Jen here, writing on a slightly overcast and delightfully fall-ish day in midcoast Maine. I’m very excited about the subject today, since it’s something near and dear to my heart: independent publishing. Since Kate Flora wrote the very popular post, “Can You Afford to Get Published?” examining the challenges inherent in being traditionally published, she suggested that I write something about the indie publishing world.
First, a bit about me and my writing career: I graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program in the summer of 2005, when self-publishing was still very much a dirty word. Fast-forward seven years, to 2012. Popular opinion had shifted with respect to the validity of choosing to publish oneself rather than go the traditional route, though there are still many folks out there who have their doubts. I had a completed mystery that had been through endless beta reads, edits, and revisions. I’d been told more than once that it was good – which meant, in theory, that I should start querying agents, who would ideally see promise in an untried novelist and might then, months later, respond by taking me on as a client. At which point, I could expect months more of waiting while my manuscript languished on an underpaid and overworked editor’s desk. If a publisher did actually choose to sign me on, as a first-time author with no real track record, the best I could hope for was an advance in the very low thousands while I waited for the book to come out. Then, eventually, I might earn royalties. Hopefully. Meanwhile, I would be at the mercy of the publisher’s schedule in terms of when the next book came out, most likely at least a year down the road.
Despite the cachet that comes with being a traditionally published author, none of these things seemed appealing to me.
So, in February of 2012, having never submitted my manuscript to an agent or publisher, I self-published All the Blue-Eyed Angels as an ebook on Amazon. In June, I did a free promotion through Amazon’s KDP-Select program, which was getting great press at the time. The novel hit number one in Amazon’s free store in Thrillers and Mystery/Women Sleuths, and number three overall in Amazon’s free store. Which is super, except that you don’t actually earn money when a title is free. However, the momentum was enough that it carried over once the book was no longer free. In June, I sold 1,260 copies of Angels, which may not sound like a lot, but was about 1,200 copies more than I’d sold previously. Suddenly, I found myself with an inbox brimming with new fans eager for the next installment of the Erin Solomon series.
I published book two, Sins of the Father, in July of 2012. That one hit the paid bestseller lists on Amazon, and carried Angels right along with it. Though I was hardly getting rich on two books, I was earning upwards of $3000 per month on two titles alone, having been in the game for just over six months. I’d been a starving writer long enough to consider this big bucks.
That pretty much cemented my stance on independent publishing. I was – and am – firmly in favor of it.
Three years later, I now have five novels out. Those five novels comprise the complete Erin Solomon Pentalogy. They are well-reviewed and have been well-received, and regularly hit the bestseller lists on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. In April of this past year, I did a paid advertising spot on the promotional website BookBub for Angels, which is now permanently free with multiple online booksellers. That month, I sold just under ten thousand copies of my other four novels on Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble.
All of that sounds great, right? But the reality is that I recognize that I’m an outlier in this game; there are plenty of other self-published authors out there who make next to nothing and have no idea how to change that. So, how did I increase my chances of success in the indie publishing game? Here are six strategies I used, and a good way for you to gauge for yourself whether self-publishing is for you.
Establish an online platform. Personally, I actually started by writing fanfiction purely as a fun exercise to see how quickly I could complete a full-length piece of fiction and keep readers engaged. Many of my most loyal readers now actually discovered me through the fanfiction I wrote back in the day. I also worked as a freelance journalist; created my own website and began reviewing mysteries by other authors; started a Facebook group adevoted to fans and writers of mystery, suspense, and thrillers; and created my own online magazine that revolved around the Erin Solomon series. It’s not necessary to go quite so elaborate as your own magazine, but don’t be afraid to try new things. These days, the pressure is on just as much for traditionally published authors to make a connection with their readers online, so whatever route you choose, be prepared to get comfortable with social media in some way or other. The key is to do it on your terms, and to play to your strengths.
- Have more than one title in your repertoire, and a plan for writing and publishing going forward. If you’re the kind of novelist who writes one book every nine or ten years (or every two to three years, for that matter), trying to break into traditional publishing may be a better option for you. I’ll be honest: The numbers game in independent publishing is such that you are far more likely to get readers’ attention if you publish regularly (conventional wisdom says at least once a year, and ideally more than that) and have a few titles to offer. If you’re uncomfortable with the pressure that puts on you as a writer, you can look at things in the long-term, continue to write at your own pace, and simply accept that it may take you a little longer to create a backlist for readers. One of the nice things about being an indie, and particularly being an indie in the world of ebooks, is that your novels have a much longer shelf life than they do if you have a publisher trying to sell hardcovers at a premium price in a crowded market.
- Write a damn good book. There are thousands of independently published books that people put online because it seemed easy and they just wanted their books up there for the world to see, or they had lofty ambitions about making their fortune for next to no work. Happily, there are now plenty of quality independently published books out there as well, by authors who are conscientious enough to work with beta readers, hire a great editor, and take the time to ensure that what they’re putting out there is worth readers’ time. If you’re going to self-publish, be prepared to spend some money up front to make sure you are one of the independent authors putting out a truly great book. If you want more specifics on just how much start-up cash you’ll need, I’ll break that down next month. Spoiler alert: It’s probably not as much as you think.
- Network with other authors, both independent and traditionally published. I mentioned previously that I had a website through which I reviewed other mystery authors’ books. I also did author interviews, promoted books I enjoyed, and offered spots so that authors could do guest posts if they wanted some extra exposure for their work. While you should never forget that you’re trying to connect with readers more than other writers, it’s good to keep in mind that authors in your genre are also readers – and they’re readers with clout and an audience you have yet to reach. My strategy is always to figure out what I have of value that I can offer someone else, and cultivate a relationship from that starting point. While our world is undoubtedly more technologically complex than it once was, those advances have made the publishing world a very small place. Use that to your advantage, and you’ll be amazed at the connections you can make…and what those connections can do for you in the long-term.
- Price your work reasonably. I run an editing business in addition to my writing career, and am often flabbergasted when I see independent authors with genuinely great work, who then price themselves out of the game by offering their ebooks for prices readers today simply won’t pay. Look at other authors in your genre – and not Stephen King or Patricia Cornwell. Look at other popular independently published novelists, and watch what they are doing with their prices. Personally, I have the ebook of my first novel available free on most online stores; the others are priced at $3.99, with the most recent release priced at $4.99. In April, when I blew away my previous sales records, I did a massive sale and offered all four of my other novels for just $2.99 each. Clearly when you have access to a global market, those dollars can add up quickly. Is it a blow to the ego to offer work I’ve slaved over for months or even years for just a few dollars? I guess it might have been initially, but at this point I personally am far more concerned with continuing to sustain myself so that I can keep writing than I am with taking a political stand on the value of creative expression.
- Educate yourself, and keep up to date on current and shifting market trends. I mentioned Amazon’s KDP Select at the beginning of this article as the way I first got a foothold in the indie publishing world. Though Amazon still offers the KDP Select program (in which you agree to sell exclusively through Amazon for a minimum of three months, in exchange for increased publicity and access to promotions otherwise unavailable to authors on the site), I don’t use it any longer and don’t usually advocate it for others, for a variety of reasons I won’t get into now. Pixel of Ink was the big advertiser in 2013; in 2015, if you can get an advertising spot on BookBub, do everything in your power to make that happen. The face of publishing is changing at an astonishing rate right now, so it is in your best interest to make yourself aware of the trends and plan accordingly. This past year, I’ve taken Joseph Michael’s course Learn Scrivener Fast, Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10K Readers, and am currently enrolled in Joanna Penn’s stellar Creative Freedom course. I’ve already seen significant dividends with each of these courses, and have ideally given myself an edge that will enable me to continue growing as time marches on.
If all of this sounds exhausting to you… Well, sometimes it is. I won’t lie – it’s a lot of work, and if your dream is truly to simply be a writer and you have no interest in the business side of things, you may find independent publishing to be a trying task. My goal from the time I was a kid has been to be a full-time author. I’m not there yet, but if things go according to plan, I’ll ideally be making my target income purely from my fiction by 2017. I don’t need to get rich – I just want to make a livable wage and feel as though I have control over my own creative destiny, and this happens to be the path I’ve chosen. As far as I’m concerned, there is no right or wrong answer in terms of your own publishing career. I have nothing against traditional publishing, and have no illusions that indie publishing is the cure-all for every author out there. But if you can honestly evaluate your own strengths and you find yourself leaning toward the indie way of life, an adventure – and a potentially financially viable, creatively fulfilling adventure, at that – may await.
I’m curious about your opinions on independent publishing today. If you’ve considered self-publishing but have yet to take the plunge, what gives you the most pause?