Is it Vanity to be Indie?

The leaves were changing, the barbecue was spicy, the air was nippy. It was the perfect October day for an outdoor literary festival up in the mountains. Whenever I attend or present at a writers conference or book festival, I always leave with a smile on my face at having met so many awesome writers and readers (the gas that makes us go!) This particular weekend was no different. But what was different, was the fact that I met no less than twenty authors talking, unhappily, about their publishers. What was different about it, was that almost all of these disgruntled writers were referring to their indie publishers.

Okay, most of us Indies know the drill of publishing to Amazon or Smashwords. It can be a pain in the ass and often takes forever to get it perfect, but it is NOT, as I’m always reading all over the net and can personally attest to, rocket science. So when I heard author after author complain about their publishers saying it took three and four months to put their books up on Amazon, I was astonished. Furthermore, every one of these authors was giving 50% or more of their e-book royalties to their publishers—their indie publishers. What the heck was going on? Did the slimy agents and trad publishers shimmy out of their traditional publisher’s costumes and come to the ball dressed as Indie? Is it just irresistible the idea of taking advantage of the clueless author? Again?

Additionally, every one of these Indie authors was selling copies of their print-on-demand books for well over $15. For a paperback!! When I gave a wandering bookstore owner at the festival a few copies of my book, Toujours Dead, to sell on consignment, she couldn’t believe I was selling them at the literary festival for $7 a piece. I shrugged. “I make a profit on them,” I said.   How? Easy. My Indie publisher (who happens to be ME) does not charge me $10 a book after paying for full production on a print-on-demand book. Before Createspace, Amazon’s print-on-demand arm, made it easier to make a profit on the per-book cost of producing a title, I always produced my print-on-demand books through Lightning Source (LSI). It involved a more expensive setup and skillset, but I come from a marketing/production background, so that was no problem. I decided to ALSO publish my books with Createspace  because Amazon had made Lightning Source books harder to access through them (with ridiculously long shipping times) and I wanted to remove as many barriers as possible for those readers interested in my books. But I also needed to be able to buy cheap copies for myself to sell (which I could  do better thru LSI).  With the new changes implemented at Createspace earlier this year, the per-book cost to produce these titles in print-on-demand is now cheaper than using Lightning Source so I probably will just continue with Createspace.  Toujours Dead, for example, cost me 4.27 through LSI for every copy I bought. If I was selling my books from a booth at a conference, $7 was a nice retail price for me, and I could even go cheaper if I wanted to and still make a profit. Now that the same book cost virtually the same to produce thru Createspace ($4.45) and without the $70 setup fee (plus every change I make after the proof is another $35), I’ll likely never go back to LSI. Note: A few of the authors who had discovered Createspace were happy with the quality and the cost of their books, but one admitted he got a little over his head and said he had to “upgrade” to get the help he needed. When he did, the price shot up like the Titan 1 booster rocket on a clear day.

Okay, but back to our poor, hapless authors, the ones who were totally enjoying their day until they met up with me. They had shelled out over $1,000, some of them, to get a print-on-demand book made—and that didn’t even include the cover design! (Except for one or two, the covers were generally awful, about what you’d expect from a writer who’s an expert at writing but less so with the whole design thing. Unfortunately, these covers had all been created by their so-called publishers.) Then the authors bought copies of their own book at prices that made it prohibitive to re-sell them!

In more than a couple cases, I was told by happy authors (at least they were happy until they talked to me) that putting their books up on any of the online distributor sites like Smashwords or Amazon cost extra! I told at least five writers that it was free to publish a book on Amazon. One of them actually blurted out: “You lie!”

Bottom line: be careful out there! It’s not just the agents and the trad publishers who want a piece of you…sometimes it’s the indie publisher. If you’re going to make this work as a business model, you need to be savvy, snug with your money, and know upfront exactly what you want. To that end, I met a sweet old guy at the festival with cute but, in my mind, largely unmarketable stories about talking hedgehogs and sheepdogs. His publisher, who had a booth near mine, referred to her business as a “hybrid publishing” model, NOT a vanity press, she stressed to me (three times.) This old fellow had paid his “hybrid” publisher $1,200 and received 50% royalties, on his print and e-books.  Am I being too cynical? Is there such a thing as a hybrid publisher? Or is this really a subsidy press by another name? In any case, I can’t remember seeing a happier soul. He spent a beautiful autumn day sitting in front of a sign that said “Author Will Sign” talking to people and chatting with “his publisher,” a pretty young woman who fussed over him as if he were Stephen King. That’s why I say, it depends on what you want out of the experience. Personally, I believe that gentleman was enjoying every penny of his experience. And good for him!

Love to hear what you think or some of your experiences on the conference/festival trail!

21 thoughts on “Is it Vanity to be Indie?

  1. Hi Susan. I am really struggling to get a grasp on this new aspect of publishing. Years ago I went the traditional route, and Viking Penguin picked up my first novel (It made Doubleday Book of the Month Club). Then I wrote non-fiction for years, which was easier to do in snatches, in between Girl Scout meetings, music lessons, soccer practice and my performing. I have no regrets–I am still earning nice royalties on those books and my kids are the best thing I ever did. Now they are mostly grown (and are writers too), and I can throw myself back into fiction, but in the last ten or twelve years publishing has become a whole new world with very different rules. I know it is a matter of educating myself and learning the rules, but it is hard to know where to begin. I have just finished a manuscript and was going to try sending it out to agents first. I would really appreciate your opinion–what do you think about going the traditional route? Great post. Thanks so much.

    • Hi, Naomi! Congrats on your background with the trad publishers; nothing says “credibility” these days like being able to hang your hat on Viking Penguin! In fact, one blogger/writer I really respect, Dean Wesley Smith, has suggested that a combination of trad publishing and indie publishing is really the ideal. I believe he suggests that b/c the credibility you gain by being a traditionally published author–even if it’s in the past–tends to boost your efforts as an Indie. And you will make more money as an indie author. So a lot of it has to do with what you want. I don’t believe there’s any less work going with a traditional publisher–they still expect you to promote the book and be involved with social media platforms (which I think is pretty much rubbish). Plus, you have no say over the title, the cover and, in some cases, even the revisions. And e-book royalties with trad publishers are hovering right about the 15% (or less) mark for the writer whereas they are 70% as an Indie thru the major online distributors. I would see if I could get the rights to my books back from the trad publishers and e-publish them. As for going forward, if I were you I wouldn’t bother with querying publishers and I certainly wouldn’t go after an agent. It’s a lot of work for them to take most of the profit. For me, since I’d like to augment my credentials with a trad-published book, I may shop a manuscript to a publisher sometime in the future. I just can’t afford to give up the money just yet! Hope this helped and so glad you dropped by and commented!

  2. I found a printer / binder / manufacturer a few miles from my house. Its cost me less than 3.50 per book to print and I’m charging at most 9.99 for the longer of the three books I’ve self-published. Once I pay to have them printed – granted, it’s not print on demand but I end up with a box of my books to do with what I wish – all of the profit is mine. I don’t have the reach that Amazon / Create Space has, but by that same token, I’m not controlled by any of their rules, regulations, prices or fees. The more I hear about the “indie” publishers, the happier I am that I’ve taken the route I have.

      • No argument there, they definitely have the distribution channels, no doubt. I may go with Createspace for my third book because this is my best so far and I think it would do well / appeal to a much larger audience than those I can reach on my own.

  3. I have no idea what an “indie publisher” is. But any writer who uses a publisher and pays them for whatever (usually overpriced) services they provide, or gives them a portion of the sales is NOT an indie writer. There are so many definitions of indie lately that I’m probably just frothing at the mouth, but being an indie writer is — or should be — a DIY thing.

    • You make a good point! These writers probably didn’t consider themselves “indie,” since they all believed they had “publishers” even tho’ THEY paid the publishers instead of the other way around. But it was the bloodsuckers (their so-called publishers) who had latched onto the whole indie-publishing convention that jumped in to take advantage of many writers’ natural aversion to technology. It is a sham. Most of these “publishers” will publish anything submitted to them short of pornography. In fact, there’s no real submission process by which a submitted manuscript will not be accepted.

  4. Hi Susan, thanks for the informative article. I just self published my first book, “54 Spiritual Blessings in Christ” through Createspace and have been very happy with them. My friend, who used to work in publishing, suggested I go through Createspace. Their prices are good and the customer service has been excellent. Now I just need to keep doing the hard work of self promotion !

    • Good for you, Leona! I love how intrepid indies are, forging ahead and publishing books on a wing and a prayer–or in your case, a helpful suggestion from a friend. I’ll tweet your book title this week. Is it also available as an e-book?

  5. I am currently writing my first book, which I intend to self-publish to Kindle. I appreciate your perspective as an indie. Your advice is helpful to a Newbie like me. I think I will add Createspace to my plan. Keep the blog posts coming — I always learn something from them!

  6. Great post! I glean so many useful pieces of information from your site but I have to admit that I don’t follow all you’ve said.
    I’m writing my first novel but started reading about publishing here and there a while ago – it’s good to be informed. But oh dear me! It’s a minefield to someone who knows zilch about it all.
    Is there an up-to-date Publishing for Dummies? Because that’s what I need right now. Although by the time I’m ready to publish it will all have changed again 🙂

    • Thanks, Anne. You know, since, as you say, things change so fast, I’d look to the Internet for answers. Just Google for fresh info. You know there’s a You-Tube how-to video for just about anything you want to do, from e-publishing to print-on-demand. So when you’re ready to “go live,” just start surfing for info! Or write me again and I’ll send you a bunch of links that should still be good then!

  7. Pingback: The Pros (and Cons) in Being Your Own Book Publisher « Tasmanian Travels

  8. I’ve been working on getting my book ready to put out on CreateSpace. Almost done. I’m so excited. This was a very informative post. Thanks.

  9. Susan, terrific post! I feel for your friends who are being so shabbily treated.
    I’ve been POD-ed since 2008 but have had a recent divorce with my original UK publisher ( I’m in OZ). I’m looking at a small bespoke imprint in Australia. They operate direct with Lightning Source which means I would included in Ingrams and therefore available globally. I assume that Australian orders will be published by LS in Australia (Melbourne) and any northern hemisphere orders will be published in either the USA LS depot or the UK depot depending on where orders originate. This is yet to be clarified.
    I have just checked the online info on Createspace and I’m guessing that publishing with CS only gives one access to Amazon’s USA distribution chain. Would you know?
    In addition, and just for your readers’ interest: I am a complete Luddite, technology causing the vapours! And yet I’ve managed to publish four e-books myself with Amazon.com and Smashwords, although I recently cancelled my Smashwords uploads because of the difficulty of upload and selling on.
    My only costs up front with my work are top cover design from a professional and also professional editing. Assuming my books sell, and they have been, 70% goes in my pocket.
    I’ve signed with a brilliant UK digital publisher (no cost and 70% royalties) who is managing to not only publish an ‘enhanced’ e-book for some of his list, but also sell the e-books on some 60 online chains globally which leads me to fell that publishing is exciting and a roller-coaster ride currently and as long as one tries to write a perfectly enticing read and observes the ‘professional edit/professional cover’ rule, then it’s a thrill a minute!

    • Sounds like you’ve got it sussed, totally! IDK re: Createspace and offshore availability but I’d imagine if not now then soon–or someone else will jump in and fill the void. Good for you to get in on this early, too. LOVE hearing from you and the whole indie publishing thing as seen from the perspective of “down there!”

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