The Indy Author Game

So, having been in the indy author game since . . . umm, when is it? Since 2004: my, how time does fly when you are having fun. I never had any ‘in’ with the monolith of the literary-industrial complex, no close friends or relations in the professional publishing game; never did a graduate level writing course of study, and I never did writer workshops. I did buy a couple of issues of Writer’s Digest, once upon a time, and made a good try at following their advice, pitching magazine articles and short stories . . . not entirely without result, just not results that made anyone sit up and pay attention. I have been paid often enough for my writing that I can, with a straight face, insist that I am a professional, but generally, the places that paid me were and are not exactly big league. So, when I took it in my head to write long-form fiction, I only took a year to go through the recommended motions of sending out query letters to agents, and submitting manuscripts or the portions thereof to the bare handful of publishers to even consider unagented submissions.

I was fortunate enough to have started off in blogging, which provided a body of readers, and me with practice in turning out a fetching phrase, and even more fortunate to have come around to wanting to do a long-form work in print when it became possible to publish a book in limited print runs through POD, or Print on Demand technology, and distribute/sell through online retailers like Amazon.com. The whole world of writing and publishing was pretty much rocked by those developments, and as much as the old-line publishing establishment will deny it, the cracks in the walls are visible and widening every day. The hows, whys and rationale of all this is enough for a whole ‘nother post, but what I wanted to do here is to distill some of the experience I have had over the since 2004, for the benefit of anyone thinking of doing a book (e- or print) as an indy writer. Holy cow, has it been nearly eight years? Guess it must have been. And I have done seven books in that time? Why, yes, I have.

1. Make your MS good, first off. Write it the best you can, invite other people to review and critique. Frame up the plot, polish the spelling and grammar; even put it away for a while and come back to it after a couple of months. Assure yourself that there is, indeed, a body of people who will want to pay money to read it. In one of Sharyn McCrumb’s books – Bimbos of the Death Sun, I think – one of her characters gave the greatest advice of all time for aspiring writers, to the effect that it’s a bit like taking up hooking: before you start charging money for it, best be sure that you’re pretty good.

2. Get an editor, preferably one strictly trained up in something like the Chicago Manual of Style, and hyper-vigilant, consistent – anal retentive, even – about punctuation and grammar. Hire one, do an exchange of work, call in favors; have someone else do this. It’s axiomatic that you cannot edit yourself. Of course, even with the most exacting editor, there will be some errors. It’s just going to happen, but you want to make the smallest number of them possible.

3. Graphic artist for the cover: again, hire, swap, beg, plead, whatever you have to do – a professional looking, and eye-ball attracting cover is absolutely essential. And it must also look good in thumbnail sized.

4. Formatting – that is, the design of the inside of the book. There a number of templates floating around, and some nice software programs that will give a good result if you do this yourself for a basic all-text interior. Remember, margins should be generous, top and bottom of the pages should likewise be generous also: I have seen some POD published books that were practically unreadable, as the formatter/publisher tried to save money in print costs by squeezing the margins until they were practically non-existent. Readers are accustomed to certain conventions in reading a book. Take account of the font size (10,11,12 pt is usual) and the leading – the space between the lines. Remember also running heads, and page numbers.

5. Setting the cost of your book: there are a couple of variables to consider, one of them being that the per-unit cost of a POD book will always be slightly more than the same format and size book printed by a traditional litho press. A traditional lithographic press print run will be in hundreds, thousands, or millions even, which will bring the individual per-copy costs down. The usual POD print run will be in the tens, or perhaps hundreds. So, for example, a single copy of a 6x 9 paperback POD book will cost . . . let’s say, $3.50 to print and ship to you. Now, in setting the end retail price, you could sell straight to the public for $5.00 and make $1.50 in profit per copy – but if you want to have your book available in a big box retail store like Barnes & Noble, you will also need to consider pricing to allow for a distributor’s discount of %55 off the end-retail price and your own profit. (And your publisher’s profit margin, if you have worked through one of the POD houses. Setting up as your own publisher is another whole blogpost.) Given a page count of 300-350 pages, a 6×9 paperback will retail in the neighborhood of $15.00. Of that, $8.25 will be discounted, then subtract the print costs per-unit, leaving $3.25 in profit. This is way simplified, of course – but you can see that writers like me really like selling directly to the public. On the other hand, the big-box places might make it profitable by dealing in volume, selling more efficiently. Lots of variables, and preferences to sort out.

6. Reviews: getting them is another consideration. Paying for them is probably not a good practice. Count on a long lead-time to submit reviews to various print and online organs who will have an interest in your book: that is, send out review copies six months ahead of your planned official release date. Realize that sending out review copies is at your expense and know that there is only a 25 percent return: that is, only one in four review copies sent out will result in a review. The old timers tell me this has always been the case. Review outlets are usually swamped with submissions, by the way. Target them carefully, as many of them will not consider POD/Indy published books anyway.

7. Have a plan, from the very beginning – of who the audience is for your book, where they might be found, and what you are going to do to get your book in front of them. This is a plain way to say ‘marketing.’ Like most things to do with publishing, it can be done cheaply or expensively. At a minimum, work up, or have worked up for you, things like flyers, business cards, post cards, and a website. When people ask you casually about what you do, tell them you are a writer, and if they seem interested, tell them a little about your book. Always have business cards with the name of your book and the ISBN, and your website to hand out to those who are really interested.

8. You will have to market the book, regardless if you are an indy or a traditional-published writer. It helps to be good at public speaking, or at least, be comfortable in front of a camera or behind a microphone. Anyplace there are people who want to know about your book, do whatever you can to get yourself in front of them.

9. Finally: save receipts, and keep records of your expenses – a lot of these can be considered business expenses, when it comes time to doing the income tax return.

Any Questions? There will be a quiz next week . . . and there are some interesting discussion threads on this topic here, and here.

Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz

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