What writer doesn’t want to be a success? That’s what drives so many authors down the “do-it-yourself” route in the first place. The problem is that for every DIY success story, there are literally thousands of failures. The statistics are sobering: In 2010, 2.75 million titles were DIY-published. Yet one POD company that published over 10,000 titles in 2010 reported an average of 75 sales per title — which means that while a few titles probably sold quite a bit more, most sold quite a bit less.
So what’s a DIY author to do? Obviously, success is possible, or this blog wouldn’t exist. How can you increase your chances of getting your book into the top 10% — the group of authors who sell over 500 copies annually and earn anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per year?
1) Forget about becoming an “overnight success.” Perhaps the most important step you can take is to cast aside the notion that DIY publishing is the road to overnight success. Unfortunately, “speed” is one of the factors that often lures authors down this road in the first place. Traditional publishing takes time — lots of time. Agents and editors may take months to respond to a submission, and if that response is a rejection, the author gets to start again, and again, and again. DIY publishing holds out the promise that if you send in your manuscript today, you can be holding a shiny printed copy of your book within weeks, or even days.
Having a printed book and having a “successfully published” book are two very different things, however. Your task is to recognize that, as a DIY author, you are a general without an army. A traditional publisher has that army — a staff of editors, proofreaders, designers, artists, marketers and distributors — whose sole job is to create and sell high-quality books. Further, that publisher has ties with the bookselling industry that ensure that a minimum number of your books will get into bookstores, no matter what. (They may not sell once they get there, but they will get there.)
You, on the other hand, have… you. And you probably have other things to do — things like a job and family. You simply cannot achieve in a month, or six months, what a commercial publisher can achieve.
So what can you do?
2) Don’t overestimate yourself. You may be a brilliant author, but that doesn’t mean you’re a brilliant book designer, cover artist, or marketer. However, as a DIY author, you’re still responsible for all those facets of book production. Half the battle is recognizing what you’re not good at, and finding alternatives when “doing it yourself” is not the best option. In short, you may not have an army, but if necessary, you can hire one.
3) Don’t cut corners. During WWII, the term “ersatz” came into the English language to describe an inferior substitute for “the real thing.” Ersatz bread included fillers such as sawdust; ersatz coffee was made with chicory or beans. The word came to mean something that might look like the real thing, but that, on closer inspection, wasn’t even close.
At conferences and book fairs, I frequently find myself looking at what I can only describe as “ersatz” books. They positively scream “DIY.” Their authors hope against hope that readers will look past the poor design and appalling cover art to discover the gems within. The problem is, readers have a choice. No one eats bread made from sawdust if real bread is readily available — and we DIY authors often forget that there is no shortage of high-quality, well written, beautifully presented books on the market. Readers aren’t going to assume that a book that looks inferior in the outside is going to be a gem on the inside. Instead, readers are going to assume that if it looks like sawdust, it’s probably going to taste like sawdust.
In short, readers do judge books by their covers… and by their interiors. I am amazed at how many DIY books have no margins and are printed like manuscripts, with double lines between paragraphs or unjustified right margins. Readers take one look at poor presentation and assume that if an author can’t even manage to make a book look like a book, what are the odds that it “reads” like one either? A huge key to self-publishing success, ironically, is to do everything in your power to make sure your book doesn’t look self-published.
4) Know who your readers are and where to find them. This is where the nonfiction author often has the advantage over the fiction author. Nonfiction outsells fiction roughly two to one — and one reason for this is the “niche.” If your niche, for example, is Roman military history, you have a lot less competition than if it’s vampire romance. That means that aficionados of Roman military history books are far more likely to find, and buy, your title than fans of fangs, who have hundreds of titles to choose from and not enough time in the world to read them all.
Every article I’ve read on self-publishing statistics is quick to point out that the majority of nonfiction books aren’t sold in bookstores. They’re sold in specialty stores, through businesses and services, in gift shops, and in dozens of other places. Your title on Roman military history, for example, might be a perfect fit for museum shops. Your work on patio container gardening could find a home at nurseries and florists. Your recipe collection for tea-cakes might be a hit amongst Victorian bed-and-breakfasts.
My self-publishing success story is a book titled Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet. When I first published the book, I assumed that the appropriate place to find these owners was the pet store. But pet stores don’t want shoppers to think about the possibility of a pet dying. They want to encourage shoppers to buy stuff for living pets — and possibly to adopt a new pet. In time I discovered that the place to find my customers was through such outlets as humane societies, veterinarians, pet loss counselors, and pet cemeteries.
My book was first self-published nearly 26 years ago, when the only way to reach a potential customer was to print an advertisement and send it through the mail. Today, thankfully, we have the Internet — so finding your readers today means determining where they “hang out” online, what types of websites they visit, and how to construct your own site to attract them. It also means taking advantage of the power of Amazon and other online markets, because once a reader “discovers” your book, that’s the place they’re most likely to buy it.
5) Be patient… and persevere. Big publishers can turn a book into an overnight success because they have “shotgun power.” They can get thousands of copies into hundreds of bookstores, all at the same time, while releasing a publicity campaign that includes costly advertising and promotions, all timed to create a dramatic “launch” and instant “buzz.”
We don’t have that ability. It’s important to remember that every step we take will involve a delayed response. If you send a book to a reviewer, and it gets reviewed, that review may not appear for months. If you build a dynamite website, it will take time for word to spread and links to form; it’s not going to get a high ranking on Google overnight. If you have a blog, it will take time to gain followers, and for those followers to post links back from their own blogs. If you create a Facebook page, it will take time to amass “friends” and build a track record of “likes.” If people buy your book on Amazon, it will take months for reviews to trickle back in.
The good news is that success builds on success. More hits on your website, and more links from other sites that consider yours worth promoting, means higher page rankings — which lead to more hits, more visits, more links, and so on. A positive reader review on Amazon will lead to another sale, and another good review, and more sales, and more word of mouth. If a specialty shop orders ten copies of your book and manages to sell them all, they’ll come back for 20 the next time.
So give yourself — and your book — time to succeed. Because the very best kind of self-publishing success isn’t the kind that happens overnight. It’s the kind that lasts — and keeps your book selling for decades!