Welcome back to my series “So, You Want to Be an Indie Author.” This is part two, if you missed part one you can check it out here.
I’m not sure why the idea of having an ISBN number became so ingrained in a lot of writers from an early age, but in most of my interactions with folks looking to become authors and newer authors working through the publishing process, it’s very important to them and becomes a sticking point. Maybe it’s the years of reading paperbacks and always seeing that barcode in the back with the number, or the copyright pages full of library catalog and ISBN information. It seems important and official, and for an author, especially an indie author trying to prove legitimacy, not having one or understanding how they work would feel like some sort of failure.
Here’s the deal with ISBNs.
Some countries offer free ISBNs, other countries, like the US, have one company that assigns, distributes and maintains the system. In the US, we have Bowkers, and they charge a lot for ISBNs if bought individually. If bought in bulk, you’ll save money on them, though. Yes, every distinct version of a book requires a separate ISBN number, meaning an ebook, a paperback, a large print paperback, a hardcover and audiobook will all need to be cataloged separately with their own unique identifiers. Then, if you get into translations? Yeah, those need their own ISBNs as well.
That’s a lot of ISBNs.
So, clearly, that’s another big startup cost for an author, right?
Maybe. There are some folks in the indie world that will advise you to buy that 100 pack of ISBNs from Bowker and strap in for the long haul, but the reality is that you don’t need to worry about it. Every distributor has their own way of identifying books published on their marketplaces, and if they use ISBNs, they’ll provide you with free ones. The only real exception I can think of is IngramSpark, who charges $50 for each paperback set up through them, which comes with an ISBN. If you provide your own ISBN, you can use a discount code (if you can find one) and get the setup for free, but then you’re paying for your own ISBN.
Personally? I don’t care.
I’ve never purchased an ISBN and although I’ve been tempted to distribute my paperbacks through IngramSpark, which if using a setup code and my own ISBNs, would actually be cheaper to buy a multipack of ISBNs instead of the $50 setup fee, but those codes have become sparse and there are other ways to distribute on Ingram’s network that I use and will get into.
So no, I’ve never bought an ISBN before and it’s looking like I never will. Please stop worrying about ISBN numbers. You’ll get one. It’ll be yours and it’s an automatic process on almost every distributor. Stop worrying about it.
Let’s Talk Publishing Process
When you’re getting into the actual publishing process, you should feel comfortable with your book. As someone who’s released things that were rushed out and not ready, I’d urge you to pump the brakes and make sure you’ve done everything you can afford to do to make this book shine. If you’re looking to make a career (or at least some money) in commercial fiction, you should have the best possible book you can make at that moment ready to go.
One thing I didn’t touch upon before was book blurbs, or the description. If it seems like an easy enough task to handle, think again. It’s not. A good book blurb, along with a professional cover, is your first impression in online stores. If that blurb is the back of your book in a physical bookstore, it’s the same thing. There’s many people in the indie world who charge money (somewhere in the $100-$150 range per) to craft a blurb for you. Not all of us have that instinct for what book blurbs are, either, which is sales copy. Fiction writers especially struggle with this, as you’re essentially creating an advertisement for your book. There’s no way I’m going to touch upon how to create a good blurb without going into tedious detail, but I’ll make some broad statements to push you in the right direction.
- Read other book blurbs and try to find the most engaging ones.
- Keep it brief and be mindful of the physical space your words are taking up.
- Action words are far more engaging than you think.
- Stop thinking about how ads “don’t work” on you. You’re trying to sell your book to someone else, not yourself.
I’m not big on recommending stuff unless I feel like it’s helpful, and I’ve read a good deal of short ebooks on crafting blurbs. Some were okay, some were bad, but the one that helped me was Robert Ryan’s Book Blurbs Unleashed (this is an affiliate link). Robert was a copywriter by trade prior to making the jump to fiction and the way he guides you through what copywriting techniques help to sell books is fantastic. I thought I had a handle on book blurbs before I read this book, but realized I didn’t. His Facebook group (which he mentions in the book) is also a great place to interact with him and others who’ve read his books and was one of the few super valuable places I’ve found that helped me hone in on this one, small part of publishing and get comfortable with it.
One of the most obnoxious parts of the indie author world is how drilled into everyone’s skulls it is that if your book doesn’t sell, it’s probably covers or blurbs that are tripping you up. It’s obnoxious because for a lot of beginners, those are the places where they skimp the most and that advice is necessary, but also grating because it feels like most indie authors can’t get beyond that criticism for folks looking for more in depth talk.
Remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all in this business and everything someone tells you won’t be gospel, including me. Please don’t take me too seriously. This is just my own advice from my personal experience. There will be established six-figure authors who read these articles and scoff. That’s fine. I do plenty of my own scoffing as well.
You’ve got a finished product, now what do you do with it?
You publish it.
Does that sound flippant? It probably is. You’ll hear a lot of talk about marketing and launch plans, blog tours and whatever else. A lot of that is overwhelming to newer authors and while some of it helps, when you’re just getting started, it’s just noise and anxiety you don’t need. I’m going to be as blunt as possible here, so prepare for it.
Chances of your first book selling well are slim. Nobody knows who you are and the way most digital and physical storefronts are set up is to reward people who are better known and sell more books than you. No matter how much work you put into your first book, the chances of it becoming a success are very slim. Your family and friends may help you out in the beginning, excitedly buy your book, post about it on social media and drop a few reviews on Amazon, but that’s not a sustainable career. If your interest is in having proof of your hard work, having a book in hand that you can show people, don’t worry about it. You’ve done that and be proud of your accomplishment.
Okay, what about pricing?
If you’re looking to make a serious run at this indie publishing thing, you’ve got a lot of work to do. Figure out your pricing, which means look at similar authors in your genre and what they’re selling their first book in each series for. Know that nobody wants to give a book away for free or $0.99, but those price points are proven to be effective. You can sit on a high horse and talk about how things are devalued these days, and how it’s a race to the bottom. We all feel that way and have all been there. Those opinions don’t sell books. Not unless you’re otherwise famous or have a built-in audience. So if you want to go $4.99 right out of the gate for a 70,000 word fantasy novel, go for it. Your friends and family will support you, and then some may still support you later, but the more you release, the more you wear them down.
As I said previously, being an indie author is about volume. You want to create series, if they’re continuing stories or interconnected standalone novels is up to you and the genre, but you want books that are related and that will sell each other. Most stores offer 70% royalties for most price points you’ll be pricing in, meaning every book you sell will bring you in something, but not a lot. Paperbacks and hardcovers are different and have printing costs associated with them. So, if you price at $4.99, you’ll make $3.50. If you price at $2.99, you’ll make $2.09. Give or take. At some point, you’re going to need to market these books and the cost to make an individual sale is going to be, in most cases, more than you’ll make on the sale of an individual book. If you have a trilogy of books, the first selling for $0.99, the rest at $3.99, that means you’ll make about $0.35 for that first sale, and if the reader buys all three, an additional $5.50, making it less than $6 when all is said and done. Depending on your marketing, it can cost a lot to make that one sale, and it’s never guaranteed the reader will buy into the series. That means you’re going to lose money on every individual sale through most marketing means. If it costs $3 to sell one book and 50% buy book two, well, you run those numbers.
It’s a long game.
The Actual Places You Publish. Let’s Start with eBooks.
Did it take me a while to get to the actual publishing part? Yes. Sorry.
When it comes to publishing, you’re going to publish on Amazon. Regardless of how you feel about Amazon, if you want to be a commercial fiction author, you need to have a presence in the largest online digital retailer for books. I don’t like it, either. You’ll find indie authors tossing around percentages and market share numbers and remember, those are dubious, at best. They aren’t entirely inaccurate and just shouldn’t dominate your thought process when it comes to publishing. Amazon’s KDP platform has been publicly accessible and open to everyone for years now and remains a standard.
Publish your ebooks there, publish your paperbacks there, but use some discretion.
We’ve reached this part of the publishing talk where we get into Amazon exclusivity and if it’s right for you or not. I’d argue it’s never right for anyone, but that’s just me. Remember those numbers and percentages I talked about before? On any average month, my sales on Amazon are usually around 30% of my income. If Amazon is the goliath it is, one would think I’d have trouble selling any books anywhere but Amazon. That’s not how it works, though. Plenty of readers don’t buy on Amazon. Amazon’s market reach in the United States may feel like a monopoly, but I do pretty well on Barnes & Noble, as do many others. The same with Apple Books. What’s nice, too, is that there are plenty of countries where “eBook” and “Kindle” aren’t ubiquitous for each other. Apple, Kobo, Google Play and others have deeper reach into different regions around the globe.
When I had my books locked into Amazon’s KindleUnlimited, I struggled. The mostly US-based audience didn’t care for my books. I wasn’t giving them what they were expecting or wanted. Since taking my books wide, I’ve found much more success with international audiences and domestic audiences through different markets. There’s a prevailing mindset that “wide” distribution is more difficult and harder to understand, especially when the markets are smaller and most folks struggle to gain traction.
As with anything else, that depends on a ton of different factors.
The pool of KindleUnlimited readers is a lot smaller than the potential pool of wide readers out in the world, the same with library readers who can’t access your books if they’re exclusive to Amazon. KindleUnlimited reads tend to pay out lower than a sale would and attract a certain type of whale reader who’ll blow through your catalog and never look back, moving onto the next series of books from another author. You can do great on Amazon while enrolled in KDP Select/KindleUnlimited, and for those pulling in millions of page reads per month, you get hefty bonuses from Amazon.
It’s possible. It’s also sort of pay-to-play. You need to worry about your Amazon rankings constantly; how many books are being checked out a day, how many sales you’re making, and these things don’t happen without hefty ad spends. Big name authors are spending tens of thousands a month on Amazon’s in-house ads to keep themselves at the top of the charts and moving books, so unless you have a large library of books or have a plan to release a monthly book in a series, know it’s an uphill battle where the top players in each genre are difficult to unseat.
Alright, you’re wondering, what is “wide,” then?
Wide means publishing in multiple places. It can mean using distributors like Draft2Digital or Smashwords, both of which offer free distribution and take small percentages of sales on retailers for the convenience of logging into one place. There’s also PublishDrive, which is a more “premium” service that instead has a regular fee instead of a percentage cut. What I like about these distributors is that you can reach more places than you can on your own because of the networks they’ve fostered. Most library services are only reachable through a third party distributor.
You also save time and headaches by using one place to distribute your books over having multiple log-ins. Although, like I said, you’re losing a percentage of your income to them. The other thing you lose out on is having a direct relationship with these retailers. Both Kobo and Barnes & Noble offer in-house promos that are accessible through promo tabs you can request once you have your account up and running and have some books for sale. They hand out access at their discretion, so don’t get discouraged if they don’t grant you access right away. D2D can help land you promo spots as well if you reach out to be added to their promo lists, although you don’t have that direct relationship. Apple also offers in-house promos, but you need to have an established relationship with them, usually needing to attend a webinar about selling on their platform to gain access.
Each store has their own set of quirks and rules, stuff that I’ll get into later. There’s always a lot of talk in indie spaces about metadata and keywords, as on Amazon there are very few tools offered to authors for free to help discoverability and Amazon offers seven keyword slots. You can buy expensive tools and reports to gain keyword lists, but unless you’re playing the KU and AMS ads game, I’m not sure it’s useful. Search Amazon and their autocomplete will give you some killer keywords people are searching for. Easy, right?
Try to keep your keywords relevant and tight across all stores. Find the right categories for your books and keep them uniform. Don’t game the system by finding ones that are less populated to get an Amazon bestseller tag. It means literally nothing. Seriously, don’t do it. You want people to discover your books through legitimate means, not stumbling upon them while looking for something unrelated.
So, here’s a list of links to places where you should publish your eBooks.
That’s just eBooks, though, right? What about paperbacks or hardcovers?
Let’s do Paperbacks.
Amazon’s KDP is still the place for most paperbacks, although I’ll advise against Expanded Distribution. It costs more to distribute the book and the intended results aren’t there. The idea behind Expanded Distribution is that the books will be available outside of Amazon as well. It uses Ingram’s distribution network, but is very much known to be a book from Amazon. Set up your paperbacks on Amazon. The money is better than just about anywhere else and the quality for most print-on-demand books is a tossup. It depends on the printer, the warehouse, the day, the employee at the helm, etc.
If you want your books to be sold outside of Amazon, you’ve got options. I mentioned IngramSpark above, and that remains the industry standard for publishing paperbacks “wide.” There’s a good reason for it, as well. Ingram is the industry standard for printing, not just for indies, but for most of the publishing world. Libraries and bookstores all have access to and purchase through Ingram. They work through that system and are willing to buy from Ingram, where they are usually unwilling to do anything that’ll support Amazon for obvious reasons. IngramSpark isn’t free, though. To use their free ISBN, you’ll need to pay a $50 setup fee. Changes cost $50.
Professional organizations offer discount codes, but those codes have been floating around a lot the last two years and have been, according to Ingram, abused. Which… Look, the $50 fee is sorta ridiculous and what they mean is everyone has been avoiding paying these fees, so they’ve been strict with them. Also, avoid IngramSpark’s ebook distribution. Just… trust me on this, it’s a mess and gives you very little control. It’s not worth it.
Barnes & Noble offers paperbacks and hardcover editors through B&N Press, right alongside their ebooks, but much like Amazon, they distribute solely to B&N. What’s good is your local B&N store is willing to order copies through B&N Press since it’s internal, although they’re also willing to buy from Ingram. If you want books elsewhere, though, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
A good option is Draft2Digital’s Print Beta program. You’ll need to email their support and ask to be added to the list for it, but it’s worth the wait. The turnaround is slower, but its distribution is through Ingram and there is no setup fee. You’re allowed one change per quarter per book before they charge a nominal fee. As with everything else, D2D takes a percentage off your sale, but it still works out in your favor over Amazon Expanded Distribution.
You’ll note I didn’t touch upon printing outside of print-on-demand, and there’s an important reason for that. It’s more difficult and involved. It’s also, unless you’re ordering thousands of books in a single shipment, more expensive. The cost of print-on-demand books is cheaper in most cases than working with an actual printer to do a limited run. Supporting a local printer, if available, will always be the best way to go if you need a bulk order of books, but for most of us, that’s not a cost effective option. Most don’t help with shipping or distribution, either. There are other printers like Lulu that do the same work as Ingram, but they cost more.
I will not take you through each site’s process because each one has their own help section and support staff.
This was a long one, but it’s a vital part of being an indie author. Coming up, I want to talk about one of the most vital parts of being an indie author, and also the most dreaded.
I know. I know.
If you’d like to support me, buying one of my books is always a great way, or checking out my Patreon where I publish my serial fiction.