3 Questions to Ask Before You Jump on the Indie Publishing Bandwagon

We’re in the midst of seismic changes in the publishing world, with new quakes altering the landscape on a daily basis. The pulp paperback is in its death throes, as mass market houses like Dorchester slink into ignominious bankruptcy. Kindle and the Amazon $2.99 e-book/70% royalty paradigm have changed an entire industry in less than eighteen months.

Amanda Hocking self-published her YA paranormals, made a mint, and landed a two million dollar deal with St. Martin’s a week ago. Then thriller writer Barry Eisler  turned down a half a million from the same house in order to go indie. Mystery writer Joe Konrath and his disciples provide daily proof that midlist fiction writers can make more self-publishing cheap e-books than by going the traditional route.

You can read enlightening conversation between Eisler and Hocking here, and Eisler and Konrath here.

Trusted voices in the publishing industry, who not long ago warned against self-publishing, are now singing its praises. Insiders Nathan Bransford and Jane Friedman see it as the most lucrative road for many authors. Agent Laurie McLean now has an e-book publishing and marketing service. Meredith Barnes at FinePrint Literary now does e-book coding.

This means we can all start our careers right now. Not three or four or ten years down the road after the excruciating query/submission/editing process, but now. TODAY. And there’s a possibility we’ll make real money. Konrath regularly posts hot financial statistics that are pure writer porn. We all want to join in the orgy.

But something happened this week that should give some of us pause.

It was a brouhaha that went viral when an indie author came to cyberblows with an indie book blogger.

It was a sad moment for me. The social media bullying I talked about in my last post came to blogging and it wasn’t pretty. Yes, the author had a very childish meltdown. But I wish the entire blogosphere hadn’t followed suit. We all have inner children who are prone to temper tantrums on occasion.

Isaac Asimov once observed that writers fall into two groups: “those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.”

But in these days of social media we have very little “secretly” any more. Everything is visible—on a global scale.

I hear the author’s sales actually spiked after the debacle, and I’m glad for that. She’s a nice person and a friend of this blog. Perhaps Bret Easton Ellis might laud it as one of the first "post-Empire" moments in publishing.

But what I saw was a writer who hadn’t yet developed the soul-calluses that are required of a professional author. I suspect she jumped into the business too soon.

There are some unspoken benefits to the old query-fail-query-fail-submission-fail-editorial meeting-fail, fail, fail system. It not only gives us numerous readers to help hone that book to perfection—it also teaches us to deal with rejection, failure and bad reviews.

If you choose to self-publish because you can’t handle the rejection of the query process, you’re setting yourself up for worse pain later on. If those form rejections in your email sting, think of how you’ll feel when very personal rejection is broadcast all over the blogosphere.

So there’s a lesson here: don’t publish until you’re psychologically prepared to take the heat. Always keep in mind this is a business, and business can be nasty.

And there’s another lesson, too. In all the thousands of comments and tweets, I haven’t seen anybody remark on the actual source of the argument: the formatting of the reviewed e-book. The author had apparently put out a badly coded book, then replaced it with a cleaner version. The whole sorry battle was sparked by the question of whether the reviewer had read the old or new download.

It looks as if he did diligently acquire the new copy, and I’m glad to hear he’s become an instant superstar. He deserves that. In reviewing indie books, he’s providing a service indie authors desperately need, and he wrote an honest review.

But I suspect none of this would have happened if the author had used a better coder the first time.

Those of us who were thinking of simply uploading a Word.doc into Amazon’s form to convert to Kindle might need to think again.

I sure will. I’d heard it was pretty easy. Now I know better than to try. Apparently the formatting can get garbled. Apostrophes become incomprehensible lines of code; bullet points turn into weird characters; and page and line breaks appear in nonsensical places. Plus you need different coding for each platform: B&N, iStore, Smashwords. Just being on Amazon is no longer enough.

So, lesson #2: Get your book professionally coded.

This is of particular interest to me because I’m planning to re-release my novel Food of Love as an e-book soon. Luckily I haven’t done it yet because I finally re-read the original and had one of those “OMG who wrote this crap?” moments. I’ve become a much better writer in the last decade. I still think it’s a damn good story, and I’m still in love with my characters, but the opening was stuffed with clunky reader-feeder and too many dialogue tags. Plus I seem to have been addicted to the words “suddenly” and “just.” I’m editing it now, feeling almost grateful my sales weren’t that high. Even though I had a good editor, the book really wasn’t ready to be released.

Which leads to lesson #3 to take away from last week’s brouhaha: don’t publish your book too soon.

Trouble is—you don’t know it’s too soon. But reviewers will. And if you’re like me, so will your older, wiser self.

How soon is too soon? Consider that Amanda Hocking had eight books in the hopper before she self-pubbed last year. Eight. She was also professional enough to hire an editor and a book designer. She was ready to treat her books as a full time job.

So here are three questions to ask yourself before you take the self-pub plunge:

1) Are you able to present a professional book in a professional way? This means hiring an editor, book coder and cover designer, plus putting together a marketing plan and making the time to implement it. Just throwing it up on Amazon to see what happens could backfire. Big time.

2) Are you emotionally ready for your close-up? Every successful author gets nasty reviews. Every. Single. One. If you want proof, go read the one-star reviews of literary classics on Amazon.

Learning how to deal with crushing, unfair criticism needs to be part of your skill set. Make sure you keep in touch with the part of you that has nothing to do with your books—the one that goes outside to hear real birds twitter and gets face to face with actual friends. Understand that after a nasty review, you need to STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Hide all electronic communication devices and bring in chocolate, wine, DVDs, and/or your BFF, and hibernate. Author Catherine Ryan Hyde suggests you allow yourself to mourn for at least three days after a bad review. I think that sounds about right.

3) Is your book really, truly ready? Not just for friendly readers, but unfriendly ones. I advise finding some not-so-tame beta readers and asking them to do their worst. Then imagine seeing their harshest words in a review. Can you see how a reader might accept them as valid? If so, hold off and do some more editing. Better yet, write another book. Then edit the first one again.

You owe it to your characters to present them in the best possible way—and you owe it to yourself to start your career with your very best work.

So what about you, scriveners? Have you been swayed by recent news to try the indie route? Have you hired an editor or book coder? Got any recommendations?
For more on this, Catherine Ryan Hyde has posted "An Open Letter to Authors" on this subject on her blog. She points out how important book bloggers are to all authors. Reviewers need to be free to be honest, or they can't do their job.

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