Are Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing Both Offering a Next-to-Impossible Dream?

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Image from Flickr by Jonathan Rolande

Back in December 1998, I spent my 14th birthday money on Nigel Watt’s book Writing a Novel and Getting Published.

And for quite a few years, my dream was to be a full-time fiction author.

Not everyone has the same writing dream, of course. But perhaps the most common, generic, one looks like this

I make a good living writing what I want to write.

In many ways, it seems a pretty reasonable dream. Of course, I doubt you’d say “no” to being on the New York Times bestseller list (I know I wouldn’t) – but you might well be very happy about doing something you love and getting paid for it, enough to live comfortably on.

In 1998, the path to achieving that dream looked something like this:

  • Step #1: Write a book; finish it.
  • Step #2: Send it to agents; get an agent.
  • Step #3: Agent secures publishing deal; writer lives happily ever after.

As a 14 year old (and indeed as a 20 year old), that’s what I thought would happen. That was the dream.

It may well have been your dream too, or perhaps still is.

My first novel floundered at Step #1; my second went out to agents and failed to secure more than momentary interest.

After a hastily abandoned attempt at a third novel, my fourth, Lycopolis, was the first I was truly proud of. And I decided not to go down that well-trodden path again.

Enter Self-Publishing

When I started on Lycopolis, almost a full decade after I bought Writing a Novel and Getting Published, I was still hooked on the dream. I was studying at Goldsmiths College, on a reputable Creative Writing MA course, so it was starting to look like a more realistic dream.

But then self-publishing hit the mainstream.

(I was already self-publishing, though no-one was calling it that; we called it blogging. I’d also used print-on-demand to produce manuscript copies of early drafts of Lycopolis to edit. So this wasn’t quite such a brave new world to me as it could’ve been.)

Frankly, my early brushes with self-publishing had been a bit off-putting. I’d seen some self-published books on sale at writers’ conferences, and they’d been clearly amateur, with poorly designed covers. To me, and I think to many writers a few years ago, self-publishing smacked of desperation.

Yet, with the launch of the Kindle, self-publishing began to take off. And – seven short years later – there’s a new path to the old dream of making a good living writing:

Step #1: Write a book; finish it.

Step #2: Put it up for sale online.

Step #3: Market it; instant fame and fortune! (And 70% royalties.)

Unlike traditional publishing, this allows a fair degree of speed – you can get your book out to readers in hours, rather than the months or years a publisher would take. It also gives the author full control over their work, and a considerably greater percent of the reward.

But How Realistic is the Dream Really?

In 2013, a survey of 2,500 working writers found that:

The median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation), and well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living.

–  Authors’ incomes collapse to ‘abject’ levels, Alison Flood, The Guardian

Most traditionally published authors do not make a full-time living from their books. This includes plenty of really good authors – especially if they write more literary stuff. They may simply not have a large enough audience, and fast enough output, to make a living.

Most self-published authors do not make a full-time living from their books. Again, this includes authors who are excellent writers. They might only produce one book every few years. They might struggle with the technical or marketing side of things, meaning their book isn’t very visible.

And yet…

Success is certainly possible.

I started reading Joanna Penn’s blog The Creative Penn just after she self-published her debut novel in 2011 (Pentecost, now retitled Stone of Fire). I remember when she posted about selling her first 1000 copies. She now has a whole bunch of books to her name, and a substantial income from fiction.

And on the fiction side, one of my former Writers’ Huddle members, Sue Tingey, wrote to me a few weeks ago to tell me the fantastic news that she’s landed a three-book deal. Her debut novel Marked is already out in the UK.

What’s Your Writing Dream – and Could it Change?

For a long time, I was focused on making a living writing fiction. I currently make 99% of my income from non-fiction – and I really enjoy doing so. I’d like to tip the balance a bit further towards fiction, but I’d never want to stop doing non-fiction.

Maybe your writing dream could change a little. Perhaps “making a living” isn’t actually that important to you – you’d be happy just to have a book with your name on it out there.

Or maybe you do want to make a living, but you’re happy to do so through freelancing, perhaps keeping a day or two per week for fiction.

It’s easy (for me, at least) to get wrapped up in what seems to be everyone else’s dream, or everyone’s idea of what writers want. Do take some time to think about what you want to get from writing.

And if you do want to make a living, either through traditional or self-publishing … it’s far from impossible.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

3 thoughts on “Are Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing Both Offering a Next-to-Impossible Dream?

  1. Thanks for raising some interesting points, Ali. I agree, writers already have options on how they want to live their dream. Traditional and self publishing differ in some ways, and I love both! In my opinion, writers who prefer self-publication are privileged to reach out to a bigger audience based. Usually, newbies in writing are given greater opportunity to excel through self-publishing but of course one must prove the quality of his/her work to establish an audience.

  2. In most fields – including writing – the majority of people fall well below average. It’s the Pareto (80/20) principle).

    But that means you have to decide to go for it and then treat it as a profession, not a hobby.

    The late Felix Dennis did that when he started writing poetry – he worked at the skill and then promoted himself like crazy. Before he died, his shows (where he read out his latest poems) were always full and the sales of his books at each event were higher than the average poet.

    The same could easily apply to any other book – there’s a certain magic to hearing the author read their own book in person 🙂
    Trevor’s last blog post ..How To Write A Novel In 30 Days

    • Good points, Trevor! I agree that whatever route you follow, you need to treat writing as a profession if you want to see professional-level success.

      Poets have a notoriously difficult time even getting published and read (and very few make a living from poetry) — I think being a good self-promoter must be critical!

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