By Rachel Eliason
At a recent meeting with some of my fellow Des Moines Writers’ Workshop members we were discussing the different publishing routes that members have taken. We’re all over the map, agented writers seeking a big publisher, small press published, and indie or self-published. Our diversity is our strength.
We also discussed how it would be interesting to get a bunch of us together and talk about why we’ve chosen whichever path we’ve chosen. So in that vein, here’s my reasons for choosing indie.
Why I’m Indie
I’ve been an indie, or self-published author for almost four years now. At this point I am not even pursuing traditional publishing. It’s not that I have anything against traditional publishers personally, or authors who would choose to work with them, it’s simply a business decision.
To understand why I’ve chosen to be in indie writer, and not even pursue traditional publishing requires first for me to share what I learned in the 3 1/2 years that I’ve been publishing books.
Once you demystify the process of marketing books, it really comes down to seven basic steps. Once I lay out these steps, we can discuss why they have convinced me that indie is the best route to go for myself.
So how do you sell books?
1. Write a good book
It sounds so painfully obvious that it’s almost a cliché but a good book is easier to market then a bad book.
That being said, writing a good book isn’t the only thing you have to do. The notion that the cream will rise to the top regardless unfortunately just isn’t true. But still, a good book is easier to market then a bad book.
The next four things go together so I’m going to list them off and then discuss them.
2. Pick a good title
3. Get a good cover
4. write a good blurb
5. Set a fair price
Title, cover and blurb all work together to sell your book. The title and cover must make your target reader stop and look at the book. There are two sides to this and often authors get one side but not the other. The title and cover must catch the eye. Otherwise a potential reader will just wander or scroll past. But the title and cover must also speak to the target reader, not just to any reader. A catchy title or an appealing cover won’t work if they don’t tell the reader what the genre is or what the general tone of the story is. It’s a tough balancing act, a title that stands out enough to attract attention but tells enough about the genre to interest the right reader.
Once the reader has stopped to look at a book on an online site, the blurb must intrigue them enough to make them want to buy the book. Too many authors use the blurb to try to explain the book or give a synopsis. The blurb should be intended to intrigue the reader, not explain the book.
If you have these three things right, you will have the reader primed to want to buy the book. If you achieve this and have set the right price, they will often purchase it as it impulse buy.
A lot of indie authors and marketers swear that you need X number of good reviews to sell a book. They will go to great lengths to get those reviews and will encourage you to do the same thing.
As a reader, I have to say that if the cover, title and blurb have suckered me in and the price is within the impulse buy range for me, I’ve already bought the book. The only time I really look at reviews it when I’m on the fence with the book.
The top five things are all one time things. If you manage to get them all right, the book practically sells itself with little marketing on your part. If even one of these is off, marketing that book is an uphill battle.
6. Run a promotion once in awhile
There’s a ton of information out there about self-promotion and the author. Most of it’s wrong, or at very least, overstated. I know plenty of authors who spend a huge amount of time and energy on social media sites, chasing down reviewers, book bloggers and new readers on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads. Unfortunately my experience has been that most of those efforts are just online noise that doesn’t sell books.
What does work? Discounts, promotions, giveaways, email lists and targeted ads. Basic business stuff. Concentrate on those and don’t worry about being constantly available on Facebook. There are better things in life.
7. Write more books
You can do all of the above things and still fail. In fact, you probably will. The number of authors who have a breakaway bestseller the first time out is almost astronomically small.
According to book scan, the average book today only sells 250 copies a year and less than three thousand in its lifetime. Indie authors with no name recognition may do even worse, selling a handful of copies to friends and family and then sputtering out entirely.
What do you do when your book is failing? You might want to look at the first five items again. Is it the best book it can be? Does it have the right title, cover, blurb and price? If the answer is yes, move on and write the next book.
Writing and publishing the next book does two things for you. With each book you get a new chance. It’s like buying a second lottery ticket. Who knows, maybe this will be the breakaway bestseller.
More realistically though, the new book will do as well, or marginally better, than the first one. And with each new book, you will continue to do marginally better. Slowly one of two things happen. Either a you start to develop some traction and each books gets that much easier to market. Or eventually the tiny trickle of sale from each book starts to add up to a larger pot. In this way, even the least successful authors will eventually succeed.
What does this have to do with being in Indie author?
Writing a good book
As far as writing a good book goes there are lots of opinions about whether indie or traditionally published authors are doing better in this regard. I won’t wade into those murky waters here.
However I will say this: the argument about quality of writing is really a red herring. Traditionally published books on a whole probably are of higher quality simply because traditional publishers don’t publish every author who wants to get published. But the quality of some other author’s book has little to do with the quality of mine.
But the but the real reason this is a red herring is because it’s looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. Whether or not a traditional publisher will produce a better book is irrelevant to writers. From the writer’s perspective, the question is what is the best choice for their book.
Title, Cover and Blurb
In traditional publishing, authors often have very little control over the title, cover or blurb. There is actually a good reason for this in some cases; authors do not understand the marketing aspect of cover, title and blurb. They are often insistent on a working title they have grown to love. Or they may select an artistically beautiful cover that says something about the book, but doesn’t sell it effectively as a generic but genre specific cover. The same kind of logic goes for the blurb.
For some writers these issues might tip the balance in favor of seeking a traditional publishing. It is easier to confess your ignorance to these aspects of marketing and hope they know better. Which works, when they actually know better. Don’t count on that, however. I know plenty of traditional authors that have been saddled with bad titles and covers.
Indies have one distinct advantage in this regard; if they screw up the cover or blurb, that’s pretty easy to change. Titles are harder but still changeable. I’ve changed almost every aspect of several of my books, re-editing the content, changing titles, covers and blurbs. The hardest part is admitting you were wrong, and I’m wrong often enough to have mastered the practice.
In an ideal world this would be true of traditional publishing as well. However the personal experience with many authors I know is quite the opposite. In order to get a publisher to change any aspect of a book requires two things: first you must convince the publisher that they made a mistake to begin with and then get them to change it.
Big publishers are big corporations and trying to get the marketing department to admit that they gave a bad title or selected a bad cover runs afoul all sorts of corporate politics. Changing a traditionally published book can be a long, expensive process. If the book is not selling well, they might have little incentive to do that.
Pricing is probably one of the most problematic areas of traditional publishing. Traditional publishers have been fighting a battle to preserve print sales to the point of pricing their eBooks out of the market.
As a consumer, I buy a lot of eBooks. If a book is more than ten dollars, I often bypass it in favor of something else, or look for that title elsewhere. I don’t think the current model of pricing eBooks to match print will work long term.
If anything, it gives indie and small presses a huge advantage. By pricing books between 2.99 to 4.99 we make our books far more attractive to the average reader.
Which is exactly what is happening. While big publishers are claiming that eBook sales are declining and print is returning (based on their own sales), most indies argue the exact opposite. Our market share is growing.
I am sure they have their own side to the story. But for me as an author, I see them making decisions that I don’t agree with. I don’t want to hitch my fortune to their policies.
Traditional publisher should be heavily invested in the promotions and advertising given that these two things are very much part of the traditional marketing paradigm. However most authors I’ve talked to have found the opposite to be true. Traditional publishers can be very difficult to work with if you’re trying to get them to lower the price for a discount or to actually pay out for ads. As an indie, I can go to my publishing dashboard on Amazon and lower a price when I want to run a sale and raise it again at the end of the sale. I like the ease and control that gives me.
Writing the next book
But for me the big reason that I went the indie route is the final step. The surest way to grow your writing career is to keep writing and publishing books. And yet traditional published authors face enormous obstacles in this regard.
Traditional publishers will often look at sales on your previous books, and first books fail more often than they succeed. A poorly performing book might ruin your chances to publish the next book you write. This takes many writers out of the running before they have a real chance to succeed.
If you were saddled with a bad cover, title or blurb, it’s easier for publishers to assume you failed than to admit they may have failed you. So again, those authors may get the cold shoulder from the publisher on their next book.
Even if you are lucky enough to sell multiple books or get a multiple book contract, many publishers will only publish one book a year. Finding a publisher can be a long process. It can take months or even years for your book. The publishing process is equally long and it’s often as much as eighteen months from acceptance to release date.
This is what drives my decision more often than not. I will be sitting on a manuscript and thinking, should I try to find a publisher? I can submit it, spend months waiting for an answer. Or I can send it to my freelance editor and have it back in six weeks guaranteed, and ready for the market.
I can also release as many books a year as I can write. This allows me to get more books on the market than I would with traditional publishing. If you are capable of writing two or more books a year, indie publishing will allow you to launch your career much faster than traditional publishing. If you are a slow writer, traditional publishing might have more to offer you.
And that’s pretty much it. I consider being an indie author a business decision, based on these simple facts. I control the process. I make mistakes, I don’t deny that, but I can fix my mistakes, far more easily than I could fix the mistakes of a publisher. I can easily discount my books for promotions and ads. But mostly I am indie because it allows me to publish on my schedule, in a way that gets more books on the market quicker.