Indie Publishing: What I Learned from SXSW

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I’m back!

As you might know, I was in Austin, Texas for the annual South by South West (SXSW) Interactive conference.

So what did I get up to? Well, I spent a lot of time hanging out in coffee-shops and at Austin-people’s houses – but I managed to catch a few conference panels too.

You probably gathered from Indie Publishing: Self-Publishing Grows Up that I’m interested in the way that the publishing industry is changing – and especially in the new possibilities for self-publishers.

I’m going to share what I learned from two panels – “The Self-Publishing Novelist: Report From the Trenches” and “Why New Authors Should Think Like Indie Bands” – then I’ll sum up the current consensus (as I see it) about the world of indie vs traditional publishing.

A lot of this advice applies equally to fiction and non-fiction writers.

Note: What I write in the sections on the panels is a summary of what I heard. Anything which is my own thoughts, rather than discussion from the panel, is shown in [square brackets and italicised].

This is a LONG post, and I’ve tried to include everything from my notes: even if a point wasn’t particularly new to me, it might be helpful to you. Feel free to skim as necessary. You might want to bookmark or print the post for future reference.

The Self-Publishing Novelist: Report from the Trenches

This panel included:

Jane Friedman (chair), former publisher and editorial director of Writers’ Digest – JaneFriedman.com

John Sundman, cyber-nano-biopunk author – Wetmachine.com

Carolyn McCray, who writes historical thrillers and is CEO of the Indie Book Collective

Nicole Galland, co-author of The Mongoliad, and traditionally published with Harper Collins

I didn’t remember to write down names of speakers against my notes for most of this panel – sorry!

Is Traditional Publishing Dead/Dying?

The panel agreed that traditional publishing isn’t going to die out. Individuals like Amanda Hocking are outliers rather than typical indie publishers, and self-publishers currently have a particularly strong window of opportunity with Amazon.

Traditional publishers will figure out ways to monetise and advertise on Amazon, just like they do in stores (e.g. with 3-for-2 offers). We’re living through a “golden moment” for self-publishers.

Some authors will always want to be traditionally published; it provides a particular “cultural experience” that they can be part of, particularly in New York. [I think the same goes for London’s publishing scene, too.]

Successful Self-Publishing

Carolyn said she’d sold more ebooks in the last six weeks than in the previous ten years.

Self-publishers need:

  • To understand technology and how to leverage it
  • A platform on social media
  • The ability to market and self-promote

Marketing and Promotion

You might find it hard to promote your own books, even if you’re used to marketing. [I’d add that this is particularly the case for fiction – you might be fine at promoting your business or non-fiction books, but struggle to tell people why they should read your novel.]

Carolyn said that consistency was important: figure out what you need to do, then keep doing it. Get into the habit of marketing, rather than only doing it in brief spurts.

John, who started out in the ebook scene very early on, pointed out that it helps to be unique, or to be the first.

Credibility

John said it really helps to write a good book…

The panel agreed that you’ll stand out simply by being good. Reviews also help establish your credibility.

Using Social Media

Carolyn said that Twitter is fluid and influential, but that the following principles apply to other sites like Facebook as well:

  • Be out there
  • Be vocal about your genre
  • Make good connections
  • Provide good content

Every tweet you put out is a writing sample.

Should You Be Able to Make a Living?

The panel raised the question of whether novelists should necessarily expect to make a living – there’s “art as a profession” and “art as a hobby”.

John mentioned Kickstarter, which helps artists raise money for their projects: you need an enthusiastic fan-base to pull it off.

Carolyn said that it’s a valid choice to not market and not sell, but pointed out that if you do want to make a living, you need to be willing to sell. She suggested asking “If we were trying to sell t-shirts, what would we be doing?” [I don’t quite agree here; I think selling is important, but that novels aren’t sold or bought in the same way and for the same reasons as t-shirts.]

Establishing Your Platform

  • Give content away to build relationships
  • Build a name and focus on sustainable sales in the thousands
  • But be careful – it can be hard to get people to pay once you’ve given a lot away for free

Selling Kindle ebooks

You need around seven books for sale to really take off (because they’ll all support one another).

Think of the product description on Amazon as an advert: Carolyn suggested the format of (a) great reviews, (b) an overview, (c) a clear call to action. [I’m not sure about this; I don’t like book descriptions which start with a review.] She also said not to use character names. [Personally, I don’t think this is a problem – unless you mention loads of characters.]

Put quotes about the book on the first pages [known as “blurbs” in the industry, I think].

At the end of the ebook, mention your other books and give excerpts from these, plus a link to your website.

Novel-Specific Tips

It’s harder to market novels than non-fiction because there aren’t established models. The mainstream/literary novel has never sold especially well, unless promoted by Oprah or similar.

Genre is more of a “mosh pit”. [I wrote this down and I’m now not quite sure what it means, but I liked it too much to leave it out…]

Have a critique group and beta readers, to help you get the novel good.

Look at your return rates (to see how well you’re doing) – an average is around 3-5%.

Novels are becoming more interactive, according to John.

Should Authors Use AdWords?

Carolyn suggested that novelists follow these steps first:

  • #1: Get your book good. Give beta readers a specific task.
  • #2: Get branded – tell your story, build your following.
  • #3: Do a blog tour.

Don’t start using Adwords or other advertising until you’ve got to this stage. On AdWords, pick three key words and three minors. Know your audience.

Pricing?

Carolyn said you should start low – around $2.99 – and then increase gradually to $4.99 or $5.99, because a higher price is usually an indication of quality. [Again, I’m disagreeing with Carolyn: I’d personally rather start at the price I intended to keep, and perhaps occasionally discount for sales.]

The genre you’re writing in will affect your pricing: thrillers usually sell for more than paranormal romances do. Your audience also has an effect – if you’re marketing to an established audience on Twitter, you can probably charge more than if you’re marketing to strangers via AdWords.

Why New Authors Should Think Like Indie Bands

This panel included:

Gavin St Ours (chair), published online and traditionally – blogs and podcasts at The Gavin Show

Alan Porter, who writes about comics and pop culture (among other things) – blogs at AlanJPorter.com

Amelia Gray, literary author who’s been published by the small press – blogs at AmeliaGray.com

Timothy Sanders, who’s had short stories published by Awesome Machine Press – blogs at TimothyPresence.com

In some areas, such as the comic book industry, it’s normal for authors to self-publish before approaching a publisher.

Self-Publishing Online versus Being Published in Literary Magazines

Publishing online is a much faster way to reach readers than by publishing in literary magazines. Journals are starting to lose their prestige – though many do now have a vibrant web component, which will drive some traffic to your own site.

Using Social Media Successfully

Alan said:

  • Do different things on different platforms, to suit the audience on each.
  • Don’t just do self-promotion on Twitter.
  • Identify people who you might want to build a relationship with on social media, then look to meet up with them at a conference.
  • Sold a novella due to seeing a lead on Twitter from an editor he followed.

Amelia said:

  • She accepts all friend requests on Facebook and uses that for her business-related networking.
  • On Twitter, she follows “avant-garde” accounts and sees the site as a tool for flash fiction. She doesn’t tend to use it for business (e.g. for self promotion).

[I differ completely from Amelia – I use Facebook primarily for family and non-internet friends and I use Twitter for a combination of chatting, networking and self-promotion. I was particularly interested by her take on it, though, because it shows that Facebook can be a great platform for business purposes too.]

Timothy said:

  • Facebook and Twitter management is a new problem.
  • He thinks it will make literature better, in the long run.
  • Fiction-writers aren’t grappling with new technology within their fiction yet. (Possibly because there’s a danger of it dating quickly.) [I’ve heard the same point made elsewhere – see this article in the Guardian, for instance. It’s also one of the reasons why I focused my novel Lycopolis very deliberately in the modern world of online chat, online gaming, and so on.]

Do Publishers Take Your Online Following Seriously?

Amelia said that marketing people are interested in your number of hits, followers, and the search terms that people use to find your site.

Alan follows several editors to see what they’re working on and to get to know them, because this makes it easier to target editors and publishers. Bear in mind that editors can see what you’re tweeting: be careful what you say (even if you’ve been rejected).

Should Writers Put Out Material for Free?

Amelia’s publisher has free “mini books” available on their site – the publisher has a huge commitment to design.

Alan said that he sells one of his self-published books for $2.99 on the Kindle; this has resulted in an increase in the paperback sales (at $15), even though he’s doing no marketing. [I think the point here was that by putting out digital material for free or at a cheap price point, you’ll probably raise sales of printed versions.]

Self-Publishing and Self-Promotion

Timothy pointed out that in an analogue world, self-publishing didn’t make a lot of sense, because you didn’t have a promotional apparatus (unlike bands, who could do gigs, etc). His main motivation now is to have as many people read his stuff as possible.

Alan suggested thinking outside the box for book tours and signings:

  • Offer a bookstore an event, rather than just expecting to sit at a table and sign books.
  • Get invited to speak at conferences and conventions, and sell books at the end.
  • Look at what indie rock bands do.

Amelia used Kickstarter to raise $1,400 and used this money to visit readers, to send out books, etc.

Timothy added to Alan’s point about indie bands, and suggested merchandising: creating t-shirts, buttons, bookmarks and so on.

Can Full-Time Authors Succeed Without a Publisher?

Amelia said that it was important that the writing was good; the panel host, Gavin, agreed, suggesting hiring an editor to get the story published up.

Alan said that self-publishing and traditional publishing will be complementary: publishers aren’t going to go away. Self-publishing is a great way to get in and build a market. The business model of publishing needs to change: they’re set up to “move paper” – but there needs to be more of a focus on content and value.

Certain content will work better in print – e.g. reference books. Other content is more suited to electronic platforms.

Amelia suggested that in fiction, there’d be “concentrations of talent” drawn to major publishing houses.

How Much Marketing Falls on the Author Now?

Alan pointed out that publishers have always expected mid-list authors to do their own promotion. It’s easier to do that online: authors don’t need to go round local bookstores any more.

Timothy said that self-publishing gives the author more control; with traditional publishing, there’s a danger that your artistic vision will be compromised by a focus on selling (for instance, you might not have any input about the cover).

In some cases, Alan said, editors might love your novel but the marketing team might turn it down.

Amelia praised small press publishers, and said this was a great places to start because you had more control.

What Hasn’t Worked So Well For You?

Timothy said that you shouldn’t measure yourself by metrics (e.g. Twitter followers, book sales).

Gavin said that some writers are slow to adapt to new technology like Twitter, and he’d like to see more of them using it.

Alan said you need to manage your time and find a balance between writing and promoting your writing.

Timothy pointed out that one of the advantages of the internet is that it makes it easy for introverts: you can be physically alone in your room, but still interact with people.

Points from the Q&A

Publishers want people to have a platform – they are interested in the numbers of followers, hits, etc.

If we have to find the audience (as well as write the content and market), this raises the question of what the publisher is there for…

Publishers see their strengths as being: (a) finding readers outside the community that the author already has and (b) bringing readers into the fold. [I’m not too sure how these points are different – it’s possible I noted them down wrong…]

Definitions of success varied: Amelia said that success is being able to write another book; Alan said that “success is when someone comes up and says thank you.”

Alan had tried putting out an excerpt of a short story series for free, but it wasn’t a success.

Once your book gets into a top ten list on the Kindle ebook store, it becomes self-sustaining.

So … Was There a Consensus?

Overall, a lot of what was said chimed with what I’d already learnt from a few weeks of reading blogs about indie publishing (particularly The Creative Penn and J.A. Konrath’s blog). Although there were some disagreements about certain areas – like how best to use Twitter, or what price point to use – there seemed to be a consensus emerging on major issues:

The publishing industry is changing rapidly. The rise in ebook readers (like the Kindle) makes it very easy for self-publishers to get their books into the hands of readers; sites like Twitter and Facebook make it easy for self-publishers to build a following.

Indie publishers have an advantage right now because traditional publishers are slow to adapt. E.g. self-publishers can price ebooks at an “impulse buy” point – say, $2.99 or even $0.99.

Indie publishing is not an easy route. Everything I’ve read, and everything I’ve heard, has emphasised that you will only succeed as a self-publisher if you have a good book.

However you get published, you’ll need to market. A traditional book deal does not mean that you can sit back and just write.

An indie-published book can be very attractive to a traditional publisher. Several of the speakers at SXSW, and several bloggers who I read, are using indie publishing as a way to prove to publishers that there’s sufficient interest in their book.

Publishers are not the enemy. Almost without exception, the panellists praised the work of publishers (especially small press ones). Indie publishing isn’t about being “anti” traditional publishing – it’s simply a different option.

As you probably know, the indie publishing versus traditional publishing debate isn’t purely academic for me; I have a novel, Lycopolis, which I’m debating whether or not to indie publish.

I’ll let you know soon about what’s going to happen with Lycopolis … and if you want to make sure you find out, grab the Aliventures RSS feed, or get new posts straight to your inbox, below:

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19 thoughts on “Indie Publishing: What I Learned from SXSW

  1. Sounds like you had an interesting few panels Ali! Thanks also for the mention – Joe Konrath’s blog is definitely the place to be for authors making stacks of cash on Kindle and self-pubbing.
    On the price point, you should check out John Locke who basically rules the kindle top charts with books for 99cents. I’m getting through his list at the moment – they are great fun reads! I also started with $2.99 and lost my place in the bestseller rankings, but since putting my price to 99c, I’m selling more books and am consistently in the bestseller lists in my niche. So price point is interesting!
    My focus is to get the highest number of readers for the first book in the series so when the next one comes out, I have more people ready to buy – and then I’ll try for the $2.99 price again – unless John Locke persuades me otherwise!

    On fiction marketing, I think many of the same principles apply – or at least, that’s my experience at the moment. But Amazon rankings clearly count for a lot, as do reviews – so I am focusing more on reviews and keeping up a profile on Goodreads & Shelfari and reviewing books in my niche. Who knows that the Amazon algorithms are doing!

    Exciting times indeed! I look forward to hearing what you will do with your novel.
    Joanna Penn’s last blog post ..10 Reasons Why Authors Love Ebooks

    • Haven’t come across John Locke! I buy via Amazon.co.uk and I think the bestselling lists are different from the .com sit. Stephen Leather is rocking the Top Ten here… I’ve read a couple of his, and feel he falls down a bit with endings. (Other reviewers seem to agree with me…)

      Interesting to hear that you’re down to 99c now, and I can certainly see the logic for selling the first book in a series at a low price point, to get readers hooked..!

    • Cheers Gavin! I did enjoy it very much – wish I’d taken some photos to share the experience a bit better on the blog! 🙂

    • Absolutely! I think publishers still have a vital role to play (most of the writers I know are *not* terribly keen on organising their own editing, distribution, marketing, etc).

  2. As an indie publisher, I can tell you the advice about the pricing is not wrong or misleading. Although, let me just bottom line it for you. If you are not a known author the odds of you selling for more than $4.99 is going to be really tough sell. Books at that price and below are considered impulse buys and people don’t mind tossing that. Above that you will sell far less. Just my opinion from y own publishing war chest. Oh, but I do agree start with a price and stick. Let me give you a short math lesson though. It you publish less than 2.99 even by one penny, you lose about 75 cents per sale due to the diff royalty rate.. That is why she says start at 2.99.

    • Cheers, Del! Yep, I’m aware that Amazon drop the royalty rate if you put the price below $2.99, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m personally looking at the $2.99 – $4.99 range…

  3. Firstly, thank you to Joanna Penn for Tweeting this.Secondly, thank you Ali for taking the time to make notes and share all this with us. V.interesting comments and viewpoints. Not sure if I agree about a $0.99 price for a book which has taken a lot of sweat and tears – as most do.With my sales hat on, I am always aware of the dangers in de-valuing a product. Must need to sell an awful lot of books to make up the loss in royalty as well. Quite a balancing game and a mathematical one.
    Rosalie.

    • I feel the same way, Rosalie! I think this is such a tricky issue … because even though I don’t really like the idea of selling 2+ years work for $0.99, I also recognise that selling 10x as many books would more than make up for the difference in the price and the royalty rate. I really feel that this one is going to end up being down to individual authors’ different opinions and markets…

  4. Honestly, the part about being introverted and still creating a platform rings true for me. I’m incredibly shy in person and have anxiety problems; however, online, I’m very “outgoing” and willing to talk about just anything. It’s helped.

    Great post, sounds like a lot of content and a lot of fun. This has really been enlightening, as I’m debating about self publishing my first book to create a platform rather than getting stuck in the agent slushpile. Why not stand out somewhere first, then dive in the traditional publishing world? I don’t know, but it’s nice to have options.
    Elisa Michelle’s last blog post ..Blogs Won’t Write Stories for You

    • I find it much easier online because I can edit my words… it’s harder in face to face conversation.

      Really glad this post helped you — and good luck, whichever route you decide to go down. I agree that options are nice! And I’ll update Aliventures as I learn more about the world of indie publishing…

  5. Ali,
    Love the new site design! (Hope it’s not old news … I usually read you in my RSS).
    This was a great post and so helpful. I’m just writing up something for a collaborative writing blog and your overview gave me the perfect perspective to jumpstart my own musings.

    I’ll be linking back shortly.
    Hope you had a good time at SXSW!

    • Cheers! I love it to – it’s been this way for a few months, actually, thanks to the ever-awesome Charlie from Charfish Design (http://www.charfishdesign.com) and I’ve had nothing but good feedback.

      Hope your own post goes well, and glad to be able to give you that spark! 🙂

  6. Ali,

    It is great to know that you take time away from your busy schedule to attend such conferences and seminars even though this may take you half way across the world. I feel inspired by your sojourns into the unknown.

    You have learned so much from these events. Sharing your notes means that we learn with you as well. However, next time around, please try to include a few snaps. Images can reveal more than a thousand words, after all.

    No matter whether you get published or not, it is important to keep on writing like you do. Stick to your schedule and never give up and never give in. Pressures will mount from all sides, but keep on writing anyway. That is one of the best lessons for a writer–just do it. Thanks for walking your talk–that means you have credibility here.

    Cheerio.

  7. Ali, you have to read this JA Konrath’s http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/—A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing.

    Check out:
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/01/time-investment.html
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2010/12/you-should-self-publish.html

    I don’t read thrillers but I like his work. I think I just found a new writer to follow. Konrath shows that you can do it on your own especially if you have built a base.

    The numbers in the Time investment post just blew me away.

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