Posted on June 19, 2020
I’ve said before that I’m not here to be excessively nice, but I’m not here to be mean. I adore talking all things writing and publishing, whether I’m learning or teaching. I’m immensely passionate about it. But that doesn’t mean that I sugarcoat things. I didn’t with my NA post about where its past, present, and future stands in publishing based on my thesis research, even though I wanted to be biased and overly-positive because it’s something I love. I’m here to help give new, amateur, and seasoned writing facts, tricks, and a fun way to learn about something we both love so we can all get better and excel.
I lead with all of this to say, this post may sound like it’s negatively or callously targeted towards self-publishers. And it’s not. There are some self-published authors doing everything right. But self-publishing has a bad reputation in the publishing, reading, and writing realm outside of Twitter, and there’s legitimate concerns and reason for that. This isn’t an opinion only shared by publishing professionals or those highly educated in the industry that I’ve seen referred to as “elitists” solely for their academia achievements. This isn’t the sole opinion of the Big 5 board members, sipping on their 120-year-old brandy in their diamonds on plush loungers about how this new age “self-publishing” is bad because they’re losing money. They’re not.
This isn’t an attack on anyone. This is a reality check for why your KU book may not be doing well. Or why others who seem to be doing the same things as you are generating more sales, engagement, and reviews. It’s analysis of why self-publishing has a bad rep everywhere except Twitter, the pitfalls young & naive new authors fall into when publishing for the first time, and the opinions of our society correlating to the Arts (writing in this case) which could be why your book has/is flopping.
My intention is not to be mean. But this is a brutally honest and blunt take on why the world outside of social media platforms looks down on self-publishing and KU books in general. These are serious issues that may offend, but they need to be said. I’m not afraid to say them and try to help those who’ve fallen into these self-publishing traps so that their next book(s) do better!
This blog post is truly the unpopular opinion in (self) publishing you NEED to hear if you plan to/have/or are in the process of self-publishing your work.
Jumping in! Here’s the real reason most self-published books flop. When you self-publish–this is important and nonnegotiable–you must take on the full costs a trade publisher would. If you decide to do it yourself, to have a product worth someone’s time, money, and 5-star review it needs to look and read professionally. The self-publishers who are doing incredibly well–the smaller percent of self-publishers–pay for all of these costs, and when they hit enough revenue, go a step further by hiring PR and marketing teams to further promote themselves. Most say it took about five (5) years to gain recognition without them doing their own marketing by word-of-mouth themselves which led to generating a livable wage that accounted for half their household’s income, two (2) more to gain enough to further their brand as an author to really market well, and then two (2) more to be really comfortable. That’s NINE (9) years in total, a bunch of time, determination, and money to get where they are today.
Here comes a hot take.
For some reason, writers think it’s enough to engage in #writerslifts and #f4f, get a huge amount of followers (and in turn be following massive amounts of randoms), post a snippet and/or low-quality graphic of their book with the link to Amazon every once in a while, and BAM. That should sell it.
Worse, writing Twitter (looking at the toxic #writingcommunity) engages in a multitude of negative behaviors, one by bullying those who don’t support other (all) self-published authors. Your writing Twitter is your “Author Brand.” What you endorse is there forever for everyone to see. If you don’t feel comfortable retweeting, commenting, or even liking a publishing/writing industry mutual’s tweet about their book or work because it’s poor quality, you should not be made to feel like the bad guy. What you publicly advocate and support is so important. Your name is associated with that person or product forever. You have no obligation to endorse anything you don’t want in the name of “loyalty.” Random. Mutual. Friend. No one is entitled to your time, energy, or support for any reason ☺️.
So when self-publishers engage in these soulless automaton lifts and don’t get any engagement or perhaps get tweet engagement but lack sales, we can conclude something doesn’t add up about their product. If your book is professionally edited, did the editor charge less and cut corners? Are people saying certain things about your book over and over that you aren’t listening to? Are there unaddressed plot holes? Too toxic a character(s)/plot that never grows or resolves? Unlikeable characters–in a way that makes the book impossible for others to connect with and in turn read? This is why beta and editor feedback is so important to listen to in self-publishing.
A book’s success is dependent, first and foremost in self-publishing, on its quality. Sure there are readers who don’t care about or realize there are a multitude grammatical errors. But publishing professionals, other authors, and many readers will realize the quality of the work isn’t worth the money or time they’d waste on it. The first thing people who denounce self-publishing will look for are poorly edited works! This does not just mean grammatical mistakes have been corrected. This accounts for all the mentioned elements in the meme above (plot holes, toxic and unlikeable characters and plots, poorly edited grammar), as well as: writing style, consistence, and coherency. The plot, pacing, character development. And all CMS grammar rules. (This is particularly important, because professional editors and the entire publishing industry use the grammar rules of CMS.) It encompasses all 3 sides to editing (line, copy, and developmental), which is why it’s so important to listen to beta feedback and not scrimp on an editor or editing services for you self-published books.
A disturbing number of writers on Twitter think it’s enough to follow everyone on follow-trains 🚂 and at the end of the day their 5,000+ followers will all buy their book, giving them a livable income and cultivating an authentic audience. This is false.
So if your book isn’t edited (or not edited well), has plot holes, toxicity that never resolves, or unlikeable characters that make the book utterly unreadable, these are some technical (grammar) and craft reasons of why it’s not selling. But let’s say your book is edited well, there are no obvious plot holes, and your characters and plot are widely received. But your book still is not selling! You’re no self-publisher who’s cut corners! And your editor didn’t either!
Have you considered your marketing strategy isn’t working? How are you marketing? If you’re only using your Twitter platform, are you hitting keywords? Hashtags aren’t so important. If I look up something on Twitter like, “shapeshifter” results with #shapeshifter will come up–along with tweets that just have the word “shapeshifter” in it as well. Don’t waste your character count on hashtagging certain themes/tropes/elements of the book that will come up regardless of a hashtag.
Another thing I’d recommend not doing? Wasting character counts on hashtagging things like #writingcommunity #amwriting #authorslife #debutauthor etc. Why? Most of the time, when someone attaches these hashtags to their tweets, more people see them, yes. But on average they get maybe 1-3 (depending on how big the account is, if it’s retweeted, liked, commented on, and how big the audience is of those actually trolling the hashtag) more than they would before. Why waste 17 characters on the writing community hashtag when you could instead talk about that slow burn aspect, or the unique sci-fi/fantasy (SFF) blend your book has, or literally a novel’s worth of other things that would get more people’s attention than the 1 other person who’s going to be seeing your book tweet by stalking a hashtag?
Right, so you’re not using meaningless hashtags. What ARE you using? Besides certain keywords that get readers’ attention, a great way to uniquely pitch your book in a tweet is to use emojis! Everyone loves emojis. They’re cute and make your book stand out. Each takes up 2 character counts, rather than 1 which may surprise some, but it’s worth it. And sometimes you can get rid of complete words by using an emoji and up your character count! I’d recommend saying the word and using the emoji. Take a tweet I made for fun about one of my WIPs below as an example!
Obviously pitched as a book promo things would change. But the general idea is there!
Another thing that’s so important? The image associated with your tweet! The same boring photo of your book’s cover on a phone, a book, or on a tablet template you’ve copy and pasted over is not going to keep getting you new, bright, shiny-eyed readers who are enamored by your entire pitch, including the graphic you post with it. Mix things up! Make a snippet with a bunch of graphics related to the book. Collages and graphics are so easy to make these days (but make sure you’re using royalty free images)! If you absolutely can’t do it yourself, pay or befriend those who can. You can always try to swap services with someone who has a skill you need if you can’t afford certain things. Want a bunch of graphics but can’t afford so many new ones all the time because that royalty check hasn’t come in yet? Try your luck at swapping services with someone. What can you do that they might benefit from?
DO NOT talk yourself up for tasks you can’t do. If you’ve never gone to school to edit, gotten an MFA in creative writing, or studied lit theory or editing in detail, don’t go offering your services as an editor. You’ll get a bad reputation, and guess what–people talk. In real life. In the publishing industry. And all over Twitter. If you’re a published author with viable feedback and clients someone can ask about past projects and think you can offer legitimate developmental services, go ahead. But make sure you’re just as aware of your limitations as others are so you don’t oversell yourself and end up blacklisted from the industry.
What’s something everyone can do? A E S T H E T I C S. This is my favorite topic and my friends refer to me as the Aesthetic Queen 😇 ♛. There are so many apps for phones, tablets, and computers you can use to make your own aesthetics for your books. These images should have the vibe you’re going for that somehow expresses something big about your book through images. As creatives, we should be creative! Think of a cool and different way you could market your book through images! Here are some examples of aesthetics I’ve made for my current querying title. (Note that these are from Pinterest mostly and can’t be used as “promotional” images unless they’re from a royalty free website, made from a designer for you, or made by you.)
Any of these would catch someone’s eye–and have on my own Twitter! They can be as obscure, creative, weird, or as odd as you want! I have better examples for other books with unique layouts, but you can imagine for yourself how to make aesthetics that cater, fit, and make your own books pop!
Here are some websites where you can check out free royalty-free, stock images.
If you’re doing all of this and more when it comes to marketing yourself on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram–whatever else kind of social media– you’re using to promote yourself for free, now you need to think about spending marketing money. Every single successful self-published author I interviewed, listened to podcasts about, researched, etc., all ran ads on a numerous of platforms (such as Facebook, Amazon, or Google).
This blog post isn’t dedicated to me explaining how to succeed by professionally marketing yourself as a self-publisher. There are countless how-to articles, videos, books, and podcasts on the topic. I will tell you that depending on where you decide to run ads, you need to thoroughly research each platform, because different tactics and practices work on different online platforms. I studied this extensively at my publishing house in regards to Facebook and Amazon in particular. I personally don’t think that Twitter or Goodreads ads are worth the money. If you’re going to spend money on Twitter, I’d use it boosting book promo tweets rather than running ads. Facebook and Amazon (heavy emphasis on Amazon, especially for those who have their eBook rights exclusively with Amazon on KU) were most successful in my experience. As always, do you own research! I was running specific, niche-heavy, campaigns that worked best for the digital marketing audience of Amazon and Facebook’s platforms. Take into account your audience, their ages, the types of social media your top demographic is using most of, and go from there.
If you’ve paid someone to edit your book well; have received praise on character development and plot; have a professional and pleasing cover; are running promo tweets that mix it up, are fun, interactive, engaging and eye-catching; add aesthetics to mix up promo posts; are using emojis; have an authentic fan-base; are spending money running ads; and still aren’t seeing the revenue you wanted, remember my findings from the beginning of this post, which was successful self-publishers who were doing everything right took, on average, 5 years to grow a decent enough fan-base to support half of their household income. It’s going to take time. It’s not going to fall into your lap overnight. Life seldom hands us fame on a silver platter. Even the 1% of trade published authors had to fight to get where they are today. You might just need more time and products.
I want to end with something that will be highly contested by some. But it holds truth and needs to be said. Everyone thinks that they can write a book. Most professional writer’s have more than one horror story about being on a date, hangout, at a party, and mentioning that they write books for a living where someone pops up in the most annoying way about how they wrote their very own book. A memoir! And though they don’t read memoirs (or, you know, even read) you surely would love their writing. Why don’t you buy their book and give them yours for free and they’ll do you the curtesy of reviewing it. Everyone thinks they can write a book. That writing, is inherit. That someone can write and write and rewrite and because they’re writing so much they must be getting better. Without ever studying literature, literary theory, craft elements of writing, or in any way educating themselves with scholarly books and research on how to write and write better.
What am I trying to say? Writing is not something that just anyone can pick up and “do.” Does that sound mean? 🤷 It’s true. The society we live in tells people that the Arts are something anyone can do. Maybe you’re thinking you agree. Maybe you’re thinking you know someone who knew someone who never read and or tried to write and then wrote an amazing story and is now a famous or semi-famous author.
Think of it this way. Why can “anyone write a book” but not everyone can just, oh, casually build engineering equipment in their spare time? They, what? Need to study the material to be able to make something worthwhile? Society tells us that anyone can write as a “hobby.” Fine, write as a hobby. People also build robots and clocks in their spare time as hobbies without researching how to properly make one. Writing a book without the intent, discipline, drive, and ambition to learn the actual craft is equivalent to an amateur building a robotic blueprint, making a subpar, sputtering mess of bolts and gears that chokes up every 3 seconds while leaking oil, and then wondering why the hell NASA won’t buy their design.
Gaining skills by reading in general, your genre(s) or others, still isn’t enough for someone to claim they’re an expert or qualified to be an experienced writer. To put it another way, this would be like an avid Law and Order fan, deciding that since they’ve seen every episode ever, tomorrow they’re going to successfully try and win their very first criminal case with no law degree or legitimate training. Likewise, it’s comparable to a baker deciding to try and intubate someone because they’ve seen all 16 season of Grey’s Anatomy, though they’ve never taken a human physiology and anatomy class or gone to med/nursing school. I’m not saying you have to go to school and get an MFA in writing or English. But you do need to read literature and academia, take workshops, find a mentor, rely on CP’s (critique partner), beta, and editing advice to get better. By pursuing multiple avenues that teach you expert techniques to improve your talent.
This applies to those who have degrees or higher ed or have taken CE (continued education) classes in their profession. It’s not just writing. Many professions (law or medicine are the obvious ones) you have to keep up with the latest rules, techniques, trends, etc. It’s not just “I’ve written a book and now I am a professional.” It’s a lifelong continued experience of bettering and teaching yourself how to stay fluent and experienced in your profession. In any profession you must always keep educating yourself. Having an M.D. doesn’t make you a good doctor, just how having an MFA in writing doesn’t automatically make you great at writing. Continued practice and drive to be better is what makes the best in their field shine.
Another reason why KU is looked at as “amateur” is because most of the people who are publishing, are–in fact–amateurs who have no desire to put in the work to get better. This might sound mean, but literally no one says this about any other profession. So why do we take the Arts, and writing in particular, for granted as something “anyone” can do. Clearly that isn’t the case. And KU is proof of that. It’s clogged with poor-quality robots (books) and writers on Twitter complaining that NASA (the Big 5) won’t recognize or pay for their work.
This is a standard and wholly agreed upon viewpoint outside of writing Twitter. Here’s a Twitter thread that speaks more to it!
Of course in any field you have your prodigies. But as He’s Just Not That Into You taught us, they are the exception. And you, my friend, are the rule. We are all the rule! The vast difference in my writing from before I went to school to study it to now is incredible. I tell people as often as I can, if you want to make this a career and are in any way considering doing an MFA in creative writing, do your research, find the perfect school and APPLY. But even after being out of school for more than a year, reading, educating and continuing to write, my writing only gets better as time and energy go by.
This Hot Take™️ is the (un)popular opinion in self-publishing. Which basically translates to mean: this is how the entire publishing world views self-publishing and why. Except for the one sect of Writing Twitter. This isn’t to be mean. This is an honest and blunt account of why people have such a low opinion of self-publishing and ways for you to rise above, if this is the path you plan to take. There are a bunch of self-published authors doing. it right! Pippa Grant, C.N. Crawford, K.F. Breene, Emma L. Adams, Suzanne Wright, Shayne Silvers, etc. But they all put the time and money into it. And they all had a slow and painful climb to the top. That’s how it is in any profession. Why should writing be any different?