“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.”
― Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was truly a man ahead of his time. Never in history has it been easier to get a book published, and never has it been so difficult to get your book read.

With three books now published (four, if you count an Ecuador Itinerary book I wrote for International Living) I’ve become familiar with the pot holes on the road to becoming a Best Selling Author – or even a Barely Selling Author.

In fact, I’m reminded of the big Gold Rush that started in 1848. Over a few short years, 300,000 people flooded into what would become the state of California, ready to make their fortunes and strike it rich mining the gold in them thar hills.

But who was it who actually managed to make money? Mostly the people who sold supplies to the prospectors. Turns out there was more gold in pick axes and shovels than in the hills.

The current self-publishing boom is very similar. Good statistics are hard to find, partly because Amazon is not incredibly forth-coming with data, but it is a fact that there are now more than four million books available on their site. They have admitted that over the past five years, only 40 authors sold a million copies or more. The vast majority of writers earn less than $1000 a year, and an estimated 90% earn less than $500.

Scribe Media says that the average self-published e-book will sell between 250-300 copies over its entire history. Published books generally don’t do a lot better, averaging only 3,000 copies. Hence, it is difficult for a new author to get a publisher (more on that later).

There are of course exceptions when the lightening strikes. 50 Shades of Gray started in 2011 as a self-published e-book with on-demand printing, and went on to be a worldwide best seller and even paid off in movie rights. Andy Weir first published The Martian as a free serial on his website. To accommodate reader’s requests, he published it on Amazon and sold it for 99 cents a copy. Sales took off, and Crown Publishing made him an offer that brought him to the NYTimes Bestsellers list, and his own movie money.

If it is that difficult to make money, why is self-publishing so popular?

First, because it is easy. Anyone who can use Microsoft Word can generate an e-book. Print versions take a little extra formatting, since you have to allow for binding space on the right side of even numbered pages and left side of odd numbered, make sure chapters start on odd pages, etc. They also are easier to get uploaded and approved as pdf files, but again, not too tough. If you don’t have Word, you can even download Kindle Create from KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and start typing.

You can get up to 70% royalties direct deposited to your bank each month, and if you join Kindle Select (no charge) your book can be offered as “Free to Read” for Kindle Unlimited members. You then get paid each month based on the number of pages read (re-reading doesn’t count).

Second, the alternatives to self-publishing have formidable obstacles for the new writer. For instance, you can choose to find your own publisher. This involves first researching which publishing house might be interested in your particular genre. According to Publishers Global, there are currently 2,824 publishers in the US. Once you have narrowed the list to the ones you think will be salivating for the chance to sign you up and send you a fat advance check, it is time to write a good Pitch Letter. You need to give your credentials and at least describe your book and why people will want to read it. Many publishers will want either the first few chapters or even the entire manuscript to review. It is also common for them to want to know what market research you have done to determine there is an audience for your book, and to list five or so similar books already on the market that have sold well.

Do this a few hundred times, mail or email them all out, and then wait three to six months to be rejected.

Actually, some will not reject you outright. Instead they will reply that your book has merit, but they can only help you as a “hybrid publisher”. Hybrid publisher is the fancy new name for what used to be called back in Oscar Wilde’s time “vanity publisher”. For example, I have had three different publishers praise my work and offer me their services. I have been offered deals where they will format the book for both traditional and e-publishing, make it available to Amazon, provide me with a couple of dozen author’s copies, and my favorite empty promise “let bookstores know it is available for bulk purchase”. They do NOT offer to promote or market at all, presumably they just send out an email or press release.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention the fat advance check. Offers were from $3,000 to $6,000, only I write the check and send it to them. Yes, if I pay them enough in advance they will do basically everything I can do myself via KDP, and then merely take a small percentage of my sales when (if) I have earned back my initial payment.

What if you decide to skip all the little guys and go direct to the top five or ten publishers, like Simon & Schuster or Random House? Well, it turns out most of the big boys do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, they work only with agents. If you want to aim for the fences, you have to face that other alternative – find a Literary Agent.

At first glance, this sounds great! I get an agent, and she does all the work! She’ll contact the big boys, and fight to get me published! After all, she gets a commission based on my sales, so that’s got to be the way to go.

Not so fast. While not quite as numerous as publishers, there are upwards of 1,000 literary agents in the US right now. Even worse, you are right back where you were with the publishers, fighting to get picked up. Agents also require a pitch letter, and they want to know much the same things as the publishers. Not every agent represents every type of book, so again you need to find the ones that serve your genre. Once again, you are spending hours preparing and distributing packets, and waiting three to six months to hear they love your work but it is a competitive business and you are not already a best-selling author, so they will have to pass.

That is why in the Literary Gold Rush, so many of us go the self-publishing route and start panning for gold.

So who are the pick and shovel sellers of the writing world? There’s quite a list, some worthwhile, and some less so.

EDITORS: First up are editors, which I would classify as a worthwhile expense. For my first two books. The Galápagos Islands: On Your Own and On a Budget and An Uphill Climb: Survivor’s Guilt and the Inca Trail I went cheap. After all, I've been a published writer for years, and I've even edited some books for International Living. 

I went over the manuscripts painstakingly, looking for grammar errors, poorly turned phrases, incorrect punctuation and spelling errors. Rita then went over them as well. Despite our efforts, after publication I was still finding errors every time I took another look. Thank goodness for print on demand – I’ve uploaded no less than four corrected versions.

Contrast that with my experience with the latest, Living Abroad: Challenging the Myths of Expat Life. I sent my carefully self-edited manuscript to a company called Elite Authors for two rounds of editing. The first pass is called a Line Edit, where an editor not only flagged errors, but gave an assessment of the structure, tone, style, and the main objective of the book. His comments and suggestions were extremely useful, and frankly a good sop to my ego. Although I had nightmares of the report coming back with something like, “What an incredible piece of shite! I suggest you never write again, unless it is a suicide note!”, 

Instead this was the opening paragraph:

“This is an excellently written manuscript that was a joy to read. It offers a balanced, well-informed look at expat life while challenging many common myths about that experience. You build your credibility by stating your purpose right off the bat (i.e., not to persuade the reader either way but to offer an honest view of the topic) and then supporting your claims throughout with sound reasoning and anecdotes drawn from your own time in Ecuador and elsewhere. Though it’s not strictly a how-to book, I think this would be tremendously valuable for prospective expats, not just in helping them think through whether that life choice is right for them, but also in encouraging them to approach the process with a healthy mindset more likely to result in a positive experience. Well done!“

After I went through the edits and comments, accepting most and rejecting very few changes (the editor did not understand a Beyoncé reference. Imagine!), it was time to send it off for the more traditional Copy Edit. This focuses just on following the two pillars of the editing world, the Chicago Manual of Style and Mirriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I learned such details as when to use “might” instead of “may”, and the difference between “further” and “farther”. Once again, this came with an Editorial Letter that included such praise that I used it in the Amazon description of the book.

After both edits, on a final review before publication I found only one minor error to correct, a phrase where I had inadvertently used the word “had” twice where only one was needed.

Editing is not cheap. Depending on the number of words in your manuscript, you could pay $1500 – $2500 for the services described above.

A clean copy is so important however, that any guide you look at for self-publishing recommends you pony up the money if you want to succeed. It is considered by most an essential service, along with the next expense:

Cover Design: It is said “never judge a book by its cover”, but of course in the publishing world 99% of your potential readers are going to do just that. An attractive, eye-catching cover has been shown to be quite effective in selling your book. No matter how well written, no one will know that until they get past the cover. I used the same company for cover design as for editing, and they ended up using one of the photos I provided to create professional covers for both the e-book and the print version. You can expect to spend $300 and up for this service.

Advertising: This is the big money-suck. There are hundreds of people out there offering to help market your book, or to sell you their book on the sure-fire way to get yours to go viral. You can go as cheaply as boosting a Facebook post (if you have an author’s Facebook page), or spend several thousand on a dedicated mailing list blast. Amazon has paid ads, as well as Google. What they have in common, is that they are almost guaranteed NOT to result in enough sales to cover the expense.

Let’s look at the numbers involved. A typical book sale on Amazon nets the author between $2-$5, since the goal is to keep the sale price low enough to entice shoppers. Let’s split it and say you are getting $3 per book. That means for every three dollars you spend on advertising, you need to sell at least one book to break even. I have yet to find an advertising method that comes close to those results.

Getting Reviews: The more positive reviews you have, the more likely people are to buy your book. You will also find your book ranked higher on Amazon, and therefor get more attention and potentially more sales. Once you’ve sent copies to family and friends and begged them to write reviews, what else can you do?

Well, there are give away programs like the one offered by GoodReads. You can have a promotion where you are going to give away a bunch of e-books in a given time period, say 100 copies over two days. People can sign up to be one of the lucky 100 people, which can put you on hundred of “Want to read” lists. After a certain time, GoodReads sends an email to those 100 readers, asking them to write a review. You do not earn royalties on the free books of course, but you also are not charged for them. However, GoodReads does charge $119 for this service.

The time I tried this for An Uphill Climb I did end up on a lot of lists. It is hard to say how many copies were sold as a result, but as far as reviews I only netted 3 out of 100.

There are also plenty of businesses that will offer to send your book to reviewers who are guaranteed to write a review after they have read the book. This is first of all a little shady, as you cannot pay someone for a review. They dance around this by having you agree that you will accept the review regardless of the rating, and that their reviewers are volunteers who purchase the book. Their fee is merely for being the middle man in the exchange.

I have not used these because the fees are so high ($200 and up, plus you pay for the copy of the book) and it seems a little unethical.

Press Releases: I’m kind of on the middle ground on Press Release services. Sending a PR is going to cost at least $100. However, they get sent out to an incredibly large audience, potentially 4 million people or more. And they do sometimes get noticed. I’ve been contacted by legitimate book reviewers and did a video interview for Y’all.Com. I’ve got a video interview scheduled for later this week with another outlet, and while I was writing this blog I received an email about an interview for the Knoxville Ledger, with sister publications in Chattanooga and Nashville.

The bottom line is that if all the pick and shovel people had their way, you could easily spend over $5,000 dollars preparing, publishing, and marketing your masterpiece and still only hit that “average sales” figure of 250-300 books.

But who knows? Most authors say you need to just keep publishing, that once you have four or five books out there, they start feeding off each other and your audience will grow. It is true that since publishing Living Abroad this month, my other two books have also seen an increase in sales. Maybe slow and steady really does win the race.

Of course, most of us don’t do this for the money anyway. We write because we like the idea of reaching out and touching other lives. If I hit the lottery I won’t complain of course, but for me there is nothing to compare to that feeling I get when I know that I have connected with someone I’ve never met (or never will meet) and made them smile, laugh, cry, or just think a little.

On the other hand, Mr. Wilde also said “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I am old, I know that it is.”