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Point of View: Indie or Bust?

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“Self publishing” has been around for a long time. Before the days of the internet (yes, I am that old), it used to mean using a “vanity press”—derogatory slang for a company that would print the books for you, and then leave a pallet of them on your doorstep. After that, the rest was up to you.

Some of these companies would provide marketing and other services, often at an exorbitant cost, offering dubious value for the work. The enterprising self-published author would then schlep their book around to local bookstores, events, and anywhere else they might make a sale, trying to build a reputation as a real author.

There was a stigma to the term “self-published,” because it often did mean lower quality books written by someone who couldn’t get into a “real publisher.”

How things have changed.

The advent of Amazon and other online book publishing platforms means that it’s now possible to reach readers much more easily as an indie author—the term many of us now use that more accurately reflects what we do and removes some of that old stigma associated with the idea of “vanity” publishing.

There is still a lot of “lower quality” work out there, but some of it now comes from the big publishing houses themselves, while AI presents a new and as-yet uncertain challenge that’s pouring its own share of low-quality sludge into the mix—even if it’s not (yet) capable of writing a cohesive, well-composed and layered novel-length story.

So, is being an indie author the right thing for you?

Now that you’ve finished your opus, you’ll need to decide which way you’ll go for your book’s publication. I’ll lay out the main options for you to consider, along with their plusses and minuses.

Try to Sign With One of the Big Houses: Once upon a time, this was every writer’s dream. With a big publishing house comes a chance for instant name recognition, a decent paycheck (if you keep writing and they keep publishing you) and marketing support that no smaller publishers can match. There’s also a certain cachet that comes with being able to say you are published by one of the Big Guys.

But getting in can be difficult. Although some of the larger publishers will (very) occasionally have open submission periods, most of what’s submitted that way likely ends up in the slush pile—the vast, usually unread folder of unloved manuscripts every large publisher has. It’s not impossible that your beloved story will be plucked out of the slush pile—it has happened before—but it’s very unlikely.

A more plausible path to a big publisher’s list runs through their gatekeepers, the literary agents. Good agents have the ears of editors at the various big publishers, and know what they like. They take manuscript submissions and comb through them for books they think are likely to sell. There are tons of agents out there, some better connected than others. Most will accept your query—just be careful to follow each one’s guidelines to a “t.” But they, too, are overwhelmed by submissions, and it can take months (or in some cases over a year) before they respond.

One thing to keep in mind with a bigger house—unless you have what they think is one of the hot new books of the year, their marketing support for yours is likely to be minimal, so you will be left to do a lot of it by yourself.

And if your first book doesn’t perform well enough, they may not pick up your next one.

I had an interesting conversation with a top agent who was both kind and very frank with me. She confirmed that agents aren’t looking for the next great mid-list author—one who will sell steadily and reliably but not spectacularly over a long period of time. They want the next Steven King or Jonathan Frazen—guaranteed blockbuster generators who will pad the publisher’s (and the agent’s) bottom line.

None of this is meant to discourage you. If you have your heart set on one of the big New York publishers, take your shot. You never know—you might end up with your name in lights, booked on the talk-show circuit and on a ten city book tour for your masterpiece. Just go into it clear-eyed, and be ready to pivot if that door doesn’t open for you. It’s not you, it’s just the way the system works.

Choose a Smaller Press: There are thousands and thousands of small presses out there, some of which publish hundreds of books a year, and some that do two or three. Many of these do not pay an advance, and if they do, it may be relatively small. My first one was $500, and you have to sell enough books to generate that amount in royalties before you are paid any more.

But small presses are often nimble and dynamic in ways that the biggest publishers can’t be. They are more willing to take a chance on untried authors, and a good small press will have a strong editing program, a stable of graphic designers to create professional covers, and a marketing plan to help get your book into the right hands. Their budgets for this are often very limited, so they (and you) have to be creative about getting the word out about your new book.

Small presses can also be problematic—lacking the resources of a big house, they can be slow to move the process along at times while they wait for incoming cash to pay for them. In the best cases, they can be vibrant, welcoming communities. In the worst, they can be more like a dysfunctional family.

If you are considering submitting to a small press, it’s vital that you do your homework before approaching them. Do they publish books like yours/in your particular genre and sub-genre? How many books are they putting out a year? Do they have a fairly consistent publishing schedule (one a month, one every three months, etc) or are there long gaps between releases? What do their own authors think of them?

Many writers go through a few small presses before they find one that fits them and their writing the best, but this can be a great way to get your book out there with less effort on your part.

Taking the Leap – Becoming an Indie Author: This path is the scariest of all, but could also be the most rewarding.

Let’s look at the downsides first.

You have to do everything, and/or pay someone to do it for you. And I do mean everything—editing, proofing, book formatting, cover design, uploading to vendors, marketing and promotion, and customer service. There’s a steep learning curve, and I won’t lie to you—it’s a lot of work. 

You’re essentially creating your own publishing house from the ground up, and if something breaks, you get to fix it.

Now for the upsides.

You have complete control. Don’t like the cover? Redesign it (or find a new cover designer).

Don’t like the editorial suggestions on your manuscript? You can ignore them (though think long and hard about it first—after all, that’s why you hired an editor, right?).

Want to release the book the day after it’s finished? You can! You don’t have to wait on a traditional publisher’s in-house schedule.

You also need to be relentless about your bottom line. Indie publishing is a numbers game. Everything has a cost, and the more you can learn to do yourself, the less the process of creating your finished book will cost you (and the more you will earn after those expenses). Still, it’s important to know what you can do well, and what would be better done by a paid professional.

Is the whole idea of being an indie author daunting? Yes! But it also comes with great rewards. It’s hard to describe the feeling when your first book—the one you built yourself from the ground up—finally arrives on your doorstep.

There will be times when you are absolutely ready to quit. When you throw up your hands and mutter some imprecation to the writing gods and decide you are done—done!—with indie publishing. But there will also be sublime moments of great personal satisfaction, when a glowing review, a grateful reader, or a writer friend who is in awe of your prowess reminds you exactly why you do this crazy thing.

And remember, none of these paths is irrevocable. You can start out at a big press and move to a smaller one, or vice versa. You can indie publish one project and then place the next with a traditional publisher. Or you can jump into being an indie author with both feet after a decade of someone else doing the work, and take it on yourself.

I started at a small press, tried for an agent and a big house, and ended up as an indie author who occasionally goes hybrid. It works for me.

So pick the one that sounds best to you, and give it your all. Sooner or later, you’ll find the path that works best for you too.

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