The Inimitable Success of the Self-Published
There are quite a few authors around the world who have sold a lot of books on their own when they didn’t with publishers, and rather than seeing this as their own success, they see it as their publisher’s failing. They may go on to say how they can teach publishers about how to make an author into a millionaire, if those publishers were to listen. There are probably books on this very subject out there right now, ‘How to Promote Your Novel’ and so forth, by self-proclaimed gurus of the subject.
(As an aside, I am incredibly sceptical of books like this, as I am of anyone who writes a blog about how to make money. Alan Sugar knows how to make money, and he doesn’t go around telling people how to do it, you know what I mean?)
So, being that I do work for a publisher and I do want to make all our authors millionaires, over the past three months I have been reading all the blogs out there that I can lay my mouse button on about self-promotion, about self-belief and about and about getting people to read your books the self-published way. Here’s what I have learnt.
Not because the blogs are wrong (I’ve not seen any really bad advice given) but because they’re self-evident. It is all common sense that can be summed up in the sentence: know your audience and be visible to them.
To be honest, maybe a mainstream publishing house trying to learn from self-published authors is doomed from the start. Self-published books do not easily transpose themselves into successful mainstream books. Something that is praised as a ‘word of mouth phenomenon’ when the author is tweeting reviews ten to twelve times per day would be referred to as ‘overhyped’ if a publisher were to do it.
Equally, though, what works for one self-published author (for example a giveaway and a bunch of chapter extracts on Goodreads) might not work for another in exactly the same genre.
Because the model for success defies definition. There is no sure thing. Tastes are governed by something that can’t be mapped, by something that doesn’t easily translate from one product to another. It can’t be boiled down to review coverage or marketing spend or visibility online.
This is not a change of tide. It happens all the time. In publishing houses, unexpected books have gone massive, or assumed best-sellers have flopped. It happens that fashion labels release an unsuccessful line, or that an Indie film makes millions. Unexpected success comes from everywhere. This disruption is good: it means there’s no guiding hand bending readers to its will, and what we were reading last year isn’t going to be the same as what we’re reading tomorrow.
Equally it means that learning success from a massive author (be them self-published or no) is a fallacy.
Here’s something publishers can learn from self-published authors: publish stuff you believe in, and love it relentlessly. Secret formulas are for those in the fried chicken business (and also Disney).