Over the last year I’ve started teaching a workshop called “What kind of loser indie publishes, and how can I be one too?” To put it mildly, there’s been a clamoring for the information. And, despite several good books on this topic already available, that clamor includes requests for a book from me. Said book was already in the works, so, what the heck, here’s the unedited Chapter One of the book by the same name slated for August 2013 release. Following is its current Table of Contents.
Chapter One: You can make (no) money all by yourself.
My Personal Definition of a Loser:
- Willing to work hard to make little or nothing.
- Comfortable having people whisper “he couldn’t get a real book contract” behind his back.
- Under the right circumstances, would run naked on a beach.
Seriously, y’all, any writers out there? If you’re a writer, chances are you’re not in the game expecting a Spindletop gusher payday. Sure, it would be nice, but we all know most writers — most traditionally published authors — are working stiffs like the rest of us. For every J.K. Rowling, there’s a legion of also-rans, slodging away at day jobs they might not even like. English teachers. Air conditioner installers. Attorneys by day, like me, and night-and-weekend artists, like most of you reading this book.
For every traditionally-published author working a day job there are millions of writers who haven’t even grasped their hand around that solidly satisfying brass ring — true writers, writers called by their hearts to lay their souls or their wisdom on the page, yet writers who haven’t earned a single cent on a book sale, in any form of publishing. Maybe they’re already living the life, working as journalists, Hallmark card sonnet writers, or authors of jingles, dishwasher ads, and Viagra commercials.
The bulk of them aren’t summering in the Hamptons, either.
Have you ever met anyone who worked harder than a writer trying to make a living off writing alone? Me neither.
So why do we write, and why do we seek to publish, if it isn’t for a sure path to riches? I can’t speak for you, but I can repeat what writers around the country tell me. It’s the same thing that drives me, and it’s easy to sum up: we’re writers, and we can’t stop writing and dreaming of sharing our words with other people, any more than we can stop breathing in and out. We just can’t help it. Nor can we help dreaming that someone is going to come along to take the whole mucky, scary business of publishing off our hands, or at least make it very easy.
Because, make no mistake, while writing is an art, publishing is a business, a mucky scary business complete with supply chains, distribution networks, profit and loss statements, and inventory issues. It’s a business of relationships, contracts, and figuring out how to get the customer what she needs. It’s a business where, in essence, the decision of which books to publish usually hinges on whether or not they will be profitable; in other words, whether they will earn more money than it costs to put them into the customers’ hands.
It’s a business, like all businesses, that relies on the almighty dollar (or euro or deutschmark or whatever). Can we afford to keep the lights on and the doors open, or not? Can we pay our employees or not? Can we satisfy our owners that their money isn’t better spent elsewhere or not?
That doesn’t sound very artistic, does it? And it isn’t. No wonder many of us would love some publishing company to swoop in and take away the risk, the effort, and the sheer messiness of it all. Plus, gosh, doesn’t it mean you’re somebody special if a big publisher takes on your book? It’s legitimizing, at the very least.
But signing yourself and your art over to a publisher comes at a price. For all that help — valuable help — you give up a hefty piece of your future earnings, and a large measure of control as well. Make no mistake: you pay the publishing company to publish your book. They choose your book(s) because they think they can make money off of you, by providing those services and calling most of the shots, like what (if any) advertising, marketing, promotion, and publicity budget they will allot to your books. Like what your cover will look like. Like whether they’ll ever let your book see the light of day without the rewrites and edits they deem necessary for it to sell to the customer they are co-creating it for. Whether and what reviews they will seek for it, and what kind of weight they’ll put behind those requests. How they’ll promote it. When they will release it, and what other possibly competing books they’ll be handling as well. Shall I go on? I could, and it’s a pretty sobering list, considering you thought you’d come up sevens when the publisher bought the rights to your book(s). You mean it still might not get published? It might be published in a way that doesn’t maximize its chance of success, even if just in your eyes?
And working with a major house doesn’t guarantee your financial success. Herman Melville sold only 50 copies of Moby Dick before his death. In fact, most authors with major houses never “earn out” their advance, meaning they never get another cent after their initial advance check. The average debut novelist with a major house, according to Gary Smailes of The Proactive Writer (http://proactivewriter.com/blog/), sells about 2,000 books in the first year. If he sells 10,000 in the first year, chances are the house feels he is doing quite well. If he sells 14,000 or more in the debut year, the book will likely be deemed a big success to the house, but likely not earn the author much more than a pat on the back.
A few years ago, I stood at a crossroads in my own writing journey. I had multiple manuscripts for three of my novels out with great agents. I had their cell phone numbers on my iPhone. I didn’t have offers of representation, but I did have phone dialogues going and requests to see rewrites. I wasn’t there, but I was this close.
At the same time, the publishing industry stood at a crossroads of its own. Ebooks seemed poised to take over the world. Profit margins were tight. Major authors like Stephen King were discovering self-publishing (yeah, the authors the publishers made all their profit on). And it wasn’t just them. Amazon was offering 70% Kindle royalties. E-commerce was truly accessible, and print on demand had become almost easy. Gone were the days when a writer’s only alternative to traditional publishing was an expensive vanity press. Amanda Hocking had burst on the scene, making millions off books spurned by agents and editors. J.A. Konrath had shown that a middle-of-the-pack author could turn his released backlist and future indie published writing into a more-than-respectable income.
A steady stream of authors began making their way over to Amazon. Their dribs and drabs of sales added to the sales of self-publishing rock stars added up to something significant that the publishes felt in their wallets and in the deepest darkest scared places in their hearts. It didn’t, however, make much money for most self-published authors, who have trouble selling a copy outside of their immediate families. And 70% of nothing is, well, nothing. Or rather it is nothing in terms of money, but, if your goal is to share your words and your worlds, it’s a whole heck of a lot of something, and, to the major houses, all of that something started taking a bigger and bigger toll.
Publishers needed to figure out how all this change impacted their business model, but, frankly, at the time I was making my decision about whether to indie publish, they hadn’t yet. Writers discovered the concept of “disintermediation,” where the only truly necessary players in the game of book sales were author and reader, save possibly a freelance editor, a digital artist, a publicist, and a business consultant, and those were service providers an author could retain for herself, if she chose to.
Slim publishing profits narrowed further.
And I had a decision to make. Should I keep chasing after a possibility whose probability was rapidly decreasing, at the price of control? I mean, who really knew what return I would get on my three novel rewrites? Certainly I wasn’t guaranteed representation, and even if I got it, a book sale was not an automatic. If and when I signed a sales contract, the size of my potential advance shrunk daily, and the other terms of my deal grew less favorable as well, because this was business, and a business on the rocks. That potential deal would still require me to promote and market my own book too, on my dime and my own time. Bottom line: I had no guarantee of a return or of ever publishing.
Or should I throw my hat into the ring of indie publishing? Still, I’d have no guarantee of a return, and I could lose my own money at indie publishing. The rewards, though, were huge. I’d get the chance to share my words with whoever wanted to read them. I’d retain control, beautiful blessed control, and publish the book of my heart, not the book of someone else’s balance sheet. And that’s where the crux of it was to me: control. I’d been an entrepreneur for nearly 20 years. I knew how to run a business, and do it successfully. And promotion and marketing were a wash whether I went indie or stuck to tradition. How big a stretch was it, really, to move from entrepreneur to author-preneur? Bottom line: I had no guarantee of a return as an indie, but I did have a guarantee of publishing, which is what really drove me.
“You can make no money with someone telling you what to do or make no money calling your own shots. Which one would give you more joy?” my husband Eric asked. “And don’t answer that, because I already know. So I’ll help you.”
And he did.
I’d love to say the result was a gusher, but I’d be lying. It was a smashing success to us, while modest by major house standards. I sold 5,000 copies of my debut novel in the first six months. Combined with Kindle giveaways during that time period, 50,000 people got a copy of Saving Grace. It was picked up nationwide by Hastings Entertainment for their 137 stores, and regionally by Barnes and Noble. It led to greater exposure and sales for my backlist of relationship humor books. It paved the way for my future books. It beat the performance of most debut novelists with a major house. For all of that, I am grateful and excited, but not rolling in money. What I am rich in, however, is information, tons and tons of information on indie publishing successes and failures, good moves and missteps.
So here’s something I know: if you indie publish, you are a needle in a haystack. In 2012 alone, 235,000 indie titles were published, representing about 43% of books published that year, according to Bowker. There are more than one million Kindle ebooks in publication as I type this manuscript, and that number grows quickly. According to Penguin-owned Author Solutions (not my top choice for helping indie authors, but a valid source of data), its average indie title sells 150 copies. *That’s not an annual number, folks, that’s a forever number.*
Not only are individuals indie publishing, but so are businesses, like AskMen magazine, who has launched a line of books to meet perceived needs of their customers. Successful authors are turning their brands into franchises. Take James Patterson and his growing flock of authors, for example. So you’re competing with an incredible volume of titles, traditional and indie, individual and business, and it’s increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.
Be careful basing your “go indie” decision too heavily on widely-touted indie riches stories. For instance, Fifty Shades of Gray was originally indie-published, but it became a massive commercial success only after Random House picked it up (in my mind, it was still a huge indie coup that Random House discovered it in the realms of the indie published books, though).
Before you decide, ask yourself:
- Can I deliver the quality needed to make sales?
- Do I have the necessary business skills?
- Can I promote my books to the point of recognition and sales?
- Will I still have time to keep writing?
- And, most importantly, why am I choosing to indie publish? Because, if I only want copies of my book for myself, friends, and family, and I don’t care about making money, it may not matter to me if I ever sell a single book.
For some of us, despite the odds and the cons, our goals align with independence. If you’re one of those intrepid souls, stubborn to the bone and yearning to work like a pack mule, then you’re just the kind of loser who’s right for the world of indie publishing.
If that’s a “hell yeah” or even an “hmmm, maybe,” read on.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Getting your money’s worth from this book.
Part 1: Why the heck would you do this?
Chapter One; You can make (no) money all by yourself.
Chapter Two: It’s easier than it looks. And harder too.
Chapter Three: You’re gonna write it anyway, so why not do something with it?
Chapter Four: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a platypus.
Chapter Five: Because loser is the new cool kid.
Part 2: Do yourself a favor and be the best loser you can be.
Chapter Six: It’s not easy being green.
Chapter Seven: You take the low road, and I’ll take the high road.
Chapter Eight: It’s not like anyone’s gonna know, right?
Chapter Nine: Because you’ve got to start somewhere.
Chapter Ten: Strategy is a sexy beast.
Chapter Eleven: The price is right.
Part 3: Avoiding the shape of an “L” on your forehead.
Chapter Twelve: Putting it out there.
Chapter Thirteen: The practice of writing, and writing as a practice.
Chapter Fourteen: If you don’t have anything nice to say, you’re perfect for a critique group.
Chapter Fifteen: Who died and made you the expert anyway?
Chapter Sixteen: Don’t go out with spinach in your teeth.
Chapter Seventeen: What the heck’s a beta, and why can’t you live without one?
Part 4: Making Sure You Look the Part
Chapter Eighteen: Image is (almost) everything.
Chapter Nineteen: Giving good copy.
Chapter Twenty: Pretend you’re a rocket scientist.
Chapter Twenty-one: Your name in lights.
Chapter Twenty-two: Tschotzes and hoohas rock.
Part 5: It always comes down to this.
Chapter Twenty-three: A plan unto itself.
Chapter Twenty-four: Help me help you.
Chapter Twenty-five: They won’t bite (hard).
Chapter Twenty-six: Who buys the cow when you give the milk away free?
Chapter Twenty-seven: It’s no contest.
Chapter Twenty-eight: Socialize for success.
Chapter Twenty-nine: Speak up, they can’t hear you.
Chapter Thirty: Book it, Danno.
Chapter Thirty-one: Becoming a media darling.
Chapter Thirty-two: And that was(n’t) all she wrote. (additional ideas, debunk advertising)
Part 6: Don’t stop now, you’re almost there.
Chapter Thirty-three: The line forms here.
Chapter Thirty-four: Ebook enhancing features.
Chapter Thirty-five: Pump up the volume.
Chapter Thirty-six: Oodles and poodles of fun.
Chapter Thirty-seven: The gift that keeps on giving, to Amazon.
Chapter Thirty-eight: Mistakes build character.
Chapter Thirty-nine: Your next big thing.
Chapter Forty: Stranger things have happened.
Chapter Forty-one: Someone else’s idea of hell can be your happy.
Indie Publishing Timeline and Budget Sheet
Marketing Plan for Saving Grace
Indie Army Promotional Spreadsheet
Publicist Paula Margulies’ interview of PFH
I didn’t get this smart by accident.
Over the course of this summer, I’ll share a few more select chapters on my favorite topics.
Until then, keep writing, my friends.
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.