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Am I an Indie Author?

11 April 2019

About seven years ago I discovered the Smashwords web site, through my kinsman Graham Downs (kinsman is such a nice word, but I think strictly speaking one should say “affine”, since he’s my wife’s cousin). He had published a short story there called A Petition to Magic.

I found the Smashwords site interesting. I’d written a children’s novel a few years back, and approached several literary agents asking if they would have a look at it. I can’t say I even got a rejection slip, because none of them wanted to look at it. I thought of the possibility of begging some publishers to allow it to sit in their slush pile, but back then they wanted hard copy, and the overseas postage was getting prohibitively expensive, and one had to send them enough postage to return it. They wouldn’t entertain the idea of tossing it in the bin because the cost of printing a clean copy was less than half the return postage. No, they had to send it back. So I dropped the idea of trying to get it published and it just sat on my hard disk.

By 2013, however, quite a lot of my friends had Kindles and other e-book readers, Smashwords offered a way to publish an e-book with minimal capital outlay. Format the electronic manuscript according to their template and styles, upload it, and they produce it and distribute it in several different e-book formats. They take a percentage of every book sold. So in December 2014 Of Wheels and Witches was published by Smashwords. I still keep hoping that a child of the target age group (9-12) will write a review.

And then I suddenly discovered that “indie authors” were a thing, and I had apparently become one of them.

I wasn’t sure that that’s what I wanted to be.

Indie authors are those who self-publish their books instead of going through a traditional publisher, and with facilities like those at Smashwords self-publishing has never been easier, at least for e-books,.

I had, however, already had one and a third books published by Unisa Press, which was a traditional academic publisher like most other university presses. The first book was Black Charismatic Anglicans which had a print run of 250 and is now sold out. The second was African Initiatives in Healing Ministry, which had Lilian Dube and Tabona Shoko as co-authors.As far as I know it is still in print.

So I’m not a pure “indie author”.

So why did I decide to publish my latest novel, The Year of the Dragon through Smashwords instead of looking for an agent?

I suppose the main reason is that I’m getting old. Querying agents and publishers and waiting for replies is time-consuming and I’d probably be dead before a received an actual rejection, never mind an acceptance. Publishing through Smashwords is relatively quick and easy. Instead of sending one query you upload one completed MS, and the work is done.

Well, not quite.

In self-publishing the work comes after submitting the MS rather than before. Traditional publishers usually handle things like publicity, sending out review copies and nagging the reviewers for reviews, and sending copies of the reviews to the authors.

Well, not quite that either. I never saw a single review of African Initiatives in Healing Ministry and to this day I don’t even know if any review copies were actually sent, or to whom. But at any rate that is what traditional publishers are supposed to do.

Another reason for not bothering with traditional publishers is that I was thinking of getting my doctoral thesis on Orthodox Mission Methods published. Various people had told me that they wanted copies either for themselves or their students. So I sent the MS to an academic publisher, and they said they would accept it, provided I could get three readers’ reports. One reader replied positively, thought it could be published. Another didn’t reply. The third said he would be going to a meeting the following week of a different publisher he was associated with, and could he present it to them for publication? I said OK, and ten years later I’m still waiting for a reply, to hear whether the second publisher was interested, or whether he thought it was good enough for the first publisher.

The first publisher nagged me for the readers’ reports for a year or two and gave up, but no amount of pleading could get the readers to respond. Much easier to send it to somewhere like Smashwords. The only problem there is that Smashwords doesn’t do stuff like footnotes and indexes, which are needed for an academic text.

And now, ten years on, my thesis is well out of date. Much of the research is more like 25 years out of date. Would anyone like to offer me a research grant to update it?

A lot of the original research was done with a scholarship of R10000 from Unisa, awarded because of my Masters’ dissertation. But 25 years on it would cost at least ten times as much, and R100000 would barely cover the cost of updating the research. And for that price you could probably set up the academic equivalent of Smashwords.

So I’m an Indie Author, sort of, and Indie Authors are a thing, sort of. But what a thing!

Indie Authors help each other with publicity and things like that, and then you discover what other Indie Authors are up to. And one of the things they are up to, I soon discovered, was male torsos. About one in ten self-published books seems to have a male torso on the cover. Newspapers  may have bums and boobs on page 5, but Indie Authors have torsos on the cover.

Do all the books with male torsos belong to the same genre? There used to be a genre called “bodice rippers”, but these have no bodices to rip.

But that’s OK, because you can have the ripped without the bodices. As one dictionary defines it, “ripped” means “Having an extremely defined physique; toned: ripped, bulging muscles”.

For more on the male torso phenomenon, see here Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso | Notes from underground and here Graham Downs: Judging a Book by Its Cover: Urban Fantasy.

So what do Indie Authors do, apart from male torsos?

And do I really want to be one?

As a reader, I don’t care whether a book is published by a conventional publisher or independently. It’s the content, not the method of publication that counts. And as an author, I’m most concerned that my books reach the kind of people who might want to read them. And my hope is that they find them useful, informative, or entertaining, or all of those things.

So no, I’m not an “Indie Author”, I’m just an author, but I do recognise that independently published books rely, far more than conventionally published ones, on word of mouth (or Tweet, or Facebook shares etc) to reach the people who might want to read them, and so will try to help promote the ones I think are worth a read. And I hope others will do the same for mine.




13 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 April 2019 12:38 am

    You could put your thesis up on academia dot edu or there’s a more open source site that does the same job.

  2. 12 April 2019 4:00 am

    I put my MA dissertation on there. If there’s a limit, you could put it up in smaller chunks.

  3. 16 April 2019 11:29 am

    Awesome blog post, Steve. And thank you for the shout out. 🙂

    I think, if you can get the rights back for African Initiatives in Healing Ministry, you should definitely consider doing so, and self-publishing it. Even though it’s quite old now, I think plenty of people would still be interested in reading it, as-is. Maybe with a Foreward or Introduction just explaining why you’re self-publishing and disclaiming that some of the information in it might be out of date.

    In terms of your thesis, I’m not sure it would be worth it, as you say. Theses do tend to go out of date rather quickly, don’t they? And without spending a lot of money on updating the research, I’m not sure how useful it’d be.

    In terms of what kind of author you are, if you are any particular kind of author at all, you should also know that there are two kinds of self-published (Or independent/indie) authors: there are those who used to publish traditionally but got all their rights back and self-published everything, and now engage exclusively in indie publishing. The other kind of indie author includes those, like me, who have only ever self-published. Perhaps they did try to get a traditional deal at some point, or perhaps (again, like me) the idea of publishing anything through “traditional” channels never occurred to them.

    But then there is yet another kind of author, and you might find that this category suits you better. Called “Hybrid Authors”, these are people who continue to have some books traditionally published, while self-publishing others. It all depends on where they think they’ll earn the most money, or which option would otherwise be more advantages, depending on the genre, target market, etc for any given book. For example, because indie publishing is so much more dependent on word-of-mouth, as you mentioned, it can be really tough to gain traction self-publishing poetry or literary fiction. But self-publishing is perfect for fantasy and erotica, for example. Or for anything that you feel you REALLY want in print, it can be a lot of effort as an indie to find people who are prepared to do affordable print runs, and managing distribution into physical bookstores can also be a pain. But some types of books really scream out for that kind of exposure. For others, (again, like erotica, perhaps) they might actually do better exclusively as ebooks or print-on-demand, sold online.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. The point is, you get Traditionally Published authors, Self-published Authors (Who’ve either come across from the Dark Side, or have only ever been self-published), and Hybrid Authors.

    Then you also get a sort of hyper-hybrid author (I’m not actually sure if there is a term for them) who publish different formats through different channels. Hugh Howey famously did this for Wool back in the day – he sold his Print Rights to a publisher, but insisted on keeping his ebook rights for himself. Some people do that these days for audiobooks… although it’s becoming fairly straightforward to self-publish audiobooks, too.

    • 17 April 2019 3:41 am

      I don’t think the distinction is important, either for authors or books. My point is that where it comes into play is in the marketing of the books — that is, in getting them to the readers who might like to read them. As I see it the best way to do that with self-published books if through reviews and word of mouth (or e-mail, or social media).

      • 17 April 2019 10:04 am

        There’s actually been lots of debate about that over the years. The fact is, unless you’re already Stephen King (Hey, you’re halfway there) or J. K. Rowling, publishers aren’t very likely to put much effort into marketing your book anyway. The only real pro is that if you’re accepted by a publisher, you won’t have to spend any money upfront on a cover design, various editors, or a print run -in fact, if you DO have to spend money, then the company is a Vanity Publisher, and you should run for the hills. 😛

        Plus, traditionally published books have a matter of weeks to break even, and if they haven’t done so yet, their publisher will generally give up on them and move on to the next thing. Indie published books can be marketed forever; you might decide to put a new cover on The Year of the Dragon and rerelease it, 20 years from now. There are no rules. 😉

        There’s a lady called Erika Bester in The Dragon Writers group on Facebook. She’s a full-time author (published under a couple of different pen names for different genres), and she runs a small independent publishing company to help new authors who find the prospect of self-publishing too daunting to consider. She’s not a Vanity Publisher; she doesn’t accept all books, and if she accepts yours, she won’t ask you for any money before publishing it.

        She has some very interesting things to say about what authors expect publishers to do for them. Particularly marketing. As a publisher, she says, marketing is NOT one of the services you can expect her to provide. At least, not beyond the very basic tweet or Facebook post when your book is first released and listing on the publisher’s website. Everything else, in terms of e-mail newsletters, ongoing tweets and Facebook posts, paid promotions, etc, are your responsibility as an author. The publisher simply cannot afford to incur those costs long-term.

  4. 16 April 2019 12:54 pm

    Stoked you released these books Steve! Been awhile since I’ve visited your blog. Had no idea you published some fantasy – I’ll be checking those out.

    I also released a fantasy book some time back – it’s called “When Twins War”, which you can pick up (Book I and II) at Amazon or Smashwords. Graham liked it – I had no idea you guys were related!

    In terms of book distribution, also try Draft2digital – they’ll help you get your book onto other platforms (Apple, etc). I’ve used them for awhile. The problem is often getting payment back. For that I use something called Payoneer, which is a card from Mastercard that allows Amazon and other platforms to pay into. It’s quite helpful.

    • 17 April 2019 4:09 am

      Well, that shows how effective Twitter is as a social medium, since we’ve been following each other on Twitter for I don’t know how long, but Twitter has begun to censor tweets — it has started using a Facebook-style algorithm that boosts some tweets and downplays others. I usually announce new blog posts on Twitter, and have announced these books on Twitter too. I’ve occasionally seen announcements for your blog posts on Twitter, but not for a year or two. .

      About a month ago I participated in the Author Shout cover wars thing, mainly because I thought that even if The Year of the Dragon | Khanya was a naff book, I thought the cover, designed by my son, was pretty good, and so if other authors saw it, they might be interested in asking him to design one for one of their books.

      When I entered, they offered me a discount for publicising my book on their site. I thought I’d wait and see — if, during the cover wars week, people clicked through and bought my book, then it might be worth it. But no one did. The trouble with sites like Author Shout, and the whole “Indie Author” thing, is that they only really publicise books to other authors, and not to potential readers. So it really wouldn’t be worth paying for more of the same.

  5. 17 April 2019 1:04 am

    There are basically three categories of authors; traditional, self-published (indie), and hybrid. A hybrid is an author that publishes their works traditionally, as well as self-publish.
    I published my first book traditionally, then switched to self-publishing. There are quite a lot of authors doing this. You are in complete control of your work and you receive more in royalties.
    What a lot of people don’t understand about traditional publishing is that authors are required to market their work. Some publishers require you to have a large following, if not, they request for you to build an online presence. Part of my contract consisted of me building up my online presence. I did a LOT of legwork just to promote my first book. My publisher only helped me secure book signings. Though, I secured a few of those myself as well. If no one knows your work is out there, then you aren’t making an income.
    I actually enjoy being an indie author more than I did being a traditionally published author. True, there’s a stigma or taboo when it comes to self-publishing, but there are a lot of indie authors who are truly making it.
    Hope that helps explain it some. 🙂 Wishing you the best of luck in your author endeavors.

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