Among writers, particularly old hands, particularly old hands who have been stuck in mid list a long time, there’s this attitude towards Indie publishing that goes “We’ll never go hungry again.”
I have this attitude myself, of course, but I think it’s causing a lot of newbies, beginners and innocents to be confused. (Which Is why I stole the spirit of the title from The Intransitive Vampire.)
I thought I had explained how it works, but I don’t think I ever did, not all in the same place. I just assumed that people could sort of glean what was happening from my posts on things like covers and pricing and the sheer enormity of the market.
I did – I know – explain the compound-interest quality of indie publishing, but it wasn’t… uh… explicit and on the line, and so it might have been lost. Then again, this blog’s readership grew (I think I added yeast) by about three times over the last month, so some of you might simply never have heard this. (And we all know I’m so “good” at tagging posts. Not.)
However, not only a reader’s assumptions in comments yesterday, but the fact that a friend of mine asked me practically the same question and the fact that another friend was discounting indie publishing as a means of getting out of her particular bind, made me decide to do a post on it.
Two years ago, at our local con, Kevin Anderson jokingly answered a fan who said she would like to publish her novel, and should she go indie or traditional with “Well, you can go traditional and make a few thousand three years from now, or you can go indie and make a few hundred a year.”
He said it in a tone that discounted indie. At the time I didn’t know any better, and I don’t think he did either. You see, he had almost no work out indie, as of yet. Only a very few pieces, which means he was seeing a few hundred a year. (Nothing to even come close to his traditional income.)
By last year his attitude had changed. And so had mine.
Now, I’m going to be absolutely and painfully blunt: My indie experience on my own personal side is limited. So far pretty much all I have out on my own are about 35 short stories. On these I make about $200 a month from Amazon and $50 from Smashwords. (Barnes and Noble is negligible.) This is of course not enough income to replace my traditional money – OTOH hand note this is a little over ten percent of the short stories I have sitting around in drawers and hard drives. And also that about half these stories were published and have already paid, and the other half were sitting around doing nothing. There is labor involved. Editing and putting them up takes an hour or so per story (including covers) There is expense. My most expensive cover art for these runs around $5 and it has to be spectacular to run that much – but it is still an expense and when you’re looking at slamming up 200 stories well… you pace yourself.
I do intend to bring out novels – to wit Witchfinder as well as a YA which I’m pulling out of a shared universe – but right now I simply don’t have any novels out except the odd collaboration on A Touch of Night aka Pride and Prejudice and Dragons. But so far I haven’t. Not on my own.
OTOH I have friends who have done so, and from what they tell me, it works sort of like short stories.
So, here’s the truism I’ve found: You can make money from indie, but you need time and volume.
Okay, take a deep breath. What I mean by this is that you can make money from indie and you can eventually make a living from it, but you have to allow yourself time. (Particularly if no one knows you exist, though in indie the effects of “name” seem to be far smaller than in traditional.)
So, let’s say you’re unemployed and you have a novel written. Can this get you through until you find a job? Depends. Have your benefits run out? And how fast can you write?
Yes, yes, you can win the lottery. You can get a novel up there, and it sells so much and so fast you never go hungry again. I’m searching my brain for one example and not getting it. (No, not Amanda Hocking. We’ll get on that later.) But at least theoretically it’s possible.
What you have to understand is that it’s possible as it’s possible to send a novel to the offices of one of the big six, have it picked up from slush the next day and have them call you with an offer of a million dollars at the end of the week.
If you don’t have some extraordinary circumstance (for traditional publishing, someone in the business, or a previous bestselling series, or the publisher has a crush on you. For indie: a huge successful radio show, or a blog seen by millions, or…) I’d stick to the lottery. Your chances are better.
For years the traditional lottery was all that writers had to pin their hopes on, and we did so.
Now there is indie. I remember when I lived in a mountain village infected by artists (Pipe down, art is my hobby, but… trust me) I used to envy my neighbors. Most of them were, in their avocation where I was in mine: producing pro-looking results, but not noticed by the establishment yet. But while my stories went in the drawer, theirs could go up on sidewalk sales, on co-op stores, on street fairs. They were making a living.
Indie publishing is our street fair. (And like with artists, at this point, the best way to be picked up by and go big with the establishment.)
But if you think about the stories/novels you’re writing as the artists did about the pictures/sculptures they were making, you’ll understand it’s silly to imagine you can take a pot to a street fair, and shazam, someone comes along and pays you three million for it. (Particularly if you have it marked at five dollars.)
In the street fair that is Amazon, you’re thrown in along other professionals and amateurs, and people stroll along and buy what catches their eye.
As a long-time buyer at sf and fantasy shows, I’ll tell you how that works. The first time I buy an artist, it’s usually something that really catches my eye or – sometimes – something that is very cheap and shows promise (even though the rest of the artist’s stuff looks drab or ick.) At this point, the artist isn’t on my to-look-for list. However, at the next show, I’ll notice something that looks sort of similar to the picture I have hanging say over the piano. Or something with a similar theme. I buy it. On bringing it home, I notice the artist is the same. The artist is now on my “to look for list” and when going to a con art show I’ll find his/her panel first and see what I can afford. Depending on what they’ve been doing (I don’t buy meaty skull art) and how much money I have, I can buy 2 or 10 pictures of what they have at one go.)
So… How does this apply? Well, most people buying indie, are just strolling along, looking at wares. They might be looking in sf/f, or they might be looking in historical, but if they’re browsing, they didn’t find something on their “must buy.” So the first rule of attracting them is: have a big display. Which in this case means mostly: have more than one story. Your chance of pulling in someone just casually looking if all you have is one story is minimal.
This is not a reflection on your story, on you, on how you presented it (though more on that later) or even on the genre you’re working in. It’s just, if you have one story only, you’re going to get lost.
Good covers help, because someone browsing up, fast, will arrest at a great cover. But the best cover in the world will not help if your story doesn’t even appear in their listing.
One of the ways to game the system is to put the story free for some time. But even then, if all you have is that one story… what do you expect to happen?
(Amanda Hocking made a big splash because she put up ten novels, one after the other. If you have ten novels in your drawer, by all means do put them up and yeah, you can make real money quickly – though don’t count on a million. There is an element of fairy-godmother in her luck, and also “indie was smaller then.”)
However, if you are like the rest of us (I only have the rights to four of my traditional published novels, and yes, I am working on getting them up) you don’t really have anything but a novel or a few short stories.
And with a novel or up to ten short stories, you will make a few tens of dollars a month, and that’s if people find you, which might take a few months if you don’t run free promos.
There is an inflection point where your money goes up dramatically at ten stories, then fourteen, then thirty – it might vary a little, but these inflections happen. Novels, I understand are different from the beginning and make about 10 times more… once you’re found.
Look, if you only have ONE novel out and no one knows you, it might take you years to find that first batch of readers. (Which is why I let people post their links here once in a while.) And after the five or six or ten find you, it will take time to propagate under the “a friend tells a friend.”
The shortest I’ve heard, for up to three novels, for them to start selling steadily, is six months. Even if they are utterly amazing novels and you’re capturing every reader.
At this point powerful friends can help, but the BEST way for them to help is to give you a link on a blog or an aggregator. However, even the power of Insty is limited if you only have three novels out. Let’s say you do unbelievably well and you sell 100 copies that day. Um… that gives you $400 dollars in a month’s time. You see how inadequate that is, to replace full time income? And if you only have one novel/collection/ short out, you’re more likely to sell under a dozen. (You might get 1000 sample downloads, but most people don’t read it right away, some will forget it, and it’s more likely to be a slow trickle over months.)
If right now you’re saying “Stuff indie, I’m going traditional” you’re wrong.
You’re wrong because traditional will pay you up front – and as a new writer, with no connections, you max out at about 5k advance – but that’s likely to be all you ever seen. And after about a year no one will buy your book in significant enough numbers to keep it making money for you. (And we won’t get into why, or percentages, because I’m not writing a book here.)*
Meanwhile, if you’re writing indie, every story, every novel you put up there, earns you more money not just for that story, but for every other one already up. People finding your novel/short are likely to come back and buy every single similar one… forever.
So, say you have ten novels and fifty short stories up and you get a friend who has a big blog to give you a link… It could translate to thousands of dollars, and it will grow your audience forever.
BUT first you have to have the novels and short stories up.
Which is why if you call me and say “I lost my job. Can I live from indie publishing?” My answer is “How much time do you have? How much have you sitting in the drawer? How fast can you write?”
Some things to keep in mind is that “novels” are not as long as they used to be. Depending on genre, of course, but we’re going back to “golden age” length in sf, so 40 to 50k words IS a novel. You can serialize longer stories in a “novel series.”
Another thing is that series sell better, because people buying one will want them all. So, if you can – aka if you’re not Sarah – do as much under one name/genre/story line as you can. I don’t mean always — clearly I couldn’t, and I’m a great believer in experimenting in your craft – but if you’re strapped for money and need cash fast (i.e. six months to a year) do them all in a continuum or with a group of characters, even the between-novel shorts. It will maximize your sales.
So, suppose you tell me “I need money this month” and you have less than ten novels. I’ll tell you to try to get a second job (or a job) no matter how menial that pays the bare minimum, or look at making something you can sell at flea markets or… other measures of desperation. It’s not that I want to discourage you or I think you’re a bad writer (particularly if I haven’t even read you) but that in indie it SIMPLY doesn’t happen that fast. (And not in traditional, either, not if you start from submission. Even with stuff that’s good enough to sell, it took me eight years for my first publishable short story to see print – collecting 80 rejections along the way – and Darkship Thieves was written 13 years before it was published. No, it wasn’t in Baen’s slush pile the whole time. Mostly various agents thought there was no point sending it out because SF doesn’t sell.)
OTOH suppose you’re someone I know can write a novel a month, and you’ve just lost your job, and call me and say “I need to be making 1k a month in a year. More would be good, but 1k will see me through. Is it doable?” I’m going to tell you it’s more than doable and to sit your butt down and start writing.
Making $1k a month in a year is eminently doable, if by then you have ten novels, twenty short stories, and a book of essays on the heartbreak of unemployment up.
And if $1k a month is enough by then, you’re okay, because it will only grow the more you write.
And because — at least for now — the market is “flat” if you’re writing well enough, doing decent covers and blurbs (I’m taking a course on those. Shuddup) and paying attention to pricing trends, your chances of doing that, if you can write that fast, are as good as anyone else’s chances, short of the mega mega bestsellers.
Which is why we old pros are excited about going indie. Our success is in our hands and depends on how hard we’re willing to work. We’ll never go hungry again!
* Given this, why am I bothering going traditional at all? Well, there is a matter of reach. I’m not a bestseller, I am not that widely known. Going traditional gives me “reach” by placing me on shelves across the country where I can capture the majority who still read on paper but who will likely move electronic within the next couple of years. That’s the practical side. The other side is that Baen picked me up when no one else would, so they can have my stuff as long as they want me and they treat me decently. (So far so good, and I don’t see it changing, unless everyone I deal with dies of a heart attack and is replaced by aliens tomorrow. Which is, of course, possible… I mean, they make movies about chest-bursters. In that case I reserve the right to give the middle finger to the new people and go off on my own because life is too short to work with people you don’t like.)