Lessons of an Indie Writer
by Alan F. Zundel
I have written and self-published three books in the last ten years. In doing so I have learned some lessons about being an independent writer. I will share these lessons with you, my esteemed reader.
Two clarifications before we begin:
First, these are lessons about being independent, not lessons about writing, which I hope I’ve also learned. Maybe I will blog on that part of it in a future post.
Second, note I did not say “being a successful independent writer,” as that might imply I was earning a living at this. My own metric for success at this point is how many copies I distribute and whether I can avoid losing money when I publish something. By those metrics I am improving.
I haven’t yet broken the distribution record of my first book, which was published by an academic publisher fifteen years ago. It was no best seller, even by the standards of academic publishing, but distribution was helped by college libraries purchasing copies. I didn’t make any money from it, unless you count the raise I got upon receiving tenure, but I didn’t lose money either.
My self-published books have not been academic books; I left academia almost eleven years ago. The first thing I learned with the self-published books is how hard it is to market a book.
I published the first two through iUniverse, a pay for services outfit which did a good job formatting the books, creating covers for them and posting them on online book stores, but was predatory in trying to get me to pay for their marketing services. Most of the copies I sold were to friends, family members and acquaintances and I lost money on both books, less on the second than the first.
Lesson 1 is to form a marketing plan well before you publish anything. Lesson 2 is to keep expenses as low as possible, especially if you want to avoid losing money.
Changes in the technology of self-publishing have made the latter aim feasible for anyone. In the time since I published those two books Amazon changed the rules of the game, making it cheaper to publish and easier to distribute a book.
Through Kindle Direct Publishing you can now publish an e-book virtually for free if you have a computer with an internet connection. Just write it up in Microsoft Word, do a little formatting as per their instructions, and upload the file. Not only is the e-book available on Amazon with no upfront costs, they let you distribute free copies for up to five days as a way to promote the book.
In publishing my memoir this year the free distribution promotion helped me come close to the record of my academic book, and ultimately I think I will break the record. True, I make no money distributing the e-book for free, but every new reader is a potential audience for the next book.
You can also publish a paperback version of your book with zero or modest upfront costs through CreateSpace, another Amazon company. It costs nothing to upload your book to CreateSpace and make it available on Amazon. If you are okay with a simple cover, using their cover templates is also free, and if you allow them to assign you an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and be your publisher of record that is free too. It is feasible to publish a paperback on Amazon at zero cost.
However, formatting the book for CreateSpace is trickier than formatting for Kindle, so there is a learning curve on that. If you have moderate-level skills in Microsoft Word and some sense of book design, you should do okay. You may also want a unique, eye-catching cover instead of using their templates. This requires another skill set unless you hire someone to design a cover for you.
My only upfront cost using CreateSpace was $10 to buy an ISBN number from them and make my own company the publisher of record. I designed my cover on my computer, and think it looks better than their templates, but next time I will consider buying a more professional cover from one of the many online stores that sell them. I also spent about $7 on a proof copy of the paperback so I could check for typos. I recommend this, as I found a lot of typos that were missed by checking the digital copy alone.
By selling a paperback version of my memoir via CreateSpace I made back my costs plus a four-digit profit. Of course, that’s including the two digits after the decimal point, but this time I did not lose money. So using the new technology of self-publishing I distributed more books and made a small profit. And the book is still available for sale, so likely both numbers will go up over time.
Having learned Lesson 1, it helped that I had a marketing plan. This involved the Kindle free e-book promotion, social media, and starting my own blog. A final lesson was that follow-through on marketing, including building a market of potential future readers, takes time. Blogging is fun and keeps me writing, but I am spending time writing the blog that I could spend writing my novel. Learning to balance the use of available time is important.
1. Form a marketing plan before you publish.
2. Use the new tools available to keep your costs down.
3. Anticipate that marketing will require a continuing time commitment.
Traditional publishing is going through huge changes due to technology—just like record companies, TV broadcasting, and movie distribution—and more and more writers are going to have to go indie.
If you love to read, do us struggling writers a favor and buy a book from an indie writer. For my part, I will be looking for indie books to review here along with those from traditional publishers. I know how much such writers appreciate your support and encouragement.