A Realistic Look at Indie Publishing

Discussions of indie publishing tend to be pretty polarized. On the one hand you have the folks who insist that New York publishing is dead and that everyone should immediately go indie, which will lead to all of us making the kind of money Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking make. On the other hand you have folks who insist that indie publishing is an over-hyped scam for losers who can’t make it in New York, and that anyone who goes indie is an idiot who’s going to go broke and end up living in a cardboard box.

Slightly more thoughtful writers who’ve been successful through New York for a while tend to give indie publishing what they think is a fair shot. They’ll put one e-book up on Amazon, watch sales for a month or three, then report that they’re only making $12.82 per month and that clearly indie publishing is no way to make a living.

Well, no, not with only one book. The trick is to keep going.

Dean Wesley Smith (who in addition to being a successful writer who lives on his writing income, also owned and ran Pulphouse Publishing and knows that end of the business as well) has been posting chapters of Think Like a Publisher where he discusses the publishing end of the business, and how to make it work on a practical, steps-and-details level. His latest chapter is The Secret of Indie Publishing, subtitled “Why Having More Product Is Better Than Having Less Product.”

This sounds like a “no kidding” kind of thing, but it’s something a lot of folks don’t seem to get.

Dean says: An indie publisher needs a lot of products across a lot of sales locations all selling small amounts.

It’s not about having one huge blockbuster that makes the new NYT electronic bestseller list. It’s not about duplicating sales numbers that’d make a New York publisher happy, because New York publishers want your book to sell out in six months. Indie publishers are in it for the long haul, where even modest sales per book accumulate as you get more and more books up, and add up to a very nice income without your having to assume any luck or miracles or bestselling hits.

Dean talks a lot about the “produce model” of publishing on his blog.

Publishing for the last sixty-plus years has worked on the produce model, meaning that traditional publishers treat every book as if it is a piece of fruit that will spoil if not sold quickly. They made every book into an “event” to help sell the books quickly. And if the books didn’t sell quickly, they were pulled from the shelves like bad fruit and trashed.

The reason for this is actually fairly simple. Physical shelf space is limited and the number of books being produced far, far exceeded the shelf space available. So if a book didn’t sell quickly, it was replaced with one that might.

Now, with electronic publishing and POD publishing, the shelf space is unlimited. And there is no hurry. A book can just sell along at a pace and as readers hear about it and find it, the sales can grow slowly.

Putting up one book and watching sales for a month or three months or six months before declaring success or failure (and usually failure) is missing the point. Indie publishing is not like New York publishing, and if you try to treat it the same or evaluate it with the same measuring stick — calibrated on the produce model — it will look like it’s not working. (Unless you’re wildly lucky, but we’re not going to assume you need wild luck to succeed here so ignore that possibility.)

Dean is very fond of running numbers, which he does here in this chapter. He shows how small numbers add up, even when you use tiny, conservative sales estimates. Anyone who’s even vaguely interested in indie publishing, whether for now, the near future, or maybe some time later on, should be reading Dean’s blog, and not just this one series.

Definitely read this one chapter before deciding that indie publishing only pays peanut shells.

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Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.