An Honest Look at Self-Publishing

I almost wrote this post several months ago, or a version of it anyway. This was right after my Kickstarter went down in flames and I was feeling a little defeated and lost as to where to go next, and it was coming out a bit whiny, so I scrapped it. Since then, I’ve taken a tumble over the wall into the land of traditional indie publishing, which has given me some perspective, and more thoughts, and now I think I’m ready to write them down properly. So here goes.

After a lot of research, some deep thought, and trial and error, I published my debut novel, Restless Spirits, in 2011. I followed that up the next year with Dominion of the Damned, which was intended to be a trilogy. After that, life got kind of bumpy for a while, and instead of doing what I probably should have done, immediately writing and publishing the next Damned book (as opposed to the next damn book), I floundered, letting myself get distracted by those aforementioned life bumps and shiny new ideas. Knowing that I needed to build up my publishing offerings to have any real hope of sustainable sales, I put out some shorter works, i.e. a couple of novellas and a short story collection.

So that’s my first–and probably biggest, mistake: not building a strong foundation.

At any rate, I definitely qualify as a self-published author. I also do freelance work (mainly editing and book formatting) to help other self-published authors produce their books. All of which is to underscore that I don’t have a traditional publishing axe to grind–in fact, self-publishing helps me make my living in more ways than one. But I feel like self-publishing has a tendency to be romanticized, or seen as the magic bullet to making all your publishing dreams come true.

And I’m here to tell you, it’s not the easy road. Far from it.

There’s a tendency to think that if someone has a good story, all they need to do is put it out there on Amazon and the readers will come. But that’s not the case. I’m going to risk sounding immodest by saying that Restless Spirits and Dominion of the Damned are both good stories. Sure, I’m biased, but they’ve both got a respectable number of positive reviews telling me I’m not delusional to think so. But sales, while greater than zero, have been far from what I’d hoped they’d be. Once in a while I get a royalty deposit that’s big enough to order a pizza or fill the car up with gas, and that’s a really good month, is what I’m saying.

These books also have pretty good production value. They’re well edited, and while I did the covers myself, I have a background in graphic design, and I put a lot of hours into studying book cover design and what tends to sell best in my genres. They might not be the greatest, but they’re far from the worst.

So what’s the problem? Apart from my error in not immediately continuing my series, as best as I can diagnose it, I believe it’s that I’m terrible at marketing myself.

Don’t get me wrong. Some people have found phenomenal success with self-publishing. Many more self-pubbed authors have developed comfortable and respectable mid-list careers. The biggest difference between them and me, as far as I can tell, is that they’re a lot better at marketing and getting people excited about their books. They also have more time and money to invest in book promotion than I do.

My point is, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. If you’re trying to decide whether or not it might be for you, these are factors you should take into consideration.

Does this mean that self-publishing is no longer for me? Honestly, I don’t know. I thought it was six months ago, but since then serendipity (or as I like to call it, Providence) put Restless Spirits in front of the right person and now I have a multi-book publishing contract. But it remains to be seen whether traditional publishing is a better fit.

I will say that the main thing that tipped the scales toward me signing the contract is the help that the publisher will provide with marketing. They won’t do everything, and will expect me to do a lot on my own that I didn’t even think to do before, but I’ll have an unseen hand behind me, pushing me to step outside my comfort zone and get it done. I expect that this will be a big help. I really hope I’m right about that. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The other benefit I’m finding to having signed a traditional contract is that it’s keeping me motivated and focused. With self-publishing comes a lot of freedom, and sometimes too much freedom is crippling. I could write whatever I want whenever I want, but knowing that led to decision paralysis and jumping around from project to project without finishing anything. Now I have a legal obligation to stay focused on this one book (and then write the next one) until my contract is fulfilled. For someone who does best with structure, this is certainly a plus. But some people might find this too stifling.

If you’re on the fence about self-publishing, the advice I can offer (out of my admittedly limited experience) is this: if you just want to be published, to have a book (or e-book) to hold in your hands and show your family and friends, or to point to your cover on Amazon and say, “I wrote that!” then go for it. However, if your dream is to have an honest-to-God writing career that actually brings in at least a substantial portion of your income, you should approach this as a business decision, and approach self-publishing as a business. Create a business plan that includes how you’ll handle book production costs, and that also includes a marketing plan, and be honest with yourself about whether or not it’s realistic and sustainable. If not, give traditional publishing another try. Self-publishing isn’t going anywhere, and it will still be there when you’re ready.

So this happened, and now the RESTLESS SPIRITS series is going to happen.

So I can finally tell you what I’ve been working on this past six weeks or so: a little something entitled GHOST OF A CHANCE.

“…wait, what?” you might be asking. “Isn’t that the sequel to RESTLESS SPIRITS? Didn’t you say that after the Kickstarter campaign failed to reach funding that you weren’t going to be writing that?”

Yes, it is, and yes, I did say that.

“So why are you writing it now, Jean? And why were you being so dang secretive and coy about it?”

Well, my good reader, there is a good reason for that, on both counts. And that reason is this:

*ahem*

I’ve signed a multi-book publishing contract to do a RESTLESS SPIRITS series.

Let’s all just hold hands and jump up and down and go EEEEEEEEEEEE! for a bit (something I’ve been doing at regular intervals for the last two months ever since I got the offer).

All good? Okay, then. Now let me tell you a story. And fair warning to my secular-minded readers, this story has a lot of God-stuff in it, because it’s impossible to tell it accurately without it. If you don’t like it, just go back to EEEEE-ing some more.

This story actually begins some time last year, when I first decided to write a sequel. I began drafting it, and made a lot of progress on that draft, but it was going in a rather steamy romance novely direction that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. So I set it aside, and thought a lot about whether I was telling the story I actually wanted to tell, and prayed a lot about the direction it should take.

Fast forward to this summer. I knew that doing a series based on RS was probably a sound business decision, but I still wasn’t sure about the book I had started. I was still praying and asking for direction as I tossed out that original draft and did a new outline. And with several other things to write on my TO DO list, I still wasn’t sure whether this series was the best thing for me to be focusing on.

So I got the idea to do a Kickstarter, to not just cover the production costs and buy me the time to write the book quickly, but also to gauge whether there was enough interest to justify it. And I told God that I was leaving the future of this series in His more-than-capable hands–that if the Kickstarter campaign didn’t have His blessing, I would accept that and move on.

Well, it didn’t. So I did, completely unaware of the fact that God had other plans. Better plans.

Fast forward to October. With the Kickstarter in the rear-view mirror, I had moved on to outlining and planning another go at RADIUM TOWN. I was getting myself all set to start drafting it during NaNoWriMo when I received an e-mail from one Dawn Carrington, the lead editor at Vinspire Publishing.

She had read RESTLESS SPIRITS, and she loved it. She loved it so much that she did some investigating and found that it was self-published and that I had recently scrapped plans to write and publish a series.

Would I still be interested in writing a series if her company published it?

So we had a phone call, and more e-mails, and then there was a contract, and some back-and-forth negotiations, and now I’m officially signed on with Vinspire Publishing to release new editions of both RESTLESS SPIRITS and RESTLESS SPIRITS: LOVE LETTER, and to write GHOST OF A CHANCE as well as a third, un-named sequel.

I don’t yet know the publishing schedule, beyond the fact that I’ve got until August of next year to get GHOST completed and turned in. Meanwhile, I’ve had to pull the indie editions of both RS and LOVE LETTER and eradicate all advertisements for them from this site. I’ve got a lot of paperwork ahead of me, and I’ve got to make some minor revisions to the first two books and put them in a format that conforms to the publisher’s guidelines.

I’ll be doing another post discussing in detail why I decided to go the traditional publishing route with these books. For now I just want to say how grateful I am, both to God and to Dawn Carrington and Vinspire, for opening this door, and how excited I am to see where it will take me. And if you’d like to hear more about how my faith played a roll in bringing this about, I’ll be writing about that in more detail over at Daydream Believer.

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!