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Why indie publishing?

Self publishing has some major stigma behind it that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Though there is some history that explains it. Originally, most books were published by the author or family and friends of the author. We didn’t always have commercial publishing houses. But once we did, most good writing found a home.

Because publishing a book is a financial risk, most writers were happy to no longer have to shoulder that burden. But then vanity presses came along, promising unpublished writers publication … for a price. For the most part these were scams designed to separate writers from their money. So self publishing became the redheaded stepchild of publishing.

And “real publishers” and “real authors” were concerned with protecting unpublished writers from being taken advantage of. Not only were you not a good enough writer if you were doing it, but you had been scammed by a vanity press on top of it.

Despite this, self publishing has an honorable history, and many well respected writers have at one time or another put out some of their own work independently. Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain. Ever hear of them? Yeah, me neither. Why indie publishing?

But self publishing and vanity publishing are different animals. They look similar on the surface, because in both cases you are investing your own funds to bring your book to market. And it doesn’t help that vanity presses all call themselves self publishing, and mention Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and others.

It’s believed that if someone puts their own work out there, and pays money to do it, that it’s vanity. But aren’t ALL writers a little vain? I mean, if you believe somehow that the world needs to read your words, there is vanity in that. In every other industry, taking the initiative to create your own product and put it on the market, is considered a virtue. In publishing, it’s considered a character flaw.

Why indie publishing?

Though the character flaw seems to be most perceived by the publishing industry itself. In other words, the average reader doesn’t care how a book gets to market, as long as the book is good. If the book is good, it doesn’t matter if your chihuahua published it. Though if he did, you could get major PR coverage with that story.

One reason I generally prefer the term “indie publishing” to “self publishing” is that “self publishing” reinforces the “vanity” stigma we’re trying to get away from. It’s seen as low-rent, low-class, and low-quality. The term “indie,” on the other hand, brings to mind good qualities: initiative, pride of ownership, independence, freedom. It also makes it easier for people to understand what we’re all about.

We’re all familiar with indie film-making and indie bands. There is a level of respect afforded to indie filmmakers and bands, that indie authors don’t get.

Why?

Sure, crap gets made by some indie bands and filmmakers, but everyone isn’t tarred with the same brush. An indie filmmaker or band needs more skills than just what they would use if a major studio or record label was behind them. So why do we feel that indies in those entertainment industries are automatically more competent than indie authors? And they’re doing something honorable, while those who “self publish” are doing something shameful?

I think it’s an important question to consider.

Another important question to consider is, if the only reason you haven’t gone indie is because of the “vanity stigma,” then why does an illogical concept get to chart your course for you?

Many interesting parallels have been drawn lately between the record industry and the publishing industry. I believe that we’re at the front of an indie publishing revolution, and that within the next decade, indie publishing will be just as legitimate from a respect standpoint as indie music and indie films. But I believe it takes indie authors who are committed to creating great work and getting it out there, to change the image.

Luckily the average reader isn’t nearly as put off by it as those within the publishing industry. And even those within the publishing industry have bought rights to indie work, so even they aren’t that upset if they end up securing the rights to a “sure thing.”

When ebooks arrived on the scene they didn’t kill print books. When POD arrived on the scene, it didn’t kill publishing. And I don’t think publishing is going to die now, BUT … there is a big all-caps but. Never before have so many different issues converged together in this industry. A tough economy, a higher receptivity to ebooks, better ebook readers: including the Amazon Kindle, increasing online sales of books through sites like Amazon.com, Podcasting, social media/endless promotion abilities on the internet, blogging and guest blogging, Print-on-demand with the ability to get into distribution channels. It’s a lot.

One wonders what a publisher, even a major New York publisher, can do for you if they aren’t planning on putting some major marketing push behind your book. And M.J. Rose claims that only 15% of all published books get more than $2,000 in marketing push.

Is it really worth it to play the odds to land an agent, then hope to make it past a major publisher’s marketing department, hope the contract doesn’t suck too badly, then hope you aren’t part of the 85% of those people who get less than $2,000 in marketing push?

No one will argue that the big NY houses have something an indie doesn’t: vast reach and the ability to do a huge print run and get your book everywhere. Well that’s lovely, but it doesn’t happen that often even if you are NY published. Plus the odds are they’ll change your title, you’ll lose control of content, and whether or not you get a good cover seems to be a crap shoot these days.

With more and more self publishing authors getting agents and major contracts (arguably better contracts than they would have gotten going the traditional route first), wouldn’t going indie actually improve your odds if you want the big fish?

Publishers want platform … i.e. audience. If you can deliver that, you’re golden. And it doesn’t really matter how you get those readers. Podcasts, ebooks, print-on-demand, offset printing (if you’re feeling really risky), it’s still better than going in cold.

And there are many ways to go indie

Not all of them will break your bank account. In fact, most of them won’t. In an era when publishers give authors less than stellar advances, but still expect them to spend out of their own pockets to promote anyway, can going indie really be much more financial cost? I believe a lot of people for some reason want to make this about a thousand times more complex than it is.

You can start as simply as publishing content online. On a website, or serially on a blog. That requires very little in the way of technical difficulty or cost, especially if you use a template. For the cost factor, you might want a .com rather than a free site. So we’re talking about $10 for a domain name, and maybe $5 – $10 a month for hosting. And if you went the traditional publishing route, they’d want you to have a website anyway.

And yes, if you publish your content in any format, even online, there goes “first rights,” but many indies who later sold out haven’t had a problem with that. And even if it did for that particular book, you were planning on writing more than one book, right? Publishers are kind of looking for that.

Beyond online publishing, you can put out an ebook. This is another really low cost way of getting your work out there. One of the simplest and low hassle ways of doing this to start getting your feet wet, is Smashwords. They allow you to put your ebook out in several different formats, for free. You have the option of giving your work away, to help build an audience, or you can sell it. You can set the price or let the reader set the price, like a donation. Any money that goes through Smashwords for your work, you get 80% of proceeds, and Smashwords gets 20%.

You can also publish in several separate ebook formats through other platforms, and of course there’s the Kindle.

Then there’s podcasting, which is a topic unto itself, much like all the rest of it, actually. Podcasts are generally free, but that’s good, you want to build a platform. Whether you sell your work yourself or want a publisher to do it, you’re going to need readers, and a podcast is another great way to get them.

Listeners can download your podcast from your site, from itunes, or from Podiobooks. At podiobooks you can take donations, where they take a small cut of the proceeds.

Moving further up the chain, and away from the option of free content, you can use print-on-demand technology. You don’t have to go with lulu.com (though you can.) If you’re going to go for a free/low cost POD printer, I’d recommend CreateSpace. The reason being, it gets you automatically into Amazon.com. It allows you to use the “search inside this feature” program on Amazon. And you have better profit margins which allows you to set your book at a reasonable and competitive price. With POD you aren’t going to want to write a saga. 300 pages is probably the cutoff point if you want a decent profit.

You can also use Print-on-demand technology to start your own imprint. In that case, you might want to use Lightning Source for your POD needs.

And then finally, if you start your own imprint/company, you can use offset printing and print several hundred or a few thousand copies. This is my least recommended option because I think the largest reason do it is to “avoid stigma,” not because it’s actually a logical or fiscally reasonable step for most very small presses, but I will go into that option as well with some resources you can check out for further info. Because just because I wouldn’t do it as a starting point, doesn’t mean you won’t want to.

And this is your show. That’s kind of the point of going indie, that you get to do it the way you want to.