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Why Do Some Writers Choose to Go ‘Indie’?

After October’s inaugural, myth-busting post “What Does it Mean to Be an ‘Indie’?” [1], the comments section exploded with proud indie authors stepping forward and sharing their experiences. At first, I was surprised by the number of comments that rolled in—I knew I wasn’t the only indie hanging around these parts, but I had no idea there were so many kindred spirits out there. As I read their comments and stories, I spent some time visiting their links, where I discovered beautiful author websites, exquisite book covers, and an incredible range of work—from nonfiction to thriller to gay romance and everything in between. It was the ultimate demonstration of what it means to be an indie author. And it made me curious about what inspires some writers to choose this path.

For me, independent publishing felt like a natural next step in my career. I’d spent a decade working in marketing, advertising, and sales and was looking for something more entrepreneurial. When my first novel, Empty Arms, was complete, the indie movement was just beginning to pick up steam, and the idea of starting my own publishing company seemed like an exciting opportunity to merge my passion for writing with my professional experience. While the favorable royalty splits and payment terms were appealing and the disadvantages seemed like a fun challenge to tackle, what I wanted most as a writer and business owner was autonomy. I decided not to seek representation or pursue a traditional book deal, in favor of independence.

But what about other indie authors? How did they end up on this path? I decided to find out. I reached out to a handful of indie authors and asked them how their publishing journeys came to be. Not surprisingly, they were happy to share their stories. Here’s what I learned:

Entrepreneurial Spirit & Love of Learning

For New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Joanna Penn [2], the decision to publish her own work was a natural extension of her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for learning. “I’ve been running my own businesses for years,” said Penn, “so when I wrote my first book back in 2008 in Australia, I looked at how long the publishing industry would take to get it out there and decided I’d give it a go myself. I love to learn new things, and even though I made mistakes along the way, 2009 turned out to be a big year for ebooks and the beginnings of the indie movement.”

Today, Penn has written more than 20 books and sold over 450,000 copies of her books in 74 countries and five languages. “I love the creative freedom, the control and speed of professionally publishing my own books, and my business has gone from making less than $10 in that first month to a multi-six-figure, international publishing company.”

Book Deal Gone Bad

For nonfiction author Mary Shafer [3], the decision to go indie was born out of necessity. “I didn’t have a choice,” Shafer explained. “I had a book contract with a small publisher for my book, Devastation on the Delaware, a narrative nonfiction account of the record-setting Delaware flood of August 1955. We were going to release it in August 2005, just in time for the flood’s 50th anniversary. But two months before we were supposed to go to press, the publishing company went under.

“Keep in mind, this was back before Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), CreateSpace, Lightning Source, and many of the other tools that make it relatively easy to self-publish. I knew I wouldn’t have a prayer of selling my finished manuscript to another publisher in time to get it out for the flood’s 50th anniversary, which was an important publicity hook for the launch, and I wasn’t about to let the three years I’d spent researching and writing it go down the drain. I realized that, other than sales and distribution, I knew everything about how to produce and market a book from my years working at NorthWord Press and Lost River Press in northern Wisconsin. I figured I could learn the rest, and I had a good track record with my first two books. So, I bought back my rights, started Word Forge Books, and took the plunge.”

Reaching Niche Audiences

Many niche writers, like Prue Batten [4], author of The Gisborne Saga, have a difficult time finding a traditional publisher who’s willing to take a chance on a project that might only appeal to a subset of readers. “I had spent an inordinate amount of my life submitting to agents and publishers and waiting. When the rejections came, they were not just single lines, they were whole pages of complimentary comment. But I wrote niche fiction, and there was no way a publisher would take the financial risk.”

A serendipitous email eventually inspired Batten to give independent publishing a try. In 2010, she started Darlington Press and took charge of her writing life, which involved assembling a team of freelance professionals to help her produce her books. “I have an excellent and very intuitive cover designer and print formatter, a fabulous editor, a professional e-formatter, and my husband is the ‘CEO’ of Darlington and helps with the business side of things. Ten novels later, some wonderful awards, a collaborative business partnership in America, and sales that keep me writing, I am so glad I took the step sideways in those very early days of indie publishing. Independent publishing is made for niche writers like myself and there is a readership out there. This has allowed them to find my books and to find me.”

Flexible Timing

For sci-fi/fantasy author C.J. Carella [5], who writes the Warp Marine Corps series and The New Olympus Saga, time to market and production schedules were a driving force behind his decision to go indie. “After researching the state of the publishing industry, it soon became obvious that even if my books were ever accepted by a mainstream publisher, the process would take years. I submitted my novel to a couple of quick-response, no-agent-needed markets and got a couple of form rejection notes. A decade ago, my only option would have been to spend years looking for an agent, with no guarantees of ever finding one. Now, of course, there are alternatives.”

With nothing to lose, Carella decided to give independent publishing a shot. “I soon discovered other reasons why this choice was the right one for me: my release schedule only depends on my writing output, not on a publisher’s needs. I get paid monthly via Amazon, rather than a few times a year. I have complete creative control. All of these factors cemented my decision to stay the course. Success didn’t hurt, either. Most of my novels have generated enough income to match or surpass the typical advances traditional publishers offer new authors in the same genres. Three years and nine novels later, I’m doing far better than I could have going the traditional route, where, at best, I’d have gotten one or two novels published during the same time frame—or, more likely, I’d still be trying to find representation.”

Testing the Market

Professional artist and gay romance writer Isobel Starling [6] initially chose independent publishing to test the market for her debut novel Fall Together. “I was keen to get the book out quickly and not sit around waiting for agents and publishers to pick through my work and then, possibly, reject it,” Starling explained. “I wanted feedback from readers, not publishers. Building a relationship with readers is all-important in building an author platform. Publishing my books independently has enabled me to develop my online author presence in the gay romance genre, gain readers and reviews, and prove to publishers that I am worth investing in.”

Starling, who recently released her eighth book, now realizes an additional benefit: the value of retaining the rights to her work. “Having the rights to my books gives me more choices. My M/M romance thriller series, Shatterproof Bond, has been picked up for translation by French and German publishers, and I’m also moving into audio.”

Complete Control

For R.E. Donald [7], author of the Hunter Rayne Highway Mysteries series, the decision came down to control. “The buck stops here,” said Donald. “I like having complete control over my novels. I set my own deadlines, approve my own covers, and am responsible for all editorial and marketing decisions. And although I have to pay for my own advertising, I don’t have to share the royalties. I recently spoke to an agent about representing me for subsidiary rights, and she was shocked at how much I receive annually in royalties compared to many of her traditionally published clients. I’m not getting rich, but my royalties do pay a lot of household bills. As my own publisher, I have the luxury of writing my books as fast or slow as I want and publishing as many books in the series as I like. For those reasons alone, independence works for me.”

Betting on Yourself

Gwen Hernandez [8], author of the Men of Steele series, decided to invest in herself after success in traditional publishing. Hernandez got a traditional book contract for Scrivener For Dummies and spent much of 2012 working on writing and marketing that book. Afterwards, she turned her attention back to the romance novel she’d been working on, which had been a finalist or winner in several contests, including RWA’s Golden Heart, and had gotten a couple of revise-and-resubmit requests from literary agents.

“I figured maybe I needed a developmental editor to help me figure out what my manuscript was missing that would make it ‘New York-ready,’” Hernandez explained. “I decided to use my advance from SFD to hire an editor. But then I figured if I was going to pay for an editor—which is the bulk of my costs—why not spend a little more for proofreading and a professional cover, and publish it myself? I’d get to choose the release date, pick the editors I worked with, select a cover artist, write the back cover copy, set my price, control my marketing, and earn a much larger percent of the royalties.

“I loved the idea of keeping my rights and having full creative control over the finished product that would have my name on it. But that also meant treating publishing like a business and doing a lot of research. I wanted my book to be as good as—or better than—it would be if traditionally published, and I budgeted my time and money accordingly. It paid off when I published Blind Fury in early 2014 and again with Blind Ambition in 2015. And I have two more books planned for next year. For me, the tradeoffs of self-publishing my fiction have been worth it.”

Infectious Inspiration

Hybrid author Jeff Widmer [9], whose body of work includes four novels and two traditionally published nonfiction books, was bit by the indie bug a few years ago. “I decided to go indie after listening to an author talk about the rewards of self-publishing a novel. While I’d always thought of those books as vanity projects of inferior quality, the work he held had a professional look. The content didn’t scream dilettante, either. I warmed to the idea as he launched into an excited spiel about the advantages of independence. The money didn’t seem the biggest reward. In many cases, indie authors receive a greater percentage of fewer sales than traditional authors. Neither did the freedom to manage (or mismanage) the project. No, what convinced me to try the indie life was the look on the writer’s face. It was one of beatitude, as if he’d been elevated to sainthood but not before winning the Pulitzer and a pot of cash.”

Widmer took the plunge in 2014, and four crime novels later he’s still publishing. “For me, the indie life has offered an opportunity to grow as an author and entrepreneur. It’s helped me to become more insightful and organized, so that the next book is hopefully better than the last. It’s also brought me into contact with readers who, bless their souls, keep asking for more. And that may be the greatest reward of all.”

While there are a variety of reasons that might motivate a writer to choose independent publishing, one thing is for sure: it’s a valid path that can have powerful outcomes and meaningful rewards.

If you’re an indie author, tell us: what motivated you to pursue independent publishing?

About Erika Liodice [10]

Erika Liodice is an indie author and founder of Dreamspire Press, where she is dedicated to teaching curious minds about unknown worlds through story. She is the author of Empty Arms: A Novel [11] and the children’s chapter book series High Flyers [12]. She is also a contributor to Author In Progress [13], the Writer Unboxed team’s first anthology. To learn more about Erika and her work, visit erikaliodice.com [14].