Challenge,  publishing

A Second Way to Go…

Part Three of This Series…

First two parts were in my blogs the last three days.

I started this off by saying I feel bad for the young writers coming into fiction publishing today. They are torn between the myths of the old traditional publishing world and the myths of the new indie world.

Publishing is smack in the middle of a transition to electronic and indie publishing. Over the last two hundred years, these transitions have taken 25 years or so before publishing stabilizes for 40-50 years. We are around year 14 right now in this transition.

So in last part of this series I talked about how a new writer could pick the path of traditional publishing and I tried to explain how it would go. And the time and money involved.

Now let me explain the second road a new writer today could pick: Indie publishing.

Indie publishing favors prolific writers, just as the pulp era did.

Indie publishing has no gatekeepers at all besides the readers. No agents, editors, or critics.

Writers are free to publish what they want and when they want. This freedom horrifies the old generation for some reason or another, which I have found insulting to every indie writer working. Readers are the gatekeepers. Writers do not need opinionated editors two years out of Vassar to tell them what to do.

A new indie writer starts off like any other new writer. They finish a book and sell stories to the major magazine markets. The writing is the same up until the rewriting for others. Traditional you rewrite a lot to everyone else’s taste until you book is no longer yours. In indie, your book is your book and you leave it alone.

But then instead of learning how to get a book to an agent, the writer learns some basic programs like Vellum to format a book, InDesign to do covers, and how to find great art from great artists on royalty free sights for $5 to $20 that can be used on a commercial book cover.

Once they have a book done, they must set up accounts on Amazon, Kobo, and Draft2Digital and follow the directions to upload their books to get their work out to about 85% of the English reading world.

The myths make this sound very hard, but it is not. Your book from finish to publication can often take less than a week.

You do not need editors, but you do need someone to read your work and find typos. (A friend, spouse, or someone from your local library will do fine.) If you think you need a bunch of people to read over your book, you have a fear and confidence issue that you need to either get past or get therapy on.

Your book needs to be your book in the indie world, not something smashed down by a committee.

Needing beta readers is one of the most damaging and funny myths that have come about in Indie publishing. Grow a spine and trust your own writing.

The work comes in when you have to study genre art. What kind of covers are selling in your book’s genre? You need to imitate great covers that you like in your genre of choice.

You need an author web site and a publisher web site with a bookstore like Shopify on or linked to the publisher web site.

You then need to write the next book, whatever book you want. No rules, but here is also where massive myths come in about writing series or some such nonsense. Write what you want. Be an artist. Don’t let any market or sales or emails from anyone dictate what book you write next.

Will you make any sales with your first book out? Very few. You will tell your family about it and friends. No ads or promotion needed. Just put it out, write the next book. (If you care about sales on your first novel, you need to read my book “The Magic Bakery.” You will understand how silly that thinking is.)

If you are a writer, meaning a person who loves to write, this is the path for you. Four books a year is a good pace. Novels can be any length, from 35,000 words to the doorstops. Again, write what you want to write. No limits. No rules. No gatekeepers.

By the time a first book might come out in traditional publishing if the new writer is lucky, you could have over twenty novels and numbers of other books out like collections and such.

Keep in mind you do not need to promote any of those books. That is a massive myth put forward by people trying to make money off of you by telling you how to promote your book. Spend your money instead on learning how to be a better writer, learning publishing tricks.

Then learn things such as licensing and mailing lists and Kickstarters and Patreon and build your reader base one reader at a time. Keep writing and selling short fiction. Bookbub is a great promotion, Facebook ads are worthless, and a new writer will learn that going forward.

So in five years, a traditional new writer might have a first novel out. And maybe a second one after the sixth year.

An indie writer in those five years will have twenty books out and they will be selling and building.

An indie writer will also own all their own copyright and be able to learn how to license it. Traditional publishing companies have no idea even what that means.

Indie writers books never go out of print, and can be refreshed with new covers regularly over the years to keep them selling.

A traditional writer will have sold all copyright for the life of the contract for a small advance. Their book will be frozen in an electronic expensive edition that will have a cover that dates quickly and no one will care.

An indie writer gets 70% to 95% of every sale delivered to their checking account within a month or so.

A traditional writer gets 10-12% normally per sale to repay the advance, and then only if the book sells at full retail. If the book is discounted, the traditional writer gets less or nothing per sale. Traditional writers might see a royalty statement every six months starting a year or so after the book publishes, if the agent sends it along.

So, in other words, the new world that publishing is transitioning toward is a structure that is stunningly good for the writer who wants to tackle it. Will it keep changing? Of course, that is the nature of a transition.

And then indie publishing will level out and become the norm.

I tried to tell that in my short hour to the twelve young writers I talked to in Hollywood. Sadly, my worry is that they will become writers of the old and soon-to-be-dead ways, even though the book that held their first stories is edited and published by an indie press started by a writer to take care of his thousands of stories and books.

The myths are strong on both sides of this transition. One side has the weight of the last 50 years, the other is new and revolutionary, just as the paperbacks were to the pulps and the pulps were to the journals and Penny Dreadfuls.

Publishing changes.

It is changing now. If you really want to be a fiction writer in 2033, there is only one path to take that makes sense and that is into the future of publishing.


  • Rob Kerns

    I first started writing in the summer of 1997, and everything I read and found online said how difficult it was to break into publishing. So, I kept reading stories I liked and studying them while working in Information Technology.

    Then, it seemed like I blinked and it was 2014 with the Kindle and B&N’s Nook and Kobo’s eReader, so I started writing what became my first novel around my work schedule. I published that in 2018 and haven’t looked back.

    I agree with you 100%. Indie is really the only way to go these days.

  • Philip

    I despise the concept of beta readers. A handful of amateur non-writers bullying you into fear and artistic submission.

    What’s really funny is the Beta Reader myth has even crept into Traditional Publishing! I hear more and more trad published authors in interviews discuss their use of beta readers. This astounds me because don’t this authors already have the alleged “benefit” of a hot shot agent and editor to “improve” their manuscript? They still need Aunt Sally and Joe Blow to critique it.

    Keep it coming, Dean.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Unlike in the days of recent past, our local library doesn’t allow flyers that would offer typo-catching read-through in exchange for books. Nor any other flyers, like local job ads for babysitters, lawn mowing, etc! I was miffed to discover what the new management had wrought, and I will drive out of my way to go elsewhere.
    They sent me to some state-level writer’s association, where a person helpfully offered a list of paid proofreaders as well as proper critique group. “Because every serious writer needs to be in a proper critiquie group.”
    I burned my Critical Voice on March 31st in a ceremonial immolation over a restaurant candle while celebrating a wedding anniversary with my supportive, yet bemused, husband.
    I need a critique group, a perk for a paid-for membership, like I need a hole in the head!

  • Brad D. Sibbersen

    I know someone who, right this minute, is chasing a legacy deal. I’d send him links to this three-part series if I thought he’d listen. Thanks for this one!

    • dwsmith

      Just watch how many books and such you publish in the amount of time it takes him to get through the traditional route. You can’t change a person who is lost in the myths, but you can help yourself finally kill some of your own myths by watching.

  • Chris

    Thanks for this, Dean. Like many others, I enjoy these posts! I just want to add that I read your “Magic Bakery” posts on your blog a few years ago, and then went on to buy the book later. It remains one of the key influences that helped me in the beginning of my indie career, and I have no doubt I will pick it up again, probably many times in the future. That and Heinlein’s rules which I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t made me aware of them.

  • Elsa

    Hi Dean! Is there any promotion at all that we should be doing? A bare minimum? I even think that social media these days is mostly pointless. My traditionally published author friends are engaged most of the times in long bookshop tours -paid by themselves, of course- and are astonished when I say that I do nothing other than writing, publishing and telling my newsletter subscribers when a book is out (plus my own website). The promotion myth is heavy.

    • dwsmith

      If you have less than twenty major books published under the same name, promotion is worthless for the most part. Put it on your web site and in your store and in your newsletter. Tell your friends it is out on Facebook and other social media platforms, and then work to become a better storyteller and write the next book.

      After twenty there are some things that can be cone. Kickstarters are great, Bookbub, some carefully placed ads branding, and so on. But before twenty, you don’t have enough product on your store shelves to make promotion worth the time and energy.

  • David

    I’m not sure there’s much of an indie path for the children’s categories and some YA, just because of the way distribution and purchasing works for those markets. Scholastic books fairs and brick and mortars dominate there. Kids need to get their hands on books.

    Outside of that, I don’t know why anyone would want to go traditional.

    • dwsmith

      David, because at the moment in young adult that path has not been challenged because of the myth that is the only way to do it. But by the time a new writer could get to that path in four years, it will be broken up by indie writers. Mark my words. But I agree that one of the last walls of defense for traditional is young adult. And what is interesting that over the last decade or so, that is about the only place in traditional publishing that the backlist sells more than the front list.

    • Kat

      Dave, I’m not sure you’ll see this, but actually YA and MG are primed for moving over to Indie right now. Especially with B&N recent policy changes about only carry bestsellers in hardback. Many/most Middle Grade trad books are published first in hardback. If those don’t sell, the publisher won’t contract the author again, but without B&N placement a lot of those new authors won’t get the sales they need for trad houses. Their trad careers are dead in the water.

      BUT trad publishers have primed both YA readers and the parents of middle grade readers to buy more expensive paperback editions/hardback editions. They’ve always been trade paperback sized (in YA), so readers aren’t as price sensitive.

      The trick with middle grade and YA and children’s is to ensure you have widely distributed PRINT editions. And then to remember for middle grade and children’s books, you’re selling to adults (parents, teachers, librarians) not the kids themselves.

      Oh and I’ve seen some really cute Kickstarters in this area that do very well.

      ALLi (Alliance for Independent Authors) has a lot of resources for kids and YA authors now because of the number of indie authors going this route.

      And as a final note, I have kids and we have a bunch of indie middle grade books on our shelves that I bought online and didn’t know were indie until I went through the copyright info (I do that with everything as a writer/publisher so I can see who’s doing what *grin*) If I hadn’t gone looking, I’d never know the books were indie.

      So even this final bastion of trad publishing isn’t the bastion it used to be.

      • dwsmith

        Thanks, Kat. That was what I was seeing as well. Super!!

        And I love how indie writers mostly think they can not get into the same channels of distribution as a traditional publisher. Of course they can, and a lot of us do. It is stunningly simple, but the myth in indie is that the traditional publishers hold some secret key. If they did, they would lose it. (grin)

  • Jason M

    Thanks, Dean.
    This post has 99 beautiful truths but 1 terrible lie.
    The lie: Facebook ads.
    When nicely optimized, they do wonders for driving traffic to your site. I don’t know why you would ever call them “worthless”. They’re not necessary, but they have made millionaires out of several indie writer/publishers. For building an audience via email funnels, they are the best deal going. Look at Dawson, Gaughran, Pierre Jeanty, and too many others to name.
    Great summary otherwise! Thanks for stating what should be obvious to so many, but isn’t.

  • Joseph Paul Haines

    “Needing beta readers is one of the most damaging and funny myths that have come about in Indie publishing. Grow a spine and trust your own writing.”

    I honestly laughed at this loud enough to scare the shit out of my Irish Wolfhound, and she doesn’t scare easy. I’ve been telling people this for years.

  • Lorri Moulton

    “(If you care about sales on your first novel, you need to read my book “The Magic Bakery.” You will understand how silly that thinking is.)” Wonderful book, Dean!

  • Philip

    Sorry if this is listed elsewhere on the site–I looked everywhere–but do you know which Regular Workshops will be offered in June?

    • dwsmith

      The regular six at the moment, with a new workshop and a resurrected workshop. I will post them in a couple of weeks.

  • blitchfield

    Reading both posts, indie and traditional require completely different mindsets. Not only in process, but expectations as well. Traditional principals absolutely will not work with indie. And it’s impossible to apply indie principals to traditional (as far as I can tell). Makes me realize that I’ve been unconsciously thinking traditional when attempting indie at times.

    One scenario for choosing traditional:
    I know people who are spending well over a decade on The Book. A lot of it is rewriting activities like going back through 400 pages to shoehorn in character depth. If any of them ever do finish, I’d recommend traditional because they’d be fine with several more years of editing and rewriting, and there’s no point in spending 5-7k (which they would probably choose to do) on indie. Might as well get what they can out of that one book.

    • dwsmith

      Spending 5-7 THOUSAND on indie??? Holy smokes, are you having the books gold plated??

      Most indie writers get started by buying the program Vellum, renting for a month or so the program InDesign, spending $20 on a piece of art per book.

      If you have Vellum and InDesign, and are prolific, your costs are the art.

      Sorry, again a myth being spread about indie publishing. 5-7K cost to go indie??? Holy smokes. I would be very, very hard pressed to find ways to spend that kind of money.

      • Linda Niehoff

        I can confirm Dean’s comment as a new indie-published writer.

        I signed up for a trial for InDesign which cost nothing. I bought Vellum – I was lucky enough to have made several professional sales on short stories that covered the cost (thanks to The Great Challenge – which also ended up paying for itself with those sales). But in a pinch I could’ve figured out how to upload in Word and then had D2D format for print and ebook.

        My artwork cost nothing. I got a trial with Depositphotos and they have an introductory offer where you get 10 free downloads (using the regular standard license so all good there). It was enough for my collection of short stories plus each of those stories to be published on their own individually with their own covers. I did go ahead and buy their please-don’t-go-offer of 100 for $80 – which is not as good as their semi-annual sales, I know, but is still cheaper per cover than the normal plan. I have over a hundred short stories I am slowly releasing individually (after they are rejected or released back from trad magazines) and gathering into collections so each of those covers will cost 80 cents each, assuming I use all 100 downloads. But I’ve already designed the next two book covers plus more short stories.

        I proofread, my husband proofread, and I asked another friend to let me know if she found any typos while reading the book (after it was out). All of that was free.

        I did take a collections class so I could take advantage of Dean’s experience/guidance – but again, you could go out on your own. So all of that TOTAL (including Vellum, the collections class, and my free trials) was under a thousand easily.

        And could have been free.

        And yes, the free trials do expire, but if you do The Great Challenge and start writing a story a week, you might earn the funds like I did 😉

      • Blitchfield

        I am not spending that. But know someone who has. To put it another way, I think most single book folks probably would.

        I think I could get it under $50 if not for proofreading cost.

        • dwsmith

          Someone at a library or read it aloud or your spouse will proofread for typos and credit in the book.

      • Teri Babcock

        “Holy smokes. I would be very, very hard pressed to find ways to spend that kind of money.”

        Oh, I don’t know. I think Poker Boy could do well as a pop-up book, maybe a few holograms, theme music that plays when you turn the page, some scratch n’ sniff stickers…

      • Kate Pavelle

        I suspect when someone is invested enough to stick with one book for 10 years, they will also be invested enough to hire everything out. First, spending the money will justify having suffered for 10 years. (And I do mean *suffered.* I can’t imagine being chained to the same story for that long, it would drive me insane!) Second, I am an average learner, and it took me a while to be happy with my product, using free or low-cost online products. Doing covers, layout, etc. takes a bit of practice. People who write a lot get that practice, because the publishing costs would otherwise be crushing. People who do one big book are probably so burned out, they won’t want to learn all that and maybe do a less-than-perfect job.
        However, I know well-selling writers who hire work out and consider $2K a reasonable amout for a novel.

        • dwsmith

          Kate, so you know some idiots. Why spread that? Folks, you do NOT need to spend $2,000 per book in indie. Most indie writers do great product for near free (usually the cost of the art at $5.) Because we use so much art, most of our art at WMG is $1.00

          We format with Vellum and load them up. Sigh, Kate stop spreading that kind of crap about indie writing and costs. Sure, there are idiots. They are not the bulk of us.

      • Sheila

        Dean, by the time some writers get done with editing, paid betas, custom covers, a formatter, memberships to organizations and things like BookFunnel, yeah. Around 5 o 6K large, and that’s not counting ads.

        As you say, the myths are strong. I suspect most people running around the various forums will never make it past one book, if they get that far. Certainly not the one from a year or so ago on one forum, who’d spent five years writing… Wait for it… A short story.

        I write into the dark. That’s how I taught myself to write, back in the late 60s, early 70s. I didn’t know there was any other way. 😀 I self edit. I do my own covers, my own editing, my own formatting. I spent time learning how to write, starting in my pre-teens. I think I’ve spent maybe $100 in the last dozen years self publishing, mostly for stock image site deals (got an Appsumo for Deposit Photos a couple of years ago, $39, still got loads of downloads left).


      I was not clear at all in my comment.
      I do NOT spend anything like five thousand to publish a book. Or even five hundred. Still shell out too much for proofreading, though. Need to address that.

      And I really appreciate these posts. Advice here is publish several titles a year while keeping the cost way down.

      But google “cost to publish a novel” and see what comes up. I think the second biggest reason (behind not following Heinlein’s Rules) for writers failing is the plethora of horrible advice and info out there that’s widely accepted.

  • Jaana

    I joined a critique site as an experiment, and to get reader reactions, and an idea of what I should study next. Some really enjoyed the stories and pointed out typos and things which struck a chord with me for making the next story better

    And some made my critical voice stronger.

    My biggest challenge is probably going to be finding a first reader fluent enough in English (since it’s not an official language in my country) and not a beginning writer. Most of my online friends also write and probably believe the myths.

  • Linda Niehoff

    “Four books a year is a good pace.”

    I love this. As I mentioned in the comment above, I have a bunch of short stories to get out, and sometimes I get overwhelmed wondering what to do next. But I’m planning for two more books over the next year. I could easily add a few more and do four a year for the next five years. I have the inventory now to do that without writing any more, though I don’t plan on stopping. Those would mostly be short story collections (plus I could put each of those stories out individually). But four seems like a very doable number to work on while I keep figuring out covers and sales copy, etc.

    Where I struggle is in thinking I *have* to write novels for it to “count.” That no one will buy short stories, etc. Although the idea of writing a 35k story sounds really fun! (I tend to like longer short stories/short novels.)

    Thanks for this post. I’m loving this series. You always provide such encouragement and hope, and I really appreciate it.

  • Brad D. Sibbersen

    Every time I see this (weirdly specific) $5000-$7000 myth pop up I feel obligated to point out that I published my third book (erotic fiction, under a pseudonym) for $0.00 and it was my biggest seller for years. Wrote it in Word (which i already owned), used a photo that I took myself for the cover, dropped the title text in with MS Paint (Paint!), and edited it myself. It wasn’t the most professional looking package but it got the job done, (For the record, I’ve since had another pair of eyes look at it, thus eliminating some typos, and crafted a better looking cover. Hasn’t affected the sales one whit either way!)