12 Things I've Learned from 12 Years of Being an Indie Novelist
2021 marks twelve years since my first novel hit digital shelves. The novel was The Transgression Box, and was my first foray into writing a full length novel since high school. It was a satirical science-fiction allegory of American Christianity, and it was fun to write, but was my first experience diving into what has been a giant ocean of possibility.
I've learned a great many things along the way, and I thought I'd share all that I've learned in a blog post addressed to people getting into the game and to those of us who've been at it a while.
Don't Use Vanity Presses - My first book, named above, was written over the course of about a year in between chasing toddlers and teaching teens in a small rural high school. I didn't know anything about publishing traditionally, but saw an ad online for a service in Colorado (who will remain nameless) who would publish my book for a fee. $500 later I had a cover design (Jerry Bennett did the art and did an amazing job) but they only allowed me to do the cover as shown and wouldn't let me put it on the whole cover. This was all I could afford at the time, and actually only received a pittance of help putting the book together. Vanity presses are able to do what you are not willing to do with a little research and YouTube watching. Don't fall into the trap.
Publishing Traditionally Is a Catch 22 - There is a glass ceiling in publishing traditionally. You have to have an agent (don't go directly to the publisher) and then you have to have published something traditionally (usually) to get an agent. Also, once you land an agent, and the agent finds a publisher for your work, you will sign a contract with them. There is usually an advance (which might have to be paid back depending on several factors). The contract will probably include an exclusivity clause (because you're a new author) and then you will have to publish all of your future work (or a few books) through them. This means they will have to ok all of your future work and you won't get to publish anything anywhere else if they don't like it. Publishers are only concerned about the bottom line (as well they should) and if you don't make money, many of them have clauses in their contract that they can drop you without notice (as many new authors found out in 2020 when Covid wrecked things). There is also no guarantee that, as a new author, you will have any distribution or marketing for your book... or even cover art. I chose to indie publish because I am the publisher. I have total control. I have to figure out the marketing, but if the book is good, people will read it.
Watch Out for Wolves - When I published This Broken Earth in 2012, I was contacted by someone claiming to be a publishing agent. They wowed me by name-dropping, using terms like "full disclosure" and that they wanted to publish my book traditionally. Being the naive, starry-eyed writer I was, I bought into it. They strung me along for a while, asking if I wanted to get my book into some book fairs, and I told them they could do that. After some time, they came back with an offer where I would pay $1200 to enter my book in some book fair in Europe, at which point I cut off all communication with them. Traditional agents and publishers don't ask for any money. They make offers of contracts and then get you to sign them (get a lawyer) and then pay for everything. To top it all off, the "publisher" in question claimed to be a Christian publishing company. There are many wolves in this game. Do not be a sheep.
Get a Website - I've had a few websites in my time as an indie publisher/author. I started out with a freebie on Wordpress (which is still active) and eventually graduated to being hosted through Squarespace, and then I had some things happen (tragic things) and let that lapse. I recently set up a new website through Wix, finding it the most affordable for what I needed (only $144 a year). It was easy to build (because I'm web design dumb) and even though the traffic is kind of low at first, I have a way for people to find my books, podcasts, and blog all in one place. I also recommend getting a domain name with just your name. It's more professional, and is easier for people to remember.
Hire an Editor - I have an English degree and I edit people's work for them for a fee. I think I'm pretty reasonable, as most editors will charge by the word. I charge by the page. However, I would never edit my own work. I proof it, sure, but editing is definitely something that should be left up to a professional. I'm going back and back-editing my work right now just to make sure (as some of my books were not edited by someone else) but even though I have an English degree, I'd hire an editor anyway. They will find things you didn't see or would never see. There are tons of Kindle novels out there with tons of mistakes in them. They hurt the reader's experience when they have to weed through the mistakes.
Hire a Cover Designer - Since my second book in my space opera trilogy, I've used a fantastic cover designer by the name of Jack Johnson. He's also a friend, and I know I can rely on him to come up with a range of covers for me that will work and will create them so that they follow Amazon's print book templates. He knows about print sizes, page count, RGB color codes and all kinds of things I don't think about. He also has a great eye for what a prospective reader might be drawn to when looking at a cover and making a decision about reading my book. Believe it or not, 80% of people who look at books will buy it based on the cover design. If you look at the covers I had for my previous novels, you will see that I should have had a cover designer all along. They are ok, but nothing like the ones from The Terminarch War on.
Keep Submitting to Contests/Magazines - I've been published traditionally, sure. I submitted a short story entitled "Rust" to an online magazine called "Literary Juice" (It no longer exists). I wrote a comic book script adaptation of my short story "Headless White Horse" and it appeared in OkieComics a couple of years ago. I also wrote a short story called "Crows" which will appear in a yet-to-be-mentioned publication. I don't submit as much as I'd like to as I'm pressed for time with my job, maintaining this website and blog, podcasting, and a million other things, but I regret not submitting more stories to more magazines and websites. I try to enter a contest a month, pay the meager fees (usually less than $25) and just keep at it. Sure, you'll fill a drawer with rejections, but you will land a fish once in a while.
Write Every Day - I sit down and write either this blog or my current novel every day. I went through a pretty bad slump in 2020 (who didn't!?) and didn't write a darn thing. I decided that I was not only miserable, but the stories that spring from my brain don't stop flying out of there just because I decide not to write them. I get daily practice, getting better at the craft, and I find it to be therapeutic and calming. You don't have to be writing text in your novel, but you could be writing a short story or even writing down notes about the current work in progress. I consider a daily success in writing as writing for any reason, not just more chapters in the novel. Form the habit of writing every day and you will be a better writer.
Don't Share Your Ideas With ANYONE! - I have, in the past, shared a novel idea on #pitmad . If you are not familiar with it, it's a hashtag on Twitter where people share a brief synopsis of their novel in a tweet and then (supposedly) agents look at that hashtag to find new talent. I honestly think it's bogus, but people are dropping some great ideas for novels on there. This is problematic, as people like to steal the good ones. I reserve my really good ideas for my encrypted journal app. I don't tell a soul. In 2012, I wrote a blog post entitled "Tolkien's 10 Tips for Writers". That thing has been plagiarized so many times online that I have lost count. As a humble school teacher, I don't have the lettuce to go chasing all of them down. People will steal your good ideas. Don't give them away.
Amazon Is Your Frenemy - I know that Jeff Bezos is the devil. We all know that. His distribution centers are something similar to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but if you are an indie publisher, they can be your best friend or your best enemy. I'm not sure where the self publishing industry is going on Amazon, but it's not letting up any time soon. Sure, Amazon is an evil corporation, but that evil corporation is going to sell your book for you for free without much effort on your part. You can also sell e-Pub versions on Payhip for those hold-outs still using Nooks and the fewer still who use iPads to read books, but the Kindle and the print book are still king. With print-on-demand and Kindle, you can get books into people's hands, bypassing the corner book store (which is going the way of the video rental store). Kindle will also make changes to your book on everyone's Kindle if you find you need to upload a revised copy (due to a grammatical oversight or whatever).
Get a Decent Word Processor - I used Word to type my first novel, and in many ways I regret it. There are so many great word processors out there that won't break the bank. I suppose one could use Pages if they own a Mac or default to Word Perfect (Is that still a thing?) but my go-to for writing will always be Scrivener. I am not getting any money for writing this, but Scrivener has made the journey to writing and publishing my own novels a breeze. It has many great features that simplify the process, from world building to character creation to formatting your novel for print or any digital format. There are many word processors out there, but you have to find the one that does the most for you and which doesn't send you to the poorhouse.
The Market Is Always Fluctuating - Sure, they tell you to find your niche, but that's like playing the lottery as to whether or not your books will sell. I've lived through the boom of independent authors and remember when analysts were saying that print books were suffering from the influx of digital editions. That fell apart after a year or so, and now the print industry is doing just as well as the digital industry. It turns out that a lot of people just like to hold a printed book in their hand. Remember that no matter what you write, there will be a fandom out there who want to read it. You just have to write great stories. It's like Dave Grohl's advice to unsigned bands: Play shows, get yourself in front of people, and if the music is good then they'll listen to you and buy your records. It is the same for novelists.