After writing five novels without selling any of them, I lost heart. What was I doing wrong? I had sold many articles and essays to national magazines. I had a terrific agent (and still do). I was a ghost writer who regularly penned celebrity memoirs. I had even sold a memoir of my own to none other than Random House, the Big Daddy of Publishing. Yet I couldn’t sell a novel.
“Maybe you’re no good at fiction,” my inner child whined.
Yet, there was one novel that I still liked. I couldn’t stand to keep it in a drawer, so I decided to make the leap into self publishing. The book has sold pretty well and has been nominated for a couple of awards.
Great! I was an indie author and proud of it. Then the unbelievable happened: a scant two weeks after becoming an indie author, an editor at NAL/Penguin bought my newest novel. I nearly passed out with excitement, but I was also plagued by doubt. Should I take the offer?
I’d heard all sorts of horror stories about writers giving away the bulk of their royalties to publishers that gobbled up profits in huge percentages. We indie authors keep most of our sales. Was I doing the right thing, saying yes to a publisher when I’d already done the tough work of going indie?
For anyone out there trying to make the same decision, I want to share what I’ve learned so far:
1. Indie publishing isn’t cheap.
While it’s true that traditional publishers take a large cut of profits, it’s also true that they will give you an advance against royalties and you won’t have to put up so much money up front. I went indie as inexpensively as possible, using CreateSpace’s basic author package which, for about $750, gave me the book’s cover, interior and exterior design, an ISBN number, and a great, accessible staff always ready to return my calls. It was a simple process to get the book published, and I was able to do Print on Demand copies at a reasonable cost so that I had a paperback version as well as an ebook. (For the record: I have sold more ebooks to print books by 100:1.) However, there are other, hidden costs you need to consider with self publishing, like the cost of an editor, which can run about $2000, and a copy editor, another must-have, for about $1000. (These are rough estimates based on very unofficial surveys of my indie author friends.) That brings you to $3000 right there. Paying an independent book cover designer is also costly. You can skimp on those costs if you happen to have good friends who are editors, but otherwise try to cough up the money or your readers will notice. In addition, your book will do better if you put some dollars toward your marketing efforts. These don’t all have to be expensive; for instance, the KDP Select Program is a great promotional tool and is free for authors to use. There are cheap promo opportunities through places like Kindle Book Review, the Goodreads self-service author program, BookBuzzr, etc. However, you need to be prepared to put up a few hundred dollars at the bare minimum to get your book out there.
2. Marketing a book is a lot of work either way.
The best part about going indie is that it’s a mini MBA program. You will never learn more about the business of publishing than if you do it yourself. I had very little social media experience before publishing my own novel; this process led me into blogging, tweeting, Goodreads, and all sorts of online groups. It has been a steep but thrilling learning curve, and guess what? Everything I’ve learned through promoting my indie novel I can also use when promoting my traditionally-published book. However, this can often feel like you’re on a hamster wheel every morning, running to keep up with things that don’t always seem like they’re taking you (or your book) anywhere. You have to be extremely disciplined about how much time you devote to social media, or you will not turn out more books, just more blogs.
3. People in publishing are nice everywhere you go.
As a newbie indie author, I have had fantastic support from book bloggers and other writers. I can’t believe how generous people are. But you know what? I have had the same experience in traditional publishing. Maybe writers are just nice people.
4. Traditional publishing is much slower than indie—but that can be a good thing.
Yes, it is great to have total control over your book’s cover, marketing strategy, release date, etc. But it is also a lonely business, and a trying one, as you get stuck diddling the details dial instead of focusing on your next book. Traditional publishers may take a year to put out your novel, but that’s because they go through the steps every author should go through: writing a draft, revising the draft, editing the draft, copy editing, proofing the galleys, and coming up with a book cover and interior design that really work. They also provide you with a publicist who will help you land reviews and shelf space in places most indie authors haven’t been welcome in the past, though that is slowly changing.
The bottom line? You can publish faster on your own, and if you write more than one book, you can probably make money at it, too, especially if you’re writing genre fiction that has a hungry audience, like romance novels or paranormal thrillers. But taking your time and finding a traditional publisher has its advantages if your budget is limited, you write more literary or non-genre fiction, you love feeling like part of a team, and you’re more inclined to spend time writing than marketing. There is room for all of us. Indie or traditional, it’s a great time to be a writer.
Toby Neal says
I seem to remember this conversation, almost word for word, a couple of weeks ago. Well said, as always, and a sane and balanced view in the chaos out there.
Steve Bargdill says
I find it interesting that you have a mix of indie and trade publishing experiences. Do you think in today’s day and age that walking that line between those two worlds is something any author should seriously consider?
Thanks for weighing in, Steve. Yes, I do think all authors should consider self publishing as they weigh their choices. You need to consider 1) the type of book you’re writing (genre fiction is the easiest to sell on your own), 2) the budget you have for promotions, 3) how fast you want to get your book into the marketplace (a traditional publisher usually accepts only agented books, so first you have to find an agent, then a publisher, and the whole process from submitting to agents to your book publication can take several years.) You also have to think about how important it is to work with a team, and whether you have the financial resources up front to put together a design/editing/production team on your own, and of course whether you want to try doing an ebook only or a paperback. Self publishing is exciting and can be profitable, but it is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that has nothing to do with writing. I loved doing it, but in the end concluded that I’d rather have a team behind me, which is why I went back to traditional publishing. Will I make more money this way? That’s still an open question. But I feel confident that, with this particular editor working alongside me, I will become a better writer, and that’s important to me.