Business Musings: Indie Publishing: The Good Stuff (2017 in Review)

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This is the last post I’m writing on 2017. I hate looking backwards as a new year starts, and I’m writing this post on January 2, awfully late for me. I want to focus on 2018!

I had thought of writing a listicle post, clickable, of all the great stuff that happened for indies in 2017, but I had a realization as I developed it. What each indie writer considers “great,” others consider too much or too hard or horrible or whatever.

In other words, greatness, like most things, is in the eye of the beholder.

And the fact that we can no longer agree on the great stuff…is the greatest thing that happened in 2017.

Let me explain.

Indie publishing has finally segmented. Writers are doing their own thing, and one career doesn’t look like another career.

This segmentation was kinda there from the start. We all came from different levels of experience. Some indie writers were brand-new, putting up their very first novel without trying to get traditionally published. Others had written a lot of novels, but hadn’t been able to get anything through the gauntlet that traditional publishing had become. Those writers were putting up years of work, one novel at a time.

Some indie writers had given up on traditional after a career there, and were putting up novels to see if this new way worked. Others had a long traditional career, with several novels that had gone out of print. Those writers (like me) were putting up backlist, figuring that a few sales were better than no sales at all.

No one, in the beginning, dumped their traditional career for an indie career, because no one knew how indie was going to work. That phenomenon came a few years later, when it was clear this indie thing had legs and was, in most cases, better than traditional publishing.

However—and this is a big however—every single one of us who put up books indie in those early years had three things in common.

First, we were all writers (not marketers, not publishing companies, not outside businesses).

Second, we were all entering a marketplace brand new to everyone. No one knew how this marketplace worked.

Third, we were all running start-ups. Every single one of us was building a brand-new business from the ground up.

Sure, a lot of us had previous business experience. Some had owned other businesses (like law firms or retail stores). A few of us, including me and Dean, had run publishing businesses before. Dean and I really had a leg up, because we knew how publishing worked—its seasons, its pitfalls.

But that leg up was balanced by old-fashioned assumptions that didn’t apply in the modern era. So sometimes we made boneheaded mistakes from an indie perspective, because that boneheaded thing had been successful in our previous work as publishers. Sometimes, we did boneheaded things from an indie perspective, and that bone-headed thing turned out to be brilliant.

Honestly, for us, that boneheadedness was a fifty-fifty proposition.

But, like many other former business owners, we knew how to handle cash flow; we understood that no business builds quickly; and we were willing to try new things.

Running start-ups is hard in any business. It takes about five years for a business to get off the ground and become solid.

Running start-ups in a brand-new industry (or a brand-new corner of an industry) is harder, because no one knows how everything is supposed to work. There is no accepted wisdom to learn from or to fight against.

The Kindle is ten years old now, and indie publishing as a phenomenon is nine years old. A lot of writers went by the wayside in those nine years.

I suspect if we contacted all of those writers, we would learn that what killed most of them was the business aspect of publishing. Writing can be lonely work, and sometimes it’s difficult (although I hesitate saying that because fighting fires is difficult; brain surgery is difficult. Writing is something most of us do for fun).

But running a business takes a variety of skills from the ability that got you into the business to understanding contracts to financial savvy to learning marketing. Some writers hired staff or assistants for various projects, which brought the writers into the people management side of the business. And then there’s the day-to-day grind of working uphill in uncharted territory.

Every day was exciting, but every day was scary. Without data on the industry itself, it was impossible for many writers to know what was normal and what wasn’t. (Easier for those of us with publishing or business experience or both, because some of the patterns applied.)

Since everyone in indie publishing was running a start-up in a brand-new field, we had a lot in common. We were learning what worked, what didn’t work, which distributers were reliable, which ones weren’t. We were learning how to hire cover designers and copy editors at the same time as everyone else. We were figuring out print-only deals and foreign rights and whether or not we should continue being hybrid with traditional publishing all at the same time.

For about four years, the fact that we were all start-ups learning the business together gave the illusion that there was only one path to having a successful book. We’d all look to the break-out authors and see if we could replicate what they had done.

Sometimes what they had done was replicable. Sometimes it was unique to them.

But we all tried it, and we all learned what worked or didn’t at the same time.

Real early on, Dean and I started the Business Master Class here on the Oregon Coast. We needed to share some our publishing experience so that our writer-friends wouldn’t crash and burn. At the same time, we needed to learn from our indie-only friends about some of the experiments that they had conducted.

We learned about BookBub at those early classes, about Caliber and about Smashwords. We learned things that no longer apply five years later—a lot of things that flashed in the pan and then vanished.

And we built a heck of a worldwide network of motivated indie writers, all of whom tried things, invented things, started up their own publishing-related companies, and had a lot of writing success (some of it replicable, and some of it not).

In that network, long about 2013, it was becoming clear that indie writers’ careers were diverging. Dean and I noticed that real early on, because we had concentrated on getting a lot of product to market. We decided to publish as much of my backlist as we could, and ended up publishing lots of novels and short stories.

Dean had written a lot of work-for-hire, and wanted to overwhelm all of those novels with original novels under his own name. Which he did within a few years.

But our concentration—my backlist, his high-speed production—led us to publish hundreds of titles, where most of the other writers had less than ten indie titles.

Marketing diverged first. Most of the marketing that indie writers were doing was labor-intensive. The writers spent hours per day promoting a single title. Well, that’s just not possible with hundreds of titles. So much of that kind of marketing was stuff those of us with a lot of product simply couldn’t do.

We watched other diverging paths as well. The genres split, with romance and erotica leading the way, mystery lagging behind. Then erotica writers found themselves marginalized in forum after forum. Romance still leads the way, but some of the marketing that, for example, the main indie romance writers have pioneered don’t work for big fat fantasy novels.

These diverging paths, which we saw in our network first, has now hit indie publishing as a whole. Some of the paths fit some subgenres. Others work for the writers with a handful of books. Still others work for those of us with a lot of product.

But more than that, writers are following different paths. Many hybrid writers are full indie now. They found that they’re having problems with their traditional publisher. (For some of those problems, see Michael J. Sullivan’s comment on my post “The Year in Review.

Some indies have gone completely traditional, including the big indie names of the early years like Amanda Hocking and Andy Weir.

Others are working harder, faster, and trying to stay ahead of the changes. Even more indies are finally taking the long view of their careers, and blogged about that at year’s end.

A lot of traditionally published writers have been tossed aside by their publishers and are coming into indie. They’re learning the stuff many of us learned years ago, but these traditional/new-indie writers are learning in a different environment.

Some of what we long-term indies do is back-asswards now. Someone has invented a better way to do it, and we haven’t discovered that better way. A lot of the newer indie writers (not newer writers) have those methods at their fingertips, and so many things are easier.

But the hardest thing for the true newbies is figuring out the path.

The gurus are still around, but they’re different ones than they were five years ago. These folks have found The Answer! The Best Way To…advertise or sell 10,000 copies of a book…or make $100,000 on Amazon Alone! …or you name it, there’s a guru for it. They’ll go away when their system ceases to work and their sales go down, or, as in the case of some of the gurus, their writing careers take off and they have to choose between being a public speaker or being an actual writer.

In 2017, I was disappointed to realize that some of the people I had used as clearing houses for information were just finding different gurus to interview. I thought these people had vetted the interviews they did or the gurus they espoused, but no, they were trying to get someone on their podcast or to find a good guest blog post. So, I’ve refined a lot of my information sources down to aggregators instead of listening to one source.

I feel a bit sad about that, though, because I had hoped for a filter, and instead, my filters had turned into churners. Ah, well. I’m back to filtering on my own.

But my problem with information sources is a problem that newbies have multiplied exponentially. There’s so much information out in the world on how to indie publish, and a lot of it is wrong or it’s from 2014 or it’s freebie gateway into someone’s $1,000 publishing plan for your book! I recently had to stop a retired friend of mine from spending thousands to get his book published, because one of these gurus/scammers had come up first on my friend’s search.

All of this, though, is signs of a mature market. Writers are different. We should be different. What works for me might not work for you. What works for me doesn’t even work for Dean some of the time or half the other people in our tight-knit local writing group. And our international writers network has its own differences, just based on country alone.

But the nice thing about networking is one of us can ask if someone has tried a new product and guaranteed someone has, and can make a recommendation. Or if we need to know the latest and best tool for whatever, we’ll get a variety of opinions.

As I said earlier in the year, I had 25 pages of notes from our Business Master class, most of them one-sentence items on things I hadn’t heard of before. I’m sure I’ll have just as many after 2018’s class.

What this means for this blog post is that my list idea more or less vanished. I didn’t want to be like the churners and tell you about something I hadn’t vetted for myself, but a lot of what I like (or the folks who work with me like) is particular to me or my needs at the moment.

So rather than have a long, long list of my own, here’s what I want to do. I will list a few game changers (in my opinion) from 2017. Then I would like you folks to list game changers in the comments section.

Don’t just name the product/service/app. Provide a link, and add why you think that thing is important.

Also, please talk about trends as well. I don’t see everything (obviously) and I was particularly oblivious in 2017. So feel free to add below.

My criteria for this list is pretty simple. Did or will the item listed below change the indie experience for the better?

If my answer is yes, then the item got listed.

Here we go:

Vellum Print:

If you have a Mac, then this program will help you create lovely print books. You folks have seen me complain and complain and complain about indie writers’ print editions. Indies seem to think print is easy and it’s not. Or they hire some idiot book designer who thinks they need to add all kinds of bells and whistles to make the reading experience great. (I’m dealing with that in a traditionally published book right now, which is printed in brown ink. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?)

Allyson Longueira, who runs WMG Publishing and is an award-winning graphic designer, signed off on Vellum’s print version this year. It can’t do everything she can do, but it can do enough to make it the go-to program for most of WMG’s print editions. (Not all. She still designs the interiors of the more complicated projects.)

She says the time savings alone are phenomenal.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of Vellum because I would rather be writing, so I pay people to produce my books. But here’s a piece that’ll show you how and why Vellum’s new version is something you should consider.


BookFunnel was a game changer when it appeared two years or so ago. Instead of having to give readers a dozen different links for your ebook to a dozen different formats, the reader could go directly to your BookFunnel link and get a choice. And, bonus! BookFunnel captured emails so you could put then into a mailing list if you wanted.

BookFunnel did a bunch of things, like working with mailing programs like MailChimp to make all of this much easier. (Leading, I suspect, to the newsletter nuttiness that marked late 2016 and early 2017.)

BookFunnel isn’t the only place that provides a lot of links. We use BookFunnel for giveaways and subscriptions, but I use Draft2Digital’s Books2Read for links of my own stuff on my website. [link] That’s a free service, and one I recommend when you’re just providing information, not giving something away.

BookFunnel’s game changer this year was to add direct ebook sales into its service. If you want to sell ebooks directly off your website, and go around the distributers like Amazon (or in addition to those distributers), you can do so now using BookFunnel. And BookFunnel is not taking a percentage of each sale. Instead, you pay for BookFunnel’s service in your monthly fee (whatever you choose). This direct sales option is a part of every one of BookFunnel’s plans.

It’s got me thinking of specialty content, not just to give away, but to sell as special ebook editions as well.

Drip: This is Kickstarter’s answer to Patreon, and is only in beta, but I’m hearing good things. This is worth keeping an eye on.

IndieGoGo In Demand: IndieGoGo has a service that allows people to continue raising funds after their crowd funding campaign ends. So, say you’ve funded a project on IndieGoGo, and raised the money needed. But you want to continue raising money, not in a hard-push way, but in a slow-growth way. This service (which IndieGoGo also provides to users of other crowd-funding platforms) lets you do so, while providing support underneath you so you don’t have to move everything to your own website.

Haven’t used it yet. Am looking at it for a few projects.

Findaway & Kobo Audio: Once upon a time in a land a year or so away, Audible’s ACX was the only self-publishing audiobook platform in town. Not any more. Both Findaway books and Kobo have stepped up and are providing an audio service that will help you distribute your audiobooks to a wide variety of places, including the biggies like iTunes.

Again, I haven’t used either of these services yet, although I’m hoping to. I just got bit in the butt in 2017 and all of my audio plans are on hold, but once I’m back in, I’m looking at both of these platforms for future work.

Amazon Ads: became available to all indie writers, not just a handful. This is a game-changer because for hardly any money at all, you can put your books in front of hundreds of thousands of targeted book buyers. Ad buys are always somewhat chancy, but they’re less chancy here, because you’re going after people who are already in a store. The money spent can be limited, as it can with a Facebook ad ($5 per day limit, if you want or $500 per day limit if you prefer), but it’s money well spent, if you’re looking at impressions and discoverability, not just instant gratification on sales. (The instant gratification went down as more and more writers entered the ad market. But who cares if your goal is to get the right readers to find your books. Those readers might not buy off the ads, but they’ll buy eventually. That’s what name recognition is all about.)

BundleRabbit’s Collaboration Feature

Suddenly co-publishing with a friend or a partner, or doing a real anthology with interstitials and story order, or putting together a multi-author boxed set, just got real easy.

BundleRabbit, which was and is a bundling site, added a collaborations feature this year.

So if you and another author want to co-write a book, but neither of you wants to handle the finances on that book, you no longer have to create a separate business to handle the publishing to all of the various sites (and the payments as well). BundleRabbit will handle that for you. Yes, there’s a small fee, but consider it the fee you’re going to spend to avoid paying an accountant or a lawyer or someone else.

Click here to find out more.

And Th-Th-That’s All For Now, Folks

Because I’m tired and I could do this for hours, days, weeks, even. There’s been that much cool new stuff in 2017 alone, not counting the cool new stuff in 2016 or the cool new stuff on the horizon in 2018.

I’m leaving it up to all of you to add your favorite cool new service or change in the comments below. And be positive! There’s lots to celebrate in this indie world, even if we all are pursuing our own careers at our own pace these days—and there is no longer a one-size-fits-all way of doing things.

As Marie Force said in her comment on my “Sustainability” post: “Even with the ups and downs in the market, it’s still the best time ever to be an author.”

She’s right. This is a great time to be an author, and with all of the cool new services, things are just getting better and better and better.

Have fun!


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“Business Musings: Indie Publishing: The Good Stuff,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / colematt.


11 thoughts on “Business Musings: Indie Publishing: The Good Stuff (2017 in Review)

  1. I’m a linux user, so vellum is out of reach. I enjoy using the command line, so my workflow involves using pandoc to convert mss in markdown format to ePub and LaTeX versions. I tweak the ePub in sigil and get mobi for kindle by converting in calibre. I tweak and compile the LaTeX in vim to generate PDFs for print. And I do cover design in scribus. FWIW.

  2. I joined in January only, but I think the Facebook group 20BooksTo50K has a lot of excellent advice on various topics. There’s a FAQ post pinned at the top and even though they are an advocate for KU, there are all kinds of writers – all indie, some very successful, some beginners. They also have a convention in Las Vegas (and I’ll miss the one in London for previous commitments, but I hope eventually to get there). I haven’t joined it, but there’s also 20CoversTo50K which is specifically for covers and blurbs.
    More indies paying forward! 🙂
    And I can also say that in January I had 0 sales on Amazon, and the highest payment came from BundleRabbit, so… bundles and collaborations forever! They might not bring in much money, but it’s all about discoverability and being with other authors who might have bigger readerships, right?

  3. Vellum is great. I’m using with macinthecloud, as I don’t have a Mac. I can’t believe how much time I wasted screaming at the computer previously, trying to create my print books in Scrivener & Word.

    Amazon Ads: I’ve only seen them as an Amazon customer, but so far every single ad I’ve seen has been completely useless

    So searching for a business book, seeing ads for cheesy urban fantasy romance stories, a genre I have never read.

    So not sure about Amazon ads.

  4. Thanks for an informative newsletter. Have you tried MailerLite, cheaper than MailChimp? I’m still using Pluggio for twitter and wondering if it’s worth the cost.

  5. I’ll consider using Vellum when they get off their elitist @$$ and offer a Windows version. Until then, yeah it takes a dozen hours or so but HTML still works just fine.

  6. When Pronoun went away, a new aggregator picked up the slack, especially for those eager to distribute to Google Play. I’ve found it very user-friendly, and it distributes around the world to some places others don’t.

  7. Some interesting resources. Might budget for a cheap Mac just for Vellum alone. I think the key things here is that an indie writer needs marketing, good marketing, and stable marketing. Besides writing good books and stories that is. Will dive into some of these links later once some projects are taken care of.

  8. You mentioned it takes five years to get a new business on solid ground. Both you and Dean have said this before and at least in my case, that’s correct. Back in 2013 I lost my last day job. I was a travel blogger for Gadling, a hugely popular travel blog that paid me pretty well and sent me on trips to places like Ethiopia and Somaliland. It was my dream job. But 2013 was the year that advertisers all realized at the same time that they weren’t getting good value for money, and ad revenues crashed. That took out a lot of major blogs and other websites, Gadling included.
    I’d been tinkering with indie publishing before, coming out with a single title, but hadn’t gotten very serious. Now I had a major incentive. Fast forward five years and I have 16 titles out and more on the way for 2018. But I’m not making my living with indie publishing. Marketing is still hard for me. Instead, I’m making most of my living doing ghostwriting. I’m paid well and am offered more work than I have time to accept. So while my writing business is on solid ground, it’s a slightly different business than I anticipated. Now I’m trying to carve out more time for my own work while still maintaining a decent ghostwriting income. It’s a tricky balance, but one I hope to get right his year.
    Thanks for the weekly writing advice!

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