Kim McDougall of Castelane, Inc. recently wrote to ask for permission to re-publish on the new Castlelane website an article I wrote for Turning Point . I agreed, but in rereading the article, I decided it could use an update. Here is the revised article.
There’s not much you can believe about indie-publishing. Information from indie-publishing houses is suspect, and most of the other data comes from people who make their living off striving writers. As someone who has published with a traditional house and indie-published, I’ll try to give you the straight scoop.
First, I Indie-publish by choice. It didn't start out that way, but now I’m convinced that indie-publishing is the best route for me.
My first book was published by Wiley. It was an agented, non-fiction book. After I completed my first novel, Tempest at Dawn, I secured a different New York agent that specialized in fiction. While the agent shopped my lengthy, historical novel, I wrote a genre Western titled The Shopkeeper. Since the typical advance for a Western wouldn't make a decent down-payment on a Nissan Versa, my agent declined to represent it. No problem, I’d indie-publish.
Currently, my novels are in print, large print, audio, and e-book formats. My large print and audio contracts are traditional contracts with advances, so I still have a foot in each world. I’m making money, but what is more important, my platform continues to grow. (My agent didn’t sell Tempest at Dawn, so I ended up indie-publishing it as well.)
Why I Stay with Indie-Publishing
That’s how I started indie-publishing, but why do I stay with it after building a respectable platform? Three reasons: speed, income, and control.
Traditional publishing moves at a glacial pace. I’m in a hurry, and I don’t want to wait by the mailbox for a query response—I've been that route. It takes months to secure an agent and more months to see if the agent can sell the book. Editing, proofreading, design, and production take forever. Once the book finally makes it into print, it takes another nine months before royalties make it into your bank account. I estimate responsible indie-publishing with proper design, editing, and proofreading takes about one-third the amount of time.
Indie-publishers receive a greater royalty percentage and get paid quicker. For example, Amazon offers two to three times the royalties that traditional publishers offer for eBooks and pays monthly— two months in arrears.
Finally, I like being in control, especially of the ancillary rights.
How Do You Sell Indie-Published Books?
If you indie-publish, you’re the one who must promote and market your books. Actually, unless you’re a celebrity author, the onus will always be on you. There are differences in promoting an indie-published book. To understand these differences, it’s necessary to absorb some unpleasant facts. Bookstores seldom stock indie-published books, mainstream reviewers shun them, award judges brush them aside, and despite the hype, social media will not make you a household name. If that’s not enough, the field is massively crowded, and getting more crowded as print-on-demand and e-books make it possible for everyone to be published.
Here are my three rules for promoting indie-published books:
1. Produce a good product
2a. For nonfiction, know your market, and sell directly to your market
2b. For fiction, pick a genre with devoted readers
The most powerful promotional tool is word-of-mouth. All indie-publishing advice is meaningless if you don’t have a product that can generate positive word-of-mouth. A good book is more than well-written. It has a professional interior design, a striking cover, and is edited and proofread. These aspects of book publishing are expensive, so many convince themselves that the standard indie-publishing package is good enough. It’s not. These services are expensive, and if you can’t afford them, then it’s doubtful your book will be successful. For example, you should budget about $3,500 for a 70,000 word fiction or narrative non-fiction book. You’ve probably invested over a year of your life into this book, so make this additional investment. Besides, most indie-published books are amateurish, so a professional appearing book without distracting errors will cause yours to stand out.
If you indie-publish, you need to forget about bookstore sales—also forget about Walmart, Costco, Target, the airport, and the local drugstore. None of these outlets will stock a book that isn't returnable. (I selected Wheatmark as my indie-publisher because they are one of the few firms that allow returns.) If you publish non-fiction, sell your book where people go that are interested in your subject. If you write fiction, select a genre with ardent fans that will search you out. I write Westerns because Western enthusiasts are always looking for a new book or author.
The biggest difference between traditional publishing and indie-publishing is the timing of promotion. Traditional publishers are adept at creating a publicity tsunami on publication. They want everyone talking about the book as it hits the shelves. This is partly because the book must move or retailers will dump it. But indie-published books aren't on those shelves, so slow and steady promotion is more effective. The biggest mistake indie-published authors make is to give up. Each individual sale through word-of-mouth can lead to additional sales, but it requires time to build a following. If you indie-publish, commit to the long haul because it takes fortitude to market and promote a book.
Is Indie-publishing Right for You?
You should relentlessly pursue traditional publishing if you can’t afford to finish your book properly, or feel you must have a big house behind the marketing and promotion. You may not have a choice, however. Technology is changing the game. Print-on-demand and e-books will soon be farm teams for the big publishers. You’ll have to prove yourself in the indie-publishing world first.
For me, the move to e-books is great. If e-book sales continue to grow, being in bookstores won’t matter. Besides, Amazon tells me hourly how many Kindle books I've sold, pays a 70% royalty, and makes monthly deposits to my account with only a 60-day lag. What could be better than that?