OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
I spent last weekend at CrimeFest in Bristol alongside lots of amazing crime authors, both traditionally published and indie authors. It was a fantastic time and I met some super people …
I found myself in a number of conversations with authors who wanted to know what their publishing options were in a fast-changing market.
We also had an indie author panel on the Sunday morning, which was packed full despite the morning-after-the-gala-dinner-graveyard slot.
In my intro, I pointed out that between us, we had sold over 500,000 books in five different languages in 66 countries, we are prize-winning and award-winning as well as New York Times and USA Today bestselling.
Oh yes, and contrary to what most seem to believe, we have print and audiobooks as well as ebooks … and all achieved without a publisher. Several of us even make pretty good money from selling books …
We were then asked to outline the negatives of going indie, since we were clearly all so positive about it!
So today, here are my pros and cons of being an indie author. I'd love to hear yours, or any questions, in the comments below.
Definition: Self-publishing vs being an indie author
The term self-publishing implies doing everything yourself and doing it more as a hobby. There's certainly nothing wrong with this and it's wonderful to create books in the world for the love of creation.
I self-publish photobooks for my own pleasure, I helped my 9 year old niece self-publish her first book and I helped my Dad self-publish for his 65th birthday.
But I use the term independent author, or indie author, for myself. I work with top freelance professionals to create a quality product and this is a business for me, not just a hobby. I left my job in 2011 to become a full-time author-entrepreneur and I make my living with my writing.
The following pros and cons are based on my kind of direct publishing without using any of the services companies which I'll mention at the end.
The pros of being an indie author
- Total creative control over content and design. Many authors who were in traditional publishing and are now in self-publishing talk about how painful it was to have a cover or title they hated, or to make editorial choices they didn't agree with but that were insisted upon. As an indie, you can work with freelancers of your choice and you can choose the ultimate look and feel of your product. Now, that can be a pro or a con depending on how the book ends up but as
an indie, you can also change it, as I have done recently by re-titling and re-covering my first 3 books. You just upload another file which is brilliant. The start-up mentality that mistakes are how we learn and “failure” is just a step along the way makes this easier for indies. But this reinvention practice is common in the publishing industry and older books are revamped all the time.
- Empowerment. At CrimeFest this weekend, I met a prizewinning author who was quite shocked to discover that I'm not a militant indie. I have a wonderful agent and I have a German book deal, and yes, I will absolutely work with traditional publishers – for deals that will be good for both parties.
I am, however, militant about empowering authors and creatives.
After talking to a number of other authors this last weekend, I was shocked at how insecure they were and how beaten down by the negativity of the publishing process. They really didn't see themselves as being able to make a decision alone or take action to improve their lot, despite the fact that THEY are the creatives, the storytellers, the brilliant ones.
Compare that to indies, who in general are a happy bunch, as reported by researcher Alison Baverstock. It's not surprising when you consider the research on ‘locus of control.' The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that the number one contributor to happiness is autonomy, “the feeling that your life – its activities and habits – are under your control.”
After signing a contract, traditionally published authors have pretty much zero control – over pricing, timing of publication, marketing, sometimes over the cover, the title and even the words itself. Plenty of authors are told to change their stories to fit what an editor wants. Compare that to the empowerment of the indie author who can learn new skills, work with professionals, make mistakes and learn from them, earn money directly and interact with customers. Yes, it's hard work but it's certainly empowering as hell. The positive energy involved in being an indie can propel you much further, much faster than waiting in line for your turn.
Stop asking permission. You don't need it. Stop waiting to be chosen. Choose yourself.
- Faster time to market. You still have to spend the same amount of time writing and editing. But once you're ready to publish, you upload your files to Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Draft2Digital, Smashwords and any other stores. Your ebook is usually for sale within 4 – 72 hours. You're paid 60 days after the end of the month of sale. If you're doing print on demand, you can get that up within 24 hours if you approve the formatting online. Or, you can order a copy and it might take a couple of weeks, but essentially, it's incredibly quick to get your book up for sale. This certainly suits my personality as once I'm done with a book, I want it out there and selling! I don't want to sit on it for several years while it shuttles around publishers.
- Higher royalties. If you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99 (on Amazon), you can get 70% royalty. Traditional royalty rates usually fit in the 7-25% bracket, averaging 10%. It’s clear that you need to sell far fewer books in order to make the same amount of money with self-publishing. But it's not a get rich quick scheme. That's really important. You can't guarantee that you're going to make any sales or as many sales as you would've done with a traditional publisher. That is more to do with genre, investment in marketing and sometimes, just pure luck. An author can't build a business on luck – but they can learn about marketing and authors have to do this regardless of how they publish these days.
- Sell by any means in any global market, as you retain the rights. My books have now sold in 66 countries and they are for sale in 190 countries. I love to look at my Kobo Writing Life map to see which new countries I've sold to in the last month. I particularly enjoy selling in countries like Burkina Faso or Namibia in sub-Saharan Africa because I went to school in Malawi (no books sold there yet though!)
Yes, these sales are a trickle right now, but in the next few years, cell phone penetration will increase and internet access will become globally pervasive. Of course the sales will tick up – 2 years ago, I was only selling books in US, UK, Australia, Canada and now every month another little blue dot appears. This is for books in English by the way – we're so lucky that English is the most international language.
Pretty much every traditionally published author I spoke to at CrimeFest had sold World English rights for all formats and had barely sold outside the usual country markets because their books aren't even for sale in most places in the world. Most had also sold audiobook rights but the books had not been produced. If you're in this situation, revisit your contract. What do you have the rights for? You can self-publish in countries where you haven't sold the rights, so why not get on with it!
- Niche books can reach an audience. Publishing houses have an expectation of a certain number of sales, so if you're writing a niche book on a particular type of organic tomato, then you might find the market is too small for a major publisher. But the market size may well be enough for you to satisfy your own definition of success with smaller sales and lower income. You can also price as you like, as chances are that your book will appeal to a very particular reader who might pay higher prices.
- Use it to get into the game. These days, if you self-publish and do well, agents and publishers will come to you. You don't have to beg and plead for attention. The power balance is reversed and the empowered indie can get much better deals than a first time author with no evidence of sales. Just look at the deals Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Jasinda Wilder, Meredith Wild and AG Riddle have done in the last year for both print books as well as movie/TV deals. So if you want a traditional deal, skip the slush pile and serve your apprenticeship as an indie.
The cons of being an indie author
So there's the positive side but what about the negative?
- You need to do it all yourself or find suitable professionals to help. As with any new skill, it's a steep learning curve. You still obviously have to do the writing and marketing, but you also have to do the publishing. You have to find an editor (list here) and a cover designer (list here) and work with them, decide on the title, get your work formatted into e-book, print and any other format you want, and you need to find suitable professionals. This isn't such a big deal as we all share with each other online and you can join The Alliance of Independent Authors which vets companies.
But you do have to decide on your definition of success and understand that you need to run all aspects of the business if you want to go the pro indie route. For many people, this is a negative because they just don't have the time to do everything or they don't enjoy doing it. I'm lucky because I love being an entrepreneur. I love all aspects of what I do – from idea generation to creating words on the page, to the technical side of things and everything in between. After many years, I've found the perfect work for me 🙂 If you can manage a project or you could learn to, then you'll likely enjoy it too. But this life certainly not for everyone.
- There's no prestige, kudos or validation by the industry. The stigma lessens every day, but if your definition of success is bound up with what other authors, agents and publishers think of you, then indie might not be best for you. Does the publisher name matter? My answer to this is usually: Think of your favorite book. Who's the author? Who published the book? 99% of readers won't be able to tell you the publisher of the book, but they can certainly tell you the author's name. The other question I get is: How do I know my book is good enough? The answer is: pay a professional editor and work on the book as you would have done with a traditional deal. Then publish it and let the readers decide. “Good” is in the eye of the beholder, as 50 Shades of Grey taught as all.
- You need a budget upfront if you want a professional result. These days, you're likely to spend on professional editing before submitting to an agent anyway, or at least be spending on books and courses for writers. Everyone spends money on their hobby so whether you're knitting or writing or mountain biking, most people are happy to spend money they never get back on something they love. However, if like me, you are intending to make a living from this, then yes, you need to invest money in creating assets for the business with the intention of getting it back in multiple streams of income. Either way, you will need a budget upfront if you want to be a pro indie. You can do it for free, but I would recommend paying pro editors and pro cover designers or bartering for services. It's much cheaper to hire them separately rather than go with full service companies.
- It's difficult to get print distribution in bookstores. It's certainly not impossible and if you care about print distribution then look at the options with Ingram Spark. Also check out the Opening Up to Indie Authors campaign (or check out this interview with Debbie Young on the topic). But you're much more likely to get bookstore distribution with a traditional publisher as that's essentially their business model and has been for a long time. They are experts at printing and distributing physical product. My personal choice is to use Print on Demand through Createspace, so my print books are available on pretty much all online bookstores. In March 2015, The Bookseller reported that online print sales overtook in-store print sales anyway, so doing a POD version means your book is still likely to be discovered by print book buyers.
- Most literary prizes don't accept indie books and most literary critics for mainstream media. So if your definition of success is literary acclaim, you're probably better off going the traditional route. Again, the Opening Up to Indie Authors campaign is looking to address this over time.
The hybrid model: It's not an either/or choice anymore
The industry has changed and many authors now take a hybrid approach to publishing. They will make the decision by book and by particular rights, using the indie model for some things and taking traditional deals for others. This empowers the author to make decisions and choose the best possible route for their book.
For example, Hugh Howey sold his print rights for Wool and did a number of foreign rights deals. Jasinda Wilder sold several new books to traditional publishers while continuing to self-publish another series. AG Riddle sold his film rights and kept his World English ebook rights as an indie. I have a German language deal with a traditional publisher and a literary agent who is handling other sales.
The important thing is that you, the creator, are empowered to choose per project how you would like to progress.
Other publishing options
I've used the two extreme ends of the publishing spectrum as examples but these days, there are many more options for authors. This downloadable chart by Jane Friedman gives a wider view of the options available.
There are new companies springing up every day – some of which are offering a good deal and some that are just sharks who may well take your money and run. Many of the biggest “author services” companies are run by Author Solutions, which is owned by Penguin Random House, so it is author beware. Do your due diligence and get testimonials from authors who are happy to recommend the service before you sign anything.
So how do you evaluate these options?
My basic rule is: How does the company make their money?
Traditional publishers should pay you an advance against royalties, so you get the money first and then they make money as your books sell.
Going completely DIY, as I do, means that you can publish for free with Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life, iBooks, Draft2Digital and Smashwords. These companies are FREE (yes, $0) to publish with and then they take a % of the royalty.
Again, they only make money when you make money. If you self-publish you will need to pay for editing and cover design upfront. But these prices shouldn't break the bank and you should use professionals that other authors have recommended.
If you want to use services that charge for other things, then please check the following resources:
- Preditors and Editors – a watchdog site for authors with listings of which publishers are recommended and which are scams
- Writer Beware – Lots more about scams against authors and companies to watch out for
- Choosing a self-publishing service [book] – by the Alliance of Independent Authors, available on all online bookstores. Written by authors and for authors so you get unbiased advice. Also check out the Self Publishing Advice blog which includes watchdog articles.
Need more help with going indie?
Check out the following resources:
- My own Author 2.0 Blueprint – how I personally write, self-publish and market my books. There's also an email series with videos and more resources if you sign up.
- Let's Get Digital: How to self-publish and why you should – David Gaughran. And more book recommendations here.
- The Alliance of Independent Authors – a brilliant organization for authors who want to professionally self-publish. Members get ebooks and other resources on self-publishing, plus we have a lively Facebook group and monthly Q&A where I answer questions alongside Orna Ross, the founder of the Alliance.
Derek Murphy says
I like the part about indie authors being happier – it makes sense, but it’s also something I’ve experienced in countless writing conferences. Regular authors are seeking help and permission to publish, but are often scared/jaded/losing steam. Self-publishing authors are confused and overwhelmed trying to figure out what to do next. Indie authors have basically got publishing figured out, have built their team, and can focus on writing… so they’re unusually positive, friendly, optimistic and confident (a fun group to hang out with for sure).
Joanna Penn says
We are fun, aren’t we Derek!
I agree on the permission thing – I really couldn’t believe how many trad pub authors said things like “my agent won’t let me do that,” or “my publisher wants me to write something different.” I find it so hard to fathom this idea of permission for creatives!
Stephen Davenport says
What I think is fun is the learning of a whole new business. And the challenge. I want to sell more of my novels via my own publishing than I would if a traditional, big time publisher were putting the books out there. I have a strong feeling that the traditional publishers don’t have a handle on their own profession. They are not good at adjusting to change.
I’ve read “Lets Get Digital” and found it very helpful. As of now I have had two books published in the traditional way and I’ve certainly had difficulties going down that route, especially with timing, cover design and marketing so I am determined to self-publish my next book. I remain unusually poor at marketing, but I have found a good editor, and think I can feel my way towards a reasonably produced product with her help and advice from marvellous people like yourself. Thank you for another very insightful article.
Joanna Penn says
Marketing is just about learning things along the way – and actually, digital marketing for books is not too scary 🙂 Just learn a bit every day.
S. J. Pajonas says
I love being an indie author for all the pros you mentioned. It’s great to have full creative control over my work and make the decisions that impact my career, not waiting for someone else to do those things. Luckily, I decided right from the get-go that winning awards or gaining professional credentials meant nothing to me, so at this point, I see no reason to ever even be a hybrid author. Some AMAZING deal would have to come along and knock me over! Until then, I’m very happy where I am and happiness is the hardest thing to come by 🙂
Joanna Penn says
I agree on the amazing deal SJ – however, it does seem that the amazing deals only seem to come along when authors have reached the point of really not needing one 🙂
Julie Day says
I love being an indie and having control over every decision. Don’t think I’d want to be trad published now for a main novel. I have learnt such a lot on my journey, and am now finding more writers want to go indie, too, so I’ve started a new author service to those who might want my help.
Mary Gannon says
I really appreciate the generosity of people like you, David Gaughran, and Hugh Howey in sharing your journeys. More than anything that sense of helping fellow writers along the way that is part of the community is a huge benefit of being an ‘indie’. I listen to all of your advice and look forward to having my first full-length fantasy romance out later this year.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Mary – we have a super community 🙂
Bryan Cohen says
That rant was practically “Jim-worthy”, Jo :). Great post!
Joanna Penn says
I just don’t have the deep and husky voice for a good rant 🙂
Bryan Cohen says
Garry Rodgers says
Hi Joanna & thanks for this encouraging look at publishing. Just curious… Looking back at your writing career, is there any one thing that you’d change if you had it to do over?
Joanna Penn says
I believe we learn from our “mistakes” and we wouldn’t be who we are without them.
So no regrets here 🙂
As an Indie author I have found it fun(I know, weird) to be able to go back and re-edit some work and I am even in the process of creating a new book cover for my sci/fi series. Posts like this one is so encouraging and full of good advice I need.
One of the cons of indie publishing is paying up front for editors and designers. Right now I am doing some serious self-editing on a few works I have not published yet. However I do agree that getting a professional for that sort of thing is ideal.
Joanna Penn says
Re-editing and fixing things is awesome 🙂
Hi Joanna… love this article. I’ve been procrastinating on this trad/indie thing for a while now, as I wait for my first book(s) to make it to their launch date with my trad publisher. In fact I’ve just been re-reading your author blue print, trying to get my head around what I need to do to ‘go indie’. I write for children, which may make things a bit different, but have just decided to republish some short stories in ebook format as a cross between a learning exercise and an experiment: ie. can I do this? It’s been a big learning curve this weekend with Scrivener, but here I go, jumping in the deep end. Wish me well.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Cate – things are changing for children’s book authors – check this out: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2015/01/19/kindle-kids-book-creator/
and also this: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2014/01/14/books-for-children-karen-inglis/
In the meantime, short stories are a good way to start learning the process. All the best and have fun!
Thanks Joanna 🙂
Linda Maye Adams says
I’ve wanted to go indie but have been procrastinating. Even though I knew I did want to do it, it was still kind of scary taking the first step. It finally hit me in early May that I just needed to do it. I had to tell myself just to take the first step of picking the first short story. I’ve done graphics with Photoshop, so covers have been easy. I’m thinking of picking covers and then writing a story for them.
Copy editing turned into a huge speed bump. It was surprisingly hard to find one! I’d ask other writers for recommendations for a copy editor and get an editor who only did developmental editing. Or I’d find an editor who did copy editing and they’d charge an astronomical sum just to touch it. Some did developmental editing and proofreading, but not copy editing, which was worrisome. The editor will tell me how to write and find my typos but won’t help me with style and grammar issues? I did find one that worked for me off your linked page, so I’m a happy camper.
Joanna Penn says
Super 🙂 all the best Linda!
Katarina West says
What a great post – loved it! It’s all there: the challenges and the problems, the advantages, possibilites and difficulties… Thanks, Joanna!
Lisa Caskey says
Hi Joanna! Thanks for the fabulous article (as always)!
I currently work a full time job. I’m trying to transition to writing full time but need to get a few revenue streams generated first.
I really really want to go indie, but am concerned about the time restrictions. How much time per book would you say it takes to indie publish?
Joanna Penn says
Hi Lisa, the time is not so much in publishing, the time is in writing, editing and marketing books. It takes me a couple of hours these days to publish ebooks separately on all the stores, or you can go through an aggregator like Smashwords/ draft2Digital and it’s much quicker. For POD with Createspace it’s not long either. You just have to go through it a couple of times to be comfortable with everything.
It took me a couple of years to transition over so just go slow 🙂
Tiffee Jasso says
Great article. I appreciate all your advice and links.
A.C. Melody says
I’m so glad I stumbled onto this post! I just started researching the pros and cons of going Indie and your article covered a lot of things I wanted to know – especially, the hybrid option. I have a trad pub currently, and it was a dream come true getting that first book published, but there are so many cons and after having trouble with the cover art for my second book and just the whole LONG process of waiting for them to get to the next step is what’s killing the magic for me. Of course, I no longer have the rights to the series they have contracts for, but I was considering going Indie for the new books I’m working on. I wasn’t even sure an author could do both, but now I do! Thank you, as well, for all of the helpful links/lists you included! – A.C.
Charley Daveler says
The other side of the coin about creative freedom is when an artist really doesn’t complete control, but just veto power. The problem I see some getting into is when they DON’T want to make important decisions, just the fun ones, or the ones they’re already good at, and so cut corners or skip a certain aspect all together.
For instance, I worked with a director, writer, and star who claimed he wanted full creative control, but didn’t hire a camera man and didn’t care about camera angles at all. The end result was that most shots were long, taken from halfway across the room.
If you have the money to hire someone who cares, or are willing to learn and push yourself, the non-traditional route is great. Otherwise, I think there are those who would be better to just work on their negotiating skills and finding a publisher with a full and experienced team.