You’ve written a book: a plea for indie publishing

In the comments to an earlier blog, Lexi Revellian (an independently published author) and Gary Gibson (a traditionally published author and a wonderful WW editor to boot) had a debate about whether indie publishing of traditional publishing represented the better route to market. Gary argued for the latter. Here’s Lexi’s arguments for the former. We’ll probably post a riposte from Gary in due course, but let the debate begin!


You’ve written a book – now what?

So you’ve finished your novel; probably not your first novel, the one you learned to write on, but the second or third. You’ve been over it many times; you’ve made adjustments in the light of beta readers’ ruthless comments. You know it’s good. (For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming you are correct – if your book is boring and badly written then you will not be able to find readers for it, no matter what you do.)

You now have a choice: Plan A or Plan B.

Plan A You make a list of agents who represent your genre, research them and submit to a handful at a time. Each one has slightly different submission guidelines, so you have to be careful. Agents like to be told why you chose them – here flattery is called for rather than honesty. I’ve tried everyone else will not go down well. A few insist on exclusivity. Most require mailed submissions, so you spend a surprising amount on paper, ink cartridges and postage.

Responses are slow. Some agents never reply and most send generic rejections, often unsigned. A personal rejection is a rarity. You realize the s.a.s.e. they insist on are a waste of time; if an agent is interested, she will ring you. As your book is good, three or four agents may request the full typescript. You put submissions on hold while they read it. Most likely they will then tell you your book is unsaleable in the current difficult marketplace. But let us suppose an agent signs you. Stop dancing round the room for a moment and read the contract. Agent/publisher/author contracts are not like credit card agreements. There are no consumer protection laws for publishers’ and agents’ contracts.

Your shiny new agent will now shop your novel to publishers. More waiting. Maybe your agent can’t sell it. Your only option is to hope for better luck with the next. But let’s imagine you get lucky, and your book hits an editor’s desk just as he was hoping for that very thing. The advance may be small, but you will be a published author! Stop dancing round the room and READ THE CONTRACT, because some publishing contracts are among the most one-sided and unfair in existence. You may be signing away your rights to all forms of the story, including those not yet invented, until seventy years after your death, unless the book goes out of print. And ebooks and POD never go out of print. You need to know exactly what you are agreeing to.

You now wait eighteen months to see your book in print (publishing is a leisurely business, unless a celebrity dies suddenly, when it becomes possible to get a book into the shops within three weeks). You realize that any marketing has to be done by you. Publishers only promote blockbusters they have put big money into, and yours was a typical first advance of £5,000 (of which you get £4,250 after your agent’s cut). You can go and admire your novel in bookshops until, a few months later, unsold copies are remaindered to make way for newer books. The ebook will not be priced to sell, nor will you have access to sales figures. With an 8% royalty for print and 17.5% for digital you are unlikely to earn out your advance. 90% of new authors don’t. If your book’s sales are less than stellar, your agent may find it difficult to place your next book. But hey, you’re traditionally published – that makes it all worth while, right?

Or you could go with Plan B.

You decide to self-publish your novel as an ebook. If necessary you pay a proof reader (and it’s a myth that every author needs this). You format your text, design or commission a cover, and load it to Amazon’s KDP. All this will take a week or two. It’s a steep learning curve, but perfectly possible if you can follow instructions, and there is abundant help available on the internet.

You will need to promote via forums and book blogs else readers won’t find it. But as your book is good, word of mouth and Amazon’s algorithms quickly make it more visible. Millions of readers are actively looking for an absorbing read, and Amazon wants to help them find it. You priced the book modestly at £1.99, of which you receive 70 %, £1.33 per unit sold. You get paid monthly, sixty days in arrears. You have full control; you are able to track sales in real time, and experiment with changes to the cover and blurb.

You realize you are making real money while retaining all rights. Readers write reviews, and email to thank you for the pleasure your writing has given them. A prestigious agent approaches you, offering you representation. You decline.

You dance around the room.

Lexi RevellianRemix / Replica


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  • Erm…it’s not a plea for indie publishing. More of an observation. Each writer must do what he thinks fit.

  • I’d also strongly recommend that anyone weighing up the pros and cons of pursuing a trad deal versus self-publishing read this blog post by vehemently-indie Joe Konrath:

    And then everything else on his blog 🙂

  • Aonghus Fallon

    Might as well play Devil’s Advocate here and defend conventional publishing.

    (1) No financial outlay on the part of the author.
    (2) You get a big fat advance which you don’t have to return if your book tanks.
    (3) Public perception of a conventionally published book is generally more positive.
    (4) By extension, your chances of being reviewed by a mainstream paper are correspondingly higher.

  • Aonghus – (now that’s a good name) – I would riposte:

    1) The financial outlay on my ebooks was zero. I did everything myself.
    2) Big fat advances are increasingly rare in publishing today. £5,000 is fairly average for a new writer.
    3) The public do not notice who published a book. Can you name the publisher of the last book you read?
    4) True – but most new writers don’t get reviewed in the newspapers, and those reviews are not as influential as once they were.

    I suspect your heart is not in this list.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    You’re right – it isn’t! But seeing as nobody else was going to step up to the plate…..

  • Alanboy

    Joe Konrath is, presumably, an American. While his views are compelling, I wonder if they are relevant to the UK.

  • Steve

    Question: if I were to self publish in this way, would it then close the door on that manuscript being published in the traditional way?

  • Harry

    No. 50 shades of grey was self-published before it was published by regular publishers. But to succeed you either need to achieve remarkable sales figures (good isn’t enough.) Or you need a work of sufficient quality that a publisher would have taken it anyway. And even then a self-pub work of quality with mediocre sales stats might somewhat deter a publisher from having a go themselves.

    For now, my own view is that (in the UK) the following things are true:

    1) If you are writing non-genre fiction, you basically need a regular publisher
    2) If you are writing mainstream non-fiction (of the sort you might find promoted on the front tables of a bookshop), you need a publisher
    3) If you are writing genre fiction (romance, teen vampire stuff, crime, etc), you MAY do well with self-pub
    4) If you are writing niche subject-led non-fiction (my how-to books on writing and getting published, for example), and if you have access to a strong marketing system of your own (let’s say you write about beekeeping and are secretary to the Royal British Society of Beekeepers), you can certainly self-publish successfully.

    On point (3), I’d still say that your odds of success are better with regular pubishers and you would only succeed as a self-piubber if you are an able and very committed marketer. And these days that basically means an e-marketer.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    That’s very interesting, Harry – I never thought of it in terms of specific genres. I’m guessing it may be as much to do with the age-bracket as anything else. Younger readers will be more inclined to buy self-published fiction (vampires, steampunk et al) to feed their habit. Fussier, older readers (especially readers of literary fiction) less so.

    Just saw ‘Talking to the Dead’ prominently displayed in Dublin’s largest bookshop!

  • Harry

    Good news about TTTD! And yes, genre is crucial. Teenagers live online and buy (or steal) music online, so it’s natural for them to get their books that way too. And adult genre fiction sells proportionally more ebooks than does literary fiction, plus there are more active communities of bloggers / readers of (say) crime fiction than of literary fiction. These things are changing all the time though, so there’s no reason to think the same picture will hold true in a year or two.

  • Alanboy

    Harry, could you please define the exact meaning of ‘non-genre’ fiction.

  • I think it typically refers to ‘literary’ fiction. A novel that doesn’t fall into a genre like sci-fi, fantasy, crime, thriller, romance….

  • Harry Bingham

    Indeedy doody. Or, to put the same observational gem in an altogether different way, Yes, Dan, you’re quite right.

  • Steve

    Can anybody supply a link explaining Amazon’s algorithms

  • Steve

    had a brainwave—put ‘Amazon’s algorithms’ in the bing and it came up with loads of info

  • People are treating this like an either or thing, a choice between one or the other. In Ms. Revillian’s case, her novel made it to the top of a virtual slush-pile on the Harper Collin’s Authonomy site. While readers on the site loved it, the editor who reviewed it was less enthusiastic and in the opinion of many just plain wrong.

    Agents and editors will turn down work not because they believe that it’s bad, but because they don’t believe in a tight market it will sell. They may be right thinking about the numbers of sales they need to make any project worthwhile. They can’t afford to sell books for 99 cents a shot. It costs them money to get a book ready for publication. Why should they take a chance on an unknown, especially anyone writing less commercial fiction?

    Most agents won’t even look at anything labeled “literary fiction” from an unknown. Most novels have no route to traditional publication, but can get out to readers easily through the digiverse. If it’s a choice between being kept from readers by gatekeepers or taking your chances with them on your own, why not? At least this gives the writer a shot at building a following.

    It may not be “respectable.” After all anyone can self-publish and there’s a lot of bad stuff out there, but why not let the readers separate the gold from the dross?