Friday, February 22, 2013

Is Going Indie Right for You? by Jess Riley

Unless you’re a member of the Lykov family, you’ve probably noticed that publishing has undergone some dramatic changes in the last few years. Most notably, it’s become easier to self-publish your work and actually make a living writing.

But how do you know if “indie publishing” is right for you?

My first novel was published in 2008 by Ballantine Books; the book sold at auction and went back to press three times. Not too shabby for a scrappy little midlist title! But the publishing landscape has changed significantly since that book sold, and I’m convinced that the same manuscript wouldn't sell today.

In the four years since that book was released, I wandered through a bleak literary desert littered with false starts, missteps, second-guessing, rejection, and depression. My original editor tried to help, pitching story ideas that I inevitably botched because they didn’t come from my own little Eeyore heart. She moved on to different publishing houses and new projects, and I returned to the desert.

In 2011 I was hit with the idea for All the Lonely People. My agent loved it (which came as a huge relief), and we submitted to maybe a dozen publishers, getting heartbreakingly close rejections. A few months into our submission process I began to lose patience and heart. Maybe I should have given it more time, but this past fall I pulled the book from submission and after lots of agonizing, released it myself.

I was inspired in part by Karen McQuestion, another Wisconsin writer who told me self-publishing was the best thing she’d ever done for her career; she controlled her destiny, and her readers were judge and jury of her work. (And who could argue with sales topping 500,000?) My husband also eloquently pushed me into the indie camp with, “You don’t want to be like the Confederacy of Dunces guy, and people only read your stuff after you’re dead.”

Several of my other author friends also encouraged me, because they too had made the leap…and it wasn’t that scary.

So I swallowed my pride along with any misgivings I had and prepared for Plan B. It’s a personal decision for each writer, and knowing what you hope to get out of it before you take the plunge helps. I’m pretty new to it all (and I still have lots to learn), but here are a few early observations:

Know your audience, know your genre. If you write genre fiction—especially romance or thriller—self-publishing could be right for you. If you write literary fiction, legacy (traditional) publishing is still a better fit.

Learn from the best. Before I took the leap, I researched what other successful indie writers were doing. Many are incredibly generous and knowledgeable (J.A. Konrath and Dina Silver come to mind), and have blogged at length about their experiences. In some cases, I hired their cover artist, formatter, and editor.

Hybrid helps. If you go indie, having a background in traditional publishing helps.  You can still succeed without it, but it does make things a little more challenging (depending on your genre), at least initially.

Define what success means to you. Regardless of how your work is published, remember that a very small percentage of all writers can earn a living writing full-time. Have realistic expectations; self-publishing does give you a bit more breathing room (no push to sell big the first week, no pressure to earn out an advance), but it might take months or years for your career to build.

Book bloggers are an indie author’s best friends. I was fortunate to have the support of several awesome book bloggers. If you don’t have the time to devote hours and hours to researching and pitching bloggers in your genre, consider investing in a coordinated blog tour or netgalley listing. You won’t have traditional exposure, so reader and blogger reviews are more important than ever.

Most importantly, be a professional, and be 100% sure your book is the best it can be. You might get just one chance to convince a reader that your story is worth their time and money. Quality counts.

Have an eye-catching, professionally-designed cover, and be prepared to pay for it.  The same goes for conceptual and copy editing. Which brings me to:

Have an amazing, professionally-edited story that people will recommend to their friends. Both legacy and indie publishing depend so much on word-of-mouth. Write a freaking incredible book.   This goes without saying regardless of how the book is published, but self-publishing can make it too easy to put something out before it's ready for prime time. (Refer to Saralee Rosenberg's awesome blog post a few days ago for some tips on that front.)

And be flexible and kind to yourself. There is a learning curve involved. If something doesn’t work, try another approach. Tweak your sales copy, re-do your cover, experiment with pricing or author collaborations. Keep learning, keep evolving. Take full advantage of the control indie publishing affords you. Think of your marketing approach the same way you think about your crummy first draft: you can always revise it.

Or better yet, write the next book.

I’d love to hear your thoughts: if you’ve gone indie, and what are your takeaways from the experience? If you’re an aspiring author, which publishing model appeals to you more?

Jess Riley just released her first novella, Closer Than They Appear:
a quirky mix of lad lit and chick lit with recipes and bingo cards, because why not?


  1. Nice post and good advice. I'm glad DIY is working out for you. We know indie is where it's at.

  2. Thanks, Ariella! I know a bunch of us in the Girlfriends Book Club are "hybrid"'s fun comparing notes. :)

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  4. I don't know how I ended up here, since I was working on an art file sheet for my publisher, but here I am.

    And I agree. After traditionally publishing my first book an cotnracting for two more, I also released two indie books in January. It was terrifying... for about 5 seconds.
    And then it was awesome.

    I'm still loving it and so, so thankful that I can finally show off those ugly orphan babies no publisher ever wanted to adopt.

    They're mine, every tiny finger and toe, every strand of corn silk hair.

    Huzzah for hybrid authors!

  5. Great post, Jess. I published my Bantam debut in 2009, just after or just during the height of the change in publishing. I appreciate reading your story. It helps so much to hear what other writers go through! I'd love to know more about after All the Lonely People Came Out and how that experience was different. Did you have different expectations? Did you feel more satisfied? Thanks for the good ideas.

  6. Great story. I went in the opposite direction by first self-publishing and then attracting an agent after a surge of Amazon Sales due to a high profile radio show mention, and then attracting a publisher who re-released the book. As you say, knowing a bit about both ways to publish is a help! I was wondering if you took advantage of Amazon's Vine Voice publicity, where you can send folks your book for review and if so, was it worth it for you?


  7. Great post, and I appreciate the info! Definitely not ruling this out.

  8. All the Lonely People is a wonderful book!

  9. Ha. I'm feeling like all the lonely people. I don't mind the actual self-publishing part--editing, cover design, layout, etc. I think I got through that part pretty well. What I really, really hate is the marketing part. My heart is in revolt. Yeah, I've got a draft of a marketing plan and I've got a wobbly-legged platform, but everyday I'm inundated with sales pitches from hundreds of authors just like myself who are desperately trying to hawk their wares. I don't do desperation. Some of the marketing tactics stick in my craw. There's got to be a low-stress, efficient, appealing way to go about marketing a book. I haven't found it yet, but if I ever do, I'll be sure to write a book about it.

  10. Great post, Jess! So much great information. I've got the rights back to my first two books-- posts like this give me motivation to check out indie publishing!!

  11. Great article! I've now published 2 non-fiction books-- 1 traditionally and 1 self-published-- so this article struck a chord with me. I loved the part where you reminded us to look within ourselves to "define what success means to you." I also liked the part where you encouraged us to keep experimenting-- "keep learning, keep evolving." It's true that the publishing industry is changing. It's also true that if we don't keep trying and experimenting with new things then we'll never get better. Writing is all about practice, and there's definately a learning curve involved!

    Thanks for writing this post and sharing it with us. It was just what I needed this morning to jump start my motivattion and get back to work!

  12. Oh my goodness, I went to bed and there was one lonely comment here, and today there are so many wonderful ones! :)

    Virginia, I'm so happy to hear that! Going to look you up.

    Sam, that may be a new post for a different day...we'll talk. ;) PS: did you get the interview questions I emailed you? Gearing up to have you on my blog!

    Help4NewMoms, that's fantastic! I wasn't aware an indie author could put their work out to the Vine folks?? (See, still learning over here)...I'm definitely investing in a netgalley listing for the next book!

    Christa, let me know if you take the plunge (and Brenda, too!)

    Liz V, thank you so much for the kind words about ATLP. :)

    Scheherazade, it's the eternal challenge, isn't it? I am pulling back from social media as a means of marketing (never felt comfortable with it, and results are dubious at best), and pushing forward more with blog tours, contests, and netgalley / goodreads giveaways as a means of simply getting the word out. We'll see how it goes.

    Hannah, I'm happy the post resonated with you! :)

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