Battling Misconceptions Of Indie Writing

While I don’t actually want this blog to be all writing, all the time, I do have to take a swing at this article.  It’s about a year old, but it’s still floating around social media and its ideas will be around long, long after everyone forgets this piece.

It’s from the UK paper The Guardian, which has run some ridiculously silly stuff from time to time, and this is no exception.

I don’t plan on doing a total Fisk, I do intend to hit her key points and show this author, Ros Barber, is full of it.

A few days ago, I wrote a piece on my blog exploding the myth of the rich writer, and laying out (in terms the Royal Literary Fund described as “ruthlessly mathematical”) what authors actually receive when you buy their books. The simple answer for many of us is nothing at all, after that heady advance in the case of my most recent novel, which was £5,000 for two years’ work.

The blog was widely shared on social media, and viewed by nearly 10,000 people in its first week. The shock, agreement and commiserations were followed swiftly by people telling me what I really need to do is self-publish.

Now, I understand that “indie publishing” is all the rage, but you might as well be telling Luke Skywalker to go to the dark side. Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write). Here’s why.

So she’s already implying that indie authors aren’t “serious” and don’t “love to write.”  Nice.

It’s complete horsecrap, mind you, but what do you expect.  You see, Barber is what we call “a snob.”  She looks down her nose at the rest of us while believing she’s superior.

Of course, indie authors can actually survive on their percentages.

You have to forget writing for a living

If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living. Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing. The self-published author who came to my blog to preach the virtues of his path, claiming to make five figures a month from Kindle sales of his 11 novels, puts his writing time percentage in single figures. If that sounds like fun to you, be my guest. But if your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to aim for traditional publication.

Marketing is a key part of being an indie author, but so what?  I’ve spoken with many traditionally published authors who have to do their own marketing.

So, if I’m going to have to market my work anyways, why on Earth would I give up so much of what my books could make just so I can still have to be the one to sell them?

And while yes, this one guy apparently spends more than 90 percent of his time marketing, that doesn’t fit most of the indies I know.  Yes, that includes the full-time indies.


Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool

Imagine we have just met. I invite you into my house and the first thing you do is show me the advertising blurb for your book and press me to check it out on Amazon. Then you read me the blurb for someone else whose book you’ve agreed to promote if they’ll do the same with yours. Then you tell me how many friends you’ve lost today, and that I can find out how many friends I’ve lost by using this app. Then you poke a reader review of your book under my nose. All within the first 10 minutes. Does this lead me to conclude you are a successful author, whose books I might like to buy? Or a desperate egomaniac with no thought for other people? One who may not be able to string a decent sentence together, since your sentences come out as semi-literate strings of hashtags:

I mute authors whose tweetstreams are 90% adverts in the same way I wouldn’t watch the shopping channel. The vast majority of indie authors have tweetstreams that are 90% adverts, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they must spend 90% of their time marketing. It certainly doesn’t make self-publishing look like the path to El Dorado. Why would I want to join this gang?

And a lot of us indies get annoyed by that too.  So what?

That’s not an artifact of being indie.  That’s an artifact of being an ass.  No one wants to hear about your book all the time, and if you think indie authors are unique in this, you’re deluded.

Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego

Imagine you are a cabinet-maker. You look at a few cabinets, you read a few books about how to make a cabinet, you practice the technicalities of things like dovetail joints. Then, with hope in your heart and breakfast in your sawing arm, you grab some wood and set to work. But because you are new at this, your tools are a starter set. In your ignorance, you chose wood that wasn’t properly seasoned. Wow, those dovetail joints take some precision, don’t they? This cabinet-making thing is hard! Nevertheless, with persistence and effort you complete your cabinet. It wobbles a bit. The drawers stick. The finish isn’t perfect. Buy hey, it’s a cabinet! You try to sell it to several furniture shops and they all politely decline. So are you going to sell it yourself? Or heave a sigh, make another cabinet, and see if you can make a better one?

No, gatekeepers do no such thing.  How do I know?  Because the Gatekeepers shot down Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia, so he sold it indie.  He then got picked up by Baen and is now looking at buying a freaking tank.

The gatekeepers aren’t the arbiters of what is good and what isn’t.  The analogy Barber uses of furniture is bullshit for one simple reason.  Anyone can look at a dovetail joint and see if it’s a good joint.  It’s an objective thing to see if the wood fits together snugly.

Books, not so much.  They’re far more subjective, and therefore many that have a wide appeal never get picked up because the gatekeepers happen to be part of that group that simply dislikes that type of book.

It happens far more than Barber will probably admit.

Instead, customers serve as the indie gatekeeper.  Yes, a bad book can be published.  Ask me about the book I simply refer to as ET some time (no, it has nothing to do with an alien who wants to make a long distance call).  However, bad books vanish quickly while those that aren’t, stick around.

Gatekeepers don’t protect us from ego, they “protect” us from books we might actually want to read.

Good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship. Serving your apprenticeship is important

My first novel was my fourth novel. It was accomplished on the back of three complete novels (plus two half novels) that didn’t quite make the grade (even though two of them were represented by well-respected agents). Yes, it can be frustrating, having your beloved book (months or years of hard work) rejected by traditional publishers. But if you are serious about writing, you will simply raise your game. You will put in another few thousand hours and complete your apprenticeship. And when you do, you will be very glad that the first novel you wrote was not the first novel you published, because it will now feel embarrassing and amateurish. You can only be a debutante once. First novels are all about making a splash. You’ll find it hard to make a good impression if the first thing anyone saw from you was that wonky cabinet with sticky drawers.

So what?

Barber claims that her first published novel was the fourth she wrote, but that’s her.  My first novel is stuck on a hard drive, never to be seen by human eyes other than my own.  So what?

She calls it an apprenticeship, but let me ask her just what kind of apprenticeship gives no feedback to the apprentice on their work until they’re almost ready to advance?

Oh, yeah, none.

You can forget Hay festival and the Booker

OK.  Didn’t care about them anyway.

Moving on.

You risk looking like an amateur

Good writers need even better editors. They need brilliant cover designers. They need imaginative marketers and well-connected publicists. All these things are provided by a traditional publisher, and what’s more, it doesn’t cost you a penny. They pay you! If a self-published author wants to avoid looking like an amateur, they’d better be prepared to shell out some serious dosh to get professional help in all the areas where they don’t excel. And I mean serious. Paying some poor bugger in the Philippines a fiver, or bunging £50 to your PhotoShopping nephew will not result in a distinctive, professional-looking cover. And don’t get me started on the value of good editors, copy-editors and proof-readers, and how many times they have saved me from looking like a twonk. Providing these services to indie authors is a lucrative business. Indeed, many indie authors keep themselves afloat financially by offering these services to other indie authors: the new “authorpreneur” pyramid scheme. Which is all very well if what you’ve always wanted to do is start your own writing-related business. But if you’d rather be an author, why not practice your skill until you’ve written something a publisher will pay for? And enjoy the fact they’ll also foot the bill for everything else.

And yet, how many traditionally published books do you see with crappy covers or worse editing.

Plenty of them.

Not only that, but while a traditional publisher will pay for them, an author rarely has any say in what happens.  I’ve heard some absolute horror stories about traditional editing, such as notes that this character would never do that…even though the editor was referring to a completely different character.  That’s just one of many I’ve accumulated through the years talking with traditionally published authors.

But you know what an indie can do with an idiotic editor?  Never use them again.  We’re footing the bill so we can be selective.

70% of nothing is nothing

Says a woman who started off by complaining about how she’s not making any money.

She then produces one person who went from indie to traditional publishing and talks about making more money.  Those people do exist, but so does Hugh Howie and J.A. Konrath, both of whom went the other direction and are happier for it.

The fact of the matter is that it takes far fewer sales to make a living at 70 percent royalties than at 25 percent that’s reportedly typical for ebook sales (to make an apples to apples comparison).

If I have a $4.99 ebook, I make $3.49 off of each sale. (4.99*.70=3.493)

Now, the median household income in the U.S. is $55,775 per year.

That means in order to make that much money annually, you need to sell roughly 1,332 books.  (55,775/3.49=15,981.375/12=1,331.781)

Yes, that’s a lot.

However, if you look at traditional publishing for a moment, this is what we get.

First, we’re going to assume a $6.99 ebook, because trad publishing doesn’t do inexpensive ebooks (which actually hurts authors since many people won’t touch the more expensive ebooks).

With a $6.99 ebook at a 25 percent commission, you get a whopping $1.75 commission. (6.99*.25=1.7475  I’m giving the benefit of the doubt that they’ll round up.  They won’t.)

Now, with that median household income, you have to sell 8,134 books per month (55,775/1.75=97,606.25/12-8,133.8541).

In short, I can make the same money for selling 16 percent of the books.(1332/8134-.16375*100=16.375 percent)

[Edited to add: Yes, one makes more money outright with a higher priced ebook–something that is also common in traditional publishing–but that doesn’t account for reduced sales at the higher price.  Either way, it’s safe to assume that you’ll have a hard time making a living off of those 1,300 ebooks at a 25 percent commission…ever.]

But please, do go on to tell me how it’s impossible for me to make any money.  Please.


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