Last weekend I attended a two-day writers’ conference for indie authors held here in Chicago. These were some of the friendliest, most creative people I have ever met! Nearly all of these folks were self-published authors, some of them selling enough books to earn a living. No pretentiousness, no arrogance. And while I am not self-published (my hybrid publisher is considered by the industry to be a special case of traditional publishing. Click here for more information on the advantages of a hybrid model), I felt a kinship with these authors that I did not share with those I have met at other writers’ conferences. I bristle at anyone who says that there is only one way to do things (unless it is salvation, of course), which is usually their way. I also feel that if I created it, I should have control over it, especially if my name is on it. The indie spirit of entrepreneurship and creative control runs thick in my veins.
Leaving the traditional model behind
Sick of bureaucracy
At this writers’ conference, I met a woman who wrote a series for a traditional publisher and is now writing a self-published series. The two biggest reasons she gave for leaving her publisher were: more control over her own work and the possibility of earning more money. As she shared her story, I heard the same themes I have heard before. One of her past editors asked her to write a book that she didn’t really want to write. Her last editor with that publisher asked her to make changes she didn’t want to make. While she received an advance, she didn’t bother to market the series because she only received a quarter for every book sold after the advance earned out. Yes, that’s right. Twenty-five cents.
I spoke with a former literary agent who told me how he had to turn down great book proposals because the author did not have a large enough platform. He said that the books sounded great, the proposals were well-written, but the publishers wouldn’t take a book that couldn’t sell itself. He left the traditional publishing industry because of this and now helps authors develop platforms for selling their own books.
Burned by bureaucracy
I have heard countless stories like these. Agents who agreed to shop a book around and dumped the author after trying one publisher (they are supposed to shop it around to many publishers and only give up after a year of trying). Publishers who folded and their contracted authors had to sue to get their rights returned to them. Publishers who did not pay their authors the royalties due to them. Editors who asked for so many changes that the book was no longer the same book. Authors who thought that traditional publishing was their road to stardom, received $5000 for their first book, and nothing else.
And yet, not every author who has been treated this way will decide to take matters into her own hands and publish her books herself. Many still cling to the traditional model and hop from agent to agent, publisher to publisher. They still dream of being the next Stephen King or Veronica Roth. What most don’t realize is that 7.5 million new books are published each year, divided between the two main publishing models. Penguin Random House, the world’s leading trade book publisher with 250 imprints, publishes 15,000 of those new titles each year. That is nearly 290 books a week. How many of these receive considerable marketing? Not that many. That is why most authors are expected to do their own marketing. But, if the author receives a small advance and only 7% of net sales, what is the incentive to market?
The authors at this writers’ conference said “No way” to all of that. They don’t necessarily have dreams of stardom (some do), only to be able to pay their bills. They are on the cutting edge of the future of the publishing industry.
Lessons from an Indie Writers’ Conference
Finding my writing tribe filled me a sense of comradery and joy. Here were people who value freedom, creativity, family life, and entrepreneurship. They accepted me as a Christian, too, which I wasn’t expecting. There were other takeaways that seemed to me to fall into three categories: content, creativity, and community.
This is kind of obvious. The writing has to shine. At this conference, they really promoted writing series fiction because it hooks readers, is easier to market, and provides a more sustained income. They didn’t talk about how to write. There are plenty of resources for that. They did discuss editing and how important it is to be critical of my own work. I need to write the first draft without my editor hat and just get it down. This would enable me to write more books in a shorter time frame. Some of these authors write 10,000 words a day! It blew me away and inspired me at the same time.
Much of the conference covered marketing creatively. I learned a lot about how Amazon ads work. I also came away with some great new ideas for finding and serving readers, some of them counter-intuitive. But that’s one of the great things about this group. They are willing to try new things and pass on their wisdom to others. Because indies are responsible for every aspect of producing books—even if they hire others to do design and formatting—they are incredibly creative. The biggest take away here is to find and nurture readers . . . one reader at a time.
With authors, there are two communities to build. One is building a network of other authors. You can read about that here. But, just as important (if not more so) is a community of fans. These folks emphasized relationship over selling. Authors need to have a personal connection with their fans. Their readers need to know that they truly care about them and their needs, whether their needs are entertainment-focused, education-focused, or encouragement-focused. The author needs to be invested in her audience and providing value.