Updated: Mar 7, 2020
If you're just starting out in the indie/small press world, there are lots of things you'll discover by trial and error. Even if you've been at it for a few years or more, it's a constantly shifting landscape that's often difficult to navigate, particularly without the proper tools at your disposal. Trends and platforms change so quickly it's entirely possible this post may be out of date in a few months.
This is going to be a long and in-depth post because I want to cover as much of what I currently know about indie publishing as I can. Most of it is nuts-and-bolts stuff that may not be interesting if you're not intending to be an indie author, though if you're the type of reader who likes to know how the sausages are made, you're welcome to stay and watch me fill these intestines with meat.
I'm no expert, not by a longshot. But I have picked up quite a few things since first publishing in 2013. I'm giving away all of my "secrets" here. Some of it may be "no-brainers." But hopefully this will prevent you from stumbling in the dark for years as I did.
I use Microsoft Word for writing and Scrivener for ebook formatting, as Word is notoriously aggravating for formatting in general. Scrivener is a relatively cheap option and works great if you have multiple parts and chapters for your book. (You can also write directly in the Scrivener program, but I've never found it to be particularly conducive to creativity. I may just be partial to Word as I've been using it since the '90s.)
If you're a Mac user there's a program called Vellum many indies love for ebook formatting. Unfortunately at this time they do not have a version for PC.
Getting your ebook to feel professional (with a "# minutes left in chapter," proper page breaks, good-looking chapter headings, etc.) can be tricky. Of course if you have a bit of extra cash you can find people online who will format your ebooks for you. There are many sellers on Fiverr that will do it very cheaply.
Other easy to use programs are Google Docs, which is great for when you're writing with a partner. I know people who use Notepad, some who write entire novels on their cell phones, and others who use speech-to-text software. It really is about whatever works best for you.
Where to Publish
The go-to is obviously Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). There you can publish both ebooks and paperbacks (thanks to the recent closure of Createspace), and Amazon only takes a modest percentage. It's still probably the easiest indie publishing platform out there, although publishing paperbacks through them is trickier than it was with Createspace.
Unless you have a massive book, it's best to choose the 70% royalty option. I only ever choose 30% when I'm lowering the price for a sale. If you choose 70% royalties and your book is large, you could get dinged with "delivery fees" of 15 cents per megabyte. (And don't forget to add those important keywords! Note, this is not a comprehensive list, only a small list of keywords that are required to rank in certain genres.)
Amazon KDP has the KU (Kindle Unlimited) service you can opt in to which makes your books Amazon-exclusive for 90-day periods, in order to benefit from KU Page Reads from subscribers. I've personally found that page reads don't tend to make a lot of difference unless you are selling a lot of books the regular way, ie. doing well in the rankings. But other indie authors swear by them - some say they make as much or more than their regular royalties. Another benefit of KU is the opportunity to do Free promotions and Price Drop promotions. So you have to weigh the benefits.
Of course if you publish via Amazon, you'll want your very own Author Page (here's mine on Amazon.com). This will give you the opportunity to have your author photo, bio and all of your books on a page specific to you, rather than lost among thousands of other writers on Amazon. You'll also be able to see your Author Ranking in any of the genres you've been published, sales rankings for individual books, and all of your reviews in one place.
For some reason the US Author Central and UK Author Central are still not linked, so if you want a page for both you'll need to create two profiles. Amazon sites for any other countries don't have Author Pages, as you might have noticed. I understand there might be language barriers for some but I can't fathom why they couldn't make things the same across the board, possibly with some sort of auto-translate feature. Would also be nice if they merged reviews from all the different countries' marketplaces. Anyhoo. Moving on….
Draft2Digital is a great resource if you want to "go wide" with your work as I have, to publish your ebooks on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple and various other estores and subscription sites like Scribd. It's a lot harder to get any traction here, but it can be rewarding. Unfortunately sites like B&N allow people to do drive-by star ratings without providing a review. So you could end up with a one-star rating on a book with no explanation, which could potentially tank it for further sales.
There's also Google Play - which I'll just say is the absolute worst user experience I've ever had with self-publishing software. I like to get my books into as many markets as possible, so I've suffered through it. If you don't care about hitting every market, you may want to avoid Google Play, simply to spare yourself the aggravation.
Allegedly you can also publish your ebooks directly through Kobo and a handful of other stores, but I haven't tried this method as it seems like an extra hassle when you could just get all your royalties in a one-stop shop via Amazon and D2D.
Whatever avenue you choose, don't expect your work to start getting tons of reads and glowing reviews right away. Indie publishing is a long game. My first book, the horror collection Gristle & Bone, got a ton of freebie downloads (over one-thousand with one promotion) back when it was easier to KU get a ton of freebie downloads from Amazon KU, but it didn't start getting reviews until a long while after publication, right before it got picked up by Booktrope for republication. Those first few months I was on tenterhooks waiting for reviews to come trickling in. Eventually they did and it's now my highest-rated book (though it has less reviews than my top sellers).
A lot of indies swear by releasing their books at a lower price point (say, .99 cents vs the typical indie price point of $2.99 to $4.99) and do a longish preorder. I haven't found preorders to be effective, personally. And any preorders you get don't count toward rankings on the day of release. A wiser method is to release the paperback first with a soft-launch. You can send out ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) early to readers you know appreciate your genre in exchange for honest reviews. Those early readers can review the paperback on Amazon and Goodreads, then when you plan to launch your ebook - which will be the product that earns the most sales anyhow - you'll already have a handful of reviews once Amazon ties the two book pages together, which usually takes a couple of days.
Other Places to Share Your Writing
Free Sites/"User-Generated Stories"
Some people also post their books on Wattpad. There have been a few success stories from there (one of the bigger ones last year was Zoe Aarsen's Light as a Feather getting picked up by Hulu for a 10-episode series). A few years back TNT had announced M. Night Shayamalan was looking for stories there for an upcoming Tales from the Crypt reboot (it was reported that the series "died" in mid-2018). Most recently they have partnered with Sony Pictures for a first-look deal with any stories posted, but to me the whole thing feels like winning the lottery. You may think differently. If you post there and find some success, please let me know!
Others post their short stories on Reddit's /nosleep board. I know of at least one indie author who's had some success stemming from there, collecting his shorts into several #1 Amazon Best-Selling horror anthologies. And Ryan Reynolds will be adapting a story from /nosleep, called "The Patient Who Nearly Drove Me Out of Medicine" (although I suspect the movie will have a snappier title). So it may be a viable avenue, but again I haven't used it myself. There are a ton of stories to wade through and it can only be considered free promotion.
Creepypasta stories have been turned into the recently canceled SyFy series Channel Zero. It's a user-rated system and low-rated stories seem to get as much exposure as some of the higher-rated stuff. I've never used this site personally so I can't speak to its benefit, either.
Your Own Blog
Several writers got their start by writing stories chapter by chapter on their own blog. Julie & Julia was a blog before it became a non-fiction book before it was adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep. And David Wong's John Dies at the End was a webserial before it became a novel that was adapted into a film with Paul Giamatti. My friend Chad A. Clark turned his long-running blog reviews of Stephen King's novels into a gigantic book late last year, which we jointly publish under his small press (Darker Worlds Publishing) and mine (Shadow Work Publishing).
As I mentioned above, Amazon now allows you to publish paperbacks via KDP, but there are other options that bear mentioning. Especially if you want to get into more "boutique" publishing styles, like decaled edges, hardcovers, casewrap and trade paperbacks. If you don't want to spend a fortune on books you may not ever sell, POD (Print On Demand - which means only when someone orders a copy is it printed) is definitely the way to go, and these sites offer just that.
Lulu and Lightning Source are the websites most often used by indies, outside of KDP. I can't speak to their efficacy as I've had trouble getting started with them but other indies I've spoken to swear by them. It's my understanding that Lightning Source in particular allows users to print books that are slightly more intricate design-wise in the books interiors. So if you're looking to make something more experimental or have a lot of images, it might be the right choice for you. However, you will have to purchase ISBNs in order to publish through them (more on that later). And both Lulu and LS have higher production costs, which means you will have to price your books higher in order to cover them.
I use Amazon ACX for my audiobooks but there are several other services out there. Amazon publishes to Audible and ACX. Audiobooks are a huge market at the moment and it doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. But that market will soon be oversaturated, so I'd advise jumping in as soon as possible.
With ACX you can pay per finished hour (PPF) or do Royalty Share with your narrator/producer. The split is 40% each, with the remaining 20% going toward Amazon. If you're just starting out and don't have a lot of capital, this can be a great option, although it becomes exclusive to Audible/ACX for the duration of its 5-year contract. If you can afford it, paying PPF is probably the wiser choice as I believe you get 70% royalties and you can upload your finished audiobook wherever you like. I've got one of my audiobooks on Soundcloud, though it hasn't generated any sort of response as yet. ACX also gives you codes which you can use for giveaways, and while the system was broken for quite some time (anyone could use your codes for any audiobook in the store), now the codes are specific to your audiobook, making it less likely for listeners to rip you off. See what the audiobook pages look like here.
A bunch of other sites do it as well, but I have no experience with them so I can't recommend or warn you away from them. I'd say if you don't want to go the Amazon route, do a search on the Kboards site for options/reviews. You could also feasibly record your audiobook yourself, if you have a good microphone, editing software and a clear voice. Though I wouldn't recommend it, unless you have experience. But many indies have made a success at it.
The only indie publishing translation service I'm aware of is Babelcube, and that's what I've been using to get my books translated. It's quite easy to use and usually the translators will come to you, rather than you having to seek them out yourself. So far I've gotten four translations done. The only problem I've had so far is driving sales toward the translated books. With a publisher who's putting them out in their native language, it would be far easier to find an audience. I've gotten many more sales of my English-language books in non-English-speaking countries than any translations.
Shortlinks for Your Books
This is probably the first and most important tool you'll use for promoting your books on social media and elsewhere on the internet.
I've been using Booklinker for years now but about a year and a half ago the Draft2Digital platform upped the game with Books2Read. This is an amazing shortlink that not only provides Amazon links for whatever market the potential reader is in, but also links for B&N, Kobo, Scribd, 24S, Google Play, Thalia, etc. And like Booklinker (which I actually like more for stats), you can see how many readers have clicked your link. Here's an example of what you'll get with my novel, Salvage, and the click-through to individual store links in the image below.
There are thousands of cover designers and artists out there to choose from. Here's a great list to begin with, and there are many more within this Facebook group (which can be a valuable resource in itself). I'll also add artists/designers I've worked with and those whose work I admire: Peter Frain, Michael Bray, François Vaillancourt, Brian Scutt, Jim Agpalza, Vince Haig, Wendy Saber Core, Mike Tenebrea, Lynne Hansen, Vince Chong, Kealan Patrick Burke, Mikio Murakami, Dean Samed, Lisa Vasquez, Ben Baldwin, Vince Hunt, Rachel Dawn Drenning, Zach McCain, Carlos Villas, Matthew Revert, Cat Scully, Dyer Wilk, Luke Spooner, Todd Keisling, Don Noble, Daniele Serra....
This is a bone of contention among many self-published authors. Some are adamant they don't need an editor and others believe anyone who would release their work without one aren't giving their potential readers enough credit. I guess I somewhere fall in between. A great editor can be very valuable to the overall reading experience, and can even offer help in the development stages as well. Most newer editors will charge by the page, some of the more experienced ones charge per word.
My first novel, Salvage, would have been lacking a deeper bond between brother and sister, which fuels the brother's drive to find out how his sister, an experienced diver, could drown during such an easy dive on a supposedly haunted lake. Bill Campbell knew exactly the story I was trying to tell and offered a lot of helpful advice. However, some of my other successful books had only the barest amount of copy editing done to them. For the rest, I've only used the help of good beta readers. As above, do what's right for you.
It's at least wise to look into a copy editor, if you can afford one. Short of that, go the beta reader route. Beta readers are test readers who will provide feedback from the point of view of a potential reader. Though they're typically unpaid, it's nice to give them at the very least a signed paperback of the book with their name mentioned in the back pages. Bookmarks and any promotional stuff you use are also appreciated.
I've done a fair bit of beta reading, for proofreading and for blurbs. I've also done some editing, though I'm far from professional I believe I have a pretty good eye and attention to grammar and punctuation (I self-edited Gristle & Bone, have a gander and tell me whether I did a shit job or not *wink wink*). When the book is good I find it exciting to be a part of something before it hits the market. And to be able to sing its praises when it does!
Both Amazon and Draft2Digital offer free ISBNs, but if you don't want it to say "Amazon Publishing Services" or whatever in the Published By column and would rather have your own publisher/press name, you'll need to acquire an ISBN from elsewhere.
Bowker is the most common place to get ISBNs, but it can be costly. A single ISBN runs $125 US. If you buy in bulk it will cost more initially but less if you plan to publish more than one book. Ten ISBNs cost $250, one hundred cost $575, and one thousand cost $1000. That's a lot of numbers!
If you're Canadian, you're in luck. Library and Archives Canada gives out ISBNs for free to Canuckian publishers.
A great promotional tool for audiobooks is Audiobook Boom! For only a few bucks you can promote your audiobook by giving away your free ACX codes to "thousands of eager listeners." It's important to vet the requests you receive (although probably less now with the changes to the code system), and make sure the listeners you're giving your codes to actually listen to and review books in your genre. But it's a great way to drum up impartial reviews for your audiobooks, which in turn can drive more listeners to your audiobooks.
There are many groups on Facebook where you can promote your books. Many authors have their own Facebook pages (here's mine) and others use groups (allegedly they are better for interacting with readers, although I have found most of my page posts do all right). I personally feel like you should grow these pages/groups organically, by allowing people who have found and enjoyed your work to find it themselves (via links you've placed strategically in your ebooks and on your social media), rather than sending out mass invites to everyone on your friends list. Another practice to avoid is sending direct messages to people asking them to buy your books or read your free book - this is generally considered spamming. Nobody likes this. This is one of only a handful of DON'Ts in the indie world I agree with.
Some groups you might want to join (note: these are specific to the horror community), where you can share links to your books when appropriate are: Free/Bargain Priced Horror Ebooks and Kindle Horror Books. Books of Horror and Horror Books Lovers Social are great places to talk about horror with readers and other writers. It's also okay to post your links there, but in moderation, and it's best to actually be part of group interaction if you don't want to seem like a spammer.
Facebook ads can also be a great way to generate sales, although you have to remember that most ads are cost-per-click (CPC) and just because you get someone to click on your ad doesn't mean they will "click-through" to purchase your book.
Goodreads is a great place to meet readers and there are several great reading groups there that you can join. Make yourself a profile there, like you did with Amazon Author Central. You can even promote your books using the giveaway feature (I am currently running one to see how effective the new version is, and will post the results once it's finished), and it has a rudimentary blog feature. The only thing I dislike about Goodreads is that readers can hit your book with a star rating without giving it a written review. It's incredibly simple to five-star or one-star a book without saying anything positive or negative about it. So it's easy for authors to game, and easy for readers to flame.
Bookbub also allows you to have an author profile, and readers who follow you there will get alerts when you put out a new release, just like when they follow your Amazon page. And like Facebook and Amazon, they also have CPC advertising, though I have yet to find success with them.
However, if you can afford a Bookbub Feature Deal, that's a great place to start building a readership. Feature Deals are sent out to hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Typically, in the horror genre, you should get anywhere from 500 to 1000 sales or more on the day of the promotion, with many more sales trickling in over the following weeks. It's an amazingly effective tool that I recommend to anyone who wants to get their work read by more than just the casual Amazon shopper and your friends/relatives. The only problem is they're in such high demand that it's very difficult to get accepted for one. So if you submit to them, keep your fingers crossed!
Everyone's got a free book to giveaway these days, and when you do this it's called a reader magnet. The idea is that it draws in readers to sign up to your newsletter in order to obtain said free story/novel/whatever, like a magnet. The goal is for readers to want to read more of your work, so make sure what you've got on offer is quality.
My reader magnet is actually a six-story pack though I've got it labelled as one free thriller novella (which is included). I really should update that. Anyhow, this is what mine looks like. I think it's a pretty good example, as if I remember it correctly I copied it off someone whose reader magnet worked on me. It takes you directly to my website landing page, which then redirects to the website pop-up you probably saw when you first got here.
Create a Website
Speaking of landing pages, once you've written a book or two you'll probably want to create a website. Wix is a great place to create one. It's incredibly easy to use and has a lot of valuable features, including blogs and eStores. You can go the freebie route with ads or pay for a yearly plan, like I do.
Write a Blog
Social media marketers swear by blogs to help authors - from indie to traditionally published -gain a foothold in the industry. I don't know how much a blog can help to sell your books, and I have to admit I balked at them for years. But I do find them rewarding, now that I've finally settled into a nice groove. So you tell me. Were you compelled to look up my books after reading one or two of these blog posts?
I could spend all day talking about these blogs so I'll just let the content speak for itself. You may find them as informative as I have or decide I'm full of shit.
Dean Wesley Smith (a down-to-earth and informative blog, particularly helpful for his "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series"), Tim Waggoner, Jane Friedman, The Passive Voice. Monster Hunter Nation, Authors Publish, 20BooksTo50K (which has an incredible wealth of knowledge in its "All-Star Threads"), and of course Amazon's Kboards.
Again, this is specific to those writing horror/speculative fiction. These sites are all run by great people who I believe are still open to reviews. Be polite, concise, and don't expect that just because you've sent them your book it will get reviewed. These are real people who are reviewing for the love of reading. Treat them accordingly.
Ginger Nuts of Horror, Cedar Hollow Reviews, Cultured Vultures, Horror Novel Reviews, Horror Fiction Review, DLS Reviews, The Haunted Reading Room, The Tome Tender, Red Lace Reviews, Rebbie Reviews, Kendall Reviews... *edit* Laurie Bark at Bark at the Ghouls has put together a massive list of horror reviewers. This is probably the most comprehensive current list I've seen, and a great resource.
If you're interested in getting an agent for your work rather than going the self-publishing or small press route, the best sites to connect with are Query Tracker and 1001 Literary Agents. Query Tracker in particular is a great tool as you can track how long it's been from querying an agent to rejection/full ms request, etc.
Small Press Accepting Unagented Manuscripts
Again, these markets are horror and speculative specific. I can't speak to the quality of all of these markets, but you can look into them for yourself on their sites or on Amazon to see if they're right for you and your work. Demain Publishing, Horrified Press, Journalstone, Tor Forge, Dark Hall Press, Dark Regions, Flame Tree Publishing, Talos Press, Curiosity Quills Press, Gehenna & Hinnom Books, Apex Book Company, By Light Unseen, Arkham House Publishers, Severed Press, Blood Bound Books....
Short Story Markets
Coming right out the gate, you may want to submit to anthologies and magazines with a lower royalty/payment rate. Unless your work is already of professional quality, it's going to be difficult to get published in higher-paying markets, unless you're very talented or incredibly lucky. I wrote for contributor copies for several charity anthologies when I first started out, for a small percentage of royalties (which you often never see), and for a low lump-sum payment, and I don't think that's a bad way to get a foot in the door. I know the adage is "pay the writer" (thank you, Harlan Ellison), but I looked at it as an internship of a sort. Just make sure the rights revert to you within six months to a year so you can republish your stories elsewhere to places that accept reprints or on your own.
Always follow the submission guidelines, and I wouldn't suggest querying markets to ask if they will accept stories that are longer or shorter than what they're looking for, if they are accepting poetry when it says "no poetry," or extreme horror when it asks for "literary." Faux pas like this will make you look unprofessional, and though most publishers will likely forget your name shortly after they've ignored your submission, some may blacklist you from further submissions if you ignore their rules, are rude about rejections, etc.
Duotrope is a great place to find short story markets to submit to, although it's a paid service so make sure you're serious about your writing before taking the plunge. There's also a couple of great Facebook groups (aren't there always?) which are an excellent way to find out about open submissions you might not find elsewhere: Open Submission Calls, Calls for Submissions, and Open Submission Calls for Horror Paranormal..., and many more.
That should about cover it, so to speak. I've deliberately left out social media managers/representatives and as I don't know enough about this side of the industry to speak on it, though I do know of several who do some great work. If I've missed anything else I'll probably circle back around to this post and add more, though I think this is a good chunk of info to get you started on your way to publishing - if not to publishing success!
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