What Do Self-Publishing Success Stories Have in Common?


This time last week I was checking into Fitzpatrick’s Castle Hotel ahead of the One Stop Self-Publishing Conference, wondering what the fudge I was going to talk about for 45 minutes (or 30 minutes; a Q&A could stretch 15, right?) and hoping I wouldn’t see any ghosts in my hotel room as SOMEONE – I’m looking at you, Gareth Cuddy –  had told me the day before that the place was haunted.

(It wasn’t, and I managed to speak for – I think – about half an hour. Hooray on both counts.)

But while I wasn’t chugging back the coffee or getting sweaty palms at the thought of my own talk, I got to listen to the conference’s other speakers and chat and swap stories with some of the self-publishers in attendance. Two of the most popular sessions on the day were AJ Healy (Tommy Storm) and Benji Bennett (Before You Sleep), and listening to them and the other speakers it was easy to see common themes emerging in their stories of great self-publishing success.

1. Treat it like a business

While you were writing the book, you were a writer. You could live la vie boheme, hang out in Parisian-style cafes smoking Marlboro reds and talk about how you’d spend your last euro on a book instead of food because art nourishes you more. (Or, if you’re me, spend much of the day in your PJs dreaming about hanging out in Parisian cafes.) This was allowed, because you were a writer – a creative, head-in-the-clouds type. But once you turned your scribbles into a book, slapped a price tag on it and encouraged/begged people to buy it, you got into business. As a self-publisher, you essentially became an entrepreneur.

I’m continually amazed at stories of self-publishers who lob their book on Amazon, set up a static website and then sit back and relax, expecting the readers to come to them, just as I am at people who don’t want to spend any money at all to produce or sell their book. (Is this you? A quick test: how do you feel about giving away free copies of your book to reviewers, bloggers, journalists, etc.? Unless the answer is I fully expect to and will gladly then you’re playing the wrong game, sunshine.)

You might tell me, “But I don’t have any money!” Fair enough. But if you didn’t have money in the morning, would you go ahead and open a restaurant or start a new company or invest in someone else’s? No, of course not. Self-publishing Mousetrapped, I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had some. More importantly, I was prepared to spend it.

Selling any product – including books – is a business endeavor. Treat it as such.

2. Self-publishing doesn’t mean DIY

Both Healy and Bennett are the publishers of record of their own books, but that doesn’t mean that they sat down with a box of Crayola to draw the illustrations or produced copies using a Canon inkjet and a long-arm stapler. They sourced their own editors, designers, typesetters, distributors and others, and Bennett even enlisted the Oscar-nominated animation studio Cartoon Saloon to illustrate his book. In order to produce a quality product you must hire professionals to do the job, and unless you yourself are one of those professionals, there’s no getting away from it. Think of it this way: every time you do a job on your book yourself that could be done better by someone else – someone who makes a living doing it – the quality of the end product dips a little. (Or a lot, in some cases.)

Obviously this varies depending on your chosen method of self-publishing, not to mention your goals. In my own self-printing adventures, I chose a Print on Demand service to produce copies of my book (although I ordered proofs from two of them first to check and compare the quality) and as I sell almost exclusively online, I didn’t need to worry about things like a book distributor or sales agent. However I did get an editor to proofread my work and used a graphic designer to make my cover, and sought advice from industry professionals on things like the blurb wording, etc. before publication. My effort was relative to my goal of selling 1,000 copies in the first year. If my goal had been to, say, sell 5,000 copies in the first year, I would have done things differently. (I would have had to get into bookshops, for example. That would have meant a more complex cover, preparing a professional pitch to present to distributors, booksellers, etc. and a print run as opposed to POD.)

Whatever your goals, aim for a high quality product that’s professional presented. The test should be this: if your book was on a shelf with a collection of traditionally or mainstream published titles, would it stand out in a good way or a bad way, or at all?

3. The book isn’t all you’re selling

I spoke on Saturday about how, as the author of a book about working in Disney World, NASA and the Ebola virus (among other strange things), I had to approach promoting it from an angle other than, Do you like this stuff? I wrote a book about it. For me, this meant getting people interested in reading more of my writing, regardless of the topic, and I did this through my blog and Twitter. Essentially, I made me the product.

Both Healy and Bennett have very interesting back stories about how they came to self-publish. Healy – like myself, except with a bit more forward-thinking, perhaps! – gave up everything to pursue his writing dreams. Tragically, Bennett was inspired by the untimely death of his young son to write a children’s book about parents spending time with their children. These facts are more likely to stick in an adult’s mind than the subject matter of their books, but they will encourage that adult to buy the book for a child.

Not to mention press coverage. Some self-published authors think that in order to get in the print media, on the radio or on TV, you have to know someone or hold some magic key. You don’t. All you need is a good reason for them to put you on there. Remember that without interesting stories, only reality TV would survive. Help them help you. Bennett has been on the holy grail of Irish TV, The Late Late Show, and I’ve read about Healy countless times in national and local press. While promoting Mousetrapped, I wrote a 3 page Word document with headings like, The Story Behind Mousetrapped, About the Author, etc. and emailed it to 5-6 reporters whose email addresses I found in Cork newspapers. Out of it I got two different stories in the Evening Echo, a two page spread covering the launch and an hour long radio interview (where – bonus! – I got to choose the music played too!).

It’s easier than you think to get people publicizing your story. Figure out what’s unique about you and then spread the word.

If I can sound like a cheesy self-help author for a second, self-publishing is a lot like life: you get out what you put in. If you treat self-publishing like a business, hire professionals to carry out every aspect of producing and promoting your book and acknowledge that the book isn’t the only thing you need to get people interested in, you can expect the same level of success as Healy and Bennett have had. (Healy’s self-publishing success led to a mainstream deal and Bennett won an Irish Book Award. Both have impressive sales figures.) The outcome is relative to the input.

Therefore if you enlist no one’s help but your own, upload to a POD and then go watch some TV… well, you might experience something a little different.

Read more about my self-printing adventures.

Read about Mousetrapped, the book I self-printed.

Read my notes from my talk last Saturday, Using Social Media to Sell Books.