Image: Matthew Loffhagen
At Standoutbooks, we love the indie author. It’s hard not to – helping creative, enthusiastic person after creative, enthusiastic person get their book to market is bound to create a warm glow and a sense of affection. Despite that, we’re also the first to admit that indie publishing isn’t for everyone – it’s one of several paths to publication, and it may be that your story or your way of working are better suited to traditional publication, whether with a large publishing house or a small press.
I’ve talked before about the different options available to writers in Traditional vs Self-Publishing – The Fundamentals You Need To Know. It’s a guide to the wider field that I hope authors found useful, but in this article I’d like to dive more into what indie authors can expect from the long-term professional experience of indie publishing. What’s it like as a lifestyle? What are the positives and negatives that writers can expect? Is it for you? Where I can answer these questions, I will, but otherwise, I aim to provide the information for authors to make their own decisions.
I’ll do this by running through some of the main areas a professional writer needs to consider: writing, the publication process, and marketing. I’ll start by considering the pros of each, move onto the cons, and then bring the two together for a summary. Above all, it’s important to remember that there’s no objective answer to the question in the title. Whether indie publication will work for you depends on who you are and how you approach the areas below.
The writing process
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use ‘writing’ to describe all the creative acts that go into a finished book – writing the story, editing the text, choosing the name, designing the cover; everything that gives you the thing you’re going to publish.
One thing to note before going into the specific pros and cons of the writing process is that, if you choose to pursue traditional publication, this is the only part of the publishing process that you’ll have to consider in-depth. Yes, you’ll have the opportunity to be involved in publishing and marketing your book (and you should dive into the latter), but the bulk of the work will be done by experts in the field. That’s not the case for an indie author – how you start writing a book is the same; it’s what happens next that tends to be different.
The most obvious pro of being an indie author is that you have total creative control of your work. While it’s rare for a publishing house to make huge changes to a book (they’ve got enough to choose from that they can pick the ones they already like), what constitutes a ‘huge’ change can be very different when it’s your book that’s being changed.
The same is true of your book’s title and cover – as an indie author, they’re yours to choose, and even to change whenever you feel like it. Authors following traditional publishing pathways don’t have that ability – they’re tied to a contract that more or less allows publishers to make decisions without them. Now, most publishers will consult heavily with the author over any final decisions or edits (there’s no reason to upset the talent), but final say does rest with them. There are authors who have ended up with a title or cover design they dislike. Moreover, they’re locked into those choices – the ability to make changes falls under the aegis of someone who is dealing with a lot of other business.
If an indie author has sourced an influential recommendation they’d like to add to the cover, wants to add a new section, or has some ideas for a re-release or new addition, they can action that at any time. That’s not an impossible task for traditional authors – Jon Ronson added a new chapter to his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed between its hardback and paperback releases – but it tends to be the preserve of big names with an established readership.
One area in which indie publication really shines is in the publication of short or niche writing. If you know there’s an audience for your book, but it’s too short to interest publishers or won’t attract enough readers to gain their interest, indie publication may well be the answer.
As I mentioned above, publishers tend not to change a huge amount about a book, so the apparent freedom of the indie author isn’t as extensive as you might imagine. While a publisher is more likely to insist on a certain cover or title, they’re also far more aware of the market and what qualities sell a book. This is the biggest ‘writing’ con of being an indie author: the loss of expert advice.
This manifests most importantly in terms of knowing when to take a book to market. Every book needs editing, and almost every book needs editing more than its author assumes, even if they’re being generous. It’s entirely possible to think your book is finished way before it reaches a point that will see it compete at market. For authors following a traditional path to publication, this is the point at which a publisher or editor might be interested, but only after outlining the parameters of a necessary edit. Even being knocked back by traditional publishers might be preferable, for some, to publishing something that isn’t ready to be on the market, especially if it leads to you improving your work.
That’s all on top of the fact that being an indie author means you have to find a cover rather than having someone else make that decision. It’s like the quote commonly attributed to Lori Lesko, author of The Therapist and Helethia, says:
The good news about self-publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self-publishing is you get to do everything yourself.
Creatively, indie authors begin in the wilderness, and no-one is coming to show them the way out. Absolute control over their work means getting to make all the decisions, but the flipside of that coin is that they have to make all the decisions.
How you feel about the above might be the best indication of whether or not indie publication is for you, but don’t feel too anxious. Indie authors will make a lot of mistakes that a publisher would protect them from, but they can also fix those mistakes far more easily than traditional publication would allow.'Indie publishing means you get to make every decision but you HAVE to do all the work.Click To Tweet
Launching a book with an off-putting title or cover with a publisher is less likely, but it’s also a death-knell for that project. The indie author, on the other hand, can reissue that book with a different title or cover whenever they like.
While no-one is automatically coming to get the indie author out of the wilderness, they can easily hire someone to guide them partway. Indie authors can and should hire professionals to edit their work, design their covers, and discuss potential titles. This is something I’ll address in financial terms later, but creatively, it’s a great way to work. Find a good editor and/or designer and you find someone whose intent is to help you get the result you want. They’re not answering to a publishing house that wants a certain result, but rather trying to offer you information and options to meet your goals.
There are some areas where traditional publication has the edge on the indie scene, but at least from the author’s point of view, the indies tend to have it better in this sector.
The publication process
‘Writing’ has addressed some of the creative concerns of the indie, so let’s move onto the financial and practical implications of being an indie author.
For indie authors, the publication process can be a joy – all you have to do is upload some files and you’re ready to go. It’s as instant as you want it to be, with virtually no financial risk undertaken by you or anyone else (unless you feel like putting some money into your launch, of course).
Traditional publication can take years, and there’s nowhere in the process where it’s a sure thing. As an indie author, a surprising world event, change in management, or competing publication from the same company won’t suddenly upend your plans. This might be particularly beneficial for stories that play off a recent event or trend – indie publication lets you fast-track your story and be first on the scene.
This lack of constraints also applies to publishing rights – choosing indie publication means you can sell your book around the world through whatever venues you want. Sign up with a traditional publisher and it’s probable that they’ll require you to give them exclusive world rights, despite only selling in a handful of countries. Keep those rights for yourself and you can sell all over the world. That’s not as difficult as it may seem, especially with the internet – a lot of our own publishing packages include listing books to be purchased worldwide.
It’s also generally reported that indie authors are happier with the finished work than authors who pursue traditional publication. There are a lot of reasons this may be the case, some of which won’t apply to many authors, but it does seem that retaining control – never ‘losing’ a work and being unsure when it might re-emerge – plays a big part.
Finally, self-publishing means much, much, much higher royalties (we’re talking seven times larger in some cases). Online bookstores just facilitate listing and purchasing, meaning they expect a much smaller cut.
The first pro that needs answering is that while online booksellers may expect a smaller cut, they’re also going to sell far fewer copies than you’ll manage with a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers have the money and influence to sell your book far more widely, and in more forms, than an indie author can manage on their own. Yes, being an indie author means you can decide to actively sell the book in more places, but it’s unlikely that the resultant readership will touch what a traditional publisher can drum up in four or five countries (at least at first).
Traditional publishing comes with an invisible stamp of approval – a mark that doesn’t guarantee the reader’s enjoyment, but does guarantee a product of professional quality. Self-publishing allows for the publication of some truly awful work, a lot of it, with no way for readers to quickly discern what’s worth reading. Likewise, most literary prizes and critics won’t consider indie works, and bookstores are unlikely to grant print distribution without a publisher to back your work up. This all combines to ensure that traditional publication is almost certain to sell more copies than indie publication. There are examples of authors who have done just as well through indie means, but they’re so few and far between that part of why we know their stories is that they’re so unusual. Amanda Hocking, author of The Kanin Chronicles and Hollowland, has it right in ‘Some Things That Need To Be Said’:
Some [indie] books and authors are bestsellers, but most aren’t. It may be easier to self-publish than it is to traditionally publish, but in all honesty, it’s harder to be a bestseller self-publishing than it is with a house.
Another big consideration is that self-publishing takes money if you want to do it right. Cover design, editing, setting up an author website to take advantage of traffic – it all costs money, and you’ll need to have a budget if you want your book launch to be a success. Traditional publication takes care of most of this, and generally includes some kind of advance to boost your coffers way in advance of publication.A successful book launch usually requires financial investment.Click To Tweet
Even if you put in enough money to gain some attention, you’re still unlikely to do as well via indie publishing as you are with traditional means. For all the advantages and disadvantages I’ll mention, the two publication routes are, for the moment, inherently different business models. The rewards you get for handing over control to a publishing house are very, very real, and for many authors they outweigh the benefits of going indie.
This is the area where being an indie author can feel most impossible – how are you meant to compete with traditional publication? The answer is ‘gradually, if at all’. The most important thing to understand about being an indie author is that you’re basically setting up a fledgling business. It may not seem like it, but you’re an entrepreneur, bringing a new product to market.
Looking at it from that angle, it’s ludicrous to expect to compete with publishing houses from day one. Indie authors have to establish their name, find readers, and build trust. This may mean a longer wait, and more books before you start seeing real numbers, but it’s not an invalid path. Being an indie author is inherently different to pursuing traditional publication – financially, they’re poles apart, though for most authors this is only part of the concern. If you’re looking for a way to share your work and make money, it again comes down to which route suits you best, and which goal you favor more.
I said above that you’ll need a budget if you want to launch a professional-quality, popular book. That’s true, but it’s not the only resource you can invest. Spend time and energy perfecting your book and spreading the word and you’ll do better. Spend enough time and energy on publishing your book and you’ll make up some of the difference that could otherwise be covered by money. Zoe Winters, author of Save My Soul and Life Cycle, explains in Becoming an Indie Author:
Whatever you may have heard, self-publishing is not a shortcut to anything. Except maybe insanity. Self-publishing, like every other kind of publishing, is hard work. You don’t wake up one morning good at it. You have to work for that.
As an author, you’ll almost always have to ‘pay’ for the success of your book. With both traditional and indie publication, this can mean sacrificing time and effort, but for an indie author, this is the central exchange. What resource you’re happy to pay – money, creative control, speed of publication – and how much of it you’re prepared to invest may be the deciding factor in whether you’re better suited to indie or traditional publication.
Marketing is a mercurial concern – part creative and part financial, it’s an ongoing effort where each new work adds to a combined whole. It’s also a long-term commitment that will outlast any single book.
Marketing is an area where traditional authors often feel left behind by publishers, and indie authors are finding that the internet actually allows them to compete. There are a raft of marketing services for indie authors with their own dedicated reader base (we even compared some here), many of which depend on your ability to adjust pricing and make books available through specific stores.
On top of that, being recommended on the right forum, or running a good online campaign, can be incredibly effective, and the resources it takes to make that happen are the same for every kind of author (though creative control gives the indie author an advantage in some scenarios). As Alexei Maxim Russel, author of The New Homeowner’s Guide to House Spirits and Trueman Bradley: The Next Great Detective, says in ‘Why All New Writers Should Go Indie’:
Nowadays, the internet decides if you’re good, not the big man in the big office… Just produce. The internet will tell you if you’re good.
While Alexei might be looking a little far ahead to the marketplace of the future, his premise isn’t wrong – good content can take a while to find its audience, but when it does, they’ll pass it on. This isn’t some indie fairy tale, but a general rule that traditional publishing venues have also expressed.
Matthew Shear, publisher of St Martin’s Press, [says]: “It’s always been the same since the days when people self-published from the back of their car – cream will rise to the top.”
– Ed Pilkington, ‘Amanda Hocking, the writer who made millions by self-publishing online’, The Guardian
Yet again, it’s worth remembering that traditional publishing simply has more resources to throw at this area. The acclaim of coming from a publishing house leads to lots of immediate marketing – shops stocking your book will even handle some of this themselves. In terms of initial marketing, non-indie authors have the head start.
Indie marketing is about building your brand, and each book will bring more word of mouth, increasing focus on what’s gone before. This is effective, but it’s also the work of years, if not decades.
Marketing is the bane of many authors, and while traditional publishers will cover some of the expense, it’s a leaky boat that all authors find themselves stuck in. Worse still, there’s even debate as to whether the accepted methods of social media advertising and organized giveaways still work. Delilah S. Dawson, author of Hit and Wicked as They Come, used her blog post ‘Please shut up: Why self-promotion as an author doesn’t work’ to rail against existing advice:
“How do I build a platform and make money with my blog?” a woman asks.
“Build a time machine and go back to 2005 and start your blog then,” I say.
Because it’s the truth. In this oversaturated market, the only ways to build a following and profit from it are to have been around for 5-10 years already or to already be famous… Publishers want a writer to have a brand, a platform, a blog, a built-in army of fans. But that was 2009, and now it’s 2015, and that doesn’t work anymore. Book blogs become paid services, giveaways become chum pits, conference-goers dump purses full of business cards out in the trash to make room for more free books that they won’t read. It is virtually impossible to get your blog seen or your book discovered. We are glutted with information, and yet our answer to “How do I get people to buy my book?” is social media marketing, which is basically throwing more information out into the void.
Delilah is hasty in dismissing some effective sales techniques, but her words highlight the fact that many authors don’t feel satisfied with the rate at which their marketing efforts bring in readers.
Delilah’s conclusion is that indie marketing is now more and more about word of mouth, and she’s not wrong. Marketing is hard, especially without the initial push courtesy of a publishing house, but it should be at least partially reassuring to learn that it’s hard for everyone. There’s no secret to getting your book in front of readers, just that old truth that resources equal results.Book marketing is hard, but it's hard for publishing houses and indie authors alike.Click To Tweet
In this case, ‘resources’ can mean time, money, contacts, or even just more work. Continued publication is the indie author’s secret marketing weapon, and here again they have a potential edge over the traditionally publisher writer, in that they can publish far quicker works with fewer checks and balances.
You start with one book and it can be difficult [for readers] to find. A second gives you more visibility and people who read the first book continue with the second. Then there is the third book and three starts to be the magic number. At three, you can play with things with the first book, like 99 cent promotions and offering it for free. Then the ‘aahhhh’ happens at book four and five. For me, the Sullivans sales got better and better and then at book five, the ceiling blew off and people were hooked … The best self-promotion is your next book. And the book after that and after that…
– Bella Andre, ‘RWA 2013: Discussing Self-Publishing With Bella Andre And Barbara Freethy’, RT Book Reviews
Indie authors should expect a slog in marketing their book – and be prepared to pay for ‘quick’ results – but needn’t worry that they’ll be shut out of the marketplace. If you’re unprepared to put any resources into marketing then you’ll need the initial boost of a traditional publisher to succeed. Otherwise, indie publication isn’t a dramatic step down from what other routes have to offer.
What else should the indie author know?
It’s useful to talk about traditional publication and indie publication as mutually exclusive, but there are ways to publish that merge the two. Small presses offer some advantages of publishing houses while leaving the author with more creative freedom; online sites and forums will distribute your work to thousands of readers, with less financial reward; and ‘hybrid publishers’ exist up and down the spectrum, some willing to part-finance publication and offer you an expert ear, and some out to take your money and run.
These alternatives are less common than indie and traditional publishing, but may well be for you. The pros and cons above should help you to outline what you want from any of these merged systems, as well as which of the broader routes suits you best.
Indie publishing can seem daunting, but a final thought to consider is that it’s not a win/lose binary system. Indie publishing offers incredible flexibility to authors, and just because it’s where you start, it doesn’t mean it has to be the answer for every project, or that you won’t move on to traditional publishing later in your career (many do).You can switch from indie to traditional publishing and vice versa. Pick what works NOW.Click To Tweet
As I said at the beginning, your conclusion at this point will depend on your needs as an author, but rest assured that indie publishing is a viable option, and it will only become more so as time passes. There’s also a wealth of support and resources available – you can visit 40 Exercises And Resources Every Author Needs to see some of them now, or check out our list of services to find out what parts of the process we can handle on your behalf. That’s a final pro for indie publication – if you’re able to hire trained professionals to help your book find success, you can decide where to consult an expert and where to handle things for yourself.
Are you an indie author, or someone who still isn’t sure which route to take? Let me know in the comments.