Note that by self-pub, I also include almost all small and electronic presses. They don’t have any reputation that the industry (newspapers, industry magazines, fantasy websites, readers, etc) cares about, and they don’t have money for frontage. So functionally it’s indistinguishable from just splurging your work onto Amazon yourself. You might get some editing and a cover, but you won't get all the money.
There is one golden rule of self-publishing:
**If you build it, they WILL NOT come.**
Self-publishing comes in three _and only three_ flavours.
(1) You write a book, put it up there, tell all your friends, tell them to tell their friends, and sell ten copies ever. It makes absolutely no difference if it’s blindingly brilliant or semi-literate ravings. Sorry. This is most small pressed.
Even the most amazing thing just thrown out onto Amazon will die in the dark, cold and alone.
(2) You write a book, send out review copies to blogs and book magazines, spend at least an hour every day trying to get pre-orders, do a cover reveal, maybe do a blog-tour (don’t do a blog-tour! They're crap!), release with as much noise as you can, spend an hour every day afterwards talking it up on social media, schmoozing, being funny on twitter, nagging people to go buy it on facebook, chatting on Reddit, doing podcasts, etc. This is the best small presses.
IF it is both good enough to win major awards (forget it for this, they only go to trad pub stuff, but _if_ it’s that good) and you’re very lucky, you might sell a few thousand copies over a year.
Getting noticed and picked up for a trad deal here isn't technically impossible, but you might as well just delete your novel and buy that lottery ticket instead if that's your plan.
If the book isn't both absolutely amazing and very lucky though, you'll do beer-money, a few hundred copies in the first year, and maybe a dozen a year after that.
(3) You write three or more books before publishing anything. Yes, really. You do a lot of research on web-based book marketing. You learn all the secrets of terms like reader magnet, funnel book, list-building, mailshots, webinar, the algorithm, keyword competition, and much more. Then you spend a month or two planning a proper strategy. THEN you think about publishing.
Do NOT try to do this via a small press. You need complete personal control to make this work.
This is the stuff that sells small-press and indy books successfully. The *ONLY* stuff, I promise. Being excellent won't help much, but then again being mediocre won't harm much either.
If you want to actually make more than beer money with self-publishing, then your sole path is by marketing hard. But holy hell, you can make a lot.
Now this stuff is outside my core expertise. I write almost entirely for trad publishers. (It’s not a sane way to try to earn a living, particularly not in non-fiction, where I’m currently ghettoed.) I’m not able to help much with this step. I have some places you can go to start your digging, though.
Bookworks has an August 2016 article titled “Offer your reader free samples – how to use funnel books”, and Your First 10K Readers has a useful article titled “What are reader magnets”.
Additionally, David Gaughran’s books and blog are very useful beginning primers.
Google will take you to these places very easily.
* Finish at least three novels in a series. Seriously. If you haven’t done that, GET BACK TO WORK! They should be in the 60-70k word count range.
* Set up an email list.
* Read several successful series of indy-pub novels in your genre.
* At both start and end of eBook 1 (at least), have "sign up for my email and get a free ebook" pages. Have a look at some other ebooks to see how various people place and phrase this page. Look for top kindle sellers in your genre.
* Publish eBook 1 and make it available for free, probably via smashwords. Have a normal-price paper copy for people who want to indulge.
* KEEP WRITING. You need more content. You will always need more content. Yes, these books are content. Get used to that. You need to aim at one book every two months maximum. Yes, that means you can’t spend time polishing them to perfection. That’s not the goal. The indy mantra has to be “Feck it, it’ll do.” Some authors outsource the writing entirely using places like freelancer-dot-com. They get barely acceptable trash back, but barely acceptable still has 'acceptable' in the name.
* Use 'free ebook promotion' sites to drive people to your free book. (See also Lead Magnets, Webinars, etc.) Find things people want, and get an email signup from them in return for Book 1 and access to the thing they want. Know your target audience's interests. If you can't narrow your audience down to a clear, identifiable demographic ("But everyone will like this!") then you've already failed.
* Send fun, light-hearted stuff targeted at your audience’s interest to your mailing list once a fortnight or so. Talk about interesting bits of world background, or write little bits of extra story, or just generally be interesting and witty. Sign up to several successful indy authors already in your genre and read their mailings avidly.
* Have a FB page for your book series, and another for yourself. Pen names are fine. Don’t worry about doing much with it. Have a website with pages for your series and your self. Give initial chapters. Link to the free Amazon book. Don’t worry about keeping a blog up to date too much. Have a twitter feed, and DON’T tweet book links. Twitter is a psychotic cocktail party, act accordingly. Remember about audience interest? Tweet about that stuff.
* Wait for Amazon to price-match (you can't set a 0 price there directly, you have to get as many people as you can to report a lower price to Amazon directly. It can take a while. Months, sometimes.)
* After and ONLY after it's free, publish Book 2 and 3, again both e and print. Set ebook 2 at $2.99, later books at $4.99.
* When someone signs up, give them an electronic copy of either Book 2, or (better) a novella set just off the same branch.
* Each book is nothing more than an advert for the next book, and that's how you have to think of it.
* Have "Book X+1 is Wonderful, here's the beautiful cover and a ripping bit of hook text" pages in each book X, after the email sign-up pages in each book.
* Start teasing later books in the series (or a new series) a month or two after you’ve hit at least a few hundred with your growing list, to whip up interest with them. Publish after a month or six weeks of teasing. If you haven’t hit 300+ list members, get back to your magnets. They’re the only thing between your and oblivion.
* To get higher in Amazon rankings, you need a good whack of pre-orders, and then several days of high purchase rates. That's getting into dark arts territory – split list testing, tiered promotions, bundling, rolling time pressures, etc. Gaughran has some strats, but this is a serious research topic all on its own.
* Expect a fairly constant “funnel-through” – the percentage of people who progress from 1>2, from 2>3, etc. The proportion of people going from 1 to 2 will be much the same as the proportion from 2 to 3, and from 3 to 4. Calculate returns accordingly, and work out if it’s worth writing 4. Some series just need to die after Book 2 or 3 if the funnel-through is too low. Others can rattle on for 8 or 10 books very profitably.
Some genres are better than others, and by better, I mean faster to build in, and more profitable to sell to. Romance is by far and away the strongest. Fantasy, military sci-fi, paranormal YA, erotica, thrillers, and mysteries are all fairly solid. Below that, things start tapering off. But again, do your research.
Romance and erotica need female pen-names (unless it's M/M, which needs male pen-names), and military SF should have male pen-names. The other genres are less rigid.
The deep goal with this style of self-pub is to get a mailing list big enough that you can be confident at least a thousand people will buy your stuff when you release it. Around 25,000 is a solid mailing list size. That takes time and work to build, a few months to a few years depending on your genre and how good your funnels and newsletters are.
The good news is that it’s entirely possible, even now, to earn spectacular amounts of money this way.
I know several authors making **$100,000 a month reliably** using this system. That's in romance, of course. But even second-tier genres can get up to $10k+ a month with sufficient marketing talent and effort.
It’s a lot of work – expect about 50% churning out words and 50% on your funnels, mailing list posts, relationship-building, price-adjustment, promotion planning, and so on.
Be clear. Self-publishing is a MARKETING job, not a writing job. Yes, you need the books as well, but the main thrust is selling the damn things. But if you do your research, and constantly test, and constantly promote correctly, and write even semi-well, you can make a great living from the comfort of your own pyjamas.