The Self-Publishing Lottery

Millions of people buy lottery tickets every day. For every hundred dollars spent, very little – if any – will be returned unless… unless the ticket hits the jackpot. The odds of hitting the jackpot are astronomical. Yet millions of people continue to play the lottery. Why? Hope. As long as there is even the tiniest fraction of a chance of having the winning ticket, people will continue to feed this hope.

Hundreds of thousands of people are now writing and self-publishing books. There are millions of books available on Amazon. The top 5,000 sell several copies every day. The top 50,000 sell a few copies every day. The top 200,000 sell once every day or so. But 10,0000,000 sell a few copies per month or less.

Most of the books sell just sporadically. Yet hundreds of thousands of aspiring authors continue to self-publish. Thousands of new books are published every day. Why? Hope. There is a chance that the book will be successful.

A lottery ticket just costs a dollar. Writing a book takes a great deal of time and effort. But people believe that the chance of success is much greater with writing a book, and that even in the worst-case scenario, the book will still sell some copies.

Here’s the thing. A book isn’t just going to be a top seller because the author hopes it will sell well. Everyone who buys a lottery ticket has the same chance of winning. But not everyone who writes a book has the same chance of success.

Some book ideas are better than others. Some books are better written, edited, and formatted than others. Some books have better covers and blurbs. Some books evoke strong emotions and have memorable characters. Some books are marketed very well. Book success isn’t just left to chance.

Each book is competing for sales against millions of other books. Only a small percentage of books sell with high frequency. The author who sits back and hopes shouldn’t expect much to come of it. The author who makes every effort to put the odds in his/her favor is much more likely to taste the success.

Writing a book takes a great deal of time and effort. Why not take a break after the book is written, then put more time and effort toward improving the book’s chances of success before (and again after) publishing? The author who has the dream of success should strive to make the dream a reality.

Hundreds of thousands of other authors want their book to be successful. But only a small percentage of books will sell with high frequency. It’s a competitive world. Most self-published authors won’t take the time to perfect every aspect of their book – storyline, cover, blurb, editing, formatting, marketing, etc. The author who does suddenly has a rare advantage.

The first step is to have a great idea. Sure, everyone already has a book idea – if not several – which they already believe is a great idea. But most books aren’t highly successful, so maybe they aren’t all that great after all. Which ideas are great? It’s not too hard to figure that out. Check out the bestselling books in a given genre. Study those books. They are the models of success. These books are presently attracting many readers.

What about creativity? Trying something new? Self-publishing offers freedom and independence. So why write material that is similar to what’s already out there?

Because those were proven to succeed. Those are concepts that readers are willing to invest in.

Write something new and hope for an audience. Or write for an existing audience, and then after establishing a reputation, write what truly interests you. This way, you can eventually write with the freedom and independence that you crave, while also having an audience for it once you do.

You can’t just copy the same concept. But you need to understand the readers’ expectations. Do the top-selling romance books all end with a happily-ever-after? What negative characteristics (if any) is the protagonist allowed to have in a mystery? How realistic does a sci-fi concept need to be? If you dream of a large audience, you must first understand the readers’ expectations. Upset your readers and you lose valuable word-of-mouth sales. (When you become an established author, then you can upset some readers in the name of artistic freedom. Nonetheless, you still have a great deal of freedom without upsetting a large number of readers in your genre.)

But just subscribing to traditional methods doesn’t guarantee success. Bestselling books have some common features. They have fantastic covers. (Study the covers in your genre. This is what readers expect to see when they browse for books.) They are well-edited. They are professionally formatted. They are well-written. They are effectively marketed. In fiction, they have very memorable characters and – in many genres – suspenseful plots, and they evoke strong emotions.

You might find an occasional exception. Don’t cling to the exception. You can find tens of thousands of books that could have been much more successful if only, if only, if only… Cling to the if only.

Too much time? Plenty of time. What’s the rush?

Too little money? There are affordable options. Save up. What’s the rush?

(There is a wealth of free help out there, too, often from knowledgeable, experienced small publishers. Check out blogs, self-publishing community forums, books. Find out how good your work is, get opinions, and exchange ideas with colleagues at writing venues or book clubs.)

Rush your book out to the wolves. Or do some research, polish it up as best you can, bring your best book to the market. Make your first book your best book – it’s the book you will establish your reputation with.

It’s a common mistake to think: I’ll just get my book out there and see what people think of it. If they complain about editing, I’ll get an editor later. If I sell enough copies now, I’ll hire an illustrator later. And so on and so forth. Give them your best work the first time. Don’t give them any reasons to complain.

There are many self-published authors who have experienced these publishing mistakes firsthand. If you haven’t published yet, there is still time to learn from and avoid these common mistakes.

(Don’t have the hope of selling many copies? Then be a true artist and do as you please. J)

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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