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Opinion: Empowered By Self-Publishing, Still Seeking Self-Worth

Opinion: Empowered by Self-Publishing, Still Seeking Self-Worth

What really counts as success in self-publishing? Prolific Irish author David Rory O’Neill considers the factors that validate the indie author’s self-worth and shares lessons he has learned on his own publishing journey.

David Rory O'NeillI have been recently engaged with others on Goodreads who are struggling with their self-worth, measuring their success as authors. Above all, the thing that emerged from these talks is the shared sense of being swamped and submerged by the vast outpouring of material published in the digital revolution of this past ten years.

I began at the dawn of self publishing and made all the classic mistakes of that time. However, I had quickly learned that I didn’t need to keep reading the agents’ remarks saying: ‘Promising but not mainstream. Not the right genre. Too literary.’ One actually said “Dumb it down.”

Lessons I have learned about self-publishing

Cover of Surviving BeautyFor me, success began when I stopped beating at the gatekeepers’ doors and taught myself how to self-publish properly. I found an editor and a designer, and I clawed my way to getting the books right. I was empowered by the creative freedom I’d found.

I began to build a platform and I learned a few hard lessons.:

  • I reeled and retreated, wounded, when I found tit-for-tat review nastiness on Goodreads.
  • I learned that Facebook and Twitter are not as easy to master or as productive as people would have me believe.

I did all this at the same time as producing thirteen works I can be proud of. Very few people have discovered them yet, but they have been well reviewed. Real readers, mind you, no paid reviewers or family.

I joined ALLi after ten months of watching and seeing how the people here think and work. Since then my learning curve has taken a great surge upwards as I see how much more I need to do become visible.

How to measure success in self-publishing

  • TrialArtistic freedom? I’ve got that and I can write as I need to, mark that – need to, not want to. I have avoided the temptation to go to commercially successful genres that sell but that are of no interest to me.
  • Financial success? Yes, I want that, but I know it will be slow to come because I’m not prepared to give my all to screaming into the void and chasing every avenue open to me on social media. I simply can’t do that in the way the sage advisors say I should.
  • The admiration of my peers and critics? That would be nice, but until the utopian freedom ALLi is working towards is won, and we are judged on equal terms with trade published authors, then that admiration and critical acclaim is not available to me. I do not seek it.

I consider I have been successful artistically and I’m proud of the work I’ve produced, but that success is tainted by the feeling that until I break out of the lower reaches of obscurity I occupy on Amazon and Smashwords, then my success will always be incomplete – lacking the final thing that removes self-doubt.

Like it or not, meaningful sales numbers do count – if only as a measure of discovery.

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David Rory O'Neill

Born and raised in Belfast until troubles and tribal violence drove him away, David grew to be a non-conformist unsettled world-wanderer. He found peace and his true calling as a storyteller in the Irish tradition and now lives in a vast art and book filled house on the side of the Galtee mountains in Ireland. Beloved-Brigitte and a cat with issues called Bobby, share his life here. David Rory O'Neill has written thirteen novels and more are bubbling and brewing. His website is www.davidrory.com.

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This Post Has 24 Comments
  1. Success can be measured in different ways. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that success will come overnight. All you can do is continue to write great stories and invest in promoting them.

    1. Hi Micky. I’m not sure if this was addressed to me but let me say. I don’t have much world weary suspicion except that which has been well earned. The review systems are abused but one can usually tell the true ones. I’ve been lucky and had no stinkers or false ones. I did suffer tit-for-tat nasty stuff on Goodreads when I didn’t play the ‘lets trade reviews’ game with other authors as they wanted.
      World weary suspicion? No I’ve not seen too much of that yet.
      Hopeful and optimistic is my base place.

  2. Well said David. Self-published books should not be held up against other self-published books but against all books. Just because you do it yourself doesn’t mean you don’t have to meet the highest standards. We have all learned to beware of many review sites (Goodreads, amazon?) where both good an bad reviews can be suspect. Find your audience and work with the readers. Afterall, they are the ones who buy your books and they are the ones to be the best judges. At indieBRAG, it is the readers who decide if a book get the B.R.A.G.Medallion. Write the best book you can, edit it to perfection and seek the people who like your genre and hope they will build the much sought after word of mouth. That is the way to success.

  3. Great post. Success is different for each of us. Putting out amazing work still has to be at the top. Being recognized by other authors would be nice too. Readers are the most important thing to me. As others have said, every nice message and each time I’m asked when my next book is coming out causes me to stay at the computer and make the next story one they’ll love. Thanks again.

  4. ‘Too literary?’ ‘Too intelligent?’ These comments are so familiar!
    Thank you for this honest piece, David. As another literary author, I know how hard it is to carve your own path. It takes longer to find the readers who tune into us, but that’s true of literary authors in the mainstream as well.
    But what we do now have, which we didn’t before, is an opportunity to find an audience. And as you’ve discovered, they do appear – in surprising emails, in heartfelt, thoughtful reviews, in supportive messages. Each one is a delight. Each one repays the effort and time it took to make a creative risk into a workable book.
    I think literary authors play a long game. We could waste a lot of energy fretting that we are doing the marketing badly, because we’re not hitting the sales figures that the most successful indies are reporting. Or we could do what we can, what is reasonable to our intelligence and pockets, and save our real strength for making more books that will challenge and delight our readers. In the end, that is why we’re doing this. Otherwise we’d get jobs.

    1. Thanks Roz, I agree absolutely. We need to work at maintaining our self-belief in the face of slow sales. There are several reviews I’ve had that made me glow for a months. When a reader gets it, sees the layers and appreciates the depth, that is a delight and it gives me the fuel to keep writing.
      I have withdrawn from much of the social media effort that was draining my energy and am playing the long game as you suggest. It’s slow but it works. I’ve had readers discover one of my books and then read them all and ask when the next is out. Only a few so far but the movement is there.
      I guess my message was: ‘You’re not alone, don’t despair and don’t feel defeated if you seem not be getting big sales numbers. I think in the end my piece should have been more up beat at the end.

      1. Your ‘too literary’ and ‘dumb it down’ chimed with me – I had various agents making those comments to me, along with ‘too Scottish’ and ‘need the main character to be female to be truly commercial’. In the end I did get a mainstream deal with a small Scottish publisher, but not without by-passing the agent stage first. I am writing the sequel to that first novel now, and I am reconciled to a slow build, and i too take heart from reviews from people I’ve never met but who take the time to write lengthy and considered critiques. In the end for me at present success is that reader are finding pleasure in what I write. At the moment the economics don’t matter too much but if i was ever widowed I couldn’t afford to be at home writing, so I’d better get back to it!!

      2. Your ‘too literary’ and ‘dumb it down’ chimed with me – I had various agents making those comments to me, along with ‘too Scottish’ and ‘need the main character to be female to be truly commercial’. In the end I did get a mainstream deal with a small Scottish publisher, but not without by-passing the agent stage first. I am writing the sequel to that first novel now, and I am reconciled to a slow build, and i too take heart from reviews from people I’ve never met but who take the time to write lengthy and considered critiques. In the end for me at present success is that reader are finding pleasure in what I write. At the moment the economics don’t matter too much but if i was ever widowed I couldn’t afford to be at home writing, so I’d better get back to it!!

  5. It’s really good to see someone be honest about this.

    Too many times all I read or hear is that if I’m not selling beaucoup copies, it’s all *my* fault and nothing to do with the way things just are.

  6. For me success simply means achieving what you set out to do, whatever that may be. If you know what you want from your writing, then you will know how to measure success.

    1. True enough Dan – but such logic takes little account of those tricky things – feelings.
      Measures of success are different for each of us. Sales, reviews, acclaim, just getting the novel written – all can be considered as measures of success.

      For anyone writing literary fiction, that struggle can be so overwhelming it can mean a loss of self-belief and feelings of failure. I was trying to say that feeling is common and those suffering it are not alone. We in ALLi can help each other deal with those feelings as well as offer tips on making sales.

      1. oh, absolutely (and with apologies for the terseness of expression – I wrote a book about exactly this subject in December and I think people are sick of me banging on about it!). Especially with those of us on the literary end of things. I think sometimes having those feelings is a sign that we need to be more honest with ourselves about what we really want. But also, as you say, it’s just natural to have those feelings. One of the things that frustrates me greatly is that I often get wearied by the lack of recognition literary self-published works get in the media when those published by small presses are often covered extensively. When I express that frustration I am simply told “but you say sales aren’t important” – it frustrates me that there seems such a dichotomy in people’s perception – either you have to be interested in sales, or you have to be happy simply saying what you say. It’s not helped by a very prominent recent article about “self-expression” writers. For me, as a literary/experimental writer self-expression is key to what I do, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like bloggers and journals to acknowledge the merit of what I do and it doesn’t mean I can’t sigh to myself when people don’t want to know about the art of my book because it hasn’t sold in its thousands. So yes, I’m absolutely with you!

  7. Thank you all for the support and kind comments. I’m truly glad I found ALLi, it’s one of the few places I spend time on-line that feels like time well spent.
    Warm regards to all here.

  8. David,
    Your journey – all the way in Ireland – is a lot like mine – first in Chicago, and now back home in Little Rock, AR. A steep hill up, but I wouldn’t trade the journey for anything. You?
    By the way, my surname, Kearney, is traced back to your home. We may actually be literary kin!

  9. Thanks for the very honest assessment of indie writing, David. I love your phrase ‘screaming into the void’ – it’s apt. Good to know other authors share my joys and frustrations. I’d like to see my work sell more and become more visible but it is a slow process.

    It’s good to see another writer on this island too – I’m in Fermanagh.

  10. A refreshingly honest view with which I resonate ( with added amplitude!) Good to hear someone uncowed by the drive to financial and social success. As a bonus more time to write.

    Gratitude all round.

  11. Another big one to me–what my readers say. Every reader email or FB message I get is just another validation that I did the right thing getting the stories I’ve indie-pubbed out into the world.

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