If you’re reading this, chances are there’s some part of you that enjoys expressing yourself via the written word. Curiosity always gets the better of people like us. For many years, the publishing industry was monolithic, built upon the pillars of the New York behemoths that served as tastemakers and gatekeepers to becoming a published author. Traditional publishing still exists and remains a driving force within the publishing industry, but for many authors, the crushing reality is that there’s less room for newer, less established authors in those spaces, and less room for exploration.
To make matters worse, the money isn’t exactly flowing like it used to.
Chances are, you’ve heard of self-publishing and have your own opinions on it. When I was growing up, self-publishing was not only frowned upon, but seen as a desperate move that only the talentless hacks need to resort to. Now, in 2021 as I’m writing this, that’s not the reality. Well, to be fair, that kind of author and outside attitudes do still exist, albeit not at the level it used to. Much like other creative fields that saw breakthroughs in their respective indie scenes, authors are seeing the same sort of expansion and opportunities, allowing them to publish books indistinguishable in quality to traditionally published books, even sharing digital and physical shelf space with them.
There are many myths about indie publishing, on top of the process itself being a complicated one. The space is also full of experts of varying degrees of quality, pumping out #content for you to consume that promises to help. As always, it’s difficult to parse which information you’re being fed is legitimate, which is anecdotal, and which is bought and paid for. There are Facebook groups, how-to guides, webinars, exclusive email lists, paid consultants and everything else in between. Truth be told, there’s no one catch-all solution to learning about being an indie author. Some people mean well and give great advice, others are looking to cash in.
While I’m going to occasionally link to my books and Patreon, what I’m gonna do here is try to help for free. I’ll point you in the direction I’d go, and hopefully it helps. What I’m looking to do is not serve as a comprehensive guide, but to demystify some of this.
I’ve spent the last few years of my life occupying these indie author spaces, stemming from discovering a few of the more popular Facebook groups and worked my way through all the expert advice, trying most of it along the way, and I’ve come to my own conclusions about what’s helpful and what isn’t.
The last year or so I’ve been approached by friends and friends of friends for advice on publishing, indie publishing, formatting, next steps and all of that. While I’m not an expert, nor am I a smash success, I’ve been around long enough to find myself in a position to serve as a resource for newer authors, looking for a way to get their words into the wild.
Where do you start?
My primary focus is going to be on fiction, since that’s my area of somewhat expertise. Not that I have anything against nonfiction, creative nonfiction and such, it’s just not what I read or write. Some of what I’m writing about here will apply, as there are some universalities with publishing, but as with any source of information (yes, even me), ask questions and take nothing as gospel.
Read what you want to write.
My biggest frustration with most of the space created by indie authors for indie authors is the glossing over of the artistry. Most indie spaces focus solely on the business of being an author and all that it entails, and, frankly, it’s exhausting. Lots of authors don’t come from strictly creative backgrounds, instead taking a side passion or interest and turning it into a business. I’m not a believer in “everyone has a book in them,” nor do I think everyone can make great art just because they work hard.
There’s a somewhat harsh reality in the indie publishing world that doesn’t get spoken about as clearly as I’d like: making money requires strict adherence to genres and tropes that sell. You’ll find a lot of talk about genre and tropes being important, but for most indie authors, the game is about selling relatively inexpensive ebooks to voracious readers. I’m not here to judge people’s consumption habits or tastes, because we’ve all got our own versions of those, instead what I want to push is that the more complicated your ideas are, the more they deviate from what else is on the market, the worse they’ll sell.
For those of us with creative backgrounds, our training focuses on our unique voice and ideas, not on creating commercial art to make money. My personal struggles with being an indie author are based strongly on this internal friction. While I read some commercial fiction, my tastes lie far outside of that realm, making writing it a draining experience. I can do anything for a certain period until I burn myself out, and my breaking point came in late 2020, where I forced myself to grind out another book for early 2021 when I was past my expiration date. This meant spending the next year continuing to promote my books and writing different kinds of stories to recharge myself.
Speaking of, hey look, an ad break for my books.
No matter your background, focusing on your craft is vital. All of us learn differently and there’s no one right or wrong way to learn about writing. Some will benefit from reading books, others taking classes or writing workshops, some meeting with local writer groups, or even getting a degree in writing. Don’t rush it. Not everyone’s first attempt at a book will be good. In fact, it may actually be bad. Writing an entire book, which can be a daunting process in the beginning, only to scrap it, may seem counterintuitive, but for lots of us, that first book was a practice. Regardless of how you learn, write and write often. Find some people to read your work and give you honest feedback and learn how to cope with criticism. Not everyone is kind with their criticism and not everyone’s criticism is accurate. Know that sending tens of thousands of words to a friend to read and give detailed notes on is a big ask and exercise patience and grace, even if they say they’ll do it and never get back to you.
This is where making writer friends can be helpful, or, later one, finding some of your readers who are eager to help you in your process. Always reading and consuming the kind of books and media you want to write is vital, though. Nobody creates within a vacuum, and trying to find truly unique ideas is a lost cause. Crafting well-constructed, readable fiction is the goal, and knowing the market for your genre is even more important. For those of you that love commercially viable fiction, as long as you’re willing to put in the work, chances are indie publishing will bear fruit, eventually.
One thing I want to make clear, though, is that no matter where you stand on this, if you want to make money as an indie author, you’re going to have to do a lot of work. There’s also going to be an initial investment to create your work, something that gets glossed over in a lot of the advice bandied about. In the least, you’ll need to spend money on editing and covers. No matter the internal debates that rage within the indie community about if someone can do these for cheaper on their own or not, I’d recommend getting outside help where you can.
I’m saying this as someone who went to art school, worked as an editor for a PR company, freelanced editing medical journal pieces and has a lot of experience with both graphic design and editing. One of the biggest stumbling points I’ve seen for indie authors at the beginning of their careers seems to be covers. For lots of us, there’s this pull to create something unique that stands out, or for our covers to at least be a 1:1 representation of characters or settings from our books. These instincts are understandable, but a hurdle for authors in the early part of their career. There are plenty of cover design marketplaces online that feature inexpensive pre-made covers you can buy, have your name and title slapped onto the cover, and are ready to go.
In fact, the first three books in each of my series are premades I bought from the same cover designers. After that I’ve been commissioning him to do custom jobs that better fit my stories, but those first few covers are professional and help sell the book.
To say I was hesitant was an understatement, but covers that adhere to what’s selling well is crucial. They signal genre to readers and while they aren’t unique or eye-catching, they’re familiar and comfortable. Remember, we’re not looking to be unique snowflakes here, we’re looking to make money. These covers can set you back anywhere from $50 to $200 in the early going.
Finding an editor is a similar process, with costs varying there as well. On average, an excellent copy editor will work for anywhere from 6 to 8 cents per word. Depending on where you are in your process as a writer, you may need more intensive edits, like developmental edits that delve deeper and cost more.
Every year Written Word Media conducts an author survey, with the latest iteration for 2021 revealing the raw numbers for most authors. According to this survey, over 60% of indie authors are spending over $50 for editing. If you break that data down further, though, a bulk are spending between $100 and $999. There are offsets by people who trade with other authors or have friends and family do this for them. A professional editor for an average sized book is going to charge somewhere in the $300 – $600 range per book, though.
The other elephant in the room is formatting.
While formatting seems like a minor task, there’s more to it than you’d initially believe and remains important. Most markets you distribute to will have built-in formatting tools, but like everything else, the quality varies. You can hire someone to format both an ebook and a paperback for you, somewhere between $50 per book as the going rate, or look into software to purchase if you’re in this for the long haul. There are more rudimentary options like Jutoh for formatting, then the recently released Atticus, or if you have access to a Mac, the king is Vellum. If looking for an inexpensive (read: free) way to do this, Draft2Digital’s formatting tools are excellent, exporting professional looking books with no cost. Draft2Digital is primarily a distributor, but you don’t need to publish through them to use the formatting tools.
Before you worry about ISBNs, where to publish, what you should price your books as, to go exclusive to Amazon or not (… just my opinion, but no. I’m an advocate for ‘wide.’), or creating different formats, get these basics in order.
To summarize what I went over here, if you’re starting off and looking to enter indie publishing, these are the core basics you’ll need.
- A handle on the writing process.
- An understanding of what you’re going to write.
- The means to turn your book from a collection of words into a product (cover, editing, formatting, etc.).
Being an indie author is a process. As much as there was a stigma about jumbled, poorly written work being tossed onto Amazon, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are costs that go into being an indie author. In addition, there’s a lot of work, this isn’t a sprint and releasing one book will help you feel accomplished, but won’t create a career for you. Most indie authors see success by writing in popular genres while writing longer series. If that’s not for you, that’s fine. It may not be for me, either, but there is a process to it. Meaning, after you’ve got your fist book set up and ready to go, you’ll need to have another and another and another and so on.
Then you’ll need to learn about marketing.
If you’re here and reading this, you’re interested. So check back for the next installment. Next up I want to cover the basics of publishing, with future installments about the importance of genre, series, marketing and more.
Of course, you can check out my books if you’re so inclined, or if you’d like to support me directly, I have a Patreon for my serial fiction that starts at $2/month.