The Independence of Indie Authors

by Joel Friedlander on June 2, 2014 · 10 comments

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I hope you had a chance to look through the post linked to yesterday, Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs. Last time I looked there were over 300 comments from writers, starting with historical fiction author Libbie Hawker, who took the occasion to announce:

“Saturday is my last day at the day job. June 1st will be my first day writing full-time. All due to indie publishing.”

Reading through these comments is incredibly exciting because you sense the passion and the opening of life-changing opportunity in many of them.

As someone who self-published back in the days when there was no “indie publishing” and most of the publishing industry had little knowledge and less regard for people who published their own books, these stories are fulfilling for me, too.

Owning our own stories, getting to tell them to the world, sharing and passing on our insights and hard-won expertise—every motivation for publishing is now within the grasp of anyone who wants to reach for it.

You have to do it well to succeed, but many of you have shown that with a bit of talent and a lot of determination, you can do it.

The Self-Directed Workplace

That’s what I was thinking about when I read Why You Hate Work by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath in this Sunday’s New York Times.

I’ve been working on my own for so long that I was shocked to remember some of the places I had worked over the years, and how soul-crushing some work environments can be.

What caught my eye was a chart called “White Collar Salt Mine: A 2013 survey of 12,115 workers worldwide found that many lacked a fulfilling workplace.”

As I scanned down the list, I couldn’t help but think about the dozens and dozens of writers whose comments I had just been reading, and who have found the “way out” through indie publishing.

The way out of what? Here are some of the qualities workers are looking for in their workplace, according to this survey, and how they might compare to someone who has “quit their day job.”

  • Regular time for creative or strategic thinking
    Writers are creative workers by definition, so much of our day is taken up by creativity, and publishing our work brings out the need for strategic thinking.
  • Ability to focus on one thing at a time
    Yeah, that’s what writing is all about. It’s your day, you decide what to do with it.
  • Opportunities to do what’s most enjoyed
    We make our own opportunities in indie publishing, and there’s great joy in that
  • Level of meaning and significance
    I can’t think of a better way to bring meaning to your life than leaving something of yourself for generations to come
  • Opportunities for learning and growth
    We’re always learning how to write better, aren’t we? And now we’re learning publishing and marketing too
  • Ability to prioritize your tasks
    When you’ve got one book in progress and another launching, you better learn to prioritize
  • Ability to balance work and home life
    This is where working on your own really shines, as there’s less of a wall between the two
  • Comfort in being truly yourself
    Amen.

There are lots more items on the list, but the idea is clear.

Indie publishing, pursued with passion and fired with our own intelligence, creates a whole new world for us. Most writers don’t pursue self-publishing principally to make a living doing it, but what’s astonishing is that all of us, no matter what our motivation, are able to thrive.

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    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    Zushka Biros June 7, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Loved reading your article! This is exactly what is going on in my own life as an Indie Author. In April, I decided to give my notice at my job. I agreed to stay on until July 31st. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew I had to leave. I’m giving my writing its much needed attention, and I am determined to be a successful self-employed Indie Author. I am well on my way! Thanks again!!

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg June 2, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    I think most will agree we put in more hours than we did on the 9-to-5’s. But its what we want to do so it doesn’t feel like work.

    I have a hard time balancing work and home myself because I always want to be working on something. On the other hand, for those just ditching the old job for writing full-time it can be hard getting into a productive routine.

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski June 2, 2014 at 11:22 am

    In fact, independence is one of the major reasons that I became a writer and self-publisher. However, I still consider myself a “self-publisher” and not an “indie” author. I just attended Book Expo in New York and told everyone the same thing, including the executives from my distributor National Book Network who are happy to carry my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” even though that is the only book they carry of mine.

    Incidentally, because of my independence, I choose to attend only Thursday and Friday of Book Expo to meet many people in the traditional publishing business and choose altogether to skip “uPublishU” on Saturday which was dedicated to “indie” publishing.

    The following comes from my book “Career Success Without a Real Job (The Career Book for People to Smart to Work in Corporations)”

    Irrefutable Signs That You Have Achieved the Independence That Comes from Not Having a Real Job

    You no longer know how to prepare for job interviews and don’t care that you don’t know.
    You wonder why people get up before 9:30 A.M.
    Most people with real jobs criticize or envy you.
    You rely on job ads rather than the Dilbert cartoon for your laugh of the day.
    You are always the last one to know when there is a holiday for working people and you happily work your usual four to five hours anyway.
    You don’t ever need any job references.
    You no longer have a Daytimer because you forget to look in it after making an entry.
    Multitasking means working on your laptop in a coffee bar for two hours and watching attractive members of the opposite sex at the same time.
    You know what resume means but have completely forgotten what résumé means.
    You are confident that you will have no problem adjusting to retirement.
    You forget to set your clocks ahead or behind one hour and there are no consequences.
    You realize that prosperity does not require hard work or having lots of material possessions — just creativity, personal freedom, and work that enriches you.
    You have no financial problems because you save more money than most people who earn twice as much as you.
    You can go a whole year without having to set an alarm clock.
    You feel sorry for people who have to work at a real job — even those who earn a million a year.
    You have great friends and spend a lot of time with them, even dropping your work entirely for two or three days when a friend from out of town comes to visit.
    Working at your unreal job connects you to all that is bigger than you.
    You enjoy your unreal job; thus, you can be both at work and not at work simultaneously.
    You get much more enjoyment out of the work you do than from the monetary rewards.
    You know you are no longer employable in a real job and don’t care.
    You try to keep an open mind about hardworking lawyers, executives, and doctors but you still can’t help feeling just a bit superior.
    You wouldn’t trade your present livelihood for anything else — bar none!

    A great quotation that I just came across:

    “Books work as an art form (and an economic one) because they are primarily the work of an individual.”
    — Seth Godin

    All things considered, attaining independence and career success without a real job is a game in many ways. It’s important to play the game here and now, in the present. Of utmost importance is to find a version of the game worth playing, a version that you truly enjoy. Ensure that you laugh and have fun, even when the score is not in your favor. You have to play the career success game with gusto, and if you get really good at it, you will miraculously transform all aspects of your life — forever! After all, it’s all in how you play the game, isn’t it?

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry June 2, 2014 at 9:38 am

    Full-time writing has benefits, but it can get lonely sitting around writing. It deprives a writer of sources of inspiration.

    I know. In Seattle, to cope with the high-cost of living there, I juggled three part-time jobs: a community center, an art museum, and a sculpture park. At the community center, I met guys who slept in the bushes. At the others, I met two state governors and talked with Bill Gate’s father and step-mother. My life had people from all backgrounds. And I got paid to have those experiences. That was great, as was the fact that much of that work came at night when I was too tired to write anyway.

    But last year I inherited a home in a small college town. My expenses are way down and my rising writer’s income means I don’t have to juggle those now far-away jobs. That said, I miss that a rich variety of people. I have toyed with finding part-time jobs here, but it’s hard to do that when there’s no necessity for them. Financial independence has its downside.

    The primary reason I’m a strong critic of Amazon isn’t Amazon’s bullying of Hachette and its kin. It’s because Amazon makes it much harder for independent writers to choose to become financially independent. Amazon is Amazon’s friend and no one else’s.

    Amazon’s ebook contract with independent writers is already one of the most restrictive and poor-paying the retail book industry. If it can lick Hachette, things will not go well for independent publishers. Amazon’s lower-than-anyone-else 35% royalties for ebooks outside the narrow $2.99 to $9.99 price range will, I suspect, become 35% at all price levels. Many writers will have to kiss away forever their chance to live on their writing.

    Equally discouraging are the Amazon fanboy-writers who, no matter how badly treated by the company, still champion it. They often make two serious mistakes.

    For print, many think that Amazon opened up its hearts to them by selling their POD books when no one else would. That’s laughably ill-informed. I began publishing POD via Lightning Source in 1999. Within two weeks of releasing a LS book to Ingram back then, it appeared on a host of online bookstores around the world. Getting in Ingram’s inventory did that. Amazon had nothing to do with it. Amazon merely sold what Ingram had.

    Being a well-established market, print gives an author a lot of control. As the publisher, I set the retail price and the markup, which effectively fixes my publisher/author’s profit per book sale, making it the same industry wide. Retailers who get my book through Ingram can set whatever price they want, even selling it below cost. But I always get the same profit that I chose. I am in charge.

    For digital, matter are far less healthy. Many writers fail to notice just how restrictive Amazon is and how poorly it pays them per sale. At all price levels, Amazon pays less that any other major ebook retailer and, outside the narrow $2.99 to $9.99 price range, substantially less, half what Apple pays.

    Much like thosewho don’t understand just who opened up widespread POD distribution to authors (Ingram not Amazon), they seem unaware that their Amazon check is larger because Amazon has 70% of the ebook market not because it pays them better than the others. Most would be making significantly more if their ebook sales were to shift from Amazon to Apple, B&N or Smashwords. The more Amazon dominated the ebook market, the worse their plight.

    Sadly, they don’t seem to understand that, which is why their path to financial independence is likely to be longer and fraught with more risk. Writing isn’t just a profession, it’s a business and required a business-like attitude.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 2, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Michael. Not sure why you picked this post to tell us about your work history or express your dislike of Amazon, you seem to be a bit off-topic. And I can’t possibly agree with:

    Amazon makes it much harder for independent writers to choose to become financially independent.

    Since without Amazon, most indie authors wouldn’t even be publishing.

    Nor with this one:

    Amazon’s ebook contract with independent writers is already one of the most restrictive and poor-paying the retail book industry.

    Since I’m receiving a 70% royalty on ebook sales from Amazon, an amount unheard of in the publishing industry for most of its history.

    Nor do I think that the $2.99 to $9.99 price range is “narrow” since even without the incentive, I believe that’s exactly the range the vast majority of ebooks would naturally sell within.

    And while it’s true that Ingram opened up PoD distribution, that’s not Amazon’s game, since Amazon is a retailer, while Ingram is a distributor. That’s like saying Ingram isn’t making any sales for you—which would be correct, since Ingram is not a retailer, just like Amazon is not a distributor.

    But Amazon made it possible for individual authors who wanted to sell their books to a large market.

    I guess if it was such a bad deal, people would be pulling their books from Amazon and putting them up for sale … where, exactly?

    Because publishing is a business, we try to retail our books where the buyers are, and I think that’s exactly what indie authors are doing.

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry June 2, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Quote: “Since I’m receiving a 70% royalty on ebook sales from Amazon, an amount unheard of in the publishing industry for most of its history.”

    Check your Amazon statement. It’s utterly impossible to earn 70% from Amazon. With that download fee, you’ll always earn less, a little less for short, print-only books, and a lot less for picture-rich books.

    Amazon’s inflated download fee (15 cents per megabyte) discourages authors from improving their book with pictures. I’m simply stubborn. I refuse to publish My Nights with Leukemia, a book about hospitalized kids without pictures of cute kids even though tasteless Amazon punishes me for that by grabbing another 10%. That’s why Hachette is right when it says that Amazon does not understand books.

    Also, any history that compares ebooks in the present to the inefficiencies of print publishing in the past (including returns) makes no sense. The real comparison isn’t apples to oranges, but apples to apples. It’s what other ebook vendors are paying. I’ve checked the major ones. All pay better than Amazon and some pay over twice as much in some situations. That’s apple to apple.

    I can give you an illustration of the troubles Amazon creates for authors. I’ve got a 500+ page book, Chesterton on War and Peace that a deals with the debates during WWI about dealing with German militarism and preventing another war. With the 100th anniversary of the war’s beginning just a few months off, that book is quite relevant. Chesterton was virtually the only major writer of his era to get what would happen right. His foes in the press, particularly H. G. Wells could not have been more wrong.

    Unfortunately, the paperback book’s $25 price means it doesn’t sell as well as it should. I can’t reduce the print price any lower, but I could create an ebook version that could sell for less. Unfortunately, given the book’s necessarily complex formatting, that’d take quite a bit of my time. I’d need to earn about $10/copy to recoup that labor cost.

    With Apple that’s no problem. Pricing it at $14.99 would earn me about $10.50 per copy sold. Amazon is the hitch. Pricing it at $9.99 would earn me less than $7.00. Given the length, the complex formatting, and Amazon’s hideous download fee, I’d get more more like $6.00. Not nearly enough.

    Here is where Amazon bites. Pricing it over $9.99 drops what Amazon pays me to 35%. To earn that $10.50 I earn from Apple with a mere $14.99 price, I’d have to make the Amazon price $30, far more than the cost of a print copy. According to Mark Croker at Smashwords, Amazon’s lawyers would send me some quite nasty letters if I made my Apple price $15 and my Amazon price $30, even though my earnings from each are almost identical.

    And it’s not just me with that serious book that’s impacted. Amazon also screws starting out authors who perhaps feel they need to sell their first novel for $0.99 or $1.99 to attract readers. Apple pays $0.70 or $1.40. Amazon only $0.35 or $0.70. That may sound like pennies, but it is half the income and for an author that can be the difference between making it and giving up.

    The same also applies when the author of a fiction series wants to create a multi-volume collection. Once the necessary price bumps past $9.99, his royalties get slashed in half. How can he become independent if he’s treated like that? Unable to release viable collections, he’s stuck with single-volume sales that may peter out after volume 2 or 3.

    For another analogy, think of professional guides, such as nursing or school textbooks. All have limited sales volume that make getting enough income from a sub-$9.99 price impossible. Do the numbers and you’ll discover what I described above. Amazon forces authors to price their books twice as high because it pays half as much.

    That’s why my comments are relevant to going independent. If one employer paid you $7.50 an hour and another paid $15, which would allow you to start up your own business the quickest? The real answer is not a length of time. For the first employer, the answer is probably never. And every hour you work for miserly employer #1 is an hour you’re not working for #2.

    Can you come up with a reason why a $10.99 book costs twice as much to distribute as a $9.99 one? No. Amazon screws authors in situations like that because it can get away with it. Unfortunately, all too many authors lack the backbone to even get angry, much less verbally protest or, better yet, demand legal action. You might even say that they deserve to be poor and struggling. Sad!

    Amazon only gets away with sub-market royalties because it owns 70% of the ebook market. It actually pays substantially better than LightningSource for POD books because it doesn’t dominate that market and must compete. One reason why I raise all this fuss is that, given enough heat, Amazon has demonstrated that it can change. It’s not total evil. It’s can-I-get-away-with-this evil.

    In the end, we’re talking about personalities. Imagine yourself in a Dickens tale at an orphanage for boys. Some eat their gruel without complaining. That’s the relationship most authors have with Amazon. They’re happy with that little bowl. An occasional one will politely ask, “Please sir, can I have more gruel.” Those are far less common. I’m neither and I’m not alone. Some of us intend to raise hell and make trouble at that orphanage until the feeding becomes better. And many authors are in situations only a little removed from a Dickens-era orphanage.

    Keep in mind that Amazon could easily pay 70% at all prices and charge no download fee. Apple had been doing quite well for many years paying 70% for apps, music and ebooks. And for ebooks, Amazon has an economy of scale that’s at least twice that of Apple. Amazon is making money by the bucketload with ebooks and mostly at the expense f authors. That’s why it wants to own the ebook market. It’s also why it should be made to pay more. And if it paid more, far more authors will become self-supporting. That’s third-grade math.

    Time will tell if my hell-raising and that of others will have an impact. Circumstances certainly look better than they did a year ago. Amazon made a major miscalculation when it picked a battle with major publishers in the news capital of the country. An year ago, the press rarely referred to Amazon as a bully. Now the word appears quite often.

    I might add that most authors don’t need to be as direct as I am. All they need do is to steer readers to other retailers, whether Apple, B&N or Smashwords. I’ve yet to find a major retailer that pays worse that Amazon. They’ll earn more and hasten the day when they become self-supporting.

    For ebooks that the market says ought to be priced outside that $2.99 to $9.99 range, release them everywhere but Amazon and push your readers toward those other outlets. Amazon can change, but it has to be forced to change.

    Amazon will always be a major ebook retailer and probably always the largest. That is why there is nothing–absolutely nothing–that would propel more authors into independence than for Amazon to abandon its download fees and its convoluted and often miserly royalty scheme. Apple is doing quite well paying 70% for any price from $0.99 to $199.99. Amazon can do the same.

    Keep in mind that professionalism is a coin with two sides. One side is doing well at the chosen profession. The other is expecting to be treated well. Both are needed.

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski June 2, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Michael:

    I will definitely side with Joel on the issue of Amazon. At times I get irritated at Amazon for certain things. One example is their policy of reducing the price of your ebook even if you price it at $9.99. This happens to me because they have something in their contract that says if they discount the price of the print edition of the same book to $9.99 or lower, they have the right to reduce the price of the ebook even lower. This happens my ebook edition of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free.” Because they discount the print edition so much, they discount the ebook edition to as low as $8.60. To me, this cheapens my book. Indeed, I don’t want anyone to be purchase it for less than $9.97.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t be in the position that I am in today with my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” having sold over 200,000 copies in all editions and it being well on its way to being my first $1 million book in pretax profits if it wasn’t for Amazon. I could give at least 25 reasons for this but I won’t because you likely wouldn’t listen to me.

    In short, this is my advice: Instead of focusing on “the troubles Amazon creates for authors”, focus on the opportunities that Amazon creates for authors. Trust me, you will do much better in creating independence, freedom, and prosperity in your life. You may even end up selling over 800,000 copies of your books worldwide as I have done.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus June 4, 2014 at 1:30 am

    You don’t have to use Amazon if you don’t like its policies. You can skip it and just use Apple and other booksellers.

    You can even publish a 1,000-page ebook with 1,400 color images, price it at $850 and try to sell it from your own website.

    I publish ebooks and pbooks at various prices and have absolutely no problem with the royalties I can earn with Kindle ebooks selling for $2.99 to $9.99.

    Some of my books sell better on Apple, others sell better on Amazon. None sell better elsewhere.

    My ebooks tend to have lots of color graphics. I quickly learned that I can reduce the overall file size (and increase my Amazon earnings) by tweaking image size and image resolution of my photos.

    My latest book, Do As I Say, Not As I Did: Learn from my lifetime of mistakes. A lighthearted look at life, love, sex, money, food, children, animals, media, politics, business, technology, health and more has a 32-cent delivery cost and I’ll collect $1.87 out of the $2.99.

    That’s a much better percentage than what I earned when Doubleday published my first book back in 1977. This new book was on three different Amazon bestseller lists the day after its 6/1/14 publication, so those juicy royalties started flowing immediately.

    As a publisher, author and reader I am quite pleased with Jeff Bezos. I buy from Amazon (and not just books) at least three times a week.

    Reply

    Valorie Grace Hallinan June 2, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I read the New York Times article, too, and it is sad. I have worked for companies and on my own, and the latter has so much appeal, (if you can swing it), especially these days when the workplace can be harsh. Thanks for writing this post, I agree with it wholeheartedly!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 2, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks, Valorie. There are so many opportunities for people who have a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit, I hope many take advantage of them.

    Reply

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