Once you’ve chosen the indie writer path, you need to decide what products or outputs you want to provide. Common options include print, e‑book, audio book, and online serial. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Looking at your target audience to see how they prefer their media, and deciding what you can afford to spend on your launch are good starting points.
Indie publishing doesn’t have to break the bank, but there are some expenses; these will depend on your skill-set and the products you’re creating. Even if you’re able to do all the technical work yourself, you’ll need to buy an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) for each publication or version of a publication.
Print Run vs Print on Demand
If you decide you want to offer a print edition of your book, there are still a lot of choices to make. Do you want hardcover or paperback? If paperback, do you want mass market (sometimes called pocketbook) or the larger trade size? Do you want regular print and large print options? Are you going to do a print run or go with print on demand (POD)?
In traditional publishing, many copies of a book are printed all at one time. This is a print run. The goal is to sell all or most of the print run. If a book’s print run sells out early enough in its publication life, it will go back for a second printing. Indie writers can duplicate this process, working directly with printing companies to produce hardcover or paperback books, paying for the print run and hoping to sell enough to break even or make a profit.
An advantage of a print run is that it’s easier to sell something that people can take with them right then and there. There are also some nice finishing features that a print run can make available that don’t exist in print on demand, such as a variety of bindings and maps on the inside front cover and/or endpaper.
Each printed format of the book (hardcover, paperback, large print, etc) requires its own run. If you’re planning multiple print formats, or if you don’t have investors or ready money to cover the outlay, a print run may not be the best fit for you.
Indie writers who go exclusively with a print run, rely on hand-selling their book at conventions or events, and are directly responsible for all sales. Independent book stores may carry your books on consignment, but it can be very tough to get big chain stores to carry your books outside of their distribution channels.
Print on Demand (POD)
Print on demand is a publishing model where physical books are individually printed as they are ordered. Modern technology has made POD an affordable and common option. If you order a book from an online retailer, and the book is scheduled to take a week or two to arrive, odds are good that it’s POD book. POD printers can provide hardcover and multiple paperback formats.
POD printers often work with both print and e-book outputs. Many have arrangements for distribution to retailers, national and world-wide, which can take some of the burden of selling off the writer’s plate. You must follow designated formatting standards if you want your book to qualify for distribution. This is a detail-focused task that results in a professional product.
Unless you’re buying additional services, POD has a very low cost to the author. You will need to buy a proof of the book, a copy for you to review and make sure it printed properly, before it will be released to the general public. You may need to make changes and order an additional proof to confirm the end product is as expected.
Once you’re happy with the output, you can order your own mini print run of ten or twenty books to hand-sell at readings or events. There’s usually a price break at certain levels, making it worthwhile to buy a larger number, but the per-book price will not be as low as it is with a regular print run.
A disadvantage with POD is that many online retailers have contracts with various printing shops around the country (or even the world), ensuring the book is printed closer to the delivery address. These shops may not have the same quality or standards, and indie writers can’t possibly know how that quality compares. Like a print run, it can be very difficult to get your books carried in brick and mortar stores, but big chain retailers may have them available for online ordering.
Electronic books, or e-books, are one of the easiest ways to dip your toes into the indie pool. Many e-book providers also offer distribution (sometimes referred to as aggregation). To qualify for wide distribution, your end product will need to meet specific criteria ensuring that it looks professionally produced.
There are many advantages of going the e-book route. It’s relatively simple to set up and produce. Depending on your skill set, and willingness to work through the technical elements, this can cost as little as $25 (the cost for an ISBN). Some e‑book production companies provide a free ISBN; just read the fine print to ensure you aren’t going to regret not being the owner of that number.
E-books become available relatively quickly, often the same day you complete the publishing process. Because of the low cost of production, these can be priced low enough that curious readers may be willing to take a risk on someone they’ve never read or heard of before.
A disadvantage with e-books is the difficulty in standing out from the deluge of e‑books published daily. While libraries are starting to carry e-books, it’s not universal, making this a tough bottleneck to get through. Not all audiences have embraced e‑books, so it’s critical that you know your audience’s preference.
Audio book is an output I’ve researched significantly but haven’t been able to provide. I have friends with visual disabilities who would benefit, and I know several people who enjoy listening to books on the bus or long car rides.
Like a print run, audio book has more up front expenses than other outputs. You can expect to pay your voice actors at least $200 to $400. If you’re doing your own recording, be careful not to over-estimate your ability or your equipment. Theatrical or voice training can definitely help you out, but they don’t guarantee a successful product. The reading quality and audio quality will make or break your audio book.
Online serial publication is another easy place to start, especially if you can stick to a schedule. It doesn’t require an ISBN, but it does require participation in a service that is set up for subscriptions and donations. If you’re tech savvy enough, perhaps you can program this into your own site. Most writers use something like Patreon or Wattpad.
This route is still relatively new in the industry. The advantage is that writers can more directly connect with their audience. Some writers use this to gain a following, posting short stories and teasers for free to draw people in, while providing subscribers regular chapters and higher level content.
Disadvantages can include difficulty in getting enough traffic, the pressure of providing routine content for subscribers, and random changes in terms of service (a problem Patreon has had several times in the last year). Some writers don’t feel this counts as truly publishing, but if you are providing content to readers, it does fit the definition.
On the surface these options can seem really intimidating. If you’re finding yourself overwhelmed, pick one to focus on at a time. There’s no reason you can’t roll out various editions as you get more comfortable with the formats. Many writers provide only one format, and that’s fine too. Going indie, means you can do what works for you.
For more articles on writing, check out my Reflections From the Sol section.