Trad Author Goes Indie and Back

There is a lot of passionate discussion about whether self-publishing is a valid career move. I’ve learned that instead of wasting time trying to win converts, I’ll simply follow what I believe, based on the evidence I have at this point.

To wit:
1) I will make more on my backlist first novel THE RED CHURCH this year than I did from its original advance. In other words, in the year it took the book to get through “traditional production.” And I can do whatever I want with it, forever.

2) My later publishing contracts tied up my rights for seven years even though the books were left for dead after a couple of years, therefore I am losing five years of potential income. In other words, I’ve actually lost money instead of earned money by publishing midlist books.

3) Many agents and publishers generally only want you to write one book a year, for their own reasons. You can sneak around it with a pen name, but unless you are JA Konrath/Joe Kimball/Jack Kilborn and display all the names, you have to work to get name rec for each. Now, NY won’t COMPENSATE you for the books they don’t want you to write. But you can certainly compensate yourself.

4) You are generally expected to write only one type of book and stick with it. Look how long it took Joe to break out as Jack Kilborn.

5) Instead of wondering about hundreds of elements beyond my control that will affect my career as a writer, I can now see the daily income and projected revenues and weigh that against the investment of time and passion. I can hope my NY lottery ticket gets plucked or I can publish 10 books and be making more than I do in my day job. I can do simple math. If I had the rights to my published books and released those I am shopping, I would have more than 10 books. And don’t think I ain’t thinking about it.

6) Any ebooks I publish on my own will give me 100 percent of net. Any book I publish through a major publisher will give me 50 percent net at best, 15 percent at worst, and that’s even assuming an advance earns out. Giving away 85 percent for virtually an entire career doesn’t inspire me.

7) Now that I know I can find whatever audience I deserve, judged on nothing but quality and talent and my willingness to connect with my audience, I am more inspired than I have ever been–to take chances, to try new things, to strive for art, to write without thought of what one or two people in New York will think. Working-class fiction is an idea I can get behind.

😎 While I believe those who publish through traditional means will still fare the best overall, I can’t help but wonder if getting published was the worst thing I ever did for my writing career.

9) I’ll still sell in New York if I can.

10) I will still self-publish even if I sell in New York.

11) I care not one bit about stigma or what other writers, agents, and publishers think of me–I care only about what’s best for my career and how best to reach my audience.

  • Having been traditionally published (publisher went under) and now self published with another book out through an Indie press, I can tell you that being a published author isn’t any more of a career than painting pretty pictures to sell on street corners to those who might feel sorry enough for you to purchase one. 😉 Just my views for what it’s worth.

  • Great rationale – I especially like point 4 (agents and publishers want to slow you down, and won’t pay you for books you do not write). I have been self-publishing since the late 1980’s, and my parents were self-publishers before that! Most of my books were self-published, or published with a small, Indie house. (My imprint is Wales Publishing Co.) My part-time career as an author changed my life. I wrote 17 books and sold 2 million+ books, in 20 languages. It is unlikely that a traditional publisher would have allowed me to write so many titles. Yet, it was crucial to my success.

    The key to success these days is to turn the author – reaeer relationship from a one-way to an interacive, multi-directional experience. This means SURROUNDING your book with products and communication channels. You simply can’t do this with a traditional publisher, because they control your material.

  • I love this post. And it’s one of the things I’ve tried to get people to understand. Most people look at self-publishing as something someone just does for one book and then the author either drifts off somewhere, or they get signed by a major publisher. They’re not looking at the implication of doing this long-term with the digital revolution.

    We don’t have a fiction indie author success story where the indie STAYED indie because as soon as they got big enough, a publisher snapped them up and that seems to support this idea that NY is the “only way you can make money.” But of course this is total BS.

    Like you say, you can do math. It’s not that hard to see the potential of 10 books out. And even if an indie author wanted a trad publisher for print, it’s not that wise to give them your e-rights considering how ebook retarded they tend to be.

    However, most publishers WANT your e-rights and I don’t personally see an indie author being able to hold onto those rights and still make a deal. Not unless the only print rights they were selling was a subsidiary right like mass market.

    Indies have so many outlets they can get into for ebooks, and ebooks are about to explode. I know people have heard this so much that they don’t believe it anymore, but nevertheless, just because some people have jumped the gun forecasting it… it seems to be almost here.

    People are already making great money with ebooks. It’s still a niche market right now but that won’t always be the case.

    I figure I’m on a ten year plan here, and if with my nonfiction and fiction under diff pen names, I can’t make a living within 10 years I’ll be very much surprised. In fact, the only way I won’t be making good money is if I’m not writing good enough books, or I’m not marketing them right, because I write in two genres that are very popular and do well in digital.

  • alain

    Love the post. For me it’s a question of whether you want to publish a book or build a career as a creative writer. If a career is the aim, then I’d prefer to build it one step at a time – with control over release dates, channels, pricing – than to be part of someone’s else’s business plan. The good thing is that now we can.

  • Alain, EXACTLY!

    From the point I’m at RIGHT NOW, my odds for success would be about equal whether I continued to pursue indie or pursued trad. Too many people talk about this from their position of attained success. (One of the reasons I’m such a loud mouth even now. Because if I ever DO attain success, then I can’t be accused of only speaking from my high horse, I’ve talked about this stuff from day one. And been mocked plenty of times for it.)

    Given all of that though… which option… indie or trad, do I have the MOST personal control over the outcome? IMO that’s indie. Indie may be perceived as “harder to succeed at” but it’s not really. That’s because people talk about succeeding as a trad pubbed author ASSUMING a contract, not assuming starting at the place of an unpubbed author. They speak from a position of ASSUMING more than one book contract, and a whole other boatload of assumptions. When you strip away all the assumptions the odds change for any indie who “could have” succeeded in trad publishing given the opportunity.

    90% of what happens on the trad path you can’t control.

    Whereas as an indie there are VERY few variables outside your control. Even buying behavior you can control to some degree if you learn to write sales pages that convert a higher percentage of people. Then it’s a numbers game of exposure which builds over time.

    So it’s all about tweaking, experimenting, learning, growing and learning from your mistakes. It gives the power of action to the author instead of making them helpless and dependent on the whims of a publisher.

  • When I sold my first novel in 2001, ebook rights weren’t even in the contract. At the time, Bill and some others’ success aside, going indie was a very difficult route because of difficulties getting books in stores. In my original version of this post, I had left out the last couple of points, but added them here for one primary reason–today’s paper readers are the ebook readers of the future, and it’s still important to connect with them. And I expect that will be true for the next five to 10 years.

    I am also acting on assumptions that are basically assumptions–that Amazon will continue to allow indies to sell there, that Apple won’t take the majority of ebook sales and make exclusive deals with major publishers, or that storytelling will become a more complex, interactive system more like videogames than novels. In other words, what looks great right now may not be the landscape of my retirement years. Ebooks may become seen as free and worthless, and writers will have to find new ways to make money. In other words, I am not counting on things staying the same as they are now.

    While I do expect ebooks to grow rapidly, I also don’t know about the other factors out there–even if you control your content, you can never control the shape of technology or the trends of consumers or the direction of society.

  • Scott, even if Amazon stopped dealing with indies (and there is no reason why they should, they are like the ebay of books and they let individuals sell nearly anything on Amazon Marketplace anyway), there are other outlets, and indies busy building their fan bases will grow their lists and have direct access to their fans with or without other middle men. Unless the ENTIRE Internet can be policed people just can’t stop the tide.

    Also, Kindle books are completely returnable so it doesn’t hurt Amazon to let anyone sell anything. And we’re talking about negligible server space taken up by each listing. Amazon’s interest seems to be to dominate publishing. One of the ways to decentralize the power of the major publishers is to put power in the hands of authors. I don’t believe Amazon does this because they are magnanimous, I believe they do this because it serves their own purposes for power.

    I also agree with you that a lot of the changes are on the horizon in the next 5-10 years. That’s why IMO NOW is the time for an indie to start building audience and platform and selling books. Those who wait until it hits big will have a much harder time than those who jump on now.

    And you mentioning ebook rights not even being in the contract in 2001, that really lets us know how much things can change in 10 years.

    As for the Apple ibookstore, I imagine at some point they’ll let indies in there too. A job post they made looking for someone to be a liason for that sort of thing seems to indicate as much. After all they let people publish their own music and podcasts in the itunes store, so it makes so sense for them to shut indies out of the iPad.

    But it’s not just iPad vs. Kindle, there is the Nook which despite having some faults also has some cool assets Kindle doesn’t have, and it’s not Amazon for those who hate Amazon and think of it as the Walmart of books ruining everything else.

    And there is also the Sony ebook reader and the Sony store. There is also the Scrib’d store. So there are a LOT of outlets and readers out there that I believe will keep any one company from totally monopolizing everything for a good time to come.

  • Jenn Topper

    Maybe I just suck, but I can’t sell shit. Ok, print book has been out only 2 months and it’s my first and it’s a memoir/comedy/nonfiction, but the idea of earning a living is a pipe dream…UNLESS I receive that call back from Bonnie Bernstein at ICM to option my novel (and I’ll take an option for 29 Jobs as well) for a huge film. Not a small indie flic, but a huge, blockbusting, squash James Cameron kind of film. So you see my vision of reality is such that I’m not writing for money. Maybe I’m thinking small here, but I’m just trying to manage my own expectations.

    I will be writing for a long time, but don’t expect to earn a dime beyond breaking even. With the terrible response I’ve received from bookstores in their unwillingness to even carry one copy of the book on consignment, it’s all internetz for me and without my humping the Amazon author threads for swapsies reads, I’m not even getting a review.

    That said, DIY all the way. For someone like me to knock on doors and beg some uptight, upper west side biatch to sell me to a lumbering mainstream publisher is patently contrary to my very constitution.

    Nice post and good to see some hope on the business side of independent publishing. Good luck!


  • klcrumley

    1) That’s not surprising at all. The Pro-CP crowd tries to convince us that that is an imposibility…and use promises of advances to lure us to follow thier path. NOT. As a poet & short story writer, going the traditional route I made about $30. I made double that my first two months with my indie published anthology.

    2) again this is something they say “doesn’t necessarily happen…” in the cp world. One illustrator for CP books/novice self-publishing writer (I’m not one to name-drop…) tried to convince me that a publisher will do whatever it can do to make sure your book sells because they have an investment in it. REALLY?? Then why do titles get dropped every year if they haven’t earned back that investment? One of the reasons I chose to go indie was so that this doesn’t happen to me. bad enough the smallish presses that included my work in their magazines went belly-up/out of business/made bad business decisions and got thier arses sued.
    (Yes, that last one is totally true). I didn’t want to be backlisted, and have my titles go out of print…
    And, I didn’t want my rights to be locked up long-term before I could release it on my own.

    3) and 4) As I understand it that’s a large part of Piers Anthony’s reasoning for publishing certain titles with Xlibris.
    4 is also part of my own reasoning…I’m rather eclectic in my writing.

    5) AAAAH yes, blessed control! I am a complete control freak.

    6) Amen to that!

    7) YES! It was a strange transition for me to focus on reaching my audience rather than a publisher (in terms of marketing, pr, etc). But after a bit it came quite easy…Writers should focus on readers, and not recieving a “stamp of approval” from (more likely than not) a college intern who is assigned to the slushpile.

    8 ) Maybe yes, maybe no. Financially? I don’t need their advance, because I’m not in this for my money. I write & publish because I have a passion for both. As far as marketing? I’ve found there are ways to break through those barriers. The only real “advantage” that they might have is brick & mortar bookstores…but I’ve found ways around that. I also think being stocked in big chain bookstores is overrated.

    9) I’d rather run my own small press. But like I said, I’m a control freak.

    10) & 11) can I still say “You, go Boy!!” or is that expression so out of date that I look like a granny? LOL sorry. I admire your gusto. I don’t care about the stigma either. Elitism and snobbery exists in virtually all art forms, literature being no different. Readers don’t care (as Zoe so elequently points out) and they are the ones who matter. I have no interest in wondering what the Overgrown Cheerleaders think of me–I’m too much of a rebel.
    I will continue to indie publish and “do my own thing.”

    Thank you for this insightful post!


  • Hey KC, there are snobs everywhere. While I find it SO annoying that people will ASSUME I can’t write based on how I publish (If someone reads my work and hates it, that’s fine, even if they read two pages and hate it, okay they did something to give them the right to form an opinion about it), I would have to deal with this even if I trad published.

    I write romance and erotica. Those two genres are two of the most misunderstood and maligned genres in fiction. Most people believe erotica is cheap spank material without a plot or any further depth. No, that’s porn. Erotica is fiction that has a plot, has some psychological depth, turns you on, but also makes you think and feel.

    People think romance is shallow poorly written wish fulfillment with really unrealistic romantic scenarios. Some of it is, but the good stuff is just as good as the good stuff in any other genre.

    The point is, ignorant people with their own hangups about something will always project that onto you, no matter what you do. If you want a job that everyone appreciates and respects you should become a firefighter, not a writer. 😀 (And when I say *you* I mean the general audience you, not you personally because I know you and I are on the same wavelength on this issue.)