Why I Became an Indie Author
When I tell people I'm an author, they're often impressed. When they ask about who's publishing it and I tell them I'm an indie, they usually stare at me blankly until I explain it means that I self-publish. And then I watch as that respect dwindles and dies. Almost immediately following, most people ask me some variation of "why?" with that tone of voice that leaves me hearing the subtle subtext of "why don't you want to be a real author?"
When I first looked into publishing my first book, I planned on going the traditional route. I believed the same tripe that is recirculated ad nauseam—real writers go through publishers. Sure, I'd heard of self-publishing or the "vanity" press. I remember the Eragon obsession in the early 2000s. And I didn't want to have anything to do with that. Partly, I didn't want to deal with walking into libraries and bookstores, trying to sell books like some door-to-door salesman begging for literary scraps. I have a few talents but that kind of marketing and selling is not one of them. And partly, I didn't want to spend a ton of money upfront; vanity presses were expensive and except for the outliers, it seemed like flushing cash down the toilet. But mostly, I wanted my writing to be the best it could be and knew I needed the help of a professional team to get it there.
The problem was finding a publisher.
You see, people often call the publishing houses and the editors therein "the gatekeepers". The name in and of itself seems a bit silly, painting it as though the noble publishers are protecting innocent readers from the ravishes of bad literature, standing guard to make sure that the muck and filth don't get near their poor minds. It is they, and only they, who hold the secrets to publishing success and producing the quality literature that fills the world with sunshine, joy, and lollipops. The writers of the world stand outside, raggedly banging on the gates, begging to be let into the exclusive author's club, and those fearless, intrepid gatekeepers allow only the best of the best through.
Okay, so maybe I'm laying it on a bit thick, but the point is that editors of publishing houses sift through thousands of manuscripts, trying to decide which ones will the next New York Times Best Seller. I've heard quoted that the chance of getting your manuscript through the gatekeepers is less than one percent. Who knows where that stat comes from or if it's true (it's the most common stat that you hear floating around the publishing and writing blogs and podcasts), but the fact is thousands of manuscripts are submitted and few ever make it to readers. Getting a big publisher is like winning the lottery, and I needed a way to increase my odds.
And then I stumbled across an interview with an indie author (I wish I could remember who it was, so I can give them proper credit). I nearly skipped over the article, because I had no interest in indie publishing. What kind of real author self-publishes? But I was curious enough to read on.
The thing that struck me most was the author's reasoning behind indie publishing his books. He said something to the effect that he could either sit around waiting for one of his query letters to pay off or go ahead and get the book published. If it did well, that could attract publishing houses, and in the meantime, his manuscript was doing something more than collecting dust. Selling even a handful of books on Amazon was better than selling no books while it sat in your desk drawer.
I couldn't argue with that. Sure, it would cost some money to get it going, but with Kindle's Direct Publishing, it's easy to put a book out for public consumption. My book would be out there, doing something. Anything. Hopefully, getting the gatekeepers to notice me.
I started off thinking I would polish my book myself, chuck it up on Amazon, and start shopping my book around to publishing companies and agents. If I could sell a few copies, I could wow the gatekeepers and show them that my book wasn't such a gamble. I'll chalk it up to naiveté that I thought my book would magically sell well with little to no effort on my part. Please don't judge me for it.
Professionals With the Click of a Button
But as I dug around in the indie sandbox, I started to find a lot of freelance resources that I hadn't been aware of. Editors, beta readers, cover artists, formatters, galore! And it wasn't even that expensive. Sure, it was more expensive than letting the publishers foot the bill but finding that I could hire my very own team of professionals to polish my book made a huge difference in my perceptions of indie publishing. Not to mention ebooks and print-on-demand eliminating the need for dropping thousands of dollars and hours printing and selling hard copies.
I also picked up a few indie books to see what kind of quality they were able to produce and was pleasantly surprised by some of them. Of course, there were quite a few stinkers, but those who approached it with the same professionalism as the publishing houses produced works identical in quality to those vetted by the gatekeepers. Plainly said, those that did it right had books you couldn't tell were indie published. I'd wanted to go traditional because I believed it was the only way to achieve that but realizing I could get that on my own was liberating and shifted my focus. I no longer thought of using indie publishing as only a way into the traditional and shifted into wanting to be a full-fledged indie author. The gatekeepers no longer seemed like a necessity.
I realized they're not the end-all-be-all to producing quality literature. Just because someone sits behind a big desk and has worked in the industry for twenty years doesn't mean they're infallible. That's not to discount their incredible knowledge and experience, but I've read plenty of traditionally published, best-sellers that have typos, grammar mistakes, plot holes, character inconsistencies, formatting issues, etc. Being traditionally published doesn't automatically mean your book will be perfect when it hits shelves.
That's not to say that bypassing the gatekeepers is any easier. Sure it's easier to hit the market, but it also means you have to do all the work yourself. Which is just another reason why I love indie publishing. I love having the chance to get my fingers in all the publishing pies. I love writing, but I also love marketing and creating spreadsheets to track my financial goals. I love coming up with promotional ideas and cover designs. As I've jumped through the hoops to publication, I've found myself loving every bit of it, and I don't want an editor or publisher or agent to take it out of my hands. As long as I have access to freelancers who can help when my skill is sadly lacking, I want to tackle the whole publishing beast.
Indie publishing isn't for everyone, but it is for me!
After realizing the internet made finding freelancers easy, being an indie publisher has been my sole focus, and I've seen more and more benefits. I like that I can get my book out there without having to worry about whether or not it's the exact, right genre at the exact, right time that an agent or publisher is looking for. Publishers are driven to find the next bestseller, so they're obsessed with what's popular. I've heard it over and over from authors who approached the gatekeepers (or tried to). They may have a great book, but if it's not the right genre at that moment, publishers won't touch it. The authors simply get a concise letter that says something to the effect of "...it's great but not what we're looking for...". I have an author friend who just recently received such a letter from a publisher; the editor who read her manuscript gushed about how much she loved the book and how she even shared it with others, but it was just too much of a niche genre with too small a market. Rejected.
I don't mean this as a criticism of the traditional publishers. I acknowledge that they need to make money and I don't fault them for that. But I dislike the seemingly narrow way publishers look at the marketplace and their specific view of what will sell. The general feeling I get is that if it's not popular at that moment, then it won't make money, so they won't touch it. I believe genre is important, but good writing, plot, and characters are more important. Any entertaining book can have a place in the market and do well—regardless of what genre is "in" at the moment.
Being an indie author means I have the freedom to publish what I want. Sure, it can be risky to genre hop or publish in an obscure genre or [insert another commonly quoted publishing phobia here], but because it's only my career on the line and I have the freedom to take that risk. There are plenty of indie authors who received rejection letters, turned around, published it themselves, and now make a good living off of books traditional publishers said wouldn't sell. They may not make any bestseller lists, but money is money.
I've read dozens of books on indie publishing and listened to countless podcasts and the only thing that counts is hard work. For every "thou shalt not's" of the publishing world, there are indies that have made it work, and I love that. If you work hard and produce professional-level books, there's no reason an indie can't make a decent living from writing. And there are plenty of indie authors who produce less than professional-level books who make decent money from their books.
Times They Are a'Changing
Those are all the reasons that I decided to focus on becoming an indie author, but more than simply liking it as a career choice, I've become a passionate advocate for it. It's not so much that I don't think that traditional publishers have their place or that every author should go that route, but I've found the more I've waded into this industry, the more unhappy I am at the way the traditionals are handling the changing industry.
I've had people ask me if I would ever sign with a traditional publisher if I was offered a contract. There was a time when I would have said, "yes". Then there was a time when I would have said, "maybe". Now, I would give a resounding, "no". As an entrepreneur, I look at the way traditionals are handling the industry and it makes me nervous to think about ever going into business with them.
I recently read an online article in a reputable newspaper that stated that ebooks were dying. That was such a ridiculous claim that I couldn't help but read the whole article. The writer, a high-up member of the publishing industry, cited that ebook sales figures plateaued and even fell in 2015 (of course this is after skyrocketing over the last several years). To him, this meant that the ebook fad had finally faltered and everyone was coming to their senses, returning to the printed word. I kid you not, that was his claim.
This mindset is very indicative of what I've found in the publishing industry. No matter what anyone says, printed books will eventually die out, just as scrolls and stone tablets died out when books came along. Or how hand-written books died out with the advent of the printing press. That's not to say it will happen tomorrow or even ten years from now but just look at how the music industry has changed over the last decade. Sure, there are still people who listen to records or CD players, but the vast majority has switched to mp3s. Even iPods and mp3 players have mostly disappeared because most consumers use their phone as their music player. There will be people who claim holding a book is infinitely better than an ebook, just as there are those who claim that the only way to get the right sound quality is via records, but give it a generation or two and eventually, paper books will fade into obscurity. That's just the nature of technology.
The problem is that the publishing industry refuses to acknowledge how ebooks, print-on-demand, and indie publishers have changed the industry. They continue on the same way they've always done business and when a member of the indie world finds success, it seems that the collective response is something akin to playground tactics—they call names, make fun, and run away. Rather than looking at the indie business model and trying to see how they can learn from that burgeoning field, they call indies unprofessional or hobbyists.
Now, I do have to give a massive caveat here before I go any further. I'm speaking about the traditional publishers as a whole, with an emphasis on the big, New York-based companies over which most authors salivate. Of course, there are always outliers and I'm not trying to condemn all traditionals as Luddites but merely trying to describe traditional publishers in general. I've met wonderful editors and publishers who are adapting, but on the whole, it still seems to be business as usual for most traditionals. Companies still want a majority of the royalties, retain all the rights to the author's intellectual property, and keep control of how the author's work is published. They don't want to cut down their bloated overhead budgets to price their ebooks to levels competitive to the indie publishers.
Frankly, there's a reason that indie publishing is on the rise and accounts for a significant portion of book sales (check out AuthorsEarning.com for more detailed information). Authors like the freedom and control they can have over their projects and don't like how difficult traditional publishers have made it to get published. There's now a way around the gatekeepers and authors are taking it. Obviously, indie authors are finding ways to produce quality products with lower overhead and at greater speed, allowing them to offer cheaper books quicker than the traditionals. It's the same thing that happens whenever any industry comes across some major revolution. Technology has fundamentally changed the way publishing is happening and I'd rather jump on board with those who see it for its potential.