Five Years as an Indie Author

March 17, 2016

Five years ago today, I uploaded my first novel to the Kindle. I caught the bug instantly and have indie-published every title since.

ibmpcxt3 Back in 1986, I hammered out my first short story at the keyboard of an IBM PC XT. By 1991, I was looking to publish, so I wrote letters to several magazines, asking them for their writer’s guidelines. I made sure to include an SASE with each letter, so I would get a response. Once I had those guidelines, I could format my stories in the way that each editor wanted, and maximize my chance at getting accepted.  It took money and time, but that was the business.

Have you ever heard of an SASE? That’s a “self-addressed, stamped envelope.” In other words, a form of extinct communications technology. And in those days, if I wanted to submit to a magazine in Great Britain or Canada, I also had to include “international reply coupons.” You can think of those as a particular species of carrier pigeon.

I have vivid memories of letters, envelopes and stamps spread across my dorm room floor. That was 25 years ago.

Five years ago, after reading of the success of Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath, I was itching to try self-publishing. It was clear that the ebook market was flooded with readers and starving for writers, and the first writers who had jumped in were doing very well. I knew the ereader craze might be a fad… and that’s why I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of it, especially if it didn’t last. I was afraid that if I missed it, I would be kicking myself forever once it was gone.

So I uploaded Outrageous Fortunes in March of 2011, and started getting a nice check every month. I was hooked. Since then, publishers have continued to punish writers with deadlines, complicated contracts, occasional bankruptcies, and lately, censorship. For five years, I have been open to the possibility of pursuing a contract with a traditional publisher… but less and less open, year after year.

And the technology has continued to provide delightful surprises. How far from those SASE’s have we come? This far:


That 34-character-string is an address for a bitcoin wallet. My readers can pay me directly with it (if they know how). No stamps, no checks, no envelopes, no postal service, no banks, no governments. Human to human, anywhere on Earth, instantly.  The path between the reader and writer is now clear of all intrusive debris.

Today, not many of my readers know how… yet.  But as William Gibson said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Come on, Amazon is cool.

December 20, 2011

“I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.” – Kent Brockman

In this, my love letter to Amazon, I’m going to point out a few brilliant things they are doing. This is a big deal for me, because their brilliance has a direct impact on my life as a writer.

One: They are giving Kindles away.

Not exactly, but they are selling Kindles at a loss. I got mine last Christmas (thanks, Mom!) when the price fell to $139, which I assumed was a promotional price. Wrong – they’re now $79 (sorry, Mom!). Hard to say what they spent on Kindle R&D, but the overlords at Amazon know that the ereader isn’t the moneymaker… the ebooks are. So they are moving Kindles out the door at a rate of over a million units a week. They want as many ereaders out there as possible.

And since my work so far is exclusively digital, so do I.

Two: The uploading model.

Think of all the ways Amazon could have botched this. They could have charged $200 per novel upload, or offered twelve percent royalties, or both. Instead, uploading is FREE and the author royalty is up to 70%. Authors don’t even sign a rights contract, because Amazon doesn’t ask for any rights to the manuscript.

Instead, all authors lose is “first electronic rights” by virtue of making their work available to the public online. A big question used to be: “Can a writer still score a deal with a traditional print publisher for a novel self-pubbed on the Kindle?” The answer is now YES.

Amazon leaves an unprecedented amount of decision-making to the writer: cover, jacket copy (aka product description), price (with some nudging via royalty percentage to keep it between three and twelve bucks), tagging (which is what passes nowadays for genre), and marketing.

Ah, marketing. Amazon lets the authors tear their own hair out about how to market their books, because Amazon knows that a book’s greatest advocate is its author.

And yet…

Three: The Browsing Revolution.

The Amazon sales pages, with their lists, tags, and rows of “also-boughts” are outstanding at bringing similar books to within a click or two of each other. Right there on my sales page for Outrageous Fortunes are novels by Harry Turtledove and Peter Pauzé. If I market my tail off to drive traffic to my Amazon page, some of those potential readers click over and buy books by Turtledove and Pauzé.

Well, darn. But I’ve learned to love it, because it works both ways. My work is on the sales pages of plenty of other books, and promotions by their authors help me. This interconnectedness helps get readers to the books they will obsess about, and that way, everybody sells more books. (Are you reading this, Barnes & Noble?)

Four: In 2011, my beautiful little Creative Writing MFA program, NILA, just received a $15,000 grant from Amazon. Is there an ulterior motive? Sure, Amazon wants their 30% of book sales, and perhaps better-educated writers will sell more books (and there’s this little thing called PR). In the meantime, they are funding higher education.

Now, Amazon has taken some heat from different folks lately. I try to keep up with that stuff, and while Amazon is hard on publishers and booksellers (whose inefficiencies make them soft targets), its strategies consistently revolve around treating writers and readers with respect.


PS: There’s mad hullabaloo about Amazon’s new KDP Select program (and what it means for Smashwords, among others). I haven’t signed up… yet. Still collecting data. More later.

6 Things I Learned as an Indie Author

September 18, 2011

This spring, I decided I’d seen enough of the writing on the wall, and uploaded a novel to the Amazon Kindle. It has done fairly well, selling about a hundred per month with no marketing. That doesn’t cover my rent, but it’s a hell of a lot more than my Netflix subscription, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about the process:

1. It’s easier than it looks.

2. Despite #1, hard work and attention to detail pay off in spades and allow you to outrun the competition.

3. Cruise the Kindle Top 100. Notice everything (covers, product descriptions, author bios, reviews, the “Click to Look Inside” feature, etc). Imitate.

4. You will obsessively track your sales. Resistance is futile. Go ahead, though. Knowing your book’s display page like the back of your hand and clicking through your “also-boughts” will help you to notice everything (see #3).

5. Kindle readers live in a different world than the Big Six publishers. They feel that remarkable storytelling is more important than lyrical wordsmithing, and they’ll forgive occasional typos but not a bland tale.

6. There are three kinds of writers. First, there are those who won’t epublish because the see ebooks as pathetic, since the lack of professional gatekeepers (agents, editors, publishers) means the ebook market is a slushy vanity-press free-for-all. Second, there are those who won’t epublish because they find all those readers intimidating, and want their work vetted by a pro before it is cast to the lions. They aren’t sure if their writing is worthy enough. Third, there are writers like me, who fall somewhere in the middle and are willing to give epublishing a try.

7. (Bonus!) By far the greatest discovery of the epublishing world: If you lower prices by a factor of five, readers buy five times as many books. Writers now have access to an insatiable audience. There are almost a million ebooks available on the Kindle, but that is nowhere near enough. The readers are waiting for more.

Traditional Agents and Publishers: a 3-Point Update.

August 25, 2011

I just got back from the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts MFA residency on Whidbey Island, here in Washington State, where creative writing grad students got to hear from a few literary agents and publishers, who told us what’s going on in the publishing world.

Three quick observations:

1. Traditional agents and publishers continue to offer fewer services (editing, promotion, distribution) and smaller advances to authors. They don’t quite acknowledge how much trouble they are in, and the reforms they will need to make to remain profitable are not yet on the table.

2. Traditional agents and publishers are still concerned about an author’s platform (e.g. “How many Facebook friends do you have? How many Twitter followers? Are you on LinkedIn?”).

I’m a bit of a weirdo in that I don’t see platform as very important. It’s a better strategy, as always, to write a remarkable book, because it’s easier for readers to find you than ever before. If your book is remarkable, your platform will generate itself.

(For an idea of what I mean by remarkable, see Seth Godin’s talk on it. It’s for marketers, but it applies to everybody, including writers.)

3. A couple of interesting changes in the language. First, “agents and publishers” are now called “traditional agents and publishers” to distinguish them from the indie or electronic world of publishing.

Second, rather than acknowledge that “self-published” no longer deserves the lame vanity stigma that it acquired years ago, they’ve embraced the phrase “independent publishing” or “indie publishing” and even “indie author” (a phrase I enjoy to no end). The phrase “self-published” has slipped further, and is becoming obsolete among agents and publishers.

So if you’ve published your earlier work electronically and are pitching your latest novel to an agent:

BAD: “I self-published my first novel.”

GOOD: “I’m already an experienced indie author.”

No more cold stares from agents and publishers on this topic. They have seen the success of ebooks and have reached the stage of grudging respect. And that, at least, is great news.


Now a side note: I’m happy to announce that Novel Dog has been accepted to Alltop. Thanks to author Yi Shun Lai for suggesting it!

Query Letter Mad Skills

May 23, 2009

Many artists (including novelists) reject formulas as straitjackets on their creativity. Fair enough. Great artists should reject formulas.

But you’re not great yet. You’re just a beginner. So suck it up and find the writing formulas (and tips, tricks, and hacks) that will get your special-writing-bunny-slipper in the door. And if you won’t do it for your fiction, then at least do it for your query letter. Too many good novelists write crap query letters – which is absurd, because it’s not that hard. Just find a formula that works, and follow it!

Here’s a 300-word formula that has gotten me requests from agents. I borrowed it from author Jarucia Nirula, along with two examples. The third example is by me, describing a novel of mine.


Begin by three or four paragraphs introducing your novel. Most important is to introduce your main character and your main character’s core challenge (in other words, a hint of the plot).

Query Letter One:

Nothing thrills Una more than sailing the high seas with she-pirates. The only problem: she’s never been on anything more exciting than a car ferry. She figures her adventures will always begin and end in books. Then a crow starts stalking her. When strange accidents at school and home follow, along with vivid dreams of the pirate queen Korina, Una thinks the planets must be out of whack or something, but doesn’t suspect these are signs that a real adventure is about to begin.

For her thirteenth birthday, Una’s parents reveal she’s destined to train as a Guardian of the Elements. The prospect of leaving the comfort of home for life aboard a ship full of strangers suddenly doesn’t seem so great, until her best friend Reed shares that she’s going too.

On departure night, Korina materializes as a very real and lethal threat. Una escapes with Reed to their training ship, but leaves believing her parents are dead. Thrust into her new life, Una tries to balance the grief of loss with new friendships, her Elemental training and preparing for a year-end Challenge that might bring with it a danger far greater than Korina. [195 words]

Query Letter Two (for the same novel, now with a sharper hook):

Until shortly before her thirteenth birthday, Una’s biggest adventures occurred in books or in her mother’s stories.

Then a crow started stalking her.

Strange accidents at school and home follow, along with vivid dreams of the pirate queen, Korina, and all are signs that many of the tales she’s enjoyed her whole life are more than fantasy.

With her birthday, Una learns she’s destined to train as a Guardian of the Elements―a steward of the Earth. She angrily refuses the prospect of leaving her normal life behind to train with strangers. That is until her best friend Reed shares that she’s to train too.

On departure night, the very real threat of the dreamed-of pirate queen arrives. Barely escaping Korina’s lethal attack, Una believes her parents are dead as she watches helplessly from her departing training ship. Grief propels Una into her life as a Guardian trainee with Reed. But, she soon meets new friends, Phoebe, Myles and Darriun, and stumbles upon the secret truth behind the year-end Challenge. Throughout the training year, suspicions that someone is trailing her vex Una but leave her far from suspecting the one threat greater than Korina―Malovias. [193 words]

The challenge with these paragraphs is keeping them short enough. Don’t exceed 200 words. Begin with nothing but a single sentence exposing the beating heart of your novel (and that’s probably your main character) — then gradually add.

Query Letter Three (mine, with the novel’s title and genre up front):

I would like to send you my 67,000-word fantasy adventure novel, Mountain Man.

In a newly-discovered land that is not quite North America, the sacking of a coastal village fuses the fates of two opposite characters: a twelve-year-old printer’s son named Jeffrey Jones and a bearded, wilderness-wise misanthrope with a raccoon-skin cap and a hunting knife made from a sabertooth fang.

Jeffrey is small, but smart; scared but determined. His new companion, Tiberius Bogg, is fast as a splintercat and stealthy as a hidebehind. He can conquer anything… except a vulnerable boy who needs his help. As they turn the tables and pursue their attackers (mercenaries from the old country), Jeffrey comes to find his strength, while wise-cracking Bogg comes to find his heart.

Together they trek through a merciless landscape full of extraordinary creatures — jackelopes and thunderbirds, fur-bearing trout and four-legged hills — all culled from American tall tales, Indian legends, and backwoods folklore. [156 words]

The second part of the query consists of a paragraph comparing the novel to what’s been published already. Do your research. Mention some novels clearly similar to yours that did well (but don’t mention anything from the top of a bestseller list – comparing your novel to Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code makes you look like a doofus). Mention any thoughts about your intended audience. Who will enjoy your book?

In this paragraph, you can also mention anything that you love about your novel that wouldn’t fit in part one, such as theme. And lastly, if you didn’t mention the title and word count in part one, do it here.

Query Letter One:

Small caluminar cover3

Varuna Kannon and the Caluminar’s Cave is a 99,500-word YA fantasy novel written to appeal to all young readers. It highlights themes of friendship, teamwork, growth, and environmental stewardship. Fans of imaginative fantasy adventures featuring young heroines and heroes alike will enjoy this introduction to the five-part Guardian of the Elements series.

Query Letter Two:

Varuna Kannon and the Caluminar’s Cave is a 95,000-word YA fantasy novel aimed at girls. However, themes of friendship, personal responsibility, growth, and environmental stewardship are relevant for all young readers. Fans of the imaginative adventures of young heroes and heroines in His Dark Materials trilogy and the Xanth series will enjoy this introduction to the five-part Guardian of the Elements series.

Query Letter Three:

Fans of Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy or Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series will recognize a unique world that blooms from familiar roots and enjoy characters who are both quirky and magical.

In the final paragraph, talk about yourself. What’s your experience as a writer? (Skip this if you don’t have any.) More importantly, what led you to write your novel? How are you connected to it?

Query Letter One:

A career with children and love for all things magical inspired me to pursue a life as a YA writer. I work as a fiction editor for the non-profit journal Conclave, am an active member of OWW for sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers and hold two Master’s degrees.

Query Letter Two:

Years of working with children and a love for all things magical inspired me to pursue a career as a YA writer. I work as a fiction editor for the non-profit journal Conclave, blog regularly, and participate in multiple writing groups.

Query Letter Three:

The first seeds of Mountain Man came to me after hearing tales and forest folklore while working with the US Forest Service on the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation. My speculative fiction has appeared on Quantum Muse, Anotherealm, and elsewhere.

Lastly, tack on a call to action, something like I have attached a synopsis and the first three chapters (yada yada; strike this sentence if you’re just sending this letter). I look forward to hearing from you. Don’t screw around here, just be brief and professional.

You can put these three parts into a letter that’s under 300 words long, and then you’ll have a tool that will help you get your novel on the desk of agents and publishers. Later, as you gain experience and relationships in the industry, you can writer query letters that are more unique (or the ultimate dream: tailored for particular agents). But for now, you’re on the road!