Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Reality of Self Publishing

If you've written a book and are thinking of self publishing it is important to do so with your eyes wide open. This blog entry is going to be a mix of my own experience with the addition of a piece of observation shamelessly stolen from Smashwords' CEO Mark Coker.

I'm not an expert on the motivation for writing a novel, but I reckon I can make an educated guess.  I suspect many writers fall into the same box as I do in that they write initially for the challenge.  Until you've written your first book you don't really know if you've got a story inside you.  If you've reached that point where you've written the final sentence then you'll have felt the simultaneous exhilaration and sadness as you realise you've completed the task but have to say goodbye to something that will have lived with you for months, possibly years.

Don't worry about saying goodbye to the book, though, because you'll find yourself trawling through it time and again attempting to trap the spelling and grammatical errors that inevitably creep in (in my books, anyway), plus the plot errors that only a period of distance from the work will allow you to see.  By the way, here's a personal observation on re-reading your own books - if you stop enjoying them, then they probably aren't good enough.  Not scientific, I'll grant you, and maybe it's because I tend to write the kind of books I like to read, but I feel it's a good quality control measure.

But that's my experience.  I can see that others might be motivated by different aspects.  One is the need to be the story-teller, to have people read your story.  To be fair, after satisfying myself that I could write a novel then this aim became my next priority and, in the days before self publishing became a reality I tried various methods of producing hand bound books for friends and family to read, just so that they could be enjoyed by others.

Other writers may be motivated purely by money - there's nothing inherently wrong with that, once you self publish you are technically running a business, and any businessperson worth his or her salt will tell you that businesses exist to make money.  Although this isn't my primary aim, I'm as receptive as the next author to receiving financial reward for my writing from those who enjoy the read.

However it seems a lot of writers want to emulate the rewards experienced by established popular novelists from the get-go and become disenchanted with the reality of the industry rapidly.  Other writers have a view that self publishing, especially eBooks, isn't 'proper' publishing.

Taking the  first point, Mark Coker found himself engaged in a Facebook conversation with a Smashwords author a little while ago and shared the conversation he had with the person on his blog.  Before any of you start to contact Mark on Facebook I'd like to point out that he really prefers to keep his social network presence personal and to be fair he employs a team of people who will readily attempt to answer your technical questions.  Please don't email or FB Mark after reading this.  Also, because Mark is a way more polite person than me he has kept his responses accordingly in that vein, however I've added my own observations to his text (because I'm not as well raised as Mark clearly is).  Mark is signified by 'MC', the correspondent as 'Author' and my input by 'RS'.  Mark starts with a short preamble:

I think the chat transcript below serves as a good case study in pride (in fact, it was the spark that led me to write this blog post).  The author contacted me on my personal Facebook page.  As much as I try to separate my personal life from my private life - and I discourage Smashwords inquiries over my personal page - at Facebook it’s difficult to divorce the two without coming across as a rude ogre.  If someone messages me, I try to respond.  I omitted his name, country and other details to protect his identity.  I made minor edits for typo fixes or clarity.  Warning: There's not a happy ending.

Author: Hey Mark.  Good evening

MC:  hi there

Author: I have published 3 books on Smashwords around a year back.  But I haven't been paid a penny since then as [Smashwords] claims that there have been no sales of my book.  Same is the case with Createspace where I have published 5 books since last two years and same with KDP where I published 6 books since last two years.

MC:  Sign in to your Smashwords account, click to the Dashboard, then click to the Sales and Payments report, then click to the different years. You've got sales but you haven’t reached the payment threshold of $10.

RS OK, I may have the benefit of hindsight here as I have six books published through Smashwords, Amazon and Createspace, but even without that experience I would think most people would recognise that three independent companies are unlikely to be conspiring to defraud this person!  The reality is that most of us don't sell a lot of books, the vast majority will not retire on the earnings of our books.

Author:  Since American Government is behind my ass as they are working on my brains and spiritual development for last 15 years, I suspect they have hacked into my accounts everywhere.  I live in [country omitted] but have briefly worked in US with [employer omitted] and then In England for [employer omitted] for [X] years

MC:  No. That's not happening. Take a look at my two free ebooks, The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. You'll learn what the bestselling authors are doing. It's tough to sell books, so you're not alone. Also check out the FAQ to learn how to take fullest advantage of the Smashwords platform, and if you have additional questions, please contact our support team via the "Comments/questions" link.

RS: I'm beginning to think Author may have a point.  Maybe the US government has sucked his brain out and stuck it in a bottle.  Either way, it doesn't appear to be working anymore.

Author: If you go to and just search on [name omitted] the auto search features lists my name on top still I have zero sales. Is it possible ???  On and if you search on [category omitted], my four to five books are in top 20 out of some 200 books still I have zero sales for last two years.  I am an MBA from [country omitted]'s top business school.

MC:  Completely. Just looked at your books at Smashwords. You're not allowing sampling. That will almost guarantee no sales. Also, your books are only 3,000 words. The bestselling books are over 80,000. If you think Amazon is underreporting your sales, buy your own book there and see if they report it to you. Sorry I don't have better news for you, but readers are not responding to your books. My two free books might help you. Good luck.

RS: Right, hang on.  Did I read that right?  3000 words?  That's an essay, not a book.  Why doesn't Author try writing a blog - it doesn't look that hard and 3000 words a pop seems to be about right.

Author: My books are a collection of [category omitted] so word count is not a factor for their being bestselling or not.  I purposely stopped sampling as in first four months of my book’s launch on Smashwords there were around 150 downloads of my books but no purchase.

MC:  Alright, so you need to take that as a message from readers that your book didn't meet their needs. Cutting off sampling only guarantees no chance of sales, because people rarely buy sight-unseen.

RS: At this point I considered nominating Mark for a Nobel Peace prize.  

Author: which I failed to fathom

MC:  This stuff is covered in my books [and on the Smashwords site].

RS: And automatic membership of the Diplomatic Corp

Author: Also on [country omitted] retailers ( Online ) every 15 days my books go out of stock How would you justify that with zero sales worldwide.

MC:  I can't answer that. We don't do print books. But if you're looking for a conspiracy, I think you're barking up the wrong tree. You should address the stocking question to the retailer, or to your print provider.

RS: Or your therapist, drug dealer, holistic healer?  On a less facetious level, for those of you who publish on Createspace, if you make a change to your book then it goes 'out of print' for a period of time even though it is a print on demand (POD).  I don't know who 'Author' was publishing through, but he - I assume it is a he - has mentioned Createspace previously so probably it is that company.  Perhaps he is continuously tinkering with the content?  Heck, with 3000 words to juggle with, the temptation to play with them must be unbearable some days!

Author: First of all don't take this as an offence, i am neither barking , (RS: Really?) Just seeking help from someone who I thought would be considerate to my plight. As it turned out it is not the case. Goodbye

RS: Wrong to the very end, IMHO.  OK, lose the humble.

The author then unpublished his three books at Smashwords.  I was sorry to see that.  His decision only seals his fate.  


If you never give up, you never fail.  As long as you remain open to listening to what your readers are telling you, as conveyed through their action, inaction and reviews, you’ll be more likely to learn how to grow as a writer and publisher.

In addition to this posting I have seen postings on forums where self published authors, of unknown capability or provenance, have stated that they have had enough of not selling books and 'might as well pull their books from Amazon/Smashwords/whoever'.  Look, when you self publish it doesn't have to cost you a penny.  Obviously if you're struggling with formatting the text, want a professional to proof read the copy, need an artist to produce a book cover then of course you will end up paying something towards the production of your book, and the reality is that many authors won't recoup those costs no matter how well written their books are, but once uploaded they don't eat anything.  Don't get disheartened, either accept that it is the way of the world or, better, access some of Mark's excellent free resources and apply them.  Nobody, especially me, is going to promise anyone success because it is an elusive thing, but I'll happily applaud anyone who makes the effort to stack the odds in their favour.

The other issue I identified at the top of this entry is the concept that eBooks are not real.  Apart from the metaphysical debate - I accept that tree books are inherently more tangible than an eBook ever will be - the issue about whether a book is real or not is not about the medium it is published on but whether it is read.

A few years ago a 'real' book was one where a publisher selected your work, invested resources in its production and had it printed and distributed.  it was a good process but imperfect.  It's also pretty much obsolescent.  In the last year print book sales have declined by a tangible ten percent, while eBook sales are doubling year on year.  Of course, a few years ago, doubling from next to nothing left you with a similar number, however the eBook sales are a major segment of the industry now.  Amazon, probably the world's biggest bookseller, sells more eBooks than print books.  By 2020, probably much sooner, eBooks and eJournals will be the norm.

I was contacted by a friend of a friend a little while ago who was, and probably still is, convinced that unless your book appears in print - pure physical print - then it wasn't a real book.  I was even asked if I could publish a book on their behalf.  Obviously I could have taken on the role of proofreading, formatting etc, probably could have charged a fee for the task, certainly could have taken a slice of any royalties. However I declined but instead provided a host of advice on how to self publish, pointing at my earlier blog posts and resources such as Mark's.  I tried to explain that while Print on Demand (POD) services such as Createspace do provide an avenue for making your self published book available for those who choose to read print media, they are relatively expensive to buy and unlikely to form the bulk of book sales.  But ultimately, the rise and rise of tablet computers and, to a lesser degree, dedicated eReaders are driving the book industry forward.  The convenience and availability that these devices provide will ensure that eBooks will continue with their upward adoption.

I suspect that much of what I said fell on deaf ears, but I'm available for that person should they need any clarification or even objective assistance.  But I really hope that they do have a go at the self publishing tasks and give the eBook medium a try as well.

If you're lucky enough to be picked up by a mainstream publisher in the next few years you may, just, experience your books lining the local bookstore.  But that will be a fleeting sensation as, unfortunately, most of those bookstores are likely to be closing unless something radical is done to their business model.

But if you've written a book and are looking to self publish then good luck with the venture.  Please don't regard eBooks as second rate cousins of print books - you may not be reading electronically today but you will be very soon.  And if making your fortune is a priority, well I wish you well but suggest you keep on buying that lottery ticket as well.  The odds of winning may be awful, but at least they're calculable.

The Smashwords blog can be accessed here.


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