The email arrives when you’ve already given up hope: “Dear XX, we have reviewed your novel and would like to offer you a contract.” No way, you think. It must be a mistake. But you read the email again. And once more for good measure. It’s not a mistake. After two hundred pitches, 50 rejections, sleepless nights and a chest full of heartache, somebody is finally offering to buy and market your novel. It’s an independent publisher, operating, if not at the margins of the industry, then somewhere in between the Big Five nucleus and the online-only agencies that publish one poetry chapbook every quarter. You pitched to them directly after giving up hope of attracting an agent, and somehow the gambit has paid off. Your manuscript went through a three-person internal review and survived. Now all that’s left for you to do is put your name to that contract they’ve sent you. Your hard work has finally paid off. You can sit back and relax.
Except obviously that’s not true.
In fact, writing, pitching and selling the novel was the easy part. The real work starts now.
Here’s the news: if you sign with an independent publisher, nobody gives a damn. You weren’t the name at the heart of a bidding war between Penguin and Simon & Schuster. You don’t have a super-agent who’s going to wangle you a spot in the New Yorker. You aren’t joining the hallowed ranks of literary titans who give you more credibility simply by association. That puts you at the back of the queue for everything. From reviews to coverage to space on the shelves, you’re going to have a mountain to climb to get your novel seen, read and heard about.
Here‘s what nobody tells you when you sign for an independent publisher.
Your publishing house doesn’t believe in you.
There are two models for independent publishers to follow.
One (less likely): every book is a labour of love into which the team puts its blood and guts, and then uses every channel at its disposal to turn that book into a mild success. The publisher believes in the author and the message, and will leave no stone unturned to win them the audience they deserve.
Two (more likely): the publisher snaps up any title on which it believes it may be able to turn a profit, does the bare minimum to produce and market it, and waits to see if the gamble pays off.
It doesn’t really matter either way: the publisher spreads its bets, buying up a few crime titles here, a few erotic thrillers there, and something literary once in a while just to mix things up. It always has a core genre and audience to fall back on that are guaranteed to produce sales (self-help books are good for that). Sure, the publisher will tell you they see a bright future for your book, but you’ll never find them championing it in any corner of the internet beyond getting it into online stores. So once you’re done typing, it’s time to start hyping.
You have no say in the cover or blurb.
Now this is probably the same for the major publishing houses, too, but for some reason people have the notion that because an independent publisher isn’t as well known , it means the author has free rein when it comes to slapping a cover together and scribbling a description for the back. The opposite is true. Independent publishers are nothing if not canny; as said above, they’re seeking to maximise sales while keeping the work involved to a minimum. Designing a cover is that minimum: they’ll take an image, motif or general design that has worked in the past, farm the work out to a freelancer, give them an hour to tweak it just enough to make it unique, and then cross their fingers that it’ll draw a few eyes. They’re not interested in creating something beautiful or instantly iconic. They have a blueprint that works, and that’s what they’ll stick to. And no author will be able to convince them otherwise, even if they hate the end product (like a certain me with mine).
You’re going to have to fight for every review, interview and mention.
This one can hit an indie author like a claw hammer. You start off putting together a list of book bloggers and platforms who you then contact by email. You think, seeing as there’s an army of reviewers out there, many of whom profess to love your genre on their website (under ‘review policy’), that the responses will come flooding in. After all, a publisher liked your work enough to take it, and you’re offering your book to people free of charge as a paperback or e-book. Getting all the reviews you need should be a breeze, right?
Book bloggers are busy as street cleaners at Pride. They receive hundreds of review requests per week, usually work full-time jobs, try to read and review multiple novels each month, and maintain a website featuring book giveaways, blog tours, guest posts and more. They aren’t all going to answer you. Don’t forget you’re not at the front of the queue, either. In fact, it’s more like this: Big 5 publishers > authors the reviewer has worked with before > authors who have managed to create a little buzz > independent authors > self-published authors. There may be other constraints, too. Many reviewers prefer paperbacks, for example. Some prefer to review only people of colour or LGBTQ authors. Others might have a predilection for steampunk, but no time for post-apocalyptic fiction. Once you narrow down the field, you find you’ll be lucky to get one response from every seven emails you send out.
Don’t expect your publisher to help you here, either. They might have a database of contacts, yes, but it takes around 20 minutes to check out a website, see if the blogger is accepting requests and craft a personal email to send them. You have to do that on your time.
Websites with a strong readership probably won’t be interested in you.
Generally speaking, websites with a healthy daily readership are not going to respond to your requests for interview or review. Why would they? They curated that readership by creating content that garners interest, and unless that interest happens to be ‘indie authors from Slough who wrote their first horror novel at the age of 52’, you can rest assured that nothing you suggest will be worth their time or coverage. Scale down your aspirations as much as you can. Stop looking for an email address to pitch to The Guardian or Wired. It’s not going to happen (unless you know somebody on the staff).
Instead, focus on building your launch pad and collecting fuel — that means seeking out niche websites with a sympathetic management team that receive a few hundred or thousand clicks per day, and then offering to write a guest post or begging for an interview. The more times you do this, the greater the online footprint for your book. When it comes to writing and then pitching your next novel to literary agents, they might— if they’re interested in your manuscript — end up finding those posts you wrote and being impressed by your tenacity. It may even swing their decision in your favour.
Review copies will only become available a couple months prior to publication.
About all those reviews you’re trying so hard to get: many reviewers prefer to read paperbacks and will give precedence to those authors who are prepared to provide one.
The problem is that although your independent publisher has promised it’ll make review copies available to you, it isn’t planning on doing so until the book is actually in the warehouse — around two months prior to the publication date.
Now, as stated, book bloggers are busy people. If you come to them and ask them to read your book within 8 weeks, they’re probably either going to delete your email or inform you that they’ll take your book, but they have 322 other books to read first. You have two choices here: you can wait until those precious review copies are sitting in the warehouse, which means it’ll probably be too late to get many positive responses at all, or you can place your own print order large enough that your publisher will fire up the printers and then send these copies to you well before release. Yes, it’s expensive — in addition to buying the books yourself, you have to pay for the envelopes and shipping fees. But how many reviews do you want to see on Goodreads, Amazon and wherever else come release day?
Your publicist will only start promotion a month before your book is released.
Insofar as your publisher assigns a publicist to your cause, don’t expect them to help you until the finish line is already in sight. This publicist is not a literary agent — they aren’t there to work behind the scenes for their 10%, securing interviews and exclusives and deals in your name. They are people employed by the publisher to hammer out a press release or two, send out a blanket email to a list of reviewers and post a few nice things about your book on the company social media page (which invariably has around 200 followers). They don’t have time to do much more than that, because they have 20 other authors for whom they also need to write press releases and send out emails. In other words, even though you’ll start seeing activity in the four to six weeks prior to your novel’s release, it will almost certainly bring little to no reward. The onus is on you.
You’ll have to lean pretty heavily on your friends and family to get the sales ball rolling.
As release day looms, you have a handful of reviews, some good, some average, a few barely literate. You’ve done all you can to get your book out there on every channel you can think of, and you’ve bagged some ‘TBR’ tags on Goodreads. There are even a few libraries in the UK and US that have placed pre-orders. Still, if you want to have any chance of your book being seen by people outside your Twitter feed and the blogosphere, you’re going to have to beg as many people as you can to do you a solid and buy that book while it’s still fresh. If you can get enough people to place a pre-order on (sigh) Amazon just before release day, you have a chance of breaking into the top 100–200 releases for your specific genre.
Once it’s in that chart, even if it is for a day, there’s a chance people you don’t know will take a punt on an unknown quantity and keep you there for a little longer. And a little longer until eventually the snowball becomes a…slightly bigger snowball and you have a few hundred sales to your name. Because this is what you’re signing up for: you spend a year writing the thing, another year making revisions and pitching it, and yet another year waiting for it to be released, and then your book spends a week in the ‘New Releases’ section of Waterstones and it disappears without trace just in time for the next one to be pushed out into the world.
Nobody said it was easy. Up to you if you want to go through with it.