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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 21: Pitfalls of Self-Publishing

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 21: Pitfalls of Self-Publishing


Key points: Self-publishing is not easy. You still need all the stuff that a publishing house does, and you have to do it yourself. You have to avoid the con artists. You have to be a businessperson, marketeer, and accountant. You need a business plan!

[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Larry] And I'm Larry Correia.
[Brandon] We once again have Larry Correia with us. We wanted to do this podcast with Larry because Larry is a success story. As I understand it, Larry, you self published Monster Hunter International and then gained Baen Books attention, which is a big national publisher in science fiction and fantasy, who picked up the book.
[Larry] Yeah, that's correct, Brandon. I'm that guy who did everything wrong and still got published.
[Brandon] You're the exception that proves the rule, I suppose. I don't even know what that phrase means, but I'm going to pretend I do.
[Larry] Let me just say that first off, as someone who broke into traditional publishing through self-publishing, if you can get published in the traditional manner, do it. I don't recommend self-publishing unless -- as far as traditional novels -- unless you're pretty insane...
[Brandon] Or Howard.
[Larry] Or Howard. Because he's made a real good career out of it.
[Howard] See, and I don't recommend it either.
[Dan] Well, he said traditional novels.

[Brandon] Let me ask why. You made that blanket statement. You've done both routes. You've been in both camps. You've been self-publishing, you've been in traditional publishing. Why do you say that?
[Larry] Here's the thing. I tried to go the traditional route first. I had rejection... I'm sure a lot of people listening to this podcast have been through the rejection roller coaster and have the boxes of rejection slips. I refused to give up and I decided to self publish. Now, the thing about self-publishing though is when you do that, the assumption is it's crap. If people see a self published novel, their first inclination is the only reason this is self published is it's not good. Otherwise, it would go through a regular publisher. So you already have a huge mountain that you've got to climb there to convince people that it's good. You really have got to be a master marketer and you've got to get it out in front of your audience and convince these people to spend the money on you who they are going to assume isn't that good.

[Howard] Larry, when you started publishing, did you have an existing audience that was coming to your website or something?
[Larry] Now what I did to be successful at self-publishing is... I had done a pretty large online fiction serial and I had a pretty good online following to begin with, so when I released my self published novel, I already had a pretty large group of people to jump in on that.
[Howard] You keep saying your audience was fairly good or large or whatever. How many people were coming to the website on a weekly basis?
[Larry] I used a web forum... it's actually a gun nut forum, but we'll get into that in another podcast. I used an online forum called, and I posted an online fiction serial there in conjunction with another fellow. We did it over about a six-month period where every other day one of us would post something.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Larry] Yeah, it was pretty intense. A 1000 words at a pop to 2000 words at a pop. By the time we got done, we had 120,000 hits.
[Brandon] OK. A day?
[Larry] Oh, no, no, no. That was in total. Oh, man, I wish it was 120,000.
[Howard] So 120,000 views of that forum thread?
[Larry] Those are not individual visitors. Individual visitors were probably about 10,000 people.
[Howard] That's a fantastic audience.
[Larry] So when I released the self published version of my first novel, right off the bat, I sold about 2000 copies in about six or seven weeks.
[Brandon] And that's why you did it. In fact, I've actually heard that number told to me by editors before. If they find a self published book that did 2000 copies, that's an indication that that's something to look at. Curious that you said that.
[Howard] My first book Under New Management we sold 1830 copies via pre-order in 30 days. Yeah. There's that sweet spot. If you can sell 2000 books...
[Brandon] People will pay attention.
[Larry] I got lucky in one particular respect. I had a large bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Uncle Hugo's. Don Blyly is the proprietor there, and Don... one of his former employees passed it on to him before it was ever even published. He got the word document. He started reading it and wound up printing it off on his printer. He sold the heck out of this self published novel. Don Blyly is actually the person who got me in contact with Toni Weisskopf at Baen and went from there.
[Brandon] OK. I want to add a blanket thing here. Larry has said the general assumption is, if it is self published, that it is crap. That is obviously not true. There are spectacular examples of self published novels that go very high places. The reason that a lot of people assume this is one of the pitfalls of self-publishing. I would say pitfall number one of self-publishing is the assumption that you don't need anyone else.
[Howard] Oh, yeah. If you as an author think you don't need anyone else, then you're in big trouble. You're just in trouble.
[Brandon] The big theme in self-publishing right now is... they're calling them indy books, independent books. Which... people who have this sort of independent mentality are thinking down with the big publishers, we'll get rid of all those editors that are only picking up books by celebrities and don't want to publish great fiction and we will bring to the masses the books that they want to have. The problem there is what a publishing house does is very important to your book. If you're going to self publish, the pitfall is assuming that you don't need any of that stuff. Meaning art direction, meaning copy editing, meaning editing, meaning proofreading, and a lot of these things. Because people don't do this, it brings a lot of these problems.

[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Scenting the Dark, a collection of short stories by Mary Robinette Kowal. You may remember Mary Robinette's puppetry podcast with us. She is brilliant and wonderful and we love her. If you thought she was awesome, wait until you read her stuff. Scenting the Dark, available November 30.

[Brandon] Pitfall number two in my opinion is that you have to beware of disreputable people.
[Larry] Ah, yeah. There's...
[Howard] [maniacal laughter]
[Larry] Howard? He seems pretty nice.
[Dan] Isn't that a pitfall for everything?
[Larry] There's actually a lot of vanity presses out there where they're basically looking to con money out of gullible wannabe authors. They will take your money and they're going to make you a major bestseller, they're going to make you a superstar and... they just take your money.
[Howard] Let me approach this from a different angle. We assume that self published novels are crap because they haven't passed through the traditional gatekeepers. We talk about that in the comics world all the time, that the syndicates are the gatekeepers.
[Larry] The syndicates. That sound so ominous.
[Howard] We look at them as the gatekeepers to the audience, and the audience looks at them as...
[Brandon] Quality-control.
[Howard] Yeah, as quality-control. What these vanity presses do is they say, "You know what? It's not really about quality or anything like that. It's really about whether or not you have enough money to get past the gatekeeper. We will serve as the gatekeepers, we will get you in front of this audience, all you need to do is pay us the printing costs plus X. thousand dollars for this. Those people are dishonest.
[Brandon] I'm really... for the pitfall here, I'm worried about the dishonest people. There are plenty of publishers that are vanity presses or print on demand's that are not disreputable. That will take your money to print your book, but that's what their job is and they will be up front with it.
[Howard] Those are not publishers, those are printers.
[Brandon] Printers... well, Lulu is a good example. They sometimes walk the line and tried to pretend that they are a publisher but if... they're pretty upfront with all the stuff they do. It's a good place to go. There are other ones. Who did you use?
[Larry] I used Infinity, which is similar to Lulu in that... they will kind of portray themselves... it's like, "Oh, yeah, you can be really successful doing this." Yes, you can be really successful, but you need to be not just an author, but you also need to be a businessman or an entrepreneur.
[Brandon] We'll talk about that. That's pitfall number three. But I want to go back to number two and just tell you, beware. There a lot of disreputable agents.
[Howard] What's the site called? Is it author beware or writer beware?
[Brandon] Writer beware. Read writer beware. Go to preditors and editors. Hang out on the forums at absolute write. You can find a lot of these places that will tell you about it. But there a lot of people who want your money and who don't really want to give you the service that they should. If you're going to actually pony up the money, you should be getting good service. OK. Pitfall number three, being a businessperson.

[Larry] You've got to be a businessperson. You have to be a marketeer, you have to know how to reach your audience, you have to be an accountant -- which is easy for me, being an accountant. If you come into it and you think, "Well, I'm just going to spend the money and all have this book out there and people would just come and magically buy it," you are smoking crack. You need to know how you're going to reach the people, you really need to have a business plan if you want to have success as a self published author. It was a very... I'm not a fan, but one of the most successful self published novels ever was Aragon, the dragon. What happened there was they had a very good business plan in that they went around from school to school selling copies of this book. I had a built-in audience of a couple thousand gun nuts to reach out to that already knew me from the other things that I do. On the accounting end of things, there is two ways you can go about this. Print on demand or you can print a bunch up front and then sell them. Now print on demand, the downside is that the books are going to be a lot more expensive per copy which makes them more difficult to sell.
[Howard] The profit margin is lower.
[Larry] The profit margin is much, much slimmer. However, you don't have the upfront costs of having to cough up several thousand books to print a bunch of books.
[Brandon] Which did you do?
[Larry] I actually did print on demand, because at the time, I was in business for myself, I was an entrepreneur, and I was tapped.
[Brandon] For most people, I would suggest print on demand just because people I know who self publish a lot of times... I've known a couple of them... they say, oh, this is going to do great. If I buy 5000 instead of 3000, the price goes way down per copy. They end up buying way more copies than they can... than they are ever going to sell. Realizing that a lot of the most successful self published books only sell 1000 or 2000 copies, and they're buying 10,000.

[Howard] this I would say that if you're going to self publish -- if you who are listening to this podcast right now are planning to self publish, then your business plan should be to find a way to sell 2000 books. Don't plan on making much money off those 2000 books. Plan on making money on the publishing deal you are able to sign for your next book when the publishers see that there is actually an audience, that you have an audience. That means print on demand.
[Brandon] In that case, pitfall number three is to remember you're going to have to do a lot of this stuff yourself. Everyone that I know who has been successful at self-publishing has been successful because they have a really good business sense. Which is not something that intersects with artistic writers very often. The really big ones... if you look at something like The Christmas Box, or if you look at Aragon, or if you look at you, these are people who were business people, who said, OK, I've got this book as a product. Now that half of me that is a businessperson will take this book and sell it and I know how to do that. If you don't know how to do that already, you shouldn't be even considering this. Really. Don't consider self-publishing unless you already have a business plan.
[Larry] Yeah. You're going to just basically be wasting your time and your money at that point.
[Howard] If you are a creative type who thinks I really don't want to have to interact with all of those businessy types because I hate them and I don't think I need them. You know what, just write books. Just keep writing. Just keep writing and have fun writing. Maybe some day you'll wake up and decide to hand your stuff to one of those business people. Please don't spend money.
[Brandon] In 99% of the cases, I would advise my listeners to not self publish. But I wanted to bring Larry in because you actually did it. You are the person that proves, you know what, Brandon, I'm the one percent. Getting published is like a long shot anyway. So there are many different roads...
[Howard] He's the perfect success story because he self published and then went on to traditional publishing. So you could see where you cleared those initial pitfalls but then you moved on to a model where those pitfalls aren't present and you can spend more time focusing on the writing.
[Larry] I only know of one successful author who is entirely self published traditional novels. His name is Matt Bracken. But he only writes for a very specific audience that he knows very well. But he sells about... if I recall correctly... I don't know the actual numbers... but he sells a pretty large sum of self published novels every year. But he knows his audience. He is a very successful writer in that audience and he is a rarity. Now me personally, I was so glad to break into traditional publishing and get signed up with Baen, so I could get out of that and concentrate on actually writing books. Which is much much nicer. I've sold two more books since then which has been very nice.
[Brandon] All to Baen?
[Larry] Yes.
[Howard] And you didn't have to self publish those.
[Larry] Oh, yes. It was very nice not to self publish those.

[Brandon] All right. Any last words for them, Howard, on your end? Because you're a successful self publisher...
[Howard] I'm a successful self publisher who remains self published. I remain self published because I have yet to be offered a publishing deal that continues to pay the bills.
[Brandon] I think you are in a medium where a nontraditional publisher in many ways is overtaking or at least coming up and tying with traditional publishers.
[Howard] We've talked about how important it is to have an audience. What I've found is that I have an audience, I have a large, loyal following. The only reason for me to go with a publisher is if the publisher is not looking at my audience covetously and saying I want a piece of that audience. I want the publisher to be looking at my content and saying I have an existing... the publisher already has an existing audience of millions of people and wants to put my content in front of them. That's the deal I'm willing to sign. But a deal where somebody makes it easier for me to submit stuff to my own audience? That's a sucker deal, and I'm not going to take it.
[Larry] One of the things for Howard is, he's kind of a pioneer on a relatively new medium. One of the keys for you is, you can sell... your people are primarily on the Internet ready to go. For traditional novelists, we've got to get into stores. We've got to get into Barnes & Noble, we've got to get into Borders.
[Brandon] People still don't read fiction consistently online. We've had lots of trouble with very good publishers trying to get this to work and it just isn't working. But we need to wrap this up.

[Brandon] I've got a writing prompt for everyone. Story about someone who self publishes a book which for one reason or another becomes a threat that will end the world. So someone self publishes the Necronomicon.
[Larry] So you read my book?
[Brandon] Thank you to Larry. The book is Monster Hunter International. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: accountant, business plan, marketeer, pitfalls, self-publishing

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