From thousand-dollar marketing solutions to blogs that reach only a handful of readers, there is no shortage of venues offering advice to authors considering indie publishing. As an indie author, you control every step of the publishing process, which can be intimidating and empowering—often at the same time. Kirkus Reviews has talked to many successful indie authors; here are their (and our) tips for thriving in the world of self-publishing.
Preparing to Publish
One thing indie authors can agree on is that self-publishing is never a one-person venture. Authors who rely on a team of allies, whether formal or informal, are in a better position to launch a book that will find its home in the literary world. “One of the changes that I’ve seen is a move toward ‘indie-publishing’ rather than ‘self-publishing,’ ” Paul Hanson, the general manager of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., said. “The distinction is that in self-publishing, authors try to do much of the work themselves. Indie publishers know when to hire professionals to help them do the work that the authors can’t (or shouldn’t) do themselves.”
An energetic and enthusiastic supporter, especially one who is willing to provide editorial feedback, design a cover or promote the book, can be crucial. Sergio de la Pava gives his wife, Susanna, credit for the success of his debut novel, A Naked Singularity, which got attention from mainstream media and respected online literary journals. “It's not an exaggeration to say that without her the book basically doesn't exist,” he told me last year. “She's a really bright person who essentially made this entire thing possible.”
And anyone who has missed a typo in a manuscript he or she has proofread a dozen times can attest to the value of bringing a fresh pair of eyes to a work. But at the same time, many indie authors have learned to be judicious in deciding how to respond to feedback. After her major success with Pay It Forward, novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde heard the same message for years as she tried to find an American publisher for books that had been published in the United Kingdom. “When a couple of editors said this was a little slow, a little subtle, a little deliberate for U.S. readers, I believed them,” she said. But when she eventually decided to self-publish her books in the U.S., she found a substantial audience.
Production and Distribution
When you’ve decided your work is ready to be published, the next question to consider is how. The market for indie publishing services is constantly changing, with new providers like Kobo presenting alternatives to established distributors such as Amazon, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram. Indie publishers must decide whether to sell their books in digital format only or to produce a print book as well—and if the book is in print, is it worth it to produce a hardcover version?
While some indie authors have taken on the entire publishing and distribution process themselves, others have found that members of the traditional publishing industry are eager to work with them. Nick Katsoris, for instance, partnered with a sales agent to place his Loukoumi series of children's books in national brick-and-mortar bookstore chains, including Follett and Barnes & Noble. Authors who are focused on local audiences have found that many independent bookstores have begun to offer indie publishing services; stores ranging from Third Place Books in the Seattle area to RiverRun Bookstore in New Hampshire are finding success in supporting self-published books and authors.
Marketing Your Book
Indie authors agree: Bearing the responsibility for marketing your own books can be intimidating, but the potential for success is almost unlimited.
“Word of mouth is the most important thing,” said David Vinjamuri, author of Operator. “Make it easy for people to tell your story.” Authors who can establish direct connections with their readers will find it easiest to encourage their fans and supporters to share in the enthusiasm and promote their work.
While social media platforms get plenty of attention as an effective way to build relationships with readers, indie authors are also finding success through more established ways of reaching out. When Susan Wittig Albert decided to self-publish A Wilder Rose in 2013, one of her strongest marketing tools was her mailing list, which she built up over the length of her career, going back to the days when she sent physical newsletters through the post office. Authors who are just beginning to publish their work will, of course, be working from a much shorter history with their readers, but developing ongoing communications and building a relationship in which readers are not only willing, but eager to hear the latest news is essential for new authors as well.
Some authors have found that the indie publishing environment accommodates a two-way conversation between the author and the reader. Elle Lothlorien, author of Sleeping Beauty, writes at Digital Book World that she tries to start a conversation with everyone who leaves a negative review of her book online. “Never has my attempt to reach out to a reader resulted in a negative outcome,” she says, and she often finds that a skeptic can be converted into a supporter. At the same time, Lothlorien carefully considers her critical reviews and has shaped her work in response, publishing an alternative ending to Sleeping Beauty after realizing how many readers wanted the heroine's story to conclude differently. “Indie publishing has fundamentally (and perhaps permanently) changed the dynamic between authors and readers,” she told USA Today.
As they incorporate that new dynamic into their marketing plans, indie authors need to be aware of changes, especially in the online marketing world, that can affect their ability to reach readers. Authors who use Facebook have seen the site's recent alterations to the News Feed display reducing the reach of some of their posts, and Facebook advertising continues to evolve as well.
Other popular techniques for promoting self-published books are also in flux. For instance, Catherine Ryan Hyde saw her book When I Found You reach the top of Amazon's popularity rankings when she briefly offered it for free in early 2012, but in 2014, Amazon's ranking algorithm would treat those 81,000 downloads of the free book differently. Authors who make their book available for free today will see different results and should always research current procedures and limitations before beginning any marketing campaigns.
Building a Career
As many in the industry have reiterated, the best plan is to start with the best book you can possibly write. And by the time your first book makes its appearance on shelves, you should be planning the books that will follow it. Some work to turn self-publishing into a reliable stream of income, while others see writing as a secondary career, but it’s one they approach with a professional attitude.
Indie authors looking to maximize their earnings need to pay attention not only to sales, but to the opportunities in selling subsidiary rights as well. Translations, audiobooks, reprints and, of course, film options can all add to the returns on a work, but authors who are not familiar with contract law may find it helpful to work with an agent or a lawyer who understands the details of subsidiary rights sales.
As the self-publishing field matures, many authors are incorporating it as one component of a well-rounded writing career. This includes authors who have signed with traditional publishers to produce new editions of their self-published works—high-profile names like Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking but also Andy Weir (The Martian) and Sergio de la Pava (A Naked Singularity)—not to mention writers who are finding new audiences for old works as they regain the rights to their out-of-print books. As Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is reintroducing her backlist by self-publishing in digital format, says, the very idea of “out of print” is now obsolete, and the new world of indie publishing allows authors to control the future of their own careers.
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.