Why Going Indie ISN’T Career Suicide #authors #writers #amwriting #indie #books

Posted by on August 24, 2012 in Debatable Topics | 4 comments

An Introduction

For years there has been a lot of discussion of authors going indie. Some say it’s career suicide. Some say it’s not. Some say it depends on how you define career suicide. For example, if you plan to stay indie, then it’s not really career suicide, is it? It’s living out your chosen career, be is successful or not. However, what about those who haven’t written off traditional publishing? Are they flushing their options down the toilet by self-publishing their novel?

Of course there will be those who say, “Look at Amanda Hocking or any other indie who went on to publishing deals or to make millions.” First, this isn’t about whether or not an indie author can sell. Some will sell amazing, some won’t. Just like traditional authors. And most indie authors will not have Amanda Hocking’s success anymore than most traditional authors will have Stephenie Meyer’s success. This post isn’t so much about that as it is about career choices and possibilities.

For example, some people might go to college and move right into a management position at their local grocery story. Another person might start as a cashier and work their way up the chain. The point is, you first have to decide what career you want and what your career path will be. IF you want to be a traditional author, do you want to wait for the opportunity to go straight into management? Or would you prefer to make a little cash until you work your way up? CAN you work your way up if you start as an indie?

Like it or not, being indie is still seen by many as the bottom rung on the publishing ladder, and if indies want that to change, it’s totally up to them to change it by providing quality writing and engaging stories. As an indie, they have to be prepared that some people will go into their books expecting not to like them. Some may even nit pick their book more than they would a traditionally published novel. That’s not a dig at anyone; it’s how the brain works. It’s not intentional, but it’s a hurdle that indies have to face and, in time, overcome.

To be fair, we are circumventing the traditional methods of quality control. We have to make sure we have our own quality control policies in place, and not all indies will chose to do that. And not all readers will chose to give indie books a chance. Some may only try indie books that come highly recommended, and yes, that almost seems like a catch 22 because who will recommend the book if no one is reading it? Don’t worry. There are people out there. (Love you guys!)

But the real question is, if you ultimately want a traditional publishing deal, is going indie career suicide?

This idea comes from what your intended career is. Is it just writing and selling books, or is your career goal traditional publication? If you intend to go traditional, is indie publishing suicide of that dream? This is there the debates come in. Indies cite authors who eventually made it big while authors aspiring to be traditional point out how rare that really is. And it is rare.

Know what else is rare? Getting a traditional deal without going indie first.

Getting a traditional deal is just HARD no matter how you go about it. And it goes so far beyond talent. If talent were the only deciding factor, a lot more books would make it and a lot less books that made it would sell so poorly. There is more to it. There’s marketability (do THEY think they can sell your book?). There’s timing (Did you catch an agent/publisher in the right reading mood? Did you catch them before they already picked up something similar? Here’s a secret. An agent might sign a book, then read one that is similar but BETTER and still pass on it because it’s too similar to what they just signed; at the same time they say, don’t rush to send them your ideas!). Some of it is plain luck.

But does going indie RUIN your chances?

Here is one of the main arguments I hear all the time:

If you go indie and your book doesn’t sell well, they won’t offer you a deal on your next book.

Why I don’t buy this:

1) Agents and Publishers aren’t stupid. They know indies don’t have the same access to marketing and marketing funds as the traditionals do.

2) One book not selling well doesn’t mean another book won’t.

3) Pen Names. If for whatever reason the first book was so bad it’s “ruined” the author’s name, but the agent/publisher thinks the next book is AMAZING and could be a bestseller, they can always have the author use a nome de plume.

Think I’m off my rocker? Ask Jane Friedman over at Writer’s Digest. It seems she just might agree with me :)

It’s no secret I landed my agent and my pending “Big News” (coming soon!) through indie publishing. Does that mean all authors will have the same experience? No. But they could! And it won’t HURT them to indie publish. If anything, I almost wonder if, for an author who had everything but luck while submitting their books, if Indie Publishing might actually HELP them.

Speaking of my own experience, I had a lot of close calls with publishers and agents. I received a lot of positive feedback. And I’d spent thousands of dollars on editing (above the free critique exchanges I did online). I didn’t want to give up on my book like that. I figured, if I put it out there, at least I’ll make a little of that money back while I write the next book.

And it was doing so that landed me my agent.

So you can be a successful indie. You can also do so without ruining your shot at becoming a traditional author. But to do so, it all involves doing the same thing. And you SHOULD do these things because READERS DESERVE IT!

-Write an engaging story.

-Write characters people can care about and relate to.

-Hire a professional* cover designer.

-Hire a professional* content editor.

-Hire a professional* copy-editor.

-Get as many pairs of proofreading eyes as you can (and realize that might still not be enough!)

-Make it easy for readers to take a chance on your book. (Free/Cheap copies early on gives hesitant readers a chance to read your work and recommend it to others)

(Professional does not mean someone who charges you money. It means someone with a good reputation for in what they do)

This is your chance to SHOW agents and publishers that your work can sell. If you think you are worth investing in, invest in yourself. Show that there is a payoff possible. If that doesn’t work, you really won’t be any worse off for it. You’ll still be able to get a traditional publishing deal if your next book is something traditional publishers want.

In conclusion, no, I don’t think going indie is career suicide. It’s either the career you want or a way to get the career you want, or . . . well, nothing. At it’s worst, going indie leaves you where you started, but it won’t ruin your chances of anything for the future.

* * *

Rebecca Hamilton is a USA Today bestselling Paranormal Fantasy author. Her bestselling Forever Girl Series is available at online retailers and has been optioned for film with Witten Pictures. The Hungarian edition has been published with IPC books and the German edition has been published with Darkiss, a Harlequin imprint.


  1. This was a great piece with a lot of helpful insights. Going indie is such a growing trend. It will be interesting to see how this impacts the writing world in the coming years.

  2. Rebecca,

    Thank you for bringing some well needed sense to the argument of whether or not authors should publish their own books.

    Here are a few more points to chew on. Publishers may have more marketing funds, but rarely do they spend them on emerging authors, other than to include the book in the catalog. Marketing dollars are hard to come by, and so publishers save them for the frontlist authors.

    What makes a frontlist author? It’s not track record, it’s not the reputation of the agent, and it’s not simply luck. It’s the likelihood of sales. In nonfiction, that can be forecast using several factors: the readers’ needs, current events, and author platform. In fiction, platform is all there is (current events and a sudden demand brought on by fortunate reviews happen in a flash, too fast to react to).

    Author-published books, of course, have very little access to monstrous marketing budgets. However, the same formula applies, because readers generally don’t make a book-buying decision based on the imprint. Readers are not likely to give an amateurish book a chance, but a well written, well designed, well distributed book will not sound any alarms with readers, and they are as likely to read an indie book as they are a third-party-publisher book.

    In the indie route, as in the third-party route, we see over and over again, platform is what matters. Many authors may wince at this, wanting instead for quality writing to matter. But quality writing is how you build a platform, so it does matter. Just as flour matters to a bread recipe. But fail to let the yeast rise over time (my pathetic metaphor for failing to let your writing draw a crowd over time) and it all falls flat.

    Independently publishing a book is not really a matter of “success.” It is a matter of how an author wants to run her business. Publishing is not just pushing the PUBLISH button. There is an entire business to run, a distribution stream to maintain, returns policies to process, and of course marketing. The profits and rewards can be worth it, but many writers ay instead prefer to focus on writing and wish for others to handle the publishing tasks.

    Usually, it doesn’t even come down to “profit versus simplicity.” It usually comes down to control. That is why Mark Twain published his own The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, why Edgar Rice Burroughs set up his own publishing company Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., why Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway and Richard Nixon took to publishing their own books. Most business writers don’t even think about publishing through a third party, and that speaks volumes.

    I also applaud you for not using the expression “self-published.” I find it has negative connotations, implying that the author is out there on her own, that no one is truly interested in the book professionally. I find “independently published” is not the right term, though. I am the publisher of Flying Pen Press, and we are an independent publishing company.

    Rather, I think the term “author-published book” carries the right amount of perspective and respect. And authors don’t need to be alone. There are plenty of publishing professionals working freelance, and there are business managers like myself who focus on authors’ business. I even go so far as to manage author-owned publishing companies, which gives authors the ability to attend to all the responsibilities of publishing while still preserving their time for writing. Publishing independently is not as lonely as most writers think.

    A great article, thank you so much for getting it out there.

    –Keep ’em Flying,
    David Rozansky
    Publisher, Flying Pen Press
    Author’s Business Manager,
    and Author of the forthcoming Fishnets & Platforms: The Writers Guide to Whoring Your Book.

  3. Excellent post. As a reader, I’ve read bad traditionally published books and bad indies. It’s not self-publishing that makes a book “bad.”
    I will say that a content editor, copy editor and cover artist are must haves. I will pass on a book if the cover is poorly done or DNF it if the content is full of errors.

  4. Great article! You make excellent points about using indie sales as proof to an agent and/or publisher you can sell your work. And going about the groundwork in a professional manner is very important too, steps I’m taking myself as I head in this direction. Thank you!

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