I judge for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel and eBook Competitions each year. To date, I've read over 550 self-published books. The toughest aspect of judging, for me, is coming across an incredible novel only to find it hasn't even scratched the surface of potential in sales. As a fan of self-published novels, I set out to learn more about authors' processes related to the business of self-publishing. This is a three-article series, having released the first in September, and the final will appear in November. Special thanks goes to these wonderful self-published authors Katy Regnery, Scott Semegran, Ashleigh Nugent, and Victoria Ventris Shea, for their time and thoughtful contributions to these articles.
When the idea for articles about business in self-publishing first came to mind, I spoke with Victoria Ventris Shea, a semi-finalist in the 29th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Awards, about her experience with her debut novel Shagoon, so that I could comprehend what self-published authors, particularly new ones, had to endure in getting their books out to readers. Shagoon, which I found to be a particularly striking multi-cultural historical fiction novel that follows the life of an abandoned Tlingit twin, had not achieved much in terms of sales or recognition.
Shea's goals in self-publishing never had anything to do with money or fame, but instead aligned with the idea that she wanted her writing to be understood and received by people who would enjoy the story she had brought to life. That goal was harder than she had imagined. Shea explained that she originally gave away dozens of copies of her book, and she had no idea if those people had even read the story. In retrospect, it seemed that Shea had focused so much on her writing of the story that what came after had maybe felt irrelevant to the process.
In self-publishing, so often do efforts tend to focus upon the actual story as opposed to the question of what comes after. To the point where, like Shea, authors find themselves with incredible novels and no thought or reference as to where to go from there. Sure, you've probably read the articles that suggest social media, social media, social media, but if you have waited until your book is done to begin building your audience, you've started a little late. (That being said, if you haven't started – get to it!)
The question of “Now what?” for self-published authors can be a trying one, and in Shea’s shoes the efforts were focused heavily upon continuing to push a book that just wasn’t getting read. But Shea helps us see that we have to ask ourselves “Now what?” as we’re writing our novels.
On the thought of "Now what?" Katy Regnery, a self-published romance writer who is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, explained the idea that too often self-published authors are so in love with their first book that they waste valuable years and effort pushing a book as opposed to building a collection for people to read through. Her answer to “Now what?” is to begin writing the next book immediately. Having multiple books written allows for a key money-making idea—give books away for free.
Services such as Bookbub allow authors to send sample books out to a massive list of voracious readers. The numbers from Bookbub are jaw dropping. Regnery claims over 30,000 downloads from a single Bookbub, and Scott Semegran, First Place winner in the Young Adult Category of the 29th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Awards, swears by Bookbub as a key contributor to his success. Yet, 30,000 free downloads only makes money if "you give them [the readers] something to roll to (as in other books to purchase)," says Regnery. "If you want to make money, the key is in the back list."
The backlist, which are books that are not featured or given away as samples, allows those people who have read your sample books to turn to the others you've written as purchases. Regnery explains that instead of just one book, for her, "three books gave traction; five books made money." To this day, Regnery has published over 50 books, and heralds her backlist as the prime opportunities for making money. Just this past year, she's “only” published two new books, but her back list has brought in over 6,000 dollars a month.
When discussing Regnery's thoughts with Shea as I tried to get my swirling thoughts together for these articles, Shea commented, "In some ways, I feel this information gives me 'permission' to spend less time trying (and failing) to market my current book (although dollars are always appreciated) and to put more time getting the next book finished."
Even still, I understand it can be hard to take the less chosen path that is part of the “Now what?” question: Self-publishing rather than traditional publishing. As I, personally, continue editing what's become two finished manuscripts that have yet to find representation and consider embarking on a third, the decision to move away from literary agents and towards self-publishing is not easy to make, even with the thought of full creative power and the appealing business models that I now understand are available.
After all, beyond the business appeals, there's an undeniable sentiment that comes with self-publishing. Regnery, who has no interest in traditional publishing whatsoever (since their marketing model does not fit her plans and she makes plenty from her current process), captures this perfectly when she explained the sentiment of self-publishing to me as: "There's that feeling of 'Oh, you're self-published, that's so cute.' I had a friend ask me when I was going to publish a real book, after I had made the USA Today Best-Selling list."
However, the concept of self-publishing not having that validity of literary authority is an odd one, especially considering how the history of self-publishing includes literary greats such as Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, and many others. Even if you have your heart set on traditional publishing, self-publishing can give you the opportunity to get there.
In speaking with Semegran, his expressed disappointments with self-publishing had very little to do with money earned and far more to do with building his own legacy. "There are certain contests you can't enter, some bookstores won't consider you," he explains when answering his "Now what?" Even though he's enjoyed a solid career as an independent artist, lately Semegran has been entertaining several legitimate inquiries from traditional presses for his next book.
Ashleigh Nugent, Honorable Mention winner in the Mainstream Category of the 29th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Awards, had already accepted literary representation by the time of our conversation. Though he touted the control of his voice and "not having anyone look over my shoulder" as he wrote his award-winning self-published novel Locks, he explained how his decision to accept representation were for the exact reasons that he chose to self-publish in the first place. "I want to get back to focusing on the writing. I'll let someone else focus on the selling." It's hard to say for certain, but I think there's a pretty good argument to be made that Nugent is enjoying freedoms under his representation that he might not have had if he hadn't proven himself as an independent author first.
In that way, there is tremendous power in self-publishing, particularly in a business-sense and opportunity to craft your legacy the way you see fit. So, now that we’re at the end of the series and must ask “now what?” Feel free to let me know!