The truth about publishing a book and why I will rarely write for free any more.

“Write another book,” they say. “Write about repatriation!”.

I can honestly admit I would LOVE to write another book and a Repat Partner’s Survival Guide would absolutely be something I would do. Except for one thing that a lot of people don’t realise.

When you self-publish a book you are lucky to make back the money you pay to produce it. And that’s without the thousands of hours that you really should be paying yourself for the work that’s gone into writing it. Nope there really is very rarely any money to be made in publishing.

A few years ago, before I finished writing my book, I went on a marketing course for self-published authors. It was just one day long and there were about 12 of us in the room, some already published (at least one fairly successfully, if I recall). The rest of us were newbies – still totally unaware of what going-it-alone really meant.

Well while there were no great suprises, one thing that stuck in my head was this: less than 1% of self-published books sell more than 1,000 copies. That’t not very many. And more than two years after I published my book I am not there yet (although creeping closer).

When I decided to publish my book myself, having had quite a few knock-backs from so-called traditional publishers (the book was too niche…nice idea but it wouldn’t be commercially viable etc), the one thing I knew was that I wanted to be proud of the product I put out into the world. And that didn’t just mean the content – while that was my primary concern at the start, I eventually read enough to realise that was the easy bit. I needed it to be written well, edited well, proof-read well and then I needed a great front cover, good formatting, some reviews, some recommendations…the list goes on.

And much of this costs money (I have never and will never pay for reviews, but I did send a few out free of charge for people to review for me). Money that takes a long time and a lot of work to make back.

Every time I sell a book I get around £1 back (ironically I get more back from the sale of a digital copy than a hard copy). I could put the price up and get more back but I have always wanted this to be an accessible product. Thus I have to sell a lot of copies to make back the money I paid to publish it.

So this is where things got hard. The writing of the book and its production were in the end the (relatively) easy part. What I have been doing over the last two years is marketing it.

The first thing I had to think about was who were my audience and how could I reach them? One problem I have had was that most people who needed this book most wouldn’t know they needed it until it was too late. I really wanted to reach expats BEFORE their move rather than months later when they wondered what on earth had just happened to them. I could tell how hard this would be when my reviews often started with “why didn’t I know about this book when I most needed it?”.


So I did my best – including starting this blog and writing unpaid for other blogs and websites. What I needed was to make people aware that the book existed and where they could buy it so I always made sure to include links to my blogsite.  I did enjoy what I was doing, don’t get me wrong – it is a privilege to be able to write about something you love in exactly the way you want to write it. And I also realised how lucky I was that I was able to do it this way – that I wasn’t worried about paying bills and putting food on the table because my husband had a decent job. I also had the time to do it thanks to our overseas move and a wonderfully flexible remote part-time job.

So I wrote and hustled and sweated and wrote some more and I tried to get the word out there and I counted every sale as a success. Slowly the sales figures went up. Very slowly sometimes.

And then one day something changed. I somehow got a commission to write an article (on expat depression, for the Wall Street Journal) and they paid me! Now I realise how naive this sounds – why wouldn’t they pay me? – but you have to remember that not only had I been writing for free simply to let people know my book existed for quite a long time,  but I had also had my confidence in my own abilities totally knocked since I stopped permanent work in 2006.

You see although even I forget it sometimes, I have not got to where I am through luck. I am a trained journalist who spent years learning how to write. On top of that, I have a lot of life experience – things that went into my book and now go into my articles. But I gave up my job as a diplomat following the birth of my eldest daughter and since then have only ever worked in low-paid, part-time jobs.

After a while you stop believing you are worth anything more. You doubt your abilities and you don’t for a second think you are good enough to earn a decent salary. It is an age-old story of mothers everywhere and I am not going to labour the point here. But it did mean that when someone wanted to pay me for my writing I was overjoyed. (I should add that the editor who helped me get this first assignment was a woman; all through this process I have been helped by other women and I now do my best to pass this on and help other female writers get to where they deserve to be).

Anyway things took off from here. Not in some huge, overwhelming way but in slow, small steps – I started finding out more and more about paying markets where I could sell my writing, I made friends with other writers and exchanged ideas, I joined some wonderful Facebook groups for writers. And slowly I started getting commissions.

It is still early days but even getting the few paid jobs that I have (including with the Washington Post and the UK’s Independent, as well as the Wall Street Jounal) has boosted my confidence. And in the end it has meant that writing the book  and starting the blog was worthwhile – not just because of all the people I have (hopefully) helped with the advice because of where it took me.

So here I am. I doubt writing will ever make me rich and I still have that wonderful part-time job that brings in a small income. But I have finally reached a stage where I can start to believe in myself again, believe that I am worth something, that I do have something to give.

I will still write my blog because I think it is important, and one day maybe I will write that Repat book. But right now I am just loving the fact that people want to pay me for doing what I love most in the world – write.

And I have a final message for all of you out there who feel like I did, that they are worthless and that they will never get back into a role where they feel valued again (either paid or unpaid): don’t give up. It can happen. You are worth it. if I can do it, so can you.

Good luck!

I would love to hear your stories – has anyone else self-published a book? Or got back into the workplace or found a new role after a period of absence?

Photo credit: Appalachian dreamer


16 thoughts on “The truth about publishing a book and why I will rarely write for free any more.

  1. Great to know you are getting known in the writer’s world. I have an idea of how that feels as my Mom also self-published 2 books a few years ago (5000 copies of each) and the has managed to sell most of the first book, but probably only half of the second one. She put it down to being an older writer, but obviously it’s not only that! She markets and markets her book wherever she goes and feels sad that she hasn’t been able to do more.
    Good luck Clara.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sounds like she has done very well if she has sold almost 5,000 books! Honestly it is so hard – much harder than anyone realises – and especially when you have a niche audience. I think some fiction writers do well because of course the market is so much larger. But even then I suspect most don’t understand how much work goes into selling…


  2. I have read that having a book opens doors. It’s something to show to prospective clients or editors or whoever. It is something to build on. Sometimes it’s simply the process that leads you somewhere else…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Confidence. I know.
    I had mine knocked down in 2008 when I lost my office job because I started wearing ankle length dresses and a headscarf because of my religious beliefs.
    Suddenly I could not afford put food on my table.
    It’s only last year that my confidence started emerging and I started blogging. No, I have not gotten an office job yet and I would love to get one. My confidence is work in progress.
    What has helped me is creating what is known in the marketing circles as the customer avatar or the customer profile.
    Simply said, it just means WHO IS YOUR IDEAL CUSTOMER?
    For me, good ethics is my first priority.
    If you create your customer profile it will help you to streamline your marketing activities. This is because your marketing will be more targeted.
    Another idea that helps is if you offer affiliate commission to people who sell it for you (online sale).
    All you have to do is identify COMPLIMENTARY businesses (not competitors) and offer a collaboration.
    Do you have a mailing list? They offer best clients.
    Well, everything is Google-able, for more clarification.


  4. I have the same experience as you. I wrote a good book, with a great accomplished editor. It was hard long work. Like you, I wanted a quality book, and it is one. But marketing… I did good whenever I worked at it. I CAN market. but I just plain don’t like the digital part of it. I like book readings. I like newspaper articles, etc. The gist of it is, I didn’t make the 1000 mark yet either.
    and like you – I get paid good money to write articles. and that’s what I like doing. I like researching a topic, interviewing people, writing about it and getting paid. I’m not really a long term project person.
    So, even though people also tell me I should write another book, I don’t know if I ever will. I have lots of stories, but I like telling them right away. And getting paid 🙂


  5. Amen, Clara! I think you and I have pursued a very similar path, and not just because of South Africa. Glad to hear the freelance “career” is continuing to provide gigs for you. What you didn’t mention is how hard that path is too. That even when you feel you’ve got the foot in the door with a newspaper or magazine, things change. An editor leaves, they are cutting funding for a certain area, etc. So you often have to start from scratch there too. I admit I have let the freelance train come to a halt again, but it also has to do with my husband and I setting out on our own with an unrelated business, and having to put my time into that. Still, writing is my passion and I probably will publish that second book, but everything you say is absolutely true. I did feel heartened what you say about sales numbers though. I’ve not run the numbers lately but even with just one book, I’m over 1000, and amazingly to me, it continues to sell about 3 a day, without me having done any marketing whatsoever in quite some time. I think I’m in a good niche:-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re doing very well with your sales! I think the problem with mine is that it’s hard to know which Amazon category to put it in as there is no expat category. But that reminds me it’s always worth playing with the categories every so often!


  6. I am so glad that you DID write your first book – and that you DID start a blog to go with it! Connecting with ‘virtual friends’ in the expat world has been one of the absolute saving graces of expat life and I consider you not just a great supporter of my blog, but a friend I haven’t met!

    I completely understand that you should no longer work for ‘free’ and the value of our time – something we so often forget. I love knowing that your resource is there and referring it to people. If/When we ever have to start the next chapter I know what I’ll be grabbing for again (PS and I did BUY the book – love that I contributed to you income!!!)

    Liked by 1 person

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