Many, many moons ago, I wrote a post on Writer Unboxed, contemplating the pros and cons of going indie with my next book. I wasn’t just contemplating it online, I was contemplating it with my agent, with my husband, with myself. As someone who had come up in the “traditional” system – I started at HarperCollins, published my next two books at Random House (and would have happily stayed there forever had my imprint not folded and the entire team dismantled), and completed my run at Penguin – it was a difficult notion to swallow: could I do this on my own? Should I do this on my own? After a terribly discouraging experience with my fourth book, based not on the book (which I loved) or the reviews (which were the strongest of my career) but things totally outside of my control, I knew I had to change something. But how big of a change and what that change had to be was exhausting to consider…but too important not to. So I wrestled with it for a long, long time. And I nearly quit writing novels along the way.
Well…drumrolll…I made my decision shortly after posting here on Writer Unboxed. I went indie. And the book, THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES, is out tomorrow! And I am so very, very, very thrilled at my decision. Making the choice to take this leap was the hardest part, everything else has been exhilarating. Revolutionary. Eye-opening. I can’t imagine I will ever go back.
One of my biggest concerns was: “Will people take me seriously?” I had worked for years building my reputation and establishing my readership; I didn’t want to erase this, well, “street cred,” by taking what some (many within the industry) consider to be a more amateurish route. Well, the answers came in quickly and resoundingly. Not only did people not hold it against me, many of them were and are intrigued by the decision. We sold audio rights, we sold large print rights, we just announced a mind-blowing film deal – Jennifer Garner is producing! Foreign rights are being negotiated as we speak. So far, I have seen no downside. In fact, rather than feeling like I am banging my head against the wall, frantic and worried that x, y, and z, aren’t happening in my pre-launch phase, I am not stressed at all. (Okay, maybe a little. To be stressed is human. :) But it’s not as if I’m staring at the ceiling in the wee hours of the night, agonizing over all of the things that are out of my control. The emails I’ve sent trying to get someone somewhere to fix something, to tweak something, to ask about co-op and sales and marketing and all of that.) Nope. With one day until the book is officially out into the world, I’m (almost) cool as a cucumber.
I’ve gotten a lot of emails from fellow writers who are intrigued and re-assessing their own stakes and situations and pros and cons. So here is what I’ve learned, and here’s what I’d tell anyone else who was or is considering leaving the traditional model behind.
1. Going Indie Is Not The Same Thing as Uploading an E-book.
When I posted my thoughts in April on taking the leap into self-publishing, I also posted that I thought I’d have to invest a good chunk of change into pulling off what wanted to pull off. And I did. I know the rigorous paces that a book goes through within a publishing house, and I put this book through all of the same paces. I hired an editor who ran a top publishing imprint, and who did not hold back on her editorial advice; I hired the jacket and layout designer who had created my books at Random House; I hired a copy editor; I invested in an amazing publicist; I am printing the books via one of the same printers that the “traditionals” use. This is not an overnight thing where I uploaded an e-book to Amazon and said, “Oh look, I’ve published! Woohoo!” I revised the manuscript probably five times; we did at least four rounds of copy edits. We tweaked the cover down to the point where it grew annoying. If you want to be taken seriously as an indie author, take your book seriously too. This is non-negotiable, in my opinion. As to how much you spend? Well, I’m sure that you can invest as much or as little as you think is reasonable. Some will argue that you can self-publish for a couple hundred dollars. Yes, I am sure that you can. (And I do not mean that sarcastically.) If you want to really compete with the big boys, however, I’m not sure that you can. (Or, at the very least, I knew that I couldn’t.)
2. It Takes a Certain Kind of Personality.
I have always been a leap-before-I-look type of person. This served me poorly when it came to dating very cute but emotionally-unavailable men in my early 20s. :) It has served me much better professionally, especially with this venture. However, indie publishing is not for everyone. You must be a self-starter. You must be okay doing all of the nitty-gritty work, from figuring out the complicated printing options and financial returns, to having that “screw it” attitude that comes with knowing that some people might be, well, judging you. Failure is certainly an option, and you’re gonna have to be okay with that. (Though here’s the thing about the other publishing route: failure is also an option there too. You’re just armed with an advance check as you fail, which, to be clear, can be a very nice thing.) If you would prefer to get the sure-thing advance check from your publisher because that aspect is within your control (while the rest of the publishing process will no longer be), by all means, do it. And I say that with no snark, only sincerity. There is no right choice here. I have found this process tremendously liberating and powerful because I have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit and a “screw-you” attitude; not everyone shares this. (Wisely so.) Know yourself and what you can handle.
3. Speaking of Power…
This isn’t really a tip as much as it is an observation, and this observation is specifically for my fellow writers who find themselves at a crossroads in their publishing lives. As an author, I increasingly felt my power get diminished…like it was slowly being chipped away as the publishing industry grew less and less certain of itself and treated writers more and more like a basic commodity. (Which I understand, of course, that we are to a certain extent. Writers are there to make money for their publishers – this is a business after all, and I believe in it and don’t mean to sound hippie-dippy. I totally endorse capitalism, fyi. :)) But what I have gotten back in this self-publishing process is exactly what I felt like I’d been stripped of, and which I know – because it’s the primary thing that authors talk about when authors get together and talk, others feel as well – but I have gotten my power back. Full stop. Every single thing about this book has been mine. I am determining price point – my e-book will be $2.99 (a big factor with e-book buyers these days); I am in control of advertising; I didn’t have to compromise on a cover that didn’t seem to embody the spirit of the book; I didn’t have to wait a year to publish because that’s when there was an open spot in the catalog; I wasn’t at the mercy of a sales team whose enthusiasm could make or break a book; the list could go on forever. I’ve also realized that these days, the only time I’ve felt super-burdened with anxiety is when I was waiting back on an answer from something outside of my control – the film deal, a major review, that sort of thing. When I was with the bigger houses, I felt super-anxious much more often because, like it or not, I was waiting around for answers from so many sources. This isn’t a complaint against the bigger houses – please understand that. That’s how the chain of command goes – an author files a manuscript and then that manuscript is passed down the line while the author watches it go. That’s just how the machine and system work there. But I had increasingly felt like my own voice was getting diminished in this process as my manuscript moved further and further away from me. Now, I’m being heard, and I’m not afraid to throw that voice around.
4. Know Your Reach.
I think it is very important to emphasize here that I suspect that I have had an easier go of self-publishing because I came out of the traditional model. I was a known quantity to subsidiary buyers – audio and large print and foreign publishers have bought my books before and knew what they were getting from me; also, I’m a known quantity to readers. I want to be very sure to say that I think authors who have already come up in the system will likelier have an easier time transitioning to the indie track than first-time authors. There is also a lot to be said about what you learn as you move through the system: to know the rigors of first pass pages, of copy-edits, of revisions. Not to say that those who weren’t traditionally published don’t know these things (of course), but as with all jobs, with experience comes knowledge. I think that knowledge is a big benefit here
5. Ask for Help.
Let me tell you something: the vast majority of people in this industry want to see cream rise to the top. (Not to equate myself with cream. You guys know what I mean though.) I can’t tell you how much support I’ve gotten from other writers, as well as some folks within the industry who had nothing to gain by offering advice and counsel. This network is critical. I found a few other like-minded authors and together, we have swapped notes for the better part of the year. When one of us runs into a crisis, we know we can ask the other to help us resolve it. I am not someone who always asks for help because I usually believe that I can do anything myself, but if you are biting off this big of an undertaking, you absolutely must find support. I picked the brain of an e-books expert within the industry; I called in a favor for advice from a connection at major book retailer; I emailed a librarian friend endlessly. There are so many resources out there now – Jane Friedman’s blog is a great place to start – that there’s no excuse not to be well-informed as you venture out into this brave new world. And if you peek your head out and see the light and think it might be for you, go for it. The truth about indie publishing is there isn’t a net if you fall on your face. The truth about traditional publishing is that there is often no longer a net if you fall on your face either.
6. This Is What I Know (In Sum):
There are downsides to both models, and there are upsides to both too. For me, for now, and for likely the foreseeable future, doing it my way, myself, is the only way to go. Over the past few years, I have watched too many brilliant writers get pushed aside or mishandled or told to write more commercially or steered to a more sellable idea that they didn’t believe in or simply had their books go quietly into the night. I don’t want to go quietly into the night. The only way that I could ensure that I wouldn’t was by not allowing myself to sail down the same path I’d already sailed down. Then I’d only have myself to blame when I was disappointed and frustrated and angry all over again. There are options out there now for authors, and for better or worse, I’m seizing the wheel and steering myself to what I believe is my future. Here I go.