An adapted and unedited chapter from my upcoming SkipJack Publishing book (release date August 15, 2013) What kind of loser indie publishes, and how can I be one too?
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, an author’s publishing choices were limited to traditional presses or the so-called vanity presses. Vanity presses got their name because they were so expensive that only authors with the money to indulge their vanity could afford to print their books, and then they usually ended up giving them away or storing them in a shrine.
Ecommerce, ebooks, and POD (print-on-demand) have nearly relegated vanity press to a historical phenomenon. Today, authors can independently publish books of any degree of quality or lack thereof, in a much more affordable fashion. Certainly, that enables some authors to misguidedly — through ignorance, lack of awareness, or, yes, even vanity — to publish works that maybe should have remained forever hidden on a hard drive at the bottom of the ocean. It also partially levels the publishing playing field, though, allowing talented writers retain control and take charge of their writing career.
The complexity of the decision tree on how to publish makes computer programmers shiver in horror. Here is my highly simplified view of the choices:
The traditional model: With the assistance of an agent, an author sells a manuscript to a publishing house. Normally the house pays variable size monetary advance to the author, and the author always gives away a percentage of royalties to the agent and to the house to cover their investment and potential profits. These percentages vary. The author does not generally pay any costs upfront. Sometimes the author contracts for several books, or for right of first refusal on a next book. The house publishes the manuscript in the formats and markets it deems prudent, as specified in the contract, with a year or more lead time. The house distributes through its networks, as best it can. At some point, the house may give rights on the book(s) back to the author, although this issue has become increasingly complex with the advent of ebooks. I call this model Big House.
The small-to-medium-sized press model: Still traditional, with or without the assistance of an agent, an author sells a manuscript to a small-to-medium-sized press. Sometimes the house pays some type of modest monetary advance to the author, and the author always gives away a percentage of royalties to the agent and to the house to cover their investment and potential profits. Percentages vary. The author often does not pay any costs upfront. Sometimes the author contracts for several books, or for right of first refusal on a next book. The house publishes the manuscript in the formats and markets it deems prudent, as specified in the contract but normally with a smaller budget than a major house, usually with a year or more lead time. The house distributes through its networks, which generally are smaller than those of a major house, as best it can. At some point, the house may give rights on the book(s) back to the author, although this issue has become increasingly complex with the advent of ebooks. I refer to this model as Small Press.
The indie models:
An author performs or procures the services of providers needed to independently publish a manuscript under his own name or a name he creates for his indie publishing venture. Some authors choose to purchase all these services under one umbrella, like on CreateSpace. Others will work with individual providers for each service, like I have. The author covers all of his own costs. The author chooses the formats to publish, the timeline, and the distribution channels to pursue. I think of this model as Pure Indie or the Maverick.
Note: Authors whose traditional publishers have released rights back to those authors can publish their books independently without the upfront time and investment on manuscript consult and editing that a first-time indie published author will face for his books. Authors like J.A. Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith have been quite successful on this path. They both have very informative websites. Do some serious reading on their sites. You won’t regret it.
An author contracts with an author-assistance company who bundles the services needed to independently publish his manuscript, either under their name or a name he chooses. The author covers all of his own costs through payment to the service company, a royalty, or some combination. The author’s choice over the formats to publish, the timeline, and the distribution channels to pursue is limited by the company and their contract. I call this model “Author, Assisted.”
Note: Many traditional houses now own author service companies. Some, like Penguin’s Author Solutions, are highly criticized as offering nothing more than overpriced, author-gouging vanity publishing. In general, beware when a Big House tries to make money from the authors it deems unworthy of publishing on its own dime. Something’s not right with that picture.
An author publishes independently, then gains notice from traditional press. The author contracts with a publishing house, with or without an agent, and follows some or all of the traditional model. Texas author Rhiannon Frater successfully moved a zombie trilogy from indie to Tor Publishing, and kept indie publishing some of her other work. Hugh Howey kept ebook rights to his sci-fi Wool, but contracted print rights to Simon & Schuster. I’ll call this Indie-to-Traditional.
Endless variations flow from each model. There are several common factors for each, however. First, in each one, the author bears primary responsibility for promoting and marketing his own book. Secondly, the author always bears the cost for the book to be published, whether it is through royalty shares, direct payment to a press or author assistance company, payments to various service providers, or some combination thereof.
The challenge for an indie author is achieving simplification without exploitation from a service provider who paints an unrealistic sales picture and charges top-of-the-market (or worse) fees/royalty splits. Consider that the average author who publishes with Penguin’s Author Solutions sells 150 books. The meaning of average here is “most of us.” Please bear that in mind and factor it into what you spend in attaining your publishing goals.
The easiest model for an indie craving simplicity is to publish POD through Amazon’s CreateSpace and ebooks through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). I’ll discuss CreateSpace and KDP at length in my upcoming book What kind of loser indie publishes, and how can I be one too?. CreateSpace offers all the assistive services an author needs to bring a book to market, as well. There are negatives to this simple approach though. The author may not get the best services or the best price, of course, and the author gives up other potential distribution channels.
The really courageous Maverick is willing to bear more complexity in his business model to retain choices, maximize quality, and minimize cost.
At least, that’s the world as I see it. What do you think?
Pamela Fagan Hutchins is an employment attorney and workplace investigator by day who writes award-winning and bestselling mysterious women’s fiction (Saving Grace) and humorous nonfiction (How to Screw Up Your Kids) by night. She is passionate about great writing and smart author-preneurship. She also leaps medium-tall buildings in a single bound, if she gets a good running start.