Can self published books be successful?

The days when self publishing is seen as somehow second best to traditional publishing are long gone. The move into the digital era means more and more authors are successfully self publishing their books, in particular in ebook format, and making a respectable living out of it. Some are even making a very, very good living indeed.

Take, as a prime example, author Tracy Bloom, who couldn’t interest publishers in her book No-one ever has sex on a Tuesday, so took on the task herself and released it as an ebook. Her debut novel overtook Dan Brown in the Kindle UK chart, selling a quarter of a million digital copies. Then, there is former housing officer, Mel Sherratt who spent 12 years trying to get her book published, but was repeatedly turned down for being ‘cross genre’, because she mixed elements of women’s fiction, crime and thriller writing. Her self-released novel Taunting the Dead, now listed in the category of Grit Lit, reached number three in the Kindle chart and been downloaded more than 200,000 times. Historical fiction writer Janet MacLeod Trotter, turned to self publishing after being let go by her mainstream publisher. Satisfyingly, her ebook, The Vanishing of Ruth reached the top of the Waterstone’s Crime and Romance category. She even went on to successfully republish her backlist of published books. In Psychological Thrillers, there is Rachel Abbott, who has sold more than 2.6 million ebooks, after self publishing Only the Innocent.

I could go on, but the point is clear: there are plenty of people who swear by self publishing and who have done brilliantly well out of it. Equally though, there are many who have enjoyed no success at all. Indeed, the chances of failure are far higher than those of success. While self published books make up 22% of the digital book market, according to figures from Nielsen BookInsights, tens of thousands of ebooks are released each year and only a tiny fraction will ever go on to achieve the success of the authors described above.

It is, however, possible for self published authors to take steps to greatly increase their odds of making some money.

Speak to any self published author who has done well and they will all say the same thing: the hard work really begins after the book has been written and uploaded onto the various platforms that are available today. Establishing a following is tough, particularly in such a highly competitive market where any one book has to compete against thousands. In one interview, Tracy Bloom, the author behind No one ever has sex on a Tuesday, said she treated the exercise of marketing her work as though she was a contestant on The Apprentice. This sums it up really well. It’s no good hoping your book will soar up the book charts on its own merits. It won’t. You have to transfer into running-a-business mode and work out how to get everyone downloading it. I’ve known some self-published authors who have written their own marketing schedule, with a year’s worth of activities to build up sales momentum. Whether or not you go into that level of detail, there still needs to be a firm plan.

High on anyone’s list should be thinking about their presence on social media. In fact, I recommend authors work on building up their online profile even as they write their book. Blog, tweet, tease, do what it takes to flag up the coming publication. Then, when the book is finally launched, shout it from the (digital) rooftops. And then keep on shouting. Successful self publishers devote hours each day on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads and writing forums. It’s not a full time job, but it does take a lot of hard work.

Be prepared to offer freebies for reviewers, so they can review and write about your book. If they blog, or leave a rating on Amazon, or talk about it on their social media, that’s a big win. It doesn’t just engage a reader’s interest when they see a thoughtful review: get enough reviews on Amazon and it triggers the website to begin recommending the book to others. That’s free marketing. While you are about it, if a book is published on Amazon, use every available inch of space they give you in the book description and author profile and link it to your latest blogs and tweets.

It’s worth considering paying to promote a book. All the major online services offer paid-for advertising and it can be an effective way to boost a book’s profile. It is a bit of a leap of faith though and it can take some experimenting to find the right forum for a particular book. You can set a daily budget of, say, £5, £10 or £20 and see how it goes. One of the authors I worked with found huge success with a Facebook campaign to promote her novel and sold 70,000-plus copies.

Building a dedicated website for a book is a good idea. It is a relatively cheap and easy process. It doesn’t just spread the word, but keeps the conversation going too. Make sure the website looks professional and the same goes for the book cover and interior. It does make a difference to a reader’s perception.

The lesson to be learned is no book will sell itself. Success is very much tied into the amount of time and effort expended upon getting the book in front of readers. Think like an entrepreneur, launch a book as though you were starting a new business and the chances of it gaining a large following increase exponentially.