to readers. Imagine that you’ve got your eBook all edited, converted into eReader-friendly formats, and ready to go, but either you have no website at all or you have one—say a blog—that doesn’t have eCommerce capabilities. You’d like to sell the eBook on your own website and keep all the proceeds of each sale, but how? You could pay a web developer thousands of dollars to create an author website that enables the sale of the book—or instead you could do what most self-published authors do: Choose Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or iBooks Author.

In my next post, Self-Publishing an eBook: To Amazon or Not to Amazon?, I’ll go into detail about the potential risks and benefits of self-publishing on the Amazon or iBooks platforms, versus doing it yourself with your own author website. If you haven’t already read it and are interested in learning some of the back story of why it’s so hard to get a publishing contract in the first place, check out Why Is It So Hard to Get Published?

Perrin Davis is a veteran professional book editor and the founder of Three Muses Creative, a self-publishing consultancy. Three Muses offers cradle-to-Kindle (or iPad!) self-publishing services, including all levels of editorial development, consulting, and direct-sales author website creation.

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