Authors Sacha Black and Orna Ross look at what it means when indie authors think long term. When you start out in indie publishing, it’s hard to think past the mountainous goal of just publishing your first book. But thinking long term is what transforms the ability to write words into a prosperous business.
Orna and Sacha dive into the wide publishing model, IP rights, investing your profits, ownership of websites and mailing lists, and much more to help you establish, maintain, and grow your creative business.
Our Foundational Self-Publishing Podcast is brought to you by specialist sponsor Izzard Ink: helping you navigate the publishing world while you stay in control of your work. Izzard Ink Publishing—Self-Publishing is no longer publishing by yourself. We would like to thank Izzard for their support for the show.
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About the Hosts
Sacha Black is a bestselling and competition-winning author of YA fantasy novels and non-fiction books that help writers develop their craft–and the blog editor at ALLi's Self-Publishing Advice Center.
Read the Transcripts: Authors Think Long Term
Orna Ross: Hello, everyone. Hello to you if you're joining us live and hello if you're watching on replay. I'm Orna Ross, here for the ALLi Foundational Self-Publishing Advice podcast, and I'm here with Sacha Black.
Sacha Black: Hello! How are you?
Orna Ross: I'm pretty good. How are you?
Sacha Black: I'm not bad. I'm feeling very pink today.
Orna Ross: Oh yes, as opposed to your usual purple.
Sacha Black: Yeah.
Why indie publishing is a long-term project
Orna Ross: So, we're here to talk this week about going long-term. Why Indie publishing is a long-term project. It's not something that's a quick win, quick and easy, and off you go; it's something that you need to think about in terms of years, really, if what you are looking to do is make a living from your writing and your publishing.
Now, this particular stream of our podcast is addressed to those who are just setting out, and maybe you don't know yet whether that's what you want, and there will be advice here that will apply very much to you as well, but we do tend to speak to those who want to make this what they do with their with their lives.
And we are very grateful for our sponsor for this stream of the podcast, Izzard Inc. They are fantastic if you're looking for some help with some aspects of your publishing, or indeed with the whole thing from start to finish. They can do all sorts of things and their logo is, self-publishing but not feeling that you are by yourself. So, check them out if you're interested in getting that sort of help.
Okay. So, this evening we're going to be talking about this whole topic of long-term. Did you think long-term when you started Sacha, or did you just dive in?
Sacha Black: No, I did. But the reason I did is because I very quickly realized that this was what I wanted to do. I think it probably helped that I wasn't really a fan of my day job. But most people in my family are creatives, so I was always destined to do something creative full-time, I think.
I came at this knowing I needed to set up some foundational asset things, and perhaps we'll talk about those first. So, I knew I needed a website. I perhaps didn't know about the mailing list, but I found that out very quickly in my journey. So, a couple of really key things for me are a central landing place, if you like, for all of your potential readers and fans. So, i.e. your website where you have all the key information about you, and importantly, you have a link and connection to your mailing list, which is in my opinion, possibly even more important than the website, because I know you can have your mailing list even without a website. That is a possibility if you are technically minded.
Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think, when setting out and thinking about this as a long-term endeavor, you're absolutely right, that core piece of internet real estate becomes very important. And for self-publishers, it's important that it is more than a brochure site.
So, if you have a publisher, they probably have you on their website and it's fine for your website, maybe to be a brochure site that just brings people over to where they can buy your book and tells people a little bit about the writer.
If you are the actual publisher, then you need to do a bit more than that and ideally set yourself up so that if somebody does land on your website and does like what they see when they're there and then has a look at your book and thinks it might be interesting, well, why not get the sale while you have them there on the site? So, setting up a simple transactional page where people can buy your books is well-worth doing right from the get-go.
And you may not have an actual strategy to bring people to your website yet, but just getting set-up so that when your book goes out there, if readers want to learn more.
When we like a book, I don't know about you, but whenever I like a book, I'm straight on to the authors website, and I'm always disappointed if they don't have one, even if they have a good Facebook page or something. I love author websites when they're done well, they're a real joy to travel around and find out what inspires a writer and why they're doing what they're doing in the way that they're doing it.
So, yeah, definitely. And, of course, as you said, the all-important mailing list. So, we will put a link in the show notes to the concept of access marketing, and we've done a podcast on this before, so I'm not going to go into it in detail, but the whole concept of having access to your reader, of them giving you access to their time, their attention and their email inbox, is central to building up a group of people who like what you do.
And as that email list builds, you will use it in so many different ways, and it really is the key to success, long-term success as an author. So, getting those two things in place, right from the start, even before your book is published is a really good idea.
And if you like to report on your writing or some aspects of your book, it can be well worthwhile to start a blog. It's not that blogs are going to sell many books, for a fiction writer, particularly, but it can be a really good way just to raise awareness of you as a writer, and again, what makes you tick, and the more the reader can find out about you, and hear about you repeatedly, the better.
Developing the business mindset for indie authors
Sacha Black: I think the other mindset you need to take, that is foundational, is that one, this takes a long time, and two, you need a quantity of books. No matter how painful that is to hear early on when, you know, you're only partway through your first draft, and it's taken you a year to get there. You won't really be able to do this full-time until you have a catalog of books, but I think that's the same for most companies and most businesses, it's a lightning bolt when you make a business off one product, and even people like James Dyson have hair straighteners and hair dryers and fans, and all sorts of things, as well as his varying shades of Hoover.
So, just like other businesses, you do need to have a commitment to doing this for a long time, understanding it's going to take a long time, unless you are one of these people who can just bash out books every single month, and that you need a lot of books to make a good income.
Orna Ross: Absolutely. And that whole idea of investing in a business, you mentioned the business word, and I think a lot of writers when they're setting out are not thinking of themselves as a business and may not even fully understand that to self-publish is to actually go into business. And the sooner that mindset can be adopted the better, because a lot of writers are scared of the word business and scared even of the word money. They want it, but don't actually want to engage with it. And so, if that's you, I mean, it may not be, you may not feel like that at all, but if you are a person, and lots of creatives are, somebody who really associates money with the more crass and profit before people and all of that kind of thing, then you need to relearn and rethink and reshape your relationship with money and begin to think about how you invest in your books, how you invest in your business.
A lot of writers come in with the attitude of, how cheaply can I do this? And really, instead of thinking about how much you're spending, what you need to start to think about it, and it's very early days, and I'm really just talking about mindset here and about the ways of thinking, rather than anything that you have to do while you're writing your first draft or when you just have a first book, but just thinking in terms of return on investment, rather than straight, how much did it cost me?
Something can cost you a lot of money but still be a very worthwhile investment. Something can cost you very little and not be worthwhile at all. So, value rather than price is a good mindset to get in on early as well.
What is wide publishing, and why is it important?
Sacha Black: Okay, so what about wide publishing? I know in ALLi, we are very pro wide-publishing, and I'm sure it's in the glossary, but it's one of those terms that is thrown around all of the time, and as a newer writer, sometimes we don't necessarily know what these things are. So, what is wide publishing and why on earth should we do it anyway?
Orna Ross: Yeah. So, publishing wide, or going wide, as it's often referred to in the community, is essentially about getting your books wherever readers might be.
So, a lot of people, when they think about self-publishing, they think about that company that is huge in the self-publishing sector, which is Amazon, and they don't think any further than that. But if you do that, you're actually cutting out huge numbers of readers around the world, because Amazon isn't in every country and because there are people who like to read on their Apple device, or there are people who buy their books from different places. And so, the idea with publishing wide is to be in as many formats and be in as many places and be available on as many stores as you possibly can, time permitting. So, that's the concept of wide and there's a lot of misconceptions about wide publishing, because what happens in the indie author space is that an author does something, and if it has worked for them, they assume that's the best way to do it. But, of course, depending on what genre you write in, depending on what your books are like, depending on what your definition of a successful outcome is, you may have a very different wish or desire.
So, the reason for publishing wide is to establish independence, and the more outlets you use, the more retailers you have a relationship with, including your own website, the better your foundations for long-term success. So, two words that every self-publishing author should think about at the start is sustainable, being able to keep ongoing and scalable, being able to grow and expand as you go, without necessarily doing more work.
And books are wonderful in that way in that they can be relatively, there's no such thing as passive income, I don't believe in that concept, but you can, with very little time, a book could go on earning you money for a very, very long time, particularly evergreen books, like fiction, poetry and so on. So yeah, sustainability and scalability are very closely connected to publishing wide in my opinion.
Sacha Black: I think one of the biggest myths around wide publishing and being exclusive to Amazon is that it means everything, whereas at it doesn't. So, exclusivity is limited only to your eBook. So, even if you are in KU with your eBooks, you don't have to be with your paperbacks. So, you don't have to only be distributed through Amazon, you can use IngramSpark as well. And so, yeah, I just had to throw that in.
Orna Ross: It's very important.
And now, also, now that Audible has changed its terms, you don't have to be exclusive for your audiobooks either to Amazon, which is great. So yeah, absolutely. Even, if you do choose to go exclusive with one eBook, you don't necessarily have to with another. So, you might strategically use KU, perhaps, but the thing to remember, I think, when you're starting off, and this is our foundational stream, so we are talking to people who are in the early stages of their writing, or certainly who want to revisit these foundational principles…I've completely lost my train of thought, what were we talking about? I forgot what I was going to say.
Sacha Black: Don't worry, I think you were talking about mix and match approaches and like some books being in KU, some books not being in KU, maybe genre dependent, or strategy dependent, you know, sometimes there are marketing reasons to be in and out and so on and so forth.
Although, I have to say, the more you flip-flop in and out, the worse it is, because what you really want to do is train your readers. So, let's say you write urban fantasy, and you want to put them in KU because that's where the majority of urban fantasy readers are, then fine, but leave them in KU or when you bring them out, keep them out, rather than spending three or six months here and there, because you're not training your readers, you are alienating readers who might have book one from KU and then can't get book two in KU because they didn't read quick enough, or whatever.
So, these are foundational, but actually quite important decisions that really, yes, you can chop and change, but it's not really advisable to chop and change rapidly.
Orna Ross: And that's exactly what I was going to say. Great minds.
Yeah, but whatever you do, you're building readers, you're building a readership. So, whichever way you go, the idea is that this month you have more readers than you had last month and so on. And slowly over time, you're accumulating. And if you keep changing how you go at this, then you interfere with that and you will hear a lot of people who come out of KU saying, oh, I didn't make any money and so I went back in. And you ask, well, how long did you give it and how much work did you put into actually establishing a readership in these new platforms? And they'll say they did a month or two, but whether it's on KU or out in the big wide world, it takes time to build a sustainable readership.
You might get a really good advertising something and shoot up for a day or two, and some of those readers may then stay around, it's the ones who stay that we're interested in, the ones who are genuine and most connected to what you do, they will always be the foundation of your reviews and of your beta reading and, you know, they will be the ones who will be out there talking about you and that's what sells books more than anything, readers word-of-mouth. So, yeah, whichever you decide to do, do it and stick with it.
What formats can indie authors use to publish wide?
Sacha Black: Absolutely. I think the other thing that gets wrapped in with wide publishing is, I always want to say wide formats, but it's multiple formats really, but I always connect the two in my head.
So I mean, what do we mean by multiple formats? Is it just eBook and paperback? Is it just one size? What are we talking about here, and when is the right time to do all of these different formats?
Orna Ross: Yeah, so what we see in ALLi, I mean, traditionally it was print first, hardback, then paperback, and then maybe a cheaper paperback, and eBook came after that. And even at one stage you had publishers who would delay the release of the eBook so that they could sell more hardbacks or sell more print. In self-publishing, all of that's turned on its head and we definitely see that most people do an eBook first, and there are very good reasons to do it that way, because an eBook is cheaper to put together, much easier to distribute and get out there.
Second format used to be print, but more and more we're seeing authors choosing audio, in fact, as their next format. So, I'll do the eBook and the audiobook and then doing the print. And then we have lots of members who do simultaneous release.
So, in print, there are now options to do paperback, hardback, large print, all in print-on-demand through IngramSpark and through Amazon KDP print. So, you've got lots of options there, and that can sound a bit overwhelming, but in actual fact, all it means for you is putting together the file for the book, the PDF file for the cover and the PDF file for the interior. Then when you upload those to Amazon or to IngramSpark, you just choose these extra formats and it costs you nothing, you might as well, you have the files anyway. And things like hardbacks and large print, while they don't have a huge circulation and they're not likely to sell in your standard online retail store, they can actually get you into libraries and into places that you can't go, or you wouldn't go, necessarily, with your ordinary paperbacks. So, as many formats as you can manage, as time permits, is how I would push it.
Sacha Black: I will just add that there are small cost incursions with hardbacks and large print, but that's only because you can't use the same cover templates, because hardback, obviously they have dust jacket flaps and so it’s a larger, at least, cover than your standard paperback. And typically, in large print, you are often using book sizes, trim sizes, that are larger than a normal paperback and, therefore, you need a slightly increased book cover size. But these are pennies, really, comparatively to what you will have already spent on your book.
You're not getting a different cover; you're just getting a different size of cover. So, it shouldn't cost you too much more from your designer.
Orna Ross: Yes, most designers are pretty accommodating, and the bulk of the cost goes into actually putting the design together. So, it shouldn't cost too much more.
Developing a money mindset for indie authors
Sacha Black: So, what about the big, bad, scary thing that we talked about earlier, which is money and profit and salary, because I think there is a difference between salary and then profit. How much should you invest? How long do you have to invest that for? And when can you start earning profits and salaries and all of that good stuff?
Orna Ross: I think a lot depends on how much time you have, really. So, if your listening and you have a day job or you're responsible for caring for a family, or both, and you're trying to fit your writing into that scenario, then obviously it's going to take you longer than somebody who says, okay, I'm going to invest full-time in this, and I'm going to give it my all, kind of thing. They can then expect a return sooner. So, it very much depends on your individual circumstances. It depends on the kind of book you write. So, it's easier to establish yourself in some genres than in others. Non-fiction tends to be easier, and it also depends on which business model you're going to follow. So, we've mentioned two of the possible business models for an indie author and that's publishing exclusively on Amazon KDP or select, or publishing wide, but you can also do other things as part of your website and your author business, and we'll put, again, a link in the show notes to the 10, I think it's 11 now actually, business models for authors, where you can think about other things like premium products and affiliate income and various other forms of income.
So, it really depends on how seriously you're going to take this, how determined you are to make a living, how important the income is to you because, for some people, income from their books is not the most important thing. The most important thing is just making them and putting them out there. So, these are very personal questions, and I don't think there's any one answer. But I do think that all work deserves recompense, and if you're in this, if your aim is to make money off of, and as we said at the beginning, to actually earn your living here, then you need to get serious about the money and you need to get serious about investment, because every single business, people invest up front, it's only authors and other people in the arts who actually just leap in without any investment plan or any return-on-investment plan.
So, you don't have to get all accountant-y at all, but you do need to be realistic. Each book can have its own business plan and should; for each one, you should have some idea of how many books you need to sell in order to recoup your expenses, and then how you're going to divide the profits that you do make on that book, in terms of expenses going forward, advertising and so on, but also remembering to pay yourself, which is something that a lot of authors forget to do.
So, yeah, did you take all of this seriously when you started out?
Sacha Black: Yeah, absolutely. I'm trying to think when I got my accountant, I think I got my accountant when I incorporated, and stopped being a sole trader and became a limited company. I was like, what am I now? Yeah, I have a limited company.
But yes, from the beginning I kept a spreadsheet of all the incoming, all of the outgoing per month. Now I use software that tracks that for me. But still, every single month, I go to my software and I'm like, what did I earn this month? Okay. And then I also hand track it, so I can see the growth, month on month on month, and I have like financial targets.
But this is what I want to do, and unless you have that goal in mind and you focus on it, and you track it, I think that is the only way in which you can then achieve your goal, but maybe I'm being wildly biased there.
Orna Ross: Well, we're, kind of, goal centered people and creative intention is a great clarifier, and there's no doubt about that. People who know what they want, the outcome they want, are more likely to go in that direction.
I'm not naturally inclined to enjoy money transactions and stuff like that. So, definitely the accountant needs to be used on that front, but I do discipline myself to have a money day twice a month, on the fifth of every month and on the 20th, it's just set those days, and I have tasks that I do on those days, and I see how much has come in over the past while, and then allocate out to a profit account, a salary account, and then the expenses account. And that made such a difference to my business when I started that.
Sacha Black: I do it on the first of every single month and I do all like my account reconciliation, but I rap in everything. So, it's like a mega admin day in terms of, I reconcile all of my bookkeeping, I check income and outgoing for the previous month. I then track all my stats as well. So, even things like mailing list growth, Facebook growth, Facebook group growth, all of that stuff.
So, I have a money, numbers-oriented day as well. But also, I like to keep it on that day. One, because the first is always like a new energy day for me, but also like a wrapping up energy day.
So, I like to have that, how did I do, what am I going to do this month projection type things, but then also I restrict the numbers to just one day.
Orna Ross: Yeah, and I think whichever way you do it, whether it's the first, I have too many other things that happen on the first for it to be clear enough, which is why I don't go there on the first. I used to, because I think it's the natural kind of day that you think about those things but actually that did not work for me because there are too many other things that happen on the last day of one month and on the beginning of the next. So yeah, hence the fifth and the 20th and I need it twice. I used to do once and then, if I missed it, I was just more inclined to miss it if I was doing it once a month. Doing it twice a month, it works for me.
So, like most things, what we're doing is laying out broad brush strokes and parameters and sharing what has worked for us and what we've seen work for ALLi members. But each person plays with this stuff until you, kind of, get there yourself as to what suits you best and it's very much about experimenting. But the point is, definitely, you need at least one money day a month, and the main thing you need is to look money in the eye and think about your relationship with money and where it maybe needs strengthening and work.
Sacha Black: There's a really famous quote that I love. I feel like it might have been Rich Dad, Poor Dad, but I can't remember who said it, I keep it on my computer screen, and it says, there are two kinds of money problem, too much money and not enough money. Which one do you want?
It's next to a figure on my screen, there is a figure right next to the camera and that's the figure amount that I want to earn in a year so that I see it every single day, all day, every day, as I stare at my computer screen. I'm trying to embrace the things that I want in my life, but anyway, let's move on to IP rights because that is also something that is super important in terms of mindset, for indie authors.
What are IP rights and why are they important for authors?
Sacha Black: So, can you just explain, what is an IP right? Why do we need to keep them? Why bother when we have these magical things that we can do so much with?
Orna Ross: Yeah. So, it's very foundational again, to develop an awareness of copyright and what it means for you. So, copyright in and of itself is just the legislation that allows us to claim our right, as the creators of the work, and it had to be fought for by artists and writers in the past, and it is a very valuable thing if exploited.
Most authors don't understand their own intellectual property rights and they don't exploit them, and most publishers who claim rights and buy rights and licensed rights and trade in rights actually don't trade most of the rights that they have. So, a lot of rights lie moribund because nobody cares enough to do anything about them.
So, essentially it means understanding that you are the owner of this valuable thing called intellectual property, and that it can be broken down, as we spoke about earlier, the different formats that you can create out of this one thing called your copyright. But it goes much further than that. There are loads of what are called subsidiary rights. So, if somebody ever wanted to take your story or your idea and turn it into a Netflix documentary or a movie or a TV series or whatever, they would have to talk to the rights holder about the rights, they would have to license and pay money to do that.
So, the reason I'm, kind of, death on rights is I have a past life, a very short time, when I was a literary agent, and I saw so many problems. Saw so many issues. And actually, recently, the one that really upsets me most of all is, in recent times, there's a children's writer I know who didn't hold on to her IP, she just outright licensed to her publishers. It was a children's book, and it went on to sell it to Disney, and that author has not got a single penny from that work. The publishers have got everything, have kept everything, and have absolutely no compunction whatsoever about, you know. So, that was because she didn't take care of her IP and this is the kind of thing that can happen.
So, a lot of the time with IP we're in the land of never, never, maybe, what if but again, and again, those things do turn around and happen, and it just doesn't hurt you to hold on to your IP, so that when you are dealing with anyone who might be buying it, including a trade publisher or anybody else who might be interested in any aspect of your IP, that you hold on to all the bits that they're not going to exploit.
So, you limit the territory that you sell it within if it's say foreign language rights, you limit the term, which is the time for which you allow them to have access to it, and you generally have a cognizance of intellectual property and its value. Even if you haven't earned a huge amount of value yourself at the point in time, or you're having any of those discussions or thinking about it in those ways, it's the potential value you've got to keep in mind at all times, even at the very beginning.
Sacha Black: Yeah. So we've got a few book recommendations that we're going to put into the show notes for everybody.
Because I can see that we've got to 30 minutes already, I just wondered if there was anything else we should touch upon?
Setting yourself up for sustainability and scalability
Orna Ross: I think, if somebody gets that much in line, what that does is, you set yourself up now for the two things we talked about at the beginning, you set yourself up for sustainability and for scalability, and then it's a matter of building on that and taking in lots of other things. And the way in which to approach that, I think, these foundational things, you, kind of, have to do them, I really think they're essential. Once you've got those in place, then you experiment with marketing and with promotion and with your writing process and various aspects of the publishing process and with assembling your team, you know, your editors, your designers. All of these things will be trial and error, and over time they become much easier, but it does take time, and the more you can do is in an exploratory and playful sort of way, the better. And the same when you're setting up your website, the more true to yourself you can be, the more playful, the more you can enjoy it, the less you think about critics and onlookers and people like that, and the more you think about you on the people you're trying to please, you know, the readers that you want to reach. The more fun you can have with it, the more fun your readers are going to have with it as well. So I think staying light and experimenting and exploring.
Okay. So, that is it. I'm not sure that we have set on a topic for next month, but we are also open to you guys telling us what you want us to cover. So, this stream of the show is very much, as we said, the foundational, what you should have in place in the beginning, and sometimes we could be five years in and have to visit some of these foundational things, and that's absolutely fine.
So, if there's anything that falls into that category and you would like us to treat that topic, then just drop it into the comments. Otherwise, we will back with another theme for you next time. Thanks for watching.