Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Self-publishing wake-up call No. 999


Just finished reading Alina Simone’s piece in the NYT about the plight of creative artists in our winner-take-all economy. She tells a familiar tale of having to self-promote her music after the label that had signed her went bankrupt. She wound up putting the album out herself and found the whole thing highly daunting:

“What I missed most about having a label wasn’t the monetary investment, but the right to be quiet, the insulation provided from incessant self-promotion. I was a singer, not a saleswoman. Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur.”

Simone was somehow rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of an editor who contacted her out of the blue and asked if she might want to write a novel. She did. And it was published, and now she teaches and has time to write, and I’m guessing does her music too. She’s also best buds with Amanda Palmer, who was her bridesmaid. (This is where I rolled my eyes and went, “WTF?”)

But her particular too-good-to-be-true story aside (one suspects inside contacts), she makes some excellent points about what artists have to do to be noticed, much less make a little money. (And the comments to the article are revealing as well.) As I’ve talked about recently, the fact that the consumer doesn’t wish to pay for songs or books anymore makes it hard to earn a living like this. You must become a carnival barker and tout your wares all over virtual Christendom if you want to climb the rungs of Amazon’s sales ladder, but in doing so you become, well, tiresome. You must sell things other than your books or songs: shirts, mugs, services, stunts. In other words: You gotta put yourself out there, man!

So, I’m about to publish a book in this environment, and to be perfectly honest I’m not optimistic. I don’t want to be an entrepreneur. I want to write. There’s no deus ex machina on my horizon, and, frankly, I don’t really believe in the entrepreneurial tactics everyone (mainly self-dubbed “experts”) is selling. Mainly they sell them to earn their own living. You know the ones. They peddle webinars and books and DVDs and personal consultations and blog tours, and you almost start to believe these things might make a difference. They don’t. Not really. I think they make the writer feel proactive, but I can’t imagine they translate into big sales.

A few things make me skeptical about all of this in a way that doesn’t bode well for Yesterday Road (though I’m going ahead with publication in spite of my doubts!):

1) My blog traffic is down and flatlining lately. Not sure why.

2) Twitter and Facebook are completely ineffective in attracting committed followers, i.e., potential readers. (And I confess that I all but completely ignore other writers’ Twitter promotions because they are so clearly automated and constant.)

3) People closer to me than online acquaintances have not been able to garner much support for my project, other than promising to buy the book themselves. Our Children Are Not Our Children has not been a hot seller, but then again I haven’t put much into selling it. My own efforts at promotion haven’t yielded great results, and frankly, though this blog now has almost 600 total followers, only about 10% of them seem to read it consistently. I can’t complain about that. People are busy.

4) Experience in the music business (see, for example, Blaise Lucey’s blog) tells me that frustration is the norm and nominal success the exception in independent marketing. Word of mouth does more than all the online hype a band can generate. Easy to extrapolate that to writers.

5) My study of independent ebook publishing suggests that it is so heavily slanted toward genre fiction — and I’m sorry but I really don’t get the popularity of faerie stories, Game of Thrones clones, vampire novels, YA dystopian lit, et al. — that the chances of a literary novel finding readers seem slim.

In short, it’s an uphill climb from here on out. I’m shooting for a launch date of October 22 for Yesterday Road.

So anyway. I’m in Alina’s camp. Only I don’t know Amanda Palmer.

Amanda? Call me?

24 comments on “Self-publishing wake-up call No. 999

  1. TheGirl
    September 27, 2013

    Well my book I’m publishing is fiction (though far short from a fairy tale). I’m with you all the way about self-promotion it is daunting and if you can hire someone to do it for it, you can try and take a look at elance for some professionals.

    But anyway, as for your blog I’m experiencing something similar, ppl are busy and if most of your followers are other bloggers than I have news for you. The average “blog” lasts four months, so likely the person who subscribed to you last year is no longer coming back to check their feeds. So you have to look for new followers. As for your social media accounts, how engaged are you? Are posting new things everyday answering questions from followers.

    With advertisement, I hear that at best only 10% will respond to an advert they see (think about it, you don’t buy every product that you see advertised?) So if 100 folks see your blog link, only 10 may check it out, then 1 or 2 may subscribe. Thus that’s how much you need to put yourself out there to get people to check you out and buy something.


    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2013

      Thanks for these observations. I hadn’t heard the stat about most blogs lasting only four months, but monitoring my WordPress Reader seems to bear that out. As for response to ads, I think the rate might be even less. For a while I was using Buffer to manage my Twitter posts, and since it kept track of how many clicks each post got I could see what kind of interest there was. Guess what. Most posts got 0 clicks. A small handful got 1. The rare post got 2. For posts in which I was actually trying to sell something, the number was invariably 0.

      Not to gripe, but I just wonder if the extreme dedication to promotion will actually be worth it.

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m going to follow your blog now!

      • TheGirl
        September 28, 2013

        Thanks for taking a look Kevin. I’m not sure when you started promotion, but it takes a good 3 months before you see anything. Meanwhile, there are lots of tutorials on how to create engaging content for your fans. If you like to pick my brain just email me.

  2. francisguenette
    September 27, 2013

    No doubt about it, Kevin – promoting a self-published book is one long uphill slog! I’m with you on that one. I agree that word of mouth from a few devoted fans does more than all the automated tweeting in the world. (I just drop those people!) I’m trying to take the long view on this whole proposition – get the next book and the next book and the next book out there and see what happens. I learned a couple of interesting stats the other day – the average traditionally published books sells 500 copies (not enough, by the way, to even pay out a small advance). The average self-published book sells a very modest 250. Pretty small potatoes. Odds are we’re not going to end up as Norah Roberts and Stephen King – but what the heck – writers must write and how many of the greats toiled away in obscurity.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2013

      You hit the nail on the head, Francis. We have to just keep on keepin’ on, with less obsession over how many copies sell and more on the next book. Over the long haul, we might grow a small but devoted readership, which is a nice reward for what we do.

      BTW, if you didn’t see the other comment, thanks for your review of Our Children Are Not Our Children!

  3. angelajardine
    September 28, 2013

    I self-published my book The Catalyst about 14 months ago and despite mixed reviews – it seems to polarise people between those who constantly want fairy tale endings and those who want something a little unusual – I have still hardly sold many.

    The Select giveaways however saw thousands being downloaded so I think you’re right … people don’t want to pay for our work. It’s just too easy to seek out free stuff all the time. And I have no idea what the answer is to having to the whole nightmare media whore scenario … give up writing? Pfft, like we can do that anyway.

    I think you have written an honest appraisal of what is happening in the traditional publishing and self-publishing industry … and just as disappointing is the fall in my blog readers too. There are simply just too many of us doing the same thing, I suppose.
    Thanks for this post … I just wish there were answers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2013

      Thanks for your thoughts, Angela. You’ve been in the trenches for more than a year now, so it’s eye-opening to hear about your experience. I’m still debating whether to do the Select thing or not, wondering whether thousands of downloads is my goal or tens of sales. It would be interesting to see some stats on how many free downloads actually get read and translated into reviews, for instance, or sales of other books.

      And, no. Giving up writing seems impossible. Sometimes I wish I could, but…

      I’m following your blog now too! Thanks for visiting.

  4. Pingback: Finding Your Own Blogs to Tour On « disappearinginplainsight

  5. francisguenette
    September 29, 2013

    Hey Kevin – would you like to come on over to my blog and do a guest post in Oct. – you choose the topic. Email me at guenettefrancis@gmail.com and we can toss around some ideas.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 29, 2013

      Sounds great, Francis! Thanks for asking! I’ll drop you a line…

      Thanks too for the mention in your post today. 😉

  6. 1WriteWay
    September 29, 2013

    Ha, here’s where I get really stumped. I have seen what I consider to be success (a few thousand sales) for a self-published author. But then it’s genre fiction. The author works full-time on promotion. And it’s ebook sales meaning that royalties from even a few thousand sales probably doesn’t pay rent. Other self-published authors I know (also in genre fiction) aren’t faring any better than Our Children, in part because there so much competition in genre fiction. It’s bleak, as you say.
    Still, you can’t not write, and if you’re going to write, you might as well publish. Otherwise, how will I read your novels if you don’t publish them?

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 29, 2013

      I think a writer of literary fiction probably has to face facts and realize that the ebook world hasn’t evolved enough yet to be a strong platform. It might eventually, and I guess that’s why I’m staking a little claim. But you’re right, Marie. We’re going to write books, and we might as well put them out into the cosmos. Once in a while, they’ll get read! 😉

  7. Kevin Brennan
    September 3, 2014

    Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:

    Tacky of me to reblog my own stuff, but since I’m about to put out a new novel, I thought I’d revisit the theme of self-publishing reality (vs fantasyland). Turns out, not much has changed in the year since I posted this. The good news? I’m still at it. And as I’ve said before, with a long-term view you don’t have to hope for miracles on any one project. It’s a building process, like the cathedrals of old — never really finished.

  8. kingmidget
    September 3, 2014

    I’m convinced that a lot of promotional opportunities that are available to us are complete crap. I’ve decided that the next time I publish something, I’m splurging on an advance Kirkus Review and see if that helps. The reality is that the only way any of this works is if somebody at Amazon notices your book. Assuming there is a somebody there. The key is to get them to feature your book in some way. The indie author I know who had the most success had his book in the top lists during a Kindle Countdown Deal. If you can’t get featured like that you’re just one of the millions.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 3, 2014

      The problem with a paid Kirkus review is, they might pan the book! I was nailed by Kirkus when Parts Unknown came out, and I’ve never lost my intense hostility for them. 😡

      But what you say is true: promotions might result in temporary sales spurts, but to “go viral” you need to get noticed. Not easy to do.

      The word “crapshoot” comes to mind…

  9. LionAroundWriting
    February 16, 2016

    Yeah while selfpub has opened up a huge number of opportunities, the big five still hold the cards in terms of publicising authors and promo.
    And there are precious few authors who have the resources or even want, to become a travelling salesman. That’s not what being a writer is. But it’s heading that way, which is uncomfortable. Luckily there are still agents etc that can help, but even then you’re losing 15% of sales and there’s no guarantee they will be putting 100% into your book.
    It’s such a mind bending ordeal, and I haven’t had to face it just yet.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 16, 2016

      I still say that anyone with good writing chops should at least try to land an agent. But it does seem to me that the gatekeeping process borders on irrational — based more on what has done well before than on what might do well next.

      I like the phrase about authors becoming traveling salesmen. So true!

  10. pinklightsabre
    July 12, 2016

    Nice, glad you resent this. I think you listed 10% out of your followers as regular readers, or people you interact with. I’ve a mighty 1% I think, if that, but for whom I’m really grateful — for me, I get energy from other bloggers and writers who read my blog vs. using it to sell, as I don’t have anything yet to sell. But it helps me move in that direction. Nice post Kevin, thanks. Bill

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 12, 2016

      I think I’ve fallen way under 10% by now! It seems like the more Twitter followers you get, the fewer blog readers. Funny how that works …

      It’s great, though, to have a group of people I can really count on (and you’re one of ’em, Bill!). They got my back.

      • pinklightsabre
        July 12, 2016

        Hadn’t considered the Twitter thing. That’s its own monkey minded madness, I don’t need anymore help with that. I need trees, sorry to sound hippy. No I’m not!

  11. Audrey Driscoll
    July 12, 2016

    I like how your blog is a sort of virtual writers’ watering hole. People can come and kick ideas around and vent their sorrows, One thing I’ve found in six (6! can’t believe it) years of blogging is that it doesn’t sell books. Only writers follow (and maybe read) writers’ blogs. Most of us have huge TBR piles or files and find ourselves politely ignoring each other’s book promo posts. But the blogosphere is a great place to hang out and gab with like-minded folks. And thanks for re-posting that post; I thoroughly agree with it.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 13, 2016

      It’s nice to have a place to commiserate, isn’t it? You’re absolutely right about blogs being a bust when it comes to selling books, though. I find that my promotional posts have some of the lowest view stats, while goofy stuff goes through the roof.

      Six years of blogging! Now that’s stick-to-it-iveness!

      • Audrey Driscoll
        July 13, 2016

        Some of us just don’t know when to quit. 🙂

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