Going Independent

[Michael Stackpole, author and faculty member of ASU’s Desert Nights Rising Stars’ Writers Conference, asked me to write about my experience in moving from traditional to independent publishing for an online lecture for the DNRS 2016 conference.]

If you can’t take a little bloody nose,
maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed.
It’s not safe out here.
It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross.
But it’s not for the timid.—Q, Star Trek:TNG

Two things.

By 2009 I had sixteen books out of print [OOP]. I begged, repeatedly, for my publishers in NYC to bring those books back into print and they, repeatedly, weren’t interested. Not in e, not in print. Nothing to see here, move it along.

And I wanted to write an historical novel about Marco Polo’s granddaughter traveling the Silk Road west between the years 1322 and 1327. Again, zero interest. ‘We don’t want to have to re-invent the Stabenow brand.’ A direct quote.

I tried my hand at uploading seven of my OOP titles to Kindle with $25 covers I bought from an indie artist, but the uploading of books to Kindle wasn’t a perfect process, that about halfway through the text turned it to gobbledygook. My own fault, as I’d only gone in about thirty pages on each book to see if all was well. A Danamaniac alerted me and I took all seven books down that day and left them down. I didn’t want to divert any more time from the writing, and quality publishing takes a lot of time.

I’d been bemoaning all this to Scott Gere, a web designer who has been my webmaster ever since I’ve had a website, and one day he interrupted me in mid-moan. “You write. I’ll do the grunt work.”

Note: Neither one of us knew squat about self-publishing or hell, even publishing. Scott’s mom and Scott, too, had been newspaper editors in a past life and I had my experience as an author at three traditional publishing houses, but that was about it. What followed was an intensive educational experience, not to mention a really scary time.

Kris Rusch and Mike Stackpole had been self-publishing for years. I knew them both and neither one of them could figure out why I didn’t just do it already and they weren’t shy about saying so. So what the hell, yeah, let’s give this a shot.

Note: The books were just sitting there, not earning anything. No, sales of used books don’t generate revenue for authors. Contain your shock.

One smart thing I had done from the beginning of my career (on the excellent and forever after cherished advice of Greg Bear) was to monitor the publication status of all my books and to get the rights back to them the instant they were declared out of print.

Note: It is far more difficult to retrieve your rights now because ebooks never go out of print and you have to make a case to your publisher that sales have dropped to the point where they are willing to revert your rights. How few copies of ebooks sold defines an ebook as being out of print? Answer: To be decided upon after much agent/author/publisher bloodletting, and not anytime soon.

But I had the rights to my books, or to those sixteen OOP in my backlist. What I didn’t have was the digital files of the final drafts. The publishers had those and I didn’t bother asking for them. Scott says, “We outsourced scanning to India a couple times at the very beginning, but the results were so horrible we ended up doing all the rest in-house. That meant buying the hardware and software, chopping the spines, and scanning those suckers ourselves.”

Note: And I didn’t have to do any of that, which was worth his share all by itself.

Then the books had to be designed for ease of reading in e, and covers made which looked as good as thumbnails on the Amazon website as they did full size, and the passing of the text beneath many more pairs of eyes. Despite our best efforts errors persisted in the text, frustrating the hell out of everyone concerned. Scott finally put a note in the back of every book.

Gere Donovan Press is committed to producing the highest quality ebooks possible. If you encountered any obvious errors, typos or formatting issues in this text, we would appreciate your bringing them to our attention, so that the next edition can be improved for future readers. Please email press@geredonovan.com, stating the name of the ebook, the type of device you are reading it on, the version (see copyright page) and the details of the error.

We were crowdsourcing edits, and we got them, and we’re still getting them. The thing we find most interesting about this process is that every single reader is so astonished and grateful to even hear back from a publisher at all.

Note: Traditional publishers have traditionally made no effort to connect with the people who buy their end product. Consider it a gift, a door left wide open for the indie author to walk right through via website, newsletter, and social media.

The deal Scott and I made was I write the books and Gere Donovan does the  cover art, book design, edits, uploading the books to the various e sellers, and collecting and disbursing royalties, if there were any, which was not so far as we knew a sure thing and certainly hadn’t been my experience in publishing that far. We agreed to split the take 75/25, 75 percent for me, 25 percent for him. His production and bookkeeping costs, $2500 per e-book, would be paid out of royalties earned. I was so terrified he was going to go into the hole doing all this work on spec that I did my level best to talk him into taking more, but he stood firm at 25 percent.

Note: If an ebook costs five bucks and you self-publish it on Amazon, your share is 70 percent of the list price, or $3.50, which is standard Amazon payout for a book at that price. Price a book at 99 cents, that payout is reversed. Amazon wants you to make money because then they do, too.

The Kindle had made the commercial sale and reading of ebooks commercially possible in 2007. It was a capable, utilitarian device, built strictly for the reading of e-books. Early adopters, those people prone to buy the next new thing no matter what it is, jumped on it and loaded up every last one of their favorite books in their favorite series. Other consumers looked on, thinking they might get into that someday. Then in 2009 Apple introduced the iPad and people were like “Oh yeah, gimmee me some of that right now” and ebook sales went baaaaZOOOOOOM.

And right after that was when my ebooks went up. The first of my sixteen OOP books, Fire and Ice, the first Liam Campbell novel, came back into print as an e-book on Kindle, Nook, and iTunes in November 2010. The last one of the sixteen and the ninth Kate Shugak novel, Hunter’s Moon, went up in October 2011.

Note: We didn’t do Kobo until their market share was worth the labor involved, which would be a couple of years down the road.

From the beginning I told Scott we were going to give away the first book in every series and his hair did not turn white. I’d read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and Free and I believed and still believe absolutely in the power of the free, the power of a free book as a gateway drug to suck readers into buying the rest of the series. If they don’t like it, no harm, no foul, and they can’t even be mad that I made them spend any money on it. If they do like it, readers generally tending to like more of what they liked before, I can ring up as many as fifteen more sales to that reader, and more than that when I write more.

Note: Update on June 28, 2019–That said, we learned that there comes a time when you’ll put a price back on the free book. Your download and sales figures will tell you when.

And as for the long tail? I’m betting everything on the long tail providing for me in my old age. One of the beauties of ebooks is that they are on sale forever, just sitting there waiting for a new reader to stumble across them. Even if you’re only making a few bucks per e-title, that’s still revenue coming in, and the more titles you have for sale, cumulatively the more revenue they will produce. A big backlist of independently published e-books is going to be more productive of revenue for you than traditional publishing is in your best decade with them if you aren’t Stephen King.

Note: iTunes understands the power of the free and always let us give away whatever we wanted to. Kobo follows their example. Amazon will let you give a book away if you let them think it’s their idea. Barnes & Noble didn’t then and still hasn’t allowed us to give any books away. [Update on 9/20/16.]  As of my last indie e-book publication, The Land Beyond on October 31, 2015, B&N still hasn’t figured out how to do pre-order links for indie published books, either, and it took them at least a day after the publication date for their buy link to go live. It’s really no wonder they’re going broke.

All of my most dire forebodings were utterly confounded. I can’t remember how many of the Kates hit the Amazon.US bestseller list but three of the Kate Shugak novels wound up on the Amazon.UK bestseller list on the same day. My income quintupled and in September 2012 I paid off my mortgage, which I had not a hope in the world of ever doing just a year before.

I think it was also right about this time that my traditional publisher made me an offer for two more Kate Shugak novels. It was very generous, well above the previous contract’s terms, but they wouldn’t budge from 25 percent e-royalties, as in 75 percent to them, 25 percent to me, and my agent’s 15 percent commission came out of my share.

Let me totally dumb this down for you. Say I have an e-book for sale on Amazon for $5. If it’s just me, publishing my own stuff, I get 70 percent, or $3.50 for each copy sold. If I let my publisher sell it, they get 75 percent of that $3.50, or $2.62, and I get $.87, less my agent’s 15 percent commission, 13 cents, making my pre-tax gross income from a traditionally published $5 ebook–ta dah!  Seventy-four cents.

$.74, or $3.50. However shall I choose.

And they weren’t interested in publishing Silk and Song, either, and I was still very interested in writing it. So I said no thank you to the offer and went on to write my historical trilogy, which is now complete, all three volumes for sale right here.

[Update on February 27, 2017: Head of Zeus in the UK are publishing the three Silk and Song novels as a single hardcover in December of 2017. And geddaloadadis cover:

HoZ Silkandsong cover art.jpg]

Silk and Song will very probably never be professionally reviewed, never be in a library, and never sell as many copies as the Kate Shugak novels. So what? I will earn more than double the amount on each copy of Silk and Song sold, even after splitting the take with Scott 75-25. The joyous truth is that I make more money selling fewer books when I publish independently, and sales will only accumulate from pub date into infinity.

Note: The one essential thing I did for Silk and Song other than write it was hire a professional editor to edit my books. All my books have been vastly improved by rigorous editorial review. No, you can’t edit your own books. No. Listen to me: NO, you CAN’T.

Of course I came into the indie game with advantages. Sixteen out of print novels, at least nine of which the fans had been looking for for years, generate an instantaneous backlist and the potential for bestseller presence which in itself garners more attention and more sales.

Note: I’m published in England, France and Italy now entirely due to the presence of the Kate Shugak novels on Amazon.UK’s e-bestseller list. My traditional publisher was never able to make that happen.

My traditional publishers had done some publicity and I had worked my butt off filling in their blanks so I already had a fan base, including the Danamaniacs. I do have a social media presence, this website, and an author Facebook page but none of them sell books, and nowadays Facebook seldom lets you, the liker, see what me, the poster, is saying, unless me the poster pays for it. I’ve tried Facebook ads a couple of times. Google ads, too. Don’t bother.

Note: Next month I’m sponsoring the podcast transcript posts on Smart Bitches Trashy Books.  That’s a targeted audience that the writer ether tells me is effective of clicks, and possibly even sales. We’ll try anything once. Oh, and the book the ad will advertise? Everything Under the Heavens, the first novel in the Silk and Song trilogy, which is now– wait for it — free. Just not on Barnes & Noble. [Update on February 27, 2017–wouldn’t do that again, either.]

And I have a newsletter which as of last October passed 10,000 subscribers. It is by far my most effective means of being heard above the noise. These are people who want my news in their inbox. It took twenty years to accumulate that number of subscribers. Start now.

[Update on May 23, 2016– There is now a federal class action lawsuit pending against Simon and Schuster alleging S&S are cheating their authors out of e-book royalties. Read about it on The Passive Voice. I’ve been waiting for something like this and I hope they win big. It is unconscionable and indefensible for the packager/marketer to make three times as much as the creator. By not sharing the wealth more equitably traditional publishers are presiding over the death of their own industry.]

Some last words for the aspiring indie author:

1. If you decide to publish independently, don’t publish via Kindle Unlimited, or at least don’t put all your books there. We tried it with a few titles, and as Scott says, “We made a few hundred extra dollars with Amazon — but lost thousands because their exclusivity requirement meant we had to shut those titles down at Apple, B&N, Kobo.” Exclusivity is not a sales engine. Publishing independently means selling independently, too, or it does if you want to make money at it.

2. That said, Amazon is the eight hundred-pound gorilla in the e-publishing room. They account for as much as three-quarters of my sales in any given month, traditional or independent. They are constantly reinventing their own wheel and if you want to stay on the ride you have to pay attention. We at least tried KU. Like I said, we’ll try anything once.

3. Start going to writers’ conferences, and join a writers’ association. Even a small conference, like the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in my home town will bring in an editor and an agent from traditional publishing, and more of them are beginning to feature independently published authors, too. For a writer’s association I recommend Sisters in Crime for their monthly SinCLinks and for their invaluable biennial Publishing Summit reports, and there is no organization more determined to see aspiring authors published than RWA (Romance Writers of America). Both organizations offer a wealth of information vital to the aspiring author in any genre.

4. Hang out on The Passive Voice, and try to read through all the comments, too. Indie/tradpub industry Names comment there often and with gusto, and Passive Guy is great with the links. It is the one essential aggregator of indie/tradpub publishing news you need to stay au courant. [Update on 4/26/16 and apropos of both Passive Voice and KU, see here.] See also Kris Rusch’s blog, Hugh Howey’s blog, and Joe Konrath’s blog. All three are successful independently published authors known for deep, articulate dives into industry issues and all have large, well-informed commentariats.

5. And finally, and possibly most importantly: In dealing with traditional publishers, if deal you must, commit these words to memory:

Never attribute to malice
what you can reasonably attribute to stupidity.
—sf author Raymond E. Feist,
from a series of columns he wrote
on publishing contracts for the SFWA Bulletin

Chatter Uncategorized Writing

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

28 Comments Leave a comment

      • I found your books through the free Liam Campbell book. The first in that series. I went onto read everything I can get my hands on that you have written. Waiting , mostly patiently, for the next ‘Kate’ book. Thank-you for your wonderful stories.

  1. For the record, when deciding which e-reader to buy first time up to the plate, I chose the Kindle for the single reason that Amazon offered the Liam Campbell series and B&N did not. They were, of course, the jacked up versions and I was thrilled when Gere Donovan put out the new ones and I could trash the others. Great stories – worth every penny – and glad the bulk of it went to YOU! And the free firsties – brilliant! I’ve discovered four new authors that I’ve since purchased and read everything they’ve written because of freebies… It works!

  2. Wow, that is a lot of work, I am so glad it is working for you this way. I have been helping your income a tiny bit by buying all the Kate books on Audible or Amazon with the Narration added in for a small fee which goes up the more pages you put in the book. I love to turn on my Kindle Fire, tap the books photo, close the Kindle’s purple cover flap, lay it on the pillow behind me, Then Marguerite Gavin’s amazing voice fills the room . All that is left is to look at the mountains out the windows, have a puppy in your lap and let my imagination go. So this means I have Kate in paperbook(for the database project) most in hardback, on CD, some still on tape and now by the end of the yr on Kindle for audiobook. Plus the books that have the short stories in them. Plus Liam in CD and tape and one paperback. All in all, most of a whole bookcase devoted to your writings. Oh yes, and the Silk and Song trilogy in trade paperback from the Poisoned Pen. I have the first one of those on My Kindle Fire. You have more space in my book room than any other author. Can’t remember how I got my first Kate, but you can see I am truly obsessed. Gotta have the print books in case we go back to the stone age where there is no electricity(to recharge my Kindle) or no batteries in case they quit making them for my CD player or Cassette Player(yes I have 3 of these now just in case they quit making them. Your devoted fan in Colorado Springs. Ginger

    • Thanks so much, Ginger. Couldn’t do it without you (I say that often to many readers, and it becomes more true every time.).

  3. Fascinating information. Although I do hope the next Kate will also be in print format for my collection. Please? and thank you.

  4. Thank you Dana for the great back story to your publishing history and so much great information and advice for aspiring writers.
    Like Kay above I too hope the next Kate is at least in paper back as I have collected the whole series so far in that format.
    I have all three Silk and Song which I gladly paid for on my kindle.
    Like Ginger in Colorado I have a whole shelf devoted to you in my library and hope to devote more space to future books once you have them written.
    Best wishes from Ireland.

  5. You are an inspiration to all budding, never mind successful writers! I assume you now do your own lay-up/conversion from Word (or whatever) into formats usable by the different media? And when I say ‘you’ I guess I mean ‘Scott’… lol
    But you may be missing a dollar or two by ignoring the ‘collector market’ for customized books. Specifically a ‘high-end’ hardcover with acid-free paper, and a personalised message inserted on a separate sheet (not directly on the flyleaf), perhaps marbled DS-branded notepaper, etc etc.
    Automotive publishers do this very successfully for limited editon toitles that are produced with high-end photography and production values. It also works with slip covered multi-volumes – so that would work (theoretically) as well for DS’s KS, LC SS and JW as it did for JRRT’s Hobbit and LotR many years ago.
    I think its Palladium Press did something like “Bugatti: The Man and Make” or some such title that was HUNDREDS of pounds each (so like a thousand US$ each), limited print run, numbered copies, etc etc etc. Sold out in a week.
    Maybe do some ‘focus group research’ and see if the DS market can bear something similar..??
    You might only sell 500 copies, but you’d make maybe $50-100 on each copy…???
    Also, you could think about teaming up with a graphic artist and make graphic book versions of the Liams and Kates, or even the Stars and Johannas..!! Again, niche market, but if you don’t do it you’ll never know if it works…
    And you know we’re all waiting for the DS “app” for i-devices….. <>
    Keep writing and keep sharing!
    Mark in Oz

  6. Thank you, Dana! My 22 back list books are under my control, repackaged, and Indie published – I reclaimed them a few years before digital became accessible – even then it took a few years and monthly correspondence to my publishers for each book to achieve my goal, but I did it – more because I was furious with their presumption that I was on a fool’s errand. I had a gut level belief that I should own my work if the books weren’t being utilized productively.
    Your willingness to share validates many of us. Plus, you’re an amazing writer! 🙂 Heartfelt thanks! Laura Tayor

  7. *big ole smile* I have never heard of Dana Stabenow. However, I am on Donna Freedman’s email list and she spoke of Dana’s article on self publishing. Since I am writing my first non fiction book, I read everything I can on ‘how to’. Thank you Dana for the information. And for your sense of humor. Just because of the _way_ you said, ‘however shall I choose’, to me, signifies I will probably like your writing.
    I really enjoy historical novels. I just downloaded the first free in the series. Thank you for doing that.
    I will come back often to ‘see’ you. Btw, would you please consider doing one little extra step when posting an article or blog online and highlighting it all and putting the font in black? It would be SO much easier to read. As it is, I have to highlight everything so I can see it.

  8. Dana, thanks so much for this piece. (I’m just now getting around to all the articles in this month’s SinC Links). My own experience mirrors what you talked about SO closely–I had 10 OP titles in 2009, now am up to 29 mysteries in two series, plus a few other genre titles, and it’s all because I can write and publish what I want on MY time frame, not someone else’s. Best part is direct contact with my readers. Glad to see your success!!

  9. So this is crazy. My first romance, “Spooning Daisy” (yes I’m plugging it) published by Kensington was released June 7. Set in Otter Bite Alaska (inspired by Seldovia where I spent something like 20 summers), I was looking for some publicity. I contacted Jenny Chissus who has a Seldovia website and offered to advertise but she very graciously offered to interview me for her site and plug the book. Very long story short, one of my answers to a question included this “I hope to be the Dana Stabenow of romance.” Which got me thinking that I hadn’t seen what Dana is up to lately. And thus led me to the website and ALL your blogs and now to this self-publishing gem. I’ve been thinking that traditional publishing isn’t all that great. EXCEPT that I think you need it initially so that readers will take you seriously as a writer. But my experience has been tepid at best (the cover for Daisy is so hideous that I’m embarrassed to promote it) and I’ve been mulling over self-pub for the next Otter Bite romances. Upshot of my comment is–you are led to where you need to be. Why you, Dana, popped into my head when you did and why I decided to check up on you, well, it’s fate. THANK YOU. Maggie McConnell

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