I was browsing in the Suspense section of my local Barnes & Noble when a familiar voice came over the store loudspeaker. “Attention all wannabe writers. We has inside information that a certain Bigshot Author is in the store giving out free advice fer the next hour. He’s the feller holding the copy of Jimmy Patterson in aisle K.”
Panic shot through my veins. I peeked around the corner at the central desk.
My plumber Sam stood there holding the microphone. He pointed at me and hooted with glee. “There he is! Tackle him now!”
Before I could move, a short bundle of insanity came racing down the aisle and body-slammed me to the floor. “Got him!” shouted Sam’s mother, Minnie. “Free cookies for everyone while this dear boy teaches us about how to get rich as an indie author.”
The store manager came scurrying up to Sam with a disapproving look on her face. “Sir, this is highly irregular! You can’t—”
Sam gave her a huge grin. “Listen, Miss Cutie, I betcha didn’t know you had the feller that wrote the book on fiction writing right here in yer store. And he’s gonna give us an impromptified clinic on publishing right now, and he’ll even autograph all the piles of books ya got on yer shelves that he wrote.”
Minnie pulled my wallet out of my pocket, extracted the driver’s license, and flipped it neatly to the manager. “Go on, dear girl! Just look up his books while we’re getting set up.”
By now an enormous crowd had gathered around.
“Get rich writing books?” one woman said. “Sounds good to me!”
“Awesome! Give the man some room!”
“Hey lady, you going to bring his books for us to buy?”
The store manager thought for a few seconds. “Let’s do this!” She went to a workstation and began pecking in information.
Minnie got off my back, hauled me to my feet, and produced a plate of cookies from her purse. “Free cookies for everybody!”
Five minutes later, we were all crammed into the small coffee shop. Minnie was clutching a thick sheaf of paper, which I assumed was the novel she’d been pestering me to help her with.
“So …” I looked around the group. “Minnie, you called this meeting. What exactly did you have in mind here?”
Minnie plopped her manuscript down on the table in front of me. “I want to know what’s the best way to get this published.”
The one thing I didn’t want to do was look at that manuscript. Most first novels just aren’t ready. Most authors write several novels before they’re ready to get published. So I did the honorable thing. I stalled.
“Okay, let’s review,” I said. “There are three basic ways to get published. You can pay a vanity publisher to do it for you.”
“And they’re all scammers,” Minnie said.
I held up a hand. “Not all of them. Most of the time, a vanity publisher is a bad deal for the author. But there are some honest ones who’ll charge you a fair price and do a good job for you.”
Sam pulled out his iPad and thumped on it for half a minute. “Yup, he told us that, Ma. I got it wrote down right here.”
“It can make sense to work with a vanity publisher under certain conditions,” I said. “If you have a good quality book and a strong marketing platform and you know how to read contracts, you can probably find a suitable vanity publisher. You’ll spend some money up front, but then all the profit goes to you.”
“But … I don’t have much money,” Minnie said. “I think my book is good, but I don’t know anything about that marketing platform thing—”
“No worries,” Sam said. “I can build ya a great platform, Ma. Mr. Bigshot here can give me a drawing and I’ll nail that puppy together, boom, boom, boom!”
“Sammy, dear, shut up.”
Sam gaped at his mother, then leaned back and folded his arms across his chest.
I cleared my throat. “Minnie, from what I’ve seen, I don’t think a vanity publisher is right for you.”
“But dude!” cut in a kid wearing a skateboard shirt. He looked to be about fifteen. “You don’t even know if the lady’s book is any good yet. Ain’t ya gonna look at it? Cuz if it’s a piece of crap, then she ain’t going nowhere with it.”
“That does make sense.” Minnie handed the boy a huge cookie. Then she did the one thing I’d been dreading.
She pushed the manuscript across the table to me. “Now, dear boy, I want you to read my novel and tell me if I’m just wasting my time. I do want to get published, but I’m not going to put my name on something dreadful. So you just tell me right now if it’s horrible.”
The crowd seemed to suck in its collective breath.
I stared at the brick of paper. The cover of the manuscript said simply Sammy Kills The Dragon, by Mama Minnie. With a ridiculous title like that, the odds were high that it was unspeakably awful. And I really didn’t want to have to say so in front of all those people.
Minnie reached across the table and flipped over the title page. “Read!”
The first sentence made me laugh.
The first paragraph hooked my attention.
By the end of the first page, I forgot I was critiquing it because I was having so much fun reading it.
Mama Minnie could actually write. Sure, there were a couple of spelling errors. But she had started right off in an action scene that put me inside the skin of a character I cared about.
That’s good fiction, no matter what absurd title is on the cover.
I flipped to the second page and raced through it. Then the third, the fourth, the fifth. And that was the end of the first scene, which ended on a cliffhanger.
I looked up at Minnie and smiled. “You write very well.”
The entire crowd erupted in cheers. Suddenly, people were grabbing for the manuscript, fighting for single pages.
Minnie blushed fiercely. “Oh, you’re just flattering me. I bet you tell every pretty girl the same thing.”
I shook my head. “Listen, the one thing I don’t do is flatter people. You write well. Very well. I think you could get this published. By a traditional publisher.”
Minnie began fanning her face. “Really? Oh my! Sammy, did you hear? I’m going to be published!”
I held up a hand. “Okay, remember, we talked about traditional publishers—”
“Buncha scammers,” Sam said. “They’ll rip ya off, Ma. You got to publish it yerself.”
“Sammy, be a dear and stuff that iPad in your … um, mouth.”
I pulled out a pad of paper and drew a horizontal line on it. I made tick marks at the left and right ends. “Let’s make a timeline here. This first mark represents today. The second mark represents the day you’ll see your book in actual stores.”
“Dear, how many days is it between those marks?” Minnie said.
I shrugged. “That’s hard to say. Probably at least a couple of years.”
“A couple of years!” Minnie scowled at me. “You listen here, young man! I don’t want to sit on my hands for a couple of years. I want to get published before I … before I … you know.”
Sam’s face went pale. “Ma, you ain’t gonna snuff it anytime soon.”
Minnie pointed a stubby finger at me. “You say at least two years. But it could be more?”
I nodded. “It could be a lot more. I know a lot of writers who took five or ten years to get published.”
“I’ll be an old woman by then.” Minnie scowled. “What are those publishers going to do for me to make up for wasting years of my life?”
“Several things,” I said. “First, they’ll pay you an advance, probably several thousand dollars. Second, they’ll edit your book. Third, they’ll give you a professional cover. Fourth, they’ll pay all the costs of production. Fifth, they’ll make sure your book gets into stores like this one.”
“And they’ll cheat ya on royalties,” Sam said.
“And they’ll pay you royalties,” I said.
“Will they really cheat me?” Minnie asked. “Or is Sammy just blowing smoke like he usually does?”
“Your royalties won’t be very high,” I said. “On a hardcover, your royalties would be a few dollars per book, assuming—”
“That’s all?” Minnie shrieked. “How come, when it costs twenty or thirty dollars in the store?”
“Overhead and middlemen,” I said. “The publisher has to pay the rent. And the printer. And the warehouse guys. And the truck drivers.”
“And the thieves that run the stores,” Sam said.
I noticed that the room had gone deathly quiet. An icy chill seemed to be radiating onto the back of my neck. I turned around.
The store manager stood there holding two copies of my latest book. “Apparently this is all the stock that the thieves who run the store have on hand.”
“Um … for the record, I think you guys are doing a great job.”
“If you say so, sir.” She slammed the copies on the table and stalked away.
“Hey, Sam, if you wouldn’t mind keeping your opinions to yourself,” I said.
Sam shrugged. “Just telling the plain, unvarnishified truth. It ain’t my fault if some folks is flogging a dying horse.”
I turned back to Minnie. “And if you have a trade paper edition, you’ll be getting about a dollar in royalties per book.”
“One lousy dollar?”
“And if you have a mass market paperback, it would probably be a lot less than that.”
Minnie looked shocked. “What about e-books?”
“Your publisher will get 70% of the purchase price of an e-book. You get 25% of that.”
Sam whipped out his calculator. “So say the book sells fer $10. Yer publisher rakes in $7 and pays you $1.75. But then yer agent takes a cut, so you end up with $1.49.”
Minnie gave him a suspicious glare, then appealed to me. “He’s fibbing, isn’t he? There isn’t any printer or warehouse or truck drivers for an e-book, so why is the publisher going to keep all that much money?”
I shook my head. “Unfortunately, Sam is telling the truth. Right now, this may be the biggest conflict between authors and publishers.”
“Well, then what if I don’t get an agent? Why should I give some agent my money?”
“You really need an agent if you’re going with any of the major traditional publishers. Without an agent, you probably won’t sell your book, and if you do, the publisher will give you a terrible contract and you won’t know any better so you’ll sign it.”
“But I could sell my book myself to a smaller publisher?”
“Maybe. But the smaller publishers probably won’t get you into many bookstores. And one of the biggest reasons to work with a traditional publisher is that they get you into bookstores.”
Minnie’s face had gone bright red. “Well let’s just suppose I were to self-publish my book. I’m not saying I will, but just suppose.”
“That’s an option,” I said. “It has some disadvantages and some advantages. First, there’s no advance.”
“Don’t need an advance,” Minnie said. “I have my Social Security and I get by.”
“Second, you’d have to pay your own editor.”
Minnie flinched. “How much would that be?”
“Could be a few hundred. A really top-notch editor would cost you a couple of thousand dollars.”
“That’s all?” Minnie stared at me. “Could I get something decent for two thousand?”
“You could get an outstanding editor for two thousand dollars. But then you also need to pay a graphic artist to design your cover.”
Minnie shook her head. “And how many thousands is that?”
“You can get a decent cover for a hundred dollars and a very good one for five hundred,” I said. “You just have to know an experienced artist, and there are plenty of them. I can give you some names.”
“Dear boy! Would you?” Minnie seized my hand in her powerful grip and squeezed.
Tears sprang up in my eyes. “Y-yes.” I worked my hand free and began checking it for broken bones. “And your final cost would be production. You need to create the e-book files for the online stores.”
Minnie shuddered. “I knew there was a catch. How much is that? Five thousand? Ten thousand? I’m not rich.”
“You can do it yourself if you’re willing to spend a little time. Or you can pay somebody to do it for one or two hundred dollars.”
“And that’s everything?” Minnie said. “That’s my final cost? What about that agent thing? How much does he get if I self-publish?”
“Nothing,” I said. “You don’t need an agent if you’re an indie author. You just do it.”
“Just … do it? All by my little lonesome?”
“Ma, I’ll help you. I done it loads of times,” Sam said.
Minnie shushed him. “So you’re saying that for under three thousand dollars, I could self-publish my novel and keep all the profits?”
I nodded. “I know plenty of indie authors who’ve done it for under a hundred. They don’t hire an editor. They do their own cover art. And they just upload their Word document straight to Amazon.”
Sam jumped up and blew an imaginary trumpet. “Not to brag, but my JoeDunnit murder mystery novel didn’t cost me nothing, and it’s selling like fire on Smashwords.”
“And it’s the most ridiculous piece of dreck a mother ever was forced to read,” Minnie said.
Sam grinned at her. “Ya can’t argue with the numbers, Ma. I’m earning hunnerts every week fer my books, and you ain’t earning squat.”
“Language!” Minnie said. “I didn’t raise you to say words like that!”
“There’s one last thing,” I said. “If you self-publish your book, you probably won’t sell any paper copies in stores.”
“And why is that?” Minnie looked alarmed.
“Because bookstores typically don’t buy books unless the publisher takes returns. And bookstores are wary of self-published books because a lot of them are … not very well-written.”
Minnie threw a furtive glance at Sam. “I suppose they have a point.”
“So yer saying Ma ain’t gonna have great piles of her books in this store like you do?” Sam pointed at the two copies of my book on the table. “Whooey, that’s a mighty strong case yer making there fer the big cheese publishers.”
I felt my face getting hot. “I’m officially a hybrid author. I’ve published eight books with traditional publishers. Now I’m releasing my out-of-print books as an indie author and at the same time, I’ll be doing some other books that crashed and burned with traditional publishers.”
Sam sniffed loudly. “You might think you’re some high and mighty high-bred author, but you ain’t all that.”
“Sammy, shut up!” Minnie put her head in her hands and closed her eyes. “It just isn’t an easy decision. I can see that each of the choices makes sense for some authors but not for others. But for me … I’m going to be an indie author.”
Sam began dancing a little jig, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.
“That boy!” Minnie shook her head. “But let me tell you my thinking and you can tell me if I’m just a silly old woman or if I’m thinking straight.”
Minnie held up one finger. “First, I don’t need an advance because I have some income.”
“Second, I’m going to hire an editor and graphic artist and some geeky boy to make my e-book files. You say I can do that for under three thousand dollars, right?”
I nodded. “You can get a stellar job for that much. You can do quite well for under a thousand.”
“Third, I want a fair shake on royalties. If I make five times as much on e-books and never sell any paper copies, I’d come out ahead, right?”
“Quite possibly,” I said.
“Hey, lady, what about your marketing?” said the skateboard kid. “You ain’t gonna sell nothing without marketing.”
“Oh dear!” Minnie said. “I don’t know anything about marketing. Maybe I’m just all wrong. Maybe I need a traditional publisher after all.”
I shook my head. “A traditional publisher is going to expect you to do most of your marketing anyway. No matter what publishing option you choose, you’re going to be stuck with the marketing. And it’s not as hard as it sounds.”
Minnie took a deep breath. She obviously didn’t want to market her books. But she also obviously wanted to get her book published.
She clenched both her fists and pounded the table. “I’ll … do it! I want to be an author. I’m going to be an indie author. And if I have to learn how to market my books to do that, then I’ll just do it, by gum!”
“Language, Ma!” Sammy said in a shocked voice.
For a second, the whole room was quiet. Then the entire crowd burst into applause.
Minnie quietly stood up and took a bow, a huge smile covering her face.
A new indie author was born.
TO BE CONTINUED …
Randy sez: This is the third in a series of blog posts on self-publishing novels. Some of what we say will be useful to non-fiction writers too.
Minnie is now officially committed to becoming an indie author. What’s her next step? We’ll find out in the next episode.
If you’ve got friends who might be interested in the process, feel free to let them know about this Indie Author Guidebook series.
See you next week!
In the meantime, please do me a favor and let me know how we’re doing so far. We’re now three chapters in on the Indie Author Guidebook. I’m using storytelling techniques to teach the basic ideas. Is it working for you? Is it not? I’ve created a short survey on SurveyMonkey where you can tell me what you like and what you don’t. Please take the survey now. This is your chance to help me help you. Thank you! I appreciate you taking the two minutes to answer a few simple questions.