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Reasons to Brave the Indie Publishing Jungle

Selling your writing in 13 weeks — week two.

Before you go it alone in publishing, you should consider some things -- and find a cool hat.

Before you go it alone in publishing, you should consider some things — and find a cool hat.

So, you’ve looked at your options, studied your product, and are considering just taking it indie, which for the purpose of this article means either self-published or with a small publisher.

Very well. Last week we examined the potential pros and cons of going traditional, and this week we’ll do the same for indie.

Sometimes, it’s just clear cut that you should go indie.

Some of these cases are, say, when you’re writing a book about something that doesn’t have a ready market in traditional publishing. Very often these are cross-genre things, and your reception at the two or three places you sent it to was “I love this, but I don’t see a market.” Or if there’s only one or two houses you’d consider in the field you’re writing in, and they’re known to take forever to answer or, for whatever reason, you’ve come to the conclusion you have no chance with them.

In most cases, things are not that clear cut. You’re sitting there, with your finished manuscript and considering “Indie or traditional.”

Well, traditional will give you money upfront, but after that you only get at best 8% of cover price. And your book is not fully in your control. Someone could slap an awful cover on, and nine times out of ten you have absolutely no say in it.

On the other hand, in Indie Publishing most of the time you have full control. (At least if you’re self-publishing. If you are publishing with a small press, you might still relinquish some of the control, such as you might have cover consultation, but it’s doubtful you’ll have cover decision.)

That’s good and bad.

Let’s take indie publishing pros and cons.

The most important advantage of indie publishing, at least in my opinion, is that in a market that’s as volatile and unpredictable as the publishing market is just now, you don’t stand at risk of losing the copyrights to your books to someone else’s lawsuit. (This might not be true with small presses, so investigate them carefully and, as always, have an IP attorney read any contract.)

The con in this case is that no one is going to pay you big money for the licensing of that copyright. You’ll put the book up and you might make a few thousand dollars in a year or you might only make a few hundred. There is no telling.

Before you start planning your retirement to a tropical island on the proceeds of indie publishing, there's just a few more things to consider.

Before you start planning your retirement to a tropical island on the proceeds of indie publishing, there’s just a few more things to consider.

I have had friends (both unknown and bestseller. The level of name recognition seems to make no difference) who publish novels and make a couple hundred, and friends who publish novels and make a few thousand. And I’ve had friends publish a novel and a make a few hundred the first year, and then – suddenly – a few thousand in the second.

As with traditional publishing – or submitting to traditional publishing – there are no warranties. You make your best bet, and you collect your winnings. (Or in this case, your earnings.)

Whatever that book earns, it’s yours and it’s pretty much yours forever (or as long as you keep it out on the market.)

On the other hand, it might earn almost nothing.

Which gets us in how you place your bet, which brings up another pro and another con.

To make money – even though there are no guarantees, remember – you want to place your book to make the most money possible. This means:

It is your job to make sure that book goes out with the best presentation possible. Best cover, best text formatting, best layout, best everything you can do. And keep in mind that the best you can do today, whether you’re doing the work yourself or hiring out is not going to be the best you can do in three months. Be prepared to either change it then or to cringe at it. Yes, I did say even if you’re paying for it. Most cover designers (or artists – though we’ll talk about how to get art on the cheap later in the hows and whys) available to unknown authors going indie are not much more informed than you are. You need to know what makes a good cover, so you can order the best cover you can.

Again the con here is that this is all on you. You’ll have to learn what constitutes good cover and interior design.

In the same way, you’ll have to become acquainted with such things as writing good blurbs (those summaries of the book found in the back of the book) and how to tag your book on amazon (that’s both choosing the category the book fits in, and the words that you want associated with the book: say, for my musketeer’s mysteries, Dumas or Musketeers, or swashbuckling.)

Going Indie means learning a lot of things you never took much interest in before.

Going Indie means learning a lot of things you never took much interest in before.

You’ll also have to learn the idiosyncrasies of keeping accounts at various online merchants. You’ll have to decide whether Amazon Prime’s increased royalty is worth it to you or if you get more money from being in all outlets at once, whether to launch a book off with a few free days, or just toss it out to sink or swim. You’ll have to decide everything if you’re going to self-publish (though there are ways and ways to self-publish and we’ll go into that at a later date) and almost everything (including very thoroughly researching the company) if you’re going small or micro publisher.

None of this is as easy as it seems, and the one thing I can guarantee is that you’ll make tons of mistakes. And most of it you only learn by doing.

On the other hand, if you go traditional you’ll also make mistakes, and it might not be in your power to fix them.

However, before you consider self-publishing or small/micro press publishing – supposing you already eliminated the idea of going traditional – the most important question is: is your book ready?

First of all, is your book written at a level that you’re comfortable letting vast numbers of strangers see it?

Look, I’m going to be absolutely honest here: gatekeepers are no guarantee that a book is good. A lot of mainstream publishing books, some of them bestsellers, are cringingly, mind-bogglingly bad: bad research, bad writing, bad characters.

The idea that traditional publishers can save the world from the unmitigated flood of bad writing that indie encourages can only be considered even mildly accurate if you realize that they only have so many slots, and that therefore what they put out might be mostly bad, but it’s a trickle compared to the fire hose that is indie publishing.

Also, when you’re published by a traditional house, you might be the worst writer in the universe, but most people will not perceive it that way, because, well, someone else picked it. The average person will hesitate to put themselves up against someone who makes their living picking written material for publication.

This is all well and good, and there’s ways to get around that perception, but the fact remains that when you’re going solo or even with a small publisher, you are going to be judged on a different scale.

So you want to make sure the book you put out there is the best book it can be.

First you want to make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel.

I call it "the Wheel."  I know it's mindbogglingly different and new, but with my amazing genius, I'll come up with some uses for this strange invention.

I call it “the Wheel.” I know it’s mindbogglingly different and new, but with my amazing genius, I’ll come up with some uses for this strange invention.

One of the most unintentionally funny indie books my husband downloaded – and you have to understand, my husband shares all the funny ones with me by the method of waking me up to read me the funniest passages. Yes, he’s still alive, because I love him very, very much – this was one in which the man seemed to think he was inventing science fiction as a genre.

First he gave a long and rambling explanation on how he was writing stories about a time that hadn’t happened yet, and that he extrapolated these stories according to current tech and science.

Second, before each story, he would give this explanation of the science he used – instead of letting it show in the story. And third, all his stories (ALL) were not only old hat but extremely old hat. As in, they would have been considered trite and non-startling in the pulp magazines of the thirties: setting, story, execution all of it was done before not once but many, many times.

There is nothing sadder than the writer who says “I’m now going to show you something completely new” and then produces yawn-inducing old stuff.

Now I know – though this baffles me – that many people refuse to read in the genre they wish to write in for fear of contamination. This seems like an insane fear, because if imitating someone else were that easy, we’d all be reading our favorite authors over and over, so we could write just like them.

If you’re one of those people and I can’t convince you that this fear is nuts, at least find someone who is a fan of the genre and get him or her to read your book, and tell you if you truly are inventing something new, or are simply reinventing the wheel AND explaining it to people to boot.

In the same way, before you throw your story out at the mercy of the cold, cruel world, find a few unbiased readers. (I always like to get between six and ten.) Ask them questions about your story to determine how to improve it, or if it needs improvement. (We’ll go into how to pick these beta readers later, and what questions to ask them.)

And once you’re sure the story is not an utter failure, you should probably hire a competent copy editor to get all your typos. (At least if you’re like me.)

These two steps will go a long way to making your book stand out from the crowd, if you’re going indie. (And frankly from the slush pile, if you’re going traditional.)

Also, they guard against the authors who think everything they write is the best thing since sliced bread and… the opposite too. If, like me, by and large, you think that everything you write could use a thousand years of polish, give or take a hundred years, these two steps and the assurance of people you trust will save your books from permanent edit loops and get them out there.

Does doing all this guarantee you’ll be successful and make at least some money?

Of course not. The marketplace is huge, and there are a lot of other factors, like how to publicize your book, and the fact that books do best if there’s more than one by the same author. (So being prolific is an advantage in indie.)

But if you do everything right and put your best foot forward, there is a chance you’ll make a steady stream of income and that your story will find readers. You might not be the next big overnight success (and then again you might) but that is also not particularly likely for anyone in particular in traditional publishing.

Indie or traditional, there are no guarantees. All you can do is maximize your chances.

Next week – back to trying traditional publishing — making a list of markets, criteria of selection and the submission process.

 Photos courtesy Shutterstock
1-©Richard Peterson
2-© haveseen
3-©Anna Omelchenko
4- ©James Steidl