Busting Myths About Writing and Self-Publishing
Examining common myths about writing and self-publishing and why they're false.
Myths may be part of your plot or story, but they shouldn’t abound in your writing life. It’s easy to give in to some of the fabrications swirling around in writer groups, message boards, and TikTok videos. These falsehoods can mislead and confuse new writers especially, leading to unrealistic expectations. Worse, they might deter them from starting their writing journey at all.
Perhaps you’ve been led to believe some common writing myths. Being a writer limits what you can read for fun or you need to be a tortured, struggling artist to craft a best-seller. Maybe you imagine it takes thousands of dollars to produce a book or ebooks are the best format for self-publishing. While these concepts might have a kernel of truth in them, like every myth, but often there is more to the actual truth.
Let the myth busting begin.
Myth #1: Don’t read other authors’ works because you’ll be influenced by their work
Why people believe it: This common misconception originates from the concept that if you read stories in the same genre as you’re writing, you will somehow absorb their personalities or mimic their style. Sure, if you plagiarize a story, then you have a problem.
Why it’s false: First, there are no new ideas. There are, however, themes upon themes upon themes. West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Twilight is an adaptation of West Side Story. Fifty Shades of Gray is an adaptation of Twilight. And I’m sure someone, somewhere, is writing an adaptation of Fifty Shades of Gray. How you tell your story is what will make it unique. You may write a character similar to Romeo/Tony/Edward/Christian, but he, or she, will have their own unique characteristics, backstory, flaws, etc. Maybe your story will be set in space or underwater. The point is, you will make it your own.
Second, you will never improve your writing skills if you don’t study the work of the great and not so great writers who have come before you. Becoming a better writer requires hard work, and a part of that is learning how to analyse other stories to understand how they work, and applying those lessons to your own books.
Third, if you don’t have an idea of what other books are out there and how they stack up against your tale, how will you ever know what is unique or different about your story?
“Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out.”
Myth #2: Inspiration has to strike in order to write
Why people believe it: When inspiration hits and you are in the flow with your writing, things often feel easier and faster and better. The misstep here is about expecting inspiration to hit you like a light bulb turning on or a lightning strike.
Why it’s false: The chances of being hit by lightning is less than one in a million. However, if you stand under an umbrella on a mountaintop in a thunderstorm, you increase the likelihood of a lightning strike finding you. It’s the same with writing inspiration. You have to find what inspires you and chase it.
Increase your chances of inspiration by surrounding yourself with symbols of motivation. Some authors have writing snacks or drinks. I have a writing sweater. Read a passage from your favorite book or some of your own work.
Even when inspiration is not in the room, it’s still essential to sit down and write. Michaelangelo may have been inspired to paint the Sistine chapel, but that took years to complete. It’s highly unlikely he was inspired every day he took his paintbrush out.
"You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page."
Myth #3: It takes talent to become a writer
Why people believe it: There are writers out there who can turn a phrase, envision a world like no other or create compelling characters that stand the test of time. Their talent is undeniable. Good writing, from the perspective of readers, should flow as if its creation was effortless. Since published books are highly polished and edited, some may believe if their writing isn’t up to that level right away, they’re not a “real writer.”
Why it’s false: Innate talent is great if you have it, and can certainly make getting started easier. In the long run, however, dedication, discipline, and diligence are far more likely to lead to a successful writing career. Practice and education help create talent. Want to write better? Read articles of writing tips. Sharpen your proofreading skills by editing the work of fellow writers. Write short stories that experiment with different tenses, or a different point of view than you’re used to.
There are plenty more writers out there who rolled up their sleeves, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and did the work to complete their novel. They may be learning their optimal writing process as they go, and have shaky first drafts that they had to spend a lot of time revising. The important thing is they put the time and effort in to get their book completed.
Talent is not a magic ingredient that ensures your book will become a bestseller.
“People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.”
Myth #4: You need big blocks of uninterrupted time to write
Why people believe it: Many writers lead busy lives outside of the pleasure of crafting their stories. Finding time to write can often seem impossible and carving out a chunk of time, like a day a week or even a weekend retreat, where they can focus on writing sounds appealing. Depending on how fast you write and the deadlines required, setting aside dedicated time to write is essential.
Why it’s false: J. K. Rowling, a single mom, wrote the first book of her Harry Potter series during the only free time she had: her lunch hours at work. There is never enough time in the day, even for writers who pen stories full time. It’s about finding time and using it, rather than looking at the short spurts as a barrier.
For many writers, writing sprints are a remarkable way to pile up the word count. Twenty-five minutes of free writing can turn into five hundred words. Done five times a week, and that’s a chapter.
Consider other writing alternatives, like dictating on your morning walk or while working out. Anna Todd typed parts of her After series while waiting in line at the grocery store.
“Time is a created thing. To say, ‘I don’t have time’ is to say, ‘I don’t want to.”
Myth #5: Preparing and plotting is essential
Why people believe it: Paying attention to structure, beats and writing style are key ingredients in a well-written book. A tried-and-true process to ensure a completed story can be crafted is to take the time to set out your story’s plot and flush it out with details and research. With this information at your fingertips, you are never at a loss for what you need to write. A few authors who depend on plotting:
J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone
R. L. Stine, author of Goosebumps
John Grisham, author of The Firm
Brandon Sanderson, author of Mistborn
William Faulkner, author of The Sound and The Fury
“The more time I spend on the outline the easier the book is to write. And if I cheat on the outline I get in trouble with the book.”
Why it’s false: Social media is full of memes, polls and debates over pantsers vs plotters. None of these outlets have determined “the right way” to write a book. Each writer has to find their own rhythm for what works for them.
Sure, some authors love to plot the perfect crime story, research every poisonous plant on the planet, and fill out endless character sketches before getting started. The stress of requiring every detail ironed out before attempting an opening line can send some other writers into analysis paralysis.
Moreso, different stories might require different approaches. Characters get away from us, telling their stories how they want to, and following them down the rabbit hole can lead to unexpected and surprisingly eventful twists. Just ask these successful authors who famously don’t plot:
Diana Gabaldon, author of Outlander
George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones
Stephen King, author of The Shining
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale
Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods
“If I knew where I was going, I wouldn't do it. When I can predict or plan it, I don't do it.”
Myth #6: Good writers don’t get writer’s block
Why people believe it: Do you have a favorite author, one who puts out at least one book a year, without fail? Do you have writer friends who crank out thousands of words a week more than you do, as you struggle along? Comparison-itis can cause people to believe their skills are lacking if they’re not putting out as many words as someone else.
Why it’s false: Whether you believe in writer’s block or not, everyone deals with burnout sometimes, even with things you may really enjoy doing. Working at a slower pace than others doesn’t make you an inferior writer. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to recharge your creative batteries, when it’s needed. See Cat Webling’s article for advice on how to deal with writer’s block and creative burnout.
Self Publishing Myths
Myth #1: It costs thousands of dollars to produce a book
Why people believe it: While the author’s time to write a book may be free, producing a professional book requires multiple stages, including editing, design, and marketing. Outsourcing some or all of these aspects’ costs money. At.05 cents a word, hiring a line editor might cost $4,000. A developmental editor, to help structure your book, also comes at a cost. Beyond the words, there is the formatting and cover design, which may cost another $1000 or more. Add in marketing, and your budget can balloon to over $10,000.
Why it’s false: There are plenty of tools out there to assist with the book editing and creation processes at reasonable prices. Authors aiming to make money on their books learn over time what things they need to spend money on, and what things they can save on by doing themselves.
Pro-writing Aid and Grammarly can help alleviate some of the more egregious spelling and grammar errors. Each program has a free version or, for a very low yearly cost, unlimited access to the options are available. Critique partners can step in as developmental editors, and you may only have to give your time reviewing their book in exchange.
Programs like Canva make designing a cover easy, with guides and templates, all with a free sign up or trial periods. Fivver and Reedsy offer freelancers who will format your book or you can try yourself with programs available from self-publishing sites like Amazon and Ingram. There are plenty of design studios who can make covers for a very reasonable price, such as GetCovers, who can produce a cover for $35 or less.
As you can see, there are multiple options and multiple ways to produce a book and it is really a matter of cost vs time vs effort.
“It isn’t what the book costs. It’s what it will cost you if you don’t read it.”
Myth #2: Self-published books aren’t taken seriously
Why people believe it: In general, if you want readers to walk into a mainstream bookstore and pluck your novel off the shelves, this will be much harder to achieve when self-publishing. This is because bookstores are in the business of making money, and the best way to do that is to stock already proven titles. As a result, there is the perception that books not found in a major chain bookstore are somehow undervalued.
It’s also true that every author treats their craft differently, and the level of polish and professionalism varies. Poorly edited books, or ones whose cover is merely Comic Sans font slapped on top of a stock photo, create an impression that self-published books are of lesser quality. But just because some books don’t look professional doesn’t mean all self-published books are inferior.
Why it’s false: John Grisham self-published and sold books out of the trunk of his car. E. L. James self-published her Fifty Shades of Grey book as a print on demand paperback through a virtual publisher. Colleen Hoover (whose books continually show up in bestseller lists) self-published because she didn’t know how to start the process of finding a publisher. Only after becoming a viral sensation were readers able to purchase these authors and many more self-published authors in bookstores. The same goes for many authors today, who skip the mainstream bookstores and go straight to where their customers are– online.
Nowadays, with publishing options like Amazon, Radish, Smashwords, Laterpress, and more, it has never been easier to self-publish. There are many options available for website creation too, so it’s possible to create a professional image for both your book and author brand without breaking the bank.
Self-published books may rely more on social media marketing, book bloggers, and other indie opportunities to get their books discovered. Latest estimates state there are 1.7 million self-published books a year, compared to 500,000 that take the more traditional route.
In short, traditionally published books can be flops, and self-published books can be gems. It all comes down to a good story, and presenting it will.
“At heart, self-publishing is kind of like a bake sale. The end product does not need to resemble the one that comes from a commercial bakery, but it must taste good. No-one wants the lumpy under baked oatmeal cookies with spinach and alfalfa flavored chips.”
D. C. Williams
Myth #3: Indie authors shouldn’t bother making paperbacks - all the money is in ebooks.
Why people believe it: Ebooks and ebook readers revolutionized the way we read. Having a library of a thousand books in your back pocket is a modern day miracle. Combine that with the instant gratification of the click of a mouse and the story you desire is in your hands in seconds, and it’s easy to see why ebooks are incredibly popular. Add in the reduced cost of an ebook compared to paperbacks, and ebooks may seem to have an advantage in the bookselling business.
For many self-published authors, it is true that the bulk of their sales come from electronic formats, and authors who have chosen to be exclusive to Amazon rely on Kindle Unlimited page reads for income. But just because digital is an overwhelming majority of sales for some authors does not mean there’s no place for print.
Why it’s false: TikTok further revolutionized the way books are consumed, treasured and marketed. There are many book bloggers, book enthusiasts and general readers, who try the ebook first, at its reduced cost. Once they fall in love with the story, they need it for their bookshelves. And they need the special editions. All of them. The obsession over owning physical books to have and to hold is as strong today as it ever has been.
In addition, many, many readers still prefer reading a physical book. A recent PEW research center survey of adults in the United States found 32% of readers only read print books, compared to only 9% who only read digitally. Ignoring print books automatically closes you off from a large portion of the reader population.
“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”
Myth #4: You can’t make money self-publishing
Why people believe it: Just because you wrote a book doesn’t mean it will sell. Regardless of the quality of writing, the choice of topic, the beauty of the cover, or the amount of time spent marketing your story, there are no guarantees in the bookselling business. While you can attempt to write to the market, capitalizing on trending tropes and topics, what’s hot today may not be hot tomorrow. Very few writers are overnight sensations. Traditional publishers may have the money to invest in massive marketing plans to get a spotlight on a book, but even that ability is waning.
Making money as an author means treating writing as a business, keeping costs manageable, and putting in the effort to promote your books and build a fanbase. Simply releasing the book on Amazon or other retailers isn’t enough.
Why it’s false: A good story, if it finds its audience, is bound to sell. Writers who self-publish have a number of financial advantages over traditional publishing, including:
- Better royalties. With traditional publishing, you get an advance payment, and then don’t see any royalties until the book has earned out that advance. From there, percentage of royalties earned will vary based on the contract, with the remaining profits going to the publisher to cover their costs. According to Scribe Media, traditional publishing royalty rates average 7.5% for trade paperbacks, and 25% for ebooks. Compare that to the average of 70% for self-published ebooks, and 60% for print-on-demand paperbacks (after print costs and fees). These differences are significant enough an indie author might make more than a traditionally published author, even with fewer total books sold.
- Monthly payments. Most avenues used by self-publishers pay out sales on a monthly basis. For traditionally published authors, this can be as little as twice a year.
- Price Control. As a self-published writer, you set the price for your book, not a publisher. You can also update at any time and control sales and promotions, all advantages to get more books sold.
- Rapid Release. Another financial bonus is the ability to self publish as often as you’re able. There is no need to fit into a publisher’s schedule and wait months or years for your books to release.
“When I started, I was pretty sure I was going to be writing some goofy little wizard novels that might make me some part-time money and would hopefully lead to something I could do better.”
Myth #5: You can only choose one path: Self Publishing or Traditional Publishing
Why people believe it: Unless your self-published book is a massive success, most mainstream publishing houses won’t try to buy the rights to publish your book under their imprint.
Why it’s false: Self-publishing is a great way to get noticed by a traditional publisher. As mentioned above, publishers are in the business of making money, and if you have a proven track record of finding a readership with your books, they are much more likely to pull your book out of the slush pile for consideration.
Quite often, writers today have their books published in a mixture of ways. Brandon Sanderson has books with Penguin Random House but recently released a highly successful Kickstarter campaign for a passion project he is self publishing. The days of only being published if a mainstream company discovers and invests in you are long gone.
“Sometimes wandering the indirect path is exactly what’s required to get where we need to go.”
As you can see, there is some truth in the myths of writing a book and publishing your work. How these myths got started is shrouded in mystery themselves. Perhaps they began with writers themselves, or those that gave up before starting. However, like every good legend, there is a loophole, a hidden gem in the details, or a new way to achieve the goal. Take these new perspectives and use them to your advantage to complete your book.