5 Things Indie Authors Should Consider when Pursuing a Career

by Tee Morris on February 3, 2012

Something I find absolutely fascinating in my first decade as a published author is the sheer amount of backpedalling I have seen authors make when it comes to self-publishing.

Oh. Wait. Independent publishing. Now, indie publishing includes self-publishing. Yeah. Ain’t that something?

When I took my first steps with Dragon Moon Press back in 2002, I also took hits from a few established authors online and in real time, turning to their colleagues and referring to me as a literary ambulance chaser. (No kidding. I collected some killer stories in my first year as an author.) Now, those same voices snubbing me at conventions and literary events are now swearing up and down to the masses that “Legacy Publishing is dead and the independent author shall vanquish the evil Gatekeepers! Take control of your writing career! Do it yourself!”

Yeah, taking control, doing it yourself, and “sticking it to the Gatekeepers” all sounds seductively intoxicating. Charlie Sheen did just that and referred to himself as an F-18. (That’s Comment #5 in the previous link.) Before you decide to go supersonic in your own path to being a writer, ask yourself one quick question: Have you ever sat in a cockpit of an F-18?

How about a Cessna?

My kid was invited into the cockpit of a Boing 747. Take a look…

Even if you’re flying a cropduster, your flight isn’t going to end well if you don’t know what you are doing. Across a decade of writing, editing, and book layout, I’ve collected a few considerations for any author — new or seasoned — to keep in mind when it comes to managing a career.

5. Accept the fact that no matter how good you think you are, you need an editor. In their recent Huffington Post article “The Real Reasons Indie Authors Aren’t Taken Seriously”, Melissa Forester and Amy Edelman dish out some tough love to indie authors about the long road to respect, and throughout the article continuously refer to what these ambitious artisans all need — editing. I don’t care who you are — you need an editor. The need for an editor does not mean you lack talent or that you’re a suck writer. It does mean you are human, and their changes bring about other details to mind, making writers take a harder, critical look at what a writer’s creativity hath wrought. Editing is not a curse or an unnecessary delay on your work. With the right editor, editing is a hard, critical look at your work with the goal to make a diamond from a creative rough.

4. Giving It Away for Free (or Even for 99¢) Should Have a Plan behind It. Back in 2005, I was one of the strongest advocates supporting free fiction. I saw a spike in my own book sales when Dragon Moon gave me a green light to give away in audio Morevi and The Case of The Singing Sword: A Billibub Baddings Mystery. And I wasn’t alone. Other authors were following the charge alongside Cory Doctorow, myself, and Scott Sigler.

Now, six years later, I’m still a big advocate for giving it away for free…provided there is a plan behind it.

Giving it away for free works for Scott and Cory, sure. I won’t deny that. But outside of those two, has this tactic worked for anyone else? Even as Chuck Wendig points out in his “Making Sense of 99 Cents” blogpost, it’s not the best strategy to price everything the same. For my own independent publishing works, 99¢ is a sweet spot for short stories with one selected as a free download. Short story collections are priced at $2.99 (essentially, four shorts — so four for the cost of three). Free can work as part of a larger plan.

Giving stories away — be they shorts, novellas, or novels — for free? Blindly?

No, this isn’t really a good model to follow, as I discovered…

3. Some People Will Never Want to Pay for Your Work. In a recent episode of The Shared Desk, around 28:38, I made a really dumb remark: “A little bit of book piracy is okay.” I’m still trying to figure out why I made the comment. Perhaps I was thinking “People torrenting an already free story. That’s okay.” Maybe pygmies had my nuts in a vice while I was recording. Whatever the reason, I said this before receiving the Google Alert notifying me that The Case of The Singing Sword: A Billibub Baddings Mystery was being torrented. Not the podcast, mind you. A PDF of the print book.

Let me say that again: A novel I am already giving away for free in an audio format was being pirated.

With so many artists (not just writers, but musicians and artists) giving their work away for free or at 99¢, some online consumers adopt a sense of entitlement. As a professional independent author, you need to accept the fact that you will get complaints from people about your work “not being long enough” for the price, even when that price is 99¢. When it’s free, are you taking a blind eye on torrenting then? The business model you set for yourself needs to include boundaries for your work and how you deal with Internet Entitlement. And in light of complaints from the entitled, is your pricing based on your strategy, or prices that others agree on?

If it’s the latter, you might want to rethink your business model.

2. Financial Success Will Not Happen Overnight. I’ve always believed that the greatest investment a writer can make in their career is time. You invest time in researching your story, time to write it, and time to edit it. (See Item #6.) Be prepared to spend time in finding out if your investment is indeed working. While it sounds like Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and J.A. Conrath became overnight successes, they didn’t.

But with time, these writers became juggernauts.

A friend and colleague of mine was tweeting once about the blues of being a struggling writer and working minimum wage jobs to pay the bills. At the end of the same year, though, he was tweeting about buying a brand new car. Completely paid for. What happened? This author, living hand and mouth for a spell, is now a working, full-time writer, doing quite well for himself with an arsenal of short stories and novellas while his novel is gearing up for a release with a mainstream publisher. The income from his numerous titles is now his sole source of income.

That brings me to a consideration you should take to heart before venturing into the world of indie publishing.

1. Become a Hybrid Author. My darling wife is insisting I use here her “Many streams make a river…” quote when talking about a writer’s income. Yeah, it may sound a bit like a line Miss Marple would whip out just before solving the murder of her hamlet’s moneylender; but (and I’m never going to hear an end to this) she’s right. In between developing your titles as an indie author, go on and develop a title specifically for a mainstream publisher. Why? Breaking into the mainstream can open doors that still remain closed to smaller independent publishers. You may hear an argument against this like “Who needs the legacy publishers?” (And if you think “legacy publisher” sounds presumptuous…yes, it is.) but there are advantages.

One huge advantage is the advance. Just a signing bonus is a step forward as that becomes your first promotional budget, covering travel, advertising, and any writing resources you might need. Another plus in pursuing and landing a mainstream publisher is working with marketing divisions. I have been published in both mainstream (Wiley, Que, HarperCollins) and independent (Dragon Moon, and my own Imagine That! Studios) channels, and I can say that much of the footwork I had to do as an indie author — getting reviews, submitting for seminars and speaking engagements, dealing with piracy, advertising, requesting interviews — was taken care of by the mainstream publisher.

Why limit yourself? Broaden your horizons and consider a career covering both mainstream and independent publishing.

Keep one more thing in mind: What I’ve got here is not some magic formula of success.  This is a decade of writing experience, of watching authors perform 180’s on opinions concerning independent publishing, and of lessons I’ve learned from both sides of this argument. I’ve never believed in a sure-fire formula to success. If you think I got it, trust me — I don’t have it.

I do have some plans in play, some experiences under my belt, and some conclusions drawn. Forge forward, and find out what works best for you.

And really, there is a bigger picture happening here. As NPR said in their own look at the Digital Vs. Traditional Book Publishing argument:

“We should worry less about how people get their books and — say it with me now! — just be glad that people are reading.”

Personally, I don’t care how my stories reach people. I just want them to reach readers, and have readers react. That is really what matters in the end.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Nobilis Reed February 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I agree with most of what you’re saying here, and agreement rarely needs amplification. That’s why I’m going to nitpick…

5. Please define editor. I trade editing duties with a small group of authors whose work I respect greatly, and whose points of view seem to enhance my own. These being Ann Regentin, Shanna Germain, and Michele Bekemeyer. That being said, when I send a novel to a publisher, I expect to get substantive edits back on it, things that will improve it even more.

I don’t always. But I expect it.

What level of editing are you talking about? Hiring a freelance editor (for thousands of dollars) knowing that it’s a crapshoot whether that money will ever be made back?

4. What kind of plan are you talking about? It’s pretty easy to come up with a vague plan worthy of the underwear gnomes, but I’m sure that’s not what you mean.

3. Hoo-boy, pricing. Listen…authors…most ebooks are commodity fiction. Any one is pretty much as good as any other. They’re a way to pass the time. Unless you have some awards under your belt, you have no reason to assume that you’re the exception. And that includes me.

Also, find out what makes your fiction different from everyone else’s, and develop it. There WILL be an audience out there for it, and you want them to be able to come back for more, again and again.

2. No argument here.

1. Hybrid is the way to go. Small e-publishers, print publishers, POD, and big factory publishers all have a place in the author’s repertoire… unless you’re Nathan Lowell. If you find something that clicks, really stands out and gets some traction, put extra energy into it.

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Tee Morris February 3, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Calling me to to the mat like this, Nobilis, is more than fair. So let me address each one of your points…

On editing and editors: Investing thousands of dollars?! Good gravy, if you’re investing that much into an editor, you may be getting prison raped. Without lube.

Okay, yes, editing can get expensive; but it depends on the services offered by the editor. If someone quoted me thousands of dollars, I would want to know what am I getting charged for? Grammar and spelling only? No. I would also expect continuity and fact checking on top of that. For thousands of dollars? Proofing should not cost that much, and when you consult the Editorial Freelancers Association you will see that a “deep dive editing” is half of simple proofreading. Yes, both are expensive, but there are options. You can approach a college student and ask for editorial services or you can turn to colleagues (as you mentioned) for an agreed-upon compensation that may be far more affordable; but editing is essential. In any capacity. In any form. If you want to unleash your work in a raw form, be my guest…but you want to make a good first impression on readers. Bad editing can haunt you.

On the pricing plan: You need to consider a pricing plan. In other words, if you are pricing everything you do at 99¢ you are doing yourself a disservice. As Chuck mentions in the article I cited:

“Pricing everything at a dollar sends up a signal and that signal tells me that you don’t value your work all that much. Further, it suggests to me that you don’t want anybody else to value it, either.”

Read the article in detail, Nobilis, and you’ll get even more; but there needs to be a plan. Short stories for 99¢ and then giving one away for free for a limited time? Yes, that’s a plan. Releasing a collection of your 99¢ shorts at $2.99 where you get four stories for the price of three? That’s a plan. Never pricing anything higher than $4.99? Yes, that’s a plan, too.

On those too cheap to pay for your work: Maybe it was those damn pygmies again, but either your third point was still lingering on the previous point (as you start off with pricing) or you missed what I was going for in my own third point. Pricing your work can be relative to the author, I agree. The point I was making was that you should not allow those noisy, annoying, entitled online minority to discourage you from setting costs for your work. This is why I was giving The Case of the Singing Sword as an example. Here’s a work I was giving away for free, and yet an individual felt it completely okay to give it away for free in another format without my permission. Why? Entitlement. “It should be free.”

Well, you know…no. Not without asking me first.

And, in that Shared Desk I cited, the “Seriously?! Seriously.” segment was centered around that kind of individual. Have a listen and you’ll probably get a better idea what my third point was all about.

Finally, concerning #2 and #1, we see eye-to-eye on that; and while the juggernaut that is Nathan Lowell doesn’t necessarily need or want a mainstream publisher behind him, that is his call for his career. And this is what brought me to my closing remark:

“I do have some plans in play, some experiences under my belt, and some conclusions drawn. Forge forward, and find out what works best for you.”

Maybe my approach won’t work for everyone. Heck, if I’m still in the same place ten years from now, maybe my approach doesn’t work for me! Presently, this is what I’ve experienced; and I’m offering up that experience for consideration. My plan might work for you. It might not. In the end, you are the captain at the wheel of your career. Chart a course, and watch for stormy seas.

Thanks, Nobilis. I hope this has clarified points questioned.

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Nobilis Reed February 3, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Indeed, much clarified.

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Indiana Jim February 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm

I don’t think there’s any one particular thing I disagree with in this post. A lot of it jibes with my own conclusions following the changes in publishing. Even the paragons of indie that I read such as Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch advocate trying to do both. I suppose I can illucidate some of my own thoughts point by point.

Editing:
I think the main point is that someone with a knowledge of grammar, how a story is supposed to work-and in some cases–with an eye toward the market (e.g. what does this look like? Is it derivative of another property?), is giving your work a pair of fresh eyeballs. Even the most astute of authors, who eschew the “this is my baby” mentality, who are capable of cutting ruthlessly, and are aces with grammar, inevitably miss SOMETHING. Whether it’s a typo or a fresh perspective on the plot.

My own plan is this: I have a few people who I trust with a keen eye toward story and grammar and that sort of thing. As I go, I can still use those people, but if I make any money at all, I will use that toward professional services if I can. So gradually I want to build a pipeline that helps to get me to that point. Many freelance editors, who also work for publishers, I’ve seen will edit a novel for under $500. Not cheap, but not an arm or a leg, either.

Being Free:
Giveaways are useful for promotional purposes, I think, but not really very useful for building a career. The psychological concept of a work’s value certainly has something to do with it, but the more you give something away, the more people expect you to do that all the time. I think in the formative years of podcasting fiction, we all wondered about “what happens when I decide to charge people money for this?” There will always be pirates, but as Stackpole is fond of saying, you haven’t really lost anything because they likely weren’t going to buy it anyway.

The long tail:
I think this philosophy is universal across the self-publishers I’ve come across. You brought up Nathan Lowell, and I think his experience is a great example. A lot of people put out one property, promote the heck out of it, have contests, have voicemails, have the whole kit and kaboodle… and that’s it. Whereas Nate 1) writes very well 2) writes quickly 3) does very little promotion 4) repeats from step 1. And he has one of the largest followings in this sphere.

The way J.A. Konrath, Lawrence Block, Scott Nicholson and Amanda Hocking did it was the same. You keep writing. You keep putting out good product and don’t be a douchebag and after a while you can be doing well for yourself. But this is the thing: it takes WORK. As Konrath also is fond of saying, you keep trying, you don’t give up, and if you get lucky, you’ll be making some decent money. Maybe it won’t be quit-your-job money. Maybe it will. But how will you know without trying?

I think it’s all very good advice.

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Skye Warren February 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Re: Nobilis Reed’s comment
I wouldn’t think that a critique group, which you describe, qualifies as professional editing. I participate in a couple of critique groups and still my editor catches enough to make her well worth the money.

As for the article as a whole, I agree with a lot of this, but ya know, with caveats. Before I had published anything, I didn’t want to spend hundreds (not thousands, although that’s because we were talking about novellas, not a novel) on editors. I heard these horror stories of people spending tons of money and promotional time into a book and making back few bucks a month. Then again, people make a bunch of money too. The difference is your writing and your story, etc, and there’s no way to accurately guess that before hitting publish.

So I put my stuff out there without professional editing. I know. Turn around in a circle and knock three times to shake of the bad indie writer juju. But I just had to know whether it would be worth it at all. Would anyone find me via discovery alone? If they did, would they love it, hate it, give a rat’s behind?

After half a month I had my answer. It wasn’t mindblowing money but it was enough to tell me that this was viable. So then I had everything I had already put out (two novellas and two shorts) profesionally edited. Even then, I had everything sit at $0.99 cents. And no, there wasn’t a plan beyond the vague “get readers” one that all writers share. Recently, I upped my prices. Now I have a pricing plan and a release schedule, etc. It’s still a work in progress.

So obviously I believe in these things, but I’m not so sure they make sense right at the beginning. Any sort of pricing plan that you make before you publish anything is going to be invalidated pretty much right away. And if you put your work out there and no one buys it for 3 months, well then, spending even a hundred bucks on editing would have been a poor investment. Writing may be an art, but self-publishing is business.

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Scott Roche February 8, 2012 at 8:49 am

Good advice Tee. I don’t have much to add beyond a need for patience. I suffer all too often from the desire to pull the trigger before an idea or a story has had rest time. Has that hurt me? I don’t know, but it may have. So patience in this as in all things is a virtue.

Also, I can’t agree more with the “many streams” idea. I plan on pursuing a more traditional path with my next project, just to see what happens.

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Mike Reeves-McMillan February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Tee, I’d be interested to hear the inside scoop on something. Phoenix Rising was published by a “legacy” publisher, yet the editing is (in my opinion) very bad. I’ve seen bad editing in a number of mainstream-published books lately, in fact. Can you tell us anything about what editing Harper-Collins provided, compared with what you’ve hired yourself as an indie?

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Tee Morris February 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Funny you should mention this as Pip and I brought up Phoenix Rising and its editing process on the latest episode of The Shared Desk. In a nutshell, we lost a round of editing as we were working on a very tight delivery schedule. For The Janus Affair, we were not rushed and that extra round of editing really did make a difference. Both Pip and I noticed when we turned in galley checks how much smoother the final pass went.

Remember that publishers are now in competition with independent publishers; and while you may think houses like Harper Collins are cutting corners via editing, I will argue that people who self-edit or believe their work “doesn’t need an editor” is not at the quality of mainstream publishers. In many cases, I find that authors anxious to get the work in print or who believe their work “untouchable” gloss through opportunities to fix issues and make a good work great. When you have an opportunity to check your work for errors or continuity issues, check it. Don’t “scan” your manuscript. Read it.

All that being said, I can tell you in my experience as an editor, working with independent editors, and working with Harper Collins, the mainstream editors (and there are many different kinds of editors at this level) have been super-human and a delight to work with. I think, Mike, you will notice in The Janus Affair how much of a difference one more editorial pass can make.

Thanks for the comment.

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Doc Coleman February 9, 2012 at 6:20 am

I’ve been taking all this advice to heart for a while now. I’ve made one observation of my own: “Nothing sells like a back catalog.”

It seems like a lot of folks will write one story, then try to market the hell out of it to make a profit. That is a ton of work, and if you’ve only got one story, not very likely to succeed. Others just keep turning out content. They don’t market very much, but they keep writing. And every time they release something new, it improves their sales across the board. This explains why publishers like series. Each new volume increases the overall odds of profitability.

You can market the hell out of one thing, and maybe get people to buy it. Or you can market yourself and give people more choices of what to buy. And the best way to market yourself is to have that back catalog. That’s what I’m working on.

Doc

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Jana February 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I, too, am laughing at those folks who treated me/you/others like a red-haired bastard stepchild because I chose to self-pub way back in the day (2001). Now they’re running around insisting that legacy publishing is dying. Ah, not so much. Publishing is morphing into a new hybrid sort of critter (the mind shudders at exactly what that might be). Something with horns, probably.

Still, the new opportunities require the author to shoulder more responsibility, not less. Suddenly you are totally responsible for what you produce and if anyone thinks that doesn’t matter, remember that what you publish today (at least in print) will be there until the final trumpet blows. Amazon will *always* list it for sale even if you ask them to take it down. (I tried.)

I still have copies of my first three self-pubbed works floating around. I edited them myself because at that point spending large sums to get them professionally edited wasn’t an option. I always warn my readers they have typos, etc., though I am a sharp-eyed proofreader when it comes to other folks’ work. I will rewrite them one of these days and fix those boo-boos. Should an author make the cut to NYC or a smaller press, those editions will still be circulating, the literary version of Jacob Marley’s chains.

My variant on Pip’s advice is the “little bits of money from a lot of people” philosophy. I don’t expect to make all my money from one source, though receiving an advance or royalty check certainly does fatten my bank account. Currently I’m indie publishing backlist and have two new books I intend to publish sometime this year once they’ve gone through editorial. Yes, lesson learned. There shall be an editor and proofreader (other than myself) and I will happily write checks for each. That way I’ll not be adding any more links to that already heavy literary chain of errors.

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Tee Morris February 10, 2012 at 1:08 pm

And this is one of many reasons why we have been friends for so long. Amazing to think we’ve been at this for this long, huh?

Thanks for the comment, Jana! :^)

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Jana February 10, 2012 at 1:14 pm

We *have* been friends for a long time. I think we met in early 2005. You know the rest of the story as you were the one to help me along the path. Which is one of the many reasons why I cheered so loudly when you and dear Pip were called to work in the NY bullpen. When you made your midnight announcement I had Jean Marie Ward call me with the news. I rarely stay up that late for anyone else ;-) Unless there’s Scotch involved, of course.

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Ron C. Nieto February 11, 2012 at 9:59 am

This is a great post, and all the comments add interesting points to be considered. I won’t go into detail about the things already said, because that’s redundant but I’d like to add a note to the editing.

Editing is vital.

Sending out your first copies unedited by a professional (of great or not so great abilities, that’s another story) to gauge whether it’s worthy is, in my humble opinion, a huge mistake. Why?

Because you’ll only be new once. Even if you edit later, there might be reviews, comments, word of mouth saying that your work was sloppy. Even if nobody comments, those who bought a book and found too many typos or inconsistencies to enjoy the book will remember you, and won’t buy again. The idea before publishing, I believe, is to write the best you can and then take a chance on it. If you don’t believe in your story enough to warrant 300 bucks of editing, why would the readers?

If you check out my web, you’ll see I do edits. Yes. But that’s not why I’m saying this – I’m not trying to get more clients. I started editing after reviewing indie books for over six months. Books that invariable went to 2 stars rating because the author hadn’t realized that the first chapter had ten typos, that there were incongruencies with characterization and point of view, that the dialogue read as stilted as it could possibly get…

And the sad thing is that I know that, if the next time any of these authors does hire an editor and asks for a review for their next title, they’ll have to sell it thrice as well to get me to say “yes, I’ll review”. So, imagine what it might take to get a reader to say, “yes, I’ll give this author another chance because now he has a bigger budget and he might have done it better”.

If you don’t want to make an investment for your book, perhaps you should think whether it’d be better to wait a couple more months, save, and submit it to an editor – no matter how basic the service. It’s a decision you can only take once, so don’t rush into things your literary career can (most surely will) regret later.

… Yes, I talk a lot. Yes, I’m pretty passionate about this topic (I hate to write low opinions when I’m wearing my reviewer hat).

Thanks for the great post, Tee!

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