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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Sunday, September 29, 2013

You Are Free, Act Like It, Ch 8.1 Age of the Empowered Writer

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)

You Are Free, Act Like It
"Hey now, you're an All Star, get your game on, go play,
Hey now, you're a Rock Star, get the show on, get paid,
And all that glitters is gold
Only shooting stars break the mold."

-All Star, Smash Mouth

Sometimes I think I was made for indie publishing: it's writing and wild creativity mixed with massive amounts of rule breaking. And indies don't just break rules. We blow them up, reducing them to subatomic particle sized pieces. Indie publishing isn't just changing publishing, it's changing writers.

It may take a while for this to sink in.

(It did for me, but I'm catching on.)

There's an invisible, oppressive tangle of influences pressing down on writers, telling them the "rules" from the very first moment they set pen to paper, saying what things are "acceptable" and "not acceptable" to write. It starts young, too. You should see the looks of shock on children's faces when I teach writing workshops and lead them in a writing exercise and tell them they can write anything they like.

"Anything?" they ask. The deer-in-headlights look is somewhat from blank-page syndrome. But we've just finished talking about conflict being the root of the story and that they should use X vs. Y as a starting point, fill in the blanks. So, I'm not leaving them totally in the wind. Still, they're agog. "We can write anything?" It's like they're just sure they heard me wrong.

"Yes, anything," I say. "Monkeys vs. Zebras. Lettuce vs. Tomato. Pick something. Anything."

"What if I want to write about zombies?"

"Zombies versus what?"


"Zombies vs. Aliens!" I point at her dramatically, doing my best Robin Williams impression from Dead Poet's Society. "Now you're thinking. Be daring!"

A small girl is looking at me intensely, so I turn to her. "What are you going to write about?" She doesn't say anything. "You don't have to share," I say, lowering my Robin-Williams-volume. "Just write it."

She hesitates. Then she says in this tiny voice, smaller even than she is, "Can I write about brain vs. body? Because the brain wants to live by itself and learn new things and go out into the world, but it can't because it needs the body and the body doesn't want to go. The body is afraid."

"Yes," I say, stunned. "Yes. Definitely write about that."

{This - no lie - actually happened. That little fourth grade girl had some very large thoughts in her head. And all it took was some lady telling her she could write anything she wanted to get them out on the page.}

Don't Be The Body That Is Afraid
It amazes me that people who are fantastically creative on the literary page aren't similarly creative in things like marketing and publishing. I'm also amazed that writers actually seek out the "rules" about what they can do and can't (or shouldn't). It's human nature, I suppose, wanting the comfort of knowing that this effort they're expending will meet some socially acceptable norm in society (be it the writer or reader or publisher societies). It's natural when you're starting out and uncertain to want boundaries to tell you if you're "doing it right." But I think it's part of the maturation of the writer when you care less and less about what's the right way to do something, and more about having an impact with your writing. 

Use Your Freedom
I had an idea for a novella-sized story last week. I sketched up the outline (because the dang thing wouldn't let me sleep otherwise). I'll write it as soon as my current edits are done. I'd publish it right away, but it's a Christmas story, so I'll hold off until we're near the holidays. I'll price the ebook low, but I'm also going to put out a slim, pretty paper copy that will be just right for stuffing this heart-warming Christmas story into stockings. (Innovative indie author and serial writer Rashelle Workman gave me the idea for the little print book.)

I've never written a Christmas story.
It's going to be a contemporary adult tale - never wrote one of those either.
I've never made one of these tiny, cute chap-book sized paper copies.
I have no idea if a Christmas novella will sell, in ebook or paper.

I don't care. It's fun, and I want to give it a whirl.

Man, I love being indie.

Indie publishing means your stuff can get out into the world unfettered by whether it's marketable or has appeal or upsets an acceptable norm. You are participating in a truly free market, and the only way to know if the market likes something is to try it. No one will stop you. And if the market doesn't like it, except for those three guys in Nebraska who think you're all that and more, well, so be it. Art isn't always about making money, even when you're indie. Especially when you're indie. In fact, you're freer to be an artist-writer, rather than a commercial-writer, if you're indie publishing.

In this section we'll talk about the many ways authors are being empowered by indie publishing: changing attitudes toward the industry, trying new forms, throwing out old ideas and creating new ones.

It's truly never been a better time to be a writer.

Ch 8.1 Age of the Empowered Writer

I see the signs of writer empowerment everywhere these days.

A writer-friend in wonder that she no longer thinks of agents as gods. 

Another writer-friend who pulls a manuscript from a Big Six editor, because they were taking too long (months) to get back to her. 

A third writer-friend asking for my help to negotiate a contract with her (new) agent, successfully gaining changes like having the money flow to the writer, not the agent, first. 

My writer-friends' empowerment was fueled by their experiences with indie publishing.

That empowerment - expressed as a willingness to challenge conventions, write different stories, try new strategies, as well as an intolerance for "rules" of traditional publishing, including excessive wait times and bad contracts - was something I felt early on, when I first self-published. And I've seen it in other newly-indie-published authors. There's a sudden flush of freedom, of liberation from constraints you didn't even know were binding you.

What, you mean I can write a story any length I want?

Wait, what if I want to write dark-and-edgy instead of light-and-fluffy? You mean I don't have to change my penname if I don't want?

Hang on, you mean I actually can write to trends? 

In this rush of new-found artistic freedom comes the assumption that everyone realizes this Brave New World is upon us. Sadly, this is not true... yet. The next phase, the one that's slowly starting to show its face but is far from fully realized, is the one where everyone in the publishing ecosystem has adapted to this new age of the empowered writer.

I see the beginnings of it in the freelance artists and editors and narrators I work with, who respect and look forward to creative collaboration with writers - a collaboration based on a balance of power where either party can walk away from a situation that's not working for them. This is creative work as normal commerce - where both parties engage in an activity (creating a cover, editing a book, narrating an audiobook) because they see mutual benefits (money, finished product). I'm a big believer in the free market, and this is free market at its best - allowing for individuals to trade goods and services to their mutual benefit.

It is a far, far cry from the publishing system as it has historically existed - and as it is, still, today.

There are some agents and editors who get it. But we still have a long ways to go before most (or even many) people in the industry realize the power balance has well and truly tipped. There are too many (and I include any company who thinks Author House has acceptable business practices, see How To Not Be Eaten By Sharks) who think writers are people to be taken advantage of, not worked with. Or at the least, disposable. Because if one writer isn't willing to sign that contract or accede to those edits or wait for months and months for an answer on a manuscript, there are still legions of other writers lined up behind them, willing to sign up for the bad terms and give up their power.

But this doesn't actually concern me.

All it takes is one toe dipped in the cool waters of indie publishing, and that writer will feel the empowerment for themselves. And they'll tell their friends. And another will try. And another.

It's a slow, but inexorable, avalanche of transformation. And I'm patient.

For me, personally, I continue to discover the effects of the transformation. As I mentioned to my husband once, the longer I've been indie published, and the more I understand how bookselling in the digital age works, the more clearly I see the inflexibilities that hinder large publishers. For example, Amazon just recently changed its categories, as well as the way they are assigned. This is something that every indie published author (who is aware of it) is scrambling to take advantage of.
Debt Collector Vol 1-3
now ranking in CyberpunkGenetic Engineering, and Coming of Age

Why? Because indie authors understand that visibility is huge. They're thirsty to use any tool at their disposal. And because we can. 

I also told my husband that, as my backlist grows, I better understand why publishers are hindered from taking advantage of every new thing that comes on the block - because they have thousands of titles, not one or five or twenty. I now have over twenty titles associated with my author name. Of course, putting out a nine-part serial, with collections, will move you along quite quickly in the title-count. But my point is that managing that many titles quickly becomes a lot of work - especially when you have to go back and re-tool the categories for all twenty-one.

So I understand why publishers lag in doing this. They will never be as nimble as an indie author in charge of her own backlist. And as an author's backlist grows, the author becomes more like a small publisher unto themselves. I'm already thinking about ways I can streamline my production systems (formatting, publishing) - and I think we'll see more services available to authors in the years to come that will facilitate them acting as small publishers. Professionals like upload assistants or marketing/PR people or formatting experts who lend a hand to authors who need support for their growing business. But empowered writers will also be savvy about which services provide good value and which cost far more than they're worth. Because the terms have irrevocably changed on how business is conducted for indie authors - they are empowered now.

Eventually, everyone who works with writers will realize this. In good time, the transformation will reach every corner of the ecosystem. 

And I see that as an unqualified good.

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)


  1. Thank you for this post! As a soon-to-be indie author, I found it both reassuring and inspiring :)

  2. Couldn't agree more. It's like Darwinian selection, only more elegant, and without the bloodshed.

  3. Susan, I love this post, especially the story about your tiny fourth grader!

  4. I love, love this post. I couldn't agree more; indie publishing has changed my life!

  5. Great post. I was born to be an indie author. It suits my temperament and creativity so much better. I had an agent during the pre-indie years, and it really didn't suit me. Drained my creativity and caused a lot of stress I could do without. Not that it was my agent's fault. She was great. I could have traditional deals and anything else now because I have the freedom to be indie first.

  6. So this is an awesome post for me. It comes at a time where I'm trying to tell myself to fall back in love with writing, without worrying about rules and what others think. This only reinforces that I'm free to write about the topics I want to. :)