Will the Self-Publishing Cream Rise to the Top?

self publishing cream and milk-316417_640I’m a farmer and author. Hubby, however, expressly forbids me to have a milk cow despite the amount of milk we use. What does milk have to do with self-publishing anyway? Metaphorically speaking, a lot. When you milk a cow, that lovely milk hits the bucket and is all stirred up. Think of that milk as the publishing industry. Right now it’s a mixed bucket of Indie and traditionally published authors all out to win your hard-earned dollar. Everyone wants to sell books. And with so many books being published, the market has become diluted. I’ve watched my sales drop off sharply the last few months when they should be increasing due to the holidays. They’ve never done that — not in the five years I’ve been published.

So what gives? We’re back to the milk again — the mixed up, diluted milk. As authors, we are in indirect competition with everyone else. We don’t step onto a field of battle and duke it out with other storytellers. No, we sit behind our computers and wage wars from there. How do we win the war? It’s not easy. As with any endeavor, it takes time and money. Whole, raw milk will eventually separate. The heavy, tasty cream will rise to the top where it can be skimmed off and enjoyed while the lower fat milk sinks to the bottom. There’s usually between two and fifteen percent cream in most milk, which leaves a lot of regular milk in the bucket.

Traditionally published authors have the advantages of a publisher that will edit the manuscript, create a professional cover, and pay for marketing and distribution of the book. Is the book any good? Maybe, maybe not. Only a precious amount of time will tell if the book will be a bestseller or a flop. Most traditionally published books see the light of day for three to four months before being ushered into dark obscurity. If the book doesn’t sell, the publisher washes their hands of the author and moves on. It’s an assembly line process that’s gone on for many years.

How can Indie authors compete? Time is on our side! As Indies, we have the luxury of waiting to see how a book will perform. If it’s not performing as expected, we have the ability to rewrite the book because we own the rights. We have a huge amount of freedoms that other authors don’t. Time is our friend, not our enemy.

So how do we become the cream? This is the hard part. Writing is not a skill everyone is born with. Good writing takes time, patience, and diligence. To put out a high-quality book, you have to invest some money. Good books don’t just appear out of thin air (don’t we wish?!). They are lovingly and gently crafted works of brilliance.

As I’ve grown in my abilities as a self-published author, I’ve learned there are two things I will not scrimp on: editing and covers. Yes, both cost money — a lot of money. Quality editing of a manuscript can cost a penny a word. That’s $800 for an 80,000 word manuscript! And covers can range from $100-$1,000+ for a custom job from a good artist.

How does an author afford this? Baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The key to any successful person is quantity and consistency. Things like formatting and layout can actually be learned relatively free and easily, which will save you money. Writers must write. Save your pennies, but keep on writing. Publish only when you have something fantastic to show the world. Putting your best foot forward will help you quickly rise with the cream.  A writer who publishes sub-par work will only end up sinking to the bottom of the milk bucket. They will be lost in obscurity. Most will give up writing because of failure.

In the end, those who put effort into their books will survive the turmoil of the milk bucket. With the rapidly diminishing stigma of self-publishing, authors can take advantage of time and resources to create truly magnificent works of literature. Don’t sell yourself short because you’re in a rush to put out a book. There’s still a huge, diluted sea of books out there, but wouldn’t you want the best shot at getting your work noticed? Sales equate to profits, which equate to affording quality services to produce better books. That’s the publishing cycle of life.

Most authors are happy if they break even after expenses. Those are the ones who write because they love telling stories. Writing is rarely a profitable endeavor, less than one percent will ever make the “big time.” But that shouldn’t stop someone from writing, especially if it’s their passion. Indie authors can and do rise above traditionally published authors. It takes blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice to write a book. You want to send that book out to the world as a shining example of your skills. Take the time and make it great. You will do yourself justice.

Author: K. Rowe

K. Rowe is an experienced and prolific multi-genre author. She draws from over twenty years of active Air Force service. Kathy lives in eastern Kentucky with her husband and a zoo of farm animals. Among her many duties she finds time to offer services as a publishing consultant for new authors. Learn more about Kathy from Facebook, and her Amazon author page.

28 thoughts on “Will the Self-Publishing Cream Rise to the Top?”

  1. Hi Kathy, just wanted to say it is very hard out there in the world of books and authors these days, especially since there are so many jumping aboard. I feel that if you truly are a writer and love being a writer, you will persevere in your quest, if only for you yourself. I write because I love telling stories and love having readers read my stories. I knew when coming into this field it would be a long road and struggle was definitely involved. Just keep plugging at what you love doing, and hopefully others will realize your dream and want to be a part of it. Believe me, there have been numerous times I put on the back burner my desire for publishing. It was a much rougher road then. Now it is so simple and easy to get your book out there. Like anything in life, you have to wade through the waves and stay a float. Just keep your head above the water and you will see the shore.

  2. Wonderful post, Kathy. Writing, and especially publishing, is a balancing act. When I published my first book, I didn’t know if anyone would read it. Still, I gritted my teeth and paid for editing, proofreading and a cover. I realized I might be kissing that money goodbye forever. In the end, though, people did read it, and I was so glad I hadn’t put out a half-baked product.

    Every business requires at least a small influx of cash to start. Publishing our own words is no different.

    1. 100% true. And I understand how hard it is for folks just starting out in the writing biz to have no capital to do anything with. I was fortunate and had a good job, but that’ didn’t help when I lacked the proper knowledge base of where to find what I needed. All I can say is bless the internet!

  3. I am one of those who is happy to break even. I’m close – I think.
    As for the natural selection process, where the cream rises and leaves the thin milk behind, I agree that it does happen – to a degree. Those that only throw together a book thinking it will make them rich will simply drop out when they don’t see results. Those of us who write for the love of it will stay the course. The problem at this point in the cycle is that word has not got out yet that there are a lot of great Indie books available, or that dreck will not make you rich. The tide is beginning to change in those respects but it is a slow evolution, not a quick revolution. We haven’t reached the hump yet, so are still battling uphill.

  4. This is one of those articles that gives me mixed feelings. I can’t argue that quality work, blood, sweat, and sacrifice are necessary. But is it enough to rise as cream? I’m not so sure, because there’s a great deal of quality work out there that’s simply not rising to the top. I could go crazy trying to figure out why one book succeeded while another of equal quality failed.

    I think there’s many other factors in play. Some we know about while others are a struggle to understand, mainly because they seem to be in consent change.

    I see today’s market as more of a blender, often times preventing a lot of cream from rising. In fact, it might explain why things that aren’t cream end up rising to the top.

  5. It is no longer enough to write quality books. Thousands of new high quality books are published every week, and ALL of the old high quality books from last year and the year before are still available – and will be, forever.

    FORGET about the bad books. They’re irrelevant. The tsunami of crap? Not a worry. We’re living in a tsunami of amazing, high quality literature. 😉

    Writing well is by itself no longer enough to win a career.

    You must write well – write often – and build relationships with readers.

    Everyone I know who managed to publish a million words in a year made a living wage by the end of that year. Everyone I know of who managed half a million words for two years running was making a living by the end of two years. We have entered a world where the full time writer excels – and the part time writer, regardless of quality or skill, in endangered.

    And that sort of sucks, for the part time writer. But it’s just the way it is.

    The top lists across genres are being dominated by writers producing 4-16 high-quality books a year. It’s hard to compete with that, if you’re writing 1/2 to 1 book a year. By the time book two comes out, the other author is on book ten? And readers have forgotten you exist. Readers are being trained to want the next work faster. Algorithms are dropping new works at 30 days instead of 90. And people who write more tend to get better at writing faster than those who write less – so more words per year almost always equals higher quality stories, sooner.

    MY answer has been to step up my game. I only wrote 180,000 words last year – fairly decent, but nothing spectacular. I’m over 103,000 so far this year already, and aiming for at least 600,000 for the year. I’ll publish in excess of twelve title this year, a mix of novels and novellas. I’m also working on improving my product funnels and building my email lists, as those are the best ways (for now) to get readers’ interest and maintain connections with them.

    The business is still changing. The book a year writer can still indie publish – and can still get lucky and make some sales. But the average number of books to “break out” a few years ago was about ten. It’s more like fifty now. And it will continue to climb.

    At 1000 words per hour (pretty average writing speed), it takes about 80 minutes of writing a day, every day, to reach 500,000 words a year. Assuming you spend as much time editing/revising as you do writing the draft, publishing 500,000 words a year of fiction will take something like 160 minutes a day. Or about 18.6 hours per week.

    That’s not a crazy amount of time to spend on something that you are treating as a profession. It’s smaller than pretty much any other profession out there spends.

    1. Kevin, I agree with you. I only published about 150,000 words last year, and I knew that wouldn’t cut it in this market. This year, I am also aiming at 500,000. Keeping up with that production, along with the other aspects of publishing, can be daunting with a full time job, but it’s worth it.

      1. It’s only daunting if you think about it as 500,000 words. 😉

        I am writing 500 words a day minimum – more most days, but always at least that many. All you have to do to write 500k words in a year is work about an hour and a half a day on your writing. Eighteen to nine hours of writing per week, plus time for handling your edits and actually uploading the books.

        If you’re serious about writing as a career, commit. Twenty hours a week gets you 500,000 words of published fiction per year.

        If you don’t have that level of commitment, that’s OK. But it is unreasonable to expect a full time living from something you only do a couple of hours a week. So let your expectations match the input of effort you make.

        1. Being a farmer too, I have to split my time. So at a minimum, I set 250/day. Doesn’t sound like much, but it does keep me motivated. Most days I can put out 1,500-2,000 words. But not always- like when the barn floods because of the 15″ of snow we had and now adding rain to it. Yeah, I do the best I can with my time.

  6. Sometimes I feel like *I’m* in the blender, or the milk jug, or whatever. 😀 And this business may never pause long enough for all of the cream to rise to the top. But all we can do is keep plugging away at our writing, and do what we can to find our fans.

  7. I agree with Lynne. Nevertheless, as authors we need to do whatever we can to increase our chances of success. I know I’m not “cream” yet; but I might qualify as “half-and-half”! LOL.

    1. The going rate for a line edit/proofread combination deal (two separate edits, the line edit and then the proofread after you fix the line edits) is about 0.6 cents per word. I’ve seen that deal as low as 0.4 cents per word and as high as a penny a word from a skilled editor, but 0.6 cents per word seems pretty typical.

      1. I am lucky and have snagged that editor! She’s awesome! But sometimes my stories still fall flat- but they are well-edited…

        1. I mean, think of your example of 80,000 words. That’s 320 standard MS pages. If an editor works at an average rate of five pages per hour, that’s sixty-four hours for one pass! Which, depending on what that editor charges per hour can be anything from $1,600 to over four thousand dollars.

          Here’s a handy guide to how rates pan out. Of course, it’s not an exact science and if a manuscript is clean most editors will work at a far faster rate than five pages per hour, but I used that as an average.


          Anyway, I don’t want to hijack Kathy’s comments section, but I had to speak up for my colleagues, who deserve to be paid fairly for their painstaking and highly specialized work! 🙂

  8. ‘The cream will eventually rise to the top,’ is a phrase I used to use all the time but, as you hint at and so many others are saying, regardless of whether it once was true, it may not be relevant today. The industry is changing all the time, so much so it appears to be in a state of constant flux; in other words, ‘what is true today may not be so true tomorrow. One thing is for sure, ‘if you don’t love what you’re doing, you should be doing something else’.

    Excellent article, Kathy.

  9. It’s too bad so many people think this is easy. It’s not; it takes constant work. I often tell folks, if you want to make money, go dig ditches. It’s easier. However, you can’t beat the satisfaction factor in writing and publishing. Good reminder, Kathy.

    1. Melissa- digging ditches isn’t fun, and darn hard work- it just doesn’t require the mental focus that writing does. I’ll take the keyboard over the shovel anyday!

  10. Like your example and the stress you placed on producing quality work.

    I don’t however feel that other books are the real competition. Rather it’s the other forms of entertainment and information that have become so cheap and easy to access. To compete books have to become even better and in many cases cheaper yet. I find a $20 hard copy not in line with reality.

    1. Yes, very true. Netflix, cable TV, and video games are making strangers of the once beloved book. I think the best shot Indie authors have is keeping our prices lower than the competition. It’s a pricing game that everyone seems to play. I had a customer to my farm complain that $2/dz for pasture eggs was TOO much! So I bet they drove 30 mins to Kroger and paid $1.99 for store eggs. Unfortunately we can’t win ’em all.

  11. I’m a very slow writer at the best of times, and I’m also only writing part time, so I’ll probably end up as yoghurt rather than normal milk! However I do have a strategy of sorts – instead of publishing the first, second etc books of a series one at a time, I’m going to wait until I have a complete series to offer. Then bang, out there all at once.

    If no one wants to read any of them I’m no worse off than I was before. However if readers do take a chance on book 1, and like it, they’ll be able to move straight onto to books 2 and 3 without a delay.

    This could work out to be a spectacular failure, but it will be /my/ failure, and I can live with that. 😀

    1. More and more I’m hearing authors waiting to put out an entire series. Seems to have some merit. I can’t do that- at any time, I’m working on 3-5 books in a variety of genres. Yes, somehow I keep my head straight on what each character is doing, but it also means that each book in a series has to wait its turn to be edited, cover done, and published. Eventually I get them all out.

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