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Should You Go Indie?

Should you go indie, or is the traditional route to publishing the right way for you? How do you make that decision? How do you know for sure it’s right?

Amber posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have been the BIGGEST advocate for traditional publishing, mainly because I thought indie publishing was for writers who either have huge followings/audience or who know in their guts that their work is not high-quality enough to be traditionally published. But I think I’m changing my mind…and considering independently publishing my debut novel. My main hesitation is that I don’t have a huge following (email subscribers/social media/real-life contacts). I have been doing my best to grow my social media followers and have recently written a story that I am serially posting on Wattpad. (I want to accumulate as many email subscribers/Wattpad fans as possible regardless of if I go indie or traditional).

My change of heart has come after querying over 300 agents for three different manuscripts over the course of the last 2-3 years and barely getting anything more than form rejections…the kind where I can tell the agent didn’t fully read my query or get to the sample pages or synopsis. From the query letter to the synopsis to the genre…I just feel like I’ve done months and months of revising, off and on, an still nothing gets me responses from agents. I’ve worked with beta readers, critique partners and hired multiple editors and a couple industry insiders, including a former agent. I get the same response: my book is very well-written, the premise is very interesting, I should just publish it myself since I’m not getting anything from the agents I query. I’ve been extremely stubborn and resistant because I do believe that I could have major success as an author and I don’t want to cheat myself out of anything. But I’m finding that having an agent represent me just might be out of the cards for my particular book/writing style. (By the way, I write thriller/suspense and contemporary romance.) I’ve also been realizing that since nowadays publishers really rely on authors to promote themselves/their books, I might as well publish my book myself and take a higher percentage of the profits since either way I will be doing the promotion myself. Besides distribution (because of my lack of audience) I’ve starting to become convinced that indie publishing is for me. Actually, I think I’ve always sort of known indie publishing would fit my books, but not ME. That’s the main battle I have daily.

A lot of people I come across have the mindset of “just put it out there.” I’m the most impatient person I’ve ever met, but just putting it out there is not my style. I want my book out last year, but if I’m going to do it then I’m going to do it right. So I guess my question to you is how do I know if going the indie route is the right decision?

Randy sez: These are great questions, Amber. I think many of my blog readers will be asking the same questions. Just to make sure everyone’s up to speed on basic definitions, here’s a blog post I wrote awhile back on what we mean by the terms “indie authoring” and “traditional publishing.” (I hope there are no people left on the planet who confuse either of these with “vanity publishing.”)

Making Traditional Publishing Work

I was raised on traditional publishing. I started writing my first novel in the spring of 1988, and finally got a novel published in the spring of 2000. During all that time, traditional publishing was the only game in town, for all practical purposes. Even back then, some entrepreneurial writers were self-publishing their work, but I never considered self-publishing because it just seemed like too much work.

And so I did what you’ve been doing, Amber, which was to write hard, go to critique groups, query agents, and generally work the system, hoping for a break. I also went to writing conferences, and that’s where my break finally came. Amber, you don’t say if you’ve been pitching your work to editors or agents at writing conferences. If you’re trying to make it in traditional publishing, conferences are the way to go.

Yes, conferences are expensive. No, you probably won’t break in right away. Definitely conferences can sometimes be incredibly discouraging, if you go in with the wrong mindset. But conferences are also the place things happen. Most of the published novelists I know got their first break at a conference—usually not their first. And of my twenty closest friends, probably eighteen are novelists, and I met every one of them at a conference.

That’s why I’ve taught at many conferences over the years. Because they connect writers with publishers better than anything else.

Conferences are not cheap. Between the conference fees, travel expenses, food, and housing, you’re looking at a thousand dollars or more for a large multi-day conference. But if you want to go the traditional publishing route, then going to good writing conferences will dramatically boost your odds of getting published.

That’s the path I chose and it worked for me.

Why Some Authors Go Indie

But ultimately I found that traditional publishing really wasn’t working for me. There are some good reasons for that. I write about themes that are mostly of interest to Christian readers. But the traditional publishing Christian industry doesn’t really do well with the kind of books I write. It took me a few years to see clearly that this was a problem.

The solution was to quit writing for that industry and go indie. And that’s been working out very well for me. My first traditionally published novel, Transgression, only sold about 6,000 copies in its trad-pubbed edition. I re-released it in May of 2014 as an indie e-book and made it permanently free on all the major retailers. As of this morning, I’ve now given away 157,632 copies. Books 2 and 3 in that “City of God” series are selling well and earning much better than they did in their first editions as trad-pubbed novels.

So the indie way has been good to me.

Amber, you’re correct when you say that most traditional publishers will expect you to do most of the marketing for your books. And you’re also correct that trad-pubbed authors earn only a fraction of the net revenue for each book sold. Indie authors earn it all. That’s a huge advantage in favor of the indie, and it’s the reason so many indies are earning tens of thousands of dollars per year. At a retail price of $2.99, the indie gets right around $2 per copy, which means that an indie only needs to move about 5,000 copies in a year to earn $10k. And that’s very doable. It’s much harder to earn $100k per year, and it’s very difficult to earn $1 million per year.

Should You Go Indie?

The core question you’ve asked is how to decide whether to go indie. That depends on you and what you want in life. Here are the main diagnostic questions to ask yourself:

  1. How much do you want the validation of being traditionally published? Some writers don’t feel like they’re “real authors” until they’ve been trad-pubbed, and this includes some successful indie friends of mine.
  2. How entrepreneurial are you? As an indie, you and you alone are responsible for making the book happen. The indie way requires you to do four things that your trad-pubbed cousin doesn’t have to do:
    • Hire a freelance high-level editor to do a “macro edit” of your book. (No author can do this for herself, because you don’t know what you don’t know.)
    • Hire a graphic designer to create a professional cover for your book. (Very few authors have the graphic design skills PLUS the marketing savvy to create a good cover.)
    • Hire any copyediting, line-editing, and proofreading services you might need for your book. (Many authors can do some or all of these tasks for themselves. You know if this applies to you.)
    • Format the book into an e-book. (Almost all authors do this themselves, and it’s an easy task with the right tools, but you can also hire somebody if you need to.)
  3. How much of a self-starter are you? Some writers must have a deadline imposed by a big corporation in order to motivate them to write their book. If that’s you, then the indie way is not for you, because nobody makes you do anything.
  4. How many books can you write in a year? Only a few trad-pubbed writers can publish more than a couple of novels per year, because their publishers don’t want them “competing with themselves”. (Cynics have argued that the trad-publishers actually don’t want the writer competing with the publisher’s other authors.) As an indie, you can write a book every week if you want to, and it’s not uncommon for indies to publish five or six books per year, or more. If you’re hyper-productive, you might want to go indie.
  5. Which way just feels best to you? Your instincts are often right.

Make A Decision And Run With It

I don’t believe there’s any one right answer. The indie way works well for me. The trad way works extremely well for some of my friends. I have other friends who take the hybrid route, publishing with both traditional publishers and as indie authors. It’s possible to succeed all three ways. Please be aware that the odds of great success are against you, no matter which route you take. There are just over a hundred authors of any stripe who earn more than a million dollars per year.

What’s not possible is to be certain that you’re making the right decision. Life is the art of making decisions with incomplete information. Learn all you can about your options. Make the best decision you know how. Pursue your chosen path with all your strength. Then do a reality check every year or two, and give yourself the freedom to change your direction.

Good luck, Amber!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

How Often Should Indie Authors Publish?

If you’re an indie author, how often should you publish? Is there such a thing as publishing too often? Can you “compete with yourself?”

Victoria posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi, Randy,
Using the Snowflake design process, I have completed a YA fantasy novel and am in the last stages of structuring its sequel. I am not yet published and plan to do so independently. I can comfortably write and polish a full-length novel in four months, but I realize that four months is quite a narrow schedule for systematically releasing new novels. How closely together do you think is reasonable to release novels in the YA fantasy genre?


Randy sez: If you’re an indie author, four months between releases is fine. Many indies publish more often that that, and it doesn’t hurt them. Most indies, in fact, think it helps.

This is the opposite of what most traditional publishers believe, at least those whose focus is getting paper editions into bookstores. In that case, they’re fighting with the problem of limited bookshelf space, and it’s certainly true that bookstores will have a problem with authors who publish very frequently.

So traditionally published authors have to worry about competing with themselves. Bookstores just don’t want to order copies of different books that are produced at the same time by the same author.

You can argue that this isn’t rational, because you aren’t really competing with yourself–you’re competing with the million other authors out there. Doesn’t matter. This is reality.

But most indies aren’t in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Most indies only sell online, and for them, the more often they publish, the better. Indies don’t worry about competing with themselves, because the online stores have unlimited shelf space.

If you read the January issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, you’ll remember my “Success Equation”, which goes like this:

Success = (Target Audience Size) x Quality x Discoverability x Production

You multiply the four terms on the right to determine your success.

That last term on the right, “Production,” is the number of books you publish per year.

All other things being equal, the higher your Production, the better.

So 3 books per year is excellent. If you can maintain the same Quality and produce 4 or 5 or 10 books per year, then all the better.

Good luck, Victoria! I’m glad the Snowflake Method has been helpful to you and I hope you have fun in your writing and build an audience who loves your work.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


The Death of “Self-Publishing”

It’s time to just say it. “Self-publishing” is dead. I’m not talking about the act of self-publishing a book. I’m talking about the phrase itself. “Self-publishing” now means two different things that are miles apart. It’s time to kill this useless phrase.

Barbara posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am confused by all the different terms in current publishing. Like “indie publishers,” “traditional publishers,” “ebooks,” “ebook indie publications,” “small presses” “small publishers,” “independent publishers,” “print on demand,” “hybrid authors” and whatever it is that Amazon does.

I am former Washington, DC newspaper reporter writing a novel about the newspaper business. Though I have finished a first draft and am working one revisions, I am not quite ready to submit a manuscript yet. But I need to know what all these terms mean and how to go about deciding where I belong. Thanks always for your great blog and for answering my question.

Randy sez: Let’s start with the most confusing term of all—“self publishing.” This used to have a single meaning. But in recent years, it’s come to mean two massively different things:

  • Vanity publishing
  • Indie publishing

Let’s look at these and define them clearly.

Vanity Publishing

“Vanity publishing” means that you pay somebody to publish your work. You typically pay them a flat fee and with that money, they then hire editors, proofreaders, typesetters, graphic designers, marketers, and whatever else. They take care of the printing, warehousing, shipping, distribution, sales, etc. If there are any profits, they distribute them to you, usually taking a cut.

In vanity publishing, you do the writing and you take all the financial risk. The vanity publisher does all the other work and takes none of the risk. The profits can be divided up various ways.

It should be obvious that vanity publishing is wide open to abuse. When you are fronting the money and taking all the financial risk, the vanity publisher has little incentive to keep costs down or do a good job or give you a fair shake.

It is possible for a vanity publisher to give you a fair deal, but most professional authors, editors, and agents will tell you that vanity publishing is almost always a terrible deal for an author. David Gaughran does a great job of explaining why on his blog, so I’m just going to refer you to him. Here’s one of his articles to get you started.

Indie Publishing

“Indie publishing” means that you act as your own independent publisher. You write your book. Then you do all the tasks that a publisher would typically do, or else you find a specialist who can do the ones you can’t. These tasks are:

  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Cover design
  • Typesetting (for print books) or formatting (for e-books)

Indie authors often do all of the above themselves. Then they upload their finished book files to the various online retailers—Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, etc. Or they may work with a distributor, such as Smashwords, who will deal with some or all of the retailers.

The key thing here is that the author gets a large percentage of the money—typically between 35% and 70% of the retail price of the book. The indie author takes all the financial risk and gets most of the rewards, so she has a high incentive to keep costs down and do a good job.

As it turns out, indie publishing can be a great deal for authors. The very best-paid indie authors are earning millions of dollars per year, and a surprising number are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. For a superb analysis of how much indie authors can earn, see the Author Earnings web site run by Hugh Howey.

Why “Self-Publishing” is Useless

“Self-publishing” used to mean essentially the same thing as “vanity publishing” and very few professional authors would have anything to do with it.

In recent years, “self-publishing” has also come to mean “indie publishing,” and a great many professional authors are doing it very successfully.

It ought to be obvious that “self-publishing” is a term that is too ambiguous to be useful. It needs to be thrown away.

We have two other perfectly good terms we can use instead: “vanity publishing” and “indie publishing.” So use whichever is appropriate, and nobody will be confused.

Let’s remember that there are some other publishing options. Let’s look at those.

Traditional Publishing

“Traditional publishing” means that you work with a publishing company that puts up all of the money to publish your book. They pay you some money upfront as an “advance” in exchange for the rights to publish your book for a certain length of time. They also pay for all the editing, proofreading, typesetting or formatting, printing, warehousing, sales, and distribution. They collect all the money earned and pay you a percentage as royalties.

In traditional publishing, you do all the writing and the publisher does all the other work and takes all the financial risk. You split the rewards with them.

What’s not to like with this arrangement?

Let’s be clear that this can be a great deal for authors. Until very recently, most of the really famous authors worked with traditional publishers and made great boatloads of money. There are a couple of thousand authors currently doing very well under this system.

The problem is that in recent years, the deal has gotten substantially worse for authors. Here are some of the friction points that authors have:

  • Advances have gotten smaller.
  • Authors are expected to do all or most of the marketing.
  • Royalties on e-books are low—typically 25% of the wholesale price of the book, which works out to about 12.5% of the retail price. This is very much lower than the 35% to 70% earned by indie authors.
  • Many publishers require option clauses that lock in an author to working with the publisher on the next book.
  • Many publishers require no-compete clauses that prevent an author from working with another publisher (or from indie-publishing) during a certain window of time.
  • Traditional publishing takes a long time to move a book from concept to final published book. It may take a year or two or longer.
  • Traditional publishers often can’t handle all the books that an author can write, and this is a huge problem if there are option clauses or no-compete clauses in place.
  • Traditional publishers decide what will be published and what won’t, and this often feels arbitrary and unfair to authors.
  • Traditional publishers hold all the high cards in negotiating.

There are probably other friction points, but these are the most glaring. These are the reasons why so any professional authors have simply walked away from traditional publishing and gone indie—they believe they’re better off on their own. These are the reasons why so many indie authors have refused contracts offered by traditional publishers.

Some authors use the term “legacy publishing” to refer to traditional publishing.

Hybrid Authors

“Hybrid author” is a term coined by Bob Mayer. It means an author who chooses to publish some books with traditional publishers and some books as an indie author.

Hybrid authors are looking for the best of both worlds, and this can be a reasonable choice. I’m a hybrid author, because I have some books still in print with traditional publishers, while all my current projects are in indie publishing.

Small Publishers

“Small publishers” are traditional publishers that are small—typically just a few employees. Small publishers often give better royalties on e-books. They may give more attention to new authors. I’ve worked with a small publisher, and it can be a sensible option.

Small publishers seem to be fading as more authors go indie.

E-books and Print-On-Demand

E-books are electronic books that are sold and delivered electronically. In some categories of fiction, most of the books sold are e-books.

“Print-on-demand” books are paper books that are printed and sold only when a customer orders a copy. Traditionally, publishers printed thousands of books in a large print run and then warehoused the books. This kept the cost per copy low, but if the books didn’t sell, that was a problem. The unit cost of a print-on-demand book is fairly high, but the risk is zero because you don’t print it until you’ve sold it.

Amazon has made it easy for indie authors to create and sell e-books and print-on-demand books. You can upload your e-book at You can upload your print-on-demand book at

Numerous other online retailers let you upload and sell e-books, including Barnes & Noble (at, Smashwords (at, Apple (at, Kobo (at

The publishing world is changing fast. Traditional publishing used to be the only game in town for authors who wanted a fair shake financially. Now indie publishing is an exciting option. Indie publishing gives authors some negotiating power with traditional publishers, because now they have the power to walk away.

Barbara, I hope that answers your questions. I won’t tell you what you should do, because every author is different. But now you know what your major options are. Good luck!


If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.


Agents in the Indie Age

So you’re an indie author writing fiction and you’ve been thinking of writing a novel for a traditional publisher and you need an agent. How do you make that work? What are the rules for working with an agent in the Indie Age?

“Jane” (not her real name) posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I recently made a connection with a literary agent who is willing to represent me. I wasn’t seeking an agent; this happened through recommendations from a small press who is publishing my next series. I did all my due diligence and this agency totally checks out positive, but I need some advice from you.

A little about me: I have two ebooks indie published (one available in print), a contract with a small press for a digital serial style series with the option of print on demand copies later, and more ideas and drafts then I know what to do with other then publish them one at a time myself.

I looked over the contract and the exclusive clause gave me pause. They did say they could include an addendum that would allow me to continue indie publishing if I wanted, but made it clear they want access to all my writing since they will be putting work into my success as well now.

I’d love to have an agent, to be a “hybrid” author, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. The publishing industry has changed dramatically, yet lots of people are still in the same routines as before. Would signing with an agent be detrimental to me at this point?

I highly value your advice. Thanks for any input you can offer.

Randy sez: Well, I’m hesitant to give advice when I don’t know you and your work well. And I’d be hesitant to give advice even then. So consider this blog post to be “Randy’s thoughts” rather than “Randy’s advice.” I’ll tell you how I run my own life. That may or may not apply to how you should run yours.

You only need an agent if you’re working with a traditional publisher. That is, if you’re completely indie, then you don’t need an agent.

My opinion is that if you’re working with a traditional publisher, even a small one, you need an agent. Publishing contracts these days are complex, and you need somebody to explain the nuances of each contract and fight for you on the clauses that are important. The word I’m hearing is that contracts are getting less author-friendly, so you need all the help you can get.

In my experience, virtually all agents want to work with you exclusively–meaning they don’t want you to have two agents. If you happened to be working in two wildly different categories, it might make sense to have two agents, but that’s rare.

In my opinion, it’s reasonable for you to give an agent exclusivity on your traditionally-published work. An agent puts a lot of work into each client, and that effort needs to be rewarded.

Some agents are a lot more indie-friendly than others. The important thing is that you have an agreement with your agent on what your indie activities are going to be. Your agent is your business partner. You must keep them informed on what you’re doing, if you’re doing any indie work at all.

If you and your agent don’t agree on your indie publishing, then that’s a serious problem. It sounds like this agent is happy, in principle, with your indie publishing. The addendum to the contract sounds like a good idea to me, but you should also discuss it  verbally to make sure that you both agree on the meaning of the addendum.

Some agents, in my experience, are just not a good fit for indie authors. Indie authors typically believe that the more books they produce, the better, because each book promotes the others. Some agents just plain don’t buy that reasoning. (And it looks to me like most publishers don’t buy it either.)

If you believe that your indie titles help promote your traditional books, and if your publisher insists on a strict non-compete clause that keeps you from producing indie books during some long window of time, then you have a serious conflict. You need to have an agent who agrees with you on the issue. And not all agents do.

If you’re going to work with an agent, you need to have roughly the same set of assumptions. Some of the points where indie authors disagree most with traditional publishers are the following:

  1. Life of the contract. Should it be limited to a set number of years? Should it terminate when sales volume gets “too low?” What does “too low” mean? Or should the contract go for the life of the copyright?
  2. Option clause. Should the publisher get an option on your next book? Or your next TWO books? If so, can you live with the terms of that option?
  3. Non-compete clause. What is the length of time that you’re willing to NOT publish any indie material that might compete with the traditionally-published book? How broad is the clause? Who decides what “compete” means?

You need to be on the same page as your agent on all the important questions. Any decent agent will of course be working in what he believes to be your best interests. But if the two of you can’t agree on what your best interests are, then you’re working with the wrong agent. And it’s best to figure that out before you start working together, rather than after.

Publishing is more complicated than it used to be. The trend is for more and more traditionally-published authors to do a bit of indie-publishing on the side. The trend is for more and more agents to help them with this. The trend is for more and more traditional publishers to pursue contracts with successful indie authors.

Because of these trends, I’m guessing that ten years from now, all authors will be hybrids or indies, and there won’t be ANY authors who are solely traditional. I can’t prove this. It’s just a guess based on what I see, and so it could be wildly wrong. But ten years from now, if I’m right, then I’ll say I told you so.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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