First there were vanity presses, a pejorative term if there ever was one. Any writer with enough money could pay to have their manuscripts edited, typeset, and printed by “presses” (for-profit companies) that stroked authors’ egos to get their business—and the lion’s share of the proceeds.
Then, when digital advances made it possible for authors to produce their own good-looking books on their desktops—whether on paper or as an e-book—the term self-publishing came into vogue. “Self” is a bit of an improvement over “vanity,” but not much. The biggest change was authors’ increasing control over their own material—and the bottom line.
Now, just as my self-published e-book makes its way into the world, we have a new term for people like me: “indie authors.” I love it! There’s no judgment involved—it’s a completely neutral descriptor. But it has great associations from its antecedents: indie films, indie rock, indie design, etc. Indie authors are outside the mainstream, having eschewed the years-long process of finding agents and conforming to the narrow and exclusive curation of publishers who are as motivated by profit as the vanity presses. Indie authors are truly independent—of somebody else’s idea of what might sell, how a story should be told, what the cover should look like, and how an author should promote herself.
Of course they may be independent of money and attention, too, which is the risk indie authors take in order to retain control of their art and their lives. But if they’re not averse to marketing (which I admit, I am), indie authors can find an audience and bring in enough to go out to dinner now and then.
Promoting your self-published book can take as much time and energy as the dog-and-pony shows the big publishers send authors on. These days, publishers rely on the “branding” you’ve done for yourself, your professional and personal connections, and your physical body and soul to get your book out there. So why not do it yourself? In your own style?
Perhaps, like many authors, you’re media-shy, or you don’t like to talk about your book, wanting it to speak for itself. You don’t like listening to other authors read out loud and you don’t see the point of autographs, so why would you want to put yourself through that? And hopping from city to city meeting the press and answering the same questions over and over? You didn’t get into writing to be a celebrity or to wax wise on literature or speak for other writers. Maybe you prefer to greet the public electronically from home, via e-mail or a blog. Indies can do or not do whatever they want—and accept the consequences, with only their own reticence or laziness to blame.
But if your book is an e-book, you’ve put exactly zero dollars into producing it, so you get to keep the greater part of whatever you gross. That’s thanks principally to the e-book publishing programs at Smashwords and Amazon, which allow you to publish for free in return for a percentage of the profits (they keep an average of 40%). “Free” is a bit misleading, because if you’re smart, you’ve paid an editor to review your work and suggest improvements before you embarrass yourself in public. (This is a cost you might incur anyway before going the traditional publishing route.) And if you’re not technically inclined, you may have paid a book designer to turn your manuscript into a handsome layout and give it a striking cover. (I paid an editor but did my own designing and formatting for New Old World.)
So, you might ask, Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing? I published in both places: Smashwords for its distribution network and support, and Amazon for its cachet and accessibility. At the risk of sounding like a shill for Smashwords, I’m super impressed with their program. With one upload, my carefully formatted manuscript was converted into versions that could be read on Kindle readers, Apple devices, Nooks, or desktop computers. Within moments my book was shipped to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, subscription services like Scribd, library distributors, and a host of other “channels” of my choice.
Even so, I went on to publish at Amazon because of the preponderance of Kindle owners out there, and the streamlined purchasing and downloading they’re accustomed to when ordering directly from Amazon. Plus, people know what you’re talking about when you say Amazon!
While the giant was relatively easy to work with, overall I find Smashwords to have the more human interface, taking more interest in your success with a range of pre- and post-publishing support. Through Smashwords’ technical guides, its blog, and its series of podcasts, indie authors can learn how to format and market their books and keep up with the state of the self-publishing “industry.” They also have seasonal promotions that authors can participate in at whatever level they choose. (For example, my book is free this month as part of the summer sale, which so far has meant seven new sets of eyes on my pages that I wouldn’t have had at my regular $4.99 price.)
Being an indie author doesn’t have to be a lonely, reinventing-the-wheel kind of existence. But it can be if you want it to—that’s the beauty of going your own way!
My next step along the indie path will be to create a print version of New Old World. Not only will this new packaging reach a potentially different audience—those who refuse to give up the feel of a physical book in their hands—but it may send me on a different trajectory. With a pile of books that I’ve paid for, I may be more motivated to market my novel in order to recoup my expenses. And it may be an easier sell when there’s something tangible for people to look at and take home, with or without my autograph.
As an indie print author, I will still have complete control over the look and distribution of my book, 100% of the profits will be mine, and best of all, I don’t have to wait for someone minding the publishing gates to decide whether my novel should be admitted to their realm. I’ll let readers judge. The new world of indie authordom is not fueled by profit, name recognition, or exclusivity—it’s a wide-open democracy for both writers and readers.
And it has very little to do with vanity.
Here are a few links that might be helpful…
A good history of indie publishing on the Smashwords blog
And of course my novel, which you can get for free through July 2018 at Smashwords.