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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.

Writing Conferences and Your Allies

Later today, I’ll be sending out my e-zine with an article on the importance of having Allies.

What are Allies? Allies are your writing buddies. They are your equals or near-equals. They are the people who understand you better than anybody except your closest family members. (And they understand some things about you better than even your closest family members.)

You can’t succeed in publishing these days without Allies. You need them to bounce ideas off of. You need them to weather the storms of rejection. You need them (probably most of all) when you get successful, because a real friend can tell you when you’re starting to get full of yourself.

Where do you get Allies? You get them wherever you can find them. I made a list just now of my nine closest Allies. Of these, I met seven at writing conferences. The other two I met online, but I really only became Allies with them after meeting them in person at conferences.

I’ve often blogged about the importance of conferences, but usually I’ve talked about the fact that you meet editors and agents there, you learn how to behave like a professional, you get great training, and eventually you meet exactly the right agent or editor and make exactly the right pitch at the right time and you get the break you need and suddenly you get published.

But the unspoken secret that most professional writers know is that writing conferences are where you meet Allies. Allies are combinations of friends, professional colleagues, mentors, and shoulders to cry on. All in one.

Allies are typically writing in the same general niche that you are. The writing world has many niches. Romance writers. Mystery writers. Science fiction and fantasy writers. Etc.

Not everyone has exactly one perfect niche that they could fit into, but most writers do find one where they can belong. And most of their allies will also identify with that niche.

My own niche for most of the time I’ve been a writer has been the world of Christian fiction. It’s not the perfect fit for me. Given how weird I am, nothing could be the perfect niche. But Christian fiction has a lot going for it (including double-digit growth in market share for most of the last two decades).

It’s been a good place for me in many ways. My most recent book (WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES) doesn’t fit that niche, and I have some novels planned for the future that also won’t fit that niche, but that’s OK.

Most of the teaching that I do is still at Christian writing conferences (although this has also been changing in the last few years).

I have two favorite conferences, the two places where I’ve consistently met with my Allies and found new ones: The Mount Hermon conference (in the spring of every year) and the American Christian Fiction Writers conference (in September of every year).

I taught again at Mount Hermon this year and it was incredible, as always. Mount Hermon is where I met my coauthor John Olson, and it’s where some of my happiest memories in writing have happened. I had a great time this year, teaching a mentoring track with five students, hanging out with friends, meeting many new people.

I’m already gearing up mentally for this September, when I’ll be teaching a major track (on that pesky Snowflake Method of writing a novel) at the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference.

ACFW is an exceptional organization. It’s roughly modeled on RWA (Romance Writers of America) in its organizational structure. ACFW now has about 2500 members, many of whom are published novelists.

Last year, the ACFW conference had about 600 attendees, and we expect more this year. It was terrific last year and it looks to be even better this year. You can make appointments with any of 26 different fiction editors. Or with any of 17 different agents. Just about every Christian publisher and every Christian literary agency tries to send somebody to ACFW.

If you happen to fit into the niche of Christian fiction, there is simply no better conference on the planet than ACFW. And yes, I’m biased. I’ve been on the Advisory Board of ACFW since 2004. I’ve watched it grow from a small cadre of mostly romance writers into a massive organization of writers of every kind of Christian fiction you can imagine.

One of the high points of the ACFW conference is the awards banquet. ACFW runs two major kinds of awards, the Genesis award (for unpublished writers) and the Carol award (for traditionally published books).

These awards have grown amazingly in prestige in the last few years. Winning in one of the Genesis categories is now considered one of the best ways for an unpublished novelist to get noticed by the publishers. And winning a Carol award is now considered roughly equal in prestige to winning a Christy award.

But for me, the highest of the high points at ACFW has consistently been the time I spend hanging out with my Allies. Writing is a lonely business. It’s also a tough business, where you are only as good as your last book. Editors and agents come and go, but Allies accumulate.

As I noted earlier, my own career is trending more toward the general market. That’s just because no one niche is perfect for me. I’ll always be a multi-niche guy. The publishing world is changing and so am I. I expect that I’ll always have one foot in the niche of Christian fiction, where so many of my friends and Allies live. (I should note that some of my Allies are also trending toward the general market, so no matter where I go, I’ll never be without Allies.)

For the foreseeable future, I just plain can’t imagine missing the ACFW conference every September. Which means I’ll continue to see many of my Loyal Blog Readers there.

And for those Loyal Blog Readers who live in a different niche, it also means that there’s a good chance that I’ll see some of you as I continue to expand my footprint into other niches.

It’s a big world out there. The more Allies you have, the happier you’ll be and the better you’ll do.

You can get more info on the ACFW conference on the ACFW web site.

7 Reasons I’m Going to the ACFW Conference

I registered last week for the ACFW conference in Indianapolis. The dates for the conference are September 17 to 20, 2010. ACFW stands for American Christian Fiction Writers, an organization of over 2100 writers.

Why am I going to yet another conference? I can think of 7 good reasons that I want to go:

  • Writing conferences are fun. I am an extreme introvert and I don’t do well in crowds. Yet somehow, writing conferences bring out my inner extrovert, and I always meet a bundle of new friends.
  • Writing conferences are educational. I have never gone to a conference where I didn’t learn something completely unexpected and incredibly useful.
  • Writing conferences are where you make contacts. I met my first agent at a writing conference. After he died, I met my second agent at a writing conference, although at the time, he was an editor and I was hoping to sell him a book. (I did, and after he quit editing to become an agent, he called me.) Virtually all of the books I’ve sold have come as a direct result of the people I met at conferences.
  • Writing conferences are a place to serve. I strongly believe that every writer should find a way to help other writers. Normally I teach at conferences. At ACFW this year, instead of teaching, I’ll be taking appointments with writers to help them out on any question they might have. One-on-one for fifteen minutes. It’s amazing what you can get done in fifteen minutes when you’re focused. This will probably be the best part of the conference for me this year.
  • The ACFW conference is one of the best in the Christian publishing industry. Last year, there were about 500 attendees, with about 20 editors and a dozen agents. If I could only go to two writing conferences this year, I’d go to ACFW and Mount Hermon. If I could only go to ONE, I’d go to ACFW and Mount Hermon and then I’d lie about how many I went to.
  • Virtually all my friends will be there. You can never have too many friends in the publishing business.
  • I’m on the ACFW Advisory Board which meets with the Operating Board twice per year to make key decisions for the future. One of the decisions we made two years ago was to create the FictionFinder web site.

Many of my happiest memories in the publishing business have happened at ACFW conferences. At the 2004 conference, I gave a talk on “Writing From the Male Point of View” which people still talk about because I revealed a number of closely guarded Guy Secrets. I gave an updated version of that talk again at the 2009 conference. In between those years, I’ve spoken on numerous topics, made hundreds of friends, won a few awards, learned more than I ever expected, and enjoyed it all immensely.

This year I’ll be taking Jim Bell’s Early Bird Session. Jim was the guy who taught me about Three-Act Structure years ago, the weekend I first met him at — you guessed it — a small conference in Malibu, California. He’s become a good friend of mine. Jim is a former trial lawyer who now writes fiction. He served for a time as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest and he’s the author of Plot & Structure, one of the books I recommend most often to beginning writers. I expect I’ll learn something totally unexpected from Jim.

Sam The Plumber Is An Agent

I was gone for almost a week to a writing conference at Mount Hermon (near Santa Cruz, California). I’m home now and almost caught up on all the email, bills, and other untidy parts of Real Life.

I had hoped to blog before I left about my latest Sam The Plumber column. Sam has decided to become an agent, and naturally, he thinks that I should be his client, despite the fact that I already have one. You can read about Sam’s antics here.

The April issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine was due on Tuesday, April 7, which was the night I got back. It quickly became clear to me that I was going to miss that deadline. It’s just too much fun at a writing conference to be working on actual writing. The April issue will therefore come out one week later, on April 14. That should be just in time for you to enjoy as you wrap up those pesky taxes (if you live in a place where taxes are due April 15.)

I really enjoyed the conference. Here is a shot of my buddy John Olson and me at the autograph party on Monday night. I am the cool and sensible guy on the left. I don’t know what John is grinning about. Probably he’s just happy that he has four books to sign and I have none. Thanks to Tosca Lee for shooting us on her iPhone.
Randy Ingermanson teams up with his coauthor John Olson for a booksigning at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference.

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