NB: Hi Everyone, Tracy Marchini is a former colleague of mine and she recently self-published a nonfiction guide to publishing terms, Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms, and a middle grade novel, Hot Ticket. She’s guest-posting today to share her experiences with self-publishing. Enjoy!
Since the news that one indie goddess and one traditional publishing guru were switching their publishing strategy for the other’s, the buzz about self-publishing ebooks has been incessant. And now that Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms has been out for about two months, I thought I’d whip out a big ol’ can of wasp spray and share what I’ve learned in the indie ebook world.
Crossing The Line
The first thing I’ve noticed is that there’s still a mental division between the indie world and the traditional world, despite many authors having success on both sides of the line. The most astounding part of this to me is that most of the really successful indie authors, started by publishing their traditional backlist.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this is brilliant. If you have a book that was already edited, reviewed and is languishing in your reverted rights pile, then why not put it back in circulation as an ebook and hit a new audience? But sometimes I think people miss the distinction between a successful indie that started with a traditional backlist and an indie that is starting from absolute, 100% scratch. Obviously, it can be done (see: Amanda Hocking, Victorine Lieski, David Dalglish), but it’s a completely different animal, for sure.
In going indie, what you give up for the total control of your book and manuscript is the distribution and visibility that a traditional house can give you. So if you have already been established by the traditional houses, there is already a fan base that has read and loved your work. That is no small potato. (In fact, that is a farm of potatoes.)
An indie that starts from scratch is going to have to hand-sell at least their first hundred books. This means that they are going to have to make a personal connection, talk about their book, and hope for a purchase. This is done through blog tours, book reviews and other methods. Getting reviewed as an indie through the traditional reviewers (Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, NYT) is all but impossible, unless you’re willing to pay for Kirkus Indie. And because most indie book review sites don’t have the name recognition and following that Kirkus or The New York Times does, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and subbing to try and find the same audience.
Book reviewers that are open to indie books are, as expected, becoming swamped with potential titles. If your book is accepted for review, you can expect to wait at least one to two months for that reviewer to get to your title. The most successful indies have given away at least a hundred copies, if not hundreds of copies, of their book. Building “word of mouth” is a long, hard process, and most indies notice that it doesn’t really start to take off until their seventh month. (For some, it’s the fourth month, and for others, the book might never take off.)
Paying For Publicity
There are, however, plenty of people willing to take money from aspiring authors, whether you’re seeking traditional or indie publication.
Yes, as an indie, you will have to invest in a cover artist, editor and copyeditor/proofreader. If you can’t format the book yourself, then there are affordable options there as well. My advice when it comes to advertising though — if you can’t afford to lose the money, don’t spend the money. Yesterday, I received a packet in the mail that offered me television and radio exposure for just $498 a month. I’ve heard of other services that charge a monthly payment for a year of publicity, and will charge a large penalty if you cancel early.
The truth is though, that any advertising money you spend before you’ve spent the time to get reviewed by both book reviewers and customers, is like lighting your wallet on fire. Let’s say I spent $498 to put my brand new middle-grade mystery, Hot Ticket, on the air. Here are all the reasons I would not see any money from that investment:
1) Hot Ticket has been bought, but not reviewed yet. People are leery of making a purchase on Amazon that hasn’t been reviewed.
2) Hot Ticket retails for $2.99. I would have to sell 250 books per month just to equal the TV and radio investment.
3) Hot Ticket isn’t currently available in paperback, which means that I would have to find a radio audience that has a decent number of ereader owners.
4) There are too many steps involved between hearing about the book and making the purchase. You hear the ad in the car, then you have to remember when you got home that you wanted that book, then you have to remember the title and author and look it up… etc. Unless you’ve already been established as someone’s favorite author, chances are, they’re not going to be thinking about your book when it’s time to go home, eat dinner, and watch some TV.
5) Note the ad promised exposure, but you’re not buying airtime for $500 a month. The truth is, nobody can promise you radio or TV time unless they’re a producer or you’re flat out buying advertising time. A PR person could do their very best, but if there isn’t a newsworthy angle, then there isn’t a story for that radio or TV show.
I’ve noticed that the one thing that’s sold the most copies of Pub Speak for me, was a stroke of luck. I wrote a blog post during the Pub Speak blog tour that was picked up by Visual Thesaurus, a subscription website with a large following.
Okay, it wasn’t completely luck. I had to set up the blog tour and write the post. But just like traditional publishing, what takes off and what doesn’t can sometimes be attributed to the stars aligning. Amanda Hocking wrote what she loved, and she happened to do it in a time when YA paranormal romance was on fire. I’m not saying that she wasn’t working her butt off, because I’m sure she was. But if what she loved to write was biographies of the Presidents for children, I don’t think she’d have nearly the same career path.
Indie and Traditional Publishing Have Both Mid-lists and Outliers
One thing to note about Lieski and Dalglish though, and which I think is amazingly encouraging, is that you don’t have to be Amanda Hocking to make a living as an indie. Lieski and Dalglish aren’t millionaires (yet), but they’re writing full time and supporting their families. That’s amazing, and it says to me that indie authorship is actually more similar to traditional publishing than one might think.
Some will rise to the very top, some will languish at the bottom, and some will make a comfortable living doing what they love. The difference between the two is when a book sees the chunk of sales. In traditional publishing, the focus is on pre-selling to retailers and trying to launch the book as successfully and large as possible. For most books, that big push in the beginning is going to determine what happens to the book for the rest of its shelf-life.
In indie publishing, most authors see the opposite sales pattern. It might look more like this:
Month 1 – 10 books
Month 2 – 37 books
Month 3 – 100 books
Month 4 – 300 books
Month 5 – 800 books
What you’ll notice is that all of the marketing is cumulative, and the jumps that a successful indie sees will become larger and larger.
It seems to me, that most indie authors have to be popular to become popular. And what I mean by that is that people have to be talking about your books when you’ve stopped handselling, in order to really see the groundswell of activity that someone like Hocking, Lieski, etc. is seeing.
Still, you’ll note that in five months, there have been less than 2,000 copies sold. The traditionally published author might sell 10,000 copies in that same timeframe. But since the indie author’s sales patterns tend to look more like bell curves, rather than that initial push and then a lower plateau, they have time to catch up.
(And, before you get all excited about selling 800 books in a month, consider that 800 books at the $0.99 price point that many indies start a series at, is $280 in royalties.)
Growing A Dedicated Audience
Trade in a Lieski for a Konrath (who was originally traditionally published before going indie) and suddenly you notice something else about successful indies: they each write in just one or two genres, have at least one series, and are extremely prolific. Konrath has over 40 books, Dalglish and Hocking around a dozen. Their release dates are within weeks or months of each other, instead of about a year apart. To be honest, I still don’t know how anybody can write a finished book every month. It’s truly astounding to me. But the key word there is finished. Or you could replace it with good, excellent, publishable, etc.
Am I worried that because of all this press for successful indies, suddenly everybody is going to fill Amazon and B&N with books and the whole industry will turn to a pile of crap? No. And here’s why. Indie authors have to be:
— excellent writers and moderately good marketers
— moderately good writers and excellent marketers
— zombies who don’t ever sleep, and are both excellent writers and marketers.
If the book isn’t well written and well marketed, it will fall to the bottom, and won’t affect traditional publishing at all. It would reinforce the stereotype that indie publishing is a bunch of authors with crappy books who were tired of being rejected by agents and publishers. But hopefully this stigma will change over time, too.
Because in the future, I think we are going to see more and more authors using both traditional and indie publishing to build their careers. And I think this is good news for traditional publishing, too.
Tracy Marchini can be found at www.tracymarchini.com or on Twitter as @TracyMarchini. She is a former Curtis Browner turned freelance editor and author. Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms is available in print and ebook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. Her new middle grade mystery Hot Ticket is available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.
"Did this help or make things less clear?"
It's very clear. New self-published authors decided to call themselves indies and claimed the name and defined it themselves…ignoring small presses and those who don't pay to have their work published.
This has been done with other terms, like the word blog. I've seen people thank the author today for writing a wonderful blog. But the author wrote a blog *post* on a blog. She didn't write a blog.
And I'd bet more than half the readership will now wonder what the difference between a blog and a post is.
Moses Siregar III says
Obviously, it can be done (see: Amanda Hocking, Victorine Lieski, David Dalglish), but it’s a completely different animal, for sure."
Some other names that can be added to this list of successful authors paying their bills without publishing traditionally published backlist:
Karen McQuestion, John Locke, BV Larson, Michael J Sullivan, Brian Pratt, Jason Letts, Zoe Winters, Monique Martin, JL Bryan, Nathan Lowell, Vicki Tyley, DB Henson, HP Mallory, Rhiannon Frater, John Rector, Boyd Morrison, Ty Johnston, Debora Geary, Martin Sharlow, Valmore Daniels, Aaron Patterson, Michael Wallace, and hordes of erotica writers.
I'm leaving out a ton of authors, but that's just off the top of my head. So I'm not sure it's correct to say that most of the indies who are doing really well started with publishing their traditionally published backlist. From all I've seen, that's probably not the case.
The ones with backlist stood out right away because they could get in the game with a lot of titles. But it's amazing how many people are doing well that don't have that traditionally published backlist of titles.
J. R. Tomlin says
I found a weakness in the article to be leaving out the venues where indies do successfully advertise. There was no mention, for example, of publications like Daily Cheap Reads and Pixel of Ink.
Frankly, I would question the intelligence of someone who advertises eBooks (indie or not) where the potential buyer can't click through to make a purchase.
And yes, it would be very nice to spell correctly the names of the authors you cite. 🙂
J. R. Tomlin says
By the way, Anonymous, your ignorance is showing. Indie authors do NOT pay to have their work published.
That is rather the point.
I am now proofreading a book which is about to be self published. It is written by a man who obviously hasn't a clue about writing, and reading it is, for me, like hearing fingernails on a blackboard.Mind, I am just proof reading not editing so the book is considered ready to go. This author is about to pay a healthy sum to have his work published and also pay me. How can I accept payment for something that will not possibly sell?
Indie publishing is one way a very bad, blindly optimistic writer who has never tried to learn his craft, can still be published and lose a lot of money which would never have happened if he'd tried the traditional route.
Marilyn Peake says
Tracy, this is such a great post – very exciting! Thank you.
I tend to think outside the box and evaluate things with an open mind, so I recently started purchasing self-published eBooks on Amazon Kindle, and my mind has completely shifted regarding the overall quality of self-published books. Rather than viewing them with any kind of stigma at this point in time, I look for good reviews and book awards the author’s won to find high-quality self-published books. I’ve discovered that self-published in eBook format is where I can find the type of books I absolutely love: non-mainstream, intellectual, niche fiction – the type I’m too rarely able to find from mainstream publishers these days. I’m amazed at some of the books I’ve found, actually – some books that have been so excellent, they’ve knocked my socks off.
After making this discovery, I moved some of my own titles from an indie publisher to self-published on Amazon and priced them at 99 cents each. These titles sold well at higher prices when indie eBooks were new, but sales began to falter when readers were suddenly able to buy cheaper books. At 99 cents each, they’re selling again. That is extremely rewarding to me.
In the meantime, my indie publisher – with whom I still have many short stories published in anthologies – has formed a media production company with Mark Ordesky who was Executive Producer for THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies. Their plan is to turn many of the indie publisher’s books into movies and TV shows, including some shows for the SyFy (Sci-Fi) Channel. If this works out, I’m imagining the indie books will suddenly seem much more valuable to readers. Obviously, Mark Ordesky sees value in them already.
A while back, I purchased ads in a magazine used by radio hosts to find guests to interview. The ads mentioned my children’s novels along with my Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, and my interest in discussing the topic of over-scheduled children. I received an increasing number of calls each month, especially at the start of a new school year, and I was interviewed on radio across the United States and in Canada. I enjoyed that tremendously!
It’s a new world out there. To me, avoiding self-published and indie books would mean missing out on some really great discoveries, and to wait for agents and the Big Six publishing houses to offer a contract for an author’s niche book might mean consigning a potentially successful book to the dark confines of a desk drawer or computer file forever.
Anne R. Allen says
Fantastic post. Will RT!
Sorry to see comments getting a tad snarky. It's so silly how people get all either/or about this. Most smart self-pubbers do spend some money getting a good edit and a professional cover design.
David Dalglish says
Well, that was certainly flattering to see my name used so many times. Don't have too much to add; I skimmed some comments, so I'll try to answer what I remember off the top of my head:
I spend about $800 per recent e-books, between editing, cover art, formatting for cover, and setting up the print version on CreateSpace. Obviously I'm in a position a lot of self-published authors aren't in terms of spending that much per book.
Sales figures certainly have a different curve. My first month, I sold 75 copies. For May, about fourteen months later, I'm about to cross 15,000 for the month. However, now that I have an audience, books have a more traditional curve, in heavy buying the first two months followed by a slow-down. (And for those wondering, a very small fraction of that 15,000 is at 99 cents)
People curious about sales information: this list is all anecdotal, but there's a form post I'll link in a sec that has a ton of self-published authors, big and small, listing their total sales for the month of April. You'll see people ranging from 10 sales to 10,000: https://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,64746.msg1061735.html#msg1061735
Anyhoo: I'm flattered, good article, and thanks for keeping things down to earth.
Tara Shuler says
I just published my first book on April 26, 2011, and my second in the series on May 1. I've sold over 300 copies in the first 30 days. I'm thrilled with my progress in the first month, and I think it's a really good sign if I experience the same kind of growth curve as other indies! I'm still selling about 10-15 copies per day.
Jil, don't you feel like telling your author that he shouldn't invest his money in a lot of publishing frills because his writing "isn't there yet"? He might appreciate it, and you might sleep better (kidding).
Kevin Lynn Helmick says
Great Post, I've talked to Konrath about this. I talk to Robert Walker all the time: he's another one with a backlist of fifty books over thirty years. At this point they're so through with traditional publishing and lapping up the royalities, and laughing to bank. even posting their kindle sales for all to see.
But they have their base, their fans, so it makes total sense for them to take advantage of seventy percent royalties, something they've never seen before. and picking their own covers, so on.
I'll still submitt for tradtional publishing, even though they advise against it, Those guys are coming from a different place than I am. But my submission list has gotten shorter and I focus on the agents editors and publishers that have showed me personal interest, advice. And have responded in a respectful timely manner, in the past. I won't waste my time on waiting on no reply submissions. And if I don't have what they need this time around, I'll publish it myself and try them again next time.
The English Teacher says
Very nice. Thanks for posting this.
Alison Pensy says
This is a great post. I am still in the midst of a crazy 2 weeks, thanks to Amazon. I self-pubbed my YA urban fantasy in Fall 2009, after numerous rejections from agents. It did next to nothing until I released the 2nd book at the end of April this year, despite my best marketing efforts (which aren't great, I admit).
I decided to put the 1st one as a free promo 2 weeks ago and I was dumbstruck when overnight it went from around #80,000 to #22 on Kindle (free) Bestseller list. The next day it hit #1 on the Children's (free) bestseller list where it stayed for 3 days. It stayed in the Top 10 children's (free)bestseller list until yesterday both here and in the UK. So far in 2 weeks over 26,000 people have downloaded it.
Because of this, a week after the free promo, my 2nd book debuted at #25 on the Children's hot new releases list and has been in the top 100 children's bestseller list since. I am totally blown away at the power of Amazon.
In just over a week, the 2nd book has sold over 600 copies. That's more than the 1st book did in nearly 2 years. But I had to be willing to put the 1st for free and I'm so glad I did.
Some figures for you:
A friend did my editing (school teacher).
A high school student did the 2nd book's cover art and I did the rest on Photoshop.
I did all the formatting and uploading.
Right now I am liking my decision to self-publish.
I don't use the term "indie". Instead I'm a "free agent", which means I'm not signed to a contract with one of the big league organizations.
I'm making serious money on my books, and I won't be querying anymore because I've built an audience, but I'm willing to entertain offers from the big boys. At this point I'd need a seriously high advance and guaranteed marketing push to offset a royalty of 50% or lower.
This has been so informative–thank you Tracy, and thank you Nathan, for hosting her.
My take-away as a self-pubbed author is "do some freebies"! Alison P.'s adventures in epublishing were enlightening and encouraging! Bravo Alison! (Thanks for sharing your story, too.)
It's fascinating to watch a revolution unfold (blow up?). I am one who has still not made a dime from epublishing (a newbie) but I seriously doubt whether I'll ever write another query to a trad publisher. You reach the point where you've had it with the whole game. Sometimes you can imagine readers out there that they simply cannot b/c they're so locked into the profit aspect of it.
Lani Wendt Young says
Thank youfor a great article. Informative and well reasoned. I appreciate the extra insight into the indie world and more.
Regarding costs to self-pub, with all due respect to Konrath, perhaps he should spend more on proofreading and editing. I love his work but typos and lack of editorial input in his books detracts. Same for Hocking. I love that they are selling gobs of books and they are blazing trails for self-pubbing. But we need to raise the bar — a lot. If you want a thorough line edit, you will spend $2-$3.00 per page. That does not include a whole book review/critique which you may need, especially if it's your first novel (this type of service may run you $500+ depending on size of MS). Book covers are around $500. You also need cover design (including spine and back cover if you are also going to do POD) + interior design and typeset. You also need to pay for the ISBN # and LCC # (small fees but they need to be budgeted).
Having read several self-pub e-books, it is clear to me that ALL of the self-pub writers need more editorial input and not just to correct typos, but editorial guidance. Maybe you can write a book in a month, that doesn't mean it's a good book!
I support self-pub and plan to self-pub myself. I just want to see improvement in quality as well as quantity.
Thanks for the post Tracy.
Christina Garner says
I especially appreciate the part about not paying to advertise when the book first comes out. My YA novel is up on Amazon, and I'm pleased with the starting sales (only been 2 weeks) but I was hesitant to do any paid marketing until reviews started rolling in. Your article helped confirm my decision.
I concur with Natalie's assessment about the need for editing, both of content and copy. Having written screenplays I know how invaluable that input is, so I paid for the service. (As opposed to leaving it solely to well meaning friends.) It does mean I have to sell quite a few copies before I recoup my investment, but I think (hope) it will be worth it.
Thanks again–great info!
The indie/self pub label issue reminds me of law school.
I went to school in a city that has three law schools, one top 10-15, one good but not top 25, and one so-so. Those of us who went to the first school always say "we went to law school in [city], because it's considered unseemly or bragging to name the school. Those who went to the last, not-so-great school also say they went to school in [city] maybe because they hope someone will assume one of the other two.
Those who went to the mid-tiered school ALWAYS seem to name their school, to be sure no one thinks it is the not great school.
Similarly, I don't see traditionally published authors throwing that fact around a lot, but I do see the small press authors making sure no one thinks they are self-pubbed.
If you have confidence in your work, I think it might be good just to chill and not worry that someone might think you and a self-pubbed author are "the same." Most people aren't really thinking about it that much.
Ishta Mercurio says
Thanks for this post! At a recent SCBWI event, I attended a workshop geared toward authors going the trad. pub route whose books are NOT going to be the lead titles. It's interesting to see how similar the publicity/marketing process is for both self-pubbed and trad. pubbed authors.
And some reviewers CHARGE MONEY? WTF? That's a surprise.
I recently decided to self-publish my debut novel as an eBook (a decision I reached with my agent). The book just went on sale in the last month.
Getting the book ready to go live was a TON of work, but overall I enjoyed the process. I made this decision based on what I thought would be best for my longterm career.
I have found it most difficult to get reviews on Amazon. Although I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from the book, it's just not generating the reviews I need to sell consistently.
If anyone here wants to check it out, it's a young adult paranormal priced at 99 cents.
Zan Marie says
Good post! Thanks for the inside info. I'm considering epublishing my two small books that had small print runs as a supplement to my print sales.
Kristal Shaff says
Great post. I've been recently considering going the indie route. I was agented, went on submission, and my book didn't sell because it "didn't fit their list".
Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this subject.
Great post, Tracy. I have to say it's good to read a post that balances the merits of both forms of publishing. As a recently published indie author myself:), it's been a fascinating experience to take a hands-on approach with publishing my books. I think what helped me make the decision to self-publish was ultimately the fact that my books are in a niche market – contemporary poetry. I reckon the word of mouth approach for good poetry is probably the best marketing it could get, and so self-publishing made a lot of sense. I'm not even worrying so much about profit right now as gettting the word out so people actually read my poems lol
I have to say though that the experience of formatting ebooks, doing up gorgeous book covers and marketing the books myself has been fantastic, and has made me consider self-publishing short stories and a young adult fantasy series (well, two actually), that've been sitting at home waiting to find an audience.
Whatever happens, it's an exciting time for writers and readers, and I'm glad to be a part of it.
As usual, Nathan, kudos on directing us to a balanced take on the options available to writers right now.
Devena aka Isabella Amaris
The Rhyme Whisperer Series
p.s. I've never really understood why self-published authors were never referred to as 'indie authors' all this while.
At the end of the day, shouldn't the indie authors be the ones who are published 'independently' of any kind of publishing house that is owned by a third party? I guess I'm thinking of the analogy with musicians and labels here. It seems logical to me to interpret the word 'independent' this way when it comes to the publishing industry as well.
As to 'independent publishers', the label's more to do with the size of their operation cf the big conglomerates; how that makes the authors who are published with them similarly 'independent', I'm not quite sure, since they're still technically published with external publishing houses.
To me, 'indie author' in the above scenario is definitely a fair label to describe authors publishing independently of external publishing houses. Even if this creates a bit of a mess for those used to previous usage of the term, hey, language is an ever-evolving realm, and it's very possible for ppl to logically start equating 'indie' with 'self-published', instead of 'independent publisher published'. IMHO:)
Just a note that I'm only talking labels here, not quality of writing or business models, whether self-pubbed or not. Cheers to all:)
Devena aka Isabella Amaris
The Rhyme Whisperer Series
Marion Stein says
I'm curious as to whether or not you've paid off your ad costs yet. As an indie-writer who isn't especially skilled at "selling," I haven't invested in advertising. A free google-ads coupon didn't boost my sales number. The indie authors I know who are doing exceptionally well however (mostly on the UK side — Jake Barton, Lexi Revellian and Dan Holloway) have all written mysteries or thrillers that have practically sold themselves. They haven't needed to spend pay money for ads, and my guess is, ads don't make much of a difference.
Rene Peterson says
Thank you for the no-nonsense guide. This is new territory and difficult to navigate.
Wow. This post simultaneously stressed me out and gave me hope. Thank you for the information! Very helpful.
Gary Anderson says
Tracy, when you speak of $280 in royalties you aren't meaning indie profits for ebooks right? I mean, 60 to 70 percent profit for ebooks to the author is more like $480 for 800 ebooks. That kind of changes the game doesn't it!
Bottom line: Agents and Legacy Publishing houses being the "gatekeepers" for the reading public is no longer relevant. The reader has the power, and the reader is the one deciding what she likes or dislikes.
It's the music industry paradigm shift all over again, and you Legacy Publishers can't see it! Then along came a computer company – of all things – revolutionized the way people buy music, and now Apple is the #1 music retailer.
Why are people afraid of change? You say you're not, but you are. Frankly, I love the idea of being in total creative control of my books, making 50%-70% royalties, getting stories out in 3 months in stead of 18 months, and not having to do countless publicity tours and signings which takes away from the very act that is required to become a successful writer: writing.
Oh yeah, a virtual bookshelf of infinit size that lasts forever isn't too shaby either.
Rose Rosetree says
Tracy, Amazon just started doing something troubling today. I called attention to it at my blog here and invite you and readers to be on the lookout: