A Masochist’s Guide to Self-Publishing

Do you want to see your book in the window of every bookstore? Right between stacks of the latest Washington tell-all and yet another Stephen King bestseller? You know. The one you bought and intend to read any day now. 

Do you want to give up your day job so you can focus 100% on writing? Knowing your last hour of dedicated writing time was spent surfing the web in a coffee shop after drinking a $12 mocha something-spice latte.

Is your class reunion a few months away and ten years ago you told your classmates you were an author? Two chapters in, you were sure you’d finish the book in a few months.

Have you planned what you’ll say when invited on a talk show hosted by Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert? Will your book be published before the next guy retires?

Do you want to live in a fantasy world for the rest of your life? That’s it! Your gritty urban drama would work better if you add in magical realism.

Are you frustrated with these increasingly uncomfortable questions and looking for some easy answers? I know I am.

There are hundreds of books that claim they will help you write a book and get published. Most of these books suffer from several problems. First, they suggest you work hard to become a success. I think I speak for most aspiring authors when I say we did not start writing because we wanted to work hard. We were “working” in coffee shops long before it became a thing.

Second—and related to working hard—these how-to books insist you write well. Or is it they insist you write good? I can never remember which one it should be and don’t like it when critics make moral judgments on my choice of words. I should be free to let my creative juices flow. At least to the point where flowing juices is just shy of being a disturbing visual image. 

Finally, a surprising number of how-to books on traditional publishing are self-published. Something about that makes me question their expertise.

You will find none of those problems in the following brief guide to unsuccessful self-publishing. “Why?” you ask, rhetorically. I can demonstrate I have lived it. I have self-published a book you have never heard of and never would hear of without me burying subtle mentions later in this piece. I have lived it and more than that, I am willing to share my learnings with you. The other guides promise a path to wealth and literary fame. They do not deliver. In this essay, I promise very little and deliver something close to that. If not less.

Let’s get started so you can see how—like me—you too can fail in self-publishing. I’ll break it down by topics because it helps me start new paragraphs.  

Randomly pick your genre. This is very important. Knowing your genre lets you understand how many people will hate your work right off the bat. This helps to set your expectations. If you decide to write erotic horror sci fi, you can be guaranteed no book club will ever touch it.   

Select an incredibly narrow market. In line with genre, you might think a focused market will mean you can dominate a small space. In my case, I wrote one of the best-selling humor books on how to write friends and family letters around the holidays. I killed it. Unfortunately, the thousandths of copies I sold apparently saturated the market.

Choose a concept so narrowly focused it is practically invisible. I chose a topic where 98% of sales are in November and December. In one aspect, this gives me an excuse for seeing low purchase volumes for ten months of the year. I ran out of excuses for the other two months.

Focus on your potential readers. This is common advice you might find in many of the previously mentioned unhelpful books. What I want you to understand from the beginning is this group does not exist. There are no potential readers for your book. You think they are out there, but they’re not. I’ll get specific in the next section, but you should take for granted the minimum and avoid disappointment. Begin with the assumption your book is the equivalent of a movie based on a niche video game that went direct to home video. 

Your friends and relatives lie. It would be a mistake to assume those who are close to you will support your efforts and form a core group of early readers. You might have decided to try writing after hearing encouraging comments from those closest to you. These people will say “You’re so clever/witty/eloquent you need to write a book.” They don’t mean it. Remember these are the same people you tell “It looks like you’ve lost weight.”

Despite this, you will try to cling to the delusion that those closest to you will rush out to buy a book. Nope. They will sit back, wait until you give them a free copy, and then fail to write an online review. Not that I’m bitter about that.

Use gut-feel to choose a title. Since you’ve been expecting it, I will relieve the tension and share the title of my self-published humor book, Zen and the Art of Christmas Letters. In a clear example of “too clever by half,” I chose a title reminiscent of a book from 1974. One that no one remembers, and where the book isn’t even remotely close to being a comp. 

I would guess you are beginning to see the genius of my choice, but there is more. By starting my title with “Z” I was guaranteed a spot at the end of any alphabetical list. Even better it is fun to watch the entries on a Google search as I type each letter of “Zen and the Art of.” The screen fills with the 1974 original and every other book whose author also thought it was a great start to a title. If you would like to go one better, I suggest you choose a title beginning with the words “Coronavirus update.” 

Write a blog or not. Every blogging expert will tell you it is crucial you regularly add updates to your blog if you expect visitors to return. This is another one of those bits of hard work advice. Take it easy. You will not have any visitors and so you don’t need to worry about them returning. If you doubt me on this, re-read the topic on friends and relatives.

Get a good headshot. Unless you are a social media influencer, this won’t matter. However, it is fun to obsess over it like it does.

Market like an introvert. Following the traditional advice, you will invest time and money in promoting your book. If this sounds like hard work again, you are correct. It also can involve direct contacts with people. As for me, I don’t spend hours at a desk because I enjoy talking to strangers. 

You won’t be surprised to learn I perfected a subtle—yet remarkably ineffective—way to market. I like to call it the “Sit Back and Wait Method.” All it requires is hitting refresh on the amazon.com sales dashboard every few hours while telling yourself patience is a virtue and I’m sure some famous author started this way. 

Do not use a vanity press. Some people feel they need to give thousands of dollars to a vanity press to lose money. While I am not quite at that level, I’m proud to say while I only lost hundreds, I did it on my own. 

By now, I hope you can see the genius behind my success. Sure, others might regard low sales numbers and scant acclaim to be a failure, but it is all a matter of perspective. I prefer to focus on the positive as I share the valuable lessons I learned along the way. Stop judging. I can feel your negative thoughts from here. 

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

1 thought on “A Masochist’s Guide to Self-Publishing

  1. Bill Barbour Reply

    It’s always a pleasure to read what has emerged from the mind of Storla. I read the Zen book and got more than a few belly laughs out of it. Chuck’s twisted mind is a blessing to us all. Just wish he’d finish something else. Ha.

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