Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Writing 101: If You're an Indie, You've Got a Bad Reputation

Indie authors have to face a few hard truths when they first embark on the road to self-publishing, and the worst one is this: some readers will never read an indie author. In fact, among certain circles you're getting a bad reputation the moment you identify as an indie. You've got a stigma, and you can't deal with it unless you know what it is. 

Indie Authors

So, what is an indie author? Lots of writers have used it to mean lots of different things, but at the end of the day an indie author is someone who is not working with a publisher. Authors belonging to micro-presses and indie publishers, however, often still claim the title (and we'll go ahead and let them). But usually, an indie author is someone who has ownership of their own ISBNs and directly reaps the rewards of the sales they earn through Amazon, Smashwords, and so on.


Because indie publishing houses and micro-presses are often indie-owned, some indie authors don't self-publish. However, many do. Self-publishing is exactly that: an author who publishes their own work under their own steam without the help of a publisher or similar professional. Self-publishing as a whole has seen a dramatic increase, and many indie authors are taking advantage. Some have even managed to create big names for themselves in the world of self-publishing, and have gone on to put ink on big-time book deals.

But once you take on one of these labels, or both, you're getting painted with a brush that's not always flattering -- and you're limiting part of your market.

The Stigma

Some people avoid self-published and indie books as a rule, at least until the authors land more traditional deals and get a wider distribution. Being an indie author or a self-published author, or both, comes with a stigma. Many, many readers are operating under the impression that indie authors simply aren't "good enough" to go the more traditional literary route, and some readers summarily dismiss any and all books that have been self-published or otherwise produced by an indie. It's a cold reality, but it's the truth.

Why? Lots of people have written lots of articles and blog posts about this very topic, but by and large the biggest complaint from the reading community in relation to indie authors can be summed up in just one word: editing. Many readers believe, not necessarily incorrectly, that a large number of indie authors produce poorly-edited and ill-formatted books. 

I, too, had a bit of a rude awakening in the indie book market. The very first indie book I ever read was so well-done, so picture-perfect, so spot-on and fantastic, I figured they must all be like this. I read many, many more indie books before I found another that was as well-edited or well-written.

The Reality

 Spend any time reading among the indie community, and you're going to find plenty of books that make you grimace. I've broken up with my Kindle more than once already, but I always go back because of one simple truth: you can find crap just as easily among the traditionally-published books. Bad editing? Bad grammar? Weird phrasing and piss-poor plots? Yeah, you can get that anywhere. 

There is a stigma among self-published and indie authors, and that's a harsh reality -- but there is balance, too. Indie authors are defined by their independence, but together they come together to form a very wide, very welcoming community. Indie authors know how to find each other, and by and large they tend to stick together to support each other. Visit forums dedicated to self-publishing, and you'll find plenty of encouragement. Indies work together to swap reviews, trade promotions and further each other's efforts. The term indie author, in fact, feels like a bit of a misnomer -- when you self-publish, you're never really alone. 

Some readers are going to keep their noses stuck up in the air, but indie bestsellers are just going to keep raining down (threatening to drown them). The traditional book market is changing, and the traditional book publishing market is changing just to keep up with it. The indie community is so wide and so warm, any stigma you get is just a small burden. The freedom of independence more than makes up for the bad reputation. With careful editing, any indie can potentially out-write any traditional author any day .

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  1. Very well written. I only started to know what Indie authors were a few months back. I totally agree, you can find crap as easily as you can find a marvelous little novel! It goes both ways and you don't know which one it'll be until you've read it :D

  2. Great post! I'm going to forward it to a few people.
    In the 2nd to last paragraph did you intend to say, "but they come together" or to leave it as "but together they come together"?


  3. I wonder how many readers know the difference between indie and traditionally published authors? I don't think that many readers choose books based on the publisher.

    Of course, the sooner indie writers improve the look of their books the sooner the perceived difference will erode.

    Martin Lake

    1. I've been thinking about this one for awhile. The 'signal' to me that something is Indie is usually the price. Major publishers almost never sell their books at the prices Ind. set. As stated above, it doesn't mean the Big Boys have better stuff; they certainly churn out plenty of garbage. Some readers do gain trust in the 'brand' but I think most people trust the price. Independents and especially self-publishers are desperate to get their stuff out there and are often willing and able to set a tiny price. But that can be counter-productive because (as behavioral economics has shown) people use price to signal quality. I have stories I've considered giving away for free out of the desire to be read. Even a dollar or two is too low. I think it's wiser to set the price at a slightly discounted rate of a larger publisher. That way people feel they are buying quality, but still getting a deal.
      I completely agree with your 'look' statement. Despite the adage people do (initially) judge a book by it's cover.

    2. Great comments from everyone! The pricing argument is a debate that comes up again and again. It's probably true that price tips many readers off about what they're buying, but those who are adamantly against indie books need only look to the "publisher" tag on the page to get all the info they need. I've written about pricing in the past, and I certainly understand the argument that there is a perceived quality at play when something is priced a shade higher.

      But I'm still against it. Not having a brand means indies can't price their work as high as more traditionally published authors, and in any market anyone with a product to sell has to remain competitive. In a way, as a YA author I'm competing with juggernauts like The Hunger Games and Twilight, but in a much larger sense I'm in a market with other indies and self-published authors. And they're selling their books for 99 cents. That's my market. I don't think indies should shoot themselves in the foot by going higher than other indies to, in effect, set themselves apart. The writing itself has to be what sets you apart; pricing your books too high in your own market is only going to keep readers from buying.

      Marketing does sell some books, and so does great cover design and smart pricing. But ask any author of any success level, and they'll tell you the big secret: what REALLY sells books is word of mouth. You charge me 5 bucks for your indie book, and I KNOW my mouth won't go to work for your book because I'm simply not going to buy it.

      That said, pricing is something every self-published author has to face. It's one of many challenges, and everyone has to go their own way -- it's one of the perks of being independent, and one of the burdens.

  4. Unfortunately, I've encountered more stigmatization from book bloggers, many of whom refuse to read self-published books, and indie writers themselves, who all too often take the attitude of "well, it's only self-published, but...."

    1. I'm glad you brought that up. I've also noticed this. Oddly, sometimes indie authors themselves can be the biggest indie book snobs out there. The book bloggers who refuse to read self-published books I think are definitely limiting themselves, because I've read some really great indie novels, but I do understand the reasons why they've added that to their policies. There are so many indies out there, reviewers can get swamped very quickly. And because so many self-published books do run the risk of being poorly edited and badly written, it's always a roll of the dice. However, I don't believe it really improves the odds to focus only on traditionally published books because in my experience they can be just as bad. But some book bloggers have decided to draw that line. By the same token, some reviewers (like me) will ONLY review indie books so it does go both ways.