Adventures in self-publishing: Why I took a year's work and tried my hardest to give it away

Bill-Barol-Book[I am reading Bill's novel now and really enjoying it. Look for a review from me soon -- Mark]

When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a war hero, he’s supposed to have replied: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” That’s how I became a self-published novelist: A large number of New York publishers rejected Thanks for Killing Me, my spiky little crime novel about the aftermath of a con gone wrong. They did so for an exquisitely heterogeneous variety of reasons. One liked the plot but not the characters; another liked the characters but not the plot. A couple thought it moved too fast, and a couple found it too leisurely. About the only consensus was that none of them felt optimistic about their chances of selling a caper novel, and a first novel at that, in a declining publishing market. Being the self-starter that I am, I took these rejections in stride and leapt into action, throwing the manuscript into a drawer and sulking for eighteen months.

Sometime around the start of this period I had lunch with an old friend who’d done some time as a publishing executive. I told him that I was beginning to kick around the idea of self-publishing. His advice was short and sweet. “Don’t,” he said. “It’s all the stuff you hate: Marketing, self-promotion, asking people for favors.” This was enough to discourage me for a while. A couple of months back we had lunch again and I told him, again, that I was giving the idea some thought. He asked me what I hoped to accomplish. My thinking had clarified some since our last lunch, and I was honest with him: I told him that I still wanted to attract the attention of a traditional publisher (the Grail of self-published novelists) and/or the movie business. This time, maybe sensing that he could no longer talk me out of it, his advice was a little more expansive. “Okay,” he said. “First, forget everything you know about traditional media; all your experience is worthless. Take all that time you spend screwing around on Twitter and put it into marketing your book. And, at least in the beginning, sell it as cheap as you can. In fact, you know what? Give it away.”

“What?” I said.

“Give it away,” he said. “For free.”

His reasoning was hard to argue with, and not just because I suddenly had a loud buzzing in my ears and the room was all swimmy. The logic went like this: Given two facts -- the odds of any self-published novel ever making any real dough were astronomically low, and the job of my novel was now to be its own loss leader -- why not set its retail valuation at zero and get it into as many hands as possible? It sounded screwy, it sounded counter-intuitive -- hell, it was counter-intuitive, as my intuition was to make money by my work, and as much of it as possible. But the more I thought about it the less nuts it sounded. If I was really serious about exposing my work to a broad audience and generating the kind of critical mass that would make publishers reconsider, I had to make the book almost impossible for anyone with even a passing interest not to acquire. The Get It/Don’t Get It decision had to be friction-free, and cost was the point of friction I could most easily lubricate.

In retrospect, deciding to take a whole year’s work and assign it a valuation of $0.00 was the easy part. Actually doing it wasn’t so simple. What I discovered was that however much of a crazy-ass hippie I had become, CreateSpace, the print-on-demand arm of Amazon, apparently exists to make money, or at least recoup its costs. In practical terms, this means that Amazon sets a floor below which authors are forbidden to sell. So here was my first lesson in self-publishing: While the capitalists with whom I’d gotten into business might abstractly admire my entrepreneurial imagination, they drew the line at letting me give my work away. Like Paulie Cicero’s crew in Goodfellas, they’d get theirs first, off the top. The floor for the paperback edition of my book was $7.49; I set an introductory selling price of $7.99, yielding a profit to me of $0.30 per book. Then I priced the the Kindle edition and the iBooks edition at a cheap-as-possible $0.99 each, which yielded per-unit profits to me of $0.30 and $0.35 respectively. From now until some time in the near future when I decide to raise the prices to something more sensible, the sellers will keep the rest. Which is to say, almost everything.

That doesn’t seem unfair to me. It’s payment rendered for production and/or distribution services provided. In this, they’ve executed one part of the job that traditional publishers have always done. Which leaves every other part for me. This is one thing readers may not immediately grasp about the new world of self-publishing: Printing books and getting them into readers’ hands is only one aspect of the process. To the degree that these most mechanical parts of the publishing business have been peeled off and put within reach of authors, that’s a good thing. It’s disruptive, it’s liberating, it’s downright democratic. But it’s only half the story. Self-published authors also assume responsibility for everything else traditional publishers have always done, chief among these marketing and promotion. And these are another bucket of type.

Marketing and promotion matter. They are the whole show. And they cost, one way or another. You can spend dollars to hire a specialist -- there are people who do nothing but arrange “blog tours,” where authors make virtual guest appearances at sympathetic blogs -- or you can spend time and energy to do it yourself. I have, at least initially, chosen the latter, rolling out the social-media equivalent of a full-court press: Website, Twitter feed, Facebook fan page, a presence at Goodreads. Shamelessness also helps; I’ve spent a good part of the last week mooching favors from influential Twitterers I have, in some cases, never even met offline. (These people have, I should add, been unfailingly generous in their responses.) Why go the blogging/social-media route? Because I have experience blogging, having written for years at my own sites, here at Boing Boing, at Huffington Post and at, and also because, as my friend put it, I’ve spent a lot of time screwing around on Twitter. You use what you’ve got, and these are assets I can bring to bear. What are they worth in the overall calculus? You could say they’re worthless. I prefer to say their worth is incalculable. Tomato, to-mah-to.

But this is exactly what I’m talking about, and it’s the great thing about the situation in which I find myself: As the screenwriter William Goldman said years ago about Hollywood, Nobody knows anything. You try something, you try something else, you try everything, even things that sound insane, because in an industry where the longstanding business model has been upended, everything else has been upended too, even the gravitational tug of logic. If you want to get rich, value your work at zero. Yes, okay, it reads like the last line of a Zen koan. But self-publishing’s best practices are still unwritten, so really: Why not? That tactical freedom might be the most disruptive, the most liberating part of the whole self-publishing business. I can’t wait to figure out what I get to try next.

Bill Barol’s Thanks for Killing Me is available now on Amazon and the iTunes Store. Buy it now at super-low introductory prices before he loses his nerve.


  1. Something anybody with hopes of self-publishing should keep in mind.

    That and the fact that if you self publish then no traditional publisher will want anything to do iwth the ‘property’… 

    Uh. Anyone have a better catch-all term for the concepts/world/characters of a given book/movie/etc?

    1. //That and the fact that if you self publish then no traditional publisher will want anything to do with (sic) the ‘property’… //

      This is, for the most part,  no longer due to any ‘stigma’, though.  And that is a key point you’ve missed. It’s mostly, now,  because they can’t get ‘all’ the rights to it.  Self publishing still means that at least the ebook rights are ‘shared’.  Many of the “small publisher”s (who do, say, at the most minor editing, or only just formatting it for ebook and the formatting for trade) have  a ‘non-exclusive’ contract.  Traditional publishers won’t touch your work, because they can’t get an exclusive deal, and they’ve finally clued into the ebook trade being lucrative. 

      The idea, here, though,  is not so much redoing the product as a book with a traditional publisher.  It’s to do something else.  Perhaps get an agent, if you don’t have one. Otherwise, it’s to show track record of interest in your writing, and interest for another book. 

      (Currently, we’re involved with a small publisher/self publishing experiment.  A series, published this way after *his* agent kicked  it around a short while, and it did not get any interest.  In our case, it’s a situation of his being ‘pigeon-holed’ as a certain type of genre writer, and this is one of the ways he’s trying to break out of it. The other way, of course, is also being kicked around.  The every popular pseudonym. )

  2. I have been doing the same sort of experiment with a CC-licensed collection of short stories in Esperanto (!) and soon, with an English-language novel.

    But there’s nothing that makes Twitter (more) insufferable that following hundreds of budding authors (just like me!) who tweet “Buy my amazing book!” six times a day, quote their own favorite lines to themselves, tweet about every nice thing that their moms and friends and Amazon reviewers have ever said….

    When does it stop being marketing and start being annoying?

    1. Kinda why I differentiate. I use my Blog for excerpts (or whole stories), Google+ for longer bits of reflection, and if I ever get around to Twitter flash concepts.

      Or just whatever catches my eye at the moment. I don’t want to feel like i’ve lost touch by turning my online identity into simply hollow marketeering.

    2. It’s immediately annoying, I’m sorry to say.  Seems authors are one of the main groups of people I’ve never met who want me to meet them.  I’m an avid reader and all, but it doesn’t work for me.

    1. Just guessing, but if he does that he also has to set up a checkout system, verify credit card payments figure out relevant taxes, etc. By allowing a middle man to do the selling he can cut out at least those costs (money and time costs) from what he’s doing.

      I’d also imagine that if it’s successful the bandwidth costs on his site might get high but I’m not sure what server side bandwidth costs these days.

      1. Not if he’s giving it away for free, and somehow I imagine that if it’s popular enough to run into bandwidth issues, costs won’t be much of a factor.

        1. Offering a free download on his website isn’t a bad idea, but it doesn’t meet his goal of removing obstacles between the book and the reader. A large and growing number of readers never look any further than Amazon for a book, and a growing number of those want to read it on their kindle. You want that process to be as easy and as close to a single step as possible. Hordes of readers aren’t visiting his website yet. If they were, he would already have won.

  3. Giving it away for Free???
    “selling price of $7.99, yielding a profit to me of $0.30 per book.”
    That 30 cents is what one would almost get from a regular publisher who usually gives around 5% of wholesale.

    ” the Kindle edition and the iBooks edition at a cheap-as-possible $0.99 each, which yielded per-unit profits to me of $0.30 and $0.35 respectively.”

    30+% payout of retail is a nice payout. How much do you think Pepsi gets per bottle of Pepsi? Or a pen maker gets per pen? Nothing “free” about either of those royalties on your books.

    1. If Coke were only to sell 1000 cans of soda, or BIC 1000 pens, you might have a point.  I imagine Mr. Barol would lower his margin a bit if he could get a fraction of Coke’s billion plus servings per day volume.

    2. I don’t wanna speak for Mr. Barol, but I think the author’s statement of “giving it away for free” is intended to be interpreted from his perspective, not the buyers.  

      While 5% of wholesale on the print edition may be the norm (actually, I think it’s more like 10%), and 30% may seem wonderful on the e-book, his point is that the prices are set so low that even with a reasonable royalty rate, there’s no substantial money to be made from it at these prices.

      As the great Billy Preston says, “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’!”

  4. Smashwords.  Or just offer it in multiple formats.  If he’s using social media as his primary advertising, people will find his book wherever he puts it.  I like Smashwords; they even let you give your book away (as a free book, or with promotional coupons).  Goodreads also has a system for giving away (or selling for cheap) your ebook.  In multiple formats.

  5. What’s missing from the current batch of markets is discovery services that don’t suck.  Some don’t even really try (Android app market, XBox Indie Games) – some just aren’t very good at it (iTunes Ping or whatever the heck it’s called.. plenty of other sites and services). 

    Good discovery nets sales.  Pandora’s business isn’t selling music (directly), but it’s about the only example I can think of of a site that takes “discovery” seriously.  And it works – about half the music I listen to I discovered on Pandora (during the time it was legal in Canada).

    If there was a Pandora for books, I’d use it.  But, to be clear, it can’t just be “this book appears on ‘booklists’ along with..” or “this book is often bought by the same people who like…”.  Like Pandora, you have to get serious about it for it to be valuable.

  6. I agree with ArtMarket – this post is disingenuous.

    If you’re actually serious about giving your book away for free, you should give it away for free (on your web site – in PDF format at least, but as many formats as you’ve got). This is what, for example, Cory does. It’s great to have the book available for a minimum price from various vendors, but if your goal is to set the price to $0 to get the book into people’s hands, then give the book away for free.

    Also, you should drop the $0.30 comission from the book at CreateSpace, etc. if that’s your plan. I’ll read the book if you do.

    If you’re not going to give the book away for free, then please don’t post about how you’re giving your book away for free.

  7. I also am dismayed about this whole “it’s free, but actually not free” thing. Here’s what you should do:

    1) Offer the ebook in ebook and PDF forms on your website as free downloads.
    2) Put a “Donate” button on your website
    3) Profit.

    If I read your book that way and like it, I can guarantee I’ll go back and give you a lot more than $1, and you’d get to keep 95% of that money. And I’m fairly certain that I’m not the only one who does that.

    1. I think people overestimate just how much “donate” buttons really generate. I have seen a lot of them, even on sites I frequent, and I haven’t donated even one cent. I always _intend_ to do that, but intentions don’t pay bills. And I would bet it’s the same for most people. They usually are a bit of a pain to use (I don’t have a PayPal account active anymore), I rather just use a “real” online store.

      So, how often do you actually push that donate button?

  8. I really take issue with the thought that, “since there is a 30 cent markup, it isn’t free, therefore due to some sense of dis-ingenuousness I will neither read, buy, or donate to this author”.  foobar, Artmarket2day, firebus, and perch–I am looking at you.  $0.30 isn’t free.  But why would you begrudge someone a quarter and a nickel?   Because it’s a 30% markup?  

    This is in no way a ‘nice payout’, even if 50,000 books are sold–that would be a $0.25 above minimum wage for the year.  So even if this self published book absolutely smashes expectations, a person can still earn more flipping burgers in Oregon.  And still there is the argument that $0.30 is actually a meaningful amount of money.

    And in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, I just bought the kindle version.  If I get more than eight minutes and 15 seconds worth of entertainment out of it (60 minutes / $7.25/hr) then it will have more than paid for itself.

    1. When did I say I would begrudge someone $0.30? He can charge anything he feels is appropriate for his work.

      But it *is* dishonest to charge something for your work, and then claim you’re not charging for it.

      And it *is* disingenuous to claim that you’re interested in removing all barriers between your work and the public, and then put up a paywall between your work and the public.

      For me personally, there’s no difference between $0.30 and $5. It’s the same amount of hassle to go to a store, type in my credit card number, download it to the kindle, etc. I’m not gonna waste my time. But if there was a download link, directly to a PDF, in the body of the post I would have clicked. What a great opportunity for someone who wants to make it easy for people to read their work. What a wasted opportunity for Mr. Barol.

  9. One other source of revenue you might consider: film rights. It helps to have a successful book first of course, but even a moderately successful book with an original story can fetch a nice price for the film rights. Not that there is any guarantee that the film will ever be made, film rights for books are often bought up and never fully developed into film projects. 

  10. I am cheering Mr. Barol on, and recognize that he is trying to break into new writing territory, which is commendable. But I must admit that my jealous side would like to know, even before I learn of his success/failure as a novelist, his secret for becoming “a former senior writer at Newsweek” and writer in “The New Yorker, Time, Slate, and elsewhere,” as well as blogger for “Forbes, Huffington Post and Pix365.”

  11. “Buy it now at super-low introductory prices before he loses his nerve.”
    Heh, I loved that line!

    The article was a good read, and it really got my interest for your novel. Crime novels aren’t my thing, so I probably won’t pick it up, but still. :) I do think self publishing is the way to go, much due to the same reasons as small indie game companies are popping up at the moment.

    Good luck! Hopefully you will be the next household name! :)

  12.  What’s really being overstated here is that old hype that a “big publisher” is going to commit to a huge marketing campaign for every author. I know several with the Big 6 and they are still doing the majority of their own publicity. Those days are gone. So whether you’re self-published or get lucky with a big publisher, you’re still going to have to do all that “stuff you hate” like self-promotion.

  13. Sounds to me like he’s only selling thru DRM pipes (Amazon, iTunes).  While places like Feedbooks may not have the number of eyeballs that amazon or apple does, at least they (Feedbooks)  knows enough to offer the books in pdf and epub, and AFAIK not digitally locked.
     And anyway, a basically unknown author isn’t suddenly going to sell thousands simply by being on amazon’s list.  If the book’s good, word will get out.  If it isn’t,  then it won’t sell.

  14. The trouble is that in the absence of any other information (I like the author’s previous works, a recommendation, a  review, etc.), the net value to a reader of a self-published work is *negative*.  In other words, the chance the reader likes the work is less than the value of the time to read the work to that reader…

    It is this fundamental constraint against which a unknown self-published writer must work against.  Free is not cheap enough.

    For the reader, a publisher can be thought of as someone who vets the books to significantly improve the chances that the reader likes the book to the point where it’s worth it for readers to spend money on an otherwise unknown book (and it’s worth it for a reviewer to review a book).

  15. I like what I see here. I’ve been trying for a few years now to get my unsigned music business clients to consider their recording budget to be a part of “promotional expense,” just the same as a billboard, or ad in “Billboard.” The money is to be made on future recording contracts, or the ancillaries; in the music business, that’s tickets, merchandise, and special events. I would imagine it could be similar in publishing with film and television being places to make money not made on hard sales of the book.

    I can understand a visceral reluctance to simply offer a free “free” download at a web site, but there are practical ones as well. It would be akin to leaving a pile of CDs on a street corner. The “fan” needs to be minimally interested, or the distribution is worthless,  and attendance at a “gig” is the qualifier. Perhaps offering a 100% free PDF or e-book to all who “attend” online chats with the author is one way to go.

    Anecdotal reports from the field reveal that the gross remains the same when an artist offers its CD for $10 or asks “pay what you wish” but more discs go into circulation under the latter plan.

    Ultimately, more in circulation has to be a good thing. I encourage my clients to post a sign that says, “Pay what you wish, or pay nothing, but whatever you do, please take one!”

    I’m surprised by the reaction of many of the posters here. I’m pretty sure $.99 is the lowest possible price allowed on iTunes and Amazon. Why Mr. Barol chose $7.99 instead of the floor of $7.49 for the hard copy isn’t clear, but I doubt he’s counting on the $.30 to fund fuel for his G5.

  16. Ultimately, more in circulation has to be a good thing.

    I’d be careful about that.  The high circulation can be a misleading figure, allowing the artists to feel more successful than they are, and thus allowing them to avoid making decisions based on a more realistic metric – how many people are willing to pay for the work?

    Just ask AOL.

  17. like many others have said, if you want to get it in front of as many people as possible, just make a pdf.  you can non-obnoxiously include links to the places where people can purchase the book.

  18. This post wouldn’t be quite as lame if it weren’t posted on the blog Cory Doctorow helps run.  Cory, of course actually does make his books available for free instead of writing a long ad disguised as information on how hard it is to give a book away for free.

    Of course, I’m just mad because Boing-Boing wont publish an ad for me :-)  So Fight the Power!  Visit  Order me cheap books!  Even enter for a chance to win one for free!

  19. Note to prospective Free publishers:  a PDF is one of the worst formats for e-readers.  Use EPUB and MOBI – it’s not hard, and your readers will thank you.

    1. response to note: lots of people read on a computer.  PDF is fine for that.  Also, people will pay for PDFs if they include content they want!

      definitely produce reader formats as well, but don’t expect them to be as email-forwardable and as immediately accessible as a PDF.

  20. A little off-topic here, but when I created my two pamphlets (about 20 years back) and paid for them to be produced by local copy houses (one of whom telling me as I picked up my copies “Never to come back.” — I guess I had one reader!) I’d just take them around local bookstores and leave copies in what seemed relevant positions. Sure, I was carrying all of the expense (well, except the shelf space), but it did at least get stuff into people’s hands.

    All pre-interwebs of course.

  21. I didn’t read through all the comments (so someone might have mentioned it already), but you can set your price at zero on Smashwords.  Or offer coupon codes so people can get it for free.  They also list it at sites like Barnes and Noble, iTunes, etc… 

    Great article, by the way.

  22. With all due respect to Mr. Barol, I think that he’s starting with a specious assumption: It’s impossible to make money as a self-publishing author, so he might as well (effectively) give it away in order to find a publisher. He’d actually have a much easier time proving that there’s a market for the title by selling it for something closer to its real value. In addition, many readers discount the quality of a $0.99 eBook–price is an implicit indicator of quality. Finally, he should get some return for all the time and effort that he put into writing the book.

    1. There are at least 2 writers selling their books on amazon for $1 and making several hundred thousand dollars a year, which is far better than most paper books make. Also as Cory Doctorow likes to say, the real enemy of an author starting out is obscurity, and the more people you can get to read and talk about your work the better off you are in your career.

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