Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Time to Give Up on Self-Publishing?

It’s been quite a while since my last post. And yes, you heard a collective sigh of relief in the blogosphere to see Mackay Bell’s return, quickly followed by an anguished gasp at the shocking headline. “Give up on self-publishing!? No, Mackay, tell us it isn’t true!”

After all, for years I’ve been one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of the self-publishing movement. Publishing my first novel on Amazon was one of the highlights of my life. I’m the guy who would jump up and down in rapture when I made a single 99 cent sale. My charming (if crudely drawn) cartoon strip series, Hyper Geek, features a perpetually optimistic and largely autobiographical writer (named Mackay) enraptured by self-publishing.

How is it possible Mackay Bell could even think about giving up?

Before I answer that, let’s back up for a moment.

Many people live by the motto of “never give up.” Mine, however, is more like: “never be afraid to give up.” It’s been my experience that knowing when to quit is critical to a happy life. I’ve lived through good times and bad times, but I’ve found that I always do better when I walk away from something that isn’t working. Not that I give up quickly. I give everything my best shot and try to fix things before moving on. But I know people whose biggest regret is sticking with something too long and feeling they wasted a good chunk of their lives. In terms of my own past, there isn’t anything I think of and go… hmm… if only I’d stuck with that job a little longer, wasn’t so quick to drop out of college, move out of that crappy apartment or upgrade my computer. Quitting, frequently, has worked out nicely for me.

Being willing to walk away means you can safely take chances with your career and life. I like trying new things and I’ve taken a lot of long shots, particularly in business. Many didn’t work out. Some worked out for awhile, but went south. Over the long term, I satisfied with the results of both my successes and my failures. Failure usually leads to valuable experience. Often you learn more than with success. That is, if you are willing to move on and take advantage of that knowledge in something new. It’s important to know when to pocket your wins and cut your losses.

Since I was a kid, I dreamed of being a novelist. I wrote short stories, started a couple novels and went to college to study fiction writing, but… yes, I gave up. The more I learned about the state of the traditional publishing business back then, the less I wanted to attempt a writing career. I simply couldn’t see myself playing the submission game, particularly by writing the kinds of books my professors thought would get past the gatekeepers of the literary elite. I had no interest in being a starving artist fighting against the system. I moved into personal computer sales and then into computer education and business consulting. I have no regrets about changing course back then. It was probably one of the smartest moves I made in my life.

Then the internet took off and the digital age arrived, which provided me with all sorts of business opportunities working for tech startups. But I also realized it presented new creative opportunities for writers to go it alone through self-publishing. I decided to try writing a novel once again. I started this blog in 2010 when enthusiasm among indy writers was rapidly growing, in a large part thanks to Amazon and Kindle. People talked about a gold rush in self-publishing. It hit a fevered pitch around 2014 when Hugh Howey published his first Author Earnings report. He and the Data Guy proved that the self-publishing market was growing by leaps and bounds and some indy authors where making serious money. Many were even able to quit their day jobs and support themselves simply by self-publishing. A few were even getting rich. It was like a shot heard round the writing blogs.

Quit your day job? That’s sounds great! Get rich? Sign me up!

Of course, while Hugh Howey and others were talking about the great opportunities for writers in self-publishing, there were plenty of doomsayers, particularly pundits connected to the old publishing world. They warned of a “shit volcano” of bad writing flooding the market. They predicted that there would be a “tragedy of commons” that would mean all writers had to work for free. They warned that anyone who dared to self-publish would brand themselves forever as an amateur who couldn’t cut it in the “real” publishing world.

None of that concerned me in the least. In fact, as a business consultant, it seemed like exactly the kind panic to expect from a dying industry being disrupted by new technology. (Like when newspapers complained about bloggers.) All the arguments against self-publishing by the old gatekeepers and their minions just made me more determined to try it.

Slightly more persuasive were early warnings from struggling writers who tried self-publishing without much success. There were plenty of sad blogs and comments from writers who couldn’t sell their books, couldn’t get reviews and found the entire process very frustrating. They certainly couldn’t make enough money to quit their day jobs. Let alone get rich. Some would even announce that they were… quitting self-publishing. While I understand quitting very well (I’m all for it), it seemed a little absurd to publicly announce you were quitting self-publishing. If you aren’t selling anything, no one would notice if you stopped. But some writers even went so far as to say they were pulling their books down from sale to focus on submitting to the old publishing world again.

I ignored the doomsayers and the dejected and decided to give it a shot. I wrote and self-published my first novel, Eve’s Hungry, on Amazon through KDP. It took longer (three years) and was more work than I anticipated, but I was very happy with the result. I started to build a little following on this blog and Twitter. I was learning a lot, and having fun. Sales were nothing to get excited about, but I got a few nice reviews and followed it up quickly with a short little book of cartoons I had drawn years ago. Initial sales of that were double my first work. Still combined sales were tiny and sporadic. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to quit my day job. I’d be lucky to buy a Happy Meal at McDonalds.

Then reality hit: my day job became a night and day job.

I got so swamped, I couldn’t even put out 140 character tweets to promote my book, let alone think about writing a new one. I stopped blogging and working on my Hyper Geek cartoon series midway through the story. Months went by and I… gasp… stopped checking my ebook sales (which had flatlined anyway). Things have gotten a little better with my schedule lately, but it’s unlikely my day job will ease up significantly for years. I now know from experience how much work is involved in self-publishing new books. It’s not an easy hobby and it's unlikely to be a real source of income anytime soon. Conventional wisdom is that in order to make a living by self-publishing, you have to crank out books regularly, like every three months or faster. I can’t possibly do that now. I’m not even sure I could or would want to work that fast in the future if I did have spare time.

Meanwhile, outside of Mackayland, the self-publishing industry has experienced what appears to be its first real downturn after many years of growth. Author Earnings last reported that the indie ebook market had shrunk significantly for the first time since they started tracking it. Big publishing seems to be learning how to compete with self-publishers so it can continue to dominate the market (stealing valuable listings on Bookbub). Some services for self-publishing are going bust, sometimes stiffing writers in the process. Smashword’s Mark Coker declares that formerly best selling indy writers are quitting. Even the highly knowledgable (about traditional and self-publishing) writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch announced flatly that the gold rush is over and “getting rich quick is no longer possible.”

So, is it time for Mackay Bell to give up on his crazy creative aspirations yet again? Like I have so often in my past? If formerly “best selling” self-publishers are quitting, how can someone like me, who never even sold many ebooks, keep at it? Do I finally understand why someone would give up self-publishing? What’s the point if it is “no longer possible” to get rich? Or replace your day job? Is my last post about self-publishing to be an announcement of defeat and surrender?


Of course not. Only an idiot would quit self-publishing.

Now, before you flood the comments with complaints that this whole post was just shaggy dog clickbait, let me explain. Yes, I never had any intention of quitting. I got busy and had to take a break, but I always figured I would get back to self-publishing. While I'm a big believer in quitting things, I can't see any reason I ever would quit self publishing. Frankly, I can't see any reason anyone else would.  Even if the market is down. So what is really going on with this latest doom and gloom meme about how all these indy writers are quitting?

Who is quitting? Quitting how exactly? Supposedly "successful" and "best selling" indy writers are quitting "self-publishing." Presumably, they aren't being named because they are too embarrassed to admit it. (Not because, as a skeptic might suspect, this is total bullshit.) What does "quitting" mean? Are they actually taking down from sale ALL the books they published? (Formerly successful books?) Because that just seems stupid. Even if you have no sales (like me) why wouldn't you leave your books up and see what happens in a few years? Even if you're too busy to market (like me) why wouldn't you occasionally click on the free days or Kindle Countdowns that almost always move a few books? Maybe a super fan will stumble upon it and it will go viral. And if you aren't in Kindle Select because you went wide, if you aren't selling books, why not go back to Select? Or visa versa.

Now, it's certainly possible, in fact predictable, that some self-publishers sales went down after having a good stretch. (What goes up, might go down.) I totally understand if someone is disappointed with their progress and they change priorities or spend less time writing new books or promoting them. Or if, like me, they need to take a break. I certainly suppose some writers might decide to try traditional publishing after a sales drop in self-publishing. But that doesn't seem like "quitting" exactly, unless they also pull down their self-published catalogue. (Which, to repeat, just seems stupid.) And what happens if traditional publishing doesn't work out the way they hope? They'll never return to self-publishing? Even for one book? Let's say they have success in traditional publishing, they'll never self-publish a smaller book or one rejected by their big publisher? Either these stories are bullshit, or they are leaving out some significant details.

If you own a restaurant, and close it to become an Uber driver, I think it's safe to say you quit the restaurant business. If you leave your job as a newspaper reporter and open a bait shop by the lake, you can certainly say you quit journalism. But I just can't wrap my head around the idea of a "successful" self-publisher completely shutting down. I guess it's possible, but I'd love to hear some actual details that make sense.

Why would a self-published writer with half a dozen previously successful romance novels completely give up because sales are down? I could see them try submitting their next book to a traditional publisher to check out that world. I certainly understand it must be tough if they have to return to a day job or look for other sources of income. But give up writing? Completely? Pull down their books for sale? After having experienced success in finding an audience? I'd like to know the details. Are these "best selling" self-publishers writing sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, or simply books on how to make money self-publishing? If the "best selling" writers became successful copying wikipedia into book form and taking advantage of quirks in Amazon's sales ranking and free days to make cash, yeah, I could see someone like that quitting. But I'm not sure how that's relevant to the overall market. If they actually write fiction, do these "best selling" indy writers have any audio books? Are they pulling those down from sale too? If they don't have audio books, why aren't they trying that, since that market is still growing?

I suspect if one were to investigate, the truth would be that these writers (if they even exist) are taking breaks, changing priorities, returning to day jobs or just threatening to quit out of frustration. (While leaving most of their self-published books up for sale.) It would be helpful to hear actual specifics rather than people repeating this blanket "successful writers are quitting self-publishing" meme.

Me, despite low sales, I'm more excited about self-publishing than ever before. For myself and for the industry as a whole. Taking a break has actually given me a good chance to really think about the business, my limited success so far and my own long term goals for it.

“Long term goals?! But Mackay, don't you quit at everything?” Yes, but self-publishing is different. Really different. Compared to other things I have quit in my life, self-publishing is still the answer to all my dreams. I never expected to get rich quickly self-publishing. So if that is “no longer possible,” I’m not surprised or disappointed. Also, I have a day job I like, so dumping it quickly was not a priority. 

The main reason to self-publish is because it’s FUN. That is, if you enjoy writing. If you don’t enjoy writing, it’s certainly not something to spend time on, particularly in hopes of making money. If you don't like writing, and you have no sales, yes: quit. But if you enjoy writing books and having people be able to read them, self-publishing is a blast. There is absolutely no downside. Write a book, publish it on Amazon or elsewhere and… YOU WIN! It’s that simple. You’re a winner.

Defenders of the old publishing world complain that people like me who self-publish are deluding themselves: thinking they become real “authors” just by putting their own books up for sale. They argue that those who don’t go through the torturous submission process, and aren’t paid to publish by a traditional established press, foolishly believe they are budding Ernest Hemingways and that readers can’t tell the difference.

And they are right. I do think that. Yep, by publishing my first novel, I am now officially an author. I went from a wannabe writer to a published novelist. And yes, readers can’t tell the difference. My novel is right up there on Amazon, just like Hemingway, and often ranked higher than some of his (admittedly lesser known) works. Readers looking for something to read don’t care if it was published by a big company or my own tiny Hyper Geek Press. (Well, some readers care, but they are a minority of snobby jerks.) Some readers actually seek out indy writers. Some readers automatically snap up any book published by Hyper Geek Press. (Okay, that isn’t true… yet!)

Meanwhile, my novel is available to more people, more easily than Hemingway could have imagined when he first started writing. I have world wide distribution. People can buy (or get my book free) almost anywhere and start reading it instantly. It’s incredible. The number of available readers are growing everyday. The technology for digital reading is getting better and cheaper every day. If you like print, POD gets better and cheaper. Shipping print books is getting cheaper and faster. And, while nothing lasts forever, there is every reason to believe that people will have access to my writing for the rest of human history. By self-publishing, I have made my characters immortal and secured a beloved place for Mackay Bell in civilization’s collective cultural tradition.


As a bonus, I get to piss off all the elitist literary types who argue unconvincingly that I shouldn’t be taking so much delight in ignoring their opinions of who should and shouldn’t be considered a “real” author. Anyone who is a writer knows that finishing a novel is a real achievement, just like runners know that finishing a marathon is an achievement, even if you didn’t win a gold medal at the Olympics. As far as sales, well, nothing is selling as well as Harry Potter so anyone but J. K. Rowling is an underachiever depending on your criteria.

Now, let’s compare my new career as a successful novelist to some of the previous creative efforts (that I quit). In high school, hoping to become a published author, I wrote short stories and submitted them to magazines and journals. After all, Hemingway got started with short stories. I was told by my English teachers that it was a good path to begin as a writer. I enjoyed writing the stories, but it was a lot of work researching where to send them and writing submission letters. Back then, there were also expenses in photocopying and snail mailing them. I also had to worry about what magazines were looking for, and write what I imagined might suit them. More frustrating, all were rejected, most often without a rejection letter. It felt like a total waste of time. It felt like I was being perosnally rejected. Not fun. So I quit. And I’m glad I did.

Many years later, I tried writing some non-fiction articles for computer magazines. And, after much work… I got published! I even got paid! Three hundred dollars! So I kept writing and writing and… didn’t get anything else published. The magazine that first published me folded. I wasted a lot of time asking publishers what they wanted and running around trying to deliver it, only to be told they changed their minds or it wasn’t good enough. Not fun. So I quit. And I’m glad I did.

Around that time, I also started work on a series of digital comic strips called MacToons which were passed around by Macintosh computer fans on floppy discs. It was lot of fun. I had total independence to do what I wanted. But distribution was a big problem (back then). I did some research and found it was highly unlikely I could ever get them published in newspapers by the big comic syndicates. There seemed to be no path toward wider distribution (back then) or any possible way to monetize them (back then). Much as I loved it, it was a time consuming hobby. Without the possibility of growing the audience significantly, it seemed to be a dead end. So I quit.

Later, thanks to the internet, I returned to writing non-fiction articles and published them on my own blog. It was fun to know that what I wrote would actually be read. I didn’t need to go begging to magazine editors. It was also fun to know that there was no real limit to my potential audience. I built up a little following, even got a write up in Business Week ("… the Mackay Bells of the world…")  but, just as it started to take off… I quit.

Why? Because as much fun as blogging about tech was, I asked myself “Mackay,” (yes, I do ask myself questions aloud using my name in third person) “What do you really want to be when you grow up?” And I realized, “an author.” Not just any author. A novelist. Even better, a sci-fi novelist. Blogging wasn’t going to make me a novelist. But self-publishing could.

Now, I am not only a novelist, but I can write anything knowing I have the tools and skills to self-publish it immediately. Everything I write in the future will further my audience as a published author. If I write a short story, maybe someone will read the story and buy my novel. Or visa versa. If I blog, I can point people to my novel and hopefully gain readers. I can combine my non-fiction into a book and self-publish it too. I recently self-published all my old MacToon comics and started my new Hyper Geek comic series knowing I can reach a larger audience and monetize them through self-published books. As a bonus, anything I do now on social media, just for fun, might feed people back to my fiction or comics. I have already learned that simply commenting on blogs like the Passive Voice or the Digital Reader can result in someone buying my novel. There is no limit to the creative ways I can promote my books and build a readership for my publishing company.

So why would I, or anyone, “quit” self-publishing after having already done the work of writing and then publishing? It makes no sense to me. Once your book is up, you don’t have do anything else. Maybe someday Amazon might shut down their Kindle market, or cull out books, but you can worry about that then. (Undoubtedly, there will be other options for self-publishers.) Meantime, you’re a real author with a book available from the biggest book distributor on Earth.

I suspect much of the non-specific chatter about "successful" writers “quitting” is coming from people with other agendas, good and bad. Rusch uses it as an opportunity to advise writers keep expectations reasonable and to save up for bad times (which is a pretty good agenda). Coker seems to be using it as an opportunity to slam Amazon again for being a monopoly and claim, falsely in my opinion, that it is forcing a race to the bottom in ebook pricing (which a bullshit agenda). Various literary agents seem to be pushing the meme to try to get writers back to submitting to big publishers. (Thereby protecting their middle man position to take cuts from writers. Not a good agenda.) It’s also coming from the same old people who bitched about shit volcanos and tragedy of commons. People who want to put the gatekeepers back in charge. People who hate the idea that anyone can be an author.

The "shit volcano" meme took what was one of the biggest positives of self-publishing, that anyone could publish anything, and tried to make it a negative. The "tragedy of commons" meme, took another positive, that indy writers were a community with shared interests, and tried to spin that into a negative.  This latest meme "successful self-publishers are quitting" is likewise trying to turn a huge positive, there is no reason to EVER quit self-publishing, and spin it into a negative. It's bullshit.

Does this mean I only see self-publishing as a hobby and have no expectations to make money from it? No, I still would like to make money, and I even hope to get rich from it some day. As I have said before, the most likely path for a self-published author to really hit it big is if their story is acquired for film or television production. While it's a long shot, I think Eve's Hungry is the kind of story that would make a great movie. So I think it's worth promoting. (I believe the odds of an indy writer getting a film deal may be better than maintaining a steady income from Kindle year after year. Over 500 films are produced every year, and most of them are based on books.)

The potential to make money is part of what makes self-publishing fun. But coming from a business background, I never expected to make a lot of money overnight. I’ve spend many years self-employed and working freelance and I know it’s hard. Business is hard. Getting rich is hard. Making a livable earning is hard. And there is always going to be a lot of competition, as well as ups and downs, particularly in creative enterprises.

Yet, from a business standpoint, I’m also stunned at how many advantages self-publishing has over other self-owned business ventures. The cost of entry is amazingly low (even free), and the cost of keeping the enterprise going is very low (even free). All the more reason talk about quitting seems absurd. What could be a better part time job? What could be a better enterprise to take a break from and return to later? On top of that, there is a clear path to monetize your all efforts in success, even many years later. Finally, the potential market is huge. And it’s only growing. When I look at the state of the indy market, I'm less concerned about a small downturn than all the continuing innovation and progress. Growth in the audio book market, Kindle Unlimited, enhanced ebooks, etc. Meanwhile, originally self-published books like The Martian are being produced as super successful films.

If you enjoy writing, there are really no downsides to self-publishing. And once you’ve put in the work to get your book published, I can’t see any reason to quit.

So… Mackay is back! I've been working hard (and having fun) on some new things. Check out all my latest news.

I have a cool new cover for Eve’s Hungry. The revised ebook is now available with less typos! Eve's Hungry is also now available in trade paperback!  (With hopefully no typos!)

And check out the new paperback version of MacToons. Why would you want a paperback of old crudely drawn cartoons from the 80's? I have no idea, but at $6.999 it makes the MacToons ebook look like a great deal! Because it's now PERMAFREE on Kindle! Includes a thrilling FREE excerpt from Eve's Hungry. (If you made it all the way down here, you should get something free!)

MacToons is also now available on iBooks! PERMAFREE!

And the biggest news of all, Eve’s Hungry now has a spectacular audio book version narrated by the wonderful Tess Irondale! (Completely free of typos!) To check it out, click the pic below!

UPDATE: Thanks to The Digital Reader and The Passive Voice for linking to this post!

Also, a new Author's Earning report just came out that said overall ebook sales have already turned around and went up 4% AND the indy share of that market has also increased.  So good news indy writers!  Aren't you glad you didn't quit self-publishing?


  1. This is a fantastic article. It hits the nail on the head. My sales are down on what they've been but why would I quit? I love writing and wouldn't give it up for anything. I've just downloaded Eve's Hunger, thanks.

    1. Thanks for checking out my book! Goodness, if you made it through that long piece I think you might like the novel.

  2. As a reader, I love that anybody can be an author. One reason for which I stopped buying from local bookstores was that the books were too general or mainstream. I could find the same type of info by googling it. Amazon was different. I could find books focused on such a tiny, obscure niche and buying such books could actually save me time as well as allowing me to read unknown facts not available anywhere else or at least not in a digestible manner. And now I actively search from indie writers because most of the money I pay for a book goes to the artist. These are my thoughts as a bookworm. And as a writer, it's so awesome to write on whatever obscure niche I'm interested in at that time. I was interested on why species have so different lifespans and whether they all age. I read countless papers and books and thought about the problem and put it all out on paper. So glad I didn't have to convince anyone but me that this was a problem worth thinking about. And this is how 'The aging gap between species' book appeared without me knowing anybody at a publishing press. Great times we're living in!

    1. Great times. I waited all my life to be able to do what I'm doing now. Be creative the way I want to, and to be able to share my creative works with everyone in the world.

  3. You do realize that Steve Jobs only owned Amigas ..When his house was robbed//or rather attempted to be robbed.The robbery was asked why didn't you steal anything especially his computers. The robber replied," he only has old computer ,and they are ALL Amigas. Yes I saw it on CNN and FOX. Bill gates own nothing but Amigas. They both met every month at Sacramento Amiga user group. That robbery report is filed.So looked it up many Amigains did. The point ish Bill and Steve family all where taught on Amiga so now don't you guys feel really like the sheepeople

  4. I owned a couple Amigas and they were pretty cool computers. For a little while, they looked like they would challenge the Macintosh as the hip computer. But the company went bankrupt before it got to far along that path. I never heard that Jobs owned an Amiga, but why not? (Especially after he got pushed out of Apple.) I do know that Commodore bought a couple NeXT computers to do research.

  5. If there’s one online income source I like talking about most, it’s definitely self-publishing on Amazon. I’m normally a pretty modest guy but I’ve gotta say… I rock at self-publishing!

    I’ve increased my monthly income from nothing to nearly $2K in less than three years just from selling books on Amazon… and I was making a grand a month within a year.

    The post on how I make money self-publishing has been one of the most popular on my personal blog so I wanted to update it with everything I’ve learned over the last few years. I’ve included updates on how to turn your books into a passive source of income and how to make the whole process easier.

    Ok, so $2K a month isn’t huge money but it’s getting there and it’s growing very quickly.

    If you want to learn more about making money with Kindle then check out “KindleBucks.com” which is the #1 Amazon Kindle Training out there.

    I can't recommend it enough. That's how I got started almost three years ago.