The Honest Inside Scoop or the Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing
(An introductory note: my comparison focuses on self-published Indies, not Indies who use independent publishers, i.e., small houses.)
I know. Many of you are new to the world of Indie publishing and it looks pretty rosy. The news loves to tout Indie turned best-selling authors. Indies are making their own to-die-for covers. And best of all, Indies are making money now and not having to wait years for their first book to see the light of day. Plus, you have full creative control of your story. It sounds glorious, right?
Let me be the first to stand up and tell you that Indie publishing is wonderful. On many different levels. I braved the waters because I knew my book was ready and I knew the market for mythology would pass me by if I waited for a traditional deal. And I was right. If I hadn’t jumped when I did, Destined may never have seen the light of day. And for that, I will forever be grateful that I chose Indie.
What I didn’t know about -- not really -- were some of the cons that come with being Indie. So before you make the leap into Indie waters yourself, here are some considerations to weigh carefully. (If you don’t want to read my detailed explanations, you can skip ahead to the end, where I have a chart. I recommend reading through this though, so you can make a fully-informed decision.)
First, let me be clear, I’m not talking about the “stigma.” Haters gonna hate, right? But even the perception that Indie equals inferior product is rapidly falling away. There are some people, though, who will not feel successful unless their book is produced by a traditional publisher. If you fall within that category, then read no further. This is a personal choice and no one here will judge you for feeling that way. Truly. You will not be happy going Indie because it will feel like a compromise to you. It’s not worth it. Step number 1 in being Indie is to embrace it.
Con #1: Time. Don’t tell me, "Well, even traditional publishers put you on deadlines and you still have to do your own marketing." That’s 100% true. BUT -- when you’re Indie, you’re it. You are in charge of every aspect of your book business, because that’s what it becomes: a business. You have to account for your income and expenses (including those all important tax write-offs!). You have to hire your designer, editor, and formatter (if that’s not something you’re equipped to handle yourself). You have to decide which channels to sell your book through, decide if you’re going to have a paperback version, and which POD company to use. You have to promote your book, which is not only the social media you typically think of, but advertising through other channels like Kindle Fire Department and Facebook, as well as setting up blog tours.
Are you starting to get the picture? The reason you get such a small percentage of royalties with a traditional publisher is because they are paying people to worry about most of those things for you. With Indie, you keep everything you bring in, but you work for it. If being Indie is a second job for you (like it was for me), be aware that the business of Indie publishing will start to gobble up that time you used to use for writing. It can be consuming. In my mind, this is the biggest con of being an Indie author who also has a day job.
Con #2: Money Up Front. Remember earlier when I said you have to hire your designer, editor, and formatter? Did you catch the “hire” part there? Yes, I’m talking about an outlay of funds. Money coming out of your pocket before you make dime one. Before going Indie, consider whether you can afford to make this investment in your book. It is an investment and you cannot skimp on these areas if you hope to achieve success.
For example, unless you can create a professional looking cover (like the lovely Chelsea Fine or Heather McCorkle), you should never undertake this task yourself. The cover is the single-biggest piece of advertising your book will have. It’s your novel’s calling card. I’ve heard of great designers who will do a book cover (not spine or back for paperbacks) for $99. That’s the floor. You can go up to several hundred dollars, plus the cost of buying your stock art. If you want custom photography, you can add several hundred more dollars to the price tag.
Editors are another area that you truly don’t want to skimp on if you’re trying to distinguish yourself as a professional Indie (and you are, right?!?!) Your beta reads and friends are great, but they are not a substitute for a professional. Neither is spell check. To avoid falling prey to the inevitable reviews complaining of pacing, inconsistencies, or even just typos, you are looking at at least another couple hundred dollars.
Finally, e-book formatting is not as easy as it looks. Lots of Indie authors will tell you it’s doable and I’m sure that it is -- with time. Since I found time was already in short supply, I also hired someone to format my novel. That’s typically another hundred dollars.
Of course, in addition to paying these folks, you’ve got to find them and manage them. You can add that to the list of time-draining activities associated with being Indie.
You’ve also got to buy your ISBN and copyright.
Con #3: Blogger Support. (Please don’t be mad at me if you’re one of the awesome bloggers who fully supports Indie authors.) But the vast majority of bloggers have been overrun with requests from Indie authors to review their novels and have had to turn them away entirely. If you’ve done your work and created a professional novel, you will probably have some bloggers reach out to you and ask for a review copy. That being said, most of your own requests for reviews will likely be turned away. And since blogs are one of the biggest ways of spreading the word about your novel, not having full access to these channels can be frustrating, if not problematic. The good news is that many bloggers will agree to do a cover reveal or host a spot on your blog tour even if they don’t do a review. While not as powerful as a good review, space to share your novel is worth taking!
Con #4: Marketing Reach. Not only are you doing all of your own marketing as an Indie, but you likely won’t have the same reach as a traditional publisher. You won’t have a 3x life-size poster of your book cover up at BEA. You won’t have cross-author or cross-title promotion coming from your publishing house. You likely won’t be in a brick and mortar store. You likely won’t have a big launch party and multiple signings at local bookstores.
Con #5: Standing Out. This ties in with marketing reach. There’s a reason you’re hearing so much about Indie publishing these days. It’s because it’s working for a lot of people. Meaning, a lot of people are trying it out. Even best selling traditionally published authors are throwing their hats into the Indie arena. Rising above the masses in Indie is becoming increasingly more difficult. Although you will get tips for how to do this in other parts of this conference, just know that you will be one of millions out there. Getting noticed in the absence of a traditional publisher’s marketing reach is difficult.
Con #6: Learning Curve. I almost forgot this one, because once you have the knowledge, it becomes second nature. (In traditional publishing, I think this would be non-existent, since your publisher handles these things for you.) But here are some examples. Do you know the difference between an .epub and .mobi file? Do you know which one to upload to Amazon and which one to Barnes & Noble? Do you know that if you distribute through all channels available on Smashwords it can take weeks for your changes to take effect? Do you know what Smashwords is? Do you have publishing accounts with Kindle Direct Publishing, PubIt! (B&N), Kobo Writing Life, Apple and Smashwords? Do you know if you’re going to use CreateSpace or Lightning Source (or another) printer for your POD copies? Do you know the price and quality differences between the two? Do you know how to buy your ISBN? Do you know whether you’re going to establish your own company for publication (like I did with Mae Day Publishing) and how to go about that?
You get the idea...
So that you don’t think I’m a total Debbie Downer, let’s talk about the pros of Indie publishing.
Pro #1: Timing (not to be confused with the “con” of time). Do you hate sending out query letters and waiting? Do you have a story that is in a “hot” genre right now and you’re afraid it will pass you by if you have to wait for a traditional deal? Well, in Indie publishing, you control the timing of your release. You want it out in time for Valentine’s Day? Done. That’s totally within your control. In fact, you control all aspects of your book sales. You want to lower your price for a weekend promotion (and do it spur of the moment) and raise it back up? Totally your call.
And here’s another beautiful thing about timing in the Indie world. Not only can you do it faster than in traditional publishing, but you can do it longer. You don’t have to worry about losing your shelf-space in a brick-and-mortar building because your sales aren’t happening fast enough. You don’t have to worry about being back-listed. Time is on your side. In our virtual world (which is where Indies thrive), you can leave your novel on sale for as long as you want.
Pro #2: Publishing Prolifically Through a Long Career. Which brings me to another important “pro” of being Indie... you thought being back listed was bad? What happens when you don’t earn out with your traditional deal (which happens ALL the time)? I’ll tell you: publishing homicide. Your career is dead in the water. Not so with Indie. If your first book doesn’t catch on fire, you write another. And another. Who’s going to tell you “no”? No one!! And when one of those books finally gets a little traction, you’ve got a stable of other titles already waiting for your adoring fans.
Pro #3: Earning Money. I know I listed money under the “con” column already, and it’s true that with Indie, you have an initial outlay of money that you don’t with a traditional deal. But to move money into the “pro” column, you’ve got to look no further than the fact that you keep a much higher percentage of what you make. (I’d say you keep 100% of your sales, but that’s not entirely true. Depending on the price you set for your novel, your e-book royalty rate will be between 35-85%. Companies like Amazon pay only 35% if your price is $.99 or less but offer 70% if you price above that. Smashwords offers the highest royalties, but your customers are less likely to find you there. (Compare with traditional publishing, where a typical royalty is 8-12%.)
Now, let’s be honest, there are many, many Indies out there who struggle to sell a few e-copies a month, so their percentage may not amount to much. But you’ll also meet many Indies who are supporting themselves quite nicely of their stable of novels. Series and serial novellas tend to really be the key to large earnings, but you’ll hear more about that later in the conference. My point is, as an Indie, you can put out a novella every month (it happens!) and keep the bulk of the profits from all of those sales.
Moreover, it’s common knowledge that advances are on the decline. While you may get a little money in your pocket up front (after paying your agent), unless your meager royalty “earns out” your advance or you strike gold and see film rights or have the next best-selling series, your advance is likely all the money you will ever make on your novel.
Pro #4: Control. As an Indie, no one gets to tell you how to re-write your story. No one gets to tell you when your novel comes out (as I mentioned in timing). No one gets to assign you a cover you don’t like. You have full control of every aspect of your novel and if you’re a control-freak person (like me), this thought makes you anxious. Plus, if your novel doesn’t fit into a traditional genre, that’s also not a problem, because you get to control how you market and distribute your book.
Pro #5: Rights. As an Indie, you keep all of your rights. World rights. Audio rights. Film rights. You’ll likely give these, or most of these, up if you sell your novel to a traditional publisher. That being said, your chances of getting International or film rights are pretty limited if you Indie publish. And a note of caution: Indies are often approached by foreign companies inquiring about translation rights. And that sounds super-exciting, right? Your novel translated into Turkish! Just beware. Investigate the person and company to be sure they are legitimate. Don’t send over your manuscript without some written agreement. And if you are approached for translation or film rights, consider hiring an agent or attorney so you don’t wind up on the raw end of a deal.
And where are Indie and traditional publishing equal? Serendipity. You’re just as likely to land your dream agent on your first query as you are to be the next Indie best seller. So much in this business is timing and luck and that doesn’t change, no matter which path you choose.
So, good luck to you all! I wish you all the best on your path to publication, no matter which route you select.
And, as promised, here is your chart. And “X” appears in the column that favors the method of publishing.