5 things I’ve learned from self-publishing

This was supposed to be a guest post for somewhere else, but due to mis-communication I’m now able to post it here for your viewing pleasure. I’ve kept the intro, because some of you might not read the “About Author” section of this website as often as I’d like you to 🙂

Gutenberg pressJames Calbraith is my pen and internet name – my Polish name is an unpronouncable jumble of consonants, so it’s for everyone’s benefit, really.
I write speculative fiction – fantasy and (sometimes) science-fiction. These last few years I’ve been immersed in the historical fantasy world of steampunk Japan, where my main series of novels is set.
I also travel a lot, eat a lot, and listen to a lot of really old music.
My inability to keep up any social presence is legendary, so if you feel like a challenge, you can follow me on G+, FB or Twitter – links above. 🙂


Modern self-publishing means that you’re on the mercy of the freelancers. All good freelancers are busy – and very good freelancers are very busy. No matter how much you will pay them, they are likely to forget about your book if you don’t pester them continuously.
Pestering people and institutions (that includes all sorts of Customer Support) was the first thing I had to learn. Being an introvertic with assertiveness problems, this was the hardest lesson, but a necessary one. Another was setting tight deadlines. At first I was playing loose with deadlines I set for my freelancers, hoping for their workmanship to do the rest, but it didn’t work – and I should have known, being a champion procrastinator myself. You need deadlines, and you need to be strict about them, or you’ll never get anywhere.


I was very succesful with my KDP Select results – seeing the sales soar mere months after my debut was really heartening – until I started getting the reviews back.
It is not just my opinion – that would be quite self-centered of me – but a common psychological rule that a free product is not a respected product. A customer is much more likely to trash something they haven’t made an effort to obtain, and vice versa: if they’ve spent money on something, they will try to rationalize the spending by any means possible.
It was one of the hardest lessons to take, and one the effects of which I’m still reeling from.

(incidentally, if you liked any of my books and still haven’t posted a review anywhere, I implore you to do so :))


I have spent a lot of time and money – way too much, in fact – on marketing, social presence, building readership, ads, etc.

None of it did anything for my sales in the long run. The only thing that mattered was whether Amazon wanted my book to sell or not. The mysterious, almost god-like in their omnipotence, algorithms of Amazon were able to raise my novels to dizzying heights and then cast them back into the shadow of oblivion virtually overnight, and nothing I tried (or didn’t try) to do had the slightest impact on what was going on.

Selling is all a game of big numbers. If 10,000 people see your book, a hundred may be tempted to buy it. If 100 people see it, nobody will buy it. And for someone like me, who always had problems reaching a mass audience on my own, only Amazon has the power to bring the necessary 10,000 people to my books – and then take them away in a blink.


As far as I can tell, there is no more distinction between indies and traditionally published books in the eyes of most readers and reviewers. You can still find reviewers who will announce publicly they don’t read indies – but I’ve discovered that a well presented package will be picked up: it’s just a ruse they implement not to have to pile through shoddily prepared selfie manuscripts.

The same goes for readers, for good and for bad. If the book looks “proper”, most people will not bother to look at the publisher’s label; they will buy it, read it – and review it just like any other book from a bookstore. This means all books are now held to the same professional standards, but also, sadly, means that experiments in publishing are not as welcome as they may have been before. The reader expects a real, “normal” book, with a beginning and an end, no matter whether it costs $.99 or $9.99.


The internet is filled with people giving good advice to anyone who asks. Almost none of it is useful. In case of publishing, it’s mostly easily repeatable trite about nothing, sold in increasingly attractive package (videos, infographics) which can be summed up as “do lots of obvious stuff”. (Yes, we all have our FB pages, our blogs, our Goodreads accounts, our professional covers and proofread manuscripts. Now what?) And it’s almost never backed up by actual success – because genuine success is a rare and elusive beast.

Judging by my author’s rank fluctuations on Amazon, I can tell there are less than 200 “successful” authors in my genre – and by that I mean writers who can make a decent income out of their sales. And that’s including everyone who’s ever published a book – out of tens of thousands. Even fewer of them decide to write about their success. And fewer still can point, with certainty and clarity, to what they did to get where they are. Why do some books sell better than others? Why are some artists effortlessly popular, while others toil for years in obscurity? It’s a secret as old as art and commerce, and no shouty infographic will solve it for you.