Since the release of my debut novel The Greenest Branch in June 2018, I have been asked many times about my experience as an indie author, and whether I will take that route in the future with my new historical mystery series.
Below is what I have told them. I know that many aspiring (as well as already-published) authors struggle with deciding which way to go (next). I hope that this will help clarify some questions and assist you in making your decision.
We have all heard that Amazon is a game-changer in the publishing industry: it has democratized access to the reading audiences, it has challenged the subjectivity of the agent-publisher route, and it will lead publishing houses to shut their doors by (insert year). Not so fast – while the first and the second are certainly true, the third assertion requires a more in-depth look.
Major publishing houses are doing well (not least thanks to the steady stream of fired Trump administration officials), and they are here to stay. Who undoubtedly suffers – and will continue to do so – are small/indie publishers.
Before I explain that, let me first compare and contrast big publishers with Amazon.
The main advantages of publishing with one of the Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster) are advances and marketing support (even if it’s just on the strength of their brand and Twitter/Facebook following). Being paid money upfront and having a dedicated team of marketing professionals in one’s corner is undoubtedly of great help. Unfortunately, the greatest benefits of both accrue to already-famous and/or bestselling authors, or to celebrities peddling memoirs.
Every debut author I know who published their novel this way has told me the same thing: advances are small (typically falling short of even the lowest six-figure number – I’ve heard of as low as $5,000) and the marketing team actively promotes the book for only 3 months. After that, the author is on their own (unless it’s a bestseller, in which case the publisher will continue to promote it). Throughout the process, the author is expected to pull their own weight. Publisher marketing without the author’s participation doesn’t amount to much beyond sending review copies out.
But that is important because traditionally published books are more readily reviewed by trade publications and serious newspapers/blogs. They also find their way to retailers like Barnes and Noble, and most top industry awards still do not accept self-published entries, either.
Besides that, going the publisher route means free copy-editing and cover design, although the author has to be prepared to accept whatever changes to the storyline the publisher deems desirable from the commercial point of view. Some authors will be fine with that, others will not, depending on the genre they write in and their personal branding goals. Similarly, the final decision on the cover rests with the publisher. Most authors I have spoken with were not overly excited about their covers.
By contrast, Amazon publishing has upfront costs. In order to publish a high-quality, professional book, it is imperative to hire a competent editor and a cover designer at a minimum. You may also have to hire a formatter if you don’t want to (or don’t have the time to) learn formatting yourself (it is a bit of a pain). But if you’re willing/able to handle these expenses (which can reach up to $3,000, depending on the length of the manuscript and whether it needs only copy-editing or also developmental editing), Amazon will allow you put out a book whose physical quality is indistinguishable from books found on bookstore and library shelves.
As an Amazon author, you are also in charge of the content and the visual aspect of your book. You are paying your designer to make a cover that you want. The story you tell is your story, and it will have sex scenes only because you wanted them there and they fit the narrative, not because your publisher told you to include them. That level of creative control is extremely important, at least to me.
Of course, you will have to do all of your own marketing, but given what I wrote above about traditional publishers’ marketing efforts, it’s not like you wouldn’t have had to do it otherwise. It can be time consuming (although less so if you already have a strong social media presence) and it is certainly less fun than the actual writing, but once again: unless you’re Steven King or J.K. Rowling, you would be expected to do a lot of your own work on that front, with or without a publisher support.
I have not yet mentioned the most important thing – the royalties. For big publishers, and depending on the format, royalties range from 10-25% (this does not include audiobooks, merchandise, etc, only text formats). With books priced between $17-$35 at the point of sale, this may mean anything from $2-$5 per book going to the author (adjusting for production costs). Amazon royalties are higher: they can be as much as 70% on ebooks and 60% (after production costs are subtracted) on paperbacks. Again, the final royalty will depend on the pricing: from $0.67 (if an ebook book is priced at $0.99) to $5 or thereabouts for a paperback.
As always, sales will depend on marketing, and it is true that traditionally published books tend to sell more copies than Amazon books, but that is on average. There are many examples of books that came out of big publishing houses and sank like a stone with a minimum splash, and there have been books that first appeared on Amazon (or other self-publishing platforms) and went on to become bestsellers (The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey).
All this brings me to small and independent publishers. As I see it, they offer the worst of both worlds. They pay slightly higher royalty rates than big publishers (25-45%) but their books are typically priced at lower price points, which eats up the difference. At the same time, most of them have little to no name recognition, and no money in their budgets to undertake any serious marketing efforts on behalf of their titles (some of the smallest ones do no marketing at all). As a result, the author ends up with big publisher royalties but none of the promotional boost that comes with being attached to a name like Penguin or Simon and Schuster. And they have to do all of their own marketing.
This is not to say that there are no reasons whatsoever to choose a small publisher. If you write in a genre that usually sells very little (like poetry), if your life is too busy to take on the additional work of preparing your books for release, if you are not comfortable with the technology required to upload your files to Amazon, or if you don’t care about making money but just want to have a book out there, this may be a good option for you. In my experience, however, very few writers fall into these categories, especially the last one.
Personally, I am satisfied with Amazon. I retain the creative control over my books and I publish them on my schedule not a publisher’s (my next one, Silent Water, which I finished in January, will be out in the late summer 2019, seven months after my last book was released). I share my royalties with nobody but Amazon. I have to do my own marketing, but unlike a publisher’s team, I did not stop after three months. It has now been almost ten months since The Greenest Branch came out, and I still do promotion and marketing, and I still make sales everyday.
I know of traditionally published authors who sold out (or didn’t) their first printing, and made no more money after that. As an indie author, there is no reason why it should happen to you, as long as you write quality prose, put in the marketing effort, and take advantage of the many resources available out there to map out your strategy.
This is the first of a new series of posts on publishing and marketing for indie authors. It will cover everything from choosing a publishing path to finding a cover designer to using Amazon tools to get books out into the world. Subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss this information.