3 Things Every Indie Author Needs to Know Before Starting Out

A Pattern of Shadow & Light Epic Fantasy Series Books 1 -3

Paths of Alir, the third book in my award-winning epic fantasy series, released in stores on Saturday (Yay!!). Along the runway to this book release, I started my own publishing company and created the imprint Five Strands Publishing.

Since starting on the indie publishing path in 2010 with Cephrael’s Hand, I’ve learned from the wisdom and experience of others who in many ways paved the path for my success. Yet even with all of the great advice I’ve found, there are still a few things I wish I’d known before starting out.

When you’re first exploring the idea of indie publishing, it’s a daunting view. Many people are doing it, yet few find financial success. You have to memorize a glossary of new nomenclature that rivals the US Tax Code and work your way through a laundry list of complexities for which there are hundreds of options and yet few tried and true answers, such as how to find a cover artist, a content editor, a line editor—and do I really need a proofreader, too?—a POD (print on demand) publisher or indie press… Just trying to sort out what each of these people do and the difference between their functions can be overwhelming. And those are just a few of the many decisions you have to make.

It’s no wonder that newbie indie authors turn to full-service POD publishers to take on much of this work for them. A full-service company will make a cover for your novel, lay out your manuscript for print and ebook, register you for advertising services or awards—all great services, yet often with exorbitant price tags.

When I published Cephrael’s Hand in 2010, I went with one of these expensive “full-service” companies. They charged me $250 every time I needed to make a change to my manuscript (ideally you won’t need to, but I did—twice). They also charged me $250 every time I wanted to change my cover, even though I had provided them with the cover design. So essentially they charged me $250 just for uploading files to their system. How long would it take for my $2.99-priced eBook to earn that out?

I made the mistake of publishing my second novel with the same company—mainly because I liked the quality of the books they printed (and all POD printers are not created equal – this is another of those areas that requires exhaustive research). But as I started looking at publishing my third novel, I realized that this company wasn’t servicing me, they were taking advantage of me.

I quickly saw that if I published the rest of my novels through the same company (I have five books planned for the series) then any time I needed to make a change, I would have to pay them to do it—and pay out the nose. Even if I designed my own covers. Even if I did my own formatting. I would still have to pay whatever fees they charged to “update” my own work in their system.

I also realized that when you pay one of these full-service POD companies to do design and layout work for you, they often end up owning the files. Yes, it’s your novel, but they’re holding it hostage. If you want to make a change to a single word in your manuscript, you’re forced to pay their fees.

With this story in mind, I wanted to share three things I’ve learned that you absolutely need to know before starting on the path to independent publishing:

1. Buy your own ISBNs.

Think of an ISBN like your book’s social security number. Nothing happens in publishing without it. Your novel becomes known to readers by its title, but the retailers know it by its ISBN. You never want to have to change your ISBN. If you do, you’ll lose all of the reviews associated with the book—a near catastrophe for indie authors. Even if nothing changed in your novel, if it’s assigned a new ISBN, the retailers will consider it a new book (hence, the loss of your reviews).

When you publish with POD companies, most offer you the chance to purchase an ISBN or provide your own. What they don’t explain to you is if you purchase an ISBN through them, they own it. So if you start out publishing with CreateSpace but decide you want to one day republish your book through a different provider, you’ll have to purchase a new ISBN. You’ll lose the ISBN you got through CreateSpace—and your reviews.

It’s simple to purchase an ISBN through Bowker and then you’ll own the most important marker for your book—the one the retailers use to list it in their catalog.

So no matter which indie publishing path you choose, purchase and provide your own ISBNs. That way you’ll truly maintain control over your intellectual property – i.e., your novel.

2. Contract to own your own files.

Assuming you make it through the quagmire of first figuring out how to find someone to design your cover, format your manuscript and lay it out for press, make sure you have a clear understanding of the deliverables they’ll provide you. Some designers will lay out your manuscript and send you a print-ready pdf, but they don’t automatically send you the Adobe InDesign file so you can make future changes if some reader finds—gasp!—a typo.

(Permit me a soapbox digression: See, here’s the thing, proofreading is like peeling an onion. You have to go through layer after layer, and every one is painful. Getting a book that’s typo-free works on a sliding scale: the longer the work, the more times it needs to be proofed. If you’re thinking you can get away with doing your own edit and hiring just one proofreader (or having your mom do it for you), think again. Ideally a manuscript can be proofread—after editing—at least three times by three different sets of eyes before going to press.)

But my point is really that even if you find only one little typo in your otherwise perfect manuscript, if you don’t own the files, you’re going to have to pay someone else to change your a to an.

It’s the same idea with your covers. Make sure you get the Photoshop files from your designer and that this deliverable is part of your initial negotiations, because even if you don’t feel comfortable adding that one new line to the back cover that shouts your novel’s award status, you want to be able to shop the work to the lowest bidder to handle it for you.

(And one more caveat here: If you’re planning a series, find a cover designer you can work with for all of your covers, and take the time to create a design that has elements you’ll be able to carry through the subsequent novels in the series. Branding yourself and your series is incredibly important. Rebranding a series in the middle of its publication because your novels have no continuity is a very unwelcome experience.)

3. Find out as much as you can before you begin.

Corollary: Learning along the way is emotionally draining—and expensive.

At first glance, it seems so easy, this indie-publishing gig. Write a book, upload it to Amazon. What could be simpler? (The hard part is the writing, right? And hey—you’ve got that in the bag.)

They say there’s no substitute for experience, but it doesn’t have to be your experience. Learn from others’ mistakes—learn from my mistakes—and take in everything you can before you start down this path. There’s a lot to know about this business. If you go into it thinking self-publishing is just a means to an end, you’ll fall right on your face, and that brilliant novel won’t get the notice it deserves.

Lots of others have spoken at length on how indie authors have to be publishers, designers, marketers, advertisers, spokesmen—and somewhere in there, you have to find time to write your next book. I’ve included a list of bloggers who offer particularly helpful advice for indie authors below. But the way I found these bloggers is via twitter.

So my last and most important point is this: If you’re an indie author—or an author of any kind, for that matter—you need to be on twitter. Even if you’re not trying to grow your own following, twitter is an invaluable news network for writers, providing writing tips, tricks of the trade and every possible form of advice. You’ll find publishers and agents on twitter, and a host of opportunities to share, collaborate and learn. If you do nothing else, get on twitter and start following some of the great and wonderfully helpful people I’ve listed below.

The Book Designer – Joel Friedman’s blog is a one-stop shop for advice on all things indie publishing. He also does a weekly round-up of blogs of other indie authors who are providing regular advice.

Anne R. Allen’s Blog – Anne R. Allen is the author of many successful novels. She writes a weekly column with NYT-bestselling author and former Big 6 editor, Ruth Harris. Both ladies offer logical, down to earth advice on making a career in writing, with a special slant towards helping indie and hybrid authors.

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing –  Best-selling author J.A. Konrath has sold more than 3 million books in twenty countries and is considered one of the pioneers in indie publishing.

Hugh Howey’s Blog – Hugh Howey has one of independent publishing’s biggest success stories. His blog offers advice to prospective indie authors and commentary on the indie publishing industry in general.

So there you have it. Some points I hope will help prevent you from reinventing the wheel that took me three books to figure out. Let me know if you find these ideas helpful (leave any comments below), and good luck!

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