Are you thinking about indie publishing your novel?
If so, you probably have a lot of questions like…
What kind of book cover should I design? How do I format an ebook? Should I produce physical copies of my book or stick to ebooks only? How should I price my self-published books?
Figuring out how to get started when it comes to indie publishing can be overwhelming–especially if you’ve never done it before!
In this post, I’m going to walk you through the pros and cons of indie publishing. My goal is to help you gain some clarity around the indie publishing process so that you can decide whether it’s the right publishing path for you. But before we dive in, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what it means to indie publish a novel.
Indie publishing is the pure do-it-yourself publishing path. It's where you, the author, take on ALL the roles of and basically become the publisher of your own book.
Once you have a finished manuscript, you will need to invest in a team of pros to help you edit, produce, and distribute the book. To do this, you can either work with independent vendors who charge on an ad hoc/as needed basis, or you can work with a vendor who charges one fee to use their in-house team of pros.
From there, it will be up to you (via the marketing plan you design and execute) to get your book in the hands of readers. As an indie author, you will earn everything the book makes minus the costs incurred to actually edit, produce, and distribute the book.
So, that's the independent publishing process at a glance, and of course, there are many micro-steps involved in this process, but this is an overview of how it works.
As an indie author, you get to have total creative control over things like your book cover design, the interior layout, the selling price, your marketing plan and the launch date, how many ARCs to send out, and things like that.
You can hire a team of professionals to help you execute your vision. Editors who will help you make your story the best it can be. Graphic designers who will create an amazing (and genre appropriate) book cover. Marketers who know how to get your book in the hands of the right readers. Even coaches who can guide you through each step of the process and cheer you on along the way.
Many writers love the idea of being in control of the entire publishing process, but if this doesn’t sound like fun to you, you can always hire this process out, too.
It can take 1-2 years for a traditional publisher to get your book to market, but you can publish an ebook in a matter of days, and a print book in a matter of weeks.
Yes, you will still have to spend the same amount of time writing an editing your book, no matter which publishing path you choose… but once you’re ready to publish, you can upload your files to Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Draft2Digital, Smashwords, or any other retailers. Your ebook will usually be available for purchase within 4-72 hours.
If you’re doing print on demand, you can get that up within 24 hours after you approve the formatting online. Or you can order a copy which might take a few weeks, but either way, it’s incredibly quick–especially when compared to traditional publishing!
Indie publishing allows a writer to take home a larger share of the earnings than traditional publishing would, typically somewhere between 35% and 75%. The remainder goes to the costs required to edit, produce, and distribute a book.
So, as an example, If you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99 (on Amazon), you can get a 70% royalty on the net sales price. Compare that to traditional publishing where royalty rates average around 10%-15%, there’s a lot more earning potential when you go indie!
However, indie publishing does not guarantee you will make as many sales as you would’ve done with a traditional publisher, or indeed, any sales. The amount of sales you make depends on your genre, your investment in marketing, and sometimes plain ol’ luck.
If you self-publish and do well, agents and publishers will come to you. This could result in a much better deal than you’d get as a first-time author with no evidence of sales. As an example, consider authors like Andy Weir who wrote The Martin–that started out as a self-published ebook, then went into audio and eventually became a big time movie. E.L. James, who wrote 50 Shades of Grey, was first self published. So was Colleen Hoover with her book Slammed. There’s also Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, A.G. Riddle–and many, many others. So, long story short, if you want a traditional publishing deal, this could be a good way to skip the slush pile and gain experience and grow your audience as an indie author.
In the next few years, more countries than ever will have access to cell phones and the internet. This means that (English) book sales in foreign markets will start to increase. If you indie publish, that means you retain all the rights to your book–and that you can put your book up for sale in other countries.
Heck, even if you’re traditionally published, go check your contract to see if you retain the rights to sell in other countries. Many traditionally published authors have sold World English rights for all formats, but because their books are not available in most places in the world, they’ve barely sold outside the normal country markets. Many traditionally published authors have also sold audiobook rights, but no audiobooks have been produced. If you’re in this situation, it might be time to revisit your contract! You can self-publish in countries where you haven’t sold the rights, so why not get on with it!
Indie publishing means you have to do everything yourself or find suitable professionals to help. If you do choose to do it all yourself, you’ll need to master a lot of systems and processes, and probably oversee a few contractors. This takes time and is a lot harder than most writers realize. As with any new skill, it’s a steep learning curve. And it means shifting your mindset from author to authorpreneur.
Once the writing is done, you’ll need to shift into editing, publishing, and marketing mode. You’ll have to find editors, cover designers, someone who can help you format your work into ebook, print, and any other format you want, and things like that. For many people, this is a negative because they either don’t enjoy doing this part of the process or they just don’t have the time.
But if you do want to pursue the indie publishing route, join The Alliance of Independent Authors which vets companies to save yourself some stress.
When you indie publish, you need to spend money if you want a professional result. Regardless of how you publish, you’ll likely need to spend money on at least a developmental edit before submitting your book to agents anyway, or you’ll at least be spending money on craft books and writing courses. This isn’t such a big deal because most people spend money on their hobbies, right?
But if you intend to make a living as an indie author, then you will need to invest money in your work and in your business. And because this requires an upfront investment (meaning, before any of your book sales come in), you do run the risk of not making your investment back. However, with a well-written and produced book, plus the right marketing efforts it’s definitely possible to make your investment back (and then some!).
Indie publishing means the only metric of success you can rely on is sales. There is no “prestige” or industry validation that comes from indie publishing because anyone can do it. Also, there is still a lingering ‘stigma’ around indie publishing, but this is going away bit by bit, day by day.
So, if your definition of success is bound up with what other authors, agents, and even publishers think of you, then the indie publishing route might not be the best fit. However, like we talked about above, indie publishing can help you get a traditional publisher, so you definitely have to weigh the pros and cons of this one.
You’re much more likely to get bookstore distribution with a traditional publisher since that’s essentially their business model and has been for a long time. This is what they excel at–printing and distributing physical products.
But beyond that, bookstores also curate the books they sell. Indie published books have not been curated in this way, so bookstores understandably treat self-published books as products that have not been vetted. And they don’t have the time (or the business model) to do the vetting themselves.
Plus, bookstores have to compete with Amazon, and many indie authors use Amazon’s services to publish their books. Because of this, bookstores are usually not eager to carry self-published books because that means giving business to (and competing with) Amazon for the same customers.
That being said, there is a small caveat here. There are ways around this if you’re going the indie publishing route. For example, you can find and work with vendors that help with print distribution like Ingram Spark or you can use the print on demand feature from Createspace to make your print books available in online bookstores.
Many literary prizes aren’t open to indie authors, so if winning a literary prize or getting any kind of critical acclaim is on your wishlist, traditional publishing might be the better path for you to pursue.
However, just being traditionally published doesn’t guarantee you will win a literary prize or get any kind of critical acclaim, but you can at least go for it if you self-publish. There are exceptions to this,of course, but it’s still rare for self-published authors to even be allowed to enter literary contests, so just keep that in mind!
Here’s the thing about indie publishing… It's hard work, but it can also be incredibly empowering and rewarding, too.
If you go indie, you’ll learn new skills, work with professionals, make mistakes and learn from them, earn money directly, and interact with readers. There’s a lot of positive energy in the indie publishing world, and sometimes, this can propel you much further, much faster, than waiting in line for a traditional publisher to notice you.
Most readers aren’t going to care if your book is indie published or traditionally published–that’s not how they shop for stories. In most cases, the publisher responsible for producing a book only means something to authors and those in the industry.
So, ask yourself these two important questions, and maybe even journal about your answers if you’re having a hard time choosing your publishing path:
Also, you may want to explore the paths that exist between indie publishing and traditional publishing. These are often called hybrid publishers and, for the most part, they are variations on the theme of self-publishing that give the author slightly more or less control than a true DIY option.
You can also check out this downloadable chart by Jane Friedman that gives a wider sense of the publishing options available.
Many authors use both forms of publishing for different projects, but hopefully, this article (and the cited resources) will help you evaluate your own options.
Regardless of which publishing path you choose, always do your due diligence and talk to other authors (or industry professionals) who are happy to recommend the service before you sign anything.
The Alliance of Independent Authors has a great resource all about choosing a self-publishing service that’s written by authors and full of unbiased advice.
You can also check out the Self Publishing Advice blog, which has watchdog articles about which publishers and services are recommended and which are scams.
Writer Beware has a lot of information about scams against authors and companies to watch out for, too. Good luck!
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