What sort of expectations should or shouldn’t you have when you start self-publishing? What is plausible, and what is unrealistic?
Honestly, it’s probably a good idea to go into it with expectations that are fairly low. Most books don’t sell more than a handful of copies, and there’s no way to tell what will and will not take off (if there was, publishing would be a whole lot more lucrative). There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but it will save yourself a lot of trouble and heartbreak (not to mention, money) if you go in expecting things to be kind of rough for the first few years.
When I started out with “Memoirs of a Snowflake” and a couple of other shorts, they didn’t hardly sell at all. Then I published Genesis Earth, and while I saw maybe 50 sales in the first three months, after that they fell off to single digits for the next two years (and yes, zero is a digit). I made my shorts free for a while, and they got tens of thousands of downloads, but that didn’t really translate into sales.
I didn’t expect to be a runaway bestseller right out of the gate, so I wasn’t too disappointed, but still it was kind of a blow. It was worse when Bringing Stella Home only got about ten sales in its first month before falling off to single digits just like Genesis Earth. I suppose things could have gone differently if I’d promoted a bit more aggressively, but that seemed like such a crap shoot that I channeled that energy into writing instead.
And it paid off eventually. When Star Wanderers took off, it generated some interest in all of my other books–not as much as I was expecting, but enough to bring them up to double digits every other month or so. My Star Wanderers books are all selling in the double and triple digits, and I couldn’t tell you why other than that the story just seems to strike the right chord with enough people. Those books would probably be doing better if I promoted them more, and since it looks considerably better than a crap shoot now, that’s something that I plan to be more aggressive about.
I think there’s an important difference between dreams and expectations. Dreams can suffer through setbacks considerably better, and help to maintain a sense of optimism that is perhaps one of the most important things an indie writer can have. Expectations, though, are much more practical and down to Earth, and can provide a useful yardstick for measuring progress. They can also provide an anchor in the face of uncertainty. Those are important things for an indie writer to have as well.
Expectations can be negative, though. If you don’t expect a book to do well, then perhaps you won’t put as much effort into it, sabotaging and self-rejecting your own work to the point where it really can’t do well. If you expect a book that hasn’t been selling at all to continue not to sell, you may lose sight of important opportunities to put it in front of the people who are most likely to fall in love with it.
Every genre is different, every book is different, and every writer is different. Because of this, no one can tell you exactly what to expect–including me. Like me, you might be stuck making nothing but pizza money for the first two years–or your books might take off fantastically well right from the start. There’s no way to know what will happen until you get your feet wet.