As an editor who works primarily with indie authors—and as an author whose book was produced through an independent publisher—I’ve had many conversations about the stigmas our group faces. Stigmas like whether or not we’re “real” authors and if we really published a book if it doesn’t have a well-known label on the spine.
The writing process for all authors is relatively similar regardless of the publication style, yet the reaction to the final product varies greatly. Regardless of how long it takes to go from a draft to a published book, the author still spends a lot of time with a notebook or at their computer, cycling through creative bursts and moments of despair, a fair amount of self-doubt and excitement alike, and a great deal of perseverance. And yet, people still focus on who puts the book into the world, rather than who is responsible for its creation. Then, our success is often compared to best-selling authors, and if we aren’t suddenly rolling in royalties and on an all-expenses-paid book tour, somehow, we’ve failed. The stigmas continue beyond the realm of the author’s control into the book’s reception, as if the author has direct control over how readers respond, the buzz that’s generated, and whether or not we get rich from it.
The stigmas that are thrust upon indie authors can be divided into three categories—the process, the appearance (of the book and the published author), and the reception. And, as an author whose first book was released earlier this year, I want to talk about these stigmas as I’ve experienced them, both with my book and others.
On January 13th, my debut book, Me, Too: Voicing My Story, was released by Josha Publishing, an independent publisher. The release date was less than a year after the book was first conceptualized; I started drafting it in March of 2021. I spent the summer of 2021 going over editorial notes from two of the house’s editors, getting beta reader feedback, and waiting for cover mock-ups from the designer the house uses. Throughout the entire process, my voice was heard, my opinion wanted and valued by my publisher. When I held the first proof copy in my hands, it truly felt like my book. And that’s the beauty of independent publishers: we, the author, usually get to work directly with the production team and have an influence in the final product we started creating. Of course, there’s also author-direct independent publishing, such as through KDP. That’s how I got my start as a writer with a series of comedic shorts, Green Hills Stories. Because I didn’t have a publishing house—independent or traditional—behind me, procuring an editor, formatter, and cover designer were responsibilities I had to tackle alone.
From what I’ve encountered in the industry, my publishing experience isn’t the way it works with most traditional publishers. Instead, the author writes a book and, once it’s accepted by a publisher, the house then owns it. Contracts may vary, but some commonalities are that the house buys the book from the author, and while the author gets the credit for writing it, the house has legal ownership—which means the book becomes what they want it to be, which isn’t always in line with what the author wanted it to be. The publishing house makes the decisions regarding the cover, for example, and content edits may be subject to author approval but ultimately are non-negotiable—the edits are mandatory for the house to publish it. The production of the book is less of a team effort and more so a group project, for which the parties don’t get equal credit…at least, not in the public eye, where the author gets the credit even though the house had the control (hence the importance of literary agents).
Simply put, indie authors have a lot more work to do than traditionally-published authors. I won’t go as far as to say indies are “better” than trads; however, the amount of work an indie author has to do to take that original draft all the way through to a final book is noteworthy. If what the reader ultimately sees is that final book, I have to wonder why there’s a stigma attached to indie authors, instead of traditional, when indies are the ones deeply involved throughout the entire process from draft to shelf.
A few years ago, I came across a book and recommended it to a friend; I didn’t tell them it had been independently published. Let’s call it “Unknown.” They were ecstatic to read it, loved it, and now geekily-fan-flip-out over the author on a regular basis. More recently, I showed this same friend a book that was produced using many of the same methods and distributors—another independently-published book—and told them it had been independently published; let’s call it “Known.” Their response was much cooler and less enthusiastic, even though this latter book was in the exact same genre as the first one, and the author of Unknown had written the foreword for Known.
I put Known on a table next to Unknown.
My friend picked up Known and said, “Oh! Wow, this cover really makes it look like a real book!”
As if the fact that it was physically sitting in front of them made a difference. Stigma much?
I dabble in book marketing, and I’ll be the first to admit that some covers are just are better than others. Some are easier to read; some fit the genre’s current styles and expectations. However, whether something is marketable and technically good is typically beyond what a reader cares about. Readers want to know, at a glance, if the book is worth their money. Although we say “Don’t judge a book by its cover”—most of us do. The cover art either catches our attention or doesn’t, just like the title. And when readers are invested in the book—the story—how that book came into existence is secondary.
Whether a book was traditionally or independently published doesn’t change the twenty dollars the reader is spending on that very real book.
A few weeks ago, I found an article from Publisher’s Weekly from 2006 that said most books sell fewer than 500 copies. It’s worth noting that this article was written before the boom of independent publishing (KDP, for example, wasn’t even created until 2007). With that in mind, I’d imagine that most books still sell fewer than 500 copies—probably with an even lower max threshold, given how many books there are to choose from now compared to 25 years ago. My publisher’s best-selling book, resilient by Katherine Turner, sold over 100 copies during a six-week pre-order period. Let me rephrase that: an indie author sold about 20% of what is expected for most books for all-time sales from pre-order alone. My debut book sold about 50 copies in pre-order.
It isn’t the origin of the book that matters—it’s the story.
I’d think sales for indie authors would only be more impressive with these numbers in mind, because indie authors don’t have the thousands of dollars of marketing behind them that a traditional publishing contract allots. Yet stigmas persist and comparisons are still made, pitting indie authors against the traditionally-published best-sellers.
Alas, I think it’s important to keep the definition of best-selling relative. After all, you have to consider who has invested what into the book. For an independent author—through an indie house or not—the costs are typically lower because the production team is more likely made up of freelancers, not salaried editors or artists. By comparison, with a traditional publisher who has tens of thousands of dollars available to pour into a marketing campaign, the likelihood of higher sales numbers increases—as does the need for those sales, because the house wants to make its investment back and churn a profit. Even with the marketing capacity of a publishing house behind a traditionally-published author, though, according to the New York Times, in 2017, the median income for a part-time author was $6,080 and a full-time author made a little over $20,000. The profits—the royalties—an author sees are rarely enough to provide a living, especially from only one or two books.
So, even for a traditionally-published author, the likelihood that they’ll be rolling in cash within a few months of a book’s release isn’t very high. Yet for indie authors, the stigma persists—if we really published a book, why aren’t we rich yet?
Honestly, if you want my opinion—and you’ve read this far in my article, so I’ll assume you do—the question shouldn’t be if we’re real authors. Instead, it should be why we chose to write—and choose to keep writing—even when we have an uphill journey we’re embarking on largely alone (and underfunded).
Despite the odds never being in our favor, we continue to create. We continue to put our stories out into the world because we want to leave something for future generations—not because we want to be the next billionaire author. We aren’t writing for our pocketbooks.
We’re writing for ourselves because it’s what brings us joy.
We’re writing for our readers because we know what it’s like to lose yourself in a book or series you love. The same way that gift was given to us by an author who had the tenacity to keep going, pushing through the writer’s block, we want to give that gift to others.
And if we only give that gift to a few dozen loyal fans?
We’re independent. We’ll keep writing.
A version of this post was originally featured on robfike.com.
Josha Publishing, LLC is a woman-founded, woman-owned, and woman-run company that is passionate about books, stories, and the power of words to change lives. Learn more about us here and remember to sign up for our newsletter to find out about new content, new books, and submissions update.
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