Self-Publishers: The New Generation of Cool Kids

For years, self-publishing was widely considered an embarrassing fallback option. Occasionally a John Grisham would emerge, sell 5,000 copies of a compelling novel, land a publishing deal, and ultimately achieve fame and fortune. But those authors were far and away the exception. Few authors willingly followed in their footsteps.

Nowadays, self-publishing is not only respectable: it’s downright hot. Today’s indie phenoms are rocking the industry, their books elbowing their way up the USA Today and NY Times bestseller charts, with stars like Bella Andre and Raine Miller scoring breathtaking seven-figure publishing deals. With their Ragged Dick success stories and can-do attitude, these inspirational indies are rapidly becoming the cool kids.

Until recently, this sea change in perception was nearly unthinkable. To wit, many bestselling indie authors were as (pleasantly) astonished as anyone else by their astounding success. After the release of Book 2 in her Blackstone Affair series, Raine Miller was content to stay indie. When her agent presented a seven-figure offer to sell the series to Atria—“well,” says Miller, “you take a deal like that (after you pick yourself up off the floor.)” The mind-blowing success of her Blackstone Affair series took Miller by surprise. “I really don’t know why it took off as it did,” she says.

One big contributor to their rising star power is the fortitude of indie authors. Indies listen to their own voice. Tammara Webber spent a year querying agents before self-publishing her debut novel, Between the Lines. “I had two options,” she says, “abandon the story I’d written, write something else, and try the same route—or self publish.” Between the Lines found a “niche audience,” and went on to become the first in a series of successful Mature YA romance novels. Webber recently signed a two-book deal for her stand-alone novel Easy, her fourth self-published book.

“By self-publishing you beat the odds to get published,” says Steven Axelrod, a prominent literary agent, the first to negotiate a seven-figure deal for an indie author. In Axelrod’s experience, the traditional gatekeepers—agents and editors—frequently miss the mark. “About half the books the gatekeepers think are commercial don’t perform as expected,” he says. If not for self-publishing, Between the Lines and the other books in the series might never have found an audience, Webber says. “I wanted to find a few readers who would like the stories I wanted to tell. Self publishing gave me that option.”

Unlike some traditionally published authors who, grateful to be accepted, may feel internal pressure to accept disappointing offers, confident indies refuse to settle for deals that don’t meet their objectives, choosing instead to forge their own success. Colleen Hoover wrote her debut novel, Slammed, for fun. Self-publishing gave her family and friends a way to download her book conveniently. After three months, sales picked up and within five months Slammed hit the NY Times bestsellers list.

Early on, Hoover turned down a “very decent” offer to publish her novel. Recently she signed on with Simon & Schuster for the print rights only to Hopeless. “I didn’t want to sign away digital rights,” she says; that was one of her reasons for rejecting the earlier offer. With a hit indie series, she was able to command an advance that she was “really happy with.” This one, she says, is the deal she’d been hoping for. “That I came into this industry backward, by self-publishing first, helped me a lot.”

Landing a traditional deal used to be the primary motive for self-publishing. This is no longer the case. Cora Carmack, author of the NY Times and USA Today bestseller Losing It, considers control a major benefit of self-publishing. “You have complete control of the creative process and you can bring books to market at a much quicker rate.” A prolific, hardworking author can feasibly take a book from draft through editing and design to quality publication in three to six months—far faster than the year or more required by traditional publishers. Speed-to-market can have an enormous impact on sales, particularly for books with seasonal or topical appeal.

Self-published authors also control pricing. Miller realized early on that the majority of books breaking into the top 10 on Amazon were self-published, a phenomenon she attributes largely to pricing. Miller published her first two titles, before The Blackstone Affair, with a small press. “The books got decent reviews,” she says, “but they would never chart on lists because they were priced too high.” Self-publishing The Blackstone Affair, Miller feels, was the smartest career move she has ever made.

In this sluggish economy, many readers are reluctant to shell out $10 or more for a book by an unproven author. By the time Tracey Garvis Graves inked her impressive two-book deal with Penguin, she’d sold over 375,000 copies of her debut novel, On the Island. “As a self-published author I was able to offer a lower price point, which made it easer for readers to take a chance on an unknown author,” Garvis Graves says. For hesitant buyers, a price of $2.99 or lower reduces the stakes. When readers discover a book they love, they share it with friends and, increasingly, across their social networks. Early readers connected with On the Island and told others, Garvis Graves says. “Word-of-mouth marketing did wonderful things for On the Island.”

Among the abundant advantages indie authors enjoy, the opportunity, on your own, to find and cultivate an audience may be the biggest. If Hoover had tried to publish Hopeless traditionally, the book would have been rejected, she says. “I wrote about a college-aged character who writes poetry,” neither of which sold well at the time. “I was able to find my own audience through word of mouth and social media,” Hoover points out. “In retrospect I think it was the absolute best choice for my first book.”

“At the end of the day, editors and agents respect an author who has a sizeable and stable market,” Axelrod says. “For the moment, more traditionally published authors meet the criteria—but it’s all changing!” Indeed, much has changed since Garvis Graves self-published On the Island in September of 2011. “I have watched many of my self-publishing peers sign traditional publishing deals,” Garvis Graves says. “I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: there’s never been a better time to be a writer.”

With its newly minted cachet, self-publishing is no longer a last resort. Noting the myriad advantages, encouraged by the success they’ve witnessed, many first-time authors now bypass the querying stage, opting to go straight to self-publishing.

Self-publishing is the chance to make your own future,” says Carmack. The endless possibility inherent in this entrepreneurial enterprise makes self-publishing a robust choice. It is, after all, far more exciting—and impressive—to create your own success than to put your career in the hands of a corporation and hope for the best.

7 replies
  1. avatar
    D.A. Adams says:

    In addition to self-publishing, small presses are changing the game by finding gems the big houses have missed. Small presses have adapted much faster to the new landscape of e-readers and POD technology and make better use of social media to create grass-roots networks.

  2. avatar
    James says:

    In addition to everything you mentioned above, 3 years ago a person would ask “Who is your publisher?” and when you responded, “self-published” the person could not even hold back their frown. Now some of these same people do not even ask you if it is self-published or not when word has gotten around or you can prove your book has a great story to it and is accepted by book clubs and readers in general. Superb article.

  3. avatar
    Marion says:

    Granted, I probably spend too much time in proximity to irate Amazon forumites who proudly profess their “hate” for all things “indie” but I find the cheery tone of this post unrealistic.

    America loves winners, and certainly those who’ve managed to get the big deals or reach bestsellerdom through self-publishing are lauded. However, I still get that look when my novel is mentioned in social situations (usually by my better-half, not by me), and then the question of whether or not it was “real” published or the other kind.

    While the low price point that indie’s can charge is certainly an advantage, it’s becoming less of one as traditional publishers have also begun to lower prices on e-books. There are still large segments of readers that prefer print, and are skeptical of unfiltered work. Successes, including Colleen Hoover, didn’t simply put books up on Kindle and wait till they were discovered. They understood their audience, wrote work that appealed to that audience and reached out to that audience through social media. Romance, thriller and sci-fi readers are voracious and have been open to self-publishing. Fans of higher-brow, literary fiction still prefer the imprimatur of a publisher (even a small, but established one).

    Because there’s now such an inundation, even people open to self-published work, are relying on friends’ recommendations and trusted blog sites. These kinds of “reader communities” are more established in some genres than others.

    Two or three years ago, maybe, all the “cool kids” were self-publishing, but now everybody’s doing it. We can’t all be cool.

    • avatar
      Tricia Linden says:

      Funny, when I tell people I’ve published three books, the question I get most often is can I get your books on Amazon or Barnes and Nobel, not who published me. But then again, I’m one of those low-brow romance writers having fun AND making money writing my books.

  4. avatar
    Heidi Loney says:

    I really enjoyed this article. One thing not mentioned, is that many of us indies work our buns off. No only are we writers, but we must oversee our own editing and design process, marketing plan and create our brand through our author platform. I’m not saying that all of this is done for published authors, but as an indie we are required to wear many hats. We really earn every sale that we get.


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