Everything I have learned about publishing so far: an author’s perspective 

Part One: Indie Publishing

Hey! Long time no see, thanks for stopping by, and other such genial platitudes. You’re here because I’m a horror writer who asked if anyone would be interested in hearing my relatively limited experiences of the various forms of publishing I have encountered in the admittedly short time I have been doing this. I wondered if an article detailing my personal experiences might be useful to other authors. A lot of people said yes, so here we go. BUT! As usual, a few things to say before we crack onto the meat and gravy. 

First: this is NOT a post extolling the virtues of one form of publishing over another. I would never encourage or discourage someone to publish their work in any single direction. I might offer advice specific to a person’s situation if asked, but my journey ain’t your journey. It’s important to remember that, with writing as with most other things, everyone’s creative career is routed along a unique path, to different destinations, at the risk of sounding extremely, infuriatingly and wholesomely cliche. Also, I was born sitting on the fence, and my highly splintered, peachy backside will thank you to remember that. So, whatever works for you, great, do it, go for it. I am certainly not a publishing snob, never have been (I hope). I profess some wariness around certain practices and approaches that I personally do not approve of, but hopefully, if you are here, you can accept my personal opinions as just that, rather than the black and white statements so many seem to expect of us these days. Life is a good deal more nuanced than ‘this is bad and this is good’, unless you’re talking about things like murder and microwaving tea, both punishable offences. But I digress. 

Secondly: I AM NOT A PUBLISHING EXPERT. I am not even really that much of a career author, not yet. Yes, I write full time, yes I am published across a variety of media and by a variety of means. No, I am not an industry stalwart, and I am fully aware I HAVE LOTS YET TO LEARN. Still, my experiences might be useful to those of you starting out, and with that in mind, I am sharing them (and because you asked me to). Not because I wish to present myself as any sort of publishing/Authory advisory figure, I genuinely don’t have enough self-confidence for that, I am British and will die thinking I am a totally incompetent twat with a vague ability to sling words at paper and make them stick sometimes- a twat who got indisputably lucky enough to word-sling for a living. BUT. I have been where some of you are now, and I do wish I’d encountered more transparency in this game that might have allowed me to avoid a few minor disasters. 

Lastly, I tried to do this all in one post, but it ended up being so ridiculously long that I am going to split it into several. Expect Part Two at some indeterminate point in the future when I don’t have a looming deadline *cries in undiagnosed ADHD*

So, with all this being said, knowing full well I’ve left plenty of loop-holes for anyone who doesn’t care for me that much to slither into (I know you’re out there, it’s cool, can’t expect to be everyone’s brand of tampon) I shall begin. I hope you find it useful, and if not, I will no doubt hear about it, eventually. Hurrah for passive-aggression, it’s really wonderful isn’t it. *upside down face*

My Author Journey

It’s probably a good idea to lay out my author and publishing journey thus far. It has encompassed a variety of forms of publishing, which is good, because otherwise I have lured you here under false pretences. Bugger, you got me! BUY MY BOOKS

Ahem. 

Anyway, in 2018 I found myself unemployed, mentally ill and unable to cope with a job that followed the conventional working patterns of the time (I’m talking pre-pandemic, after which, everything changed). Open plan offices, aggressive socialising, targets, profit and loss statements, sales scripts, cocaine raining from the sky, endless posturing and machismo…I couldn’t do it anymore, and I knew I needed a change, pronto, before my mind completely buckled under the colossal, stinking weight of Small to Medium Enterprise bullshit. This coincided with my child starting school. Suddenly, I had a surfeit of something I hadn’t had for a while: free time. Time for me. I had always been a writer, tinkering with various novels for most of my adult life (and yes you will see those at some point), but never actually managed to finish anything. I had not been published beyond one or two clunky websites back in the early noughties (good luck finding those stories, they are dreadful, but it’s a process), and a history magazine that ran a story about the time I stewarded Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice (click for baby Gemma, also, this will definitely get repurposed at some point). 

Not only did I now have a ton of time on my hands, but I also had a fuckload of emotional trauma to deal with. So, I made life changes. I got into a nice, healthy daily routine: from 9am to 1am, after the school run, I would take myself off to write. Weekends I kept for family stuff, unless I was thick in the grip of an idea. 

I wrote two things: I wrote about my trauma, to help me process it (should you wish, you can read this in September, for it ended up not only being the book that saved my life, but the book I sold in my first traditional publishing deal. It’s called FULL IMMERSION and you can pre-order it right now), and I wrote short, scary stories, to help me hone my skills and also enjoy the thrill of actually finishing something, which until then, I had not experienced. Short stories, I think, are the perfect entry device into a writing career, for they are not only fun as fuck to write, but teach you a lot about voice, structure, tone, and word efficacy (there is a cleaner way to phrase that but it escapes me for now). 

The routine proved to be the thing. It amazed me how quickly the words stacked up, and I found myself with an almost completed novel on my hands, which felt marvellous, and a folder full of shorts. But it wasn’t until my first short story was published by the inimitable NoSleep Podcast, that I started to think outside of the realm of ‘hobby’. I started to think that maybe, one day, I could do this for real. And by that I mean: people would actually read my work, and even pay me for the privilege. And that is, as it turned out, is exactly what happened.

My first produced story by NoSleep was ‘His Life’s Work’, a story about a mad professor who opens a vault to another world in his workshop (you’ll have to click ‘Buy Full Episode’ to hear it unless you have a season pass). Hearing a team of voice actors, sound designers and a composer fully produce my material into a veritable ear-movie lit a real fire in my belly. I have to say, it isn’t the strongest story I’ve ever written- I hadn’t figured out yet that one word would do in place of twenty, but it has a soft spot in my heart, for it changed my life. I was fortunate enough to build a wonderful friendship with the cast, crew, editorial team and showrunner, and through this, I met a small solo self-publisher who was willing to list my short stories onto amazon for me, in the form of a collection. I called it CRUEL WORKS OF NATURE, and it was my first published book. A massive milestone, and one that made me very, very happy. 

At the time, I knew nothing about books, publishing, self-publishing, anything. I was blown away by the idea of simply holding a book in my hands that I had written, and by the idea that someone else might actually buy and read the thing. I was keen to keep the momentum I had built going, so I didn’t really do any due diligence into what different publishing routes looked like, what to expect, red flags to look out for, agreements, royalty schemes, and I genuinely didn’t really think any of those things mattered in relation to my silly short stories. I was proud of my writing, but I didn’t want to be a knob about it. I was a reliably easy-going, ‘mustn’t make a fuss’, type of author (many of us starting out are) and that’s why I jumped at the first opportunity that came along. 

This was a mistake, and held me back for a little bit. 

The book didn’t perform well after the initial launch sales bump, and I was disappointed. I quickly understood that I hadn’t placed myself and my work at a high enough value, and I was cross with myself when I realised this. Whether through ignorance or a simple lack of confidence, I had sold myself short, and it didn’t take me long to realise that everything the publisher who hosted CRUEL WORKS on amazon had done, I could do myself, with more passion, time, and dedication. So I requested a reversion of rights for that book (the publisher, by the way, was extremely agreeable, made no problems for me whatsoever and we parted ways on good terms. They now only publish their own material under the same publisher name), figured out Kindle Publishing Direct, taught myself photoshop and calibre, started making my own cover art, and wrote myself a marketing plan (turns out ten years in business and digital marketing didn’t go to waste). 

It didn’t take long for my efforts to pay off, and things to gain traction. I threw myself heart and soul into building a network of writers, creatives, publishers and other fine horror folk. I hammered social media to the point where all my real-world friends muted me, and I learned not to feel guilty about that: I was simply advertising my wares as any self-respecting business person would, and there was no shame in that whatsoever. At the same time, I brought out a little book called DEAR LAURA. I wrote, edited, formatted it (apologies for the few typos left in there) myself, painted the cover by hand (of my own hand), did the layout in photoshop, and hit publish on Kindle Publishing Direct in a little under a month. It felt incredible to be able to do this: I was in complete control, and I was able to ride the wave of the story idea I had that would not let me go without worrying about anything other than my own vision for the book. I wanted it to be short and to the point, I wanted it to be as raw as it could, I wanted to write a novel where a victim was front and centre for a change, rather than a murderer. The thing fell out of me, and before I knew it, it was live, and more to the point…it started selling, steadily. Not in vast numbers, but enough to keep the reviews and royalties trickling in on a regular monthly basis (and they still do). Social media embraced it, and god love the incredible bookstagrammers who started to recreate the front cover with gruesome enthusiasm- this helped the book’s popularity no end.  

Incredibly, it was then nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and that’s when things began to change. People began to reach out to me, for stories, novellas, books. It confirmed for me what I had only dared to hope before: I had something real to offer, something of value. It’s not why I write, I write for me, to tell the stories I want to tell, but it sure helped a hell of a lot with motivation and confidence. 

To wrap this up, I ended up crowd funding a book (again, another article I should write), securing a couple of deals with indie publishers and then, finally, signing with a traditional publisher. During that time I also made a podcast, got ghosted by another self-publisher who had spoken a good game, wrote more short stories, started getting invitations to anthologies, edited my own anthology for charity, wrote more books, eventually secured an agent, and all the while kept marketing myself as aggressively as I knew how. I also shared a lot of shit jokes on twitter, which may or may not be how you found me. This all took place in the period from the end of 2018 to now, 2022, for perspective.

So now we’re caught up, let’s look at the individual forms of publishing and my biggest lessons learned from each of them.  

What I have learned about Indie Publishing

It might seem odd to start with Indie Publishing instead of Self-publishing, but it doesn’t feel odd to me, because that is perhaps where the bulk of my experiences both good and bad, lie. It’s also where the majority of those reading this will probably have questions about, so here we are.  Rest assured Self-Pubbing will be in Part Two of this series. 

Let’s start off with definitions. ‘Indie’ means different things to different people, and the lines with self-publishing are most definitely blurred in today’s publishing landscape. Type ‘indie publishing’ into Google and you’ll get a ton of articles that are actually about self-publishing. Most people define indie as ‘anyone not one of the Big Five.’ This is not really representative of publishing today, in my opinion. To be clear, Indie is not Self-Pub, I don’t think. I consider those to be two distinctly different forms of publishing, as you’ve probably figured out from the long intro above, but let me explain in a little more detail. I imagine someone will have a problem with this, fine, words and definitions belong to everyone, and I can do what I like on my own blog post, at the risk of sounding slightly cantankerous. 

For the purposes of this post, I am going to personally define indie publishing for me (again, like I said, if you don’t agree, cool, no drama, it’s just I have to attach some definition so I can actually, you know, write about it) as a small-smallish publishing outfit (you might see the term ‘small presson the interwebs) who takes the time, effort and energy required to bring an author’s book to the world, via amazon and other outlets, in exactly the same way as ‘traditional’ publishers, but who do it in kind of a more punk-rock fashion. 

So by that I mean, they will work with an author on some, if not all of the following:

  • Editing and structural feedback
  • They will take care of formatting, layout, and the technical publishing details
  • They will work with an author and artist or designer to produce an engaging, relevant book cover (and can I say, indie publishing still, in my opinion, brings out the best, bravest, boldest cover shit, largely because they have few of the restraints that often cobble the ankles of trad publishing)
  • They will promote the book, not just list it (they really should!!)
  • They will actively exploit opportunities to raise awareness of the book and the profile of their authors
  • They will help deal with review requests, ARCs, and blurbs
  • They will help work to place your books in various expanded distribution channels including indie bookshops, retailers like Barnes and Noble, libraries, book subscription clubs and other outlets 
  • They will help deal with events and other promo opportunities like blog tours, author readings, etc.

And that is what I mean by: what are you getting for giving away some of your hard-earned royalty dollar? The idea is that you get something of value for portioning off a chunk of your earnings, and these are the sorts of things I consider value-add services. 

Now don’t get me wrong, they won’t be doing all this without you. You, as an author, will also be working with them, side by side, on a lot of this, building up your own relationships and opportunities that they can help you exploit, having opinions on cover art, marketing until you’re sick of the word, doing the socials, asking author friends for blurbs, visiting bookstores to build relationships, touring the event circuit to network, all the things. In my experience Indie publishers aren’t an excuse for you to prop your feet up on the steering wheel and hope for the best. Quite the opposite: I treat a publisher as a partner, and I find having someone else on side doubles my efforts, rather than reduces them, and I am cool with that. 

In my opinion, an ‘indie’ publisher who does not help with these things, who needs you to format your own book, to do your own edits, source your own cover, helps out minimally with your own marketing efforts and generally only functions as a person who hits the ‘publish’ button on amazon is not an indie publisher. This type of outfit is a self-publisher (please note, I am not talking about ‘vanity’ publishing here- we will get onto that later), and my question in those instances might be, again: why are you giving up a portion of your royalties for something you could, quite possibly, do yourself? What does the royalty split look like, and what is the publisher actually doing for you, for that share of the money? On amazon, publishing your own material, you can make up to 70% of a book’s value in royalties, which is not to be sniffed at. Something to think about- I do not judge, and I am aware that many people, in the same way I did when I was starting out, simply want to get their stuff out there and that’s the end goal. Just take a little time to think about what your work is worth, and what you are worth, as an author, and that’s all I’ll say on the topic. 

Anyway, an indie publisher is basically supposed to be someone in your corner, someone who gives your book a home and nurtures you as an author and generally cares for you and your book and your readers, too (Welcome to Gemma’s Rose-Tinted Publishing Fantasy, come on in, the water’s nice and warm, and ooh, are those flower petals? Candles? You shouldn’t have.) 

Basically, an indie publisher will do all the things above and more, but on an arguably smaller scale than trad, because, well, reasons. History. The nature of business and the industry. Bureaucracy etc. It’s worth noting that several traditional publishing outfits operate in a distinctly indie fashion, but we’ll get to that, too, a bit later on. I think this just goes to show that definitions are reductionist and stupid but we have to have them so we can talk about shit. And with that poetic thought fresh in your mind, let’s talk about money and payment structures. 

Indie Royalty Structures 

The royalty and payment structures in the world of Indie pubbing tend to be a lot more imaginative than with trad, and in my personal experience I have encountered a fair few different setups, depending on the works and people involved:

  • Payment per word, with a decent pro-rate of around $0.08 per word (although that may have changed- feel free to help me out if this is the case). Usually reserved for short works although I have been compensated for a novel on a pay per word basis in the past. There might be a word-count cap though in these instances. 
  • Advance & Royalty structure- meaning an up front fee paid to you by the publisher upon signing the contract, or maybe half upon signing and the other half on publication, or variations of this, and then a subsequent split of the profits once published, at varying percentages, but expect anything from 30% to 70%, depending on the publisher. Can be paid quarterly after publication, or whenever suits the publisher’s accounting period. (It behoves you to make note of payment periods in your contract and calenderise them so you can keep track of what you are owed by who and when).
  • A flat project fee based on a mix of anticipated word-count, word rates, project time, and other factors like your marketability, the publisher’s budget, etc. This is more common with podcasts, who might pay a certain sum for an XX word story, and might also be something you figure out personally with a publisher depending on the circumstances, although I think this is rare.  
  • No Advance & Royalties once published (usually via paypal)- in my experience this is more common with short stories and anthos where the publisher has little money to invest up front and needs the book to sell first before it can pay the authors, which I tend to be leery of, because if the book doesn’t go onto sell, it is doubtful the authors will get compensated. I prefer projects where there is some element of payment up front or where there is a signed contract stating that payment will be within XX amount of time from publication of the material. It basically means you don’t get inveigled into working for free without your consent. If contract terms are broken rights revert to you and you can shop your work elsewhere, in theory, ensuring you get adequate compensation.
  • No Advance or Royalties- basically, working for free, which happens most commonly these days for charity projects, like a charity anthology where the proceeds are subsequently donated. The author knowingly submits materials- often reprints- on the understanding this is the case, and the antho benefits from the shared marketing efforts of the collected authors. Outside of charity endeavours, paying nothing for a creator’s work is obviously not something I generally approve of, but I have been known to give up a fair share of my time and efforts in the past when I really believed in the project and had time for passion endeavours with no expectations of compensation. It is also worth being transparent about the fact that when I worked on Calling Darkness, we had no money to pay our voice actors and only a tiny budget to pay our audio editor and composer. We were up front about this with our cast, and thankfully we were able to approach it as a passion project, but I wished more than anything that we had been able to compensate them accordingly. Financing is a large reason why Season Two has taken so long to come to fruition, but that’s a different article and not one I can write without the consent of my co-creators. 

I wish I still had time to dedicate to some of these wonderful things I used to work on (I’m looking at you in general, podcasts), but the hard truth is that these days I have to focus on paying the bills, and also I do believe my work should be compensated for fairly and competitively (charity stuff aside, although I’ve had to limit how many a year I get involved in to a certain extent). 

  • A hybrid mix of several of the approaches above.  

This is just a few of the options I’ve encountered and there are no doubt many more, as I’ve gone to great pains to point out- I am not yet an expert, and still learning about this business every day, but if you know of any more, please let me know in the comments below. 

It goes without saying that ANY INDIE PUBLISHER WORTH THEIR SALT WILL MAKE YOU SIGN A CONTRACT. This protects you, your work, and the publisher. From one writer to another: please don’t let anyone publish your work without a contract. Your writing is valuable, and the rights attached to it should be clearly defined and come with terms attached. I should probably write another article on contracts, but for now, read this from the Society of Authors. (Side note: I had a hell of a time finding an up to date guide that wasn’t ten years old, publishing experts, assemble! Drop your links below please).

Please note: I do not personally consider a publishing outfit who charges YOU a fee to publish your book indie publishing, and so have not represented their fee structure in the list above. Many of these companies market themselves as ‘self-publishing experts’, which I am not sure I agree with, because they are publishing something on your behalf and getting paid to do so. They are not teaching you how to publish your own book, and so in my opinion, this is not self-publishing. Others in the industry call this ‘vanity publishing’ which I mentioned earlier. That might be a slightly mean way of describing it, because it is not vain to want to publish a book (well, okay, a little vain, but many of us aren’t solely driven by ego. We just want eyes on our stories which…arghhh, which is ego, isn’t it. Damnit. Still! The Point Stands!)

Anyway, whilst I firmly believe that an author should never pay a company to publish their book, I also recognise that people are fully in possession of their own wants, needs, desires and capabilities. I am not insensible to the appeal for those writers who just want to hold a copy of their book in their hands without having to navigate editing, formatting, publishing, cover art and marketing. Like I said, I am not a snob, and I do not judge. I do however believe that self-publishing expert companies can be predatory and unethical in their approach to authors (but then so can some true self-pubbers, indie presses and trad publishers). But, that’s just me. I’d prefer not to be lambasted for holding this viewpoint, but this is the internet, after all, so I’ll start caulking the canoe in anticipation. 

Right, so. With all those caveats and ‘please don’t shout at me’s’ in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons, because, as with anything, indie comes with its ups and its downs. 

Indie Publishing: The Good Shit 

  • INDIE IS (by and large) QUICK! Oh boy, so gloriously quick. Quick to pitch and accept, quick to turn around, quick to contract, quick to start marketing. It’s all so quick, it’s like dropping a ketamine-soaked, oil-basted eel down a greased drainpipe. I love it. I adore it. It, like self-publishing, allows an author to ride the wave of whatever passion, inspiration or gut-need to explore a topic, feeling, sensation or experience has them in its current grip: ‘Yo, friend, I have this novelette about a depressed werewolf who is also a dentist, and his best friend is a sentient nail file with homicidal tendencies, you want it?’ ‘Sure!’ And there is a lot to be said for that. An awful lot. I think that’s what I mean by punk-rock, in certain ways. Going with the gut. Taking a punt on an author or an idea, without the decision having to go to sales and management and back again. Often, because in indie, those departments are represented by two or three people at the most, so the conversations are quicker to have. 
  • Now, this rapidity does not come without its problems. I would be an idiot not to acknowledge that. Sometimes, in my humble opinion, a book perhaps shouldn’t be so quick to market. If it has harmful themes that some people might struggle with, perhaps, or discriminatory undercurrents/overtones, or is an anthology that is about as inclusive, diverse and colourful as a blanched cod, some could argue that it might (again, opinion is subjective, so retract thy spines) be prudent to sit on it a little longer and perhaps spend some time reading the room, gathering expert opinion, canvassing readers and target audiences, and generally thinking carefully about something if there is an iota of doubt, but then also, saying these sorts of things can mean that people use words like censorship by way of reply, and while I can understand where those people are coming from, because censorship is of course an awful thing, I would argue that one person’s censorship is another person’s exclusion and discrimination, and that’s all I can say on the matter because I have more splinters to tweeze out of my arse (stop looking at me, weirdo, this is a private moment, shoo). The point is this: indie is quick. For some of you who have been through the traditionally published cycle a few times, this might appeal. I do think a speedier process lends itself to a rawer output, because in traditional publishing, working on the same book for a protracted length of time can take the joy out of it, but that’s just me. Again, my brain is wired to desire movement and variety, I am a hare and not a tortoise. This is why I am so fortunate to have experienced different forms of publishing, because spreading my books across such varied working structures has taught me a lot of valuable lessons in when it is good to run, and when it is good to take one’s time. (Ooh! Another splinter)
  • INDIE PUBLISHING CAN BE BRAVE. By that, as I mentioned above, I mean it tends to bring out raw, unfettered, un-sanitized, punch-me-in-the-face material that pushes boundaries, represents a broader, more colourful and inclusive rosta of creatives, themes, styles and narratives, and generally just excites more, because the publisher is less concerned by genre constraints, prescription, loglines and whatever is currently en-vogue, and more interested in the artist or writer themselves (which again, can be both a good and bad thing, but we’ll get to that). Indie publishing is founded on strong relationships between a writer and the publishing outfit, and there can be a great deal of personal investment, both ways, in this type of publishing. Therefore editors are more personally invested in an author and more open to material they might not otherwise be, and, again, on the whole, I love this. I love that stories can be heard in this way that might not be heard otherwise. I have often heard Indie publishing likened to pirate radio, and I think that works. These are not the books that you find on the shelves of W.H.Smiths, these are books that flex their muscles more extravangently because of this. Anthologies are another area where indie shines. I have seen some incredible releases in the last few years, with wonderful central themes, tables of contents that are fresh, interesting, and colourful, and a healthy mix of established authors and those who I have yet to encounter, who then went on to become favourites for me. I basically want my fruit fresh and juicy and diverse as fuck, thanks. Indie is great for this. It is also terrible for this, depending on who in particular helms a certain project, but we’ve covered that above. If nothing else, the extremes in the indie game should serve as some indication as to how fast and loud things happen there. Don’t even get me started on trigger warnings (for the record, I’ve included content warnings in the last three books I brought out, podcasts and TV have being doing it for yonks, ain’t no regrets there from me and I’ll keep doing it).
  • INDIE CAN PAY WELL, or as well as can be expected, in publishing. It depends on the book, the publisher, the time, the author, a million things. Generally however, the up front negotiations can look rather appealing, especially if you have a good relationship with your publisher. What differentiates indie from trad in that respect is how well the book performs post-launch. This can make a less appealing deal more appealing over time, or a more appealing up-front deal less of a performer in the long run, if that makes sense. We’ve covered all that above, and this will make more sense when I talk about trad publishing in more detail in subsequent posts, but for some writers looking to pay the bills, having a series of relationships with reliable indie and small presses is actually sometimes more sensible, financially, than putting all your eggs in the trad basket- namely because of the timescales involved, as we’ve mentioned before. Nothing happens quickly in trad, and that can be a problem for those of us in the early stages of our career who like eating and paying our mortgages and occasionally going on holiday whilst also writing books. This is why I am a huge proponent of hybrid approaches for authors and of agents who let their authors have a hybrid approach. 
  • INDIE HAS A LOYAL AND ACTIVE FAN BASE. I know many readers who have eschewed traditionally published books because they love the fresh, bold approach of proactive indie presses. They love the covers, and the author composition. They love the themes and energy. They love the familiarity of the book presentation, and they love supporting a particular outfit. I guess it’s like having a preferred brand of clothing or trainers, and I get it. It does feel an exciting movement to be a part of. Those readers, god love them, will snap up the newest release and enthusiastically promote it in ways I never dreamed possible until I experienced it first hand. Indie tends to have its finger on the pulse in terms of social media, which also helps.
  • INDIE HAS A WONDERFUL ONLINE SENSE OF COMMUNITY. I say ‘online’, but it exists offline, too, as I found, to my delight, at the recent Scares That Care Authorcon event. I have honestly made some incredible friends, colleagues, peers, whatever, through participating in the online horror indie community, which flourishes on twitter, insta, tiktok (I’m not so good at tolerating facebook but I should probably fix that). If a publisher behaves in a naughty fashion, there is accountability (some would debate that this is not a good thing, I however shall remain schtum and pluck yet another shard of fence from my tender flesh). If an author has an achievement to share, it gets celebrated. If someone is having a shit day, the community, by and large, lifts, encourages, inspires. I hate to be all Pollyanna about this but…actually, I’m fine with being a Pollyanna. Pollyanna that shit to the moon and back. Positivity and community will always win out for me. That doesn’t mean I haven’t rolled my eyes many a time, for I have. But that’s life in general, isn’t it. On the whole, I love the horror and indie community online and I am so damn happy I found it. If you’re a new author trying to figure this business out, community is everything. Build a network of peers that you trust and love, because that is a huge part of the battle going forward, trust me. 
  • INDIE LETS YOU HAVE MORE CREATIVE CONTROL. The example I use is SIX ROOMS, which I wrote for Cemetery Gates Media. This was a rather unusual commission, as the publisher had a clear idea of a world they wanted me to write within. They wanted a haunted house story about a certain property, and they gave me a history, a few key characters within the universe already imagined, and a brief: to theme the book around different rooms in the house. Now I know this sounds like the exact opposite of creative control, but really, it wasn’t. I ran with the idea in my own fashion and ended up with a multi-POV, multiple timeline emotional ghost story that was completely unfettered by editorial constraints and allowed me to play with structure and narrative in a fun, organic way that I am not sure would have happened in a more traditional setup. Also, the publisher was incredibly accommodating of me delivering the work late, owing to a pandemic, illnesses, family loss and a whole host of terrible stuff that happened whilst I was supposed to be writing it. This leniency and confidence in my abilities was extremely encouraging. For the record, I am not saying that an author should not expect editorial input when writing a novel. Quite the opposite: my experiences in traditional publishing with various editors have been nothing but informative and brilliant and helped me to hone a very difficult book into a much, much better one, and I learned a hell of a lot along the way. But in this particular instance, with SIX ROOMS, I was allowed to run free and unsupervised, and I am proud of the result. I mean I am proud of all my books because WHEEE! I WROTE A BOOK MOTHAFUCKA but you know what I’m saying. 

There are more good things, but this is approaching the 6k word mark so….let’s move to the bad. 

INDIE PUBLISHING: THE NOT SO GOOD SHIT

  • INDIE CAN SOMETIMES BE VERY UNPROFESSIONAL. And I don’t, for very obvious reasons to do with my own sanity, want to name-call or get into the ins and outs of who said what to whom or did what over the past few years since I’ve been doing this and why what has happened is or isn’t bad. *takes deep breath* Nobody wants my opinion on any of that stuff, and it probably wouldn’t be very professional of me to offer it without invitation anyway. BUT. From my standpoint, I have seen a fair bit of, well, for want of a better word, unprofessional behaviour from indie publishers. I have quietly withdrawn from several anthologies and podcasts and other projects for this reason. It’s a natural by-product, I think, of smaller companies that are driven by fewer individuals, which by nature then become personality-led enterprises, and accountability is not perhaps what it would be in a large, established organisation with HR departments, professional conduct policies and employee manuals and so on (I do think each and every indie publisher should have a social media policy guide and nail that shit down fast and hard, because this is where the bulk of conduct issues lie, from what I can see). And I get it, I do, I see how certain things happen, but in my opinion it doesn’t excuse certain behaviours. Non-payment of authors, covering up sexual misconduct, racism, tokenism, ableism, sexism, all the isms…there seems to be a greater risk of this, weirdly, within indie- or perhaps I am more aware of it in indie because it’s where I tend to hang out. 
  • The irony of this is that I literally just waxed lyrical about how brave and progressive Indie can be. Well, it can also be narrow minded, regressive and exclusionary, depending on your stance. Like I said, that dichotomy seems to be part of the makeup, I don’t know why. Extremes are more pronounced in a smaller pond, perhaps. These things certainly happen in trad publishing too, and I am not saying they don’t. What I do know is that it is worth doing your due diligence on any publisher, big or small, indie or otherwise. Take a look at the author rosta composition, ask other writers what their experiences are, use google, do a little digging into social activities of the publisher and the people they publish (pro tip: the ‘likes’ and ‘tweets and replies’ tabs on a particular twitter profile is mind-bogglingly indicative of a person/organisation’s preclusions, tastes and behaviours, although some people disguise themselves better than others). You won’t always be able to uncover red flags and warning signs, but you can put your ear to the soil and listen for rumbles. 
  • Another thing to watch out for is how an outfit apologises once it’s fucked up. Denial of another person’s hurt and experience and doubling down are often not, to me personally, a good indicator of professionalism. Impassioned rants and outbursts can hurt authors as well as the publishers, no matter how they are intended. People make mistakes, and again, I have made many of my own. I don’t judge that. But in a world where hate and prejudice breed with such enthusiasm, I have witnessed the power of a genuine apology, of apparent lessons learned, of growth. Times change, and companies can change too. And that’s all I have to say about that. Please don’t come at me, I am a delicately wilting flower with all the emotional capacity for conflict of a well-used colander. *chews viciously on clump of grass, for the fence has now crumbled ‘neath my weight*
  • INDIE REACH IS SMALLER THAN TRADITIONAL REACH. Not always, but in a lot of cases, the simple truth is that you may not reach the same number of readers with an indie house (unless a book goes viral, which is the dream) that you might with a traditional publishing house that has access to an array of print distribution channels, publicity experts, pre-existing relationships with franchises and large retail chains, a marketing budget, partnerships, celebrity endorsement and more. This is why so many of us chase the Trad dream: because it offers the best chance we have of getting as many eyes on our books as possible. Or at least, that used to be the case. Social media has levelled the playing field considerably. I certainly wouldn’t have a career without it, and I am not entirely sure I would have succeeded via the traditional routes to traditional (endless subbing, waiting, and hoping for the best, none of which I am good at). 
  • LOWER ROYALTY RATES THAN SELF PUBLISHING. Again, I’m looking at that sweet 70% royalty split that amazon offer. It’s kind of hard to move past that, especially if you have a decent following already and there is an appetite for your books. However, some indies offer up to 60 or 65%, which is a damn good deal, if you ask me. The costs balance out too when you consider as a self publisher you’ll have to invest in editorial, book cover art, formatting etc- unless you can do all that yourself (and it is very much worth learning these skills, in my opinion). 
  • SOME AWARDS DO NOT ENTERTAIN INDIE PUBLISHERS I think this probably applies more to self-published books these days (I could be wrong, my own awards experience is still limited), but it is worth bearing in mind. That being said, there have been some notable exemptions from this rule, which always warms my heart. My own self-published novella was nominated for a Stoker, so there’s that.  
  • THERE CAN BE SOME SNOBBERY AROUND INDIE. And it shouldn’t be a thing, but it is. Perception of quality, of amateurishness, of a hundred nonsense things that get applied unfairly- it exists. I’ve had conversations with bookstore owners that won’t stock a book unless its published traditionally. I don’t know if this is snobbery or some other consideration I am not aware of, and I bear no hard feelings. It is what it is. And it is down to you how much you care about that sort of thing. From what I can see, these attitudes are slowly starting to change, largely because the industry is adapting and those within it don’t have much choice but to also adapt, and in ten year’s time we hopefully won’t be having these discussion, but it elitism exists in all walks of life, unfortunately. I hate that it applies to books, which should be the most accessible art form, but hey ho. 

And with that, I need to draw to a close, because I’m getting tired and I also need a shower. I hope this was useful for some of you, and if you made it this far, thank you for reading, and if it is helpful, maybe you could share it with someone who might like to read it. If not, then I tip my hat to you anyways, because I have elaborate cowboy fantasies and would love to live in a world where I can swagger into a saloon and hawk a gobbet of spit into a bucket and order three fingers of bourbon in a dirty chipped glass and…

Wake up Gemma. *slaps self*

One thought on “Everything I have learned about publishing so far: an author’s perspective 

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