Has Amazon made self-publication genuinely viable?

When researching my book on Getting Published, I phoned a very well known self-publishing company. I was, I said, a new writer, and was contemplating self-pub. I’d like to know roughly what sales I might expect if I published with their fine company.

Oh no, no, no, said the salesman. We don’t do average, because each of our packages is individually customised to your own specification. We respond to your needs, your requirements. Blah, blah, blah.

Yes, I persisted, but on average what might I expect?

I had to ask that question 11 times before I got my answer. And finally, they gave me the total number of titles published and the total number of books sold. It turned out that this very well known publishing company sold an average of 100 copies of each of its titles. Given that some titles did genuinely well (as they kept telling me), that meant that the median was much lower. I’d guess around 60 copies. So about half their clients sold fewer than that. Some of them, many fewer.

For large numbers of people that sales figure is perfectly fine. In particular, if you self-publish a memoir, most likely you’ll want it to be read by friends and family, but won’t be too surprised if you don’t have a sales sensation on your hands.

On the other hand, for writers of fiction, that figure is most likely going to be disappointing. You want a readership – an audience who encounters you only through your books. 60 sales (less a couple of dozen friends & family) doesn’t feel brilliant.

But the issue has always been marketing. Waterstones and WH Smith and Borders and Barnes & Noble buy largely at a national level, so while you can get a few local stores to stock your books, you just can’t get the retail platform to achieve significant sales. Even if you pay £000s to get PR and marketing, you’ll likely waste your money, because those things only work if you have the retail side already arranged. Which – via self-pub – you never could.

But things are changing. Amazon’s self-pub platform has now made it possible for John Locke to sell a million copies of his novels. That’s a heck of an achievement. And it wasn’t done by heavy PR and marketing spend. (He tried that and it didn’t work.) He achieved his success via:

  1. very low pricing – his books sold at 99c
  2. blogging, tweeting and other digital marketing
  3. good web and design savvy
  4. relentless concentration. You have to achieve a critical mass, which means you have to market obsessively and concentratedly until you achieve your goal.

I wouldn’t say that’s an easy course to take, but it is now a possible one. An alternative to the options available from the older self-pub marketers. Oh, and if you happen to own a distribution system of your own (you’re writing about motorbikes and you run a motorbike’s enthusiasts forum, say), then self-pub could work really well.

And if you want to know more? Don’t ask me – I’ve always gone the traditional way (ie: with agents and commercial publishers) and I’m not close to changing yet. But you could try asking John Locke how he achieved his success. He’ll be only too happy to tell you.

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