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Time to Give Up on Self-Publishing?

8 March 2017

From Electric Gutenberg:

For years I’ve been one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of the self-publishing movement. Publishing my first novel on Amazon was one of the highlights of my life. I’m the guy who would jump up and down in rapture when I made a single 99 cent sale. My charming (if crudely drawn) cartoon strip series, Hyper Geek, features a perpetually optimistic and largely autobiographical writer (named Mackay) enraptured by self-publishing.

. . . .

Since I was a kid, I dreamed of being a novelist. I wrote short stories, started a couple novels and went to college to study fiction writing, but… yes, I gave up. The more I learned about the state of the traditional publishing business back then, the less I wanted to attempt a writing career. I simply couldn’t see myself playing the submission game, particularly by writing the kinds of books my professors thought would get past the gatekeepers of the literary elite. I had no interest in being a starving artist fighting against the system. I moved into personal computer sales and then into computer education and business consulting. I have no regrets about changing course back then. It was probably one of the smartest moves I made in my life.

Then the internet took off and the digital age arrived, which provided me with all sorts of business opportunities working for tech startups. But I also realized it presented new creative opportunities for writers to go it alone through self-publishing. I decided to try writing a novel once again. I started this blog in 2010 when enthusiasm among indy writers was rapidly growing, in a large part thanks to Amazon and Kindle. People talked about a gold rush in self-publishing. It hit a fevered pitch around 2014 when Hugh Howey published his first Author Earnings report. He and the Data Guy proved that the self-publishing market was growing by leaps and bounds and some indy authors where making serious money. Many were even able to quit their day jobs and support themselves simply by self-publishing. A few were even getting rich. It was like a shot heard round the writing blogs.

. . . .

I wrote and self-published my first novel, Eve’s Hungry, on Amazon through KDP. It took longer (three years) and was more work than I anticipated, but I was very happy with the result. I started to build a little following on this blog and Twitter. I was learning a lot, and having fun. Sales were nothing to get excited about, but I got a few nice reviews and followed it up quickly with a short little book of cartoons I had drawn years ago. Initial sales of that were double my first work. Still combined sales were tiny and sporadic. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to quit my day job. I’d be lucky to buy a Happy meal at McDonalds.

Then reality hit: my day job became a night and day job.

I got so swamped, I couldn’t even put out 140 character tweets to promote my book, let alone think about writing a new one. I stopped blogging and working on my Hyper Geek cartoon series midway through the story. Months went by and I… gasp… stopped checking my ebook sales (which had flatlined anyway). Things have gotten a little better with my schedule lately, but it’s unlikely my day job will ease up significantly for years. I now know from experience how much work is involved in self-publishing new books. It’s not an easy hobby and it’s unlikely to be a real source of income anytime soon. Conventional wisdom is that in order to make a living by self-publishing, you have to crank out books regularly, like every three months or faster. I can’t possibly do that now. I’m not even sure I could or would want to work that fast in the future if I did have spare time.

. . . .

So, is it time for Mackay Bell to give up on his crazy creative aspirations yet again? Like I have so often in my past? If formerly “best selling” self-publishers are quitting, how can someone like me, who never even sold many ebooks, keep at it? Do I finally understand why someone would give up self-publishing? What’s the point if it is “no longer possible” to get rich? Or replace your day job? Is my last post about self-publishing to be an announcement of defeat and surrender?


Of course not. Only an idiot would quit self-publishing.

Now, before you flood the comments with complaints that this whole post was just shaggy dog clickbait, let me explain. Yes, I never had any intention of quitting. I got busy and had to take a break, but I always figured I would get back to self-publishing. While I’m a big believer in quitting things, I can’t see any reason I ever would quit self publishing. Frankly, I can’t see any reason anyone else would. Even if the market is down. So what is really going on with this latest doom and gloom meme about how all these indy writers are quitting?

Who is quitting? Quitting how exactly? Supposedly “successful” and “best selling” indy writers are quitting “self-publishing.” Presumably, they aren’t being named because they are too embarrassed to admit it.

Link to the rest at Electric Gutenberg


48 Comments to “Time to Give Up on Self-Publishing?”

  1. I’ve heard other writers saying some of the former “hot” indies are quitting. True? Who knows. I do know some writers whose book sales/page reads are falling, whose new books aren’t hitting like they used to. Reason? I don’t know. Their particular market could be saturated. We all know there are thousands of new books published every month (may every day).

    Should one quit? If it’s not fun, if it’s breaking one’s heart, if writing didn’t turn out to be the greatest thing evah, maybe so.

    I’m not quitting anytime soon. I started in the good old days, back in 2011, but life threw me some hard balls, and things didn’t go quite as planned. For years. It’s been really hard to keep going at times, but stubborn.

    My sales haven’t been anything to brag about among the Hoi polloi of the indie world, but I am selling and getting page reads. Would I like more? Well, duh. I know what I need to do to get them, and I’m working on it. I’m having fun, it’s still damned exciting to get a sale, or some page reads. I’m thrilled that people in various countries have bought my books, and the majority haven’t returned them. Woot!

    • “I’ve heard other writers saying some of the former “hot” indies are quitting.”

      I’ve noticed that some of the writers who quit their day jobs three or four years ago seem to have vanished. I went looking for one of them a few weeks ago and the last thing I found was a blog post from 2014. No new books since then, unless they’re using a pen name these days.

      Sales were much easier to make back then, because there was far less competition. Someone who might have made a midlist trade published career could be a “hot” indie. Now they’re struggling with the rest of us.

    • I think Edward’s spot on – many of those “hot” indies flourished simply from lack of competition. Or some used that platform to get into traditional publishing and have stayed there (although their current numbers are nothing like their indie sales used to be). My guess is it would probably be pretty discouraging to go from making six figures a month to not making anywhere close to that.

      But it’s worth sticking it out in the indie market because as it rises and falls and things change, you keep your rights and can adapt.

  2. 4,300 words to flog his book with a click-bait headline?

    No thanks.

    (Longer version: Tried to read it. Got bored. Skimmed bits. Jumped to the end. Saw how large it was and measured it. 4,300 words. About 150% larger than one of KKR’s posts. Carped in comments.)

    Posts like these exemplify Pascal’s apology for writing such a long letter, because he didn’t have enough time to write a short one.

    • I felt it was very click baity too… he made sure to post his title. And mentioned that posting to TPV gets him sales. So it’s certainly not hard to add things up.

    • Thank goodness I didn’t post the 10,000 word version. Longer than a KKR post? That hurts!

      • It’s because you didn’t title it: “Why are people leaving KU?” or “Why would anyone leave KU?”

        You said “Here’s why it’s time to leave KU”
        In which you post all the reasons why and then say, “Oh, wait, I’m not leaving.

        That’s just baiting me to read why you’re leaving. And leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

        not that you can’t do it, of course. But it feels like the title was a manipulation so instead of rooting for you, I’m like “Ohh, that’s why he did it. he just wants the click’

        This here: “Now, before you flood the comments with complaints that this whole post was just shaggy dog clickbait, let me explain. Yes, I never had any intention of quitting. “

        • I certainly could have tried harder to come up with a less interesting title.

        • Yup- but if you’re going to be clickbaity- own it

          • “Now, before you flood the comments with complaints that this whole post was just shaggy dog clickbait, let me explain. Yes, I never had any intention of quitting.“

            I figured that comment was owning it. I wasn’t writing about KU. I was writing about this “best selling self-publishers quitting” meme, which is a very click-baity topic already. So I suppose I could have gone out of my way to make it less interesting, but I was looking to spur a debate on the subject.

            • I’ve hesitated to post this before, but…

              When I see a review comment like this one:

              A final note: Please get a good copy editor to fix the misspellings and insert the missing words. These kinds of mistakes jolt a reader right out of the flow of a story.

              I don’t buy, period, and I’m pretty sure there are many like me.

              • I uploaded a new versions (professionally edited) that hopefully correct all the typos and other issues. I thought about trying to scrub the old reviews in a new edition, except they were positive in other areas and I hate begging for reviews. I couldn’t bear to lose one review that said:

                “Then, the payoff. And, oh my, what a delight! I’m sure my laughing woke the neighbors. It is a hell of a clever spin and it took me where great SF makes me happiest: a future in which I can not only envision myself, but one in which I’d like to live.”

                And if someone is still worried about typos: there’s always the audiobook!

  3. I write for myself first and foremost. Sure I would like to get more sales, but that’s not the main motivator for me. I’ve sold more books by carrying around a copy to show people than by advertising online. In person, my book sells at a decent rate based on the cover and back cover description. Ebook sales have been nil. When I do a free promotion people will download the book though.

  4. Been self-publishing since before the “gold rush” (first ebook out in Dec. 2007, on Amazon).

    Not quitting, even though roughly mid-year 2016, it became apparent something had changed–at least at Amazon. My (and others’) Amazon sales may be stumbling hard, but my Kobo sales are growing.

    Besides, I have readers waiting for my next book, and characters eager to tell me their stories. Not willing to risk being lynched or driven nuts. 🙂

  5. I quit (ah haha) reading once I got to the switch part of the bait.

    But to find those who are quitting (or taking a break), all one needs to do is go and check their Amazon page to see when they last released a book.

  6. I think that as Coleen Hoover suggested a year ago, people who have been self publishing for a long time are starting to see a drop in their sales, partially because of market saturation as consumers have more choice than ever before, and also because of Amazon changing the way they work out how much money they pay authors for one page.

  7. I’ll quit when I’m dead. But my literary executors will keep things going for me.

    Stubbornness is a big part of being a writer. Keep on keeping on, my friends. Or, as they say in Galaxy Quest: Never give up, never surrender!


  8. Anon, I think Amazon’s impact on self-publishers has been more than that. I first released direct to Kindle in 2012 to pretty good, if modest, sales. My book was pushed a bit by Amazon during its first 30 days after release, in a manner I was told was typical of them with a new title. My second and third books in 2014 got a bit of a bounce as well, yet not as good as the initial title.

    Fast forward to last month. I released the fourth title in the series. I got no visibility push from Amazon though I’m in Select and I’ve always had a wee little bit of boost. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I’ve had like one sale.

    Did something change? My gut says yes. Just can’t sort what Amazon did that accounts for the change.

    • Patricia Sierra

      Yes, something changed. I’ve never had the hearty sales others report here, but I’ve also never had so few sales as I did this past year. Some of my titles that would sell every-so-often no longer do so. It’s like they died and went to e-book heaven (or would that be hell?). And for the past two months my pages-read are way down. I don’t do any promotion, but I doubt it would help my sales at all.

    • Something absolutely changed at Amazon. Like you, I have no idea exactly what, but last year, my sales were chugging along fine until the end of June.

      I released #7 in my “popular” series at the end of July, and was pretty darn disappointed. It didn’t even do half as well as #6 did, and sales dropped a lot after #7’s initial 30 days out. And they kept dropping, dropping, dropping.

      I released 4 new titles last year, 2 more after #7 (#1 for a different series, and a standalone). May as well have skipped releasing the last two, because they made no difference. Sure, they sell a bit.

      One even sells a copy or 3 pretty much daily… and yet has a ranking in the #400k-plus range. With frequent sales!

      • Your last sentence surprises me. My main market is France, but when I sell an ebook on KDP in the US (once every blue moon), it goes up to about the 100k rank maybe a bit more now) before sinking at the speed of sound in water.

        • That’s how it used to be on my titles. Even 1-2 sales per day/few days would keep a 70-80k ranking level for a few months after release.

          Not anymore, not from what I’m personally seeing. Could be something to the “saturated market” theory, or maybe not.


          • It definitely sounds weird. My latest novel has averaged about two sales a day since I released it about six weeks ago and peaks at maybe four or five a day on a weekend, and it’s been sitting around 50-100k most of the time.

    • Deb, Patricia, Scath– my experience exactly. I was never a wild and crazy seller, but since Jan. 2016, everything just died. I finally decided to just write without any expectations whatsoever.

      With all the creepy stuff going on in Select, I pulled everything out. Until Amazon straightens out its scammer problems, it’s not worth the risk of losing my account.

  9. I do some promo, but it doesn’t appear that my efforts are translating into sales boosts even momentarily or trivially. I did try (during the 30-day new release window) finding my book by filtering Kindle Select/romance/contemporary, but not only did my title not come up in the first few pages, it didn’t come up at all.

  10. I’m not sure if Amazon changed, or if there are just 10 times as many titles being released in the main categories each week. If the bell curve is still on the upslope for new releases, what is being said on this comment section makes perfect sense. Doing the same as always gets less results than before, and doing increased promotion doesn’t increase sales at the same rate, because there are more results getting the same boosts, which makes the boosts less valuable.

    • Don’t forget that trade publishers have also released a lot of backlist books as ebooks, some of them priced not much above indie prices. I used to mostly buy indie ebooks, but lately it’s been more like 50:50 between indie and trade-published backlist.

      There’s probably 10x the competition today that there was in 2014.

      • Also, some small digital publishers are making a killing. My publisher, Bookouture, is one of them. With very low prices and clever promotion, they are contantly getting books into the Kindle top 100 and last year has digital sales of over 6 million, with only about 50 books. A few days ago they released the news that they have been bought by Hachette and will now continue as before, but as an imprint of Hachette.

        • Glad to hear you’re doing well Sharon, and I hope the Hachette deal won’t harm authors, since they have been known to raise the prices of ebooks in the past.

          • I doubt it; they have seen that the Bookouture strategy is working, and that’s why the deal took place. Oliver Rhodes can continue as head of Bookouture, and has confirmed that everything will stay the same, including our good royalty rate.

  11. Of course don’t quit: it’s only business and business has cycles. An interesting summary of this is to be found in Data Guy’s report this week, where he says:

    It’s also worth considering what happened sometime between May 2016 and October 2016, when indies experienced a sharp quarter-to-quarter downturn in Kindle Unlimited page reads and an overall drop in retail sales for Amazon indie authors. After growing consistently every quarter for nearly 3 years, we saw indie market share at Amazon US suddenly plunge from 44% to 36% of Amazon’s total unit sales. While things appear to have stabilized now, and indie market share is once again growing–but more slowly now–at Amazon, relying upon a single retailer for 100% of one’s sales means an author is far more likely to see sudden, dramatic shifts and reversals in their own individual fortunes.

    It’s not time to quit, it’s time to adjust to a 4% growth rate and a more crowded market. We must all keep in mind that when a vein of gold is struck, lots of people sell out and hurry to the stream or mine. That’s what’s happened with Amazon publishing. Some will last but many will go until an equilibrium is reached, at least until the next cycle goes boom or bust. The solution, like always, is writing to market and publishing a quality product.

    Besides, if you quit, where do you go? To a cubicle and meaningless work? After days in pajamas, surrounded by your thoughts and imaginary friends? That’s a tough trade-off.

  12. Turn off your TV. You’ll be amazed how much time you suddenly have.

    Better yet, get rid of the damn thing. PG might remember the scene in the Paper Chase where they did just that.

    • I quit watching regular TV over 10 years ago, thanks to the rise of reality TV.

      And man, I wrote a LOT (like, over 3 million words a lot)–at least for the first 5 years. My yearly word counts have steadily trended downward since. =/

  13. And there’s always politics. Pretty much everyone, trad publishers as well as indie, experienced a turn-down once US politics heated up, especially around mid-2016 when it became clear that, OMG that [bleep] actually has a chance! People who would’ve spent time reading spent that time reading/watching the news instead. Then Trump won and there was/is even more OMG! going around, and so rather than tapering off (as usually happens after a contentious election) a lot of people are still spending their former reading time following the news.

    This is normal. It has nothing to do with any changes Amazon has made. It’s all about outside events distracting people away from their leisure reading.

    Someone upstream mentioned that their Kobo sales have been going up even as their Amazon sales have been going down. That fits too — most of Kobo’s customers are outside the US. Foreign readers are paying more attention to American politics than usual, because our messes usually end up splashing onto other countries, but in general their level of interest is going to be lower.

    As John said, it’s business cycles, and right now it’s also merged with political cycles. It happens, and businesspeople just have to learn to ride it out.


  14. About the s*** volcano, or crap tsunami.
    I think it’s not a meme, it’s true.
    But it isn’t a problem. Or it isn’t such a big problem.
    The problem would be much worse if we had a volcano/tsunami of quality ebooks coming from the indies. THEN it would be hard to get noticed.

    • I think Amazon’s ranking system has a lot to do with it. A typical book pretty much has thirty days to become a ‘hit’ and get onto a bunch of ‘also-bought’ lists before it begins to fade away in the rankings and becomes harder and harder for readers to find.

      That’s not a bad thing for bad books, which sink to where no reader ever finds them. But plenty of decent books do too, solely because they didn’t get enough sales early on.

  15. It is *very* hard to succeed to as an author, whether self or trad published. IMO this point isn’t emphasised enough.

    Too many pro-SP articles talk of all the benefits of ownership and royalties, without mentioning that most SP authors struggle to sell any books at all. 70% of nothing is no income at all.

    • Perfectly true. But most writers submitting to trade publishers don’t sell any books either, because the publishers keep rejecting them.

      I suspect it’s easier to have a little success through self-publishing, but easier to have a lot of success through trade-publishing.

    • Spot on, Brian. And those articles often exclude the advances which tradpub authors receive.

      Or if they do mention them, then it’s in a cavalier way. “Advances are all $5,000 anyway.” … Okay, and did you earn that much from your last book? At what cost? If you did, then congrats, but that’s not the norm. A few authors make bank and everyone else flounders–no matter how they’re published. The same concept applies to most industries.

      On Publishers Marketplace, there’s a trend of bigger advances being given to fewer authors. Big Publishers are cutting underperforming has-beens loose while betting big on fewer fresh faces.

      Writers of all stripes and colophons will have to become much more sophisticated going forward. Slicker everything: production value, rate of production, storytelling, value proposition, cover design, marketing… or else stop trying to make money at it and enjoy self-actualization by posting it online for free. Or don’t; nobody cares.

      I think that many authors don’t care whether or not you succeed, and they wouldn’t p*** on you to stop you from burning to death. They pretend that they do because that’s good PR for them–another chance to plug their own books. Elections and natural disasters and medical emergencies will continue to wipe out the unprepared and the unfortunate, and the earth will keep spinning. Everyone moves on with their lives.

  16. Here’s the thing. Any downtick in sales has nothing to do with self-publishing. There have been plenty of authors through the years who traditionally published, only to give up after awhile because they couldn’t make a good enough living at it. They may have been hot for a short time, but then their sales started to cool and their publishers lost interest. Some of them took up pen names and some gave up altogether.

    The thing is, making a living as an author is difficult no matter how you do it. Don’t blame self-publishing. I have a book shelf full of traditionally published authors who put out maybe three or four books and then disappeared from the public eye.

    • Absolutely, many writers, traditionally published or indy have ups and downs and some stop writing or fade into obscurity.

      But… self-publishing actually works in favor of writers who have ups and downs (or even mostly downs). Many traditionally published authors will find their old works become completely unavailable if their career fades. A self-publisher can at least keep their back catalogue available indefinitely.

      Someone who built their career working with traditional publishers is going to struggle getting attention from them again once their career is in the toilet. A self-publisher is always just one viral novel away from being back on top. And being able to monetize all their old work quickly if they find new success. Or if some new platform comes around, for relatively little work a self-publisher can quickly add their back catalogue to it and perhaps revive interest.

      Writing is hard. (Posting is easy.) It’s no surprise some successful indy writers might get burnt out and try different things. But if anything, the advantages of self-publishing are likely to be a cushion, rather than a burden over a long creative career.

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