Singaporean author John Lim wrote an article on TODAY describing the challenges he faced as a self-published author. Being a self-published author myself, I sympathise with his situation. With that said, he made the kind of mistakes that the successful self-pubbed author cannot afford to make.
I am Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award nominated writer. I started writing professionally in 2015. At present, I have published 17 books. 2 of them became Amazon bestsellers. Almost all of them generated income. Only 2 did not. It’s not much money, to be sure, but I can say that I haven’t lost the sums that Lim had.
I am an artist. With every series and every book, I seek to push the limits of my abilities. I am also a businessman. With every book I write, I think in terms of revenue and expenditures. This is how I managed to sustain my writing career for so long, without incurring thousands of dollars in losses.
Writing for profit is a business. Starting a business does not guarantee income, but at least most entrepreneurs see some sales. Authors are the exception. Having a book does not guarantee income. The publishing world is brutal, more so for self-published authors. You can spent thousands of dollars and months to create a book, only to see no return. If you want to make money from writing, you have to treat it as a business.
You have to start with why.
Start With Why
Ask a thousand writers why they write and you will have a thousand answers. To survive as a writer, you need to match your strategy and expectations with your motivations.
Some writers are not motivated by money. Some are hobbyists who are just happy to see their works in print. Others are motivated by a higher calling, such as spreading an idea, paying tribute to someone, or logging an obscure piece of history for posterity. These motivations may be noble, but money is not part of the equation.
If you are not motivated by money, then you must not expect any returns. Any sales and subsequent royalties are nice. But do not expect to be able to earn out the cost of creation, never mind earn an income from it. Your publishing plan should account for this.
For an author who is not motivated by money, or who write in a highly obscure topic, the best route is to go to a traditional publisher. Let them worry about the costs and logistics of sending the manuscript to the market. Should you choose the self-published route, understand that you have to bear the costs of publication. You have to pay for everything out of pocket. You are responsible for revenue and expenses, no one else. Therefore, do not spend what you cannot afford to lose.
If you’re not motivated by money, then whatever sum you throw into publishing should be treated as burned. You’re not going to see it ever again, and you’re not going to see any returns. Take finances out of the equation. They don’t matter to you—publishing the book is its own reward. At the same time, you shouldn’t burn the rest of your finances just to get the book out the door. Only spend what you can afford, and not one cent more.
Suppose you are motivated by money. Suppose you do expect returns. That’s perfectly alright. It is completely acceptable for someone to push a product to market with the expectation that it will generate income for them. Writing is hard, and it is reasonable to expect compensation for all that hard work.
In that case, you must also start with why: why should your reader care?
To answer this, you need to ask the following questions as well. Who are you? Who is your intended reader? How will the reader benefit from your book? Why will they want to read your book, instead of something else?
When writing nonfiction, there is an additional step: what do you intend your book to do? Do you want to simply sell the book? Do you wish to use it as a launchpad to upsell courses? Do you want to use it to establish your authority so you can land speaking engagements and high-ticket deals? This tells you how you should write the book, who is your intended audience, and you should write about—and not write about.
Let’s look at John Lim. His first book was a book of quotes. Information is free on the Internet. You can look up quotes all day long using a search engine and specialist websites. What value does the book of quotes bring? Why would the reader care?
Such a project, by its very nature, would be doomed to financial failure. If all it does is offer something that people can already find for free, why would they want to buy it?
The second book, in Lim’s words, is to “support social workers through the administrative and emotional overwhelm of social work.”
This could be of value—to social workers, and people who know social workers. Outside this narrow circle, who would care? Why would they care? An author may have a large social network and an enormous mailing list, but if his book is not tailored for his network, it is extremely unlikely that they will care enough to buy it.
Furthermore, there is already a huge amount of free information out there about dealing with overwhelm. The book might be beautifully designed and communicate a poignant message, but how much more value does it offer? Why would someone want to read it?
These questions have to be addressed before you commit word one to the page. And then every page, as well as the cover and the blurb, must communicate this.
Now let’s look at my own bibliography as an example. I am Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award nominated writer. This communicates social proof and a marker of quality. My stories are unique. They combine the authenticity and excitement of thrillers, the imagination and wonder of science fiction and fantasy, and the spirituality of mystics. No one else writes like me, making me stand out from the crowd in a highly niche space. These stories don’t just entertain the reader: they seek to inspire him to reach for greater heights, to cultivate virtue and wisdom, to see the world differently, to become the best he can be.
This is what people buy into when they buy my stories: this singular combination of traits that few today can do and no one can replicate. It is an experience unlike anything else on the market.
I am not, by any measure, a wildly successful author. I can say, however, that I’ve been able to sustain my writing career over 5 years and counting.
And the 2 books I mentioned that didn’t earn out? That was because there was a mismatch between audience and product, because there was a lack of social proof, and because there was little demand for what the books covered in the first place.
But that was alright. I didn’t expect much returns. I wrote them as part of other personal pursuits. In recognition of that fact, I calculated the costs of publication and sought to minimize them wherever possible.
Don’t Throw Money Away
Lim spent $1005 to design his first book, then another $1500 to print 500 copies. He earned $150.
He spent $5850 to design his second book. He earned $17.80.
He is now budgeting $10,000 on this third book, which would include the cost of copyediting, design and printing.
I hate to be the one to say it, but all I’m seeing here is a newbie author throwing away good money.
This is the sort of money high-profile authors can spend. Politicians, celebrities, businessmen, subject matter experts, bestselling authors. They can afford to spend this much money because they know that they can earn at least 10, 20, or even 100 times that much money in return.
If you’re not a big name, you cannot afford to spend this kind of money, especially in this economy. You’re just going to go broke. If you are a new author, the only occasion you should spend this much money is if you’re writing specialist nonfiction with an eye towards leveraging it to land high-ticket deals and speaking events, or to sell courses and programs.
How much money should you spend?
If you have no financial motive, then only spend as little as you can lose. If you do have a financial motive, then follow this rule: success builds success.
Pulp on Pulp was envisioned as a free book, for the contributors to help other indie authors. I only budgeted USD 20 for the entire book. Most of my older books also had a production cost of about USD 250 each. As my career grew, I could afford to spend more money on other books. Saga of the Swordbreaker was budgeted at USD 500 per book. The Babylon series had a budget of about USD 700 per book.
My cost per book is less than half, or even one-tenth, of Lim’s books, and yet my revenue is much, much higher. I build upon the successes of my earlier books to create even better books by reinvesting revenue into my business. Only after I was confident of covering costs did I increase my production budget.
The key to keeping costs low is to spend wisely. Pay only for what you need, not what is nice to have, especially if you’re a new author with no brand.
Cover art is critical. Do not skimp on this. The cover is what draws in the reader. Spend only what you can afford, but a significant fraction (or even the majority) of your budget should go to the cover. USD 100 to 200 is a decent amount for newcomers; USD 10 to 20 is for ultra-low-budget authors or those who don’t care about money. USD 500 and more is for people ready to break into the big leagues and need a cover to attract an audience worthy of the big leagues. Spending a thousand bucks or more is only for those who know they can earn a significant return.
Printing costs are irrelevant for self-publishers. If you self-publish on Amazon, Ingram, or other self-publishing platforms, they will take care of the costs. Print on demand technology allows the publisher to print books only when they are ordered. This greatly reduces logistics costs. With their global reach, Amazon, Ingram and other POD platforms can reach a far wider audience than any one author by himself. There is no reason a self-published should pay to print his own books, except to print special limited editions, such as leather bound copies or signed limited editions. This is Lim’s greatest mistake: creating costs where there is none.
Formatting costs depend on what you want to achieve. If you’ve got plenty of books in you, you can buy Vellum or Atticus for USD 249.99 or USD 147 respectively, and produce unlimited numbers of publication-ready books. Or you can hire someone on Fiverr or Upwork to do the formatting for you for between one-third to one-fifth of the price. If you’re a newbie, or if you have no profit motive, this is the way to go. You should only spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on formatting if you’re creating something like an art book that requires managing lots of complex images, or if you are a big name with money to burn.
Copyediting comes dead last. It’s a dirty little secret in the publishing world that readers are far more forgiving of typos and grammatical errors than most authors think. Readers want the meat of the content. So long as the errors are kept to a reasonable limit, and do not disrupt the reading experience, they don’t care. I routinely find typos and other mistakes in famous best-selling works, but readers barely notice them. You should only hire an editor if you’re ready to go pro and if you can’t do it yourself. For those starting out and with no brand, a copyediting isn’t essentially.
I do my own editing. That saves a huge amount of money. Maybe someday I might delegate that to someone else, but right now, my income does not justify hiring an editor. That will have to wait until my brand is big enough that the benefits outweigh the costs. Until then, I will continue to DIY my edits.
And in my reviews, you will notice that no one cares.
Self-published authors have to cover the costs of publishing. But modern technology gives you more options. The cost of production for my stories run between USD 250 to USD 700. The real cost is zero. That’s because all of my stories are crowdfunded. The crowdfunding campaign covered all the costs of production. Every subsequent sale I make is pure profit.
Invincible is a special case. It was first posted on Steemit and Hive, and then self-published. These are blockchain platforms that reward popular posts in cryptocurrencies. The crypto earnings from both platforms covered the cost of production, so once again, the real cost is zero.
Crowdfunding is a great way to generate buzz, to attract an audience, and to gauge interest in your books. Blockchain publishing is an exciting new space. Writing about them is beyond the scope of this post, but they are worth exploring.
Dollars and Cents
Publishing is a long game. To win at the long game, you have to build on small successes and snowball them into bigger successes. You cannot have small successes if your costs drown them from the start.
In the SingLit space, it is fashionable to think about high art and ideals. But to make money from writing, you have to think about dollars and cents. You have to think business. The first rule of business is, do not lose money. The second rule is, never forget the first rule.
It’s no surprise that John Lim’s books failed so spectacularly. They violated these rules. Should this pattern continue, I’ve no doubt that his third book will be an even bigger flop. Lack of sales cannot be solved simply by throwing more money at the problem.
Do not spend more money than you can afford to lose. Do not spend money when you don’t have to. If you do want to make money from writing, then you must first understand the value proposition of your offerings to your intended customers and communicate that to your intended audience.
Obey these rules, and one day you may even surpass me.
Authentic action. Deep worldbuilding. Immersion in history and culture. This is the experience waiting for you in Saga of the Swordbreaker.