Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Indie First?

This post is part of the Indie Life bloghop, brought to you by the Indelibles.

Serious question: Should you advocate for self-publishing? Or traditional-publishing? Or take the "all routes are equally good, fine, acceptable" non-advocating path?

(By "you" I mean "me" and other multiply published authors who are dispensing advice to new writers.)

Caveat: This entire post applies to fiction writers who want to make a career with their writing. (People write for many reasons; all are good. But many fiction writers want to make a career out of their writing, either full or part-time, as opposed to writing solely for hobby purposes. This post is for those writers.)

Idea: Indie First
Hugh Howey fired an idea-salvo with his recent Salon article, where he advocated Indie First (TM, in Hugh's name), namely that every new author, starting their career in 2013, will have the best success going Indie First. This is hardly the first time Hugh has said this, but as his star continues to rise, it's getting more notice.
From the article:

Idea: No One True Way
Chuck Wendig fired an anti-idea-salvo with his rebuttal to Hugh's article, where he said that there's No One True Way, basically advocated the non-advocating path.
From Chuck's rebuttal:
Chuck's counter to Hugh's idea isn't really a straight counter. Chuck says not everyone wants to indie publish and, hey, trad-publishing is cool too (BTW anyone who thinks that indie publishing is more work or costs more money than trad-publishing needs to read this). He adds that, for him personally, trad-publishing has made him more money over the last two years. Hugh's point was that indie publishing is more likely to pay the bills for most people, not that some people (like Chuck or Hugh) may make more money on one path or the other.

After some serious response on the Kindle Boards to Chuck's rebuttal, he rebutted again, this time saying... basically the same thing. Only with more detailed reasons why someone would not want to self-publish (for reasons unrelated to money). (You can read mine and Chuck's sparring over there.) 

From Chuck's article: "When you say something is best, you're speaking in terms so simplistic they're meaningless. Best how? Best for money? Readership? Respect? Happiness?"

Actually Indie First isn't meaningless at all. It's very specific and powerful (which is why it has such traction): Indie First says it's best for money. No one can tell you what will make you happy. But a whole lot of writers DO have best for money as a pretty important criteria, simply because they want to earn a living with their writing.

Eventually, in the comments, the sticking point did come down to this: Chuck doesn't think that authors should advocate one path or another and doesn't believe that indie publishing offers the best option for making money for authors.

Fair enough. That's the No One True Way position.

Idea: Traditional Publishing First (or Only)
This has basically been the mantra for... well, pretty much ever, at least for serious fiction writers wanting to make a career out of their 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 on your own and handselling your 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, the mantra is still there, with the idea that indie publishing should be a last resort or no resort option.

Idea: The War of Ideas is Good
A war of ideas benefits authors, because competing world-views are forced to fight it out, hopefully illuminating the flaws and merits of each (great thread on the Kindle Boards for more on that). 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. The No One True Way approach basically says All Ways Are Equal, Figure It Out For Yourself. It's Switzerland. Which is nice and has pretty scenery, but doesn't actually help authors trying to make a decision about their careers.

Where's the Truth?
Here's what I know:
  • I have friends with traditional (big and small) publishing contracts.
  • I have friends who are agented and on submission.
  • I have friends who indie publish with success everywhere from barely breaking even to NYTimes bestsellers pulling down six figures a month.
This isn't about which of my friends are doing it "right" and which are "not." It's about discerning the path most likely to lead to new writers - writers starting out today, in 2013 - to success. For that, it's important to look at not just what works for any given author (Chuck or Hugh), but what is working for most authors. I can share what I see - my own experience and other authors that I know. It's anecdotal, which has drawbacks, of course. It's just my subset of the world. Other authors will see a different subset (note Chuck's insistence above that he doesn't think indie pays better than trad-pub; that's his subset). There are a couple surveys that have attempted to get a handle on the indie pub phenonmenon, but those have their drawbacks as well.

The truth: there is no hard and fast data. We can wait around for a survey that's flawless 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.

In that vein, this is what I'm seeing:
  • Friends who can't land an agent but can pay their house payment with indie publishing.
  • Friends who were agented but couldn't land a trad-pub contract, go on to make six figures a year indie publishing.
  • 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. 

The idea that you can make money in indie publishing doesn't come from a vacuum - it comes from author after author actually doing that. And telling other people about it.

I used to be a No One True Way advocate. And I still believe that, in 2013 in some cases, traditional publishing is still the best choice for a book or an author. An author might chose that path for personal reasons, like wanting to win on the hardest setting. Or a particular book (say, middle grade) may not fare well in the indie market, because traditional publishing still has a lock on paper distribution, where most middle grade books are discovered (for now).  I respect any author deciding to pursue publication by any means - it's a brave, fine thing you are doing. Each author has to decide for themselves what their goals are, what will make them happy, and how to go about that. (Note: Hugh and Chuck BOTH are hybrid authors).

But these days, I'm leaning toward Indie First advocacy. Why? I'm not saying, "I did it this way; you should too." I'm saying, "I see far more writers paying the bills with their indie publishing than in trad-publishing."

And 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.

The revolutionary idea here is that, in 2013, starting with indie publishing may give you a better chance overall of making money with your writing.

And that's something worth advocating.

Your thoughts?

Indie Life
Because being indie doesn't mean going it alone.


43 comments:

  1. I still don't know what I'm going to do. Sigh.

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    1. And there's no rush to decide, either, Matt. The changes we've all seen happen in just a short year or two shows there's likely more of that to come.

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  2. Same topic, slightly different opinions! In my post this month, I went with No One True Way. Part of the hard work of publishing is deciding which way works best for you—or at least for the project you just finished. I spent nearly a year on my own decision (indie) while I was wrapping up the novel.

    I do think that novellas are a natural for indie, and (as you point out) MG might be better off in a traditional path. That's just one consideration, though. Time to market favors indie, distribution favors traditional. Marketing's a wash; unless you're a Big Name you're going to have to do it yourself either way. I also believe that, in a decade or so, the remnants of the Big 5 will finally get their acts together and give new authors good reasons to stick with them—better advances and/or royalties, unburdening the non-writing stuff, etc—but until then… go indies! And everyone else!

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    1. I'll have to hop over and check out your post!

      I agree that distribution favors traditional, in the sense that they have that paper distribution system still locked down, but even that advantage is dwindling, as bookstores stock less and less. It's amazing to me how hard it is for me to actually get a book I want at the bookstore (midlist, trad-pub, not indie). That being said, digital distribution is even between indie and trad-pub - that's pretty much what's driven the entire indie revolution.

      Will market pressures eventually induce better contracts for writers? Only if they stop signing bad contracts. But that's a nother post. :)

      Good luck with your books!

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  3. You made some really good points. Tweeted and shared this.

    Hugs and chocolate,
    Shelly

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  4. I think you're right. :o) <3

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  5. I'm for the war of ideas. I don't agree with either of the guys above. I don't think there's a hard and set rule for which is better today. I think it has a lot to do with the author and the particular book. But then there's no way to know other than to try one route or the other. So catch 22. Best advice is probably be informed and go with your gut.

    I think the first important advice to give to an author is have a kick ass, hi quality manuscript. Otherwise neither road will see a financial return. Also to keep current.

    In light of the information part of that, I think it's great when authors call publishers out, as what happened with the RH imprints recently. I also think it's important to point out for every self-publisher selling, there's many who aren't.

    It's tough. Publishing can change overnight. All it takes is for Amazon to change royalty rates or introduce ebook reselling or stores to pull back on stocking a certain publisher like happened with S&S.

    I'm glad I self-published but I know I would be in the percent that don't sell if I continued to, so for now I'm trying trade.




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    1. Carol, good points, all! Publishing is in a huge state of flux right now, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The War of Ideas helps people feel their way through that.

      I had a fantasy this morning of magically conjuring two manuscripts in the hot-selling-genre-of-the-moment (New Adult Contemporary) - same author, both great stories - and sending them down the two paths to see the outcome. I think I know the answer, but it would be great to have a back-to-back comparison. Of course, that's just a fantasy, so we have to deal with the imperfect data we have on the ground: the experiences of the authors around us.

      p.s. I didn't know you self-pubbed! I thought you were Omni all the way!?

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    2. I wanted the experience of the process. I totally support self-pubbing in general, just doesn't suit me. I self-pubbed a short and then when the exclusive was up for the Omni short, I self-pubbed that too. Both were very basic. Just for learning the process of formatting, cover and uploading to the different sites.

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    3. Ah, yes the short story for the anthology! The market for shorts is very different than novels... but also evolving. My serial is basically a hybrid - longer than a novel over the season, but each episode is short, like a novella. And it's doing well. I think readers are still figuring out all the different forms for ebooks, along with writers.

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  6. I often stand on the line between Indie First and No One True Way. When it comes to ebooks, I'm completely on the Indie First side, but at the same time, publishers (large and some small) have better distribution channels when it comes to print runs, which are still important (I know I'd like to find my books in libraries/bookstores one of these days). In the end, it's probably a lot of what type of person are you and what kind of book have you written to determine which way to go. Although starting out, Indie definitely has the edge. :)

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    1. I think it's the "starting out" part that's important here - and part of what Hugh's point was. Once you're published, especially when you have multiple books out, have built some fanbase, etc (whether trad-pub or indie), you have more options. And more experience. I see multiply published authors going back and forth between the worlds, maybe sacrificing money on one book for exposure, or vice versa. It's the "starting indie" and "indie making more money" concepts that are new. And compelling, I think. :)

      Thanks for the great comment!

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  7. Love this debate and sharing of ideas, but I'm with you: Indie First!

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  8. I don't see too many people bringing traditional publishing contracts into this debate, but I think that's an important factor to consider. When publishers try to grab rights for formats that didn't exist when the contract was signed and try to tie up a writer's ability to publish anything, even something unrelated to the contracted work, it hurts the author. With indie publishing, I retain control of my stories, and that's important to me. Philosophically, I believe people should be free to choose their own paths, but to me, the indie path seems to offer so much more to the author than traditional publishers do. But as Carol points out, that could change, though I don't think things will ever go completely back to when the traditional publishers had all the control.

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    1. No, I think you're right: that cat is out of the bag. Once authors have a taste of control, and continue to do well with it, there's not much going back.

      I wrote a whole post asking authors to Please Don't Sign Bad Contracts. I think that's the only real way to affect change in the boilerplate. For authors who are determined to go trad-pub, it's going to be hard to resist. They probably won't - but even the option of indie gives them more leverage in negotiations, if they choose to use it. For authors who aren't determined to have the trad-pub contract, that's where the negotiation - and the changes - will come.

      Thanks for the great comment!

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  9. Looking at indie authors out there, I end up with the same bottom line you've arrived at. Which makes me really glad I went Indie First!

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    1. Me too (although technically I was small-press-first :)! Even as short a time ago as 2010 (when I first published) the landscape was very different.

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  10. I noticed Hugh and Chuck's opposing beliefs on this as well!

    What's funny about coming out with an opinion on something, like saying Indie first, is that a lot of people take it to mean we can't respect people who decide differently. Like by having an opinion, we automatically make value judgements on their choices.

    I think that traditional publishing is going to be a very different path. I think that doing traditional first these days takes a lot of the power out of your hands. I think that the current models they have going on puts the writer at the bottom of the pyramid, and lots of writers get lost in the big machines of the industry. But it doesn't mean I don't respect people who decide they want to go that way, or that I don't still hope the best for them and their work. I'm still cheering for the writers, no matter what they do.

    Good post :)

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    1. Faith - you hit it exactly on the head (why did it only take you 500 words, and I spent like 5000 on it? *sheesh* #wordymuch?)!

      It's important not to conflate opinion with closed-mindedness. If we can't express opinions, if we can't have competing ideas, then we're lost in a mush of "everything is equal, peace out."

      Which doesn't actually help authors make choices.

      Great comment!

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  11. I tend to be a 'no best single answer' but that's because I am also a 'more than money to consider' girl. I DO see it MOVING toward favoring Indie, but I think it is an issue of genre and personality. With my cozy mysteries, those sell TRADITIONALLY like gangbusters and I would have been a fool to bypass the opportunity. And for my personality--I NEEDED that schooling (of what goes into a truly publishable novel). I have some stuff coming I will probably self-publish, but I am impulsive and NOT a details girl, so I've been counting on the traditional system to keep me from jumping before I'm done.

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    1. Hart - I'm curious why you think cozys sell better traditionally? I'm not in the mystery market, but I've seen other mysteries do well indie - are cozy's different in some way that I don't understand?

      Having a good editor is something that I think a lot of writers (every writer?) needs - whether it's great crit partners, paid freelancers, or the editor at your publishing house. I'm going to be trying out a freelance editor for developmental editing later in the year - you might consider that for your indie stuff, if you're concerned about it!

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  12. Strongly Agree

    I chose indie first partially because of money (I want to make a career out of writing), partially because first time writers get sucky contracts, and partially because I'm a control freak and can't stand the thought of handing over my writing and having no input on what happens to it.

    I haven't sold much yet, but I really think I made the right choice. With indie pub I have time to slowly build an audience, so I don't have to worry about release day sales figures. I'll get where I want to go, eventually.

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    1. Congrats Jennifer! And I have no doubt you'll get where you want to go, when you're in charge and you're at the controls!

      And you make a great point about "slow" - it's tough to remember sometimes, but a career isn't made on just one book. It's a long path we're traveling, and your best books are ahead of you. Good luck!

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  13. Great post! I can see why Hugh and Chuck have opposing views, obviously they're going to support what worked for them. I think if you have the money to pay for all the costs of getting a great product out and can live off of another source of income until your books catch on (sometimes takes a few years and a few books), then indie first is a great option. But if you don't have the start up cash or the option to live off a day-job, then you might be better off putting your book into the hands of a publisher. It might be wise though, to go hybrid whenever you get a nice following since I think you stand to make more in the long run.

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    1. Lauren - I'm pretty sure that putting your book in the hands of a publisher is a lot LONGER route to getting money in your pocket. Indie pub gets the book out a lot faster. Most trad-pub authors still have day jobs (as do most indies as well). But your point about hybrid, once you've published a few books, is a good one! Both Hugh and Chuck are hybrid - having readers who like your work definitely gives you more options.

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    2. I was talking more about the start up costs of finding a great editor, proofreader(s), cover artist, and formatter (for those technically challenged like me :)) I also felt that I needed to take a few writing workshops before I published and that all does cost a bit. I know there are ways to self-publish with very little investment, but I can only go by my experience that I needed to invest a good amount before I saw any return.

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    3. There are certainly legit costs to self-publishing - but also for the trad-pub side. I know authors who spend that money on conferences, networking to meet agents and editors. And writing workshops can definitely cost on both sides! I was just saying the time for those things to pay back is shorter on the indie side than the trad-pub side, IMHO.

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  14. Fantastic Sue.

    You didn't see me, but after reading your post, I jumped up on my coffee table, swung my shirt around above my head, and said, "Whoot! Whoot! Sue's awesome!!!" I'm so sorry you missed it. =)

    *erm*

    Great post. Consise. Interesting, and factual. You rock!!!

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    1. Why is there no video?? *cries* I need that for the next time my hubby wonders why the kids are eating Mac N Cheese again for dinner. ;)

      *loveyou*

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  15. There's no other choice for me. :)

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  16. Yes, I have to agree. Traditional publishing, in my opinion, is a whole lot of waiting around and giving up profits. I'd take a deal, don't get me wrong, if it was big enough. I'm not against traditional publishing, I just want to make money, and they really stand in the way of that in most cases.

    Julie~ My Indie Life Article

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    1. Julie - Thanks for joining Indie Life! I'll hop over for your post!

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  17. More and more, I feel like indie publishing might work with me, but I might still submit to agents when the time comes.

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  18. I went Indie First with my first novel. I haven't broken even yet, but I feel like I've learned a huge amount that will help me with the second book and the third - all planned for Indie publishing. I do want to try the other routes as well, because I love to write, and I want to learn as much as I can about all types of publishing and writing.
    From my experience so far, I've hand-sold more books than I've sold online . . .again, I've learned a few things about marketing since I started, but so far . . . immediate word of mouth from people I know is working best.

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  19. I believe that both have a place. If it weren't for self publishing, we wouldn't have NA books to enjoy. So I'm all for self publishing. But I also love traditionally published books. I support both, and believe an author should do what feels right to them, and not worry what others say.

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  20. Why is it that whenever I see one of these discussions, there is no distinction to be made between big press and small press traditional publishing? These are two very different things that people tend to conflate for some reason, and I find that unfair and mildly absurd.

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    1. JHM - I agree there's a big difference between small and big presses. My first book was through a small press - I think there's quite a range within "small press" as well, everything from the newer ebook only presses to long standing small presses that have whole sales departments dedicated to placing orders in bookstores. I find my indie publishing experience to be substantially different from my small press experience, though, which I think is why the demarcation often happens there.

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers