Why Publish Indie by Dale T. Phillips

Today’s fiction writer has different options for publishing:

Traditional model – Find an agent, find a publisher

Independent (Indie) model – Build your own publishing team and publish the way you want

Hybrid model – Some combination of both Traditional and Indie

There are pluses and minuses to each path. Writers should follow the path that makes them happiest.

Jane Friedman details the pros and cons of Indie versus Traditional in excellent detail here.

Statistic: Most books, about 95% or better, however published, do not sell more than a few hundred copies.

For myself, I started out on a traditional path: had an agent, and an interested editor. Then months went by with no action. Then more months. Meanwhile, the publishing world was rapidly changing. I read books, articles, and blogs on the new ways to publish, attended writer conferences and spoke to many writers, who were uneasy or unhappy with traditional publishing, but afraid to risk their careers on something new and mostly untried. I studied those who were successful with the new methods of Indie, and modeled some of their techniques. I tested, liked the results, and went further. Today I am happily independent.

Many of the “truths” of publishing are old myths, and the odds against being successful in traditional publishing are abysmally low.
Dean Wesley Smith has written extensively about this in Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing.

What mainly turned me off traditional publishing was the countless horror stories of bad agents, bad contracts, bad publishers, bad faith, bad experiences. Cheats, liars, and thieves. Court battles, broken promises, shattered careers, marriages, and lives. Why deal with any of that? With Indie, you don’t have to! And the fact that once publishers get rights to your book, it’s a battle to ever get them back. If the publisher screws up, or does nothing with the book, your work might get held up for years without seeing the light of day (four years in one example from a best-selling friend). Publishers control everything from the cover, the content, the price, the publish date, the marketing, and so much of the time they can get it wrong. But no matter what, if the book doesn’t sell, they’ll always blame the writer. Always.

Even after publishers paid money and signed deals, many books never saw the light of day. Some publishing houses closed or merged, editors left, tastes or times changed. But once traditional publishing had the rights, writers were stuck, unable to have their work get to the public if the publishing house didn’t follow through. One had a book hang in unpublished Purgatory, even after collecting a six-figure advance for it!

Standard traditional book publishing practice is to give an advance against future royalties to get rights to a book. This money is paid in installments, takes a long time to get, and may be all the writer sees as income for that work. In most cases, it’s not much, not enough to live on if one is only writing a book a year- and for the longest time, traditional publishing didn’t usually publish more than that from a writer, not knowing the market. Many writers, even Stephen King had to publish extra books under pen names, because they had more output than the snail pace of traditional publishing allowed.

The time between signing a deal to sell a book to a publisher (after the usual years to get an agent and get to that point) and publication is anywhere from months to years. And getting paid royalties, if they come, for the book takes even longer.

For many years, the “mid-list” authors were reliable sellers of a few thousand copies every year, as opposed to the “best-sellers”. But traditional publishing started losing interest in writers who weren’t best-sellers. Many writers were dropped, and lost their living as advances grew smaller and smaller. Traditional publishing stopped printing books which fell below the desired sales numbers. And so many books became “Out of Print” and unavailable, until the Print-on-Demand (POD) revolution, which made it possible to independently publish. Many good writers were suddenly and unceremoniously ditched by their publishers, and didn’t know what to do next. I wanted my books to be always available, in all formats, so now I never have to worry about being dropped by my publisher for poor sales numbers.

A number of my mystery-writing friends had books published by Five Star Publishing, which sold mainly to libraries. One day, without warning, the publisher announced they were no longer doing mysteries, and dozens of writers I know suddenly had their careers and income take a big hit.

One panel of best-sellers at a conference all showed books that made a ton of money and topped the best-seller charts when they were finally published- but each book had been turned down an average of fifty times! If an industry can’t determine a good book when they see it, why deal with them?

In the past, publishing yourself meant that you had to order a large number of books from a printer, which were hard to sell and distribute, and costly up-front. New POD technology meant one could order a few at a time, and so made it affordable to Indie publish. Ebooks didn’t cost anything for printing, and so were pure profit. But traditional publishing felt that ebooks cut into the sacred paper sales, so they jacked up ebook prices (still do, in most cases), and often would not put out ebook versions until months after the hardcover (a process called windowing), frustrating many fans, who wanted the latest work now.

Here’s just a few things that have changed.

  • Traditional publishing no longer equates to a reliable standard for quality. You can probably name several traditional publishing best-sellers that are terrible. But readers wanted them, so traditional publishing made money off them. Having a book published by traditional publishing is no guarantee of a good production team, and often non-name writers get less-than-optimal results, from editing, to covers, to advertising, to all aspects. When many independent “writers” jumped on the easy-pub bandwagon and pushed out crap, critics used those as the typical examples, to demonstrate that all Indie was substandard. Yet many Indie writers produce high quality work.
  • Bookstores are no longer the best places to sell books. Until the disruptive technology of online sales, they were, and the advantage was to traditional publishers. But ebooks (and Amazon) changed that, so that now a writer has a worldwide sales channel, working 24/7/365. Ebooks are cheaper, so more people can afford them, and buy more.
  • Traditional publishing still has a seasonal cycle of releases, and any book that does not quickly hit with the public gets removed to make way for the next batch. Bookstore copies are stored mostly spine-out for about 90 days, amidst thousands of others, and gone after a few months, replaced by the next crop. An Indie writer can promote that same book for years, run occasional sales and specials, include it in bundles with other books and authors, and make money over and above what they would have received for an advance.

The music business provides a good model for study. For so long, the (only) way to success was to get signed by a big record company. Many artists did so and got completely screwed, desperately signing horrible contracts. Most bands and singles didn’t do much past an album or two. Then the Indie music scene happened, and people didn’t have to sign with someone who would control them and their career. Some made their own labels and did the music the way they wanted to.

Companies care about control and profits, not people, not art.

For myself, I want the control over my writing career, and what I consider my contribution, my art. No one gets to tell me what to publish, or what not to. My schedule and my faults are my own.

And so’s my profit… 

Now the publishing world no longer belongs solely to the gatekeepers. It is possible to publish and sell without an agent or a publisher (middlemen between the author and reader), and to keep control of one’s own work. It does mean that anyone wishing to be successful in this path learn a great deal about the ways and means of selling online, in essence becoming a small business. But a true business it can be.

That’s where we are today— any writer has multiple means of getting their stories out to the world without waiting years for a blessing or “go-ahead” from strangers. One can even make money at it, and some can even be very successful by adopting techniques used by successful authors before them. The information is widely available because the independent (indie) community is very open and helpful, and willing to share what works. 

The writers to be pitied are the traditional writers, who came of age in a system that may have worked for them in the past, but no longer works for most. While writing stays the same, many writers have quit, unable to deal with the changes to everything they knew about publishing and unable or unwilling to learn. The sad part is, even with traditional publishers, writers are now expected to do much of their own marketing and selling anyway, but they have many more restrictions, and must do it without many of the benefits that indies enjoy. With the publishing world turned upside down, the indies are now the ones with the best chances of success going forward.

Though I began in the traditional path, getting an agent and trying to get a larger publisher interested, many months would go by with no word and no progress. By attending conferences, learning from blogs, articles, and talking to many writers, I saw that a new path was becoming viable. While I was learning more, I published my first few novels with small presses, who would let me set all the terms: content, covers, pricing, and distribution. After two years and three books, I had learned enough to strike out on my own. Now with 24 books out, I am my own publishing company, and quite happy to produce all my work on my schedule, just the way I like it.

Many traditional authors bewail people finding mistakes in their books, because it is expensive to change the galley proofs, so oftentimes errors remain unfixed. Indie writers can correct any published error and have an updated version in minutes, for ebooks, and days for print.

Due to the changes in publishing, it is now the best time in history to be a writer. One can create stories and get them to a worldwide market, in multiple formats. Anything a writer wishes to create can be up for sale, with no one blocking publication, because they feel it will not sell enough. We have ultimate freedom for our craft.

Dale T. Phillips has published novels, story collections, non-fiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale’s college writing teacher, and since then, Dale has found time to appear on stage, television, radio, in an independent feature film, and compete on Jeopardy. He’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Visit Dale at