Home » Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing » Is #Indie Publishing Worth It? Would I do it again? A tell-all.

Is #Indie Publishing Worth It? Would I do it again? A tell-all.

15 February 2014

From author Toby Neal:

[Y]esterday I heard from a talented writer who used to work in my former agent’s office. This person knew my writing from the get-go. She knew how hard the agency worked to sell my book series, and she had to find another job when my agent retired in frustration in 2011. She has continued to write herself, and watch my career as someone who has seen it from that very first version of Blood Orchids, that, while needing a complete rewrite, had enough promise to attract her boss.  Spurred by the Authorearnings disclosure, and “on the fence” herself about which way to go with agent interest in her work, she wrote me a series of questions to help her decide whether to persist with the traditional route or make the leap to “author-publisher.”

The discussion was so good I thought I’d share it with other writers struggling with the same dilemma.

. . . .

Writer-on-the-fence: Would you self-publish again? 

As you know more than anyone, I was devastated when our agent retired in 2011 and I was left without representation. It had taken me two years to get an agent and 179 query letters! Then, we hadn’t sold the series in 9 months (well, we did get an offer, but it was too low and digital rights only.)

. . . .

I felt after that much “lost time” I had to try self-publishing, and our agent’s comments on the market had been very discouraging, so I thought at least it couldn’t hurt  to try. I did, however, go “high end” from the beginning, with a top-tier cover artist (Julie Metz) a publicist, and two rounds of professional structural editing… That first book cost me $12,000 to produce and market its first month. (Now I have my book development expenses whittled down to a mere $4-6,000.) However, Blood Orchids paid for itself within two months after debuting in December 2011, and last year alone I netted close to a hundred thousand in sales.

I think of my books as a start-up business, so I spent at least half of that on new book development and advertising. This has made my take-home income just replacing the middle-class amount I made as a school counselor, a job I was able to leave because my writing income had replaced the need for a 9-to-5. I choose to keep re-investing in new books because, as others have said, every title is a worker bee out there earning for me, and the model that works in indie publishing is capturing your readers and keeping them reading and engaged with a flow of new titles.

My books still cost more than many other indies report, but I won’t stint on the quality and I love the team I’ve built.

. . . .

The publishing side’s a business, and while I’m PASSIONATE about my writing (I even feel I tell stories with deeper messages and meaning, call it hubris if you will) I run it like a business. To make money as an author/publisher you have to be a good businessperson and a fast and prolific writer…or you can be a hobbyist, as many are.

Would I self-publish again? The question is no longer that. It’s now, what deal could a traditional publisher offer me that I would take? And my answer, if I’m honest, is a six-figure, print-only deal (at least for the mysteries.) And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Link to the rest at Toby Neal

Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

20 Comments to “Is #Indie Publishing Worth It? Would I do it again? A tell-all.”

  1. Wow. Is it me, or does $4K to $6K seem like an awful lot of money for the development of one book?

    • I’m sure it’s not just you, John. I’m not an author and don’t have personal experience, but I do observe closely what’s going on and what others talk about regarding expenses. However, it isn’t *that* outrageous. A lot depends on how much editing he is getting done. A good content edit isn’t cheap. The authors I know who are most committed to a quality product will often get multiple proofreadings from different people, no one of which is that much, but 2 or 3 of them add up. Now the 12K he spent on the first book seems too high.

    • It really depends on what he’s doing. 3-4 edits, at $500 each would be $1500 all by itself. Throw in a nice cover, formatting, and some marketing, then you can easily spend 4K. sounds like he is outsourcing most of it, which is probably why it is costing so much.

      Now, editing itself depends on who you hire, how long the book is, and how much editing you want done. A quick once over to catch typo’s is less then someone doing a thorough job of it, and can run $30-40 an hour. For a 100k word novel that can get expensive.

      That’s why most new authors try to spend a lot less. And this doesn’t mean they are wrong for doing it. It’s just a balancing act. You have to figure out what works for you.

    • I’m actually going to surprise a few, maybe, and say no, it isn’t. A good mystery, by a writer who realistically feels that they can get some serious sales, can (and in this case did) make a very tidy profit. At that point, maximizing your chances with development work makes perfect sense.

      I doubt I’ll spend quite *that* much, but if the YA novel I’m writing under another name ever demands to be finished, I have no problem at all spending a few G’s at the least for topnotch cover art and some serious editing.

    • Spending $4-$6K seems to have worked for her. She netted $100K on that book.

      Thing is…it looks like she’s writing romantic suspense, a genre in which books sell big. For her the gamble paid off, and paid off quickly.

      Many, many indies will start with much more modest sales and grow slowly. An initial outlay of $4-$6K (or $12K, as she did) is a lot more financially risky under those conditions. Start-up businesses usually do well to keep costs down.

      I’m glad her strategy worked for her. Truly! But I worry that she’s feeding the myth that an indie must spend big bucks in order to be successful.

    • One obvious problem, is that we mostly hear anecdotes from people who had good success with whatever strategy they happened to use, in this case spending four grand up front. But we don’t generally hear from the people for whom this didn’t work. People are much more likely to talk about their successes than their failures, so these anecdotes just aren’t very evidential.

      For half the population, that is a month’s wages or more. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to invest that sort of money without a second thought, but for most people it is probably not realistic.

      • “For half the population, that is a month’s wages or more. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to invest that sort of money without a second thought, but for most people it is probably not realistic.”

        Maybe Shatzkin’s restaurant comparison is better than we’ve given him credit for although probably an order of magnitude too high. I’ve had a friend or two open restaurants over the years and I’m sure almost everyone has seen many open and close.

        Some of those were done on a shoestring budget. One I’m thinking of was first opened as takeout only in an unused corner of a local gas station. Decor and atmosphere was non-existent. But he had good food, prepared right, at a decent price. It was ethnic food not available at the time in the town, yet he sensed there was a market for it and was right. Within six months he was able to move to a better location and expand to several tables (enough so that while he still did takeout, the majority of the business was sit-down). His original customers followed him to the new location (it isn’t that big of a town) and he got many more because of the better location.

        A new restaurant can be opened with an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars or (guessing here) maybe as little as a few thousand, if you find the right combination of factors. (For example, I suspect in the initial location I talk about above that much of the needed equipment was already in the location and included in the rent rather than having to be purchased.)

        The key is, you have to figure out what the minimum requirements to give yourself a chance of success are and find a way meet those requirements. A lot of indies I’ve observed have managed to find some level of success using unpaid beta readers and critique partners and trading their expertise with someone else who has expertise they don’t.

        Putting a book out with an investment of a few hundred dollars or even with no money invested happens. The key is, the things that need to be done for a decent product, are. A decent cover (although if they show some initial success they’ll often upgrade the cover with their profits). Formatted correctly either by learning to do it or making a trade. Continuity errors, most typos and grammar issues and such have been shaken out and the story polished based on feedback from volunteer or traded labor.

        Still other indie books I’ve seen are the equivalent of a restaurant opening without chairs at the tables and nothing but a hot plate to cook the steak I ordered. Generic covers or something thrown together in photoshop by someone with less artistic skill than I have (and I have close to none). Every indication that the no one other than the author had read the book prior to uploading after finishing his or her initial draft and possibly (but not always) giving it a quick spell check.

        There are good arguments that this doesn’t matter. (See Konrath’s answer to the Tsunami of Swill argument.) I mostly agree. But I also think that just as there is a lot of advice out there overstating the costs of self-publishing, that there is a lot of advice saying, “no, you can do it much cheaper or for nothing,” without making it clear that to give the author the best chance for success, they have to find a way to accomplish the same thing for less money.

        • Agreed, there is an implicit trade-off involved. It also depends on the human capital you bring to the tasks. If you (or a willing free helper) are skilled and experienced with computer software, you can do all or most of that yourself. If you highly literate in a technical sense (grammar, spelling, vocabulary), then you can do a good portion of the editing yourself. Similarly with beta readers and covers.

          But as with any endeavour, you do your best with the resources that you can reasonably afford. I would hate to see talented people abandon their ambitions over arbitrary and non-evidence based claims of initial capital outlay requirements.

          • “I would hate to see talented people abandon their ambitions over arbitrary and non-evidence based claims of initial capital outlay requirements.”

            Absolutely. And at least with some of those trying to make it look like it has to involve a large outlay, I suspect discouraging some people might be the goal, or at least making trad pub look better in comparison.

            • Some definitely want to discourage people. I think some writers who keep saying it requires a lot of money to self-publish are trying to make a distinction between their books and other books by showing that the quality is there, that they’re similar to a Big Five book. I think it totally depends, personally. I read plenty of books that were put out for less than $1000 (usually far less) and I’m happy as a reader. Usually the writers are already really good editors and have a good set of beta readers. I’m not going to punish them for not having $1000 to spend on putting together one book, which may or may not sell. I’m also not going to reward someone who brags about spending thousands of dollars on putting out their book just because they can. I find that insane. Now, if it’s a book that takes an exceptional amount of research and *needs* the writer to be thorough, then maybe it makes sense to spend that kind of money, but I find that’s rarer than writers would have us think. Actually I think some writers that claim to spend so much are probably doing it out of insecurity, or because they still need the official approval before they feel their work is good enough.

              The goal, to me, is that the book is good enough that the *way* it was put together doesn’t disturb my actual reading of it. That’s it. I don’t care about perfectionism or pissing contests. I like a good, engaging story (and a nice cover draws me in, but very few are really intricate).

  2. I wonder how much of that was the publicist?

  3. Major leaguer’s fee for developmental editing is going to be around $7500.

    • Yep, I know a big name who charges $200 per hour. I spent around $5,000 on editing, proofreading and a cover for my 1st book and it was well worth it.

  4. I’d be curious to see Dashiell Hammett’s ‘developmental editing’ expense account. In 1934 adjusted dollars, of course.

    Dan

    • I’ve never read him, so I’m curious: Was he terrible unedited? Did he need a legion of editors to fix him? Or do you mean in the other way and he knocked it out of the park the first draft? Or did he just never permit editing?

      Not being sarcastic 🙂 I just don’t know any lore about him.

    • Er, Hammett was published by Knopf, so I’d posit his editor was on staff there. Chandler thought rather highly even of his early short stories, too. Point is, I doubt Hammett paid for editing.

  5. The other comments here seem to be missing the part of this post that really struck me:

    Spurred by the Authorearnings disclosure, and “on the fence” herself about which way to go with agent interest in her work, she wrote me a series of questions to help her decide whether to persist with the traditional route or make the leap to “author-publisher.”

    That means Author Earnings is already getting out to the people who need it most: people who are deciding between self-publishing and going trad. This author didn’t let the report be the only thing that made her decision about what to do, and that’s just as it should be. I think this is fantastic.

  6. (Now I have my book development expenses whittled down to a mere $4-6,000.)

    Wow, for that price per book, she could just hire someone to write the book for her. Some sort of…author, maybe.

    Bonus if she can find an author who can edit too, then she’d have a real deal. $6K as an advance on a book seems pretty reasonable. Could get a fair number of offers.

    A person could build some sort of company like that, paying authors money in advance to write and edit books. Probably make some real scratch too.

    Hmm….

  7. I liked this comment of hers on building an author platform:

    …preparing for the fans you don’t have as if you do…

    That dovetails with my own experience. When I first hit the indie world, I was utterly unknown. Now I’m mostly unknown. 😉 But I do have readers who – judging from their reviews and comments – really like my stories.

    And when I was first blogging and tweeting and releasing books, I envisioned my communication going out to my future readers.

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