There’s no “Just” in Just Self-Publish

Author’s Note: This isn’t a subtweet blog or in response to any discourse, in fact I started drafting it over a month ago, long before the current *state of affairs*. And I might deeply regret dipping my toes back into this water, but with rising difficulties in trad publishing and more and more new writers being inundated with the “Just Self-Publish” advice, I feel it’s time for me to take that on in full.

Please specifically note this blog is not intended for people who are happy self-publishing, have found great success self-publishing, or have otherwise made up their mind about self-publishing. This is for people who are exploring multiple possibilities, are feeling like “just self-publish” might be the answer to querying challenges, or are otherwise interested in different perspectives regarding self-publishing. It is not intended to be an attack on self-publishing as a method of publishing or to pit self-publishing against traditional publishing. They are both legitimate paths forward with different pros and cons. This post is simply an accounting of my self-publishing journey (which was not a Cinderella story), the potential pitfalls I have noticed with the self-publishing narrative, and why it was not a good fit for me.

Content/Trigger Warnings: Alcoholism, rehab, struggles with RSD, financial difficulty, brief discussion of poverty, some brief discussion of writing community gaslighting.

My Self-Publishing Story

It would be disingenuous to talk about this topic from any lens besides my own. As always, I caveat that I am not giving one size all fits advice for anyone. Your story, your journey, your decisions on your path are your own. What I provide here is only information regarding mine. Where and how it went wrong. Why I did what I did. What I wish I’d known. My hope is only that this information can help someone make better informed decisions than the ones I made.

The Decision

In January of 2016, I went to rehab when my struggle with alcoholism nearly took my life. During the early days of my recovery, after not setting eyes on a book for about six years, I’d started to read again, then write. Soon, I finished a book. A book that, for the first time in over a decade, I felt ready to try to publish.

I assumed I’d query this book. That’s what I’d done many years before. What I’d been instructed to do during my creative writing courses in college. “Never pay for something in publishing” was the age old advice. But as I researched agents, query letters, synopses, I stumbled upon blogs about self-publishing. Things had changed. There was a new, legitimate option for writers that didn’t involve agents and publishing houses and years of rejection and waiting.

Control over my own story, the articles told me. No querying rejection. Immediate results. The ability to make all the decisions. And, if I followed the formulas, success. No agents taking 15%, publishers taking even more. I would get 70% of my earnings. I didn’t have to sell nearly as many books to see a return with percentages like that. And getting a return wasn’t so hard, anyway. Good cover, good editor, good mailing list, some great content, and the book would damn near sell itself. Follow the “steps” (to a neurodivergent individual, read: follow the rules), and I’d be all set.

I fell hard for this pitch. Fragile in the early days of recovery, terrified of rejection, and desperate to control my own story after so many years of… not doing that, it seemed perfect. Plus, there were rules. I was great at following rules. I’d been doing that my entire life. Don’t speak. Don’t cry. Tiptoe. Be quiet. Keep your elbows off the table. Chew with your mouth shut. Get only As. 4.0 GPA. Join the proper academic teams. Get a 1450 or higher SAT score. Go to work. Mind your manners. Your voice. Your tone. Not too loud. Or too soft. Don’t mumble. Or stutter. Don’t squirm. Hold your shoulders just so. Maintain your weight. Keep your eyes down. Not like that. Go to the right college. Get the job I tell you. Admit you have a problem. Don’t do drugs. Actually, do the drugs we tell you. Don’t drink. A power greater than you can fix you. That power might just be rules. Follow them at all costs.

Oh yes. Rules I could do.

The decision to self-publish came pretty quickly from there. No querying. All the control. Plus rules to lead me to success. Great.

The Flaw

At the time, there wasn’t much information available about self-publishing failures. Or at least it wasn’t popping up when I searched for self-publishing. Was I explicitly looking for it? Not really. But I wouldn’t say I did zero research, either. I read blogs and articles, followed indie authors on Twitter and signed up for their newsletters, read everything the big self-publishing names were putting out there and none of these folks were saying you’re more likely to fail* at self-publishing than succeed.

*Okay, before anyone jumps at me, let me go ahead and define what I see as “failure.” This is purely economic for me. I see a failure as not making back what you put in (at the very least). If your goal is to simply put a book into the world, and you don’t care about the economic reality of it, you can absolutely succeed and lose money. And if you go into it with your eyes wide about that and have money to burn, I wish you so much success! What I hate seeing is people who, like me, thought they would see a return on their investment instead lose huge amounts of money without realizing this is the more common story than the one of financial success (much like traditional publishing, truth be told but in traditional publishing the author isn’t out the money personally). However, despite my personal definition of failure, it’s also true that a vast majority of self-published authors will never sell more than 100 copies of their book (when I self-published this statistic was 90%. I don’t know what the current number is, however I expect it’s still high, so this is another thing to consider if you’re looking for readership if not economic success).

Certainly, I could have looked harder for information related to self-publishing “failures.” But the overwhelming mass of information out there was so positive it seemed almost impossible to go wrong if you stuck to the self-publishing script: Good book, good editor, good cover design, good website, good marketing plan, good mailing list, ARCs, bloggers, next book on the way. Bingo, bango, you were almost ready to quit your day job.

Spoiler: I was not on my way to quitting my day job. Nor was I alone, though I would spend the next many years feeling very alone and being persecuted for trying to speak this truth.

Black and white image of a neon sign reading "The Journey Is On" 
Source: Unsplash
Buckle up, y’all, we are about to get all kinds of statistical. And transparent. And as per usual, long as fuck. Like really please go get a coffee or bookmark this or find a comfy reading place. I do not know how to write less than a million word blogs I’m sorry.

Book One, Creation and Cost

The Wheel Mages

In November, 2016, I published my first book, The Wheel Mages. But before publication there was development. For this book, I had an alpha reader followed by four beta readers. After five rounds of editing amongst betas, I sent it for professional developmental edits. It went through two rounds of developmental work with an editor (a RevPit Editor actually in case anyone wants to know the credentials). First round developmental edit cost: $700. Second round developmental cost: $250. Total developmental edits: $950. Then, it was professionally line and copyedited. Cost: $1725. My developmental editor helped me create the tagline, back cover material, and written promotional information for online retailers as well. Cost: $150. I had a professional graphic designer create the cover and some graphics for marketing. Cost: $175.

For the first book, I beat my head against a wall repeatedly doing the formatting for the print copy myself. I used Vellum for eBook formatting, which I believe the subscription was somewhere around $100 for unlimited use at that time but don’t quote me (it’s $200 now for ebooks only, and they have a new version that does print and ebook formatting for $250). I launched a website (Cost: $99 a year for WordPress and $19 a year for the domain), Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in advance of the release and pushed for preorders of the book. I signed up for Goodreads as a Goodreads author. I bought ISBNs from Bowker, 10 of them which at the time I believe cost about $200 (the more you buy the less they cost per ISBN, but you can only buy in increasingly large multiples). I tried to do a pre-sale campaign (which failed, miserably, but I wasn’t horribly deterred, it was my first book, I had things to learn, naturally).

In addition to those fixed costs I can reasonably track, I also spent hundreds on Facebook ads, Instagram ads, buying personal copies to hand sell from CreateSpace (and waaaaaaay more to give away to book bloggers, bookstagrammers, etc. all in the hopes someone would review and promote). I paid I don’t know how much in shipping to places as far as Indonesia. I did giveaways, took days off work to attend events no one showed up to, drove (and a couple times flew) hundreds of miles to hustle wherever I could, go to workshops, industry events, network, etc.

Total fixed costs: $3,418

Total Estimated Costs with Auxiliaries: ~$5,000 (or more)

*Note: I have repeatedly said on Twitter I was in a “strong” financial place and was privileged to be able to set off on this self-publishing endeavor. In preparing this blog, I was reviewing all my financials to get the exact costs because somewhere along the way I lost my spreadsheets, and while I was certainly much better off than many, I was not actually doing as well as I thought. I’m in no way discounting anything I’ve previously said about that, but do note my relative privilege from where I started (I grew up below the American poverty line for reference) tinged my view of where I was in 2016. In an effort to be completely transparent about the financial reality of this journey for me, in 2016, when I started down this path my entire life savings consisted of $5,458. By February 2017, it had dwindled to $776.78. My credit card debt went from $0 to around $5,000.

Pile of books of The Wheel Mages (black cover with white woman in white dress surrounded by water) with decorative silver and blue ornaments. One book is open on the table with a pen nearby.
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
First book I ever autographed. To my dad. The inscription reads: Dad, Remember the little girl who always said she’d be a writer? She made it. Love you always and forever, Aim. I am still super proud I was able to do this, but honestly it’s good I didn’t sell more copies because this signature would have REALLY been difficult to do in mass.

Book One, Sales

In 2016 when I published The Wheel Mages, things were a bit different in the self-publishing space, so I originally launched on Amazon Kindle, CreateSpace (for paperback), iTunes, and Smashwords which distributed to multiple other online retailors, the most notable being Barnes & Noble. In the first month (November 29, 2016 – December 29, 2016) I sold 58 copies: 27 on Kindle, 23 CreateSpace, 7 hand sold by me, 1 on iTunes. I made a total of $136.81 and €2.18. My goal had been to sell 100 copies in the first month (sweet summer child I was).

The second month (December 30, 2016 – January 29, 2017) I sold only 12 copies: 4 on Kindle, 4 on CreateSpace, 4 hand sold by me. I made a total of $33.50 and £1.85. Bonus fact about European sales and Amazon (at least from 2016): They won’t send you any money until you make more than 100 of whatever currency. I never saw any foreign currency from my years of self-publishing.

The sales declined from there. In months three and four combined I sold only 13 books. I stopped keeping track. In June 2017, I pivoted from the multi-platform model, pulled my book from iTunes and Smashwords, and relaunched on Amazon’s KDP Select Program.

Self-Publishing Side Quest: Amazon’s Murky KDP Select Program

For those unfamiliar with self-publishing, Amazon is the uncontested leader of the self-publishing world. As such, it offers its KDP Select Program for authors who opt to publish exclusively with Amazon and put their books in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (“KU”) database. For $9.99 a month, readers can access unlimited downloads of any and all of the 3 million or more books in the KU selection. These are primarily self-published works.

Because the books are offered for free to readers, authors are paid in a somewhat unconventional way. The $9.99 per month paid by each member (minus Amazon’s cut, of course) is put into a total “pool” each month, the transparency of which is murky at best (or was when I was part of the program). That pool is divided up by pages read not books downloaded. So if someone downloads your book and never reads it, tough luck. If someone downloads your book and just flips through the pages without reading a work but it’s logged, cool! You get paid! If you stuff your book with blank pages and random things that make it longer, you uh… also get paid. Amazon has made efforts to crack down on this latter practice which was getting exploited and was hurting the program because readers were unenrolling due to frustration about blank and incomplete pages.

Some positives about the program are that people can’t return your book which actually costs you money in publishing because of complicated weirdness I won’t get into right now. The program also unlocks some great promotional tools on Amazon like the ability to run free promotional campaigns. I found this to be helpful when my second book was coming out (offering the first book for free to get people to preorder the second one is a time-honored marketing technique for series’ writers. Out of 397 free copies given away I gleaned a whole FOUR EXTRA preorders! When you’re hustling though, every sale counts). Also, I actually made more money with the KDP program.

Photo of The Wheel Mages surrounded by fake white and blue flowers and blue butterflies along with a blue bookmark that says Reading is Halfway Between Living and Dreaming. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
It’s honestly weird to be posting this many pictures of these books I’ve been trying to avoid talking about for so long, but were they pretty or what?

Bottom Line: The Wheel Mages

Fortunately, despite the fact I stopped keeping track, Amazon has a dashboard! Which I can still access. Which is mildly horrifying, but see how much I love you all! I even went there of all places.

I took The Wheel Mages and its sequel The Blood Mage off the market in May 2020 for a few reasons. I wanted to focus entirely on my traditional publishing career and put the self-publishing path behind me, and I was afraid my self-publishing history was hindering my ability to get an agent (I think it wasn’t, but sometimes you need to close doors to prove to yourself the book you’re querying is just not the right book). Prior to that time, I had dabbled with the idea of maybe figuring out a way to finish the series, but I realized I had no desire to return to self-publishing and leaving an incomplete series out there for people to consume and be disappointed by its perpetual incompleteness was pretty rude. Finally, though I’m proud of the work I put into those books, and I think they taught me a lot about working with editors, and being professional, and how a book is put together, and all that goes into the business and marketing and failing at marketing, there’s a few things about the books I’d do differently now. I’m a different person, a better writer, I like to think a better human. I love those books but closing the door on them was the right thing for me.

Drawing of characters. From the left to right: Catalina, a brown woman with brown hair in a yellow dress; Felipe, a light-skinned brown man with black hair in a blue vest with a red tie; Alena, a white woman with blond hair wearing a blue dress; Nikolai, a light-skinned brown man with dark brown hair wearing a black suit with a green crevette; Genevieve, a white girl with long, curly black hair wearing a dark blue dress. 
Copyright: Emily Moberg
Plus! I got the thing every author wants, FANART! I mean basically my author goals were achieved so there was no more work here to be done.

Anyway, numbers. For The Wheel Mages from it’s launch in November, 2016 through May 2020, it sold 891 total units through Amazon, 822 on Kindle and 69 in print (not including those I sold originally through iTunes and CreateSpace and the hand selling I did at events and my family members, bless them, did). There were 13,114 pages of this book read. All of that super impressive seeming information amounts to… $253.35 in royalties.

Cost: ~ $5,000.00 (or more)

Sales: $253.35

Loss: $4,746.65 (or more)

Book One, The Emotional Cost

Two and a half years of work. Drafting. Editing. Marketing plans. Ten hour work days that turned into eighteen hours when I put my second writing job on top of it. Trips to the post office to send out ARCS to everywhere and anywhere. Reading blogs for submission information on how to get bloggers to review my books. Querying them. Hundreds of emails. To bloggers. To Bookstagrammers. To influencers. Launching a Twitter. An Instagram. A Facebook. A website. A blog. Creating content for the blog. Spending money on Instagram ads. Facebook ads. Amazon ads. Creating a newsletter and newsletter content. Learning MailChimp. Creating free content to entice people to sign up for the newsletter. Joanna Penn. All the indie authors telling me just do more, just spend more, just try harder. Just market better. Just push harder. Write more. Faster. Learn the algorithms. Do the formulas. You’ll win if you follow the rules. There wasn’t a win. There never would be. But I didn’t know that yet. I kept going.

Going to local events at libraries where not a single person showed up. Staring at empty chairs with a PowerPoint I’d spent hours on and a box of books to sign and sell while five minutes went by, ten, fifteen, thirty. The librarian awkwardly asking if I needed gas money at the least, she could really only spare $15 though. Never mentioning these things because that would be faux pas and wrong and unprofessional. Certainly never getting the benefit of going viral for them. I didn’t need it. I had formulas and orders to keep going.

Going to other events where people did show up but awkwardly shuffled past the weird girl with the fantasy book to talk to the nice lady with the memoir or the elderly gent with the WWII nonfiction. Where people asked me how long I’d queried before I got my agent and I proudly proclaimed, “None!” and they scoffed at me and chalked me up as a hack. Going weekends without rest as I traveled to local bookstores trying to hand sell to kind bookstore owners who smiled sadly and shook their heads. Soliciting librarians who said they had no idea how to shelve self-published books even when I said I had ISBNs from Bowker just like everyone else. Miles on my car. On my heart. Learning how to create this website even though I hate website development. Learning how to format a print book. Talking to designers, reading sample pages of editors, interviewing developmental editors. Going to workshops, being laughed out of industry conferences or simply refused admittance in the first place, told I wasn’t welcome in professional spaces because I wasn’t a real author. Winning awards at RWA only to be told that didn’t matter. I wasn’t a romance author. I wasn’t a fantasy author. I wasn’t a young adult author. I wasn’t an author.

And that was only book one. Because I am persistent and there were rules, I signed up for a second round!

Box of books of The Wheel Mages. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Unboxing videos just aren’t the same when you’ve bought the copies yourself. Still, I did have a real book with real author copies that arrived just like a real author. Because I was and still am a real author with my name on a real book I worked very hard to get there, thank you very much! And other self-published authors should be treated with the same respect.

Book Two, Creation and Cost

The Blood Mage

While I was running around trying to sell The Wheel Mages I was also editing the already drafted and beta read sequel, The Blood Mage. This hulking beast of a 130,000 word round two went for developmental edits in January of 2017. The first round edits cost about $900. The big takeaway: The book was too long and the entire third act needed to be cut off and put into another book. The planned trilogy had to become a quartet. The good news for me (at the time) was that meant more books to sell. Also, because editing costs are calculated by the word by most editors, the costs for the rest of that book would be less when I cut 30k off the ass end of it. It also made the book a lot stronger, obviously! And was a ton of unexpected work, but hey, so was this whole self-publishing thing.

I got back to work on editing, on marketing book one, on my day job when I could remember to think about it. During this time I was also exploring more marketing techniques, trying to get my newsletter presence established (fail), attempting to establish myself in the self-publishing community more, and learning a lot about preorders and ARCs. I had a plan for book two! I would do the things. I’d learned from book one’s mistakes. Book two would be better.

My second-round developmental edits cost about $330. Total developmental costs: $1230. Copy and line edits for this book were about $1840. My graphic design package was a bit more as well as costs increase so the cover and marketing materials were about $250. This time I decided not to beat my head repeatedly against the wall and paid for a professional formatter for the print book (which, if you can spring it and you too find this process completely fucking miserable, worth it, the product is just so much better). Cost: $150. Good news, I already paid for Vellum, the website, Bowker, all that. So no new fees there.

Bad news, marketing is still marketing. And this time I was convinced I had a Real Plan, so I put more upfront money into print ARCs and ad campaigns (although by the time I launched my second book in July 2017 I had signed up for KDP Select, so I had access to Amazon’s free promo campaigns). However, I’d also learned a lesson this time around about international shipping (sorry international peeps) and did eARCs only for international folks.

Total Fixed Costs: $3,470

Total Estimated Costs with Marketing Included: ~$4,000 (or more)

Proof copy of The Blood Mage with many pink tabs/sticky notes on the side.
Fun stats from the past: This book took 3 months to draft, 7 months of editing, 11 total drafts, cutting 30,000 words, and rewriting the ending twice before it was published. Sounds uh… like my Pitch Wars book. At least I am consistent in my chaos drafting and extreme editing I suppose.

Book Two, Sales and the Bottom Line: The Blood Mage

I launched The Blood Mage in July 2017 (approximately 7 months after the launch of the first book). Some brief notes about this: That’s slow for self-publishing. Part of the issue was the unexpected redevelopment of the entire end of the book. Part of it was trying to rework my marketing plan when I pivoted to KDP. Part of it was ignorance and poor planning. I did try to do a preorder campaign in advance on Amazon as mentioned (where I gave The Wheel Mages away for free to drive preorders of The Blood Mage but that resulted in only 4 additional preorders). My ARC campaign failed miserably. No one reviewed the book in time or in coordination. There wasn’t enough driven hype at all. Basically, everything I thought I had carefully planned was a total failure.

As a result, The Blood Mage did as many second books do, and underperformed its predecessor by a significant margin. Between its release in July 2017 and when I removed it from print in May 2020 it sold 170 total units. 145 on Kindle, 25 in print (not including author purchased copies for hand selling, ARCs, etc.). There were only 3,935 pages of this book read. In its lifetime, total royalties amounted to a stunning $151.24.

Cost: ~$4,000 (or more)

Sales: $151.24

Loss: $3,848.76 (or more)

Image of The Blood Mage book, a white girl in a white dress coming out of a river of flames. Book surrounded by red, orange, and yellow fake flowers. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
I love these covers. I do wish I had used the tagline on the front though… Hindsight, what’re you going to do?

Book Two, The Emotional Cost

I’m not sure when exactly I ran out of steam for self-publishing, but I’m pretty sure it coincided with running out money. As I mentioned, I grew up below the poverty line. When I started this journey it was because I was fresh out of rehab, seeking control over something. There was control, absolutely. None of that is a lie. Honestly, there’s maybe too much control for someone like me who prefers to focus on what I do best while letting others do what they do best, so I don’t have to worry about those other things.

What isn’t talked about quite as much is the loss of control that can and does happen much more frequently than we think: The loss of control of your finances.

After my first book didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, the self-publishing community rallied to reassure me there was plenty I could do to “fix” what I’d done “wrong” the first time around. Better mailing list. BookBub (which I could never get into). Better planned preorder campaign. KDP and free giveaways. Cutting editing costs (which, admittedly, I refused to do because I loved my editors, and the product they helped me create was one I was proud of). But the primary refrain I heard from the community was: (1) More paid advertising; and (2) More books. There were various tactics that went into this, backmatter, campaign strategies, cutting the cost of the first book in the series and heavily promoting it to get people to pay to read the others, but the overall concept came back to: More investment.

This was a business. I understood that. My day job was to work with businesses. I knew you often had to lose money for awhile before you could make money. But this business had a formula for success if I just got better at following it. I buckled down. Planned. Invested. Kept going. Cut where I could without hurting my product, invested more where I thought it would help most. Put in more time. Learned more. Invested in a business and marketing education. Hustled. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as I’d originally thought, but the best things never are. It would be fine. I was a good writer with loads of passion and persistence who was reasonably intelligent, and I had all these great formulas and information. There was nothing to worry about.

Image of The Wheel Mages next to The Blood Mage on a bookshelf surrounded by blue flowers to the left side and orange flowers to the right side. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Plus I had these badass books! If anyone is super frustrated by the fact I haven’t told you what they’re about, it’s because you can’t buy them except occasionally by third parties on Amazon for 3x more than I ever sold them for because they’re “rare first edition out of print” things now. Lmao. Anyway, you can still read the blurbs on Amazon if you’re interested.

When book two did worse, I talked about it the same way I’d talked about book one (with transparency, my constant brand). But the self-publishing community response… shifted. Besides being told to write more books faster and market them better, people started getting aggressive with their unprompted and unsolicited advice. They began attacking my choice in editors. They were too expensive. I was stupid to pay. My mailing list was bad. My free content wasn’t worth signing up. My genre was wrong. My covers were wrong. My pitch was wrong. What exactly was my marketing plan, in detail? Did I understand this was a business and marketing was the biggest part of it? Did I think I’d get a better deal in traditional publishing? Didn’t I know they’d just steal all my control (and royalties) then do nothing to market my work? I’d be right back here. And really, how dare I talk about self-publishing like it wasn’t working? Or that it was difficult? Didn’t I care about the stigmas? Didn’t I know I was pulling the community down when they were trying so hard to look legitimate? Who did I think I was, complaining about going quietly bankrupt? Questioning the legitimacy of this process when there were gatekeepers out here gatekeeping everything? I should have known better.

It became very clear very quickly that because I’d not been successful and was being open about that I wasn’t welcome. And the only one to blame for my lack of success was myself. I’d done it all wrong then tried to give self-publishing a bad name.

I could honestly write an entire blog just about this experience alone. About the sleepless nights. The tears. The questioning. The sheer panic. I was deeply in debt, my life savings drained, with an incomplete series I knew I couldn’t finish, and a community that had turned on me. There was no one to help me. As it turned out, the control I’d been promised came at a cost: Help.

Spiraling happened here. I lost track of whatever was left of my marketing plan. I threw everything at the wall. I spent money I didn’t have. I begged everyone for a shot. I said things I deeply regret to people I admire to “prove” I was part of this community that didn’t even want me.

But the truth is, I did know what it felt like to be labeled less than. To be told my books didn’t “count.” To have people laugh at me, roll their eyes, dismiss me, tell me I had no business calling myself a real author, refuse to even consider reading my book or allow me to sit on a panel of local authors because “well, you aren’t one, really.” To be denied the ability to enter competitions or be treated like a peer by my fellow traditionally published authors, to listen with rapt attention while they talked about submission processes and editing and try to contribute to the conversation with my experience with real (!) live (!) editors (!) and cover designers and formatters only to be brushed off and told “different world, not the same” when it sounded really similar in a lot of cases. To be told by these same people that they had no interest in learning about self-publishing despite my interest in their careers and their struggles and traditional publishing’s latest Twitter tea because “self-publishing isn’t really serious publishing.”

I absolutely knew what the struggle was like. But I also knew it was unfair to say because of that we should give a false sense of reality about this path. That because it’s hard to be stigmatized we should therefore act like everything is perfect and when people try to point out things that are not perfect, we’ll make sure they know they are the issue, not the falsities about the method.

I knew I couldn’t allow myself to fall victim to that. I had to be better. Even if it meant abandoning the series I’d worked so hard to develop. Even if it meant disappointing the few faithful readers I had.

I decided to get my finances back in line and turn to traditional publishing. In 2018, I began querying a totally new project. In 2020, despite being no closer to an agent and preparing to shelve my second book from querying, I removed my self-published books from print and closed the door on self-publishing forever.

German shepherd leans her head on a printed document with red edits on it. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Gabbo helping me edit The Blood Mage. Look how smol she was then!


In total I lost about $8,600 or more self-publishing. Honestly, by the end, it was most likely closer to $10,000 but who knows. Probably if I’d been a better business person I would know, exactly, to the dime. Probably there are self-publishing people out there doing well self-publishing ready to throw flames at me and shoot 87 holes in my process and plans. But that’s the thing: There is no guaranteed success method, and we have to stop promising it. Business is unpredictable and unknowable. People make mistakes. Plans fall apart. We run out of time and money and capacity. You can set yourself up for better success, but it isn’t something that can be promised. That’s why entrepreneurs so often fail and fail and fail before they succeed. And that’s okay if you’re prepared to do that both financially and emotionally. It’s not okay if you have false expectations of what you’re getting into. There is no “just” in “just self-publish.” Self-publishing is hard. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. There are stigmas attached to it that make it more challenging. It’s not something to enter into flippantly or without thought. It’s also not something to enter into without all the information including the potentially bad things.

People often ask me if I could do it again what I’d do differently. My primary, tongue-in-cheek response tends to be: I wouldn’t do it at all. But that’s because self-publishing wasn’t the path for me. Why? Well, it was a lot of work I don’t love doing myself so I had to farm out or figure out which I hated. I also didn’t like losing that much money or bearing that much personal risk. And after years of being silenced, I really didn’t like feeling like I couldn’t speak about the shitty things I was going through or the misinformation I felt I was facing.

For example, you hear a lot in self-publishing circles that “You don’t get marketing help in traditional publishing, either.” And that can be true to some extent in some situations depending on what press you end up with and a myriad of other factors. What they don’t mention is there are marketing components you do get with most traditional presses that you have to do yourself self-publishing. Cover control is not always a positive. Covers are a huge reason why people buy books. It’s not just about what you think looks good. It’s about what sells. Nice to have a professional know something about that. Taglines, same thing. Back of your book blurb. Promo material. Getting your book on NetGalley ($499 per book to be listed for a self-published author, by the way). Access to the publisher’s mailing list of influencers and book bloggers all in one fell swoop without having to independently solicit them. There is a lot besides flashy book tours, big posters at Y’all Fest, Kirkus Reviews, pallets of printed ARCS, and an endcap at Barnes & Noble.

But in all seriousness, if I was giving legitimate advice about self-publishing from my (obviously) jaded perspective it would be this: Set real expectations and budgets. Define in advance what you’re going to consider success and really evaluate if it’s feasible to meet it. Also define what you see as failure. Draw a hard line around that and be prepared to walk away no matter what. How much risk can you tolerate? How much debt? How much until it’s too much? Know that in advance and when you get there, pull the plug and exit. Do not look back. Close your ears to anyone who says otherwise or tries to push you deeper forward into your abyss. You know your own life better than anyone else. Never regret protecting yourself.

If you’re publishing a series, budget for the entire thing in advance and have it ready to go (or mostly ready to go) before you hit publish on anything. That way you can rapid release and capitalize on the power of the series. Use backmatter to link to the next book and keep readers hooked. If you’re looking for financial success, publish in a genre you can do that in – romance is a great one and probably the biggest but there are others. Write short books. Do not rely on only the experiences of the successful but also those who haven’t been so you have a centered perspective. And always take all advice (even this advice) with about 1,000 grains of salt.

And as in all business, be ready at any moment to pivot.

Final request: If you’re going to be mean to me without having read this entire thing (and yeah, I know, it’s super long) please don’t. I’m really only trying to help people not end up in debt, depressed, and potentially multiple years behind in their writing career because someone made self-publishing sound like an easy solution to traditional publishing’s problems. If you’re doing great self-publishing, this blog isn’t for you. If you’ve already made up your mind, it also isn’t for you. If you know exactly what you want and you’re not me or even remotely like me and you love all the things I hate, this blog is not for you. And that’s okay! You’re doing great work and I support it! There are many paths forward, and we’re all beautifully unique in getting to choose them. I only ask we be allowed to provide information without fear of reprisal so those people may actually choose.

Photo of The Wheel Mages lying flat with white and blue flowers around it and blue sparkly candles along with a bookmark that says reading is halfway between living and dreaming. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Final Fun Fact of the blog because I think the universe sometimes just neatly ties things together or maybe my brain does without me knowing. But the tagline for my first self-published book The Wheel Mages is actually: There is always a choice.



Ohhhh y’all didn’t know I had a Serious Author Photo did you? Yeah, I do. Because I was a real author and had a dust jacket which needed a photo.

On Failure

I learned how to fail at this gig a long time ago.

When I was eighteen, the University of North Carolina sent me a letter encouraging me to apply for its coveted Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. They’d seen my accomplishments in some writing competition or other and thought I’d be an ideal candidate. The application process was (in my opinion) more rigorous than applying for admission to the University. It required a fifty page prose packet and additional letters of recommendation. I agonized over my submission. UNC was my dream school. It was the only university I applied to; it was the only-thing-I-ever-wanted. Worse, I’d convinced myself that because they specifically asked me to apply, this scholarship was all but in the bag.

It wasn’t.

The rejection letter came in an envelope with the University’s famous Old Well logo on the front. I ripped it open, sure of my imminent success (in those days, I was still a big fish in a little pond, and I was always successful). As my eyes scanned the paper, my heart fell into my stomach. My chest tightened. My hands trembled. They didn’t want me.

I was inconsolable. I screamed and raged like a toddler. I threw fists and spat hurtful words. My father and I got into a terrible argument. I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to curl up and die, and I was sure I would, the rejection hurt that badly. I was a terrible writer. He didn’t understand. Look, there was a letter here to prove how awful I was at this thing-I-wanted-more-than-anything. I was nothing. My dream was dead. I would never write another word.

Little did I know, but that would be the first of many kicks Carolina would deliver to me over my three years as a student in their creative writing program.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that when you get kicked, you get back up, with a snarl and bleeding fingers if you have to. But you keep fighting.

Writing this, I’m torn between a chuckle and a wince. It sounds melodramatic, and truly, it was, but it hurt too. It tore at my foundation, shredded my already fragile self-worth. For someone who has been through as much trauma as I have, you’d think I’d have been tougher. But I wasn’t. Not about this. I lost a lot of innocence too young, but this was the one thing I’d managed to keep pure. This was the one Truth I thought I knew. I was the best writer. It was the only thing I was sure about. When it turned out to be just another lie, it felt like the last of what I thought I was had been stripped away.

One of my ex boyfriends used to call me his “tiger.” He said I was a fighter. He was too. It was the thing that held us together. We were both good at getting back up. Call it stubbornness or stupidity or maybe both. Whatever it is, it’s ingrained deep.

That day was no exception. I got up. I kept writing. I was accepted to Carolina. And when I got in, I realized you weren’t allowed to enter the writing program until your sophomore year. One of my roommates managed to find a way into the screenwriting track early, however–second semester freshman year. That felt like a kick, too. But it hurt less than the one before. And I got up and entered the fiction track my sophomore year.

The first day of class, my professor told the room full of eager students that if anyone would be happy doing something other than writing, they should do that, and there was the door. Four people walked out of that class. I didn’t. This was still my dream, and if I wasn’t the best, I would break myself and rebuild until I was. Fighter’s instincts.

My first piece was a fantasy short. My professor liked it but advised me that writing fantasy wouldn’t help me move forward in the program (when I was at Carolina, you had to apply for a spot at every level of the program, and the spots were limited). Another kick. I gritted my teeth and adapted. I started to write literary fiction. This was still my dream.

I applied for the second level of the program and was accepted. I met the Wolfe Scholar. She was both kind and talented, and somehow, that felt like another kick. I got up. Because this was still my dream.

Every critique I received from my peers and my professors felt like a kick, too. We were clumsy and competitive. We knew there were limited spots available, and we coveted them. We fought for them. Me more than some, maybe more than most. I was eager to fight, to prove myself tough enough. Every time I was kicked, I got back up, heart bleeding. I pushed through it, honing my armor as I honed my craft. And I failed and fell and stumbled and sometimes succeeded. And every kick hurt less and less, until getting up became easier and easier.

I made mistakes (most notably getting into a political argument with Stuart Dybek at a bar. For the record, I had no idea what I was talking about). Sometimes, my competitive edge got the best of me, and I fought those who only wanted friendship. Sometimes, I was more tiger than human, and my teeth were sharp. It’s a knife’s edge that’s hard for me to walk. Sometimes, I don’t know when to stop fighting.

Still, through that program, I learned perhaps the most important lesson you can teach an aspiring writer–how to fail.

So last night, when I arrived at a library where I was supposed to be giving a writing workshop to teens on how to craft a story, and no one showed up, I was pleased to find the armor I’d crafted years ago was still in place.

Don’t get me wrong. It still hurts. Armor only serves you until you take it off, and years of therapy have taught me that I do have to take it off eventually. But at least in public, I was able to maintain my composure, and the armor blunted the worst of the blow, so when I did later remove it, I was able to keep some semblance of control.

Failing is part of this life. It’s probably the reason that professor in my first writing class offered the door. She was trying to present a kindness to those who saw a different way. We all fail. In big ways and small. We are rejected from writing programs and literary agencies. Our writing is torn up by editors and reviewers. Our books flop. Our series are cancelled. We face walls of silence and empty rooms.

But we don’t talk about it much. And when we do, it’s after we’re already safe. It’s when we’ve already attained a measure of success. We don’t discuss the empty rooms when we’re facing one, but only when we’re standing before a packed house. We remember our failure fondly, with a different eye. We talk about our happily ever afters, and our hero’s journey arcs, and that’s okay, but it’s not the only Truth.

Someday, I hope to tell that triumphant story, but right now, I can only tell the story I know, and that is the one of an uncertain ending and an empty room. It’s a story about learning to fail, about getting kicked, and feeling lost and helpless and worst of all–silenced. But it’s a story of triumph too, even if it doesn’t have a happily ever after tied to the end.

Because in this story, I still get up.