"Self-publishing" is a strange word. It's hip and sexy in one way - people love disruptive technologies. At the same time, no one wants to be known as being a self-published author. Getting professionally published is hard and self-publishing is "easy" - or at least that's what most believe. As someone who has enjoyed success self-publishing and professionally publishing, let me tell you: self-publishing is so much harder.
Calling self-publishing easy is like calling founding a business easy. A lot of people can do the paperwork, but being successful in it is much, much harder.
And this is the biggest thing that everyone needs to realize: self-published authors are entrepreneurs. As such, authors need to ask themselves the same questions that entrepreneurs do:
1. Is there a big market? How many people want your book? Your book won’t sell well if it’s too “niche.”
2. Is there good demand in your market? Just because people "need" your book doesn’t mean they actually want it. Is your book useful to your market? How useful? Are they already looking for something like yours?
There is a tradeoff between the size of the market and demand; the bigger your market, the less “perfectly suited” it is for any one person. My book, for instance, is only for software engineers and would be considered very “niche.” However, because it’s a small and focused market, it outsells any of the “general purpose” interview books out there.
3. How much competition is there? You should be aware of the existing competition for your book. If there are a ton of other books out there, you need to hope that you’ve written a really, really good book (and that’s hard!).
Remember though that just as too much competition is bad, too little competition is bad too. There’s often a reason that there isn’t competition, and it may mean that there isn’t actually a big market out there.
4. How will you market / promote your book? You can’t expect to just write a great book and suddenly have people desperate to buy it. You need to think about how you are going to promote it. Do you have a popular and relevant website or blog? Do you train people? There are many ways to promote a book or product, and you need to find one that works well for you and your market.
5. What is the minimal viable product? In start-ups, there’s a concept of the “minimal viable product,” which is the quickest product that you can build that basically solves the customer’s needs. It might not be fully functional and do everything that they want, but it fulfills their most pressing demands. If you release with that first, it will help you get customers and to understand what customers really want.
The same concept applies to non-fiction / business / technical / reference books. The 5th edition of Cracking the Coding Interview is a 500 page paperback book. The 4th edition was “only” 300 pages. The first version? It was a 20 page PDF.
The first edition was the “minimal viable product.” It wasn’t perfect – in fact, it was far from perfect – but it was enough to establish that there was a good demand, a good market, and a good reason to continue to develop the book.
The wonderful thing about print-on-demand services like CreateSpace is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time writing the “perfect” book so that you can do a 3000 copy print-run. You can write the “minimal viable book,” and then write a bigger and better version once you figure out that lots of people want to read it.
6. Are you willing to really, really work for success?Self-publishing is hard. Really, really hard.
In fact, in many ways, it's harder than founding a company. At least when you're founding a company, you have loads of entrepreneurs to turn to for advice about marketing, promotion, hiring, building a product, and so on.
Who do you turn for advice about how to self-publish a "serious" book, when all the advice is written for authors writing vampire fiction who are only self-publishing because they can't get a "real" publisher? (Side note: I may set up a discussion list for self-published authors, if there's enough interest. Sign up here if you're interested.)
Self-published authors have to do everything themselves, from cover design to editing to marketing and promotion. It's hard, confusing, and takes more time than you can imagine.
They are a lot of rewards to being a self-published author, but, like any entrepreneur, you'll have to really work for it.
Never forget that. Success is a challenge for any entrepreneur - and you are an entrepreneur.