Failures in Self-Publishing

a guest post by Sonya Ellen Mann

12570273014_9a441533f6_h The boring part is that it’s obvious why my publications haven’t sold. The interesting part is that I break out the numbers.

In the debate between book publishers and Amazon, with successful self-publishers solidly behind the ecommerce behemoth, minimal attention is paid to authors who throw a book up for Kindle and earn almost nothing. Occasionally the fact that most self-published books sell atrociously gets mentioned, usually as an offhand caveat in a profile of, say, Mark Dawson. I’m not surprised — the stories aren’t inspiring, and no one knows who the fuck we are anyway. Which was likely part of the reason why we didn’t make money and no one read our books!

There are two main reasons why a self-published book fails:

  1. The book is bad in a way that appeals to no one (as opposed to “bad but people love it anyway” — I don’t need to cite examples for you to know what I’m talking about). This is a value-proposition problem.
  2. The book is good, or at least decent, but the author doesn’t have a preexisting following and doesn’t promote the title effectively. This is a distribution problem.

I like to think that my self-publishing failures can be attributed to the second shortcoming, but you’re free to judge that for yourself.

By my own count, I’ve self-published five book-like things that I actually wanted to sell (I’m not including zines that I distributed for free, much more successfully). In the past month I’ve sold seven copies across all of my Amazon ebooks and earned $14.20. In the past year I’ve earned $34.71 from print-on-demand titles and $83.79 from the print copy of my latest effort, User-Friendly Urbanism. Which has only been out for a month, so I’m not too discouraged yet — but I’m prepared to lose money on the endeavor.

Why do I keep self-publishing when it’s not worth the effort, either financially or in terms of attention? It’s educational — I’ve learned a lot about the technical requirements. The influence on my public image is also nice. Other people don’t know that each of my books only achieved a miniscule audience, so I seem more impressive than I am.

And, like most writers, I compulsively record my thoughts and desperately want to profit from sharing them. It’s a thing that I can’t stop doing, not a well-planned business venture. I try to be semi-pragmatic in terms of my expectations, but I also firmly believe that eventually I’ll get it right and be interviewed on Longform. Will that happen? It’s hugely statistically unlikely, and I know that. A very large part of me doesn’t care.

image by oatsy40

Sonya Mann

View posts by Sonya Mann
Sonya Mann works in San Francisco and reflects on our exciting digital dystopia -- which does have a lot of perks! -- every day. She writes and reads a lot but it never feels like enough.


  1. fjtorres25 November, 2015

    Different people define success in different terms. To some reaching even one satisfied reader is success, to others nothing less than a Patterson-level haul is failure.

    The only absolute failure is the story that stays locked up in a drawer.

  2. Sonya Mann25 November, 2015

    That’s an encouraging sentiment, fjtorres! I haven’t totally figured out my benchmark yet.

  3. Greg Strandberg25 November, 2015

    Thomas Jefferson told us that we have the right to pursue happiness. We have no right to it.

  4. Sonya Mann25 November, 2015

    Yup, “pursue” is the key word.

  5. Becki28 November, 2015

    My husband has finished the first draft of his fifth book and we are getting ready to edit the heck out of it. He sometimes feels like he has failed, in terms of his books not making us a great deal of money. But I keep reminding him: he’s sold more than the average self-published writer; no one has told him yet that his books or stories are lousy (and we’ve talked to more than just family and friends); his day job (reporter) means he can’t write every day like some others so his books are further apart in publishing dates; and his books have prompted him to try other means of sharing his stories, including writing songs that go with the books and short films to introduce people to his characters. I can’t call that kind of creative pursuit a failure. The competition out there for readers is fierce, and I’m proud to say we are still in the pursuit. 🙂

  6. Peggie Biessmann3 December, 2015

    Great post! I can relate to all of it. I write for fun as do a lot of self-publishers in my opinion – that’s success: to have done your best to make your writing as good as it can be and put it out there.

  7. Patrick4 December, 2015

    And here I was, thinking that I am doing badly with my 2 sales per day on my first Kindle edition and average $80 per month! This just gave me a shot of encouragement. I am off to writing my second book.
    Thanks for sharing

  8. Trevor22 April, 2016

    Kindle can seem too big and has a habit of swamping you – after all, not even the most avid cook needs over 4,600 Paleo cookbooks (and that’s just a small section of their recipe book collection).

    Standing out from the crowd is an art but building up a following definitely helps.

    That could be as simple as adding honest reviews to books you’ve read, items you’ve purchased, etc. but chances are it will need more than that.

    Blogging about your new book, making a video on YouTube (eek!), inviting other people to review it (maybe with the promise of an unreleased bonus chapter or an interview with the author), all sorts of ways to think out of the box and push sales that bit higher.

  9. Vincent Nyagaka19 August, 2020

    I am about to publish my second book. I think some of you have published several e-books when I have done just one. At first, I was so demotivated but I will keep writing.


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