My self-publishing mid-life crisis

Posted by Paul Samael on Saturday, August 17, 2019 Under: Self-publishing

Here's a guest post that I was asked to do for a blog run by an outfit called Imprint Digital, that specialises in short run book printing (including for self-published authors).  They've run a number of guest posts by other self-published authors, which are also worth a look.  A common theme from those posts seems to be a general disillusionment with traditional publishers (not that this should come as any great surprise...).

UPDATE 12.2019:  As Imprint Digital seem to have removed my article, I'm reproducing it below:

The typical male mid-life crisis seems to involve things like buying a sports car and generally behaving embarrassingly for your age. It’s often prompted, so I’m told, by a fear that time might be starting to run out to do all the things you want to do with your life. Somehow, the sports car bit never really happened for me – but roundabout 2010, it was that feeling of not getting any younger which finally made me resolve to try to publish a novel that I’d been writing, on and off, for about 15 years.

The first step was to finish the accursed thing – which took longer than expected. Then there was the question of how to get it published. I had written a couple of non-fiction books already which had been conventionally published. Although they hadn’t proved to be very successful, I had acquired an agent as a result of that work. Brimming with optimism, I sent her a sample of my newly minted magnum opus. The answer was not very encouraging. What market was I aiming at? I didn’t really know. The novel fell into a kind of godforsaken “no man’s land” somewhere between sci-fi and literary fiction and she didn’t think she could get a publisher to take it on.

I could then have hawked it around other agents or sent it directly to publishers. But I suspected that the responses would be similarly negative; indeed, trawling the internet turned up some research suggesting that on average, it took about 11 years for authors to get their first publishing deal for fiction (which was not good for my sense of time running out….). I also knew from the experience of my non-fiction books that even when publishers do take you on, they rarely do much in the way of promotion and quickly lose interest if sales fail to take off in the first 12 months. Was I really prepared to spend around a decade trying to get these people to publish my stuff?

Going down the self-publishing route

The alternative was self-publishing. At first though, I was a bit hesitant. My inner literary snob told me that it was little different from paying a vanity press to publish my work – which they will do regardless of whether it’s actually any good. So I felt in need of some kind of external validation. I could have asked friends to read the novel – but it’s a lot to expect of people and I had a lingering concern that they wouldn’t necessarily be 100% honest about what they thought. Happily, the internet has come up with a solution to this problem in the form of peer review sites like or These allow you to post a sample of your work and get feedback from other users. They usually require you to provide feedback on other people’s work before you can get any on your own. But my experience was that – with some exceptions – the feedback was constructive. Crucially, it gave me the confidence I needed to self-publish and helped me to improve some aspects of the novel.

How to self-publish

The next question was how to self-publish – do you go for ebooks, hard copy or both? For me, an ebook version was the logical first step because it’s relatively low cost – and potentially even zero cost if you prepare your own typescript for publication and design your own cover. And unlike hard copy, it also gives you global distribution – for example, my novel has been reviewed by people as far afield as Australia and the West Coast of the US.

Where possible, I also decided to make the novel available for free – which is an option on three of the platforms I have used, Smashwords, Obooko and iTunes (Amazon won’t normally let you offer your book for free but it will sometimes price match other platforms). I did this because reading a book takes a certain level of commitment and effort – and I was (and pretty much still am) an unknown author with only a few decent-ish reviews to recommend me. By offering my novel for free, I hoped to overcome some of that natural resistance to trying something new and untested.

Obviously, this involved jettisoning that long-cherished dream of becoming the next J K Rowling – but very few authors make serious money from publishing (most do it alongside other jobs that pay rather better). And no one says you have to keep your ebook available for free for all time – I’m aware of a number of self-published authors who’ve chosen to make their ebooks for free for an initial period (often to build up a few favourable reviews) and then switched to a paid-for model afterwards. Or you could make just one of your books free as a kind of “taster”, with a view to attracting readers, whilst offering others on a paid-for basis.

But for me, getting readers to give my novel a try was more important than earning money from it. Does making it free actually help with this? Well, according to Smashwords, free ebooks are on average 33 times more likely to be downloaded than paid-for ebooks. I can’t say whether that’s true for my novel because I never offered it as a paid-for download – but what I can tell you is that, since mid-2012, it has had over 8400 downloads on Smashwords alone (together with a reasonable number of positive reviews). Given that the first novel by a debut author is generally thought to have done well if it sells about 1000 copies, I don’t think that’s too bad a performance – especially when you consider that I have done relatively little in the way of promotion of the book.

Hard copy

As for hard copy, that’s not something I’ve tried yet – so you might be wondering why on earth I am doing a guest post on the blog of a company that specialises in printing hard copy books. But I don’t take the view that with the advent of ebooks, a hard copy is dead; I think there’s a role for both. Indeed, the latest sales figures for hard copy suggest that it has been making something of a comeback over the past couple of years.

Obviously, a hard copy will generally involve higher costs and for many authors, making large quantities available for free is unlikely to be a viable option (although it may be worth distributing a limited number of free copies for review purposes etc). But my advice to anyone thinking of self-publishing is that, if you’re worried about taking the plunge with a hard copy (perhaps because of the financial cost involved), ebooks are a great way of “testing the water” first. And hopefully, the ebook version will allow you to get some reviews which you can use to market your hard copy edition more effectively.

Does self-publishing damage your credibility?

More generally, I think the stigma surrounding self-publishing – which I alluded to earlier – has started to dissipate somewhat. An increasing number of authors who’ve been published conventionally are turning to it, having become fed up with the often frustrating behaviour of traditional publishers – for examples of that, see my review of ”The Judas Tree” by Patricia Le Roy and this article from The Guardian, as well as some of the previous guest posts by authors on this blog.

There is an argument that self-publishing just means that the “slush pile” (which is how publishers condescendingly refer to all their unsolicited submissions from budding authors) has “gone public” – and that this is diluting the quality of books generally and dragging down standards. There is certainly a fair amount of self-published material that I personally wouldn’t rate very highly – and to the extent that the authors tried to get those books conventionally published, I can see why they got rejected. On the other hand, there are many examples of publishers rejecting books which deserved to be published. When self-publishing enables those books to find a readership, I think it’s something to be celebrated and encouraged. I have been reviewing self-published ebooks since 2012 and have managed to find plenty which in my view more than bear comparison with the output of professional publishers (click here for my recommendations). Without self-publishing, most of those books would probably just be gathering dust in a drawer somewhere (just like mine was).

Anyway, that’s quite enough about self-publishing and how it’s a surefire way to overcome your mid-life crisis – I’m off to look at some sports car websites.

In : Self-publishing 

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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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