Research suggests self-published authors represented up to 34% of eBook sales in 2020. The number of independently-minded authors who choose to do-it-themselves is increasing. This is despite the limited financial revenue. According to ALCs, seasoned self-published authors, (those who have been writing for at least 20 years), typically earn less than £10,500 annually. Notably, the top 10% of these authors account for 70% of the total revenue in the industry. So, if we’re not going to be the next Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, why do we do it?
As a writer, we are bound to ask ourselves the same question at some point: should I aim for the traditional publishing route of submissions and agents and publishing contracts - or should I self-publish? To inform that decision, I asked some well-established #indieauthors to tell me about their journey.
Bjørn Larssen is an award-winning author of award-winning books – Storytellers (historical fiction set in Iceland in 1920), Children (a dark-but-funny Norse mythology retelling) and Why Odin Drinks (a funny-but-dark Norse mythology retelling). He was born in Poland, now lives in a suburb of Amsterdam, but his heart remains in Iceland, which makes him a curious medical phenomenon.
I'd say Bjørn is unqiue. You won't find many writers like him, which is a shame in a way. The world would laugh a lot if we had more Bjørns. When I reviewed his latest novel, Why Odin Drinks, (here),I labelled him a modern-day Jonathan Swift. I will defend that statement to the death. It's not just that his work is funny, it is. He will have you giggling. It's the wry observations, the comparisons to our world, the witty choice of language that turns his stories into brilliant satire.
It's not surprising therefore, that rather than share his views via an interview, Bjørn opted to write a blog post instead. I'm so glad he did. It provides a flavour of his writing, it will leave you with a smile on your face, I guarantee it. He raises issues about life as an #indieauthor which compare to what others have said but Bjørn makes those points in his distinct, inimitable way.
I'll shut up now and hand you over to my favourite quasi-Icelander.
Somewhere around 2011 I read an article about a woman who self-published dinosaur erotica on Amazon and made lots of money. Later I found out there were many other sorts of self-published unusual erotica. My knowledge about self-publishing only expanded when I started researching the traditional agent-editor-success route and found out how ignorant I’d been.
My idea of being an Author was, I suspect, similar to many people’s. I would sit in my log cabin, Creating. Once I was done Creating, I would send my Art to the… someone, agent, publisher, whatever. (I wasn’t sure what editors were for.) As I continued creating new Art, I would sometimes glance at my bank account, nodding in approval. I’d take breaks for book tours and to gracefully accept awards. (I might or might not have practiced my Pulitzer Prize speech in the mirror.) It felt almost painful to have those delusions stripped from me.
I needed to build a platform of loyal fans first in order to publish anything. There was no point in starting my quest for an agent before I amassed thousands of followers. (This is why the #writerlift follow-for-follow hashtag is popular on Twitter.) I would then start collecting rejections, and once I reached 100 I could call myself a real writer. Assuming I eventually found an agent, they would then search for an editor willing to take my book on. The book would be altered and rewritten - until it matched the editor’s expectations of what market’s expectations were.
Debuts don’t really get marketing budgets, unless the book is chosen as The One to push this season. The interns – I’ve learned this from an agent’s blog, Janet Reid’s – might send review copies to magazines. (This made me gasp.) The publisher might organise a blog tour, but I would be the one paying for transportation and hotels. All this would come from my advance, split into three payments, out of which 15% would be the agent’s fee, and the remaining 85% taxed. Advances for debuts rarely exceed $5,000 (split into three payments, remember). Books rarely earn out, i.e. the author rarely sees any royalties after that $5,000. And in 2020-2021, because of the pandemic, a zero advance – which means exactly what it says – became a thing.
I asked myself, bewildered – what exactly is it that the publisher does? Sure, I wouldn’t have to pay for the editor but I’d have no say in proof-reader or cover design. My book might (there’s a lot of “might” in publishing) find its way to brick-and-mortar shops. Unless I turned out to be The One, and the publisher paid for my book to be displayed in the stores and appear on the “Top 20 Books of the Year,” it would be sink or swim. Which is exactly how self-publishing works, only I get 70% royalties on an e-book vs 7.5% in trad publishing and nobody can drop me after book two of a trilogy.
I still wavered – having a Real Publisher might bring the sort of validation a self-published author will never get. Self-published books don’t appear on the “Top 20 Books of the year” or on LitHub. The final drop was a hashtag #ShareYourRejections, quickly hijacked by humble-braggers sharing their successes. A lady shared that she’d spent nine years searching for an agent, who then spent four years searching for an editor, and her book would be out next year. “Never give up on your dreams!” she predictably finished, and I thought, frozen in horror, that’s fourteen years. The medication I am on shortens the lifespan, on average, by 20 years. I was 42 then. I might not have fourteen years left.
The decision was made.
I have never received a single rejection, because I have never sent a single query.
The art part
The first self-published book I read was DP Woolliscroft’s Kingshold. I was blown away by the quality of…everything. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d think it’s a real, published book, I thought, then realised how dumb that was. It was a real, published, very good book. Through Twitter and Facebook I met more authors, learned from them, and read their books. Some of them were awful. Some – masterpieces. They had one thing in common: indie books are more interesting. Traditional, or legacy, publishing industry doesn’t like taking risks.
My second book, Children is something no agent would touch with a long pole. I worked with my editor to make the book exactly what I – not a trad editor – wanted it to be. I used expert readers and beta readers. I interviewed eight people due to certain unusual traits of my characters. (Writing is very much not a lonely business for me…) I commissioned The Tree logo and designed a cover around it. Then changed it a few months later. Then changed it again. This is my favourite part: freedom. I have control over every smallest thing. Every success is mine. So is every failure.
The imposter syndrome loves that last bit.
Is the book doing well? OMG NOOOOO. Please stop buying it, or at least don’t read it. It’s horrible. I am horrible. Even when I type “the” it’s the worst “the” in the history of “the.” I am immediately getting a face transplant and moving into a cave.
Has the book not sold a copy for whole two days? MY CAREER IS OVER. They found me out. I am immediately getting a face transplant and moving into a cave.
A five-star review? Obviously a friend. If I don’t know their name, it’s a friend using a pseudonym to trick me. Or they mis-clicked. Or thought it meant 5/10.
A one-star review? I actually like those. They mean my book has moved someone enough for them to share how (badly) it made them feel. I want my books to move people.
At some point I realised that I sold so many copies of Storytellers and received so many great reviews, that I simply don’t know that many people. Imposter syndrome immediately dropped it and moved to (as yet unreleased at that point) Children. Now they would find out I was a fraud! Oh? Not yet? Book three’s bound to do it… The imposter syndrome is predictable and boring, yet surprisingly good at its job.
Would not recommend.
The business part
A self-published author is actually a small business owner. Every business needs an investment at first, and there’s a chance you put a lot of money in and get very little out. I chose to employ external consultants – an editor, a proof-reader, briefly a virtual assistant. Some authors don’t. Those are business decisions. I’m lucky enough to have worked as a graphic designer for fifteen years, so I can design my own covers, take care of the formatting, and so on, which saved me a lot of money. At some point everything was ready and it was time to start marketing my product. I could’t afford to think of it as “my book baby” anymore, even though it was. You don’t sell babies to strange people. (Even though the title Children has a lot of comedic potential.)
I don’t enjoy marketing. I think few authors do, except people like David Gaughran or Dave Chesson, who live for it (and from it, as they provide seminars, software, and books). I follow them both, of course. They talk about paid ads, which have the minus side of being paid ads; about ROI, ACoS, keywords, A/B testing. It all makes me slightly dizzy. I’m just here to Create! My books are exceptional, world-changing masterpieces! The world will remain unchanged, though, until it finds out they exist.
Techniques that work for one book don’t work for others. When Storytellers looked like it was dying, I had the idea to make it free for just one day, 2019’s Black Friday. 760 people downloaded the book (at this point I was nowhere near 760 sales). The December that followed was my best month yet. I sold paperbacks and hardcovers, and I realised people were buying my book as holiday presents. That one day revived the book’s sales which continue to this day. Obviously, I decided to do the same thing with my second book, Children.
It didn’t work.
There are many things that can be done for free. Social media, of course, which some people are great at, and some not. I’m a multi-genre author (this is always a bad idea, marketing-wise). Storytellers is a Pinterest/Facebook sort of book. Children belongs on Twitter and Reddit. Why Odin Drinks practically requires me to go on TikTok (I’ve been just about to join it since I first heard about it). An hour here, an hour there, and I’d never get anything written. So I picked the things I enjoy doing.
I post random stuff on Twitter and Instagram, occasionally reminding people I have a book out or that it’s discounted. Sometimes I post on Facebook, when I remember it exists. I have a ko-fi page where people can support me, either one-off or on monthly basis, and buy signed books, and a small mailing list that slowly grows. What works best, though, is word of mouth, which can’t be bought.
When I started, the very idea of contacting a book blogger made me feel very small and want to crawl under the sink. I can’t remember whom I contacted first, but my finger was shaking as I pressed “Send.” I was asking a stranger to express their opinion on my sweet book baby – a mindset I had to unlearn. When Children, my second book, was coming out I had a short list of people who loved Storytellers, and I contacted them first asking if they would like to read the new one. With the third book, Why Odin Drinks, it was even easier.
Reading my books takes time the blogger/BookTuber/BookToker etc. could spend on literally anything else. They might not like it and give it a negative or meh review, which still takes time and work to write, or just tell me privately it wasn’t their cup of tea. Some of them will not have time because of other commitments and some won’t be interested at all, and this is why #indieauthors also have to learn how to live with rejections. (I haven’t collected a hundred yet.) It’s unpaid work for them, work they do out of love, and I have nothing but gratitude even towards those who said no to me. They’re helping other authors – and who knows? They might say yes to me one day, too.
…is where it’s at, because self-publishing is a long-term commitment.
When I was working on Storytellers, I put €100 in my savings account each month. Other people spend money on plushies, stamps, Star Wars merchandise, I told myself. My expensive hobby would be all the expenses related to writing.
I was delighted when it turned out that Storytellers had, so to say, legs. I am not earning enough to pay the bills yet. I can afford to keep writing, though, and that was not obvious on day one. Storytellers paid for itself after 13 months since its publication day. It didn’t stop selling, though, allowing me to make Children and Why Odin Drinks as good as I could possibly make them without having to cut corners. They didn’t do as well as Storytellers – so far. The sales might pick up tomorrow or ten years from now. Books don’t have an expiry date.
I’ve actually signed a traditional contract – for the audiobook of Storytellers. I auditioned narrators, ensured no word would be changed without my permission, approved the cover and everything else, gave our accountant (have I mentioned small businesses need to pay taxes?) a headache, and retained full artistic control. It was the publisher who committed to deadlines. They have no interest in Children, though. That book’s too weird, too difficult to market (also for me), too dark and/or too funny. It’s also exactly what I wanted it to be, to the point where I told the proof-reader where to remove a comma, because its presence changed the tone of the sentence.
I am working on a sequel to Why Odin Drinks, called Bloodbath & Beyond – Norse mythology for fans of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Calvin & Hobbes. It all started as I was working on Children, which is also based on Norse lore. Children is sad-funny – Why Odin Drinks is funny-sad. Right now the world is too grimdark for me to work on the sequel to Children and another wonderful side of self-publishing is that I can decide what to do when. Is it the right decision? Maybe. Am I enthusiastically ruining my career? Maybe. What am I doing not writing another Storytellers? Having fun.
I’ve made mistakes, lost opportunities, left things alone for too long, tried to do too much too fast. I cried in frustration when stuck with a chapter, a scene, or a sentence that simply wouldn’t work. A year later I got to see people recommending my books to others. Some told me that my books were their favourite reads of the year. They demanded to know what happens next. Told me off for not being nice to their favourite character or thanked me, because they saw themselves on the pages.
I have no regrets.
The Publishing Process (according to Bjørn)
Bjørn found this diagram of the submission process on the web, it's included because he felt it summed up what he was saying here in this post. Is this anything like your experience?
I said at the start that Bjørn Larssen is unqiue. I think his post illustrates how true that is. It takes a special kind of mind to gain insight into the way we live - and then to find humour in it. Publishing is a frustrating, ego-sapping business for any author. God knows why we do it! Its processes can be measured in timescales akin to continental drift. Its business model remains trapped in the nineteenth century and it does little or nothing to encourage innovation or reflect a diverse world. Somehow, Bjørn manages to capture those issues and reorient them to make us smile. If you haven't read his stories, this post gives you a flavour for the chaos, the wry humour and gentle digs that define his work. He is one of the most human of writers I know - by that I mean, he captures the human condition without us realising. That takes a great deal of talent. Go read his books. You won't regret it.
Want to find out more about Bjørn Larssen?
His website: www.bjornlarssen.com
Buy his books: www.bjornlarssen.com/author