Indie publishing isn’t for everyone

I keep seeing news articles about Amanda Hocking, and they’re all careful to point out that her experience isn’t representative of indie publishing in general. Even Hocking herself doesn’t understand why writers she believes to be better than her don’t sell as well. A lot of it comes down to luck.

I’m getting a chance to look at the indie publishing experience through a different set of eyes, and I’m coming to realize it takes an unusual collection of skills, as well. My friend Rachel is gearing up to publish several of her short stories and her first novel on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Lulu, etc. Let me get this out of the way. Rachel is a superwoman. She’s a better writer than me, she is good at just about everything she does and she and her husband have resumes that make you think they’re genetic mutants, superspies, or both. But Rachel doesn’t know much about indie publishing yet (she’ll be an expert soon, I bet), and by watching what she’s going through, it’s showing me why I think this indie thing is so easy. It isn’t. It just looks that way to me because of an accidental education.

Here’s some of what you need to know, besides the actual writing, to do well at indie publishing.

Editing

On the editing thing, I know what I don’t know and have hired an excellent editor whose opinions I trust to help me out with that aspect. But it took me a long time as a writer to realize what people meant when they said I “needed an editor.”

The real value of a professional editor, freelance or otherwise, isn’t in finding typos and subject/verb agreement. That’s a copyeditor, and while you need one of those too, and sometimes they’ll be the same person as your content editor, that’s not what a content editor does. Your editor is there to sanity check your choices as a writer and make sure the story is as good as you can make it. The telling of the story is important, but if the story itself has giant holes or inconsistencies, it doesn’t matter how beautifully it might be told.

Kathleen provides this for me. She checks to see if the story really makes sense, if this character would really do that, and points out where I really need to rethink that three page monologue (hint: anywhere you have one). She’s not changing the story, or putting her stamp on it. She’s helping me make it what I wanted it to be in the first place.

This is extraordinarily difficult to do by yourself. You’re too close to the story to really question the fundamental choices you made when you wrote it. That’s why if you’re going indie, it’s a worthwhile investment to find an editor you can trust and pay them what they’re worth.

Graphic design

Like it or not, people do just a book by its cover, especially online. Your cover is the first thing, along with the title, that a potential reader sees, and how it looks tells them a lot about you as a professional. If the cover looks attractive, with solid design, good typography and imagery, that tells them that they can probably expect that same attention to detail in the text. An weak cover, something that looks slapped together in five minutes in MS Paint, can drive readers right past your book. Remember, this isn’t the old days when people took what they could get. Entertainment in the 21st century is a marketplace of abundance, and you’re not only competing against both the other indie authors and the big NY publishers, but you’re also competing for your readers’ time with Call of Duty, Netflix, Angry Birds and who knows what else.

Here I really lucked out. Not only do I have a background in graphic arts myself, but my editor Kathleen designs book covers as a hobby and offers that as part of her editing service. She’s really good, and I’m going with her covers for Revelation and Crusade, along with one of my own for Jihad.

Book design

This is something I picked up partly by hobby, partly by accident. I’ve been making ebooks for years, both my own work and converting downloaded scans or conversions into properly formatted ebooks for my own collection. I’m an old hand with eReader’s old PML markup, and I watched the XHTML-based Open Ebook Format develop from the very beginning.

More to the point, I’m a (recovering) professional web developer, and a pretentious one that jumped on the “separate content from presentation” CSS train early on. I’m the type that uses styles in Word for everything, and never just italicizes a word ad hoc (that’s what the “emphasis” style is there for).

For modern ebooks, design returns to the web of ten years ago, keeping things simple and using basic structural tags. Converting text to very basic HTML is second nature to me, as is cleaning up a manuscript to get rid of anything that isn’t supposed to be there. I know regular expressions, dammit, and I’m not afraid to use them. I didn’t set out learn these techniques to format my own ebooks for publication, exactly, but they sure come in handy now.

This means I can format my books quickly and easily to what Amazon, Barnes&Noble, etc want when it comes time to upload. Speaking of which…

Content management systems

Anyone who has a blog should be right at home with the content management systems behind the bookstores at major ebooksellers. Web based forms are easy. Right? Not necessarily. Rachel’s having trouble getting her first Kindle ebook out of  “publishing” status. It keeps reverting to “draft” and no one seems to know why. I haven’t had the chance yet to look it over myself, and I might not be able to figure it out, but I didn’t have any trouble getting “Do Over!” through the system. Why? Because I’m a blogger and former developer, and I’m already comfortable working on the web.

Marketing and promotion

In the middle of the 2000s, I spend several years in various sales positions. Retail, cold calling, the whole nine yards. I learned I don’t like hard selling, but I also learned a lot about why people buy what they do, what kind of enticements are effective in getting people to try something new. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I’m comfortable handling this aspect of indie publishing myself. I’ve already got lots of ideas on pricing, promotion, cross marketing, bundling, stuff most authors never think they’ll have to think about.

Social networking

And lastly, I know how to get by with a little help from my friends. A few years back, I’d vaguely heard of Facebook and there was some tweeter thing Silicon Valley insiders were using. Now, if you don’t have a presence on Twitter and Facebook, you may as well not exist. Gone are the days of a writer sitting alone in a shack, sending out his novels and never interacting with his fans directly. Now, you’re expected to be present. You’re expected to engage. Answer questions. Being able to actually talk to my favorite authors on Twitter is amazing, and I’m looking forward to getting into discussions with my fans.

I welcome every aspect of being an indie author, but that’s because my eclectic education and career path has given me the tools to do so. I know I’m atypical. So if you’re thinking about going this route, ask yourself if you’re ready to do all the different things you have to do well to pull this off.

 

Why I put CyanogenMod on my Captivate

I haven’t blogged much (at all) about Android here yet. Lemme esplain. No, is too much. Lemme sum up. Loving me some droid, have learned so much about Android via my AT&T Samsung Captivate (a Galaxy S phone) and my Nook Color.

I used the stock version of Android on my phone for a little less than a week after I first got it. I knew I wanted to do things Samsung and AT&T wouldn’t let me do. To start with, I wanted Froyo, Android 2.2. And when I bought the Captivate in December, it was stuck at Eclair (Android 2.1) with Froyo due “any day now.” So I rooted, installed a custom Froyo ROM I found on XDA-developers.com and was off to the races.

Since then, I’ve flashed my phone countless times, sometimes several times a day (fortunately Titanium Backup for Android is excellent, but requires root). I tried so many custom ROMs, felt like I got to know the developers putting them together, often from source code. These ran so much better than stock that I kept running them even after the official 2.2 for the Captivate finally arrived from AT&T.

But there was a nagging problem. These ROMs were great, much better builds of Android than stock. But in most cases they were supported by a single developer, sometimes a small team. They were volunteer projects and would only be developed/supported as long as the developer felt like it.

And recently, that has begun to crumble. I’ve seen several devs jump ship from the Captivate to new generation Android devices like the HTC Inspire 4G and the Motorola Atrix. I didn’t want to be left behind.

All the custom ROMs on XDA-devs are forks, or variants, of various production ROMs leaked or taken from related devices. For example, they’ll take a new build of Android designed for the Georgio Armani Captivate, a similar but not exact sibling to the North American version, and modify what they needed to make it work on our hardware. It was all top-down development, tweaking and optimizing what Samsung gave us.

Now that the Galaxy S 2 is on the way, I don’t expect Samsung to give us any more. 2.2 will probably be the last official release of Android for that phone. But the thing is, I like this phone. It feels like Palm’s old Tungsten line more than yet-another-iPhone-clone like its Galaxy S bretheren. (The T-Mobile Vibrant can easily be mistaken for an iPhone 3GS at first glance.) So what was I to do?

Well, as it turns out, due to a leak of a different Gingerbread (Android 2.3) build for the Galaxy S line recently, the CyanogenMod folks finally had the drivers they needed to get the Gingerbread-based CM7 working on Galaxy S phones like the Captivate.

So what is CyanogenMod? If custom ROMs are a top down approach, CyanogenMod is bottom up. It’s a massive, multidev open source effort to port the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code to as many devices as they can. Other than carrier or hardware specific stuff like modem drivers, it’s as open source as possible, and just about constantly updated and improved. The ideal of CyanogenMod is to be able to use the device you want with the current version of Android. CyanogenMod is also available for my Nook Color, should I decide to install it there as well.

So how is it? I’m pleasantly surprised. The battery life is nothing to write home about, but not significantly worse than stock. Once it’s out of beta and they remove all the debug code, I expect that to get much better. But it’s stable, smooth and does everything I need it to do. The custom ROM I was using did a great Gingerbread impression on Froyo, but this is the real thing, and it’s (and this is the important part) completely independent of Samsung and AT&T.

Ebooks and the post-scarcity economy

Nathan Bransford has an interesting blog post up today about Hocking, Konrath and what they mean for publishing. Nathan’s wicked smart, but he’s making the same mistake most people with experience in print make. He’s overlooking that supply and demand thinking doesn’t apply to a product where the supply is infinite.

Paper books are priced based on scarcity. You know how much they will cost to produce, you know how many of them you will produce, and you can decide how much you want to make per copy to turn a decent profit overall. You only have so many, so you would obviously prefer to make as much money per copy as you can.

Ebooks, on the other hand, are a post-scarcity good. There are as many ebooks as you can sell, and as it turns out, there’s plenty of room at the bottom. There is no such thing as an ebook print run. Without a constraint on how many copies you can sell, you don’t have to make as much per copy. Price the book low enough, down to “impulse buy” level, and you’ll pick up hordes of readers who never would have considered buying the hardcover. This is why one-to-one cost comparisons between paper and ebooks don’t work. An ebook priced at 1/20 the price of a hardcover will sell way over 20 times as many copies. Maybe not right away, but while a hardcover has maybe three months on the shelves, ebooks sell forever.

This is the lesson Hocking and Konrath really have to teach the publishing industry, if they’re willing to listen. Post-scarcity digital goods require completely different thinking, completely different economics, than physical goods. The longer print publishers take to figure this out, the more money they’ll lose.

Call me indie

We are living in a renaissance of creativity. A lot of people don’t appreciate it. But I think it’s fitting in the wake of what’s going on in North Africa and the Middle East that we think about the effect the internet really has on all aspects of our lives. And that got me thinking about what it does for creative people. Basically, it removes all our limitations. Well, the practical limitations, anyway.

All of the various media that have traditionally required corporations and established analog distribution channels are now available to anyone. Music, movies, comics, books, all can be produced by anyone with off the shelf equipment affordable by even modest incomes. And we’re seeing new mediums that never existed before, like stories played out in real time on Twitter that are something between a novel and a radio dramatization.

In the late 90s, early 00s, we saw the dawn of indie music, musicians recording albums that sounded professional, releasing them as MP3s and burning them to CDs to sell at their shows. A few years later, we saw the rise of tools like iMovie and cameras like the Flip Mino make it possible for indie film makers to release professional grade films on YouTube.

The last decade also saw a run at indie comics, and it’s here that “indie” became almost synonymous with “creator controlled.” Comics have seen a rebirth of diversity and creativity in the last ten years. Digital tools have made it possible to release directly to the web with levels of quality that would have been hard to come by on old bristol board. And with creators free to tell the stories they want to tell, superheroes have had to make room for comics about all sorts of things. It’s no wonder that these are turning out to be fertile ground for adaptation into other media, like how “The Walking Dead” was a comic long before a critically acclaimed TV series.

And yes, even indie TV is coming out of its shell, with series like Felicia Day’s “The Guild” garnering millions of viewers on the web, on game consoles, on set top boxes like Roku.

And yet, oddly, this revolution has taken a long time to make it to prose. There have been a few breakout stars like Amanda Hocking, and more traditionally published authors are coming to realize they can both make more money and retain more control over their if they go indie (see Joe Konrath for details). But for arguably the least technically complicated medium out there–ebooks can be reduced to ASCII text without losing much fidelity–prose authors are the last to make the jump to the digital age.

And a lot of that comes from the stigma still associated with the “self-published.”

While independent filmmakers like Kevin Smith, who maxed out all his credit cards to make “Clerks”, are lauded, authors who decide to bypass the corporate gatekeepers are still viewed with suspicion. If your book is so good, prospective readers wonder, why didn’t Random House want it?

Of course, the truth, increasingly, is that we didn’t bother to ask. Devices like the Kindle and iPad have made it not only possible, but practical for large masses of people to read books without the necessity of a printing press, paper and massive fleets of trucks for distribution. We finally have the means to reach our readers directly. And given that opportunity, I for one have no interest in asking permission to publish my book, and I’m certainly not willing to give up control over the cover, the title, sometimes even the name listed for the author in exchange for less than 20% of the cover price.

For years, the conventional wisdom was “money flows to the author.” The author never had to pay for anything, but also had to wait until everyone else in the process had taken their cut before they got what little was left over. Today, I’m both the author and the publisher of my work. Maybe I don’t pay anything as the author, but as the publisher, I hire an editor and graphic artist to help me make the book as good as it can be before I put it out there for readers to buy. It’s an investment, just like an independent businessperson in any other endeavor would be expected to make up front.

So I don’t call myself “self-published,” even though that’s literally true. Instead I’m joining with the musicians, filmmakers and artists and calling myself an indie author. This is my business as much as my art, and I’m proud to be in control of it, sink or swim. And hopefully, by the end of this decade, people will take indie authors as seriously as they take indie creative people in any other medium.

Why I’m focusing on the Kindle and the Nook

Jenny Melzer started out selling her new novel Goblin Market at $2.99, the generally acknowledged sweet spot for indie authors. Then she lowered it to 99 cents for a promotion, and sold more copies, though we don’t know if she broke the six times more copies she’d have to sell to make 99 cents with a 35% royalty generate more money than $2.99 with a 70% royalty. Still, she got new readers, right? And she could always go back up to $2.99 once the promotion was over.

Not so fast.

I was going to raise the price of The Goblin Market back up to $2.99 on Tuesday, and I did for about twenty-four hours before Amazon crawled the net and discovered the price was still showing up at $.99 on competitor stores. Amazon’s policy is to price match the lowest price found online, so they slashed the price of The Goblin Market right back down to $.99.

via The Goblin Market: $.99 It Is Then… : The Inner Bean.

This cross-store automatic price matching is also why people are complaining about Apple’s 30% vig for subscriptions. It’s practically impossible to charge more one place than another, regardless what the payout terms are for the author.

For “Do Over!” I’m starting at 99 cents and keeping it there, and I’m only worried about placing it on Kindle, Nook and maybe Google if I can find a cheap enough ISBN provider (Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t require ISBNs). For my Unification Chronicles books, I’ll be starting at $2.99 and keeping them there as well. For those, I’ll probably go through the effort of securing an ISBN and getting the books placed on Google, Apple and possibly Sony’s ebookstores as well as Kindle and Nook. But I’m not going to bother with aggregators like Smashwords, as I don’t believe I’d get enough new readers there who wouldn’t already be using one of the other venues. The book market is fragmented, but as long as there are only half a dozen or so major players, I don’t mind dealing with them individually.

That said, I’m not so sure Jenny is losing money over this. Joe Konrath is trying an experiment with one of his titles, lowering the price to 99 cents and seeing how much money it generates. Keep in mind that ebooks are a post-scarcity good. Traditional supply and demand economics don’t apply if the supply is infinite. The value of an ebook as an asset to the author has nothing to do with the price, and everything to do with revenue. If Joe (and Jenny) sell more than six times as many copies at 99 cents than they do at $2.99, they make more money overall. So far, Joe is just about breaking even with The List, selling almost exactly six times as many copies. But the market is still growing, and this definitely hasn’t been settled yet.