Publishing’s Kickstarter Moment

I’ve gone all in with the Indie publishing movement – I’ve released three books myself and I’ve done relatively well with all of them. But the fact still remains that the entire business of books is stacked against the Indie author. While the tools are far simpler than they have ever been, the perception that an Indie book is an inferior product, at least in the eyes of established media, is strong. But that’s about to change.

First, some ranting: getting an Indie book reviewed is almost impossible. It took a publisher’s backing to make the The Martian a hit and Hugh Howey had to create his own publisher, Broad Reach to get official attention on the NYT bestseller rankings. In fact, the New York Times Book Review, arguably the only book review that matters these days, doesn’t publish “self-published” works with any frequency (although you can sometimes fake your way in with careful planning). In general, the cards are stacked against the serious Indie publisher when it comes to reach and reviews.

Why is this the case? Because of something that was once an ironclad rule in tech journalism and has been recently shattered: indie products never get coverage because they are mostly created by crackpots. I started writing about gadgets in 2000 and at that time your only sources were PR people inside the big companies – Sony, Nokia, Samsung, LG, JVC, Hitachi, HTC etc. I think you’ll notice something very interesting about that list. Ten years ago most tech blogs covered those companies religiously and were fighting tooth and nail to post Sony’s latest fart. In fact, the whole thing ended up being an endless, awful clusterfudge in which access to press releases a privilege and not a right. It sucked. And hardware startups? They were either robotics companies dedicated to sending robots into coal mines or crazy guys like the man we met at CES trying to market a walking stick shaped like a woman’s leg with a pepper spray gun embedded in the handle.

Then, in about 2008, Kickstarter and Indiegogo came along. The latest flat-screen TV from JVC was immensely boring when compared to products like the Ouya, the Pebble, or the Oculus. All of the real innovation was happening in the Indie space. Young, talented hardware designers didn’t have to go to Samsung to work on the SD card hatch on a flip phone. Instead they could build something from scratch and build a real business.

Very quickly, crowdfunded projects became far more interesting than mainstream hardware. Sure Apple and Samsung still get a lot of ink and there are plenty of sites dedicated to writing about the latest flat-screen TV, but the average tech reporter wants the LG beat as much as they want the horse and buggy beat – there just isn’t any news and what news there is isn’t interesting.

And so we come to my original thesis. First, I understand that book reviews are quite different from gadget reviews. Most gadget “reviews” consist of 45 minutes spent handling a phone one weekend – trust me, this is true – while book reviewers require a certain amount of time and whiskey to get through the slush pile and to the real gold. I also understand that most Indie books are sometimes unmitigated garbage because their writers refuse or are unable to pay for outside editorial help. However, it has become amazingly easy to pre-sell and fund a publishing venture through crowdfunding and the breakout successes in that space are now being funded far beyond what traditional publisher royalties would offer. Heck, a picture book about a cat raised over $5,000 which would net the writer about $2,000 after printing and shipping.

Yet beyond a certain insular group of writers and readers, self-published books aren’t getting the attention they need or deserve. While there are tricks to getting readers – many writers are now releasing individual short stories or even chapters in an effort to game Amazon – the mainstream book marketing systems are afraid to even dip a toe in the once-fetid swamps of Indie books.

But those waters have cleared and it’s now easy to see what’s worth attention. Once a popular Kickstarted product was the exception and treated as such. Now crowdfunded products are the norm. Once a popular self-published writer was an oddity. Now they are the commonplace. Whereas the “vanity press” author was a crackpot ranting about lizard men at the center of the world, now the Indie author is a guy who worked with Henry Millers’ old editor, Barney Rosset, a philosopher who is translating Descartes into bro, and scholars offering commentary on the classics. The lizard-ranters are still there but they are harder to find.

I would argue that we are about to see the tipping point. Indie writers will become the norm rather than the exception as mainstream publishers find it harder and harder to reach an audience. Publishers will keep trying to nab the tiger’s tail of online popularity and fail. Why? Because they once depended on the perception that publishing was hard. Now it is easy, and the removal of barriers to entry are dangerous to established businesses.

But we’re not there yet. There’s still a way to go. What can writers do to help themselves? First, let’s create a list of Indie-friendly reviewers. I know this won’t be complete by any means but it will allow writers to access a public list of potential reviewers.

Next, services that are making money by marketing the work of Indie writers need to be clearer about their reach and ability to spread the word. Services like BookBub and CreateSpace work well there is still no clear value proposition in spending a few hundred dollars on one of them. What can writers expect? What are the average response rates? Average sales? Without these numbers an Indie author might as well go it alone – and fail.

In addition, distribution and PR houses should start paying attention to Indies. They need to offer low-cost packages for Kickstarted books. They could offer tiered pricing based on sales or a flat fee for access to a certain list of outlets. It’s imperative that the mainstream media start covering the Indies because, soon, there won’t be any real books left aside from Kim Kardashian cookbooks and memoirs of race horses. I know all of this stuff exists but there is no one clear path for the Indie writer and there are plenty of predatory folks who know that. Let’s build a usable constellation of services for writers that actually gets the job done. Let me know if you’re building one by Tweeting me at @johnbiggs.

Finally, writers need to budget editing and PR into their book projects. Indie publishing will never achieve its goal of world-domination in its current state. While there is no accounting for taste, your vampire cowboy magnum opus will remain unread if it is generally unreadable. First, hire a developmental editor. I have a great one if you need an introduction. Developmental editors help you define your book, improve your plot, and build something readable out of your scratchings. Then, once you think you are done, please hire a copy editor. These editors actually read every word of your book and make sure it isn’t a mess. These two editors are absolutely essential and you should budget about $1,000 each for the average novel. Then spend $500 on PR. If you don’t do these things, you’re going to fail. It’s a sad, hard truth.

Together we can figure this out and together, one day, we’ll get an Indie author to the top of the bestseller lists even if those lists are of our own making. I, for one, welcome our robotically-marketed Indie writing overlords.