by Lynette M. Burrows
Being an independent author-publisher isn’t for everyone. I chose that path, but my path is mine. You must choose your own path. If you are weighing your options, this “Things I Wish I Knew Before I Published” series may help. Part I and Part II discuss big picture issues to consider. This is part III, the last post in this series.
The advice you can find about the “rules” of writing and publishing goes from one extreme to another. Some say there are no rules. Others give you a list of rules.
When you consider traditional publishing, remember that these big publishers are corporations and they have both public and more private rules. They call their public rules “submission guidelines.” Often those guidelines are about how to format your manuscript.
The harder to find or see rules are those common to corporations. Certain departments handle certain things. One publisher may tolerate stories that include guns or sex scenes. The next one won’t. Often these corporations do not share internal policies such as risk tolerance or political leanings or their alignment with causes you care about.
Even the editors you submit to have rules. They don’t call them rules, yet they have certain expectations. They expect stories to be entertaining, to progress from beginning to middle to the end. Each editor has genre expectations and life events that influence their interpretation of your story. Some editors are flexible and open to having their expectations exploded by a skillful author. Others will not be.
What can you do? Know what’s important to you. Research the publishers and editor you’d like to publish your work. Ask questions of authors, agents, editors, and librarians. Can’t do it in person? Try social media.
Don’t be so eager to be published that you sign your first contract without knowing what it means to your book and to your values. Decide which issues are a no-deal for you in advance.
You may get the impression that there are no rules in independent publishing. You’d be wrong. There are tons of rules. Amazon has a set of rules. So do Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Draft to Digital, and Ingram Spark. There are cover sizes and images they will and will not tolerate on covers. Genres they will and will not allow on their sites. Advertisers have rules, too. Those are a tiny part of the rules associated with independent publishing.
While independently published authors don’t have to contend with corporate editors, we have to please the readers of our genre. Readers have expectations and those are their “rules.”
There are also the expectations or rules we impose upon ourselves. Sometimes, independent author-publishers impose harsh, unrealistic, unsustainable rules on themselves.
The anonymous “they” say that you need to know the rules before you break them. I wish I’d understood the unsaid part of that advice. If you break the rules, there are consequences. Sometimes, the consequences are that the editors and readers love what you did. But if you break too many rules and expectations, you may alienate some editors and readers. Your book may not sell.
As an independent publisher, it's up to you to understand the rules and what consequences may result if you decide to break a few.
No matter the publishing path you follow, you are a writer. A writer’s life is not as advertised. Hollywood films set up expectations that writers solve crimes or have exciting adventures. Magazines and other media hold up the rags to riches stories of fabulously successful and wealthy authors as something all writers can become.
While it depends on what you call adventures, few writers get much in the way of real-life adventure. Many of us do some traveling associated with our writing, but it’s rare that a writer is a successful detective or devious murderer or a terrified kidnap victim.
Most of the time, we sit at our writing device of choice and write. If we aren’t careful, we develop physical limitations because of too much sitting. Most of us self-isolate. It’s nearly impossible to get into the creative zone and socialize at the same time.
It used to be very unlikely for a writer to earn a living. Thanks to independent publishing it is less rare today, but for every Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, there are thousands who do not earn enough to break even.
Getting numbers specific to fiction books can be difficult. In July 2006, Publisher’s Weekly reported:
— in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen BookScan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. Those blockbusters are a minute anomaly: only 10 books sold more than a million copies last year, and fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000.
Keep in mind, the Nielsen BookScan does not gather statistics on most independently published books. If you’d like to see statistics from 2020, Chris Kolmar has compiled an informative post.
But don’t let the numbers scare you. Independently published books that don’t go out of print may sell fewer than 1,000 copies per year for many years. In the long term, also called the long tail, the book may earn out and make the author money.
I wish I knew how much I would love it. I work way more than I ever did at my 40+ hour per week regular job and it doesn't feel like work. If I had known, I would have published sooner. But all anyone can do is make the best possible decision based on who they are, what they need, what they want, and how best to achieve those things. I hope this series of blog posts has helped you see your path a little more clearly.
What is the best thing about your writing life and publishing path?
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Lynette M. Burrows loves coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all show up in her stories. She writes thrilling science fiction about characters challenged to rise from who they are to what they can be.
Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could have been or may be. In My Soul to Keep, Miranda will fight the tyrants, even if they are family, even if it means her death. Book two of the series, If I Should Die, will be published in late spring 2022. The series companion novel, Fellowship, and all her books can be found wherever books are sold online.
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