So you're a self-published author. Now what?
Canadians are self-publishing books in droves, despite little guarantee of financial reward or recognition. How are these new authors defining success?
“I’ve never been so confused in my life as when I first attended the birthday party of a Dutch friend,” says Colleen Geske on her blog Stuff Dutch People Like.
Why did people at the party keep congratulating her, she wondered. She came to realize, she writes, that at Dutch birthday parties it is customary “to make your rounds through the crowd and congratulate everyone who is close to the person’s whose birthday it is!!” Geske, a Winnipegger who moved to Amsterdam almost 10 years ago for her partner’s work, started blogging about Dutch culture in 2010.
Along the way, she’s made other observations about birthdays in Holland (as well as black licorice, bicycles and being tall): “A Dutch person must never forget another Dutch person’s birthday,” Geske says. “Doing so constitutes a major sin in the Lowlands.” That’s why it’s common to find a birthday calendar hanging in Dutch houses – specifically on the bathroom wall. “Dutch people can happily consult their handy birthday calendar while quietly sitting alone, going about their business on their porcelain throne.”
From blog to book
After about six months of chronicling customs and quirks, Stuff Dutch People Like had received approximately 1,000 comments, Geske says. Many came from Dutch readers, who were discussing her posts and sending in ideas.
“I was able to find a balance of poking fun and tongue in cheek that wasn’t offensive,” Geske says. The blog also caught the attention of a reporter for a Dutch newspaper, who “made it her quest” to identify the anonymous Canadian expat behind it. Geske came around to the idea of going public in the article, because she wanted to take her blog further.
“I always had this idea for writing a book about Dutch culture,” says Geske. “I wanted to use the blog as a vehicle to kind of test the subject matter, and also a vehicle to kind of force me to write on a regular basis.”
As her online community grew, Geske set a goal of writing 50 posts to have enough content for a book. She did some research on publishers, which led her to wonder whether they would be able to help sell the book to her unconventional audience – English-speaking Dutch readers in Holland and abroad, as well as expats and tourists. She says she and her husband came to the conclusion that “this is kind of a niche market, and we actually know it really well, so why not try to do it ourselves?”
Self-publishing leads to surprise new chapter
After investing in editing, design and printing costs, Geske launched the Stuff Dutch People Like book in November 2013. Within a month and a half, 5,000 copies sold and she’s now well into selling her second print run. She and her husband were “flabbergasted” and unprepared for the grunt work of packaging and mailing the books, which are being sold through her website and at a few book stores. But her husband, an entrepreneur, happened to be between projects and spent two months working as the book’s distributor.
There was more in store: three Dutch publishing companies contacted Geske. On Jan. 31, Geske announced to her Facebook community of almost 100,000 people that she had struck a deal for the book to be published in Dutch.
Where does self-publishing route take authors?
Geske is one of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who are self-publishing. Statistics on the number of self-published books from Canada are not available, but experts say U.S. figures are indicative of the trend. Almost 392,000 self-published print and eBooks came out in 2012, according to Bowker Books in Print, the International Standard Book Number agency for the U.S. But not all self-publishing platforms require ISBN numbers, so the total number of self-published books is higher.
There are “tens of thousands” of authors and publishers from Canada using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, which doesn’t require ISBN numbers, according to a representative from Amazon.
Geske, unlike many self-published authors, has succeeded in selling a significant number of books and securing a traditional book deal, but says she still wouldn’t bank on writing as a full-time career – which is understandable. A U.S. survey of almost 5,000 authors clarifies the financial reality: the 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey reveals that median annual income for self-published authors ranges from 0 to $4,999, and from $5,000 to $9,999 for traditionally published authors.
Despite the fact that many self-publishing platforms promise higher royalties than traditional publishers – Amazon's Kindle Direct eBook platform offers up to 70 per cent, for example – indie authors have up-front expenses to consider. So why are so many unknown writers navigating a labyrinth of platforms, costs and options to launch a book into an ocean of other unknown self-published books? How are these self-published authors defining and achieving success?
Audience first, book later?
As the co-founder of a communications company by day, Geske perhaps took more of an entrepreneurial approach than many. She references American marketing guru Seth Godin, who advises authors to start marketing their book three years before they want to publish. As a blogger, Geske was doing just that.
“Self-publishing this way was kind of the reverse model (of traditional publishing),” Geske says, “where it wasn’t writing a book and then looking for an audience, it was finding an audience, finding out what they really wanted, and writing for that audience that you already had.” She says she also looked at the book as a product and wanted it to succeed – at the very least, not to lose money.
Mark Lefebvre, director of Kobo’s Writing Life self-publishing platform and author relations, echoes Geske’s point about finding an audience. “Knowing who your readers are is critical, and that usually takes a long time to figure out.”
Connecting with readers also played a role in the success of Kate Hilton, a first-time author from Ontario whose self-published novel The Hole in the Middle got picked up by HarperCollins, and hit the Globe and Mail’s Canadian fiction bestseller list in January. Hilton published her story as an eBook last year on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform after unsuccessfully pitching the manuscript to 17 literary agents. For Hilton, “self-publishing was a way of taking back control of the process and saying publicly, ‘I’m actually very proud of this work, I think it’s worth sharing … .’ ”
But before launching the eBook, Hilton spent several months building networks on LinkedIn and Facebook, and using a blog and Twitter to showcase her writing style. “I tried to be very conscious of creating a consistent brand on all of those platforms.” Along the way, she invested in hiring a website designer, book editor, cover designer and someone to research self-publishing platforms.
After she published the eBook, Hilton says it was downloaded more than 13,000 times in one month. One of the people in Hilton’s network happens to be the daughter of best-selling author Roberta Rich; Rich passed Hilton’s book on to her agent, and a deal with HarperCollins quickly followed.
Self-publishers get their books on shelves
While there’s no one quick or easy path to self-publishing success, Kobo’s Lefebvre says there’s never been a better time to be a writer. He says the ability to bypass traditional publishing is motivating in and of itself. Lefebvre compares publishing houses’ slush piles to “warehouses of manuscripts.” Even if one editor at a publishing house likes a manuscript, Lefebvre says, others may disagree, or a similar book might have been published within the last six months. “It’s wrong place, wrong time.”
By self-publishing, writers can get their book in front of readers. Like traditionally published books, self-published books are “sitting on shelves waiting to be discovered,” Lefebvre says. Increasingly, those shelves are virtual: 40 per cent of the self-published books that came out in 2012 were eBooks, according Bowker Books in Print. The number of eBooks increased 77 per cent from 2011 to 2012.
For some self-publishers, the motivating factor is a personal experience or social cause. Trena White, principal at Page Two: Strategic Consulting, a Vancouver firm that works with self-publishing and traditional authors, says one of their clients wants to share his story of addiction recovery and “contribute to the conversation” on that topic. Page Two works with non-fiction authors who tend to have some level of platform, profile or recognition, White says. They might have marketing goals, like reaching a specific demographic with their book, or hope that it will lead to lucrative speaking engagements.
There are also novices who want to leave a story for friends and family. Prior to the rise of self-publishing, Lefebvre says, it might have cost $5,000 to print 1,000 copies of a book that would sit in the author’s basement. Now, the story can be published for free as an eBook, or printed on demand as needed.
'It's a bit of a Wild West'
For authors hoping to make a name for themselves and generate sales, the self-publishing world has become difficult to navigate. “We think it’s a bit of a Wild West right now,” White says. There are dozens of self-publishing platforms, each with their own pricing, service, payment and distribution configurations.
Page Two aims to help self-publishing authors assess which platform best suits their needs in terms of issues like functionality and distribution channels. While Amazon is the big name in self-publishing, for example, White says Kobo has better distribution in Canada. Page Two charges $150 per hour for consulting, and works out deals with authors who want longer-term guidance. Aside from the option of consulting, authors have other expenses to consider. White estimates it could cost $7,000 to $10,000 for professional, multi-level editing and book design.
Lefebvre says that while he recommends self-publishing authors invest in editing and design help, there are service providers that prey on writers. He recommends Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware to help distinguish the good from the bad.
Considering the potential up-front expenses, writers might wonder whether the grass is greener on the traditional publishing side, where editing and production costs are covered, the author might receive a modest advance and somewhere around 10 per cent in royalties.
“If you do a very rough calculation, it would appear that the average book published generates about $2,000 for the author,” says Rowland Lorimer, head of the publishing program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Lorimer likens the financial prospects for writers to those of artists. “It’s like all creative expression, whether you’re a painter, you’re a sculptor ... it’s only when make it to the very top that you start making serious money.”
Is a self-publishing the new route to traditional publishing?
So, perhaps winning the recognition of a traditional publisher is the next best thing? Lefebvre says agents and publishers are watching self-publishing bestseller lists for authors to sign. “Not a week goes by that we don’t hear from an author who was doing really, really well self-publishing and got contacted by a traditional publisher,” Lefebvre says.
But Beverley Slopen, the agent who represents Kate Hilton, says stories of self-publishing "stars" being discovered by agents or publishers are still the exceptions. “Some people are savvy enough to know how to work it, but you can’t extrapolate self-publishing on the exceptions.”
For Hilton, self-publishing was a valuable learning process, and she says it can help show publishers that writers have valuable marketing skills. “Publishers are looking for people who ... have good networks, and who are going to use those networks to promote their work.”
While self-publishing offers no assurance of success, Lorimer says it’s still a positive force in society. “To have so many people feel that they have a chance to have their voice heard, whether it’s a creative voice or a voice about a particular issue, that’s, I think, a very good thing … .”
For Geske, getting email comments like “Now I understand why so-and-so who is Dutch does that” is one of her biggest rewards.
“I thought that success would be that people just have a great reaction to the book, and they like it and it makes them laugh or it makes them smile, you know?”