Indie and Trad Publishing—One Author’s Experience

I’ve been indie published since late 2012. I have worked with academic publishers, both of periodicals and of books, since 2005. The experiences have some similarities, and some vast differences. This is my account. I have never worked with an agent, never had a book shopped to an imprint of one of the Big 5 publishers, nor have I considered it (with one brief exception I’ll talk about below.)

My first experience with publishing came through academic journals. I was advised (in both senses of the word) to submit parts of my masters thesis for publication. I got two acceptances and one “revise and resubmit.” The R&R wanted me to add a considerable amount of material unrelated to the piece and change the time frame and include someone who did not play much of a role in the story at that time and . . . I sent a polite thank you note and didn’t bother. The other two requested a few additions or updates, and some mild reworking of some of the more academic (i.e. dry) portions. As a result, by the time I finished my PhD I had two journal articles, plus a book chapter on my CV. In all, it was a positive experience working with excellent editors.

Fast forward to 2013. I’d approached an academic press with a full-length manuscript. Two outside readers (sort of like reviewers but not exactly) critiqued the book, said it needed a little fluffing and tweaking, and to add something that made me hit my hand on my forehead and go “duh! I should have seen that.” So the tweaks were made, the writing polished, illustrations found, and I was ready for a contract. Which was, well, if I had not become very familiar with the underside of fiction contracts through Kris Rusch’s blog and ThePassiveVoice, it would have been shocking. As it was, I will only say that I’m glad an agent was not involved to take an additional fifteen percent. For various reasons related to a previous contract, I had to take this one. My IP lawyer later gave me the full list of “weak points,” as well as pointing out some things that the press really needed to update, correct, and amend for both of our protection. I wrote the ad copy, blurb, and jacket copy, as well as arranging some of the PR, which is typical for academic presses. I have a very good editor who is quite willing to work with me, we had a few things we reached compromises on, a few I insisted on that he agreed to, and I’d submit material again to his press if the occasion arose, quality of the contract aside.

Meanwhile . . . I started indie publishing in late 2012, because I had all these stories and thought, “Why the heck not?” I hunted around the ‘Net, did a fair amount of research, and decided to contract out, in part because I had a lot of other things on my plate to deal with. So I went to Indie Book Launchers, “talked” with Saul and Nas, and in December of 2012 A Cat Among Dragons hit the electronic shelves. I’d read Amanda Green’s guide to using KindleDirectPublishing at Mad Genius Club, and her steps made it very easy. I also signed on with Barnes and Noble (pretty painless) and Kobo (a bit more challenging). Oh, and got a separate bank account for the deposits.

Since then I’ve published a number of story collections, four novels, several novellas and stand alone stories, and written more. I’ve also written two more academic articles and seen them to publication. I have another non-fiction book in limbo at the moment, because after four massive rewrites (as in moving chunks of text a hundred pages and eliminating other chunks), I can no longer see where the rough spots are. The press wants it, but . . .

So, what have I learned?

1) Fiction or non-fiction, do your research first. Look at the different presses and see what they specialize in before you send off a query packet. If you are writing about American Indians, the University of Oklahoma Press is probably interested. If you are writing about Colonial America, then the University of North Carolina or William and Mary are options. But a history of farming in Washington State won’t make it past the University of Florida’s in-box.  Likewise, your Lovecraftian space opera horror novel is not going to be welcome at Harlequin, or Zondervan Christian Books (probably), or an indie press that specializes in poetry and world religions. Do a little digging if you are submitting directly to a press.

2) More research – go to Writer Beware, or [search engine] “Press Name” and “scams”. There are a good number of bad options out there, so choose wisely when hiring a press, editor, cover artist or designer. Ask questions, ask for referrals, or if you can talk to former customers.

(2a If you land a contract, hire an IP lawyer to look at it and see what changes are recommended. You may be fortunate and need none. Of he may advise you to put the pages down, sprinkle them with holy water and salt, and run away without looking back lest you lose all rights to every subsequent book forever. Or something in between.

3) Get familiar with your genre’s cover art and style. Look at what works and see how you can tweak it to fit your book.

4) Listen to your editor and readers. You may just have a copy editor, or you may go full-out and have a development editor, then style and copy editors. Or if you have alpha and beta readers, listen to what they say. If everyone fusses about different things, you are probably safe (or have a real mess of a manuscript on your hands), but if your three or four alpha readers come back and say “you lost me in chapter four. What happened? How did they get there? And why should I care that New Character is Hero’s third cousin twice removed by that grandmother no one talks about,” then you need to do some work.

5) If you do your own formatting, triple check it. This bites me every time. Between the .doc or .docx, the htm version and the EPUB or mobi, pages get added, pagination screws up, links break, and I end up adding a new dent to the sheet rock on the wall. Allow plenty of time to figure this out, or hire someone to do it. Or to teach you how to do it. There are programs that give you WYSIWYG (Scrivener for example), but if you use Word, be ready for the little quirks.

6) Even copy editors miss stuff, so reread carefully. I’m reviewing page proofs at the moment, and finding little bits of excess verbiage from previous versions, part-erased words, and the other detritus of multiple hands on the manuscript. If you do your own copy editing, this is triply important.

7) Launch your book, pat yourself on the back, and go back to writing. I hire cover artists, a formatter, and copy editors for my larger collection and novels because for me, those do not pas the WIBBOW test. Would I Be Better Off Writing? If so, hire, barter, swap, trade, get someone to do it. But always, always, keep writing. One book is out there, two books sell a little better, there books take off, and after that (especially for series) you are in serious sales. Yes, having a popular genre and being a decent writer will make a big difference, but the formula applies across the board.

8) Find what works for you and do it.

So what was that exception I mentioned? When I finished grad school, I knew of two dissertations that had been accepted by major presses, as in Viking and Basic Books type presses. I wanted to do that. I was going to be Alma T.C. Boykin, super historian! But I ended up writing a second book, rereading the dissertation and realizing how choppy and academic it was, and decided not to send it to Ye Real Press use yet. Then I learned how the publishing world really works, and that was the end of that.