There are a lot of perks to being a traditionally published author (or so I hear) but for me, being an Indie has always been the way to go—at least since amazon kicked open the door by introducing the Kindle and the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) platform. Before that, if you wanted your books to hit the shelves, you pretty much had only one route to go: find an agent, who will then sell your book to a publisher, and pray that it all works out.
Why I didn’t even try to get an agent or a publishing contract:
For the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that way back when, I tried submitting to agents—with a project that will likely see the light of day on 2018 in a completely revamped version. I still love the idea but the execution was far from perfect, off-center of the market even back in 2012, and I’m damn glad that I never got much beyond form rejections. Why? For one, it forced me to educate myself about Indie publishing once a good friend mentioned that alternative to me, and I’ve never looked back since then. For another, there are a lot of hidden pitfalls behind the scenes of the publishing industry, and without knowing what I know now I’m sure I would have ended up stuck in a horrible contract or without ever making a career at all. Fact is, as much as being “selected” by the gatekeepers to become the next literary shooting star is awesome, publishing is a business, and some of the questionable choices I’ve heard about make me wonder if the powers that be know a thing about how to run it well, sometimes. For instance, that successful authors don’t get new contracts because audiobook rights are non-negotiable, that a new editor who hasn’t had any previous insights into a long-standing series insist on drastic character or plot changes that make absolutely no sense, or that you don’t get a contract for a sequel because while your book sold well and made a lot of money, it didn’t reach the (overly inflated) predictions and is now considered a failure. The moment you sell the rights to a publisher, they control your intellectual property, and might just set a ghost writer of their choosing to finish your novel that will, forever, have your name branded across it, and you’re caught in a gag-order contract and can’t even let a single soul know that you actually didn’t write said book. I’m not saying that any of that is the norm (and particularly small and medium size presses seem to have much better work ethics and relationships to their writers), but if you sign the wrong contract and something goes sideways that you can’t influence or react to, you’re done. And I think that it goes without saying as a first-time writer, you don’t hold the power to negotiate a good contract that will let you come up ahead.
The biggest perks for me as an Indie writer:
#1: Without question: control.
Everything about the book that I publish has been either done by me, or has been carefully considered and vetted by me. I chose my cover designer and approved the final design. I hired my editor and only implemented the suggested changes that made sense to me. I listened to a stack of audio auditions before I selected the perfect narrator. I chose when and how to release my book, and how I market it. I get my sale numbers and money directly, and let my accountant handle the tax side of business. I run my social media accounts and interact with readers directly. All that is, of course, also the biggest drawback of being Indie—it’s a lot of work, and at the end of the day I have no one but myself to blame when a book tanks. My responsibility, my fault.
Extrapolating from that is my second favorite perk:
#2: I can do this full-time, and it’s a valid career choice—full-time / half-time / as a hobby.
Even if you haven’t written your breakout novel yet, being Indie comes with a huge advantage: nobody keeps you from releasing the next novel, and the next, and the next thereafter. Your novel doesn’t even have to make a profit—it’s all up to you to keep publishing, even if it’s only for the sake of filling your virtual shelf. While cover, editing, and promotion can eat up a huge sum of money, they don’t have to. Between pre-made covers and exchanging proofreading turns with other authors (or bribing talented friends with free cookies to do that for you) you can publish a novel for virtually no money at all. Depending on the skills of the people involved, it might not be the best possible version, but depending on your goals, that might not be of any concern to you. The point is, you can do it, and nobody’s keeping you from it. The next step up won’t cost you an arm and a leg and might just produce high quality work that sets you back about what a weekend vacation would cost you. I personally wouldn’t have released a single novel below that level—that might have worked when ebooks were new, but readers are much more discerning now, as they should be—but my first year as a published author was run on a very tight budget with huge emotional rewards. So far, all of my books have earned out within months, making publishing a profitable choice in the long run. For most businesses, ROI (return on investment) is often calculated over a span of up to 10 years—even at $0.99 a pop and less than 30 sales a month your book has a good chance of making the invested money back. Awesome if you consider that most hobbies cost money rather than make it, right?
Publishing, even on the Indie side of things, is often a business, and consequently has to be regarded as such. So if your goal is to release one book, and only that one book, awesome. If you want to keep going, amazing! Even if you can only spend one hour writing each day, you will likely manage to finish at least one book a year, possibly two, and that’s where it gets interesting. As things are on Amazon right now, to hack it full-time, you should release about four books a year, at the very least, unless you’ve managed to gather a huge following already. That’s also where things are starting to get tough (particularly if you’ve made the jump and writing is your only source of income) but really, what other full-time job isn’t? Being a teacher is tough. Being a construction worker is tough. Being a surgeon is tough, and might run with a way higher risk of your ass getting sued right out from underneath you, so boohoo. As much as you can’t force creativity, as a full-time writer you are a workhorse that spends x amount of time ass-in-chair each week, and you will have the finished books to show for it after the finish line. Sure, talent, improving skills, and a good sense for what sells are amazing to have, but at the end of the day it again boils down to what your goals are. The only deciding factors are the writer publishes books and the readers buy them. There’s no financial department involved that vetoes a next project because of miscalculating expectations.
#3: No gatekeepers.
In some circles, Indie publishing, or as it is also called, self-publishing / vanity publishing is still looked down on (there are distinctions there, mind you, but that’s not the point). Being selected by a publisher is shrouded in unnecessary mystery and often seen as an instant, prestigious proof of quality. Let’s just ignore common sense here (or why so many movie tie-in novels are absolute crap) and take that as face value, shall we? Not happy with that? I’m not, either. Publishing is a business—what novel do you think gets selected: the perfect literary masterpiece, or the one that has the highest potential to make lots of money?
There’s only one single thing that is much harder to achieve when you’re not published by a prestigious publishing house, and that’s being in the run for a literary award—and, to some extent, bestseller lists. Of course, there’s nothing stating explicitly that’s keeping your Indie novel off the slates, but those two areas are mostly still in the tight grip of the traditional publishing industry. Guess who doesn’t care? Indie authors who like to make a living from selling their books! I’ll take money over an award every day, sorry. Yes, I’m that much of a mercenary. Being able to make a living means I can devote much more time to writing, which means more pages written each month and lots more time turning that horrible first draft into the masterpiece of a novel that you get to buy from Amazon. Isn’t that much closer to the definition of living and breathing your art than, I don’t know, being a full-time accountant with barely any time to write your next book?
How is that possible? Well, because of you, gentle reader, of course! With the money you spend, you are actively voting for what you want more of. You want to read the 685th iteration of the Hunger Games, or Star Wars, or cozy cat mysteries? As long as you keep buying, Indie writers got your back! Of course we follow trends, and you wouldn’t believe how much talk about promotion and market changes there is among Indie writers (hint: a lot)—but in the end we don’t give a crap about what some panel of snooty literati thinks. Readers want it, and we keep providing it. Sure, that also comes with a deluge of crappy copy-cat novels, but guess what? You don’t like it, you don’t buy it, and instead go look for a different book that’s right down your alley. That’s why Amazon keeps introducing more and more sub categories the more ebooks there are available for the kindle—to make it easier for the discerning reader to be presented with exactly the kind of books they have been looking for.
#4: You don’t have to write to market—and sometimes, your niche book will still become a best-seller. Or maybe just an enough-seller.
Traditional publishing is run on a tight schedule—but that still means that from submitting a book to it hitting the shelves, years pass. Yes, you read that right. Unless a publisher is actively seeking specific material to hit a trend to which they are coming in late and they might rush production, one to two years is not unusual for a publication timeframe. It makes sense, of course—if you’re publishing hundreds of books each and every month, you need to schedule everything ahead of time, including print and distribution. Everyone involved should always have something to do, and the process should be cost-efficient. Whatever you do, don’t let there be any downtime! A small press is much more flexible there, and us Indies (who are often really a one-person business) can have a turnover of weeks, if not days. Big publishers have to estimate where the market will be far, far ahead, often creating the trends that they then hope to profit from. Indies can surf an already existing hype, and do a great job filling in the niches that might be undersupplied because they aren’t 100% cash cow material. Take the post-apocalyptic genre—the protagonist (and writer) is usually male, has a military background, and that heavily influences the plot. Well, last time I looked, I’m a girl, I’ve only shot my first gun five years ago, and you still know who Jacqueline Druga and I are, right? Can’t talk for her, of course, but I’m pretty sure that I, with the kind of story and POV I write, wouldn’t have gotten a publishing contract for my books. The vice-versa example is Domino Finn, who with Cisco Suarez created a wonderful character in the urban fantasy genre that’s female-dominated, and with a spin on his magic system that’s a very long shot from vampire romance. We might not be mega bestsellers, but we have found our readers who are very happy that we keep churning out books (and would like us to pretty please do so at a faster pace!)
Being Indie, we don’t have to earn enough to pay off New York City offices, hundreds of employees, and the entire supply train to book stores all over the world. We can up- and downscale quickly and are insanely flexible in our budgets and schedules. We get our numbers almost within 24 hours to within a month, with payment schedules running somewhere between one to three months behind. If we have to, we can go into ultra hermit mode and try to cram the writing time of three months into three weeks—or get a job flipping burgers to tide us over a rough spot.
#5: We don’t need to stay Indie.
As much as being independent and in control is great, I wouldn’t ignore it if a big publisher were to offer me a deal that’s too good to refuse. Or just fair, you know? Amazon has its own imprints where it acts as a traditional publisher rather than letting us do what we want over at KDP. A lot of the medium and large publishing houses also try to lure Indies over to their side—and why not? It’s always easier to offer someone who has proven their merit lots of money, knowing you will get your investment back, and likely many-fold, than risk it all on an unproven nobody. As a writer who has made a name for yourself, you have a stronger negotiation position, and you know what you’re “worth” in term of sale numbers. Giving up control it turn for reaching a broader audience—or enough money up-front to buy a house, pay off your student loans or medical bills, or put your kid through college—is a valid strategic move. You just have to be careful what you sign, but depending on your situation, anything except a non-compete clause (that keeps you from ever publishing anything again under any name—not kidding here!) might be a good deal.
Before you ask, no, I don’t intend to switch to the dark side, but mostly because so far, nobody has contacted me. That also includes movie or TV show deals.
Still reading? You deserve a cookie! As you can tell, I’m very passionate about this topic. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, even if I’m “just” an Indie writer. You’re reading this, and you’ve likely read my novels, so what more could I want? (Besides a house, with a pool. And a yacht. A bigger car would be nice, too!) But seriously, we are living in exciting times! Times where all it takes to become a published author is the tenacity of a honey badger and the ability to write a damn good story. Never before have so many books been published each year, and that’s a great time to be a reader, too! Even if you have the most niche interests out there, chances are, someone has written that book you’re looking for—or might love hearing your idea so they can realize it. By buying Indie books, you’re directly supporting the writers, without paying off the huge conglomerate that is the publishing industry. Nothing wrong with getting your next King or Rowling book on release day, but most of us never reach their sale numbers and still love to do nothing else but write the next novel you’re hungering for. It’s like getting fresh produce on the farmer’s market or buying jewelry at a craft fair—sometimes you just want to cut out the middlemen and make someone’s day. And that, my dear readers, you do, for each and every one of us Indie writers. It might just be a click for you, worth less than a foamy atrocity at the next coffee shop, but for us it means the world. You’re amazing for supporting us, never forget that!