On Books: Are Indie Authors Doing the Best They Can?

I know the question seems odd. Of course, indie authors are writing the best books they can. This seems an obvious answer, so why ask the question? Perhaps because the answer defines the problem: writing the best book they can is not enough in this age of self-publishing.

In the 1990s, I ran a small publishing company. I had to find the authors to publish, arrange for editing, hire the designer, and take care of all the production details — including arranging for a print run and warehousing of the printed books. This was before the age of ebooks. My biggest challenge was distribution: If the book didn’t appear on bookstore bookshelves, it was more than a guaranteed money loser — it was a sure disaster.

In the days before ebooks, it was a delicate balancing act to determine the correct print run and the retail price of a book. Too small of a print run and too low of a price guaranteed a loss even if every book was sold at 100% retail. Too large of a print run and/or too high a retail price also was problematic.

The age of ebooks has changed the dynamics. I wish I were running that small publishing company today because ebooks and the Internet have solved or reduced many of the problems of print publishing, especially those of finding books worthy of being published and distribution. But the eBook Age has changed an even more important dynamic because it has made self-publishing by indie authors viable.

Yet I wonder if these indie authors are really doing the best that they can.

All of the jobs that the traditional publisher performed in the 1970s and 1980s now need to be done by the indie author. Some do the jobs very well; others seem to miss the boat.

One of the first lessons that every indie author needs to learn is that they must always be selling their writing. You can’t just write and hope someone else will pick up the sales ball. I know that seems obvious, but it is the scope of what constitutes selling that I think gets missed. Even such simple things as how the ebook is designed is selling. Choosing the right typeface and font size is selling. Providing metadata for running heads for those devices that will display a running head is selling. Participation in forums of readers and constantly mentioning your writing is selling. A well-done cover design is selling.

For many people, selling themselves is the hardest thing to do in the world. It is why in law firms the “rainmakers” are considered more valuable than any other attorney in the firm; it is the rainmakers who bring in the business by selling themselves and the firm. The indie author has to be his or her own rainmaker.

The point I am trying to make, and probably not well, is that it is not enough to write a fabulous story; the indie author must constantly sell it to get people to read it and talk about it, and the selling can’t be just at their own website. In addition, indie authors need to learn the lesson that everything they do should be geared toward selling their writing.

The other day I complained about authors who write series but provide no synopsis of what happened in previous books in the series. This is a failure of not thinking through who one’s beta readers are. If you use as beta readers only people already familiar with your work, you lose the perspective of new readers who stumble on your books and choose the newest release rather than the oldest release to read. Authors should not assume that even devoted fans will remember plot details that are essential to understanding the current book in a series but which occurred in prior books. A good publisher (even a good editor) would/should identify this weakness; consequently, the indie author needs to be able to step back and identify it as well.

Here’s something else: I am a fan of several indie authors and I look forward to reading the next book they write. But my failing is that I do not keep a list of these authors and do a search at B&N or Smashwords to see if they have released a new book. Their failing as an indie author is not finding a way to get my e-mail address and not only telling me that they have released a new ebook and here are the B&N/Smashwords link(s), but not sending me an e-mail every three to four months to tell me that they are still working on their next book and hope to have it available by x date.

If I had to recommend one particularly good source that every indie author should emulate, it is Baen Publishing. Not its website, but its monthly mailing. Every month I receive an e-mail telling me the progress its authors are making on forthcoming books. I am told when a book is quarter done, half done, in review copy, and published, among other steps. By the time a book is published, I have received at least a half-dozen e-mails that mention the book, thus keeping the author and the book in front of me — that is, selling the author and the book to me.

I have read a good number of indie-authored ebooks that should be selling significantly more copies than are being sold. Certainly, I think that every indie author whose ebooks I have reviewed and rated 5 or 5+ stars should be selling thousands more copies than they are. That they are not indicates to me that they are exceptional writers who feel uncomfortable creating a business plan for selling their ebooks. Thus, the answer to my question is, “No, indie authors are not doing the best they can!”


  1. Ingo Lembcke23 May, 2012

    The point you make can also be applied to the major sellers (Amazon) and not-indie Authors. Getting a lot of mail and more or less targeted information about things I might be interested in, I do not want a monthly mail with progress about a future book from most authors I read. Instead, what I want is an information on two specific dates: when a book is nearing publishing state with a certain date (which might slip) and on the date it is released, when I can download the ebook or buy the printed paper-version. Apple with iTunes for Music does a good job for this, also the Sony eBook-store, one of the reasons I still prefer this store to others.
    Amazon Alerts and other information mails from Amazon are hit- and miss, interestingly. I never complained to them but the Alerts-Setup is copy-paste making it time-consuming, not a click on a page for an author or book-theme. The process to get better suggestions is ok, but also time-consuming to get right: you click through large lists of thinks you bought at amazon or are suggested (and you bought elsewhere).
    I did not check Barnes&Noble nor Kobo how their suggestions work, with both I get the standard mail-newsletter which I skim and delete mostly.
    From Sony I get these and also for 20 or so authors I like I get a mail when they ad an ebook to the store (wether a new book or an old book gets published as an ebook).
    For Sony the big, large caveat where they probably loose many customers is that you cannot use your webbrowser for this, you are forced to use their software (or their reader). And the software has gotten worse from their old release to their current one on Mac/Win, no iOS-Version and I have not tested the Android one.
    To get back to the subject, I have a few Authors I subscribe to their personal Mail-Infos and am glad that they do not send them too often (for that they can use Twitter). But a regular mail from a publisher about the progress writing a future book from some Authors?
    No, with most Authors I do not even know their publisher, and as far as I know they are mostly different, big ones, making a regular mail from them even less useful, a reason why I do not subscribe to them.
    I want to read books, not (too much) about books.
    But I agree that Authors should do more to advertise their books.

  2. MelM23 May, 2012

    One of the things I miss most from Fictionwise at it’s prime was the ability to put an author’s name on a list and every time something new from that author was added to the catalog I got an e-mail. No need for me to remember to check in on author progress. This was almost always a guaranteed sale. I don’t understand why the major bookstores don’t provide this service.

  3. Holly Bush24 May, 2012

    I agree that many writers do not do the marketing that is required. But I do think this is an industry in flux so what has worked before, may not work any longer making it more difficult to know what to do. I wrote a blog piece ( . . . And the walls come a tumbling down) about this but only addressed traditional publishers reactions to this change in their industry.

    The big story will be when something, and I have no idea what, begins to separate the marketing savvy self pubbed with a good book from all the rest. I think it will be an advertising opportunity we don’t know about yet.

  4. Lynne25 May, 2012

    This is actually a fairly similar problem as those facing visual artists these days. There’s a lot more opportunity for self-marketing and getting your work directly in front of art consumers; gone are the days of fighting hard to get around gatekeepers (galleries and museums), although they still exist. You can see the gatekeepers losing ground by the number of high end commercial galleries closing in most places, though commercial galleries always were a dicey game anyway.

    You no longer need the guts and the luck of Le Salon des Refusés to get outside the prevailing envelope, if you are good enough at self marketing.

    But most artists, loving the act of DOING art, hate to sell themselves. Building out websites, social media, lists of contacts, lists of fans and buyers, etc, all takes time and work AWAY from the studio. But it’s a necessary part of the modern artist’s tasks.

    I’m seeing some really great innovation in my town – little “alternative” gallery spaces, artist cooperatives renting out a communal commercial space in our downtown for the purpose of exhibition and collaboration, etc.

    So it’s happening, but the average artist must also be a social media expert, marketing export, and salesperson as well as a great artist.

  5. Becki26 May, 2012

    One of the most frustrating things for indie authors/publishers is finding people: people to edit/beta read, people to review, people just to talk to. My husband and I have been working with his novels, music, videos, and now ebook, attending any events we can (from libraries to comic conventions to movie premieres to goth industrial dance clubs). Once we find people, we do try to connect with them, either via email or via Facebook. We are constantly posting updates to those people, showing photographs of models we’ve worked with, posting links to YouTube videos and songs on Amazon, just to keep in front of people while my husband works on his fourth novel. But it is an incredibly frustrating process.

    It’s gotten to the point where we’re just trying to create the best products we can, putting our best efforts forward in marketing his materials. Sales aren’t nearly what we’d hoped, so if you have any other suggestions, we’re open to hearing them!

    We went with Smashwords for his ebook; if you are curious, you can find it by searching their site for “Pytak” (his last name).


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