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Why Self Publishing is About Marketing, Not Writing

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


A wonderful author friend of mine, Barrett Laurie, asked if I could expand on something I said in a YouTube video, which was that self publishing is more about marketing than writing. Here we go.

Writing is Craft, Self Publishing is Business

We must make a clear distinction between writing and self publishing since they are two different things. Writing is crafting words into content such as stories, information, songs, scripts, and poetry. Self publishing is the business of selling content, whether that’s writing, music, art, audio, or video. Writing creates content, self publishing sells it.

Being the business side of the equation, self publishing is about producing, marketing, selling, distributing, and delivering content.

The Best Authors Can Be the Worst Self Published Authors

Authors often equate their ability to write with their ability to sell. In other words, they think that if they can just write better, their books will automatically sell better.

There are multiple layers to this problem.

The E-Myth and Ralph Waldo Emerson Problems

A talented creator was crying—like almost literally crying—on social about how her sales had tanked recently. She couldn’t understand why because she does quality work. She questioned what she was doing wrong. Sounds like an E-Myth and Emerson problem to me.

In 1986, Michael E. Gerber’s book, The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, was first published. While the concept of the book is simple and logical, it was a groundbreaking book that is still popular decades later.

The basic premise of The E-Myth is that small business owners—authors are small business owners—get stuck building their businesses around what they do best. In essence, they are “technicians,” who are skilled at their craft. Sadly, these technician business owners usually aren’t skilled at running a business and generating sales, which leads to failure.

What I’ve witnessed from being in small business networking for many years is that these technician business owners are always trying to perfect their craft or their product in the hopes that this will translate into more sales. This is the better mousetrap problem.

In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” This is actually a misquotation and variation of one of his quotes that says, “If a man has good corn or wood, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you fill find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” (Wikipedia)

I started to appreciate Emerson’s work while I was in college taking a course on great American speakers, and he’s one of my favorite authors. But this didn’t jive with my business studies, experience, and observations then or now.

True, your work must have a level of quality that is acceptable for the market you wish to serve and sell to. Beyond that, I believe that any push to improve quality, especially in writing, is ego driven because you’re trying to be the best in your eyes and those of your peers.

Avocation to Vocation

If you’re an author, chances are you love writing. In my 2018 Thorne Self Publishing Survey, the top answer for motivation for writing and self publishing was “I LOVE writing,” with love in all capital letters. I did that purposely and it seemed to resonate with the participants. The second most popular answer was self expression and creativity. So we have a lot of self published authors who love the craft of writing and being creative. Yet, their top challenge was not knowing how or where to sell their books. And 73% of them make less than $1,000 in book income.

Writing is an avocation, an activity you love to do. Self publishing is a vocation, a business, and work. Being a vocation, it’s not about the writing. Even if you choose a traditional publishing path, once you choose to sell your work in any way, it becomes a business.

The problem is that as an avocation, authors are emotionally attached to their writing, making it difficult to objectively think about selling their work. It’s their baby.

Validation and Expectations

Lots of authors take a childlike view of their writing. They’re proud of their work, and they should be. But some of them get stuck in a childish “look at what I did” mindset, hoping that the market will validate their writing as good with lots of sales. But the market doesn’t operate that way.

The markets for books, regardless of genre or niche, are hyper-competitive. There are literally thousands to millions of writers in the world, many of them good writers. There are hundreds of millions of books in the world. The works of long dead authors are still selling sometimes decades or centuries later. And internet algorithms now favor bigger players, which impacts your visibility online. Standing out is a monumental task today. The true size of your target audience could be as small as 1 percent of your author platform, maybe even smaller.

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If you hope to make book sales, you must educate yourself about how your specific markets operate, experiment with a variety of marketing tools, monitor your results, and be ready to constantly shift gears as markets and technology change.

Setting realistic expectations is critical. As I noted earlier, the 1 percent rule is a good place to start.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Hi Ginger! Lots of authors detest marketing. You're not alone. But I'm glad to hear that your books are doing better on the teachers site. Not every book is ideal for Amazon. And as you can see, going with a site that speaks to your audience is a better route. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! Have a great day!

Ginger Burke from Illinois on September 25, 2021:

I've self-published a dozen-ish books on KDP, but have seen very little movement with them. So here I am, more evidence that your article is absolutely true :) I abhor marketing. Fortunately for me, since my books are for children, I've had much more success on teacherspayteachers than on Amazon.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 24, 2021:

Hi Chitrangada! So true! Sometimes it's difficult to merge the art with the business. But that's really what it takes to be in the self publishing business.

Thanks for your kind words! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 24, 2021:

You're welcome, Maria! Thanks for your kind words. Have a lovely day!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 23, 2021:

Hi Heidi!

An informative and helpful article, as always.

Writing is an art, a form of self expression. But, self publishing requires the writers, to market their artwork, I mean their books. This is the toughest part, and most of the writers are not able to do this. This requires sales and marketing skils, which doesn't come naturally, and the writer has to understand and learn this.

Thank you for sharing another wonderful article.

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on September 23, 2021:

An informative article, Heidi. Thank you.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Bill, you are a good writer. No question. The good news is that you understand what it takes to aggressively market books, and have made a conscious decision to bow out of that arena. Nothing wrong with that. The problem comes in when writers are straddling these two mindsets. They want to be free to write whatever they want and hope to make lots of sales by osmosis I guess. Thanks for stopping by and always being real. Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Liz, though many authors might disagree, I do think that the writing is the easiest step of the whole self publishing process. The other aspects of the business are so out of the control of authors, that it can be very frustrating. However, once authors decide they want to make money with self publishing, they have no choice but to educate themselves on how to do marketing. Thanks so much for reading and chiming in! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Theblogchick, thank you so much! I hope you find it helpful. Again, good luck with your self published books!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Hello, Theblogchick! KDP is free to use for authors. Some platforms, like IngramSpark, have a fee. So before you decide where to self publish, look at the pros and cons of a number of them. Though there are others to consider, the ones I hear authors mention often are KDP, IngramSpark, Lulu, and BookBaby.

Good luck with your self publishing adventures!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Peggy, I know you understand this from all the art related exhibits you visit. Truly talented people everywhere. But not many who can be successful from a business perspective. Thanks so much for stopping by and chiming in! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Pamela, it's amazing how child-like adults can become when they don't understand what they're doing. You're right, the competition in the writing space is just crazy. Thanks for reading and your kind words! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Umesh, you're so right! The self publishing platforms like KDP are pretty easy to master these days. But it's the marketing of what you publish on them that's tough. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Hi James! Glad I was writing about you without even realizing I was writing about you. :) But you're right. If you can connect with a business that will handle the business in a way that works to your advantage, that's wonderful. And if it's any consolation, we all need to get better at the business of writing, even if we've been in it a long time. This writing world is changing so fast.

Thanks so much for reading and stopping by! Good luck with your writing adventures!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2021:

Hi Janis! Thanks for watching and reading. Best of luck with your self publishing journey!

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on September 22, 2021:

Heidi, your video was informative and very helpful as I'm taking on my first self-publishing journey as a debut author. I look forward to reading your articles and using your wisdom along the way. I'll keep you posted. ;) Thank you for sharing your expertise.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on September 22, 2021:

It looks like you were writing about me! I understand that why rideshare platforms like Uber nd Via have worked for me. I'm a dang good driver if I must say so myself. (and I must) I do what I'm good at: I drive. However, the business entities handle all the other stuff. You don't advertise for riders its' just a matter of turning on the app. Here with writing, the business side is on me and I got to get better at it. Great article

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 21, 2021:

Well expressed. Anyone can self publish one's writings when they are above a certain threshold but it doesn't make them to become a successful writer.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 21, 2021:

This is a very good, informative article, Heidi. I imagine there are many child-like authors as you described. There are more books in the world than I could ever read so I see the stiff competition. Your articles are always interesting and they provide such good, accurate information.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 21, 2021:

If the goal is to make money, then marketing wisely is essential. The same could be said for artists as well as writers. There are so many talented people who create beautiful things, but do not know how best to market their items. Only a small percentage of them rise to the top ladder of success.

Theblogchick from United States on September 21, 2021:

Hi heidi, I just bought your book on self publishing on Amazon. Thanks for the useful article.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 21, 2021:

You outline the challenges for writers wishing to self publish very well in this article. It seems that the writing is the first and easiest stage of the process, especially for those writers who are not business-minded.

Theblogchick from United States on September 21, 2021:

Hi heidi,

You have made great points in this article. I enjoyed reading. I hope to one day self published with Amazon and kindle. I dont know how to do this. Did it cost you money to self published with these platforms?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 21, 2021:

Truer words were never written. I consider myself to be a very good writer. I don't say that with any ego involved at all. It is just a logical statement based on my knowledge of this craft. But I will forever be an unknown self-publisher simply because I don't care to market myself or my writings. I'm not comfortable doing so, and so anonymity will forever be my home. :) What you say is absolutely true and it needs to be absorbed by all writers hoping for fame and glory.

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