My Take on Indie Publishing – 90 Days After Releasing The Galactic Mage Book One

by | Apr 12, 2012 | Blog | 4 comments

Well here I sit, exactly three months since putting out my book, and I am completely blown away. I cannot believe how unfathomably cool readers are, how cool people who read ebooks in particular are. The completely mind-blowing acceptance of indie authors in the reading universe is so amazing, and I really believe that the publishing industry will never again be the same. It can’t possibly be—unless big money figures out a way to crush it (which they are trying to do).

A few years ago, and on back into the darkness of time, publishing your own book was like painting a black X on the front door of your authorial career. “Beware!” declared the stigma, “This dude sucks! Nobody wants him. His work is diseased and foul. It will never sell.”

I labored under that belief for literally decades, collecting my rejection slips, working jobs that, while honorable enough, were, for my artistic self, hardly better than soul-stealing nightmares. I put myself through school, hoping to improve my work so that THEY, the elite, the influential, the powerful, might find my stories “good enough.” And while I don’t regret having done that—it’s certainly going to make my work better, and facilitate improvement at a greater rate going forward now that I have a much better sense of what good writing looks like—I have to say, the drive to be “published,” which really does go back a long way, is a misplaced one. Or it is, at least, a largely misplaced one in this modern world. There is more than one choice now, where there didn’t really used to be.

The more I read, the more I learn, the more I fraternize with other writers who have taken the do-it-yourself (DIY) route, the more I see people earning a living wage off the books they write. As in, writers can actually write rather than having to bag groceries or draft empty copy in the service of selling something for some rich guy who provides “jobs.” I am doing it right now, for however long it lasts. Me, some dude… just like you, “some dude” or “some chick” too. Writing is a real possibility. At least now, in this time. It can be done. It is an actual possibility, not just a nebulous dream.

I read stuff like this article by Vincent Vandari; it tells about a guy who got hosed by big publishing and lost everything. I read others, stories about people who get 17.5% or less in royalties and have to wait a year to get their books out, meanwhile, having little or nothing to live on—especially for nobody authors who don’t merit a fat cash advance. How can they craft more beautiful books if they have to go work in a cubicle somewhere?

I’ve read so many horror stories. Soooo many. And while I am not so thick-headed as to believe there are no advantages to going the traditional publishing route, I am also becoming increasingly convinced that, at least right now, the advantages and disadvantages are balancing out—if not totally tipped towards DIY.

You do realize that Ben Franklin was a DIY publisher, right?

A traditional publishing deal means, in theory, access to connections and markets. You certainly get a hardback copy, and, again in theory, you’ll get it in stores. That would be cool. Assuming it is displayed cover-out on the shelves and gets a place on the table near the front of the store, or at least an end cap on the aisle related to its genre. But I ask myself what are the odds of that happening to me? Pretty slim on a book one.

And, in theory, you get marketing from a traditional deal too. But I look around and I don’t see any marketing going on for hardly anyone, certainly nowhere near as much as there are new books coming out. In the three months since my book came out, I’ve watched a ton of traditionally published books get released, flash onto the front page of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy lists, and then, poof, gone again.

Yes, they all sold for like ten or twelve bucks, and, yes, at 17% the royalty on a twelve dollar book is more than I could get DIY with an e-book. Barely. But then ask yourself, why would anyone pay that much for a total unknown writer? For a book with no brand name? And even if they would pay it, how many would?

Not many.

And, to make the evidence worse, some of the people whose books flashed onto those lists over the last few months are writers who have two or three out already. These are series books, put out by traditional publishers. And yet, flash, and gone. How can that be? How can an “established establishment writer” have a book in a series flash and die when they have all that epic establishment support? Where’s all the great “big league” marketing?

Oh, yeah, it’s not there anymore. Publishing is changing and the big guys don’t have the torrential influx of cash they use to have as clamoring fans had to stampede into bookstores with fists full of cash and credit cards to get their fix of the latest stuff being dribbled out to them through the handful of publishers at an ultra-premium price.

So, if there’s no marketing to sell books for these midlist traditional writers, how are they supposed to support families if their books are only visible for a few days?

Here’s how: they have to keep cranking out books and handing them to the publishers as fast as they can, like livestock chained to the gears in a story-mill. Some of them have even signed deals where they have given up the rights to publish under their own name if they try to go DIY.

How can you make beautiful stories in that environment?

I read once that the measure of a great society is the “leisure” time it can, and is willing to, grant to its artists.

Now, I’m not trying to say there aren’t awesome benefits to going the traditional route. Again, there are connections to be made, access to amazing editing (assuming you get it—I can’t imagine how good my story would be had it been blessed with a keen-eyed editing wizard out of the deep prose mines of New York’s literary elite… sigh), etc. But as I look at it, as I look at what’s selling, what’s on the lists, it doesn’t seem like the traditional guys have all that much on DIY in this particular moment in history.

Just look at the Fantasy list if you don’t think so. SIX of the top ten are George R.R. Martin books. Still! Which is great, congrats to Mr. Martin. But where is the marketing for all the other writers out there? Martin can’t be THAT much better than everyone else in the world—for crying out loud, his first book has the finger-rape of a 13-year-old girl in the first 100 pages… is there really NO other good fantasy coming out of the big six publishing houses to at least give him a run for the money on the top ten list after YEARS????—if more than half of the top ten are all written by the same guy—and keep in mind, these weren’t all written in the same week, but over the course of years—one has to conclude that traditional publishing as a system is not working out very well for writers trying to break out in the genre, or, by extension the field. (And don’t get me wrong, I would love to have six books in the top ten. Screw everyone else. Trust me, I get it. I’m just saying….)

However, on behalf of the reading public, as a sign of possibility for the future, ten of the top twenty books on that fantasy list are indie books. When you consider that George R.R. Martin has six of the top twenty, and one is Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, then you begin to see who’s really doing better by the vote of the READER as it pertains to new and more varied things to read.

Yes, it’s partly price, but it’s not just that. Look at the reviews these top-ranked indie books are getting. They all have four and five star average review ratings. This at least suggests they are pretty damn good. One of Martin’s books only has a three-star rating after getting 1,788 reviews. Any indie writer would KILL to get that many reviews, AND, their book would be DEAD if they still had a three-star average (and I’m not even going to bring up the stuff where some people suggest there are some shenanigans involved with Martin’s people getting him some of those better reviews—it’s all hearsay, so, we’ll just acknowledge that the hearsay exists and move on). Anyway, the point is, I’m not sure what traditional publishers are going to do.

Even worse (or better if you are Mr. Martin and his agent and publisher), he’s got FOUR of the top ten spots for science fiction. Is that series really “science fiction?” And again, I have NO beef with Martin. I am totally stoked for that dude. I wish I was him with every ounce of my being. But just because I am jealous to the point of contortions doesn’t mean my brain doesn’t work. You don’t even have to LIKE science fiction to wonder how all four of those books count as science fiction in the way anyone really understands the genre to be.

Anyway, there’s some weirdness going on with the people with money (traditional publishers AND Amazon, Apple, etc.). Lists and prices are wonky, and the old guard is circling the wagons and stuff. Nobody knows what will happen. Is the ebook industry just going to be something completely different than the bookstore model? Like a totally separate entity? There is certainly lots of talk, lots of writing, and even some lawsuits going on between ebook delivery mechanisms like Amazon and Apple and traditional publishing (a big price-fixing settlement just came out… three of the “big six” publishers settled, and the rest are still fighting price-fixing charges that prove by the settlement the old guard just want your money– on the settlement, and CNNMoney on it ).

They’re having a really hard time trying to reconcile the difference between someone owning a physical copy of something and someone selling access to an electronic file. It’s just not the same, and finding enough cash in the acceptable price of an ebook to please everyone in the traditional distribution chain is tough. It’s especially tough when indie writers don’t have to pay lots of people and carry high overhead. Indie writers like me can just sell stories to readers. Wow, it’s so beautifully un-complex.

Yes, for lots of indie books, there are quality issues that come into play, and the “establishment’ model of editors and proofreaders and cover artists does matter (OMG, I love my cover artist… Cris Ortega = WIN! And, Hi, Joyce … misplaced modifiers are a sign of genius, no matter what you say). But not all indie writers do the core stuff. Some can’t afford it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have a good story to tell. So, caveat emptor. Read the samples!

I’ve had people ask me to review their books, and, when I look the book up on Amazon to see the sample, the book actually has typos on the back cover blurb; heck, one even had a typo on the front cover. I can’t even imagine what was inside, and no, I didn’t look—I’ll cut a lot of slack for typos IN an indie book. I get it, not everyone has the financial wherewithal to pay proofers and artists etc. But typos on the cover? Are you kidding me? The rush to “indie profits,” just like corporate greed, is also a sign of the times.

Despite the lazy and profit-only stuff coming out from tons of indie “authors” and the underworld elements who are stealing and copying books trying to cash in, it seems many readers recognize an entertainment bonanza when they see one. So many people are willing to take the risk on indie books. The smart reading consumers read the samples, read the reviews with a critical eye for fraud (do read them carefully, there are services that sell reviews in packs; they even advertise: 10 Amazon reviews for $45 and 20 for $80. Pretty easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for, but, sadly, most consumers don’t even know they should look). But the savvy ones, who don’t chuck it in when they get one or two really horrific indie books in a row, have figured out that there are some great story tellers out there, and they are willing to risk the low price of getting it wrong sometimes to find those wonderful stories for a great price.

My book was included in an i09 article on the subject, talking about how ebooks are changing the shape of sci-fi. It’s not just me saying this.

Times are changing. And I think indie writers, like indie musicians before them, are in a really great place right now. I know from my experience indie opportunities are real—my story is still doing well on the sci-fi and fantasy lists three months later, and I actually have the beginnings of a full-time living underway (I think I can actually make it through the year and just finish working on book two without the need for a soul-stealing cubicle job). Ironically (or almost so) I’ve even been contacted by a top-notch New York literary agent about my book. Prior to doing it myself, I had ZERO sales, ZERO income and TONS of rejections by agents who would not even look at my book. I even have a friend who is an agent and she wouldn’t even look at it. (And no, the agent didn’t have a great offer for me; but contact coming in from them rather than me sending out, begging, is just something indicative of a complete reversal of things.)

So, for anyone out there with a book that you think is good. And by that I mean: you have spent the time to go through it and through it and through it, to clean it up, have it read by friends, even paid an editor to make it as polished as you can… if you have that book and feel you are bound to inaction and less-than-obscurity for fear of that big black self-publishing X on your authorial door… don’t be.

Do it. Make it as good as you possibly can, and then do it. There’s no telling how long this window will be open. Screw the stigma-sign on the door. Jump through it. What have you got to lose? Is anyone reading your story right now?

If you are a reader, take a chance on the ebooks out there. Find the $3.99 and $2.99 books… even the $0.99 ones. Heck the free ones if you’re really brave. Go look. Don’t be reckless. READ THE SAMPLE. Look at the reviews if they have any… but, if they have nothing but 5-star reviews, go look at the “see all my reviews” thing and see if those “raving fans” have any other reviews. If they do, are they all almost exactly the same? Do they have the “Amazon verified review” notation? Be smart, but go look. There are great stories out there coming from really clever writers. Yes, they will probably have a typo or two, or ten. But, come on, for three bucks versus twelve, you can get a lot more story for the same money.

Here’s a a few links to some interesting blogs that have some data on who and what’s selling, and even a spreadsheet showing what some of the heavy hitters in the industry are doing on their own. If you are a fan of free enterprise and small business, these should inspire you.


  1. Mark Knowles

    Hey John

    Good to hear things are going well. Love to see the little guy making it (if only until the big boys crush it – which they will).

    Here’s to a million sales before they get it.

    • John

      Yeah, I hate to say it, but I think that’s what it is. The race to gobble up whatever we can get before the big-boys stop up all the holes in the leaky dike of their profit machine. They’re still trying to defend the old model, but only out loud so all their writers don’t bolt! (Many are anyway). Once Amazon gets in bed with the old guard, which they will eventually–or Amazon will crush the big six and we’ll be down to a big ONE, which will probably not be better lol–well, then writers will have to go back to being vetted by “authorities” etc. and back to same as usual where businessmen get huge cuts of the sales of artistic labor because, well, because they can. It’s what they do.

  2. Aya Katz

    John, congratulations on your success!

    As an independent publisher, I certainly hope the big guys do not plug up all the avenues that make it possible for us to thrive.

    I am seeing a bit more of an uphill battle for literary fiction and for fiction that does not have a clear-cut genre categorization. Do you think genre still rules in the new world of independent, internet publishing?

  3. John

    Hi, Aya. I think genre has it easier, but I think genre always has. If you look at the derekjcanyon link at the bottom of this blog article, you’ll see how the genres stack, with romance and horror/thriller getting the lion’s share. But I think in this climate, with a reasonable approach to marketing it is possible. I realize I got totally lucky with one book (but on a recent survey on the Kindle forums, about 35% of the respondents had decent first book sales too), but there are many people out there who keep writing and building a readership, so that with four, or six, or even ten if they are not lucky at all, can start seeing some decent earning. Not wealth, but a living wage. Most people aren’t writing 160,000 word/550 page epics either (that’s what’s slowing me down lol). Lots of people out there are putting out short stories in the Amazon singles list, or 30,000 word novellas, and 50-80k novels. They charge the same $2.99 I do, many of them. So, if four or six books sounds like a lot, it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to get 2 or 3 50k books written in a year (I’m at 130k on book 2 of TGM series and I started on Feb. 4). So people writing 3 50k books have the exact same output as my books, just three times as much file formatting. Big deal, right? Yes, it’s work, but it’s so much more fun than working for someone else. I sure hope it lasts, but, either way, enjoy the ride.