Fairy-Tale Syndrome? How to Succeed in Self-Publishing

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I imagined afternoons anchored to a writing desk, cranking out spectacular dialogue and plot twists. I pictured crowded readings, and the special hand cramp that comes from signing too many copies in a row. So I buckled down and wrote a book. And when I finally clutched the freshly inked manuscript in my hands, the dream felt closer than ever.

Fast-forward to today: I’m stuck with seven boxes of unsold books that haven’t paid rent for their closet space. When I wished to become a writer, I meant a rich and famous writer, dammit. How did this happen?

People (like me) often think that once they finish writing their book, the hardest work is behind them. It’s easy to see why we feel this way. Penning a novel is a herculean task, one that takes months or years. And when we pour so much energy into a project, it gets framed as a magic bullet. We start to believe that because our story is special, and because we want to succeed so badly, we will succeed. Wrong.

Here’s the thing. Somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published each year in the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of noise for the average American consumer who only reads about six books per year (according to Google). All in all, it’s unsurprising that the average book sells fewer than 250 copies. Remember, that figure accounts for self-published and traditionally published titles. Ouch.

More tough facts: according to a 2013 survey of 5,000 authors, the average amount earned by self-published writers in 2011 was $10,000. And half made less than $500 total…for the whole year. In September of this year the Author’s Guild delivered the jarring data that the majority of authors would be living below the Federal Poverty Level if they relied solely on income from their writing. Ouch again.

So, where did we get the impression that serendipitous success is possible? First of all, we love a good fairy tale. We canonize the ‘rags to riches’ stories of DIY authors like E.L. James, Meredith Wild, and Mark Dawson, who seem to have struck gold with their self-published novels. To make matters worse, our brain is hardwired for optimism, so we’re programmed to believe these extraordinary circumstances will happen to us. Sadly, we forget that these rising stars are the rare exceptions. The survey mentioned earlier found that less than one percent (0.6%) of self-published authors earned $200,000 or more annually, and 19% earned nothing at all. Your chance of knocking it out of the park and selling a bajillion copies is low. Like, really low. On the order of 1 or 2 in a million.

A sane person would throw in the towel. But many writers (like me) look at these numbers, shrug, and insist that they—and their writing—are special. I call this Fairy Tale Syndrome: the illusion that the raw integrity of our book will make it a skyrocketing success against all odds.

I’m not here to decide whether or not that’s healthy. I’m here to say that if we’re determined to create our own success in the world of publishing, we have to wake up to the reality of the writing business. We have to step away from our writing desks and into the marketplace. We have to arm ourselves with expert advice about how to avoid common pitfalls and create fruitful strategies. Above all, we have to be harshly honest about the hard work ahead.

My next two posts talk about how to stop banking on a miracle and start investing in practical promotional strategies. We’ll get an honest look at what it means to self-publish, and get advice from experts with boots on the ground. Your future as a writer starts with your actions now as a businessperson. So if you’re ready for the real work, roll up your sleeves and read on.