Why You Need to Become an “Independent Publisher”

Image of Old Books on Shelf

If you’re thinking about writing a book, you should be thinking about self-publishing it.

More and more established writers are choosing the independent path. In fact, the number of independently published titles tripled between 2006 and 2011.

There are many reasons for this change, including retaining artistic direction, a higher percentage of profits, and the increasing lack of editorial and marketing support offered by traditional publishing houses.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg …

Yes, modern publishers rarely help their smaller authors do much with marketing. But the good publishers offer more than you think when it comes to editing and production. Producing an editorially sound product takes much more than creativity.

I just self-published my first science fiction novel, Exodus. It’s my fourth book overall, and my first independently produced one.

I’d like to let you in on a few valuable things I’ve learned in the process …

Think independent, not self-publishing

While some still claim a stigma exists for non-traditional publishing, I disagree. But would-be authors should understand the commitment of independent publishing.

Just like a painter can sell her/his own work, so can a writer. Yet many talented painters are not good at presenting their work or selling it. The same could be said for authors.

Committing to independent publishing means an author needs to go beyond writing to produce a strong book, and then sell it.

James Altucher talked about the need to invest in editing in his comprehensive Copyblogger post on self-publishing. Based on my experiences, he made incredibly valid points on production.

Self publishing a sub-par book that lacks writing quality demonstrates an amateur writer who may not care about their product or writing career. Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch hammer this point home over and over again in APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur.

This is why I call myself an independent publisher, and not a self-publisher. Choosing to independently publish creates a mental decision path to move from hobbyist to a professional publisher.

My first two traditionally published books were riddled with typos, a direct result of the publisher’s lack of editorial resources. As the books entered the marketplace, critics decried the poor editorial quality of the books.

The stigma from these two experiences annoys me to this day. Because of that, I decided not to half-ass my own novel. I undertook a significant editorial production process to make sure Exodus was a high quality book with few errors.

I became willing to invest in the arduous editing and production necessary to succeed.

Hundreds of hours were spent producing a book with strong editorial quality. Here are the steps I took …

The independent writer’s worst enemy

Generally speaking, writers cannot edit themselves. They invariably become blind to their own stylistic errors.

While I know some are better at self-editing than others, I struggle with my own work.

This copy blindness convinced me that I was the biggest danger in producing a successful independent novel.

Consider that many writers refuse to accept criticism on vision, style and the minutiae of edits throughout a long text. If I treated my own work like a creative diva, then I would have surely submarined it.

Knowing that I am my own worst enemy, I hired several other key parties to work on Exodus. Three different editors worked on the book, two for development and one to proof the manuscript.

The value of professional help

When the editors weighed in, I accepted almost all of their feedback. It was a decision to fire myself as the editor-in-chief. Instead I trusted the professionals brought on board to strengthen the text.

Paying other people to critique the book was a necessary step, in my opinion. Friends who edit bring their own liabilities, from simply not editing the book to a lack of objectivity.

My hired editors had work to do, and didn’t sugarcoat their feedback.

In one case, I had written much of the book in AP Style, but stylistic conflict existed. The final proofer adamantly insisted on using the Chicago Stylebook. So I agreed, and accepted wholesale style changes.

You may wonder about hiring two developmental editors. I did so to uncover all of the book’s weaker points. While 75% of their edits overlapped, 25% did not. The book was better for the extra mile.

All of the editors finished their work on agreed upon timetables. This helped me meet my target publishing date of August 26th, just in time for the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention.

Frankly, without their help Exodus would not be a strong text.

Do not go cheap on production

One of the surest signs of a self published book is poor workmanship from a visual standpoint. James made this point in his post on self publishing, and so did Kawasaki and Welch in APE.

The cover design is a critical component of the book.

Not only does the cover lend a visual identity to the text, it also serves as the icon for the book online. If an independent author is fortunate enough to become a bestseller, the book will also sit on bookshelves, again making the cover a critical advertising property on the shelves.

I avoided cookie cutter services for my book cover, and I definitely didn’t design the cover myself. My Photoshop skills are worse than my editing prowess, if at all possible.

Instead, I hired a designer to produce the cover and associated advertising.

The result is a pretty cool design that stands out. In addition, a second designer was used to lay out the advance copy PDF, again to provide a strong visual presentation.

For the electronic and print editions, each online reading format has its own requirements. Do what you can to meet and exceed these requirements so the book looks good and reads well.

Larger book publishers will usually produce a video trailer for a book. This is part of packaging the book for the modern era. Don’t skimp on this step.

Usually videographers will cut a deal for writers (and artists). Shop around until you find the right deal.

I have definitely benefitted from Exodus’s trailer already, and expect it will continue to be a strong piece for the book.

Marketing your book and beyond …

There is so much to say about marketing a book, and that has been done here and other places already.

Just know that whether you are an independent book publisher or a first time author with one of the traditional publishing houses, you will have to market your own book.

If you publish it, readers will not necessarily not come.

But before you get to even that stage, you need a strong product. Great marketing can’t save a bad product.

To me, that is the value of taking a committed approach to independent publishing.

Whatever you decide to do with your books, don’t short yourself if you choose the independent path. Your work and reputation depend on it.

Where do you fit in this world of independent publishing? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. If you would like a free PDF copy of Exodus, click this password protected link to download. The password is freechoice, and the free download will be available until September 13.

About the Author: Geoff Livingston is an author, public speaker and strategist who helps companies and nonprofits develop outstanding marketing programs. He brings people together, virtually and physically for business and change.

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Comments

  1. Remembered something after reading this post. For tackling the independent writer’s worst enemy.
    “Self publishing’ is not as easy as it is portrayed! When you think you have finished your book, proof read, proof read again, and again, and again. Don’t believe it is ready until you have a hard copy proofed!” /// Phil Simpkin

    • And let’s not forget about what it takes to get the word out about your product, the promotion and marketing of it… Parreto principle… you spend 20% of your time creating the book, and 80% marketing it…

      Without work, nothing happens…

      What counts is this: you better make the hard work with a passion, otherwise nothing will success as it should…

      I choose to make everything with full passion and excitement… nothing will seem boring or hard when you’re into this mindset…

    • Ha, that sounds like my Dad! He would never let me alone about proof, proof, and then proof again! Unfortunately for me, even the hard copy wasn’t enough in past instances. I am just a copyblind boy!

  2. Thanks for your insights, Geoff.

    I absolutely agree that editing the product should be a top priority. And it’s so true that writers can’t edit themselves. After you’ve read and re-read the text a hundred times, you’re basically blind to typos or commas.

    Looking forward to your insights on marketing, should you write an article about it. Also big thanks for the new reading material for my daily commute.

    • Yeah, and when you try to focus on the content, you lose the finesse of beautiful style. What I mean is you create the pot on the wheel, but for whatever reason you can’t seem to glaze it right. You need help. So, in the end that help made for a finished product that far exceeded what I could do alone!

      As to the marketing, let me see how that goes and if it takes off, I’ll be happy to do a lessons learned. Thank you!

  3. I’ve independently published two books and I’m working on a third. It was incredibly easy and inexpensive. I did use outside editing. The final product is good. Reviews have been great. My first book, “A Train Called Forgiveness” has received nothing but praise. The problem is marketing. I’ve done as much as I can with the time and finances available to me. I’ve sold less than 200 copies in 18 months. I’m considering seeking a traditional publisher in the future.

    • Unfortunately, authors now need to market their own books. A publisher can do a little for you, but they typically don’t do much at all unless they have some reason to believe you’ll be a major seller.

    • Yeah, I’d have to say that my experiences with two publishers was the same. They didn’t do much to help, and frankly, I spent as much on my own marketing with them as I have with myself. The primary difference is I keep the royalty check.

      If I were to use a traditional publisher again it would be to gain access to editorial help and distribution. I really could use the time back for my client work, and for my little girl who is about to be three!

    • Sonia and Geoff are right on the money. Traditional publishing no longer means the author just gets to sit back and write. In fact, many, if not most, want you to have the marketing done beforehand. Yes, before, meaning they want to not only want know what kind of following/platform you already have or are working to build, they will also want to know your marketing plans when you pitch them your book. They are in the business to make money, not to support us as authors in getting our art or our message out. The risk they are willing to accept is less and less with each passing day. If you have no platform and no plan, it is a huge risk.

      The rules of publishing have changed and are not going to change back-ever. Authors who want more than a hobby absolutely have to be more than writers.

  4. You say that self-publishing is good for established authors. What about first-time authors?

    • Tough question, and to be honest, if you can get a traditional publisher and lower your expectations on what they should do, you can learn a lot. I think watching the publishing process closely helped me a great deal.

      Going in green could still be done today, but I would be careful. APE can help, there are other mistakes to avoid, too. It will be arduous as you are literally learning on the job!

      • I would be curious to know how getting a publishing contract helps you avoid indie mistakes? Or what those common mistakes might be?

        I could be an idiot and totally regret this but I just turned down a publishing opportunity to go solo. Why? Well other than the idiot part it came down to:
        – I’m 100% responsible for writing and marketing the book.
        – I can hire editors, layout, and cover design.
        – I can’t get into bookstores.

        It seems like a poor tradeoff (long time to market, little money) in exchange for getting into bookstores. But then again I haven’t done it yet so I could yet eat those words. Which brings me back to my initial question.

        Please share! :)

        • Hmm, I guess the best way of saying this is to use an analogy. If I wanted to learn karate, and there was only one studio in my neighborhood, and they were way too expensive, I could just learn from YouTube videos. Would my karate be as good? Possibly, but it seems very very doubtful.

          There’s a difference betwen book smarts and street smarts, and that difference is experience. I wouldn’t devalue experience even if the economic model is broken.

    • Alicia,

      these days self-publishing is becoming more of a must for first time authors as publishing houses are requiring that you prove yourself before they will consider giving you a deal.

      As Cheryl says above they are becoming less and less willing to accept authors without a platform and a plan.

      Geoff is correct in saying you’ll have to learn on the job but the good thing is there is a lot of good information available for free and plenty of us who are trying to help authors navigate their way.

      Just remember to always keep writing, even while learning the ropes. Sometimes it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of publishing and marketing and forget the most important part.

      • I’ve just had to make the choice between self publishing and traditional publishing for my first book and I ended up going with traditional.

        I was quite tempted by self publishing because of the freedom design wise, and the fact that I would have been able to produce it a lot quicker but I know the marketing would be almost a full time job in itself. Whilst I will still have to market this book having a marketing team and distributors plus a big name publisher behind me will help reach a lot more people.

        Like Geoff said I am hoping it will teach me a lot about the whole publishing process so that if I decide to self publish next time I will have a much better idea of how things work. Also I thought to have a book which has been sold in shops worldwide by a traditional publisher behind me will help if I decide to work with another publisher in the future.

        I’m viewing it more as a learning experience and CV building experience rather than a money making experience as I doubt I will end up getting much money from it.

        • Alison Gillespie :

          Hey Fiona, thanks for the comments. Just an observation. I think the Brit Lit market and publishing industry is a lot more accessible than the US one. (I’m guessing your a brit due to the use of the word “whilst.” :) ) My impression from what I read and what my writing colleagues tell me here in the US is that it is really a lot more open in for British writers, where as here the publishing companies are just simply not investing authors anymore unless you are already a celeb or have a huge platform before you start. I throw this out because I think that US writers have an extra hurdle to overcome before even getting a decent contract, and that is publishers who just don’t seem to care about new writers anymore. Things are really really stagnant in the US market now, and agents do these crazy things like demand that you send them stuff but not send it to anyone else for the next X number of months. Then they never even respond to your query. It can feel like some sort of hell just waiting, and a lot of writers here are thinking what the heck, life is sort and so let’s just get on with this. My own favorite was the famous agent who recently made the claim in a blog post on her site that writers need to spend six months working on a query before sending it to her or any other agent and that he query itself should be at least 30-50 pages long! That’s just the query! How ridiculous. What is the point, a lot of us ask. Why not spend that time writing the book, getting it edited and then use our energy to market to the reader, not market to agent who might not even bother to respond.

    • Thank you for the feedback!

  5. First, thanks for the download. I can’t wait to read it. Second, thanks for the tips. I thought they were well thought out. Also, I believe there’s a different perception of “self-published” and “independent publisher.” If you’re self-published, people assume your work is not good enough to be published. However, “indie” has become cool. It’s all semantics (and proofreading!).

  6. Thanks, Geoff for the timely post and the download. I very much look forward to reading the book. I salute you for the dive into fiction. I know very well the difference.

    I am just about ready to bring my book to paper, after a surprisingly successful Kindle run. I hired only one editor, a cover designer and a format person. All were very much worth the price. I suggest them strongly for anyone who is about to publish independently.

    Thanks again.

  7. Geoff, a very timely and informative post – thank you… and I’m probably going to invest the next hour checking out the imbedded links (I’ve got half a dozen tabs open right now).

    But, a heads up – I downloaded the pdf of your book (Exodus-GL.pdf) a couple of times – and each time I’m getting an error trying to open it. The error suggests that either it’s not a supported file type or the file has been damaged.

    I’ve had that happen to me in the past using DropBox – sometimes the files just goes a little wonky on the upload. You might want to take a quick peek at it.

    Cheers!

    • Thanks so much, Jay. I will look into that now. And I hope I didn’t bomb you with too many links! Cheers!

      • Geoff and Jay
        Just wanted to let you guys know that I downloaded the book as an adobe PDF file and it opened just fine. I just updated my software, so that might be the answer.

        And thanks for the great article and free book, Geoff. I just posted this piece on my FB, Twitter and LinkedIn site. That- my friends- is part of marketing.

        Another thing to consider is the wealth of book review sites and virtual tours one can do. I write for a genre review site called BestFantasyStories and we often get our books from the authors via NetGalley. So that is another place to consider.

        It is indeed a brave new world for writers, and I think it is one that really allows writers for the first time to truly communicate with fans.

  8. Great information about self publishing. I know a few people who have done it and have nothing but good things to say. Put me in the category of frustrated writer, why I love blogging so much. But if I did ever fulfill my dream, self publishing would be the way to go.

    And thank you for the copy of your book. I certainly will leave a review when I am finished reading it.

  9. I independently published my novel, Here Among Us, for the Kindle in October of last year (POD came a few months later). I made the decision after a well-respected agent who was very interested in the ms. informed me it could take up to eighteen months to find a publisher and after that, something like another eighteen months to produce the book. A lot can happen in thirty-six months, but if you’re me, you spend the entire time relentlessly checking your email for news instead of writing.

    All that and absolutely no guarantee of any marketing support from the publisher. For that I’d have to use my own copywriting skills (I’m lucky. Copywriting is how I’ve made my living for years so that part I could have lived with). The final nail in the coffin though was the split. Traditional publishing wants in neighborhood of 85/15. Guess who gets the 15! On Amazon it’s 70/30 and I get the 70—which makes perfect sense since I’ve done all the work.

    If there’s a stigma around independent publishing, I haven’t suffered from it one iota. Of course some stranger who likely hasn’t labored over a sentence for days on end, might turn their nose up, but I could care less. The fact is, I’ve been writing fiction for years and years. This novel is the fourth I’ve started and the first I’ve finished. I’ve written scores of short stores and been in world-class writing groups. I wrote at night when my children were sleeping and in the early mornings before they got up for school. I earned the right to make my choice, and I have absolutely no regrets.

    The thing I’m most proud of is that by not waiting for someone else to tell me I was good enough (translation: that I could sell a ton of books so their bloated corporate structure could continue to thrive—at my expense), I showed my children that life is best lived when you fearlessly go after the things you want. And of course, when you write fiction.

    • I love this comment. You know, when I decided to take Exodus to market last January, I didn’t even think about traditional publishing for the same time reasons you mentioned. I did not want to wait, and wasn’t interested in dealing with the BS quota of publishers/agents. Eight months later and here we are.

      And to your point, my daughter, my family and friends all saw me do what I dreamed of achieving for 20 years. It’s a powerful statement, and one that any of us can achieve if we want to put in the work.

      Thank you for this great comment.

  10. Congratulations on the new book! It’s exciting to let new children loose into the world.

    I used to be in the traditional publishing camp because I wanted that validation of being “chosen” by a publisher. But I’ve become disenchanted with the publishing industry in recent years as more of the marketing/promotion burden is placed on the author and even good editing isn’t guaranteed.

    More and more, it’s not the better books that are published, but the ones that have mass appeal. (I hate to think of the manuscripts that were passed over in favor of publishing Snooki’s books!)

    Not sure if the comments allow links, but Forbes had a great article recently on indie publishing: http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2012/08/15/publishing-is-broken-were-drowning-in-indie-books-and-thats-a-good-thing/

    Hugh Howey is one of the authors mentioned, and he has a great sci-fi serial, Wool. I’ve read the first four and they’re great so far!

  11. I wrote a whole post on this topic called “The truth about self-publishing” that you can read on my blog, but I’ll summarize here:

    I was involved in an experimental, low-key self-publishing venture that taught me a lot about publishing.

    1) Unless you have a million followers and promote yourself like mad, chances are that no one will even find your e-book for sale on Amazon, Nook or the rest. The competition for self-published authors is FIERCE.

    2) While the volume of self-published works is increasing, the quality of them is decreasing also as more people try to do it all alone, and that’s why many people still don’t take self-published books seriously.

    3) No one will spend money on an e-book unless it is absolutely amazing because there are too many other free e-book options.

    And always remember, for every writer that succeeds, a thousand others fail miserably. Just write to make yourself happy, not to make money.

    • It’s funny that you mention that because it was highly suggested to me that I give the book away for free and exclusively on Amazon. I did not waste my time after seeing the dynamics that you are talking about. Instead, I chose to galvanize my blog and social media communities and distribute across more platforms, trusting word of mouth based on quality more than the platform. We’ll see how it goes!

  12. Thanks for this informative piece. It’s tough getting a novel’s name out there. I sure try with my fantasy books, and I think improving them is one of the best things. I’ve gotten new covers made by designers but still haven’t handed over the editorial reins. Perhaps the time has come.

  13. Downloaded the book. I’ll walk the same path as you perhaps 2 to 3 years from now? cheers!

  14. Nicole Montgomery :

    Hi all,
    Firstly, thank you, Geoff, for the copy of Exodus – looking forward to reading it! And a great article, too. Just wanted to add a couple of resources that I am finding immensely helpful on my journey to independent publishing: one is Kristen Lamb’s http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/ site about all things writing and her book Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World, all about author marketing in the modern age.

    Also, Joe Konrath’s Newbie’s Guide to Publishing website is a gold mine of information and resources.

    Naturally, Copyblogger is one of my favorite resources, too, but I don’t need to share that one here. ;-)

    Thanks again, so much!

  15. Thank you for an informative article and many helpful comments as well. I am presently trying to decide which route to take with my first novel. I would prefer to go independent to maintain control and speed, but one obstacle I’ve encountered is finding a like-minded editor interested in literary fiction amongst the haystack of freelance editors on the web (most of whom seem to prefer romance and thrillers). Can anyone recommend a good editor or editors or source of editors?

  16. “Hobbiest”? Really? I’ll bet you meant “hobbyist”. I see what you mean about not being able to edit yourself.

  17. I keep hearing – don’t design your own cover – but what about a writer who is artistic as well? What if a writer takes photoshop courses at University? Are we then able to possibly design our own cover – and do a better job of it than many so called professionals?

    • It’s a matter of personal taste. If I hire a designer who charged me $500 for a cover but am not satisfied with his design, I won’t use it.

      If I design it myself and I like it, I’ll use it.

  18. Why did you initially choose AP Style for your novel? Why did your editor change it to Chicago?

    And to what extent do you think novelists need to study these style guides? Is it necessary to memorize them from cover to cover?

    Best of luck for Exodus.

  19. Did you choose to self-publish straight away? I’m curious because I am a first time author, and I have been querying agents and agencies and different companies and nobody seems to want to take my book. The thought of self-publishing has crossed my mind, but I’ve heard that an author often puts more into it than they usually get out of it, and you end up losing time and money. I want this book out there, but I also want it to be successful and I don’t know if self-publishing is the way to go. Any tips?

    http://www.alicekouzmenkowriting.blogspot.com

  20. Very interesting. Thanks for the book!

    I am trying to self publish but it is still difficult for me. English is my second language. But I love writing!

    I am trying to finish a book by the name Climbing Beyond Crystal Mountain. I wrote every single night for thirty days when I went to visit my parents in the Himalayas. That was in the summer of 2010. Until now, I have been adding details, doing research, and editing the manuscript.

    Hell! It is tough to write a book. It is the summer of 2013 now, and yet, I am not quite done with my book. I have done like at least ten drafts of it now because I want it to be my best. I want to self publish it through create space because I think they are the best. I will be done by the end of September, I hope. And it will be great. I am finnally happy with my book.

    Work hard, and we will succeed.

    Good Luck!

    http://www.karmagurung.com

  21. There are several industries where self publishing is common and legal references are one of these. It builds instant credibility, can be given away on the website or to clients.The ROI for these books is so good. On of my clients recently published (and printed 300 copies) of a 42 page book on Pennsylvania Car Accident Law total printing was only $550. Cost for editors slightly higher at $400. Shocking to us was we had 3 people review before this went to the editor we hired and they found 7 fairly significant errors — so yes, please get a proof reader when self publishing.

  22. Excellent post–and thank you for the PDF of the novel!

    I embarked on the indie publishing route in 2010. With two novels published and more on the way, I’ve loved it: it’s a challenging path, but very worth it in my experience. I come from a traditional pub world, having worked in a small publishing office at a university: I had all the tools and skills to do this on my own, and felt comfortable working with freelance editors, artists, and videographers to create a product I was happy with. I’ve met a lot of authors from the trad world who weren’t happy with their covers, the relationship with the editor, or lack of overall marketing support, and while I think indie pub may be more work than some people want to put in, it bears serious consideration. Perseverance is key. I think some people get frustrated after putting one work out there and not seeing much in the way of sales–it’s important to keep writing, build up a backlist, and continue to network via guest blog posts and such–and you also never know which work is going to take off and be the big hit (c.f. the phenomenon surrounding Hugh Howey’s Wool). APE has been a tremendous resource for me–and it’s been wonderful seeing the impact the book has on the APE Google+ community. :)

  23. I often come back to the same analogy you used – the painter. While painters have publicists, they do not have editors. No one tells them, “You used too much blue” or “I don’t see it”. We accept their creativity for what it is – theirs. This is something the independent publishing revolution has to teach the publishing world. While editors may be essential for readability, the independent publisher provides stories and views traditional publishers won’t find marketable. An independent publisher can tell their own story.

  24. Self-publishing is never easy, but all those new tools and e-book stores make first time publishing lot easier. If you are a beginner, why not write a short piece on Kindle to test the water?