5 Things Indie Authors Do Very Well

Let’s begin with an introduction. I began my working life as a publisher, both full time and freelance, and went on to write books about writing and publishing.

My titles became set texts within universities, and I followed them into academia. I currently lead the Masters Course in Publishing at Kingston University, UK, where we endeavor to develop potential publishers from those who are interested in thinking more about the issues involved – from effective content progression and management to why reading matters and how to encourage more people to get involved.

The publishing industry I joined after university was firmly against self-publishing.  For my own part, I was always fascinated by the motivation of authors; why some kept pursuing a professional publishing deal and what this had to say about the individual’s determination to battle on and withstand rejection – ironically the same skill set that often makes for successful self-publishing.

My research interest in self-publishing was further fueled by the industry’s tendency to dismiss it; insisting on the need for validation by a ‘proper publisher’. It seemed to me that given the size of the traditional industry, and its rather un-diverse recruiting practices, it was unlikely that a) all work worth reading was being captured and b) those doing the capturing knew precisely what everyone else wanted to read.

If you think of the publishing industry as an entrance exam, the difference between those who make it into the institution, and those who just miss out, will necessarily be marginal. The range of entrants/material available for publication is presumably similarly stretched across competencies and charms, and it’s the industry’s performance of magic – basically turning content into a format we recognize as finalized – that establishes the separateness of published titles from everything else available.

In any case, times have now changed, and with so much greater choice about how to spend their leisure time, the market for reading material became harder to reach – with publishers increasingly relying on authors to help them make contact. And as mechanisms to enable self-publishing became more widely available, and publishing services companies sprang up to cater for increasing demand, the stage was set for wider involvement.

I have now spent four years researching both the process of self-publishing and those involved. What I found was in direct contrast to previously widely held assumptions: that the motivations of self-publishing authors were often more connected to completion and future discoverability than money; that they enjoyed the process, would do so again and recommend it to others – and that it had made them happy. Finally achieving a finished state for something they had long planned to formalize felt really good; whether or not they intended to share it more widely. I emerged from the process with many reasons for admiring self-publishers, but I will confine myself here to just five:

1.They finish something

If it’s true that a significant proportion of the population feel they have a book in them, or that getting a book published is the second most common New Year’s resolution, then it’s odd how few people seem to prioritize the writing bit. One of the first disappointments of the newly published is the response to their achievement from those who have not yet completed anything: ‘I’m going to do that one day’ or ‘Lucky you to have the time’ being particularly annoying. If you are planning to self-publish it is a prerequisite that you have finished something to make available – and that’s admirable.

2. They take responsibility

My definition of self-publishing is the taking of personal responsibility for the management and production of work. It doesn’t have to be for wider circulation, or even to make money, but the taking responsibility is crucial. This is brave. For me the whole process of letting go of even an edited manuscript is difficult; knowing the next time I see it I will only spot mistakes. 

It’s also personally risky. Work made available is not always received in the same spirit as which it is shared – you can attract attention from correspondents who, perhaps because they seldom use their real name, feel empowered to destroy your sense of yourself as a writer. This can be hard to recover from.

3. They’re resourceful

Research shows that many of those dubbed self-publishers are in fact operating in small teams, buying in services as needed. Support has been variously obtained: from friends and colleagues; paid for support; some via the internet. 59% of my research cohort had used an editor and 21% had taken legal advice.

Being self-published does not absolve you from paying careful attention to the legal issues behind sharing content, and committing libel or infringing copyright may be very real dangers which self-publishers must manage themselves.

4. They identify new markets

It’s becoming a relatively common phenomenon these days for work to locate, and reveal, a market through self-publication – and then once the project looks less risky, for it to find more traditional investors. Self-publishers have drawn attention to previously overlooked demand (memoirs, fantasy and soft porn being particularly good examples). But a new market does not have to be vast, or public, to matter – many self-publishers have taken care of content they valued, and ensured it will be discoverable by their families and friends in the future, should they want to know. Worth doing, I say.

5. They are mutually supportive

The motivations of self-publishers are various, and range from those who identify instinctively with the freedom (principally the lack of mediation) self-publishing allows, decide to proceed in this way because they feel bruised by continual rejection from the traditional industry – or have never tried to find an external publisher.

Whatever their starting point, they seem to be a remarkably supportive bunch. The personality of the writer has been investigated, and we are apparently notorious for jealousy; one person’s success necessarily being viewed as diminishing the opportunities of others – or as Gore Vidal so memorably put it: ‘Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.’  But attend a meeting of self-published authors and you will experience something quite different – the atmosphere of mutual encouragement is palpable. Self-publishers will share information on the process, freely offer the names of suppliers they trust, and seem genuinely pleased for each others’ success.

In conclusion, self-publishers are adding energy to the industry, spreading an understanding of the processes involved – and hence helping to diversify the workforce, revealing new markets and new ways of reaching them, experimenting with new patterns of writing (the ‘hybrid author’; team writing), creating employment opportunities (several of our alumni now run their own editorial services companies) and endorsing the personal fulfilment that comes from writing – even if the destined audience is entirely personal and unaware of the project in progress.

And to acknowledge this, isn’t it time we stopped making a distinction between traditional publishing and self-publishing – and just called the whole process Publishing?


Dr Alison Baverstock is the author of The Naked Author, a guide to self-publishing (Bloomsbury). Her second stage research into self-publishing will be published in the ALPSP journal Learned Publishing (July and October 2013). A regular speaker at literary conferences and festivals she will be presenting a paper on self-publishing at the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) conference in Philadelphia, July 2013. www.alisonbaverstock.com @alisonbav

33 replies
  1. avatar
    Pippa Hennessy says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I think there are similar contrasting views of independent small presses, which also, on the whole, aren’t borne out. So the one big book retailer in the UK does not stock self-published books and stocks very few independently-published books… because… why? Seems to me the distinction the book trade should be making is between well-published books and badly-published books, and it shouldn’t matter what the source of the book is.

    • avatar
      Alison Baverstock says:

      Completely true, although you will find that independent booksellers, and often individual branches of chains, who can be convinced that a self-published title will attract buying customers, will be amenable to stocking a wider selection of material. It must be pointed out, however, that to get material stocked in a commercial bookshop it usually has to be of an appropriately attractive/professional looking format – so as not to look out of place on their shelves. Best wishes, Alison

  2. avatar
    Rosanne Dingli says:

    My goodness, a cogent article, written by someone knowledgable; someone who understands the industry – if we can still call it that – and how it has evolved. Someone who understands what it all looks like from both sides of the desk. I enjoyed this and will pass it around. Thank you, Alison, for so eloquently and succinctly putting together what we have all been trying to articulate for ourselves since the middle of 2009 or so!

  3. avatar
    Anne Selby says:

    Fabulous article, thank you for that. You have merely confirmed and reaffirmed everything I thought anyway. It IS time that the traditional publishing world got off their high horse and met the self publishing world. We are both publishing work by an author, there is no difference to the end product, you still start off with a manuscript and end up with a book; something that other people can read. Surely that’s the most important thing? I wrote my book because I was very much interested in the subject matter, getting it published to make money was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to see it in print and if others read it and enjoy it then that is sufficient reward for me.

  4. avatar
    Freddie Remza says:

    After several years of sending in queries and being told that my work was not right for “their list,” I gambled and went the self-publishing route. That was in 2007 when self-publishing was still in its infancy. I have to tell you, I felt like a second class citizen. I was even told by an editor at a well-known writing conference in NYC that it would be better if I never mentioned that I self-published in a query because it would work against me. This pompous woman actually did me a favor because at that moment I wondered how she could judge my work as being unacceptable when she never saw it. I dropped out of this organization and continued on my self-publishing path when my third book (The Orchid Bracelet) became a finalist in both the 2012 ForeWord Book Awards and the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award. What that did was more than allow me to put two stickers on my cover. It validated my work. I agree that the self-publishing industry has taken off and the change of attitude in just 6 years. I no longer cringe when someone asks me who my publisher is. Why? Because I’m proud of my writing and the fact that I can say it is truly my work.

  5. avatar
    Massimo Marino says:

    Dear Alison,

    I’ve read your article and found myself nodding, then your conclusion and encouragement to stop distinguishing between self-publishing and traditional publishing. You’re right, for many, myself included, self-publishing is rewarding per se, if fame and money should arrive they’ll be welcome but will never beat the ‘Thank you’ emails I receive from enthused and happy readers.

    I know many indie authors who work to their best, hire proofreaders, editors, beta-readers, with the goal to eliminate the sting that still hurts the ‘category’, that indie writers can only deliver sloppy products and mediocre writing. I cannot but grin when instead the trend is to see mediocre quality coming from trad publishers and higher and higher one achieved by us Indies.

    Thanks again for your article,

    • avatar
      Alison Baverstock says:

      Heather you can find it in a copy of ‘The Naked Author, a guide to self-publishing’ – published by UK/US publishing house Bloomsbury. I often get asked why it was traditionally published rather than self-published. The answer is that publishing takes a lot of time and effort, and if I stop writing to become my publisher, then I have less time to research and write. Thank you for your positive feedback, much appreciated, Alison

  6. avatar
    Alison Baverstock says:

    Thank you Rosanne and Pippa. I found the research fascinating, and what I pretty soon began to discover was at first surprising – but understandable – and then became almost predictable. And just to show what a changed world this is, the two associated papers have been accepted by the highly academic journal ‘Learned Publishing’. One for July, the next for October. Best wishes, Alison

  7. avatar
    Gilli Allan says:

    My situation is slightly different from those detailed. I was mainstream published, but my small publisher folded. The style of fiction I was then writing (and still do) – intelligent, edgy, romantic fiction for grown-ups – was not easily found in book shops. My publisher felt there was a niche in the market. Despite my continuous efforts to find another publisher, in the knowledge that what I write is of publishable quality, no one since has had the courage to take me on. “We don’t know how to market you” , has often been cited as the reason for rejection. So I now publish myself, not because I want to – it is very hard to raise the profile of your book and yourself above the morass – but because no one else will. These days, I know, even mainstream authors have far more expected of them re promotion, but even so, I’d far rather have a publisher behind me. Apart from taking some of the strain of doing it all myself, it would give me status in the eyes of a world who still dismisses self-publishing as a second class vanity project.

    • avatar
      Alison Baverstock says:

      Interesting point. I think one of the main realisations for authors who get involved with publishing is how complex it is. It’s one of the ironies of the process that effective publishing is often only evident when absent. We tend not to realise – or appreciate – all the careful decisions made on our behalf by those managing content.

      As regards your particular situation, I sense the world is changing – the v word is being used much less often these days. Look out for smaller publishing organisations who might share the costs and also the revenue, and consider subcontracting the marketing. Indeed, as mentioned in the blog, a significant proportion of my research cohort were not working alone – but buying in publishing services as needed. Alison

  8. avatar
    Kevin says:

    I cannot say I disagree with much of that, but who was researched? Successful self-publishers of good books or those who just use a self-publishing Book On Demand site with text that has not been checked out by any one? In fact what is a self-publisher? I would suggest it’s not the same as an ‘Indie’ publisher, really, nor would I say that anyone who pays experts to do it for them is a genuine self-publisher either, that still carries the stigma of Vanity Publishing, and is no guarantee of a decent product.
    Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that writers do not have to mail out 1,000s of approach letters to the mainstream publishers nowadays to get published, or not (or to even have to pay to get published, now) but it’s both a good and a bad thing.
    It’s nice to be researched, though, all the same, but is the author of this article self-published? 🙂

  9. avatar
    Kris Kramer says:

    Dare greatly. Traditional or self-pubbed, we’re in the arena.

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

  10. avatar
    jurassicpork says:

    Alison: I, too, would like to know how and from whence you’d extrapolated your data just to see how skewed it is or isn’t. Because as I’m sure all of us can agree, most self-published authors make multiples of hundreds of dollars/pounds, if that. Most of us, being disrespected and rejected by the traditional publishing industry in one way or the other, for one reason or another, haven’t the opportunity to become “hybrid authors” (which is a phrase I’ve always hated, as it makes us sound as if we’re products of the Island of Dr. Moreau). And as long as indie authors make so little money and are having a hard time cracking into the book market, there will always be a distinction between “self” or “indie” publishing and “traditional” publishing.

  11. avatar
    Carolyn Jewel says:

    While I agree with just about everything here, there are a couple of things I feel have been omitted or aren’t an accurate reflection of the current publishing environment. First, let me say I am a traditionally published author. But I also self-publish, both reverted backlist and, now, original front-list.

    Self-publishing authors are not only writers who, for whatever reason, are unable to get a contract with a traditional publisher. These five things are also things traditionally published authors do well. Identifying new markets is something publishers are not good at. Authors, one might well argue, don’t so much identify new markets as create them– it’s publishers who have stopped that from actually happening. Traditionally published authors pitch ideas for books that get rejected, and now these authors can take those books to the market anyway. And they are doing so.

    It’s also not the case at all– at least not in my experience– that traditionally published authors aren’t supportive. I write Romance, and can only say that my experience of the Romance writing community is that it’s one of the most supportive around. There’s a Romance self-pubbing email loop with more than 2000 members and there are many, many members of that list who are traditionally published and happy to share their experiences with anyone, as well as learn from others who are just as willing to share their experiences with self-publishing.

    I’m unclear on whether your study looked at some of the most successful self-publishers out there: traditionally published authors who also self-publish and those who have walked away from traditional contracts because they can make more money self-publishing. (Bella Andre, Courtney MIlan, Barbara Freethy, to name just three).

    It’s no coincidence that in the last six months, more and more authors who already have successful traditional publishing careers are joining the self-publishing email loops. I also think it’s dangerous for any publisher to push self-publishers into a “can’t get traditionally published” bucket. It gives a false view of the actual state of publishing and makes it far too easy to ignore what this suggests about the current state of their business. For example, it ought to be clear now that publishers have been profoundly wrong about backlist for genre novels—they’ve left millions on the table. And if authors are looking at the contracts they’re being offered and looking at the money they can make without a publisher and walking away from the contract, that’s something that requires a business to reassess their existing model.

    • avatar
      Alison Baverstock says:

      You make very good points Carolyn, which again overlap with my own thinking – the five characteristics are indeed what all authors will have to develop in future; they will need to be proactive, energetic and resourceful. I agree with you too about the community of romance writers – and in one of the longer papers associated with this research, to be published this year in the academic journal ‘Learned Publishing’, I cite the UK’s Romantic Novelists Association as a similarly supportive group. They run a feedback scheme for beginners that offers a critique of an entire novel at a very reasonable price. Very best, Alison

  12. avatar
    Russell Blake says:

    Great article, Alison.

    As an indie author who has sold over 200K units in the 23 months since beginning my career, I can categorically say that the old trad model is no longer a factor for many authors. I’ve been able to cultivate a sometimes rabid fan base writing suspense and action/adventure thrillers without having to compromise my vision, bemoan how my cover looks awful, alter my content to suit an editorial committee composed of people who never wrote a book that sold, or accept humiliatingly small advances and a contract that makes the usurious agreements from the Motown era look like being handed the keys to the bank vault.

    I never gave serious consideration to writing as anything more than a hobby until the self-pubbing revolution really hit its stride about 3 years ago. I had no appetite for becoming really good at being rejected by unqualified superfluous middlemen who interjected themselves between myself and the reader. I didn’t really feel like spending two years to discover whether what I was writing was drivel or gold. And I certainly had zero interest in becoming an employee, after having run my own companies and charted my own course for decades.

    One could say I wasn’t temperamentally suited to being a struggling author/supplicant who meekly approached the thrones of power, hat in hand, in the hopes that someone would grace me with something more substantial than a sneer.

    After researching what would need to be done in order to have a viable self-publishing business, I embarked on my journey in June, 2011. I invested heavily in editing, formatting and packaging. I expected to have to do so, having started other endeavors and understanding what was required to make them successful. I wrote for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and marketed for two to three. I became adept at social media, blogging, bootstrap marketing, etc. As of next month, my 24th as a full time author, I will have released 21 novels. In other words, I worked tremendously hard, invested appropriately to create a quality product, and focused on building a sustainable, scaleable brand. And I’ve been rewarded by my readership for my efforts, and am building a career that should go decades, if things continue apace. Luck played a large role, but certainly no more than it would play for my trad pubbed counterparts – and I’d argue that because I could control all aspects of my production and marketing, I was able to improve my odds. So being self-pubbed was actually a competitive advantage, and not merely a pricing one.

    I point this out because I’m sort of the new face of authorship. The entrepreneur/author who has no need for the entrenched players. Don’t get me wrong – as a free agent, if a big trad house decided to make me an offer that was financially beneficial to me, I would likely take it, but the point is that I’m not waiting around for that to happen, and the cost of a trad publisher doing so goes up every month as I sell more and more books.

    During my little odyssey I’ve encounter nothing but support from my fellow authors, as well as organizations and reviewers who are embracing the new face of publishing as a good thing for authors and readers. As an indie, I make far more per unit from one of my $6 USD novels than I could ever hope to see from a trad deal, and readers get a high-quality product for a fraction of what they would pay for a big house production. It’s a win-win for us both, and I frankly can’t see that tide turning anytime soon. If trad publishers want to survive moving forward they need to focus far more on creating and sustaining value for readers than in maintaining an inefficient, creaky and fundamentally inequitable status quo. That’s my take from the trenches, as one who is doing it the hard way and loving every minute of it.

  13. avatar
    E.L. Farris says:

    This article, and many of the comments above, point to a fascinating trend among many in the self-publishing world: a reverse discrimination of sorts against those who pursue traditional publishing. As someone who is straddling both worlds, I have to agree with your final conclusion. Why indeed can’t we simply remove the words “traditional” and “self” and think of it as publishing?

    I appreciated the scholarly and balanced tone of your article. Thank you.

  14. avatar
    Leland Shanle says:

    I suppose I’m one of the Hybrid-Authors; I have come full circle; Self-Traditional-Self. After years of form rejection letters; I was asked to write a non-fiction chapter in a traditionally published book. It lead to a contract for my previously self published novel. All did not go well; even after winning MWSA historical fiction of the year award. No doubt being a Yank published in the UK didn’t help due to distance. We parted ways and I did not aggressively seek a new publisher, instead deciding to start my own company. I could write a book on hard lessons learned.

    My biggest lesson learned, is the importance of the internet to self publishing. The perceived stigma in the print world for Indie work is not prevalent on e-book sites. In fact, IMO many e-book readers prefer Indie-Authors. Traditional publishing still controls the physical printed world; not so on the Net.

    Financially, I have made more in one or two months with my second (self published) novel than after almost 5 years with my traditional listing. Almost all of my revenue has come from e-book sales. But it takes, as noted by an author above, quite a bit of time spent marketing. With my third ready for release and fourth getting close, I too feel the need for some help. I’m now considering a hybrid-publisher; perhaps it will be a perfect fit.

    To be honest I would still consider a traditional publisher: however I would have to re-write the contract and there would be an absolute requirement for a large advance with lot’s of zeros. Again, lessons learned!

  15. avatar
    Rick Carufel says:

    Traditional publishing and indie publishing need not be mutually exclusive. If a writer doesn’t wan’t to get ignored by traditional publishers, sometimes for decades, sometimes forever, they can self publish and start growing a fan base, maybe make a bit. Writers need not fear missing a traditional publishing opportunity for choosing to self publish. If an ebook becomes a hit , then the publishers will contact you.
    You seem to be another traditional publisher who although you try to appear to be pro-indie, you are not. Your bias shows in your cheeky innuendo demeaning indie publishing to home movies statue, or this gem, ” turning content into a format we recognize as finalized – that establishes the separateness of published titles from everything else available.” Clearly implies that the everything else, indies, are separated from traditional publishing as being unfinished. So as an indie writer and publishing I find this whole piece more smoke and mirrors, the title and premise a ploy to just demean and belittle indies in a polite way. I find it condescending and insulting, more proof that traditional publishing is waging a campaign to discredit indies at every turn using deceptive articles to continue to reinforce their last gasp attempt to hang on just a bit longer. Sadly they are doomed and they blame indies rather than themselves for their downfall.

  16. avatar
    Shawn Lamb says:

    Overall, I agree with your article. However, there is group of authors you missed – those not supported by their respective publishers. I began with a traditional publisher, and sold in the top 20% nationwide in the first 8 months of release, making me a mid-list author with my 1st novel. All this without the help of my publisher for marketing and promotion. In fact, I they told me I had to hire a publicist, which I did. Considering such good sales, it came as a surprise to me and my agent when my publisher passed on the rest of my series. By then I had an audience, and couldn’t wait up to 12-18 months for my agent to secure a new publisher and get book 2 to market, so I went self.

    It’s discouraging and disheartening the way traditional publishers treat their authors! Without us, there would be no books, no sales – but often we are left to ourselves to navigate the process. I make pennies on the dollar off my 1st book compare to what the publishers and retailers rake in. With self-publishing I make more, and at a ratio of 4 to 1, (4 traditional to1 self book). If I’m going to work that hard, I should get more than a pitiful percent on sales.

    • avatar
      Alison Baverstock says:

      I think that authors sharing the effort in spreading information about their writing, through their connectedness on social media or willingness to speak in public forums about their work, is going to be the way forward – whether they are self- or traditionally published. It’s getting harder and harder for an author to say ‘my book says it all’ and to decline to take part in the marketing. Alison

  17. avatar
    Umm-e-Aiman Vejlani says:

    This has been very insightful for someone like me who has only recently ventured out into the world of publishing. I have faced rejections by triple digits but it’s only been from magazines and journals. I always had the nipping idea tugging at the far ends of my brain to direct myself to self-publishing, and then I stumble upon your article. So, I’m enlightened and filled with positive hope about it.

    Best regards.

  18. avatar
    Debbie Young says:

    Brilliant post and a great summary, Alison!

    I must say I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how long it will take before the “self” disappears when we’re talking about publishing. I’ve made a point of reviewing only self-published books on my Off The Shelf website, to fly the flag for the indie industry and to showcase just how these books can be. But lately I’ve been wondering whether my policy is being unfair to the traditionally published. How long before they are in the minority, I wonder?

  19. avatar
    Nicola Dean says:

    Wow, great write up and inspirational responses, Really impressed with people standing firm and being objective.


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