Why I decided to self-publish Powerless

When I started writing fiction, my goal was to get a traditional publishing deal. Ideally with one of the Big Five – Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster or Macmillan Publishers.

Then, when I wrote the first draft of Powerless, I thought I had something special. I wrote the first draft, set it aside, and when I picked it up four months later, I actually liked it!

Over the next year, I worked to make it the best book it could be. I got feedback from three beta readers. I paid an editor to do a critique of the first 50 pages. I had a book coach review and critique the entire manuscript.

Every time, I worked on the book based on their feedback. Until April 2021, when I decided to start querying. (For those of you who aren’t writers, this is the process of pitching your book to agents and publishers – you generally submit a query letter, and anywhere between the first 5 to first 50 pages of the manuscript.)

When I didn’t have any luck, in January 2022 I decided to enter the book into competitions for unpublished manuscripts. I thought this might help generate traditional publisher interest. While I won one of these competitions and was shortlisted in another, this recognition didn’t generate interest (though I do have a medal now, which is kind of cool).

What the first award gave me was confidence. It was now August 2022, and I told myself, “If I don’t have any interest by the end of the year, I’ll self-publish.”

Why did I want to traditionally publish?

Before getting into why I decided to self-publish, I thought it would be enlightening to share why I was so focused on traditional publishing.

The first reason was validation – I wanted someone to tell me that my book was good enough. That it was worthy. I felt like it didn’t matter how many beta readers or editors gave me feedback – until it passed the gatekeepers of traditional publishing, it clearly wasn’t fit to be published.

(Side note: Quality is not the only reason why books don’t get traditional publishing deals. An agent might love your book, but might not think it’s marketable. Or they might have too many books like yours at the moment (in my case, too many YA sci-fi and fantasy books). Or they might be planning to retire, but haven’t updated their query status. Or a dozen other reasons I can’t think of. The point is, while many books are rejected because the level of quality isn’t there, there are reasons that have nothing to do with quality that result in books being rejected.)

The second reason was marketing support. From my Grammar Factory days, I was very confident when it came to the process of publishing a book. I already had a network of designers and editors. I knew how to set up a Print on Demand book and an eBook, and how to distribute them to the major retailers, like Amazon.

Where I wasn’t confident was the marketing. You see, at Grammar Factory, our clients didn’t write books to earn money from book sales. They wrote books that would be used as a business card – they would give books away for free, knowing that handing it to the right person could lead to a $10,000 client or a keynote speaking gig. This means they didn’t need to worry about selling books.

As someone who wants to become an author, my business model would be book sales, and I wasn’t sure how to drive them. I hoped that a traditional publishing house would be able to help me with this – even if I didn’t get the same marketing budget as one of their big authors, I hoped there would be someone I could speak to for guidance or bouncing ideas around (note that I have no idea if this sort of support actually exists in traditional publishing).

So what changed?

I sent out over 80 queries. Of those 80, I had one request for the full manuscript, which was then rejected. I also had one independent publisher who wanted to set up a call to discuss my ‘wonderful book’, but after over a month of trying to find a time, I decided to end the discussion (if it was that hard to make a time to talk, how difficult would it have been to publish a book with them?).

Originally, I had intended to put Powerless aside. If it didn’t get a traditional publishing deal, I would move on to another book and return to Powerless in future – when I had a track record and a publisher might be more willing to take a risk.

But when I won the award in August, that addressed the first piece of the puzzle. My book was chosen from over 1,000 entries and deemed worthy of an award. Validation? Check.

For the marketing piece, the independent publisher I mentioned earlier asked authors to submit a marketing plan as part of their submission. This set me on a path of learning more about book marketing – I knew about doing Instagram and Facebook ads, and I knew about generating my own content (like this blog), but hadn’t put in much thought beyond that.

In this process, I compiled a list of over 300 book YouTube channels, blogs and Instagram pages, who I could approach for reviews or interviews. I learnt about Goodreads advertising and giveaways. I learnt about getting advanced reader reviews through NetGalley. And I learnt about Amazon advertising – something I’d always wanted to try, but which you can only manage yourself if you own the Amazon account that listed the book (which wouldn’t be the case with the traditional publisher).

Somewhat ironically, this independent publisher asking me to create a marketing plan gave me the confidence that I could manage my book’s own marketing campaign.

So that was a check for the marketing piece as well.

A big caveat

Note that nothing has really changed. 

Winning this award doesn’t mean Powerless is a better book – there was no change to the content between the day before it won the award and the day after it won. I might release it only to have readers say that it’s terrible and never should have seen the light of day (though I’m hoping that won’t be the case).

Similarly, I have no evidence that I can successfully market a book. All I have is a long document and some spreadsheets with my plans, which I’ll be testing in the months leading up to the release. I could invest a lot of time and a lot of money and only sell 20 books, because there’s something else that traditional publishers do that I missed in my research.

But a year ago, I didn’t think self-publishing was an option. Now I do, and now my book is coming out in June instead of languishing away in a forgotten folder on my computer.

And you know what? That feels pretty good.