Columns > Published on March 26th, 2013

Quirky Works in Indie Publishing

Last Saturday I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with some of my favorite authors, all of them indie published. Will Hertling is the author of Avogadro Corporation, a fabulous story about an AI that starts out as an email search algorithm, similar to those currently used by Google. Ernie Lindsey is the author of several great works of fiction, including the best selling Sara's Game, and my personal favorite Going Shogun, which is a future dystopian comedy a la Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. (Lindsey's book Sara's Game has been hanging out pretty high on Amazon's best seller's lists since it became the Kindle Daily Deal in early February of this year.)

Truth be told, the three of us were just the posse for best selling indie author Hugh Howey, who had hastily arranged a last minute reading and book signing at Powell's in Portland. After profiles in the Wall Street Journal and Slate, the North American print edition of Howey's book Wool launched on the New York Times best seller's list. In December of last year, Howey became the first author to sign a contract with one of the big six publishers which sold the North American print rights but retained the digital rights for himself. Since signing the deal with Hugh Howey, Simon and Schuster has given a similar contract to one other author.

Howey's story Wool has sold over half-a-million digital copies since going viral in late 2011. In October of that year a little throw-away science fiction story that Howey had posted to Amazon on a lark took off all on its own without any marketing. As an indie author, Howey was able to pivot instantly and respond to his reader's demands for more. By November of that year Howey released two more stories from his Silo universe. In late January Howey finished the series of related stories which became known as the Wool Omnibus and now, Wool.

The Big Six publishers are looking for one and only one book. They are looking for the next best seller.

Howey's success is certainly the extreme for an indie author, a fact that Howey is the first to admit. However, he is not alone. Many, many indie authors are finding they can make a modest income through their work, including Lindsey. Lindsey shared that his success with Sara's Game has paid him a modest income for the year allowing him to write without fear.

The publishing success of Howey and the financial success of so many self-published authors is proof enough of the viability of the new self-publishing model. It also proves something a little more interesting which we all discussed over Voodoo Doughnuts, hanging out in the lobby of the Nines. The success of Wool and other offbeat stories like it proves that there is a demand for quirky works in self-publishing. The ability of an author to take their work directly to an audience has opened up a wide array of storytelling possibilities which are just not possible in traditional publishing.

To start, the big six publishers are looking for one and only one book. They are looking for the next best seller. Their model is set up such that they can cover their costs with a modest number of sales. However, they make much of their profits off the few titles which generate stratospheric sales. So every time they pick a book to sell they want to make sure that it will sell to the widest possible audience.

This need for a best seller makes publishers incredibly risk averse. Anything that looks like it might not appeal to the widest possible audience is immediately turned away in favor of more proven paths to success. For instance, we are already seeing a flood of books on the market which seek to imitate the success of an indie book which started as self-published Twilight fan fiction. It seems safe to say we can expect this flood to continue.

In some sense I don't blame publishers for behaving this way. Publishing isn't exactly a high margin business. They are only acting out of self-preservation. Unlike the self-published author, they can't really afford to take risks. Of course, since literary agents depend on selling their clients' books to publishers in order to make a living, they instantly become foot soldiers in the hunt for the next big story.

All of this creates some interesting conundrums for the aspiring author who is often driven by very different concerns than publishers. I once heard a literary agent, whom I respect greatly, complain on Twitter that she didn't like the second act of most manuscripts she read. I laughed. The reason second acts in most stories are so boring is because they are where the author stuffs all the padding to make sure their book reaches the artificial length needed by publishers to sell their books. Most authors are smart enough to create a tight first act and a fast-paced conclusion. If they need to fill out their book, the stuff the extra in the middle, after they have hooked their readers and before they risk leaving them with a bad taste in their mouth.

Indie authors are not bound but such artificial limits. Let's take Wool as an example. The original short story took off even though it was only about 20,000 words. Howey then expanded that story to make a novel of about 100,000 words, the preferred limit for traditional publishers of science fiction.

Indie authors also have another major advantage over those who try to go the traditional route. They can write books which aren't intended to be best sellers and still make a living. Under the current commission model for eBooks an author usually makes between 60% and 70% for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99. On an eBook priced at $2.99 an author will make about $2.10 per book minus a few cents for bandwidth used in each purchase. Thus indie authors need far fewer readers to make a living from their work than do traditionally published authors who make far less per book sold. They also have no need to try and re-pave the well trodden ground in the heart of the distribution curve.

Indie authors have a tremendous freedom to do just what they need to do to tell the story they want to tell.

This allows an indie author to work what is known in statistics as the "long tail." Traditional publishers are looking for books which land right in the heart of the distribution curve for book sales. These are the books which appear likeliest to sell the most copies. On the other hand, the long tail, a term popularized by Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, are those sales which take place far away from the heart of the distribution curve. Here there are many smaller niche audiences which large publishers cannot cultivate. However, an indie author who has no overhead and little or no printing costs is free to write stories which tickle the fancy of these niche audiences. Indie authors can exploit this long tail in a way which traditional book publishers cannot.

This gives the indie author the freedom to take risks which traditional publishers cannot consider. Many are finding great success by doing so. This isn't to say that there are not risks inherent for indie published authors. A bad book is still unreadable whether indie published or published through traditional means, so indie authors still have to do their homework.

Another piece of the puzzle which new indie authors often underestimate is how hard they will work to find a successful marketing plan and pricing structure for their work. Indie publishing is still relatively new and there is yet to be a sure path for indie book marketing. Or rather, I should say, yesterday's sure fire path is already gone today. But indie book marketing is a conversation for another post.

Indie authors have a tremendous freedom to do just what they need to do to tell the story they want to tell. The success of indie books like Wool demonstrates that well written indie work can succeed even if it does not fit within the boundaries of traditional published works. It's a great time to be a writer. We have more opportunity to take risks and still be compensated for our work than ever before. We can pursue the long tail as we lay down words as we see fit. If they are interesting and well written they will find an audience and might even make you a living. Happy writing!

About the author

I am a full time writer and blogger living in Vancouver, Washington. I am an author of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as a contributor to the GeekDad blog on I write on a wide range of topics. I am the author of two published pieces of Science Fiction and a best selling book on everyday personal finance. Currently I am working on my third story set in the Pax Imperium universe and a book on how to survive serving on an HOA or Condo Association board. When not waxing poetic on various aspects of fiscal responsibility, I tend toward the geeky.

When not poised over the keyboard, I love to spend time with my family. I am married to an angel, Jaylene, who has taught me more than anyone else about true mercy and compassion. We are the parents of three wonderful girls. As a group we like swimming at the local pool, gardening, reading aloud, playing piano, and beating each other soundly at whatever table top game is handy.

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