Once again this year, I was invited by a local library to speak on Indie Author Day. I was asked to speak about self-publishing and I wanted to share my speech here since not everyone was able to attend. Hope you enjoy.
I always thought I would be a traditionally published author. I hate to admit it, but I used to look down on self-publishing. I thought it was only for people who couldn’t make it with the big publishers in New York and was, therefore, inferior. Unfortunately, that’s a stigma that remains today. I said I would never do it. I’ve learned never to say never because I will end up doing exactly that. (I also said I would never blog and I’ve been doing that for six years now.)
Who Am I and Why Should You Listen to Me?
I’ll give you a short version of my history as a writer so that you can see how I came to have such an about-face of opinion. I started taking my writing seriously in 2008. Once I figured out that if you wanted to be published traditionally you had to get an agent, I started querying them. It took me two years and nearly 40 rejections to get my agent. I was with her for about two years. She was great at first and Daughter of Destiny did well on submission – it went to acquisitions three times at major houses – but no one made an offer, either because I was new or they didn’t know how to market Arthurian legend. Around the time my second book went on submission, my agent basically stopped doing her job for all her clients. When she wasn’t receptive to my suggestions for a better working relationship, I left her because I could see she wasn’t long for the industry. Not long after I began querying other agents, she stopped being an agent. I had a lot of interest in my next book, Madame Presidentess, but no offers. I wanted to have it published before the 2016 election, so there was a limited amount of time for me get representation because traditional publishing takes so long. At the same time – this was summer of 2015 – the industry was changing and I was beginning to see more indie success stories, both among my author friends and in the press, so I started opening my mind and investigating. In August of that year – on my birthday – I decided I would give it a go since most of my books had already been shopped, at least somewhat, so I had nothing to lose.
The Traditional Punishing Industry Today
Sadly, I’m not alone in getting SO close to traditional deal and then deciding I’d be better off doing it myself. That’s the thing: because publishers no longer want to nurture careers – they are only interested in the next best seller or at least what they think will be the next big thing – they are taking fewer and fewer risks with new authors or unusual subject matter (or in the case of historical fiction, time periods and places that don’t have a long history of strong sales). And because of that, agents have to be more selective in who they choose to represent, so it is getting harder and harder to break into traditional publishing if you’re not already a household name in some other way, like being a reality or Youtube star.
But despite this, there are still many valid reasons to try to break in. There is a greater chance of fame and riches with a traditional house, and foreign rights, movie deals, and other subsidiary rights are easier to exploit. Then there is the advance, where someone pays you for your writing, rather than you paying the cost of publishing, which is a clear financial advantage. Plus, there is validation in having a major publisher say your work is worthy, and there’s a lingering cache to being able to say you’re traditionally published. Some authors have no desire to be marketers and business people – all the additional things that come along with being an indie author. For those who want to just focus on writing, traditional publishing is likely the right path
However, there are disadvantages to being traditionally published as well. For one, you as the author have little to no control. Some houses will edit your book with an agenda in mind and even though it’s your story, you’ll have to change it how they want if you want it published. Most authors, with the exception of the really successful ones, also have no control over their book cover and varying degrees of control over the back cover copy, so they may or may not actually reflect the book inside. Traditional publishing is notoriously slow, and that limits the number of books traditionally published authors can publish. This is why many use pen names, so they can publish more books faster. In addition, royalty rates are very low, around 10%-12% and it is hard to earn out an advance. Finally, an author under contract at a traditional house faces constant instability and uncertainty. If your books don’t sell enough, your editor leaves, or the imprint goes in a different direction, you can be dropped. Lines and imprints can close. A friend of mine had that happen and lost three book deals in one day. And contracts can be canceled as well.
The Independent Publishing Industry Today
On the other hand, being an indie author brings with it great stability and control. You won’t drop you or cancel your contract. You can publish what you want, as fast as you want, without worrying about having to wait or change your name. For example, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in the traditional publishing realm because I like to tell the stories of unknown women. Traditional publishers want marquee names. I also love Dark Age history, but traditional publishing only wants post-1066 time periods, unless its Greek or Roman, an concentrates most heavily on Tudor, Regency and WWI and WWII periods. Being my own boss allows me to publish where my heart is, rather than writing to trends that seem arbitrary. This is very important because the love and passion you have for a project shows up in your writing, as does the lack thereof. Publishing myself also allows me to ensure the book cover, back cover copy and all other details are exactly as I envision them and actually relate to the book. In addition, our royalty rates are often much higher than those in traditional contracts, up to 70%-90%. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is that we don’t have to pay a publisher and agent first.
But there are down sides to self publishing as well, and it’s best to go into it with your eyes wide open. Just as with traditional publishing, unless you are one of the few lucky flukes out there, you aren’t likely to get rich. The financial outlay is one of the biggest deterrents to self publishing. If you do it right, it will be a significant investment. I, for one, have yet to make a profit and I’ve been doing this for two years with modest sales. However, if you view that up-front cost as an investment in your company and your future – just as if you were opening a bakery or a flower shop – it is more bearable.
The other big downside is lack of visibility. Without a major publishing house behind you, it is very, very hard to stand out from the crowd. According to The Book Industry Study Group (BISG), more than 4 million books are published each year, 2.8 million of which are in English. That’s a LOT of competition. But, there’s nothing saying that if you were traditionally published you wouldn’t have to face the same situation. Unless your book is one the house anticipates being a big hit of the season – one of maybe 10 out of the hundreds of books published each quarter – you will have to do most of your own marketing. There is a general rule among traditionally published authors that a writer should save a percentage of their advance, anywhere from 10% to 90% depending on how much they got, for marketing. The bottom line is that no matter how you’re published, your book won’t be a success unless you work hard to make it so.
What Indie Authors Can Do to Be a Success
But the good news is, there are many things authors can do to become a success, and indie authors have even more control than their traditional counterparts. One of the biggest advantages we have is that we control the price of our books. That means we can set the price based on what our competitors are selling for, can price adjust if we see the marketing changing or sales are slow, and we can have sales anytime we want – all without asking for permission and fighting a bureaucracy. This gives us tremendous power in the marketplace. We can also sell and market however we see fit, without having to worry about possible conflicts or contract restraints. Blog tours, guest blogs, articles, advertisements, social media, public appearances are all completely within our control. It is up to us how big or small we take things.
I have five requests for anyone thinking of becoming an indie author – things that, if everyone who self-published did them the stigma associated with our manner of publishing would dry up very quickly.
- Have your work professionally edited – no matter who you are, even if you are an editor by day or know someone who is really good at it, you need a fresh set of eyes to evaluate your work. There are inconsistencies, dropped plot lines, missing characters and spelling and grammar errors that you are too close to your work to see. The goal of indie authors should be to produce books that are indistinguishable from traditionally published works.
- Use a professional cover designer – We like to use the phrase “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but we all do it. Studies show that you have 10 seconds to capture a reader with your cover and book description. If a book cover appears homemade, we will judge the contents as inferior. That is the last thing that any author wants. Many people skimp here because they want to save money, but this is a mistake. Keep in mind that just because you or your child or grandchild or neighbor have some Photoshop skills does not mean you know how to effectively design a book cover. There is a science and entire hidden language to book covers that professionals know and that avid readers perceive. The fonts, images and placement are all done very carefully. For example, in romance, the heat level of a book is indicated by the way the characters are clothed and interact, as well as the colors used. You can get an idea of the language of your genre by looking at best-selling covers in your genre for the common elements; they work for a reason.
- If you’re aiming to become a career author, treat it like a job – There is nothing wrong with self-publishing to have a book available for family or even just your own enjoyment, but here I’m talking to those who want to make being an author their career. You’ve heard the phrase “dress for the job you want rather than the one you have.” The same goes for how you view your job as an author and how much effort you put into it. Some people are lucky enough to write full-time, whether they are retired or just don’t have to work. Many of them put in at least as many hours as those of us who work office jobs, sometimes more. But no matter what your situation is, you can be professional about it, and regardless of how much or little time you have, your number one duty as a professional author is to write. If all you have is an hour a day, or weekends or vacation days, use that time to devote to your business. That is the only way to success. The more of us who act like professionals, the higher esteem in which we will be held.
- Join professional groups for indie authors – No one writes or markets a book alone. In that regard “self-publishing” is a misnomer. The best way to keep up with the changes in the industry, learn best practices and get your questions answered is to join groups like the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). They are relatively inexpensive and incredibly valuable. Also don’t forget your genre associations and professional associations for all published authors like Novelists, Inc. and The Author’s Guild. Plus your local writer’s groups: here locally a few that accept authors of all genres include: St. Louis Author’s Guild, Missouri Writer’s Guild, and Saturday Writers.
- Join groups like Self-e that are aiming to promote the best of the best of self published books – There are many groups out there fighting to showcase the best of indie publishing. This being Indie Author Day, I want to give a plug to our sponsors, Self-E. Library Journal, one of the most respected names in publishing, is the sponsor of this program, which connects indie author’s books with libraries and readers. It is free to submit your book for their consideration. Right now they are actively seeking adult and young adult fiction. They are also accepting nonfiction, poetry and children’s submissions, but are still working on plans for when they will begin actively reviewing those genres. When you submit your book, it will become part of your state collection, which means it is available to libraries all over your state. If your book is selected as a Self-E Select book, which means it is one of the best of all self-published books, you will be entered into their national Self-E select catalog, and be eligible for a review in Library Journal, which is right up there with Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus in terms of industry endorsements. All of my novels are Self-E Select designated and Daughter of Destiny was reviewed positively by Library Journal. Self-E also helps you connect with your local community, which is the best way to begin building your reputation as an author. In addition, they have an annual contest to select the best indie books in certain genres. If you are a speaker, you can also join their ambassador program, whereby if you’re selected, you’ll have the opportunity to speak and sell your books at events like this.
Looking to the Future
This is both an exciting and scary time to be an author. The industry is in flux and that can be frightening, especially because no one knows what will change from one day to the next or what the future will bring. But it is also extremely exciting because we have more options than ever before, especially as indies. With success stories like The Martian, 50 Shades of Gray and authors like Colleen Hoover, Bella Andre and Hugh Howey, we have proven that indie publishers mean business and we are here to stay.
There really is nothing you can’t do as an indie author if you put your mind to it. It might take a little extra work, but why not make your dreams come true on your own terms? Audio books, illustrated companion guides, foreign translations, stage or screen adaptations, aren’t only the realm of the traditionally published anymore. And if you decide indie isn’t right for you, there’s no reason you can’t go back to the traditional route or become a hybrid author who publishes both traditionally and independently. The flexibility is part of what makes being an indie author so great.
In her novel The Light of Paris, Eleanor Brown writes that the surrealist artists of post-WWI Paris were “making space for themselves without waiting for someone to give them permission.” That is exactly what indie authors are doing now. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be an indie author and represent such a diverse and thriving community. I say with full confidence that we are the future. I hope you will join me.