How to Self-Publish and Not Go Broke

One of the core principles of communication they taught in my college business classes was: If you present a problem without offering a solution, you’re just whining. I started this blog with the intention of helping new and aspiring writers navigate the world of (self-)publishing, and that is still its primary focus, despite the occasional rant and whine.

With my last post, I presented a problem: Self-publishing costs time and money.

With this one, I would like to present a few workarounds and practical solutions that basically boil down to: It doesn’t mean you have to go broke to do it.

Be forewarned, this will be a very long post that essentially summarizes a large portion of this entire website, but I wouldn’t post it if I didn’t think it was important.

So let’s take it from the top.


The Process of Self-Publishing in 12 (Not So) Easy Steps


  1. Write a book
  2. Get it edited
  3. Copyright it
  4. Write your blurb and tag line
  5. Choose your distribution strategy and timeline
  6. Create your distribution accounts
  7. Format your book
  8. Cover your book
  9. Set your price
  10. Upload the files
  11. Click Publish
  12. Promote like the entire future of your writing career depends on it.

This list will be the basis for what’s about to follow. You’ll notice not all of the items on that list have a monetary cost attached to them. But I did say “time and money,” didn’t I? 🙂 That’s because your time is money. Free time isn’t really free. It’s time you could spend with your loved ones, or chilling out by yourself. Every hour you put into being a writer is work. Even if you don’t want to call it that. It’s work you expect to get paid for in the future through royalties, so it’s a cost that is meant to be recouped.

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August #AuthorTip: Stay in The Know

Continuing this post series with a tip for keeping in the loop:


Keep informed about the state of the industry.

Just writing and publishing blindly is like throwing marbles against the wall. Knowing what’s happening in the book, eBook, and audiobook markets and their biggest players will help you form your pricing, distribution, and marketing strategy. Any time a publisher or bookstore goes under, it has a huge impact. The Barnes & Noble buyout is definitely something that should be on your radar. Also because they’re such a huge player, anything Amazon does is always a big deal. For example, did you hear about the new Audible Caption feature? If your books are out on audio, you should have. If this actually goes live, it might be a determining factor to whether or not you distribute your audiobook to Amazon. It will definitely be for me.

Remember, regardless of whether you publish alone or through a publishing house, you are now a small business owner. The more you know, the harder it’ll be for others to take advantage of you and the better off you’ll be in the long run.

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On eBooks and DRM

The buzz stories from the last month are all about the state of the publishing world. Kristen Lamb did a series of really well-researched and written articles:

If you’re serious about becoming or continuing to be a published writer, do yourself a favor and read both of them. Trust me.

But for today, I want to focus on another article:

Ebooks Purchased From Microsoft Will Be Deleted This Month Because You Don’t Really Own Anything Anymore

First of all (and shame on me), I had no idea Microsoft started dipping its toes into the eBook business. But from the looks of it, that’s all they ever did, and they quickly regretted the choice. My guess is, they had no idea what they were getting into and weren’t in the least prepared for it. And now a lot of their customers are going to be very, very upset.

So here is where I put in my two cents’ worth.

Something many people don’t know about eBooks is that when you buy one from a Big Name store (Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble), you don’t actually purchase the book, you purchase the license to read the book. That has always been the case, and it means the article is very much correct: You do not actually own the content you purchased. You basically just own the right to access and read it whenever you want for as long as the store that sold it to you is in business. You are placing your faith and buying power behind the idea that your chosen store will remain in business indefinitely (or at least as long as you live).

These days, with the publishing landscape constantly shifting the way it is, there is a certain level of risk involved in doing that. But it’s the price we pay for convenience. You want your content delivered instantly to your device? That means giving the store access to your device and all its content. You want your content accessible anywhere from the Cloud? That means entrusting your content to someone else’s servers.

This is very much a faith-based business and sometimes, as in the case of Microsoft, that faith ends up being misplaced.

I know, it seems really unfair, but there is actually a good reason for things being set up the way they are.

Digital files work differently than physical copies. It’s time-consuming and expensive to make even ten copies of a printed book. Not really worth the effort when it comes to redistribution. But with an eBook, you can redistribute the file to an infinite number of people with just one click. That’s an infinite number of pirate copies of someone’s hard work just floating around the Internet for anyone to download without paying for it. It’s potentially several fortunes’ worth of royalties the author has just lost with the simple click of a button. Years and decades of hard work flushed right down the toilet, and back to square one.

This is where Digital Rights Management (DRM) comes in. It’s a piece of code that effectively locks your eBook so you can’t share it illegally. It’s there to protect authors as well as bookstores against illegal file sharing (piracy). It’s restrictive, but well-intentioned, and well within the store’s rights to protect its bottom line. After all, they’re not in the business of giving stuff out for free.

But with every lock, there will come a day when someone makes a counterfeit key. So it is with DRM. People everywhere are now sharing tips and tools for removing this piece of code, as if it’s a matter of course. They usually have valid reasons, like protecting their content from being taken away, or converting it to a different format so they can read it on a third party device. Mostly it’s due to a lack of understanding (you didn’t buy the book, but a license to it) or misguided entitlement (“I bought the book, so I should be able to do whatever I want with it!”)

But regardless of their reasons, removing DRM from an eBook is still against the eBook store’s TOS and (I believe) illegal, to boot.

Side Note: This is why I am staunchly against proprietary software, file formats, and monopolies in general. Big Name stores forcefully create loyal customers by making it convenient for readers to buy their content and highly inconvenient to “cheat” on them with other platforms and content. Think how impossible it is to transfer the songs you bought on iTunes to a different brand MP3 player. Same concept. Once you start using one proprietary platform, you sort of lock yourself into it. They don’t play well with others.

So what can you do to make sure your investment is protected?

As an author:

#1 Publish as wide as possible to give your readers options for buying your books. This not only makes the buying experience more pleasant for your readers, it protects your book from being uploaded to a store by someone else.

FYI: This happens a lot, especially to authors exclusive to Amazon. Someone will take a book, strip the DRM and upload to another store under their own account to illegally rack up sales for themselves. If/when Amazon find out, they can flag your account for having published elsewhere against their TOS. So not only do you get robbed of sales by a pirate, you also lose your legitimate royalties.

#2 Direct readers to all the places where they can buy your books, not just the ones you prefer. You never know where your readers like to shop. Giving them a link directly to a variety of stores makes it easier for readers to find and buy your book.

#3 If at all financially feasible, set up your book in print as well. If you can’t afford IngramSpark, go for LuLu. If you are a die hard Amazon fan, you can also use their KDP platform to create your paperback but I hear it’s gone down hill quite a bit since the days of CreateSpace.

As a reader:

#1 Take the time to understand what you’re paying for when you shop at a particular store. Microsoft is not the only store using DRM. They are not the only ones that can go under at a moment’s notice. Having a Big Name does not guarantee a store’s future success.

#2 Shop at stores that give you several options for file formats and don’t use DRM (Smashwords.com is an excellent example). Any time a store doesn’t have a dedicated reader device or app, they are more likely to give you options so you can use whatever reader or app you prefer.

#3 Purchase hard copies instead of eBooks. Yes, they are more costly but, if you’re like me and re-read your favorite books every year, it’s more than worth it. Plus, a bookshelf full of books is a beautiful addition to any home. 😉

Practicing what I preach: 

If you’re still with me, know that this is not one of those, “Do as I say, not as I do” things. I make my own books available worldwide, as eBooks and paperbacks (with only a couple exceptions), and I am slowly putting them into audiobook production, too.

You can purchase them at the Big Name stores (Amazon, B&N, Apple Books, Kobo) but if you want to have the freedom of eBook format choice, I recommend buying them from Smashwords.

For paperbacks, it’s always appreciated when you support your local independent bookstore and request a copy through them. It helps create some healthy competition in the marketplace and supports your neighborhood small business owners. 🙂 But if that’s not your thing, there’s always Books-A-Million as an online alternative.

If cost is an issue, I recommend checking with your local library. They may already have the eBook or even paperback version available and, if not, you can always request them. It saves you money, helps support the library system, and still gets authors paid. Win-win-win.

For those unfamiliar with my work, I write cross-genre, mostly science fiction or fantasy with varying degrees of romance. Each series is very different from the others, so buyer beware–you may love one and end up hating another. Here is a chart to help you navigate the different series:

You can always find more information and additional buying options on my author website: aliannedonnelly.com

Thanks for reading!

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Let’s Talk About Piracy

This morning, I woke up with a fun, catchy song in my head. I was in a good mood, ready to tackle the day, and then I logged onto Facebook. I write this for both authors and readers, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t address it on this website. It may end up a bit ranty (there may be profanity, too), but I hope you’ll forgive that. Every time this particular topic comes up, it feels like death by a million paper cuts with a bonus lemon juice bath. I hope you’ll read it, anyway.

For the sake of not making this go viral, I won’t post the image that completely ruined my good mood, but I do want to address the subject of book piracy. Everyone loves a freebie, right? There’s no harm in downloading just one book, right? It’s just a drop in the bucket for authors who make money hand over fist, anyway, and after all, it’s just one book.

The way I see it, piracy happens for one of two reasons: ignorance, or entitlement and apathy. The former is fairly easy to dismantle with just a bit of accurate (if painful) information. The latter, not so much. So let’s talk…


“But it’s just one book. I give away my paperbacks all the time. I paid for it, it’s mine. Who the hell are you to tell me what to do with something I paid for?”

You’d think the vehemence was exaggerated. It’s not. But here’s what many people don’t know, or consciously realize:

Print books and eBooks are not the same. A printed book is one copy of the product. Very cumbersome to replicate by copying or scanning, and why bother when you can just buy another one fairly cheap? eBooks are digital files–tiny ones at that, just a few kilobytes, all told. It takes two seconds to upload an eBook to a server and make it public. That eBook will live there forever and can be downloaded countless times by countless people, all of whom will have the ability to send a copy on to countless other people without losing access to the original. Printed books have a shelf life. eBooks don’t. That means there is literally no limit to how many people can get illegal copies them.

Here’s what that means for the author: Hundreds and thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of lost royalties. In many cases, that’s a full-time income the author has just lost. Literally, a livelihood stolen right out from under them. And no, I am not exaggerating. In recent years, I have lost count of the number of authors I have seen hang up their writing hats because they just can’t afford it anymore. Many of them had to go back to seeking full time jobs, which is never easy, especially after you’ve been out of the workforce for a while.

To a reader just looking to pass the time, that one eBook is a few hours of entertainment. To its author, it’s hundreds of hours of work, not just writing it, but promoting it as well. It’s an on-going, full time job. Yes, we do it for the love of writing–for ourselves. But when we share it with the world, it becomes a product. It costs money to put it out there, and it needs to generate revenue, or it’s not worth continuing.


“How is it entitlement if I just want to read and can’t afford the books?? You should be grateful someone reads your books at all.”

I’m going to pause here for a moment to take a deep breath and master my emotions. Okay. First of all, that is the definition of entitlement. You can’t afford it? But authors should be able to afford to give away their livelihoods for free? You can’t afford it, so it’s okay to steal? No. It’s not okay. I’m sorry for your personal circumstances that prevent you from being able to buy a book you really, really want to read, but that does not make it okay for you to steal a copy. There are these things called libraries where they actually make books available for free. They buy them on your behalf, so the author doesn’t have to skip a meal, and then loan them to you for a time so you can enjoy the stories without having to shell out a dime. There are these things called book sales where authors make their books available at a much lower cost, or even free, where you can grab a copy totally guilt-free.

It just so happens, I currently have one of these floating around:

Catch Me is FREE at Smashwords until 7.31.2018, so feel free to check it out. Click the title, or the image to go directly to the Smashwords product page. If you feel adventurous, book 2 of this series is also discounted until the end of July.

 

See how this works? I, the author, make this book available to the reader and invite them to download from a legitimate bookseller. I’m far from the only one. All you have to do is go to Smashwords, set your filter to FREE and you’ll find hundreds, thousands of free titles right there for your enjoyment.

“How’s that any different?” you ask. Here’s how:

When a library purchases a book, it’s a sale for the author. They get paid for that. When they discount their own book, it’s their choice as a marketing strategy. Even free downloads (if they’re legitimate) can help an author’s career. Those downloads are tracked; they affect the book’s ratings and visibility. The higher it is on the ranking list, the higher the chance others will want to buy a copy, and authors get paid for that, too. Pirate sites, on the other hand, do none of that. They’re basically a black hole of nothing for the author.

As for being grateful, please excuse the profanity, but in this case, there is really no other way I know to reply, except to say, “Fuck you.” That is all the answer you deserve for even thinking something like that about an author who puts their heart and soul into a book, much less saying it aloud, to their face. So, at the risk of being redundant, I say again: Fuck. You.


“I just want to check out the author first to see if I like them. I don’t want to shell out money on a no-name and end up hating the book. I’ll buy a legit copy if I like it!”

It may surprise you to hear this, but this is not actually a valid reason for pirating a book. Authors and stores go to great lengths to give you every opportunity to check out a book before you buy. If you don’t look at the sample, that’s on you. That’s you deliberately choosing to turn a blind eye to the legitimate option in favor of piracy. It may also surprise you to hear that those “no-name” authors you are so eager to sample are the ones who are hurt by piracy the most, because they depend on their royalty income the most. They don’t have a solid readership to keep them afloat, or side income from book merch, or movie or TV series rights. They literally depend on every single penny they get from royalties.

It may seem innocent, but this is just another form of entitlement. “I should be able to read it first and then decide if it’s worth paying for.” Well, no. The very fact that you do want to read it first means it’s worth paying for. You don’t go to a restaurant and say, “Serve me first, and if I like it, I’ll pay for my meal.” You don’t go to a store and say, “Let me wear this T-shirt for a few weeks, and then I’ll decide whether it’s worth paying for.” For that matter, no movie theater in the world will let you in to watch a movie without buying a ticket first. eBooks are no different. If you pirate one, no matter how you justify your decision to do so, you are stealing. You are supporting a system that robs authors blind. There is nothing you can say that will ever make that acceptable.


“Holy crap, this is really awful! I hate that my favorite authors have to go through this. How can I help?”

Now that is the right response. 🙂 Thank you. I mean that sincerely. You’d be surprised how good it is to hear that someone out there actually cares, and even wants to help. If you really want to help your favorite authors, buy their books. That’s all. Don’t look for them on pirate sites. If you happen across one, or someone sharing a link to one, report the person and tell the author. It’s not easy, but there are steps authors can take to curb piracy–if they know about it. Tell people about your favorite books and when you do, tell them where they can be bought. Share with your friends when you see an author has a sale or promotion going on. It helps both the author, and the readers who might otherwise balk at paying full price.

Authors are not unsympathetic, believe me. Many of them will go to great lengths to get books into the hands of their struggling readers. But please realize we’re human, too. We have families, and mortgages, and medical bills, and this is not a hobby. It’s our job. We work at it non-stop, without breaks, vacations, and often times without support or encouragement. We do our jobs well, and we shouldn’t have to justify our need to get paid for it.

Thank you for your time.

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The REAL Picture Ain’t Always Rosy

This article came out in 2012, with statistics from a self-published book world survey saying that about half of all self-published authors make less than $500 per year from book royalties. Now, keep in mind that this was five years ago, right about the time when the self-publishing boom peaked. Things have changed quite a bit since then and, while inspiring stories of success still abound, the hard, ugly truth is that there are now more independent authors, and more books getting published on a daily basis than ever before, which further reduces the odds of any one book making it big. The landscape of stores and distributors has changed as well. As always, Amazon still dominates both the market place and the discussion, with its ever-expanding reach into different aspects of the publishing world, but keep in mind the eBook industry is international, and current events in foreign countries will also play a role in the success of a book or author.

In many ways, the bleak statistics from the article make sense, given that a vast number of self-published authors don’t follow the “standard” format of publishing. Since distributors and stores only impose the most basic quality controls, a lot of self-published books suffer from lack of sales because the author simply didn’t deliver at a level readers expect for the price. Maybe the cover is awful. Maybe the book isn’t formatted properly and is difficult to read. Maybe it hasn’t been edited, and the reader gets tired of seeing fifteen typographical errors on every page, and having to guess at the meaning the author may have intended. Maybe the author doesn’t really care. Maybe their only intention was to make their stories available to a small circle of their friends and loved ones, and they have no interest whatsoever in making a career out of their writing.

The great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do that. The bad thing about it is that the circle of distribution is never that small.

This has always been and always will be a sore point between authors and readers, and the sales slump we are seeing now could very well be a sign that the market is self-correcting: weeding out the “bad apples” so the good ones can thrive.

However, another reason for low royalties is the continuing downward pricing pressure in the industry. With subscription services gaining popularity, voracious readers can now consume dozens of eBooks for a low monthly fee. When comparing that “basically free” phenomenon with a regularly priced eBook, and given the high volume of books they read on a regular basis, those regularly priced eBooks can seem overpriced. Any savvy consumer will want more for less–that’s perfectly understandable. But it puts the pressure on authors to price their eBooks lower, to offer some or all of them for free, and to do it with a smile on their face, even as they are (metaphorically) cutting off pieces of themselves to gain a foothold in the fickle book market.

Publishing has now become a matter of quantity, rather than quality. The more books you publish, the more sources of revenue you have. You make more selling 100 copies of a $0.99 book than you would selling 10 at $3.99. Faster releases piggyback off their own buzz waves, and keep the word of mouth flowing easier than if an author publishes one book every two years. Even if those slower releases are longer, better, and better presented, many times they will fail simply because readers lose interest and forget by the release date. With so many other options to choose from, instant gratification tends to win out.

From where I’m sitting, those 2012 stats don’t look like they apply any longer. I would estimate that the average annual income for self-published authors is slightly lower now and, having seen a number of authors quit over the last couple of years in order to get full time jobs because of financial problems, it hasn’t gotten any easier to make ends meet on just book royalties.

For this, and many other reasons, the best advice any author or industry professional will ever give you is this:

Write what you love, because you love it.

That love will sustain you through good times and bad. If you don’t have it, if writing doesn’t spark a fire in your soul and consume your every waking moment, all the hardships, setbacks, obstacles, and detours will eventually wear you down and kill any enjoyment you may have started out with. You can’t write to popular trends, because those change in a heartbeat. You can’t write to your audience, because their tastes will change and evolve overtime. You can never please everyone, and readers will feel your lack of passion through your written word.

Every author secretly holds out hope for the “bestselling author” title and J.K. Rowling-class fame, but if you write for the fame and fortune alone…well, as you can see, there is precious little of that to go around.

So here’s another piece of advice I feel I should impart:

Go into this with your eyes open, and a backup plan at the ready.

Knowing what you’re getting involved in, what you can expect, and how to compensate will not only save your sanity, but also keep you afloat when others around you might be sinking. Set the groundwork before you publish your first book: have an online platform and a strong social media presence to build a powerful wave of initial interest. It could mean the difference between creating a readership and fading into obscurity before you have a chance to shine. If you have a day job, hold onto it to pay the bills. Save up for the initial expenses (because they do exist and are necessary) and budget yourself to only what you can afford. Keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry and make a plan for every contingency. And above all, don’t put all of your eggs into one basket. Hedge your bets, publish everywhere possible to reach as many readers as possible.

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