Three weeks ago I became an indie publisher as well as an indie researcher and writer. In that time, my embryonic publishing company, Know More Publishing (see what I did there?!), has gained a website. Also, my first short affordable e-book, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, has gained three five-star reviews on Amazon UK and a fourth on Amazon US. I didn’t bribe a single reviewer!
It’s around a year since I decided to go down this road, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I think there’s a great deal of potential in indie publishing for academics, altacs, doctoral students and others. Indie publishing doesn’t figure in organisational performance metrics, which creates a barrier for some people, though perhaps one day it will. But it’s a great way to produce work which is too long for academic journals, or doesn’t fit their requirements, but is shorter than a traditionally published book. And it’s open access – you can make your work available for free if you wish, or at a very low cost.
On the down side, there is no quality control. I know there are arguments about whether the peer review system actually enhances quality, but editors certainly do, if they’re doing their jobs properly. With indie publishing, it is possible to plonk any old drivel online for sale. That’s not the kind of indie publishing I advocate. I worked in traditional publishing, I write for traditional publishers, and I have loved books all my life. So I want to see good quality indie publishing from academia and its associates, and to publish good quality books myself. Here are my ten top tips for anyone who shares my aims.
- Write something nobody else has written. As an academic or altac, you should be used to spotting gaps in literature. Your work will gain much more interest from others if it’s the only one of its kind.
- Get feedback on your writing. Starting Your PhD went through three sets of beta readers, from potential doctoral students to experienced supervisors. It wouldn’t have been worth publishing without their input.
- Use a professional editor. It doesn’t matter how experienced a writer you are, you will have blind spots. I know I did. I will always pay to have my books edited by a skilled professional who can bring fresh eyes and a keen brain to improving my text.
- Unless you are really good at design yourself, use a professional cover designer. You need someone who knows about book covers, how to make them stand out even at thumbnail size on a mobile device.
- Join the Alliance of Independent Authors. This worldwide organisation has approved ‘partner members’ including editors and cover designers which is useful if you don’t have people in your networks with those skills. They also have an active and supportive closed group on Facebook where you can get help with all aspects of indie writing and publishing. And they have an Ethical Author code, as well as a publicly accessible searchable blog full of sound advice.
- Be prepared to do lots of promotional work. As an indie publisher, you’re not only the author, you’re also the sales and marketing departments for your work. This could involve anything from chatting on Twitter to lugging print copies around with you. You will need to decide what you can do, when, and how. It doesn’t have to be much – but if you don’t do anything to promote your work, it will sink beneath the ocean of available literature.
- Buy ISBNs, aka International Standard Book Numbers. These are the 10 or 13 digit numbers used by cataloguing systems to identify each unique book. You can only buy them from one organisation in each country, they’re not cheap (though the more you buy, the cheaper each number becomes), and you can’t transfer them between publishers or even leave them in your will. Also they take ten days to issue, so don’t leave this until the last minute, or you’ll have to postpone your book launch (like I did, ahem). You can get free identifiers such as ASINs from distributors such as Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble (Nook), but these are distribution codes, not unique book identifiers – or if they are actual ISBNs, they are owned and assigned by the distributor, not by you. This effectively means you are giving away part of the control you have over your work, and having control of your own work is a big part of the rationale for publishing independently in the first place. There’s a more detailed explanation of this on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ blog.
- Research the different ways you can publish your work – and expect to spend a considerable amount of time on this, as there are a lot of options. To begin with: e-book only, print only, or both? I’ve gone for e-book only, as I’m writing short books for students who will be comfortable with technology, and e-books are more affordable than print books. So then I decided to publish via Kindle Direct Publishing. This is a no-brainer even if you regard Amazon as the evil empire, because you will sell most of your work from this platform, so if you’re not willing to do business with Amazon at all, don’t publish independently. I also decided to use Draft2Digital, who take a small commission from your income for distributing through most of the other major channels – Kobo, Barnes & Noble (Nook), iBooks, Scribd etc – and they’re very helpful when you get stuck with your uploading, as I did. You could upload your work with each platform individually, and save yourself the commission; it’s your decision whether the hassle is worth the benefit. I decided that, for me, it wasn’t – and my sales figures, so far, bear this out (see below). I might decide to produce print books one day, in which case I’d use CreateSpace on the advice of fellow members of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
- Launch your book with some kind of a fanfare – then relax. I had a virtual launch day with a dedicated blog post and a lot of tweeting. Ten days later I went on holiday, which was excellent timing, as the process of preparing and publishing the e-book was much more difficult, stressful, and exhausting than I anticipated. I won’t be able to take a holiday every time, but I’m going to build in at least a weekend off after each one from now on.
- Write another book. Full disclosure: in the first three weeks, I’ve made £56.48 from sales on Amazon and $6.30 from sales through Draft2Digital. Not bad for a first e-book priced at £1.99/$2.99. However, given that I’ve shelled out around £500 on editing, cover design, and ISBNs, at this rate it will be six months before I break even. But I have a cunning plan for world domination: the next book in this series, Gathering Data For Your PhD, will be out in November, and I have four more planned for 2016. There is clear evidence that the more you publish and promote, the more readers you will acquire. This applies in the same way to free material.
I hope my learning over the last year will benefit others. If you decide to go down the indie publishing road, do let me know. At present I only know of two other academic types who are doing this: Dr Nathan Ryder, who has published a couple of very useful short e-books on preparing for your viva, and Dr Jenna Condie, who has a book of blog posts on sustainable urbanisation. If you know of other academic indie publishers, please leave a comment. Let’s start a movement!