This book focuses on fiction writers who want to make a career with their writing.
(As opposed to hobbyist writers. People write for many reasons – all are good.)
In the digital era, which path is best for starting your writing career?
[Note: whether you’re ready to publish is a separate question (see Training for the Trek). And where you go after you start will depend on many things (see Are We There Yet?)]
Only you can know what your objectives are for your writing career (see For Heaven’s Sake, Get a Map and a Compass where I talk about Mission Statements and Five Year Plans). But here I’ll lay out the basic options and make the argument for Indie First… because I believe that’s the best starting option for the vast majority of writers who want their dreams to pay the bills.
Vanity Press – publishers whose business model is predicated on getting money directly from authors, rather than through royalties off the author’s books (see Ch 1.1 Authors Beware).
Trad-Pub – Big Six (Five. Whatever.) Publisher. Ostensibly small presses are trad-pub as well, but it’s generally easier to get published by a small press, so I’m breaking them out.
Small-Pub – Independent Press, not part of the Big Six, can vary from 100-year-old independent presses with established sales forces to one-person operations that just went into business. Generally smaller staff, but similar contracts to traditional publishing. In some cases, terms may be better for ebook royalties, but they usually offer small/no advances.
Spec Writing – In the old-is-new department, some small presses (like Entangled) are asking writers to write on spec: the publisher supplies the story/characters/premise, the writer does the work. This is a new spin on the “contract writing” that authors have done for a long time.
Digital Only – These imprints are either strictly digital or digital-plus-Print-On-Demand. They have small or no advance, sometimes pay higher royalties, and usually distribute on the same channels available to self-publishers (i.e. Amazon, Barnes and Noble). Digital Only used to be the province of Small-Pub, but the Big Six have recently launched digital-only imprints as well (Pocket Star with Simon&Schuster, Alibi, Flirt, and Hydra with Random House, and Impulse with Harper Teen). Some of these came under intense scrutiny by the SFWA (Science Fiction Writer’s Association) for poor contract terms.
The idea of “Indie First” actually belongs to Hugh Howey (self-pub mega-selling author):
“If you aren’t in the top 1%, self-publishing is your only option. If you are in the top 1%, self-publishing is your best option. There is no case where I would recommend someone BEGIN their writing career with a query letter. None.”
If your heart is set on a traditional contract, you should probably pursue that directly. However, as a debut author, you are unlikely to get the kind of full-court-marketing needed to make your book a massive success. And not-massive successes quickly find themselves pulled from the bookshelves and out of print. Trad-pub is a “star” system, meaning that it is focused on blockbusters, not the midlist. Sadly, I know midlist trad-pub authors (more than one) who won the publishing lottery, got their contracts in 2008, were published in 2010, and are out of print in 2013. They are now getting their rights back and self-publishing. If your goal is to trad-pub, I believe your chances of long-term success are better going Indie First. Once you prove yourself in the marketplace, you can negotiate a contract that will give you more staying power. (Of course, you may change your mind about how attractive those trad-pub offers are, once you’ve been successful on your own, but that’s a separate issue.)
Spec writing might seem like a great way to get “in” with a publisher, but it’s also a way for publishers to own your work forever. In most cases, the publisher retains copyright, so be very careful with contracts like these. Make sure you get your money up front, and that you’re willing to basically be a hired-gun writer. Expect that you will not be in control of your stories. And check your Mission Statement to see if you want to spend your writing time on other people’s ideas.
More from Hugh Howey:
“Prove yourself to the reader first. Stop trying to impress interns reading slush piles at agencies. Make enough to buy a coffee while you work on your second book instead of licking stamps and waiting on rejection letters. Hone your craft. You should be interviewing publishers and agents, not the other way around. And if this sounds pie-in-the-sky, I can link to myself saying the same thing over a year ago before I had any success. Some of the people who laughed at me then are now self-publishing and paying bills. This isn’t post-hoc reasoning. It’s a philosophy I’ve held for years and coming true for thousands of writers.”
Hugh’s point is that indie publishing is the most likely path for people to pay the bills with their writing.
And I agree.
Of course, some people will fare better going trad-pub. Someone has to be the star in the star system. And maybe having a book on a shelf at Barnes&Noble, even if it’s only for three months, is the only thing that will make you happy. To each his own on that. But for most people, earning a living with their written works is important, because it means they can spend more time doing what they love most: writing.
A Little Bit of History
The idea of indie publishing as a last resort has been the mantra for… well, pretty much ever, at least for serious fiction writers wanting a career in writing. In the past, this was based on the facts on the ground at the time: publishers had a lock on distribution, and indie publishing consisted mainly of doing a small print run and handselling books. Now, the facts on the ground have changed. Indie publishing connects authors to readers around the world at virtually no cost (in distribution). However, for many people, the mantra is still there: that indie publishing should be a last resort or no resort option. We need people like Hugh Howey espousing Indie First as a counter to the weight of history that said indie publishing was the death-knell of an author career.
Where’s The Proof?
Unfortunately, there is no hard data on indie publishing.
There have been a few attempts at surveys, and lots of statistics thrown around, but there’s really nothing out there without a substantial bias. A lot of indie publishing flies under the radar of the book-tracking-world.
The Taleist survey is famous for the statistic that most indie authors making less than $500 per year, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that most trad-pub bound authors make $0 per year (or less, as they spend money on conferences, etc.). In addition, the Taleist survey included both partial-year and full-year earnings at a time when many indie authors were just getting started. I know, I was one of the participants, and it only accounted for the first two months of my publishing income. A year later, I was a solid midlist indie, making ten times that per month. Said another way, as a midlist indie author, I was making the equivalent of a debut trad-pub author’s advance every month – more than the average income in my state. That’s not small money.
Similarly skewed is the data from Smashwords, although not so heavily. Smash represents a small fraction of total indie sales and is weighted toward books they distribute to Apple and Kobo (they don’t distribute to Amazon, which is 60% of the market). Their data points to the larger trends that are true across platforms (free books move the most copies; $2.99-$3.99 is still the sweet-spot price for most indie ebooks), but any conclusions about indie authors making a living with their writing will miss a big chunk of the market.
At least Taleist and Smash are making well-intentioned attempts. When Bowker gives statistics on self-published titles, you should just disregard it completely. Many self-published authors don’t purchase ISBNs for their ebooks (ISBNs are optional for publication in Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, and now Apple) – Bowker substantially undercounts the indie publishing world.
Unfortunately, the big gorilla with the real data, Amazon, rarely shares. But when they do, they shine a spotlight on the true heart of the indie revolution: not the outliers, not the indie superstars, but the indie midlist.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, in an open letter to shareholders on April 13, 2012 – “Kindle Direct Publishing has quickly taken on astonishing scale – more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club.”
The idea that you can make money in indie publishing doesn’t come from a vacuum – it comes from author after author (thousands of authors) actually doing it. And telling other people about it.
We can wait around for an unbiased survey to be conducted or for years of experience to roll in… or we can take reports on the ground right now about what authors are experiencing and try to learn from that.
- Friends who have indie published with success everywhere from barely breaking even to NYTimes bestsellers earning six figures a month
- Friends who can’t land an agent but can make their house payment with indie publishing
- Friends who have been agented for years but can’t land trad-pub contract
- Friends with a trad-pub rejected book making six figures a year with indie publishing
- Friends who are midlist trad-pub but seek out indie publishing to supplement their income
- Friends who never pursued trad-publishing supporting their families with their indie published works
- Friends who are multiply trad-published and score a 3-book deal with a major NY publisher, but who can’t quit their day job
- Friends with small press contracts who contemplate leaving writing because they can’t make any money at it
Bottom line: I see way more writers supporting themselves with their written works in indie publishing.
I respect any author deciding to pursue publication by any means – it’s a brave, fine thing you are doing.
But I’m an Indie First advocate. When I see people living their dreams with indie publishing, and I don’t speak out about that? It feels like pulling up the drawbridge after me. And that’s the last thing I want to do.
My best advice: write a book, and if it’s publishable, put it out there. See if there’s a market. If not, write another book. A better book. Try a different genre. While you’re doing that, your indie books will be making more money for you than if they were sitting in the slush pile. And you will be learning incredibly valuable information about what makes the market tick, what readers like, and what you, as an author, truly want out of your career.
How do you know if your work is publishable? More about that ahead in Training for the Trek. But first, For Heaven’s Sake, Get a Map and a Compass, where I’ll talk about knowing yourself as a writer before you take the leap into publishing.