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.
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.
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.
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.
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.