Once looked down on as a path for the untalented, self-publishing (or independent/indie publishing) is becoming an increasingly more respectable way for authors to get their work into the public eye. Some have used it as a stepping stone to a “traditional” publishing deal, while others are content, even happy, to do-it-themselves. Some authors have even found self-publishing to be a viable way to make a living.
April Hamilton and Zoe Winters are two writers who were at the forefront of the “Indie Author” movement. April is the founder of Publetariat, “an online community and news hub built specifically for indie authors and small, independent imprints.” Zoe produces a humorous animated YouTube series called Zoe Who?, which seeks to combat the stigma that still surrounds self-publishing.
In addition to their own works of fiction, April and Zoe have each published informative guides for writers who are considering self-publishing: April’s is called The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use and Zoe’s is Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author (click on the pictures for links to purchase). Today, Inside The Writers’ Studio talks to April and Zoe about their books, about the conflict between the traditional and indie publishing worlds, and about what makes a good self-publisher.
PAPER RATS: When did you start writing your book, and how long did it take?
APRIL HAMILTON: The Indie Author Guide began life as a series of free how-to guides I wrote and offered for free on my website. As I kept cranking them out, it wasn’t long before I realized I had more than enough material for a book and decided to collect everything I’d already written, plus a lot of new material, and publish it as a book. All told, it probably took me about five months to author the material and one more month to deal with editing, formatting and publishing.
ZOE WINTERS: I really don’t track that sort of thing. Becoming an Indie Author had been a concept for awhile. Then when I took a break from the Internet in October, I decided to get serious about finishing and editing it. Because it spanned a bit of time and sat unworked on for awhile, I don’t really know how long it took. I’m like that about most books. I don’t clock them. They just take as long as they take. I don’t even know how long Blood Lust or any of the novellas took. Time becomes sort of meaningless when you’re on your own schedule.
RATS: Where do you live?
APRIL: I live in Los Angeles, California.
ZOE: Planet Earth. Though there have been rumors I live elsewhere.
RATS: What would you say is the primary focus of your book?
APRIL: The main thrust of The Indie Author Guide is to provide clear, detailed, plain English, step-by-step directions in self-publishing and author platform/book promotion tasks. If I’ve succeeded with this book, anyone with a modicum of computer skills and a willingness to learn can use its content to self-publish in print and ebook formats, and then go on to develop or optimize an author platform and book promotion strategy. The Indie Author Guide is all about empowering individual authors and micro-imprints to tackle publishing and book promotion by providing them with the specific information and instructions they need.
ZOE: Attitude. I give a lot of tips and how-to, but the main focus, besides stripping away all the extra fat to basically say: “okay, this is what you REALLY need to know to get started. Here’s my process…” was the concept of having the right attitude. A lot of the book had personal experiences of mine along the way as well as a lot of troubleshooting and mistakes I’ve made. A lot of it is about this idea that you don’t have to be perfect to do well. You’re going to make some mistakes, everybody does. It’s what you do with them that makes a difference.
RATS: Please share the chapter titles that appear in your book.
APRIL: Indie Authorship: An Introduction; Getting Organized; Creating Your Brand; Publishing Options; DIY Formatting For POD; Editing And Revising; Designing Your Own Book Cover; Publishing Through A POD Print Services Provider; Publishing In Ebook Formats; Author Platform; Promotion; Making The Transition From Indie To Mainstream; Appendix A: Worksheets; Appendix B: An HTML Primer. There’s also a companion website for the book, at http://www.indieauthorguide.com.
ZOE: Starting With the Right Attitude; Success Predictors in Indie Authors; Branding Decisions and The Format Option You Might Not Know About Print, Ebook, and Audio; Best Laid Plans; Setting up your business and marketing plan; Editing; Cover art; Formatting for Print and E; Registering your Copyright; Publishing Steps; A big-picture look at the writing and publishing process; The Hard Part; Marketing and platform-building basics; Troubleshooting and Caveats.
RATS: What was it that finally got you to the point where you decided, “That’s it. I’m writing a book about this”?
APRIL: When I had four guides written I drafted a list of the additional topics I wanted to cover. Since the list called for about eight more guides, and those I’d already released had been very well received, I looked at my existing and planned guides and said to myself, “This is a book.”
ZOE: I just kept getting emails: “Zoe, how do you do this… Zoe, how do you do that?” And I thought… “It would be really nice if I didn’t have to answer all these same emails over and over.” (though sometimes I still do, so… um. yeah. lol)
But I was also frustrated with the fact that people LOVE to make self-publishing seem SO complicated. I’m not saying it’s a stroll in the park, but it’s also not like walking barefoot 10 miles to and from school, uphill both ways, in a blizzard. I’m just saying. I wanted to strip all the extra crap so people had a bird’s eye view of this stuff. A lot of how-to books are considered better the longer they are. But actually that’s not true. The longer it is, the more tips you get, and the less a beginner has any idea what’s important and what is just padding to make the book seem more knowledgeable. So often a beginner is no better off than when they started reading. Because it’s impossible to equally apply 700 different tips.
RATS: For some reason, there seems to be a conflict between the traditional publishing world and the indie/self-publishing world. What do you think it is that causes this?
APRIL: First of all, I’d say this problem is diminishing very, very quickly. Now that so many authors who were previously published (and published to great success) through mainstream publishers are choosing the indie path, it’s becoming more and more clear to authors and aspiring authors everywhere that self-pub is a viable, and sometimes smarter, alternative to mainstream pub. Secondly, I’ve found the bias to exist almost exclusively among authors, aspiring authors and some literary agents—publishing houses themselves are only too happy to pick up the rights to an indie book that’s “broken out” to become a big hit. As for why the bias still exists in these certain circles, I’m not sure there’s a single reason. I think some traditionally-published authors and literary agents may feel self-pubbers’ books are inferior because they assume self-pub books are never subjected to any kind of rigorous review or professional editing process, as the mainstream-published authors’ books are. Of course, this is not necessarily true, as savvy indie authors know their books need to compete toe-to-toe with mainstream books; hiring out for professional cover design, editing, and even interior layout and design are becoming more and more the norm. A refrain I’ve often heard from anti-self-pub aspiring authors is that the indie authors are trying to cut to the front of the literary line, and are unwilling to pay their dues. Perhaps this is because so many aspiring authors have spent literally decades plodding along the traditional publishing path, and they’ve come to feel there’s some value inherent in that experience.
ZOE: I think indie authors in general, have just been pooped on for so long that they feel like a discriminated-against minority. And there is some truth to that. Hell, there are STILL people who will take issue with the label “indie author”. They want you to call yourself “self-published” because it has more stigma. It sounds crappier. It’s like “Shut up, slave! How dare you have self-esteem.”
Many people who are set on traditional publishing as ‘the proper way’ to publish, think indie authors are lazy, stupid, delusional, untalented, impatient, and on and on and on. There is very little (though this is changing) recognition that there are some VERY good qualities and things to admire in serious indie authors. We are entrepreneurs. We are business people. We are not wired to work for others. That isn’t a slam on traditional publishing. But not all of us are meant to answer to a boss every day. And though most writers wouldn’t consider themselves “employed”, when you have to answer to a publisher about everything and have little control over the end product… that’s kind of like employed.
But there is a corollary where self-employment in general isn’t respected or understood by most of the population because most people are naturally followers. That’s not a judgment call, just a statistical reality. You go to college where you’re being prepared for a “career” and everyone says you gotta have college to make anything of yourself, blah blah blah. But what they don’t tell you in college is that 85% of the wealth is made by entrepreneurs, many of them self-made and without formal educations. (Which isn’t the same thing as UN-educated.) Basically, Fortune favors the brave.
RATS: What is the first piece of advice you would offer someone interested in self-publishing?
APRIL: My book is primarily aimed at authors and would-be authors who intend to take an entrepreneurial approach their publishing endeavor: they understand that in publishing a book, they’re launching a small business, and they plan to treat their book projects as such. Job one is to identify your goals, and that means digging a bit deeper than just, “I want my book to be a success.” “Success” means different things to different people, and different things for different books. With respect to The Indie Author Guide, my idea of success for the book has to do with garnering with widest possible exposure and acceptance, worldwide. I’m trying to get good information out there to any would-be indie author who wants it. Financial goals for the book are secondary to me. For some authors, winning over a modest but very enthusiastic readership is the crux of the dream. For others it really does come down to money, and that’s legitimate, too. But if you don’t take the time to figure out what your goals are for a given book, you can’t develop an effective publishing and promotion strategy. It’s like trying to build a house with no blueprints. Job two is to get educated. If you’re going to self-publish well, you need to learn some new skills and perfect existing ones. You need to bone up on the overall publishing and book distribution process. You need to know when it’s okay to do something yourself and when it’s smarter to hire a pro. You need to not only identify your target audience, you need to learn where and how to reach them. Being an indie author also means acting as your own publisher, and that is not a casual or simple undertaking.
ZOE: Have realistic expectations. Which is hard to do because until you get in there, you don’t know what’s going to be realistic “for you”. And starting slow doesn’t mean you can’t do well later. But, for example, I was making less than $200 a month the first 17 months I was self-publishing. So… it is not overnight. But that’s ME. Amanda Hocking was making over $10k a month after 6 months. It varies wildly. So I think it’s important for indies to believe in themselves and be solid in their goals but at the same time not invest too much in early results because you don’t really know how things will start out or what you’ll need to tweak along the way.
RATS: Have you received emails or other messages from people who have used your books as guides?
APRIL: The feedback I hear most often is some variation on one of two themes: “I thought self-publishing would be too expensive/hard/confusing until I read your book,” and “This is the first book about self-publishing I’ve found that says exactly what to do and specifically how to do it in clear language, all the others are either too general or too technical.”
ZOE: The response has been really positive. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they appreciated that the voice was very conversational and “real” like we were chatting over coffee, and that the steps all felt “doable”.
RATS: What is the best example of what NOT to do?
APRIL: I advise all indie authors and would-be indie authors against working with vanity or subsidy presses which require a substantial investment of funds up front and offer their services in the form of ‘publishing packages’. With Print on Demand technologies so readily available there’s no good reason for most authors to order a minimum print run of their books up front, and that’s what’s generally required by vanity and subsidy presses. There’s also no good reason for an author who intends to self-publish to sign away any of his or her intellectual property rights, and that’s another requirement when you’re dealing with a vanity or subsidy press. As for those ‘packages’, they typically consist of a bundle of services that includes numerous items the author could do him- or herself at a fraction of the cost the press is charging—or even totally for free—, as well as at least a few items the author doesn’t actually need. To be clear, I’m not saying all vanity and subsidy presses are rip-off artists, many are completely legitimate and really do want to help their clients succeed. I’m just saying that from a financial and business perspective, they’re not a good idea for the great majority of authors.
ZOE: Don’t do your own cover. Don’t do your own editing. These are areas that you may “think” you’re brilliant or competent at, but with very rare exceptions, probably not. Everyone thinks they are the exception, here. And you might be. You could be some publishing and writing savant, I don’t know, I’m not magic. But, assume you aren’t and get help. It’s safer and raises your odds of success.
RATS: What is the most admirable trait in a self-publisher?
APRIL: All the most successful indie authors have an entrepreneurial spirit. They are go-getters who enjoy mastering new skills and have a positive, but realistic outlook about their publishing projects.
ZOE: The same trait that is most admirable in any author, tenacity.
RATS: What is the least admirable trait?
APRIL: A dated mindset about what it means to be a successful author will kill many an indie book long before it’s published. The era of the solitary loner, cloistered away somewhere with a typewriter or word processor, is over. Authors and would-be authors’ whose prevailing attitude is, “I’m a writer and that means all I have to do is write,” are not cut out for the indie path. Virtually all authors are now on the hook for their own book promotion and author platform, but this is doubly true of indie authors since they don’t have the backing of a publishing house. Writing an excellent book is pointless if there’s no plan of attack for bringing that book to a readership.
ZOE: Arrogance. It won’t serve you, because in the beginning you’ll just look crazy. And if you ever become successful, you’ll just look ungracious. Better to smile and nod a lot. (Preaching to myself as well, because I’m sure I’ve had my moments.)