Is #Indie Publishing Worth It? Would I do it again? A tell-all.


Perhaps because of the recent brouhaha in the blogosphere due to my hero Hugh Howey’s continued pioneering, this time in bringing full disclosure numbers via that paint a very different picture than traditional publishing would have us know, yesterday I heard from a talented writer who used to work in my former agent’s office. This person knew my writing from the get-go. She knew how hard the agency worked to sell my book series, and she had to find another job when my agent retired in frustration in 2011. She has continued to write herself, and watch my career as someone who has seen it from that very first version of Blood Orchids, that, while needing a complete rewrite, had enough promise to attract her boss.  Spurred by the Authorearnings disclosure, and “on the fence” herself about which way to go with agent interest in her work, she wrote me a series of questions to help her decide whether to persist with the traditional route or make the leap to “author-publisher.”

The discussion was so good I thought I’d share it with other writers struggling with the same dilemma.

Writer-on-the-fence: Would you self-publish again? 

As you know more than anyone, I was devastated when our agent retired in 2011 and I was left without representation. It had taken me two years to get an agent and 179 query letters! Then, we hadn't sold the series in 9 months (well, we did get an offer, but it was too low and digital rights only.) Read more about my complex emotions here: /2011/08/14/complex-emotions/

I felt after that much “lost time” I had to try self-publishing, and our agent's comments on the market had been very discouraging, so I thought at least it couldn't hurt  to try. I did, however, go “high end” from the beginning, with a top-tier cover artist (Julie Metz) a publicist, and two rounds of professional structural editing… That first book cost me $12,000 to produce and market its first month. (Now I have my book development expenses whittled down to a mere $4-6,000.) However, Blood Orchids paid for itself within two months after debuting in December 2011, and last year alone I netted close to a hundred thousand in sales.

I think of my books as a start-up business, so I spent at least half of that on new book development and advertising. This has made my take-home income just replacing the middle-class amount I made as a school counselor, a job I was able to leave because my writing income had replaced the need for a 9-to-5. I choose to keep re-investing in new books because, as others have said, every title is a worker bee out there earning for me, and the model that works in indie publishing is capturing your readers and keeping them reading and engaged with a flow of new titles.

My books still cost more than many other indies report, but I won’t stint on the quality and I love the team I’ve built. Readers can tell…and the books’ popularity grow every day because the quality is there and my ability as a writer is improving with every book.

The publishing side's a business, and while I'm PASSIONATE about my writing (I even feel I tell stories with deeper messages and meaning, call it hubris if you will) I run it like a business. To make money as an author/publisher you have to be a good businessperson and a fast and prolific writer…or you can be a hobbyist, as many are.

Would I self-publish again? The question is no longer that. It's now, what deal could a traditional publisher offer me that I would take? And my answer, if I'm honest, is a six-figure deal (at least for the mysteries.)

Writer-on-the-fence: What would you do differently if you had it to do over?

Nothing. I happened on a model that works! And it requires a TREMENDOUS amount of work, work that I enjoy. But don't fool yourself, you can't slap something together, upload to Amazon and watch the money roll in. You have to be pro-active and learn the business of publishing and market yourself effectively with branding, etc. Early mistakes I made were paying for publicist (Expensive! Ineffective!) and taking too long to release Torch Ginger (because I was still trying to sell the series to trad pub) Through my self-publishing success I attracted another agent (didn't even have to query!) and he is now focusing on my memoir project, a YA series and shopping the Lei Crime Series for Hollywood.

Writer-on-the-fence: Did you start with KDP Select or all platforms? 

I started on all platforms but decided to try KDP Select over a year ago. So far that's been great for me, but I recently released my first Contemporary Fic/romance, and it's digital only and all platforms. My mysteries are on Amazon only for ebook, and B&N also for print.

What's key is building a solid author platform before your book ever comes out. Then, have several titles in a genre series. (can't find the data right now, it was in a recent study and that has been my experience.) Then, give away one title a month in the series. New readers grab it, and if it hooks them in, they buy the rest of the books and that' s where the money is made. When people discover you and like you, they then go look to buy all your titles. The more worker bees you have out there, the better!

Writer-on-the-fence: Who do you use to format your books? 

I have an individual team I’ve built, but for my romance, Somewhere on Maui, I used Bookbaby. I am still assessing whether or not I like their service–spoiled by Amazon's realtime data, I submitted that book to them in November and still have NO sales data on how it's doing on other platforms and there were various delays and glitches uploading, some my fault… but they did a great cover! I put it up on Amazon myself, and I can watch it there, and its doing well with 4.8 stars on 53 reviews.

All my books are getting great reviews, and I think it harks back to something exposed in the AuthorEarnings data: readers like a lower price and a good book. They review more generously when they get something free or 3.99 versus paying 8.99 for a similar book. Also, when fans write me, or ask how they can help, I ask them to “say what you just said where the world can hear it” and post a review. Many of them do.

My individual team I use for the mysteries has been a real process to build, and because they are individual pros, that's why it's so expensive. Read about it here: /2011/04/15/gathering-your-writing-team/  (some players have changed since the post)

Writer-on-the-fence: For print copies, do you use CreateSpace or another publisher?

I use LightningSource. Warning: it is NOT a user-friendly site, but the books are better quality INMO and have worldwide distribution through Ingram's catalog automatically, vs. just Amazon with Createspace. My formatters deal with prepping the PDF and cover for LightningSource but I do the uploading myself. Also, Createspace used to not do a matte cover, and I love the lush, luxe look of the matte covers LightningSource does for my books.

Writer-on-the-fence: How did you market/promote? Did it help to cross-promote with other authors?What can someone coming onto the scene a little “late to the game” do to build an audience?

I do belong to a collective, BestSelling Reads. we blog, cross promote, radio, etc, but that's a relatively new thing for me (we are looking for more authors, check em out! Great value for investment!) because I have done great alone as my books are gathering a vocal and passionate following, and  focusing on my readers through social media has been the best strategy I've used. But I did write a marketing minibook telling how I did it, Building an Author Platform that can Launch Anything. I got tired of explaining how I’ve succeeded so I wrote it, sold enough to pay for the production of it, and now I give it away as PIF. (read book for definition) Anyone reading this and wanting one, just email me at toby neal 0 (remove spaces)

Building an author platform in the current market: I think for people coming in now when there's so much competition, establishing all those social media accounts, developing branding, figuring out your ‘persona’ online (mine is a positive, mental-healthy presence with lots of gorgeous Hawaii photos) and then getting your book out, making it totally awesome, and preparing for the fans you don't have as if you do…that is all you can do right now, until your books are out and catching on. Don’t expect it to happen without at least three in a series!

Writer-on-the-fence: Do you have an editor you like and trust? If you don't mind telling me, I'd love to know who. Same with web site and cover design. 

Yes. My Team is Awesome. Kristen Weber for structual edit, a private copyeditor, and Julie Metz for covers. My husband Mike Neal at Nealstudios does for photography and formatting, and PositiveElement is my website design and maintenance company. I have a bookkeeper, a big part of staying sane. I also have a lawyer, Sandy Shepherd at Goodsolutions, Inc. who has helped me with issues like copyright.

Writer-on-the-fence: Did you see a big jump in earnings at the five-book mark? I saw that a lot in trad pub books and wondered if you found it true with your career.

I saw a big jump after three, but Blood Orchids continues to do well with over 800,000 downloads of it already (free, and sales) I am adding two new titles to Lei Crime Series which I'd planned to end at five books because readers are so in love with Lei and Stevens, and so am I! I now have 8 books out with the next Lei Crime book, Shattered Palms, coming out in March.

Writer-on-the-fence: I'm considering writing under a pseudonym and haven't started building any sort of platform there. How should I go about developing an audience?

I did a lot of chatting with my readers and asking questions about that ended up with this blog post: /2013/09/01/writing-different-genres-turn-readers/

I decided to try branching out under my real name, with the idea that, as an indie publishing my own work, my best strategy is to build my loyal readership. I may do the YAs under T. Neal becuase I don’t want kids inadvertently picking up “R-rated” Blood Orchids, but I'm undecided about that. For now, this is working for me.

You talked about a pen name and building an author platform for it. That's in a nutshell, why I HAVE NOT done a pen name for my other genres. It's exhausting to even contemplate! And if you read the piece I posted (see above) if readers are turned off, re other genres, my conclusion was that unless you were willing to completely build a new brand from scratch, the pen name should signal some connection to your original author platform.

Erotica would be a total departure and exception from any association with an existing platform, in my opinion (and I have no plans to venture into that very lucrative market.)

Writer-on-the-fence:Thanks so much for your time and help! I really appreciate any and all your thoughts on the subject. I've been sitting on the fence for nearly a year and the indecision is driving me crazy.

I'm no Hugh Howey with his wild success, but I'm a solid indie mid-lister, and even that took a lot more courage and effort than I ever imagined–and yet now I say, thank God our agent didn't sell my books! I remember deciding at one time I'd sell the whole series for 10,000…and now I make 10,000 a month on a regular basis.

Further disclosures on AuthorEarnings linking to the issues: What writers leave on the table

and then, Mike Shatzkin rebuts on the Shatzkin Files: Comparing self to trad pub is tricky and most data is not available

I am also following Kathryn Rusch's excellent series on DISCOVERABILITY

Any author choosing the path of self publishing and hoping for any success needs to have a business mindset. I follow all these blogs in my inbox so as not to miss a thing.

Is indie publishing worth it? Would I do it again? Hell yes, it's worth it. And I would definitely do it all again, and plan to. Would I do a traditional publishing deal? Absolutely, but it would have to be the right one.

In this new marketplace, you have little to lose self publishing. You can find an agent that way, a book deal that way, hell, a movie deal that way! And still go trad pub. too.

But, be prepared to write faster and harder than you ever imagined.

36 Responses to “Is #Indie Publishing Worth It? Would I do it again? A tell-all.”

  1. Gail M Baugniet

    This article offers an immense amount of useful information for any indie author looking for direction and marketing support. The path you followed, and outlined here, is a gold mine of details for anyone “on the fence” about publishing their work.
    Mahalo! Toby.

    • toby

      Thanks for popping by, Gail, I was nervous about putting it all out there but I hope someone finds it helpful. We don’t have to be as “big” as Hugh Howey to make a nice income and career of writing! Thought this could get our SinC skype meeting started! Have everybody read it! Aloha

      • Gail Baugniet

        Not all the members have an Internet presence, Toby, so your Skype interview was a terrific introduction. Your comments, information, and advice, gave everyone the incentive to step up their efforts in writing and marketing, Your stress on creating a professional product for readers is most important.

    • toby

      Hi Ben, thanks for popping in! Yes, the data we are getting show that genre series are where the money is being made for indies. I got lucky and only had a mystery series planned. In branching out, I’m continuing to take chances.

    • Athena Grayson (@Athena_Grayson)

      It’s great to see good, solid mid-lister indie stories out there to go along with the wildly-successful “outliers” (even though I’m not keen on using that word as it’s been tossed about so much now that it’s developing karma of its own, LOL). Thank you, Toby. I’m truly glad to see your success, because, as another indie, I don’t have to worry about there not being enough “slots” for all of us, and neither one of us has to worry that our readerships aren’t large and broad enough for industry interest.

      Ben, the nice thing about being indie is that you don’t have to go series first. You can write what you *want* to write, as long as you have the understanding that a single title won’t do as well as a series, or certain genres/sub-genres aren’t as mass-appealing as others. If you serve a smaller audience, you can still reach that audience, even if the industry doesn’t care to pursue them.

      • toby

        Aloha Athena, very well said! I thought I should pipe up on behalf of the many indies who are able to quit their day jobs (even if they still can’t drive a Mercedes!) And you’re so right, niches abound now for all the flavors of fiction in the rainbow.

    • toby

      Yeah, it’s scary to let your income hang out! I’m waiting for the hubby to yell at me after dinner, LOL!

      • Benjamin Wallace

        I didn’t even catch the income the first time around. Between this and a facebook full of pictures of Hawaii you’re really heading up my hate list.

        It’s a list of people I hate for no good reason.

  2. Lori Tian Sailiata

    Thank you for this, Toby. Although, I’ve been following you so closely for so long that none of this is a huge surprise. It is so good to see all of the numbers in one place. I knew Blood Orchids was an expensive gamble for you…one that has paid off handsomely, not only monetarily but in the lifestyle you have created. If Mike is tempted to bristle at your disclosure, all he needs to look to is the life you both have created based on both of your artistic talents to pacify him. Writing a book certainly isn’t a get rich quick move. But you’ve invested so much time and talent into producing quality reads that they will surely be growing your wealth for many years to come. Thank you for your candor.

    • Toby Neal

      Thanks Lori, your support has meant a great deal to me. I hoped by letting it all hang out that I could help a few writers come off the fence one way or the other.

  3. Amy Pabalan

    “But don’t fool yourself, you can’t slap something together, upload to Amazon and watch the money roll in.”


  4. Andrew McAllister

    “Don’t expect it to happen without at least three in a series!”
    That’s the part I’m working on now. And I *WILL* get there! 🙂

    Thanks for continuing to be a great inspiration Toby!

  5. jilljmarsh

    Great to read this today — thanks Toby and congratulations on making such a success of your passion. I wholeheartedly agree with the collective concept. We launched ours – Triskele Books – over two years ago and it was the second-best decision we ever made. The first was to work hard on the writing and presentation, and I applaud you for taking such a stance. For me, it’s about respect for readers. Thanks for sharing your story and I wish you continuing success! Jill (JJ Marsh)

  6. Doug Bittinger

    This is a tremendous article, Toby; crammed with so much valuable information from someone who has actually succeeded in making it work. Well done and thank you.

    • toby

      Dear Doug, so appreciate having you in my life in my other “collective” my triberr tribe! aloha

  7. Kayla Dawn Thomas

    I love reading about other indie author journeys and success. Thank you for sharing this. It gives me hope as I enter the industry. I need to buckle down and really get to work!

  8. Linda Ballou

    Thank you for blazing the way for the rest of us Indies. I signed up on Best Selling Reads and will see you there. Self-publishing is a perilous but rewarding journey. I am grateful to have the option. I write about what moves me. I have published an historical novel, and a travel collection. I have a young adult novel and a screen play in my drawer. I don’t fit the traditional mold. Never have and probably never will! Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge and lending a helping hand to all of us Indies.

    • toby

      Hope you find BSR helpful, it has a lot of opportunity that somehow i don’t find time to use all the time!

  9. JLOakley

    Mahalo nui loa for the article. You continue to amaze and inspire me, Toby. I hope to have my second novel out soon. Have a good buzz for it and the first, though never seeing such returns as your books, has a life of its own. Historical fiction is harder — it can’t be written in a day– but it leads to speaking engagements that provide income and more interest in the book. I’m sprucing up a third — done and on the conveyer belt. But I’m very careful about releasing it until it’s ready. Better hurry. Launch Day is April 6th.

  10. Laura Lawrence

    Wow this article is just a little but amazing!! So helpful, thank you very much for sharing! I self published on Amazon just under a year ago and this month released my fourth book (The Best Friend, Husband Theory which is a sequel to my debut novel) I’m now at the stage of deciding if I want to continue to self publish ebooks, self publish print books as well or go off in search of an agent… You have made this choice a little easier 😀 xx

  11. Scott Bury

    Thank you so much for this candid revelation of your sales, revenue and costs. It really helps put things in perspective. And congratulations for achieving such solid success with not just a good business model, but excellent writing, too.

    • toby

      Thanks for taking the time to read my manifesto, Scott. Enjoy being a part of the collective, and you do such a good job keeping us motivated!

  12. Jason Andrew Bond

    Loved this post Toby. I’m in a similar boat. I often tell folks, I would rather just go back to a regular job than have a boss over my writing. So inspirational to hear another person’s story about how it works.