Non-Negotiables of Indie Publishing


Yesterday I posted a list of questions that authors should ask themselves before deciding to self-publish. Mr. Jeff Duntemann, one of my sources for that post, left a salient comment that nicely segues into the topic at hand. Here's Jeff.
You have to be willing to put some of your own money into the process. Most people need the services of an editor, and editors cost money. Good covers matter, and if you're not an artist yourself, cover art costs money. Creating an ebook from your manuscript isn't objectively difficult, but there's some skill and research (and practice!) involved, unless you're willing to pay somebody else to do it.
Whereas yesterday's post featured questions that an author could answer in the negative and still self-publish successfully (albeit with greater difficulty), Today we'll be covering the aspects of this business that Jeff emphasized, and which I call non-negotiables of indie publishing.

I. You Need an Editor

I've mentioned this before, and it bears repeating until all authors get it through our introverted skulls. If you plan to release a book for public consumption, you need an editor.

Your own knowledge of spelling, grammar, and story structure is irrelevant. All writers, however good they are at editing other people's work, suffer from the inescapable handicap of projecting their internal idea of how the manuscript should look onto the page.

Don't believe me? Then you probably haven't shown an early draft of your work to a competent editor before. Try it, and I promise that punctuation, words, and even whole sentences that you could've sworn were there aren't in the text. Descriptions that seemed vivid to you will be clear as mud to others.

My favorite explanation of the writer/editor relationship comes from Brandon Sanderson. He likened it to the relationship between a racing driver and a pro mechanic. The driver takes the car out for a test lap and notices that something's wrong. There's a strange vibration when he takes it past 120. The brakes feel a little soft. There's some understeer in the corners.

The driver knows that something's wrong. He might even know what's wrong. But the mechanic is paid to know exactly what's wrong, why it went wrong, and how to fix it.

Not even tried and true beta readers can substitute for a pro editor. Readers know when something's not working, but without specialized training and experience, they're usually wrong as to why. A good editor will spot what doesn't work, know why it doesn't work, and can tell you how to make it work.

Though the stigma of indie authorship is fading, there are still some readers who won't even consider buying a self-published book. One of the main reasons that customers are gun-shy about indie books is that a significant number of self-pubbed authors are still offering sloppy, typo-riddled books for sale.

Yes, the gatekeepers are gone. That doesn't mean anything goes. It means that we, as our own publishers, bear the responsibility for bringing the best product to market that we can.

Tl;dr: don't foist your unedited MS on the public. If I can afford an editor, so can you. If you don't have time to find an editor, I can make the time to come to your house and dissolve your laptop in acetone.

Seriously, you're like the guy who hides razor blades in Halloween candy so the rest of us have to use metal detectors before we eat our Milky Ways. Don't be that guy.

II. You Need Good Cover Art
Some say that people really do judge books by their covers. I prefer to flip that statement around and say that a cover should make a potential reader judge the book worthy of closer inspection.

A good cover entices the viewer into reading the back jacket copy. The description on the back should entice the reader into checking out the book's first paragraph. A good first paragraph closes the sale.

Like sloppy editing, poor covers are another self-pubbed author tell. This state of affairs is just dumb, since there's no excuse for having an amateurish cover. In fact, cover design is one area where trad publishers have given indie authors an opening to beat them at their own game.

Trad publishing is rife with examples of questionable cover design. Whether they're chasing trends or pinching pennies with cheap stock images, trad publishers don't exactly have sterling reputations where covers are concerned.

Exhibit A:
Eisler Connexion Fatale
Is that title French for "No Loitering"?
Above is the cover that Barry Eisler's French publisher saddled one of his spy thrillers with, even though he begged them not to.

Eisler Fault Line

Here's Barry's preferred cover for the same book.

Legacy publishers have put their marketing departments (and increasingly, their accounting departments) in charge of artistic decisions. It shows, and gives indie authors a big chance to position ourselves at the head of the pack.

A less egregious, but more common, trend is trad publishers' apparent allergy to genre novel covers that actually convey genre.

Exhibit B:
Hunger Games
Cover up the title, and tell me this book isn't about birds.

A Game of Thrones
Or cats

A refreshing example of a major publishing house getting a cover pitch perfect comes, as usual, from Baen. Check this out:

Larry Correia Son of the Black Sword paperback
That, my friends, is a cover that gets done what a cover's supposed to do. Just looking at it, you know you'll be going on a high-stakes adventure in an Oriental-themed fantasy world. The fact that it came from the brush of Larry Elmore makes the book a no questions asked, on-sight purchase for a veritable army of nerds.

Speaking of which, you can buy it right now for Kindle.

Go. Right now. I'l wait.


So that cover earned Baen House a cool 100 points.

Then their marketing guys insisted that they slap this image on the hardcover.

Exhibit C:
Larry Correia Son of the Black Sword hardcover
Pictured: Black,; lots of it.
Not pictured: sons, swords.
-100 points for confusing Larry Correia with Spinal Tap. +50 points for including the Elmore version on the inside.

Make no mistake. Larry--neither of them--had a hand in this decision. When you write for a major publisher, you need to keep them happy, and that means not being a prima donna. You are paying them a considerable portion of your book's proceeds to make marketing decisions for you, so there's not much room to complain if you disagree with those decisions. As always, Larry is being a pro and throwing himself wholeheartedly into the book launch campaign.

In contrast, Indie authors answer only to their readers. This is a double-edged sword. As your own art director, you must take sole responsibility for the success or failure of your book's cover. Luckily, the internet makes finding quality artists who'll work for reasonable commissions easy.

Deviant Art has a group for book cover design. It comes highly recommended. I found my cover artist there.

Which brings me to...

Exhibit D:

I'll let Amazon reviewer Russell S. Newquist explain this cover's relevance.
I'm going to come right out and admit it: I bought this book because of its cover. First, that cover is all kinds of awesome. Second, it's a cover that screams out, "I am a science fiction novel and I'm not afraid to announce that to the world."
I'm not a fan of the recent trend in genre fiction towards bland, generic covers that try to hide the fact that the books are genre. I bought Game of Thrones back nearly twenty years ago when it was still printed with the original paperback cover of Jon Snow and his direwolf Ghost. I'm not afraid to admit that I bought that book for the cover, too.
A Game of Thrones original cover
If this book IS about cats, we've got an open and shut false advertising case.

Russell's not the only one. I've lost count of the compliments people have paid to Marcelo's cover for Nethereal--and how many said they'd bought the book solely because of it. You can become one of them!

*End sales pitch.*

Honestly, my own book's cover is the best example I have ready at hand of how a self-published novel can meet or exceed legacy publishing design standards. I'm extremely lucky to have found an amazing artist whose vision aligns with my own. And with some diligent searching, you can get lucky, too.

For those wondering about price, I'm not comfortable discussing hard numbers without Marcelo's consent, but suffice it to say that I paid less for art than for editing. And Nethereal earned enough to pay off both in a matter of weeks.

That's the beauty of Deviant Art. It's full of top shelf artists who share your problem of getting noticed. So go notice them.

III. Your Manuscript Must Be Formatted Correctly
This should be self-evident, but a lot of indie authors apparently didn't read the memo. Let me get you another copy.

Do not upload a document fresh from your word processing software to online retailers like KDP, Smashwords, etc. The likelihood of unsightly formatting errors is extremely high.

Either take the time to learn eBook formatting yourself, or if your personal techno-disruption field is as strong as mine, hire someone competent to do it for you.

I use Polgarus Stuido. Their service has a nice personalized touch, and their prices are both rational and reasonable.

To recap: your book must be professionally edited. Your book must have a professionally designed cover that conveys story, mood, and genre. Your book must be properly formatted.

If every indie author would take these three simple steps, the self-publishing stigma would quickly disappear. Yes, following these steps requires a time/money investment. But to quote Jeff again, "...if you don't believe in yourself, well, who will?"


  1. You've actually covered all three points so I'm kind of surprised they weren't in the original post. I know we have talked about these points at least twice here in the comments.

    But yeah, as we've discussed, these seem like effective ways to lift yourselves out of the reader's personal slush pile.

    As much as I'd love to work with Baen, after a great deal of study, I've decided I don't want to wait 9-10 months to be rejected, when I could get a out in front of an audience at the push of a button (And then get rejected) So yeah, based on your, Daddy Warpig's, and other evangelism, I've decided to go the indie publishing route (and though I don't chime in as much as a should, your posts have been invaluable).

    As for the topic on hand:
    When people use covers clearly cobbled together in photoshop from stock photos, having a professionally done cover will make YOURS stand out. Especially if you are doing a SF or Fantasy book. People want to see the spaceships, and robots, and all the other things your book might contain. Even in the digital storefronts, it's the picture on the cover people will first see. And like you said, this sad current trend of publishers to use boring covers with a picture of an obscure thing on solid color background might actually help an indie book with a good cover stand out. I have some experience 3D modeling, so I could probably cobble together workable cover, but I've decided to go with hiring an artist. I have an buddy from my college days I'm going to try to commission when my book is finished, but if that doesn't work out, like you said, I'll try to grab someone from deviantart or other art websites.

    As for editing I definitely agree it's necessary, though it does seem to be the most daunting service to find a good one. Like you've said before in these comments, the best bet seems to be trying to find one in your personal network first, and then branching out. Though for an introvert like me, that sounds like it's going to be a challenge (I've decided not to worry too much about finding an editor until after I've finished my first draft, and did my second draft, so I've still got a while).

    As for E-Formating, again another essential one. Similar to using WYSIWYG web design programs, automated programs just aren't going to get it right without hiccups. I've been debating this one since I've got some experience with HTML and CSS. But as said before some may not have time, and messing with code can be frustrating. Like Jeff said in his quote, it'll take research, skill and practice.

    So now to get down to business, let's say you have to hire for all three:
    Prices for commissions on deviant art vary wildly so I'm going to spitball a composite based on the various artists I've visited. Generally artists charge a lower amount for sketches and single characters and higher amounts for something more complicated so I'd wager for a cover you'd be looking at around $70 to $250.

    For editing a figure you gave was around $500 to $2000 so I'll go with that.

    For E-book formatting the lowball bid I've seen is $50, and for the high bid, Guido Henkel charges $150 for book less than 150K words and $250 for a format for create space, so I'm going to go with $400.

    So first time author is going to be looking at $625 to $2650 out of pocket expenses. (Again, all spitball figures, and nothing to be taken as fact for any other aspiring writers lurking Brian's blog). That's a lot of skin to put into the game, but Jeff's quote work well here, as does "you have to spend money to make money".

    1. You've clearly done your homework. That alone gives you an edge over most self-published authors.

      Congratulations on deciding to take the plunge. We both reached the same tipping point.

      If my options are: a) let my book collect dust on editorial interns' desks for months at a 0.01% chance of a payout in the low to mid four figures; or b) get my book in front of readers now, with a veritable guarantee of at least some return with an unlimited earnings window, I'm taking option b.

      Good job deciding to hire an artist your first time out. Keep honing your graphic art skills, and you might be able to design your own covers at some point. One corollary to Dean's advice about never giving up percentages when you can pay flat fees is to do what you can yourself so you don't have to pay anything. (Editing is the one exception.)

      Pro tip: look for artists who live in countries where the currency is weak against the dollar. With a little extra research, you can get a world class cover for the USD cost of a last-gen game console.

      By way of encouragement, I hired out the editing, art, and formatting for Nethereal, and my total costs were less than your low end figure.

      Good to know you've found this information useful. I could've crammed it all into one post, but I try to post every weekday so I decided to stretch it out.

      To clarify, yesterday's post covered skills and resources that are advantageous but nonessential. The items listed above are not optional. If you do not do them, we have a problem.

  2. I don't know why, but I really didn't like the original cover art for *Son of the Black Sword*. It certainly is an unabashed fantasy cover, the art was clearly done with great skill, and I can't put my finger on anything 'wrong' with it, but I disliked it from the moment I first saw it on Larry Correia's blog. It seems like somebody at Baen feels the same way.

    My only problem with the new art is that nothing about it says fantasy (well, besides Jim Butcher's quote). It could just as easily be a historical novel, a spy thriller, or an adventure.

    1. If the Elmore cover isn't to your taste, well, de gustibus...

      A well liked cover isn't necessarily the same thing as an effective cover. This post is mainly concerned with the latter. A cover could be an aesthetic masterpiece, but if it tells readers "hard SF" when the book's actually a romance novel, that cover's not doing its job.

      Based on your last paragraph, we seem to agree on this point.