Why I Went from HarperCollins to Indie Publishing

Becky WicksGuest Post
by Becky Wicks

Signing with a mainstream was my breakthrough, but it was also my downfall. I was signed to a three book deal with HarperCollins. A dream-come-true you might be thinking? Well, kind of.

I was young and naïve, with no clue about book marketing at all. I thought HarperCollins would make me a superstar. Not much happened. I waited some more. The international rights were sold but still, not much happened. Because no one did any marketing.

It’s not enough to write a great book. You need to be your own marketing team. Not knowing this fact was where I went wrong. Very wrong. When all three books gathered practically zero reviews on Amazon and consequently very minimal sales, I realized that this could be my fault.

In the meantime, self-publishing had become a completely different ballgame to what it had been when I first signed with HarperCollins. I set about researching everything I possibly could in order to become a contender in the indie-game instead. I figured with some proper effort, maybe, just maybe I could do the whole shebang myself. I spent six months reading, tweeting, blogging, building up my marketing and promo acquaintances/blogger friends/readers and of course, writing a killer novel specifically-targeted-to-a well-researched-audience.

I woke up every morning with an agenda – to become a better marketer, a better writer and a successful author, and I made it my full time job to navigate this literary minefield without my brain exploding. Every time I thought I knew it all, I found something else. This is an industry that’s changing every day. Getting help was crucial. I hired a cover designer, a formatter, an admin assistant to help organize my mailing list, (which is the most important thing an author can have). I paid for help to build up my Twitter and Facebook footprints.

By the time I launched my first indie title, I was astounded by what I’d learned, huddled in my house for half a year with my eyes glued to a laptop. Oh, make no mistake, if you want to be a successful author, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. Thanks to my efforts I sold 350 copies on day one on Amazon KDP. I averaged 100 a day after that, and now, three months later, I sell between 20-40 a day. That’s not many compared to some in this competitive game, trust me, but it’s not bad for my first attempt (you need five books out there to start making real money/sales).

But here’s the best part – I’m selling way more than I sold of my other books through HarperCollins. What’s more, building all these relationships along the way is fun. I love my readers and fellow authors. I’ve discovered a whole new supportive, enthusiastic community, whereas before, believing myself to be sheltered by my mainstream publisher’s umbrella, I was walking alone.

I’ve never felt so excited or challenged in my career as I do now. Whereas HarperCollins definitely put me on the right track (and I’m eternally grateful to them for the chance to have done what I’ve done), I quickly realized the only person who can really sell your books, is you. Why? Because even if you do have a traditional publisher behind you and a super-duper marketing budget (which most of us don’t) no one else in the entire world is going to care about your books as much as you do. Ever. You’re the only one who can reach people the way your words will in your beautiful books when you learn to sell them… with heart, soul and a whole lot of sacrifice.

Now, get active. It’s a long way to the top for all of us, but I’ll see you in the Amazon charts, scribblers!

Becky Wicks wrote three humorous travel memoirs for HarperCollins (Burqalicious, Balilicious and Latinalicious) before going indie with her young adult fiction Starstruck Series. She’s travelled the world, writing, since the age of twenty-one and currently lives in Bali. Follow her blog and check her out on Amazon.com.

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61 thoughts on “Why I Went from HarperCollins to Indie Publishing”

  1. An inspiring post! To go from rookie to outselling HaperCollins in six months I think says it all about the current state of mainstream publishing. Thank you for sharing: I think there’s still a temptation (for some of us at least) to see mainstream publishing as the ideal and indie as a way of proving ourselves in the hope of being ‘discovered’. You prove that those days truly are over. The future is bright!

    1. Good for you! Here’s to us all moving together in this crazy indie-world and cheering each other on. That’s what I love most about self-publishing – meeting all these great, inspiring people 🙂

  2. Excellent post, Becky. Hard lessons, but well-learned. I, too, had my first two books published by a NY house, and although the books sold well in drug stores and grocery stores (this was back in the 80s), no one knew my name. Only when I went indie and began doing my own marketing did I start to carve out a place for my name in the world. So many new writers think a big publishing house will “make” them, but it’s hardly ever true. We need to make ourselves, as you’ve shown us here. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Thank you everyone – yes Mike, I think it’s pretty common, increasingly so. I absolutely loved my team at HC and they were all fabulous and super encouraging throughout my contracts, but it’s a sign of the times I think, that I could find a bigger audience myself through other avenues. They definitely got me started on this track and made me realize I wanted to write and publish for a living. I just want people to read what I write 😉

  4. Wow, congrats Melissa, that’s so inspiring. I know things have changed a lot in the world of publishing since the 80s – congrats for paving the way as we all move forward!

  5. “…no one else in the entire world is going to care about your books as much as you do. Ever.” No truer words were written.

    In some ways I envy your zeal. But I also know I’m not willing to sacrifice all the other things I love doing to achieve that kind of focus. Still, a wonderful post and I certainly wish you the best of success.

  6. Bravo! You’ve encouraged a lot of Indie published writers, myself included. When I discovered my “publisher” had embezzled funds from about 14 of her authors, myself included, I was so discouraged about finding and trusting anybody else, ever again. I chose instead, to go the Indie route, through Amazon’s Create Space program.
    My thinking was, prior to investigating the Indie publishing route, was that only “trashy” novelists,, writing erotica (and badly, too) were likely to self-publish. But I quickly learned otherwise, and now I can add your testimony to my growing list of successful Indie publishers.
    Thank you. Now I have to get back to marketing…..

    1. I can’t believe your publisher embezzled funds, wow, that’s shocking! I’m so glad you took action and found another route, and that you’re experiencing success! I’ve yet to play with CreateSpace, I only have my books on KDP at the moment, but I just did my first promo and managed to get 24,000 downloads in four days. Here’s how I did it if you’re ever interested: http://bit.ly/1kN17ka

      I’d be interested to know how CreateSpace is going for you. I really should look into it!

  7. Thanks a lot for crashing my article-in-progress!
    Seriously, I have been in contact with a dozen “ex-trads” who took their work indie.
    The whole idea that indie pubbing is just for striving newbies is antique. Many like you have found it an escape from the midlist blues and remainder tables.
    Thanks for letting people know about your experience.

    1. Sorry for crashing, Linton! It would be interesting to hear from other ex-trads, I hope you’ll post a link to your own piece. In my opinion we can never have enough articles like this – we’re all in it together. 😉

  8. You hit the nail on the head with your article. So many authors complain of no sales, but few actually do anything about it. Years of effort is required for long term success.

    Best of luck in all future projects.

    Simon (SJ) Parkinson

  9. Now that you have run the gauntlet, I would love to see you publish a book on how you did it, and how we can too!

  10. I know the feeling. Although writing has always been my hobby, I missed a trick when my first novel was published by Macmillan in 1980. A couple of years after that I was looking for another publisher (This was well before Amazon was born). I have had eight books traditionally published with very little in the way of sales despite some good reviews. My latest hardback will be published in January next year, fifteen months after being taken up by my publisher. My contract with them has now expired and my current MS, once I have managed to get it finished will be on Amazon within a couple of weeks of completion. I’ve enjoyed good sales figures on Amazon as a result of my own efforts, having acquired the paperback and e-book rights for my books, and I know that the key to sales is promotion and marketing, and by that I mean self promotion and marketing. There’s no easy way.

    1. That’s great to hear Michael, congrats on your obvious success! I think I’ve got a long way to go before I get the rights back on my first three books… to be honest I should probably look into that as I’m not exactly sure, but yes, it’s exciting knowing you can finish something and have it up on Amazon quick-smart! Good luck with your ventures!

  11. Thank you for confirming my decision to remain Indie. I do not have your marketing savvy, but I do see some results from the work I do. I also love that as an Indie, i maintain control of my “product”.

    1. Exactly – it’s all about the control. It gives you so much more freedom. It’s easy to see what works and what doesn’t. One of the main things I’m enjoying about self-publishing is going behind the scenes on KDP and seeing what sells and when. That’s something you never get with a mainstream, but it really helps you better focus your ideas and marketing plan!

  12. A really inspiring post, Becky. I took time out to read your post about your free promotion as well. Thanks for sharing all this information, especially letting us know how much you paid for promotions – good to know.

  13. Very inspirational. I’m just beginning to get into self publishing my work.Building up a following is quite daunting. I feel like I’m at the bottom of Mt. Kilimanjaro looking up at the cloudy mountain top. I want to get there, but it so far up, and so steep. I want to see the destination mountain top, but it’s covered with clouds. There’s much solace in reading about your experience. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Debi, in a way I still feel like I’m at the bottom of that mountain, too. It’s a long way up! But I guess we have to keep climbing and hope the clouds clear. Good luck with the journey 🙂

  14. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Becky! I’m a newly published author with a smaller (but awesome) press and I’m currently out there promoting my book baby as much I can. It’s helpful to know that whatever path an author chooses – self-publishing/trad publisher/smaller press – it’s still ultimately up to you to get your book noticed. It is hard work but it’s wonderful to hear that it can pay off – even if it’s a little farther down the track. (And I completely relate to the being stuck to a laptop 24/7!). All the best with your book sales! 😀

    1. Thanks Amy, and big congrats on the new publisher! Yes, I think it’s totally possible for trads and indies to both have equal success these days, as it does all come down to the author being savvy and also, as we know, putting the time in! I’ll see you on the laptop screen, I’m sure. Tweet me up @bex_wicks – I love to connect with writers, and I’d love to follow your journey. Best of luck!

  15. Hello, Becky. Thanks for sharing your experience. It matches mine with the difference that the offers I received were not from HarperCollins but both stated that beyond the initial marketing splash of adding a new ’emerging author’ to their portfolio all further activity had to rest on my shoulders and off my budget. They even asked me MY marketing plan to sell THEIR book.

    As you might guess, I did not sign the contracts.

    You’re right in that you need to write more novels to become visible. I have now over 500 reviews in combined goodreads and Amazon with an average of 4.0 stars out of 5. Not too shabby for an unrepresented author who now sells daily since 432 days and counting.

    BUT… it’s not easy and it is a demanding task to become visible. Writing a good story, that most readers will like (90%+) is the easy part 😉

    1. Wow, thanks for this… it’s so interesting that the publishers asked you for your plan! Cheeky or what? Ha! Good thing you are now a success in your own right and reaping the rewards. Big congrats! I’m going to look up some of your work.

        1. The last publisher I queried required a detailed marketing plan. For a book of short stories. From an already-established author. No thanks.

          1. This is absolutely crazy – really? I never got asked for that. Maybe I would have gotten my butt into gear a lot sooner had I been questioned about marketing before signing. But having done all the hard work and to then be asked for that… um…. no. Does this put you guys off querying these days?

          2. I started self-publishing immediately after that – I think it was 2011. The publisher wanted to know how many FB and Twitter followers I had, what kind of advertising I was going to do, etc. I thought it was pretty obnoxious. That was it for me with presses.

  16. To be honest, I also see the end of the query process. Agents will perform like professional sport scouts. They will look proactively for writers online; after all, a promising athlete doesn’t go to every scout’s house to run 40 dashes in their front yard hoping the scout’s lurking from behind the curtains.

    The athletes play their game, and the writers will write their novels. In both cases, the audience is there already, scout or not scout, agent or not agent, and for a writer that is all that counts.

      1. Yvonne, the query process is archaic and so ‘has-been.’

        Agents are flooded with 90% bad query letters, 9% doubtful, and even the remaining 1% might not be good enough to allow them to see any opportunity with that author. Old example, Jack London has been rejected 600 times before a publisher decided to give him a chance, and J.K. Rowling has been refused by many before one gave her about 1000 pounds for Harry Potter 1; the publisher added the tip to not get excited and never quit her day job. Reads like a joke, now, right?

        Replies take weeks and months to arrive, and the result is even worse than subscribing to a blind date matching website. At least, I’m told those do work.

        Nowadays, refusing to admit that the publishing industry has changed so much that old themes are… plain old is the realm of disillusionment, and of those agents and publishers who will still reject the next J.K. Rowling. 😉

        1. Things are definitely changing. I know literary agents are scouting more than waiting for people to come to them. They’ve always done this – I was contacted by an agent when I was 23. She’d found my blog and told me I had a voice, tried to help me put a proposal together but nothing came of it. These days you’re right, they are simply looking on Amazon for a pre-made package – someone who can do all the work and someone who already has a following. Some are smartening up though, offering deals for print rights only, or taking a percentage of ebook sales in exchange for a cover design and an edit.

  17. Very inspiring. Thank you for posting. I’ve been indie for 8 months and when I see stories like yours I cheer for your success. Sometimes marketing is harder than writing the book. I was approached by 2 publishers. One admitted it was because my book was already performing well. I did research and fellow authors were so generous in sharing their knowledge I made an informed decision to decline the offer. I’ve got a long way to go but loving the journey

    1. Interesting that they admitted it was because you were already doing well – thanks for sharing this. And yes, marketing is harder and takes more time, for me at least. But like you I enjoy it, and I love making all these new connections. Writing used to feel like a solitary profession, but these days it’s anything but. You have to be the most sociable person ever to cover all these channels and spread the word about your book!

  18. Great post. I’ve had two literary agents so far, those hard-won harbingers of literary success. Neither did anything for my career. We’re on our own! Congrats on doing a great, inspiring job.

    1. We’re all on our own – but we’re also together. Early writers never had the Internet to help them help out. Mind you, they probably got a lot more work done… (ahem)

  19. Becky, was your contract with Harper Collins for three books only or did you have to get out of it because it was for more than three books? Also, did they ask you to resign for more books at any point?

    I found this an interesting read as I make techno and run a small label ( I may or may not have told you that when we met) and I think that the music industry in many ways parallels the publishing industry. This was very helpful to me.

    Hope you are well,

    1. Hi Tom, how’s it going? Yes, the original contract was for one book, then another, then another. I signed as we went along, although I knew they wanted more than one at the start. I would have done more but due to poor sales and my own desire to stop travelling so much I think it all came to a mutual end. They did ask for some fiction from me as I had expressed an interest to my agent in writing some, but that was when I decided to do things for myself! Interesting how publishing mirrors the music industry in some respects – we are all artists looking for the best ways to get our visions out there 🙂

    1. Hello, Becky.

      I actually have a question on your BookBub (non) experience. Tried to comment on your blog but didn’t see a ‘post’/’comment’ field to play with.

      Did you try to have a BB promo only for Amazon US? You might have more chances if your book is available elsewhere, too, and combine the promo on BB for other retailers as well.

      In my last promo with BB guys I had over 6000 downloads from Barnes & Noble alone.

      1. Hi Massimo. That’s funny, you should be able to comment at the end of my blog posts, but anyway, no I only have my book on KDP at the moment unfortunately. Their rule states that you can’t sell it anywhere else for 90 days. BookBub only allows free or heavily discounted books in their newsletter, but in order to give mine away for free, I had to run the promo exclusively through Amazon KDP. When I take my books off Select I will definitely put them on B&N too – sounds like you had great results! Thanks for sharing that.

  20. I like your article very much. It’s so true you have to take action. Congratulations on your achievement. I’m also active in social networking areas. My works also sell this way as well. I’m glad that I came here to read this article. Enjoy your day.

  21. Kudos to you, Becky! I recently went indie after 15 tradpub titles. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in terms of the amount of work and education involved. Like you, I crammed like I used to for finals and basically had to unlearn a whole bunch of stuff about publishing that was old school and get with the new reality. It’s all about connecting with readers through social media and newsletters and such, you’re right. The more you do for yourself the better, whether you’re indie-published or tradpubbed.

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