Indie Author as Cash Cow

wealthy authorAs you know, Laurie Boris and I met up at this year’s Self-Publishing Book Expo in New York a few weeks ago. Meeting Laurie was pretty freaking awesome. But I’ll be honest: the event left me with a bit of a sour taste.

It wasn’t because of Mark Coker, who delivered a timely and useful keynote speech (much of which he later recapped on the Smashwords blog). What gave me heartburn was the exhibit floor, which featured a whole bunch of companies that would love to help indie authors succeed – for a price. (Laurie has already touched on this in her report on the event.)

Look, I’m not naïve. I realize that when you walk into a trade show, you’re going to meet a whole lot of people who want to sell you stuff. And I realize that service providers set their rates, in part, by determining how much money they need to make in order to keep their lights on. But it worries me when the target audience isn’t seasoned professionals, or even people with a couple of self-published books under their belts, but complete newbies who will walk away from an event like this thinking they need to spend several thousand dollars just to get their book noticed on somebody’s virtual shelf.

It’s been reported that half of self-published authors make less than $500 a year from their writing. If you only ever plan to publish one book, just so you can tick a box on your bucket list, it might make sense to shell out more than you’re ever going to earn so you can do it up right. After all, people pay that much and more to travel the world, or take up a sport, or any of the other things we put on our bucket lists.

But I know that a whole bunch of us are in this for a different reason: we would like to make a living from our writing. That means we cannot continually spend more than we make. And while some of the services aimed at authors would be nice to pay for, we need to think about what we’re after (satisfied readers – ideally a lot of them) and evaluate which services will help us reach our goals.

So it makes no sense, for example, to pay hundreds of dollars for a review from a firm that readers have never heard of – no matter how well-regarded they might be in New York publishing circles. And it makes no sense, at least to start, to pay for services you can get either cheaply or for free. Actually, strike that – it doesn’t make sense to pay for them ever.

Here is a list of the things you ought to spend money on: editing, cover art, and (maybe) marketing. That’s it. And you don’t have to pay through the nose to get any of it. In fact, you can learn to do a lot of it yourself. We have plenty of articles here at IU on all of these topics, and reading them won’t cost you a thing.

I don’t object to anybody making a living. Service providers are certainly welcome to charge whatever the freight will bear. But by the same token, indies should be encouraged to weigh the return on their investment in any of these services, and decide whether they wouldn’t be better served in the long run by looking for a cheaper alternative.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

49 thoughts on “Indie Author as Cash Cow”

  1. A timely and very useful article. One of the things I like about being an indie author is the opportunity to learn new skills (layout, cover design, etc.). What some of the so-called indie author services charge for what they do (that I’ve learned to do for myself) is outrageous.

    1. I agree, Charlie. I remember hearing one former Big-6 editor bemoan that no indies would pay her what her skills were worth. All I could think was, “Welcome to downsizing, honey.” 😀

  2. A well thought out analysis Lynne. Of paramount importance, as you say, it to determine the economics: are you doing this to make money or not. For the serious hobbyist, like myself, the economic constraints are a lot less serious.

    Still, I agree there are far too many people, as I’ve found through my own naivety, willing to take our money for services of dubious merit. First on that list I would put contests and awards. There are a few legit ones, but most are little more than vanity projects at best. Paid reviews and other marketing gimmicks come close behind.

    I would also agree that regardless of the writer’s professional ambitions, it is worthwhile to spend money on good editing and design. Few of us are blessed with the skills to be truly expert in all these areas. I’ve come across too many indie books that are well written, but that look like kindergarten projects and others that are so full of typos, bad grammar, punctuation, etc. that I can’t stand reading beyond the first chapter.

    1. Yup, John, I put editing at the top of my list of stuff that it’s important to pay for.

      (Full disclosure: I don’t pay for editing. But I’ve got years of experience as an editor myself, and I trade my services with a couple of women who are equally able.)

  3. I agree and have just been in a discussion about this kind of thing on Linkedin. Mostly it was about using freebies of your book as marketing and how it cuts the profits\income of other authors. No I don’t want to give a book away free, but what’s your alternative when you have zero budget for marketing? In part, networking, surely. But author footprint. Readers, obviously reviews, etc.

    I’m also sick to death of hearing people berating someone for trying to make money as a writer\author, because you should be happy just getting published or something. Writing and being pleased you got a book out should be reward, but is it enough? For some, and that’s fine.

    Still, some of us are actually trying to make a living at it. I’ve spent the past four years on that pursuit while working my day job. Essentially working two full time jobs, more when you consider marketing. It’s hard as hell divining what to do or not to do. However I have gotten as far as I can on free and now I’m looking at spending money. But what do you spend it on? How much? If $1,000 can get you kickstarted to making a steady income, surely it’s worth it. But it’s all a crap shoot and you can end up just piling up debt to no effect.

    I think any of us trying to make this work, deserves a round of applause by ourselves and our fellow writers. I salute you who are trying so hard and slowly getting anywhere!

    I’ve heard ad nauseam that the cream rises to the top and if you turn out a quality book it will get noticed. That’s so much nonsense and there are so many other decisions you have to get right along the way. Only the lucky few get to the top on quality alone. It also takes time though and after ten years, if you hit it big, or moderate even, people will see you as an overnight success. When all that happened was you finally hit that tipping point after years of blood, sweat and tears.

    The Rule is I think, work hard, and never stop.

    1. JZ, I have a family member who’s been pestering me about doing Kickstarter. Sure, I want to make my living as a writer, but I’m not convinced that the people who contribute on a crowdfunding platform would turn into readers — and it’s readers that I’m after. But that’s a rant for another day….

      In any case, I very much like your Rule. Thanks! 🙂

  4. Excellent post. Thank you. As far as editing, that most important part of all, I found being part of an incredible critique group took care of the major initial work and then it was way easier to move on without spending a fortune. I feel everyone is climbing on the bandwagon of exploitation. One webinar with “special offers” after another, ad nauseum. My email inbox is overflowing—a lot of good info comes in, but then the special offers flood in, and more becomes less. So I unsubscribe, with a note of explanation whenever possible.

  5. What really gets me is when these “professionals” scam the newbies by saying they MUST pay out big bucks to get noticed, to sell books, to take advantage of whatever their latest “service” is, and yet no–NO ONE–can predict best-sellers. If anyone had that formula, believe me, they would not be prowling trade shows. I shudder to think how many newbies are taken in by the condescending “don’t you worry your little head about this, we’ll take care of it” attitude and offer. If anyone was so good at predicting best-sellers, I think we’d all know who it was, and it ain’t these guys. Good reminder, Lynne, and good breakdown.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Possibly the thing that riled me up the most at SPBE was the formatting panel. One of the panelists (I won’t embarrass the service provider by saying which one she works for) started off by explaining to the group that you *need* to submit a .mobi file to KDP and an .epub file to Smashwords, and so on. She said something like four things wrong in the first 30 seconds of her presentation. Well, maybe it was a minute. But still — four wrong things! Laurie and I just sat there, shaking our heads.

      I suspect the panelist was either nervous, or thought she’d sound more knowledgeable by throwing around a bunch of terms of art. But I just *know* that roomful of newbies came away from that presentation thinking they could never do this on their own.

    1. What’s frustrating to me, Linda, is that some of the sites that started out as great places for indies to get exposure are now raising their prices to Big-Five levels, and publishing ads for trad-pubbed books at the expense of indie books. I’m thinking in particular of BookBub. It kind of showcases how they’ve never been in it to support indies.

  6. With all the stuff that we, at IU, and all the genuine helpers, like Writer Beware, put out to help and assist newbie indies avoid the pitfalls you’d think that it would put a spoke in the wheel of those “Service Providers (predators)” who pop up, furtively, wherever they think the pickings might be ripe.

    Excellent article, Lynne.

    1. Thanks, TD. The problem is that their advertising budgets are bigger than ours, so they can pay to have their names pop up first when a newbie googles “publish a novel.” We’ve got an uphill climb, to be sure.

  7. Great article, Lynne.’Buyer beware’ has never been more true. Those of us here at IU are safe, but how many more Indies are out there learning the ropes the hard, and expensive way?

  8. I’ve participated on panels where a whole lot of misinformation has been offered. I can’t stand it, and wonder why those people are invited in the first place, and presented as “experts” in the field of self publishing. They know near-to nothing! It’s hard to point that out without exposing them, so I usually keep quiet. In one instance when I voiced my opinion it led to a confrontation and my unannounced resignation from the group.

  9. A useful and thoughtful article, Lynne. And some interesting comments to from others.
    One thing surprised me: You reckon as many as 50% of indie authors manage to make $500 a year? I have come across an awful lot who never make that much. In fact, I keep hearing of people who’ve published a book and never made what it cost them to put it out.
    OK, sometimes that’s because they’ve been taken for suckers by the likes of Author House or other vulture publishers, but in many cases it’s simply because, whilst they believed in their book, it didn’t actually have a market beyond their few dozen friends, to most of whom they gave free copies anyway. Most also don’t understand that as an indie author one needs to to a great deal of marketing. It probably takes more time marketing and promoting your book than it ever did to write, proof and publish it for most of us, even those who release through minor publishers that don’t have a sophisticated marketing arm.
    Those of us with a few books and a bit of time served under our belts recognise that we have to be multi-faceted and tremendously energetic workers to be indie authors.

    1. All very true, Ian.

      I think the $500/year is an average, and includes mega-sellers like Hugh Howey as well as those poor souls whose books published with a vanity press are languishing in the garage. So yes, lots of indies make much less than $500/year on their books.

      1. That’s where average figures give such a false impression. Only a few make the average figure, the vast majority don’t but, because of the way it’s calculated, it gives the impression that even mediocre writers can expect to make that much. That leads to a lot of disillusionment and is cruel.

  10. Thank you Lynne for reminding us that we don’t have to “pay to play”. As a singer/songwriter most of my life I often played events for free or hot dogs. Of course, there was enjoyment in that but it didn’t help pay the gas to get there. I agree with paying the important people; editors, book cover experts, etc., because it will make your book look and feel more appetizing to readers. Since I don’t have the big bucks to have everything done for me I spend a lot of time learning to do as much as I can by myself. It costs me nothing but time and once it’s learned you’re set to go!

  11. Granted, at times, I consider myself a service provider. But I’m usually more than happy to point an newbie author to the tools they can use to DIY. If they can’t figure it out, and then if they want my services, I’ll provide them at a reasonable price. I don’t make a fortune from my clients, and I don’t take many of them a year simply because I’m usually too busy with my own books and running a 100 acre farm.

    1. “Reasonable price” is the key phrase there, Kathy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with selling services to indies, as I said. It’s when the services cost more than the author is likely to ever recoup on the book that I start to twitch — and I can’t imagine you’d be in that group. 😀

  12. Thanks for writing this, Lynne. It seems as though this message needs to be repeated over and over, but I guess that makes sense given that new authors come along all the time.
    I gave a ninety minute talk at a function last weekend stressing to authors that they can do almost all of the work themselves and do not need to pay for high-priced outside help. Afterward there were reps from self-pubbing assistance companies taking names. It really can be a battle sometimes so your information is truly important. I will be sharing this.

  13. Having been in this business awhile, as both traditional and indie author, I encourage all newbies and hopefuls to study the craft. I tell them that if they are going to invest, invest in knowledge so that you won’t get taken!

    Trust is big factor when it comes to shelling out money to those “willing” to help. However, knowledge of editing, grammar and various aspects of writing and the publishing industry, we help to keep from getting hood-winked. And let’s face, there are a lot of scammers out there ready and eager to take advantage of a hopeful writer with stars in their eyes and little know-how.

Comments are closed.