1) Is your craft ready?
Have you written more than one or two books? Do you have a writing group or a stable of critique partners who you can call on for feedback? Do you feel confident in your storytelling and your writing craft? You are more likely to find success as an indie writer if you have hit your stride as a writer, rather than just starting out. Eighty percent of the slush pile is not ready (yet) for prime-time. All the time you spend focusing on craft will pay dividends when you do eventually publish. (See Taking the Leap for more on this)
Don’t rush it. Be patient.
2) Is this the right book?
Is your book the kind that could successfully sell in the indie market? Adult titles do best in indie, YA does well (especially those with cross-over appeal), and even literary novels, anthologies, shorts and other forms can find success. Middle grade and picture books do less well – this is starting to change and can depend on the circumstances, but if you’re starting out with an indie middle grade novel, plan on having “breaking even” be one of your major goals. Series tend to bring more success for writers than stand-alone novels. Genre plays an enormous role. Right now sexy New Adult contemporary romances are hot. Romance sells big. Indie publishing moves fast enough that you can cash in on a trend, if you want to try; I personally would find it difficult to spend time on a novel I’m not in love with, but I also believe in stretching yourself into new things. So, I make no judgment there. But keep your expectations in line with the genre that you’re publishing.
Are you planning to write more books? (Don’t hinge all your dreams on one debut novel.) Is your book the start of a series? (Building a fanbase with a series is a great way to start, but it’s not necessary.) What is your plan for future works? (Look more than one novel ahead.)
Plan ahead. Lead with your best work.
3) Are you willing to invest money and time in the book?
Publishers would invest time and money in editing/copyediting/cover art for your book – you should plan on doing the same. Are you willing to spend time and money on marketing (blog tours, giveaways)?
What works in marketing is constantly shifting: when I first launched in 2011, big launch parties and direct-solicitation of book bloggers for reviews was a great way to get off the ground. A spike in sales got word-of-mouth going, and some visibility/discoverability on the Amazon marketing machine. Now, blog tour companies will arrange book tours and reach far more people than you can with direct queries, “street teams” are the new term for coordinating your social media reach, and buying an ad from Bookbub can do more to shoot your book up the charts than just about anything. These things cost money, and sometimes time. Plan for them. Or do a soft launch and wait until you have more works out to market heavily. Look around and see who is successful with which kinds of marketing today – not what worked six months ago. And be creative in coming up with your own way to grow word-of-mouth.
However you launch, you need some sales and reviews to feed the Amazon marketing machine, which will then enhance your visibility (through also-boughts, email campaigns, etc). Have a plan to feed the machine, and it will be your friend.
Going indie is like running a small business. Have a plan for how to succeed.
4) Are you willing to give up the dream of paper for this book?
As an indie publisher, most likely 90% of your sales will be ebooks. If a large fraction of your sales are paper, it is probably because most are bought by friends and family (or possibly you’re in a paper-heavy genre like middle grade or non-fiction). Generally speaking, selling thousands of print books is not going to happen as an indie, nor do you want it to. Getting into bookstores may sound great, but it brings the possibility of returns, which can easily eat up whatever profits you have made. You can still have paper, if you want (it’s useful for signings, libraries, giveaways), but paper is unlikely to be the main part of your business. If you’re very successful, you may get offered a contract with a traditional publisher who will get you into bookstores. Unfortunately, by the time you’re that successful, giving away your ebook rights for a chance at paper distribution can be very costly. Worry about that if/when you get there, but initially, understand that this book may never get into the bookstore.
Indie is not a route to seeing your book on the shelf at B&N.
5) Are you trying to score an agent or book contract by going indie?
Indie publishing is not the new query, in spite of high-profile instances of indie bestsellers being offered traditional publishing deals. Most authors, including midlisters who make serious money from indie publishing, are not being flooded with offers from the Big 6. The ones who are often turn them down because they would lose money by giving up their ebook rights to take a traditional deal. The few NYTimes bestsellers who have negotiated print-only contracts, keeping their ebook rights, remain the exception rather than the rule. Success as an indie brings many rewards (including financial ones), but it is far from automatic that indie success means a book contract, or that you’ll want that contract, even if it comes your way. If you are yearning for a traditional contract, you should pursue that route directly.
Indie is not the route to traditional publishing, but rather is its own publishing model.
6) Do you have an online presence/social network?
Are you comfortable with social networking? Do you have a blog/twitter/facebook page (one or more of these is fine) that you use to connect with people, whether writers, friends, or fans? You don’t have to have a huge following to launch an indie book, but you need to have some sense of how the online world works and an online presence somewhere. Your immediate social network will help get out the word about your book. After that, it’s up to your book to sell itself. Aggressive social networking to sell books doesn’t work. Having a presence online (so people can find you) and engaging with your fans in an authentic way does. Social networks sell books, but mostly because people talk about your work, not because you talk about your work. Your job is to be available, provide something of value, and entertain at every step of the way.
Friends matter. Use social networking authentically. Don’t be a spammer.
7) Do you have concrete goals and a marketing plan to reach them?
Make a Five Year Plan. Decide your goals not just for this book, but the future ones as well, and make a marketing plan to achieve those goals. You can start a business without a plan, but you’ll increase your chances of success by having one. Set reasonable expectations. Even if your eventual goal is to make the NYTimes bestseller list, start with a goal of making back your investment on your book. Include action items like “book blog tours, buy an ad, and hold giveaways” not “magically reach 1000 sales in the first week.” Your plan will definitely evolve along the way, but having realistic goals will keep you grounded while going through the process. Be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) when you make your plan, and you will give your book the best chance of success.
Set Goals. Make a plan. Keep your expectations realistic.
I believe in treating indie publishing like a business and making a plan for success.
I believe in publishing Indie First (see Trad-Pub, Small-Pub, Digital Only or Indie First) as a general rule, but the right path for you (and your book) can only be found by looking at your personal goals first. I believe this is true of the first book you publish, but even more true of the ones that come after that.
Next we’ll talk about making those marketing plans, creating a beautiful package for your book, and how to market your book without feeling like a slimeball.