Things I would do if I were planning on becoming an indie publisher…

The title of this post is actually a little disingenuous: I already self-published back in 2005, when I first started self-publishing ebooks for roleplaying games, and I kept at it until 2007 or so when, for various reasons related to edition wars and the level of misogyny among gamers, writing fiction started to look more appealing. The interesting thing about the RPG field is that it went through it’s teething problems with ebooks a little earlier than the rest of the world, which means I frequently find myself frustrated when I get involved in conversations about indie publishing ’cause there’s a certain level of been-there-done-that-made-all-the-stupid-mistakes-already. I’d been around epublishing for a while before that, though, so I’m naturally interested in the ebook/indie publisher explosion that’s happened over the last couple of years. It’s only gotten worse since I started working for a forward-thinking writers centre with an electronic publishing think-tank attached to it.

It also means that common phrases like I’m going to experiment with ebooks drive me crazy, since most of these experiments revolve around things RPG ebooks did six or seven years back. So after a couple of frustrating conversations, I sat down and put some serious thought into what I’d do if I were planning on starting an indie-publisher today, based on my own experiences and the data and resources I’ve come across at work.

A caveat: this is mostly a thought experiment – I have no immediate plans to indie-publish anything, and I’d put significantly more thought into things if I did – and it shouldn’t really be taken as anything other than me putting together an early sketch of a plan. I should also note that this is a I want to make ebooks my primarily writing/income type strategy – there are plenty of other reasons to go indie that have nothing to do with the above.

1) LEARN TO WRITE FASTER

To put it bluntly: I wouldn’t even bother epublishing until I was routinely cranking out 2,500 to 3,000 words every day on a regular basis. Admittedly this isn’t necessarily a difficult number to hit, even for slackers such as myself, but it’s worth noting that it’s been a very long time since I could routinely be relied upon to maintain that kind of writing pace over a prolonged period of time. I work a day-job, after all, and I’m well and truly out of practice.

The thing is this  – writing has always been a numbers game. The more you produce, the more likely you are to have a sustainable career that’s financially rewarding. Literary Agent Donald Maas has said you’re not really a writer until you have five books published – that’s roughly the point when you can safely assume you have an audience. I’ve heard that number pushed out to as high as ten books in other venues. Your mileage may vary.

Being electronic doesn’t mean you avoid the basic problem of needing to produce a lot of stuff. In fact, this goes double when you’re publishing your own work electronically, where the long-tail element can really pay off and new books serve to connect readers with your older products as well. The always-available-all-the-time element of ebooks can’t be discounted – only a handful of the sixty ebooks I produced for roleplaying games still available, but they still earn $5 to $10 dollars a month in sales on average over the course of the year. That’s with no real promotion, new releases, or marketing since around April of 2007. They aren’t even for a system that’s dominant in the marketplace these days (if I was smart, I’d finish updating them all and re-release them).

As a newish writer whose backlist is almost entirely short fiction, I want to be producing as much as possible as fast as possible, so ensuring I have the routine to keep pace with my ideal release schedule is important to me. Rule one remains write faster, produce more, accept the fact that you’re now closer to being a fast-food vendor producing good product regularly than a gourmet chef who slow-cooks one novel ever four to five years.

2) WRITE A BUSINESS PLAN

One of the things I noticed when I first started RPG publishing was the number of people who launched themselves into it without a plan. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but one of the first things I did when I started out was a business plan that had some research behind it and an overall strategy for earning enough money to make the time and energy I put into publishing pay off. In that plan I worked out the niches I would occupy that no-one else was covering, figured out how I’d diversify product lines so I wasn’t relying on one idea to pay off, and generally had a release schedule worked out for the first six months. All of that proved to be remarkably useful when I did actually launch, and it allowed me to build readers and income faster than I would have if I’d simply thrown stuff out there on my own schedule.

I’m a big advocate of the business plan for another reason too: it reminds you that you’re actually running a business. Figuring out your expected costs versus projected income might not be sexy, but it’s sobering and it makes shit real very fast. In self-publishing, as in writing itself, I’m a big fan of treating your business like a fucking business instead of half-assing it or making it up as you go along. If always staggers me when I talk to writers who have no business plan or sense of direction – if you plan on writing full-time someday, at least put more than twenty seconds of vague dreaming into how you plan on making that living wage and keeping it running.

My business plan for self-published fiction would probably look at producing work in two or more genres, having a mix of series books and stand-alone fiction, and would look carefully at methods of reusing work I did in other areas. Admittedly these are initial thoughts – the stuff I’ve written down off the top of my head. I’d be putting a whole damn lot of research into things at this stage before I actually kicked things off.

3. FOCUS ON FORMS PRINT PUBLISHING SHIES AWAY FROM

Novellas. Short novels around the 50 to 60,000 word mark. Short story collections. Things I can produce fast and release, that aren’t going to compete with the formats that print publishing largely has a lock on (IE, 100,000 word novels). I’d also look at writing in series, and kick off with three different series that I’d aim to maintain for at least a trilogy of novellas/novels. Part of the joy of ebooks is instant gratification and the ability to pick up the next book immediately, and series work connects that.

Not that almost all these numbers are based around my particular genre-set (SF and Fantasy).

4. STOCKPILE BEFORE LAUNCHING

So here’s the thing: I wouldn’t even dream of launching a self-publishing concern without having six-to-nine books ready to go. Of those nine books, I’d be looking at releasing a little over half in the first three months to establish my indie press, with the following three on a monthly basis afterwards. And because I’d made sure I was working at a faster rate before I considered any of this, I’d be working hard to maintain a quick pace for new releases.

 5. FIND A POSSE

Epub suffers from the same problem that small/self-publishing has always had – production is relatively easy, promotion/discoverability is hard. You may build your brand and your author platform and all those other things that writers do to promote their work, but you’re still a lone voice among the thousands and thousands of voices who exist in the ebook marketplace.

This is usually what leads to all sorts of discussions about price-point and one-dollar ebooks and a whole bunch of other noise that exists in the ebook sphere, but I learned my lesson on that front in the past. I can see the point of discounting a loss-leader, but routinely pricing books low in order to draw in customers ends up being a complete pain in the arse long-term. Also, writers devalue their work. Actually, that understates it. Let me rewrite it like this: OH FUCKING GOD, DO WRITERS DEVALUE THEIR WORK. By the time I hit the end of my game-publishing escapades, my price-points were worked out something like this – figure out how much I felt like I could charge for something. Then add a buck. Oddly enough, my sales didn’t really suffer any for the increased price-point.

All that’s a distraction, though. We’re not talking about price, we’re talking about discoverability, and my solution to that would be to go out and grab a bunch of motivated, like-minded writer-types and band together as a posse. Five or six loosely allied writers who produce work at a reasonable pace, include excerpts in one-another’s books, and do the occasional cross-promotional thing (a short anthology of stories featuring one story from each writer, for example). Multiple writers working multiple platforms working in concert and building on one-another’s audiences.

Two caveats with this: A) I have no idea if it’d work, just a gut instinct that it’d be a good idea; B) I’m not actually planning on self-publishing at present, so I’m not actually looking for or interested in being in a posse. Please don’t email me and ask me to be part of yours.

6) LOOK AT ALTERNATIVE DISTRIBUTION METHODS

It’s easy to get fixated on one kind of distribution method for work, especially if its easy. Amazon and Smashwords (and other services of a similar ilk) will give you some pretty wide distribution in ebook terms. For gamers, the RPGnow/DrivethroughRPG stores are similarly useful as a one-stop-shop where the vast majority of the customer base is used to shopping.

On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid getting twitchy when all your eggs are in one basket like that, and there’s plenty of authors out there who are trying innovative ways of getting their work into readers hands. If I started looking at indie publishing as a serious thing, I’d also spend some quality time looking at things like crowd-sourcing, setting up some kind of subscription service through my website, and similar methods of producing and selling work outside of the standard produce-product-sell-product paradigm.

I can think of a whole bunch of authors I’d take a really, really close look at when planning this kind of stuff. Caitlin Kiernan and Catherynne Valente have both author-run short story subscription services that I’ve subscribed to in the past. Matt Forbeck’s use of Kickstarter for his twelve-for-twelve project has been fascinating to watch. Chuck Wendig strikes me as one of the smartest writers working today and I’d pay real close attention to pretty much everything he does (including his hybrid approach to publishing and self-publishing, which strikes me as a much better idea than doing it all myself).

All of these writers have a far more substantial profile than I do at present, but there are lessons to be learned from the way they use the internet as part of their process for distributing and getting paid for creative work. Also, all of the above leverage fans at two levels – the passionate and the casual. I have nothing against casual fans, also known as the folks who are content to pick up books and read them, but looking at alternate delivery methods gives the passionate fans something to be passionate about.

7) QUALITY CONTROL

I know my weaknesses as a writer/editor/publisher, and I’d put a whole bunch of processes in place to make sure my ass is covered on things. I’d also insert all the usual self-publishing rhetoric about making sure your self-published book is indistinguishable from the professional published work. For bonus points, I’d add some rhetoric about making sure my products were compatible with whatever long-term vision I came up with back in the business plan stage.

In short: treat your business like a fucking business. It’s a rule for life.

8) THINK LIKE A MAMMAL, NOT A DINOSAUR

The watchwords for whatever workflow I adopted would basically be “move fast, think agile.” In many respects, this was my favourite thing about being an e-publisher – the ability to go from concept to completion relatively fast (my record was twenty-four hours, in response to a forum thread where lots of people talked about squirrels in D&D, but that was largely an in-joke).

On the other hand, for all I could write and produce fast, I couldn’t *adapt* fast to a changing marketplace because my workflow wasn’t built that way. I developed a lot of bad habits that made it nearly impossible to, say, convert the gaming PDFs I produced into something that could be sent to a POD publisher (everything needed to be laid out again and re-proofed). I run into the same problem every time I think I should go convert a whole bunch of d20 PDFS to the Pathfinder system, or ponder whether it’s viable adding gaming books to epub files. The spirit is willing , the workflow is weak.

Were I to start producing ebooks, I’d want to take a real close look at my workflow in order to make sure I could adapt one file to multiple uses if needed (there are a bunch of tools that help with this side of thing – the Pressbooks platform comes to mind). Basically, my main priority would be processes that made adapting easy, rather than a whole new production step that had to be started from the beginning.

  8 comments for “Things I would do if I were planning on becoming an indie publisher…

  1. 12/10/2012 at 1:11 AM

    Brilliant.

  2. 12/10/2012 at 1:22 AM

    ^^^ What he said.

  3. 12/10/2012 at 1:26 AM

    There's some interesting stuff here, but I'd like to put in an experience-based caveat on #4.

    Stockpiling and then releasing 5 books in 3 months would only work well if you're talking about a single creator. You touch on this a bit in #5, when you talk about promotion. I'd question if you could release 5 different books in that time and devote a fair amount of promotion time to each. Say writers A & E get reviewed in Publishers Weekly, C in Locus, even though everyone knows at a rational level you're giving each work the same opportunity, it can be hard on writers B & D when they aren't seeing the same results. And all this has nothing to do with you but I think talent management is an important part of the indie experience, it's about making each contributor feel like they are as important as any other.

    And at more than a book a month, that's a tough ask on anyone.

    It's a double edged sword — I feel that you do need to get a number of titles out for several reasons, but you need to do this in a way that you can sustain the best working relationships with the creators.

  4. 12/10/2012 at 1:49 AM

    You've got a fair point, Russ, but I think we're running into a conflict of nomenclature.

    I'm specifically using Indie Publishing here in the way it's been adopted by the self-publishing ebook crowd – single creators self-publishing work in ebook format, where the kind of promotion you're working towards is very different to a print book that needs to be picked up by retailers.

    I'd do something *very* different if I was publishing other people or positioning myself as a small press.

  5. Jodi Cleghorn
    12/10/2012 at 1:58 AM

    Loads of good stuff here… but I have to agree with Rus. Pushing lots of books out the door at the one time is hard work. Even releasing a book a month, back to back, over several months as a single entity is time consuming (it also pulls away from the creation process).

    I was sneaky with the release of our two charity anthologies. We released '100 Stories for Queensland' the same day as 'Nothing But Flowers' and amplified the publicity for both. Got authors on both books to cross promote. It also meant readers were buying both at the same time and we got in Amazon "Readers who bought this… also bought this." More than a year on, that link remains. But I'm not sure if releasing two Literary Mix Tapes on the same day would work so well. Perhaps pairing books form different imprints?

    I'm about to experiment with the collective idea with three of my writing friends. Not sure how the experiment will end up but this post gives lots of grist for the mill. We write across genres so it will be an interesting mixing.

    And a caveat on the short story anthology… even producing left of centre, niche anthologies… we're still struggling to find the readership. I'm hoping that at the end of the year, once we have ten books (and multiple books in different categories) we'll hit the sweet spot and see a change. I love the creation process, I loathe the marketing process – trying to get the balance between over the top in your face and sprinting too few times from beneath the mushroom.

    Lastly on the workflow… having all our books in a single format that converts (on a good day, eh Rus?) with relative simplicity into others, but maintains the integrity of the look, layout, text etc is a total godsend. There is no way I'd be producing multiple eBook types AND paperbacks if the process wasn't streamlined. The next step for us is to see if Press Books will allow the same ease we currently have, but integrate the multiple user aspect AND keep the integrity of the look.

    Still so much to learn, experiment with, innovate, trial and make mistakes from. And what feels like, so little time to do it in.

  6. 12/10/2012 at 6:45 PM

    Actually, your 100 Stories/Nothing but Flowers example more-or-less highlights exactly why I'd do it as an indie author. It's got a lot more to do with creating links in databases and having a backlist, as well as conveying a message to potential readers that there will be more books coming soon, than anything else.

    And I'm with you on the hard work – I worked harder during those two years when I wrote and produced RPG stuff than I have any other time in my life, which is one of the reasons it fell over when other life-going-crazy things started taking priority.

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