I is for Independent Publishing

I is for independent publishing.

“Independent publishing” or “indie publishing” sprang up a few years ago, originally as a synonym for “self-published.” It contrasts with “traditional publishing” (sometimes called “legacy publishing.”) Authors who published independently and traditionally are often called “hybrid” authors.



In indie publishing, authors are responsible for getting their books to market. In addition to writing their books, they assume all the functions of a traditional publisher. In exchange, they retain control over their projects and they receive substantially more of the income from projects. Let’s break down each of those elements in turn.

What are the functions of a traditional publisher?

An indie author is responsible for editing her book. Virtually every writer’s guide for professional writers exhorts self-published authors to hire editors. Developmental editors help define and strengthen the overall shape of the story, while line editors focus on individual words in individual sentences. Copy editors concentrate on continuity, grammar, and spelling, and proofreaders conduct a final pass, reviewing for typographic errors.

While some indie authors hire developmental editors and line editors (at costs upwards of $1000 for a full-length novel), many others rely on an informal network of other writers or beta readers to critique their work. Similarly, some independent authors pay for copyediting (an additional $300-$500 for a full-length novel), while some decide to skip that stage. The vast majority of indie authors do not hire proofreaders; instead, they rely on their own review of their manuscript and the attention of their copyeditor (if any.)

In addition to editing, an independent author assumes responsibility for the formatting, generation, and distribution of a book. This includes defining and creating all of the front matter (title page, copyright page, teaser text, review quotes, and “Also By” page), along with all of the back matter (acknowledgments, “About the Author” page, glossaries, indexes, and other related material.) The book also needs a cover (just the front cover for ebook-only editions and a “wrap-around” cover (front, back, and spine) for print editions.) The book must be formatted, typically in .mobi (for distribution through Amazon) and .epub (for distribution through other ebook providers), along with .pdf versions sometimes (for distribution in print.) Formatting for print publication includes a large number of specifications, including alternating headers on pages, page length standardization, gutter calculation (the right margin on left-hand pages and the left margin on right-hand pages), etc.

Independent authors also need to manage the distribution of their books. For ebooks, this distribution is conducted by uploading electronic files to one or more vendors. For print books, authors can opt for print-on-demand (where no inventory is maintained; rather, each customer who orders a print book receives a copy printed at the time the order is placed) or an inventory-based system (where the author warehouses books, sending them to bookstores or other vendors who take them on consignment.)

Indie authors also must assume responsibility for marketing, publicity, and promotion. This may include creating and distributing advance reader’s copies for reviews, building and maintaining a presence on social media, conducting book-specific tours (either in person or online), placing advertisements in print and electronic venues, attending conferences, etc. Promotion may entail special sales pricing for long or short periods of time.
Very few authors have the skills to complete all of these functions (in addition to actually writing the book!)

Therefore, authors typically hire out the jobs they can’t do (or don’t want to do) themselves. Writers’ organizations such as Novelists, Inc. or Romance Writers of America often maintain lists of contractors who can perform each stage of book production. Legitimate contractors will provide references, along with samples of their work.
As an alternative, innovative service providers such as Draft2Digital provide “one-stop shopping” for many publisher tasks, allowing authors to create a single set of front matter and back matter to include in each of their books.

Why assume so much responsibility?

Presumably, authors become authors because they enjoy writing books. Why would any sane author assume so much responsibility for so many non-writing-related tasks?

First, authors enjoy substantial control when they become independent. They are no longer bound by traditional publishers’ notions of what will sell to end-users and what will not. Authors can write in very crowded, exceedingly popular genres, or they can write in micro-niches. They can even combine genres that would flummox a traditional publisher that is strongly focused on where books get shelved in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Furthermore, independent authors do not have to negotiate the traditional gatekeepers of agents, editors, and publishers’ marketing committees.

Indie authors can also control the number of books they publish in a particular time period, along with the length of those books. While traditional publishing remains focused on novel-length work, indie authors can combine a variety of short stories, novellas, and novels to balance their storytelling workload. If a particular project calls for the rapid release of many books in a very short time period, indie authors can move forward without concerns about monopolizing the scarce resources of a traditional publisher.

Moreover, the indie author controls the appearance of his book. He has full control over the cover design, without being overruled by editors’ beliefs or marketing committees’ determinations. He’s freed from the expectations—even demands—of book buyers at chain stores. Not only can he choose his own cover, but he can select fonts and other design elements.

Many indie authors believe that the marketing, publicity, and promotion they establish for their own work is no more than they would be doing for traditionally published works. Most traditional publishers no longer have budgets for new and midlist authors. All authors—indie-published or traditionally published—are expected to invest their own time and money into advertising campaigns. Indie authors are at least able to control book prices for strategic sales of their work.

The bottom line for many indie authors, though, is financial. Indies retain approximately 70% of the earnings from all electronic books they sell. (That number is usually somewhat lower for books sold at relatively low or high price points, for books sold through Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, and for books sold through a support service such as Draft2Digital or Smashwords, which take their own cut of the profits.) By comparison, the best traditional publishing contracts generally give authors 25% royalties on their books’ sales. Many traditional publishing contracts give lower royalty rates on ebook sales, along with single-digit royalty rates on print sales.

Is indie publishing for everyone? Definitely not. But through the judicious use of contractors, indie publishing can work for many more authors who would previously only have considered traditional publishing.

If you’re an author, have you pursued indie publishing? What do you consider to be the pros and cons of that market segment? If you’re a reader, do you consider whether an author is independently published or traditionally published before you buy her books? Why or why not?



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