Fences Schmences—Why Going Indie Was Easy

Lately I’ve seen several comments in other forums where an unpublished writer mentions they’re not sure if they should self-publish or go the traditional route. As an indie writer who has friends in both camps, I realized that their indecision was due to a lack of knowledge of each process.

Now, before all you experienced indie (and traditional) authors excoriate me with your “How the heck can a writer STILL be on the fence about this?” I want to remind everyone that they were newbies once and there’s a whole lotta information out there, some good, and some that smell worse than crab guts left in the garbage for longer than five minutes on a hot day (yes, I left them in the house overnight and yes, we almost had to move).

In an effort to help make this decision easier, I’ve listed some important considerations when contemplating whether you should go indie or try the trad route.

STARTING OUT:

• TRAD: To be traditionally published, you will need to become a synopsis and query-writing ninja. Indeed, I’ve been told that these two elements are THE most important skills in the trad-pubbed writer’s toolkit. Now, certainly they can be learned, but I will tell you that before I went indie, my head nearly exploded from the different ‘rules’ spouted by reputable sources on how long a synopsis should be, how to format both documents, and how to write them. I attended three different classes and all three told me something different. Then you have to send them out and wait for a response which may or may not come. As a person who has issues in the impatience department, I would rather undergo having my toenails extracted with a Dremel than wait for a reply from an overworked agent or editor.

• INDIE: If you’re just starting out, you have a huge learning curve to overcome. There are several good blogs and other sources of information out there for you to peruse, IU being one of them. You need to like making your own decisions and trying new things and even (gasp) failing on occasion, so be completely honest with yourself on that score. Are you resilient? Can you learn from your mistakes and move on? One of the best things about going indie is that most of us are notoriously helpful to newbies, so if you don’t know something, ASK.

TIME FACTOR:

• INDIE: You can publish whenever you think the book is ready to roll, and it is relatively easy and inexpensive to do yourself. Always a good thing if you’re not fond of waiting for other people to make up their minds. Conversely, this is not a good thing if your manuscript isn’t ready for prime time and you don’t realize it.

• TRAD: Publication tends to take a bit longer. As a general rule, once your book has been acquired by a publishing house, you will wait a minimum of 12-18 months until it’s released, often longer. During which time, of course, you will not earn anything except possibly an advance (see below).

MONEY:

• TRAD: When you are traditionally published, sometimes the publishing house will give you what’s called an advance against earnings. This is a loan on your book’s future royalties. Further payment is delayed until your book ‘earns out’ the advance, which, for debut authors happens about as often as the IU staff receives extra rations of gruel.

Here’s the link to a post by romance writer Brenda Hiatt that lists actual advances and percentages from publishing houses. Yes, the list is romance-specific, but it will give you some insight as to what to expect if you’re picked up by one of the trad houses. (Remember, subsequent advances are only if the house offers you another contract, which isn’t a given, especially if your previous title didn’t earn out.) Percentages are a LOT lower than what an indie earns from the big etailers like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. A LOT. Remember that the percentages listed are generally NET, which means you receive a percentage of what the book earns AFTER expenses. Another consideration: many publishing houses only accept agented submissions, which means another step in the process (securing an agent), and another percentage taken from your earnings (typically 15%).

• INDIE: Realize that as an indie you will not earn a dime if people 1) don’t know about your book, and 2) don’t think it’s any good. If you do it right and have other people read it other than your family or BFF and incorporate their feedback, get it professionally edited, take the time to research your genre, get a fabulous cover, tweak your description until it’s the bee’s knees, and basically work your behind off to promote it, then you have a chance to earn the big buck$ (and yes, I’m being facetious). Yes, there is the potential that your work will earn money from day one. It happens, but don’t count on it. The percentages paid by etailers vary from 35 to 75 percent of the book’s list price.

Ka-ching.

COVER/TITLE:

• INDIE: You get to pick your cover and your title. If you have experience in graphic design, try doing your own. DO NOT use just any ol’ picture off the interwebz. Make sure it is ROYALTY FREE. If graphic design’s not your strong suit, hire it out. The cost can range anywhere from $45-$2000 and up.

• TRAD: Normally, as a debut author you won’t get a say in your cover. Many times you don’t get a say in your title if the sales department doesn’t think it will sell.

CONTENT:

• INDIE: You are responsible for your content. You need to make sure it’s grammatically correct, free of typos, formatted correctly, etc. At the very least you will need to hire a copy editor unless you’re lucky and have a good relationship with one already. You are also responsible for any and all legal ramifications. (Especially if you ‘borrow’ or quote someone else’s prose, lyrics, etc.)

• TRAD: Yes, you’re responsible for your book’s content, but here’s where the publishing houses earn their keep—in editing. They have staff editors but also out-source depending on workload. Most likely they’ll run your manuscript through a content editor as well as a copy editor.

NOTE: Keep in mind that if you decide to go indie and think your book needs a content edit, it is fairly expensive and can be out of reach of the typical indie author.

PROMOTION/PUBLICITY:

• TRAD: Debut authors get some push from the big houses, but you’ll still be doing a lot of it yourself if you want the book to have a chance at earning out.

• INDIE: It’s all you, baby. Get used to the idea. The good news: there’s a bunch of free ways to get your book front and center. The bad news: promotion is a huge time suck, and results are not guaranteed.

So there you have it. For me, it was an easy call to go indie. For others, being traditionally published will appeal. Either way, evaluate your strengths and weaknesses in a realistic light—then going indie or trad will be an easy choice.

Author: D.V. Berkom

DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest region of the US, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat. Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes in the male point of view whenever she gets a chance. Indies Unlimited: https://www.indiesunlimited.com/author/d-v-berkom/ Amazon US author page link: http://www.amazon.com/DV-Berkom/e/B004EVOYH6 Website: www.dvberkom.com

39 thoughts on “Fences Schmences—Why Going Indie Was Easy”

    1. I’ll tell you what, Lynne, it completely confounded me until I realized that no one really knows 🙂 (or, that there’s more than one way to skin a dungeness crab…)

  1. Very well written, DVB! I continue to be amazed at how generous experienced Indie authors (such as you) are with their analysis and tips. Thank you — I am working on my second novel and was wondering whether to go Indie or not, and you have helped me swing Indie…..blessings.

  2. Great post, but I think there is a third avenue you didn’t explore – small press publishers. They are different from traditional publishers (faster turnaround, more author say in cover and title, more personal attention, rarely require agents, a lot more lenient with synopsis and query letters, but no advances, not much publicity other than from the author, and a few other cons) and also different from indie publishing (they do take a cut of the earnings but are more generous than trad publishers). Can you tell which route I pursued? If you aren’t comfortable jumping straight to self-publishing and don’t want to deal with a big publisher, a small press might be a better fit.

    1. Completely agree, Jaleta… I started out in 2010 with a small epublisher and went out on my own after I realized I could work most of the angles myself. The publisher was gracious enough to return my rights, so it worked out. It’s a great way to test the waters and many writers I know prefer to do it that way. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Excellent post with no stone left unturned. I’m a happy, successful indie publisher, but the amount of effort it takes is exhausting! Still, I wouldn’t give it up, and will go this route again (when I have the time to finish my new book!) because I can’t bear the thought of going through the misery of querying, waiting, uncertainty etc. All the points you make about polishing the work until it’s gleaming are essential. And also, the indie community is fabulously generous with information and help. There is a lot of information on social media sites–their importance can’t be stressed enough.
    Thank you for writing this–I’m sure it will be bookmarked by many!

  4. Great post DV! This one is a no-brainer to me too, but as you say there are an awful lot of newbies out there and more each day. I wish becoming an author came with a manual like this because this is information all authors will have to learn. Sadly most learn the hard way. Well done.

    1. Hmmm. A manual for newbies…. I’m sure someone will eventually write that tome (rather than just focusing on the marketing end). Only problem is, once it’s published, the rules will have changed and much of the information will be obsolete. I teach a class on self-publishing and am continually revising the material. It’s a lot of fun, but also a lot of work.

      Thanks for stopping by, AC!

  5. Well done and well covered. For authors who are technophile enough to see the fun factor added to indie publish books I don’t think there’s much to ponder between the two option. Only moment of doubt would be a 6 digit cheque from a major trad publisher, the way Hugh Howie had had. 🙂

    Another thing to consider though, is that an Indie writer has to put aside a budget for professional proofreading and editing. Going fully alone is not for 99.9% of us.

    1. All good points, Massimo (especially the fun factor!). Editing is the number one expense (besides a professional cover) of self-publishing. Still and all, that’s a pretty low entry fee for a start-up 😀

  6. Great information that more people should see! If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said that of COURSE I was going to pursue traditional publishing. I still thought that self-publishing was a last-resort option. Of course, I also thought that once you got an agent and signed a traditional deal, you could expect a big advance, lots of promotion from the publisher, and royalties to live off of while you wrote the next book.

    I’ll wait while we all have a good laugh…

    There’a a lot of information on indie publishing out there, but I’d never thought to look for it. I think that many of us who have only focused on writing (rather than looking at publishing) just assume that we’ll do it the way it’s always been done, and be grateful for whatever we can get from publishers. I was on the fence for a long time, but I’ve decided now. I wish all of my friends well who are pursuing the traditional path, and I sincerely hope that they get that big contract and promotional push. As for me, articles like this have convinced me to do things my own way, at my own pace. I don’t expect success right away (and plan to give myself at least four books before I decide whether I can make a career out of this), but whether I succeed or fail, it’s going to be on my terms. I’m so glad the information is out there for those who want it!

    (PS- I had lobster the day after garbage day last month, and then we had a heat wave while the shells were out in the garbage box. I don’t envy the garbage collectors the next week, but I definitely understand the crab reference. *gag*)

    1. Giving yourself time to get traction as an author is paramount in this biz. Readers need to know an author isn’t a one-hit wonder. I’m a strong believer in that if someone invests their time and energy in reading one of my books, I”m going to work hard to deliver. That means more books and hopefully better ones.

      And yeah, I’ve learned the hard way about the odiferous nature of crustaceans…Thanks for stopping by, Kate!

  7. “Can you learn from your mistakes and move on?”

    That point is so important. I had to realize that my way often was not the best way. I love being an indie with no deadlines except my own. I learn something every day.

    Thinking back to pre-Internet times … How did we ever survive?

    1. I hear that, Kathy! Listen to those who have the experience–realize what your strengths and weaknesses are and work with those who know more about the aspects you don’t.

  8. Great post, excellent round-up of the most important issues. As one who has been through the gamut–NY house trad publishing, small press and self-publishing–it’s a no-brainer for me to continue going the indie route. As Massimo said, I have come to appreciate the fun factor of doing it all; the satisfaction of holding the finished book in my hand is unmatched. But I also realize that this route is not for everyone. Good news is, if something doesn’t work out, you can always take two steps back and start off in another direction. That’s the absolute best thing about being a writer today; our options are wide open!

  9. There’s a kind of “Occam’s Razor” test for this if one looks at it not as deciding between two forking paths, but as two different approaches to the same goal of achieving readership for your work.
    Namely this: if you publish your own work, you are immediately in the position of getting readers, learning how it works, building your brand. This might lead to fame and wealth on its own. Or it might lead to enabling a contract with a publisher. Or it might end up being a terminal situation you’re comfortable with–like a weekend painter
    But if you DON’T do that, if you decide to wait for the Godot of traditional publishing, you’re getting nowhere while you wait. You are not being read, not learning about how it works, not building a fan base.

    I think that not looking at it as a “choice” between the two ends up making the choice easier to make.

  10. After about three years, knocking on a lot of doors, approaching the main trads and a lot of agents, I went the small press route on my first book in 2008. My publisher wasn’t as gracious as yours sound like they were when I decided to jump ship, and it took a couple of years to get my rights back; so for me it’s Indie all the way. But you know what they say, DV, ‘Never say never!’ We do live and learn however, and there’s one thing for sure: there is no way this little black duck will just hand over the reins again.

    Excelent article, DV.

  11. Great post, DV. I’m one who did it all. I queried, got an agent, got a couple of contracts from an epublisher in another genre, and then self-published my own suspense books when my agent couldn’t sell them. As a former commercial artist, I even learned how to do my own formatting and cover design. I made mistakes, corrected them, and have done/am doing fairly well. But as indie writers, we also have to catch the trends and see the handwriting on the wall. That means changing course when sales get stagnant and looking for other opportunities to get your work out there. That also means not putting all your eggs in one basket. I happen to hate doing promotion. I know it’s necessary, but it doesn’t make me like it any better. There are downsides to indie publishing, though I think the validation question is becoming archaic as more good books are published. Don’t get me wrong–there’s a lot of crap out there too, mostly because the books aren’t ready for prime time. An indie publisher will never sit on a panel at the big conferences whose requirements are a traditional publisher. You can write the best book ever, but it won’t be up for awards either. If those things don’t mean anything to you, then forge ahead. I did.

  12. All valid points, Polly. (Nice to see you, btw 🙂 ) Self-pubbing is a business–when you own your own business, you get to do it all, which includes staying current in all things promo and realizing that what might have worked before won’t necessarily work now. Putting all your eggs in one basket isn’t a great long term strategy, either. The rise of the hybrid author is an interesting combination of both worlds. I sincerely doubt readers care whether an author is traditionally published or not. They want a compelling story, period.

    Things are changing fast in the publishing world, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your comment about indies not being up for awards, etc., becomes moot in the near future. Let’s hope so!

    1. Come to think of it, I think hybrid authors have been up for some awards with their self-published work, DV, but I think they made their names as trad pubbed first. Not sure about straight indie. Maybe someone on this list will know. But I asked about Malice panels and was told all panelists had to be traditionally published. I do think you’re right and the roadblocks for indie authors will lift as more and better books are published from indie authors.

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