The Real Skinny About Indie Publishing

by | May 26, 2011 | Self-publishing | 81 comments

NB: Hi Everyone, Tracy Marchini is a former colleague of mine and she recently self-published a nonfiction guide to publishing terms, Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms, and a middle grade novel, Hot Ticket. She’s guest-posting today to share her experiences with self-publishing. Enjoy!

Since the news that one indie goddess and one traditional publishing guru were switching their publishing strategy for the other’s, the buzz about self-publishing ebooks has been incessant. And now that Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms has been out for about two months, I thought I’d whip out a big ol’ can of wasp spray and share what I’ve learned in the indie ebook world.

Crossing The Line

The first thing I’ve noticed is that there’s still a mental division between the indie world and the traditional world, despite many authors having success on both sides of the line. The most astounding part of this to me is that most of the really successful indie authors, started by publishing their traditional backlist.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is brilliant. If you have a book that was already edited, reviewed and is languishing in your reverted rights pile, then why not put it back in circulation as an ebook and hit a new audience? But sometimes I think people miss the distinction between a successful indie that started with a traditional backlist and an indie that is starting from absolute, 100% scratch. Obviously, it can be done (see: Amanda Hocking, Victorine Lieski, David Dalglish), but it’s a completely different animal, for sure.

In going indie, what you give up for the total control of your book and manuscript is the distribution and visibility that a traditional house can give you. So if you have already been established by the traditional houses, there is already a fan base that has read and loved your work. That is no small potato. (In fact, that is a farm of potatoes.)

An indie that starts from scratch is going to have to hand-sell at least their first hundred books. This means that they are going to have to make a personal connection, talk about their book, and hope for a purchase. This is done through blog tours, book reviews and other methods. Getting reviewed as an indie through the traditional reviewers (Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, NYT) is all but impossible, unless you’re willing to pay for Kirkus Indie. And because most indie book review sites don’t have the name recognition and following that Kirkus or The New York Times does, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and subbing to try and find the same audience.

Book reviewers that are open to indie books are, as expected, becoming swamped with potential titles. If your book is accepted for review, you can expect to wait at least one to two months for that reviewer to get to your title. The most successful indies have given away at least a hundred copies, if not hundreds of copies, of their book. Building “word of mouth” is a long, hard process, and most indies notice that it doesn’t really start to take off until their seventh month. (For some, it’s the fourth month, and for others, the book might never take off.)

Paying For Publicity

There are, however, plenty of people willing to take money from aspiring authors, whether you’re seeking traditional or indie publication.

Yes, as an indie, you will have to invest in a cover artist, editor and copyeditor/proofreader. If you can’t format the book yourself, then there are affordable options there as well. My advice when it comes to advertising though — if you can’t afford to lose the money, don’t spend the money. Yesterday, I received a packet in the mail that offered me television and radio exposure for just $498 a month. I’ve heard of other services that charge a monthly payment for a year of publicity, and will charge a large penalty if you cancel early.

The truth is though, that any advertising money you spend before you’ve spent the time to get reviewed by both book reviewers and customers, is like lighting your wallet on fire. Let’s say I spent $498 to put my brand new middle-grade mystery, Hot Ticket, on the air. Here are all the reasons I would not see any money from that investment:

1) Hot Ticket has been bought, but not reviewed yet. People are leery of making a purchase on Amazon that hasn’t been reviewed.

2) Hot Ticket retails for $2.99. I would have to sell 250 books per month just to equal the TV and radio investment.

3) Hot Ticket isn’t currently available in paperback, which means that I would have to find a radio audience that has a decent number of ereader owners.

4) There are too many steps involved between hearing about the book and making the purchase. You hear the ad in the car, then you have to remember when you got home that you wanted that book, then you have to remember the title and author and look it up… etc. Unless you’ve already been established as someone’s favorite author, chances are, they’re not going to be thinking about your book when it’s time to go home, eat dinner, and watch some TV.

5) Note the ad promised exposure, but you’re not buying airtime for $500 a month. The truth is, nobody can promise you radio or TV time unless they’re a producer or you’re flat out buying advertising time. A PR person could do their very best, but if there isn’t a newsworthy angle, then there isn’t a story for that radio or TV show.

I’ve noticed that the one thing that’s sold the most copies of Pub Speak for me, was a stroke of luck. I wrote a blog post during the Pub Speak blog tour that was picked up by Visual Thesaurus, a subscription website with a large following.

Okay, it wasn’t completely luck. I had to set up the blog tour and write the post. But just like traditional publishing, what takes off and what doesn’t can sometimes be attributed to the stars aligning. Amanda Hocking wrote what she loved, and she happened to do it in a time when YA paranormal romance was on fire. I’m not saying that she wasn’t working her butt off, because I’m sure she was. But if what she loved to write was biographies of the Presidents for children, I don’t think she’d have nearly the same career path.

Indie and Traditional Publishing Have Both Mid-lists and Outliers

One thing to note about Lieski and Dalglish though, and which I think is amazingly encouraging, is that you don’t have to be Amanda Hocking to make a living as an indie. Lieski and Dalglish aren’t millionaires (yet), but they’re writing full time and supporting their families. That’s amazing, and it says to me that indie authorship is actually more similar to traditional publishing than one might think.

Some will rise to the very top, some will languish at the bottom, and some will make a comfortable living doing what they love. The difference between the two is when a book sees the chunk of sales. In traditional publishing, the focus is on pre-selling to retailers and trying to launch the book as successfully and large as possible. For most books, that big push in the beginning is going to determine what happens to the book for the rest of its shelf-life.

In indie publishing, most authors see the opposite sales pattern. It might look more like this:

Month 1 – 10 books
Month 2 – 37 books
Month 3 – 100 books
Month 4 – 300 books
Month 5 – 800 books

What you’ll notice is that all of the marketing is cumulative, and the jumps that a successful indie sees will become larger and larger.

It seems to me, that most indie authors have to be popular to become popular. And what I mean by that is that people have to be talking about your books when you’ve stopped handselling, in order to really see the groundswell of activity that someone like Hocking, Lieski, etc. is seeing.

Still, you’ll note that in five months, there have been less than 2,000 copies sold. The traditionally published author might sell 10,000 copies in that same timeframe. But since the indie author’s sales patterns tend to look more like bell curves, rather than that initial push and then a lower plateau, they have time to catch up.

(And, before you get all excited about selling 800 books in a month, consider that 800 books at the $0.99 price point that many indies start a series at, is $280 in royalties.)

Growing A Dedicated Audience

Trade in a Lieski for a Konrath (who was originally traditionally published before going indie) and suddenly you notice something else about successful indies: they each write in just one or two genres, have at least one series, and are extremely prolific. Konrath has over 40 books, Dalglish and Hocking around a dozen. Their release dates are within weeks or months of each other, instead of about a year apart. To be honest, I still don’t know how anybody can write a finished book every month. It’s truly astounding to me. But the key word there is finished. Or you could replace it with good, excellent, publishable, etc.

Am I worried that because of all this press for successful indies, suddenly everybody is going to fill Amazon and B&N with books and the whole industry will turn to a pile of crap? No. And here’s why. Indie authors have to be:

— excellent writers and moderately good marketers
— moderately good writers and excellent marketers
— zombies who don’t ever sleep, and are both excellent writers and marketers.

If the book isn’t well written and well marketed, it will fall to the bottom, and won’t affect traditional publishing at all. It would reinforce the stereotype that indie publishing is a bunch of authors with crappy books who were tired of being rejected by agents and publishers. But hopefully this stigma will change over time, too.

Because in the future, I think we are going to see more and more authors using both traditional and indie publishing to build their careers. And I think this is good news for traditional publishing, too.

Tracy Marchini can be found at or on Twitter as @TracyMarchini. She is a former Curtis Browner turned freelance editor and author. Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms is available in print and ebook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. Her new middle grade mystery Hot Ticket is available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.


  1. Jericho Ambrose

    Wow. Thanks Tracy for the wealth of information.

    I really enjoyed how you took a firm stance and said to not really bother with advertising till the book was reviewed. I always worry that if I went the route of self publishing the initial investment would be too large. I also had no clue that some book reviewers required money from the authors. That was a shock. I always assumed the free book was what most needed from the author.

    Thanks for also showing a distinction between advertising and Marketing. That was definitely food for though.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom!

  2. Richard Mabry

    Tracy, You certainly didn't pull any punches, and that's much appreciated. So far, this subject has generated a lot more heat than light on some of the blogs, and factions are forming between those who say self-publishing is the wave of the future and those who maintain it's a tool of the untalented. I appreciate your sharing your own experience with us, and I wish you luck with this venture.
    Nathan, as always you provide helpful information. Thanks.

  3. Laura M. Campbell

    Great advice. I knew indie publishing required a great deal of work from the actual author, but I didn't know the specifics. Something I need to think about a bit more.

    I recently went to the Pennwriters Conference and participated in a Read & Critique. The Cathy Teets, president of Headline Books, suggested I think about making my novel into a series (2 or 3 books). They want to ensure they can sell more books with the amount of money invested in the author. My whole game plan changed and now I'm trying to stretch out my character arc and come up with two more mysteries for my main character to solve.

    I'm going to check out Tracy's book. My plan is to be as prepared as possible when it comes time to agent and publish my mystery novel.

  4. Mr. D

    For me, anyway, the only option is traditional publishing. But good luck to everyone who self-publishes.

  5. Megg Jensen

    I am ridiculously happy with my self-publishing experience. As a freelance journalist, I know what it's like on both sides of the fence. Publishing, no matter what side you're on, is hard work.

    Thanks for a post from the indie side Nathan! 😉

    Megg Jensen
    DarkSide Publishing

  6. A Tale of Many Reviews

    Excellent post and true from what I've observed with Indie & Trad as well. I hope one day it's not a "vs" but a co-existence with writers choosing the best path for them.I think there is a place for both and glad to read a post that isn't blasting one or the other, but putting solid truth out there about both.

  7. lbdiamond

    Interesting info, thanks! Congrats to your success! 🙂

  8. Anonymous

    Great post about self-publishing. But I do think using the term "Indie" is misleading. I was expecting a post about getting pubbed by a small press. (I skipped over Nathan's intro and was halfway into the actual post when I had a WTF moment.)

    I understand there is a trend by self-pubbed authors to classify themselves as "Indie," however, for those who are not up on the trends it is misleading.

    Whether or not "Indie" with regard to self-published will stick I don't know. But there are many links about the topic and more than a few opinions. Here's one:

    Frankly, if I were a self-published author I'd embrace the term self-published and I wouldn't want to be classified as "Indie." Mainly because it is so misleading to those of us who don't follow trends.

  9. Sean Thomas Fisher

    Great hands on post! I had a feeling that book bloggers would get swamped after Amanda Hocking let the black cat out of the bag. Fortunately, my zombies are excellent writers, marketers and wakeboarders.

  10. Carolyn Abiad

    Great points! I'm comfortable with the fact that I am a) not a zombie and b) only a decent marketer. I don't think I have the stamina required to be self-published. BUT I do like that self-publishing allows for more than just the one platform. As you said, what works for one may not work for the other.

    Tracy's book of terms is a great primer for both indie and traditional publishing, btw.

  11. David Kazzie

    I have an agent, but I decided to self-publish my debut novel as an eBook (a decision I reached with my agent). The book just went on sale in the last few days.

    Getting the book ready to go live was a TON of work, but overall I enjoyed the process. I made this decision based on what I thought would be best for my longterm career.

  12. Anonymous

    The title of this post is misleading — self-publishers may want to co-op the term "indie publishing" but it already exists and means something else: independent publishing houses. Coffee House is an indie, a self-publisher is not. Same for BOA, Red Lemonade, Wave, Milkweed… It's a category to itself, and it's curated, which self-publishing is not.

  13. Susan Petrone

    Tracy, great analysis of indie publishing as it currently stands. I write literary fiction, am publishing short fiction in journals large and small, have one novel that was published by a (very) small press, and am querying agents and larger presses for the next novel. In short, I'm am still plugging away at the traditional publishing model. People ask me why I don't self-publish, and a large part of the reason is that I'm not sure an emerging/new fiction writer who is not working in a genre and writing oodles of books in series is going to self-publish as successfully as some of the most high-profile examples of indie authors. At the same time, if I were a mid-list author with a few books to my name from one of the majors and no current contract, I would seriously consider going indie. I don't think it's for every writer at every stage of her or his career. (Sometimes I wish I were though.)

  14. Cathy Yardley

    Great post. It breaks down the issues in a very realistic and understandable way. I think that having a "blend" of traditional and self/"indie" pub might be one of the best ways to grow a career — especially if you can produce a lot, and get comfortable marketing. It's a lot of work, but if it were easy, everybody would do it, right? 😀

  15. Nathan Bransford

    We had a discussion about who gets the "Indie" banner a few weeks back. I use the terms self- and traditional publishing and use indie to refer to small presses, but this is Tracy's post so I defer to her on the verbiage.

  16. thirdculturekitchen

    I think it's early days yet and what everyone needs to realize is that this whole media/publishing world is undergoing a HUGE transformation and no one knows anything yet. It's morphing and both indie and traditional are trying to figure out how to make it all work without being at loggerheads.

    It's the same between blogs and magazines now – instead of rejecting blogs as "unprofessional", magazines are working side by side with them.

    One thing never changes – quality content. That should be the focus. Otherwise, I think it's a fantastic time where there are so many new options to choose from.

  17. Professor Oddcabinet

    So let me get some terms straight. Do you mean "Indie" as in "Independant" publisher? Or is "Indie" being used here as a euphemism for "Self Pubbed E-Book"? Because I thought those were different.

  18. Megg Jensen


    I use the terms:

    self-published book
    indie author

    I usually don't mix the two when it comes to my work. Everyone has different view on this though. There is no hard-and-fast rule and I think it's just another part of the system working itself out.

    Megg Jensen

    DarkSide Publishing

  19. Phoenix Sullivan

    What I feel is missing from the whole equation right now is what average sales numbers are. I know where my books stand in Amazon and B&N rankings. I know how many books I've sold over the past two months. What I don't know, not being at the Hocking end nor down in the 6-digit rankings, is what expectations I should have for my ebooks or how far off the mark I am from average, whether above or below.

    Tracy's sales pattern matrix is interesting, but the trouble is, it's just random figures thrown out for the sake of illustration. Putting real figures to those monthly patterns will be a huge help, I think, for self-pubbed authors trying to gauge the market. Traditional publishers have access to historical figures for their entire stables of authors, so they have an advantage in figuring out what success means for a book in a particular genre targeting a specific audience.

    I'm hoping more self-pubbed authors who are going out cold (without name or backlist) will publish their sales figures publicly. I've committed to do just that, by the month, and I'm looking for others with that same commitment. Knowledge is power, and all that.

    Unfortunately, while I appreciate what Tracy has to say, she doesn't back up her counsel with any real sales figures of her own. Until we lose the mystery and the stigma, I think the self-pubbed will have a long haul in figuring out how to do as good a job as publishers who have access to those proprietary numbers.

  20. K. C. Blake

    Great post, Tracy! I just wish there was a way for me to know how well my book is doing in relation to other books. When I published with Harlequin, my editor kept me informed. Now I have no idea how Vampires Rule is doing in relation to other Indie books. I have sold over 150 in five weeks. Is that good, so-so, what? I have no clue.

  21. Megg Jensen

    Phoenix & K.C. –

    I've sold nearly 700 copies of Anathema in just over three months. It's a YA traditional fantasy.

    YA paranormal and YA romance tend to sell at higher levels than mine.

    I'm thrilled with my results!!!

    The reason we don't have solid databases of sales results are because the industry is so new. Within a few years I think there will be a better grasp of what sells well.

    However, trends will always skew the numbers.

    My opinion? Write something awesome and you will sell. Books are sold by word-of-mouth, not by past sales records.

    Good luck both of you!!! 😀

    DarkSide Publishing

  22. Candace Rose

    Wholeheartedly agree with this statement:

    "Because in the future, I think we are going to see more and more authors using both traditional and indie publishing to build their careers. And I think this is good news for traditional publishing, too."

    Publishing isn't EITHER/OR anymore, and that is really exciting! I can do both, and I plan to!

  23. Phoenix Sullivan

    Megg: I respectfully disagree that past sales figures are unimportant. An AUTHOR in traditional publishing does not have to worry about overall sales when they're part of stable where the stable owner is the one looking at the overall spreadsheets. But when the author IS the publisher, and is looking at self-pubbing as a business and not a lark, data is important. And having data that compares like books to like books is valuable in making decisions about which books to e-pub, which to print pub, and how to price to make a potential profit.

    Newness of the "industry" has little to do with the dearth of data. Data generates from Day 1. It's a dissemination problem.

    We need more people willing to provide figures in a standardized way. Victorine's site is good for anecdotal numbers and so are some of the conversations on the Kindle boards. Amassing that info into usable trends and collecting more is the next step. Hmmm… And someone who can do that, then sell the info on a subscription basis for a reasonable cost could potentially make some good money…

  24. Kristan

    That last paragraph (about how more and more authors will use both types of publishing throughout their careers, and everybody will win) is what I've been saying all along.

    Great post about the pros and cons to self/indie publishing!

  25. Megg Jensen

    Hey Phoenix,

    I guess that I don't choose which books to e-pub based on what others are doing. I write traditional YA fantasy because I want to – not because someone told me the numbers were good. I had agents offer to rep me if I switched genres (because of these numbers); I said no. They told me the market was small for my type of fiction. So be it.

    For me it's not 100% about sales numbers. Right or wrong, a good part of it is about writing what I love. I wrote for the masses as a freelance journalist. For me, fiction is about what I want to write.

    That's the best part about this new publishing world. We can all choose our paths for our own reasons. Solid writing, good editing, and targeted marketing will determine overall results.

    If you can find a statistician to collate those numbers, that's great! I'm sure you're right, people out there will pay for it.

    Best of luck to you and to everyone on the publishing path. Isn't it a great place to be? 🙂

    Megg Jensen
    DarkSide Publishing

  26. Tracy Marchini

    Hi all! Thanks for your comments.

    I should clarify that I use the term "indie author" here in reference to an author who has not signed a deal with a publisher to produce and distribute their book — whether large or small, owned by another corporation or not.

    But I can see the confusion in using the term "indie" to describe an author versus to describe a publisher.

    I 100% agree with anonymous that there is a difference between an independently owned press who is buying the rights and publishing the works of others (indie publisher) versus someone who is only producing their own works, without any transfer of rights to another (self-published/indie author).

    But I think the term "indie" is becoming more fluid, and will continue to evolve as the industry does.

  27. Mark Williams

    @Phoenix: real sales figures from a real indie.

    We epublished in November 2010. Debut novel, unknown author, no publicity.

    We sold almost nothing for three months. In February we started to pick up a few sales.

    Three months on and we are now just short of 75,000 sales (yes, seventy-five thousand) and a top-five place in the Kindle UK charts.

    Not with Konrath's forty or Hocking's dozen, but just one single debut title, from cold.

    Sugar & Spice by Saffina Desforges –

    A book the UK agents rejected time and again.

    A book one of the most prestigious agents in New York last week called us out of the blue to discuss options.

    If we hadn't e-published it would still be just another "failed" manuscript on the hard-drive.

  28. Phoenix Sullivan

    Hey Megg:

    If you're being pubbed traditionally, then writing what you love can be all there is to it. But when you're having to determine what (or if) to pay for cover, editing, and layout, then having some concept of what the return on investment can be is crucial.

    The housing market in the U.S. tanked when investment promises (through institutions offering variable rates) didn't pan out. If a newbie author has unrealistic expectations that their 200K epic barbarian fantasy will sell 10,000 copies at 2.99 and earn them $20K in a year, they may not blink at dropping $2K to get the book edited, covered, and produced. When they discover the average sales for such books are (this is hypothetical) 500 copies, they're out $1000.

    In some cases, unmarketable doesn't mean there isn't a market; it means the return-on-investment in that market is too much of a gamble.

    But, as you say, everyone has their own risk tolerance in business, and yay that everyone can participate ;o)

  29. Megg Jensen

    *bows down to Mark*
    We should all be so awesome. 😉

    Phoenix – I don't know one indie author who's spent $2,000 on producing an ebook. I spent around $200 and have already sold close to 700, so lucky for me, I'm good financially.

    I have many traditionally published friends who aren't allowed to write what they want after their first novel. They're told what to write because the publishers, who are putting a massive financial investment into it, are in control.

    But this is just my experience and it's been a good one, so I'm happy with it. 🙂

    Good luck!

    Megg Jensen
    DarkSide Publishing

  30. Amber

    I think this post brings up some good points for authors considering self publishing, but the radio ad example was misleading. Of course spending $500 a month on a radio ad for your indie genre fiction novel is a bad idea. Did anyone need to see the breakdown to figure that out? A more helpful breakdown would have been the costs for professional editing/proofreading, cover design, website setup, and possibly ads on review blog sites in your genre.

  31. Anonymous

    Konrath says he pays $500 for cover art, $230 for proofreading (note this is NOT full-blown editing) and $200 for formatting.

  32. Mira

    Very interesting article, Tracy! I really appreciate that you talked about some of the nitty gritty in detail.

    Looking at the details makes it real and concrete, which is very helpful to those who are considering indie publishing.

    I am curious – although you may not wish to answer – about whether your decision to leave Curtis Brown was connected to your choice of launching an independent writing career?

    Nathan, I also really want to thank you for hosting an independent author – very upright of you!

    Again, I'm not surprised at the underlying tension to this topic – people get really emotional about this one.

    Thanks for your courage and forthrightness in talking about all this, Tracy! I really wish you luck, and I hope you have a very successful writing career!

  33. Megg Jensen

    Hi Amber,

    Since I'm blabbering on here today, I might as well continue (everyone else can ignore me if you want).

    I spent $100 on one ad just recently.

    I spent under $200 on cover art.

    I format my ebooks and paperback.

    I created my own trailer.

    I created & manage my own website.

    I spent nothing on editing/proofreading.

    However, I am blessed to have an extensive network of traditionally published authors, indie authors, and librarians on my team. I've also been consistently published as a freelance journalist since 2004, so I have more than a rudimentary knowledge of the nuts & bolts of writing. My novels usually go through AT LEAST five extensive revisions before publication. I don't rush anything to market.

    I'd love to be one of those people who writes a book in three weeks and publishes it the next day – but I'm not. 😉

    I would also love to have the resources behind me that trad published authors have, but I don't. I do the best I can to make up for it.

    The choices in self-publishing are endless. You have to ask for help on your weaknesses and exploit your strengths.

    Good luck!!!! 🙂

    Megg Jensen
    DarkSide Publishing

  34. Neil Larkins

    A person who self-publishes an e-book (whether on Smashwords – like I just did – or elsewhere) is the publisher, unless stated otherwise. Therefore, you, the writer, are not only the author, you ARE the publisher, an independent publisher, thus an "indie publisher." Did this help or make things less clear?

  35. Rebecca Stroud

    Tracy – Thank you for a perfect post!!

    As a self-published author, I've found it slow going. However, I believe it's because I am woefully inept at PR and also because – to date – I've primarily written short "dog" stories so I'm not exactly a "hot ticket" (couldn't resist that one..:-)

    Yet I'm more than willing to give it time, hoping word-of-mouth will find me. Especially since my next book will be more mainstream (horror/thriller novel).

    In addition, although I am an experienced wordsmith, I've not been traditionally published nor do I ever expect – or want – to be.

    Yes, I get frustrated but, as a professional writer, I realize full well that finding my audience is part of the job.

    No, I'll most likely never find the success that authors of the "genre du jour" have enjoyed but that's okay, too. I'm writing what I love and it is seeing the light of day…admittedly just a sliver, but light nonetheless.

  36. Christopher

    This was a great blog, thank you. I just released my first two books and fit exactly into your one month sales chart. The marketing is the hardest part for me. I know I nave to get better. Like most people the day job, the writing, the blog, finding the time is the trick.

  37. Compass Book

    Love it! Nice lunch read.
    What works for one does not always mean it's going to be best fit for the next author. It's a good idea they have good advice and really evaluate all avenues to find what works for their scenario.

    Nate K.
    Compass Book

  38. Rebecca Burke

    Excellent post. It was nice to have my thoughts on the selling pace of ebooks confirmed. Glacial in the beginning, bumping up slowly over time if you do immense amounts of marketing. I also agree that if you don't write series in certain genres (paranormal, fantasy, sci fi, thrillers, and of course porn), you won't do as well.

    It probably helps that the readers for lots of the above genres may be early adopter types who have ereaders. I doubt very much if my ideal audience–teenage girls, and in particular Latinas–has ereaders in great numbers yet. Someday…

    My agent could not find a home for my realistic YA novel, WHEN I AM SINGING TO YOU, so I self-pubbed, rather than spending more months seeking a small publisher or just letting it linger eternally in digital purgatory.

    It doesn't have to be expensive a la J. A. Konrath (who knows he'll get his investment back in sales). I found a formatter for $35, on a list given out by Smashwords, hired a graphic artist for $25 (my daughter's talented friend needed to beef up her portfolio–win-win!), and that was it. I didn't hire an editor on this one as it has been through so many revisions for my agent and others, not to mention I'm a professional editor and former writing teacher.

    Tracy, your book for MG readers looks like a lot of fun. Good luck with it!

  39. Rebecca Kiel

    Great post. With all of the buzz about self-publishing and indie publishing, information as direct and knowledgeable as this post are vital. For the greatest potential for success, writers need to be informed about their choices. Thanks for posting this.

  40. Tanya Reimer

    This is such a great post, thank you so much for sharing all this! We learn everyday in this business, and you brought some great points to light. Should fire up a few discussions.

  41. Lindsay

    The marketing is definitely cumulative, and it's a slow slog for most of us. I've gotten to the point where I sell books whether I'm doing any sort of promotion that week or not, and that's a nice spot to reach. A long ways to go reach bestseller status (or a full-time income!) though. 🙂

    "An indie that starts from scratch is going to have to hand-sell at least their first hundred books. This means that they are going to have to make a personal connection, talk about their book, and hope for a purchase."

    Giving away a free ebook (I did a short story and included an excerpt from my non-free novel with the same characters) can be a big help in the beginning.

    Ebook Endeavors

  42. J. T. Shea

    A self-published book about publishing? How very postmodern! But the title PUB SPEAK could be misunderstood, particularly here in Ireland…

    'Zombies who don't ever sleep, and are both excellent writers and marketers.' So those zombie books so popular at the moment could be autobiographical?

    Many thanks to Tracy Marchini and Nathan!

  43. Cozy in Texas

    Great post. I found that after self-publishing the second book (High Tide) in my Lowenna series that I sold a lot more of the first (A Graceful Death). A Book blog tour definitely helped. Also, Kindle sales were considerably higher than the printed book on Create Space.

  44. Moses Siregar III

    While I'm considering what else I might want to add to the discussion, I'll point out that Victorine's last name is spelled "Lieske," not "Lieski."

  45. Nancy Lauzon

    Tracy, good blog. I agree, I think mediocre books will naturally fall by the wayside while the better quality books (better written, well-edited and well-marketed) will rise to the top.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.

    Nancy Lauzon
    The Chick Dick Blog

  46. allanbard

    Good post, advices! Thanks for sharing! I'd like to add also another advice: never use the services of a literary agent who asks for money to "ëdit" you manuscript! Such people are cheaters, their real job is to find a publisher and after the publication to receive their percentage… Not to add a comma, or a word or 2…
    And another on: using sites like, cafepress. com, fiverr? They could be a good way to promote your works and to help "remove" stupidity in the streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge-magnets, cups, etc: My Boyfriend kisses Better Than Yours, FBI – female body inspector, etc. Not everything we see and think of should be about sex, right? It would be much better if there were more nice pictures (even of mythical creatures), good thoughts, poems (from any genre are welcome I guess), etc? I'm allanbard there, I use some of my illustrations, thoughts, poems from my books (like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hottest fire there's a bit of water, or
    Let's watch the moon, let's meet the sun!
    Let's hear soon the way the Deed was done!
    Let's listen to the music the shiny crystals played,
    let's welcome crowds of creatures good and great…
    etc). Best wishes to all writers! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of the water dragons' hunters).

  47. Sarah Woodbury

    I think you have to be frank with yourself about what you're looking for in indie publishing. Lots of people have been banging their head against the traditional publishing wall for years. Indie publishing is an opportunity to finally share my stories and move forward with my career.

    As long as you go into it with your eyes open, and put up the best product you can, the indie route can be fantastic.

    And since someone asked for numbers (again anecdotal and just for Amazon US):

    Jan: 22
    Feb: 50
    March: 272
    April: 2038
    May: 2445 (so far)

  48. Anonymous

    "Did this help or make things less clear?"

    It's very clear. New self-published authors decided to call themselves indies and claimed the name and defined it themselves…ignoring small presses and those who don't pay to have their work published.

    This has been done with other terms, like the word blog. I've seen people thank the author today for writing a wonderful blog. But the author wrote a blog *post* on a blog. She didn't write a blog.

    And I'd bet more than half the readership will now wonder what the difference between a blog and a post is.

  49. Moses Siregar III

    Obviously, it can be done (see: Amanda Hocking, Victorine Lieski, David Dalglish), but it’s a completely different animal, for sure."

    Some other names that can be added to this list of successful authors paying their bills without publishing traditionally published backlist:

    Karen McQuestion, John Locke, BV Larson, Michael J Sullivan, Brian Pratt, Jason Letts, Zoe Winters, Monique Martin, JL Bryan, Nathan Lowell, Vicki Tyley, DB Henson, HP Mallory, Rhiannon Frater, John Rector, Boyd Morrison, Ty Johnston, Debora Geary, Martin Sharlow, Valmore Daniels, Aaron Patterson, Michael Wallace, and hordes of erotica writers.

    I'm leaving out a ton of authors, but that's just off the top of my head. So I'm not sure it's correct to say that most of the indies who are doing really well started with publishing their traditionally published backlist. From all I've seen, that's probably not the case.

    The ones with backlist stood out right away because they could get in the game with a lot of titles. But it's amazing how many people are doing well that don't have that traditionally published backlist of titles.

  50. J. R. Tomlin

    I found a weakness in the article to be leaving out the venues where indies do successfully advertise. There was no mention, for example, of publications like Daily Cheap Reads and Pixel of Ink.

    Frankly, I would question the intelligence of someone who advertises eBooks (indie or not) where the potential buyer can't click through to make a purchase.

    And yes, it would be very nice to spell correctly the names of the authors you cite. 🙂

  51. J. R. Tomlin

    By the way, Anonymous, your ignorance is showing. Indie authors do NOT pay to have their work published.

    That is rather the point.

  52. Jil

    I am now proofreading a book which is about to be self published. It is written by a man who obviously hasn't a clue about writing, and reading it is, for me, like hearing fingernails on a blackboard.Mind, I am just proof reading not editing so the book is considered ready to go. This author is about to pay a healthy sum to have his work published and also pay me. How can I accept payment for something that will not possibly sell?
    Indie publishing is one way a very bad, blindly optimistic writer who has never tried to learn his craft, can still be published and lose a lot of money which would never have happened if he'd tried the traditional route.

  53. Marilyn Peake

    Tracy, this is such a great post – very exciting! Thank you.

    I tend to think outside the box and evaluate things with an open mind, so I recently started purchasing self-published eBooks on Amazon Kindle, and my mind has completely shifted regarding the overall quality of self-published books. Rather than viewing them with any kind of stigma at this point in time, I look for good reviews and book awards the author’s won to find high-quality self-published books. I’ve discovered that self-published in eBook format is where I can find the type of books I absolutely love: non-mainstream, intellectual, niche fiction – the type I’m too rarely able to find from mainstream publishers these days. I’m amazed at some of the books I’ve found, actually – some books that have been so excellent, they’ve knocked my socks off.

    After making this discovery, I moved some of my own titles from an indie publisher to self-published on Amazon and priced them at 99 cents each. These titles sold well at higher prices when indie eBooks were new, but sales began to falter when readers were suddenly able to buy cheaper books. At 99 cents each, they’re selling again. That is extremely rewarding to me.

    In the meantime, my indie publisher – with whom I still have many short stories published in anthologies – has formed a media production company with Mark Ordesky who was Executive Producer for THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies. Their plan is to turn many of the indie publisher’s books into movies and TV shows, including some shows for the SyFy (Sci-Fi) Channel. If this works out, I’m imagining the indie books will suddenly seem much more valuable to readers. Obviously, Mark Ordesky sees value in them already.

    A while back, I purchased ads in a magazine used by radio hosts to find guests to interview. The ads mentioned my children’s novels along with my Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, and my interest in discussing the topic of over-scheduled children. I received an increasing number of calls each month, especially at the start of a new school year, and I was interviewed on radio across the United States and in Canada. I enjoyed that tremendously!

    It’s a new world out there. To me, avoiding self-published and indie books would mean missing out on some really great discoveries, and to wait for agents and the Big Six publishing houses to offer a contract for an author’s niche book might mean consigning a potentially successful book to the dark confines of a desk drawer or computer file forever.

  54. Anne R. Allen

    Fantastic post. Will RT!

    Sorry to see comments getting a tad snarky. It's so silly how people get all either/or about this. Most smart self-pubbers do spend some money getting a good edit and a professional cover design.

  55. David Dalglish

    Well, that was certainly flattering to see my name used so many times. Don't have too much to add; I skimmed some comments, so I'll try to answer what I remember off the top of my head:

    I spend about $800 per recent e-books, between editing, cover art, formatting for cover, and setting up the print version on CreateSpace. Obviously I'm in a position a lot of self-published authors aren't in terms of spending that much per book.

    Sales figures certainly have a different curve. My first month, I sold 75 copies. For May, about fourteen months later, I'm about to cross 15,000 for the month. However, now that I have an audience, books have a more traditional curve, in heavy buying the first two months followed by a slow-down. (And for those wondering, a very small fraction of that 15,000 is at 99 cents)

    People curious about sales information: this list is all anecdotal, but there's a form post I'll link in a sec that has a ton of self-published authors, big and small, listing their total sales for the month of April. You'll see people ranging from 10 sales to 10,000:,64746.msg1061735.html#msg1061735

    Anyhoo: I'm flattered, good article, and thanks for keeping things down to earth.

  56. Tara Shuler

    I just published my first book on April 26, 2011, and my second in the series on May 1. I've sold over 300 copies in the first 30 days. I'm thrilled with my progress in the first month, and I think it's a really good sign if I experience the same kind of growth curve as other indies! I'm still selling about 10-15 copies per day.

  57. Anonymous

    Jil, don't you feel like telling your author that he shouldn't invest his money in a lot of publishing frills because his writing "isn't there yet"? He might appreciate it, and you might sleep better (kidding).

  58. Kevin Lynn Helmick

    Great Post, I've talked to Konrath about this. I talk to Robert Walker all the time: he's another one with a backlist of fifty books over thirty years. At this point they're so through with traditional publishing and lapping up the royalities, and laughing to bank. even posting their kindle sales for all to see.
    But they have their base, their fans, so it makes total sense for them to take advantage of seventy percent royalties, something they've never seen before. and picking their own covers, so on.
    I'll still submitt for tradtional publishing, even though they advise against it, Those guys are coming from a different place than I am. But my submission list has gotten shorter and I focus on the agents editors and publishers that have showed me personal interest, advice. And have responded in a respectful timely manner, in the past. I won't waste my time on waiting on no reply submissions. And if I don't have what they need this time around, I'll publish it myself and try them again next time.

  59. Alison Pensy

    This is a great post. I am still in the midst of a crazy 2 weeks, thanks to Amazon. I self-pubbed my YA urban fantasy in Fall 2009, after numerous rejections from agents. It did next to nothing until I released the 2nd book at the end of April this year, despite my best marketing efforts (which aren't great, I admit).

    I decided to put the 1st one as a free promo 2 weeks ago and I was dumbstruck when overnight it went from around #80,000 to #22 on Kindle (free) Bestseller list. The next day it hit #1 on the Children's (free) bestseller list where it stayed for 3 days. It stayed in the Top 10 children's (free)bestseller list until yesterday both here and in the UK. So far in 2 weeks over 26,000 people have downloaded it.

    Because of this, a week after the free promo, my 2nd book debuted at #25 on the Children's hot new releases list and has been in the top 100 children's bestseller list since. I am totally blown away at the power of Amazon.

    In just over a week, the 2nd book has sold over 600 copies. That's more than the 1st book did in nearly 2 years. But I had to be willing to put the 1st for free and I'm so glad I did.

    Some figures for you:
    A friend did my editing (school teacher).
    A high school student did the 2nd book's cover art and I did the rest on Photoshop.
    I did all the formatting and uploading.

    Right now I am liking my decision to self-publish.

  60. Anonymous

    I don't use the term "indie". Instead I'm a "free agent", which means I'm not signed to a contract with one of the big league organizations.

    I'm making serious money on my books, and I won't be querying anymore because I've built an audience, but I'm willing to entertain offers from the big boys. At this point I'd need a seriously high advance and guaranteed marketing push to offset a royalty of 50% or lower.

  61. Anonymous

    This has been so informative–thank you Tracy, and thank you Nathan, for hosting her.

    My take-away as a self-pubbed author is "do some freebies"! Alison P.'s adventures in epublishing were enlightening and encouraging! Bravo Alison! (Thanks for sharing your story, too.)

    It's fascinating to watch a revolution unfold (blow up?). I am one who has still not made a dime from epublishing (a newbie) but I seriously doubt whether I'll ever write another query to a trad publisher. You reach the point where you've had it with the whole game. Sometimes you can imagine readers out there that they simply cannot b/c they're so locked into the profit aspect of it.

  62. Lani Wendt Young

    Thank youfor a great article. Informative and well reasoned. I appreciate the extra insight into the indie world and more.

  63. Natalie

    Regarding costs to self-pub, with all due respect to Konrath, perhaps he should spend more on proofreading and editing. I love his work but typos and lack of editorial input in his books detracts. Same for Hocking. I love that they are selling gobs of books and they are blazing trails for self-pubbing. But we need to raise the bar — a lot. If you want a thorough line edit, you will spend $2-$3.00 per page. That does not include a whole book review/critique which you may need, especially if it's your first novel (this type of service may run you $500+ depending on size of MS). Book covers are around $500. You also need cover design (including spine and back cover if you are also going to do POD) + interior design and typeset. You also need to pay for the ISBN # and LCC # (small fees but they need to be budgeted).
    Having read several self-pub e-books, it is clear to me that ALL of the self-pub writers need more editorial input and not just to correct typos, but editorial guidance. Maybe you can write a book in a month, that doesn't mean it's a good book!
    I support self-pub and plan to self-pub myself. I just want to see improvement in quality as well as quantity.
    Thanks for the post Tracy.

  64. Christina Garner

    Thanks, Tracy.

    I especially appreciate the part about not paying to advertise when the book first comes out. My YA novel is up on Amazon, and I'm pleased with the starting sales (only been 2 weeks) but I was hesitant to do any paid marketing until reviews started rolling in. Your article helped confirm my decision.

    I concur with Natalie's assessment about the need for editing, both of content and copy. Having written screenplays I know how invaluable that input is, so I paid for the service. (As opposed to leaving it solely to well meaning friends.) It does mean I have to sell quite a few copies before I recoup my investment, but I think (hope) it will be worth it.

    Thanks again–great info!

  65. Anonymous

    The indie/self pub label issue reminds me of law school.

    I went to school in a city that has three law schools, one top 10-15, one good but not top 25, and one so-so. Those of us who went to the first school always say "we went to law school in [city], because it's considered unseemly or bragging to name the school. Those who went to the last, not-so-great school also say they went to school in [city] maybe because they hope someone will assume one of the other two.

    Those who went to the mid-tiered school ALWAYS seem to name their school, to be sure no one thinks it is the not great school.

    Similarly, I don't see traditionally published authors throwing that fact around a lot, but I do see the small press authors making sure no one thinks they are self-pubbed.

    If you have confidence in your work, I think it might be good just to chill and not worry that someone might think you and a self-pubbed author are "the same." Most people aren't really thinking about it that much.

  66. Ishta Mercurio

    Thanks for this post! At a recent SCBWI event, I attended a workshop geared toward authors going the trad. pub route whose books are NOT going to be the lead titles. It's interesting to see how similar the publicity/marketing process is for both self-pubbed and trad. pubbed authors.

    And some reviewers CHARGE MONEY? WTF? That's a surprise.

  67. Hillary

    I recently decided to self-publish my debut novel as an eBook (a decision I reached with my agent). The book just went on sale in the last month.

    Getting the book ready to go live was a TON of work, but overall I enjoyed the process. I made this decision based on what I thought would be best for my longterm career.

    I have found it most difficult to get reviews on Amazon. Although I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from the book, it's just not generating the reviews I need to sell consistently.

    If anyone here wants to check it out, it's a young adult paranormal priced at 99 cents.

  68. Zan Marie

    Good post! Thanks for the inside info. I'm considering epublishing my two small books that had small print runs as a supplement to my print sales.

  69. Kristal Shaff

    Great post. I've been recently considering going the indie route. I was agented, went on submission, and my book didn't sell because it "didn't fit their list".

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this subject.

  70. Devena

    Great post, Tracy. I have to say it's good to read a post that balances the merits of both forms of publishing. As a recently published indie author myself:), it's been a fascinating experience to take a hands-on approach with publishing my books. I think what helped me make the decision to self-publish was ultimately the fact that my books are in a niche market – contemporary poetry. I reckon the word of mouth approach for good poetry is probably the best marketing it could get, and so self-publishing made a lot of sense. I'm not even worrying so much about profit right now as gettting the word out so people actually read my poems lol

    I have to say though that the experience of formatting ebooks, doing up gorgeous book covers and marketing the books myself has been fantastic, and has made me consider self-publishing short stories and a young adult fantasy series (well, two actually), that've been sitting at home waiting to find an audience.

    Whatever happens, it's an exciting time for writers and readers, and I'm glad to be a part of it.

    As usual, Nathan, kudos on directing us to a balanced take on the options available to writers right now.

    Devena aka Isabella Amaris
    The Rhyme Whisperer Series

  71. Devena

    p.s. I've never really understood why self-published authors were never referred to as 'indie authors' all this while.

    At the end of the day, shouldn't the indie authors be the ones who are published 'independently' of any kind of publishing house that is owned by a third party? I guess I'm thinking of the analogy with musicians and labels here. It seems logical to me to interpret the word 'independent' this way when it comes to the publishing industry as well.

    As to 'independent publishers', the label's more to do with the size of their operation cf the big conglomerates; how that makes the authors who are published with them similarly 'independent', I'm not quite sure, since they're still technically published with external publishing houses.

    To me, 'indie author' in the above scenario is definitely a fair label to describe authors publishing independently of external publishing houses. Even if this creates a bit of a mess for those used to previous usage of the term, hey, language is an ever-evolving realm, and it's very possible for ppl to logically start equating 'indie' with 'self-published', instead of 'independent publisher published'. IMHO:)

    Just a note that I'm only talking labels here, not quality of writing or business models, whether self-pubbed or not. Cheers to all:)

    Devena aka Isabella Amaris
    The Rhyme Whisperer Series

  72. Marion Stein

    I'm curious as to whether or not you've paid off your ad costs yet. As an indie-writer who isn't especially skilled at "selling," I haven't invested in advertising. A free google-ads coupon didn't boost my sales number. The indie authors I know who are doing exceptionally well however (mostly on the UK side — Jake Barton, Lexi Revellian and Dan Holloway) have all written mysteries or thrillers that have practically sold themselves. They haven't needed to spend pay money for ads, and my guess is, ads don't make much of a difference.

  73. Rene Peterson

    Thank you for the no-nonsense guide. This is new territory and difficult to navigate.

  74. Kristy

    Wow. This post simultaneously stressed me out and gave me hope. Thank you for the information! Very helpful.

  75. Gary Anderson

    Tracy, when you speak of $280 in royalties you aren't meaning indie profits for ebooks right? I mean, 60 to 70 percent profit for ebooks to the author is more like $480 for 800 ebooks. That kind of changes the game doesn't it!

  76. JPK

    Bottom line: Agents and Legacy Publishing houses being the "gatekeepers" for the reading public is no longer relevant. The reader has the power, and the reader is the one deciding what she likes or dislikes.

    It's the music industry paradigm shift all over again, and you Legacy Publishers can't see it! Then along came a computer company – of all things – revolutionized the way people buy music, and now Apple is the #1 music retailer.

    Why are people afraid of change? You say you're not, but you are. Frankly, I love the idea of being in total creative control of my books, making 50%-70% royalties, getting stories out in 3 months in stead of 18 months, and not having to do countless publicity tours and signings which takes away from the very act that is required to become a successful writer: writing.

    Oh yeah, a virtual bookshelf of infinit size that lasts forever isn't too shaby either.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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