While the United States celebrates Independence Day this week, I’m celebrating independent publishing. Especially this year, as the publishing industry wrestles with the implications of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m feeling increasingly happy about my decision to publish my first novel independently.
Indie publishing is loosely defined as any sort of publishing beyond large corporate trade, academic, and scientific publishers. That category includes both smaller houses that typically are not publicly traded companies as well as author-publishers who produce and market their own books.
Indie author-publishers may produce a physical and/or digital book under a personal or a business name, or they may hire a third party to handle the majority of editorial, production, and promotion tasks; the latter model can slide into “hybrid” publishing, which is another contested concept. The primary distinction from a business standpoint is that in traditional publishing, the publisher assumes most of the financial risk by accepting a book for publication, whereas the indie publisher bears the financial burden of getting the book to market.
Author-publishers are also called self-publishers. The latter term is preferred by those who wish to denigrate indie entrepreneurs. I have nothing against the traditional publishing industry, which is why I don’t call traditionally published authors lazy or afraid of learning new things—which, trust me, you must do to be an indie publisher. In fact, as a former book and magazine editor, and a writer who has had academic and freelance articles published in traditional outlets, I’ve been part of the traditional publishing industry. And that’s why I knew I could produce as good a book as the corporate behemoths.
Even today, when indie authors account for an ever-increasing percentage of titles and sales, the truths about indie publishing are not self-evident.
Even today, when indie authors account for an ever-increasing percentage of titles and sales, the truths about indie publishing are not self-evident. For readers curious about the differences between traditional and indie publishing, I’ve constructed a short list below. The reasons for both fiction and nonfiction authors taking the indie path vary, so consider this a highly personal list.
Traditional Publishing Takes a Long Time
Unless you’ve got a big name and a timely topic that publishers think they’ll make millions from, moving from completed manuscript to published book typically takes well over a year. After snagging an agent, and after that agent hooks a publisher (both of which can take several years under the traditional model), authors typically wait a year or more to see their book in print. That’s how long traditional publishing takes to go through the editorial, production, and promotion process. It’s the latter—built around customary spring and fall lists—that drives much of the delay.
Experienced indie publishers can bring a book to market in as little as one to three months, but I wanted to present a professionally edited, produced, and promoted book, so I budgeted six months.
Agents and Publishers Love a Safe Bet
Much as in Hollywood, agents and publishers love a book that sounds like something that has previously been successful. I, on the other hand, love to read and write stories I haven’t seen a dozen of. That’s a problem for cracking traditional gate-keepers.
Publishing is very subjective
The Big Five (whose numbers continue to decline thanks to mergers)—Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster—don’t accept author pitches. The price of admission is signing with an agent first. In the six months I allotted to the agent query process, I heard variations on this theme: “After reflection, we don’t feel that this is a perfect fit for [Agent’s] list. Publishing is very subjective, however, and another agent may well feel differently.” The key word there is “subjective.” Even before the pandemic, traditional publishers and agents were reluctant to take on new authors who didn’t already have a large public presence—and, hence, built-in market—or who hadn’t written the next Gone Girl or Twilight series.
Would I have liked to secure an agent and publisher contract? Sure. It would have meant less work for me, as well as easier access to markets, reviewers, awards, and readers. Would I spend an indefinite number of years pursuing that goal? Hell, no. I’d rather declare my independence.
Traditional Publishers Offer Exposure—for a Price
The main advantage of using a traditional publisher (when that’s an option) is exposure. (Book advances are nowhere near as large as in previous eras, most advances don’t come close to paying the rent, and when advances don’t “earn out”—meaning that the book has sold enough copies to pay back the advance—the author sees no future royalties.) The big corporate houses, whose numbers have been steadily declining, have the most clout with book distributors and booksellers. That means they can make your book more visible to potential buyers.
However, those same publishers have almost total control over the fate of a title once it’s acquired. The publisher chooses the editorial team (Will you be simpatico?), the cover design (Will you hate it?), the print run (How big a bet will they make?), the promotional budget (Did you know that anyone other than best-selling authors is expected to fund and organize the bulk of a book’s promotion these days?), and how long the book stays in print.
Successful Authors Can Go Indie and Traditional
It used to be that the mark of a successful indie author was to be picked up by a traditional publisher. That typically happens after impressive indie sales, as was the case with E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. That franchise earned Random House so much (one estimate puts net profit at $163.5 million) that the publisher gave a $5,000 bonus to each of its more than 5,000 employees. (In case it’s not obvious, that sort of earnings record is rare.)
… indie authors don’t have to stay in one genre lane …
However, an opposing trend is also taking shape. The reasons are as varied as the authors and their goals, but those leaving big-name publishers for the indie realm are more than a blip. (One UK author offers a case study in this lengthy but fascinating article from 2015.) Thanks to new technologies, feisty new distribution and retail partners (more on those another time), and readers of all ages who are platform agnostic, indie authors don’t have to stay in one genre lane—something that traditional publishing contracts may stipulate; instead, they can publish as widely and eclectically as they wish.
These days, even agented authors will, at least selectively, go indie in order to retain greater control and potentially higher earnings. That’s the case with Tim Westover, the winner of this year’s first Selfies U.S. Book Award, sponsored by IngramSpark and presented at the American Library Association’s annual conference. Westover has an agent, but he felt that self-publishing The Winter Sisters would be the most pragmatic option. “Indies carry the stigma of ‘not good enough to get traditionally published.’ And sometimes that’s true. But there’s also a substantial segment of authors that speak to smaller audiences, whether that’s something regional (like my book) or a hyper-specific genre or a minority cultural voice,” Westover says.
Indie Publishing Is Mainstream
One could argue that indie publishing is the original traditional publishing in the U.S. After all, Benjamin Franklin, one of our Founding Fathers, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, was a self-publisher (under a pseudonym) of Poor Richard’s Almanack. No surprise, then, that the Independent Book Publishers Association (I’m a member) named its awards program after Franklin.
In the early centuries of book printing, someone with money decided what got published. That was either the publisher or the wealthy patron or the author with means. Not much has changed. When authors foot the bill for publishing, the process has often been labeled “vanity publishing,” but given today’s options, one retired college professor has argued that traditional publishing is the new vanity publishing.
Today, indie publishing is big business.
Today, indie publishing is big business. In 2018 for example, the number of self-published books increased forty percent and totaled 1.68 million. And in June this year, Publisher’s Weekly Vice President and Publisher Cevin Bryerman said, “Self-publishing is one of the fastest growing segments in the book industry.”
Indies Have More Control
My favorite jobs have always been those where I’ve had influence over both the big picture and countless details. It’s the project manager in me. Now I’m putting those skills to work for my own project.
For starters, I get final say over how the cover looks. Traditionally published authors may be able to offer feedback on proposed covers, but they never get the final vote. For example, one publishing industry insider has written about strongly disliking the first cover proposed for her nonfiction book. The revision might be better, but in my opinion, her book’s cover is dull and conveys nothing about the contents (which I’ve read).
I also was able to choose the formats I wanted to invest in. Instead of hard cover—the standard first-run choice for traditional publishers—I opted for trade paperback to keep the price lower, in hopes of attracting more readers. I’m also offering ebook formats, of course. Audio books require additional investment for a professional narrator and production, so that decision is for a future date.
Indies Can Adapt More Easily
The novel coronavirus has been a harsh reminder of human frailty and business fragility. The traditional industry carries on, but smaller traditional publishers, including those affiliated with universities, are struggling operationally and financially.
Meanwhile, well-established authors with agents and traditional publisher contracts are leaning more heavily on social media and other guerilla marketing tools long employed by indies. For example, with in-person book tours cancelled, one group of novelists, operating under the moniker A Mighty Blaze, has turned to do-it-yourself online promotion. (They only include traditionally published authors.)
I made the decision to go indie before the coronavirus threw all businesses into coping mode. In retrospect, it feels like a lucky bet. When my launch schedule was thrown by an editing delay, I was able to adjust the publication date, and as a print-on-demand publisher, I can avoid the financial risk of a too-large print run.
Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles is getting favorable early reviews, which is a welcome validation of my decisions over the past several months. Though there are no sure bets in indie or traditional publishing, I’m proud to declare myself an independent author.
For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.