Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Business Rusch: The Stages of An Indie Writer

Written By: Kristine Kathryn Rusch - Jun• 12•13

Business Rusch logo webBecause of this blog, I get a lot of e-mails from writers at various stages of their careers. I also receive a lot of links to other blogs, written by publishing industry people here and out of the United States. I have noticed, over time, several patterns in the way that people respond to the New World of Publishing.

If e-books or e-readers are just beginning to gain acceptance in a country, that country’s publishing industry responds like the US industry did in 2009/10. The similarities continue as the e-books and e-readers become more accepted. In fact, you can watch the debates about the death of the book and the benefits of digital media progress exactly the way they did on this side of the pond.

The United States, for better or worse, was the first country to go through this massive shift, but we’re certainly not the last. And we are still going through the shift.

The smaller pattern, though, happens within the writers themselves. It takes a while for a writer, raised in traditional publishing, to move to indie publishing. (I am using indie publishing here to describe writers who have taken complete creative and business control of their work.) Shifting from traditional to indie takes a mind-set shift that many—even unpublished writers—are finding difficult.

I’m currently reading a nonfiction book called The Entertainer by Margaret Talbot. (I mentioned an excerpt from it in my Recommended Reading list a while back). Talbot’s father, Lyle Talbot, had a career in the entertainment industry that spanned tent performances to Vaudeville to movies to television. Early on, Talbot notes that the world in which her father began his career is a lost world. No remnants of that entertainment world exist at all; the country has changed, and so has its entertainment needs.

The publishing industry that I learned in the 1980s is becoming a lost world. Not as dramatic as the showboat and traveling performers of Lyle Talbot’s era, but certainly as lost as the movie industry of the 1930s. Parts of the industry remain, but much of the industry would be completely unrecognizable to my 1980s self.

Lost worlds are like lost loved ones: some of us never get past the grief. That realization made me understand one other thing—my own emotional landscape over the past four years. I watch the changes I’ve gone through, the reactions I’ve had to the new world of publishing, and realize that friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are going through similar emotions.

The emotions are actually predictable, although we all go through these stages at our own speed, and in our own ways. Some people get stuck in one of the stages and might never emerge from it. Others blow through a few of the stages and wonder why friends can’t do the same. We all find something that stops us for a while, though, and we all have to find our own way through them.

The stages I see are:

1. Denial (Traditional Publishing Version)

The writer refuses to acknowledge that traditional publishing has changed. She refuses to act any differently than she did five or ten years ago, whenever she came into the business. She trusts her agent implicitly (while acknowledging that there are scam agents out there), believes she wouldn’t have a career without the agent’s support, and never reviews her financial statements (often doesn’t even review contracts). She lets her agent market her work, believing there is no other way.

She also believes her work would be weaker without the backing of the traditional publisher. She needs her editor, her copy editor, and the sales team. She believes they work to improve her book (which would be unreadable without them) and she thinks her work cannot reach a wide audience without a traditional publishing house.

She believes anyone who indie publishes is delusional and is ruining his career.

2. Anger (Traditional Publishing Version):

Something goes terribly, horribly wrong. The writer’s latest book doesn’t get any marketing support. Her contract gets canceled. Her agent leaves the business. The writer gets offered a lower advance for the same work. She gets dropped by her publishing house. She’s told she can’t write the book of her heart because her fans won’t like it. She’s told that her publisher won’t let her publish a short story because she signed a non-compete clause. She gets no royalties on a book that has already earned out. She wins a major industry award…after her publisher has refused the option book, and no other publisher will look at her next work, despite the acclaim and good sales.

Something happens, and it’s devastating. It’s something that would have happened twenty years ago, but honestly, these somethings are happening quicker because traditional publishing is in such disarray at the moment.

She gets furious and that fury leads to…

3. Feeling Trapped (Traditional Publishing Version):

She has written many novels and/or proposals. Publishers pass on them. Her sales figures are too low, so no one wants her work. The critical acclaim doesn’t matter. The New York Times bestseller listing under her name doesn’t matter because her book sales have gone down over the past three titles. Her agent won’t return her phone calls or worse, dumps her. New agents won’t take her on.

Our imaginary writer might go with a smaller press or a specialty press, but no one can live on the advances they offer. She faces a choice: quit writing or find a day job to support the writing.

That’s how it used to be ten years ago when something bad happened. But these days, if she’s smart, she dips a toe into indie publishing. Some friends who’ve been in her shoes are actually making a living. In fact, those friends are proselytizing about how great indie publishing is. She thought they were fools (see #1 above) but her circumstances have changed. Maybe she’ll investigate. It’s better than going back to that day job she quit so happily five years ago.

4. Fear (Traditional Publishing Version):

She knows nothing about indie publishing. She investigates and finds a big, chaotic, and confusing world. She wants rules. She wants order. She wants someone to take her hand and lead her through it. She wants to earn a living at writing, yes, but this business stuff—this computer stuff—this design stuff—it’s beyond her.

Here’s where so many traditionally published writers get stuck. They want help, any kind of help, and too many unscrupulous agents  and unscrupulous self-publishing services like those offered through Simon & Schuster, Harlequin, Penguin/Putnam are willing to provide that help for a hefty price. These people/companies prey on fear and ignorance.

Right here is where so many writers quit. Or get scammed and lose their life savings to pursue a dream. Or give up because this is all too overwhelming.

Several other emotions go with the fear including….

5. Depression (Traditional Publishing Version)

Writers who get here truly believe their career is over. They’re mourning a loss. They believe that if they can’t get a traditional career, they won’t have a career. They don’t see opportunities ahead, only failure.

And if this were ten years ago, they would be right. It’s hard to struggle through this part. It’s hard to hang on. I’ve seen a lot of writers lack compassion for writers who hit the depression part of this cycle. Judith Tarr has a great post on how it feels to be stuck here. Again, writers stuck here are susceptible to scams. Many simply give up and leave.

The other emotion that goes hand in hand with the depression and fear is…

6. Loneliness

It feels as if the writer is the only one going through this. If the writer has been in the business a long time, then she knows lots of other writers who are still succeeding in traditional publishing. They’re bestsellers, they have book contracts, their books are selling well.

Are their advances as good? No way to know, because writers often don’t share that information. Are their royalties down? Again, no way to know.

But the more a writer feels depressed and frightened, the lonelier she gets. That’s one reason I write this blog: we all go through ups and downs. I want other writers to know that even the most successful writers have had bad patches.

It doesn’t matter that you got knocked down, or how long you stayed on the floor. All that matters is that you get up again.

The loneliness can be overwhelming (and again, writers get stuck here), but every other long-term writer has been here, whether he talks about it or not.

And in our little example, the writer finds herself…

7. Bargaining (Traditional Publishing Version)

Okay, the writer says to herself. I’ll try this indie-publishing thing. If it fails, if it’s too hard, then I’ll give up. I’ll quit.

Some writers at this stage self-sabotage. They don’t put covers on their books. They don’t write cover copy. They give the book away for free, even if they don’t have other books up to benefit from the promotion. They hire those scam services and get hurt all over again.

But many writers give it the old college try. They realize they have choices. They realize they can pick their own covers, and write the book they want, or put out the backlist book that readers have been asking for.

They feel…

8. Fear (Indie Publishing Version 1)

They don’t know how to indie publish anything. Designing a book is hard, finding a cover is hard, uploading to e-book services is hard. Or, at least, it all looks hard.

Then the writer tries a few things. Yeah, there’s a learning curve, but she has had learning curves in the past. That’s what she did with her writing. She learned. She’s done this before. She can do it again.

She decides to try. She gets a book up and then…

9. Anger (Indie Publishing Version 1)

She put up her first indie-book and it did not sell. At all. The rush of readers never came. No one cares. Not even her family cares.

Everyone who said this works lied.

Of course, she doesn’t remember that she failed to sell the first short story she ever wrote, and she’s not willing to consider that her cover is badly designed or she didn’t write good cover copy or, maybe, she’s not counting the ten sales she did have this month as anything meaningful at all.

She feels…

10. Trapped (Indie Publishing Version 1)

She’s tried indie, she’s tried traditional, she’s still stuck. What’s wrong with her? Is she a worse writer than she thought?

She can’t go back to traditional or if she does, they want non-competes, more work, and to pay her less. But she can’t stay indie, because it doesn’t work. What should she do?

This is where a bunch of writers leave again. They just give up.

The rest…well, some go back completely to traditional and risk never getting published again. They get a day job (if they didn’t already have one). They get a new agent, they write in a new genre, they try a pen name.

Others try indie again. They publish a few more things. Maybe learn how to design covers, or save money so that they can hire a flat-fee service to design covers for them. They might join an organization of writers who trade services, like Book View Café.

They learn there’s more to this indie thing than slapping up a book. And they find themselves in…

11. Denial (Indie Publishing Version)

This indie thing can’t be working. It isn’t working, not by traditional standards. Ten sales per month on Kindle? No one can make money doing that. The fact that the book is only on Kindle and not anywhere else, the fact that readers are asking for the next, means nothing.

Because if this book had been traditionally published, it would have sold thousands of copies by now, wouldn’t it?

Maybe. In the old world.

But the new world is different, and our writer friend is judging the new world by the old. In the old world, this book is a failure. In the new world, this book has just gotten started. It has years to grow. And if she adds more books and puts them for sale in more markets, if she writes more and learns more about indie publishing, those ten sales will turn into 50 per month on Kindle alone, and then there will be another 50 around the world, and then she’ll publish more books and eventually, she’ll be selling 100 copies of each of her titles around the world in all formats every month. The more titles, the more money, and she’ll realize that she’s actually starting to succeed.

Because she’s…

12. Reconstructing her expectations

She’s not lowering them. She’s accepting that she’s in a new world, with different rules. You can’t judge the new world by the old. In the old, books had to sell fast because they’d be off the shelf in three months (or less). In the new, the book is just starting to get noticed a year after publication. It might have its best sales month 29 months after publication.

Plus, she’s learning this new business. She’s learning how to find good copy editors who charge not-New York prices. (The local newspaper has a copy editor who is really good, and fast.) Our imaginary writer is learning how to find spectacular first readers who actually have comments about her books, instead of her traditional editor who might edit the book (months after it is turned in) or might simply put it into production without giving the book more than a brief skim, leaving all the mistakes for the copy editor and proofer to find (if they’re good enough to find it).

Our writer’s not stuck with a bad cover because “there’s no money to fix it” (which has happened to me traditionally more than I can say). If she gets a bad cover from the designer she hired, she doesn’t have to use that cover. She can hire a different designer and get a better cover. Or, she can learn to do it herself.

She’s…

13. Working Through The Changes

…becoming someone else. A different writer. One who can write what she wants, not what her agent says will sell. She can write a sequel—or not. She can write a mainstream novel—or not. She can write that romance she’s always dreamed of—or not.

She has…

14. Freedom

…an amazing amount of freedom. But she has learned, to paraphrase Peter Parker (Spider-man), with great freedom comes great responsibility. She’s the one in charge. If there’s a bad cover, bad cover copy, bad copy edits, it’s because she hired the wrong people or didn’t understand genre branding or thought such things didn’t matter. She didn’t make it easy for her readers to find her.

But she’s learning, and the really, really cool thing she’s discovering is that she has time. If she learns something important three years after her first book was indie published, she can go back, redesign the book and add the things she’s learned, and it has no bad repercussions at all. Only good ones.

She can improve and grow and change, and no one says, You’re only as good as your last book. They ask, When’s your next book coming out? She loves that freedom.

She thinks, How did I ever survive in traditional publishing? and she feels…

15. Anger (Indie Publishing Version 2)

…at all the unwritten books, all the opportunities lost. She remembers the paralysis of those years, and how long it took one project to get from drawing board to publication, and she wonders how she ever survived it.

A few writers, hybrid writers, might feel…

16. Trapped (Indie Publishing Version 2)

…because they still have some traditional contracts to fulfill, with bad terms and advances so low that they know within a year, they could earn that money if they indie published—even with their low numbers. But they fulfill the contracts, and turn down the offer with for the next book—or accept it, but only if the traditional publisher meets certain terms.

Some hybrid writers turn this trapped feeling into something positive, using both their new books and their old in a synergy. Others…

17. Bargain (Indie Publishing Version)

…to get out of their contracts or agree not to turn in an option book or pay back advances to escape. Some end up with print-only contracts so that they don’t have to learn yet another skill set (how to do a paper book). And still others divide their career down the middle. This book, that series will go to my traditional publisher, while that book and this series will be mine only.

Writers find their own path and as they do, they realize they’ve…

18. Accepted

…this new world of publishing and they’re learning how to make it work for them. For the first time in years they feel…

19. Hope

…for the future. They know that they will have a career—one they’ve chosen, and they know that they will continue to write and they’re lucky now, lucky that they can choose what kind of writer they want to be rather than scramble to be the kind of writer traditional publishing wants.

But behind it all there’s still…

20. Fear (Indie Publishing Version 2)

…because they worry about everything. Can they keep up? Can they write all the books they hope to write before they die? Can they stay ahead of their fans? Can they find enough time?

Time becomes the critical thing. Rather than wait for others to get back to them, now they worry about finishing Novel 1 so that they can get to Novel 2. They worry that they’re writing too fast. They worry that they’re not writing fast enough. They worry that they’re not spending enough time with their families. They worry that they’re not spending enough time writing. They worry that they’re not spending enough time promoting. They worry that they’re not spending enough time learning book design. They worry…

Well, they’re writers. Of course they worry.

That’s what writers do.

It’s normal. It’s healthy. It’s part of being a writer.

Then one day they realize they have indie-published their entire backlist, and right now, they have more indie books in print than traditional books. These writers look at their finances and realize that they’re making 5 times as much (or more!) on their indie books than they are on their traditional books, with a lot more benefits, like monthly payments.

Or the fact that indie books stay in print. They’re in every format around the world. Fans can find those books.

The traditional books are out of print (paper) but the crummy e-book edition remains in print. Fans in Australia can’t read the US book. Fans in Germany can’t find a paper copy. The royalty statements are a mess if they don’t show up at all, and oh, yeah, the agent forgot to send a check, but would really, really, really love to take over the backlist in e-book format.

One day, in conversation, our imaginary writer calls herself an indie writer and she thinks about it. Is she? Or is she hybrid? She’s certainly no longer stuck in traditional publishing any more. She can leave any time she wants. She can stay if she wants.

And she also realizes that, for the first time in years (maybe decades), she’s…

21. Happy

…with her writing career. Because she has choices now. And control.

She can go 100% indie if she wants. If she hates that or it doesn’t work for her, she can go back to traditional.

She’s learned how to handle business, so she can negotiate the contract she wants.

She can tell traditional publishers to take a flying leap if she wants to.

She can work in partnership with them if she wants to.

She can publish some books herself and let a traditional publisher do others.

She can fire her editor because she hired that editor.

She can say no to revisions that change the heart of the novel because she’s in charge. She doesn’t have to worry that her publisher won’t publish the book without the changes.

She doesn’t need an agent to tell her what’s saleable. Readers do that—with their dollars and word of mouth.

If she wants to write a difficult novel, one that might disturb people, she can, and she can let it find its audience.

She has…

22. Complete Freedom

…to be the writer she wants to be, for the rest of her career.

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“The Business Rusch: The Stages of An Indie Writer” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 




 

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53 Comments

  1. Lilian Darcy says:

    Thanks for this, Kris! I don’t always agree with everything you say – you’d probably be a bit creeped out if I did – but you’ve provided so many writers with a huge amount of inspiration through your blog, and this post is one of the best.

    Off to buy some more of your books now.

  2. RE — Writers worry.

    Yeah, it our job to imagine anything, so we do. Including the worst. And in that primitive part of the brain, “bad stuff” trumps everything.

    Thus we are endlessly silly….

  3. Great post and all very true. I’m one of those “split down the middle” authors. My nonfiction is traditionally published. It’s all history and much of it is for Osprey Publishing. Unlike a lot of publishers, they have effective marketing, great distribution, and a crack editorial team that has never let me down. I would be hard pressed to do the same indie, especially with the color plates they’re known for (too expensive for me to commission).

    I also traditionally publish my travel writing on Gadling, the most popular travel blog on the web. Could I make my own travel blog and compete? Maybe if I sunk hundreds of unpaid hours into it. Once again, it pays for me to go traditional in this case.

    Now for the fiction. . .the fiction that was called “hard to market” by marketing execs who weren’t going to market it anyway (so why do they get the final say?). The fiction that I was told needs to clearly fall into a single genre. The fiction that sat on an editor’s desk for a year before they told me they “lost” it. I’m indie publishing that fiction.

    How are the sales? Dismal. But I’m just starting out, so I have patience. It’s easy to have patience when you’re having so much fun. In fact, launching my fiction career myself have revitalized my fiction writing. I’m writing more and better now than I did during all those years of rejection.

    Hopefully someday it will pay off and my income from fiction will be equal to my income from nonfiction. It’s a nice feeling to know that is mostly up to me now.

    • Sounds perfect to me, Sean. I love being a hybrid writer. I don’t think I’ll ever give up sending short stories to other markets. I’m not as certain about novels. But in the case of my short stories and your nonfiction, my theory is if it works, do it that way. And this new world allows us to do that.

    • Ken Talley says:

      Sean,
      Keep on keeping on. I ran into your blog and found it wonderful. I like the fact that it’s reader-oriented, not writer-oriented. You do a good job with your “Civil War Horror” blog. I’ve bought your book, A Fine Likeness (hard copy, I’m still old school, but there is still hope for me!)and it’s next on my reading agenda. I’m writing also, but struggling with how to “promote” to readers with a blog without trying to teach writing (I’ve made my living writing non-fiction for 25 years but I’m not interested in blogging about it). Kris does a nice balancing act with her free stories. And you, Sean, do a nice job with your Civil War blogs enticing potential readers with good historical info. It’s good stuff. Keep the faith!–Ken

  4. J.A. Marlow says:

    Oh, wow. I LOVED this! I loved how you went from one stage to the next, to the next, to the next.

    I’ve seen so many of these stages in writers around me. And yes, in myself. Some of the stages are familiar, some have me shaking my head, some nodding my head, some of them causing laughter, and some of them causing… worry.

    Because worry is what writers do. But, hey, I have the happy freedom to worry about those things! :D

  5. Once again, Kris, you’ve read my mind. I think I’m going through several of these stages at once!

  6. A.C. James says:

    I have no idea what stage I’m at but your post is very accurate in depicting almost all of the emotions I’ve felt. Except that I’ve never traditionally published. I’ve been having fun with indie but I’m still on the fence. Compelling arguments like this one make me want to take a flying leap.

  7. Nancy Beck says:

    If she learns something important three years after her first book was indie published, she can go back, redesign the book and add the things she’s learned, and it has no bad repercussions at all.

    Altho I’ve never been trad published, I’m at this point right now. I decided it was time to FINALLY learn how to set up a paper book. It’s been very tough, but I’m starting to learn how to set up the interior (doing an omnibus edition of my short novel series). It’s not intuitive, but if I work on it enough, it sort of makes sense.

    And that’s the key, I think. Repetition. It’s like riding a bicycle – the more you do it, the more accustomed you get to it (and you never forget).

    I’m also at #20 with all the indie fears. That I don’t have enough time to write, enough time to edit, enough time to get the cover just right, to get the copy just right…all of that.

    Having said all that, though, I’ve always been a personal control freak, so my taking control of my writing life was right up my alley, so I’ll happily deal with the worries – because I don’t have to answer to anyone but me. :-)

  8. Robin Brande says:

    Wow, is this true. As a traditional-gone-indie, I’ve been through many, if not most, of these stages. Happily, I’ve come to the happy stage. Whereas under the traditional system I had two books published in four years, since I’ve gone indie I’ve published nine in the past two years. Nothing inspires you to write more and more like seeing your work out there and being enjoyed by readers. It’s a wonderful feeling.

    But I’ve had the same experience other indies have of being on panels or in other discussions with traditionally-published authors who are still in the denial or anger stages and who don’t want to hear what people like you and Dean and others have to say. Or what I have to say. That’s fine, I’ve learned to keep my own counsel. But it’s great that you publish this blog every week to inspire and encourage writers along the way. Thank you for doing that. It’s a generous service you perform.

    Another great blog, Kris! Yours is always the first one I click on Thursday mornings.

    • What’s amazing to me, Robin, is how many people who fought with me vehemently a year or two ago now ask for help going indie. It’s part of the denial phase, I think. Thanks for the kind words!

      • Robin Brande says:

        That’s happened to me, too! So often, in fact, that I don’t even bother arguing with writer friends/acquaintances anymore. I’m secretly thinking, “Just wait for it…”

        And the thing is, I’ll always be happy to help because I think it’s so fun. But people could learn to do without the snottiness first, eh?

  9. C.E. Petit says:

    Somehow I had this vision of Roy Scheider editing a filming of this as a stand-up routine…

    I do think there’s a step of the process missing, or at least undervalued, in here. Somewhere around steps 10, 12, or 16, authors who are transitioning between publishing models (and, often, between publishers) run into the Siamese Organs problem. Sometimes this triggered by the arrival of a royalty statement for previous works, reminding the author that those works are still under the prior publisher’s control; more often, it’s the author either being told (or reading her past contracts and believing) that those body parts belong to another creature. In this day of publishers being increasingly unwilling to revert works — even those that aren’t selling — both as leverage against authors and because the carrying costs for e-book editions (BTW, does the contract really give the publisher e-rights? Read it!) are so low,* this is a serious problem, and it often seems as if even surgery with a chainsaw won’t be enough.

    And this leads to a cascade of paralysis and second-guessing and obsession with surgery to separate the Siamese body parts more thoroughly. It takes anywhere from six to eighteen months to work through it, in my experience helping authors who’ve been through it. Its effects may take a lot longer to work through, especially if the author had been screwed by a grossly incompetent Big Name Agency’s inattention to detail (and I mean grossly incompetent even for a Big Name Agency… and that’s the nicest thing I’ll say about it, because I don’t think it was mere incompetence but can’t prove it).

    * <sarcasm> If publishers were smart enough to think this way, they’d also resist because the other indie/other-publisher works will increase sales of that publisher’s works by the same author… but since that’s not a formal marketing effort approved by S&M dorks, it obviously won’t work, even if it is free advertising for a brand (the author) that the publisher thinks it controls (but doesn’t). </sarcasm>

    • Yeah, that’s a terrible place to be stuck, CE, and if you only have a few books or you’ve only been with one (particularly recalcitrant) publisher, then it’s especially hard. I particularly worry about the writers who signed draconian non-competes, because they can’t write new things either without going to court or negotiation. That side of things is a real mess. :-(

      • C.E. Petit says:

        I particularly worry about the writers who signed draconian non-competes, because they can’t write new things either without going to court or negotiation.

        This is not legal advice for your particular situation. It is, in fact, the application of evil for good.

        One of the rules of thumb that civil litigators learn early on is that short of admission of both liability and remedy by one party or the other, the side with the burden of proof loses about 70% of the time. Yes, I know that in civil litigation the ordinary standard of proof is more-probable-than-not, or 50%+1; but that’s really not what it takes to win, and the evidence in support of the burden of proof can be… dicey.

        The point is this: Remember that the publisher is in the position of having the burden of proof when asserting a noncompete clause. And other parts of the contract may well work against the publisher. For example, there’s one well-known publisher that tried to enforce a ridiculous noncompete clause against an author within the past couple of years that made the mistake of being in Boston. And that matters… because Massachusetts has courts that are highly skeptical of noncompetition clauses, and noncompetition law that requires the party trying to enforce a noncompetition clause to prove damages not just to get a remedy, but as a part of the cause of action. And that is really tough when, as in that particular instance, the Boston-based publisher had rejected the manuscript that was later published elsewhere…

        The moral (if “moral” isn’t the wrong word to apply to “constructive use of evil for good”) of this story is that context matters. Now, of course only a lawyer thoroughly familiar with the facts and the relevant law can provide particular advice on a particular situation. I just do not think it is as clear-cut, or as dire, as Our Gracious Hostess makes it sound. The best case, of course, is not to sign a contract with an unreasonable noncompete clause in it, and to include a “works submitted to Publisher and rejected by Publisher are not subject to this ¶ 27(j)” rider to any noncompete clause. Unfortunately, this not being the best of all possible worlds, the best case is usually a me-too teen dystopian bestseller (and thereby hangs yet another tale).

        • Except, CE, that publishers are suing in an attempt to enforce. Whether or not the author ultimately prevails is, in my opinion, less relevent than the time and work lost in fighting a rather messy legal battle.

          You and I agree on one very important thing: Don’t sign a non-compete in the first place–even if you believe it unenforceable.

  10. Kris, you’ve nailed it again, and your “stages” format makes the chaotic personal and career decisions writers have been facing over the past four years crystal clear.

    After surviving the publishing game for 60 NY-published novels, my big hurdle was relinquishing being what I’d attained by blood, sweat, and tears and overcoming so many bad or even sabotaging publishing decisions when I first started: a “legitimate” NY-published author.

    If I left all that, would my books still get reviewed, be eligible for awards? Would I be welcome on convention panels? Some places not, some yes. I’m told that will change for the better.

    Not only that, I had a stable series going with a great editor and great covers. But my publisher could not, would not negotiate one term that was key to me, and likely other terms. (And publishers now are subject to what’s decreed by the top of the conglomerates.) As an ex-unionized reporter, I hated that eBook rights had never been negotiated in older contracts, but simply fell to publishers because of technological changes and reversion clauses. That I couldn’t access so many of my books ever again and got such a minuscule royalty on them.

    And I was indie before indie was cool, even before there was a word for it. I POD published two illustrated Midnight Louie novellas in 2003 and 2006. Made good money with only direct sales. I’d hired an artist for the cover and interior illos (wonderful Brad Foster); I hired a book designer because I didn’t have enough desktop publishing program expertise, although I mostly designed the interiors.

    So I always had DIY impulses, but my “real” publishing career got in the way of doing more of my own projects.
    Then DIY got much easier. I spent six months “going to school” on the Internet learning how to format and convert Word files and more about making covers in Photoshop. Sometimes the key piece of info was elusive, and I was so frustrated. But I finally cracked the case. Now I’m working on converting 35 reverted novels and 35 pieces of shorter fiction

    Lots of writing folks have been willing to help educate me, and Kris and Dean have been in the forefront with their blogs and books. None of this evolution would have been possible without writers talking to each other, and
    talking each other through it.

    We should all pat ourselves on the backs! Go, team!

  11. Great post, Kris! I love how you’ve broken down each step. I’m looking forward to being a hybrid writer (thanks to Lucky Bat Books for the help!) and might even become solely indie. Who knows? The thing is, I have the freedom to do whatever I choose.

    And, yeah, that loneliness is a killer.

    Keep up the great work!

  12. David Thayer says:

    Kris, very well said. I took the indie plunge last autumn after being “traditionally unpublished” repped by an agent but unsold for far too long…

  13. D.J. Gelner says:

    Great post, Kris! Even though I got into the writing biz late enough where tradpub wasn’t even a consideration for me, I’ve found myself bouncing between a number of rungs in your indie stages, for sure. Sometimes they can be tougher without the tradpub “pedigree”–the “Am I good enough to do this?” doubt greater, the eyebrow raises at parties just a bit higher.

    Of course, I don’t have to deal with onerous, restrictive contracts, either, and my publisher is a delight to work with, so that makes up for it! ;)

  14. Pam Uphoff says:

    I skipped the first half by traditionally publishing only a single short story. I’m still in the middle of the Indie stages, but I’ve gone from “Writer, learning how to publish” through “Publisher, still writing” and decided on “Vertically Integrated Businesswoman” as a descriptor.

    It’s been, and still is being, fun. Thanks for all the help!

  15. Holli says:

    This is brilliant, simply brilliant. My story is probably pretty common: I’ve been making my living as a writer for years, but in journalism, magazine articles, communications and public relations. On the sidelines, I’ve been working hard on the dream…writing my fiction. After hard work I got a NY agent in one of the big agencies, and she seemed perfect. She was a new agent but with considerable editing chops/connections and had the backing of her agency. She talked big, about only going to the “BIG” houses with my book and the bidding wars she’d incite, etc.

    Yep. What really happened is she showed it to six publishers, they all gave her a version of “I’m just not that into this” without any two giving the same reason, and she gave up. She tried to have me rewrite the book as a YA or a paranormal (two things it definitely was NOT). I pressed my second book on her. She stalled and delayed, said she wanted her assistant’s opinion, etc. When she finally read it, she demanded rewrite after rewrite. This went on for years. She finally told me she didn’t like it, and I’m still not sure she actually read the book. I told her I wanted to break our contract, so we did.

    Without being enslaved to rewrites I was finally able to write new material again. Now I have three books and a fourth on the way. I read what you, Dean, JA Konrath and others have to say about indie publishing, and a lot of it does sound wonderful (it also sounds like crazy amounts of work). But there’s a part of me that won’t feel like I was truly worthy of being published until a traditional publisher says so. Is it wrong to want that validation for at least my first book? I’m wary of agents after my experience, but I’d love to have someone say, “we love your book and we want to publish it”…at least once. Is that a completely unrealistic/archaic dream to have in this day and age?

    Sorry for the novel…love the post! And sorry you guys won’t be at SIWC. Was looking forward to seeing you there again (it’s been seven years since I’ve gone).

    • Ferran says:

      You know, those bidding wars and such… they make think of tulips. Or stock markets.

      Besides that, can I ask you about the book itself? Title, or e-shop link.

      Thank you.

      Ferran

  16. RD Meyer says:

    Although I’ve completed five novels, I have yet to publish, so I’m still in that “hope” stage. I love the potential freedom in it and think it provides opportunity – whether I succeed or fail is mostly up to me(or at least more than it would be with a traditional publisher…the reader still exercises the largest portion of control over how well I do).

    Who knows…maybe I’ll go into those other stages as I publish, but the world is open at the moment.

  17. I think it’s pretty common to back slide into earlier stages due to setbacks such as a steady stream of sales that dry up once you release your latest title or other issues. I also think it’s possible to experience multiple stages at the same time. You’re happy because you’re doing your thing, but also angry because it’s not as good as you want and depressed and lonely because you think, when you look at your indie writer friends, you’re the only one having a hard time.

    • Nancy Beck says:

      and depressed and lonely because you think, when you look at your indie writer friends, you’re the only one having a hard time.

      That’s how I often felt when I used to look at the indie writer threads at K Boards – which is why I stayed away from KB for a long time.

      Now I just go there for ebook recommendations.

  18. Interesting and provocative post that seems to most writers can relate to. Just not sure where I am or where I am going. I’m a writer at first base – first novel with US ebook publisher whose editors are helping me through final revision. Hoping ebook will be out later this year. But not sure all I write is for them. Problem: I have a disability that limits time I spend on anything more than write & edit, even though retired. Self-marketing is daunting when life closes in… housebound too. Probably left it too late to be a writer, even if I have seven WIPs…

    • It’s never too late to be a writer, Roland. And for the things you feel you can’t do, there are services like Lucky Bat Books, who provide a menu of things to hire out. They can do the covers, for a flat fee, for example. There are other services like them as well. Yes, it costs money, but writers I know save for it or trade other services for it. It’s cobbled-together, but it works.

  19. I can’t thank you enough for this post. It has given me quite the epiphanic moment. I’ve had 25 novels trad-published and am just now going indie. Had The Talk with my wonderful agent, telling him to say thanks but no thanks to houses offering to contract me. I recently put out my first indie novel (That Dog Won’t Hunt–off brand from my Seatbelt Suspense®). I was expecting to sell way more books the first month. After all, I have thousands of loyal readers. But … not. Your numbers 11 and 12 really helped me change my expectations about an indie launch. Let’s just say the panic has subsided noticeably. I’ve been furiously studying about being my own publisher, but your words here brought home this indie-launch/sales ramp-up reality.

    Come to think of it, there is another way I can thank you. Off to Paypal …

  20. It’s an interesting progression and it seems pretty logical but it looks more like the stages of a traditional writer turning indie, and less applicable to someone starting out indie “from scratch.”

    (my experience there suggests the progression would be “this is a horrible idea, this will never work” to “this is the BEST IDEA EVER” to “I’m doomed and I have no idea what I’m doing” to “I AM A GOD AMONG WRITERS” to “my God I’m leaving my daughter NOTHING” but that’s just me and it may be time to get the meds adjusted.)

    • Tori Minard says:

      It’s not just you, Christopher. ;)

    • Exactly, Christopher… :)
      But you’ve left out the “still working the day job/have time-consuming life issues to deal with, and trying to find the time to learn/do all the things I’ve learned to make a go of this” stage. That’s where I find myself stuck all too often – because when you’re wearing all (or most) of the hats in the business, switching between them on-schedule (or remembering to switch between them at all!) is the only way you can keep enough forward progress going to build up the momentum to keep growing your career.

      So as much as I love the freedom, control, and potential of indie, the to-do list can be overwhelming – it’s not the “Fear” of #8 or #20, but a different number altogether. I’ve seen aspiring indie writers give up in the face of having to juggle/manage it all. I know how to do all the things that need to be done, but I’ve had to put things on hold more times than I’d like because there are only so many hours in a week, too many of which were claimed by other prople/other responsibilities. It’s damned frustrating, but I keep on keeping on anyway, one task at a time, as the schedule permits. Although sometimes I wish I could clone myself (or hire my own staff) to divvy up the chores!

      Kris – What you’re describing in this post is exactly what I’ve been seeing in other friends/colleagues. A very nice summary. I’ll be sharing this post around. I know a bunch of people who could benefit from reading it – just to know that what they’re feeling is normal, and that they’re not alone in feeling it. Many thanks!

    • SL Korb says:

      Yes. This.

      Perfectly describes my indie writing life. Thank you, Christopher!

  21. SL Korb says:

    Thanks for this! I’m in the middle stages of my indie-author career so posts like this give me hope for the future.

  22. Andy Decker says:

    This is a beautiful thing. Thanks for this.

  23. PK Hrezo says:

    So well said! And right where I am. Great time to be a writer!!

  24. Thanks, Sally and Nancy, for the votes of approval for Midnight Louie. I call him my “muscle.” He was introduced early in my career in a groundbreaking foursome of category romances with mystery, which were totally sabotaged, the last, unkindest cut being all four books were cut up to 28% without my knowledge or consent.

    I like to say a Big Six editor might be able to do that to a lone, defenseless author (my agent on those books had died and I hadn’t gotten a new one), but you can’t do it to a 20-pound alley cat who thinks he’s Sam Spade. So I flipped the concept to mystery with a romantic subplot and Louie and I are now writing Book 26.

    I eventually got the rights back years later from a editor (who I didn’t know had witnessed the slaughter as an assistant), after I approached her at a conference and asked for them. She was by then in upper management and told her bosses: “We’ve got to give this poor woman her rights back.” That was a “Louie” move on my part. Writers need “cattitude.”

    Mancy, you wrote:

    “Altho I’ve never been trad published, I’m at this point right now. I decided it was time to FINALLY learn how to set up a paper book. It’s been very tough, but I’m starting to learn how to set up the interior (doing an omnibus edition of my short novel series). It’s not intuitive, but if I work on it enough, it sort of makes sense.”

    No matter how long you’ve been in trad publishing, most writers still have a steep learning curve. It takes looking at a lot of sources, and looking up things on the web many times in the process. Despite all the help on various stages of book design, e-formatting etc. available, you have to hammer away at it doing it yourself until all the puzzle pieces come together in your head. Then you’ve got it for good!

  25. Kris,
    Since my teaspoon of indie publishing success, I’ve been feeling less desperate that I will shuffle off this mortal coil “unwept, unsung, and unpublished,” as Gilbert Blythe put it in one of the Anne of Green Gables movies. Mostly I think that less desperation is a good thing, but occasionally, I think it’s a stage of complacency, since I don’t achieve as much as I did when I was hungry.
    I remember reading a WOTF essay by you and Dean where you mentioned that some writers publish a story professionally and are never heard from again. They achieved their goal and move on to other things. I guess I worry that it could happen to me.
    Thoughts?
    Thanks,
    Melissa

    • I think it depends on what your goals as a writer are. If your goal is to get published, and then you get published, you’ve achieved the goal, so you don’t have to work as hard. If your goal is to have a career or to write down all the stories in your head, then you probably never will achieve that overall goal. So you’ll continue to work hard. But I’m guessing here. I honestly don’t know.

  26. Thank you for writing this post. This is exactly what I needed to read tonight (yes, it’s late on a Sunday night, just when we tend to obsess the most).

    I spent years trying to get an agent and traditionally published. Now, I’ve finally indie-published 4 books and counting. And your analysis is spot on – my book sales have been slow but steady. The book I thought would fly is having a bad time of finding its audience, although it gets wonderful reviews. The book I didn’t think had a chance of recovering its debut (before I realized the need for an editor beyond spellcheck) is my best seller.

    I’m learning new things every day. It’s scary, frustrating and at times I feel as if I’m banging my head against a wall. But I’m also happier than I’ve ever been because I get to write and publish the books I want, when I want.

    That’s amazing.

    I’m now at the stage of raising my writing to the next level. Can you recommend a terrific freelance fiction editor? I have a 100K WIP that I want to whip into shape.

    Thank you!

    Suzanne

    • I always recommend Lucky Bat or one of the flat fee services for editors. I’m sure others here have good recommendations as well. And find yourself some good first readers. They’re worth their weight in gold.

      Congrats on all the indie work and the success!

  27. Andy Schwarz says:

    Wow. What a great post, I only cried once. I am working to get a real handle on the new way and you’ve told me everything I need to really look and find the path. Thank you.

  28. Maya says:

    And all of this assumes she can write. What about all the drivel that is getting indie published? As long as there is more crappy than good coming out of self pubs, I’ll stick to purchasing from regular publishers because I’m more likely to get a decent story for my money.

  29. Jack says:

    This is such a moving post. I love how you leverage the stages of grief. Typically these stages manifest in traumatic situations where you have little to no control. So apropos. But your writings empower, hopefully, returning the sense of power to authors. Thank you Kris!