By the book - how self-publishing can work for you


The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is not unique – earlier this month, there were four self-published authors on the Top 25 list, outselling big name authors such as James Patterson and Danielle Steele. So how did they do it, and can you?

IF YOU’VE ever fancied yourself as the next Marian Keyes or John Connolly, the advent of ebooks and self-publishing has made getting your book out there easier than ever before. After all, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has become the UK’s best-selling book – ever – started off as self-published fan fiction, while self-published tomes are also riding high on The New York Times ebook bestseller list.

In early August, four self-published authors were on the Top 25 list with seven books combined, out-selling big-name authors such as thriller writer James Patterson and romantic novelist Danielle Steele, leading some to believe it’s a relatively easy way to get rich.

But how can you do it, how much does it cost, and most importantly, can you actually make any money from it?

Step 1: Create your product

For Jonathan Williams, who became Ireland’s first literary agent some 25 years ago, self-publishing is “quite an honourable” endeavour, pointing to literary greats who self-published in the past including Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf, and has come about due to challenges in the book business. In this regard, there are literary authors who have self-published in recent years and made the Booker shortlist, such as Timothy Mo or Jill Paton Walsh.

“Writers just feel hamstrung that they can’t get their work published,” he says.

However, it’s important to remember that success in self-publishing – or indeed traditional publishing these days – requires almost as much focus on the business of being a writer as it does on actually writing.

First off, the book. As these aren’t the literary pages you’re reading, Pricewatch is not going to offer any advice on actually writing your book; suffice to say that it’s genre fiction that typically performs the best, such as science fiction, thrillers, romance, and of course anything to do with vampires – or bondage.

In addition, you shouldn’t be too concerned with producing a literary classic, as the synopsis of bestselling self-published tomes would indicate. Such gems on The New York Times bestseller list include the latest offering from Colleen Hoover, Slammed, a novel about “a girl who falls in love with a neighbour who enjoys slam poetry, but they encounter obstacles”. Believe it or not, this author has been snapped up by publishing house Simon Schuster.

Finally, to sell a lot you will need to write a lot. The aforementioned Hoover currently has two books on the bestseller list, while Amanda Hocking, the superhero of self-publishing, started off with her Trylle Trilogy, and is now following it up with a new series of books. So either write with a series of books in mind, or write one very long book and divide it up.

Step 2: Look for funding

In the traditional publishing model, a publisher gives you an “advance”, or a proportion of future earnings, to keep you going while you finish your work. With self-publishing, however, there is no such deal, which means that you need to write while supporting yourself through other means. And you will also have to pay for any costs that might arise, such as editing and proof-reading.

One way around this for the self-published author is to encourage people to buy your book ahead of its publication through a crowdfunding site. On US site Kickstarter, The Icarus Deception, a book by Seth Godin about the mythology of success and failure, raised more than $250,000 from more than 4,000 backers.

Irish author David Gaughran has also successfully used the Irish equivalent, Fundit, to earn some money to help fund the publication of his book, A Storm Hits Valparaiso. He set out to raise €1,500 but actually brought in more than €1,600. Armed with these funds, he hired an editor, and was also able to commission someone to illustrate a map for inclusion in his book.

Step 3: Understand the model

While there are disadvantages to going it alone, the major advantage is that when you sell books yourself, you get to keep a lot more of the money. Under a traditional publishing deal, for example, you can expect to earn just eight to 15 per cent of sales. On the other hand , by opting to publish ebooks with a facility such as Kindle Direct Publishing and sell them online on Amazon, royalties can be as much as 70 per cent per sale. This means that if you can generate sales, you can generate an income from self-publishing.

“More authors are earning a living now thanks to self-publishing than at any time in history. It’s allowing more and more authors to give up their day job,” says Gaughran, adding that while he isn’t quite there yet, he hopes to be able to live off his writing by Christmas, with another book, Bananas for Christmas, out shortly.

In addition to ebooks, it is also possible to publish hard copies yourself. However, this is a lot more expensive. Gaughran pays $5 plus postage for each hard copy he gets printed in the US, and he currently distributes his books himself to 10 bookstores in London. Bookstores will typically take a 30 to 40 per cent cut on the purchase price, but there can be advantages to readers finding you the traditional way – as long as you don’t expect to see your novel at the front of the shop, as publishers pay steeply for these premium spaces.

And there may be additional costs. Williams recommends you “put a little investment into it”, particularly with regards to the book cover. This can cost up to $500, while editing is also important.

“Your main cost is editing; you can’t skimp on it. But it’s not just a cost for your book – every time I go through that process I improve and I become a better writer,” says Gaughran, adding that you can expect to pay between €800 and €1,200 to get a typical book edited.

“After that, that’s pretty much it. You only pay those expenses once and your book has forever to make it back,” says Gaughran.

Step 4: Sell your book

If you thought writing your book was difficult, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when it comes to actually getting it out there. Some successful self-published authors such as Killing Cupid author Louise Voss swear by the 80/20 rule – ie you should spend 80 per cent of your time marketing a book and just 20 per cent writing it.

“The hardest thing of all is to market and sell your book. You could hire a publicist to do it, but you’ll be competing against big multinationals,” notes Williams.

Gaughran, who has sold 5,500 books to date, looks at it as running a business.

“I think it’s important to do that, and if I had a traditional deal, I would be expected to be out marketing it,” he says. “I think some writers are worried about it cutting into their writing time, but physically I wouldn’t be able to write every waking hour.”

Social media such as Twitter and Facebook can be your friend, but can also eat into your time. You can also try and widen your potential reach by translating your work into different languages. Rather than spend money doing so, Gaughran has successfully managed to get his work translated into French by offering the translator 20 per cent of all profits the book makes in France. And he now hopes to duplicate this model and bring out Spanish and Portuguese translations also.

And while it might appear counter-productive, giving books away for free can help boost sales.

“Writers shouldn’t be afraid of giving books away for free, I give mine to anyone who’s willing to write a review. I must have given away 50,000 books at this point,” he says, adding that it’s said that writers tend to sell 10 per cent of the total that that they give away for free, citing one author who gave away 2 million free copies of his book – but sold 200,000.

It’s also true that the more you sell, the more you are likely to sell, as a good position on online charts will make it easier for readers to find you.

“I got on the Top 10 historical fiction list on Amazon in the US, and just being on that list I could see the sales jump,” says Gaughran.

However, Amazon watches out for people seeding the charts by purchasing multiple copies of the same book – so they will have to be genuine sales.

Step 5: Hope for the best

As with all types of creative endeavour, there is no foolproof way of ensuring you will hit the jackpot – or even come close. A recent survey of more than 1,000 self-published authors showed that about half of the authors earned just $500 in 2011. But even if it doesn’t lead to lucrative sales, self-publishing might attract the interest of an agent or a publishing house, and lead on to something else. However, it’s unlikely that anyone will want to re-publish the work you have produced yourself.

“It’s like the top has gone off the milk, the best of the sales have happened by then,” says Williams. For this reason he tends not to try selling on his self-published works. And you might find that having done the ground work, you’re happy to go it alone. Since self-publishing, Gaughran, who had previously failed to strike up a relationship with an agent, has had proposals from two separate agents, but has declined their offers. “One wanted me to submit to a big publisher but I couldn’t see the point of it. I didn’t think a publisher could make me as much money as I can on my own,” he says.


FIVE YEARS AGO as he launched the Kindle e-reader, Amazon’s Chief Executive Jeff Bezos asked a question. “Can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well-suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?”

He then set about answering the question. In the early days, there was resistance from traditionalists to the e-book, but that resistance has proved futile, and a combination of instant access, easy accessibility and intoxicating faddiness has seen e-readers inexorably take over the world of publishing.

Amazon in the UK announced earlier this month that e-books are now outselling hardbacks and paperbacks combined for the first time, and for every 100 print books sold through the site, it is selling 114 titles for its Kindle.

While technophobes and luddites continue to howl their displeasure at the pace of change, the reality is that e-readers are making people read more (or at least buy more). According to, the average Kindle owner buys as many as four times more books than they did before owning the device.

“Customers in the UK are now choosing Kindle books more often than print books, even as our print business continues to grow,” Jorrit Van der Meulen, vice-president of Kindle in Europe said recently. “As a result of the success of Kindle, we’re selling more books than ever before on behalf of authors and publishers.

That is not to say all is well in the world of books. The biggest bookseller in Ireland is Eason and earlier this summer it reported a €5.3 million loss for the year to January 2012 and a 10.7 per cent decline in revenues. Much of the decline can be attributed to a move toward online purchases and the growth of e-readers.

The retailer is not, however, giving up the ghost. In July, it opened a refurbished store on Patrick St in Cork and has plans for a €20m investment in its future. It is also stepping up its engagement with the electronic world. It has sold Sony e-readers for the past three years and several of its shops have wifi areas for people to download books from the Eason website.

“It is almost like a department within our book departments,” said David Field, Eason’s head of marketing and retail development said at the Cork re-launch. “People can come in, buy an e-reader, go online and download books there and then. He acknowledged that e-books still represented a small percentage of overall sales, but added that sales of e-books were increasing “almost tenfold on a monthly basis”.

You would imagine that one of the key advantages of an e-book would be its price. The e-book should be much, much cheaper as the publisher’s costs are dramatically reduced. There are no raw materials involved and no printing or distribution costs.

The omnipresent Fifty Shades of Grey books are selling for €9.79 the Easons e-book store while the paperback edition is selling for €8.99. PS I Love You, meanwhile, has a paper price of €10.30 while the electronic edition sells for €10.01.

There is no reason in the world the e-book should cost the same as the traditional book – other than the fact that publishers are loathe to undercut their paper bread and butter, and so artificially inflate the prices. We have been here before and the music industry and Apple has long been charging prices for music downloads that are wildly out of sync with the costs of bring the product (or work of art, if we are to be more kind) to market.

One area where the e-book is coming in to its own is the world of freebies. There is a huge selection of books available that can be downloaded for free – and legally– onto an e-reader. Pretty much everything Charles Dickens ever wrote is available for free, while Amazon offers many more classics, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Bram Stoker’s Dracula for free.


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