Dear Fellow Indie Authors,
I care about you and and we need to have a talk. We need to talk about why the beginners among us are such easy targets for scams and bullshit. As you know, independently publishing your work does come with some legitimate expenses. But it also comes with a bunch of scam artists trying to take your money. Why? Because, let’s face it, a LOT of authors are desperate. They’re desperate for their work to be seen. They’re desperate for their book to do well. Beginners fall for this stuff for the same reason so many authors were scammed by vanity presses and predatory publishers back before ebooks and companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Lulu, Kobo, and Ingram leveled the playing field – desperation (to get published in that case).
So let’s take a moment to talk about which expenses are legitimate and have a solid ROI (that’s RETURN ON INVESTMENT for those who don’t know) and which ones do not.
Please note: Shop around for all of these services and get recs from other authors. If someone comes to you trying to sell you their services — RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN. The rule of thumb is this: Legit companies and service providers don’t need to come to you because customers go to them. If they’re soliciting you – they’re preying on you, clear and simple.
Legitimate Indie Author Expenses that have a solid ROI:
Conferences/Classes and Education – You can never go wrong learning the ins and outs of the business, studying and improving your craft, and networking with other writers. Learning new software or new strategies for advertising is never wasted cash because it teaches you to be more independent and gives you the tools to do your job.
Cover Art – A good cover artist is worth the money. You want your packaging and your brand to attract a large audience, so don’t skimp here. But also – shop around (like you would for any other service). Ask other authors for recommendations and referrals. And by all means – think about the bestsellers in your genre and what the readers want, not yourself and your preferences, when choosing cover art. You may not like the man chest trend on steamy romance novels, but readers do. You want to sell more books – you do what the reader wants if you want the best ROI. Cover artists do not come to you. You go to them.
Editing – This is the second area you don’t want to skimp on if you can afford it. A good editor can be the difference between a good book and a great book. Or a poor book and a good book. Hire the type of editor you need. Developmental editors help improve the story, locate plot holes, and coach you on the development of your story and writing. Line Editors/Proof Readers catch all the spelling errors, word misuse, and all the technical stuff. Really great editors can do both. Pricing ranges widely so again, ask for recommendations and referrals before signing any contracts. Also, editors do NOT come to you. You go looking for them.
Book formatting software – With all the book formatting software available today, there’s no reason to hire a service to do this for you. For Mac users, check out Vellum. For PC users, there’s Atticus. Atticus is not nearly as sophisticated as Vellum, but it will take the guesswork out of properly preparing books for publication.
Advertising where your book is actually pushed to an audience who gives a shit about books like yours (i.e. Amazon Ads, FB Ads, BookFunnel Promos, BookBub, Robin Reads, etc…) – Learn how to do this and only advertise with reputable sites/services. Where do you find out who’s reputable and who isn’t? By talking to other authors, of course.
Dubious expenses where the ROI is questionable.
Going to Reader events: I am on the fence about this. Oftentimes meeting readers face to face and selling them a book is fun and exciting and it makes you more visible to the reading public. On the down side – reader events usually aren’t worth the ROI. How do you figure out the ROI? First, add up all your expenses to be at a place. Subtract that from the money you made from the event. Then divide that by the number of hours you worked. So, let’s say it cost you $500 to be there, you made $410, and you worked 30 hours. You worked those 30 hours for free and at a $90 loss. It cost you $90 to spend your entire weekend working your butt off. If you’re making less than $10 an hour — was it worth it? It may have been time better spent writing the next book. That said, if you’re an extrovert and love talking to people — that may be reward enough for you, and you should definitely budget for your favorite reader events each year you can afford it. They can be quite pricey once you add in fuel, parking, food, hotel, airfare, book shipping, table fees, stock expense, etc…. Most folks end up spending far more than they actually make.
SHADY AF expenses and expenses where the ROI is lousy (i.e. not worth it):
Book tours. In the last 13 years of indie publishing fiction, I have done at least a hundred book tours. Not a single one earned me back my investment or did anything to make my book more visible to the wider market. Save that money for more traditional advertising with a proven track record.
Book Fairs – If strangers come to you wanting to put your book in a “Book Fair” you’ve never heard of for only $700 (or insert price here). This is a scam and you will get absolutely NOTHING useful for your $700. Keep your money. If you’re invited to the local bookfair and it costs $25 to have a table there, treat it like a Reader Event and weigh the options accordingly.
Paying for Shelf Space in Bookstores – So many shitty indie books have come before us (and are still out there) that most big bookstores won’t touch books by indie authors with a 12 foot pole unless there is a huge demand for them where customers are walking in asking for a book, and most indie bookstores make you fill out an application, provide a copy of the book for review (for typos and shitty cover art), and charge you for temporary shelf space which is usually in an area no one goes to and where you likely won’t sell many (if any) books, leaving you disappointed, and the bookstore owner unwilling to take on any more of your books. Usually they won’t take more than 10 copies at a time anyway, and for what you make on consignment, it’s not worth the shelf space rental even if you sell those 10 books. I’m sure there are rare exceptions to this rule, but in most cases, paying to put your books in an indie bookstore is a waste of money and time and the return on your investment is lousy.
We have a local bookstore in Denver that has made a small side business of selling indie authors shelf space in the basement, away from popular fiction and non-fiction put out by big publishers. Very rarely will these bookstores put your book in a prominent place, alongside publisher printed books, or recommend them to customers. So you’re not even getting some advertising from it. Especially if customers never find it since it’s tucked away “in the back” or the basement. Don’t waste your time with this. Instead, just tell readers that armed with the ISBN of your book, they can go into any brick and mortar bookstore and order it. I’ve been doing that for years and my readers have been happy with that. That way they can support their local bookstore and still get your book because most stores will order them. And yes — if your book is with Ingram, or with Amazon in expanded distribution — bookstores can order just about ANY book for a reader. The reader has to pay up front, but the more people who order from a particular store, the more likely the store is to put it in stock so they’re not constantly having to order it. I have books that are carried in Barnes & Nobles in several big cities for this reason.
Marketing Packages – from people who claim to do PR. Generally not worth the ROI unless your book is already popular and you’re already selling thousands of copies a week. Usually they’ll send out a press release (that no local paper or news agency will give two craps about unless it’s a super slow news day) and try to get you an interview on a podcast, or do a blog hop, or tweet about your book 500 times to people who don’t give a shit, or something like that. And all of it is worthless for the number of books you’ll sell from it. They can do this for a living because, literally, everyone and their mother is an author these days. It’s no longer a special or unique thing. You’re easily replaceable with another sucker. You’re not making the cost of the marketing package back. So save your $$ unless you’re making at least $6000+ a month from your writing. And even then, be super cautious about flushing money down the toilet.
Did I miss anything? Fellow writers – feel free to mention your favorite things with a high ROI in the comments. Or maybe something that had a crappy ROI and that you wouldn’t recommend.
A final word — don’t be so damn desperate and make your business decisions with your head, not your heart! Your bank account will thank you.