Self-publishing – Guest Post by Michael J. Sullivan

To people who follow my reviews and my tweets and facebook status updates, it will be no surprise to you lot that I am a very big fan of Michael J. Sullivan’s work, the Riyria Revelations novels. I discovered him quite accidentally through twitter and his novels were very much an impulse buy so it was quite rewarding when the novels turned out to be some of the best fantasy fiction I had ever read. I approached Michael in February once I was done with the last novel, the two-book omnibus Heir of Novron collecting together Wintertide and Percepliquis, as I had some questions about the ending and to see if he would be interested in doing some guest posts for the blog and for The Founding Fields. He accepted promptly and here’s the result. To give a small context to this guest post, I am myself very interested in self-publishing and have been seriously considering that route since December last year, so me finding Michael came at just right the time, as does this guest post. I’m sure quite a few of my friends will also be interested in this topic, so here’s to all of you.

Michael Sullivan on Self-publishing

 There are a lot of misconceptions running around about self-publishing. The thing I’m most amazed about is the number of people who denigrate this option, especially when they themselves have no experience (of half-hearted failed experiments) with it, claiming that most will make little less than fifty sales. Others look at it with dollar signs flashing in their eyes, convinced it is a gold rush that will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars with little more effort than pushing the “publish” button.

 Here is my take on self-publishing…your chances of success are approximately the same as your chances with traditional publishing.  In both cases it all comes down to three things: writing skill, talent, and persistence. The more you have of each the better your chances of success in either approach. If you consider the number of queries that generate form rejections, that number will be approximately the same as the number of self-published authors that sell only a few copies.  Similarly the number of writers who earn five-digit income from self publishing is pretty much on par with midlist authors making similarly. Lastly, the number of people earning six-digits or more is also approximately the same in both cases.  And yes you can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in self-publishing…I’ve done it, and so have many people I know.

 So which path should you choose?  Well it depends on many factors.  How controlling are you? Do you have an entrepreneur spark? How patient will you be with the exceeding slow traditional publishing cycle?  Notice that in none of these questions did I ask how good your writing is or how capable you are at marketing. That’s because your responsibility remains the same in both paths.  You have to write a darn fine book and work to get it noticed.

 So now that I’ve laid the ground work, what has been my experience with self-publishing? Well pretty darn amazing.  At the height of my self-publishing I was making around $40,000 a month selling as many as 11,500 books (mostly as ebooks priced between $4.95 and $6.95). Is this result typical? No. But neither is a six-figure contract for a debut author, which I also received for the same series. My success in each is pretty much on par…at the upper end of the midlist and lower end of writers earning well.

 When hearing of my self-publishing success many people dismiss me as an outlier, which is just plain wrong. Amanda Hocking and John Locke are outliers. They are the ones who have sold millions of copies and are as rare as Stephen King and James Patterson in traditional publishing. I’ve been very successful, but I know dozens of authors who earn similarly or more from their self-publishing and we all can’t be outliers…we’re just on the upper end of bell curve.

 So should you self-publish? When thinking about that, consider your opinions about other self employment opportunities. If you were a CPA would you prefer working for a firm, or are you more likely to hang out your own shingle and find clients to work for? It all comes down to whether you enjoy being in control of all aspects, or if you are comfortable with others providing a framework and working within their constraints.

 So what were my keys to success?  Pretty much the same as other authors I’m familiar with. First you need more than one book.  I didn’t see any measurable income until the release of my third.  By the fourth I was selling a respectable 1,000 sales a month, and when I had five books to sell that soared to 10,000+ (during the holiday buying season). I had written all six books of my series before publishing the first, so this meant that I could release one every six months (the time between was spent on editing). This worked out well because just as interest started to fall off, another book came out to re-invigorate the sales.

 Second, the books didn’t suck.  This isn’t bravado or ego speaking…I have empirical data to back up that claim. Sales of over 130,000 copies, more than a thousand ratings and reviews from readers on sites such as goodreads and Amazon, and more than a hundred positive reviews from bloggers and industry book critics such as Publisher’s Weekly. I’ve even been singled out by organizations such as Library Journal and Barnes and Nobles on their best fantasy books of 2011 lists.

 Third, I took responsibility for making my own success. Even when traditionally published I was just as active as I had been when self-published as far as soliciting reviewers, performing interviews, blogging, tweeting, and doing what I can to get my name out there.

 One point that I should mention, as it dispels another myth, is that going the self-publishing route does not mean that you can never traditionally publish that work.  I hear this misconception all the time, and it stems from an old convention where publishers were only interested in first publication rights, and self-publishing meant that cherry had been broken. There is no doubt that there was a time when this was true…but times have changed. In today’s publishing climate many agents and publishers are thinking just the opposite.  They are excited by those with self-publishing success because taking someone with a following to the next level is significantly less risky than building an audience from scratch. My first agent spent about a year and a half pitching my series and we got nowhere. Several years later a new agent approached New York when I was selling 2,000 copies a month (spread over five titles). She had seven (or was it eight, I don’t recall now) editors expressing an immediate interest.  I had thought it would take year or more to land a contract, if it happened at all, and with the success of my self-publishing I was signed in just seventeen days.

 I should point out something about using self-publishing as a stepping stone for traditional. Going this route gives you significantly more leverage with regards to the deal you can obtain. Most debut fantasy authors receive $5,000 to $10,000 advances per book. I received a three-book six-figure deal. When I got the contract, there were a number of clauses that I was uncomfortable with. They were “industry standard” but it still put me in a position that I didn’t want to be in. Because I had options (mainly that I could maintain a similar income through self-publishing) I was able to hold out until the language was changed to suit my needs. Other authors don’t have this luxury. Their first contracts can be pretty one-sided and only after they achieve success can their next contract shift some of the power their way.

 So what if you have the trifecta…you are a talented and skilled writer, with an entrepreneur spirit, and a dedication to work your rear end off to “make it.” Will you make more money traditional or through self-publishing? I have no doubt that self-publishing produces the higher income potential. In traditional publishing you make 8-10% of list price on print books and 17.5% on ebooks. When self publishing I made about 45% of list on print books sold directly by me, 23% on print sold by online stores such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and 70% on ebooks (where the bulk of my sales were found).  I’ve sold about 60,000 books traditionally (1st book released in Nov 2011, second in mid December 2011, and third at the end of January 2012). During the months of November 2010 to February 2011 my self-publishing sales were more than 40,000 (across five titles).   My income for traditionally published books is $1.12 for print and $1.75 for ebooks. When self published I made $3.50 – $6.50 for print and $3.50 – $4.87 for ebooks.

 So if you are primarily dealing with sales to the US and Canadian markets, then self-publishing will definitely make more money.  Things get a bit more complicated when you throw in foreign language translations. Again, most new authors are forced to sign “world rights” for their first works. Which means foreign language deals are a subsidiary right and the publisher and author split the income 50/50.  My agent sold only English rights and because of the popularity of my books I’ve made more than double my US advance on translations. While you can get foreign sales as a self-published author (again I did) it is significantly easier to land these contracts when published through a larger publisher in the US and of course not all books will appeal to the overseas market regardless of how they are produced.

 But for many, it’s not just about the money.  If your dream has always been to see your books in a bookstore, and you won’t feel like a “real writer” without the validation of a big-six publisher then by all means pursue the traditional route, but go into it with your eyes wide open and realize that doing so will probably come at the expense of a smaller income.  Fame and validation are perfectly legitimate desires—so is maximizing income—so you should align according to your own goals and aspirations. Not what one or the other camp tells you is the “right way”.

So there you have it, my take on self-publishing and a bit about how it worked out for me. I know this is a very confusing time in publishing, and many of you have questions. Please feel free to ask some here and I’ll be happy to respond to comments.  Also, I’ll be doing a AMA (Ask me Anything) on reddit on April 24th. You can go there and ask questions as well. At least that way I won’t feel like a supreme loser if no one decides to show up to that  online event.


You can find Michael’s guest post for The Founding Fields – Dealing with Success – over here.

My reviews of the Riyria Revelations novels – Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron.

If you would like more Michael J. Sullivan goodness, you can find him on twitter which he frequents as @author_sullivan or you can find him on his blog, Riyria, and you can also check out his Facebook author page, as well as the Riyria Revelations Facebook page.

For folks interested in getting into the Riyria Revelations novels, Theft of Swords is a fantastic start to the series, even aside from the fact that it is the first novel. But if you want something a bit more manageable than a two-book omnibus, then you can go to Michael’s blog and request his Riyria Chronicles short story, The Viscount and The Witch, for free. It is a prequel short story and I believe it sets up the series later quite well. I definitely had fun reading it.

Posted on April 5, 2012, in Book Reviews, General, Guest Posts, Self-publishing, The Founding Fields and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Nice post. Thank you for mentioning the “control” aspect of self-pubbing. I chose to publish on my own largely for that reason, rather than the allure of the better royalty rates. And after reading this, I know I have to be patient. I’m still at the “one book” stage, and I’m sure my sales will reflect that. Writers gotta write…


    • authormichaeljsullivan

      Yes I think there are many factors that draw people to self-publishing. The myth is that they can’t get published anyway else. Few bother to consider that it might be that they want to release a book “their way” as the crux of the choice for many.


    • Yes, a big myth is that many are self-published because they can’t get in print any other way, but the reality is that many CHOOSE this so they can get their work out the way they want to.


  2. This was a really helpful post. Thanks to both of you!


  3. Great post and a good reminder that the keys to success are: more than one book, darn fine book(s), and hard work to get noticed!


  4. Being entrepreneurial is key… I realised when I couldn’t bring myself to sign away all the rights, etc for my first book to a small publishing house that I was going to publish it myself. And I actually have a lot more fun marketing my book…. The challenge is to then carve out the time to write… haven’t figured that yet!


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